Authors’ Note: If you’re here, you likely know Teddy and Petra from Always Darkest. This story takes place a few years earlier. It’s another in a long line of moments that bound them together as best friends. If you don’t know them yet, it’s a story about how a good friend can turn just about anything around.
The Fire of Hospitality
Petra sat in the back of the Range Rover, arms folded, unable to keep a sullen pout off her face. Her whole body felt like an overstretched rubber band and it had taken all morning to get to sullen. The crying on her bed was her private personal business and she didn’t want them to know that’s really how she’d started the day. What she wanted to do was yell. Angry was easier than what she really felt about this deep down. She huffed a short sigh.
She saw her father’s eyes flick to her in the rearview mirror, and narrow. “Honeybunny, don’t be that way. We’re almost at the Sullivans.”
She hated being called honeybunny, she always had. In all honesty, she also kind of hated her parents at the moment. And she had no intention of ‘keeping up appearances’, which was really what her father was worried about anyway.
She plastered on her nastiest fake smile. “Be what way, Father?”
Her mother huffed, but didn’t turn to look at her. “You know quite well to what your father is referring. Drop the attitude.” Another irritated puff of breath. “I swear it’s like the minute she hit her teens, the bitchy switch got flipped.”
Petra’s eyes went wide. She was bitchy? That’s what her mother called her not just putting up with being ignored unless they wanted to show her off for some of their nose-in-the-air work friends? Bitchy!?! Because she didn’t want to be dumped off…
“Honestly, Petra, your mother has a point. We’ve spent the last year tolerating nasty for nastiness sake. Cheer up. It’s Christmas.”
Oh, that does it.
“Cheer up? I’m supposed to be happy about spending Christmas alone while you guys take off for the Caymans and Alex goes skiing in fucking Switzerland!”
“Petra, language!” her mother snapped.
“Oh, yeah, because my language is the problem. Not that you and Dad are dumping me off with the Sullivans while you guys are all off having fun without me!”
“Your father and I have a life outside of you and your brother, young lady.”
“Why couldn’t I at least go have Hanukkah with Ded and Baba?”
Her mother detested being reminded about her family’s immigrant roots and that her parents still clung so strongly their heritage. Naming the children after her grandparents had been her only nod to it at all, and she’d only done that because she’d been fairly certain it would result in extravagant gifts from the extended family, many of whom had done as well for themselves and her parents had. “You know full well they’re spending time with relatives.”
“I still don’t see why I couldn’t go with them. I’d love to meet all the Kramarov relatives.”
“I’m not putting you on a plane for half a world away with…”
“Alex is on a plane for Gstaad!”
“It’s his birthday present!”
Petra felt like tears were close and that made her even angrier. “But it’s Christmas!”
“And we’ve already told you, we’ll celebrate together when we get back.”
“That’s not the point, Dad!” Her voice caught and she bit her lip so hard she tasted blood.
“We’ll continue this discussion when we get back,” her father said with finality as he pulled into a free parking space in front of the Sullivans’ building. “Besides, we’re hardly abandoning you to be alone. You’re getting to spend the holidays with your friend.”
Petra forced a smile back on her face and met his eyes in the mirror. “Whatever you say, Father dear.”
“Watch your tone,” her mother chided as she got out of the car.
Petra grudgingly opened her door and stepped out into the chilly December air. Teddy’s place was right on the waterfront and the wind was icy enough to take her breath away.
Her father climbed out of the car and took her bags from the back. As the three of them made their way into the building her father remarked, “I’m really thinking we should move into the city. The apartments downtown are lovely.”
“I could see myself living here,” her mother agreed.
Petra rolled her eyes at their backs. Only her parents could think living in an apartment was an upgrade from a house with a yard.
“Or one of those townhouses up past the park,” her father said thoughtfully. “Then we’d still have all the advantages of a house, but we’d be closer to work.” Petra rolled her eyes again. “Not to mention we’d be closer to Saint Augustine’s. When Petra starts high school, she could walk.”
They continued the conversations all the way to the Sullivans’ door. Maybe highschool would be better, Petra thought. At least she’d probably have friends with cars instead of having to depend on Alex for rides, or worse, her parents. Because once Alex went off to college it would be just them. Ugh.
Her father knocked on the door. They waited for a minute and Petra thought maybe nobody was home. She wondered if her parents would just leave her here anyway. Just as the thought actually started to worry her, the door swung open and Mr. Sullivan was standing there in a flour-coated apron, which explained the wait. “Merry Christmas!” he greeted with a beaming smile.
