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“You need a coat?” I asked, taking in his white T-shirt that was now too big for him from all the weight he’d lost.

He shook his head.

I walked up next to him, and we stared at the tree’s ladder together.

“You remember when we put that ladder up?” he asked. “You were nine and you had me test out each step to make sure they were sturdy.”

“They weren’t.” I laughed.

He laughed, too. It was weird how the sound of his laughter made me want to smile and break down all at once. “I thought I broke my behind when I fell. After you went back home, I had ice packs taped to my ass.”

“They’re sturdy now,” I said, nodding toward them.

“Just a little old, though. We should’ve spent more time up there.” He rubbed his fingers on the back of his neck, kicking off the snow on his shoes. His frail body was shivering as a cold wind passed through the tree branches.

“You shouldn’t be out here in the cold,” I scolded.

“Last time I checked, I was the parent, not you,” he scolded right back. He pushed the back of his hand against his nose and looked away from the tree house.

With a weighted sigh, he spoke again, “Listen. You’ve been too much for me to handle and I think it’s best that you go back to stay with your mom or aunt or something.”

His words stung, causing me to step backward. “I’m not leaving you.”

“Lance told me about your mom.”

“She’s doing better,” I said. “She’ll be fine. I can stay here and help take care of you.”

“You don’t understand, do you?” he hissed. “I don’t want you, Levi. I don’t want you here.” He wouldn’t look at me. “Your plane leaves tonight at seven-thirty. Lance will take you to the airport.” He turned and walked back toward the house, leaving me standing there, confused and hurt.

He’s abandoning me, again.

I followed him into the house, but he shut me out by locking himself in his office. My fist pounded against the door. “Let me in, Dad!” I shouted, the back of my throat burning. “Let me in!” I begged.

I pleaded, but he didn’t relent, and in the pit of my stomach I knew he wasn’t going to let me back in.

* * *

I showed up twice to Aria’s house. The first time, I saw her sitting in the living room with her family, laughing as they opened gifts together. Everyone was filled with life, and I didn’t want to ruin their Christmas, so I went back to Dad’s and waited. All of my bags were already packed.

I sat in my bedroom staring at the clock on the dresser.

4:35 P.M.

Lance and Daisy had said they would be there at five to pick me up and drive me to the airport.

I picked up the two CDs I’d made for Aria and baby Mango and slid them into my coat pocket. I knew the CDs weren’t the best or most expensive Christmas gifts, but I hoped they would like them. As I walked over to Aria’s, I tried to figure out the best way to tell her I was leaving. I wanted her to know that no matter what, we could figure out a way to make us work, even if we were eight hundred miles apart.

39 Aria

Late on Christmas Eve I listened to the sound of Dad’s truck pulling into the driveway. Rushing to my window, I saw him unloading his suitcases. He came back. The snow was falling and Mom stepped outside to meet him. For a while they just stood with their foreheads pressed together, holding one another.

The next morning when Grace woke up and saw Dad sitting downstairs, she leaped into his arms, more excited to see him than all of the gifts under the Christmas tree. Then of course, she saw those gifts, and dived right in.

Things felt as if they were finally falling back together—into our new normal at least. I hadn’t had a chance to call or text Levi yet, but every few minutes he crossed my mind. After our late lunch, I tossed on my boots and winter coat to head over to his place to give him his Christmas gift.

As I opened the front door, I was taken aback when I saw James standing on the front porch with his hands stuffed in his coat pockets. “What are you doing here?” I asked, confused.

He snickered, his cheeks red from the cold. “Merry Christmas to you, too.” I didn’t reply. His fingers ran through his messy hair. There were heavy bags under his eyes, which matched his exhausted stare. “Look, can we talk?”

With caution, I nodded and stepped onto the porch. I rested my hands on top of my stomach and shifted back and forth from discomfort; my back had been killing me lately. “I don’t think we have anything to talk about.”

“I broke up with Nadine,” he blurted out.

“You what?”

“Well, she broke up with me. I told her about the baby.”

“You WHAT?!?!” I shouted, the back of my throat burning.

“Stop screaming, will ya?!” he scolded, scrunching up his nose.

“Wh-wh-why would you do such a stupid thing?! Oh my God, James! What the heck is the matter with you?!” My heart rate was picking up as my breaths grew short.

“I think we should keep him.”

“Shut up.”

“I’ll sign up for community college. I’ll get a job. Or two jobs. We’ll make this work. We can get an apartment—”

“Oh my gosh. Are you drunk? Please tell me you’re drunk because you are talking like a freaking lunatic!” I was trying my best to convince myself that he was pulling an April Fool’s Day joke a few months early, but the way his eyes were begging along with his words told me that it was far from a joke. “You’re not thinking straight.”