Christmas Eve, Midland, Texas, Last Year
Frankie Dillon awoke with a thick, heavy pain in her head that was so great and so pounding, it could only mean one thing: It was the morning of Christmas Eve.
Without moving, without even opening her eyes, since doing either one would almost certainly mean increasing the pain, she took a quick physical inventory. Her feet were freezing cold. Whatever she’d used as a blanket last night must’ve long since slid off. Her tongue felt oversized and furry, and for a moment, she wondered if maybe a mouse or a hedgehog had actually taken up residence in her mouth overnight.
She shifted a hand just enough to pat her stomach. Still skinny. Whew. Sometimes, she had bad dreams that she was two-hundred-thirty-plus pounds again, and it always took a moment upon waking to remember that wasn’t her reality anymore.
But she was wearing the dress. She could tell by the scratchy feel of the lace draped over her stomach, and the little bumps of the beads sewn into the Basque waistline.
Yep, definitely Christmas Eve morning.
For years now, her Christmas Eve-Eve tradition had been to send her daughter, Mackenzie, to Kenzie’s dad’s house on the 23rd so Frankie could stay home alone and get rip-roaring drunk on Jim Beam as she relived old, painful family memories. For the past couple of years, she’d added trying on her mother’s wedding dress to the agenda. Why not? She was finally skinny enough to fit into the lace-and-polyester monstrosity Pammy Bates had worn over twenty-five years ago, as a young bride, when she’d stood up with a fresh-faced Danny Dillon at the Shaded Oaks Baptist Church on Neely Street in Midland, Texas, and gotten hitched.
Before Frankie had lost a hundred pounds by counting Weight Watchers points, her Christmas Eve-Eve tradition had just been to hit the Jim Beam in whatever she happened to be wearing.
Frankie’s mother had always said marrying Danny Dillon had been the second biggest mistake of her life. The first biggest, of course, had been getting pregnant with Frankie in the first place, which had happened before the quickie wedding—but not so long before that Pammy Bates hadn’t been able to fit into a size-four confection of poufy sleeves, sweetheart neckline and flouncy skirt to rival any Disney princess around.
Well, now Frankie could fit into a size four. And Pammy Dillon, nee Bates, hadn’t been able to fit into anything smaller than a size twenty-four in nearly two decades. So there was that.
“I win,” Frankie announced flatly to the empty room.
The words came out sticky. She spent a minute just trying to work up a bit of moisture in her mouth to un-stick her tongue from her soft palate.
While she was busy doing that, there came a knock at the door, gentle but persistent.
“Go ’way,” she called out, as loudly as she dared—if she hollered too loudly, her head might actually split in two, like an overripe watermelon cracking open.
The door to her little duplex apartment opened anyway, letting a puff of chill air into the living room along with a whole lot of light. Way, way too much light. Frankie grabbed the throw pillow that had been under her head and jammed it over her face, but not before squinting into the brightness of the morning light to see who had come to torture her. She hoped to high Heaven it wasn’t Kenzie, come home early from her daddy’s house. Her daughter was only nine; she didn’t need to see Frankie like this.
It wasn’t Kenzie, thank goodness. Instead, Harlan Williams’s big, comforting frame came into view. He took off his hat and closed the front door behind him.
“Oh, Harlan.” Dispiritedly, she plunked the pillow back over her eyes. “What are you doing here?”
Why did she even bother to ask? He always found some reason or other to drop by on the morning of Christmas Eve. It was as if he was worried she might not wake up, after one of these binges.
Which, come to think of it, wasn’t a completely baseless worry.
“Just come to check on you,” he said mildly.
She appreciated the lack of judgment in his tone. She could always count on Harlan to be a good friend. Her best friend, really.
She heard him plod across the wooden floorboards and shift something aside, and then she felt the gentle weight of him press down the couch cushion near her feet.
“Since,” he added, “today’s, you know. Christmas Eve.”
