I know Apen’s behind me, but I ignore him all the same. If he can vanish for two years, he can handle being invisible a while longer.
He shuffles around the stables trying to catch my eye, pretending to check his stall, stopping to rub Melly’s head, idly picking up the manure fork as if he might do some mucking. I tighten the girth on Niagara and pull the stirrup down. Sparkles, Chara’s horse, leans over to nibble at my hair.
“Off!” I can’t help but smile as I push her away. She shakes her head indignantly and rattles her bridle. I wish Chara would hurry up so we could leave.
“You going on a ride?” Apen asks, leaning around the horses. Apparently he’s given up on subtlety. He’s not very good at it, anyway, for all he tries to act mysterious.
“Yep.” I tug Niagara’s forelock free of her browband instead of turning toward him.
“Oh. I haven’t ridden a horse in the past two years—can you believe that?” His voice practically drips with the hint. He’s already inching one foot into the tack room.
“I guess that’s what you get for joining a ship’s crew,” I say, flat as my voice can go. I could say more than that--could say, “You should have thought about that before you left,” or “Should have thought at all before you left,” but I’d rather not spend more words on him than necessary.
He hesitates, momentarily deterred.
“Berlyne! I’m coming!” Chara calls from the house. She runs across the snowy yard, an empty basket in her arm and her hair tied back in a new pink ribbon. “Dad says we’ll need two armfulls of holly to make a wreath-th--”
Apen comes up by the horses and Chara skids to a stop. Her eyes widen, flick between us. With about as guise as a doe, she bites her lip to hide a grin. It’s all I can do to keep from rolling my eyes.
“You ready, Chara?” I unhook Niagara’s reins. “I got Sparkles geared up while you were gone.”
“Oh, um, no, actually—I forgot—” She glances around for something she could have forgotten.
I walk Niagara out of the stable to the mounting block. “No you didn’t.”
“I have to—”
“No you don’t.”
“Oh, um. Apen!” Chara’s voice lifts to a squeak of excitement. “You want to come help us gather holly? It’s pokey, so definitely dangerous! We could use your help!”
Annoyance radiates up my spine. This is too much. I whirl on my sister. “No, he can’t, because Dad needs him to chop wood. We’re nearly out.”
I’m just in time to see all the bounce fade of out Apen’s face as his shoulders drop again. I don’t exactly look at him. I haven’t exactly looked at him the whole time he’s been back, but I know him well enough to tell by the general shape of him in the corner of my eye that I might as well have set all his sketches on fire.
Maybe I should do that, actually. I could tell him we accidentally used them for kindling while he was gone.
“She’s right, Chara,” Apen says in a defeated tone. “Have fun on your ride.”
I slip into the saddle and hook my leg over the pommel. Niagara ambles across the yard to the path. When I look over my shoulder, Chara’s riding after me. I want to jump into a canter or a gallop, but I’m not about to risk Niagara’s legs on the snow and ice.
“Burrrrr!” Chara calls when she catches up to me. “Ice queen much?”
“If he wanted a warm welcome, he should have--I don’t know--never run away.” It still stings, two years later. A stupid, vague letter tied to his dog, and him gone. He hadn’t the courage or the time to face us in person. No word about where he went. Until Dad found that article in the newspaper about him saving the ship’s crew, we didn’t even know he still lived.
Chara and Dad are overjoyed to have him back. They’re overjoyed that he’s a hero.
I haven’t decided yet.
Maybe brothers and sons are allowed to disappear and return to family tripping over themselves in welcome. But Apen’s never been a brother to me. And whatever he is, it’s a whole lot harder to forgive and forget. Especially because I’m pretty sure I am completely justified.
“So, you and him…?” Chara squints at me like she’ll see straight through to my thoughts.
I snort. “That was years ago. Drop it.”
“Oh right.” Chara loses all trace of a smile, widens her eyes and hitches her shoulders up near her ears. It’s a great impersonation of Apen. “‘Berlyne, we’re both kids. Maybe you should--um, erm--hold off on this until we’re grown up.’”
“But you are grown up now. You’re nineteen!”
“I’m just saying.” She grins. “It’s practically Christmas! Why not, you know, make up? Find some mistletoe?”
“Ha!” I steer Niagara off the trail. “Let’s just concentrate on finding holly.”
That evening, I keep one eye on the timepiece in my room while I work the leftover holly into the right shape. Tonight we’ll exchange our gifts for advent--specifically, St. Lucy’s Day.
We only started celebrating a few years ago, when Apen joined the family. Apen loves nothing more than saints’ days, and advent, and excuses to sit still and stare at candles while he “reflects.”
Dad, Chara and I have been carrying on the tradition--giving gifts every Sunday leading up till Christmas--while Apen traipsed around the world. They want to make it extra special now he’s back.
I hadn’t made anything for Apen--partially because I didn’t know he was coming back, but also because I didn’t think he deserved anything. Now that the time has come, though, I’m guessing that if I don’t give him something Dad will be annoyed and Chara will take it as a sign that I care about the whole thing more than I do.
The sooner I can convince everyone it’s business-as-usual, the sooner Chara will stop poking my arm whenever I’m in reach, and the sooner Dad will stop giving me Concerned Parent Eyes, and the sooner Apen will stop being an awkward moron whenever I’m in sight.