Her parents answered in unison, “Merry Christmas!”
So fake, Petra grumbled to herself.
Hugs and handshakes were exchanged and Mr. Sullivan helped her father get her bags inside. Mr. Sullivan waved toward the kitchen. “Do you guys have some time? I have coffee on and we could help Petra get settled.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t,” her father said, trying to look regretful, but not exactly selling it as far as Petra could tell. “We have to be getting to the airport. Petra was a little difficult to get moving this morning, so we’re a bit behind.”
“That’s too bad. But we’ll make sure she feels at home.”
“Thank you so much for having her,” Petra’s mother gushed.
“Don’t mention it, Samantha. We’re happy to have her.”
“Where’s the missus?” Petra’s father asked. Mrs. Sullivan had been the one to make the offer after church last week and he wanted to make sure she knew they were properly grateful.
“Still in surgery, I expect. She had a full day already and some sort of emergency this morning. Once she’s done today though, she’s off until after the new year.”
“What about you? Taking any time off?”
“A few days. I have to go back on the 27th. I’m in the middle of a big project. I’d love to be home with these guys. Maybe if I ever have the courage to start my own firm, I’ll have a proper holiday break.” Petra thought he sounded disappointed to not be spending more time with his family. Wonder what that’s like.
“I know how that is,” Petra’s father said. Petra rolled her eyes.
“Chad, honey,” Petra’s mother chimed in. “We really need to get going if we’re going to make our flight.”
Chad glanced at his watch. “Oh, wow, we do need to get on the road.”
They exchanged goodbyes and Petra made herself be polite, but she could hear the tears in her voice, even if her parents acted like they didn’t. The door closed, leaving her there with Mr. Sullivan looking down at her kindly.
“Um … Thank you for having me,” Petra mumbled, looking at her shoes.
“You’re always welcome here, honey. I hope you know that.” He patted her on the shoulder and she looked up at him, just barely. She managed a wan smile and nod. “Teddy’s in his room. Want me to go get him?”
She shook her head. “That’s okay, Mr. S. I know the way.” She took a deep breath meant to steady her nerves, but she felt herself smiling a little. “Oh, boy, it smells good in here!”
He grinned. “Thank you! I hope so. I’m baking pies for the shelter. What’s Christmas dinner without a good pie?”
“You’ve gotta have pie,” she agreed.
Her parents reaction to the notice coming home asking for donations for the church’s shelter had been a lot less charitable. Holiday travel plans aside, she’d been upset at how they’d refused. They’d been less than kind. In fact, when Petra said she wanted to make cookies to give them, her mother had laughed. Not a lot. But enough that Petra realized something. Her parents didn’t view poverty as a problem with a system, or with society. They viewed it as some sort of character flaw, even a moral failing of the poor. She’d spent a lot of time angry with them over the last few years, a lot of time feeling ignored and unimportant. But she’d always continued to love them. When her mother laughed, she realized something. She didn’t like them very much. And she didn’t want to be anything like them. At all.
Mr. Sullivan gave her kind of a funny look, so she figured some of what she was feeling must be showing, but he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he offered another kind smile, and said, “But don’t worry; I’m going to bake us one, too. For after dinner tonight. Can’t smell that all day and not have a taste!”
She grinned, finally making real eye contact with her host. “Well, if it tastes half as good as it smells, maybe you should make two!”
He laughed. “As always, flattery will get you everywhere around here. I was just thinking I might throw in an extra one to hold us over until the Christmas goodies get made.” He started to reach for her bags. “I’ll put these in your room, and you can go find, Teddy.”
She grabbed the bags before he could, hefting them with a real effort. “I can take my stuff, Mr. S. It’s on the way.”
“Alright. Then it’s back to the kitchen with me.”
Petra took her bags and headed toward the guest bedroom. She had to sort of use her feet and legs to kick along her suitcase. She wasn’t very big and it was pretty heavy. The room was right across from Teddy’s but it seemed like he was busy playing a video game. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see him, she just needed a minute. She shoved her bags inside, closed the door, and flopped down across the bed.
Tears started and she ground her eyes into the back of her arm. There was no reason to start bawling like a little kid. Her parents had never been especially attentive. But this was a new low. They waited until after her grandparents were out of the country to announce their plans, too. Plans to take off and leave her with people they really only knew in passing from church, even if she did spend half her life here. Them taking some all inclusive resort island vacation, and sending Alex to Europe. Christmas was only three days away! She sighed and managed for it to not be a sob. It’s not like I don’t know my family is fucked up, but Christmas? Like they couldn’t have booked different dates to be away.
