“It looks like a drunk elf threw up in here.”
I snorted a laugh and looked at my sister, Lauren, as we stopped just inside the sliding glass doors to the Evergreen Lodge. Lauren was not wrong. The huge, three-story lobby atrium, with its exposed wood beams and tremendous chandeliers (made of a thousand fake deer antlers), was still decorated for Christmas--and the sensory experience was an onslaught of yuletide cheer. Every one of the beams was swagged with evergreen garland and roped with white twinkle lights. The chandeliers had been draped in red-and-green-plaid ribbon, and large glass balls hung overhead. Christmas-themed pillows overflowed from every couch and chair, and there were Christmas trees of all sizes everywhere. In the corners, on the counters, acting as centerpieces for the low coffee tables. There was even a life-sized animatronic Santa next to the check-in desk, waving with one hand and holding a plate of cookies in the other, while the instrumental soundtrack to The Nutcracker played at a respectful volume from hidden surround-sound speakers.
“Why does the elf have to be drunk?” I asked.
Lauren rolled her eyes like I was so lame. Which, let’s be honest, I should be used to by now. But my cheeks went ahead and started burning anyway. Lauren pretty much always thought I was lame. I wasn’t sure why I kept trying. If there was one thing for certain on this earth, it was that me and my big sister did not share the same sense of humor. Or style. Or basic outlook on life. And still . . .
“No, seriously,” I said. “Couldn’t the elf just have the flu? Or E. coli?”
“Ew!” Lauren scrunched her perfect nose. “That’s so gross.”
“How is throwing up from the flu grosser than throwing up from being drunk? Barf is barf.”
“Why do you always do this?” Lauren asked.
I have no idea, I thought.
“Do what?” I said.
“Overanalyze everything. It was just an offhanded joke. God, Tess. Just chill.”
Lauren sighed the sigh of the world-weary and looked at her phone, punching in a message with her thumbs before shoving it back into the pocket of her tight jeans. The second she looked up, she shouted “Loretta!” and raised her arm straight up in the air. Her smile even seemed genuine, which was impressive, considering Lauren had spent the entire shuttle ride over from the tiny regional airport bitching about how our grandmother--who had insisted we call her Loretta from the day each of us could talk--hadn’t sent a car. Instead, we had been jammed into the back of the twelve-seat Evergreen Lodge minibus with ten other ski-obsessed Vermont vacationers, all of whom had been in far better, louder, and even singier moods than we had. “Twelve Days of Christmas” was going to be playing on repeat in my head until basically the end of time.
“Girls!” Loretta called, walking over to us in her high heels and pencil skirt. Her chic steel-gray bob gleamed under the lights, and her makeup was, as always, perfectly applied--cheekbones defined, lips outlined, eyelashes long and curled. She air-kissed first Lauren, then me--enveloping us in a cloud of her rose-scented perfume--then stepped back to look us over.
Loretta was wearing a white silk shirt, a pearl choker, and tasteful diamond earrings. She looked like a million bucks, as usual. I tugged at the frayed cuffs of my sweatshirt and wondered if any of my friends’ grandmothers made them feel frumpy and unstylish like mine did. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? My other grandma--Nana, my mom’s mom--was twenty pounds heavier than Loretta, wore nothing but colorful cotton sweaters and jeans, and smelled of apple pie and Bengay. She made me feel ready for Fashion Week.
Not that I had put in maximum effort this morning. The day after the worst Christmas ever, and I was getting on a plane with my sister to enjoy a week of exile. If any day had ever screamed “comfy sweats,” it was this one.
“Oh, it’s good to see you both,” Loretta said. “How was your trip?”
“It was fine,” I told her just as Lauren said, “It was long.” This was true. We’d had to fly from Philadelphia to Boston, hang out in the airport there for over an hour, and then board the tiny plane over to the Stowe airport, where we’d gotten on the musical shuttle bus. But I’d never been one to complain.
