Luckily for Emily, time seemed to be passing very quickly. Between Baylee, timely phone calls to AJ at least twice a day and Christmas shopping, she hardly had any time to think about the upcoming anniversary of her son’s death. December 23. Also the day AJ was due to arrive.
AJ noticed the night before his flight that she seemed a bit more subdued than usual.
“Em, are you ok? You seem a bit down tonight.”
“Oh, yeah I’m fine. Sorry. Just Christmas blues.”
“Yeah, I guess I know what you mean.” AJ said. He knew what was troubling her, he could never forget, he just also knew that he didn’t want to make her talk about it over the phone when he could do nothing to comfort her.
“So are you all ready for me to come up?” he asked.
Emily smiled. “Yeah. I’ve missed you like crazy. I keep thinking about our last night together and I’ve been going absolutely nuts!”
AJ laughed. “Oh yeah? I suppose I can help you out with that.”
“Right, with Baylee and Brian right down the hall. I can see where that’s going.”
“Good point. You are rather….loud.” AJ pointed out.
“Me? What about you? You’re not exactly mute!”
“That’s only because you’re so damn incredible.” He responded.
Emily laughed. “Fine. We’ll just have to wait for a nice chunk of time when they’re not around.”
“Aren’t they going out of town the day after Christmas?”
“Yeah, they’re going to some big family reunion up in Kentucky for a few days and then they’re going skiing in New York for New Years.” Emily said.
“So how about you come back to Florida with me after Christmas and stay until New Years?” AJ suggested.
“Well, yeah. I mean, with Baylee gone you’ll be free to relax, which you can do with me at my house! And that way I can go home and get some work done and then we can spend New Year’s Eve together! I’ll take you out for a fancy night on the town and then we’ll go to a happenin’ party. Oh, and you can meet my mom!”
“You had me up until the meeting your mother part.” Emily cringed.
“What’s wrong with my mom?” he asked.
“Nothing! I’m sure she’s a very nice lady, it’s just that I’m terrified of meeting her!”
“What if she doesn’t like me? What if I’m too plain and she doesn’t think I’m good enough for you?”
AJ laughed. “Emily, my mother already likes you based on what I’ve told her about you and based on how happy you make me. There’s no way you could possibly make a bad impression on her!”
Emily sighed. “Alright. I’ll meet your mommy. Have you packed yet?”
“Of course not! You know better than that! I’ve still got 9 hours before I have to be at the airport!”
“AJ, it takes you 9 hours to pick out a pair of shoes! Now go pack!” Emily scolded.
“You see? My mother definitely will like you. You sound just like her!”
“You take that back!”
“Nope.” AJ refused. “Sorry, can’t take back the truth.”
“You ass! You know what, fine! Don’t pack. I don’t care! I’m going to bed!” Emily huffed.
“Alright. I love you!”
“I love you too.” Emily said. “Goodnight.”
Emily woke up early the next morning with mixed emotions. She felt that familiar pang of emptiness every time she thought of Payton, trying hard not to remember the events of the day this anniversary marked. She also felt excited and happy and calm due to AJ’s arrival.
He got to the house just before Leighanne was serving lunch. Emily ran to the door to answer.
“Hey you!” she greeted him, jumping into his arms.
“Miss me?” he smiled, giving her a short kiss.
“Why yes, yes I did.”
“UNCLE AJ!” AJ was attacked from behind.
“Who’s that?” AJ asked, trying to twist around to see who was behind him.
“Brian, is that you?”
“It’s not? It sure sounds just like him!”
“It’s me!” Baylee said jumping around front!
“Oh, Baylee! I never would have figured that out!” AJ said, swooping Baylee up and tickling him.
“Uncle AJ put me down!” Baylee giggled.
“Put you down? Why would I do that? I’m having so much fun!”
“Miss. Emily, help me!” Baylee pleaded in between giggle fits.
“Alright AJ, you’d better put him down or I’ll have to start tickling you back.”
With that, AJ ceased his tickle attack and immediately set Baylee down.
“Well I certainly wouldn’t want that, now would I?” he said.
“I don’t know, would you?” Emily winked at him.
“Hey AJ!” Brian greeted. “You want some lunch?”
“What’s the gourmet chef serving today?” AJ asked, winking at Leighanne.
“Tuna salad. Interested?”
“That sounds delicious.” AJ said, taking a seat at the table next to Baylee.
“What can I get you to drink?” Emily asked.
“I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
Emily nodded. “Ok. Apple juice it is! For you, Baylee?”
Baylee pointed to AJ. “I’ll have what he’s having.”
“Brian, pour up another apple juice!”
After lunch, Emily took AJ upstairs to show him all of her Christmas purchases.
“Em, these are great and everything, but where are all the ones you bought for me?” he asked, poking in all the bags.
“Do you really think I would have left those up here?”
“Well, yeah, actually I did.”
“Well, I hid them somewhere else!”
“Because I want you to be surprised! Do you really think Brian will like this?”
AJ kissed her on the tip of the nose. “I think he’ll love it.”
“So, did you manage to fit all of my presents in your suitcase?” she asked.
