“Yeah! Wouldn’t that be hilarious?”
William glances away from the overstocked supermarket shelves to look at his daughter hanging off the front of the shopping cart. ‘Hilarious’ is definitely not the first word that jumps to his mind.
Thirteen is a precarious age. One foot still in childhood but not really a child anymore - a fact Chloe takes pains to remind him and Joyce about at least twice a day (more, if they actually try to treat her like one or if she’s angling for a later bedtime). Not yet an adult, either, which they remind her about at least as often. Not even properly a teen yet, despite the thirteen that Chloe makes a point of stressing when she thinks she’s being babied. Thirteen is an in-between age, a little bit of everything but not quite enough of anything.
So when William takes a moment to search his daughter’s eyes (dancing with eager mischief as they so often are) he finds himself trying to figure out whether this request is coming from a childish place or an all-too grown one.
“Hmmm, I don’t know. This definitely isn’t on the shopping list.”
She bounces up and down, rattling the cart. “C’mon, Dad! It’s, like, one little thing! It’s not even expensive.”
“Ah, but you never know, that ‘one little thing’ could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I’m not sure our house can stand the strain of any more Christmas decorations. Remember last year?”
Chloe snorts and rolls her eyes. “Pssh, it’s only mistletoe. The house isn’t gonna collapse because of a couple of berries. You’re so dramatic.”
“Well, that’s how it begins, isn’t it? This year it’s mistletoe, next year a wreath, the year after that you’ll want a whole tree...”
Chloe laughs. “We already have a tree, Dad. And a wreath.”
He rubs his chin thoughtfully. “Hm, I suppose we do.”
Chloe grins triumphantly. “So all we’re missing is the mistletoe, then!” She waves her hands around in front of the mistletoe display like an amped up Vanna White, waggling her eyebrows with cartoonish enthusiasm. She lets out a squeal of glee as William chuckles in fond resignation and adds a sprig of mistletoe to the shopping cart. He knows he’s probably too indulgent, but it’s hard to question his decision when it makes his daughter look so happy.
It’s easier to question it a few days later when he and Chloe are putting up the last round of Christmas decorations.
“Dad, what’re you doing?”
William glances down over his shoulder from his perch on the stepstool. He holds up the tack hammer in one hand and the mistletoe in the other. “What’s it look like?”
“But… why are you hanging it over the front door?”
“They’re supposed to be hung in doorways. Why not this one?”
“Uhhh, because you’ll have to kiss everyone who comes to the door?” She gives William a sarcastic look. “You wanna hafta kiss the mailman, Dad? Or, like, Max’s parents? Ew.”
William raises his eyebrows. “What’s your suggestion, then? Kitchen doorway?”
“Gross, then I’ll hafta see you and mom kiss every time you go into the kitchen. No way.”
“Garage, then? Sliding door? We’re running out of doorways.”
Chloe folds her arms across her chest. “You know where I want it hung, Dad.”
William steps down from the stool wearily. “And you know that your mother and I already said ‘no’ to that.”
Chloe makes a sound somewhere between a groan and a whine. “But whhyyy?”
“Because it’s…” William balks as he finds himself once again caught up in the conundrum that is the age of thirteen. If he tells her that it’s inappropriate to hang mistletoe from her bedroom doorway, it feels like he’ll be accusing her of intentions he doesn’t actually suspect her of. But if he doesn’t tell her that it’s inappropriate, what defense does he have? He glances toward the kitchen, hoping for backup, but Joyce must have gone upstairs. At a bit of a loss, he deflects Chloe’s question with one of his own. “Why do you want it there?”
“Because it’s funny, Dad. Like… It’s the last place you’d expect to see it!”
“If it’s the unexpected you’re going for, we could hang it over the toilet. Or Bongo’s litter box. That would be funny.”
Chloe’s nose wrinkles in disgust. “Ew, Dad, seriously? What the f--” She freezes when she sees William’s eyebrow shoot up. “--ffffrick. What the frick, Dad?”
“You’re not making a great case for yourself here, Kiddo.”
“What? I said ‘frick!’ I wasn’t gonna say--” She catches herself again, scowling. “I wasn’t gonna say anything else.” She gives a sullen huff.
“C’mon, Dad, I’ve been sooo good. I haven’t even had to make a swear jar donation in weeks! Just… please? I just… I want to see the look on Max’s face when she sees it. It’ll be super funny.”
Something clicks in the back of William’s mind. “Max, huh?”
“Yeah!” Chloe perks up. “Oh, man, can you imagine? She’ll be all like, ‘woah, what’s that doing here?’ It’ll blow her mind!”
William takes another long look at his daughter, whose face is brimming with excitement. He’d be lying if he said the possibility had never occurred to him before. Those two have been thick as thieves for years. Chloe’s hardly brought any other friends home in all of that time, and she’s never talked about any crushes apart from the obligatory boy bands. Suddenly her behavior over the last few days makes a lot more sense: pressing so hard for him to buy the mistletoe, then for him to hang it someplace away from prying eyes… Who would want to have their first kiss in front of their parents? Even the flimsiness of her excuses makes more sense in this light.
