Christmas. So. This was it. I sat on the leather couch in my parents’ house, wrapped in a cozy blanket and watching the scene play out before me. I was happy. I had just shot up not ten minutes earlier, and I was in my happy place. A smile lit my lips as I watched my father pass out the presents in joviality. A fire crackled on the hearth. My mom had out the camcorder and every few minutes she’d scan the room, though nothing had a chance to change from last time. Marcy and Greg were snuggled up on the other couch; Greg was actually wearing a striped two-piece pyjama set with matching robe and slippers. That guy was sixty if he was a day, and every time I looked at him, I laughed.
But Christmas did seem to hold some kind of special power, besides goodwill and peace and all that. Maybe the magic was all in the drugs, maybe my attitude had changed because I was too blissed out to resent everyone like I normally did. But it was like I’d been totally forgiven for the last six or seven months of what I knew had been less than desirable behaviour. My mom, my dad, my sister, her husband … no one seemed to harbour any ill will towards me, not like the last time I’d seen them. When I’d finally made it in the door last night, winded from the cold walk, my dad had actually hugged me. Mom was beside herself with excitement. Marcy offered me a drink, and Greg put his arm around me like that was a natural place for it to be.
I couldn’t help but be touched. My family was brutal, they drove me crazy in thirty different ways, but it was hard to resent them when they were being so … nice, so accepting of me. It was like they’d had a meeting and unanimously voted to make me feel like I was loved, instead of the usual constant judgement passing and dirty, intolerant looks. I was surprised. Baffled even—and wary at first, just in case this was some kind of trick. After awhile though, I settled in comfortably. I couldn’t help myself. It felt good. For the first time in a long time, it felt like I belonged again.
No one mentioned Craig. No one mentioned the wedding. No one mentioned my birthday dinner. Someone did mention Grey. It was my mother, her face totally devoid of any agenda or intent, asking if Grey were coming over for dinner. I was flabbergasted by the question.
“No … no, I think he has plans.” I answered quickly, suspicious.
“Oh, well. Maybe next time.” She had said. And it looked like she meant it.
I couldn’t believe it. It was like aliens had come and taken my old family away, replacing them with identical twins—nice identical twins. As the time passed—harmoniously, for once—I felt all the anger I had towards them slowly fading away. Their treatment of Grey at the wedding, how they’d tried to set me up with Craig … it was easy to forgive them for all of it. Maybe it was the months spent apart that had cooled my jets. Or maybe it was a sign; maybe I was growing up or something. Maturing.
Or maybe it was the drugs.
Either way, I was still happy. Dad exclaimed over the putting machine I’d given him—which had been Grey’s idea, he said every executive needed one. Mom loved her pink Cashmere sweater, Marcy her silver earrings, and Greg his pipe. I had to get him a pipe, come on, look at the guy. But he liked it. Apparently, it reminded him of his grandfather. I was glad now that I’d scraped up enough money to actually buy them all presents, though at the time, I’d really wanted to save it for dope instead.
Marcy gave me a diary, it was beautiful—leather bound with brown and blue embellishments. Greg gave me a chess set which I was actually afraid of, it seemed way over my head. But he promised to teach me. My present from mom and dad was small, it fit into a little tiny box that they gave to me last, after all the other presents were opened.
“What’s this?” I wondered. My parents became noticeably more animated as I held the box in my hands. “It’s not going to explode, is it?”
“No! Open it!” Mom could barely contain herself.
I grinned and unwrapped the gift as slowly as I could, just to make her go crazy, until even I couldn’t handle the suspense anymore. I ripped the paper away and tore the lid off the box. Inside sat a set of keys.
“Is this ….” My eyes were wide as I looked down at them. “Did you get me … a car?”
“Yes!” Mom clapped, jumping up and down. “It’s in the garage.”
“An actual car?” I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned, shocked into a stupor. I was terrible. I was a horrible, horrible child. I looked up at my parents, into their happy, shining faces—and was overcome with guilt. All consuming guilt.
“I don’t deserve this.” I decided, tears welling up in my eyes.
Dad shook his head. “Sure you do. Come on, don’t you want to see it?”
I nodded briefly. I couldn’t believe what they had done for me, after everything I’d done to them … so much they didn’t even know about. I tried not to remember how much I had stolen from them; I tried to push the guilt from my mind. I couldn’t tell them about it, not now. It would only give them reason to hate me again. But I could be good now, couldn’t I? I could try to be someone worthy … I could try ….
“Thank you daddy.” I whispered, reaching up to kiss his cheek.