Frankie groaned. She’d known Harlan since the summer before they’d started kindergarten together at Bass Elementary. He knew pretty much everything there was to know about her family, her life, every small and stupid part of what it meant to be Frankie Dillon.
She threw the pillow onto the floor and stared up at the ceiling. “If Christmas was a man, it would be the worst kind—a liar. And I would tell it to suck it, right before I flipped it the bird.”
Harlan nodded. “Mm-hmm.”
Yeah. Harlan didn’t believe her, and that was fine. He could see right through her bravado. He knew as well as she did that she wouldn’t do any such thing, even if Christmas were a man, and the worst one on earth. Frankie had been brought up a good Baptist girl. Despite some folks in her church’s reservations about the holiday’s overly commercial quality, Frankie didn’t share their concerns. She loved Jesus, as simple as that, and she could never flip off Christmas.
But sometimes she sure wished she could. Christmas ought to know just how royally it had messed up her life.
Well, not Christmas, really. Christmas Eve.
“Kenzie over at Jerry’s house?” Harlan asked.
“Harlan, you know I’m a good mama. I wouldn’t be sprawled out on my couch, hung over as hell, if she’d spent the night here, now, would I?”
Frankie’s response had dripped with pure, acid crankiness, but Harlan didn’t say anything. He just asked, “You call Miss Pammy yet?”
He shifted discreetly and pulled out the near-empty Jim Beam bottle he’d been sitting on. She heard it give a gentle clunk as he set it on the floor on the far side of the couch.
“No,” Frankie said shortly.
“Twenty-year anniversary,” Harlan pointed out. “Kind of a milestone.”
Frankie heaved a sigh. Sometimes, it was nice having friends who knew every little thing about your whole entire life, including the fact that your no-good drunken low-life of a father had left the family back on Christmas Eve exactly twenty years ago, in an act that had made every single Christmas Eve since a little, well, loaded.
Other times, every now and again—mainly on Christmas Eve morning, when she was hung-over and hating the world—Frankie wished she’d never met Harlan at all. It could be difficult, having a friend like him, a loyal one who knew to knock on her door Christmas Eve morning, to make sure she was all right and her daughter, too, and to check on whether she’d called her mama yet.
Then she thought about what he’d just said.
“Twenty years,” she mused aloud. “Good Lord.”
“It’s a long time,” Harlan said. “A long time to be gone. You ever hear from him?”
“My daddy?” For some reason that struck Frankie as impossibly funny. She started laughing, and once she started, she couldn’t stop. She rolled onto her side with it, the old polyester of her mama’s wedding dress straining at the seams as she then sat up, still laughing, and bent forward, laughing even harder.
“You all right?” Harlan reached over and pounded her back when she started coughing. “You aren’t about to puke, are you?”
“No,” Frankie said crossly, suddenly not laughing anymore. The hilarity of the moment evaporated just as quickly as it had bubbled up and over.
“It’s okay if you are,” Harlan said mildly. “Just let me know, and I’ll get you a pot from the kitchen.”
Good old Harlan. Always there to take care of her when she needed it. He’d probably even hold her hair back if she did start puking.
Well, it was time she started holding back her own damn hair. Or, more precisely, it was time she started taking care of herself.
Which was a sentiment that had a very familiar ring to it.
Frankie squinted. Certain elements of the events of the previous evening, hazy at best, were starting to become clearer to her.
Suddenly, she sat up straight. “Sweet baby Jesus, I almost forgot.”
“Forgot what?” Harlan asked politely.
Frankie stared around the room, feeling as if she were seeing it for the first time as a stranger might—the worn floorboards, the plain white walls, the little TV set in the corner that she’d taken on the sly from her mama’s house. Pammy had so many old TVs and other electronics among all the junk, there was no way she’d miss it. Frankie liked to watch Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelorette, when they were on. You didn’t need a fancy flat hi-def TV for that.
“I decided something last night. Well, a couple of somethings.”
