Stars twinkled in the evening sky of Dark Stone, North Carolina. They barely shone through the canopy of heavy, snow-laden clouds. The moon beamed among them defiantly, showing the spirit of freedom through the haze. It lit up the entire heavens with a blazing shine. Through the cold of winter, it was a welcome sight, as if it was a sign there was still some warmth and light in the world. Soft, white dots of snowflakes began gliding through the air in a whirlwind way. They fluttered here and there in their simple world: a world of luxury and independence, where their only care was where the wind would blow, and where they would land on the ground.
It was winter again. Wretched… winter.
I sat atop the red cushioning of the wide windowsill in my best friend’s house. My eyes gazed at the snowflakes, flying from one to another and trying to study every detail of their little bodies. With my elbow resting on the window pane, I stared out gloomily. The snow gave me a little heart-life, though. Just looking at them made me itch to retrieve my sketchbook from my backpack. A shiver ran down my back as I thought about drawing them each individually.
Ah, drawing. My respite. My break when the parents were gone. Feeling the pencil in my practiced hand, tracing my fingers over the lines, and looking at the scene unfolding on paper was one of the best feelings I ever had the pleasure of experiencing. But as I fingered the white paint peeling from the window pane, I couldn’t bring myself to go grab the book. I felt too dispirited to draw the snowflakes as they danced around happily, as if they had invisible smiles on their wee little faces.
My head snapped from the window and my eyes settled on Winter Zola Hunter herself. She had been my best friend since we were kids. Her curly, dark brown hair fell over the tank top she wore. With the basketball shorts that went under, I wondered how she could ever wear clothes so short in such cold weather. I subconsciously squeezed my fuzzy sweater closer.
Winter tore me from my thoughts by walking over and plopping down on the red cushioning. “Y’know… you’ve been staring at that yard for the last hour. You could just try going outside.”
I sighed and glanced back at the window, resting my chin on my hand again. “Yeah… or I could just continue staring at it.”
She snorted and grabbed a black hoodie from the ground. As she yanked her head through—as well as her arms—the girl crossed her legs and said, “So… what’s wrong?”
I shrugged, doing my best to ignore the intense gaze she drilled into me. “Nothing’s wrong. Why does something have to be wrong? Everything’s fine…”
I looked to her out of the corner of my eye, knowing I was a terrible liar, then gazed back outside.
“Everything’s… perfectly… fine.”
“Hm, right, so is this the part where I play the concerned friend and console you, be the irresponsible friend and pretend everything really is fine, or be nosy and ask what’s wrong until you tell me?”
I rolled my eyes and gazed at her raised eyebrow. Beneath it, her vibrant green eyes lit up in a sassy expression.
“So does this mean you won’t join the guys and me for pizza?” she probed.
“Winter Hunter: the oh-so-compassionate one. I’m only assuming you’re going with the irresponsible friend.”
She grinned and shrugged. “Just trying to lighten the mood.” Then she sobered. “This is about your parents… isn’t it?”
My smile slowly faded, and I focused on my fingers twiddling with each other on my crossed lap. I nodded after a few more moments. Winter didn’t say anything for a while, letting me collect my thoughts. I glanced back outside to watch the snowflakes falling again.
My parents weren’t bad. Honestly, they were pretty much the opposite. But there was one thing they did every winter that just left me completely bewildered: they left.
They called them “business trips.” The two would leave around the start of December, then come back two or three weeks later. Sometimes they would even be gone through Christmas. Those trips were the worst.
I didn’t actually mind them leaving—it gave me an awesome time with the Hunters, and being best friends with Winter, we always had a blast. My brother, Dustin, could definitely correlate with me on that. It’s just, the parents never told me—us—why they left. What did they do there? Wherever “there” was. Mom didn’t even have a job; why would she need to go on a business trip? And Dad was an accountant at a local firm. A low-on-the-food-chain one, at that. He only had to travel once for that job, for this big conference with his company, but he actually told us the reason for him leaving. These business trips? They were just so random.
“You ’kay?” Winter asked, interrupting my thoughts.
I forced a small smile. “Yeah.”
She shrugged and stood up. “So should I just tell the guys you don’t want to eat, then?”
“No,” I sighed. “I’ll come. Getting my mind off the parents would be a good idea… I guess.”
I joined her in a walk to the door, but before we went through, I complied with the urge of looking out the window one last time to see the moon shining as bright as ever, its partnering stars twinkling brighter than they were before. The beautiful sight made me stop in my stride. Snowflakes still fell in a dizzying, but peaceful way. It would be a perfect time just to get my sketchbook out…
“Oh my gosh, don’t make me ask again,” Winter said, pausing in the open doorway.
“Sorry,” I said in a distracted voice. Turning my head from the beautiful sight, I stepped towards my friend. “Let’s go eat.”
A small walk down the hallway led to a more spacious room consisting of the living area on the left, dining room on the far wall, and door to the kitchen on the right. Two people lounged on the furniture in the den: Dustin and Conner.
