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the happiest season on repeat

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“I want to wake up with you on Christmas morning and if that doesn’t convince you to love Christmas, I’ll never bring it up again.”

Abby drifts to sleep in those hazy, delirious hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning in Harper’s childhood bedroom, feeling warm and loved. Sure, there’s a lot they haven’t talked about, so much that can’t be erased by grand romantic gestures, but they can talk about that later. They will. They have time.

Abby blinks awake against the morning light, feeling strange in her skin and...cold. No warmth of a body beside her. Abby blinks awake and realizes she’s in Jane’s old room in the basement. She turns over and grabs her phone off the bedside table. 

December 24. 8:08AM. 

Her most recent text from Harper came in at 2:12AM. 

Home Safe. Night.

Her heart sinks and not for the first time.  

Abby drags her feet up two flights of stairs to Harper’s childhood bedroom and finds her girlfriend dead to the world asleep, face planted against the mattress, hair sticking to her lips, arm hanging off the side of the bed. Classic Hungover Harper.  

“Hey.” Abby rubs Harper’s back to gently wake her. 

Harper turns over as if surprised to see her. “What’s wrong?” 

“Just making sure you’re okay.” 

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Abby tenses, hit with an intense wave of déjà vu, so intense it knocks the breath out of her. “I-I don’t know. You weren’t answering me, so I was—”

“I-I know, but you-you knew I was out with my friends.” Harper’s uncertain sideway glance makes something in her ache and not in a good way. Harper stares straight forward and shakes her head with a frantic little chuckle. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know I had a curfew.” 

“What is going on with you?” 

“Nothing. I—” Harper kneads at the space between her eyebrows. “Nothing. I just don’t know why you’re keeping tabs on me.” 

That’s when it strikes Abby. They’ve had this conversation before. Word-for-word. 

“It just feels a little...suffocating.” 

There it is. The gut-punch. 

Abby stands from the bed and lashes back. Well, I feel really suffocated in the closet you that you shoved me back into. Harper shushes her, tells her to be quiet with wide, fearful eyes and says they need space. It’s all the same. It hurts the same.

“You need some space? Okay.” Abby keeps her head down as she pivots and throws the door open, expecting Tipper on the other side and there she is.

This happened before. 

Abby returns to the basement, splashes water on her face and grips the edge of the sink to try to stop her hands from shaking. How did she know exactly what Harper was going to say, that Tipper would be there? What the fuck

She checks RIDEHAIL and predictably holiday surge pricing is in effect. It’s the estimated fare that gets her. $1008.23. She’s seen that exact number before. 

“Okay, shitty fight with Harper, shitty holiday surge pricing. That means John’s about to call.” 

Her phone vibrates right on cue. Seriously, what the fuck? 

“Okay, so I might have been a little judgemental when we last spoke. You are in an unusual situation and as your friend, I should have created a safe space for you to share without the threat of criticism. So! I am sorry. I am here. No judgement. What is going on?”

“John! Is it me or didn’t we have this conversation already?”

“Uh, yeah, but that was the director’s cut and this is the heavily edited theatrical version that even China would—”

“Okay, I get it.” Abby sits at the foot of the bed, twisting her toes into the rug. “Um, I was arrested by mall security yesterday and now Harper’s entire family thinks I’m a criminal. And after spending her entire night, like, until 2 o’clock in the morning with her ex-boyfriend Connor, she’s acting like someone I barely even recognize! Now I feel crazy, like, like I’ve already told you all of this. It feels like déjà vu on steroids!” 

“Abs, know that when I ask you this, it’s coming from a place of love and support and the NSA is definitely monitoring our phone calls so answer in the least incriminating way possible, what did you take?” 

Abby shakes her head at John being John. “I can’t do this! I can’t live this day over again! I just want to get out of here, but it’ll cost me like a thousand dollars to get a ride and this is exactly why I avoid Christmas!” Abby wipes away a stray tear from her cheek. “What would you do?”

“Uh… Uh… I… I’m going—I’m gonna need to give this a think. I think.”

As expected, John straight-up hangs up on her. Abby takes a deep breath, lets it go, and takes another before calling Riley. Despite how absolutely fucked this is, there is a weird sort of comfort in knowing Riley will pick up and won’t turn her down. 

No one says a word to Abby as she makes her escape. She barely registers the carefree chatter coming from the kitchen, barely registers Jane’s chipper greeting as she sidesteps her at the front door. Riley’s car awaits down the long driveway and had her expression been so rueful last time? She seems a million miles (or ten years) away in her head as she stares at the excessively large, red brick Colonial dusted in fresh powder. Was Abby just too self-absorbed to notice the first time?

“Hey.” Abby slides into the passenger seat. 

“Hey,” Riley says. “We meet again again.” 

She knew Riley would say that and it still makes her smile. “Do you feel like something really weird is going on today?” 

“Something like that,” Riley says flatly. “It’s been a long time since I saw this place in the daylight.”

“Sorry for making you come here...”

“No. Don’t worry about it.” Riley flashes her a heart-stuttering smile. “I always wanted to be a getaway driver. That was my first career choice. Medicine was my backup plan.” 

“Oh, I’m sure.” Abby shrugs out of her coat in the warmth of the car, feeling like she can finally relax a little. Sitting in Riley’s car, in Riley’s presence is the most comfortable, most steady she’s felt all morning, maybe all trip. 

Abby moves through the rest of the day just as she remembers it happening. When Harper sends her a text apologizing, Abby responds. When John arrives, Abby strides across the den and tells Harper she’s done. When Sloane outs Harper in the middle of the white elephant exchange, Harper denies it and Abby leaves. When Harper gives her a once-in-a-lifetime speech outside of a gas station, Abby forgives her. Happily ever after.  

Once again, Abby drifts off to sleep in Harper’s arms and all feels right in the world. 

 

***

 

Once again, Abby wakes up in Jane’s old bedroom in the basement. Her phone tells her it’s December 24th, Christmas Eve.

Once again, Abby marches up two flights of stairs and gets her heart broken. 

Once again, Abby goes through the motions and gets her happy ending. 

 

***

 

Abby dated a girl who was really into Xena: Warrior Princess in college. Practically obsessed. They’d watch hours and hours of the show in the dorms, eating dining hall pizza. In one episode, Xena is the only person who realizes that the day is repeating itself and it’s up to her to work out what’s causing it. Unfortunately, Abby can’t remember the details because she was pretty stoned every time they’d binge-watch. 

The thing is Xena never repeated the same steps hoping for a different outcome. She took action and made different choices. 

After doing everything exactly the same and once again waking up in the basement on December 24th, Abby decides to try and give Harper what she wanted. It’s like what she told John. 

I know that it’s not ideal, but I know that it’s what she needs right now. 

After having the same fight with Harper, being called suffocating over and over, Abby decides not to check on her. Maybe deviating from how things originally played out will get her to Christmas morning. There’s no way to be sure, but Abby’s willing to bet her heart to try to win. 

So Abby gives Harper the space she asked for and remains curled up in bed long after Tipper sends Harper and Jane off to do errands. Abby deliberately doesn’t answer John’s call, but shoots him a text that she’s soldiering through for love. She doesn’t call Riley. 

Abby wears a completely different outfit to the party later that night. She tells Riley no when she asks for a sip of her drink, which makes things awkward and when she excuses herself to get her own, never comes back. John, the one man cavalry, still shows up and it’s the first time Abby feels warm and wanted and loved all day, but assures him she’s fine. 

White elephant goes by without a hitch. There’s no lesbian drama, no sister brawl. Harper still spends the evening bouncing between her father and her high school friends. It’s uneventful. Dull. Fake as fuck. 

At the end of the night, once all the guests go home, singing the Caldwells’ praises, Ted is particularly pleased and Tipper finally gets her family photo by the tree. Harper’s friends want to go back to fucking Fratty’s and invite Abby and John to be polite, but not even her surrender to self-sacrifice will get her to ever step foot in there again. The Caldwells send her “heterosexual ex-boyfriend” away so Abby retreats to the basement.

“Hey.” Harper follows her downstairs and surprisingly has the awareness to sound meek. “That all went surprisingly well.” 

Surprisingly well? That’s what she wants to call it? How can she look at Abby’s miserable fucking face and still try to act like she doesn’t see? Who is this person? Abby wants to scream, but bites her tongue instead. 

Give Harper what she wants, she reminds herself. But is this what she wants? How can she want this? Is this what makes her happy?

“Are you sure you don’t want to come for a drink?” Harper asks. 

“Nah,” Abby answers. “I’m just...tired. Go, spend time with your friends.” 

“Harper!” One of her friends shouts from the top of the stairs. “Let’s go!” 

“Alright. We’ll talk in the morning, okay? I promise!” Harper kisses Abby quick on the cheek and then she’s scampering up the stairs. Just like that.  

Abby waits for the sound of the front door opening and shutting, then throws herself onto Jane’s old bed and fucking sobs until her throat aches. She hasn’t cried like this since the night after her parents’ funeral.

This is so fucked up. Easily one of the worst days of her entire life. Abby doesn’t bother changing, just burrows under the covers, resisting the urge to text Harper and let it all out, finally shed the emotional weight she no longer cares to carry. Abby squeezes her eyes shut, rolls the necklace Harper gave her for her birthday between her fingers and prays for a better tomorrow.

 

***

 

When Abby wakes up in Jane’s old bedroom the next morning, wearing her thermal long-sleeve and sweatpants, not her party outfit, she flops onto her back and takes a deep breath. She brings her fingertips to her cheeks and traces over the dried tear tracks. 

That was the most exhausting, taxing, heartbreaking day before Christmas yet. She bet her heart trying to get to Christmas morning and broke her own heart in the process. Lesson learned. There’s no way she can go through that again, not even for Harper, and isn’t that a damning revelation. 

Abby doesn’t check on Harper. She can’t have that conversation again. Never again. 

This time she calls John before he can even dial her. 

“Aw, Abby,” John coos from the other end of the line. “I was just about to call you and not to brag, but I had the perfect speech ready and everything. It was daytime Emmy worthy.” 

“If I told you Harper has become a completely different person around her family who are extremely out of touch with reality and all think I’m a petty thief, would you please come pick me up like right now?” 

“I’ll be there.” 

No hesitation. No questions. No snark. Just fierce loyalty. 

“God, you are the best friend a fool could ask for.” Abby could cry, wondering what she did to deserve him in her life, but she’s all cried out. Instead, she tosses her travel bag onto the bed and starts unceremoniously shoving her things inside. “Let me know when you’re twenty minutes out and I’ll text you my exact location.” 

“That’s not necessary.”

Because he’s tracking her. Obviously. 

As soon as John hangs up, she calls Riley. “Hey, it’s Abby. Are you doing anything right now?” 

Abby hoists her bag over one shoulder, sidesteps Jane at the front door and walks to Riley’s car without a glance back. She understands that Harper’s behavior stems from fear and childhood trauma, but she can’t keep doing this, can’t keep choosing to be collateral damage. She won’t feel guilty for taking care of herself. 

“Hey,” Riley says. “What’s with the bag?”

“Change of plans. I’m getting the fuck out of here.” Abby tosses her bag into the backseat. A part of her wants Harper to come running out the front door shouting her name, but then the moment passes. “It’s going to take my friend a while to get here so I thought we could grab coffee or breakfast?”

“I could eat,” Riley says. “Have you been to the diner in town yet?”

“Literally the only time I got to explore town was with you.” 

Riley seems pleased by the slight shimmy of her shoulders and the way she taps two fingers against the steering wheel. She waits until they’re on the road and far from the Caldwell house to ask what Abby knows she wants to ask. “So, you don’t have to tell me if it’s weird or still too fresh, but I’m here to listen if you want… That bad, huh?” 

Abby presses her head back into the headrest, mentally debating. Either this conversation ceases to exist in twenty-four hours or Abby wakes up in Pittsburgh tomorrow and never has to come near this town again.

“It’s everything,” Abby says, and it feels so good to finally admit out loud. “Her family thinks I knock off department stores for kicks and Harper barely even tried to defend me! They’re probably happy to have me out of their house. Then, god, last night, Harper texted so I closed out, right, and so I went to meet up with her and her friends at some bar.”

“Which bar?”

“I think it was called Fratty’s?” Just saying the name makes her skin crawl. “What kind of name is that for a bar?” 

“A gross one,” Riley says. “Continue.” 

“Not my scene at all. I was surprised it was Harper’s scene. We never go to places like that. And her loud, drunk girl in the club routine? I’d never seen her act like that before. Then I pretty much spent the rest of my night hanging out at the bar by myself. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a stupid thing to be upset about. It wasn’t like I was making an effort with them, but still…”

“Don’t do that,” Riley says sharply. “From where I’m sitting, you have every right to be upset. You don’t know the area or anyone here. She should have made an effort to make sure you were comfortable whether you’re her girlfriend or orphan roommate acquaintance whatever. That’s the decent human being thing to do. Being in the closet doesn’t make it okay to treat people like shit.”

