Irises in the Snow
Isabelle Adler © 2019
All Rights Reserved
The Rowel family home greeted Justin with familiar smells of cinnamon cake and fresh pine. In his mind, these scents had always been associated with the holiday season and long evenings spent around the dinner table or playing Scrabble in front of the fire. They were enough to ease some of the ache in Justin’s chest, softening his mood a tiny fraction.
“Justin!” His father clapped him on the shoulder and pulled him into a hug, which Justin carefully returned. “I’m glad you could finally make it.”
Despite the long remission, his father still appeared frail—or so it seemed to Justin, who, like most children, had grown up with the illusion his father was invincible until the universe proved him wrong.
“Of course,” Justin said. “You know me; I can’t say no to mom’s cooking.”
His father raised his eyebrow skeptically, undoubtedly recalling the string of last-minute cancellations and half-hearted excuses for not coming over in the last few weeks.
A familiar wave of guilt washed over Justin. With everything that had been going on, he knew he’d be hard-pressed to withstand his parents’ well-meaning inquiries into his personal life and into the state of the family business, which had become Justin’s sole responsibility. He couldn’t bring himself to tell them just how badly both those things were going.
He cranked up his smile to a new level of dissimulation, but thankfully, his mother emerged from the kitchen before his dad could challenge his statement.
His mother wiped her hands on her apron and reached up to plant kisses on Justin’s cheeks.
“Everybody is already here,” she told Justin as she led him by the arm into the living room as if he’d forgotten the way. “I love it when the house is full.” Her tone was a touch wistful as she gave his arm a gentle squeeze before returning to the kitchen.
Justin supposed having them all together was a rare occurrence these days. He lived in a one-room apartment above their hardware store, and his sister Trish had recently moved in with her fiancé. Nowadays, only the holidays presented an opportunity for Kelly Rowel to gather all of her loved ones, and, despite having to close the shop early on Monday to attend the day-before-Christmas-Eve family gathering, Justin was glad he could do something to make his mom happy. But as soon as he entered the brightly lit living room, he came to a screeching halt.
A fire already crackled merrily behind the grate. Huge red and white socks adorned with hand-embroidered names hung off the mantelpiece, decorated with a fake holly arrangement making its yearly appearance in the Rowel household. The TV showed a romantic comedy set in the Swiss Alps, as far as Justin could tell at a cursory glance. His sister Trish, her fiancé Dave, and Aunt Marnie sat glued to the movie while Uncle Tony fiddled with his iPhone.
None of them, however, had the dubious honor of grabbing Justin’s attention. That belonged to the young man wearing trendy gold-rimmed glasses and the blandest Christmas sweater in existence, sitting ramrod-straight in Dad’s old armchair and seemingly engrossed in Anne Hathaway’s foreign love affair.
No way. What was he doing here?
Justin didn’t know how long he stood in the doorway, transfixed, until his father, coming up behind him, gave him a slight nudge.
“Look who I have here!” he announced, and everybody, including the young man and Uncle Tony, raised their heads and turned his way.
“Hey, Justin!” Trish got up to meet him and give him a vigorous hug.
They sure were an affectionate lot, he thought absently as he hugged her back. Once, all that warmth was what kept him going. Now, it seemed almost…superfluous.
“Hi, Trish,” Justin said when she let up, and nodded to the rest. “Aunt Marnie, Uncle Tony, Dave. Elliot.”
“Oh, right.” Trish finally seemed to recall there was someone else present. “Mom invited Elliot to spend the holiday with us. You remember Elliot?”
Justin nodded curtly, unable to tear his eyes away from their guest. He definitely remembered Elliot Turner.
The man in question stood up, vacating his seat for Justin’s dad, and extended his hand in greeting.
“It’s nice to see you again,” he said.
Elliot’s voice was deeper, more mature than the last time Justin had spoken to him. Somehow, he seemed taller too. His gray eyes behind the shiny glasses regarded him seriously.
“Sure,” Justin said politely, shaking his hand. “It’s been a while.”
“Five years,” Elliot said.
“I was sorry to hear about your parents,” Justin said.
An awkward silence, accentuated by the chatter from the TV, settled around the living room at the mention of the tragedy. Trish and Aunt Marnie exchanged a nervous look. Really, did they expect Justin to just ignore what had happened?
When he’d heard of the terrible car accident last year, he tried calling Elliot in Los Angeles, but Elliot never picked up the phone or responded to Justin’s email in which he offered his condolences. That, above anything else, made it perfectly clear Justin was no longer welcome in his life.