“C’mon, please?” She’s got her hands folded together and tucked up under her chin and she’s giving him full-on puppy dog eyes. It’s tough to argue with that. And even if his daughter can be a little reckless at times, he trusts her not to get too carried away. He knows she would never do anything to hurt her friend.
“Alright,” he sighs, “alright. Lead the way.”
She jumps up and down, clapping her hands. “You’re the best!” She runs for the stairs, taking them two at a time while he follows her up slowly.
He is definitely too indulgent.
This isn’t a big deal.
It’s only Max. They see each other basically every single day unless one of them is grounded. Max coming over to hang out is nothing new. It’s, like, the opposite.
So why is Chloe so nervous?
If she’s honest, it’s not even like it’s the first time she’s thought about kissing Max. It’s the first time she’s had an actual plan, though. Or at least an actual plan that seemed like it could really work. Still, thinking about this shouldn’t make her this nervous. They’re best friends. It’s pretty normal to be curious about kissing your best friend, isn’t it? It’s just one of those things that happens when you’ve spent enough time with someone. You just… start to wonder about these things. And it’s only a mistletoe kiss, anyway. Just a stupid Christmas tradition. Practically a joke. Something they can laugh about together after. It’s not like it even means anything. So it’s stupid to be nervous about it.
Chloe takes a momentary break from glaring at her reflection in the mirror to glance at the reflection of the mistletoe hanging over her door like a taunt. “Quiet, you,” she mutters at it. She takes a deep breath in and lets it out as a lengthy sigh. “Okay,” she says. “Be cool, Chloe. You got this.” She shoots herself finger guns in the mirror, then immediately groans and rolls her eyes at herself. “Ugh, okay, be cooler than that… Jeez.” She bounces up and down a couple of times to loosen up and shakes her arms out. “Okay. Whew. Got this. It’s only Max. Ooooonly Max. No big deal. Suuuuuuper not a big deal at all.”
She flashes herself a big smile in the mirror, aiming hard for casual and falling tragically short. “Hey, Max. Let’s go hang out in my room. I’ve got this really cool… uh… thing... to show you? Ugh!” She rolls her eyes up to the ceiling in frustration. “Stop being stupid, Chloe,” she mutters to herself. “We’ve practiced this, like, a bazillion times already!” She facepalms, then grimaces in disgust. “Dammit, why are my hands so sweaty??” Chloe wipes her clammy palms vigorously on her jeans. “Okay. It’s just Max. It’s just Max. Stop sweating. It’s only stupid mistletoe for stupid Christmas. Be cool, already!”
She sticks her hands into her jeans pockets so that at least she doesn’t have to see them get all gross again. “Hey, Max… Let’s go hang out in my room. What, that? Huh, I guess my dad put it there. (Hrm, could be worse, I guess...) Hey, Max, let’s go upstairs… What’s that, you ask? Looks like mistletoe. Well, you know what they say… (Ugh, Chloe, why are you the worst?) Heeeeyyy, Max… (Ew, no, you sound like a loser) Max, hey! Let’s, um, let’s go to my room. What, that? It’s just some dumb mistletoe my dad put there… But, y’know, if it’s tradition or whatever...”
Chloe shakes her arms out again, then freezes when she sees that she’s somehow managed to sweat through her third shirt in a row. “Oh, for crying out loud…” She rushes back to her dresser and starts pawing through its drawers yet again. “Clean shirt, clean shirt… Dammit, why does this keep happening?!” She changes into another shirt; it’s not as nice as the first couple were, but whatever. At this rate she’s going to run out of shirts before Max even gets here.
She returns to the mirror and forces another smile. “Max! Hey! Let’s go play video games in my room!” She puts one hand on her hip and gestures stiffly with her other hand, pointing at the imaginary mistletoe over her head. “Oh, what, that? Huh. My dad must’ve put that there. Dad jokes, amirite? Well, uh--” Her voice cracks suddenly and her face promptly turns bright red, and dammit what is she going to do if that happens in front of Max?
“Shit!” She casts a nervous glance at her closed bedroom door. Nobody’s demanding swear jar donations, so she’s probably in the clear. Probably. She tiptoes over to the door and cracks it open, sticking her head out and checking down the hallway just to make sure that nobody’s snooping on her. Judging from the clattering sounds and delicious smells wafting up the stairs, her mom is still in the kitchen. There’s a thump from the attic that must be her dad digging up more Christmas stuff. Satisfied that her mini-meltdown will not be interrupted by well-meaning parental interference, she retreats back into her private sanctum and closes the door again. Her eyes dart up to the top of the doorframe and her stomach gives a twist.
This was such a dumb idea. She really can’t back out of it now, though. Not after how much effort she put into this plan. She’s committed to this stupid, stupid course of action. She can’t even postpone it: tomorrow Max’s parents are taking her to her grandparents’ house until after New Year's. By the time she gets back, mistletoe won’t even make sense anymore. It’s now or never.
Chloe walks back to the mirror to continue rehearsing, but instead she ends up staring at her reflection. She’s a mess. What was she even thinking? How did this ever seem like a good idea for one second?
Nobody in their right mind would want to kiss her. Not even as a joke or... whatever. She looks like she’s in the middle of gym class, all red-faced and sweaty. She’s got sweat stains under her armpits again, and this is the fourth freaking shirt she’s worn today. She spent all that time combing her hair this morning, and it’s already all tangled and messy so why did she even bother? And… ugh, her lips are chapped. Like, super chapped. Gross. She’s gross.
