Hey there readers! This is my 2013 holiday contest submission, so please vote and leave comments-they're always appreciated. I've been itching to submit into the interracial romance category, and I'm happy that I finally have the opportunity to do so.
Also, for those of you who are following my series We Are the Day, fear not, I am still working on it! I took a breather from it to focus on this submission and to "get my head in the game" for the next chapter. Things are going to be heating up in the vampire world and I needed to wrap my head around it before I started hammering the keys. That being said, if you haven't read the series yet, please feel free to take a peek at it!
Happy Reading and Happy Holidays!
"Sleigh bells ring, are you listenin'? In the lane, snow is glistenin'-."
"Yeah, no. Not in California, honey," I said to the female voice that was crooning through my ear buds. I immediately changed the Pandora station.
It wasn't that I had an aversion to Christmas music, I just didn't want to hear about a winter wonderland, I wanted to experience one for myself; that's why I was on an airplane headed back to Bloomington, Illinois for Christmas. It had been three months since I was in Illinois; I left shortly after the rumors broke out. Some of them were true, most of them were false; but, they all had one thing in common: people assumed that I and my history teacher, Ryan Lewis, were involved in a sexual tryst when I was underage; which was the other reason I was headed back to Bloomington. Ryan Lewis and I had nothing but a strictly teacher-student relationship, but after my three month exile to California, I was left wondering if our two years together meant something more.
It was hard to pin down when my attraction to Mr. Lewis started, but I believed it was a slow trickle. During my sophomore year, I noticed that he was unlike the other teachers; he dressed for his age-young, fresh, and timely, his brown hair was fashionably styled into a disorderly faux hawk, his smile set the world on fire...then my junior year, I noticed the inside of the man. His heart was made of pure gold. He cared for his students and their learning and he had a genuine desire to see every student succeed whether they loved history or not. During the time of my senior year I spent at Bloomington High, I put all of those things together, and then tried to ignore them. He was my teacher after all. I respected him and his position too much to take our camaraderie any further than where it was; I already spent too much time with him after school and on weekends as it were. We would meet at the local Barnes and Noble to discuss my essays, test scores, and basically anything else that was history related. In that respect, I guess I could see where and why the rumors began to break out. People saw us together...and a lot.
And, apparently, seeing us together equated us engaging in sexual intercourse. I chuckled to myself quietly while shaking my head. The whole ordeal was easy enough to laugh at after the fact, but the initial rumor breakout had consequences that weren't so humorous.
My parents got wind of the rumors and quickly interceded by shipping me on the first plane out of the state; and it made me livid. I was just beginning a class that I waited three years to take, I had my best friends whom I couldn't live without, and then there was Mr. Lewis, of course. My parents had barred all types of contact I had with him and somehow they managed it all the way from Illinois. All of the emails I tried to send him were returned to me, I couldn't reach him by phone because my parents swapped my old phone out and erased his number before I left; it was like California was my own giant prison cell. My aunt and uncle did their best to make me happy; I got to take dance classes with professional choreographers, I went to the beach whenever I wanted, they fixed me up with a car...and when none of that made me smile, they took the liberty of fixing me up with weekly shrink meetings.
I resented my parents for that because if it weren't for them, I wouldn't have been unhappy in the first place; but I somewhat forgave them in the wake of arriving over the threshold of the Bloomington Regional Airport. I breathed in the scent of winter air, felt the sting of cold biting at my cheeks and nose; I was home, and I was on a mission.
"Hey, bitch!" I recognized her voice before I noticed her standing over by the baggage claim area. A smile lit up my face as I passed the gawking passengers to get to my best friend, Cori.
I pulled her into a tight hug. "What are you doing here? I thought my parents were picking me up."
"They sent me in their stead. They're in Barbados on a company trip or somethin' and I'm spending Christmas with you since my mom found some new guy to shack up with. He's taking her to meet his family and the angsty, teenage daughter wasn't invited," she said, picking up my small carry-on bag and leading me out of the airport. I stepped into the dark, winter night, the wind carrying my hair as I breathed in deeply again.
"I'm sorry, Cor; but I guess it worked out for us." I told her as she stopped in front of a red Cadillac SRX that had a green bow on the hood. I was sure my confusion was apparent on my face.
