Chapter One: Friday, December 18th

Hello. My name is Athena Singer. This is probably a terrible way to start off a story, and I'm sure Keena will reprimand me for it later, but I don't care. I'm the writer for now.

This is our Christmas story. It was the best, worst, and weirdest Christmas ever, and it happened just last year.

Of course, for us in the Freak House, every day is like a thrill novel. The Freak House is what we call our home—"we" being the eight of us who live here. Four girls and four boys, all college students, splitting the rent on a three-bedroom house off-campus.

And why is it called the Freak House? The building was lovingly christened by Mira and baptized in jest by Will (with Holy Water supplied by Nathan.) Mira named it because that is what all the residents are—freaks. We jokingly call ourselves that; we're not freaks, per se, but each of us has our own…quirk that makes us…unique.

I am a prime example of this. My lineament is called "Trichotillomania", which is a big word for "hair puller." Yes, I pull out my own hair. Usually I pull the hair from the top of my head, but sometimes my eyebrows and eyelashes. Compared to my friends, however, I don't find this so strange.

The story begins on December 18th, in our Junior year of college. Imagine, if you will, myself in the kitchen, baking gingerbread. There are flour highlights in my black hair (the majority of my hair, after all, remains, although there are a few hidden blank patches that I'm not proud of) and the sleeves of my white sweater are rolled up to my elbows. There are white handprints on my black jeans, and my usually tan hands are powdered pale. Ian enters the scene, and the action begins.

"Can I lick the spoon?" he asked, sounding like a five-year-old. Ian Doughtery (Ee-in Dow-ter-ee, for those of you who are trying to say it Eye-in Doe-ter-eye) is a compulsive cynic, meaning he puts down and doubts the opinions of others, and has pessimistic tendencies.

"Very funny. No, you can't. I have been slaving over this gingerbread house, and you absolutely cannot lick the spoon."

"Well, you know what?" he asked snappishly, and I braced myself for the criticism, "Mira bakes so much better than you, and you shouldn't even bother trying to make anything edible."

Amira Cooke, nicknamed Mira, is the Freaks' resident chef and baker, living up to her cognomen. Mira is a kleptomaniac; a girl with a strange fixation on stealing, pinching objects that ranged from earrings to jeans to disposable cameras.

I scowled at Ian's remark. True, I was nowhere near as proficient a cook as Mira, but I wasn't too shabby in the kitchen. And don't get me wrong, Ian's not a bad guy—none of us are bad—he just doesn't seem to have much control over what he says, and it's almost always offensive. So I impulsively tossed a handful of flour at him.

Have you discovered the joys of throwing flour? If not, I recommend doing it in a place that you won't have to clean up, wearing clothes that are expendable. Because, after I threw flour at him, Ian flicked some in my face, and I retaliated, and he re-retaliated…

I don't remember Keena entering, but ten minutes after Ian's insult, the three of us were rofl-ing, looking like powdered ghosts. It looked like someone had shoveled their driveway into our kitchen. The only place there wasn't flour was in the bowl. We even managed to get flour inside of the closed microwave and on the glass of all the light bulbs.

"My B," Ian said, surveying the damage. Keena was leaning against the frosted counter, attempting to regain breath while laughing her appendix out.

(Not that this was possible, of course. She had told us that her appendix had been removed when she was ten.)

Keena Penn is my roommate and one of my best friends. Of course, everyone in the house is my best friend, but Keena, Mira, and Ian are my closest friends. Keena is, in polite terms, overemotional. Bluntly stated, she throws a tantrum when she gets upset, and a great many things upset her. Yeah, something to do with anger-management issues. However, mine and Ian's wrecking of the kitchen did not seem to bother Keena.

She glanced down at me, looking like she was wearing an old woman wig, with her now-white long hair. I was lying on the ground, having given up the concept of standing while laughing helplessly.

"Nathan is going to spaz," Keena said finally. "It's his day to clean up the kitchen, you know."

Nathaniel Emerson—more commonly known as Nathan—is another Freak. His issue is some kind of paranoia disorder. Nathan is irrationally afraid of using telephones, contracting any sort of disease, clowns, being home alone, and parasites. He is also somewhat OCD about everything being perfect, where "everything" covers stuff from answers on his classwork (A+) to the state of our living room (disgraceful.)

I shrugged. "Let him spaz," I told her. "Let's get cleaned up."

"Don't use water," Keena reminded. I blinked.

"Excuse me?" Ian said.

"Flour and water makes a sort of glue," she explained. Ian left before her sentence was finished.

"He," I proclaimed, "is going to shower and end up coated in glue."

"Yes. Should we tell Will to keep his camera handy?"

William "Will" Cylson is our computer geek. His problem is obsessive technological packratting; Will hordes objects like some kind of futuristic magpie. His third of the room he shares with Nathan and Rent is a cluttered mess of wires and CD's. This causes Nathan to freak out, because he needed the room to be neat…I guess Will's the most "normal" of us…but what does "normal" mean, anyway?