“Well, you’re here now. Just wait until you see all the incredible events the staff has planned for this week. You girls are going to have such a fabulous time.”
Lauren looked at me out of the corner of her eye, and I had to look away to keep from laughing again. There was always a litany of “incredible events” planned at Evergreen Lodge. My dad’s family had run the place for generations, with Loretta at the helm now. The lodge was more like a compound, consisting of the main building with its huge lobby, event spaces, restaurants and coffee bar, indoor pool, fully equipped gym, and hundred hotel-style rooms. But it didn’t end there. Several outbuildings housed a spa, a greenhouse, a boathouse, a wedding chapel, a dance hall, a couple dozen private cabins, and the Little Green Lodge at the top of the ski lifts where people could rest and get hot chocolate and snacks between runs. Plus there was a staff of hundreds, each with their own specialty, whether it be lifeguarding, line-dancing, or fireside storytelling. Loretta knew every member of the staff by name and treated them all like family. Which was to say, she smiled at them occasionally.
Evergreen Lodge reminded me of this movie called Dirty Dancing, which my mom had made both me and Lauren watch the second we turned twelve. It had been Mom’s favorite movie as a kid, and sometimes I wondered if that movie was the entire reason my mother had fallen in love with my dad. She must have walked into Evergreen Lodge the first time and envisioned Baby and Johnny doing their iconic lift in the center of the lobby and just said, That’s it! I’m in! Of course, Mom and Dad’s romance hadn’t worked out quite as well as the one depicted in the movie. My parents were currently in the midst of finalizing their divorce. Which was the entire reason Lauren and I were here. Usually we came in the summer, because my mom liked hiking better than skiing, but we’d been here a few times in February so that Lauren and I could learn to ski, which was one of my dad’s favorite things. This was the first time I had seen the place all done up for the holidays, though. Normally, I loved Christmas and would relish this cozy, merry atmosphere. With the way things were in my life right now, though, I was not in the mood.
Christmas was over, and I sort of wished the staff had already de-merried the place.
A family of four walked through the doors behind us, toting their skis and snowboards, the parents laughing and holding hands with ruddy faces and windswept hair. My heart panged. How could people be walking around all happy and carefree when everything was falling apart?
“Let’s get you two settled,” Loretta said, clasping her hands. She pivoted on her heel and led us across the lobby. “I’ve reserved one of the bigger rooms on the third floor for you. It has fantastic views of the mountains and the lake--not that I expect you’ll be spending much time in your room, what with everything going on around the resort.”
“Wait. Our room?” Lauren said. “As in one room?”
“Yes, I reserved just the one this time,” Loretta said, glancing back over her shoulder at us with an expression that told us there would be no arguments. “Your parents thought it would be good for the two of you to spend some time together. You know, family time.”
Heat flared through my entire body. How hypocritical could our parents be? Right now, at this very moment, they were literally splitting up our family. They had shipped us off the day after Christmas for the express purpose of dividing their things, boxing up my dad’s stuff, moving him out. Because of them, there would never be family time again. So why did Lauren and I have to suffer?
“You have to be kidding me,” Lauren scoffed. “Do you have any idea how hypocritical that is?”
“Lauren!” I scolded under my breath, though I was more annoyed that my sister had the guts to say what I didn’t.
“What? You know it’s true,” Lauren said as we stepped into the elevator. There was a giant wreath hung on the back wall, full of glittering berries and fake cardinals. An instrumental version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” played through the overhead speakers.
Loretta hit the button for the third floor and sniffed. “Girls, whatever your thoughts on your parents’ current situation, you must understand this is difficult for them, too. They’re both doing the best they can.”
If throwing us out and forcing us to share the same room for a week is the best they can do, then we have serious problems, I thought.
I glanced at Loretta. Maybe I could ask my grandmother if I could come live with her. Maybe if I spent my last year and a half of high school with Loretta, I’d become poised and sophisticated by osmosis. And one day I could take over Evergreen Lodge and run the ice-skating competitions each January and the s’mores-and-scares campfire nights at Halloween, and the movies under the stars on summer weekends.
