In the music store Sung bought Dex a red Stratocaster and a Frontman practice amp, saying, “Chase wants to give your son guitar lessons.” Through the window, Matthew watched her leaving a boutique across the street. She hopped on her bicycle and raced away—the wrong direction.
Buying eight harmonicas, Sung said he had taught Rhee everything about cars, but his cousin declined owning one, just as he knew all about Taekwondo but hadn’t practiced once.
“Is he happy here?” Matthew asked.
“Very happy. He likes the temple. Most people rely on his treatments and medicines. Qi-Gong, he says, is so popular, he adds classes.”
At the farmhouse, Matthew parked behind Sung’s rented car and offered to carry the amp. “No, thank you,” Sung said. “I know you’re in a hurry.” Then he turned and asked, “Do your children believe in Santa Claus?”
“Dex always refused.”
“He believes in Brooke. By next Christmas, he expects her to be his stepmother.”
“Sung, I apologize. I’ve explained why that’s impossible many times but he won’t listen.”
“He’s too young for such severe compliance but he must accept it.”
Matthew assumed a genial aspect. What else could he do?
Sung said, not to worry. Before he left, he’d find a way for Dex. “But now, we’re enjoying Christmas.” He smiled. Connie and Ivy had offered to teach him the art of wrapping Christmas presents.
Soon Matthew was sprinting beneath a wintery moon. He didn’t stop until Town Hall. The A-frame that only Brooke still sometimes called home was dark. Using a credit card he had brought on purpose, he jimmied the front handle and pushed the door open as far as the chain allowed. Deftly, he executed a fast kick and the chain fell on the carpet. He leaped up the rickety stairs, past the couch, and into the kitchen, where her bicycle was propped against the refrigerator. Matthew had never been inside the A-frame, but he knew which room was Brooke’s—besides, he heard her crying.
Arrested at the threshold, he gripped the doorframe—never before had he seen her weeping without restraint. Although he continually warned her against being brave for his sake. “We only do that for others.”
He was still standing back, seized by the sight of her, naked and supine, an arm flung over her eyes.
“Brooke, it’s me.” Of course, she knew that, but that’s what he said, hugging her as tightly as he dared. She sat, luminous, on his lap. He couldn’t stop his hands—the softness of her skin alone could bring Matthew to tears. And until he’d fallen in love with her, he never cried. Whether he was sad or not, his eyes remained dry. But several times his love for Brooke had sent tears down his face. Now that she wasn’t weeping, he felt steadier.
She laced her fingers behind his neck. But when she pressed the side of her face against his chest, suddenly Matthew was weeping openly, his tears glistening in her hair. She kissed his face and said, “If you keep it up, I’ll start again. For a while, crying is a release, but when it goes on and on, it scalds you.”
She lay stretched out on the thin mattress and he knelt on the floor beside her lopsided bed. But when his fingertips circled her breasts, she shifted, holding his head, so that her eyes shone directly into his.
The second her gaze released him, Matthew stripped off his running clothes, but choked—sick at the consequences he couldn’t control. As he’d been warned by his own smothered decency (not to mention the law), Matthew’s passion was hurting Brooke, perhaps permanently. His escalating sin—
“Stop it!” She popped up fast and slapped his face hard. Brooke knew that look—his eyes became darker and shinier with contrition.
He held both her wrists loosely, waiting for her anger to cool. He said her name and urged her to lie beside him on the floor, which creaked when they moved.
Later, in the harsh cold, they hurried to the tower. With time running out, Brooke swore. “Matthew, I’m gonna love you forever. Nobody and nothing can diminish my love for you. No imposed separation’s gonna break me. If Pop and the public disapprove, I’ll hide. I’ll shave my head; eat dirt; act like an aardvark—anything but what I am, wanton and unruly. Let ’em punish me with all their piddly, earthly powers. My love transcends their shitty reality. My love for you is infinite! And if the big bad guns let me live a full eighteen years, three months, and six days by their atomic clock, I’ll only be that much more in love with you. They can keep pushing their fuckin’ legal limit to kingdom come. I’ll always love you, Matthew, whether I’m allowed to walk in daylight or not.”
Upstairs, she begged forgiveness.
“Brooke, I beg your forgiveness—always. Slap my face all you want.”
By the low suede couch, she smiled at him full on. And they both watched her toe circling the parquet floor.
After grilled salmon and clear soup for dinner, Brooke asked to exchange their private presents now, before Christmas Eve with the others.
He said, “I’m afraid you won’t like mine, Brooke. I’ve already bought you too many clothes that I like. And you told me diamonds are sticky with bloodshed. But I’ll get you anything, truly anything—except freedom, which is out of stock till next year.”
She half-laughed. “I love everything you give me, Matthew.”
They pushed small boxes tied with red ribbon across the table. Inside Brooke’s was a gold rectangle dangling from a necklace of twisted gold strands.
“It’s a stylized dog tag,” he said and shut his eyes. “Turn it over.”
Elegantly engraved on the back was: Matthew & Brooke. He had worried she’d think it was trite or saccharine. But no—she loved it and hopped around like the teenage girl she was. “Please, help me fasten it. I’ve wanted a new secret necklace, ever since the pendant came out. And I love our names—Matthew and Brooke; we’re perfect together.”
His gift was a puzzle ring like the one he’d given her, except big and silver. He slipped it on his fourth finger, left hand to show her.
“Silly.” She pulled it off and pushed in onto his right index finger where it fit perfectly, just like hers.
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