She starts fumbling around on her desk, looking for chapstick. She knows she’s got some, somewhere.
It’s not like it matters, anyway. She’s still going to look like a stupid, super-lame dork no matter what she does. Chapstick isn’t going to magically turn her into someone worth kissing under the mistletoe. It probably won’t even help her chapped lips that much at this point.
Muttering swear words under her breath, Chloe opens every drawer and dumps its contents all over her floor. She tried to clean her room this morning, she really did, but it’s not like Max would have noticed anyway so what does it matter if she messes it up again?
Finally she finds the chapstick and smears it liberally over her lips. It tastes like strawberries.
Wait, what if Max notices she’s wearing flavored chapstick? She’ll think this whole mistletoe thing was Chloe’s plan from the start.
Which it was, but still. She doesn’t want Max to think that, because that’s just… Just…
There’s a knock on Chloe’s door and she yelps and jumps a good foot into the air. “What?” she snaps. “What is it?”
“Ho ho ho! Mrs. Claus has sent me to request the assistance of her helper elf in the kitchen once again. It seems she only has two hands.”
Chloe grunts. “Alright, alright, I’ll be down in a minute.” As soon as her dad’s out of sight, she wipes furiously at her lips to get as much of the chapstick off as possible. She smells like a giant freaking strawberry. Ick.
Before she goes to the door, Chloe glances at the clock. Less than two hours ‘til Max comes over. Her heart does that stupid thing where it feels like it’s beating sideways. She changes her shirt one more time - taking a moment first to slather on another layer of deodorant - then takes a deep breath and opens the door.
Less than two hours to go. It’s going to be fine. It’s going to be completely, totally fine.
Joyce and Chloe have been working practically shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen for nearly an hour, and Chloe hasn’t mouthed off even once. Normally Joyce would be pleased about this, but since Chloe’s quiet obedience seems to have nothing to do with enjoying her mother’s company and everything to do with whatever storm has been brewing inside her mind all morning it’s hard to take any pleasure in it. She steals a glance at her daughter as she stands next to her at the counter, carefully pressing a cookie cutter into the rolled out gingerbread dough.
Chloe’s eyes are pointed in the direction of the gingerbread, but Joyce would be surprised if they saw a thing. Her bottom lip is snagged between her teeth which gnaw at it constantly. She doesn’t seem to notice that she’s doing it. If she doesn’t stop soon, it’s going to start bleeding.
Chloe startles as if snapped out of a trance. She bobbles the cookie cutter, just barely managing not to drop it on the floor. “Huh? Oh… Uh, you want me to do something else, Mom?”
“No, no, you’re doing fine.” She pauses. “It’s just…” There’s a soft thump in the living room as William sets down another box of Christmas decorations and starts to unpack it. Joyce smiles in his direction when he starts talking to the cat batting at the garland dangling from his hands. She remembers the sound of his and Chloe’s voices filtering up the stairs earlier that afternoon. It was the most animated she’d heard Chloe be all day. “You know you can talk to me, don’t you, sweetheart? About... anything?”
Chloe freezes for a moment, then resumes cutting cookies. A light blush rises to her cheeks. “Um. Okay?”
Joyce watches her for a silent minute. She remembers a time when talking with Chloe was easy. They would talk about anything and everything. It was pure naivety to think that things would stay that way forever, but still she’d always hoped…
What makes it worse is that as Chloe becomes harder and harder for her to access, William’s relationship with her hardly seems to have changed at all. It’s awful to feel jealous of her own husband and the easy rapport he still has with their daughter while she has to fight constantly to hold onto one little piece of her.
The cookie cutter drops onto the counter with a metallic clang and Chloe begins to smush the remaining bits of gingerbread together into a ball to roll out again. “I think we can get a couple more out of this. You want me to put them in the oven when I’m done? I’ll be careful, I promise.”
“That’d be real’ helpful, thank you. They should have plenty of time to cool before Maxine gets here so you girls can get straight to the icing.”
Chloe rolls her eyes. “Mom, you know she doesn’t like to be called that anymore. It’s just Max. It’s been Max for, like, years.”
“Right, of course.” She watches Chloe roll out the dough and start cutting out the last few gingerbread men. “...The both of you have done a lot of growin’ up the last few years, haven’t you? It’s hard for a mother to remember that, sometimes.”
Her daughter makes a noncommittal sound. She presses the last scraps of dough into a heart shape with her fingers and places it on the tray alongside the gingerbread men. She opens the oven and slides the loaded trays inside.
“You two are you gonna have your hands full with all of those gingerbread men,” Joyce chuckles as Chloe switches the oven from preheat to bake and sets the timer. “Y’got enough for an entire army there.”
“You and Dad can help,” Chloe suggests. She smirks, a sparkle of mischief coming into her eyes. “Maybe. If you’re good.”
“Why, thank you,” Joyce laughs. “Such a generous offer.”
Chloe shrugs magnanimously. Seeing a bit of her daughter’s familiar humor come back into her lets Joyce breathe a little easier. “Okay, Mom. What do you want me to do now?”
“If you could start puttin’ away the dishes, that’d be a real help.”