AJ laughed. “Please! I had all my gifts shipped here a few days ago! Brian told me he hid them in his top secret hiding spot and that you’ll never find them!”
Emily pouted. “Fine. I’ll wait another two days!”
“You want some help wrapping?” he offered.
“I’d love it!” Emily said, digging out all of her wrapping supplies and handing them to AJ, who was seated on the floor by the bed.
“Man, you bought a lot. We’re gonna be here all night!”
“AJ, I love you!” Emily smiled.
“I love you too, but I’m still not telling you what I got you!”
AJ and Emily ordered take-out after they finished wrapping and settled down on her couch to watch a good old-fashioned Christmas movie.
“I love Christmas Vacation!” AJ said. “I watch it every year!”
“Ow, dammit!” AJ exclaimed.
“What happened? Taco too hot?”
“No, I got hot sauce in my paper cut.”
“I swear, I’d almost think you’d never wrapped presents before. I can’t for the life of me figure out how you got so many paper cuts!”
“Wrapping paper is sharp, ok?” AJ defended.
“Yeah, but all you were doing was putting the bows and tags on!” Emily laughed.
“Be quiet and eat your burrito!” AJ said, starting the movie.
Emily started cracking up as she watched Clark W. Griswold try to put up Christmas lights and ended up stapling his sleeve to the roof.
“What’s so funny?” AJ asked, sensing what was coming.
“He just reminds me of you, that’s all. Especially when you had them all wired up together and blew the fuse!”
“Oh yeah? Well if it weren’t for your crazy obsession with Christmas decorations, I’d have never done it in the first place!”
“I know, but you love me anyway.”
“You’re damn right I do!” he said, giving her a kiss.
After the movie was over, AJ and Emily snuggled together on the couch under a blanket.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” She said, softly.
“Me too.” He kissed the top of her head gently.
“These last few weeks apart have kind of made me nervous.”
“How so?” he asked.
“Well, I mean, it was only for a very short time, right, and just getting myself through two weeks was hard enough. What will happen when it’s two months?”
“I guess I know what you mean. Maybe I’m just more used to dealing with it. Maybe this time was harder because of all that we’ve been through since your birthday, you know? Like maybe that made everything feel a little more unsure.”
“Maybe. Although it sure was a lot easier to miss you when I hated you.”
“Em, you’re a very strong woman. You’ll find a way and if you can’t, I’ll find a way for you. It won’t be forever. Our future holds a lot of bright possibilities and this is just the beginning. It’s all uphill from here. Uphill climbs aren’t always the easiest but the view from the top is so worth it.”
“So what, now we’re going mountain climbing?” she teased.
“Maybe we should! It could be like, some sort of symbolic ceremony!”
“You’re so weird sometimes, McLean!”
“I know, I know. Get used to it. It never goes away.”
“I just hate not knowing what’s in store for me. Brian and Leighanne won’t need me forever. I only signed a two year contract with them. After that, Baylee will be in school. Who knows what I’ll do next. Who knows where we’ll stand then. I hate not knowing!”
“Well, I know what’s in store for us.” He said.
“Oh really? What?”
“Well Em, I’d say when those two years are up, you and I will be happier than ever and someday, you’ll even be my wife if you’ll have me. And when I propose, I’ll have the most perfect ring ever and it’ll be a complete surprise and it’ll be the most perfect, romantic moment of our lives!”
Emily looked up at him. “I think that sounds like a very nice plan.”
“I uh, I just wanted you to know that I haven’t forgotten what today is.” He said, a bit awkwardly.
“What do you mean?”
“I know today is the day Payton died. I just was a little afraid to bring it up in case you didn’t want to talk about it. And if you don’t, that’s ok but I just wanted you to know that I haven’t forgotten and if you need to vent, please don’t hesitate on my account.”
Emily smiled. “Thanks, AJ. I guess I’ve just been feeling so happy to have you here that I haven’t even really thought about it a whole lot. Maybe I’m just finally ready to accept it and move on. Or maybe I’m just pretending it didn’t happen, I don’t know. I just don’t want to try and figure it out during Christmas. Please don’t think that I’m shutting you out or anything. I just want to focus on enjoying the holiday with everyone.”
“That’s fine sweetie. I don’t want to pressure you. You do what feels right to you.”
“You want to watch another movie?” she asked.
“Sure! Any preferences?”
“I was thinking about Love Actually. A nice holiday romance.”
“I liked that one too! I got a kick out of the old guy pop singer making a come-back!” AJ said, standing up to stretch his legs.
“You would because that’s so going to be you someday!” she laughed.
“Laugh it up. It’s what’ll pay your expensive Christmas decoration bills. I’m going to go raid Brian’s ice cream stash. You want any?”
“Hell yeah! I’ll come down with you in case Brian tries to get mad again.”
At Emily’s insistence, AJ slept in the guest room that night.
“I thought you said you missed me?” he pouted.
“Exactly. You have woken the beast. If you crawl into my bed with me, there is no way I’ll be able to keep my hands off you, and I can’t have the hot, wild sex I want to within ear shot of a little kid.”
