“I hate this time of year,” Rachel says. “I’m sorry, Sierra. I’m sure I say that a lot, but it’s true.”
Morning mist blurs the entrance of our school at the far end of the lawn. We stay on the cement pathway to avoid damp spots in the grass, but Rachel’s not complaining about the weather.
“Please don’t do this,” I say. “You’ll make me cry again. I just want to get through this week without—”
“But it’s not a week!” she says. “It’s two days. Two days until Thanksgiving break, and then you leave for a whole month again. More than a month!”
I hug Rachel’s arm as we continue walking. Even though I’m the one leaving for another holiday season far from home, Rachel pretends like it’s her world that gets turned upside-down each year. Her pouty face and slumped shoulders are entirely for my benefit, to let me know I’ll be missed, and every year I’m grateful for her melodrama. Even though I love where I’m going, it’s still hard to say goodbye. Knowing my best friends are counting the days until I return does make it easier.
I point to the tear in the corner of my eye. “Do you see what you did? They’re starting.”
This morning, when Mom drove us away from our Christmas tree farm, the sky was mostly clear. The workers were in the fields, their distant chainsaws buzzing like mosquitoes, cutting down this year’s crop of trees.
The fog came in as we drove lower. It stretched across the small farms, over the interstate, and into town, carrying within it the traditional scent of the season. This time of year our entire little Oregon town smells like fresh-cut Christmas trees. At other times, it might smell like sweet corn or sugar beets.
Rachel holds open one of the glass double doors and then follows me to my locker. There, she jiggles her glittery red watch in front of me. “We’ve got fifteen minutes,” she says. “I’m cranky and I’m cold. Let’s grab some coffee before the first bell.”
The school’s theater director, Miss Livingston, not-so-subtly encourages her students to drink as much caffeine as needed to get their shows together on time. Backstage, a pot of coffee is always on. As the lead set designer, Rachel gets unrestricted access to the auditorium.
Over the weekend, the theater department finished their performances of Little Shop of Horrors. The set won’t be broken down until after Thanksgiving break, so it’s still up when Rachel and I turn on the lights at the back of the theater. Sitting on the stage, between the flower shop counter and the big, green, man-eating plant, is Elizabeth. She sits up straight and waves when she sees us.
Rachel walks ahead of me down the aisle. “This year, we wanted to give you something to take with you to California.”
I follow her past the empty rows of red cushioned seats. They obviously don’t care if I’m a blubbering mess during my last few days of school. I climb the steps to the stage. Elizabeth pushes herself up, runs over, and hugs me.
“I was right,” she tells Rachel over my shoulder. “I told you she’d cry.”
“I hate you both,” I tell them.
Elizabeth hands me two presents wrapped in shiny silver Christmas paper, but I already kind of know what they’re giving me. Last week, we were all in a gift shop downtown and I saw them looking at picture frames the same size as these boxes. I sit down to open them and lean against the counter under the old-fashioned metal cash register.
Rachel sits cross-legged in front of me, our knees almost touching.
“You’re breaking the rules,” I say. I slide a finger beneath a fold in the wrapping of the first gift. “We’re not supposed to do this until after I get back.”
“We wanted you to have something that will make you think of us every day,” Elizabeth says.
“We’re kind of embarrassed we didn’t do this when you first started leaving,” Rachel adds.
“What, back when we were babies?”
During my very first Christmas, Mom stayed home with me on the farm while Dad operated our family Christmas tree lot down in California. The next year, Mom thought we should stay home one more season, but Dad didn’t want to be without us again. He would rather skip the lot for a year, he said, and rely solely on shipping the trees to vendors across the country. Mom felt bad, though, for the families who made a holiday tradition out of coming to us to buy their trees. And while it was a business, Dad being the second generation to run it, it was also a cherished tradition for both of them. They met, in fact, because Mom and her parents were annual customers. So every year now, that’s where I spend my days from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
Rachel reclines, setting her hands on the stage to prop herself up. “Are your parents still deciding about this being the last Christmas in California?”
I scratch at a piece of tape that holds down another fold. “Did the store wrap this?”
Rachel whispers to Elizabeth loud enough for me to hear, “She’s changing the subject.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I just hate thinking about this being our last year. As much as I love you, I would miss going down there. Besides, all I know is what I’ve overheard—they still haven’t mentioned it to me—but they seem pretty stressed about finances. Until they make up their minds, I don’t want to get my heart set either way.”
If we hang on to the lot for three more seasons, our family will have run that spot for thirty years. When my grandparents first bought the lot, the little town was in a growth spurt. Cities much closer to our farm in Oregon already had established lots, if not an abundance of them. Now everything from supermarkets to hardware stores sells trees, or people sell them for fund-raisers. Tree lots like ours aren’t as common anymore. If we let it go, we’d be doing all of our business selling to those supermarkets and fund-raisers, or supplying other lots with our trees.
Elizabeth puts a hand on my knee. “Part of me wants you to go back next year because I know you love it, but if you do stay we’d all get to spend Christmas together for the first time.”
I can’t help smiling at the thought. I love these girls, but Heather is also one of my best friends, and I only see her one month out of the year when I’m in California. “We’ve been going down there forever,” I say. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to suddenly . . . not.”