Chloe nods and starts emptying the drying rack, gathering together a handful of clean silverware as Joyce resumes chopping carrots.
“Chloe, darlin’... Are you sure you don’t want to invite any of your other friends? You know I love Max, but two people ain’t much of a party.”
Chloe’s shoulders stiffen just a little. Anyone who wasn’t her mother wouldn’t notice the shift in posture it’s so slight, but Joyce reads it like a glowing warning sign: Back Off. “What other friends?” she replies acidly. The utensils clatter loudly as she tosses them haphazardly into the drawer.
Joyce cringes. Before she can wrap her mouth around an appropriate response, she’s relieved by the abrupt appearance of William swooping in like a hero.
“Sorry to interrupt, m’ladies, but the time has come for a grand Price-family Christmas tradition.”
Chloe’s shoulders relax and her lips quirk into half a smile. “Let me guess: you need me to untangle the Christmas lights for you because you threw them all in the same box together like you do every year.”
William taps his nose and winks. “Bingo.”
Chloe flips her hair over her shoulder. “Fine, I’ll rescue you. But this year we’re putting them away properly, right?”
William puts up his hands and chuckles. “I make no guarantees.” He gives Joyce an apologetic look. “D’you mind if I steal her away again for a bit?”
“She’s all yours,” Joyce states with a sigh and a wave of her hand.
“Great, thanks, Sweetheart. Box is in the attic, Kiddo. I’ll join you in a minute; I need my caffeine fix first.”
As Chloe heads for the door, he tilts his head a little and squints at her. “Say, Kiddo, what happened to the green shirt?”
She pauses, face flaring red. “Uh.” She fidgets with the hem of her black shirt. “Didn’t want to get flour on it.”
“Hm, good thinking...”
Chloe disappears up the stairs and William pours himself a cup of coffee. He leans against the counter as Joyce scrapes the carrots into a bowl. “How’s it been going in here?” he asks, taking a sip.
Joyce sighs. “About as well as can be expected, cookin’ with a teenager.”
“Sounded like you two were havin’ quite the conversation yourselves earlier.”
William raises an eyebrow. “Heard that, did you?”
“Not every word.” Joyce washes the celery and sets it on the cutting board. “She’s certainly dead set on havin’ that mistletoe upstairs, isn’t she?”
William nods. “She certainly is.”
“You could have put your foot down, you know. You are her father.”
William takes another sip and shrugs. “You know I can’t say ‘no’ to a Price woman.”
Joyce harumphs softly at that but doesn’t say anything.
“Besides, I don’t think it’ll do any harm. It’s only mistletoe.” There’s a soft pattering of feet as Bongo wanders into the kitchen and rubs himself against William’s legs.
Joyce leans against the counter, folding her arms over her chest. “It isn’t only mistletoe, though, is it? It’s mistletoe and Maxine.”
Bongo hops up onto the counter and William begins idly scratching at the cat’s ears, generating a robust purr. “It is,” he agrees. “But I don’t think that’s anything to worry about, do you? They’re both good kids. Nothing’s going to get out of hand.”
“That’s just it, William. They’re kids.” Joyce scoops up the cat and deposits him gently but firmly on the ground. “And you’re too permissive. Can you imagine Ryan Caulfield buying his daughter mistletoe, much less putting it up in her bedroom?”
William laughs out loud at that. “No,” he admits. “I can’t. But I’m not Ryan.”
“And thank the Good Lord for that.” She allows herself a smile before hardening her expression. “But Max is his daughter. What do you suppose he and Vanessa would make of this?”
“I don’t see why there’s any reason they should know about it if Max doesn’t want them to. It’s not like they’re going to go upstairs. Hell, I’d be shocked if they came in for coffee. If Max wants them to know, they’ll know. If she doesn’t, they won’t.”
Joyce turns around with a shake of her head and starts chopping the celery. “Have you… talked to her about this?”
Joyce fixes him with a no-nonsense stare. “To Chloe. About Max. ”
“As much as you can talk to a teenager about anything.”
“I’m not kiddin’. I’d give anything to know what’s goin’ on in that head of hers some days.” She sighs and sets aside the knife. “How serious is she about this?”
He thinks for a moment, buying himself time with another long sip of coffee. “More serious than she realizes, I’m pretty sure.”
“That’s what I was afraid of… And how serious d’you think her friend’ll take it? Serious enough she won’t want to stay over anymore?”
“Serious enough she’ll go tellin’ her parents? Go tellin’ everyone in school? What happens to Chloe then, Bill?”
“Joyce, you’ve seen how these two are together. Do you really think that Max would do such a thing?”
“I think that Max is twelve years old. I think that twelve years old is a confusing age to be all by itself, and that bringin’ somethin’ to a head before she’s ready for it could have all kinds of consequences.”
William sets down his coffee mug and moves to place a hand on Joyce’s shoulder. “I know that Chloe can be… headstrong,” he begins.
Joyce gives a small, sarcastic huff. “That’s putting it mildly.”
“And I know that Max does tend to follow her lead. But she does have a mind of her own.” He chuckles. “Frankly, the girl knows how to say ‘no’ to Chloe better than I do.”
Joyce places her hand over her husband’s. “You might have a point about that,” she allows.