Riley’s eyes sharpen as she focuses on the road and her fingers squeeze around the steering wheel. Abby feels the impulse to reach over and squeeze her shoulder the way Riley had done for her when she blurted out her plans to propose. She follows the impulse, does it, and watches Riley’s grip loosen, her shoulders drop. 

“Thank you,” Abby says quietly. “For everything, Riley, seriously. I’m sure there are a million things you’d rather be doing on Christmas Eve.”

“Oh, you underestimate how dull the average Christmas is around here. Plus, solidarity and whatnot.” Riley tries to play it off and lighten the suddenly heavy mood. “Believe me when I tell you that I never do this, but I think you could use it.” Riley unlocks her phone that’s open to Spotify and shoves it to Abby. “I’m the getaway driver. You’re the DJ.” 

“Are you sure this is out of kindness and not just so you can judge my taste in music?” Abby sneakily avoids the trap (it’s totally a trap) and clicks on playlists. 

“Two turtle doves, one 5G stone,” Riley replies. “Anything, but the classic Christmas songs thanks. I answered phones at my dad’s dentist office after school and on weekends in high school. Wall-to-wall Christmas music even before Thanksgiving. Now I just associate most of the classics with crying children and gum disease.” 

“Same. Well, working retail all throughout undergrad has ruined the classics and bubblegum pop covers for me.” Abby nods to herself seeing their taste in music is about as similar as their taste in clothes. She bites back a smile at the sheer amount of musical soundtracks. “So your dad’s dental office, that’s where you developed your stellar bedside manner?” 

“Oh, you know nothing ‘bout my bedside manner.”

Abby only teases Riley a little for having a playlist entitled “this shit’s NOT grey’s anatomy” and hits play on her “get out of bed bitch” playlist which naturally starts off with Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.” It’s more upbeat than Abby feels right now, but she enjoys the mental image of Riley preparing for the day to gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes

They have breakfast at an old diner on Main Street. Apparently none of the rich folks from the Caldwells’ guest list would be caught dead here and it used to be a hot spot for the cool kids in high school that Riley has since reclaimed. Christmas music plays from an overhead speaker, red and green tinsel strewn in every direction, but at least the company’s five stars. 

“How do you do it?” Abby asks, wrapping her cold hands around the warm ceramic mug filled with subpar, but hot coffee. “I mean, after growing up here the way you did, around all these people, how do you come back every year and just like, take it? I’ve been here four days.” She laughs at that, at what an inside joke her life has become. “And I’m ready to bail.”  

“I don’t know. I guess…” Riley takes a moment to organize her thoughts, always so thoughtful, tapping her fingertip against her own coffee mug. “There’s a weird kind of comfort in knowing what to expect. The way this town sees me and treats me, that’s never going to change. You can’t change people who don’t want to change. I’ve accepted that and now I’m just here once a year to be entertained.” 

“I guess it doesn’t hurt to be a hot doctor either.” Abby ducks down to take another sip of coffee and realizes what she said, inwardly cringing. In her head, she hears Tipper’s voice whisper too much

Tap, tap, tap. 

John waves from the other side of the large picture window.

“That’s my ride.” Abby digs around her bag, searching for her wallet. 

Riley clears her throat. “Don’t worry. I’ve got it.” 

“You sure?” 

Tap. Tap. Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap!

John makes his impatience known. Riley laughs and already has her card out.

“Thanks again.” Abby hauls her bag over one shoulder and before she can lose her nerve or talk herself out of it… “If you’re ever in the Pittsburgh metro area, let me know. I’ll, uh, return the favor, you know, show you some of my reclaimed spots.” 

“Will do.” Riley playfully salutes her. 

Abby waves and heads for the door before she can embarrass herself any further. Every time she relives this day, Riley Bennett proves to be the last good thing about this trip and this town. 

It’s dark out by the time they reach the city and instead of going straight home, Abby insists on checking up on the animals. She pets the dog, lets him lick her face and jump on her, just to feel. The cat hisses at her, but even that small act of aggression gives Abby a brief sense of normalcy. John confesses to her about the fish, but the replacement is a straight-up doppelgänger. 

Finally, Abby returns to the apartment that’s equal parts her and Harper. One of her doodles is still hanging on the refrigerator. Harper’s books on American politics are still stacked on the edge of the coffee table. The bed feels cold and empty. Abby has had her phone off since meeting up with John and doesn’t plan on powering it up until Christmas morning. 

It’s a small comfort to be in an environment she knows and trusts, but that hollow feeling she felt the last time, after not talking to Harper all day, remains. She feels just as alone in her (their) bed as the one in the basement. If this isn’t the solution, if falling asleep in Harper’s warm embrace after a taxing reconciliation isn’t the solution, then what is? 

 

***

 

The next morning, when Abby wakes up and she’s back in the Caldwell house and it’s December 24th yet again, she decides it’s time to call in reinforcements. 

Abby times it down to the second and opens the front door just as Jane’s about to knock. Her need to knock before entering her childhood home speaks volumes. Abby makes sure to shut the door behind her so the rest of the family can’t overhear the insanity about to come from her mouth. 

“Jane! You’re here! Just like I knew you’d be.” Abby anxiously shifts her weight from foot to foot. “Your book, it’s science fiction, right? You’re a sci-fi expert?” 

“Science fantasy. It combines elements from both science fiction and fantasy. Best of all worlds.” Jane stands a little taller and tosses her hair over one shoulder. “Well, I don’t know about ‘expert’, but I do run a pretty impressive, well-informed Tumblr.” 

“Perfect!” Abby links her arm with Jane’s and leads her back down the long, circular driveway. “You know that episode of Xena where she’s the only person who realizes that the day is repeating itself? Yeah, it’s happening to me.” 

Jane’s eyes widen. “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! You mean like Star Trek the Next Generation’s Cause and Effect. Stargate’s Window of Opportunity. Supernatural’s Mystery Spot. Groundhog Day.” 

“I’ve never actually seen Groundhog Day.” 

“No millennial has.” Jane laughs with a dismissive wave of her hand. “The trope has outgrown the source material. Okay, I totally get it. You’re caught in a time loop.”

“Yes! Exactly! That! You actually believe me?” 

“Of course, Abby, time loops are no joking matter.” 

Jackpot. Why didn’t she think of asking Jane sooner? 

“Okay, so if I’m stuck in a time loop, how do I break out of it?” 

“Step into my office,” Jane says. “Well, my Prius, but then my office. Office slash studio slash craft cave.” Jane stops in her tracks. “Oh shoot, I volunteered to run errands for my mom before the party.”

“Oh, I heard her tell Harper to go with you because she…” Abby’s voice trails off, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Jane’s smart, she can fill in the blanks, hurt washing over her face. “I’m sure Harper can handle it. I have a bigger job for you. My fate, the fate of the, uh, entire universe depends on you. Help me, Jane Caldwell, you are my only hope.” 

“Well, when you put it like that!” Jane grins. “By the way, for future reference, my Star Wars name is Janca Pogro, Llejetta of Dexedrine. Get it right, get it tight.” 

Jane lives in a much smaller, much cozier cottage about a fifteen minute drive from her childhood house. The inside is painted bright colors and filled with vintage decor and collectables.

As Jane scours the internet, Abby sips hot cocoa with mini-marshmallows. The office/studio/craft cave is very clean and contains multiple bookshelves packed in tight and organized by color. An easel sits in the corner with a white sheet thrown over a large canvas. Garland and twinkle lights line every archway. A miniature Christmas tree and a jolly dancing Santa frame Jane’s desktop computer on her wide, oak desk. 

“I like it here,” Abby says. “Your craft cave, it’s nice.”  

“Yeah, I finally invested in a writing desk and let me tell you, game-changer!” 

“Harper never told me you’re a writer too.” Abby catches herself too late. She’s really having more of a problem putting her foot in her mouth than her finger in her eye. “I’m sure your book’s awesome. It already sounds complex and, uh, exciting. I can’t wait to read it.” 

“Thank you,” Jane says. “You’re the first person who’s ever said that to me… So! Have you tried the standard Christmas movie solution of being a better person?” Jane asks, catches herself and visibly winces. “That sounded less awful in my head.” 

“Don’t worry about it. That doesn’t even make the top ten worst things your family has said to me,” Abby says, and the honesty feels so good. “I tried doing things all over again exactly how they happened. I tried doing things differently. And even when things end better or worse, I still wake up back in the basement. I’ve tried leaving, but when I went to sleep in my apartment back in Pittsburgh I ended up back here.”

“You said you completed the white elephant fetch quest every time, right?”

“Every time without fail.”

Letting Riley talk her into buying a mini-donut factory is probably the easiest part of her day. (She tries not to think about all the little details she’s picked up reliving the day, how hard Riley grins at her as they walk down Beaver Street, the way she bites her lip…) 

“Have you tried resolving a personal mission?” Jane asks. 

Painfully memories of a day that technically no longer happened flash through her mind as if through a faulty projector. To her disappointment, the way those moments make her feel, the way they hurt, have yet to fade.

“How things originally played out wasn’t ideal,” Abby says, “and I might have gotten hurt, but it worked out in the end. I got the whole happily ever after package I wanted so why does it matter?”

“Pain matters, Abby. Pain always matters and it never heals as quickly as we want it to.”

Feeling like she fell off a roof onto an inflatable Santa all over again, Abby can’t do much more than stare at her stupidly.

“Ooh, that’s gooood. That’s so going to be the main theme of Shadow Dreamers! I have to write that down!” Jane searches frantically for a pen. “Anyway, have you tested the Christmas factor? You know, are you seeing any ghosts of Christmas past, present or future? Have you tried wishing on the first star you see at night? Tried the ol’ turkey wishbone? It’s the most magical time of the year, Abby! Anything is possible!” 

Having little other options and thankful she doesn’t need to add ghosts on top of everything she has to deal with, Abby tries. 

Once it gets dark, she wishes on the first, brightest star she sees. When everyone’s preoccupied with the party, she sneaks into the kitchen and finds the sharpest knife she can. How does one carve a turkey? That was always her father’s job when she was a kid and Harper did it at Thanksgiving when simply cleaning and stuffing the turkey left John reluctant to go near it again.

Deciding to just go for it, Abby thrusts the knife right into the turkey and when she pulls back, it won’t budge. Abby curses and climbs onto the kitchen island, a knee on either side of the gold platter and tugs the knife handle with all of her strength. 

“What the fuck are you doing to the turkey?” 

Sloane stares at her from the doorway, mouth open in outrage. 

“Sloane, that’s not appropriate language to use with children running around.” Abby finally dislodges the knife and goes right back to make another cut. Jane said the wishbone is between the breast and neck, whatever that means. 

“Are you trying to ruin Christmas, you klepto freak!” Sloane stomps closer and grabs Abby’s arm. 

“What are you doing?” Abby shouts. “Ow! That’s really tight! Let go of me!” 

“I knew there was something off from the first day I met you and now I catch you mutilating the turkey?” Sloane grunts as she yanks Abby’s arm hard. She’s surprisingly strong, so much aggression packed into her small frame. “This is why you don’t find roommates on Craigslist!”

“Harper told you we met through Craigslist?!” 

“Just drop the knife!” 

“Fine! You don’t have to be so abrasive about it!” 

Abby unfurls her fingers and drops the knife...right onto Sloane’s foot. 

Her blue eyes go wide in a way that’d be comical if not for the actual knife embedded in her foot. Abby can’t do more than stare as Sloane makes a high-pitch croak. She reaches down and grips the handle.

“I-I don’t think you should—”

Sloane yanks the knife out and blood spurts everywhere! That definitely hit an artery. 

Sloane’s ghoulish howl alerts the rest of the house to the situation and the party devolves into absolute madness. Harper rushes into the kitchen and at the first sight of blood, turns around and vomits all over Ted’s cable knit sweater and Harry Levin’s expensive heels. Tipper screams until she’s in tears. Riley tries to help, only for Sloane to wail, “Get back, Sappho!”

The chaos spills out into the den where Harry tries to leave and Ted and his wretched-smelling sweater chase her. Harry grabs her husband and yanks him toward the door. He accidentally bumps an end table, yanking a lamp out of its outlet and sending it right at the Christmas tree. The fraser fir falls over, lights flickering, before it starts to smoke.

The twins, who’d been hiding behind the tree all party, scream in unison. Eric, his belt undone, lipstick on his collar, runs to grab the kids and bring them to safety as the tree really catches on fire! The fire grows and grows, spreading to the drapes, as everyone yells over each other and stampedes to the door, trampling over all of the white elephant gifts.

Jane comes running in with the fire extinguisher and Tipper frantically dials 9-1-1. It’s like a Baroque painting come to life. Abby probably could have appreciated the beauty in the mayhem if she wasn’t in shock and covered in a a spatter of Sloane’s blood. 

With the tree reduced to a sudsy pile of ash and paramedics wheeling Sloane out on a stretcher, Jane sidles up to Abby. “Yeah, so, maybe next time we try the wishbone thing after dinner. You know, let someone else carve.” 

Abby nods. “Y-yeah, good thinking.” 

