Even though a good amount of time had passed, Marie Hartman Byler still felt Andy Warner’s absence a lot of the time. Sometimes she thought she noticed his loss more than the rest of the Eight—their large group of longtime friends.
Though they’d all been close from the time their mothers had dropped them off for day care at Mrs. Kurtz’s house in the summers, only she and Andy had attended school together. The two of them had shared teachers, classrooms, and a large group of English friends all the way until they’d graduated high school.
Andy had been a constant in her life, a friend who had helped her through biology and chemistry. The boy she’d watched play football. The boy who’d stood by her side when she’d been crowned homecoming queen. Andy had known all her faults and foibles but had still liked her anyway.
Even though two years had passed, there were still times when she’d feel his loss as if he’d died just a few days before.
Like right that very moment.
She and her husband, John, plus the rest of the Eight were standing in Andy’s parents’ beautifully bedazzled living room. Not only did the Warners have their ten-foot tree already decorated in silver and gold, but the whole house also looked like something out of a Christmas catalog.
Then, again, Mrs. Warner had always gone all out for their annual “It’s December!” holiday party. Except for last year, they’d thrown the festive party the first weekend of December for as long as Marie could remember. It was always a lot of fun, and everyone had gone—even their Amish and Mennonite friends.
Marie had felt so awkward about going without Andy that she and John had almost made other plans. But when they realized that the rest of the Eight—and all their parents—were going, Marie had gone out and bought a new blue velvet dress.
Seeing everyone had been good. Really good. Mr. and Mrs. Warner had given Marie warm hugs. All of the Eight’s parents were standing in a group catching up, just like they always had. But for the last hour, she, John, and the rest of the Eight had been struggling. Oh, they’d eaten the tasty prime rib sliders, caught up with one another, and admired the Warners’ grand piano, which played Christmas music by itself. However, as the minutes passed, it was getting harder and harder to act as if it was okay that Andy wasn’t standing with them.
She and John had just finished their plates of food and were sitting down in the Warners’ game room when Katie, Harley, and their new baby joined them.
“I think we’re going to leave soon,” Harley said as he sat down on the couch beside John.
Marie was surprised. Their baby was sound asleep in Katie’s arms. Katie usually tried not to wake him if she didn’t have to. “You’re going to wake up Kevin.”
Harley shrugged. “As grumpy as he’ll be, I’m hoping it will help him sleep tonight.”
John frowned. “Aren’t your parents still here?”
“Jah, but they don’t need us,” Harley replied. “They’re sitting with the Warners and the Clarks.”
Though she felt bad about leaving early, if Katie and Harley were going to leave, maybe she and John could sneak out too. “My parents have been hanging out with them too,” Marie said. She covered her mouth when a yawn escaped her. “Sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can hardly stay up until ten right now.”
“That’s because you’ve been working overtime, shopping for Christmas, and getting ready for our big camping trip,” John chided. Turning to the other couple, he continued. “I’ve told Marie at least a dozen times that she needs to stop trying to do everything. She never listens.”
Harley grinned at Logan and Tricia when they approached. “Hi, you two. I was just about to go find you.”
“Oh? What’s going on?” Logan asked.
“The four of us are going to leave soon,” Katie explained. Smiling down at her baby, she said, “I mean, the five of us.”
Tricia looked crestfallen. “Do you all really have to go so soon?”
“I mean no offense to your parents, Trish,” Marie hastened to explain. “This is a lovely party.”
“It’s not that.” After glancing at Logan, Tricia explained. “I actually came down here to get you all.”
“Because?” John asked.
“All of our parents asked that you join them.” Looking more than a little awkward, she swallowed. “Everyone is gathered around…”
Marie was starting to get a bad feeling. “Trish, what’s going on?”
“You know what I’m asking. My parents, well, a lot of our parents, are asking for one of us to share a story about the Eight.”
John frowned. “I don’t think this is the best time for that.”
“As a matter of fact, I think it might be,” Tricia said. “The stories you all share about growing up together always help my parents. They help all of us a lot, if you want to know the truth.” Her voice softened. “As the months pass, I think it’s tempting for us all to try to make Andy into something he really wasn’t. You all sharing your memories helps us remember the way Andy really was.” She gazed at all of them. “Please, will one of you tell a story?”
Taking hold of his wife’s hand, Logan looked at the rest of the Eight. “Tricia has a good point. Can’t someone step up?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not up for it tonight,” Katie said. “I spoke at your brother’s funeral, and it just about killed me.” Wincing, she closed her eyes. “I didn’t mean to just say that.”
“E.A. spoke at Marie and John’s wedding. And Kendra spoke at the anniversary of his death,” Logan said. “What do you think, Marie? Could you share a story tonight?”
