“Drex, wake up.” I heard Quinton say, his little hand clasping my shoulder, shaking me to consciousness.
Dragging my eyes open to his little form crouched beside my bed, I gave him a small smile. “What’s up, bud? Can’t sleep?”
Quint chuckled softly and shook his dark head. “It’s morning already, silly. Time to open presents!”
“Ahhh yes, presents. I forgot all about that,” I joked and he laughed again. “Did Santa leave lots of stuff?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t gone out there yet. Didn’t want to wake Dad.”
Of course. God forbid he get up early on Christmas…
“Well, I hear stuff clinking around out there which means Mom must be awake. C’mon, let’s go check,” I said, sliding out from under the duvet.
My little brother’s face lit up, as every child’s should. Stretching out his hand, he hurdled us both down the hallway until our shitty Christmas tree came into view; tall, skinny, and fake with hardly any lights or ornaments. There wasn’t even a topper. Just a ridiculous amount of tinsel.
The mere sight of it and the scarce amount of presents beneath boiled my blood. No kid should wake up to this on Christmas morning, especially one whose family could afford to spoil them for the holidays. Yeah, I know, Christmas wasn’t all about the gifts, but Quinton had never experienced the type of Christmas you see on TV or in movies. The type of Christmas I’d experienced for a good portion of my childhood.
I think that’s what pissed me off the most; the fact that it hadn’t always been this way. Before Quinton was born, Mom bought a real tree every single year. Sometimes we even drove up to the mountains and chopped down our own as a family. She’d take a whole two days decorating it, too, plus everything she put up both in and outside the house to make it look like a winter wonderland. I’d wake up to ‘Santa’s Workshop’ and spend hours opening everything with a hot mug of cocoa by my side. Dad would watch from his recliner, his deep chuckle resonating over the holiday tunes whenever I spazzed out over getting something I’d waited for all year long. And mom, she’d sit on the floor with a garbage bag to collect all the wrapping paper, snapping photo after photo or recording my reactions on the old camcorder.
Then I turned ten, and that year I learned how quickly everything you know can change.
Dad lost his job right before the holidays, a job he’d been at for twenty-five years. A few weeks later, Mom found out she was pregnant. I’ll never forget the night I overheard her tell him. The man went ballistic, swore up and down she’d cheated on him because there was no way that baby was his. Deep down he knew it was because my Mom would never do that to him, but he rolled with it for weeks after. In those weeks, he developed a drinking problem too, all because he couldn’t find a new job. Mom didn’t work obviously and as a result, bills were going unpaid, mounting stress on their shoulders in a way they hadn’t imagined. Their relationship was deteriorating at an alarming rate, but that was something I’m sure you already know was his fault. By the time Quint was born, I think they were hanging on by a thread.
But we’ll get onto the rest of that disaster here soon because I’m sure my old man will make a spectacle at some point….
“Drex?” Quinton asked, squeezing my hand.
“Was I naughty again this year?”
My heart clenched. That’s what the bastard told him every year, the excuse he used for being such a crap dad to the kid. To both of us, really. His money was his, end of story.
“No, buddy, you weren’t. I’m sure everything in those boxes is all the things you really wanted. Remember, there’s a lot of kids in the world and only so many elves. They have to sleep at some point too, ya know.”
Quint covered his mouth and giggled, his green eyes crinkling in the corners. That perked me up a bit.
“Good morning, you two,” Mom’s voice said suddenly. She smiled as we turned our attention on her. “I was just going to wake you up.”
“Is he up?” I asked quietly, embracing her when she placed a kiss on my cheek.
“He is and he seems to be in a good mood.”
“Well, he should be, it’s Christmas.”
“I should be what, now?” His question came out with a growl, drowning the room in tension. Even Quinton stilled beside me.
“Nothing, I was just saying it’s Christmas-”
“I know what day it is, boy. Don’t get smart with me.”
“Richard…” Mom intervened softly, but he shot her a warning glare that thinned her lips knowingly.