I grab the candles I made last week and place them carefully on the holly wreath. The truth is, I remember very little of the story behind this saint’s day--just that someone gets to wear a special crown made of sharp leaves and fire. What an honor. It looks decent, so that’s good, because the timepiece is striking seven and Dad’s calling down the hall for me.
After throwing a cloth over the crown--the best I can do right now--I carefully carry it into our living room. Chara was sitting on the couch next to Apen, but when I enter she flies from his side to the only other empty chair in the room. He gets all wide-eyed and rubs his palms on his trousers. Dad somehow manages to look like he hasn’t noticed. Chara is just about to fall off the chair with silent giggles.
Shifting the gift into one hand, I grab stool from the kitchen. I take my seat by the tree and stare across at the others, daring any of them to say a word. They don’t. Well, they don’t at first, anyway.
“Berlyne, you’re nearest the tree, so don’t you want to go first?” Chara asks, beaming. “Oh look, you have a present already in your lap! Let’s do that one!”
Before I can answer, Dad’s in on the scheme. “Yes, I want to see what you have there!”
Maybe it’s just as well to get it over with. If Apen opens this first, then it won’t have to come at the end of a long succession of better, more thoughtful gifts. I shrug and stand, holding it out to him.
Instead of looking Apen in the face, I fix my gaze on his hands. Strange new callouses cover them now, I suppose from the time at sea.
He gingerly lifts the cloth and breaks into a smile. “Oh!”
“Here, I can put it on you.” I lift the wreath higher, expecting him to eagerly obey.
“Oh.” His shoulders start to edge toward his ears and the smile vanishes. Instead, he clenches his jaw, crosses his arms, and hesitantly lowers his head. He still tries to keep his gaze on the wreath, though, and as I lower it his face gets more contorted in a tight smile as he shrinks away from me. (*)
I sigh. “What?”
“It’s just--St. Lucy’s crown is for--you know--women,” he bursts out. Carefully he takes the wreath from my hands. It’s not that big, but he manages with great awkwardness to avoid brushing my fingers. “This isn’t exactly--It’s just not orthodox.”
My choice is clear: Begrudge him his stupid rules and stomp out, effectively ruining the night for everyone, or humor him. He glances up at me and smiles tentatively. This time, I accidentally do look meet his gaze. Though he didn’t grow an inch during his adventures, his face has a new leanness. His smile, a new sadness.
I roll my eyes heavenward and kneel in front of the couch. “Fine.”
Apen stands, grinning, and eases the wreath onto my head. The holly leaves prick my skin and tug my hair. I don’t dare move while Apen takes matches from Dad and lights the candles. Of course I am the one who ends up wearing the hat full of fire.
I have to use his help to stand again, all the while doing my best not to move my head at all. I ease back into my chair, sitting as straight and still, wondering how much wax will be in my hair by the night’s end.
Even though I mime to Chara to pass out the other gifts for me, she ignores my motions. I don’t trust myself to speak without jarring the wreath, so I press my lips together and do it myself. I feel like an idiot trying to walk across the room without shifting my torso or lowering my chin. But I manage. I give a new shawl to Chara, with lots of fringe and flashy beading. A new saddlebag for Dad, with tooled leather in the design of our ranch’s brand.
Throughout the others’ gift giving, I sit taut and upright, just waiting for my head to burst into flames. Chara’s presents mainly consist of pressed flowers and rather simply embroidered handkerchiefs. Dad’s are all practical--new clothes, repaired riding gear, a new leash for Melly (as if Apen would actually use it). Apen has a necklace from some exotic place for Chara and a new hat for Dad.
Last, Apen passes me a book-shaped package wrapped in burlap. I carefully remove the cloth, hardly able to see what I’m doing since I can’t bend my head. When it’s freed, I’m holding a large sketchbook. The corners are wrinkled with wear and even over the smell of wax the sea’s scent rises from the binding.
Apen leans closer and flips through the pages to show me. “While I was gone, I kept seeing things I wished I could show you. So I started compiling this journal. I’m not creative, but I thought you might use some of the ideas for your projects.”
The pages are covered in boot designs and scraps of fabric and crinkled leaves. On one page there’s a sketch of some beautifully tooled saddles and on another the basic pattern for a waterproof cloak.
The coil of annoyance loosens in my chest. I can’t help smiling at him. “Thank you.”
He starts to smile back, but the wreath shifts on my head. A candle falls from above my forehead and lands right in the middle of his sketchbook on my lap. In a moment, the pages have caught.
“No!” Chara gasps, jumping to her feet. Dad dives for the door.
“Quick, do something!” I cry, but this dislodges another candle.
Apen grabs the candles but it’s too late, the fire is spreading. “No, no!”
“Go get water!” I command him, throwing his burning book on the floor before the fire spreads to my skirt.
“The well’s too far!” he shouts back. He catches another candle as it falls.
“There’s a bucket in the kitchen, you bedlamite!”
Before Apen can go, Dad runs back in and dumps an armload of snow on both of us, and the book.With a hiss and a puff of steam, the fire dies--as do the rest of the candles on my wreath. I glance at Apen. Snow’s piled on his head like a hat. He’s slack-jawed with relief.
He catches my eyes, and we both start laughing.
We laugh until we’re nearly in tears, and Dad and Chara are giving us worried looks. We laugh while we brush off the snow and set the book to dry by the fire. I put the wreath hat down beside it and wipe my eyes.
“Well, that was a disaster,” I say.
Apen rubs the back of his head and smiles. “No. That was perfect.”