The sun begins to shine through our bedroom window around seven thirty in the morning. I keep my eyes shut tight, not yet ready to leave our warm bed. I feel Ethan stretch beside me with a sleepy grumble. I turn over and wrap an arm around his warm torso. I plant a gentle kiss on his freckled shoulder. He rolls over so I can cuddle into his chest, and he rests his chin on the top of my head.
“Merry Christmas, honey.” A quick vision of my dad twirling my mom around the living room flashes through my mind. Her long, brown hair spinning out around her. She spins into him and he clasps her hand over his chest. “Merry Christmas, honey,” he whispers.
“Merry Christmas, babe,” I whisper back in the dark.
Within seconds, a furry face is clambering up to greet us. I feel sharp pings of little paws making their way up my ribs. I grab Ethan’s arm and tug him out of bed. He groans in protest.
“If I have to get up, so do you. It’s Christmas, and I’ve been waiting months for you to open your present.” I hop up and down, bouncing the bed to rouse him.
“Okay, fine. I’m coming, I’m coming,” he says.
I pull on a thick pair of sweatpants lying on the floor. His sweatpants, of course. I feel a little chill run through me as my bare feet walk across the cold wood. The lamp on Ethan’s nightstand flicks on, and I blink my eyes to adjust. Our cat, Cider, has jumped to the floor and is rubbing against my leg.
“Ready for breakfast?” She sprints toward the stairs and stops just at the top to make sure I’m following.
Ethan pulls me down for a quick kiss.
“I love you, Ruth,” he says.
I ruffle the top of Cider’s head and tread downstairs. I head to the thermostat to blast the furnace and grab a hoodie off our coat rack.
Cider is waiting for me in the kitchen. Her calico-colored fur shimmers beneath the kitchen lights. She circles around my legs, rubbing my shins with her face. I crouch down to scratch her head, then feed her.
A few minutes pass while I gaze out onto the backyard. Deer tracks sprinkle themselves amongst the snow. I struggle to recollect the exact moment I found myself immersed in suburban life. I wonder if this is best for me. Ethan’s footsteps pull me back to the present.
He seems anxious, hesitating at the bottom of the stairs. I grab a couple of presents from under the tree and sit on the couch. I pat the seat next to me.
“Get over here, goofy. I want to give you your presents! I’ve been waiting forever.”
“Actually…” he says. “I was hoping to give you one first.”
He looks at me for a moment and pulls me off the couch by my hands.
“Look around the tree. There should be a bright green ornament hanging up on the back.”
I scan the back of the tree, strung with cranberries and popcorn. A more recent Christmas. My dad barely notices the red velvet dress my mom has on. “Dance with me, Rich!” A heavy sigh. “Not right now, Carolann. Jesus, can I sit for a second?” Her face turns maroon, and I watch her wipe away a tear. I see the prettiest green bulb hanging near the star up top.
As I pull it down, glitter drifts onto my hands. A white stag is etched into the side, and there is a split down the middle. I marvel at the gold flakes dusting the top layer. Gold flakes hung suspended in my mother’s glass. Drifting toward the bottom and suddenly making their way back to the top every time she takes a sip. My dad walks in the room. He stumbles a little. Everything happens so fast. My mom makes a sarcastic remark. My dad strides toward her, grasping the dainty glass in his burly hands. Smash. The gold flakes falling down the wall, swirling inside drops of alcohol. I run my finger along the opening until I find the clasp.
Ethan looks into my eyes, then starts to lower his body. As soon as I see him drop a knee, I know what’s going on.
“Ruthie, for the past two years, we’ve seen it all. I love you, and want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?”
Will I? We’ve been together for two years, but is that long enough? I think of the most recent wedding we attended. I think of the lace invitation we received in the mail. Ruthie and Ethan Martinson. I was bothered by it but kept my displeasure to myself. I’m not sure I’m ready to marry him, or anyone else. I’ve seen what marriage can do to people who used to love each other. I hesitate.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
Ethan’s face falls, and he sits back on his heel. His brow furrows while he stares at the carpet just in front of my feet.
“We’re in love. I thought we were in love.”
I drop to my knees and take his head between my hands.
“We are in love. But,” I say slowly, then shift onto my knees. “Ethan, there is no one else I would rather be married to. Of course I’ll be your wife.”