"Your birthday gift," she grinned, "and there are plenty more in that big ass house of yours, plus all of the Christmas gifts. It pays to have a birthday right before Christmas, apparently," Cori rambled on as I gawked at the car, unable to say anything. Cori was still talking when I finally turned my attention back to her. "They must feel sorry for sending you away like they did."
"It looks more like a 'we read the gynecologist report. Congrats for not fucking your history teacher' gift rather than a birthday present," my anger flared just thinking about the incident. Right after I stepped out of the plane that carried me to California, my aunt took me to a gynecologist to have me "checked out". The examination led to me being on the pill, per my parents' request; if I refused, I lost my cell phone, and in turn, my contact with my best friends.
I made my way to the bow, ripping it off with unnecessary force. "And why do I need a new car anyways? I have a perfectly good BMW in the stupid garage."
Cori wrapped her arm around my shoulder. "Hey, none of that now. We're gonna have a good time together, starting with tonight. We're gonna watch old Christmas movies and drink this new hot chocolate recipe that I found."
"Still nursing that Pinterest addiction?" I sighed while sitting behind the wheel of my new car. I had to admit, the vehicle was luxury and class on wheels. If I wasn't careful, I'd end up loving the thing and have to call my parents to thank them.
"Shut up, Dani," she laughed. "I got a few recipes for us to try since we're on our own for dinner."
"So, yes, you're still addicted."
"Pinterest for life, baby."
My room wasn't the same as I left it, I noticed upon arriving to the house; I left it a mess on purpose. In hindsight, it was a childish move, but I didn't care. Being childish was also sending your seventeen-year-old daughter across the country because some rumors about her broke out. My parents always taught me that I should never run from my problems; but, as soon as times got a little uncomfortable, I was on the first plane away from what they viewed as a problem.
I met Cori downstairs after unpacking and settled on the couch while she brought out a large, plastic binder labeled "Pinterest". There were pages upon pages of crafts, recipes, and other odds and ends that she printed before sticking them into that monstrously thick book. We flipped through her "Christmas" section, putting together different recipes that we wanted to try for our holiday meal; we could've fed an army with all of the dishes that we chose, which was a good thing considering that my other best friend, Dustin, had been invited for Christmas dinner.
"So they left all of these for me?" I asked, tapping a gift with my foot as we made our way to the kitchen to scope out the inventory. I was sure we had close to nothing from the list of ingredients that we needed, but it didn't hurt to look just in case.
"Some are for me and Dustin. It was funny watching your mom try to wrap gifts; she had no clue what to do," Cori chuckled, "I took mercy on her and wrapped them so she wouldn't have to."
I chuckled with Cori because I could see the truth in that story; my mom was never creative or hands-on. Her mind worked in mergers, acquisitions, and bank statements. I think that's why she and I rarely got along.
We did as Cori promised and sat in front of the television while drinking her Pinterest recipe, but I was just going through the motions and the night couldn't end fast enough. I loved Cori and I missed her dearly, but I was a girl on a mission. The moment we parted for the night, I tore my room apart.
There had to be a syllabus, a note, some scrap of paper...something with his number on it. I went to my closet where I kept my old backpack and all but ripped it out of the closet. It was basically empty, which angered me. I found my old notebook that still had notes from my classes; but there were no remnants of Mr. Lewis anywhere. I had taken classes with him since I was sixteen, but all of his information had miraculously disappeared from my room. I internally cursed my parents.
I threw my backpack into the closet and shut the door with excessive force. I could've texted Dustin and asked for Mr. Lewis's number, but I was sure the only number Dustin might have would be the one to his desk, and that wouldn't help me while everyone was on winter break. By the time I figured that I could ask for his email, I was too tired to care.
The morning came, and I looked out the window, much like a child would on Christmas. My heart sank because there was still no snow. "So much for my winter wonderland," I yawned before rolling out of bed. "And so much for my diabolical plan to see Mr. Lewis," I sighed. To be honest, I didn't even have a diabolical plan when my aunt and uncle told me that I was going home for the holidays; mediocre was the more appropriate word for my plan. In essence, the plan was to get here, and see Mr. Lewis as soon as possible. That within itself was a feat. Bloomington isn't as big and complex as Chicago but it's not a small town by any means; I could go the entire seventeen days of my visit and not see him once.
