Amanda had a checklist for winter break. It went as follows:
1) Finish finals. NO CRYING IN THE LIBRARY
2) Fly home
3) Hang out with the Emmas and maybe the, like, three other people from high school who weren’t pretentious monsters
4) Text constantly with friends from college
5) PET ALL THE DOGS
6) The Dad trifecta:
6a) Drive around critiquing over-the-top light displays while eating burritos
6b) Watch as many grossly heteronormative, formulaic holiday movies produced by a greeting card company as humanly possible and
6c) Open presents on Christmas Eve, sleep in on Christmas morning, and then lounge around and eat leftover pizza all day in PJs.
There were other, lesser goals as well: Read a required book for her January-term class; call Grandma and Grandpa and try to videochat with them, but really just spend 20 minutes coaching them to turn the phone around so they wouldn’t be upside down. But those were the big ones.
"I have traditions with my dad," she told her roommate, who was blinking at her after she'd laid out her detailed plans for break.
"I thought your dad was Jewish," said Asia. She thumbed in the direction of the little menorah on Amanda’s desk. Amanda had been carefully lighting it each night of Hanukkah (and then hiding it every time an RA walked by; if one candle was against dorm rules, two-to-nine just seemed like a big no-no), because Hanukkah had fallen in the middle of her finals-related existential crisis.
"You're Jewish?" asked Asia's friend dubiously, with just enough stress on 'you're' that Amanda's hackles rose.
Technically Amanda was 50% non-observant Jew and 50% non-observant Catholic with very little belief in a higher power and absolutely no interest in organized religion, but she was 100% irritated, so she said, "Yep," with a pop of the P, and then absolutely nothing else.
Asia's friend began to squirm after about two seconds of awkward silence. Asia said, "Jesus, Katie, what, we can't be Jewish because we’re brown?" because Asia was the most honest person Amanda had ever met and a fantastic roommate, and Amanda cackled as Asia’s annoying friend sputtered in embarrassment.
Happy Hanukkah to Amanda.
All her life, Amanda's family had celebrated multiple holidays. Hanukkah wasn't honestly that big a deal in the grand scheme of Jewish holidays, and Dad was probably the least religious Jew she'd ever met, but when she was little, Amanda's parents had been careful not to prioritize one holiday over the other. She opened some presents over Hanukkah and some on Christmas. Dad would make an effort for Hanukkah with Mom's full support, and then was happy to go along with things while Mom went full-scale Christmas-elf monster.
The Big Family Christmas Traditions were especially hard without Mom. Amanda and Dad tried a bunch of different things in the years after she died. One year they went to Disney and baby-preteen-Amanda puked her guts out while having brunch with the princesses. There was glitter. It was traumatic. To this day, she still couldn't eat maple sausage patties and orange juice in the same meal. A true tragedy.
But they reined it in after the Cinderella-projectile-vomit debacle, and they created small, silly holiday traditions that Amanda loved; some built on things they used to do with Mom, and some entirely their own. They saved the Bubbe visit for Rosh Hashanah and the Grandma and Grandpa visit for summer vacation, and they spent November and December together, just the two of them.
Quiet downtime with Dad just sounded really nice this year, after a wildly fun but also wildly stressful first semester away from home.
Amanda didn't even roll her eyes when he picked her up at the airport with a giant glittery sign. He'd written her name and tried to draw what she thought was probably supposed to be a panda.
(He dropped the sign the second that she threw herself into his arms, and Amanda made sure to surreptitiously step on its horrifying lumpy letters.)
On the way home, they stopped at their favorite roadside diner to get celebratory burgers and milkshakes, and Dad spent a solid ten minutes talking around a very obvious conversation he was trying to have, until Amanda finally gave up and said, "Dad, we had this talk when I was 12. It's cool."
Instead of slumping with relief, or at the very least giving up on his misguided attempt to wear a backwards baseball cap like a Casual Cool Dad, his face took a turn toward 'hunted.' "Which ... talk exactly, do you think we're about to have?"
"Not the birds and the bees, and not the period talk," Amanda said promptly. "I know we're a modern, enlightened family, but I think we can both agree once was enough."
"I did pretty okay, though, right?" Dad said. "I mean, there was a song and everything. I rhymed ‘tampon’ with ‘crampon.’ "
"You sure did," Amanda said. "And I still hear that song in my nightmares. Focus, Dad. We had the 'no one can replace your mom' talk when you had that crush on Mrs. Allen."
"Wait. You knew about that?"
"I mean, you used to watch her mow her lawn and sigh," she said. "I was 12, not stupid."
"Man," said Dad. "I thought I was subtle."
"Father, you don't have a subtle bone in your body," Amanda said. “Look: you love and miss Mom every day; I do too. But you can't be alone for the rest of your life. You and Damien like each other a lot.” She paused. “Did I miss anything?"
"That was pretty thorough," admitted Dad.
"I told you, we did this already.” Amanda tossed a couple of crispy fries into their true home in her mouth. "Emma R. and I spent an entire summer when we were 14 trying to Parent Trap you with her dad."
"You what? God, that explains so much about that summer."
"I really like Damien," Amanda said. "He's the coolest person you've gone out with. He's so nice, and I am so excited to get his advice for Halloween next year. You guys are total nerds together and I—" She sighed. "Fine, let’s be real for a minute. I love how happy he makes you, Dad."
"Amanda," breathed Dad, his voice thick.
"Oh no," she said, "don't you—"
"Now you've gone and done it," said Dad. He scrubbed at his face. "You've made your old man get teary-eyed."
"What, like it's hard?"
"Don't think you can distract me with pop culture references," he choked.
"My point is," Amanda said, "I'm completely fine with you dating people. I love that you and Damien are getting your workshop-organization-nerd on together. You've been dating him for months. Why have you spent the last ten minutes trying to talk to me about it again?"
Dad swiped his eyes — he really had teared up; he was so ridiculous. "I had this wild idea that I was gonna ease into this."
"Ease into what?" she asked, and then she went stiff with shock. "Are you gonna propose? Are you Christmas proposing?!"