Stalking past us, he didn’t even acknowledge my brother, who by the way, was now cowering behind me, clinging onto the back of my t-shirt.
“All this presents crap can wait until after breakfast. I’m starving.”
“But the hashbrowns have another ten minutes,” Mom countered in a rush, hoping to change his mind.
That wasn’t a good idea.
In the blink of an eye, he spun around, a murderous gleam in his brown eyes, the veins in his neck bulging as he all but turned red beet red in the face. “I don’t care how long they have! I said we’re eating first and that’s that!”
Not a single word followed and when he was certain neither my Mom or I would fire back-which we never did-he stomped off toward the dining room, grumbling what was likely bullshit under his breath. With every day that passed by, the urge to toss my fist in his face and draw blood became almost impossible to subdue. And one day soon, I wasn’t going to care about being respectful or keeping myself in check. I was just gonna do it. He deserved it.
That day, unfortunately, was not today.
Knowing better than to put up a fight, my brother and I followed him, taking our places at the dinner table where Mom had already laid the Christmas village placemats, all of our utensils lying atop crimson napkins. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” carried in from the living room just before she scurried past us into the kitchen. Quint kept his head downcast beside me, while our dearest father whipped open the newspaper and quite literally ignored us while Mom brought everything out. First, she brought him a piping hot mug of black coffee, then she came back some aspirin. After that, she started bringing in the dishes she’d probably been cooking since the sun came up.
Because you know, she was his slave, especially during the holidays. He expected something extravagant for every meal which meant spent she hours upon hours in that kitchen, rather than enjoy the day with her family.
As soon as the timer went off in the kitchen, mom brought the hashbrowns out to the table and took her seat beside my Dad. We waited until he folded the newspaper and set it at his side before holding hands and saying grace. His grip was tight for no reason at all, but then again he never had a reason. He’d been in a perpetual state of anger since losing that job over ten years ago.
“Quinton, honey, you need to eat,” Mom said softly when she realized everyone was eating but him.
He’d been picking at his plate, stabbing small pieces of his scrambled eggs here and there.
“I’m not hungry,” was his answer.
“Oh, that’s not true. Besides, french toast casserole is your favorite.”
“I just wanna open my presents…” he whispered.
“That’s enough of that,” our father growled around a mouthful, brown eyes flashing to where he sat as he cut through a biscuit. “Either you clean your plate after your mother worked up all this trouble to make us such a nice meal, or I’ll take every present under that tree and light them on fire in the yard. You hear me, boy?”
Quint gasped, dropping his fork with a clatter. “You can’t do that! Santa brought me those!”
“Santa?” Dad scoffed. “Ain’t no Santa bring you those gifts, Quinton. I bought those with my hard earned money! You think some fat man is sneaking into our home in the middle of the night to bring you presents? There’s no such thing as Santa!”
“Richard…” Mom’s eyes widened.
“Richard, nothing,” he roared, banging his fist on the table. “The boy is eight and he needs to start acting like one! You keep coddlin’ him like a baby and he’ll never grow up to be a man!”
Again silence followed, but so did Quint’s tears, tears that didn’t lessen when he finally got to open all his gifts and realized none of them were what he’d asked this now non-exisetent Santa for…
As soon as I heard Michael Buble singing about having a Holly Jolly Christmas, my eyes sprang open to rays of bright morning sun pouring into my bedroom. The scent of fresh coffee, bacon, and syrupy goodness infiltrated my senses, each scent rumbling my stomach in famished protest. I shot out of bed faster than a crack of lightning, almost forgetting to whip on a bra and grab my slippers before taking off down the hallway to the landing overlooking the family room. Our fifteen-foot tree greeted me in all its illuminated glory, the sight of it drifting an excited smile across my face. No matter how old I got, Christmas was still my favorite holiday. Always would be; anything and everything about it.
Taking the steps of the circular staircase two at a time, I bounced off the last one onto the deep mahogany floors, making a beeline for the kitchen where I found Mom setting the breakfast nook.