"Thank you, mom and dad," I said sourly as I applied some lip gloss in the mirror. I put the tube of gloss down, irritated not only with my parents, but myself. There I was, lamenting my separation from Mr. Lewis from the moment I woke up when my best friend was in her room getting ready to go to work. I hadn't seen her for three months and I was thrown into a tizzy over a man that probably didn't even want me.
I went downstairs and gave Cori a hug so tight that it hurt my arms and told her how glad I was that we were finally reunited, then we parted ways for the day.
"See ya later, darkie!" she called out of the window of her Jeep.
While others found that nickname socially unacceptable, I laughed about it, remembering when Cori and I met on the first day of kindergarten, which prompted the use of the name.
"Why's your skin darker than mine?" she asked while poking my arm during snack time.
"It's because my parents are both brown," I explained. "And you're light because your mommy and daddy are white."
"I only have a mommy," she told me. "My daddy went away last week."
I remembered feeling bad for the little girl with a boy's name and flaming red hair. "Well, we can share my daddy if you want," I told her. We were inseparable from that day on.
"Hi there, and welcome to Walmart!" The greeter waved and smiled as I grabbed a shopping cart.
I smiled before turning my attention to the grocery list in my hand. It was a mile long and I still had items to add. Ever since I came home the previous night and saw the lack of holiday decorations, I knew that I wanted to spruce my place up. Also, the fact that I had been Mr. Lewis-centric ever since I hopped off of the plane had me itching to make it up to Cori, even though I was fairly certain that my preoccupation went unnoticed. I threw lights, velvet bows, stockings, and other holiday fixings into the cart, grinning down every aisle. By the time I stocked up on groceries, items were spilling over the sides of the cart.
"Doing some major shopping, there?" The cashier eyed the cart with barely contained chagrin. I guess he was about to clock out for the day or something.
"Yeah. I'm making dinner and playing hostess for my best friends," I explained while producing the credit card my parents left me for the holidays.
"Some heavy plastic you're packin'," the cashier continued in his strained attempt to make conversation while ringing up my items.
"My parents pack heavy plastic. They're out of town for Christmas, so they left me in charge of holiday spirit, in turn, their credit card."
"And you're home alone while they're away?"
"I'm not alone. One of my best friends is staying with me," I shrugged, "I didn't want to see my parents yet anyway. Long story," I said after registering his surprise.
He looked genuinely interested in the sap story that was my life, but I was busy; even more than that, I didn't want to tell him. It was comforting that at least one person in Bloomington had no idea what was supposedly going on between Danica Matthews and Ryan Lewis.
"Well, have a merry Christmas," the cashier told me. I all but snatched my receipt from him and made haste in my pursuit to the car.
So as not to spoil the grocery items, I made a pit stop at my house to put all of the cold groceries away before heading out to purchase the rest of the items on my mental list. By midafternoon, I had purchased all of Cori and Dustin's gifts, and much to my pleasure, it was done with my own money. When I started my prison sentence in California, I made a vow to myself that I would not accept any money that my parents sent to me, so I went and got a job at Starbucks. I saved every penny that I could from my earnings; and, though it wasn't much, it was mine.
Owen's Nursery, my final stop, was packed with trees; I walked right past the fake ones. My family had owned one fake tree out of all of my seventeen Christmases, and we hated it. The thing was too plasticky looking and smelled like cardboard box. I weaved in and out of the maze of green, steadily getting swallowed up by the size of the trees. Near the back of the lot is where I found the tree that made my heart glow. If there wasn't going to be any snow outside, there was going to be some inside, and on my tree none-the-less. The pine needles and branches were meticulously painted with some type of foamy, glittery spray that replicated freshly-fallen snow. I had to have it.
"You like this one?"
Every muscle, bone, and cell of my body froze as I heard a voice that I would recognize anywhere come from behind me. I hadn't heard him in months, but it was as if we had just got done with an after school history debate.