"What? No! I mean — not— While I have had ... some thoughts about— What! No! It's too soon for that!"
She shot him an amused look. "Wow."
"I am not Christmas-proposing," Dad said firmly. "Nobody is Christmas-proposing; not even in the snow, in front of the town light display, after the protagonists have come together to save the local Christmas tree lot from the evil corporate developer and have learned that the true meaning of the holiday season is romance and being rich.”
“Nice,” said Amanda, who was very ready for their annual movie binge.
“Also, in terms of that particular timing, that would be a very weird personal choice for me to make. What I was thinking is: just ... general holiday. Plans. Stuff."
The penny dropped, and Amanda finally realized why he’d been talking to her about Damien. "...Oh.”
"I know this has always been prime you and me time — and it still will be; I need my Manda Panda fix."
"I'm like drugs in that way," she said absently. "Hard drugs."
"—But we thought it might be nice," Dad continued doggedly, "to start to build some new traditions together, too."
"Wow. The united-front parent 'we.' We're really doing the whole blended family thing now, huh?"
"We don't have to," Dad said, but they did, really. Amanda couldn't be responsible for breaking her father’s soft, squishy heart.
“It’s cool, Dad,” she said. “We can be the Brady Bunch. I call Jan.”
Here was the thing: Everything Amanda had told Dad was true. Dad's and Damien's relationship had definitely gotten more serious this fall while Amanda wasn't around, but over the course of the summer, Damien had come to dinner at their house or invited them over to his incredible goth palace multiple times, and of course she talked to him at neighborhood barbecues and when they ran into each other at the mall or in the Coffee Spoon. Toward the end of August, he'd invited just Amanda to tea, and he'd given her a tour of his stunning garden and then, over dainty sandwiches, assured her of his intentions toward her father.
She liked Damien. He was cool and sweet and really cared about Dad, who was embarrassingly into him in return. Damien asked insightful questions about her photography and he was an endless font of reliably random and often fantastically gross facts about everything from horticulture to cybersecurity to historical taxidermy methods. Also, he had extremely correct opinions about dogs. It would have been fast, but part of Amanda would have been a little delighted if Dad really had been hemming and hawing about telling her he was proposing.
Damien was a top-notch Bloodmarch.
The problem was, he wasn’t the only one.
While Amanda was away, Lucien Bloodmarch had apparently gone full Teenage Dirtbag Loudly Endorses Marxism.
Admittedly the two of them hadn’t known each other that well before, given that Lucien seemed to avoid family bonding activities like the plague and their dads had only been dating for a few months when Amanda went off to college, but she was pretty sure this was a new development. She mostly remembered Lucien aggressively not-caring about things. What happened to the fresh-faced misanthrope she’d caught thinking he was hot shit as he tried to vape mint leaves in a bush at her surprise graduation party? She missed him.
This Lucien sat in the backseat of a car parked in front of a house where the entire lawn was blanketed in light-up Winnie-the-Pooh standees — Pooh in every possible configuration and style, as far as the eye could see; as Dad had said upon arrival, haunted: “Oh, god, it’s like the Million Acre Wood” — and pronounced: “This is a classic example of the proletariat losing out to the bourgeoisie.”
The silence in the car practically vibrated.
“...Are the Poohs the proletariat,” Dad asked.
Record scratch, freeze frame, Amanda thought. Yep, that’s me, stuck in a car looking at a house covered in Christmas Winnie-the-Poohs with my dad, my dad’s new boyfriend, and the 15-year-old who I’m starting to think might eventually be my stepbrother. I bet right now you’re wondering how I got here.
Lucien had started the drive slumped in the backseat staring moodily out the window, and while that had been awkward, Amanda had been able to deal. She’d propped her feet up on the armrest between Dad's and Damien’s seats, since she had no competition from Lucien for the prime foot-rest spot, and she’d provided invaluable input on remembering which neighborhoods always had the most bananapants holiday displays.
Damien was new to the light-spotting scene but totally game (if hilariously bad at assigning ratings; he was way too generous), and for a while, the three of them had a grand old time, eating their burritos and commenting on people’s eldritch horrors. She’d thought she even caught Lucien hiding smirks at a couple of brutal assessments that she was particularly proud of.
Then they’d pulled over in front of the Pooh house, and Lucien had opened his mouth.
“It’s, like, wasteful, and it’s why … people aren’t working hard enough, to make a 51st state for workers. And it’s gross,” he added.
“It is gross,” Amanda agreed, ignoring allllll the rest. “That’s why it’s great. I’m pretty sure the Poohs are arranged in a pentagram that will open a portal to hell.”
“They aren’t,” Damien said, with calm and absolutely sincere authority.
Amanda loved Damien. He knew the best stuff.
“Lucien has been delving into the library of Karl Marx this week,” he continued. “He’s expressed a great deal of interest in his work.”
“That’s great, Lucien,” said Dad, in that trying-to-be-encouraging old person way that was guaranteed to make any kid not want to like a particular thing ever again. “Have you talked about any of this with Hugo? I bet he’d be thrilled.”
“Ugh.” Lucien rolled his eyes, and for a split second, there was the grumpy little goth dirtbag Amanda remembered. Then he said, “Workers need to make more stuff to win the class struggle.” Loftily, he pronounced: “The means of production.”
“The … means to produce more Poohs?” Dad hazarded.
Don’t get Amanda wrong, she could anti-capitalist with the best of them and she agreed that the neoliberal world order sucked eggs, but she did occasionally enjoy a good cheesy holiday display without feeling the need to torture herself with a hair shirt.
Also Lucien definitely did not know what Marxism was.
You are older and wiser, Amanda told herself. You were 15 and thought you knew everything once too.
Her inner voice sounded disturbingly like her father. Was this what happened when you got older? You became That Which You Loved A Lot But Most Wanted To Avoid Becoming?
Rather than think about that, Amanda drummed enthusiastically on the back of the driver’s seat. “Next house next house,” she chanted. She could see the next target even from a few hundred yards away — its glow suffused the neighborhood with a brilliant blue light, like the entire street was about to be abducted by aliens. Nice.