 

***

 

“Verg comes from his mother’s side, generations back…” 

Abby clears her throat and Levi, Carolyn McCoy’s assistant, is more than happy for the excuse to sneak away. Abby holds up the prized wishbone and Jane claps excitedly. She takes the other side and they both pull. Jane comes away with the bigger piece. 

“Ha!” Jane shouts. “I win!” 

“Did you wish for the loop to end?” Abby asks eagerly. 

“Nope. Girl, get your own wish.” 

“Jane!” 

It takes three more fucking loops for her to finally come away with the bigger piece of the wishbone. Feeling triumphant, Abby closes her eyes and makes her wish. 

“There,” Abby says. “I wished on the star and the wishbone. Now we wait?” 

“Whoa, wait, hold on.” Jane stops her. “You wished on a star and a wishbone in the same loop?”

“Is that bad? I figured, there’s no such thing as too much Christmas magic, is there?”

“Um, possibly, but the rules of the universe have proven to be hard to predict,” Jane says. “What if the wishes cancel each other out?”

Fuck.  

When Abby wakes up in the basement on December 24th, she screams into the pillow. 

She wishes on the star again. Wakes up in the basement. 

She fights Jane for the wishbone and wins. Wakes up in the basement again. 

No change. 

 

***

 

“I know this is going to sound morbid, but have you tried dying?”

Sprawled out on Jane’s couch, which is basically a daybed with deep sides and tufted leather, a masterpiece of a couch, Abby jolts up. 

“No, and I don’t plan on testing my luck,” Abby says. Jane, wearing a festive, let’s get baked apron, pokes Abby in the arm with a wooden spatula. “Ow! What was that for?”

“Sorry, just testing a theory.” Jane squints. “How many loops did you say you’ve lived through at this point?” 

“I’ve lost count.” Abby sinks back down into the majestic fucking couch and throws an arm across her eyes. “I’m losing my mind. No, I have lost my mind. I feel like I’ve exhausted all options.” 

“Oh no.” Jane grabs her arm. The Caldwell sisters really are deceptively strong. “Abby, if you give in to burnout then the loop wins and all hope is lost with zero chance of resolution. Why don’t you just take a break?”

“Take a break? What does that even mean?”

“Ooh! I’m so glad I get to give you this talk! Okay, I got this.” Jane dramatically clears her throat, unable to contain the joy she finds in Abby’s suffering. “If the day resets, theoretically that means there aren’t any consequences, right? You can basically do whatever you want for as long as you want! Come on, Abby, are you saying you lost count of how many loops you’ve lived through and you didn’t do the fun montage yet?” 

“The what?” 

Jane beams, absolutely euphoric.

 

***

 

Abby does the fun montage. 

With a wheelbarrow piled high with snowballs, Abby and Jane wait for Sloane to leave the house for her noon mani-pedi appointment. The moment the uptight, eldest sister walks around the front of the house, Abby and Jane pop out from behind Harper’s car and start hurling snowball after snowball at her. 

“Ah!” Sloane squawks as tightly packed snow explodes against her puffer vest. Mouth open, hair sticking to her glossy lips, covered in bits of ice, Sloane sees red. Oh, shit. “OH, YOU! YOU ARE SO—”

Jane throws a snowball like a Rockford Peach and hits Sloane right in the face, some of the snow dropping into her open mouth. Sloane screams so loud she startles a flock of birds out of a nearby tree. 

“Okay, run!” Abby grabs Jane by the arm and starts running. “Next time, maybe we wear masks, yeah?”

“This is so awesome!” Jane shouts, skipping alongside her, full of laughter and light. “I love a consequence-free vacuum!” 

 

***

 

Another time, Abby sits on the basement stairs and counts down in her head. In just a few seconds, Tipper should be searching for her iPad and should find it in the den…

“Kids!” Tipper shouts. “Who did this?!”

Abby peeks out into the hallway. She can see Tipper corralling the twins at the foot of the staircase, holding up her iPad and asking, “Do you think this is funny?” 

The twins try to hide their giggles and fail. In their defense, it is pretty funny. 

“Whose idea was it to do this to all of my photos?” Tipper continues. “How do you even do this? What if I accidentally posted these? What a nightmare that could have been for your grandfather’s campaign! What if Harry Levin opened Instagram and saw?”

Tipper waves her iPad and on the screen is their family photo by the tree. Someone placed seasonal stickers over each of them, giving Ted a full-on Santa hat and beard along with a shirtless, cartoon body sporting ample body hair and six-pack abs. A cartoon carrot takes the place of Tipper’s nose along with two eyes made out of coal and round mounds of snow for a body. 

Magnus laughs. “She’d probably think it’s funny.” 

“No, children.” Tipper waggles her finger at them. “We, Caldwells, have a reputation to uphold! This is not that. You are both banned from using my iPad. Stick to your little Game Boy.” 

“But, grandma, we didn’t do that,” the twins say in unison. 

“Uh-huh. And I bet you didn’t plan this unified denial of wrongdoing either. Who else in this house would do this?”

In scary synchronization, Magnus and Matilda look around Tipper and right at Abby with twin death stares. They know. Abby sticks her tongue out. It’s childish, she knows, but oh so satisfying. 

 

*** 

 

In a different loop, Abby watches from the window as Harper and Jane leave to do errands on their mother’s orders. Tipper’s heels clack along the wooden floorboards as she directs (orders around) the catering staff. Riley says she’ll be there in twenty so Abby waits, sitting at the piano, dancing her fingers across the cover. 

“You play?” Eric asks. 

Abby tries to act casual, like she doesn’t know his secret. “Uh, I used to. My dad was an associate professor in Music Theory at Carnegie Mellon. He was brilliant. I haven’t touched a piano since...in a long time. Kinda sad that a beautiful piano like this is more showpiece.” 

“What in this house isn’t a showpiece?” Eric sits on the other side of the bench, pushes the cover up and lets his fingers wander across the ivory keys. “When Sloane first brought me home for the holidays, it was not the easiest or most comfortable, but you learn to go with it, smile, tell yourself it’ll be over soon enough.” He plays something upbeat and unfamiliar to her ear. “Just be happy you don’t have the added stress of being married to the family.”  

Abby laughs awkwardly. “How long did it take you to become comfortable?”

“I’ll let you know when it happens.” Eric chuckles, but there’s a hollowness to it, an exhaustion. “If I hadn’t been apart of the equation that gave them their precious grandchildren, I’d still be the guy who convinced their genius daughter to throw away her law degree.” 

Eric starts to play and Abby recognizes it immediately. Carol of the Bells. Her fingers flex, wanting to jump in, but she doesn’t think she’s even touched a piano since losing her parents. No time like a day that might get erased anyway. Off of Eric’s look, Abby jumps in with the lower notes. Her fingers fumble at first, a wrong note here, there, but then she starts to feel the music, thinks a little less. It feels good to play again. It feels like rediscovering a little piece of her parents, a little like coming home. 

Abby’s phone vibrates against the piano. A text from Riley pops up. 

“Riley?” Eric asks. “As in the doctor? Huh.”

Abby grabs her phone and almost trips in her haste to get up from the piano bench. She feels Eric’s eyes on her, not with suspicion, but something else. What is it? Amusement? Does he find comfort in thinking he isn’t the only one under this roof unhappy and putting on a charade for the Caldwells? “I, uh, I’m just gonna go.” 

“Sure thing,” Eric says. “While we’re both staying here, if you ever want someone to play a little four hands with…”

Abby spins around and her voice cracks as she asks, “What?”

“Four hands.” Eric holds his hands over the keys and mimes playing. “You know, duet. Songs that require four hands.” 

“Oh! Um, I’ll keep that in mind.” Abby makes her way to the front door. 

Weirdest loop yet. 

 

***

 

In another loop, Abby’s eager to get to the white elegant exchange for once. Long past staring at Harper sipping champagne and giggling with friends, Abby sits shoulder-to-shoulder with Riley, drinking the mulled wine she learned to spike with extra bourbon a few loops back. Instead, she watches Riley work at a candy cane with her mouth and talk with her hands. She does that a lot, Abby’s noticed, the hands. 

“Thing is, my parents were so attached to me believing in Santa Claus that even after years go by and I stop believing in Santa Claus and they knew that I stopped believing in Santa Claus, we just kept that charade going. Their investment in it just made me feel so bad for them, you know?”

“Don’t you feel like we do that all the time?” Abby asks. “Play along to please the people we care about. Because we’re scared to upset them or disappoint them or lose them...even if it hurts.” Abby clears her throat and stares into the dark abyss in her glass. “How did you finally come clean about Santa?”

“It was just one of those things that sort of fizzled out on its own over time. More of an unspoken acknowledgement and agreement. Lots of those in the Bennett house.” 

“If you could do it over, would you confront your parents about it?” 

“I don’t play that game,” Riley says, waving her half-eaten candy cane through the air. “There’s no going back, no do-overs, so I don’t dwell. If I did that, I wouldn’t have made it through med school. Hell, I wouldn’t have made it through high school.”  

“But if it was possible, would you just stop the charade?” 

Riley leans forward, eyes sharpening with concern. It’s always, always like this with her even if for Riley, they’ve technically just met. “Okay, what is happening?” 

“Hey, you guys.” Connor makes his grand entrance and Harper reacts with high-pitched enthusiasm like she always does. 

Abby swallows her scowl. “I’m just...so damn tired...of charades.” 

Fighting tears and sniffling, Abby remembers they’re in the middle of a crowded holiday party. She glances at her watch and John invites himself in like clockwork. Abby asks Riley to watch her drink and her seat, wanting a premium spot for her white elephant viewing pleasure, and endures John’s “heterosexual ex-boyfriend” act. 

“I’m here to rescue you. Please get your things.” 

“I appreciate this and you.” Abby grabs his arm and leads him into the den, feeling Harper’s gaze on them, just briefly, before she gasps and giggles at whatever Connor says. “We’ll go, but after the show.” 

“I wasn’t aware this crowd enjoyed dinner theatre.” 

Abby introduces John to Riley for the first time. When she refers to Riley as “Grey’s Anatomy irl” (which gets her a playful glare) John brings up one of his writers who’s a former surgeon writing a memoir about their breakdown. Abby slips away to get John a glass of that strong, spiced shit. She meets eyes with Harper from across the room as she laughs at Connor’s joke that isn’t funny. Abby knows. She’s overheard it three times.

After ladling John a drink, earning bemused glances when she fills the glass up to the rim, Abby slips into the hallway just as Harry Levin comes out of the bathroom. Perfect. 

“Harry!” Abby greets her with a level of familiarity that makes the uptight woman instantly uncomfortable. “Just a heads-up, if you’re doing the white elephant exchange, I know the big portrait is tempting, but I have on good authority that there’s a miniature Rembrandt portrait under the tree.”

Her face lights with interest. “Rembrandt?” 

“19th Century. Self-portrait. Oil on copper. The smallest in the world." 

“You know your art,” Harry says appreciatively. “You wouldn’t happen to know which it is.” 

Abby lowers her voice. “Black box. Red lacquer bow. Right side of the tree. You can’t miss it.”

“Alright then. A little insider trading never hurt anyone.” 

Abby returns to John and Riley who are in deep conversation and keep sneaking glances at Connor. Not a good sign. John asks if she’s okay with his eyes (and eyebrows) multiple times and Abby realizes, strangely, she is. She’s lived through this day so many times now and it still feels weird, but it’s hardened her. Why not fuck shit up tonight?

When it’s Harry’s turn to choose a gift, she goes for the one Abby pointed out. Everyone in the room watches as she rips through the wrapping, opens the box and holds up a good quality riding crop, adult-size reindeer costume and festive, fuzzy handcuffs. Ted, who’d been mid-sip, does a full-on spit take, spraying his wife who screams and everyone in a three foot radius.

With a delighted smile, Riley grabs Abby’s arm and her stomach really shouldn’t swoop the way it does. “Is that why we drove an hour to find that particular shop earlier?” 

“What? You cannot tell me her and Bumble Husband won’t get mileage out of that.”

“Bumble husband?” John lifts his head like an alert meerkat. “Where?”  

Abby smiles. It feels rare and really good. Jane’s right. She did need the fun montage. 

 

***

 

In one of her favorite and most chill loops, Abby spends the entire day at Jane’s house.

Between binging on the gingerbread people Jane clearly baked and decorated with love and texting Riley, Abby camps out on the fantastic couch and reads Jane’s manuscript. When she hears the front door unlock, Abby wipes the tear off her cheek and shoves the stack of papers between the couch cushions. 

“…Shadow Dreamers were compelled to rise up against the Flanks.” 

“Because the blatant Thorfian rights violations.”

Spoiler much? John’s investigative eyes take in the heavy Christmas decorations before locking on Abby in her favorite Carnegie Mellon sweater, sweatpants and fluffy snowflake socks Jane knitted herself.  

“Look who I found!” Jane hauls in what appears to be a large baking dish. “Don’t worry, I explained the situation to him on our way over. Abby, have you eaten?” 

“Does gingerbread count?” Abby asks sheepishly.  

“I’m on it,” Jane says. “I should be coming home with that nifty breakfast sandwich maker, but that one changed hands multiple times. I would’ve loved to get those cute dinosaur taco holders, but this constellation pie pan is great too.”

