It’s a perfect winter morning, still and cold and mercilessly bright. The snow drifts are waist high and shiny, rippled with the texture of last night’s freezing rain, and the trees are gleaming and heavy with ice. The side roads are still treacherous where the salt truck hasn’t yet finished making its rounds, but the Brewers’ front walk is neatly cleared, scraped and salted down to the pavement. Aidan doesn’t bother ringing the doorbell, because he never has, and it feels like it would be a bad omen to start doing so today. It’s the first time he’s seen his cousin since Patrick ran off to Schitt’s Creek two years ago.
As he unwraps his scarf and stamps the snow off his boots on the mat in the front hall, Aidan feels a little like he’s stepping back in time. The smell of gingerbread wafting from the kitchen is exactly the same as he remembers, and the pictures on the wall haven’t changed either. There’s Patrick, gangly and awkward, smiling straight into the camera from the middle of a baseball team photo. There he is, curly-haired, covered in sand and sunscreen, showing off a bucket full of seashells almost as big as himself. There's a photo of the two of them camping, pulling faces in front of a bright yellow tent, Patrick a year older and a little taller. Aidan unlaces his boots, hangs up his coat, and breathes into his frozen hands to warm them.
“Aunt Marcy? Patrick? I’m here!” There’s no answer, but he can hear animated voices from the kitchen, so he makes his way down the hall, past the stairs. The front hall is neat and orderly, unlike the sprawling pile of boots and salt-stained child-sized mittens taking over the hallway at Aidan’s parents’ place this morning. There have always been advantages to having a cousin who is an only child; when Aidan was growing up, Patrick’s house was a quiet sanctuary from the chaos of three older sisters and all of their friends. He used to spend nearly every afternoon here. After school, they’d kick their boots off in the hall and tear straight up the stairs, eager to get started on Lego or comics before the inevitable commencement of parental questions over homework and unfinished chores. Aidan used to keep a red cardboard box under Patrick’s bed, full of things he didn’t want his sisters to get at—candy, his best marbles, the snake skin he found in the ravine behind the school. Patrick kept all of Aidan’s dubious treasures safe, and he was always happy to eat his share of the candy.
By the time they were teenagers, the red box was mostly just for weed and porn, though Patrick was usually more interested in the former. They told each other everything back then, or at least, Aidan told Patrick everything. It turns out that didn’t go both ways. Aidan gets it, though; his aunt and uncle are good people, but they always had high expectations for Patrick, and they’re not exactly unconventional. Most of the time, he’s just immensely grateful that Patrick did tell him, in the end. He doesn’t like to think about what he would have lost, without even knowing it, if Patrick hadn’t finally broken his year of radio silence from Schitt’s Creek with a single text: If I tell you something, can you keep it in the red box for a while?
In the kitchen it’s warm and the windows are clouded, softening the bite of winter just outside the glass. The TV in the corner is playing highlights from last year’s Tournament of Hearts, and Marcy Brewer is gesturing with flour-covered hands to the screen, mid-argument with her laughing son over the finer points of the Ontario skip’s strategy. David Rose is looking on with a fond, bemused smile, but unlike both Brewers, he notices right away when Aidan taps on the doorframe and steps into the room. His mouth twists ruefully sideways, like he’s embarrassed to have been caught off guard, and then shifts into a polite social smile. He’s taller than Aidan expected from the few photos on Patrick’s neglected Instagram account, but he holds himself like he wants to seem smaller; his broad shoulders are curled down, his posture at odds with his decidedly conspicuous sense of style. He’s dressed in tight black jeans and a complicated sweater. Aidan isn’t the best judge, but he thinks David is probably pretty good looking. In any case, he’s certainly the most elegant thing this kitchen has ever seen.
Aidan has been curious about David, and to be honest, a little apprehensive, ever since Patrick finally told him the whole story—leaving Rachel, leaving home, and falling into business and then into bed with this guy. It’s not that he’s not happy for Patrick; it’s just that he’s learned not to trust it, when Patrick says he’s happy. He said it often enough, with Rachel, and as far as Aidan can tell it mostly wasn’t true, even when Patrick had himself pretty well convinced that it was.