“And that one,” Lucien said in disgust, apparently warming to his subject now. “Its picture should be in the dictionary next to ‘renter capitalist.’ ”
You’re the adult here now; you are old as balls, Amanda reminded herself sternly, and did not reach over and try to stuff Lucien’s burrito into his mouth.
Instead, she took an enormous bite out of her own ‘rito.
It tasted like dissatisfaction.
Amanda knew she shouldn’t have let a 15-year-old get to her, but it was still a pleasant surprise when Damien turned up for greeting-card-company movie night by himself.
“I extended the offer, but I didn’t want to push him,” she heard him say to Dad in the kitchen, and she happily wiggled deeper into the perfect Amanda’s-butt-shaped divot that was already forming in her favorite armchair.
The three of them settled in for a long, lazy evening. Damien had come over in pressed jeans, a polo shirt, and the 1980s-style dad glasses that Amanda had seen him rock a couple of times before. Amanda normally conducted this marathon in full pajama-sloth mode, but, in the name of continuing to make a good impression on her father’s boyfriend, had elected to wear jeans and had washed her hair. Dad had spent a handful of nights at the Bloodmarches' house, toward the end of the summer, but Damien had never stayed over at Amanda's house (honestly, Amanda wouldn't have left Lucien alone with full run of the Bloodmarch house all night, either). She thought she and Damien were both still kind of on their best behavior with each other.
But even with company and the tyranny of non-stretch pants factored in, Amanda was extremely ready for this.
“This year, we begin,” she said dramatically, “with First Love at Christmas. We will then move on to The Christmas Jam, Jingle in Your Heart, and Visions of Sugarplums Run Rampant Through Your Dreams.”
“I’m not familiar with any of these films,” Damien said, which was probably the least surprising thing Amanda had ever heard. “I’m very much looking forward to this!”
“I feel like I need to remind you that these are extremely bad,” said Dad, slinging an arm around him.
“Wash your mouth out with soap!” Amanda commanded, and she hit play.
The doorbell rang when they were 45 minutes into the life-changing journey of dog-pageant event planner Megan White, as she went from ‘big-city single Scrooge’ to ‘small-town Christmas enthusiast engaged to a grumpy general contractor/firefighter/single dad with a heart of gold and a jaw like a battering ram.’
Damien's brow had a perpetual tiny furrow. “How did the entire town know she had lost the Christmas ornament? Is it truly magical?”
“I’ll get it!” Amanda leaped up and lunged for the door to escape that explanation, ready to eat the entire box to get at the pizza inside it, and then she opened the door and it was not the pizza delivery guy.
“Oh good,” she said flatly, turning away from the door. She paused the movie. “Lucien and Ernest are here.”
“Ernest?” Dad and Damien said at the same time. Dad looked alarmed. Damien looked … maybe suspicious? Amanda was still learning his dad-nuances.
Amanda walked back to her chair, leaving their guests to fend for themselves at the door. They made themselves right at home; Ernest Vega shut the front door while Lucien sauntered in and slumped onto the couch beside his dad. “You said it’s a movie night, right?”
“I like movies,” Ernest said.
Damien was sitting up now, very straight, and was regarding both Lucien and Ernest with a deep frown. “Ernest, you know you’re welcome when we're at home, but this invitation was for Lucien only, for a family evening.”
“Amanda and Amanda’s Dad are here,” Lucien pointed out.
“It’s our house, Lucien,” said Dad mildly, with that look that always used to mean Amanda was about to get herself in a world of trouble.
Amanda tried not to feel some kind of way about hearing that tone get turned on a teenager who wasn’t her; that he was comfortable enough with the Bloodmarches that he was ready to go dad-mad.
Lucien was smirking and Ernest’s shit-eating grin threatened to eat his face alive, and Amanda abruptly couldn’t stand to let the two little jerks see anyone squirm. “It’s fine,” she said.
“—What?” said Damien, clearly at a loss.
“It’s fine, right, Dad? The more, the merrier.”
“I, uh,” said Dad, as Damien turned to look at him. “Ssssuuuuure?” He looked to Ernest. “As long as Damien and your dad are okay with it.”
Ernest threw himself into Dad’s favorite armchair with enough force that it creaked dangerously. “Hugo’s always cool with me hanging out with Lucien. Where’s the popcorn?”
Damien didn’t move for a long moment, and then he said, “Very well,” and passed the bowl to Ernest.
Predictably, the situation went very much downhill from there.
Amanda stood in the waves at the beach, leggings pushed up to her knees and cold water splashing up her calves as soft waves washed in and out. She was rapidly losing all feeling in her feet and ankles. Far out in the bay, lights bobbed on the water — boats, anchored for the night. The ocean always used to look so huge, like it went on endlessly. Now that she was back from school, the whole town felt somehow diminished, even at the beach.
Everything was smaller than she remembered.
“Is this what you wanted, weirdo?” Emma called. “Can we go inside now?” She had refused to take off her shoes and socks and wade in with Amanda, but she was going to school on the Other Coast; she didn’t understand what it was like to live in a landlocked state for three months straight. Amanda loved HIA and her little college town, but she missed the sea.
“Five more minutes,” Amanda called back.
“You used to think that kid was funny,” said Emma. True best friends could drop and pick up conversational threads like they were master tailors. “Well, you used to laugh at him, at least. Why is it different now?”
“Because he’s ruining all the stuff I wanted to come home and do,” Amanda said, sloshing around. “Nothing is the same! Plus it looks like I’m going to be stuck with him for the foreseeable future, so it’s less funny-ha-ha now.” She struck a dramatic pose in the water. “I am going to murder him, and no one is going to blame me.”
“His dad might,” said Emma, practically.
“No, Damien’s way too nice for that.” Amanda kicked up a sheet of frigid seawater. The sand sank away beneath her toes as another wave rushed back out to sea. “It would be a victimless crime.”
“What does your dad think about all this?”
