We queued outside the movie theater, and even though it was fucking cold, I only kind of noticed since Merin hadn't shown up yet, and Stephen and Dorothy wouldn't stop going on about one of their inside jokes, and Bryan was trying hard to get their attention on him, like he always was. It was one of those January afternoons when the sun shines brighter than it ever does in summer, and makes everything feel like it's made of crystals.
Every now and then, the line would move forward a little, but there was some new movie playing so everyone in the state had come out for it. Every time I'd catch a flash of a red car turning into the parking lot, my heart would jump a little, but I'd instantly realize it wasn't her, and go back to half-listening to Dorothy laughing in that way you couldn't hate even if you were depressed as hell and wanted to wallow in it. Another flash, another shock, another false alarm. Each time, I'd notice the cold just a little bit more.
Across the street, some business--a fucking shoe store or something--had left its Christmas decorations up too long, and like a virus the sight of a wreath dove into me and went right to work. Stephen, Dorothy, even Bryan, all disappeared, and I was back in the woods we used to go to when I was a kid, and my dad was home from whatever work had been keeping him away for weeks at a time, and we were going to be a family for a change. Mom would bundle me up so I could hardly walk, and we'd go trudging for what felt like miles through some uncharted wilderness to cut down a tree like our ancestors did or something. And I'd stand back and watch and think of cookies and presents and Santa Claus and Charlie Brown on TV, and like the little kid I was, every cell in my body would be singing.
Another flash, I only sort of noticed.
And I'd sit in the expanse of the back seat on the way home, feeling safe and warm and like everything was perfect and always would be. In school I couldn't think, couldn't hear Gena whispering stuff to me from the next desk like she always did. I tuned her out, because that music was still ringing inside me constantly, rising and falling and rising again when I'd catch sight of something red and think of holly and berries and Santa and candy canes and wrapping paper.
"There she is."
Bryan had said it, and I realized that I had gotten so wrapped up in memories that I had completely missed Merin pulling into the parking lot, but there she was, walking toward us, the sun blasting through her hair and turning it all brown and gold and crystalline like everything else. Her eyes were as light as always, and she immediately started talking to Dorothy. The line inched forward.
I looked at Stephen and Bryan, and Bryan was looking at me too because he didn't have much luck with girls and he kind of lived vicariously through whoever around him did. I wouldn't have said I was lucky, but sometimes when I looked at Merin I felt like whatever we had, maybe Bryan was right.
Merin was still talking to Dorothy when she grabbed my right arm and pulled me closer to her. "It's fucking cold out here!" she said, and slipped her arms inside my coat, like she was trying to climb inside it with me. My hands were in my pockets, and I also didn't want to look desperate, so I didn't hug her back. But inside, everything was red and gold and reflected at crazy angles, presents and drowned out voices, futures and imagined futures.
And then we were next, Merin taking her hands out of my coat to get her money, buy her ticket.
"I'm going on inside," she said, and it was the first time she had actually spoken to me since she got there, but at least she sounded happier than the last time we had talked, in Dorothy's front yard a week before. By the time I paid and went inside, she was already disappearing around the corner, down the hall to the theater.
Bryan said something, but I wasn't paying attention, because her hands, her hair, her warmth, were all there, and in my mind I was seeing my dad standing next to the tree we'd gone to cut down, looking down at the dusting of snow and dying needles on the ground all around our feet, and my body was singing out again, like all the world's cacophonous beauty.