“Thanks mom.” I squeezed her into a hug. I think they were both surprised by my affection, but I couldn’t blame them. They’d had months and months of nothing from me. Marcy and Greg sat nearby on the couch, smiling at the scene without a trace of jealousy or resentment on their faces. I hugged them too—just because I could—and though it took them by surprise as well, they seemed content—happy that I was happy.
My car was a thing of beauty. It wasn’t fancy or rare or expensive, which I loved. It was an old Ford Thunderbird, light blue, made in the late eighties. It made my entire day. The seats were cushy with soft blue upholstery. It was necessarily an automatic and had a large, roomy back seat with plenty of space in the trunk. I couldn’t stop thanking my parents; I thanked them over and over again. They were overcome with my happiness. I actually saw tears in my mother’s eyes.
Dinner was a festive affair. I had only one glass of wine, which was a big restraint on my part. Even though my family wasn’t watching me like a hawk—which again surprised me—I didn’t want to wreck the evening. The whole day had been so lovely. We talked around the table, and ate until we were stuffed—which didn’t take much for me—but then we lingered around our dessert plates, chatting and drinking coffee. Had I known such a relationship was possible with my family, I would have come over a lot more often. It boggled my mind; I kept trying to put my finger on what had changed, why we were suddenly able to get along. But there was no real explanation for it.
After supper we all took our drinks into the living room, sitting before the crackling fire and the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights. Everyone was relaxed and happy. I was excited too; I knew that soon, I’d get to do some more heroin. It was so easy to just sneak away and take care of myself, and then come back and continue on with total bliss and happiness. My family didn’t even seem to notice. It was perfect.
Just when I thought the evening couldn’t get any better, the doorbell rang.
My heart leapt into my throat at the noise. I had been hoping … it’d be just like him to … I jumped up and ran to the door before anyone else could even think to open it. Sure enough, there, standing in the cold with a smirk upon his face, stood Grey.
I jumped into his arms. He was by far the best Christmas present I could ever have received. I kissed his face, every spot I could reach.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you ….” I repeated in a whisper. He laughed at my exuberance, wrapping his arms around me and twirling me around.
“Merry Christmas.” He spoke into my ear.
“Uh … hey … come on you two, come out of the cold,” my dad, having come to see who was at the door, forced pleasantness into his voice and motioned us back into the house. I grasped Grey’s hand and pulled him forward as Dad shut out the cold winter breeze behind us. I took his coat and hung it up in the hall closet.
It suddenly felt very stiff in the living room; the change was almost tangible compared to the relaxed atmosphere I had left it in. Marcy and Greg sat up, wary, and my mom didn’t seem to know what to do. Dad sat down by the fireplace, his expression blank, and he too seemed at a loss for words.
Grey cleared his throat. He looked gorgeous in a black collared shirt and dark blue jeans, but was obviously uncomfortable as well. I seemed to be the only one still completely at ease. Grey had come over to my parents’, just for me, even knowing how awkward it would be … and it meant the world. But I didn’t want it to be awkward. I was suddenly determined to make this one of the best evenings ever, for everyone involved. I knew my family could love Grey if they’d only give him a chance, and it seemed tonight—for whatever reason—would be the best time to try.
“You have a lovely home, Mrs. Taylor.” Grey acknowledged.
“Thank you, Grey.” Her answering smile was tight.
“Hey, Mackenzie, uh … why don’t you go show Grey your present?” Dad suggested then, to the concealed relief of everybody else. While we were out of the room, they could have a few moments to compose themselves, to get a handle on the situation. And hopefully think of some topics of conversation.
“Yeah, sure. Come see.” Still holding Grey’s hand, I smiled and pulled him through the house, into the garage. It was better when we were alone. We were both able to breathe again, to act naturally.
“You got a car?” He was as incredulous as I had been, stepping into the three-car garage, obvious surprised written on his face.
“Yeah … what do you think?” I smiled, sweeping my hand over the auto in a motion very akin to Vanna White. “Pretty, hey?”
“Nice ride.” Grey smiled and leaned in closer to inspect it. “Does it have a radio?”
“No reason. Just get in.”
“Okay.” I grinned with curiosity and got into the driver’s side. Grey sat down in the passenger seat and looked down at his watch a moment, then started playing with the radio dials while I turned the key back to accessory.
“Wow. Thank you so much for coming.” I smiled up at him as he fiddled, completely ecstatic. “You made my whole day.”
“Well, Bruce Willis had already saved the day, a few times, actually … and, I wanted to give you your Christmas present.” He winked slyly.
“But I thought we agreed not to get things for each other.” I protested.
“It’s just something little.”
“Just listen.” He turned up the volume dial. After a few minutes of DJ prattle, suddenly I recognized Grey’s velvet voice, along with the rest of the band, coming to me in crystal clear audio from over the radio waves.
