BABY IT'S COLD OUTSIDE

Chapter 1

Eve

HEARING MY OWN VOICE coming back at me through the phone always creeps me out, even after all these years. I hold it away from me ear for a momentary break, but it only provides amodicum of relief.

My sister Pauline’s voice assaults my eardrums. “I still don’t understand why you bothered to give a month’s notice at that job. Who cares?  It’s not like you’re building a career.” 

It may seem impossible that you can hear an eye roll but trust me—you can.

You would think Pauline’s dig would roll off like water off a duck after all these years.  I wish.

It’s hard to believe I’m the older sister.  Not by much, but ten minutes is ten minutes.  Pauline and I are identical twins.  But the identical part ends with our looks.

We are vinegar and water in every other possible way. 

She’s Ivy League. I dropped out of community college. 

She’s Prada and Louboutin, I’m rubber boots and army jackets. 

The other difference is the way my father has never hidden the fact that she’s the clear favorite.

I feel the muscles in my neck cramp.

“I have to go.”  I try, but her words bulldoze over mine with yet another diatribe about the delay in moving back home and Pauline’s obsessive need to control the situation.

With a sigh, I press ahead when she finally takes a breath.  “I love this job.  I love these people.  And I wasn’t going to leave them before Christmas. I’ll have plenty of years to have Christmas there, but I’ll never see these people again.  You understand that?”  The reality of my words hits me in my most tender spaces and I fight to stop my throat closing up.

“Come on.  You’ve proven your point.  You left, sure you managed to scrape together a living. But, come on, most of the people there don’t remember what happened ten minutes ago. You could have told them a week ago was Christmas and said goodbye then.  They’d never know the difference.  You realize you are making it harder on me, right? I’m on a flight to London on the 30th. Dad is already upset enough that I’m the one leaving.”

He’s upset that she’s the one leaving.

And I’m the one coming back.

“Oh well.” I snap, fingering the locket that was a gift from my mother on our last Christmas together.  “Then it’s just harder. You’re the overachiever, you can handle it.  It’ll only make Dad that much prouder. Maybe he’ll even salute you when you go.  How long suffering you are at the hands of your less successful and thoughtless sister.”

I snap the locket open with my thumb and close it again. Something I’ll do a hundred times today. I miss my mom every day. The cancer took her hard and fast.  From diagnosis to funeral, a short three months.  Inside the tiny rose gold locket is a picture of me as a little girl, standing in front of a Christmas tree on a farm where I first remember picking out our family tree.

Pauline’s snippish voice cuts through. “Stop being so dramatic. Dad needs one of us here.  I will not put him in a place like that.” She snaps. “He will be cared for here at home.  I have the care staff, but one of us has to be here to manage things. Make sure they show up, take care of his doctor’s appointments and medications. Not to mention keeping the house up. I’ll have to hire more people for that too.”  She huffs and the irony is not lost on me that she’s berating the people that do exactly what I do.  “You have to stay on top of these people every minute. They’ll steal you blind and I don’t even want to start on their work ethic.”

Dad had polio as a child, and although his mind is okay, his body is failing more and more with each passing year. He’s in a wheelchair now and needs help with most of his basic daily tasks.

“I have to go.”  I’m firmer this time because I can’t take any more. 

I drop the locket and squeeze my temples, looking around the parking lot at Cedar Terrace Assisted Living and Memory care, where I work as a caregiver.  The enormous snow piles that decorate the edges of the lot are mini ski slopes and it’s not even the end of December.

“Eve.”  She barks. “It’s Christmas Eve.  Just go in, tell them you’re done. You don’t need the reference.  Get in that absurd truck of yours and drive home.  You’ll be here by tomorrow and I can start training you on how everything needs to be done.  You need to know exactly how Dad and I like things—”

I take a long draw on my coffee mug, wishing some days that it was tipped with Baileys. 

Not really.

Even after nearly four years without a drop, every time I see my dad he offers me a drink and asks if I’m over that “drinking thing” yet.

That chapter in my life is over. Even with the changes I made, it did nothing to help my father’s attitude toward me. It’s not just the obligation to the job that keeps me here.  I hate to say it but spending my favorite holiday back home would pretty much ruin it for me.

I left Baltimore just over a year ago for parts north and I’ve loved every independent moment.  Living on my own isn’t new—I moved out the day after I graduated, tried college, but back in those days bars and the bottle took precedence over going to class.