“I was partial to the 1980s 1500 piece puzzle myself,” John says. 

“Grilled cheese sound good?” 

“Jane, you are too good for this world.” Abby sinks back into the couch, salivary glands activated.

“Write it on my tombstone,” Jane giggles. “Well, Caldwells are cremated and laid to rest all together in the family mausoleum. My spot hasn’t been confirmed as of yet, but fingers crossed!” 

“I did not know that,” Abby says. “It’s amazing that I can still learn new things every day.” 

Once Jane crosses into the kitchen and out of earshot, John lets her have it. “Oh, my god, Abigail! What is going on? Is this a Misery situation? Stockholm syndrome? I never would have left the party with her if you didn’t confirm you were here and not her accomplice by describing that weird birthmark on your back and confirming the last four digits of your social.” 

“So she told you about the time loops?”

“Yes.” John makes a face like he still isn’t quite sure about any of this. “Either she’s really creative and I’m signing her at the first sign that she can actually write or we need to get out of here before she makes skin suits out of us.” 

“John, you want grilled cheese too?” Jane shouts. 

“Absolutely!” John replies. “As if I would turn down such hospitality!” In a quieter voice, he asks, “Is she going to poison us?”

“No, Jane would never. Not on purpose. She uses this amazing, top secret cheese blend and grills the onions with fresh rosemary and thyme. You’ll love it.” Seeing his concern refuse to subside, Abby hugs the nearest pillow to her chest. “Thanks for coming to rescue me, but like I said on the phone, I’m fine.” 

“Abby, you are a walking, talking cry for help,” John points out. “And after seeing what you’ve been dealing with firsthand, I am not surprised. The woman of the house—who’s fabulous, by the way—assumed I was your ‘heterosexual ex-boyfriend’ and I wanted out ASAP. You’ve been here four days!”

“Multiplied by like fifty at this point.”

“I’m going to entertain your strange coping mechanism, but only because I’m sure once we get out of here, the outside world will give you a little perspective. That can’t happen when you’re trapped in a snow globe of retraumatization.”

“Believe me, John, I’d leave if I could, but I can’t.” 

“Why not?”

Abby growls and passes a hand through her hair. “This has to be the tenth time we’ve had a version of this conversation. I am over trying. Just sit.” She pats the couch cushion beside her. “This couch is amazing.”

“I don’t see how—” John slips onto the couch and instantly goes boneless, eyelashes fluttering, lips parted and pointed skyward. “Who made this couch? Satan?”

“Restoration Hardware.” Jane brings in the perfectly golden grilled cheese sandwiches on festive ceramic plates. And she thinks she isn’t fancy? “I had a thought while I was getting my grilled cheese on. Abby, in how many loops did you do exactly what you wanted? Not for fun, but because that’s how you wish things went?” 

“I...I don’t know.”

The answer is none. She was so busy trying to do what she thought she was supposed to do and doing consequence-free things to entertain herself that she didn’t even consider doing what she really wanted. 

 

***

 

The next morning, the morning of another December 24th, Abby decides to hell with it and does what she wants. 

She marches upstairs and Harper’s in the same position she always is, passed out in her bed after a long night of drinking. Abby spends a quiet moment just admiring her. She remembers being so worried and unsure on that first morning. Now she knows what she wants and it’s time to lay all of her cards on the table. 

“Hey.” Abby rubs Harper’s back to wake her. 

Harper turns over as if surprised to see her. “What’s wrong?” 

“I have something to tell you,” Abby starts. “John reminded me of how terrifying it is, that moment before coming out to your parents and how terrifying it is knowing you can’t undo it, not knowing what happens after. I get that, Harper, I do, and I tried to be understanding and patient, but at the same time, I’m not going to be a doormat. I can’t.” 

Harper stares straight forward and shakes her head with a frantic little chuckle. “A doormat?”

“How else am I supposed to feel? I’m supposed to sit quietly and just take it? You stay out until two in the morning with your ex-boyfriend and I’m supposed to what, Harper, be cool with that? How would you feel if the situation was reversed?” 

“Where did you go last night, Abby? Where were you before we met up at the bar?” 

Abby goes still. The newness catches her off-guard. 

“Listen, I don’t want to fight and I’m not going to pressure you to come out to your family, if you aren’t ready,” Abby says, “but I want to be with someone who is ready. I can’t be a part of this charade anymore, Harper. I can’t. I think I’m going back to Pittsburgh and if you do tell your parents after the holidays or if you don’t...we’ll talk when you get back.”

“Oh…” Harper takes a moment to let the words sink in. “How are you getting there?”

There it is again. A kind of accusation in her voice. Where did this come from?

“John probably.” 

“Oh.” Her face remains distrustful, distant. Even after all of these days, it still makes her head spin, suddenly not being able to read Harper, feeling like she doesn’t know her. “I...I still don’t want you spending Christmas alone…” 

What do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?

“Like I said, it’s not a big deal.”

“If that’s what you want,” Harper says quietly, but her usual panic shifts to pain. “That’s-that’s fine. I-I feel like we just need some space.”

There’s it is again. That exact line. 

Abby bites the inside of her cheek to keep the natural retort back. You need some space? Okay. Their time is up anyway. Tipper walks in so Abby walks out. She said what she needed to say and nothing changed. At least this time she wasn’t called suffocating to her face, but the sentiment remains, doesn’t it?

Once she reaches the basement, Abby takes Harper’s necklace off and drops it onto the bedside table.

 

***

 

Abby barges into Jane’s house and catches the middle Caldwell admiring her large painting of Main Street still on its easel. Jane gasps and quickly tries to cover it. “Abby, wh-what are you doing here? How do you know where I live?” 

Abby takes Jane by the shoulders and recites, “Star Trek the Next Generation. Stargate. Supernatural. Groundhog Day.” 

“Okay,” Jane says. “So you’re caught in a time loop.”

“Yup.” Abby retreats to the safety of the awesome couch. “I’ve tried everything you said. Tested all the Christmas magic factors. I tried doing it my way…” Her vision wavers, memories of that fight with Harper still too fresh. “I did the fun montage, which, yes, you were right, I needed the break, but now I just want out.” 

“Have I mentioned Chrismukkah to you yet?” Jane asks. 

“Chrismu-what?” 

“In the season four Chrismukkah episode of The O.C., when Ryan and Taylor argue about their whatever relationship, they both fall and wake up in an alternate reality where Ryan never went to Newport.”

“So like It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“Yeah, but teen dramas have a propensity for turning to genre to convey an allegorical message and I live for it. So it’s not a time loop situation, but it is the festive, happiest season, the best time to double down on miracles and scenarios that would seem ridiculous in any other month.” 

“Okay, so how do they get back to their original timeline?” Abby asks, words she never thought she’d ever say. 

“There’s a ton of backstory required to answer that question, but the condensed version is that Taylor stands up to her mom. Bam! Done! First-class ticket out of the alt-world! It takes Ryan a bit longer. He pinpoints where everyone in the alt-world got stuck and realizes it’s because they didn’t know how to say goodbye.” 

That sticks with Abby even as she fills Jane in on the many times she’s failed.

“Okay, since you said you resolved your personal mission the first go-around then maybe your situation is in reverse and all you need is the trigger point. Have you tried falling off a ladder? Maybe slipping on a patch of ice?” 

Abby presses her face into the beloved couch. “No, but I’m at the point where I will try anything. Dignity be damned. I’ll do it…tomorrow.”

“You look exhausted.” Jane drapes a blanket over Abby, one of those fleece throws with the reverse velvet side and foot pocket! “I have to run errands before the party, but stay as long as you need. Help yourself. And I’m sure I’ve given you this speech already so I’ll save you the déjà vu.”

“Thanks, Jane,” Abby says. “It’s been a long time since...since I...” She bites her lip to try to keep the words in, but then decides, to hell with it. “After my parents died, it hit me pretty hard that I, uh, had to start taking care of myself because no one else... I had to grow up and learn fast. Then when I started dating—that, uh, person.”

“The milkman?”

“Sure. I started thinking that maybe I found someone that would, not parent me, but like, just be there? Someone I can trust with all my shit and who’ll trust me with theirs, but then… I don’t know. Maybe the loop is trying to tell me something.” 

“I can relate,” Jane says somberly, probably the least high-energy she’s been since they met. “I mean, I’ve never dated a milkman, but… I feel like I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time. My parents have always been so focused on Harper and Sloane… I’m not jealous or anything!”

“It’d be okay if you were,” Abby assures her. “You have a right to feel what you feel especially when no one notices.” 

“I love my sisters and I’ve always felt a little bad about how much pressure our parents put on them, but at the same time, I could never compete and I think I’ve accepted that. I’m a part of the family whether they like it or not and I’m not going to compromise who I am for their approval.”

Jane’s phone rings. It’s a festive ringtone. 

“You should go before Tipper explodes and hey.” Abby digs a piece of paper out of her pocket. “I made you a flowchart on how to get the exact white elephant gift you want. I’ve been to that party a dozen times now. If you want.”

“Well, maybe just this once.” Jane takes the paper and drags Abby into a bear hug. Again, freakishly strong. They topple over onto the couch and it feels like a thank you. It feels like understanding. Acceptance. 

Her phone starts to buzz incessantly now. 

“I gotta go!” Jane’s shoes clip clop across the wooden floor as she races to get her purse. “Eat some gingerbread! Everyone is fair game except Dean and Castiel! They deserve at least one happy ending!”

Every single time Jane goes to do errands for her mother and the family party. With each repetition it becomes clearer that Jane knows where she stands, how her parents judge her worth, and still she goes back with a smile, happy to reset the router. The resilience it must take. How lonely that must be at times. Jane Caldwell really is too good for this world. 

 

***

 

“Okay, no biggie, you fall all the time.” Abby hypes herself up outside the Caldwell house. This is absolutely stupid. She feels stupid for even entertaining the idea. Here goes nothing. 

Abby runs across the icy lawn and falls. 

And falls.

And falls. 

And falls. 

“Abby!” Tipper shrieks. “What are you doing?!” 

Sprawled out in the snow, Abby props herself up enough to see Tipper at the open front door, Sloane right behind her with a little, infuriating smirk. Fuck it. Abby picks herself up and marches inside. 

“Abby, watch the floor!” Tipper shouts. “You’re soaking wet!”

“Oh, you have so much more to worry about than the floor!” Abby shouts. “Aren’t you all tired? Trying to look perfect and pretend everything isn’t unbelievably fucked underneath! What’s the point of ambition when you make everyone who loves you miserable? Putting your kids in these like, neat boxes and expecting them to be that and only that forever? You call that family?” 

Ted emerges from his office. “What’s the meaning of this?”

“Harper’s ‘roommate’ is having a complete meltdown.” Sloane doesn’t even try to hide the fact that she’s loving this. Seriously what a bitch. 

“She fell in the snow outside,” Tipper explains. 

“At least a dozen times,” Sloane laughs. “Over and over like a defective wind-up toy.” 

“We recorded it.” Magnus says. 

“You’re gonna be Tik Tok famous.” Matilda smirks. Like mother, like daughter. 

“You really must have hit your head, you poor thing.” Tipper tries to take her arm. Abby jerks away before she can and Tipper flinches, reacting like she’s handling a dangerous, cornered animal. “Why don’t you get changed out of those wet clothes before you catch pneumonia?”

“I’ll call the Bennetts and see if Riley can take a look at her,” Ted suggests. 

Abby has to laugh and it sounds as crazy as they think she is. Well, this is a first. 

By the time she changes into some clean, dry clothes and throws herself onto Jane’s old bed, Abby can hear muffled voices on the other side of the door. 

“Thank you for coming over, Riley,” Ted says. “Apologies for the short notice.” 

“Oh, it’s not like I was doing anything on Christmas Eve.” 

Riley’s signature sweet sarcasm, which probably goes right over their heads, makes Abby snort into a pillow.  

“If she’s infectious, you must let us know at once,” Tipper insists in a harsh whisper. “We can’t have her infecting our guests. What a disaster.” 

From her spot on the bed, Abby just barely gets a glimpse of Ted and Tipper as the door opens, grave expressions on their faces. If it’s concern for Abby or their precious party and oh so important image, she’s stopped caring. 

“Hey,” Riley says after shutting the door, shutting the Caldwells out. 

“Hey.” Abby straightens her layered shirts self-consciously. “Do you always make house visits without your stethoscope? Medical bag? Cool white coat?” 

“Oh, you couldn’t handle me in full doctor mode,” Riley jokes. “Everything okay?”

She’s asked that so many times now. She’s the only one who ever asks.

“I, uh, think the contact stupiditis might have advanced far, far beyond the original diagnosis.” Abby twists and twists at the corner of the pillow case. “What did they tell you?” 

Riley takes a tentative seat on the bed. “That Tipper found you trying to hurt yourself...”

Abby scowls. Really

“And then you started ranting and raving so they isolated you down here,” Riley continues, “not realizing isolation might be the problem in the first place. So, what’s going on? I want to hear it from you.” 

