Authors: Amy Matayo
I give myself a mental slap. It isn’t fair to think about that when she doesn’t even remember doing it.
“I like Christmas.” I shrug, as though I’m not thinking about what her lips felt like pressed against mine. “It’s my favorite holiday.” Now. Again. As a kid, I loved it—the toys and the presents and the parties and the carols. But like a new Spiderman Band-Aid my mother once enthusiastically placed over some wound or another, it was ripped away with a painful sting. No more fun. No more excitement. No more color. No more anything. It took years, and a few life lessons, to get me loving it again. Now, I get wound up just thinking about the season’s magic and miracles. Not something I would admit out loud, though. I
a guy with a reputation to uphold.
Beside me, I see Kate shiver. At first I think it’s from the cold, until her next words come out. They’re laced with more resignation than this pink-loving girl should ever feel. “Not me. I wish we could skip right over that holiday.”
I look over at her, certain she’s joking, but her serious expression blows that theory. “Sounds like someone has had one too many stockings filled with coal. Naughty kid?”
“More like a kid who never had a stocking at all.” Her hands are shoved in her coat pockets—a normal black wool coat this morning—and she’s looking into the window of a furniture store, though I’m pretty sure she’s not actually in the market for a sofa. Not that she shouldn’t be—her current one sucks. It’s more like she’s looking past it, into a memory that she doesn’t like. Just when I decide to file her statement into the I Have No Response folder in my brain, my mouth opens and blows that plan.
“Your parents aren’t into the holidays, are they?” I kick at a chipped piece of concrete directly in my path. “Sounds like we were raised by the same type of people.” If adults knew what kind of damage they were capable of inflicting on kids, no one would ever have them. Although for some so-called parents, cramming as much harm as possible in eighteen years’ time—or in my case, eleven—seems to be part of the fun. If asked, I could count several right now who enjoy that sort of thing and run out of fingers trying.
Kate is quiet so long I’m not sure what to think. I look over at her and see that she’s wrestling with something. Her mouth is working and her forehead is scrunched up and she looks kind of worried. Finally, she locks eyes with me. Something about that look concerns me, but I can’t pinpoint it. And then she smiles, a sad smile, really. I’ll admit that it’s soft and warm and does all kinds of crazy things to my insides, but I won’t admit much else. The word
, however, does cross my mind again for the smallest second.
“No Caleb, they weren’t. They were never real big on Christmas. Still aren’t, if you want the truth.”
I don’t. Want the truth, I mean. Because frankly, that sort of truth just sucks. No toy catalog? No lists? No cookies left out for Santa? What kind of twisted parents does this girl have? I think about what she says for a moment. I can’t help it, because I’m a fixer. A schemer. Both a fault and an asset to my personality, according to my mother. I like to solve things, and this is definitely one area that needs solving, now. It doesn’t take long for a plan to form. Even less time for me to announce it.
“That’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever heard. You need an intervention. Now.”
“I never asked for one.” Not the response I expected, but I can work with it.
“Lucky for you I don’t usually wait for permission.”
I expect a retort, but she doesn’t give me one. So I take her hand and walk her across the parking lot. An innocent gesture to the outside observer, but I’ve never been more aware of the feel of a girl’s hand in my life. I want to hold it as long as she’ll let me, but she lets go too soon.
Once we’re at the destination I have in mind, I reach for the door and pull her inside, ignoring the look she flashes that suggests she’s seriously questioning my masculinity. Judging by the smell of artificial cinnamon and old-lady perfume currently blasting up my nose, the look isn’t without merit.
“In the market for silk flowers and yarn, are you?” she teases.
“Yes, for the toilet paper cozies I’m making for Christmas gifts. Let’s see, your bathroom was blue, right? I should remember, but I didn’t pay that much attention in between running for more towels.”
