The voice must’ve belonged to an angel and not his mama, whose voice was raspy as someone who had smoked too many cigarettes. In this moment, an angel must’ve possessed her, made her voice twinkle like the Christmas star on their tree.
Every year, for fifteen years, everyone came from all over to celebrate at his mama’s. The kitchen was always packed with camaraderie, new cousins to teach all the family secrets, which foul-breathed auntie to keep away from. Now, the house was silent aside from his mother’s singing. Not like a moment ago, when his father had eavesdropped on a phone call Adrian hadn’t wanted him to hear. No, a moment ago the house had been rambunctious and chaotic and everything Christmas wasn’t supposed to be.
Giant bulbs of shining red, green and blue lights trailed the edges of his house like one of those model homes in those Home and Garden magazines. They surged with an energy that made Adrian dizzy. He fixed his gaze on the metal reindeer, still hanging by wires from the roof, white lights tangled and disheveled inside it. Its metal nose had punctured the second floor bathroom window. Adrian stared at it like he was expecting it to get up and take its perfect position where his dad had placed it. It didn’t move and neither did Adrian. He stayed fixed in lumpy cold snow, weighed by gravity and made light by weightless, blistering air.
His evening started with a warm shower, ugly Christmas sweater from his Auntie Heather and a backpack of junk food and comics. Once the faux-joy of greeting family members was over, he’d planned to barrel to Greg’s. Finish his night off right. He’d been zipping his coat over Rudolph’s flashing nose when his dad stepped into his doorway.
“Who was on the phone?” he’d demanded, a tremor in his throat. Adrian shut his eyes tight and tried to force his dad’s fearful eyes from his memory with snow. He piled it on his forehead, shoved it in his ears.
“What’re you doing?” Noel’s petite figure leaned over him. Her candy cane dress whipped over her red stockings. A red bow pinned fat curls on her head. Why did she always show up unexpectedly?
“Just when I was thinking ‘I’d love to see my best friend’s face,'” Adrian said.
Noel tucked her candy cane dress under her butt and sat down beside him. “It’s cold out here.” She had a tiny voice, as if she was just learning how to speak up for herself. Her brown jacket was two sizes too big and her black combat boots looked like they belonged to someone bolder, not her, not someone as small and sweet. “Why’re you out here?”
“I don’t know.” He really didn’t. He vaguely remembered storming out in a rage, his father screaming that no gay boy would live under his roof.
“Aren’t you cold?”
He’d been out there so long, he couldn’t feel a thing. “Nope.”
His mama had shouted, too, as loud as her cigarette-damaged voice would allow. His Auntie Heather and cousin Brian had humiliated him by going on and on about male body parts and where to put them, and his Uncle James had called him an abomination and compared him to monkeys. Someone had been screaming the Lord’s Prayer in the background, while Dean Martin’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside“ played on repeat from the living room.
“What happened?” Noel said, moving closer.
He had broken his mama’s heart. “I’m their only son.”
Noel chuckled. “You’re their only anything.”
When the reindeer had broken through the window, it had silenced everyone in the house. Noel turned her head to look at Adrian, but he kept his eyes on the reindeer. His dad loved that thing.
“They know.” He looked at her finally and her amber eyes gleamed brighter than usual, two bright Christmas lights.
“Late arrivals, I see.”
“Well, they’re old-school.” He had confided in Noel one night after he’d kissed Greg and couldn’t understand what had made him do it. “Helluva Christmas gift.”
“You’ve been wrapped for years. Christ.” She played with her puffs of breath, darting her fingers through the white clouds.
“It was Armageddon in there. You shoulda seen it.” The four-bed, three-bath, childhood home his parents had worked all their lives to keep had, for just a moment, contained the whole of the apocalypse. Adrian was certain that if he had stayed in that house a moment longer it would have crumbled beneath him and dragged him straight to hell. It was where his Auntie Heather told him he was going anyway.