“I wasn’t trying to hurt myself,” Abby assures her. “I slipped on an ice patch. Repeatedly.” 

“Did you hit your head?” 

Abby shakes her head no and presses the heels of her hands to her eyes. “I just want to get out of here.” She rubs her face and blinks, watching the purple and white lights swirl around Riley’s face. “It doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.” 

“I believe that’s against the, uh, Hippocratic Oath,” Riley says. “Try me?” 

“You know that thing in TV and movies where a character has like, the shittiest day, then get a do-over just to realize they’re stuck living the same day over and over again? Like Xena—”

“Groundhog Day,” Riley says. 

“You’ve actually seen Groundhog Day?”

“Yeah, my parents love Bill Murray.” Riley shrugs. “So you’re saying you’re stuck in a time loop?” 

“Yup. And the weird thing is that I didn’t have a shitty day the first time.” Hearing her own lie, Abby frowns. “Okay, so it sort of went back and forth between straight-up trauma, the worst day of my life and possibly the best, but I was content with how things turned out. At least I thought I was. Apparently, the universe thinks differently.” 

“Uh-huh, I think we should at least take your temperature. Let me see if the Caldwells have a thermometer—”

“Wait!” Abby grabs Riley’s hand before she can get up and her face shows surprise, but she doesn’t try to pull away. Abby brings Riley’s hand up to her cool, dry forehead. “See, no fever.”

“How about a concussion?” 

“I had the headache before I fell. No nausea. No dizziness or slurred speech.”

“Confusion and saying things that don’t make sense?” 

Abby physically deflates. “See, I told you you wouldn’t believe me.”

“Oh, I believe you believe you,” Riley says. “You’re an awful liar. That was one of the first things I noticed about you. Okay, fine, what’s the working theory? We’re living in a marble and the benevolent overlord peeking in wants one specific fate for you and keeps resetting the day until you get it right? I don’t buy that. Then what would be the point of free will? I think character determines choice. Choice determines fate.” 

“I’m not arguing. I agree with you, but where does that leave me?” Abby scratches her fingers through her hair, checking if she really did hit her head.  “So, what’s the diagnosis, doc?” 

“I’m not going to rule out concussion. Symptoms can show up long after the initial trauma. As for the contact stupiditis, that one’s extremely easy to treat. Ready? If you don’t poke your eye, it won’t hurt. Shocking, I know, but there’s tons of empirical data to back it up.”

Stop hurting herself. Sound advice.  

“You wanna get outta here?” Abby asks. 

“Uh, shouldn’t you get some rest?” 

“As if I can get any here.” Abby vaults off the bed and grabs her coat and a beanie. “Come on. We can get something to eat. I’ve tried literally everything at that diner though. Where do you go around here to get decent pizza?” 

“How did you…?” Riley narrows her eyes slightly as if seeing her with new eyes. “Time loop, huh?” 

“Time loops are no joking matter.” Abby flings the door open and all of the Caldwells (sans Harper and Jane) jump back and try too hard to act casual. It’s mildly surprising that they stayed to try to eavesdrop instead of carrying on with the party preparations and completely forgetting about her like usual. 

Riley follows her up the stairs while saying, “Uh, good news is she’s not contagious! Might need further monitoring for any lingering or possibly new symptoms, but I will take care of that.”

“Thank you, Riley,” Ted says. “Your parents must be so proud.” 

Abby hears that and stomps a little harder on the last few steps. 

After asking if she wouldn’t rather rest about a dozen times, Riley gives up and gives her a grand tour of the town. Basically an extended version of the day they originally spent together with the added bonus of Riley determined to show her something she hasn’t seen in the many, many loops she’s lived through. It’s fun to watch her try at least. 

Riley puts her car in park and laughs, drumming her hands on the steering wheel. “You did not!” 

“I did! You should have seen Ted’s face! Full-on spit take!” Abby laughs at the memory. It’s a shame she’s the only one who knows it happened. “Yeah, it’s up there with accidentally stabbing Sloane in the foot and the time the Christmas tree caught on fire.” 

“So in all of your supposed Groundhog Days, have you been over before?”

“Uh, no.” Abby glances at the Bennett house, which may be smaller than the Caldwell house, but not by much, and has double the Christmas decorations. “This is a first so congrats.” 

To her slight disappointment, they avoid the main house entirely. Instead, they take shelter from the cold in the pool house, which Riley calls her home away from home. It includes an artisan wood bar with a foot rail (!!!) and pool table, which Riley calls her father’s midlife crisis. 

“It works for everyone since my mom converted my bedroom into another guest room like, two weeks after I left for undergrad and my aunt and her husband who snores like a freight train visit every December. That’s the one good thing about my parents, you know. There’s no question of if we love each other or not. We just know to give each other the space we need and it works.” 

“Minus when you’re diagnosing mystery fingers.” Abby doodles on a cocktail napkin with a ballpoint pen. She isn’t much of an artist as she is a historian, but she’s always liked keeping her hands busy. “My parents were the types that would tell me they trusted me and meant it, but stayed up just a little later, waiting for me to get home from a concert or whatever.” 

Riley joins her on the couch that isn’t Jane’s couch, but comfy enough with a rum hot toddy in each hand. “Abigail Holland.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“You have been holding out on me. You’re an artist.” 

“I doodle.” Abby accepts the drink oh so willingly. “I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I’ve always been more into the history, movements, cause and effect. My mom, she was the artist. She could turn anything and everything into creative expression.”

“Artist mother. Musician father. Growing up in the city. Sounds pretty great.” 

“Yeah. I, uh, haven’t really been into Christmas since they passed. It was always something I did with them, you know? Then I came here thinking maybe I could learn to love it again, make new memories, start new traditions...” 

That crumbled faster than Frosty at first kiss from the sun. 

“Might have to make Christmas drag show a new tradition though,” Abby says, “minus the audience participation.”

“You loved it!”

You loved it,” Abby says. By Riley’s full, shameless grin, she isn’t wrong. “But I appreciate you not letting me die behind the mic alone. You were totally a theater kid in high school, weren’t you?”

“Hey.” Riley closes one eye and gives her a gun finger and somehow makes it cool. “Theatre T-R-E. Get it right.” She pins her glass between her knees and rolls up one sleeve, offering a stretch of pale, unmarked skin to Abby. “Do me.”

“Wh-what?” 

Riley shakes her arm. “You’re an artist whether you’re ready to admit it or not so draw me something. Show me what you’ve got.” 

Abby sets her drink down on the end table so she can hold Riley’s arm steady. She’s warm and soft and this is the first time she’s seeing so much skin, so much of Riley. Biting the tip of her tongue, Abby draws the tip of the ballpoint pen across Riley’s forearm in careful swoops. 

“You know, if you leave right now, you could probably get to the Caldwells’ just in time to see the twins sing.” Abby only says it to see that sour look on Riley’s face. It never fails to make her smile. 

“They’ve done that every year since the kids were old enough to babble,” Riley says. “No, I’m good here.” Her expression turns unexpectedly coy. “What about you?” 

“I’m good here too.” Abby’s pleasantly surprised to realize she means that. 

 

***

 

The last thing Abby sees before she gives in to sleep is Riley curled up on the other arm of the couch, insisting she isn’t sleepy even when her eyes haven’t opened once in the last five minutes. When Abby opens her eyes the next morning, she’s back in the Caldwell basement. She presses her face into the closest pillow and groans. 

She’s tired. So. Tired. 

Abby goes up to the kitchen that she knows inside and out, grabs her favorite mug and helps herself to coffee. She moves around with familiarity, so much so her hosts even notice. It’s so satisfying to not care what they think anymore.  

Tipper claps her hands. “Okay! We have eleven hours before guests start arriving! This place needs to be picture perfect!” 

“What do you think you’re doing?” Sloane shrieks in the foyer. “You can’t just walk into other people’s houses!” 

Riley steps under the archway, her dark hair messier than Abby has ever seen it, but her winged eyeliner’s sharp as fuck. She locks eyes with Abby and tugs her sleeve up revealing the ballpoint squiggles on her forearm, the stupid little doodle she did. Well, this is unexpected. 

You,” Riley says. “Why have I been having the worst déjà vu ever?” 

Abby accidentally knocks her coffee over, prompting Tipper to scream about the floor. If they’re both still down here, no one has gone up to wake Harper and Jane has yet to arrive. Abby leaps across the puddle of coffee, grabs Riley by the elbow and ushers her to the basement stairs.

“You woke up with that on your arm?” Abby takes a closer look, then realizes she shouldn’t be so familiar with her and quickly lets go. 

Riley notices. Riley notices everything, her eyes calculating. “No. I woke up with the weirdest feeling and grabbed a pen. It felt like I was tracing something that wasn’t there. Then when I was talking to my parents this morning, I felt like we’d already had that exact conversation.” 

“And you thought to ask me...?” 

“You were the last person I was with before pouring into bed last night. So? Any idea?” 

 

***

 

Jane spins around in her swivel chair and slams both hands on her desk, bursting with giddy excitement. Another thing that never changes. “Okay, so, in Cause and Effect, shortly after Dr. Crusher goes to bed, she starts to hear a voice that soon becomes many undecipherable voices. They hypothesize that these are echoes from previous loops. How many times have you drawn that?”

Riley cuts her a look, her chin innocently perched on the back of her hand. “Yeah, Abby, how many times?”

Abby stares at the fluffy socks Jane gave her. “Enough apparently…”

“So you two seriously want me to believe you’re caught in a time loop? This isn’t some elaborate performing art piece to make me feel crazy?” Rile waves around a half-eaten gingerbread person missing its head. “You’re really living Groundhog Day or like that one episode of The X-Files?” 

“Never got into it,” Jane says.

“How can you call yourself a sci-fi expert without intimate knowledge of The X-Files?” Riley asks. “Dana Scully is the reason I went into medicine. What? Gillian Anderson’s hot and like, a national treasure.”

“So what happened? In X-Files?” Abby asks. “How did they break the loop?”

Riley traces her tongue across her teeth. “The only person who realizes they’re caught in a time loop...died and from there time continued to move forward.”

Jane turns to Abby. “Have you tried dying yet?”

“No,” Abby replies. “And you’ve asked me that too many times now. I mean, I feel pain. That means something, right? I’m not going to risk dying for real.” She massages the space between her brows. “Most days I feel like I’m in some fucked up video game that’s impossible to beat.” 

“Eureka!” Jane goes to the far side of the room to dig through a wooden trunk. 

With Jane preoccupied, Riley pats the back of Abby’s hand and lowers her voice. “You aren’t going to die. As if the time loop isn’t a cliché at this point, we aren’t going to add ‘bury your gays’ to the trigger warnings.” 

“Found it!” Jane returns with a video game. “The Legend of Ariadne is a game with a single character who has to solve everything entirely on her own and escape the labyrinth without the need of a hero because she’s a tough lady warrior who can do it herself. The common criticism is that the game is impossible to beat.”

“So she’s just forever stuck in the labyrinth?” Riley asks. “Well, that’s sad.” 

“In the original myth, she’s trapped in the labyrinth with a minotaur,” Jane adds. “Abby, you are Ariadne. December 25th is outside of the confines of the labyrinth, which are the time loops.” Jane grins, loving this. “Man, I am good!” 

“So what’s the minotaur in this elaborate analogy?” Abby asks. “There’s no baby face mask killer chasing me around.” Abby purses her lips, narrowing her eyes at the game’s cover art. Something about it... “In the original myth, does she get out or...?”

“Um...” Jane does a quick Google. “Whoa, hold up! Ariadne is the half-sister of the minotaur! Whaat? Okay! Theseus enters the labyrinth and Ariadne has him use thread to help find his way back out after slaying the minotaur. In return, Theseus takes Ariadne with him and plans to marry her.”  

Jane’s phone goes off. Time’s up.

“Oh, shoot,” Jane says. “I have to run errands before the party, but stay as long as you need. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to help yourself at this point.”

Abby continues to stare hard at the game case. What is she not remembering? 

 

***

 

“Oh, look, the heiress hugging her family’s financial advisor over by the fireplace.” Abby tips her drink at the pair right behind Jane conversing with Levi. “She’s going to stealthily head upstairs right...now.” The girl in question crosses in front of where Abby and Riley are sitting. “He…” The bald, scruffy man straightens his suit, glances around the room before slowly walking in the same direction. “Follows.”

Riley stares at her in disbelief. Her candy cane nearly falls out of her mouth.

Abby chuckles. “So you didn’t believe me.”

“I believe you believed you,” Riley insists. “You have to admit the situation is a little unbelievable. Also, gross. Tell me more.” 

“Sloane’s pitching one of her overpriced, overhyped gift baskets to the Bumble Husband and Ted’s going to interrupt, send her to look for the kids because that’s what he’s reduced her worth to.” 

“Even I could have predicted that one.” 

“Okay, watch the waiters setting up the chairs for white elephant.” Abby nods to where Tipper’s directing the catering staff in their white button-ups and black ties. “The one with the glasses. Tipper’s been riding his ass particularly hard like, since their catering van pulled up, but I don’t think he minds too much.” 

