Cookies for Christmas
Cookies for Christmas takes place when Jake is 13 and Conner is 12.
“Sure, you can come over,” Conner said, sitting on the couch and talking into the house phone. It was his friend Jake on the other end of the line. “But you’ll have to help me with the cookies I’m making.”
“You’re making cookies?” Jake sounded curious. “I didn’t know you were into baking. Do you even know how that works?”
“Of course I know.” Conner sat up straight, even though his friend couldn’t see him. “I found a book. Besides, I helped Kade with the Christmas cookies last year.” The whole thing had been super messy and not one of Conner’s favorite activities, but nothing they’d done had been particularly difficult. “Besides, you know how to do this, right? You made me those cookies for my birthday. We’ll be fine.”
“Uh, yeah. Okay. I totally made those cookies all by myself.”
A little laugh escaped Conner. Was Jake trying to impress him? It was so obvious now what had happened. Of course. Those peanut butter cookies had been way too good to be Jake’s creation. “Dean helped you, didn’t he?”
“Only a little!” Jake insisted. “Why are you making cookies by yourself anyway? Is Kade busy?”
Conner sighed and got up from the couch to walk into the hall where he could hear the muffled voices of his dad and Kade coming from upstairs. They weren’t arguing, not exactly, but they always had a lot to discuss these days with the double wedding coming up. “Kind of,” Conner said into the phone. “But that’s not it. This is… it’s a gift. I want to make it myself.”
“But I can help?” Jake’s curiosity was definitely piqued now. His enthusiasm as well? Conner could only hope. In spite of what he’d told Jake, he really didn’t know too much about baking and it might be nice to have a little assistance. Or company.
“I wouldn’t mind if you helped. You can have some of the cookies too… under one condition.”
“You can’t ask who they’re for.”
A short pause on the other end of the line. Then the words rushed out of Jake. “Why not? Do you have like a crush on someone?”
Conner huffed in amusement. Silly Jake. How did his mind jump there so quickly? “I don’t have a crush on anyone. Now are you gonna help me with these cookies or not?”
“Sure, okay. I’m coming over.”
“Cool. I’ll start putting out the ingredients.”
Once Jake hung up, Conner put the phone down and called up the stairs. “Dad! Jake’s coming over. We’re making cookies.”
After a moment, Conner’s dad appeared at the top of the stairs. “All right, but remember what I told you.”
“I know, I know. Let Mary help if she wants to, but don’t let her near the oven. I was listening.”
“When you’ve got your nose stuck in a book, I never know if you are!”
“I can multitask!” Conner shot back before wandering into the kitchen to get everything ready. They were going to need a mixing bowl and a mixer and scales. Conner rummaged through the kitchen cupboards. Where was everything? To be honest, he hardly ever used the kitchen. Baking just wasn’t as exciting as losing yourself in a book. Still, if this turned out well, it would be worth the trouble.
Conner had just managed to get the mixing bowl from the top shelf without falling from the chair he had to climb on when Jake arrived. “That was fast,” he said as he let his friend in.
“Didn’t want you to start without me!” Jake’s cheeks were slightly red from the cold outside and snowflakes were melting in the brown locks of his hair, which he’d started to grow out a bit. Conner glanced past him out the door. It wasn’t even snowing right now.
“Did you fall?”
Jake rubbed the back of his neck with a sheepish smile. “Might have slipped at the crossroads. There’s ice on the road!”
“You were going too fast,” Conner concluded. “Are you okay? And your bike?” Conner tried to look past Jake again, but his friend stepped into his field of view, blocking his line of sight.
“Nothing happened, okay? Let’s go make those cookies.” Jake walked around him and into the kitchen as if he lived here. Considering how often he was around, he might as well have. “Where’s your dog?”
“Upstairs, I think. I’m not letting him near the door. He’s not gonna run off like last Christmas.”
Jake laughed. Conner wanted to glare daggers at his friend for laughing at him like that, but when he looked at Jake, all he could do was shake his head with a sigh he didn’t feel. It was impossible to be mad at Jake. He didn’t mean to upset people. He never did. He thought everything in life was a little bit funny, and if it wasn’t, it was a challenge, or an adventure. Something you could laugh about later.
Conner knew the world didn’t work like that, but when he was around Jake, it was easy to feel like maybe it could.
“Is this everything we need?” Jake asked, pointing at the items Conner had so carefully lined up on the granite-top counters.