Inside the cab of the truck the engine rumbles and the heat blasts as I listen to her. She’s telling me once again how easy it is for me to just be the one to run away while she’s left with all the responsibilities. She lives in a ridiculously large McMansion with my dad in the suburbs of Baltimore and thinks any place without a Nordstrom’s is a third world country.

“And besides.”  She coughs, then covers the phone while I hear her barking at someone in the background about a file she requested and why she might as well not have assistants. “You know, it’s not like I wouldn’t love to take off on some walkabout. Not like I wouldn’t bail on things at the first sign of trouble.  How many jobs have you been through in the last five years?  How many apartments have you snuck out of in the middle of the night?  How many people have you left hanging when things got hard and you couldn’t deal?  You had things good here, I bailed you out every time, Eve.  You’re good at that.  Running from things. Every situation you got yourself into that you couldn’t handle.”

“Really?”  I choke on my coffee. ”You do realize talking to me like that does nothing to entice me to come home any sooner.”

The engine on the truck begins to rev and the rpm’s spike into the red drawing my eyes to the gauges.

“At least you’ve grown up enough to realize playing the piano and singing is not going to pay the bills.”

I sit up, making sure my foot isn’t on the gas pedal, and wait for the engine to return to normal.  It revs like that two more times before it settles back to a low rumble and I add to my list of to-do’s to check that out.  If that happened when I was driving it could be a different story than sitting here with the truck securely in park.

For me, leaving Baltimore was necessary.  A fresh start where no one knew I was the other twin.  The one without the law degree and the Range Rover and the cover photo on Perfect Daughter Monthly. The one with a song in her heart but no interest in climbing the social ladder.

Baltimore is big, but the world is small, and I wanted to be somewhere where I was just Eve Cupid—without the additional labels that have come to tag onto that over the years back home.

I probably should be excited to be going to live in such decadence on my sister’s dime.

I’m not.

I love my studio apartment with its barely functioning heat and cracked bathroom mirror.  I love this whole place.  Houghton, Michigan is at the tippy-top of the border to Canada and about as far north as you can get in the U.S.;  the winters are not for the faint of heart. 

But this life is mine and I feel like I’ve just started building it.  The people I’ve met along the way have become a second family to me.  Right from the start, Mrs. Fuller, my landlady, took a chance on me when I showed up with an olive-green American Tourister suitcase and three black plastic bags.  It was my first introduction to the kindness of the people in an area like this. 

Most of them, anyway.

Pauline bought out my lease, too, because I couldn’t afford to pay off Mrs. Fuller, and no way was I going to bail on her.  She wasn’t happy about that, but I made it clear it was non-negotiable.

“Okay.  Well, all that is well and good, but I’m not leaving here until Thursday, so maybe we could find something else to talk about tomorrow when you call and we cover this same subject?”

“Tomorrow is Christmas. Why don’t you call Dad for a change?”

Because all he’ll do is talk about you and how wonderful and successful you are and ask me about my plans for the future.

“Fine.”  I agree, because it should at least wrap this up faster. “I’ll call.”

I hear her disapproving sigh from three states away.  “Sure you will.  I’ve heard that before.”

I’ll admit, I’ve earned some of that. My track record hasn’t always been  great when it comes to keeping my word.  The years when I was more interested in hitting the bar than the books, I let lots of people down, especially my family. 

I’ve owned that, I’ve apologized, I’ve done what I can to remediate the damage, make changes and move forward.. 

They seem to be the ones clinging to my past sins and I’ve come to realize there’s not much else I can do about it at this point. 

Agreeing to move home and live with my father, to help take care of him in my twin sister’s absence, comes straight out of an Italian mother’s guilt instruction manual.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, there is a little girl inside me that still craves her father’s approval.  Deep down I know, there is part of me that hopes by moving home I can show him I’m someone he could be proud of.

The way he is proud of Pauline.

I may not have the degrees, I may not be the youngest member of Lyle, Fernberg and Finch to make partner.  I may not be the one who is moving to London as head co-counsel on the BP oil merger with Blackwell Rig Enterprises.

But I am me.  With my inability to cook anything but Ramen and an obsessive need to avoid conflict at all costs, but I’m not so bad. Took me a few years to believe that, but I do now.

“Anyway, my phone is about to die, so...”  It’s the truth and I root around in my backpack to find I’ve forgotten my charger.  Again.

“Fine.  Good bye, Gertrude.”  Pauline enunciates my first name, knowing I hate it.