Adrian’s head hurt. He hurt all over. He turned on his side and propped his head on his hand. Noel’s eyes blazed into his, the most serious he had ever seen her. “Hi,” he said, with a smile and wiping away the tear twinkling on her cheek. “You’re pretty when you cry. But don’t cry.” She was the most empathetic and nonchalant person he’d ever met. He would never meet another person capable of that. “I can’t face them.”
Noel sniffled and bucked up her chin. She swiped the wet from her face and hopped to her feet. “You don’t have to.”
“I’ll talk to’em.” She brushed nothing from her knees and snow from her butt.
“You’ll talk to them?”
“What? I speak English.”
“Don’t be a smartass.”
“I’m pretty, too. You just said. Can’t take it back.”
“Noel, you don’t have to”–
“I’ll just tell them that you’re sorry. You know I can help.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“Then I’ll tell them that. And whatever else you can’t say. I’m persuasive.”
That, she was. Anyway, Adrian wasn’t ready for that step. Before he could express that to her, though, she was up the stairs and in front of the green door. As usual, she let herself inside. Adrian’s curiosity spiked. He sat up for the first time in nearly an hour. When he stood his legs were stiffer than Popsicle sticks. All the blood seemed to rush into them at once, making every step toward the front window painful. He peered into the living room window, spotted Noel and listened as best as he could through the open crack.
“Noel.” His mama rushed to her and hugged her too tight.
Adrian saw she wasn’t the one singing. In fact, there was no music coming from anywhere in the house. Still, someone’s voice was in his head as loud and plain as day.
Everyone in the living room sat quieter than the hazardous drivers outside, morose. His Auntie Heather sat with her head in her palms in his dad’s recliner. Uncle James stood behind her, one hand on the mantelpiece, the other tucked in his pocket. Adrian couldn’t see his dad anywhere, but his mama’s face, riddled with tears, framed hot and burning in his mind.
He had broken her heart, after all. She cried hysterically, but no one consoled her. His father wasn’t there to do the job and as much as Adrian wanted to burst through the door and run to her side, he knew his presence would make everything worse.
“The door was unlocked,” Noel said. She bit her bottom lip, but then let it go. Her nervous ticks might have been cute to Adrian if he didn’t find them annoying. He wanted her to get on with it, do what she had to end this terrible night.
“So you just let yourself in?” Uncle James’ face was scarlet red, bright like someone was holding a candle to it.
“Don’t– she’s Adrian’s closest friend! I was waiting. Sit.” His mama led Noel by her arm to the ottoman in front of the fireplace. Auntie Heather didn’t pay her any mind, like she wasn’t in her own body. That wasn’t going to stop his mama’s hospitality. She smacked the tears from her face, tried to sniffle the tremor from her voice. “Can I g-get you anything, Noel? Want cocoa?”
“No. Thank you. He wanted me to talk to you.”
“Excuse me?” Uncle James fumed. He let go of the mantelpiece and practically leaped for Noel. “How dare you?”
Adrian’s mama was fully alert now, crying nonetheless, but alert. Noel had sparked something in her and had her undivided attention. “Stop! We need her.” She went to swipe her brown hair behind her ear, but it was already hidden behind a green and blue elf hat.
Uncle James fixed horrified eyes on her, sharp enough to cut water. “Are you outside ya mind, woman?”
Noel sucked in a deep breath. Her exasperation was beginning to set in.
“You should shut up and listen.” She waited for him to retort, but he’d already been silenced by Adrian’s mama’s slap. “The things that you say to people, like, I don’t know, telling a fifteen-year-old that he’s going to hell for being natural, are kinda crippling.”
“You know what kinda world we live in?”
“Yes. The kind where you can burn ‘witches’ and then preach about a man who rises after being dead for three days. A kind where being different is tantamount to killing your first born son. And nobody saves us from the wars in our heads.”
“Loved another person. How beautiful. When the extinction of love is so near.” The power behind her small voice surprised Adrian. Anger and love in every word. She wasn’t saying what she said she would, but she was saying what he hadn’t and couldn’t.