So what was he doing back, standing in Justin’s parents’ living room?
“Thank you,” Elliot said gravely.
Suddenly, Justin was aware he was still holding Elliot’s hand and let it go, taking an involuntary step back. He wasn’t prepared for all the half-repressed memories dragged to the surface by Elliot’s touch—and he certainly wasn’t prepared to deal with them in front of his notoriously meddlesome, if well-meaning, extended family.
Elliot stepped away as well, dropping his eyes. The sudden loss of contact felt like…well, a loss.
“Is Mark coming?” Trish asked, peering behind Justin’s shoulder as if expecting to find his boyfriend loitering in the corridor.
“No,” he said curtly.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Maybe he’ll join us tomorrow, then?”
“I don’t think so. How are your studies going?” he asked Trish, desperately trying to divert her focus elsewhere.
“I’m doing great. Passed all my midterms.”
“With flying colors,” Dave said.
He rose from his seat to shake Justin’s hand as Elliot stepped aside to make room for him and plopped back down, taking over half the couch in a casual sprawl. Dave was a big guy, tall and built like a quarterback. Trish was taller than Justin by an inch, and nearly as broad in the shoulders, but Dave made her seem petite in comparison.
“That’s terrific,” Justin said, his voice warming.
His plan of going to art school had gone up in flames and then slowly fizzled over the years as other considerations took precedence over the illusions of youth, but at least it hadn’t all been for nothing. With her athletics scholarship, Trish had been accepted to UIndy, and as long as she got to achieve that dream, he was happy to do anything he could to support her.
“I can’t believe you got even paler, though,” Trish said, casting a critical eye over him. “And thinner. Are you auditioning for the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past?”
“You’re the one to talk, Trish,” Aunt Marnie observed primly. “That’s the trouble with young people today. You can’t be bothered to take care of yourselves. Eating sandwiches in front of the TV instead of sitting down for a proper meal, chugging all those soft drinks, always on your phones instead of having a nice long conversation over the dinner table.”
She glanced disapprovingly at Uncle Tony as she said it. Justin couldn’t tell whether her dissatisfaction stemmed from his being effectively absent from the proceedings, or that his preoccupation with his own mobile device undermined her point of it being the affliction of solely the younger generation.
Justin rolled his eyes and caught a glimpse of Elliot doing the same. He pretended not to notice.
“Oh, shush, Marnie.” Justin’s dad, John, tsked in annoyance at his sister-in-law as he settled comfortably in his shabby armchair. “Leave the girl alone. The last thing she needs is your dieting advice.”
“Just so you know, I eat healthier than all of you,” Trish said, sitting back down on the sofa beside her fiancé. Thankfully, she wasn’t ruffled by her aunt’s comment. Unlike Justin, she had always boasted a sunny disposition and staunchly refused to let bullies of any variety upset her. “And I drink nothing but fresh juice and water. Carbonated for special occasions.”
Dave snickered and petted her arm lovingly.
“Yes. Well. You must be tired, dear,” Aunt Marnie said, changing the subject and addressing Justin. “Why don’t you sit, put your feet up for a bit? Now, are you sure your young man isn’t coming? I had such a nice chat with him when you brought him over for Thanksgiving. Did you know—”
“I’m sure,” Justin interrupted her. Elliot’s gaze was like a laser beam trained on him, but he refused to meet it head on. “Actually, I think I’ll go see if Mom needs any help in the kitchen.”
Justin beat a hasty retreat before they could all start bickering again—and before he had to explain his current heartache in front of the man who was the first to ever break it.
The truth was, he wanted a few moments away to gather his thoughts. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but having Elliot turn up shook him rather badly. And on top of everything else in his life seemingly falling apart at the seams at the moment… Yeah, the universe definitely had it in for him for whatever reason.
Justin shook his head ruefully. Well, he knew he had to present a good front to his family during the holiday, and this really changed nothing. He would just have to work extra hard at hiding his anxiety from them. After all, he’d had years of practice.
He headed for the kitchen where his mother was busy prepping the food for dinner. The delicious aroma of baking bread made his mouth instantly water. The countertops, piled with baskets of produce, reminded Justin of Craen and de Heem’s luscious still-life paintings, boasting an abundance of root vegetables and fresh herbs.
His mom wasn’t always keen on people hanging out in her small kitchen, taking up space. Somehow, she managed to crank out delicious family feasts year after year for as long as Justin could remember. Cooking and embroidery were her favorite pastimes, and holiday cooking took precedence over anything else.
