2 | mistletoe
After Jack left for college – but not necessarily because he left – Peggy fell back onto expectations. She didn’t immediately leave after high school; her one gap year became two and before she knew it, she was working at the county office and was going steady with Fred.
Fred Wells was nice. Nice enough. He had a friendly face and was kind and helpful – if sometimes a bit overbearing. Everyone liked him. Her parents liked him.
And Peggy liked him. Of course, she did.
So when he proposed, she said yes and began dutifully planning the wedding with her mother, aunt, and best friend, Angie, who now worked at the local café. Michael came back to town for the engagement party. Peggy was delighted; she hadn’t seen her brother in years.
“You know,” he said, the first evening he was back. “I was a little surprised that the invitation didn’t list Jack Thompson as the groom.”
Peggy rolled her eyes. It was late. They were sitting together in the living room, watching snow pile on the windowsill. Their mother had gone to bed hours before.
“You two always seemed chummy in high school.”
“We never actually dated, and haven’t spoken in years,” she said. “He’s off becoming a lawyer and barely comes back to town as far as I know.”
Michael nodded and leaned back in his chair. Peggy waited for him to say the thing he had clearly been avoiding for the past few hours.
“All right, what is it?” she asked finally.
“Whatever you’re not saying right now.”
He sighed. “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.” he smiled, which looked a little forced. “You should get to bed. I’m sure you have a lot to do before the party tomorrow.”
They had rented the church’s fellowship hall for the party and Angie was already there setting up when Peggy arrived. As soon as she walked in, Angie noticed something was wrong.
She hurried over and took Peggy’s hands. “It’s gonna be great, I promise. You don’t need to worry.”
Peggy smiled. “Oh, I don’t doubt your capabilities.”
“Good,” she said. “Now, what’s up?”
She shook her head. “It’s nothing. I’m probably just stressed about... everything.”
“And that is the reason Maids of Honour exist,” she said. “To make sure that you make it to your honeymoon sans breakdown.”
Peggy squeezed her hands gratefully.
“And on that topic,” Angie said, leading her further inside. “I will need you to point of the relatives who I’m allowed to cut off if necessary as they arrive.”
Peggy forced herself to relax. With Angie at the helm, nothing could go wrong this evening.
The party was a success. It was the perfect combination of classy and fun and basically the whole town was there. Peggy, in a flowery dress, played hostess the way her mother always had, gliding around the room greeting people, asking the right questions and telling the right jokes. She sipped at a glass of red wine – wine had never been her favourite, but it fit with the evening. Occasionally Fred joined her, her arm in his as they toured about the room, accepting congratulations and compliments on the party.
Whenever she glanced over at Michael, he had a troubled expression on his face, until he saw her looking, and then he smiled. When they made their way over to him, he stood and hugged her.
“Don’t you look all grown-up,” he said with a warm smile.
Peggy grinned, a bit of her old self shining through, as it couldn’t help when he was around. “Fred, this is my brother, Michael.”
They shook hands. “Peggy’s told me a lot about you,” Fred said.
“And I have yet to learn about you.”
Peggy wanted to believe he said this amiably, but his tone gave her pause.
As they spoke throughout the evening, Peggy got the feeling that Michael knew that Fred was trying to impress him and seek his approval and that Michael was deliberately not giving it to him. She tried to mediate but eventually had enough of the stupid game.
When Fred went to refill their drinks, she turned to Michael. “Do you not like him, or something?”
“I do like him,” he said, then paused briefly. “I’m just worried that you don’t. Not enough to marry the man, at least.”
“Michael!” Peggy exclaimed, then lowered her voice. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to save you from –”
“I don’t need you to save me from anything, Michael,” she cut him off. “I just need you two to get along at the very least.”
He took a breath and glanced across the room, where Fred had been delayed by an aunt. “What are your plans for after the wedding?”
“No, I mean, what are your lives going to be like?”
This, at least, was an easy question. The answer was planned and structured and she’d recited it many times this evening already. “Fred’s got his eye on a house in town. It’s near the elementary school, which is nice. And his salary is enough for the two of us, so –”
“You’re going to stop working?”