“No, wait. I also have…” Conner broke off to search through his school bag in the hallway. After a few seconds, he pulled out a few cardboard cutouts he’d stored in a folder. “I printed these. So we get the shape right.”
“What is that?” Jake took one of the cut-outs from him and studied it. “Wait, are we making book-shaped cookies?” His brow furrowed. “Who do you want to make book cookies for? I like books too, you know. I just bought two new ones today.”
“Comic books?” Conner teased as they walked back into the kitchen.
“That still counts!”
“Sure it counts. But you promised not to ask, so I’m not telling you. Look, this is the recipe.” Conner grabbed a piece of paper from the counter and handed it to Jake. “We have to start with the flour.”
As they got to work, Jake stopped asking questions, but Conner could tell his brain was still hard at work trying to figure out why Conner wanted to make cookies. When Conner gave him the milk to pour into the mixing bowl, a good swig of the liquid landed on the counter instead. And usually it was Conner who got distracted like that. Not knowing who the cookies were for was clearly bothering his friend. Conner could only wonder why it was such a big deal.
Until his little sister pulled him out of his musings anyway.
“You’re making cookies!” Mary squealed, bouncing into the kitchen and up to her big brother. “I want to help!” And before Conner or Jake could say anything, she’d grabbed the salt and poured a generous helping into the bowl with the dough.
“Mary! No!” Conner grabbed his sister by the arm and pulled her away, but it was too late; the damage was done. “You ruined it!”
Mary looked up at him with big eyes, her lower lip pulled over her upper one. “I’m sorry!”
“Oh, don’t cry.”
“I think we can fix it,” Jake said. With a spoon, he tasted a bit of the dough and made a face. “It’s not super bad!” he said.
“How do we fix it?”
“Easy. Just put more of everything else in. More eggs, more sugar, more flour!”
“We’ll have too many cookies by the end.”
“Guess you can share them with more than one person, then.” Jake stuck his tongue out at him.
“Okay, fine. But we don’t have any more sugar. We had another pack but Dean and Griff borrowed it yesterday.”
“So what? We go to the store. It’s not like it’s far. I can go on my bike.”
“No, you’re only going to slip and fall again. Let’s just walk.” Conner turned to his sister. “And you, don’t touch the dough while we’re gone, okay?”
“I want to come with you!”
“No, someone has to stay behind and watch the dough to make sure everything is okay.”
Mary chewed her lower lip, studying her big brother as if she wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or not.
“I’ll play with you later if you’re good.”
“Promise.” Conner reached out to ruffle his sister’s strawberry blond hair. Next, he went upstairs to let his dad know where he was going and once they got the adults’ okay–and a request to bring back toilet paper–Conner and Jake were on their way.
Christmas was only three days away and snow had settled all over the town, making it look like it was covered in delicious powdered sugar. Conner enjoyed the sight, but he preferred to look at it from inside where it was warm and cozy. A few days ago, Jake had dragged him out to build a snowman with their sisters Mary and Livvy. Even Hope had helped by picking out an especially knobby carrot to use as a nose for their creation. That hadn’t been so bad. Especially when they went back inside after and Kade made them hot coca.
“What are you thinking about?” Something about Jake’s tone of voice sounded almost suspicious.
“That snowman we built. What did you think I was thinking about?”
Well, that was obviously a lie, but Conner decided not to dig. They’d almost reached the store. Time to duck in between the hordes of parents shopping for the holidays, grab sugar and toilet paper, and get out again. “Want to buy more comic books while we’re here?” Conner asked Jake as they passed the aisle with the magazines.
“There’s nothing wrong with reading comic books, okay?”
“No, I know. I’m sorry. Look, I’ll get one for you. You like the Midnight Ranger, right? Do you have this one yet?” Conner grabbed one of the comic books from the shelf and showed it to his friend.
“No, I don’t have it. But you don’t have to buy anything for me.”
“Early Christmas gift?” Conner tried. They didn’t usually make each other Christmas gifts, but maybe it was time to start. He didn’t want Jake to think that he was seriously belittling him for his hobbies.
“Are you serious?” Jake’s eyes went wide.
“Um, okay. But only if I can get you something too.” Jake’s expression turned determined. He licked his lips, looking up and down the aisle. “Oh, I know! Come on.” With those words, he stormed off to the aisle with all the candy. There, he picked out a bag of salted caramel cookies–Conner’s favorites. “I don’t know who you’re giving your cookies to,” he said, “but I’m giving some to you.”