Then she remembered how excited Teddy had been that he’d have company for the holidays. Most of their friends had big families. He didn’t really love being an only child. She thought she understood. She didn’t know what she’d do without Alex. When he’d said goodbye before getting in the cab for his trip, he’d cried. Not that Teddy’s parents weren’t amazing. But siblings were different.
She got up and blew her nose. She caught a look at herself in the mirror and decided to go splash water on her face. Once she looked less like she’d been sobbing on the Sullivans’ spare bed, she went and knocked on the door frame outside Teddy’s room.
“Hey!” Teddy greeted, putting down his game controller. “I didn’t know you were here!”
“In the flesh.”
“I should probably apologize in advance for Mom and Dad. They go nuts at Christmas. Like really off the deep end. Can you even believe the living room?”
She shrugged. She hadn’t really noticed. She’d been too busy trying not to bawl before she got some privacy. She found it hard to look at Teddy for a minute. “Least you know they aren’t gonna ditch you for some “us” time,” she grumbled.
Teddy got up off his beanbag. “I’m sorry, Petra. That sucks.”
She shrugged again. “Nah, I’m sorry, I’m in a mood.”
He grinned and punched her lightly on the arm. “You are a mood.” She managed a small smile. “You have every right to be upset. I’d freak if my folks left me at Christmas.” He pulled her into a hug and her smile became more fully realized. She and Teddy had known each other since they were little kids. Most of her happiest memories had him in them. Maybe this would be one, too.
“Come on,” he said, releasing her and digging around in his night stand for a beat up Avengers wallet. “I’m taking you to lunch.”
Suddenly, she wanted to cry again, but not in the same way. She just nodded, because if she opened her mouth she would cry. And if she cried, Teddy probably would, too. It had been that way between them, since kindergarten.
On their way toward the front door, Petra finally got what he meant. A huge tree took up half their living room. But that wasn’t all. There were lights everywhere, and an evergreen bunting, garlands, kissing balls, and wreaths. It looked like a movie and the air was filled with a fresh pine scent that somehow just made the smells coming from their homey kitchen even nicer.
Teddy stopped. “Hang on. I need to check with dad before we go. Can’t just leave the house without asking. Until I’m fourteen. That’s the rule.”
“Sure. Of course.” Petra waited in the foyer, taking note of all the decorations she’d missed when she first arrived. So many of them were handmade. Not like Martha Stewart handmade either. She saw things she knew Teddy had made in school over the years. She’d made them, too. But school ornaments didn’t get hung up at her house. They had this big fake tree, and all these sterile white and bloody red ornaments all bought from some high end catalogue with no thought whatsoever … Well, usually. This year they hadn’t decorated at all. Why bother? her mother said.
A single tear snuck out of one eye and Petra wiped it away with her sleeve. Teddy came back into the foyer just then and pretended not to notice. He pulled on his coat. “Dad says it’s cool if we go. He even gave me some extra money. So we can go literally anywhere for food. What’re you in the mood for?”
She shrugged. Her family went out to eat so often, she really didn’t care for restaurants all that much, or at least they all seemed pretty similar to her. “I’m not super hungry. So it’s on you.”
He grinned. “There’s this new place on Church Street called Queen City Buzz. It’s like a little coffee shop place. Mom loves their pastries. And she’s brought them home a couple times. They’re really good. So if you want to eat your feelings in a chocolate flavored way, they might be a good spot.”
“I like chocolate flavored feelings,” she said with a relatively sincere smile. “I wouldn’t hate a coffee anyway.”
Teddy’s grin grew. “I’ve actually still never had coffee. The parentals have never let me at home.”
“You gonna get in trouble if you do?”
“Nah. I mentioned QCB and Dad didn’t say no.”
She took his hand. “Cool. Let’s go. I love being a bad influence.”
By the time they reached the street, Petra started to really relax. The air was no less bitter, but somehow, with Teddy pulling her along through the crowds as they made their way to the pedestrian mall, it was pleasant and festive rather than cutting like it seemed before.
The outdoor marketplace was awash with lights and colors, bustling and crowded with holiday shoppers. It was spitting snow, but in a pretty way. Street performers and musicians of all sorts completed the scene, which seemed, to Petra at least, to be straight out of a quaint holiday movie.
Teddy led the way through the throng of bundled up and busy people toward the new coffee shop. “They look really busy,” Petra remarked as they entered.