“Oh, Grey! That’s you, on the radio! Wow!” I hugged him. “How does it feel?”
“Awesome.” Grey frowned. His expression didn’t match his answer.
“It doesn’t look too awesome.” I giggled.
He sighed. “They’re playing the wrong song.”
“Oh.” I listened for a moment, but I didn’t see what the big deal was. Who cared what song was playing? “Come on, Grey. This is you, on the radio. This is huge!”
“I know, but, I wanted them to play … I thought the first single was going to be … your song.”
“Oh.” It took me a moment to realize what he was saying. “Wait … do you mean … you recorded my song?”
His blue eyes shone at me. “Yeah. That’s why we were at the studio for the extra week.”
“Really?” Happy tears stung my eyes. I stared up at Grey, amazed, completely overwhelmed by his gift. “I still can’t believe you even wrote me a song,” I smiled gloriously at him. “… and then to record it …. Thank you.”
“It’s just the first of many.” Grey shrugged. “And, if you can’t hear it on the radio, I guess you’ll just have to listen to … this.” He pulled something from his pocket then; it was square and flat and had a picture of … him. And Zack, and Alex … and there was Lucas and Jimmy … and cover art ….
“Your CD.” I grabbed it from his hands. “They’re out now? Grey, this is awesome. That’s you right there. Are there more pictures? Does it have the lyrics …?”
Grey laughed at my enthusiasm. He pulled me across the console and into his lap, kissing my smiling lips. “You, Mackenzie, are one of a kind.”
“No, I’m not. You are.” I replied seriously, gazing up at him. I placed my hands on his dark, stubbled cheeks so he would understand the sincerity of my words. “I’m so proud of you. Really.”
Grey smiled, his cheeks reddening ever so slightly—but I could tell my words made him happy. He ripped the plastic off the CD case.
“Do you want to listen?”
“Of course.” I nodded enthusiastically. Grey peered at the dashboard of my car a moment, and then he chuckled to himself.
“What?” I wondered.
“I think CD’s were a little before your car’s time.” He tapped the cassette deck in the dash face and smirked.
“Oh.” I hadn’t realized my car was that old. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. We can get you one of those adapters. But I guess this will have to wait.” He put the CD back in its case and then snapped it shut. “For later.”
“No it won’t. Come on, I have the best idea.” Eagerly, I turned the key off and opened up the door. “My parents have a stereo. Let’s go blow their minds.”
Grey followed hesitantly, unsure. “Um … somehow I doubt that our music is your parents’ style. It’s a bit … heavy, don’t you think?”
“Oh, I’m sure they can handle some shaking up.” I smiled and grasped his hand again. “Seriously, they’ve been … really cool today. I don’t even know how to explain it … but I think … I have a feeling that they’re going to love your music. Like really love it too, not just pretend.”
“You think so?” He seemed sceptical, but there was no denying the hopefulness there, apparent in his face. Despite everything, he really wanted my family to like him. I could tell.
“I’d bet money on it.”
“Okay then. You’re on.”
I held up Grey’s CD triumphantly as we rejoined my family in the living room. He watched me, hanging back, unsure of the spotlight as I turned on the stereo and put the disc in the tray.
“What’s this Mackenzie?” Mom wondered.
“Grey’s CD. It’s finally done.” I showed them all the case.
“Can I see that?” Marcy asked, holding out her hands. I threw the jewel case expertly into her clutch and she opened it up, flipping through the booklet inside.
“So, what type of music do you play?” Dad asked Grey.
“Uh … it’s hard rock … I guess you could say. It’s not exactly seasonal.”
I giggled at his description and then hit play. We sat back and listened as the first song came on—chugging heavy guitars and screaming, thrashing vocals. I looked over at Grey from the corner of my eye, and smiled. He tried to keep his mouth straight, his features composed, but as Zack wailed into a screaming guitar solo the laughter burst out of him. I couldn’t help myself; I had to laugh as well.
It didn’t take long before everyone was laughing, whether we were all in on the same joke or not, I couldn’t tell. But it helped to ease the tension in the room.
“It’s okay; we don’t have to listen to it.” Grey offered. “It’s a bit heavy.”
“No, I like it.” Dad insisted. “I used to know a thing or two about rock and roll. Just ask Deb here.”
“Yeah, you were a regular Paul McCartney.” Mom rolled her eyes, which set us off laughing again. There was no way I could picture my dad—with his straight-laced suits and ties—liking anything that resembled actual rock and roll. He was a Simon and Garfunkel fan, through and through. But it was nice that he was trying.
“We can’t stop listening until you hear the best part.” I grinned. Grey cleared his throat as I flipped to the last song on the CD. He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall.