Loretta looked back at me. “We should get you an appointment at the salon while you’re here, Tess. I don’t know what’s going on with that hair.”
Or maybe not.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to be more like my sister. In certain ways, anyway. I would have killed to have that seemingly effortless beauty of hers--to look fresh-faced and pretty without a hair out of place at all times--but for me, it was just impossible. Lauren took after our mom, having inherited her gorgeous olive complexion, lustrous dark hair, and natural curves. I, however, looked just like our Irish dad, with skin so white I practically glowed in the dark and very blah dark blond hair. Even on those rare days when I did manage to get my perfectly straight locks to look sleek and healthy before leaving the house, by the time I hit the bathroom after homeroom it was all piece-y and lanky and just hung there. While Lauren walked around looking like she had just stepped off a yacht somewhere in the Greek isles, I looked more like I’d just come from the potato fields and a hard day’s work.
Such was the genetic roulette wheel, I guessed. I mean, we’d learned all about it in bio at the beginning of the year. I knew it was no one’s fault. But that didn’t change the fact that it sucked. And it sucked even harder that my dear old grandmother felt the need to point out my flaws. Especially when those very flaws had come from her side of the family, thank you very much.
“You two get settled and I’ll see you down in the Antelope Room for dinner in a bit.”
“Thanks, Loretta,” I said gamely as our grandmother silently closed the door.
Lauren tossed her suitcase onto the double bed nearer the bathroom and groaned. “I cannot believe we have to share a room for the next week.” She pulled out her phone and started texting. “No offense.”
I rolled my eyes and wheeled my suitcase over to the dresser to start unpacking my clothes. Even when we were on vacation, I liked to feel settled and organized, while Lauren preferred to live out of her suitcase like she was already on her planned gap year in Europe, where she intended to stay at Airbnbs or with any friends lucky enough to be studying abroad freshman year and “live life like it was intended to be lived,” whatever that meant. I couldn’t even imagine flying to a foreign country by myself, let alone cobbling together an itinerary and finding ways to earn money on the fly. I’d started babysitting the second I was old enough and had been stashing away twenty percent of everything I made ever since, saving up for college textbooks. My parents were always moaning and groaning about how paying for college wasn’t about just the tuition but all the living expenses and supplies--especially the books. The way they talked, you’d think textbooks were all made of diamonds and gold.
I had no idea whether my parents’ divorce was going to affect the family’s money situation, or Lauren’s and my college funds, but there was no way I was not going away to school. If there was anything I could do to help make it happen, I would. Traveling the world was all well and good for Lauren, but I was about schedules and goals and ticking off syllabus boxes. I couldn’t wait to be in a place where everyone was focused on learning.
Once I’d gotten everything neatly placed inside the dresser, I zipped up my suitcase again, shoved it in a corner, and turned to gaze out the huge picture window overlooking the grounds. The sun was just setting over the mountains, turning the winter sky the most intense shade of pink I’d ever seen. Just below, dozens of people skated around the frozen lake, little kids grabbing onto parents’ legs, older kids chasing one another and biffing spectacularly. A couple near the center held hands and twirled in a fast circle, using centrifugal force to keep them going. It was all very pretty, so I took a deep breath and attempted to smile. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite pull it off.
Irritated, I yanked the heavy curtains closed. That was when I spotted a printed schedule on the polished oak desk, a piece of furniture they’d stuck in every room, I supposed because of all the business retreats the lodge hosted. With a glance, I saw that it was a calendar of all the events Loretta had alluded to in the lobby. Everything from a timed snowman-building competition to a snowshoe race. Certain items had been highlighted in green, with a little M written next to them in Loretta’s stiff handwriting. It was a lovely schedule, really--color-coded by age range for each event with the start and end times indicated. Just my kind of document.
“What do you think this means?” I asked, walking over to Lauren’s bed. My sister was now kicked back against the pillows, watching music videos on YouTube.