Bounding up to her, I wrapped her in a bug from behind. “Merry Christmas!”
She laughed softly and spun around, wrapping me up in a hug of her own. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart. Sleep well?”
“Yep. Passed out around 1 a.m. or so.”
I regretted saying it the second the words came out of my mouth.
“What were you doing up so late?” she asked curiously, to which I replied with a “Waiting for Santa,” as I slipped from her embrace to pour myself some coffee.
“Which means you were reading one of the books you don’t think I notice missing from my shelf?”
My eyes, wide now in surprise, darted to where she stood, a knowing smirk carved on her face.
“You’re about to be eighteen, Camille. I’m not going to reprimand you for wanting to read about love.”
“Really? But there’s-”
“Sex? I know. Not that Nicholas Sparks really goes into detail, but I know. Either way, you’re an adult, honey. I don’t expect you not to show interest in the topic until you’re married.”
“Are we really about to have another talk on Christmas morning, Ma?” I cringed, splashing some peppermint mocha creamer into my reindeer mug.
She laughed quietly and shook her head. “No, just reminding you there’s no need to lie or sneak books.”
“Who’s sneaking what?” Dad asked in an amused voice as he shuffled into the kitchen.
I cringed some more, glancing at my mom in alarm.
“No ones sneaking anything,” she waved him off toward the table. “Shall we sit and eat first or…”
“You know that’s not tradition, Liz.” Dad chastised her with a kiss to her cheek as he passed by.
“I’m not five, Daddy. I can wait to open whatever ‘Santa’ brought me after we eat. Besides, I’m starving.”
“Very well then.” He smiled and took his usual seat. “Let’s eat then.”
As I slid into my spot in the booth, the house phone rang. Mom grabbed it off the counter and stuffed it between her ear and shoulder, answering with friendly, “Hello,” as she set a tray of chocolate chip pancakes in the center of the glass table.
“Oh goodness, I hadn’t even noticed. Thank you so much, Gina…Yeah…Mhmm, I’ll have Camille meet you out front.”
My brow arched at the sound of my name, her gray-eyed stare meeting mine as she set the cordless phone back where it belonged.
“Lila got out and apparently showed up in Mrs. Stevens yard. She’s coming up the driveway with her now. Can you open the door, sweetie?”
Lila was our five-year-old Husky, the neighborhoods infamous escape artist. Everyone knew she was ours and they loved her to pieces. Probably because she was so damn friendly. That dog didn’t have a mean bone in her body.
Taking another quick sip of my coffee, I scooted out of my seat and scampered to the front doors, throwing them open to a very empty doorstep, and by the looks of it, a very empty driveway too. Did my mom not just say she was here? I took a few steps out onto the porch, trailing the length of the pavers, but Mrs. Stevens was nowhere in sight.
That, however, was when I saw it.
It being the shiny, electric blue Acura RSX with a massive red bow on top parked behind my Dad’s Dually.
Is this for real? Am I seeing things?
My mouth popped open and when I spun around to run back inside, Mom and Dad were already gathered on the porch, the keys to said shiny new car swinging between my Dad’s fingers.
“No,” I squeaked, and they nodded briskly. “No, no! Oh my God!”
I couldn’t contain myself, squealing and jumping in place, excitement bursting through me. I could’ve exploded, that’s how overcome I was. My parents trapped me in a double hug as happy tears ran down my cheeks.
“Merry Christmas, sweetheart,” Dad chuckled, rubbing my arms.
“And Happy Birthday too. We figured if there was ever a time to use the two-for-one, it’d be now,” Mom added with a kiss to the back of my head.
“This better not be some sick joke,” I choked out through a laugh, wiping my face clean.
Dad took my hand and dropped the key ring in my palm, walking me toward the car with a strong arm around my shoulders. “On the contrary, baby girl. It’s very real and very well deserved. Go on, check it out. I picked you the prettiest one on the lot.”
My heart raced wildly, all but thrashing from my chest when I clicked the unlock button on the fob and the headlights flashed.