She laughs and bumps my arm as she brushes past me, unintentionally giving me a good view of her backside. I wish she wasn’t so darn attractive because it makes it impossible to look away, as I should be doing right now. I force my eyes to a shopping cart filled with ninety-percent off Halloween decorations and mentally conjure up images of zombies and serial-killers stabbed through the heart to distract myself. It helps, but only a little.
“Yes, it’s blue, and how do you know about cozies?” she asks over her shoulder.
In truth, I know about them from grandmas and aunts and Wednesday night pot-lucks. No way I’m telling her that, though. “Don’t you wish you knew?” There. That sounded mysterious, right?
“Actually, I don’t,” she says.
Okay, maybe not.
Brat. I reach for her arm and lead her down one aisle, then another. It surprises me that she doesn’t tell me to let go, but she doesn’t, just goes along with my seemingly aimless walking. It isn’t until the third aisle that she stops short, nearly causing me to bump into her from behind.
“Why are we here?” Her voice is tight, and the expression on her face is almost anxious, but there’s some wonder in there as well. Even though her cautious gaze confuses me, it’s the wonder I see that tells me my decision was the right one, with or without permission. I move next to her and look up. About two feet up, if the sign in front of me is right.
“I need a Christmas tree, and I want you to help me pick one out.” I don’t really need one, but it seems like an inspired idea, one to get her out of the miserable Christmas slump her parents have dumped her in. “It’s the first step in my three-part intervention program to cure you of your holiday aversion. Pass this one, and you get to move on to helping me choose a stocking. Pass
one, and you’ll make it to the last one. It’s a secret.” I feel myself nodding as if I know what the heck I’m talking about. I made this whole thing up two seconds ago, and it appears I’m going home with a tree I don’t even want. I make a mental note to hang on to the receipt.
“So go ahead, Kate. Pick your favorite.”
must look like a caged animal, frightened beyond my comfort zone, completely threatened and twitchy. Because it’s exactly how I feel. Christmas trees? Stockings? And a mysterious third thing that scares me even more than the time my father threw me off the diving board to teach me how to swim. In his defense, I was eight years old and had wasted three years of lessons. Hundreds of dollars spent and I still couldn’t manage a dog paddle. In my defense, dog paddling is awkward and splashy and completely without technique. Who wants to move around in a pool using only their wrists? Not me. Definitely not me. In my younger mind, if I couldn’t swim the right way, I didn’t want to do it at all.
“Do you still live with your parents?” A stupid question, but it’s all I can think to say. What if he says yes? How am I supposed to respond?
The look in his eyes catches me off guard, and a small part of my panic subsides. For the briefest second, he looks sad. I’ve seen that kind of regret before, and all at once I know there’s a story behind this guy’s mega-cool demeanor. I want to know what it is.
He recovers quickly. “No.” He draws out the word. “Just because I want a tree doesn’t mean—”
“Then what’s the point of a stocking? It seems like a waste to buy one that will sit empty on Christmas morning, since no one’s there to fill it for you.”
When he clutches his chest and takes a halting step backward, I can’t help the way my mouth involuntarily lifts at the corners. He is so darn cute when he acts wounded. “Oh Kate, Kate, Kate. You of little faith. You’re killing me—first with your no Christmas and then with your blatant disbelief in Santa Claus. Next you’ll be telling me the Easter Bunny isn’t real.”
When I raise an eyebrow, his eyes go wide in mock horror. Wanting an excuse to touch him, I slap his arm. “Stop being so dramatic. Do you want me to help pick out a tree, or not?”
“Yes, and hurry up about it. We don’t have all night.”
“Exactly. Daylight’s burning, Princess. Now choose a tree before they sell out of all of them.”
I smile to myself at the nickname he’s assigned to me. Something tells me it’s permanent. Something tells me I’m glad about it. Something also tells me he’s ridiculous—there are stacks of trees in cardboard boxes all around us. The only way they’ll sell out now is if a fairy godmother waves her magic wand and makes them disappear.
Fairy Godmothers. Something else I never believed in.
