Scarlett and I did our shopping together at the mall, in the evenings; she bought an ABBA CD for Cameron, his favorite, and I got Macon a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, since he was always losing his. The mall was crowded and hot and even the little mechanical elves in the Santa Village seemed tired.
I felt like I saw Macon less and less. He was always running off with his friends, his phone calls shorter and shorter. When he did pick me up or we went out it wasn’t just us anymore; we were usually giving someone a ride here or there, or one of his friends tagged along. He was constantly distracted, and I stopped finding candy in my pockets and backpack. One day in the bathroom I overheard some girl saying Macon had stolen her boyfriend’s car stereo, but when I asked him he just laughed and shook his head, telling me not to believe everything I heard in the bathroom. When he called me now, from noisy places I wondered about, I got the feeling it was only because he felt he had to, not because he missed me. I was losing him, I could feel it. I had to act soon.
Meanwhile, my mother was so happy, sure that things were good between us again. I’d catch her smiling at me from across the room, pleased with herself, as if to say, See, wasn’t I right? Isn’t this better?
On Christmas Eve, after my parents had left for another party, Macon came over to give me my present. He’d called from the gas station down the street and said he only had a minute. I met him outside.
“Here,” he said, handing me a box wrapped in red paper. “Open it now.”
It was a ring, silver and thick, that looked like nothing I would have picked out for myself. But when I slid it on, it looked just right. “Wow,” I said, holding up my right hand. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yeah. I knew it would be.” He already had the sunglasses; I wasn’t good at keeping secrets. He’d convinced me to give him his present the day I got it, begging and pleading like a little kid. They were only half his present, but he didn’t know that yet.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, leaning over and kissing him. “And thanks.”
“No problem,” he said. “It looks good on you.” He lifted up my hand and inspected my finger.
“So,” I asked, “what are you doing tonight?”
“Nothing much.” He let my hand drop. “Just going out with the fellas.”
“Don’t you have to do stuff with your mom?”
He shrugged. “Not tonight.”
“Are you going over to Rhetta’s?”
A sigh. He rolled his eyes. “I don’t know, Halley. Why?”
I kicked at a bottle on the ground by my feet. “Just wondered.”
“Don’t start this again, okay?” He glanced down the road. One mention of this and he was already twitchy, ready to go.
But I couldn’t stop. “Why don’t you ever take me there?” I said. “Or any of the places you go? I mean, what do you guys do?”
“It’s nothing,” he said easily. “You wouldn’t like it. You’d be bored.”
“I would not.” I looked at him. “Are you ashamed of me or something?”
“No,” he said. “Of course not. Look, Halley. Some of the places I hang out I wouldn’t want you to go. It’s not your kind of place, you know?”
I was pretty sure this was an insult. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing.” He waved me off, frustrated. “Forget it.”
“What, you think I’m too naive or something? To hang out with your friends?”
“That’s not what I said.” He sighed. “Let’s not do this. Please?”
I had a choice here: to let it go, and wonder if that what was what he meant, or keep at him and be sure. But it was Christmas, and the lights on the tree in our front window were twinkling and bright. I had a ring on my finger, and that had to mean something.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really like my ring.”
“Good.” He kissed me, smoothing back my hair. “I gotta go, okay? I’ll call you.”
He kissed me again, then went around to the driver’s side of the car, his head ducked against the wind. “Macon.”
“What?” He was half in the car, half out.
“What are you doing for New Year’s?”
“I don’t know yet. Why?”
“Because I want to spend it with you,” I said. Even as I said it I hoped he understood what I was saying, how big this was. What I was giving him. “Okay?”
He stood there, watching my face, and then nodded. “Okay. It’s a plan.”
“Merry Christmas,” I said again as he got in the car.
“Merry Christmas,” he called out, then turned on the engine, gunning it, and backed out of the driveway. At the bottom he flashed his lights and beeped, then screeched away noisily, bringing on Mr. Harper’s front light.
So that was that. I’d made my choice and now I had to stick to it. I told myself it was the right thing, what I wanted to do, yet something still felt uneven and off-balance. But it was too late to go back now.
Then I heard Scarlett’s voice.
“Halley! Come here!”
I whirled around. She was standing in her open front door, hand on her stomach, waving frantically. Behind her I could see Cameron, a blotch of black against the yellow light of the living room.
“Now! Hurry!” She was yelling as I ran across the street, my mind racing: something was wrong with the baby. The baby. The baby.
I got to her front stoop, panting, already in crisis mode, and found her smiling at me, her face excited. “What?” I said. “What is it?”
“This.” And she took my hand and put it on her stomach, toward the middle and down, and I felt her skin, warm under my hand. I looked up at her, wondering, and then I felt it. A ripple under my hand, resistance—a kick.
“Did you feel that?” she said, putting her hand over mine. She was grinning. “Did you?”
“Yeah,” I said, holding my hand there as it—the baby—kicked again, and again. “That’s amazing.”
“I know, I know.” She laughed. “The doctor said it should happen soon, but when it did, it just freaked me out. I was just sitting on the couch and boom. I can’t even explain it.”
“You should have seen her face,” Cameron said in his low, quiet voice. “She almost started crying.”
“I did not,” Scarlett said, elbowing him. “It was just—I mean, you hear about what it’s like to feel it for the first time, and you think people are just dramatic—but it was really something, you know. Really something.”