“Good bye, Ursula.”  I reply, knowing using her middle name will set her off.

We were named after my mother’s own twin sisters, only I got the short end of the naming stick as well.  At least my mom threw me a bone on my middle name, Eve, while she helped balance the scales by giving Pauline her own turd in the punchbowl middle name with Ursula.

Sometimes, my mother’s sense of humor was a little off.

“There is no need—”

I click off, take another long sip on my coffee cup and let my head drop back onto the headrest in the car.  Freezing rain is beginning to pelt the windshield and the sound is somehow soothing after that phone call.

I’m an hour and a half early for my shift. I come in early once a week to play the piano and sing for the residents.  I may never make Broadway or play a concert hall, but I can bring a smile to a room full of senior citizens and for now that’s good enough for me. 

I grab my backpack off the back seat of my 1998 Ford F350 Supercab.  I have to pull myself up into the lifted cab and monster truck tires. But living here, my truck isn’t just smart—it’s necessary.

It’s old, a little rusty, but reliable. Lately the fuel pump has been a bit hinky and now with this thing with the engine revving all on its own...I have to deal with those things before I try to make the trip home.

I have an odd natural ability with engines.  Not sure where I learned it, certainly nothing in my childhood.  My mother taught me to sing, my father taught me to be more like my sister.

I stopped by the auto supply on my way home yesterday and picked up the parts I think I need.  I usually work first shift and Christmas is triple time, so I signed up to work the holiday.  Today I’m working a swing shift, coming in at ten and getting off at four. Tomorrow I’m in early at seven am and I’ll work until two.

This evening after work, my friend Audrey, who lives in town, offered to let me use her dad’s garage and tools.  After that, I’ll spend some time with them and their family for Christmas Eve. 

They even invited me for Christmas morning, but I politely declined, letting them know I was working.

Most people would hate to work on Christmas.  Not me, I’m looking forward to being here with all these people I’ve grown to love.

Audrey invited me to her family dinner Christmas night as well when I told her I’d be working in the morning, but I lied and told her I had plans. I’m thinking, since this will be the last year—at least for a while—that I’ll have my own space rather than being back in Baltimore with my father, I’m going to enjoy my peace and solitude.

Not to mention, Audrey and her family are great, but they are known to tip back the bottle a bit.  Which is fine.  For them

But for me, it still makes me feel I’m walking a tightrope and I’ve learned whenever possible to avoid temptation, especially around the holidays.

I’ll stay over after my shift and have dinner with the residents, then head back to my apartment. I’ve loaded my Kindle with about a hundred Christmas romance books, and the Hallmark Channel has a lineup of Christmas movies.  I’ve already stocked up on marshmallow filled chocolate Santas and  food that will have me trading my jeans for my yoga pants before nine PM.  All in all, sounds like a nice way to spend the day to me.

I got my last DUI on Christmas Day years ago and that was the turning point in my life. I’m haunted by all the ‘what if’s’ of that night. All the times I drove when I shouldn’t have. All the people I put in danger by my own selfish actions.

How lucky I am I never hurt anyone.

The other thing is I know there are plenty of other people still out there tipping it back and getting behind the wheel,  so being home, safe and sound, is best all around.

Trudging through the less than appealing weather to the back entrance of Cedar Terrace is a gentle reminder that the holiday season is in full swing.  Just outside, I greet a few of the other staff members who are smoking in the designated area, before sighing at the warmth as I step inside the back door.  I strip off my jacket and stuff it into my locker, put my backpack down and take out my folder of Christmas sheet music, checking to make sure the sheets are in alphabetical order.

On the wall beside the time clock, there’s a sign announcing my going away party, December 27th in the employee break room.  The residents don’t know I’m leaving, the facility doesn’t like to announce it until the employee’s last day. Seems dumb to me, but it’s company policy, so I’ll be here late saying a lot of goodbyes.

After gathering the folder, I make my way out into the great room, to the black grand piano where I will sit for the hour before my shift playing for anyone that will listen.

“You’re early.”  Genisys Butler blocks the doorway. “You putting out your tip jar today?”

“What exactly is your problem?”  I smack back, as a tense knot grows in my gut. “It’s Christmas Eve.  Take a day off from be-a-pain-in-Eve’s-ass duty.” I step forward but she doesn’t move.

Confrontation is not my thing, but I’m not one to back down when it’s shoved in my face.