The waiter in question straightens out a white folding chair and sneaks a glance at Tipper’s ass in her red dress. 

Riley groans. “Noooo.”

“That’s not all. The Christmas broach Tipper accused me of stealing, the same waiter pocketed it.”

Connor walks into the den and Abby can’t see him without thinking about the loop where they literally ran into each other. She was distracted by the turkey diagram (wishbone location included) Jane drew for her and accidentally bumped into him. Connor took the opportunity to ask Abby if Harper was seeing anyone and mentioned it felt like she was hiding something. Yikes.

“So what’s Harper’s opinion of all of this?” Riley motions around the room with both hands like a drunk conductor. 

“Huh?”

“You’ve told her about your quantum crisis, right?” Riley bites on the candy cane with her teeth. Abby tries not to stare every time (and fails every time). “How does that turn out?” 

“Every time I so much as try to talk to Harper, we end up fighting and I never get the chance to.” Abby’s never told anyone that. It’d be hard to tell Jane without explaining why roommates would fight to that extent. 

“So in all the days you’ve supposedly repeated, you didn’t think that maybe talking to your girlfriend might be the solution to all of your problems?” 

“In my defense, it’s pretty apparent she’s been avoiding me since we got here.” 

“She’s stuck in the loop. You have actual agency.” 

“I know. It’s just… the fight we had the first time and over and over since, it’s really friggin’ painful, man, and after a while, I couldn’t justify...retraumatizing myself? That’s not something I can do and keep doing, not even for love.” She glances at her watch. “So how attached are you to seeing white elephant play out?” 

“About as attached as a torn ACL,” Riley replies. “Why?” 

“Do you want to go get a real drink?” 

“Fuck, yes please.”

Abby beats John to the door, something she’s gotten better, smoother at. He’s always standing on the other side, fist raised to knock, surprised and a little put-out, but only a little. 

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re here, you’re the greatest friend a fool like me could have so let’s go.” Abby ushers him back out the way he came. 

“Well, you’re in higher spirits than I anticipated.” John eyes Riley from over his shoulder. “And I think I know why...” 

“John, this is—”

“Abby!” Harper screams. Abby goes rigid. This is a surprise, a first.  

It’s hard to even remember the last time they actually spoke. Two, three, ten loops ago? She feels that familiar surge of euphoria whenever Harper gives her attention, but it quickly turns cold.

Abby tries to remind herself about the moment, what Harper must be feeling after not talking all day, not since Abby left the bar the night before and now she’s leaving with Riley (and John, but that’s less of a glaring detail to Harper right now, she knows). Abby tries to see Harper’s perspective even though for Abby, it’s been a lot longer. She doesn’t feel how she did that night, far from it. She walks out and doesn’t look back. 

 

***

 

“So have you been to my parents’ house other than the last Fuck White Elephant Loop?”

Abby makes a face from behind her pint glass. “Please don’t name them.”

They’re back at The Oxwood, settled in on opposite sides of the same booth, bathed in neon and Christmas lights. John can be found chatting up a handsome gentleman caller over at the bar. She would not put it past him to spend the night with a small town stranger and blame the distance when they never see each other again. 

“So, there’s no loop where you like seduced me, is there?” Riley asks.

Luckily, Abby hadn’t been mid-sip when she heard that one. She clears her throat. “No, I mean, I’m with Harper. Sort of. Technically. And...you deserve better even in a consequence-free vacuum.”

Riley shamelessly meets her eyes and if this really was the fourth day of knowing each other, Abby wouldn’t be brave enough to hold her stare, but this time she does. Poking her tongue into her cheek, Riley stretches her arm across the table and hands Abby a pen.

"Touch me up?" Riley asks.

Abby takes the pen. 

“Well, isn’t this adorable.” Em K. Ultra saunters up to their table with a bemused little smirk. 

Miss L’Teau glides over with a giggle. “Aw! How eighth grade puppy love!” 

“Eighth grade puppy love here? Right in front of my show?” Em K. clicks her tongue. “Weren’t you two in here last night? Back so soon?” 

“We enjoyed it so much the first time,” Abby says earnestly. “Best in town.” 

“Aren’t you a sweet one?” Miss L’Teau smacks Abby’s arm while giving Riley an enthusiastic nod. 

“Question,” Em K. drawls. “Why are you here when you could be fucking?” 

“Oh, my god,” Riley groans into her empty glass. 

You.” The blonde bombshell points a sparkly red fingernail at Riley. “You bring someone home for the first time ever and dare not introduce us?”

“Your fairy gaymothers are very disappointed, Ra Ra.” 

The last time they were here, Abby didn’t stay until the end of their show. She barely caught the end of “Must Be Santa.” 

“It’s not her fault,” Abby says. “I, uh, had a thing last night and left early.” 

Because yes that’s exactly how she’d describe her time at the other bar. A thing. 

Riley makes introductions in a reluctant, deadpan manner, but the way she smiles when they poke and prod at her outfit makes her grin much like she did when they were performing on stage the other night. There’s clearly history there and love. 

“And you two are making assumptions that aren’t true,” Riley adds. “Abby’s a friend. I didn’t ‘bring her home.’ I mean, we met here like, three days ago and someone please stop me from talking. I just came here to have a good time.” 

“Three days, three years, three minutes,” Miss L’Teau sings. “Time is…uh?”

“Irrelevant,” Em K. Ultra supplies. “Time’s irrelevant when you find that special connection. How long have we been giving you, frankly, brilliant advice and you still haven’t learned, huh?” 

“So you’re a regular here?” Abby asks. 

“Regular?” The two drag queens share a laugh, banging on the table and clutching their sides. “Rilo hasn’t told you the story of her first time here?”

“Murder. Me. Now.” Riley groans again, arms folded on the table, her face buried between them. 

“This sweet baby gay disaster at what? Fifteen? Sixteen?” 

“Sixteen,” Riley mutters into her sleeve. 

“Tried to come in here using one of the worst fake IDs I’ve ever seen in all my days!” Em K. Ultra gives Miss L’Teau a little push towards the bar where she goes to speak with the bartender. “We had to confiscate it, not because she was in any trouble, but because it was just so bad we had to put it on display and it’s lived behind the bar ever since.” 

Riley tries to swipe the fake ID out of Miss L’Teau’s hands, but Abby’s quicker and leans back against her side of the booth. She laughs when she sees “Rilo Kiley” actually printed there along with a photo of teenage Riley with a jet black bob and murderous eyes. 

Miss L’Teau pats Riley affectionately. “And from that night on, Ra Ra Rilo would come in every so often, sit in this exact booth and watch us perform. No fake ID necessary, not for a sweet kid just trying to find her people.”

Riley merely shrugs. “This is the only place for miles that...made me feel like for once I wasn’t the only one... And this is where I learned to hold my liquor so.”

“She’s kidding!” Em K. Ultra laughs loudly. “We would never serve a minor!” 

“We’re happy to give you that, especially in a town like this,” Miss L’Teau says. “We’re here, we’re queer, we’ve got...”

“Beer,” Em K. Ultra supplies, still completely in character.

“Beer.” Miss L’Teau giggles. “And we’re turning out future doctors!” 

Both drag queens applaud, loud enough to turn a few heads, clearly trying to embarrass the cool, distinguished Riley Bennett, but also sincerely proud. Watching Riley hang her head, flustered, but secretly loving it, Abby’s glad she got to witness it. She enjoys seeing new sides of Riley.

“Are you done?” Riley snatches the fake ID away from Abby and Em K. snatches it away from her. “This is karma for putting you on the spot the other night, isn’t it?” 

Abby bites the tip of her tongue as she smiles. “Have you ever dragged Riley on stage with you?”

Em K. Ultra and Miss L’Teau exchange a conspiring look.

“No.” Riley shakes her head hard. “No way.”

“Yes,” Abby says. “This is for the other night.” 

“Come on! One song!” Em K. Ultra takes Riley by the arm and hauls her out of her seat. “You barely visit anymore! For ol’ time’s sake! Abby will be right here once we lose interest in torturing you!” She points a sharp fingernail at Abby. “You’ll still be here, won’t you, Abby?”

“I’ll be right here,” she promises. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

Riley discretely flips her off while being half-carried to the stage that was really only meant for two. Her face when the DJ plays Mariah Carey—borderline homicidal, perfection. Abby smiles so hard her cheeks ache and she only notices when John finally returns and nudges her.

He clears his throat and nudges Abby again and again. He keeps doing it until Abby groans, “What?”

His scandalized eyes dart from Riley who’s being draped in tinsel on stage back to Abby. 

“She’s a friend,” Abby says, not even having to hear the question to know what he’s thinking. “She’s the only person who actually went out of their way to make me feel even a little bit like a human being here.” 

“She wants you.” 

“John, come on.”

“She! So! Wants! You!” John nudges her one more time for emphasis. “Okay, when I told you to break out of the closet and quit being a doormat, I didn’t think the Abby Translator would take that to mean shack up with a hot doctor!” 

“Nothing happened, nothing ever does,” Abby mumbles into her beer. “Can I just spend one Christmas Eve with new and old friends?” 

The concern lingers in John’s eyes, but he clicks his glass against hers anyway. They have things to talk out and they’ll get the chance to once this day ends. When it ends. If it ends. 

Abby briefly wonders if Ariadne learned to enjoy her time in the labyrinth. After parting ways with Riley and renting a room at a Holiday Inn on Holiday Boulevard (ha), Abby brushes up on Greek mythology on her phone and remembers where she heard that name before. 

 

***

 

Abby blinks against the morning light and when her vision steadies, she sees Harper sitting on the edge of Jane’s old bed watching her sleep.

“Jesus!” Abby jolts up, smacking her head against the headboard, her heart hammering away. “What the hell, Harper? You scared the shit out of me!” 

“Where did you go last night?” Harper asks, sounding so serious, grave, eyes averted. 

“What do you mean?” Abby grabs her phone and checks the date. December 24. But this feels different. The unexpectedness leaves Abby feeling uneasy. “I came straight here after I met you and your friends at that bar.” 

“I mean last night after you left the party with John and...Riley.” Harper’s voice goes quieter. “The night before, you didn’t even bother showing up to the party. Neither did Riley. You were together, weren’t you?” 

Harper’s voice shakes as she tries to get the words out. If it’s from fear or anger, it’s hard to tell.

“You-you know? You—? How—? How long have you...?” 

“Since I went to sleep in my childhood bed with you and expected to see your face on Christmas morning, drool on your sleeve—”

“I do not drool.”

Harper laughs fondly. “—but instead, I wake up feeling like I closed out Fatty’s, which I did.” 

“This whole time? Wh-why haven’t you said anything?” 

Harper stares down at her fingers twisted together in her lap. “I-I know I should have.”

“Yeah, Harper, you should have. I thought I was going through this whole fucked up situation alone, but it turns out, you were just ignoring me again.”

“I wasn’t ignoring you, Abby! I was trying to process everything! Not just that I had to live the day over and over again, but it had to be the day I came out to my family in the worst way imaginable and...hurt the love of my life. After everything I thought I fixed came undone, I…I didn’t know how to deal or even how to talk to you.”

“You had so many chances.” 

“I thought I did…” Harper laughs miserably. “By the time I realized going through the motions exactly as they happened wasn’t working, the friggin' tree got set on fire."

“Okay, that was not premeditated.” Abby closes her eyes for a moment and scrubs her hand down her face. “Harper, why didn’t you just talk to me?” 

“You mean before or after we drove down here?”

“I don’t know. Both.” 

“Abby, you have to understand how terrified I was—how terrified I still am.” Her eyes glaze over as she digs her nails into her arm. “A part of me is so happy you forgave me, to still have you, but...another part of me is still scared to death what happens when I walk downstairs on Christmas morning.” 

“And you have every right to feel that.” Abby reaches over, gently takes Harper’s hand, pulling her nails free from her skin. “I just wish you were comfortable enough to tell me these things. I thought...I’m supposed to be your person.”

“You are! I want you to be! Abby, I told you, this wasn’t about you, it was me.”

“I get that, I do, but it doesn’t erase the fact that it hurt so fucking much. I couldn’t live it one more time. I would have snapped. I did snap. The loop doesn’t take the pain away. Pain matters. What we do to other people even when we’re working through our own shit matters.”

Harper pulls her arm away. “Which brings us back to Riley.” 

Abby can feel a fight coming on and she’s too tired to try to avoid it, to walk on eggshells around the person she wanted to marry not too long (maybe too long) ago. “This isn’t about Riley.”

“If it wasn’t before, you sure found a way to make it about her,” Harper snaps. “I followed you.”

Abby feels like she’s falling even though she’s sitting perfectly still. “What? When?”

“Gather. The diner. Last night when the three of you went to that bar.”

Feeling crazy, all Abby can do is laugh. “You decided to follow me instead of just asking—”

“I did ask and you avoided the question.”

“Yeah, well, you left a lot out,” Abby says. “Just like this whole shitty trip.” 

“I was helping my parents! I told you that’s what this trip would be like!”