He sounded so proud Conner didn’t know how to respond. Jake was so serious about the cookie issue, even though they weren’t even for anyone Jake actually knew. Conner stayed quiet as they went to the check-out and paid for their things.
They exchanged their gifts when they got out again, standing in the snow-covered parking lot. “Thank you,” Jake said with a smile that was almost as bright as the sun reflecting in the white flakes around them.
“Thank you too.” Conner felt almost shy for some reason as Jake handed him the cookies he’d picked out.
“Okay, let’s go back.” Jake was still smiling, obviously not affected by whatever was making Conner feel self-conscious. “Man, it’s gotten cold,” he said. “Let’s hold hands, it’ll be warmer.” And before Conner could even process what Jake was saying, his friend had already grabbed his hand. Yes, there was snow all around but it wasn’t that cold, really. Conner eyed his friend suspiciously. Jake seemed oblivious to this, stomping ahead into the snow. “C’mon,” he said, dragging Conner with him. “We have cookies to make.”
“Okay.” Conner still wasn’t sure why his friend acted the way he did, but ultimately, he didn’t really mind. Holding Jake’s hand wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe he even liked it a little. He couldn’t quite decide before they were back home and Jake let go again.
They entered the house to find Mary standing in the entrance to the kitchen, arms crossed in front of her chest. “I’m keeping everyone out of the kitchen,” she announced proudly.
“Well done,” Conner said. “But you can let us in.”
“What’s the password?” Mary challenged.
Conner exchanged glances with Jake. They hadn’t set a password, had they? Conner looked at his sister again. “There is no password.”
“Wrong!” Lips pressed close, she made a buzzing sound.
“C’mon, let us back into the kitchen,” Conner demanded. Jake was right after all. They had cookies to make.
“No! You have to say the password.”
“It’s okay.” Jake stepped forward. “I know the password. It’s this, isn’t it?” Lightning quick, he reached under Mary’s arms and tickled her until the little girl broke down laughing. Gently, Jake pulled aside and the way to the kitchen was free. “See, this wasn’t so hard,” Jake said, marching in.
“No fair!” Mary complained behind him. The boys paid her no mind as they checked on their dough.
“That was a good idea,” Conner complimented his friend, unpacking the sugar to measure it.
Jake shrugged. “I have a little sister too. Now let’s do this. You got the sugar?”
“Yeah. You should get the butter out of the fridge. And the eggs.”
“All right.” They went to work, mixing butter and salt and flour and sugar and eggs and cornstarch until the dough seemed about right. “Think this’ll work?” Jake asked, shutting off the electric stand mixer they’d been using.
“I guess?” Conner licked his lips, looking at the dough in the bowl. In theory, he knew what to do, but in practice it all seemed a bit more daunting.
“I want to help,” Mary piped up, standing on the tips of her toes to peer into the bowl beside her brother.
“Get me the cut-outs from the table,” Conner instructed. Then he looked at Jake. “We need to roll the dough out on the baking sheet.”
“We need to put some parchment on the baking sheet,” Jake said, nodding to himself. “I know from baking with Uncle Dean. Everything sticks when you don’t. And we need to make sure not to leave the cookies in the oven too long either.”
Conner raised an eyebrow at him because he sounded like he spoke from experience. Was there a story there?
“When I made those cookies for your birthday, I had to make three batches before you could eat them,” Jake explained, rubbing the back of his neck as he moved to get two baking sheets ready for the dough. “But I’ve learned some things. Okay, we can roll the dough out now.”
Nodding, Conner grabbed the bowl and a rolling pin and got to it. “I didn’t know you had so much trouble with those cookies.”
Jake waved him off. “Worth it.” For some reason, he didn’t meet Conner’s gaze as he said that, choosing to focus on the cut-outs Mary was bringing them instead. “Let’s see if this is going to work… I think we need a knife.”
“They’re in the drawer there.”
“Okay.” Jake opened the drawer to his left and fished out a knife. Next he placed the cut-out on top of the dough and traced the outline of it with the knife. “Works better than I expected,” he admitted. “Okay, we can totally make book-cookies.” He grinned, and went on to cut more books out of the dough.
“Great!” Conner couldn’t help but smile as well. Everything was going according to plan. “I’m going to pre-heat the oven.”