Amanda scowled. “He’s so used to Lucien now; it’s like he takes it all in stride. He totally dadded him last night.” Before Amanda gave up, ten minutes from the end of the first movie, and lied about having a headache so she could escape from Lucien and Ernest tag-teaming to complain about the lack of: proletarian revolution (Lucien) and fart jokes (Ernest).
“What did he say when you talked to him about it?”
“ ‘Talk’ is a strong word.”
“What!” Emma yelped. For a second, Amanda thought Emma was going to chuck Amanda’s boots at her. “You and your dad both talk more than anyone I’ve ever met in my life! I can’t get either of you to stop talking to me. One time I got up to use the bathroom at a sleepover and your dad asked me how school was going, and then the conversation went on for so long I almost peed myself in the hallway!”
Amanda frowned and started splashing back to shore on her freezing cold feet. “I feel like there’s maybe an insult for me in there somewhere.”
“How have you not told him this is actually really bothering you?”
“I mean — it’s fine.” Amanda balanced on the wet sand and kicked water droplets off first one foot, then the other. “It’s just a stupid thing; I’m just complaining.”
“Talk to your weird dad, Amanda,” Emma said, shoving Amanda's boots into her hands, but then she took Amanda out and fed her pizza and let her complain for another hour, because she was a good friend.
“We’re going caroling,” said Dad, and Amanda said, “Oh, absolutely not.”
“It’ll be fun! Damien gave me this — music,” said Dad, who could not read music, despite having played piano for years. His high school ska band really had been terrible. He waggled sheet music at her. “They’re apparently traditional Victorian carols. They do this every year.”
“Father,” said Amanda, “not for all the holiday spirit in the North Pole.”
“How about for all the $10 bribes in my wallet?”
Amanda considered this counter-offer. She was in her Meat Hell-watching sweats, but also, $10 and the prospect of blackmail material for many years to come. “One house,” she said, and Dad fist-pumped. “And I want to see proof of life before I go put real pants on.”
Dad triumphantly produced a $10 bill and twanged it between his two thumbs and forefingers. Amanda accepted her hard-earned bribe and peeled herself off the sofa.
This wouldn’t be so bad, she rationalized as she went down the hall to put semi-respectable outdoor-Amanda clothes on. Or, it would, it would be excruciating, but she was going to get video of this and that was going to be great.
When the doorbell rang a few minutes later, Amanda opened it to find a whole gaggle of neighbors wearing scarves and holding identical folders. Damien did not mess around with his Victorian music. The man himself was standing to the side, wearing, in addition to his winter-weight cloak, a dashing top hat. Someone in the back hummed a high note on a pitch pipe, and the group launched into a song about a king whose name sounded like a sneeze.
Honestly, they were better than Amanda had expected. It was a jolly sort of out-of-tune droning, with a few singers with genuinely lovely voices scattered throughout the group. She laughed, charmed, and then laughed again when Dad joined her in the doorway and he saw Damien’s hat.
When they finished the verse, Amanda and Dad applauded.
Damien stepped forward and solemnly offered both her and Dad a plaid scarf. Amanda laughed and grabbed her keys and her phone, and locked the door behind them as she wound her scarf around her neck.
Dad had said something that made Damien’s face light up with his smile, and he was kissing him hello. Amanda gave them fingerguns that neither of them saw at all, and left them to their canoodling in favor of investigating her fellow singers.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Vega was a key member of the caroling troupe (his our-sons-are-middle-school-hellions friendship with Damien was very pure, Amanda felt), but there were a bunch of other people from the neighborhood too — Amanda recognized Mr. Sella and Carmensita, who she waved at, and Mrs. Christiansen too.
“You,” Mrs. Christiansen said, when she saw Amanda.
“Me!” Amanda agreed happily. Mrs. Christiansen was delightfully weird, and badass to boot. She was also definitely not here to straight-up carol, no matter how close she was with Damien. For what had started out as a blackmail-gathering short adventure, this was beginning to get interesting.
She cocked an eyebrow at Amanda. “How many puppies did you smuggle into your dorm this semester?”
“Not nearly enough,” Amanda said, fervent.
This, Amanda thought, was actually going to be fun.
Then two shapes sloped out of the December gloom — no, Amanda thought, make that three: Lucien, Ernest, and Ernest’s enormous dog.
Lucien was standing at a considerable distance from the dog, but this was clearly a premeditated, united plan, because both boys opened their mouths and sang, “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg!” at the top of their lungs, in unseemly unison.
“Borf!” said Duchess Cordelia, and Amanda hesitated for a second, because that was a fantastic dog; a dog potentially worth sticking around for.
“Batman’s in the kitchen, Robin’s in the hall, Joker’s in the bathroom, peeing on the wall, hey!”
“Oh god,” said Mr. Vega.
“Nope,” said Amanda, and she handed her scarf to Mrs. Christiansen and went to Emma P.’s house.
On Christmas Eve, Amanda did her very best cat-eye wing in front of the bathroom mirror, put on her shiniest headband, and tried not to stare too longingly at her ratty old slippers and the handful of presents in the living room as she left her house.
It was immediately obvious where the party was happening on the cul de sac — the Bloodmarch home was awash with tasteful strings of white lights, and the line of parked cars extended all the way down the block. Amanda shoved her hands into her parka pockets and marched over, ice and road salt crunching underfoot.
Damien answered the door looking ready for a Victorian ice skating party. His full suit included a long, calf-length coat and a silky cravat, and he’d put his hair up in some kind of fancy braided style that probably wasn’t period-appropriate and Amanda immediately wanted to learn how to do.
“Amanda!” he greeted, his face breaking into a genuine smile as soon as he saw her. He had a glass of wine in one hand and looked a little flushed.
“Hi.” She waved, well aware that it was awkward and not fully able to stop herself anyway.
“Please, come in! I’m so pleased to see you; your father is here—” He glanced over his shoulder as he ushered her inside, and Amanda stared, too; the entire house was packed with people. “—Somewhere,” he finished.
“Sounds like Dad,” she said wryly. “Did he actually do anything while you were getting the house ready?”