Dustin Light was my older brother. He had turned seventeen back in October, and was a junior at West Dark Stone High School (known by its students as DS High). His hair fell low, nearly plunging to his soft brown eyes in a shaggy, uncombed manner. He was tall, too, just reaching above six feet. At the moment, he sprawled on the couch, iPhone in hand.
The little prankster himself, otherwise known as Conner Hunter, also known Winnie’s ten-year-old brother, sat on the chair beside the couch. His light brown hair was cut to a short degree, and his deep brown eyes glinted with childish enthusiasm, following the cartoon characters on the TV. Only until you got to know did you realize those innocent-looking eyes were actually the masks of an evil mastermind at work. Think I’m being melodramatic? Let’s look at his work then, shall we?
He drew mustaches on Winnie and I while at a sleepover. With a permanent Sharpie. Okay, so that’s no so bad—actually, I would’ve found it even comical… if it wasn’t for church camp being the very next weekend. So, for the next two and a half days, Winter and I had to endure endless teasing by all our friends because of the black lines over our lips, no matter how hard we tried to take it off.
Another time, Conner managed to duct tape my feet together in the night at a different sleepover. He did the same with Winter, and after he had finished, the boy suddenly let out a very loud, “FIRE!”
My eyes bulged open, as did Winter’s, but trying to run out the room with our feet taped into a single foot was a big no-no. We both tumbled to the ground, flat on the face. Unfortunately, Conner just had to add his childish, immature, and very annoying laughter in the background, which instantly gave explanation to the strange circumstance.
But the worst prank he pulled was in front of an audience. Winter and I were walking over from my house, I carrying my backpack for yet another sleepover (seriously, we need to have some at my house for a change!). Conner suddenly appeared out of nowhere, several of Dustin’s basketball teammates behind him, hose in hand. He sprayed us completely drenched with water. I just managed to throw my backpack away before he soaked me. Winter and I needed only share a glance before we both burst out laughter. My friend ran to her younger brother to tickle him, but I was giggling too hard to even move, arms hugging my aching sides. After the water turned off, Winter came back over, obviously trying to hold in a laugh, and whispered in my ear that I was wearing a white shirt. Looking down, I saw, sure enough, that my snow-colored top was becoming transparent due to all the water dripping from it. So that’s why Conner was laughing so hard. But that’s not the worst of it. The few basketball teammates just then seemed to notice it, too, and they began throwing whistles my way, elbowing Dustin (who, of course, just laughed). With red cheeks, I scurried inside the Hunter house, Winter hot on my tail. But I could tell she was trying her best not to giggle at my thirteen-year-old figure. Well… that night I definitely got teased a lot.
“Where’s Max?” Winter asked, drawing me from my lovely memory lane remembrances.
“On the phone with Bess,” Dustin answered, referring to Bess Hunter, Winnie’s mother, and Max Hunter, the oldest Hunter child.
“Can we eat now?” Conner asked impatiently, glancing over to us.
“Yee-up,” a new voice joined ours. It sounded male, husky, and… oh-so-dreamy.
A sixteen-year-old stepped in from the hall, slipping his phone into the back pocket of his skinny jeans. He wasn’t that tall, just a few inches more than me, having a lean build, a spiky mess of blond hair, and gorgeous, brown-green eyes. Ladies and gentlemen… Maxton… Aspen… Hunter. Informally known as Max.
“Pizza’s on the table,” he said, walking past Winter and me, but not without throwing a smirk my way. My innards sighed. Yes, he knew. He knew that I had had a crush on him since I found out what the meaning of “crush” was. He knew that every time I was with him, I couldn’t help but feel my heart speed up, feel my palms become sweaty, and have every socially awkward inclination within me jump up and take over my mind. And he wasn’t the only one—the entire Hunter and Light family knew about it. And my friends. And some random schoolmates I didn’t even know personally. Like, really, when did my love life become so public?
Winter pushed my head, and I realized I had been staring.
“I’ll get the plates,” I muttered, itching for a chance to get away. No one acknowledged that I said anything, so I went ahead and entered their narrow kitchen. It had a table of its own, right under the large window, which showed the snow covering the yard. Looking in one of the overhead cabinets, I grabbed five plates, then went back to the living room. Dustin had finally sat up on the couch, but still texted on his phone. Conner, on the other hand, waited eagerly by the pizza while licking his lips greedily. Winter was really the only thing holding him back.
I placed the plates by the food as Max popped open the lids to the pizza. Tasty scents wafted into the air. I took a deep breath of its yummy goodness. Meat lover’s… cheese… and the veggie. My mouth watered.
“Hey, Dustin, come on,” Max said. “I’m gonna pray.”
My brother slid his iPhone into his basketball pants pocket, then joined us by the table. Conner sat down on one of the seats with an impatient sigh, but it didn’t seem to bother Max as he began his prayer.