“It’ll be worth it,” Teddy assured her. “I’d walk barefoot over broken glass for their napoleans I swear.”
Inside, the place had a homey sort of feel. In a modern way, but not the cold modern her parents preferred. It was all clean lines, and inviting colors. Tasteful decorations denoting various holiday traditions dotted the tables and windows, and some pleasant nondescript music provided a calming undertone to the festive chaos of the crowd.
They waited in the long line, chatting. Teddy wanted Petra to think about something other than her family ditching her, so he steered the conversation to what she thought about going to Saint Augustine’s next year after spending the last nine years in the same building.
Once they had their order in hand, they managed to find a small table, way at the back, in the corner. Teddy immediately took a sip of his beverage and his eyes rolled back in his head. Petra grinned. At her suggestion, he’d ordered a caramel latte. “See, I told you,” she laughed.
“I think I’m mad at my parents,” he said, laughing a little, too. “I had no idea what I’ve been missing! Lemme try yours!”
Petra smirked, but slid her cup across the table. It was a double espresso. Teddy took a big gulp, expecting something like his own drink. He cringed and had to fight to keep from spitting it out. “Ugh. Gross. How do you even drink that?”
She took her cup back. “I like it. Bitter is kind of my thing.”
Teddy took a big swig of his own sweet drink to wash away the taste. “Good thing I already love you, ya weirdo,” he teased.
She just laughed and took one of the dark chocolate biscotti from their shared plate, which held an assortment of sweet treats Teddy had picked based on what he’d gotten to try from his mom bringing things home.
They talked about school some more, talked about plans to go skating this week, drank their coffee, and both carefully avoided what was bothering Petra. After the third time he caught her staring out the window at a happy family out for some holiday fun, Teddy decided it was time to, as his dad liked to say sometimes, “get down to brass tacks.”
He met her eyes. “Look, I know this sucks. You know I’m always here to listen.”
She looked away. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Petra, come on. You’re just gonna … be a mood … if you don’t get it out of your system.”
She shrugged again. “Fine. I’m pissed. My parents have once again prioritized anything but me. It’s like my seventh, eighth, and tenth birthdays all had a baby and named it Christmas.” She sighed. “And I could cope with that. But this year it’s Alex, too. I mean, he felt bad once it finally came down to leaving. But it’s not like he felt bad enough to refuse his goddamn boarding pass, is it?”
“Ah, dude, I’m so sorry,” Teddy began.
Now that she’d started talking about it, she really did need to get it out of her system. “My whole family is off having this cool holiday adventure. And I’m here spending Christmas as a third wheel to an actual family holiday!”
Teddy frowned. “You’re not a third wheel! We’re all seriously happy to have you with us!”
“If you say so,” she said sullenly, although she almost believed it was true.
“I do say so! I’m finally not gonna be the only kid opening presents at Christmas! Like we’ve been saying we’re sibs from separate cribs forever. Now we get to be that for Christmas. That’s like the best time to have your honorary sister around!”
She smiled for him. She supposed it was true. She did kind of have a brother around for Christmas after all. “I know you feel that way, but…”
“You should have seen Mom and Dad,” he interrupted. “They were so excited talking about it on the way home from church. And then they called to make sure it was really happening. You should have seen Mom’s face when she got off the phone with Chad.” Teddy said the name in a mocking tone, and Petra felt a little brighter. They hadn’t said yes because they were actually friends with her parents. They’d said yes because they cared about her.
“Okay, I can totally see that,” Petra said. “But welcome or not … It’s Christmas. And as weird and dysfunctional as my parents are … Christmas is usually different. Like sometimes, even with the gross designer tree and fake holiday parties … Sometimes it’s almost like we’re a real family and not just two adults babysitting a couple of kids they aren’t getting paid enough to really give a crap about. Which is honestly how most of the rest of the year feels.”
“Like most of the time, I feel like a prop my parents need around to … I don’t know … You know like the displays in store windows that always look nicer than the stuff you find inside?”
“I feel like that. The stuff you put in the window. But … at Christmas … Not always … but a lot of the time. It felt … different. Like we were a real family. Until now.”
Teddy reached across the table and took her hand. “That sucks. But you still have a family. Sibs from another crib, right?” She nodded, looking away again. “And Mom and Dad would totally adopt you. You practically live with us anyway.”
She looked at him again, not quite smiling, but almost. “I kinda do.”
“You’re an honorary Sullivan now. And we do the holidays right.”
Petra Sullivan and her brother Teddy. The idea of the two of them in family photos, looking literally nothing alike, made her smile for real. “Okay. Take me through this Sullivan family Christmas thing.”
