When we entered the living room, Linds launched herself from Colt onto me, and once again, I found myself considering the strong appeal hugs had when the Carpenter girls were involved. Linds hugs were different than Sam hugs; Sam just held you and squeezed you tight until you thought your lungs would collapse, but Linds was squirmy and excited and she constantly chattered about everything under the sun in your ear because she was sure you'd missed something important. If it were anyone else, I'd shut it out with a smile and a gentle pat on the back, but to my surprise, I always found myself interested in what she said. Maybe it was because of how much I'd missed her, but as her words ran faster than her tongue could keep up, I wished I could record this moment and keep it with me forever. That way, I'd have a little piece of Linds with me when she was miles away.
Nothing could capture her sunny smile, though. That was indescribable, like chemotherapy for a cancerous and dying soul.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath against the prickles in the corners of my eyes. I was not crying in front of all these people. Not in front of my family, not in front of Colt, not in front of Sam…
"Having a moment, are we, Matty?"
Definitely not Jade.
I reluctantly set Linds down and nodded to the blond woman standing tall beside my mother. Her sarcastic slash of a smile had softened considerably since I saw her last, and I wondered just how many fights and explanations with Sam had caused that miracle. People like Jade Stawlinksi didn't become nice overnight. Seeing her next to mom was like looking a paradox in the face; mom was small and dark, and Jade was tall and golden. I wondered if Sam and I looked like a muted version of the two of them.
I glanced to my side, to see if she was staring at the walking contridiction as well, but Sam had turned into empty space. She was across the room, hugging Colt eagerly and teasing him about his scraggly beard and admiring how long his hair had gotten.
It gratified me that she'd gone to me first, before him. A prickle of pride tickled my heart.
Her enthusiasm faultered as she offered a hand to Shiloh, looking nervous for the first time. My sister looked at the hand with a mixture of confusion and disgust and wrapped Sam in a friendly hug. She went stiff as a board at first, but then she laughed at something Shiloh whispered in her ear, and she returned the hug. My heart swelled again.
I watched in silence as she hurried to greet my parents; she apologized for rushing into their son's room without permission. Dad's forehead wrinkled, like he couldn't fully comprehend this extraordinary girl--I understood the feeling--but mom gave her a hug just like Shiloh did and welcomed her to the house (and to the family, which set my ears on fire again.)
Colt noticed and elbowed me in the side. "Don't smile too much, dude. Your face might freeze that way."
I rubbed my neck. "Was I smiling?"
"Like you were touched in the head." He elbowed me again. "Is it that good to have her here?"
My eyes followed Sam as Shiloh took her by the arm and pulled her to the Christmas tree, where she then proceeded to show off all my baby picture ornaments. Linds followed them like a silky brown puppy.
"Yes," I said quietly. "Nothing compares."
"Whatcha thinking about?"
That it was snowing outside.
That it was warm inside, with the fire crackling and the curtains pulled tight.
That my stomach was full and and my head buzzed with contentedness.
That the tree shines with something more than just artificial lights and commerciality.
That there was a stocking hanging beside mine where there used to be the grave of empty space.
That there was a girl sitting on the couch next to me, not touching my hand but just close enough for me to lace my fingers through hers if I wanted to.
"Hello?" Sam stuck her face up to mine and wrinkled her nose in what was supposed to look like frustration but ended up just looking cute. "Earth to Matty. What's goes on in that head of yours?"
I blinked a few times, brushing the blurring lights and the haze of good food and laughter away, and then I slide my hand over to hers and squeezed it tight. She froze, but her shy, excited smile slipped across her face. I loved that smile.
"That I really, really missed you," I said finally, in a soft voice I didn't know I had.
She smiled again.