Going to Brite and Darcy’s for Christmas dinner was the kind of holiday gathering I was actually excited about. I was looking forward to spending time with a family and a close-knit group of friends, where it was actually about enjoying each other’s company and spending time together, not about having the appropriate date or the best gift for the boss in order to gain brownie points and accolades. Being taken into the fold by Brite Walker was a profound experience, and knowing that the burly man not only approved of me but more importantly approved of me for his daughter was the greatest validation I had ever been given. I finally felt like I was reaching the potential I’d long been chasing after and it had nothing to do with things and everything to do with one special girl that whipped through my life like a cyclone.
Being around Avett and her family had even inspired me to reach out to my own estranged brood. I’d sent my folks a Christmas card, one that had a picture of my mountains on it, and mentioned that I wouldn’t mind taking a trip up north to see them. I didn’t even know if they had a way to get mail out on their frozen lake or if they were interested in seeing me after so much time and bad blood, but I tried and figured that counted for something.
After a very steamy shower that had nothing to do with the water temperature and everything to do with me trying to lick all of the cotton-candy flavoring off of Avett, we got dressed and grabbed the gifts she had picked out for her parents—a new knife set for Darcy and a picture of her sitting on a Harley when she was still in diapers with Brite holding her on the massive machine, a smile brighter than the sun splitting his bearded face. The picture was yellowed and there were burn marks around the corners but the damage was hardly noticeable where it sat in the silver frame that looked like it was made of spokes. Avett had cried when Zeb called her and told her he found a box of pictures in one of the closets of the destroyed house. The box had been under the remnants of a leather jacket so the damage was minimal but the effect something so simple had on my girl was profound.
We got dressed and bundled up in defense against the winter chill that was thick in the December air. Snow had fallen overnight, leaving a light dusting on the ground that crunched under our feet as we exited the truck when I pulled to a stop behind the bar. Avett huddled into my side and rubbed her bare hands together as I led her towards the big metal vehicle that was taking up a good portion of the back parking lot.
“Is that an ice cream truck?” She sounded bemused. “Why does Rome have an ice cream truck in the parking lot in the middle of winter?”
I gave her a tight squeeze where she was pressed into my side and reached out with my index finger so I could draw a heart in the frost that had accumulated on the side of the big vehicle.
“Not an ice cream truck—a food truck, and it’s yours.” I shifted her so that she was facing me, her wide-eyed look of shock and her slack mouth making me chuckle. “Merry Christmas, Avett.”
She looked at the truck over her shoulder and then back at me, disbelief and astonishment clear in every line of her small body.
“What did you do, Quaid?” Her tone was breathless and filled with awe as she moved out of my grasp and towards the towering truck. She traced a heart next to mine and then trailed the rest of her fingers through the frost like she was petting the side of the monstrous vehicle.
“It wasn’t all me actually, and I can’t take credit for the idea—that was all Asa. When I mentioned that I wanted to get you something that you would have forever, no matter what happens between you and me, no matter what choices you make in the future, he was the one that brought up the idea of giving you your space to cook in.” I rubbed the back of my neck sheepishly and looked down at the crisp white blanket beneath my feet. “I may have suggested trying to buy a restaurant and it was quickly pointed out to me how ridiculous and unrealistic that kind of undertaking would be, not to mention how uncomfortable it would have made you. Asa mentioned the food truck, and your dad and Rome immediately decided that they wanted to pitch in as well. This is from all of us, Avett. We wanted to give you whatever kind of future you want to have for Christmas because we all believe in you and we all love the passionate, talented woman that you are.”
She spun around and threw herself at me, which made me stumble because of the slick ground. I struggled to keep us both upright as her arms wound around my neck in a stranglehold.
“I can’t believe you guys did this. I haven’t even started school yet. I don’t know what to say.”
I kissed her because she was happy and because she didn’t automatically tell me that she didn’t deserve something like this. We’d come a long way from that day she sat across me dressed in convict orange, looking like every bad thing that happened in the world was her fault and her burden to bear. I kissed her because she was mine to kiss and that was what made me happy.
“That’s the thing … this truck is yours, so you can do whatever you want with it. You can let it sit until you finish school, you can run it on the weekends, once you figure out what you want to do with it, you can hire someone to run it for you, or you can even sell the damn thing and invest the money back into your education. The options are endless and the choice is yours to make.”
She buried her face in the side of my neck and I shivered as her icy nose rubbed back and forth below my ear.
“You trust me to make the right one?” There was laughter in her voice and an alluring glint in her eyes as she pulled back and smiled up at me.
I grabbed her face between my hands and lowered my mouth back to hers. “Right or wrong, think of the stories you’ll have to tell after you make it.” I couldn’t wait to be a part of every single one of them. She was the beginning, middle, and end of the best story I had ever been lucky enough to be a part of. She always made for interesting plotlines and dramatic twists. Whatever story we were living was never going to be boring or predictable, and there was no one else I ever wanted to reach the climax, or a climax, with. The silly analogy made my lips twitch as hers rubbed softly against them in a whispered thank-you.
As long as my story and her story ended the same way and on the same page, with her and me together at the end of it, I didn’t care about the decisions we were going to have to make along the way, good or bad, because I knew all the important ones we would be making together.