Just that moment, Kade decided to enter the kitchen. “Everything all right down here?”
“Yeah, we’re fine. Just about to put the cookies in the oven.”
“Do you need help with that?”
“We got it!” Jake claimed, but Kade hung around anyway, pouring himself a glass of water while Jake finished up arranging the cookies on the baking sheets. Then he casually handed the boy a pair of bright yellow oven mitts to wear while putting the cookies in the oven.
“The recipe says bake for 9 to 12 minutes,” Conner read out.
“Better set a kitchen timer,” Kade commented.
“I can do it!” Mary ran to the counter and grabbed the penguin-shaped kitchen timer that sat there.
“Well done,” Kade told her. “But don’t forget to watch the oven anyway.”
They didn’t have to be told. Conner, Jake and Mary all sat in front of the oven, watching the cookies bake as the kitchen started to smell of the sugary treats. “We should bake more often,” Jake said.
“Yeah,” Conner agreed. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe he’d bake something for Jake next. His birthday was in May, so still a while away, but he could probably find a reason to make his best friend a gift earlier than that.
Shortly after the nine minutes passed, Jake got up. “I think we should get them out. It’s bad to leave them in for too long.”
“Okay.” Conner grabbed the oven mitts Jake had discarded before and carefully opened the oven to get the baking sheets out. He’d been able to smell the cookies before, but now the fragrance really flooded the kitchen, making him think Christmas had come early. Conner drew the smell deep into his lungs as he placed the baking sheet on top of the stove so the cookies could cool.
“Wanna watch something on TV?” Jake asked. “While we wait, I mean.”
“I want a cookie,” Mary interjected.
“Later,” Conner told her. “They’re not ready yet.”
“Then I want to watch the Disney Channel!”
“Uh… We have to walk Max.” That wasn’t even a lie. Conner had been putting it off, but he knew he couldn’t delay his dog’s exercise forever.
“Then I’ll watch it alone!” Mary walked off with a pout.
“Guess it’s just you and me then,” Conner said, glancing at Jake and feeling awkward all of a sudden. What was that all about? He’d never felt awkward about being alone with Jake before. Something was different now. What, though? Was it because Jake got so jealous over the cookies? Or because he’d grabbed Conner’s hand before? Conner went to get the leash and his dog before he could think any more about it. He was just being silly. Jake hadn’t meant anything by taking his hand.
Focusing on his dog made everything easier for Conner. Max came bounding down the stairs the moment he heard the leash being lifted from the shelf–his favorite sound after that of his food bowl being filled. The Golden Retriever barked at Conner, tail wagging.
“You thought I was gonna forget you again, didn’t you?”
“You forget him a lot,” Jake said, putting on his shoes as Conner got the dog ready.
“I don’t! Only sometimes.”
“You can get really lost in your books. I swear, sometimes you have no idea what’s going on around you.”
“I’m not that bad,” Conner insisted.
“I’m only teasing you.” Jake lightly punched Conner’s arm, and just like that, the awkwardness in the air between them dissipated. And as soon as they were out on the streets, bantering about which of them had the better dog, Conner wondered whether he’d only imagined it ever being there in the first place. He felt comfortable with Jake. Maybe it was stupid not to tell him who the cookies were for. If there was anyone he could tell, surely it was his best friend?
It was just such a difficult topic to talk about.
Maybe he should just focus on getting the cookies done before tackling that conversation. Yeah, that was the best course of action.
By the time they got home again, the cookies were cooled down enough to be decorated. Handling the icing was a little messier than Conner had expected, but at least Jake got a laugh out of the situation when Conner ended up with the blue sugary goo all over his hands.
“Let me get that,” Jake said, taking the bowl from him.
“The color isn’t quite right,” Conner complained as he watched Jake spread the icing over the cookies. “I wanted it to be lighter.”
“I’m sorry. What book are we making anyway?”
Conner wanted to deny that he had a specific book in mind, but how could he, when he’d already complained about the color being wrong? But then he had an idea. “I’ll tell you if you help me deliver them tomorrow.”
“Who are they going to?” Jake asked, voice laced with suspicion.
Jake didn’t seem wholly satisfied with that response, but he agreed with a grim nod. “Okay. What time do you want to go?”
“Meet me at the gate to the park at three? You should take your bike, but–”
“Be careful, I know. Don’t worry so much.”