“You’re gonna love it,” Teddy said earnestly. “There’s like an insane amount of food around all week. Which you could totally already see, right?” She nodded. “And on Christmas Eve we go caroling with a bunch of families from our building and some people from church.”
“I’ve never been caroling,” she said softly.
“When we’re done with that we go home for dinner. That’s usually pretty light because there’s so much cocoa and cookies and stuff with the caroling.” She smiled, remembering Teddy mentioning all the cocoa and cookies before. Teddy was a real cookie enthusiast. “We spend the evening at home, just playing board games and listening to Christmas music. Mom always sings along and she has literally the prettiest voice. She could have a record deal if the whole cardiac surgeon thing ever falls apart.”
Petra laughed and Teddy warmed to his story even more. “Then around eleven, we all get changed, you know real Sunday best stuff, and we go to Midnight Mass together.”
“We did that one year. I was pretty little but I remember it. It was really kind of cool.” Petra wasn’t especially into church most of the time, but she did like the ritual of it. Especially on the rare occasions she’d gotten to go for High Holy Days.
“It’s the best,” Teddy enthused. “I love the singing and the incense and everything. It’s so beautiful.” She nodded for him to go on. “Then when we get home, we get to open one present and we drink some eggnog, and we go to bed. Spoiler alert, the present is new pajamas.”
“Only one present?”
“The rest always get put under the tree after I go to bed. I haven’t believed in Santa Claus in a long time,” Teddy said, in what Petra found to be an odd combination of defensiveness and sadness. “But they still always do it like that. It’s more fun.”
“So presents Christmas morning. What else?”
“Oh, like they let me sleep in and what usually gets me up is dad cooking brunch. It’s always amazing. Don’t tell him, but I kind of like my mom’s waffles better than his.” She giggled. “But his pancakes are hands down the best pancakes in the world. And his cinnamon rolls are better than anything from a bakery.”
“After smelling that pie, I can only imagine.”
“So we eat, and open presents, and we spend the day watching Christmas movies and playing games. Sometimes we go down to the park and have a snowball fight if the weather is good, and … Hey, are you okay?”
Petra had started to cry quietly. What Teddy described seemed impossible. Like some Hallmark Channel made for TV movie imaginary holiday. “Um…”
“Oh, Petra, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“No.” She sniffed. “It’s fine. I’m fine.” She wiped her face on her napkin. “Okay, risking more tears,” she said with a slightly forced smile. “What’s for dinner?”
“Dad makes his prime rib and yorkshire pudding. Mom likes to make the sides so that kind of depends on what weird stuff they all talk about over somebody’s open chest cavity.” She laughed. “But the prime rib is an always. And it’s another barefoot broken glass situation.”
Petra laughed again. It didn’t sound imaginary anymore. It sounded magical. “And I’m gonna guess, after dinner, it’s more games?”
“You bet.” Another crowd of people headed out of the shop causing Teddy to notice the clock over the door. “Crap. It’s getting late. We better head home. I don’t want to lose my brand new wandering around privileges already. I’ve got a new coffee habit to feed.”
They took care of their trash and headed out into the cold embrace of an early dusk. Petra looked around thoughtfully. “Hey, do you think we have time to make a stop?”
“I told Dad we’d be back by five. It’s only a little after four. Where do you want to go? Christmas shopping?”
She shook her head. “I want to stop by the shelter.”
“What for?” Teddy asked.
“I’d rather not say. Not right now anyway. Still cool?”
“Of course. But let’s walk fast. It’s getting colder by the minute.”
They made it to the shelter in no time, since most of the traffic was concentrated by the shopping centers. “Wait here. I won’t be long.”
Petra left Teddy on the sidewalk.
She went into the building and found the collection box.
She fished a wad of cash out of her pocket. It was guilt money from her parents, shoved into her hand that morning with the somewhat stinging suggestion that perhaps she should buy herself some new clothes for Christmas.
Hush money was how she thought of it. Like a payment of dirty money in a bad movie that wouldn’t bring the recipient anything but pain.
She hesitated, then shoved most of it into the collection box to make up for her parents refusal to give anything.
She saved a little out for herself for the end of the week. There was a tattoo parlor up the street that didn’t ask questions. She was going to get her nose pierced.
Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad, she thought to herself. Then she amended it. Merry Christmas, Samantha and Chad.
She went out and rejoined Teddy, this time pulling him along. She was ready to head home for a real family holiday.