Fifteen minutes later I’ve abandoned my apprehension, and the tree is being carted to the front of the store. I can’t deny that I’m a tiny bit proud of myself. Buying a Christmas tree isn’t as easy as it sounds, what with the height, the color, the shape of the branches, and the lights. And even though Caleb told me to pick one out for him, the guy is incredibly picky. He wanted a green, pre-lit eight-footer sporting thin branches. He put his foot down when I gravitated toward the tree covered in fake snow, saying nothing kills the spirit of Christmas more than dried paint trying to pass itself off as the cold white stuff.
I refrained from pointing out that fake trees with fake snow didn’t seem much different than a fake guy in a red suit shimmying down a chimney. Somehow the timing didn’t seem right.
Regardless, I’m now foraging through stockings, up to my elbows in all kinds of tacky fabrics while Caleb calls out instructions.
“Only red ones.”
“Or maybe green.”
“But nothing with sparkles.”
“And definitely nothing with glitter.”
buying that. Put it back now.”
Funny how in such a short time, his cool-factor has worn off. Now, I find him as annoying as a greasy-haired kid in kindergarten who insists on poking me in the side and showing me his latest scab. I drag myself to a standing position and glare up at him. I’m pretty sure a loose price tag is stuck in my hair, but I don’t stop to remove it.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a pain in the butt?”
“Only every day.” At the first sign of a grin, I realize he’s been doing this on purpose. It doesn’t make it any less maddening. If he thinks I’ll find it adorable, he’s wrong.
“Well, they’re right. Christmas shopping with you is now on my list of things I never want to do again. My first time doing it, and you’ve managed to ruin the whole thing.”
If I thought he might be hurt, I thought wrong. His grin only widens. It looks…adorable. “What did you expect for an intervention? For me to go easy on you?”
I don’t say that, yes, that’s exactly what I expected. Stupid me. Before I have time to reflect on my idiocy, he reaches toward my ear and plucks off the offending tag. My breath catches when he brushes it against my cheek. “Huh.” He frowns, glancing at the tag. “You seem worth more than nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. A
more. Millions, even.”
He flicks the tag to the floor, and my traitorous heart seems to fall in search of it. But first it flips once, bangs into my pulse, jumps into my throat, then collapses somewhere around my feet. That was the nicest thing anyone has said to me in years. I catch his eye, and neither one of us looks away.
“See something you want?” His voice sounds thick. Tense. He clears his throat and nods to my hand. “For me, I mean. Is that the one you like?”
At first I’m unsure what he’s referring to, and then I look down. I’m holding a gaudy pink Christmas stocking shaped like a slipper, complete with sparkles, glitter, and everything he just finished lecturing me against. I shrug, deciding right then to just go for it. “Yes. This is it. And don’t even think about putting it back. After everything I’ve just gone through, it would totally hurt my feelings.”
To my surprise, he reaches for it. “A stocking fit for a princess. I wouldn’t dream of putting it back.” He tucks it under his arm and turns to walk away, leaving me staring after him like the infatuated servant girl I apparently am. Give me a mop and bucket, and I’d probably drop to the floor and start singing about my prince arriving while blue birds gather at my feet and field mice stitch me a dress.
“You coming, Princess?”
I find myself nodding, following after him. Of course I am.
Like the famous saying goes, the third time
the charm. He bought me a present. An intervention present. I’ve never had a Christmas gift before, and it doesn’t even matter that it’s a bag of sour Gummy Worms. I suck the sugar off my fourth one and dig out one for Caleb.
“I can’t believe of all the things in that store, this is what you picked out for your gift,” he says. “These barely even qualify as a stocking stuffer, let alone a first-time intervention gift.” He makes a face, but reaches for the worm anyway and pops it in his mouth. The Christmas tree is stuffed in the back of his truck and we’re almost back to my apartment. I have no idea what happens when we get there, but I’m sure of one thing. I don’t want this day to end.