“Max knows her own limits better than we do. And I’ll wager Chloe knows them, too. I can understand why you’re concerned. And I certainly can’t promise you that everything’ll work out the way Chloe wants it to, whatever that might be. We could well end up with some serious teenage angst on our hands, here.” He squeezes Joyce’s shoulder. “But either way, I honestly don’t think we have to worry about Chloe pushing Max one step further out of her comfort zone than Max wants to go.”
Joyce presses William’s hand and tries to relax. He understands Chloe better than she does. Max might understand her better still. Even so, she can’t quite shake her motherly concern. “I certainly hope you’re right.”
Max wonders if she’s done something to upset Chloe.
She’s not acting mad, exactly, just… kind of strange? She had seemed really happy to see Max when she first answered the door. She gave Max that big, bright We’re-Going-On-An-Adventure smile that always makes Max equally nervous and excited, grabbed her by the wrist, and started pulling her into the house and toward the stairs almost before they could even say “hello.”
But then Joyce stepped out of the kitchen and started scolding Chloe about… a whole bunch of stuff. It was kind of hard for Max to keep track, what with Joyce and Chloe arguing on one side of her (Chloe’s fingers still wrapped around her wrist) and William talking to her mom on the other. Luckily, her parents were in kind of a hurry to get to her dad’s office Christmas party thing, so it wasn’t long before the ruckus was interrupted by the honking of the car horn. Her mom kissed the top of her head and left, and then she and Chloe were hustled into the dining area to decorate gingerbread men and drink hot chocolate.
Which is pretty much how Max expected them to spend their day, because that’s what they normally do around Christmas time. They make the gingerbread men into all kinds of goofy things, then they watch Christmas movies and make fun of them while secretly enjoying them, and then Chloe’s parents let Max put a couple last decorations on their tree and let her open the presents in the stocking they keep here for her. It’s usually a lot of fun. But this year it’s like a switch flipped in Chloe once she actually got Max over the threshold, because that adventurous smile she wore at the door has been replaced by a scowl ever since she came in. She doesn’t even smile when Max proudly shows her a broken gingerbread man she turned into a zombie with green icing skin and globs of red gel for blood.
Chloe hasn’t even touched her hot chocolate. The whipped cream is all melted and everything and it’s barely steaming anymore. Normally she drinks it so fast it burns her mouth. Maybe she isn’t feeling well? She doesn’t look sick, though. She looks really nice, actually. Her hair’s combed to this perfect blonde sheen that Max’s hair could never even come close to in a million years. She’s wearing her good dark-gray slacks that she normally only wears on special occasions and a long-sleeved black button-down shirt with a collar and everything. She looks… really pretty.
Max feels her face warming up and hides behind her mug of cocoa to cover it, draining it down to the last dregs. Should she have dressed up more? She feels like such a dork in her corduroys and her Christmas sweater with its dumb snowmen and snowflakes all over it. Maybe that’s why Chloe isn’t talking to her like she normally does. Maybe she’s finally realizing what a hopeless dork Max is. Maybe she regrets inviting her over.
Should she offer to leave? But her parents are going to be at the party for hours… She could ask Chloe’s dad to drive her home, get the key from under the flowerpot, but then what? Her parents don’t like her being in the house alone. Maybe she could--
“How’s it going in here, girls?” William asks jovially as he walks up to the table with his coffee cup. He glances down at the cookies littering the table. “Wow, Max, looks like you’ve got a real zombie horde going.”
“Yeah,” she says sheepishly. “I keep breaking them.”
He chuckles. “That’s a clever solution.” He looks over at the pile of mostly bare cookies next to Chloe and furrows his brow. He puts his hand on her forehead. She gives him an annoyed look but doesn’t pull away.
“What’re you doing?” she asks.
“Checking for a fever. Since when do you let Max outpace you with the cookie decorating?”
“I’m fine,” she mutters, nudging his hand away.
“If you say so.” He points at her cocoa. “You want me to heat that back up for you?” He shrugs his shoulders when she shakes her head. “Alright, then. You’re the boss.” He gives Max an “I tried” look from behind Chloe’s head as he passes into the kitchen.
Chloe’s chewing on her lower lip as she picks up another cookie and starts to decorate it. It’s nothing special: two dots for eyes, one for a nose, a line for its mouth. Three dots for buttons. Totally boring and totally unlike Chloe. Max is pretty sure she hasn’t made a gingerbread man that basic since they were kids.
Max finishes frosting the last cookie in her pile. She watches Chloe for a bit, fidgeting in her seat. With no cookies to decorate, no hot chocolate left to drink, and Chloe not talking to her, Max is at a loss for what to do with herself. “You… You want me to help?”
Chloe blinks rapidly for a few seconds, like she forgot Max was there until she spoke. Max’s stomach ties itself into a knot. She shouldn’t’ve said anything. She should’ve just waited in silence. “Uh, sure. Thanks.” Chloe pushes a few of her gingerbread men over to Max. Max reaches for them. When their fingers touch, Chloe jerks her hand away so quickly she knocks one of the cookies onto the floor. “Oh, man.”
Max’s ears are burning. Chloe definitely doesn’t want her here. Chloe doesn’t even want to be near her. What did she do wrong?