Patrick made friends with Rachel in ninth grade and started dating her not long after, and Aidan liked her right away. She was smart and funny, with a caretaking streak a mile wide and a great sense of adventure, and she and Patrick seemed perfect for each other. Rachel went to all of Patrick’s baseball games and open mic nights, and Patrick spent his summers getting up at 3AM to drive her pickup and trailer to horse shows on the weekends. Going camping with them was always great because they made the best food, and between Patrick’s guitar and Rachel’s gorgeous voice, bonfires were a lot of fun. They even got on with each other’s parents; Marcy and Rachel baked Christmas cookies together every year, and Patrick used to go fishing with Rachel’s dad and her brother. From the outside, they made it look so easy that Aidan thinks he probably still unconsciously compares most of his relationships to theirs. So when things began to go wrong, it was difficult to understand how these two people Aidan loved so much could make each other so consistently miserable, but not surprising that they would keep coming back for more.
There’s one Christmas holiday, the last one before Patrick and Rachel graduated high school, that stands out in Aidan’s memory. Aidan was dating a friend of Rachel’s that winter, so there were a lot of double dates; the four of them would go sledding, go skating, go to the movies, and then sit around in Patrick’s shitty car, laughing til their faces hurt, sharing a joint or a thermos of spiked cider. Rachel was always wrapped up in Patrick’s arms, that winter. They looked right together. There were so many days like that—they were so good for each other. Surely some of it was real.
Aidan remembers another Christmas holiday, though, in this kitchen, watching the two of them wash the dishes in strained silence. Patrick’s shoulders were high and tense, and Rachel was scrubbing so forcefully that the dish brush creaked in protest. Patrick had been in a sullen, distant mood that day, and Rachel had just looked exhausted and sad, but they were so careful with each other, despite the obvious tension. By the time the kitchen was clean and everyone sat down for after-dinner drinks, the cracks were papered over well enough. They didn’t look at each other directly once, that whole evening, but Patrick laughed at all the right moments in Rachel’s stories, and put his arm around her when she leaned into his shoulder. Rachel joked around with Clint, and asked Marcy’s advice about her math tutoring client in Thunder Bay. Aidan didn’t think much about it at the time. He figured long distance was hard on a relationship, but if anyone could make it work, it was Patrick and Rachel.
They had broken up for the second time the following week. That one lasted until Patrick came home from Kingston for the summer and they ended up working at the same coffee shop. They got back together before the summer was over. Patrick broke his arm just before Christmas that year, so Rachel drove all the way down from Thunder Bay to pick him up so he wouldn’t have to drive home alone. The following year, they broke up again. Then Rachel’s parents divorced, and Patrick helped her through it, and somewhere along the line they got back together. Patrick transferred from Queens to Lakehead, to be closer to Rachel. Three months later, they broke up again. They took care of each other and then tore each other to shreds, over and over, and Aidan got used to picking up the pieces. When they moved home to North Bay together, he went and bought himself a fold-out couch so that Patrick would have a better place to sleep when things inevitably went south again (and again, and again.) He would have hated Rachel for it if it hadn’t been so obvious how much she loved Patrick, how hard they were both trying.
When did Patrick begin to understand why it didn’t work, with Rachel? It’s awful to think about, but Aidan keeps returning to the question, like an inconvenient scab he can’t stop picking at. He thinks of the dark circles under Patrick’s eyes, for years, and all the times he cancelled plans because he was too tired, or got a little too drunk and sad on a night out. He thinks about the way Rachel would text him sometimes, when she and Patrick were on a break, just checking in to make sure he was eating and getting out of the house. He thinks of how Patrick agonized over Rachel’s misery after every breakup, eaten alive by guilt, and then after the engagement, the way he said all the right things with a smile that never reached his eyes. They cared so much, both of them, and neither of them ever had the sense to really give up, until Patrick finally packed his car and drove away for good, without explanation, ten years too late. And now he’s home for the first time in much too long, and David Rose (of Rose Video) is here with him, already wearing four shiny gold rings. The thing is, historically speaking, Patrick hasn’t been the best judge of his own happiness. If Aidan has a few reservations, he thinks that’s understandable.
After introductions have been made, and after Marcy has exclaimed over Aidan’s new haircut and Patrick has pulled him into a heartfelt hug, Aidan finds himself banished to the kitchen table to stay out of the way while David makes coffee and Patrick and Marcy finish up the last round of gingerbread.