"Nah. I don't even think he's home. Let's just finish up this gingerbread," I told her. Twenty minutes later, the first floor smelled entirely of baking gingerbread, and Keena and I looked significantly less specterlike.

"Who are we waiting for?" I asked as we sat in the kitchen. I twirled some of my hair around my hand and tried not to pull it out.

"Mira's gone to lunch with her boyfriend. The guys who aren't Ian went gift shopping. I think Jae is meditating in her room." She paused. "And put your hair down."

I dropped my hand into my lap, ashamed. Living with friends was having an effect; we all knew each other well enough to see warning signs. Keena was quickest to notice me pulling, and most likely to reprimand.

Jae is also a close friend, though she did not usually scold me for pulling. Jaelyn Zilliox is a bisexual Wiccan—which, standing alone, could be her "Freak" trait, but it isn't (because there isn't anything wrong with that); Jae also has an irrational fear of the letter x. This leads to problems when writing or saying words like "bisexual" or "Zilliox" (At the moment, she is using "bi" and "Zillioks.") As Jae's roommate, Mira used to fear for her innocence, but Jae assured us that she wasn't interested in any of us as partners.

"What time d'you think they'll be back?" I picked up a spork and turned it over in my hands to keep them busy. "We need to do decorations tonight."

"What's the game plan for that?" Keena asked, drumming Jingle Bells on the table with her hands. "You're in charge this year, aren't you?"

I nodded. "You, me, Ian, and Mira are doing the outside. Jae and the other guys are doing the inside. If everyone gets back by five, we can do it then. We'll have dinner at six, and start on the tree around seven."

"Who's doin' dishes tonight?"

I scanned the chart on the fridge. "You and Rent."

Rent was the nickname (assigned by me) to the other member of our household—Laurent Marsii. (He hadn't liked the nickname as much after he listened to my soundtrack of the musical, RENT, but as I had pointed out, it was a lot better than Lauren.) In simplest terms, he is an abused overachiever: his parents pushed him to excel in everything and hurt him when he didn't. They had unfaithfulness issues of their own that Rent didn't know the half of—or so he said. Paradoxes like this are amusing in some warped way, but very serious.

"Alright. Is he allowed to touch the tree this year?"

Christmas spirits last year had been somewhat dampened when Laurent had knocked over the tree on Christmas Eve morning. "Very funny."

"Is he?"

"…No."

"And Will's not allowed in the kitchen, right?"

For our first Christmas, Will had been in charge of cooking the goose. He had forgotten to turn the oven on, with the result that the eight of us had eaten Papa John's pizza with our stuffing (made by Mira) and Yule Log (courtesy of Ian.) After that, Mira and Ian were the only ones allowed to make major dishes.

I was about to answer when the doorbell rang. Keena and I raced out of the kitchen. "Who's there?" I sang.

"Mira, Mira, on the wall…" answered a voice on the other side.

"Mira!" Keena and I called, scrambling for the door to let her in. There was snow in her blonde hair; perhaps she would mistake the flour in ours for snow?

"You have flour in your hair."

Guess not. "How was your date?" I closed the door, locking it again as Mira slipped out of her (stolen) boots.

"Andre's fine. We went on a one-horse-open-sleigh ride at the park."

"Aww, that's so romantic!" gushed Keena. I grinned.

"I'm baking!" I told her, excited.

"Again? What blew up?"

"Mir-ra!"

"Kidding. Gingerbread?"

"My grandmother's recipe."

"I didn't know it called for so much flour."

"Me and Ian fought."

"Ian and I," corrected Keena.

"Shuddup, Keena," Mira said through her nose.

"Got a cold?"

"Just a bit. The weather outside is frightful. See if Ian will start a fire?"

"Ask him yourself, I'm waitin' on the gingerbread."

"Keena?"

"No thanks, amiga. Tengo que estudiar Español."

"You study in Spain with a taser?"

"No! I have to study Spanish!"

"Oh. That's why I'm taking Icelandic," Mira rebounded. "Well, I'll see about that fire."

"Feliz Navidad."

I headed back to the kitchen. No sooner had I sat down than the doorbell rang again. Who is it?" I asked again, trotting to the door.

This time, a tenor answered me. "I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus…"

I laughed. The songs I chose rocked. "Welcome home, Rent. Get me presents?"

"No, I got you coal."

"Aw, man. I got a rock?"

"You won't know 'til the twenty-fifth."

"Damn, I was hoping for a hint. Where're the others?"

Knock-knock-knock. "Who is it?"

"Let me into the frickin' house, its like, fifteen below out here."

"Not without your password," I singsonged.

"Dammit, Athena! When I get into the house—"

"You won't get into the house without singing your song."

"…lalala."

I sighed. "Close enough." I let Will in. He was rubbing his hands together fast enough to spark a fire. "God, didn't Jae make you gloves last year?"

