Chapter 8: Justin’s POV
“Merry Christmas, honey.”
My mother greets me with a mug of piping hot chocolate and melted marshmallow as I make my way downstairs sometime on Christmas morning. I didn’t sleep well last night after Brian called, so I could barely drag my ass out of bed this morning. In the old days, Molly and I would be up before dawn, jonesing in the doorway of the parents’ bedroom, demanding to go downstairs and open the spread of presents waiting for us. We were so spoiled. Now, I just want to sleep in.
“We had to wait for you,” Molly says with a sour glare as I flop down on the sofa. The Christmas tree looks a little lopsided to me. It fills the room with that fresh pine scent that used to send me into an asthma attack, but I’ve finally outgrown that sensitivity. I sneeze. At least I think I outgrew it. The ornaments are a combination of school projects, family projects, souvenirs from family trips and a few heirlooms. It’s an odd collection, but strangely soothing to me. Memories, I guess. We used to have a lot of fun decorating it together. I suppose my father didn’t get any of the ornaments in the divorce, nor would he care. He’s put all that behind him, now. All of us. We were just deitrus as he starts his new life. Asshole.
There are fewer presents now that we’re both grown up, but our stockings still hang on the mantle and my mother still fills them with small goodies. Mother, as always, is determined to put on a happy face and make the ceremony at least reminiscent of our childhood heydays. I can smell her favorite coffee cake recipe baking in the kitchen, and later there will be turkey.
“I’ll play Santa,” she volunteers, slipping on that dreadful fake fur Santa Claus hat that always designated the one who distributed the gifts. She metes them out in order, making sure each of us has one to open at all times, until all are revealed. Mine are practical. Gift certificates and cash cards, just what I need, really. But also a new parka, that I probably don’t need, and insulated gloves and a stocking cap, a heavy sweater, wooly socks. I glance at my mother.
“Do you think I relocated to Antartica?”
“I worry about you in that artist’s garret and New York gets cold.”
I laugh, picturing myself dressed up like an Arctic explorer as I paint. Oh well, I’ll get some use out of this stuff. New York does get cold, but no colder than Pittsburgh.
Molly’s gifts are mostly clothes, more suitable to normal weather patterns. When she goes upstairs to try something on, my mother hands me an envelope.
“This is special,” she says with a smile. “I think you need a little break.”
I expect money, but when I open it, I find an airline ticket and a hotel voucher. “What’s this?”
“I know how you love to ski. It’s a paid trip to Banff.” Now the warm clothes make more sense. Too bad the gift doesn’t. There’s also a voucher for renting ski equipment and for lift tickets.
“A ski trip?”
“Yes. You work all the time, you have no real break, no extra cash. A little vacation will be rejuvenating and that’s always good for the creative process.”
I stare at her. Who is she? Where is my mother? What does she know about the ‘creative process’? This little vacation can’t be cheap. I know this lodge, I’ve heard of it. Brian and I even talked about going there someday, one of the things we always said we would do and never did. He never stays at any place with less than five stars. “Why Banff?”
“Why not? It’s beautiful and they say the skiing there is wonderful.”
“Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to just send me to Vermont?”
“Justin, it’s not about being cheap. It’s about your having a wonderful time in a beautiful location.”
I sigh and shake my head. “You can’t afford this, Mom. It’s way too extravagant.”
“I had a good year. Just accept it graciously, please. And get packed. Your flight leaves in two hours.”
“Today? I’m flying out today?” There goes the turkey. This is just plain weird. I guess it’s good that I left my passport and other important papers here. Chances are a lot better they’d be lost or stolen in New York than here. And it was never likely that I’d be hopping a plane to Paris any time soon.
“Yes, I got a break on the price if you travelled on Christmas day.”
I shake my head. This is the goofiest, most unexpected present she’s given me, since that football when I was in fifth grade. If it makes her happy, I can force myself to ski and luxuriate in some fancy lodge, I guess. But I’d rather have the money. I gather my new wardrobe and trudge upstairs to pack. I’ll have to borrow a bigger suitcase. I didn’t come prepared for puffy clothes. Brian’s gift waits on the table beside my bed. Why am I delaying opening it? I don’t know. I want to see what’s in the box, but then again, I don’t. At the last minute, I stick it in my messenger bag, deciding to wait.
The plane is empty. There are probably twenty passengers, total. Who the fuck travels on Christmas day? I’m able to stretch out in a row of empty seats in coach and I sleep until we land. After I claim my bag, I wind through the customs line, and call Lindsay while I wait to be admitted. I wish her Merry Christmas and ask, “Is Brian there?”
“No, Justin. He left today.”
Oh swell, this is perfect. He’s on his way back to Pittsburgh just as I leave town. We’re like the stars of one of those schmaltzy movies where the lovers keep passing each other, unseen, in train stations. “He flew back?”
“He went to Banff to ski.”
I almost drop my phone. I have to juggle it to keep from watching it bounce on the cold, linoleum floor. Could Jennifer Taylor really be that devious? “Banff?” I repeat.
“Yeah,” she sounds surprised by my surprise. “He said he was going to ski for a few days.”
“Do you know where he’s staying?”
“No, I really don’t.”
I make inane chit-chat for as long as I feel is necessary to be polite, remembering what Brian said to me last night about Lindsay, and then I clear through customs, dragging my overstuffed bag behind me. A van with my name in the window is waiting outside at the curb and the driver takes over for me, loading my luggage, after offering me a bottle of water. The cold is intense but it wakes me up, at least.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he tells me. “The heat is on in the van. We just have one more passenger to pick up and then we’ll be on our way. He’s due any minute,” my name comes out of the window and he shifts some paper to find the other passenger’s placard.
“His name’s not Kinney, is it?” I wonder just how well this little shanghai was planned.
“No,” he says with a smile. Just as I begin to relax, he adds,
“Mr. Kinney arrived early this morning.”
Shit. Someone in Pittsburgh is going to die, and the first name on my hit list is Jennifer.