Aidan hasn’t seen Patrick in the kitchen with his mother in years. He and Patrick both used to love baking, when they were little, but at some point Aidan remembers noticing that other boys at school didn’t talk about making bread and decorating cakes on the weekends. He guesses Patrick must have noticed the same thing, because they stopped asking for it and started spending their weekends out in the yard instead, throwing a baseball around. Patrick was always good at that, watching carefully, picking up on what was cool and what wasn’t, following the unwritten rules. He never had any trouble fitting in, and he made sure to help Aidan figure it out too, so that his younger cousin never had to mess up and suffer the consequences. Looking at Patrick now, putting the final touches on a tray of elaborately decorated gingerbread snowflakes and grinning sidelong at his mother as he trash talks her curling team, Aidan finds himself reconsidering why Patrick paid such close attention, and what it cost him.
David sets a steaming mug of coffee down carefully at Aidan’s elbow, jogging him out of his contemplation, and pulls up a chair. He takes his time with his own drink, adding milk, sweetener, and cocoa powder until it doesn’t resemble anything Aidan recognizes as coffee.
“Has Aunt Marcy started in on the management at the new rink in Powassan yet?” Aidan asks quietly, determinedly not asking Patrick’s fiancé any of the thousand questions he’d like to ask. They’ve been here for two days already, and David’s probably been thoroughly interviewed by more than half of Aidan’s family at this point, so the least Aidan can do is go easy on the poor guy. He may be reserving judgment, but that doesn’t mean he has to be rude. “She has opinions. She likes it when folks come from out of town because she can get away with a little light character assassination that won’t make it back to the local rumour mill.”
David raises his eyebrows, apparently amused. “Not yet, but I guess I’ll look forward to it,” he replies in a lilting voice. He doesn’t sound like anyone from around here. The way he talks marks him out as different right away, and it’s not just the Toronto accent. “I don’t know much about curling, but gossip is universal.”
“You’ll find out about curling if you spend any more time in this kitchen,” Aidan says, grinning. David gives him a look that suggests he’s come to this conclusion on his own already, and he’s still working on resigning himself to it. But Marcy’s the skip for the local women’s team, and since retiring, Clint has been helping to run the kids programs at the rink, so curling is pretty much unavoidable in the Brewer household. “Me and Patrick, we were always more into hockey, though.”
“Yeah, Patrick said you two are taking the kids to the pond today for, um, shinny?” David says “shinny” like he thinks he might be pronouncing it wrong or something. Aidan stifles a smile, but he feels a pang of sympathy for David, too. It has to take some serious courage, coming here with Patrick, knowing all of the history and none of the correct terminology.
“Yeah. It’s kind of a local Christmas Eve tradition, and it’s a good chance for us to give my sisters a break and wear the nieces and nephews out for a few hours before the big dinner tonight. Are you going to join us? You don’t have to get on the ice. A lot of people just come for the hot chocolate and the last-minute Christmas shopping at the arts and crafts booths.”
David smiles that sideways smile again and twists one of the gold rings on his fourth finger thoughtfully. “Yeah, Patrick mentioned the hot chocolate. Something about artisanal marshmallows? He was pretty convincing.” He looks over at Patrick, who has temporarily abandoned his cookies in favour of leaning against the counter, sipping his own coffee and watching the curling. When he hears David say his name, he meets his fiancé’s arch look with soft eyes. Several long seconds later, Patrick is still looking back at David with a besotted smile that he’s utterly failing to hide behind his coffee cup. He doesn’t look away until Marcy catches his attention with a question about the cookies.
“We’ve been thinking about organizing something similar back home next year, actually,” David says, finally turning back to Aidan. “I’m going to take some notes on how this one runs. It would give us a chance to do a little community building with other local businesses and sell off some of our holiday overstock. We’d have to get the permits organized for an outdoor event, but we have an in with the town council. Or at least, I do. Patrick isn’t really in favour with Ronnie these days, since the thing with the bathroom tiles, but as long as I make all the requests myself and keep plying her with cheese, she’ll still expedite our paperwork for us.”
Aidan laughs. He’s been wanting to hear more about this situation since the first time it came up on one of their video calls. Patrick had grimaced and changed the subject in a way that promised great ammunition if Aidan ever managed to get the details. “Can you tell me more about the tiling incident? Has Patrick ever told you that in high school he got in an argument with his debate team co-captain that lasted literal months? It was more like a feud, really. There were articles in the school paper and everything. Diplomacy isn’t his strong suit. He likes being right too much.”