“He was a great help,” Damien said (Amanda thought probably more loyally than factually). “May I take your coat? Your eyeliner looks lovely.”
Amanda grinned. “Thank you!” She freed herself from her enormous parka and scarf and passed them to Damien. “It took a lot of practice and disturbingly-upbeat beauty guru videos. This is — wow.”
Amanda had always thought the Bloodmarches’ house was cool, but Damien had seriously outdone himself. There were thick, fresh-cut garlands lining what seemed like every available surface and the foyer smelled like pine. The hallway was packed with people smiling and socializing; party guests were dressed in everything from jeans to amazing hideous sweaters to, here and there, someone in full-on historical regalia like Damien. There were countless cool haircuts and more than a few guests whose personal presentation didn't correspond to the gender binary in an obvious way — Amanda could see at least two people wearing buttons listing their preferred pronouns. Somewhere in the house, guests were enthusiastically singing along to a piano playing "Silent Night."
From where she stood, Amanda could peek into the parlor, where people had packed onto the couches and there was a group, including Mr. Christiansen and Mr. Harding, who seemed to be playing charades. The room was lit by a roaring fire in the fireplace, and an enormous tree decked out with LED lights made to look like candles and strung with popcorn and paper chains. Someone had put little sequined top hats on the cool animal skulls in their display cases. Everything looked classy and queer and old as heck.
“This is amazing,” Amanda told Damien sincerely.
He beamed. “Thank you very much. You’re very kind,” he said. “Coats will be in the bedroom at the top of the stairs, should you need yours.” Man, Amanda thought, that staircase was majestic, lined with perfect swags of even more garlands. “Guests are playing traditional parlor games downstairs, and there are songs and recitations upstairs in the library. Please help yourself to mulled spiced cider in the dining room, as well as a Victorian Christmas meal of carp served on china decorated with aquatic imagery.”
“That’s very specific,” Amanda said, impressed. “Thanks, Damien. I’m definitely gonna get some cider.”
He smiled, standing with her coat thrown over his arm and his glass of wine still in hand, and, with a graceful nod of farewell, somehow managed to melt away through the crowds.
“I’m gonna get wine,” Amanda told herself, and she went on the hunt.
She’d only made it as far as the parlor when two little voices shouted her name, and she turned to find Daisy and Carmensita dashing through the crush of people to reach her. “We’re rescuing Santa from aliens!” Daisy announced, beaming up at Amanda with her face aglow. Beside her, Carmensita nodded vigorously.
“Oh, young grasshopper,” Amanda said, filled with overwhelming pride, “you have learned so well.”
“We’re not grasshoppers, we’re secret agents,” said Daisy, which was, well. Baby steps.
“Excellent work, Agents Sella and Harding,” Amanda pronounced, and both girls snapped to attention. “I’m venturing forth on a very dangerous, important secret mission, but when I return, I expect a full report on your progress, and then we’ll catch these dastardly criminals together, once and for all!”
“Yes ma’am!” Carmensita saluted her.
“Aye aye!” cried Daisy.
Amanda crisply saluted both of them, then squeezed her way into the dining room, where the dining table was positively groaning with food, including a crockpot of mulled cider. The centerpiece was a silver platter cradling an absolutely enormous whole-ass fish, dotted with herbs and lemon slices.
“Weird, but delicious?” Amanda said to herself, casually casing the room. There was another Christmas tree in here, again with the electric lights that looked like candles, and now that she was closer to this tree, she could see that it was absolutely covered in hideous ornaments that looked like they’d been made by a five-year-old with no sense of color, glitter placement, or what reindeer were supposed to look like.
That was precisely who had made them, Amanda realized belatedly, when she spotted a purple and puce plaid candy cane made of paper, on which a shaky hand had scrawled LUCIEN. It was an entire tree of monstrosities created by Lucien through the years, augmented by beautifully painted balls and a couple of ‘baby’s first Christmas’ sort of ornaments.
It was ... really sweet.
But there was no booze in this room, so Amanda squeezed past the tree, taking care not to knock off any of its precious cargo, and pushed past the closed door into the kitchen. No one stopped her, proving once again the value of walking with absolute confidence, and she found the kitchen empty aside from the detritus of a party in progress — discarded serving platters scattered across the island, a mountain of dishes in the sink. No one was in here, but what was in here was a large pot on the stove, with a ladle and mugs on the countertop alongside.
Amanda lifted the pot lid and took a whiff. “Jackpot,” she said. It was definitely mulled wine. She ladled herself a mugfull.
“I just don’t know,” said a muffled, alarmingly familiar voice, rapidly growing louder, and Amanda had just enough time to freeze, then fling down the ladle and drop behind the island when the kitchen door thumped open again.
Someone set something down on the island with a clatter. They were just on the other side of it. If anyone came around to the stove, they’d see her in an instant. Amanda winced and pressed herself up tighter against the underside of the island, and willed herself to become one with the two stools.
“I was pleased, at first, that Lucien had a new interest, and one that would have him reading at that,” Damien was saying, “but now I strongly suspect his fascination wasn’t a genuine one.”
There were two shadows facing each other on the floor. Amanda’s sinking feeling was validated when her father's voice asked, “Why do you think that?”
“Have you spoken to him about it?” Damien asked, like it was obvious (and it was, if you knew anything at all about socialism).
“Yyyyes,” said Dad, who definitely knew absolutely nothing at all about socialism, despite having been in a band called the Skammunist Manifesto.
Damien’s shadow moved in some kind of gesture. “He doesn’t understand even the most essential of concepts, and he hasn’t taken kindly to my attempts to have friendly salons on the topic. And I know he’s perfectly capable of being very charming, but I don’t know what to do with his behavior this week. I feel badly. Amanda has been kind, so thoughtful and welcoming, and Lucien—” He cut himself off.
“You love Lucien.”
“I do, very much. But our relationship can be … difficult, at times.” Damien exhaled. Amanda had never heard him sound so bleak. She really shouldn’t have been listening to this. “I thought we’d made it past this kind of behavior.”