“No problem.”  She smiles, curling her fingers forward and bringing both hands up to check her ridiculous manicure.  Doing this job with inch-long nails emblazoned with rhinestones isn’t wise to begin with.  Paying for that when you complain that your phone got cut off because you couldn’t pay the bill is something else.  “You just think you’re so special, singing and playing the piano like you’re better than everyone else here, making us all look bad.” She mutters something under her breath that I’m kind of glad I don’t catch.

Genisys has had a stick up her butt about me from my first day. 

I work as hard as anyone else, and don’t shy away from the less pleasant parts of the job. Let’s just say, there’s a lot of adult diapers around here that need changing and leave it at that.  I dove right into the work with no complaints and I earned the respect of most of the rest of the staff.

Not Genisys, but I’m not going out of my way to kiss her rear end either.

“Are you going to get out of my way? Or would you like me to move you?” It’s a empty threat, seeing she has five inches and a hundred and fifty pounds on her side.

She croaks out a throaty laugh.  “Like to see that.”

“Is there a problem?”  A voice from behind my shoulder drags her eyes away from mine.  I know the voice and I try not to let my relief show.

Genisys forces a saccharine sweet smile onto her face.  “Nope.”  She side steps, giving access to the doorway and glancing at me as she scrunches her nose, then back to Howard Stevens, the Resident Care Manager, who is now standing just to my right. “No problem here, right Eve?”  She finishes with a dramatic wave of her arm to usher me through the door.

“I didn’t think so.”  He adds, shaking his head as he gives me a sidelong glance and moves forward a stiff arm opening the door   with me following right behind.

The door swings shut behind us, and I roll my eyes as he looks back to me, shaking his head.

“Why is she such a bitch to me?”

Howard hired me, and from the first day we’ve connected.  He’s one of the most impossible and funniest humans I know, and even though he’s my boss he’s also one of my best friends.

He chuckles under his breath, waving at a few of the residents that are already calling his name.  “Because you look like you’re straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad.  All wholesome and highbrow bone structure. Besides, the way you kiss my ass. No one likes a suck up.” He elbows me on a laugh.

I swallow hard, wishing I could laugh with him. “I’m as hard up as the rest of them. Harder.  Doesn’t she realize I live in a studio walk up over the Pastie Parlor? All my clothes smell like turnips and onions.”

I didn’t know what a pastie was until I moved here.  It’s pronounced pass-tie not to be mistaken with a sticky fringed applique meant for a nipple.  A pastie is like a folded over pie filled with a variety of ingredients.   For some reason, Houghton, Michigan is like the capital of pastie making in the United States. 

We walk over to the piano where I set down my folder of sheet music and pull off the hair band I always keep around my wrist, tying my hair up in a messy bun. Looking around the room there’s a group of about forty residents and family members waiting for me to start my Christmas Eve performance.

“Hi, sweetie.” Ella Mae Vixon raises her hand and waves her crooked fingers my way, and I feel my spirits lift. 

“Hi, Mrs. Vixon.”  I return her wave with a smile.

She’s one of my favorites and although she can’t remember what she had for breakfast this morning, she’s funny and sweet and loves living here—unlike a lot of the residents, who complain about everything from the gourmet food to the crystal chandeliers. 

“Well, well.”  Howard mouths next to my ear as I settle onto the piano bench.  “Look who just walked in.”

I glance toward the entry and immediately a flock of flapping butterflies take flight in my stomach.

Shut up.”  I whisper back.  Already my palms are sweating and I feel the heated red blotches begin to cover my chest and neck.

“When are you going to just throw yourself on top of that piano, show him your sugar plums and invite him to have a holly, jolly Christmas?”  Howard snort-laughs and I smack his arm.

Stop it.” I cough out, my throat closing up, but unable to keep from laughing with him. “You know, you are incredibly inappropriate.  Did you not watch the in-service video on sexual harassment in the workplace?”

“Oh, honey.”  He bites into his bottom lip on another of his signature snorting laughs, doing this little stomp on one foot that he likes to do. “You don’t have the right equipment for me.”  He tips his head back and forth.  “But he does.”

I fight the urge to look, but lose, and when my eyes latch on to the bearded monster of a man signing in at the front desk wearing flannel and testosterone, my heart does this little Shirley Temple tap dance in my chest.

Howard walks away whistling, leaving me sitting in the middle of a room of memory impaired senior citizens, with a growing wet spot between my legs.