He wouldn’t stop her.
“Not only does it cripple them, but it’ll cripple you.” She penetrated James’ glare with a deep discernment that made him blink before turning away. “For the rest of your lives you’re going to hate yourselves. You’re going to hate the things you said, to the person that you carried inside of you for nine months and loved for fifteen years. You’ll hate you for forgetting to remember who he was right before that moment you turned him into something else.”
“Jesus,” Adrian whispered.
The silence in the living room drawled out endlessly before James smacked his leg and hunched his shoulders up to his ears. He dropped them with a deep sigh. “Just leave.”
“She’s not going anywhere.” Auntie Heather spoke like she had super glue on her tongue, every word drawn out. She still didn’t budge, but she spoke up to hear more. “What else?”
“He loves you. He wanted to be a good son for you.” Adrian hadn’t used those words. In fact, he hadn’t used any words, but they seemed to be getting a reaction out of his mama.
“He said… that he wished he could have given you the best Christmas day you’ve wanted all year.” Noel wiped tears from her eyes and sniffled.
“Where is he?” his mama demanded, wiping her nose and eyes to no avail. “I wanna talk to him. Tell him to come in.”
Adrian was already beside her, looking out the window at where he’d just been peeking in. “That’s cool,” he said, brushing off his coat. Snow flew from him like there was no gravity. It was pulled in every direction where it dissipated in the warm air.
“He’s here,” Noel said.
His stomach and heart dropped to his feet. Now, was the moment of truth. He would face his parents for the first and last time. After that… he didn’t know what would happen.
“What do you want to say?”
“He’s here?” Adrian’s mama stepped forward. “Where?”
“Right next to me.” Noel nodded in his direction, but he’d already stepped aside and was sticking his fingers in and out of the fireplace. “Would you– get over here?”
“Sorry! I can’t feel a thing. I can’t even feel emotion. Well, the bad ones. My humors totally in tact.”
“Is that– is he?”
“No.” James, ever the skeptic, started to excuse himself.
“Stop him,” Adrian told Noel. “I want him to hear.”
“He says stop,” Noel tried.
“I’m not staying for this.”
“Tell him to stay or I have a few secrets I’d like to share.”
“Secrets!” Noel said, before he could put his foot over the threshold. “He says he has secrets.” She sidestepped into Adrian and he was washed with her, ignited by her. He felt everything again, every emotion raging like a fight to the death. She maintained her physical form, and he latched onto it like a cloak.
James turned swiftly. “What secrets would I tell a kid?”
“That you cry during Mary Poppins.” Noel and Adrian both said. The softness of her vocal cords brushed against his. Together, they made thunder. “Stay, I said.” He glared at his uncle through Noel’s eyes, willed him back.
“Adrian?” His mama stepped forward. Noel was half a foot shorter than him, so he had to look up to see his mama.
“I’m sorry,” was all she said, pulling Noel into her embrace.
“Ma.” He groaned, heard Noel squeal. “You’re gonna crush her. Stop.”
“I don’t”– She pulled away, brought him back in and stepped away again. “I don’t understand.”
“You will. I’m borrowing her for a minute. I guess. I have one thing to say.” He looked from Auntie Heather, who was on her feet now, her head cocked, her hands cupped over her heart. James stood, dumbfounded, in the doorway.
“I didn’t kill myself.” He hadn’t heard Noel’s voice that time. It was hard to detect her at all. Pain exploded inside him, all over, every limb, every organ and every bone like he had been thrown in front of a train. The headache was back, stronger. “Ah!” He slapped his hands over Noel’s heart. It felt like it was crushing inside of him, crumbling, a paper ball, crumbling and crumbling.
“Adrian!” His mama reached for him, but Noel threw herself out, onto the ground. Adrian dropped to her too.
“Are you okay?”
Noel nodded, quickly, but her fingernails were digging into the ottoman. She used it to stand and took several seconds to ground herself.
“I’m sorry.” Adrian didn’t know what he had done, but what he had felt was her life becoming nothing at all. What he’d felt was an intense fight for release.