“Why me?” Marie asked. Feeling panicked, she turned to her husband. “John, couldn’t you talk tonight?”
“Um, I don’t think so. You would be much better.”
She glared at her husband. “Oh, John. Really?”
“Sorry, but I have to say, I don’t think this is John’s thing,” Logan said. “You know how he gets shy in front of people he doesn’t know. He mumbles and fidgets. No one can figure out what he’s trying to say half the time.”
“It’s true,” John said. “I hate standing up in front of big groups of people. Within five minutes, I’ll be stumbling over every word.”
“I agree with Logan,” Harley said quietly. “Marie, you’d be the best person to speak tonight. After all, you and Andy did a lot more together than the rest of us.”
It was like Harley had just read her mind about how much she’d missed Andy. Setting down the cup of punch she’d been sipping, she sighed. “I’m not going to get out of this, am I?”
“Nope,” Harley said, getting to his feet. “But I have to admit that I’m kind of looking forward to what you have to say.”
Marie thought of one story that always made her smile, but she just wasn’t sure it was suitable. “Hey, Trish?”
“What if I told about the time I decided to host a Christmas party and Andy brought Stephanie?”
Tricia smiled so broadly, her whole face lit up. “That would be awesome. I had almost forgotten about Stephanie. Yes, do tell that story. It’s a gut one.”
“I canna believe you’re going to tell everyone that,” Katie said, visibly trying not to laugh.
Looking at them all, Marie started having second thoughts. Like most of their tales, it didn’t exactly put any of them in the best light. She lowered her voice. “Tell me the truth, guys. Is it in poor taste?”
John surged to his feet. “Oh, jah.”
“Okay, then.” She was actually kind of relieved. Maybe Logan could talk or something…
“But I can’t wait for you to tell everyone about it,” John added. “It’s going to be grand.”
Still feeling hesitant, Marie added, “I better warn you all that even my parents don’t know everything that happened that night.”
“Mine don’t either,” John replied.
This wasn’t making her feel better. “You know what? I sure would hate to embarrass Mrs. and Mr. Warner—”
“Oh, my parents already know some of what happened,” Tricia said as she led the way upstairs, Katie and Logan at her heels.
“They do?” she whispered to Harley. “Did you know that?”
Harley folded his hands behind his back. “Marie, Stephanie got a black eye that night, and Andy went home with a pair of guinea pigs. Of course Mr. and Mrs. Warner knew about it.”
Oh, boy. So, she wasn’t even going to be able to gloss over the worst parts. She was going to have to tell the whole, embarrassing story. All of it, from beginning to end.
“There you all are,” Mr. Warner said as they approached. “Did Tricia ask you for our favor?”
“Yes, sir,” Marie said. “We, um, came up with a story to share.”
“So, who is going to do the honors this time?” Harley’s father asked. As usual, his expression was stoic, but his eyes were warm.
“Me. I mean, I am,” Marie said as she walked through the maze of people. There had to be almost eighty people in the room. All of their parents, most of their siblings, people Tricia and Andy had gone to school with, and a group of the Warners’ neighbors.
After glancing over at John, who had sat down next to his sister Molly’s wheelchair, Marie pinned a smile on her face.
“Hello, everyone. My name is Marie Byler. Happy December! Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Warner, for putting on this lovely party again. Everything has been wonderful. As wonderful as it always has been.”
She paused, worried that everyone would know how hard she was trying not to talk about how much she missed Andy.
“Go ahead, Marie,” Nate called out. “Tell us a good story about Andy and the Eight at Christmastime.”
Smoothing her hands down the fabric of her dress, Marie contemplated where to start.
And then it was so perfectly obvious.
“All of you know we Eight grew up going to a lot of these parties at Andy’s house.”
“Every year, your whole group would run around and laugh, always thick as thieves,” Mrs. Warner called out.
“But far louder,” Mr. Warner added with a playful wince.
“Yes, that sounds about right. But, what you might not know, is that back when we were all sixteen and seventeen, we decided we needed our own party.”
“I remember that night well,” Marie’s mom called out.
Realizing that she was about to learn some new information, Marie cleared her throat. “I decided to host a party for the Eight at my house—well, the Eight and about a dozen of our other friends. And Stephanie,” she added, because she never categorized her as a friend.
“Oh, boy,” Mr. Warner said. “I had almost forgotten about that girl. My word, but she loved to give Andy the runaround. That girl was certainly a handful.”
Marie nodded. Yes, indeed, Stephanie had been that.
Of course, now that she was older, Marie figured that all of them had been a handful back when they were sixteen and seventeen. “As you might have guessed, that Christmas party didn’t turn out the way we expected.”
“Oh, honey. They never do,” Mrs. Warner said with a smile.
Marie smiled back. Andy’s mother was exactly right.