“Are you sure?” he asks with a flat voice. Tears well in his eyes.
“I wasn’t expecting a proposal, that’s all.” I wrap my arms around him. “Yes, I want to marry you,” I whisper.
He attempts a smile as he slips the pear-shaped diamond on my finger. I lace my fingers in his and pull him back toward the couch to open presents. My mom is crying to herself in the kitchen. My brother and I pretend not to notice while we tear through our gifts. My dad sits on the couch, watching. He takes a long drag off his cigarette.
Of course, he loves them. The red, flannel socks topped with a shiny silver bow. Dark walnut-colored boots with thick soles in snowflake wrapping paper and ribbon. A bright, velvet stocking filled with goodies. Our excitement is deflated–fake, I can feel it.
We spend the morning opening gifts and watching Cider pounce on the wrapping paper. We make breakfast together and stuff our faces full of applewood smoked bacon. I grab the presents for friends and family to put in the trunk of the car. I rush Ethan around to get dressed so we can begin the two-hour drive back to our hometown for the day. My mom is sitting at the kitchen table, staring into her mug of coffee. The divorce papers lay on the table, just a foot in front of her. I wrap my arms around her shoulders. Her body shakes as she cries.
It’s a mild, snowy day. Snowflakes bustle around the dim winter air. Everyone is out on the road, it seems. Ethan hums along with the radio. I unbuckle my seatbelt and turn around to grab a bag of onion rings from the back.
I hear Ethan draw a sharp inhale. I feel myself flying toward the windshield. My head cracks against the glass. The car rolls to the left, and I see Ethan’s petrified face as glass shatters around us. I tumble around with the car, slamming into him. I feel my elbow break his nose, blood bursting over my arm.
Everything is blurry and confusing.
Then… silence. I open my eyes and see Ethan brushing glass off his chest. Steam is coming from the front of the car. My vision goes black.
I hear Ethan’s voice from far off. Maybe it’s not far off. My body is shaking. Wait, he’s doing that.
I hear an ambulance wailing in the distance. The noise gets closer and closer. I’m so tired…
I squint my eyes open just a bit to see Ethan trying to pull us both from the overturned car. Tears stream down his face. Everything hurts. I don’t want to move. Why is he moving me? Am I going to die?
I feel warm liquid running down the back of my head. I focus on where the liquid is heading and how soothing it almost feels.
There are many voices. Ethan is crying. A deer ran out… I took my seatbelt off to grab something… I can’t believe I let this happen…
A bright light flashes into my eyes. I don’t care though. All I can think about is how exhausted I am.
“I’m begging you, Ruthie. Don’t leave me. Oh god, please don’t leave me.” Ethan’s cries break through the clutter of other noises.
I want to reach out and grab his hand. My entire body feels like a heavy, dead weight. The paramedics are talking to me, trying to keep me awake. To keep me with them.
I hear a slicing sound. I feel my coat freeing itself from my body. Stickers are placed on my chest. The hum of a defibrillator.
I think of Cider for a moment, her face so small and sad. Still, I can’t muster the energy to open my eyes.
My entire body jolts, leaving me dazed. My eyes still won’t open. I wish my mom was here. Her warm, dry hand wrapping itself around mine. I sneak past my parents’ bedroom to the kitchen, hoping for a midnight snack. The TV is still on, so I glance in quickly. My mom is cuddled up to my dad’s chest, eyes half open. He kisses her on the forehead.
I think of the ring resting on my finger. I think of Ethan, and how we almost had everything. It shouldn’t end here. I’m so tired.
A snowflake kisses my cheek. I open my eyes. I blink and try to take in the blurry scene. Ethan is speaking with a paramedic, hands flying fast. I love that he talks with his hands. I take in the gurney, the destruction. Glass and remnants of our car litter the road. A second, smaller vehicle idles behind. My eyes search for Ethan. I admire his jawline, his green eyes. Even with blood streaming down his mouth and bruises lining his temple, he’s still handsome. Handsome for someone else, however.
Ethan is by my side, taking my hand.
I glance at the side of the road and see a white stag staring at me. It turns around to begin walking away and stops, glancing at me over its shoulder.
My hand squeezes Ethan’s for the last time.