Peggy set her jaw. “Why not?”
“When have you ever wanted to be a housewife?” he asked. “You always wanted to be a spy, firefighter, circus performer –”
“You want me to be a circus performer,” she said dryly.
“No, I –”
“Those were my dreams as a kid, and I’m not a kid anymore.”
“I know, Peggy,” he said. “But I don’t understand how you went from sending me links to college firefighter programs when you were in high school to here, to this.”
“I grew up,” she snapped, suddenly finding herself having to blink away angry tears.
Michael looked like he wanted to keep arguing, but he didn’t. “Alright, I don’t want to ruin your party.” He looked over at Fred, who was now entirely surrounded by older women. “Now go save your fiancé.”
Peggy stood up somewhat shakily, looking back at Michael for a moment. Then she took a breath, put on a pleasant smile and walked away.
The rest of the evening went without a hitch. Michael slipped out early without saying goodbye and Peggy tried not to think about what he had said.
The next morning, Michael still hadn’t arrived home and the family began to get concerned.
“He wouldn’t have left already, would he?” her mother asked. “Did he say anything to you, Peggy?”
She shook her head. “No, although.” She snuck a sidelong glance at Fred, who sat beside her, eating breakfast. “We did have an argument.”
“Nothing serious enough that I thought he’d leave because of it.”
Her mother said nothing.
“You know Michael and me,” Peggy added. “We’re both very passionate.”
The news came later that morning. There had been a car crash.
Michael was dead.
Mother collapsed in the entryway, just caught by Fred. Peggy sank into a chair, first in shock, then beginning to weep.
Things began to move around her. Family was called. Things were arranged. The Thompsons came from next door to help out.
Fred was being perfect, always there for her, comforting her, giving her space when needed.
And Peggy hated it.
All she could think was that maybe Michael had been right.
And that her last conversation with him had been an argument about this.
The days between then and the funeral were an incomprehensible blur. The funeral was vaguely nice. People said kind things about Michael. They told her they were sorry. She thanked them. She recognized everyone at the funeral, except for a few of Michael’s newer friends from the city who braved the snowy weather. They told her he talked about her a lot. She wished she lived up to how he saw her.
She heard from Mr. and Mrs. Thompson that Jack came back for the funeral, but never spotted him in the crowd. She’d barely seen him since high school and at this point, she’d made peace with it. After all, he got out, and it had always been a bit of an unspoken agreement that if they got out, they would try to stay that way.
After the funeral, Jack went back to his parents’ place, planning on leaving early the next day. He had already taken more time off than he really could, and there was nothing more for him here.
The house was empty since his parents had stayed to mingle and Jack walked through the silent rooms, now regretting having avoided Peggy. He had seen her on the arm of someone he remembered from school – Frank or Fred or something – and surrounded by family. She didn’t need him. They hadn’t spoken in years.
Peggy had excused herself from the main hall and sat in a back room, absently fiddling with her engagement ring, watching how it caught the meagre light. Not that many guests remained, only close family and friends, like the Thompsons.
She remembered the last time she had been with Jack around Christmas. The condescension and humiliation of that evening which she could now pinpoint as the first domino that had toppled, leading to the ring that sat, now somewhat uncomfortably, on her finger.
Michael had seen it. Of course he had, always hypervigilant to what he called the ‘small town break down,’ the way a town like theirs would sand down any difference until you fit the spot meant for you. Peggy had raged against it as well, as a teenager, determined not to do things just because they were expected of her.
But when Michael moved out, that had left her with only one supporter in her corner. Jack. And he’d first proved himself a poor friend, and then left her life entirely.
She didn’t want to talk to anyone who was still here. She really only wanted to talk to one person – or, two, really, but only one still living. She slipped out the back door of the church and found herself knocking on the Thompsons’ front door. She heard steps come down the hall, stop at the door, and then saw the shape of a face, distorted in the small window.
The door opened, and there stood Jack, looking at her in surprise. “Peggy,” he said. He wore a dress shirt with the top few buttons undone and slacks. He looked remarkably the same.
“What, no ‘Marge’?” she asked, pushing past him to the living room.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve called you that,” he said, closing the door and following her.