“Lord Jesus,” he said, “thank You for this day, and thank You once again that the Lights get to spend the week with us. We pray for safe travels for their parents—to get where they’re going and back again. Please bless the food before us, and despite it being incredibly unhealthy, help it nourish our bodies.”
“In Your name we pray. Amen.”
A murmured “amen” ran through the group. Conner dove for a plate.
Winter asked, “Do you guys want to watch a movie?”
“I have to study,” Max answered with a sigh. “I couldn’t get any work done earlier, and we’re taking the test on Monday.”
I carefully grabbed my own plate, trying to squelch down my disappointment. “So you wouldn’t join us?” Just like my lying skills, I was also terrible at hiding my feelings.
He smirked and wrapped a muscled arm around my shoulders, rubbing my shoulder gently. Blood surged through my body. He lifted an eyebrow and leaned his head down a little closer than what I was comfortable with. “Don’t worry, Ally. I’m free other nights.”
My heart beat faster, and I couldn’t tear my eyes from his. I hated it when he did this. Well… I mean… sort of.
“Alex, just sayin’, but you’re seriously blushing,” Conner said nonchalantly, lips dripping with tomato sauce.
Dustin and Winter bit their lips to keep from laughing.
I quickly ducked my head and took a step from Max. “Oh, I, uh…. Okay.”
Max hid a smile and grabbed a few pizza slices, piling them onto a plate. Winter and Dustin already had theirs. As the eldest Hunter picked his meal up, he looked to me. “By the way, I was just joking about studying. I just wanted to see what your reaction would be.”
I felt my face burn even more, and I scoffed in an attempt to regain my dignity, pushing him in the shoulder. Winter and Dustin burst out laughing.
“You guys are so annoying,” I said with a roll of my eyes.
The four others made their way to the living room while I got my own dinner.
“So what do you guys want to watch?” Winnie asked.
“Treasure Planet,” Conner instantly replied, naming his all-time favorite movie.
“Should’ve guessed,” Max said.
“It’s been forever!” the ten-year-old exclaimed. “Pleeeeease?”
“Okay, okay, I’m putting it in,” Winter informed him. I walked around the room and began switching lights off. After I finished the small task, I went back over to the others to see Max lying on the small couch, plate resting on stomach and pizza in hand. Dustin and Conner sat on the large couch, their feet propped up on the wooden coffee table. The seat in the middle was empty, so I stepped over my brother’s legs, but before I could sit, Winter exclaimed, “Wait! I’m sitting there!”
Wordlessly, I stepped back over my brother’s propped legs, aiming for the comfy chair by the side of the living room. Before I could sit, though, Dustin speedily moved his bare feet from the coffee table to the seat. “Hey!”
He looked over to me as if noticing my presence for the first time. “What?”
I glared at him. “Dustin.”
My brother shrugged. “What?”
Winter came back over with her food and the remote, and sat down. She glanced over to me with a shrug. “Guess there aren’t any more seats.”
“Weeeell,” Dustin cut-in. “I mean, Ally could sit next to Max if he wasn’t lying down. It’s not like she’d mind.”
As if I wasn’t with them, both my brother and friend fist-bumped each other for their achievement.
“Mm, smooth, Dustin,” Max complimented.
“Why, thank you,” Dustin turned to look at him and my eyes spotted a smirk outlined by the TV’s light. “I worked a whole thirty seconds on that one.”
“Guys, can we watch the movie already?” Conner asked impatiently. “Ally, just sit next to Max.”
“Yeah, Al,” Max spread out his arms. “I’m always free.”
I sighed and went over to the eldest Hunter. He sat up, letting me sit. Winnie played the movie. Even though I had been living with the family for seven days now, my heart still thumped rapidly as I repositioned next to Max. He took a bite of his slice, watching the TV without even giving a hint that he knew I was looking at the back of his head, which I guess he probably did know. It wouldn’t be a first time.
So many times I wished that no one else knew about how much I liked him. It hurt. He knew, and he pretty much only made fun of me because of it. So did everyone else—I knew it was just teasing, but it stung. So much.
As if the suspense was too much, Max glanced back to me, and I quickly averted my eyes. But, as always, not fast enough for him not to notice. I expected a teasing remark, but instead, I was rewarded with him putting a hand on my knee and giving it a reassuring squeeze. Looking into his eyes, I once again presumed there would be some sort of mischievous glint in them, to tell me he was only playing. But the TV’s light only revealed a warm feeling. My insides churned, heart thumping loudly in my ears. I was afraid to do anything. I wanted him to continue looking at me, but at the same time, I didn’t. Without resolving to any conclusions, I finally offered him a small smile. That seemed to make him happy, since his smile reflected mine. Then he glanced back to the TV, hand leaving my knee. A shiver ran up my spine unexpectedly, and I pulled my legs up up, as close as my skinny jeans allowed.