Chloe picks up the cookie. One of its legs is broken off. “‘Nother zombie, I guess,” she says with a half-hearted smile in Max’s direction.
“I guess so.”
“Or…” Chloe’s smile picks up a little spirit. “Could be a pirate.” She picks up the tube of red frosting and starts gooping it onto the broken off end of its leg. “He had to walk the plank and a shark got his leg.”
Max giggles. “He’s gonna need a peg leg, for sure.”
Chloe grins at her. “Yeah, for sure.”
Max’s heart gives a happy flutter as a wave of relief washes over her. Chloe starts acting more like herself, gnawing bits of the cookies down to shape them into hook hands and peg legs, decorating her gingerbread pirates with eyepatches and cutlasses and loudly lamenting about how impossible it is to make a decent tricorn hat with icing.
Soon Chloe is a total mess: fingers stained bright and colorful with icing, crumbs spotting her shirtfront, a smear of bright green frosting highlighting one cheekbone. But she looks so happy under all that mess that it somehow just makes her even prettier. The messiness doesn’t carry over to her cookies at all: now that her heart is in it, each one is a little masterpiece.
“Maybe next year we can get some piratey cookie cutters. I bet if we can find them I can talk my dad into getting them for us.”
Next year. Chloe does want her here; she must. Max’s heart swells in her chest. She’s so relieved she could almost cry. “That sounds awesome. We’ll have the coolest gingerbread pirates ever.”
Chloe glances around quickly to check for her parents, then flashes Max a grin. “Damn right we will.”
The pile of undecorated cookies dwindles down to almost nothing. Max picks up one of the last ones and realizes it’s a funny shape, different from the others: a slightly lopsided heart, uneven around the edges instead of cleanly cut. She glances over at Chloe, who’s got a look of intense concentration on her face as she carefully pipes the trim of a captain’s jacket onto a cookie: blue eyes narrowed to a squint, the tip of her tongue just poking out of her mouth. Max doesn’t have nearly as steady of a hand as Chloe does, but she does her best to make this cookie as pretty as she can. She focuses so hard on her task that she barely even notices when Chloe picks up the last cookie and starts decorating it. She doesn’t snap out of her focus until she hears her friend clear her throat several minutes later. “You almost done with your magnum opus there, Michelangelo?”
“Almost.” It’s not as cool as Chloe’s pirates. It’s probably kind of dorky, actually. But it’s got every single kind of decoration they have on it, and Max has managed to keep her lines decently neat for once, so when she adds the final flourish and carefully turns it around to show to Chloe Max is beaming with pride. “Ta-da!”
Chloe stares at it for nearly a full minute without saying anything other than a funny little sound in the back of her throat. The longer she’s silent, the higher the tide of Max’s panic rises. Chloe’s eyes keep darting back and forth between Max’s face and the cookie until Max’s lungs are so tight she can’t breathe.
“It’s… got my initials on it?”
Max manages a nod. She’s starting to feel sort of dizzy. Was it a bad idea to put Chloe’s initials in it? She wanted to cheer her up. They always used to put each other’s initials all over everything. She thought it would make her happy but now it just seems weird. It seems like a weird, stupid thing to do. Why would she do such a weird, stupid thing? Of course Chloe doesn’t want her to put her initials in a dumb heart; who does that?
And now Chloe’s face is getting red. Is she angry? She must be furious. What was Max thinking?!
“Dude, that’s…” Chloe’s eyes finally shift away from that awful abomination of a cookie and look into Max’s. Max immediately looks away. She can feel a blush creeping up her neck and into her face, prickling her skin every inch of the way up. “That’s awesome. Can I have it?”
Max almost falls off her chair. “What?” Max searches Chloe’s face for any hint of mockery, but she looks sincere. Her face is as red as Max’s feels and her smile is a little shaky, but she doesn’t look like she’s making fun of her or anything.
“I think it’s really cool.” Chloe gives a nervous giggle. “I don’t know how you even fit that much icing on one little cookie. I like all the layers and stuff. And…” She bites her lip for a second, then smiles again. “And it’s got my initials on it, right? So… it kinda seems like I should have it.”
“Y-yeah.” Max finds herself smiling, which is kind of amazing since she’s pretty sure her entire face has gone numb. “I made it for you. You should definitely have it.”
Chloe gives her a big grin and Max is so relieved she feels like her heart is going to beat straight out of her chest. Chloe slides the cookie over to her side of the table and looks at it for a minute, chewing her lip again. She looks up suddenly. “Hey, Max. Mom and Dad got me the new Virtua Fighter game for Christmas. You wanna play it?”
Max tilts her head in confusion. Christmas isn’t for three days. “They already gave you your present?”
Chloe chuckles and gets up. “No, dummy,” she says in a low voice. “But they always hide them in the same place. I’ve been playing it all week after they go to bed.”
“But… But won’t they know you opened it?”
Chloe shrugs. “Nah. They’ve never caught me before, anyway. I’m a Christmas present ninja.” She winks at Max and starts walking toward the stairs. “C’mon, hippie. I wanna kick your butt at video games.”
“You wish.” Max hops up from her chair and follows her up the stairs toward her room.
“You’re forgetting I’ve been practicing all week,” Chloe chuckles as they tiptoe through the hallway in case her parents are upstairs.