“Okay, fine, maybe it was a bit much after the first month,” Patrick hedges. “But I was right! You know Steve never did his research.”
“Yeah, and you loved that, because you loved being right.” Aidan turns to David, who is pressing his fist to his mouth in a futile attempt to stifle laughter. “He still loves being right. He has a whole theory about it, has he told you?”
David removes his hand, looking delighted. “Do you mean the thing where he’s right more often than other people because he’s better at statistics? He drew me a chart for that one a little while after we started dating.”
“Okay, David, didn’t you want to get changed before we go out? Because I’m almost done here, so you might wanna go do that now,” Patrick interjects, a little desperately.
David looks over at him with laughing eyes. “Oh, honey, I’m pretty sure I’ll be just fine in what I’m wearing. I can change before dinner instead. And I think Aidan still has a few more questions about the tiling incident, don’t you, Aidan?”
Aidan nods enthusiastically, and Patrick narrows his eyes at his cousin, but he has to know there’s no escape now. After a moment he shifts his gaze to David, and his whole face changes in an instant, melting into soft indulgence. It’s embarrassing, just watching it happen.
“Go ahead then,” Patrick says to David in a low, amused voice. “I know you’re dying to.”
With a conspiratorial grin, David leans forward and starts to tell the story of Patrick’s ongoing rivalry with the town contractor, who is apparently also a council member. He talks with his hands, tossing out ten dollar words like the former rich kid he is, and his voice rings with a mix of fondness and exasperation as he describes Patrick’s stubbornness, but there’s a careful sweetness nonetheless in the way he tells the story. He hits all the right beats to make it funny without ever crossing into real frustration, and Patrick laughs along and razzes him about the time he spent agonizing over the correct tile choice for the store’s bathroom. They’ve obviously told this story together a few times. David is quick, Aidan realizes, and sharply funny, capable of keeping up with Patrick’s sometimes-aggravating repartee and giving as good as he gets. His expressive face telegraphs every wry or teasing comment a second in advance, no matter how he twists his mouth to cover his smile. It’s good to see the way Patrick grins back at him, broad and bright and more than a little smitten.
The snow crunches underfoot as they make their way home from the pond. The sun is low in the sky already, although it’s only late afternoon, and the light is changing, making the ice-laden trees flash with glassy gold. This year’s game, with Patrick, was a whole lot more fun than last year’s had been without him. Things got a little competitive, though, and now Aidan’s muscles ache, and as the sweat cools on the back of his neck, he’s glad of his down jacket.
The kids are running ahead with their skates, followed by Patrick and David, with Marcy and Aidan bringing up the rear. Clint and Aidan’s sisters and their spouses are back at the house keeping an eye on the turkey in the oven (Clint) and getting a head start on the wine (everyone else). Aidan’s parents will be over soon with side dishes and a truckload of presents, mostly for the grandkids. It’s just like last year, just like every year, only last year, like the hockey game, it felt a little hollow.
“He looks happy, don’t you think?”
The question surprises Aidan, although it shouldn’t, because it’s the same question he’s been turning over and over in his head all day. He’s been watching Patrick, and thinking about it, cataloguing the subtle changes in his cousin since the last time they saw each other. Of course Marcy has been doing the same thing.
There’s no denying that Patrick has changed. He moves differently, like he’s no longer carrying the weight that used to keep his shoulders tense and high, and he sounds different, when he speaks. He talks about his baseball team and the new apartment and the store with a kind of expansive joy and obvious pride, and even though he mostly doesn’t talk about David directly, he talks about him all the time anyway, like he can’t help it.
It was new, today, watching him and David move around each other in the kitchen, witnessing the affectionate ease in the way Patrick set his hands on David’s hips to move him out of the way of a cupboard or drawer, and in the way David’s hands smoothed over Patrick’s shoulders or waist every time they moved past each other. Aidan hadn’t expected to be upset or anything, seeing Patrick with a man, but he’d thought it might take some time to adjust to it. Instead, it just seems obvious. They look right together, the way Patrick and Rachel did once, the way people in love do.
Up ahead, David touches Patrick’s back lightly, ducking his head to murmur something in Patrick’s ear, and Patrick leans his head on David’s shoulder as David pulls him close, wrapping an arm around his waist. All day, he’s looked happy in a way Aidan hasn’t seen on him in a long time, settled and comfortable in his own skin.
“Yeah,” says Aidan slowly. “I think he does. I think he is.”