“It’s been a long time since you called me anything.” Peggy sat on the couch, her dark coat glistening with melting snowflakes.
“Do you want something to drink?” Jack asked, hesitating in the doorway.
She shook her head. “I want – I came here to talk with you.” She patted the cushion beside her.
Jack slowly made his way over and sat down on the other side of the couch. “My condolences for your brother,” he said quickly. “I would’ve said so at the funeral, but I didn’t want to – Michael and I weren’t very close.”
“But you and I were.” It was less matter-of-fact than he expected; she had always been so blunt. But this was said sadly.
He nodded. “We were,” he said. “Before.”
Peggy’s jaw clenched slightly, and he knew what she was thinking about. He tried to change the subject and gestured at her ring. “So, I see somebody finally snagged you. One of the Wells boys, isn’t he?”
But her frown simply deepened. “Michael didn’t like him.”
Crap. “He didn’t?”
She shot him a look.
Oh. “He didn’t like him for you.” He quickly veered in a different conversational direction. “So what’ve you been up to, workwise? Should I call you if I burn my toast?”
“Oh, please just stop it!” she snapped.
Jack sat back in surprise. “What?”
“This is the same bloody argument I had with Michael.”
“We’re not arguing,” he pointed out lamely.
“Not yet,” Peggy said. “But we will be, on any of the following topics: my engagement to Fred, the fact that I never left to become a firefighter, the fact that I never left this town at all.”
“Never? But you always said –”
“I know what I said,” she said sharply, blinking back tears. “I was fifteen when Michael moved out but then at least I still had you.” She didn’t have to say any more – he knew where she was going with this – but she went on anyway, but Peggy was never one to leave things unsaid. “And then, that night, do you have any idea how hard that was for me? Living under all those pressures in precarious rebellion and then seeing you – you – fall under them? As alone as I felt sometimes, at least I had had you.”
“I was wrong, Peg,” he said. “And I regret it, more than you can know. Michael always said the small town breaks you down, and I guess I got broken down.”
“But at least you got out,” she said, her voice bitter, and she wiped away the few tears that have escaped.
“And lost you in the process.”
She looked like she was going to cry, and Jack began to go in for a hug but then she kissed him. He could taste the tears on her lips and her hands gripped his collar so tightly. It took him a few moments to pull back.
“Wait,” he said, breathless. “You’re – Michael just died, I – You’re engaged.” He stood up quickly, stepping away from the couch. “You’re not thinking straight. And you’re engaged.”
“Michael wanted me to break it off with Fred,” she said absentmindedly. “That’s what our last argument was about. Our last conversation.”
“Well, what do you want?” he asked, and she looked up at him with a want he knew he shouldn’t indulge. He quickly added, “With Fred? With your life?”
She took a shaky breath and looked down at the ring, considering it for a moment before slipping it off and into her coat pocket. Then she rose and Jack stepped back again, eyes dropping to the floor.
Peggy looked at him curiously.
“Not like this,” he said softly, eyes finding hers again.
She nodded and quietly left.
When the front door closed, Jack slowly sank onto the couch, head in his hands. Maybe he never should have come back here.
Maybe he never should have left.
Maybe he shouldn’t have been such an idiot as a teenager, and they could have left together.
Peggy walked over the lawn from the Thompsons to home. Her shoes were not made for snow and so her feet were wet and cold by the time she stepped onto the porch.
The house was quiet and empty, and she quickly turned on all the lights, just so it felt less so. She thought about her and Fred’s apartment and the ring in her coat pocket.
He’d come back with her parents, and she didn’t want to stay up to wait, nor did she want him slipping into bed while she was asleep as was habit. She considered writing a note but could not think of how she could explain it all. So, she simply placed the ring on the living room table where it could be easily seen upon entering the house, and then went to bed.
She didn’t cry that night, feeling empty of tears, but not numb. Michael had been right, and she hated that this was what it had taken for her to see it.
But now she at least had a plan she was determined to follow. A way to honour Michael’s final words to her. A way to be true to her own wants. A plan she’d had mapped out already at age sixteen.
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