“And hanging all over Connor? You conveniently left him out too. I wouldn’t even have gone to Riley if you were around, but you weren’t.” Abby hears the spite in her own voice and maybe she isn’t as over everything as she thought. The synthetic time might have dulled the pain, but not erased it. “What have you been doing this whole time? Every time the day reset, where were you? Were you hiding from me?” 

“Were you avoiding me?” 

“You told me you wanted space like a dozen times. What else was I supposed to do?”

“You’re not being fair.”

“I’m not being fair?” Abby hears her own voice go shrill. 

“After the time the tree got set on fire or Sloane was stabbed , what if we woke up and the next day was Christmas morning? What then, Abby? You have the luxury of waking up and walking away. You already did once! But this is my life. This is my family. No matter what happens, all of the consequences fall on me.” 

“What happened to ‘if I have you, that’s all I need’? What happened to ‘I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to you’? What happened to—” Abby takes a breath, remembering their rom-com moment in front of the minimart. “You wished to undo everything.”

“Maybe I wasn’t as ready as I wanted to be,” Harper whispers, a barely audible confession. “Maybe I was desperate for you to...not leave me, but now—”

“I think I was right the first time,” Abby cuts her off, “to say I was done…”

Harper blinks as if reacting to a slap across the face. The next thing she knows, Harper’s throwing the door open with all her strength. It’s loud and violent enough for Tipper to scream, “We do not slam doors in this house!” At the first sound of a choked back sob, the guilt sets in and Abby follows her up the stairs. 

“What do you think you’re doing?” Sloane shrieks in the foyer. “You can’t just walk into other people’s houses!” 

Harper storms down the hallway just to come face-to-face with Riley. The temperature plummets and not because the front door is wide open. 

“What are you doing here, Riley?” Harper snaps, pain and anger and frustration spilling from her voice. “Looking for Abby? What are you up to? Is this your screwed up way of getting back at me for high school?”

Riley, predictably, stands her ground. “Are you finally admitting I’d have a reason to want to get back at you for high school?”

“What did happen back in high school?” Sloane asks, eyes hungry. 

“Girls, why is the door wide open?” Tipper comes up behind Abby surely to make things worse. “The floor is going to get ruined! What’s happening out here? Girls?”

“Yeah, Harper, what’s happening?” Sloane asks. 

Harper doesn’t answer. She shoulders past Riley and yanks her coat from the rack, sending the whole thing crashing to the floor. Harper nearly knocks into Jane, who’s just arrived, doesn’t return her sister’s Christmas Eve greeting and bolts. She’s running, physically this time, leaving Abby behind. Again. 

“Harper!” Tipper shouts at her reversing red car. “You forgot the to-do list!” 

“Merry Christmas Eve!” Jane misreads the room, but in her lovable Jane way. “What did I miss?” 

Abby stares after Harper’s retreating tail lights, hoping she won’t be too reckless. After so much time spent stagnant, this strange snow globe world turned upside down in a matter of minutes and hastily shouted words.

“Hey.” Riley tugs on Abby’s sleeve. “Wanna get outta here?” 

More than anything. 

 

***

 

“Harper is Ariadne,” Abby muses, flexing her fingers around a pool stick, eyeing the striped and solid balls on the felt pool table in the Bennett’s pool house (ha). “See, the myth actually begins with Minos. He wants to become king.”

“Mmm,” Riley hums. “Sounds familiar.”

Abby sets up her next shot and pockets a solid six ball in one practiced move. “So Poseidon grants Minos a favor, a sea bull, that he’s supposed to later return, but Minos keeps it instead. Poseidon gets pissed and curses Minos' wife to fall in love with the bull.” 

Riley snorts. “Ah, the classic ‘you love it so much, why doesn’t your wife fuck it.’” 

“You love it so much, why doesn’t your wife fuck it, become pregnant and birth the minotaur,” Abby says. “So then Minos has the labyrinth constructed to, you know, hide the family shame. Jane thought I was Ariadne trapped in the labyrinth with the minotaur, but no, that’s Harper, which makes me Theseus, entering the maze, doomed to repeat the same steps, a willing sacrifice to fucking trauma… Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne. It’s a, uh, Renaissance painting. That’s where I remembered it from.” 

Realizing she said too much, Abby takes her next shot and nearly knocks in the eight ball. “You must think I’m crazy.” 

“No, I’m learning a lot about you actually.” Riley taps her fingers against the wooden cue stick in her grasp. “You’re a Greek mythology gay and that’s totally valid. I respect it.” 

Abby laughs, something she never would have thought possible, especially after this morning. Only Riley.

Riley basically leans her entire body across the table to set up her next shot. She plants a hand firmly, strikes the cue ball with confidence and pockets the last striped ball on the table. It’s hot. Objectively speaking. Abby thinks back on Harper’s confession. She followed them. And saw what?

Riley circles the table, closes one eye and points her cue stick across the table. “Eight ball. Left middle pocket.” 

“I set that up for you.” Abby notices the squiggly drawing on Riley’s forearm as she sinks the eight ball and wins the game. The guilty feeling only intensifies. “I, uh, should have said something earlier, but I’m really sorry you got dragged into all of that back there.” 

“No, I should’ve known better than to just show up at that house. No way that could go wrong.” Riley rolls her eyes at herself. “But it’s fine. No one in that house can hurt me anymore and I’m glad I wandered over based on a feeling. Who else would be your getaway driver?” 

“Why are you always so willing to help me?” Abby asks. “Technically, we’ve known each other four days now.”

Maybe because I know what it’s like to feel...left out or cast aside in this shithole town…” Riley leans on her cue stick and grins fully. “Or maybe I just like you.” 

Suddenly, Abby’s phone buzzes in her back pocket, making her jump. “Shit. It’s Jane. Harper still hasn’t gone back to the house.” 

 

***

 

After ten more calls from Jane (she leaves a voicemail every time) and Mrs. Bennett’s fretful announcement that the Caldwells have canceled the party, Riley swings her by the house where Ted and Connor are talking out front. They shake hands before walking to their separate vehicles and driving off. 

“Twenty says Jane’s already made missing person flyers in full color,” Riley says. 

“Fifty says Sloane is seething and weighing the pros and cons of Gone Girl-ing herself.” 

“I am not going to bet against something I know to be fact.”

Abby leans back against the headrest, reluctant to leave the warmth and safety of Riley’s car, of Riley. “Thanks for another today.” 

“You have my number,” Riley reminds her. “Don’t be a stranger.” 

The Caldwell house is quieter than all of the Christmas Eves. No mingling party guests. No Christmas music instrumental playing softly in the background. No extra presents under the tree in preparation for the white elephant exchange. Just eerie quiet. No one seems to be around except for Sloane sitting by the window staring out at the falling snow. 

“Did you have a good Christmas Eve?” Sloane asks in that too controlled, almost robotic way she does everything. “It’s been a real party here.” 

“Where is everyone?” 

“Out searching for the golden child, of course. It never ceases to amaze me the lengths Harper will go to to ensure she’s the center of attention.” 

“You think Harper ran off because she wants attention?” 

Sloane turns to Abby like a predatory animal locking onto small, easy prey. “Why else? What are you hiding, Abigail?”

“I...can’t answer that. I think Harper’s the only one who can. Why would you want to be in her place? Why would you want all the pressure your parents put on her? It’s exhausting just to watch.”

Sloane chuckles, a sound tinged in bitterness. “You’re an only child, aren’t you?” Abby nods. “Then you obviously don’t understand.” 

“I don’t,” Abby agrees. “I mean, you’re sisters. I don’t get tearing each other down for what? Your parents’ love and approval? Then again, I don’t get offering your kids up as ritual sacrifice to bolster your image and ego.”  

“Lucky you.” Sloane walks around Abby to the stairs. “Kids! It’s time to get ready for bed!” 

“But what about Aunt Harper?” Magnus asks. 

“She’s out there alone on Christmas,” Matilda adds. 

“And that was Aunt Harper’s choice,” Sloane says sweetly. “Don’t worry. She’ll come back. She always does.” 

Abby tries to stay up as long as she can, listening to Ted’s heavy footsteps as he paces in his office and Tipper calling everyone she knows to ask if they’ve seen Harper. They’re deeply worried. They care about her. They love her.  How can that not extend to accepting who she is and who she loves? 

Abby plays with the gold necklace Harper gave her for her birthday until she succumbs to sleep. 

 

***

 

The next morning, Abby checks her phone (December 24 again) and flings the covers off. This is getting ridiculous. She’s going to find Harper and they’re going to talk their shit out. No more learning to enjoy or co-exist with the loop, the labyrinth or the trauma. It’s going to be messy and full of twisted, tangled emotions, but if they don’t try, nothing will change. 

With her stomach in knots, Abby treks up to Harper’s room, something she hasn’t done in what feels like a lifetime. When she pushes the door open, she finds a hungover Harper already up, a deeply worried expression on her face. 

“Hey.” Abby shuts the door behind her. This one has a lock so she turns it. 

Harper smiles weakly. “Hey.” 

“Everyone missed you yesterday. They called off the party to look for you.” 

“Yeah, I know, I…” Harper rubs her tired eyes. “I checked myself into a Holiday Inn and watched All the President’s Men on cable until I fell asleep. I know it was irresponsible to make everyone worry. I just… I had to get away.”

“I’m sorry about yesterday. I accused you of not listening to me when I wasn’t hearing what you were saying either. You were right when you said I could streak through your family’s party and walk out and you would suffer the consequences. After spending way too much time with them, I can see why it’d be hard for you and I shouldn’t have made you feel like you had to come out or risk losing me.” 

“None of that changes the fact that I was terrible to you, Abby,” Harper says. “I hurt you and you’re right, you shouldn’t just silently take it. And I wish I were more honest with you. When we first met, I fell so hard so fast, I just wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted you to love me so I only ever wanted to show you the best parts of me. I didn’t want to ruin it, but I guess I did that anyway...” 

“You didn’t ruin it.”

“But things will never be how they used to be between us.”

“No, probably not.” The words hurt, but at the same time, expressing them aloud makes it all finally feel real. “I don’t think we’re the same people who left Pittsburgh. We were kidding ourselves when we went to sleep Christmas Eve thinking that everything would go back to ‘normal’ in the morning. I can’t, Harp.” 

“I understand.” Harper laughs, but it comes out flat. “I guess it was silly to think I could fix everything with one good rom-com speech. I promised you all of those things and when I got my wish I couldn’t even figure out how to talk to you. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe it takes longer than a speech at a gas station and a night to sleep on it. Maybe I have a lot to work on and it’s best if I did it alone.” 

“Not alone,” Abby argues. “Jane showed me this game, The Legend of Ariadne. It’s virtually impossible to win because Ariadne has to try to do everything herself. In the original myth, she has some help from Theseus, textbook Greek hero type. He defeats the minotaur and she creates a thread they use to find their way out of the labyrinth. Maybe we just need to take it one thread at a time and not be afraid to lean on others, family, for help.” 

Harper smiles and it still tugs at Abby’s heart. She wouldn’t be surprised if it always will. “Do they have a happy ending?” 

“It’s mythology. There are tons of different versions. Sound familiar?”

“Too familiar,” Harper says. “And I’m sorry about accusing you and Riley and stalking you. I-I’m glad someone was there for you when I wasn’t.”

Abby nods, not sure if they want to go further down this path, at least not now. “So what’s your theory about the loop?”

“I’m not well-versed in Christmas magic,” Harper says, “but I’m thinking my fear of tomorrow has contributed to why we’re stuck here. I’ve been terrified this entire time, Abs. I still am right now. If I wake up and lose you or my parents or everyone…” 

Abby takes her hand and squeezes. She hopes the firm, warm pressure gives Harper some kind of reassurance because she can’t make herself say the cliché things you say to comfort someone, not if they’re empty. 

“Back on the first Christmas Eve, I told Riley I was trying to figure out who the real Harper is—you in Pittsburgh with me or you here with your family and your friends—and she said maybe both. And one day I hope you’re comfortable enough sharing all of you, not just the best parts.” 

“I hope so too,” Harper whispers.

“All I know is that we can’t figure that out here,” Abby says. “Even this fear you have of what happens on Christmas morning, we can’t know until we get there.” 

“Harper, are you up?” Tipper shouts from the other side of the door, rattling the knob. “Harper?!”

Harper closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. When she opens them, steel determination, one of the first things Abby noticed about her, one of the first things Abby loved about her, drives out the fear. She squeezes Abby’s hand in return and leans in until their foreheads touch. 

 

***

 

Abby wakes up in Harper’s childhood bedroom. Alone. 

She takes a moment, takes in how warm she feels under the blanket, how the winter cold nips at the tip of her nose. Muffled voices bleed through the closed door, signs of life and activity and a new day downstairs. When Abby finally takes the plunge and reaches for her phone, she’s overwhelmed with emotion.

December 25th. 

Merry Christmas to her. 

Not knowing what to expect downstairs, what a novel fucking feeling, Abby takes her time getting out of bed and even smiles at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She’s back! This is real! Abby eyes the gold necklace she’s wearing in the mirror. She takes another plunge and takes it off.