“You’re forgetting I kick your butt at every fighting game on a regular basis.”
“Sure, okay. Whatever you say, Max.” Chloe pauses in the doorway as Max enters the room.
“Bongo!” Max exclaims, lighting up when she spots the white cat curled up in the middle of Chloe’s bed. His ear twitches. She rushes over to him and climbs onto Chloe’s bed without a thought, settling herself next to the sleeping cat. “I wondered where you were, Bongo-kitty. You didn’t come say hello!” Bongo opens one yellow eye to look at her, then closes it and begins purring when she pets him. “Aw, who’s a good kitty…” She looks up to find Chloe still standing in the doorway, looking awkward. “...Aren’t you coming in, Chloe? Did you forget something?”
“Uh…” Chloe looks like she’s thinking about coming over, then she stops and shuffles her feet a little. “I will, but, um…” She tugs at the hem of her shirt and chews on her lip again. She brightens suddenly. “I forgot where I put the game! Can you… uh, help me find it?”
Max shrugs and gives Bongo another couple of pats. “Sure. You didn’t leave it in the console, did you?”
Chloe rolls her eyes. “If I left it in the console I wouldn’t need help finding it, would I?”
Max slides herself off the bed. “Sorry, just trying to help.” She starts looking around near Chloe’s TV.
“Uh, I think maybe I left it… on one of these shelves?” Chloe gestures at the blue dresser next to her door.
Max straightens up and furrows her eyebrows at Chloe in confusion. “...So why don’t you look there?”
“You’re literally standing right next to the dresser. Why don’t you look there?”
Chloe splutters. “Why don’t you look there??”
Chloe groans. “Just… Just… Ugh! Just come over here, okay? There’s… too many drawers to check.”
“Oooookay…” Max walks over to the dresser, looking at Chloe askance. “So where d’you think you left it in the dresser?”
“I… I don’t…”
Max starts opening drawers. “Christmas ninja, huh? Do you normally lose your presents a couple of days before Christmas?”
“No…” Chloe mutters sulkily, folding her arms across her chest.
“Are you going to help me look for it, or are you just going to stand there and watch me the whole time?”
“Why don’t you come over here and find out?”
Max pauses. “...What does that even mean?”
Chloe suddenly buries her face in her hands. “Ugggghhhhh, never mind, I’m stupid…”
“Chloe, what? You’re not stupid.”
“I am, I’m so stupid. I’m so, so stupid.”
“You’re the smartest person I know!” Max gives up looking for the game and goes over to her friend. Chloe’s breathing hard into her palms. Max touches her shoulder. “For cereal, if you’re stupid then what does that make me? Your grades are a zillion times better than mine.”
“You’re so not stupid, Max,” Chloe grumbles from between her fingers.
“Well, neither are you.” Max gently removes Chloe’s hands from her face. She’s surprised to see that, although Chloe isn’t actively crying, her eyes are shining and red. “Seriously, this isn’t a big deal. Maybe your parents will be kinda mad, but they’ll get over it. And you’ve got days to find it, anyway.”
Chloe looks genuinely confused, and then her face clears and she starts to laugh. “Yeah, okay. You’re right, Max. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Let’s just… play something else, then.”
Max gives her shoulder a squeeze. “There you go. I can kick your butt at a different game.”
Chloe snorts. “Whatever you say.” She gives Max a playful shove. Max stumbles back a little, still chuckling.
As Max rights herself and Chloe steps away, something dangling over her head catches her eye. Puzzled, Max tilts her head back and looks up. There’s a small plant hanging from the top of Chloe’s doorway right over her head. It’s pretty and green with clusters of pale berries. She’s definitely never seen that there before.
Chloe stops and turns around. “Are you gonna--” She freezes, staring at Max with her jaw slightly agape. “Oh.”
“Is that mistletoe?” Max hears herself asking even though she doesn’t really need to ask. Of course it’s mistletoe. It’s only on every other greeting card this time of year and featured in a dozen Christmas specials on TV.
But why is it there? And, more importantly, what is she supposed to do now? She knows what people are supposed to do under mistletoe, but right now she’s just standing under it alone so is she supposed to do anything? But she and Chloe were standing under it together before, so… Should she…?
Suddenly Max feels Chloe’s hand on her shoulder as her friend returns to her side. So she and Chloe are standing under the mistletoe together again, now, and somehow that’s almost more confusing. She’s pretty sure Chloe is saying something to her, but she can’t hear anything over the sound of her own heartbeat in her ears.
They’re supposed to kiss now, right? But, like… where? On the cheek? ...On the lips? Would that… be okay?
But what if she’s not any good at it?
What if… What if she tries and Chloe doesn’t kiss back?
What if she does kiss back??
“Max, are you okay?” Chloe’s voice finally chisels its way through Max’s thoughts.
“...It’s only a stupid plant, y’know? You don’t hafta do anything. Like, if it’s too weird or whatever. It’s fine, really.”
Chloe’s voice sounds like how Max’s mind feels. Her hand is warm on Max’s shoulder. And maybe it is sort of weird, but Max really does kind of want to kiss her. “No, it’s… it’s okay.” She tries to keep her voice light and steady and it nearly works. “I mean, it’s a Christmas tradition, right?”
“Yeah! It totally is!”