The music started slowly, quiet, with just the gentle plunking of a piano and the soft strumming of his guitar. As Grey’s warm, velvet voice sounded through the speakers, I melted back into my chair, closing my eyes and letting the sweet sounds of his voice and the words of his lips sink deep into my heart.
“Sitting here in the dark, Mackenzie’s next to me.
She’s lying in the moonlight, shining silver in the sheets.
And though it pains me so, I know I have to go.
I have to leave Mackenzie lying all alone.
Mackenzie, I hope you miss me
When I’m gone, when I’m gone.
I gotta go now, but you need to know how
Much you’re loved, how much you’re loved ….
In the dark alone, now there’s only me.
I’m staring at the moonlight shining silver in the streets.
The city lights are twinkling, glowing like her eyes.
No matter where I go, she’s always on my mind.
Mackenzie, I hope you miss me,
When I’m gone, when I’m gone.
I’m away now, but you need to know how
Much you’re loved, how much you’re loved ….”
The room was struck with silence as the song slowly ebbed, the beautiful notes fading softly away.
“Wow.” Marcy was the first to speak, her voice awed, no louder than a whisper. “That was really good.”
Mom’s eyes had actual tears in them. She smiled at Grey. “That was beautiful.” She nodded. “Really. Beautiful.”
I glanced over at Grey. He accepted my family’s compliments with great aplomb, but his blue eyes didn’t leave my face for a second—like my opinion was the only one that mattered, the only one he really needed to hear.
There was nothing I could say to do it justice. Completely oblivious to the family members surrounding us, I crossed the room and threw my arms around his neck.
“Thank you.” I whispered in his ear. “I love it.” And then, because that wasn’t enough either, I kissed him deep and long, my hands around his neck, my fingers twirling through his dark hair.
We stayed that way, oblivious, until Greg cleared his throat uncomfortably. The noise was enough to jolt us back to the present. I had totally forgotten our surroundings, had totally forgotten everything but Grey’s lips on mine. We broke away, sheepish, but no one seemed appalled or annoyed by our affection. They looked at Grey, and then they looked at me, and whatever they saw there made them actually smile. Maybe it was the simple happiness that I could feel radiating from me, shining like the lights on the Christmas tree. Whatever it was, they seemed to approve. And then I knew, without a doubt, that Grey had won over my parents. Grey had won over my family, just like I knew he would. All he needed was a chance.
Nothing could have made me happier. It was all so easy after that. Grey spotted my as of yet unopened chess set and challenged Greg to a game. I opened my mouth to stop him—Grey was setting himself up for a slaughtering—but I held my tongue. Greg smiled at the challenge and helped Grey set up the board on the coffee table.
I sat by Marcy, who looked stunning in a white cowl neck sweater and the dangly silver earrings I’d given her, and we watched our men play chess. I didn’t understand a thing; I made up my mind to give Grey the chess set as soon as we got home, because he seemed to be holding his own against Greg—of all people—which was impressive to me. Mom and Dad sat nearby, dad had an arm slung loosely over mom’s shoulders and they looked very cozy, and happy, watching the game and laughing whenever someone made a joke. It was very peaceful.
But I knew one thing what would make it even better.
The first symptoms of withdrawal were already hitting me. I’d been distracted, with Grey’s arrival and the car and the CD and everything, I hadn’t really noticed the severity of my craving. It had my full attention now. I couldn’t ignore the sweat that broke through my skin, the sudden weakness in my limbs. I couldn’t wait, I didn’t want to wait. I wrapped an arm around myself, fidgeting and uncomfortable. I needed to do some more heroin. And I needed to do it now.
“Mackenzie, are you okay?” Grey eyed me cautiously, instantly aware. He gave me a knowing look.
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine.” I sat up, shakily. “I think I just ate too much.”
“Do you need anything, honey?” Mom wondered.
“No, I’m okay. I’ll … I’ll be right back.” I hurried from the living room and up the stairs to my old bedroom, where all the supplies were stashed in my overnight bag. I took them all into the nearest bathroom and shut the door. Quickly, my blood pounding in my ears, I fought back the nausea and started a batch. The sickness made my hands shake and it took me way longer than normal to get the heroin into the syringe.
I squeezed my hand shut. I felt better knowing that relief was near, that soon the bliss would find me and have its way. My veins were slow to pop. I clenched and re-clenched my fist until one was near enough to the surface. Then, slowly, compensating for the shakiness of my hands, I plunged the needle into my skin.
“You okay honey? I’ve got some Gravol here if you ….” The door began to open. I realized with horror that in my haste, I had forgotten to lock the door.