Abby creeps down the hallway and peers over the banister where she can see Tipper and Harper sharing a hug in the foyer. That has to be a good sign. Just as she starts down the stairs, the damn Roomba cuts in front of her! Abby stumbles forward and her foot hits something on the stairs—a Game Boy! 

Losing her footing, Abby falls forward, tumbling down the steps and smacking her head against the wall and then the floor at the foot of the staircase. She barely registers Tipper’s scream and Harper shouting her name before everything goes black. 

 

***

 

Abby wakes up in Jane’s old childhood bedroom in the basement. Again. Fuck! 

She scrambles to sit up and grab her phone (that isn’t on the bedside) when a pair of familiar hands grasp her shoulders and try to press her back down. 

“Abby, slow down!”

“John?” Abby settles back when she sees her best friend staring at her with concern furrowing his brow. “Thank God!” She practically throws herself at him. They aren’t the physically affectionate type of friends, but she’s too happy to care if she’s freaking him out right now. “Wait, what day is it?”

“Isn’t that what the non-concussed person’s supposed to ask the concussed person?”

“I don’t have a concussion. I’m fine. Better than fine. I’m great!” 

Unconvinced, John lifts a single finger and pokes her right in the forehead. 

“Ow!”

“Your pain receptors say otherwise.” 

A knock on the door keeps Abby from lunging across the bed at him with less than ecstatic intentions this time. Riley pokes her head in and seeing her in a different outfit for once (still chic as fuck of course) fills Abby with a feeling she isn’t quite ready to name. 

“Everything okay in here?” Riley asks. “I thought I heard a pretty emphatic ‘ow.’” 

“She’s all yours, doc,” John says with a familiarity that makes Abby feel like she missed something. After spending days on top of days knowing everything about everyone, she’ll gladly welcome the unknown. “I have more questions for Jane. I see a trilogy in her future.” 

Riley waits for John to shut the door behind him before making her approach, holding a leather medical bag. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“I fell down the stairs. Hard. The Roomba cut me off and I stepped on a Game Boy, which might be karma or the robots are taking over.” Abby gingerly prods at the welt on her head. “How long was I out?” 

“Not long, according to Harper.” 

Harper actually called you?” 

“She called my parents’ house. Yes, they still have a landline and my mom nagged me mid-Elf until I took it. Once she mentioned you, I was less reluctant. Any headache, dizziness, vision changes, sensitivity to noise or light?” Abby shakes her head no. Riley digs into her bag for a penlight. “Let me just check your eyes.” 

“I always wondered, how do you know if dilated pupils are a sign of concussion and not like, fight or flight or stress or—”

“Arousal?” Riley laughs, shining the light into Abby’s eyes. “It’s more telling if there’s no response or irregular eye movement. If one pupil is more dilated than the other, that would require immediate emergency attention.” Riley clicks off her penlight. “But it looks like you’re in the clear for now. It’s important you stay awake to see if things change or worsen.” She doesn’t know what Riley’s keen eyes see on her face, but it makes her break her professional front with a grin. “What? You sure you aren’t feeling even a little loopy?”  

“No, I’m actually really relieved.”

“So I’m assuming everything worked out after last night?”

Abby mentally reviews all of the last nights she’s lived through, back to the original one, the one she thought was the happiest, until having to relive it unraveled the threads of her safety net. “I went to bed thinking a quick fix was possible and we’d wake up and everything would be perfect and Harper and I could go back to being the people who drove down here three-three billion yesterdays ago, but everything has a way of looking different in the morning.” 

“Vague, but if it’s good enough for you then...” Riley digs around in her bag again. “Um, even if you aren’t showing symptoms now, they could appear later on with, uh, more severity so Merry Christmas and take care of yourself.”

“Wait! How attached are you to—?” Abby clocks the way Riley blinks hard and touches her forearm. “What is it?”

“Nothing. Just déjà vu. What were you going to say?” 

“How attached are you to Christmas Day movie marathons with your family?” 

“The classics I don’t mind so much, remind me of being a kid. When my mom insists on changing it to Hallmark, I usually cry ‘food coma’ and sneak off to decompress. Why?” 

“John and I are gonna head back to Pittsburgh before it gets dark, but we’ll probably see what’s open, if anything, first.” Abby tries not to get her hopes up, but she feels it. “Do you want to come with? If you have to get back to your family, I totally understand.” 

“You aren’t…?” Riley frowns. “What about Christmas morning with the Caldwells?” 

“I think they have enough shit to sort out as a family and they’d probably appreciate the privacy. So…?”

Riley seems unsure for a split-second, but only a split-second. “I mean, as a medical professional, it would be irresponsible of me to not monitor you for worsening signs so yeah, sure.”

Abby tries to hide her stupid grin, but it only gets bigger when she notices the sunlight streaming in through the basement windows. It’s going to be a gorgeous day. 

With her bags packed, sure not to leave a single glove or beanie behind, Abby and Riley walk upstairs in time to catch the tail end of Ted’s grand speech and the women in his life surrounding him in a group hug. John remains on the couch, his face a clear cry for help. 

“John.” Abby waves to get his attention and points to the door. 

John hands Jane one of his business cards. “Finish your manuscript. If you ever need a push, I can be pushy. I believe in your ideas. Get it done.”

“Thank you, sweet Christmas angel,” Jane says, misty-eyed. 

Abby crosses the room and pulls Jane into a hug. She seems taken aback for a moment, but in true Jane fashion, giggles, goes with it and hugs her back with all of her considerable strength. Hoping it’s for the last time ever, Abby whispers, “Star Trek the Next Generation. Stargate. Supernatural. Groundhog Day.”

Jane pulls back. “Either you’re caught in a time loop or we have all the same fandoms.”

“Thank you for everything, Jane,” Abby says. “Don’t change for anyone.”

“Unless I tell you to,” John adds.

“No.” Abby shoves John toward the door. “Ignore him.”

When the rest of the Caldwells turn to stare at her, Abby takes a moment to just look at them. She was so desperate to be liked, desperate for their approval and blessing, but that desire has long passed. She doesn’t need an apology or closure. She just hopes they can learn to appreciate all aspects of all of their daughters. 

“We’re just going to...go,” Abby explains. “For real this time.” 

“So soon?” Tipper asks. “On Christmas Day?”

It’s funny how fast she changed her tune. A little too fast. But at least she’s open to trying. It’s something to work with when Harper had been so afraid she’d be left with nothing. 

“Yes,” Abby says decisively. “Thank you for letting me stay here these last few days.”

“Before you go,” Sloane says, gently ushering the twins forward. “Go ahead, kids.”

“We put the necklace in Abby’s bag,” Matilda confesses. 

“We’re sorry,” her twin adds. 

“Thank you,” Abby says, only feeling a little bad about the Christmas Sticker App Loop. Technically, they’re even.

“Abby.” Harper follows her out into the foyer. John and Riley continue to flank her until Abby nods for them to head out the front door ahead of her. 

 Everything looks different the next morning. The frantic desperation in Harper’s eyes the night before, even out on the sidewalk in front of the mini-mart, has been replaced with something gentler, on its way to peace. 

“We’ll talk once I get back, right?” Harper asks. 

“Yes, you know I’ll be there. Take your time with your family and everything.”

“I’m planning to,” Harper says. “I know now that there’s no overnight fix and there will be a lot of awkward talks and unpacking between now and New Year’s, maybe for years, but they’re trying and I’m ready to take this step at least.” 

“I’m happy for you, Harper. I mean that.”  

Harper’s eyes dart down, noticing the gold necklace absent from Abby’s neck. She sits with it for a moment, lets the realization, the reality wash over her. “About what you said…I think it’s easy to become complacent and comfortable in our labyrinths. It’s just easier to go along with learned behavior when you know the outcome even if it hurts than...taking on the minotaur.” 

Abby has to laugh at the absurdity of it all. 

Harper pouts. “You are the nerd who came up with this analogy.” 

“I know. Go on.” 

“It’s something I’m going to try to break out of with my family,” Harper says. “One thread at a time, right?”

“Good. I’m glad.” Abby nods. “Merry Christmas, Harper.”

“Merry Christmas, Abby.”

Abby pushes the door open just in time to see John and Riley twirl away and fail to act casual. Abby shakes her head and scoffs, mostly in amusement. 

“Eavesdropping again?” Abby bumps Riley with her hip as she walks ahead of them, down the long driveway toward John’s car. 

“I—we were not,” Riley says with conviction that tails off into petulance. It really shouldn’t be as charming as it is. “Once again, I was out here before you.”

“It’s not our fault your voices carry,” John says snidely. 

“Oh, is this how it’s going to be, you two ganging up on me, on Christmas of all days?” 

“You love it,” John assures her, then to Riley, “she loves it.” 

She might. Abby stretches her arms out and takes a moment to feel the sun on her face despite the cold and snow all around her. She takes one final look at the red brick Colonial, feeling like she just ran a marathon or survived a horror movie. She catches a glimpse of Harper watching her leave from the window. 

When Jane first showed her The Legend of Ariadne, it took Abby some time and Googling to remember where she first heard of it. Bacchus and Ariadne, an oil painting by the Italian painter Titian, depicts Ariadne on the shore of Naxos, discovered by Bacchus, god of wine, and his revelers. To the far left, Theseus’ ship can be seen sailing away beneath the Northern Crown constellation. Ariadne and Theseus emerged from the labyrinth changed by the experience and became different people who went on to different fates. 

“You okay?” Riley asks, breaking her reverie. 

“I will be.” Glad to realize she means that, wants that, Abby turns away from the Caldwell house and begins moving forward. 

 

***

 

One Year Later

Abby drifts to sleep in those hazy, delirious hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning in her own bed, in her shoebox-size apartment with a familiar warmth against her. Warmth all around her actually. And a wet nose against her neck? 

Abby blinks awake against the morning light, feeling suffocated. Thanks to the sixty pound golden retriever mix plopped right on top of her, a steady blast of warm dog breath hitting her right in the face. 

“Bos,” Abby groans. “Bosley, come on. Today of all days?” 

“Is that any way to talk to a Christmas orphan this early in the morning?” 

Riley Bennett, Abby has come to learn, is unfairly beautiful even at ungodly hours of the morning. She rolls onto her side, wearing the Carnegie Mellon shirt she plucked from Abby’s closet and never returned. It looks better on her anyway.

“Bosley is not a Christmas orphan. Her parents are just spending the holidays in some small town in Washington.” Abby tries to push the dog away, which just prompts Bosley to stretch out on Abby’s chest with a yawn. “Are you sure you don’t regret not visiting your parents for your Christmas miracle vacation block?” 

“Is that even a question?” Riley rolls closer. “This is my ideal Christmas morning.” Her voice softens as she tugs at a loose thread on Abby’s thermal long-sleeve. “I’m exactly where I want to be so get used to it.” 

God, how did she gets so lucky? She tries not to question it, not to dwell.

“Still,” Abby says, “Em K and Miss T will be disappointed. We should send them a selfie. Maybe they’ll print it out and put it up behind the bar.”

“They definitely will. Nope. No way. I refuse.” Riley pulls the comforter up to cover her face, but just below her amused eyes. Abby never gets tired of seeing Riley in her bed. Never. “Next time we’re in town, I’m making them make you sing Disney.”

“And scare away all the paying customers? They know better than that.”

“I’ll convince them your bad singing will drive the paying customers to drink more,” Riley argues. “I can be very persuasive when I want to be.”

“Don’t I know it.” Abby gently shoves Bosley, sending the goofball rolling to the other side of the bed and leaping off instead of falling off. Riley laughs. Such a good laugh. Abby has to kiss her and does mid-laugh. Riley goes along willingly, opens up beautifully, her fingers tracing Abby’s spine before digging into the material of her shirt. This kiss is languid, indulgent, Christmas morning personified. A sigh passes between them when the darn dog starts whining and tapping her nails against the hardwood floor. 

“Okay, Bos, let's go,” Abby says, but doesn’t take her eyes off Riley’s. “Go back to sleep.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Riley lays her head back on the pillow, but not before hooking her fingers into the collar of Abby’s shirt, pulling her down into another kiss. Before Abby can say fuck it and crawl back under the covers, Bosley barks once, twice, three times.

Abby breaks the kiss with a sigh. “Okay, Bos, you win.”

The dog happily runs out the door, the bell on her festive collar jingling.

“A girl who knows what she wants,” Riley says. “Gotta respect that.”

Abby hums in agreement as she fumbles into a hoodie. She kisses Riley again and again and again, her lips, her neck, her forearm where that silly little doodle once was, before finally, seriously getting up. They have time to laze around in bed. Abby hops into a pair of socks and sees her phone face down on an open sketchbook. She can’t resist turning her phone over and checking the date displayed over a photo of her, Riley, John and Jane at Pittsburgh Pride. 

December 25. 

Abby smiles to herself as she walks through her apartment that’s filled with framed photos of her parents, so much art and the secondhand piano Riley surprised her with for her birthday last May. If she can wake up like this every Christmas morning, dog breath in her face and the person she loves (and she does, she really does love Riley) in bed beside her, maybe it really is possible to learn to love Christmas again. Maybe she already has.