“Heyyy, hey, hey, honey,” said Dad with infinite tenderness, and, it was hard to say for sure from the shape of their shadows while Amanda crouched behind the island in frozen, horrified indecision, but Dad was probably hugging Damien. “We’ll figure things out. Parents stick together, right? He’s a good kid. A good, weird kid.” Damien laughed a little bit. “There’s nothing bad here. It’s all good.”
“You’re very sweet,” Damien said, muffled. “He’s really taken to you, you know. I don’t know what’s gotten into him this week.”
“I know he said he was okay with everything, but I think this has been a lot for him. And that’s fair, I get that. Maybe we tried to do too much.”
“Maybe we did. I think we may have unintentionally pushed Amanda, as well.”
Amanda went still, then.
Dad sighed heavily. “I know. I was still just so happy she was willing to be around, and she kept agreeing to do stuff together, so I tried to leave it alone. But something’s on her mind.”
“I can’t imagine a time when you and Amanda didn’t put up a united front.”
“Oh, imagine,” said Dad. “The year: 2015. The age: Also 15. The scene: a cool teenager wants nothing to do with her embarrassing dad. I’m pretty sure we celebrated eight nights all in one go, because it was the only time I could get her to sit still and stop running off to the Emmas’ houses.”
Amanda cringed, remembering that year. Her one four-month stretch of teenage rebellion.
Damien laughed quietly; it sounded unhappy. Their shadows swayed a little bit together, and then Dad exhaled. “I’ll talk to Amanda.”
“I’ll speak with Lucien, as well.”
“I bet we could get him to do some charades with us. That kid rocks a mean game of Pictionary.” There was a beat. “That’d probably be trying too hard again, wouldn’t it?”
“I love that you try hard, Max,” Damien said softly, his shadow hand lifting to shadow-Dad’s face, and oh, god, this was definitely too emotional and intimate for Amanda to be hearing. The moment should have been between the two of them — they thought it was. Plus, a lesser but still ominous concern for the future: there was a bundle of mistletoe above the kitchen door.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. She whipped out her phone, made sure it was set to silent, and texted Dad. soooo I think I’m lost.
Dad’s phone beeped. After a brief pause, he muttered, “Inside the house, Amanda?”
dad there are so many books, help, she texted.
“Duty calls,” said Dad. “My daughter is apparently lost somewhere in the wilds of your library.” His shadow moved again. “We’ll figure out how to make this work,” he promised, low and gentle. “You and me and the kids.” Their two shadows separated, and Amanda heard him push through the swinging kitchen door. The sounds of voices and distant music grew loud for a moment, then muffled again.
Damien had very click-clacky shoes on — they made very satisfying noises, Amanda had noted earlier — so she knew he hadn’t moved. She waited, crouched tensely.
Her phone lit up in her hand. Dad to the rescue!!!! Normally this wouldn't be my advice but GO TOWARD THE LIGHT AMANDA
Amanda quickly turned her phone around, pressing the screen against her thigh, so the light wouldn’t give her away. Damien took two clicky steps that almost gave her a heart attack but the refrigerator door opened, then closed. Then he pushed the kitchen door open and his footsteps faded down the hall.
Amanda waited another five seconds, then speedily texted Dad, nvm, false alarm, and booked it out of the kitchen.
Amanda felt … bad. She didn’t feel like she had been particularly kind or thoughtful or welcoming, regardless of what Damien thought. Mostly she’d been annoyed, if rightfully so at Lucien, and also, she could admit to herself, maaaybe a little silently resentful over having to share her father and over everything changing, even as she tried to be a Well-Adjusted Adult Human.
“Ugh,” Amanda said to herself, and she squeezed her way through the oppressive crowds in the hot hallway. The back door caught her eye. She had loved Damien's garden when they’d had tea together in August. It had been beautiful, and, even better, it would be quiet in this weather. She pushed past someone who was drinking from a bottle of beer while wrapped in several strands of twinkling Christmas lights and her date, who was wearing a light-up dreidel sweater.
Amanda gave the dreidel-wearing stranger a high-five and escaped out the back door.
The blast of cold air was like a slap in the face, if there was such a thing as a welcome slap. A short patch had been shoveled just outside the back door, but the trellis, the gardens, and most of the path were coated in ice and several inches of snow. Amanda drew in and then released a deep breath, her exhalation steaming white fog, and immediately felt better. She shut her eyes.
“Amanda?” someone said.
She opened her eyes, and turned.
There were several benches scattered throughout the garden, and there, on the nearest one, was Lucien. He hadn’t bothered to do any shoveling — his trail of footsteps cut through the snow from the back door — and he wasn’t any better dressed for the cold than Amanda was, wearing his usual uniform of T-shirt with wide-legged goth pants.
He was staring at her.
Amanda sighed. “Do you mind?” she asked, gesturing at his bench.
He hesitated for a second, then shook his head, and she picked her way along the path he’d beaten down and sank onto the bench beside him. The wood was frigid. The cold immediately cut straight through her pants.
They were both quiet. Amanda could almost, but not quite, hear the dull roar of voices from inside the house.
“Your butt must be freezing, dude,” she said, cupping her warm mug closely, and Lucien gave a sharp, startled laugh. “What are you doing out here?”
“It was hot inside,” he said.
“Seriously,” she agreed. “Is it always this busy?”
Lucien was sitting with his legs spread and his forearms resting on his thighs, hunched forward. He was fiddling with his cell phone. He didn’t look at her, but he said, “I guess my dad invited a few friends over, when I was a baby, and it turned out there were a lot of other people who also knew other people who didn’t have anywhere to go on Christmas Eve.” He shrugged. “It’s been like this since I was, like, five.”
“That’s a lot,” Amanda said, carefully.
He turned on her. “I like it,” he snapped. “It’s not like that. We do it every year.”
Amanda lifted her free hand, palm out, to demonstrate that she came in peace, and Lucien quickly turned back to regarding his phone clenched in both hands, between his knees.
Amanda scratched a pattern in the snow with the heel of her boot.