“So what, you’re just going to lie all alone feeling all hot and bothered?” AJ asked.
“Yes. If I get desperate, I have my ways of taking care of things.” She winked.
AJ groaned. “Woman, you’re not the only one with a beast, you know. Now I’ll be lying in bed wondering if you got hot and bothered enough to take care of it and that’ll make me all hot and bothered.”
Emily smiled. “Just think. 3 nights. After that, I’m all yours. Or you’re all mine, however you want to think of it.”
AJ sighed. “I gotta go take a cold shower. I’ll see you in the morning.” He said, kissing her goodnight.
“Goodnight. I love you.” She said as he walked out of her room.
Emily woke up on Christmas Eve as excited as a little kid, if not more so.
“Emily can you watch Baylee for awhile today? Brian’s not done with his shopping yet…” Leighanne paused to roll her eyes, “And I’ve got tons of wrapping to do so I’m not up all night.”
“Sure! I was just going to be making cookies and candy all day with AJ, it won’t be a problem at all! Baylee loves to help me bake.”
“Thanks a bunch!”
Emily let AJ sleep in, figuring he had a hard time getting to sleep last night. She and Baylee had already whipped up a batch of her lemon cream cheese pressed cookies that were green and pressed in the shape of a Christmas tree. Baylee had the official job of sprinkling them with red and green sugar and he took it very seriously, making sure each cookie had just the right amount on it. When it was ten o’clock, Emily sent Baylee to wake him up.
“Uncle AJ!” he whispered.
AJ peered one eye open. “Huh?”
“I brought you a cookie!” he said. “It’s a Christmas tree!”
AJ smiled as he sat up on his elbow. “You did, huh? Where’d you get that?”
“I helped Miss. Emily bake them! She told me to go wake you up and I decided to sneak you a cookie to help you get up.”
“Thanks, Little Dude!” AJ said, taking the cookie from him and popping it in his mouth. “I think I’m all ready to get out of bed! Go tell Miss. Emily I’m going to take a shower and get dressed and I’ll be right down.”
“Ok, but hurry up because we’re getting ready to start the cut-out cookies and I get to help use the cookie cutters and then when they’re done I get to help frost them!”
“Ok, I’ll hurry!”
When AJ got down to the kitchen he was greeted by Baylee who now had flour all over his face and hands who was helping Emily choose a cookie cutter.
“Good morning!” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“Morning, Sweetie!” Emily said, giving him a quick kiss. “Sleep well?” she asked, smiling.
“Obviously not as well as you did!” he said.
“Nah, that’s just the Christmas Eve excitement seeping out!” she said. “Isn’t that right, Baylee?”
“That’s right!” Baylee said, nodding. “Because Santa comes tonight!”
After AJ had a quick bite to eat, he helped the Elves in the kitchen with their baking. By the time they were done they’d made 4 kinds of cookies and two kinds of candies.
“Don’t we have enough?” AJ asked.
“I guess. I might make some more later if I have time. But for now, I’m starving! What do my two favorite boys want for lunch?”
“Chicken nuggets!” Baylee yelled.
“I second that!” AJ agreed.
“Ok. Who wants to pick the vegetable?” Emily asked.
“Vegetables? Who wants those?” AJ wrinkled his nose at Baylee.
“Nobody but Miss. Emily makes me eat them with my lunch and dinner so she lets me pick out which one I want to eat. Yesterday I had peas.”
“I see. Well they do say that vegetables are very good for you.” AJ conceded.
“I think I want to have broccoli today Miss. Emily.” Baylee decided.
“You got it!” Emily said, pulling a bag of frozen broccoli out of the freezer.
Leighanne came down while they were eating lunch.
“Brian still shopping?” she asked.
“I guess. I haven’t heard from him but I did see on the news how crowded all the malls are!” Emily laughed.
They were all sitting around the table eating a pudding cup when the doorbell rang.
“I wonder who that could be?” Leighanne wondered.
“I’ll get it.” Emily offered.
To say that Emily was surprised at who was at the door was to say the least. She was downright stunned.
“Merry Christmas!” the man greeted. “What, aren’t you happy to see me?”
“I…uh….I just wasn’t expecting you, that’s all! What on earth are you doing here?” she stammered.
“Who is it, Em?” AJ said, coming to check it out.
“AJ…this is my brother John.” Emily introduced them. “John, this is AJ. I’m sure you’ve heard about him from Mom.”
John glared at AJ. “I have.”
“Hey man, it’s nice to finally meet you!” AJ said, extending his hand.
John left him hanging.
Emily cleared her throat. Her brother was always way to over protective for her liking.
“So, what are you doing here?” she asked John.
“I haven’t seen you in forever, Em. I just thought I’d surprise you for Christmas! That’s ok, isn’t it?”
“Sure! The more the merrier! Come on in!” Emily said, opening the door and letting her big brother in.
AJ put on his best happy face but he had a feeling Emily’s brother had a bone to pick with him, the guy dating his little sister. He’d been through this sort of thing before and he knew the only thing he could do was to put on the charm and let Emily handle the rest.