The night is quiet and their breath circles over them in halos as Jennifer and Phil walk arm in arm down the dimly lit street. With Phil's move behind him and the rush of Christmastime in the rearview, they decide, just once, to forget that they are running late. They walk slowly, savoring the sharp smells of winter and wood fires. A light snow falls - enough to cover the ugly brown plow tailings but not enough to deter evening drivers, who wend their way through the greeting card scene.
“I never understood what Lucy meant about December snowflakes,” Jennifer says, lifting her eager mouth to the sky and catching one after another as they lazily drift to earth.
“You know, Lucy? The Peanuts? Charlie Brown Christmas? Come on, Phil! Well anyway, she won't eat them. Says they aren't ripe or something. But I am here to tell you they are, and you should try some.”
“So December snowflakes. Those are your favorite?” he asks.
“Nope,” Jennifer shakes her head. “January for sure.”
“Oh totally. While we're all resolving to eat less crap and go to the gym, they're resolving to be extra delicious. And they are.”
“Nah. You've got this one wrong, Jenn,” Phil ribs her, “January snowflakes are the worst. Like sucking on a penny. It's the March snowflakes you want. They're sweet and you can taste spring riding in on them.”
“It's this one,” Jennifer says, stopping in front of a squat white cape with blinking C9 bulbs fringing the door and windows. Phil rubs the back of his neck and exhales. “Don't be nervous. Everyone's really nice.”
“Happy New Year!” a chorus of wobbly revelers greets them at the door.
“Happy New Year, Jack! Cristy, Anna, this is Phil,” Jennifer says.
The cape is hot and smoky, as if some secret fire might be burning, undetected, within. A pile of parkas has swallowed an easy chair in the front room, and Jennifer and Phil add theirs to its numbers as they head to the kitchen. The bassy thrum of music draws them down the hall.
“So how did you two meet?” someone asks. Phil thinks it's Cristy.
“Oh, great story,” Jennifer says. "I didn't even know who he was, honestly. But he was a friend's friend and we were going to the same bar. And he couldn't find the matching lap belts in the back seat so he just tied two together. Like in a knot.”
Phil nods grimly.
“Anyway, I stopped kinda short at a red light and the belts locked. And would not unlock. And the knot just got tighter and tighter as he tried to wriggle out. I thought he was gonna cry. And then this guy Dave Bachmann from my philosophy class comes out of the corner store and flicks open a switchblade and offers to cut him out. Like who the hell even carries a switchblade, and no you cannot cut my seat belts, Dave. Anyway, we got him free eventually. But we did not make it to the bar that night.”
“Sounds like true love,” says maybe Cristy, dragging Jennifer to her feet. The floors are sticky and their shoes issue a noisy protest as they leave the kitchen. Someone – Jack? – hands Phil a beer.
“You're brave,” Jack says, leaning against the chipped and yellowing Formica countertop. He tosses his head back and pulls deeply from an amber bottle he's peeled the label off of.
“Yeah? How's that?”
“I don't know, spending your New Year's with a bunch of strangers. Sounds kinda like a drag.”
“I didn't have plans,” Phil says, fussing the pull tab on his Coors.
“Hey Jack!” A voice calls from down the hall. “Jack! Come here a second.”
“Well, there's more beer in the fridge if you want some,” Jack says, leaving his spent bottle and Phil alone in the kitchen.
The kitchen looks like someone's granny's – a not unpleasant relic of a time past. A time when pies rested on windowsills and kids roamed the streets on their banana seat bicycles until dinner was ready. The hall Phil enters in search of Jennifer is much the same, dressed in a cheerful yellow check with thick goldenrod carpet underfoot.
“Hey,” Phil says to a stranger staggering past, “Have you seen Jennifer?”
“I think she's with Cristy somewhere.”
In the dark front room (a granny would have called it the parlor) where the parka-consumed easy chair lives, arms and legs and necks entwine along the length of a shabby damask sofa. Phil doesn't ask them where Jennifer is. Back in the hall someone shouts outside the bathroom. Whoever is in there has been in there forever and don't they know it's the only one in the house? Down the hall, the dining room is lit by a bare-bulbed chandelier under which red-cupped drinking games are feverishly undertaken.
“Does anyone know where Jennifer is?” Phil shouts above the cheers, heckling, and clatter of cups.
“What?” a mousy blonde shouts back.
“Sorry!” she shrugs. “Wait – I think she's with Cristy.”
Phil nods and enters the hallway again. He heads up the goldenrod stairs, sliding his hand along a greasy maple railing that shudders as the spindles underneath sway. He leaves the closed doors undisturbed and heads to a room at the end of the hall, hugged by tight eaves and a low ceiling. A group of people huddle over a cellphone. Laughter erupts as the video reaches its crescendo.
“Have you guys seen Jennifer?” Phil asks.
“Ummm, I think she's with Cristy?” a tall, tousle-haired guy in a rugby shirt answers.
“Yeah. I got that. Where?”
Rugby shirt shrugs.
“Oh shit, guys. Only like three minutes til the ball drops!” someone calls from across the room. Rugby shirt flies down the hall and bellows the warning downstairs.
People pour out of every corner of the granny house and into the parlor, where Jack turns on the TV. The camera cuts from Times Square to that iconic ball to the B-list hosts doffing furry hats and festive scarves. Phil scans the room for Jennifer, but hers is not among the many faces.
Phil heads back through the hall, to the empty kitchen. Peeks into the now unoccupied bathroom and checks the dining room. Back upstairs, the closed doors have all been opened as their occupants rushed from the bedrooms. And back downstairs, Jack shushes Phil when he asks where Jennifer is – only thirty seconds left – then helpfully provides that she's with Cristy. Phil slams his warm, watery beer on the coffee table and heads down the hall once more to the front door.
Outside it's still snowing, and the chill cuts through Phil who realizes he's left his jacket on the parka chair. He thrusts his hands deep in his pockets and rocks back and forth on his heels.
From inside the house, “...five, four, three, two, one – HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
Phil lifts his head to the sky and opens his mouth, taking in the bitter tang of January snowflakes as they melt on his tongue.
“Happy New Year, Jenn.”