“I don’t worry,” Conner lied. In reality, he worried a lot, like the way he worried what Jake was going to think when he found out who the cookies were for. Was he going to think Conner was weird? No, Jake wouldn’t judge him.
When Conner got to the park at 3pm the next day, Jake was already there, his bike parked by the gate. Conner could only wonder just how early his friend had arrived, because he’d started building a tiny snowman on the side walk. Only the head was still missing.
“You’re building a snowman?” Conner asked, stepping off the pedals of his bike.
“It’s already done,” Jake claimed.
“Where’s the head?”
“It doesn’t have one. It’s the ghost of Gregory Zimmerman’s snowman.”
“Gregory Zimmerman’s snowman?” Conner frowned. Gregory Zimmerman was the bully he’d gotten in a fight with when he was still in 4th grade.
“Yeah.” Jake grinned. “I beheaded his snowman last year.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jake waved Conner off. “He was pretty mad, though, when he found out. It was hilarious.”
“You never told.”
“Didn’t want to drag you into it.” Jake shrugged. “Are we gonna go deliver the cookies now?” Jake glanced at the bag with the cookies dangling off the handlebar of Conner’s bike.
“Where are we going?”
“Just follow me.” For some reason, Conner was still embarrassed to say exactly where they were headed, but Jake would see soon enough. The snow slowed them down a bit, but it wasn’t far from the park to Conner’s destination. After only twenty minutes on their bikes, they reached another gate made of wrought iron. Conner got off his bike. “We should leave the bikes here.”
“Here?” Jake looked around, eyes wide in confusion. “We’re visiting the cemetery?”
“Oh.” Slowly, Jake stepped off his bike and parked it by the fence. Conner watched him, heart beating in his throat. What was his friend going to say now? Would he think Conner was out of his mind for making cooking for a dead person?
But when Jake turned back to Conner, there was no judgement on his face. In fact, he looked kind of… relieved? “They’re for your daddy?” he asked, as if that wasn’t weird at all. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”
Conner pressed his lips together, unsure what to say. This wasn’t something he enjoyed talking about. “I don’t know. It’s stupid.” Conner grabbed the bag with the cookies off his bike and entered the gates of the cemetery before Jake could ask any more questions. “Are you coming?”
“Yeah, I’m coming!” Jake hurried after him.
The cemetery wasn’t big, but it was pretty, with all its large old trees branching out over the snow covered resting places of the deceased.
“Did your daddy like cookies?” Jake asked as they walked toward the back of the cemetery. Conner hadn’t been here in a while, but he still remembered exactly where to go. He couldn’t imagine ever forgetting.
“He did like cookies. Who doesn’t? Okay, this is it.” Conner knelt in front of the familiar grave. Snow had piled up on it, but Conner brushed it away until he’d cleared a small spot so he could place the cookies on the frozen earth. “Merry Christmas, Daddy.” Conner closed his eyes in silent prayer for a moment before getting up again. Jake watched him quietly, as if he wasn’t sure what to do. Conner couldn’t blame him. He would have been just as lost in his friend’s place. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought Jake, but it was nice not to be alone.
“Are you okay?” Jake asked, head tilted just slightly as if trying to figure out a difficult problem.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Conner glanced at the grave’s headstone. It was hard to read now because of the snow, but that didn’t matter. He knew exactly what the inscription said. “I just realized this year… I’ve lived without him longer than with him now…” He wasn’t sure why it mattered, but somehow it did. “I wanted to make book-shaped cookies because that’s… He used to read this book to me…”
“A blue book?” Jake asked. Suddenly, he was standing right next to Conner, though Conner hadn’t noticed him come closer.
“Yeah.” The memory made Conner smile. “Where the Wild Things Are. I named my dog after the main character.”
“I didn’t know that.”
Conner shrugged. “It’s silly.”
“It’s not.” Jake said this so calmly and decisively that Conner couldn’t argue. Especially not when Jake took Conner’s hand again and squeezed, making Conner’s heart beat faster for some reason.
“Thank you,” Conner said, biting his bottom lip.
“You’re welcome.” Jake’s smile was so warm it seemed to take the cold out of the air around them. Conner made himself avert his gaze, feeling weird. Like he wanted to lean on Jake’s shoulder or kiss his cheek or both. Like he never wanted Jake to let go of his hand.
The day before, he’d told his friend that he didn’t have a crush on anyone.
Could he have been wrong about that?