Max takes a deep breath to prepare herself. Okay. She’s going to do this. She’ll stop staring at the mistletoe and she’ll turn to Chloe, and then… Yeah. It’ll be fine.
She doesn’t want to give herself enough time to psych herself out of it, so Max turns toward Chloe quickly only to find that Chloe is much, much closer than she had realized. Normally Chloe towers over her, but she must’ve ducked to get on Max’s level just as Max was angling upward, and the end result is less of a kiss and more of a collision.
Max isn’t quite sure what she had expected her first kiss to be like, but nearly getting knocked over by the impact definitely wasn’t it. It barely even lasted a second and was kind of more painful than pleasant. She tongues the inside of her cheek to make sure she isn’t bleeding. It’s a tiny bit tender but seems ultimately unharmed. Chloe’s rubbing her nose gingerly.
Did that… count?
Was that it?
Chloe starts touching her front teeth, testing them to see if anything got loosened. Max winces in sympathy. When Chloe notices Max’s reaction, she takes her fingers out of her mouth and laughs sheepishly. “I, uh… I think I miscalculated my trajectory. And, um, my velocity. You okay, Max?”
Max nods. She opens her mouth to reply but ends up giggling instead. After a second, Chloe starts to giggle too. Soon they’re both howling with laughter, leaning into each other to keep from collapsing onto the floor with the strength of it. Max laughs so hard she can hardly breathe, her forehead braced against Chloe’s shoulder for stability.
This is more like how Max expected her first kiss to feel. She feels giddy, euphoric. She’s lightheaded; she feels like she’s floating. Her stomach’s a sea of butterflies.
So maybe the kiss itself wasn’t much of anything, but this… This feels like something. She’s not sure what it is, but it’s nice. It’s warm. She likes it.
Their laughter fades away, but they don’t part. Max’s forehead is still pressed to Chloe’s shoulder. Chloe’s arms are still around her, holding her up. Chloe smells like gingerbread. Max doesn’t want to let go. She tilts her head up to look at Chloe and finds Chloe looking down at her. Her cheeks are pink. Max wants to kiss them.
And, really, they are still standing under the mistletoe. That first kiss could hardly even be called a kiss, so why not have a do-over? That wouldn’t be too weird, would it?
“D’you want--” Max starts, but then William’s voice comes booming up the stairs and both of them nearly jump out of their skin.
“Everything okay up there, girls?”
“We’re fine, Dad!” Chloe calls back loudly. “Jeez,” she mutters, rolling her eyes and smiling crookedly for Max’s benefit.
“Glad to hear it! Dinner’s almost ready: time for you two to set the table!”
Chloe groans. “We’ll be right down!” She gives Max a shrug. “I guess you’ll have to kick my butt later.”
Chloe raises an eyebrow. “Video games? Remember?” She chuckles. “I mean, I know I’m an awesome kisser and everything, but I didn’t think I’d turn your brain to total mush.” With a smug grin, she turns and starts walking toward the stairs.
Max sputters, face burning red. “I--whu--you---ugh!” She chases after Chloe. “You are so obnoxious,” she hisses as she catches up to her on the stairs. Chloe only laughs and darts ahead.
The rest of the evening is business as usual. After dinner, they watch a couple of Christmas movies with Chloe’s parents and Max opens her stocking presents. They finish decorating the tree and eat gingerbread men until they’re queasy. Chloe doesn’t mention video games again. Neither of them brings up the mistletoe. It all feels so normal that Max could almost think she imagined the whole thing, except that whenever she licks her lips she can taste a hint of strawberry at the corner of her mouth.
Nothing really feels different at all until Max’s parents come to pick her up and Chloe walks her to the door and gives her a goodbye hug. That itself is nothing unusual - they hug goodbye all the time - but neither of them seems to want to let go and so the hug just goes on and on for way too long. Max knows her parents are waiting in the car, and they’re probably tired from the party and she shouldn’t keep them waiting, but… She’s just so comfortable and warm, and the way their cheeks are pressed together feels so nice, and the way her heart flutters like a nervous bird makes her feel like laughing in the best possible way.
She feels a bit like she did before, under the mistletoe, aching with laughter and glowing with happiness. The feeling is so much the same that she can’t stop herself from glancing up at the top of the doorway just to be sure. She knew there wouldn’t be anything hanging there, but she feels a little cheated all the same.
The honk of a car horn startles them both back to reality. They pull apart, giggling a bit self-consciously. “Your, uh, your chariot awaits.” Chloe’s blushing.
Max can feel her own face heating up. She nods reluctantly. “Yeah… I guess I should probably go before they start to worry.” She starts to turn and reach for the doorknob, then impulsively turns back and wraps Chloe up in a swift but fierce hug. She doesn’t quite dare to kiss her cheek, but she pours as much feeling into the hug as she can. “Merry Christmas, Chloe.”
“M-merry Christmas, Max…”
The cold night air stings at Max’s burning cheeks as she rushes out the door and toward her dad’s waiting car. As she opens her car door, she looks back at the Price house and sees Chloe still standing in the open doorway looking dazed. Max gives Chloe a wave as she climbs into the backseat of the car. It’s not until the car is starting to pull away from the curb that Chloe shakes herself out of her daze enough to wave back.