Did he not recognize me? Why didn't he say something?
How could he when he was looking at the back of my head? I chastised myself.
"I've always hated when you called me that. 'Miss Matthews, are you paying attention? Miss Matthews, do you have the answer?' Or, there's my ultimate favorite, 'Miss Matthews, don't curse in my class.' You make me feel prematurely old."
"Danica?" Mr. Lewis sounded winded as I turned around to face him.
He pulled me into a hug and let me go much too soon. He smelled good, as always; though, there was a new hint of pine to his scent. It complimented him well. His eyes darted around the expanse of trees, probably scoping out whether or not anyone had noticed our embrace. It made my heart hurt. "Where have you been?" His tone was borderline accusatory.
I placed my hands on my hips, much to my annoyance. My mother did the same thing when she was irritated or angry. "Like you don't know. Then again, maybe you don't seeing as you didn't even bother to contact me."
"I would have if I could, Danica. I tried calling, texting. I tried emailing you. It was useless. I went to the office to inquire of your whereabouts and, apparently, your parents demanded that I not be given any information about you. I went to Cori and she couldn't tell me anything. She said that if your parents got wind of any type of contact between us, they would shut your phone off and you wouldn't be able to talk to her," he shook his head while grabbing the hair at the nape of his neck.
My hands slid off of my hip as guilt washed over me. "I moved to California. I tried emailing you. I would've tried calling or texting, but my parents took my fucking phone and gave me some crap ass one with no contacts."
"You still have the mouth of a sailor, Danica," Mr. Lewis sighed while rubbing his eyes. "And all of this over some petty rumors."
I shrugged. "We did spend a lot of time together."
"We did," he said, his eyes meeting mine. I had no idea what he was trying to find or communicate.
"So what are you doing here?" I asked, hoping to move the conversation to less tense waters.
"I work here."
"It's just a part-time, holiday gig."
I should've known that; I knew everything else about Ryan Lewis. I knew that he was single and without children. I knew his favorite authors, color, and type of food; I knew more about him than most students ever cared to know about their teachers.
"Need extra money for the holidays?" I asked.
"Not really, no. I just like the smell of pine trees," he laughed. "Plus, it gives me something to do during winter break. What're your plans for the holidays?"
"Spending time with Cori. Her mom is on an escapade and my parents are, thankfully, far away in Barbados," I rolled my eyes in remembrance of my parents and their extensive plots to keep me away from Mr. Lewis.
"Ah. Happy Belated birthday by the way. Eighteen now. Big step. Moving on to college, doing things." Red crept up Mr. Lewis's cheeks and neck as he looked at anything that wasn't me. It made my heart bang against my chest.
"Of course I did. You were my student for two years."
"Well, thanks. My parents bought me a remorse car."
"A what?" His eyebrows knit together, marking his confusion.
"They were remorseful, so they bought me a car," I shrugged.
"Do you forgive them?"
"I guess I have to. It's a Cadillac SRX," I said by way of explanation.
"I would forgive them, too," he grinned. "So, I saw you diggin' on this tree. You taking it home today?"
"Yes, please. I'm gonna need some fixings for it, too. Do you have bulbs and stuff here?"
"Not the ones you would like."
I sighed. "Another trip to Walmart is in order. The cashier was so thrilled with me the last time."
I pulled my car over to where Mr. Lewis was so that he could put the tree into my trunk; but, I knew after observing the car and tree next to each other, it wouldn't work. So did Mr. Lewis.
"Well, it's too big."
"Yeah," I sighed. "I wanted to go all out for Cori and Dustin," I admitted, my shoulders sagging.
I turned to look at Mr. Lewis who was frowning. "Yeah. Dustin Hoffman from ancient civilizations, and every other history class that I've taken. My other best friend?"
Mr. Lewis seemed to relax some at my explanation. "Oh, yeah. I remember the kid."
"His parents are out of town, too. I didn't want him to be alone for Christmas," I explained, though I wasn't sure why I felt the need to.
"That's thoughtful of you."
"I wish I was thinking well enough to figure out how to get this tree in my car," I said, ignoring the undercurrent to Mr. Lewis's voice that I couldn't identify.