“Need a hand?” he asked.
“Why not,” Kelly said and shoved a bunch of vegetables at him across the peninsula counter. Her dyed blond hair was pulled up in a neat bun, and she wore her festive red-and-green plaid apron. “Chop up some leeks for me, would you, honey?”
Justin grabbed a knife and got to work.
“Will Mark be joining us for Christmas dinner tomorrow?”
Apparently, all the mothers in the world shared the same knack for cramming a heavy load of displeasure into one tiny sound. But she didn’t say anything else, and that suited him fine because he wasn’t about to go down that particular avenue.
“Why did you invite him, Ma?” he asked instead, concentrating on getting the slices uniform, just like his mother liked.
“Who, dear?” Kelly asked, stirring something in a pot on the stove.
“I ran into him at the grocery store the other day, and we got to talking. I hadn’t seen him since he came for his parents’ funeral. You missed it because you went with your father to that specialist in Indianapolis, remember?”
“I asked what he was doing back in Carson, and it turned out he came to finish things up with the house. You know, sorting through the personal belongings and getting all the paperwork in order before selling it.” Kelly shook her head. “Imagine going through your dead parents’ stuff at Christmas-time all alone. That’s just plain wrong.”
Justin wanted to point out that the timing of Elliot’s return, however unfortunate, was of his own choosing, but it was clear this argument would hold no sway with his mother, so he kept it to himself and took another leek from the basket.
“I couldn’t leave that poor boy by himself in that empty house,” Kelly continued, bending over to check the roast in the oven. “He needs to be with his friends and neighbors right now, not sit there in the dark, surrounded by all the memories of his family with nobody to offer support.”
“That’s a bit overdramatic, isn’t it?” Justin blurted out despite his earlier resolution against arguing with her. “It’s his house, and it’s not a haunted Gothic mansion. Besides, how do you know he didn’t plan on having someone over?”
“Well, I asked him, silly,” Kelly said with a sort of mind-boggling lack of tact. “He told me he didn’t have anyone for company.”
“Maybe that’s by design,” Justin muttered, letting the leeks carry the brunt of his annoyance.
“Oh, don’t be such a grouch!” Kelly put a lid on the pot and turned to him, wiping her hands on her apron. “Elliot’s a fine young man. I’ve always liked him. Such good manners, and so smart too. He told me he works for an art gallery in Los Angeles now.”
“I’m thrilled to hear that.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if you asked him whether they could find a position for you—”
He thought he said it with enough finality, but apparently, he was wrong, because Kelly insisted:
“Listen, honey, I know that working full-time in a hardware store isn’t what you wanted. Your father and I will always be grateful for what you’ve done for us, taking that on, but perhaps it’s time for you to do something for yourself for a change. We’ll figure out a solution.”
His chopping slowed down as Justin bit his lip, fighting the bitter lump that rose in his throat. He didn’t dare turn to face her.
“I can’t afford it,” he said finally, his voice brittle. “We can’t afford it. Not now. There’s—”
He was interrupted by someone pointedly clearing their throat. Justin looked up at Elliot standing in the kitchen doorway.
“I only wanted to ask whether you needed any more help, Mrs. Rowel,” Elliot said into the silence.
Damn it. How long had he been standing there? Really, the last thing Justin needed was for Elliot to hear him whining to his mother.
“Sure,” Kelly said, recovering quickly. “You can peel the potatoes, Elliot.”
Justin moved to the side as Elliot joined him at the counter after taking another cutting board and a peeler. With the three of them, the small kitchen felt cramped. It was a testament to how discomposed Kelly must have been by their earlier discussion that she was willing to share the limited elbow room without shooing them out.
Elliot pushed up the sleeves of his brown sweater and got to work. He did have nice arms, Justin noted absently as he broodingly resumed his leek chopping. Slender, but strong and sinewy, covered with a dusting of light-blond hair over freckled skin. He had nice fingers, too—long and graceful, fit for a piano player or a painter.
Elliot paused his chopping, glancing up at him, and Justin hastily dropped his gaze to his own board, pretending to be engrossed with dicing the vegetables into precise little bits.
“There,” he said finally, dropping the slices into a bowl. “Anything else, Ma?”
She must have picked up on the curtness of his tone because she gave him a sidelong look and shook her head.
“Not right now, honey. Go get some rest, and I’ll call you down later.”
Justin rinsed the knife and cutting board and brushed past Elliot as he made his escape into the hallway.