“Oh, yeah?” Harlan shifted, crossed his booted feet at the ankles. “What’s that?”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
Something in Harlan’s body language changed. Without shifting so much as a booted foot, he was suddenly still, poised and alert, as if hanging on her every word. “Do what anymore, exactly?”
She swept an arm out to encompass the whole room. Her whole life. “This. Getting drunk every December twenty-third, just to honor my drunk of a daddy that I haven’t even seen in twenty years. Kenzie doesn’t need a mama who does that, even if it is just one day a year.”
Harlan smiled that slow smile of his, the one that was always slightly surprising. He was a slow and steady kind of person, and when he smiled, you really knew he meant it. And it lighted up his whole face.
“Well, all right,” he said. “Good for you, Frankie.”
“Thanks. That’s why I’ve decided we’re moving.”
“Moving?” Harlan repeated the word quizzically, as if not entirely clear on its meaning.
“Yep, moving. Me and Kenzie. To Austin.”
The slow smile evaporated. He sat up straighter. “You are? Why? When? I mean, okay, maybe that’s actually a great idea, but… Where are you going to live?”
“We’re moving to Austin,” she repeated, her conviction growing as she said it aloud. “I’m starting a new life. And by God, I’m gonna find me a man.”
* * *
The news hit Harlan’s eardrums first. Next it hit his chest, where it prickled and spread, sharp and charged. For a second, he thought he must be feeling the way a cow felt when it got poked with an electric prod.
It had sounded like Frankie was planning to stop drinking. That was a good thing, a very good thing. What wasn’t good, not good at all, was the part about planning to move five hours southeast to the capitol city.
How the hell was he going to spend time with her if she moved a five-hour drive away? How was he supposed to keep an eye on her and Mackenzie, all the way down there in Hippie Town? Most importantly, how was he supposed to keep quietly wooing Frankie, working away at her gently but persistently, the way water wore away at a rock, smoothing it out over time?
Of course, there had been a time or two when he’d gotten to woo her a little more directly. But he wasn’t sure if Frankie even remembered those times. Once or twice, years ago, he’d given in to her drunken come-ons, purely because to resist would have been like a man stranded in the desert saying a polite “No, thank you” to a tall, cold glass of water—impossible.
So they’d made out once or twice, back then. Holding her in his arms and kissing her had been like heaven, for him. She’d tasted like strawberry shortcake. If he thought about it, he could still remember the scent and the flavor of her vividly, as if she were still in his arms—their intimacy had been that earthmoving, for him. Which was why, the last time she’d come on to him after she’d been drinking, he’d turned her down. It had never happened again, and they’d never spoken of it in all the years since.
And he’d always hoped she didn’t remember. It was tough, turning down the unrequited love of your life just for the sake of being a decent guy. He’d always hoped she hadn’t felt rejected, since rejecting her had been the last thing he’d wanted to do.
Which brought him to the third part of her announcement, the worst part by far—she was planning to find a man.
He couldn’t help but scowl. Find a man? What man? Some slacker musician type? They had plenty of those down in Austin, and that wasn’t the kind of man Frankie needed, not by a long shot.
Then an even worse idea occurred to him. What if she fell in with one of those academic types? The University of Texas was down in Austin—what if Frankie met a UT professor? Harlan gulped. There was no way he could compete with a guy like that—a guy with smarts. He didn’t exactly understand why, but guys like that, as nerdy as they almost always were, never seemed to have a problem finding women to coo over them.
But Frankie wasn’t like that. She didn’t just go falling over any guy around who had a big bank account or a bunch of fancy letters after his name. She was smart. She knew what she wanted, and what she needed. And she always put Kenzie first, which meant she wouldn’t date around lightly. She’d find a man who was right not only for herself, but for her daughter, too.
Which brought Harlan to his final and most uncomfortable question. Why hadn’t Frankie noticed, in all these years they’d been friends, that the perfect man for both her and her daughter was standing right smack in front of her, just waiting for her to reach out and take him?
* * *