Noel didn’t respond to him. She gave no explanation. “He didn’t kill himself.”
Adrian’s mama started to bawl all over again. She managed to stay afloat, though her wobbling knees looked like they’d give out any second. He wished he’d let her hold him longer. He wished he’d held onto that feeling before he felt nothing again.
“He didn’t do this because of what we said?”
He was dead. Gone. He couldn’t get them back, and though his connection felt like nothing outside of Noel, their lives remained like faraway memories, like seashells washed away by a gentle current.
“He would never.” Noel stepped aside. She was shivering now. “I’m sorry. I can’t hold that energy for long.” Adrian felt like she was speaking to him, too.
“He can still hear us?” His mama wiped snot and tears from her face and clasped her hands together in hope. Noel nodded, sadly, kept her head down. She had reverted back to the quiet girl Adrian had long known. The power she held moments ago was gone.
“Monkey, my baby, I’m so sorry.”
“Diane, stop.” James tugged gently on her arm.
She snatched away from him. “This is your fault. You did this.”
“Don’t do that!” Adrian said, breaking free of the nausea that had begun to capture him. “Tell them not to fight.”
Noel lifted her head. “He said don’t argue.” She waited, listened. “He said you had a fight with his dad when he was five and he hates hearing people argue. Drives him crazy.”
His mama stepped closer. Auntie Heather fell back into the chair, as if exhausted.
“Tell my mom… I know she didn’t mean what she said. I know she’s sorry.”
Noel relayed the message and Adrian’s heart warmed at his mother’s sweet laughter. “And tell my dad to take care of her. Like he did before me.”
Noel was getting better at speaking like him and saying exactly what he wanted. After saying all he needed to say to everyone, including his Uncle James, whose homophobia would prove to be a curse on him, he allowed Noel to lead him outside. Listening to James cry was as bad as watching his father, sitting in his bedroom window, watching the ground where Adrian had died the night before. He looked like a broken marionette in that window, holding his head against the wall. Nothing but gravity and solidity held up the rest of him. He wanted to be far away from it, so that his own tears wouldn’t destroy him inside out.
“I thought it was Christmas.” Adrian stared at his dad, who couldn’t and would never see him again.
“It was yesterday.”
“How long are my days gonna be jumbled like this?” He’d stayed in his room after his dad basically spat his disgust on a platter for Adrian to lick. He’d gone to the roof after that. He always sat on the roof. It had rained Christmas Eve. He’d slipped, broken his dad’s favorite reindeer, trying to hold on. But it fell, too. Broke the window. Adrian had hit his head on the Christmas gnome his dad begged his mama not to “trash” their yard with.
His dad stared from his bedroom window, where everyone else had looked down on his body. His blood had stained the snow, had splattered across it like sugar sprinkles on his mama’s Christmas cookies.
Noel faced him, her hands snug in her pockets. The air was cold enough to swell her rose pink lips. “Of all the people I’ve walked through this town after death…” Her words trailed off when she whipped around again.
“That doesn’t count. You knew when I’d die from the moment we met.”
“And you knew I could speak to the dead from the moment we met, so why have we stayed friends so long?”
“You wouldn’t stop following me around.”
“Look who’s talkin’.”
“Death is inevitable. You were going to die either way.”
Sighing, and sniffling from the cold, he turned away from her, stared at the reindeer, the broken window, the blazing lights, all seashells drifting away.
“We planned for this day. You know where I wanna go.”
Noel chuckled and shook her head. “And we’ll go there. Right after you see Gregory.”
“I’ll meet you there.”
“I have other clients! Don’t disturb Death when she’s working.” She blew him a kiss before raising her hood and skipping off ahead.
Adrian turned, his shoulders hunched. He couldn’t go home and he wasn’t going to risk going to Greg’s without Noel. He was sure wherever he was, she’d find him. Sighing, he sat. There weren’t many stars and the view was corner stores and tire tracks. He lay back and tucked his arms behind his head.