All at once, Lucien exhaled. “I know I’ve been a dick,” he said, sullen and defensive. “It’s just always been me and my dad, and this week was just, like. A lot.”
“Yeah,” said Amanda. “Hard same.”
Lucien visibly hesitated, then shot her a careful sidelong glance. His eyes were still heavy-lidded, under his thick purple eyeshadow and black liner, but she got the impression he was really looking at her for the first time all week. “You guys have a lot of traditions,” he said.
“My mom was obsessed with Christmas. So Dad and I do Hanukkah stuff together whenever it falls on the calendar every year, and then Christmas week, we always do some stuff kind of in Mom’s memory, that she would have loved,” she said, “and then some stuff just because it’s fun.”
Lucien flinched, which she didn’t understand, at first, but then he said, “Sorry if I ruined any of your mom’s holiday stuff,” and oh, man. It was like Amanda could see his Grinchy little heart grow three sizes.
“It’s okay. You didn’t ruin anything,” Amanda told him.
He grimaced and said, “Yeah, no, I did,” which was, well. Score one for self awareness.
“To be fair, let’s not underestimate Ernest’s role here,” Amanda said, and he laughed just like she’d hoped he would.
“I guess it wasn’t all bad,” he admitted. “I mean, those movies weren’t the worst thing ever. Or whatever.”
“I knew you liked them!” Amanda crowed, laughing, and he rolled his eyes and let her nudge his shoulder with hers. For a moment or two, they sat in much, much more companionable silence. Then Amanda screwed her courage to the sticking point. “Look, you see them together much more than I do, so maybe you have the inside scoop and you don’t agree, but I don’t think our dads are gonna break up anytime soon.”
“No,” he agreed immediately. “They’re really in love. It’s gross.”
“I think a truce is in order. Don’t you?” Amanda offered him her mug.
Lucien’s lip curled. “I guess,” he sighed, and he took the warm mug from her hand, and took a sip. His eyebrows went way, way up as soon as he tasted what was in it.
It didn’t count as corrupting a minor if you, too, were a minor, and if you only let him have a little bit of lukewarm wine while under supervision, Amanda figured.
“Cool,” said Amanda. “Team Flores-Green/Bloodmarch?”
This time, the lip curl was almost a faint, reluctant smile. “Team Flores-Green/Bloodmarch,” agreed Lucien, and then he tried to go for another drink of mulled wine.
“Nice try, buddy,” said Amanda, and she took her wine back.
“You looked like you had a good time,” Dad said, as they walked home across the cul de sac.
“I know you did,” Amanda said. “That charades round was sick; I can’t believe Lucien understood you meant A Perfect Circle when you were just windmilling like a freak.”
“The kid’s a prodigy,” said Dad. “He’s been killing it during board game nights, but,” he peered closely at Amanda, “I was pleasantly surprised he agreed to play in front of an audience tonight.”
Dad was fishing; he wasn’t subtle. “We might have had a little talk,” Amanda said. “For one thing, he really has no idea who Karl Marx is. I guess some kid in his homeroom is basically ready to write his own Communist manifesto, and Lucien decided his morning speeches were so annoying that it would work perfectly to annoy the rest of us.”
“Like I said, a prodigy. Needs to hone his attention to detail, though. And I shudder to think what his grade must be in social studies.”
Amanda snorted and let Dad forge ahead to unlock their front door. “It was a good talk,” she said. “I think … things could be kind of lonely for them at this time of year, sometimes, and Damien did such a good job of creating family traditions for the two of them that Lucien was feeling a little threatened by, you know, you and me. Messing with that.”
Dad went stock-still on their doorstep, keys in his hand. After a minute, he slowly turned around. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have done a better job of talking to Lucien about this.”
Yep, he’d gotten it.
“I mean, you did try,” said Amanda.
“You know we’re talking about you, right,” said Dad, and Amanda nodded. “I mean, about Lucien, too, but I want to pivot and make sure you know we are exclusively discussing you at this point.”
“I get it, Dad.”
“What is it exactly that’s been bothering you?”
“I mean…” Amanda started, and stopped, and then tried again. “Going to school was obviously a huge change, and I love it, and I was right, Dad — you helped me get ready for it, so it wasn’t scary, it was exciting. But I guess … I kind of forgot that things were going to change here, too, y’know? Just because I’m the only one who left doesn’t mean things here are gonna stay the same.”
Dad nodded consideringly. He was an amazing listener. Amanda had always loved that about him. When she didn't say anything else, he said, “Amanda, I love you so much. You’re my number one priority, always.”
“I know,” she said, hands jammed in her pockets against the cold, because she did know. She knew how much extra freelance work Dad was taking on in order to pay for the cost of her room and board at HIA; she knew he was a menace with scissors and he’d cut himself deeply enough to almost need stitches while he was wrapping her Hanukkah presents. They talked on the phone a few times a week and texted all day, and every day, Dad found a new way to show her how he put her first, over everything else in his life.
“I love you, too. And I’m really, really glad you’re getting closer with Damien and Lucien.”
“But?” asked Dad, with that same calm, total-lack-of-judgment look that had prompted Amanda to tell him so many embarrassing things over the years.
“It’s a little weird for me, coming back and finding you part of a new family,” she admitted.
Dad made the kind of noise that Amanda imagined a dying cow might make, and reached out and pulled her into a hug. She magnanimously allowed it. “Amanda Ann,” he said intently into her hair, “you’re part of this family. It's not a family without you.”
“I know,” she said, and she hugged him back.
The next morning, Amanda stayed in bed until she physically couldn’t sleep anymore, and then she rolled over with her phone and lazed around texting for another couple hours. The joys of home were many, including a non-rubber mattress and curtains that properly blocked sunlight. She didn’t let herself get up until she finally heard Dad start banging around in the kitchen and the smell of coffee wafted into her room. Then she sent one last, important text, and finally dragged herself out of her pile of quilts. She kept one wrapped around her as she went down the hall. That was just science.