"Maybe," he said, shifty-eyed. "And, uh, maybe they're lost in a mess of digicam pieces and tangled iPod chargers."

I rolled my eyes. "You need to fix up your room. Speaking of which, where's Nathan?"

"He needed to get more gas, but he dropped us off here first." He held up a bundle of plastic bags. I saw at least two different names: Borders and Target. Yeah, we're cheap, but we're college kids. "I need to get these wrapped and hidden."

"Just don't lose them in your digital jungle," I called as he sprinted up the stairs. "So, how's the snow out there?" I asked Rent.

"Falling fast but barely sticking. My guess is that we'll only have an inch or two at nine tonight."

"That's alright," I sighed, relieved that I wasn't going to have to put up Christmas lights through three feet of snow.

There was a scream from the living room. Rent and I bolted down the hallway; when we got to the living room, we saw Mira screaming and pointing at the stack of firewood. "What is it?" I asked, heart pounding.

"Lance crapped on the firewood!" shrieked Mira. Lance—short for Ambulance—is Rent's dog. The day we got Lance, we had been on the way to the hospital (because Keena had been chopping vegetables and almost cut her finger off), and while the rest of us took Keena to the ER, Rent decided to buy a puppy ("Surprise!"). Because Rent could not come up with a name for his little Norfolk Terrier, Mira and I had started calling him Ambulance, and Ian (who was too lazy to say three syllables when calling the dog) tagged the tiny tan dog with the nickname "Lance."

"Rent, clean up after your dog," I commanded. "And then stoke and start the fire."

"But—"

I signed "no" at him in sign language several times. "And Mira…go start some dinner or something. I'll get back to the kitchen in a few minutes—that's when the gingerbread should be done." On the way back to the kitchen, the phone rang. I grabbed the cordless receiver from its hook in the hall and kept walking as I answered. "Hello?"

"Hey, Athena?"

"Yes…who is this?"

A sigh. "It's Nathan."

"Oh, man, what happened? Didja get lost on the way to the gas station or something?"

"No!" he protested. "But the car broke down."

"Dude, Jae's gonna kill you…you were in Garfield, weren't you?"

Garfield is Jae's silver Toyota. "Yeah, I know, but I'll deal with that when I get home. Now, the car's at the station, they're gonna fix it up. It should be done in like, a week."

"A week?!"

"Yeah, the workers are taking these next few days off…what with Christmas and all. Anyway, I just need someone to pick me up."

"Ooh, should I have Jae do it? I'll let her use Walter." Walter is my car; an Odyssey.

"No!" he immediately answered. "But maybe you could send Rent or Will…?"

"They're working. I'll be there to pick you up in a couple of minutes, I guess?"

"Yeah—I'm at the Jiffy Lube between the CVS and the Suntrust Bank."

"Alright. Be there in a few."

"Hurry on up!"

"Okay, alright, I'll go!" I hung up the phone. "Mira! Take the gingerbread out when the timer goes off! I have to go get Nathan!"

"Did he get arrested?" Her voice floated out from the kitchen with a waft of gingerbread. "I thought paranoia and obsessive-compulsive-disorder were things you couldn't get arrested for."

"Yeah, yeah, Miss Breaks-the-Law-At-Least-Twice-A-Day," I called, slipping into my poly-suede coat. (I believe Mira stole this for me, but I liked it anyway. Hey, the ends justify the means.) "Garfield needs a tune-up, so Nathan's stranded at the j-l."

"Can't you leave him there?"

"Mir-ra!"

"Kidding, kidding. Be careful, the road's getting kinda slushy."

"I will. See you."

And thus we reunited the group and finished dinner. After wrangling with wreaths and lights, we set up the Christmas tree. Because we couldn't afford a real tree every year, we had all pitched together in Freshman year to buy a fake tree (some assembly required.)

"Red is the bottom layer," Rent announced, reading off a piece of paper. This was the only job he would be allowed to do all night. I pulled five branches out of the box as Will set up the tree's base. Three of them were very long, and the metal hooks used to affix them to the tree had red stickers on them.

"Here," I said, lobbing them at Keena. She caught two, and Mira dove to seize the third. Mira was hooking hers into the tree when Jae interrupted.

"Wait," she objected, "we should start at the top."

This resulted in a ten-minute debate on where to start; we ultimately chose the top, so I tossed a few yellow-stickered branches to the others and we began. After half an hour, the tree was all put together, Will and Ian had wrapped the thread of lights around it, and we carefully started to bring out ornaments.

Our tradition—it was amazing how two years made it a tradition—was to fill each other's stockings with new ornaments, which we would hang on the tree before opening the wrapped gifts. This meant that we had fifty-six when we were Freshmen. Every person received seven ornaments per year, so this year, we had over a hundred ornaments.

One hour, one-hundred-and-eleven trinkets, and one shattered bauble (Nathan's fault, but it was his ornament) later, our tree was set up. We stayed up past that, talking, sipping hot chocolate, and playing card games.