Dad had managed to create complete chaos in only a short time in the kitchen. He was flipping pancakes off the stovetop onto two plates, humming something that sounded suspiciously like the dreaded oldies.
“Pancakes? Nice,” she said, shuffling over to peer over his shoulder. “Chocolate chips?”
“Amanda,” said Dad, “just what kind of parent do you take me for?” He picked up the nearest plate and tilted it toward her. The top pancake had a wonky smiley face made out of chocolate chips.
“Yesss,” said Amanda. “The very best kind, obviously.” She pulled a stool up to the peninsula countertop, and graciously accepted her plate as Dad passed it over.
Dad doused his stack of pancakes in a truly impressive lake of maple syrup and set down his plate, leaning on the other side of the peninsula. He held up a dripping forkful of fluffy flapjacks. “Food cheers?”
“Food cheers.” Amanda solemnly tapped her fork against Dad’s, the two of them drizzling syrup everywhere, and then stuffed pancakes in her mouth.
For a time, they both ate in sleepy, companionable silence. The sun was shining, the heat was blasting warm air out of a vent directly beneath Amanda’s feet, and she was eating chocolate chip pancakes while swaddled in a fleece blanket like a human burrito. Life was good.
Eventually, once they’d both scarfed most of their breakfasts, Dad looked at her over his coffee and said, “So, about last night.”
They’d sat in the living room and talked, and Amanda had opened presents, and Dad had let her have a glass of wine and she’d pretended it was her first of the night, and then they’d talked some more, only while Amanda was wearing her new slippers this time. The coziness had helped.
The talking too, she guessed.
“Honestly, Dad, I’m kinda talked out on my feelings,” she said. “We’re good, right?”
Dad lifted a hand in a dorky ten-four sort of motion. “I’m good if you are, sweetie.”
“Cool, ‘cause Lucien’s gonna be here with Damien in…” She looked down at her phone. “Like, one minute.”
“W h a t,” said Dad.
“We thought maybe we’d try watching some movies again,” Amanda said. “Low-key, no pressure.”
Dad finally managed to make words again. “So when you say ‘we,’ what you mean is…”
“Me and Lucien. I made him give me his number last night. He promises he won’t be a dickweed this time.”
Dad’s mouth opened and closed a couple of times. “Honey, you guys didn’t have to do that.”
“I know,” she said. “We wanted to.”
The doorbell rang.
The two of them looked at each other, and then Dad got up to answer it.
On his way into the living room, he leaned down and kissed the top of Amanda’s head, and she smiled.
Amand stuffed the last of her pancakes in her mouth and looked down at herself. Her PJ’s were old, her hair was gross with last night’s hairspray, and her blanket was pilling around the edges, but hey, her slippers were new, and if they were going to be anything like a family, everybody was just going to have to get used to it’s-1-PM-and-I-just-woke-up Amanda-chic.
She piled the dishes in the sink and went to help Dad greet their guests. He’d taken their coats and was talking to Damien in low voices by the front door, so Amanda said, “Hi,” to Lucien.
He was dressed in what looked like the same clothes as last night, but she was guessing he just had a closet full of identical gray shirts and black pants. In what had to be a concession to their ‘let’s be comfy’ truce, he wasn’t wearing any makeup, chains, or jewelry aside from his facial piercings. He looked younger without it all.
“Hey,” he said. “I found a movie.” He shoved his phone at her and showed her a Wikiwhat entry.
“Oh my god,” said Amanda. Moving in unison, their dads looked up from their private conference. The two of them were wearing similar ratty gray sweatpants and dad-slippers that looked identical; they really were meant for each other. But Amanda had more important things on her mind.
“Amanda?” said Dad.
“Holy shit! We have to find this!!!” Amanda snatched up the remote control, turned on the TV, and went hunting for Lucien’s movie in the first streaming service she pulled up.
“Lucien, you failed to mention that you were bringing a film to watch,” Damien said, a hint of steel in his voice. He adjusted his glasses and peered at his son, clearly concerned that Lucien had put on a show of contrition just to show up and do a proverbial rickroll of them all.
Amanda knew better. She found the movie on Cinemafix. She cheered in triumph and clicked on it, and the title filled the screen:
Love ‘Em or Latke ‘Em.
They all stared at it.
“Holy shit,” said Dad. He whirled on Lucien. “Lucien. Did you find a crassly commercialized Hanukkah-themed trashy romance with two Jewish leads?”
“...Yeah?” said Lucien, who clearly didn’t even know what he’d done.
Damien was looking from Dad to Amanda to Lucien, with a noticeably wary eye on Lucien.
“THIS IS THE BEST.” Dad’s eyes had gone shiny. If he was a cartoon character, they’d be stars.
Amanda dodged Dad’s flailing so she could scoop discarded wrapping paper out of a chair. “We’ve been trying to find one of these for literally years,” she said, beaming. She beckoned to Lucien and patted the chair.
Dad practically waltzed across the living room, insistently tugging Damien with him; Damien allowed himself to be tugged, laughing with clear surprise and pleasure. “Lucien, you’re a wizard! A genius!” Dad crowed.
“It … wasn’t hard…” Lucien said, plunking into the chair Amanda had cleared for him.
As Dad exclaimed over the casting (they'd seen the leads in at least three terrible movies; this was going to be so very bad) and got himself and Damien nestled into the blankets on the couch, Amanda was already settled enough that she caught the steady, warm look that Damien gave his son. He leaned over and, just for a second, laid a hand on Lucien’s knee.
Lucien rolled his eyes but when he curled up with the comfy pillow that Amanda threw at him, he looked smug.
Amanda could deal with smug.
Dad spent two hours looking like he was either going to cry or spontaneously combust with joy; it was hard to say which.
Lucien threw popcorn at the screen and heckled the romantic leads’ extremely poor life decisions.
Damien invited Amanda to come to the animal shelter over winter break to help socialize the dogs, and promised to teach her how he’d put his hair in such an impeccable topknot.
Maybe this whole Brady Bunch thing might work out after all, Amanda thought, satisfied, and then she booed with Lucien.