I have a car. I HAVE A FUCKING CAR!
With another squeal, I opened the door and slid into the driver’s seat. And then I just sat there, inhaling that new car smell, taking it all in. I didn’t even want to turn it on, didn’t even want to blink in case this moment would be nothing more than a dream.
I had a fucking car!
To say I wasn’t expecting one was putting it lightly. I’d wanted one and told them so, gave them a list of reasons along with a power point presentation on why I was responsible enough to have my own car.
I guess it worked, huh?
Dad came up beside me and ducked his head into the car, flashing me his usual crooked grin. “Take her for a spin. She’s a fun ride.”
And boy was he right.
She was definitely a fun ride.
Here’s to a new year full of new experiences and memories to carry through the years…
Although I was dying to graduate high school and move onto the next chapter in my life, I could not have been more to happy to be back walking the halls for the second half of the school year. I’m sure you figured it out already, but the remainder of Christmas had been a nightmare. Quinton was completely distraught not only by the fact he got shit gifts, but also because he knew the truth about Santa. The most maddening part of it all was that my mom made no move to soothe him or offer him any sense of comfort other than a hug and a kiss to his head. With every passing day, she submitted more and more to my father’s ways, hearing to his every demand without the bat of an eyelash. I realize she was probably afraid of him, but where the hell had her backbone gone?
So with my mother simply watching her youngest son cry a river of tears, it’d been me to comfort him. I sat with him and did whatever he wanted to do for the rest of the day. Played with him, even colored. I didn’t say a word to my parents either -not even when I was spoken to which cause a fight- and I didn’t fucking care.
Quint was obviously my concern and I was going to make this better somehow. So two days later, I went to Walmart and spent half my paycheck on things I knew he wanted, like this huge remote control RC car that could go through water and mud. The tears that fell from his eyes when I came home were worth me being broke for the next two weeks. And knowing he was happy, happy enough to survive without me for a few hours, was exactly what I needed to feel sure enough I could go to Julia’s New Years party without worry.
Rosco had invited me at the last minute, and after being stuck with my parents for almost two weeks, I agreed to tag along without second through. I’ll admit, I actually had a good time. Tossed back a few beers, danced a little, fucked around a little, more specifically, Julia, in the backseat of my Firebird. A guy’s got needs, don’t judge. We watched the fireworks, too, a little as the new year rung in.
“What’s your resolution,” Tahj asks as he comes to stand beside me, a trail of bright red lipstick trailing up his neck.
Chuckling to myself, I run a hand through my hair and gaze up at another burst of fireworks. “I don’t have one.”
“What? Everyone has one.”
“Well, you should.”
“Yeah, what? Like talking to Camille?”
“Woah, ho, ho!” He laughs, sloshing the beer in his red Solo cup. “Remember you said that, bro. Not me!”
“Oh, shut the fuck up. You know you were going to say that,” I grit out, rolling my eyes.
“I wasn’t, but shit, now that you mention it… That should definitely be your resolution, Drex. Light some fire under your ass and get it done. Tell her how much to lo-oveee her, how much you waaant her.”
“You’re just asking for my fist in your face aren’t you?”
Rosco howls a laugh that turned heads our way. “You know it’s true, asshole; don’t deny it!”
I don’t know about love and all that, but to some extent Tahj was right. I did want Camille, and as I watched my classmates laughing and enjoying the first few moments of the new year, I knew I couldn’t let her slip me by. So I made a pact with myself, a pact that would make Camille mine before we graduated.
It was now…or never, and never wasn’t really an option because as my pack always said, I deserved at least one good thing when the rest of life was pretty much shit.
And now here we were, first day back after winter break, and I had yet to see her.
What sucked about a new semester was all the new classes. Thankfully the bulk of mine were bullshit electives which were going to make for an easy ending to my high school career. The only core class I had was AP English, and I’d chosen it willingly. English was easy and AP anything looked good to colleges. My third class of the day, I walked into the large room after lunch and took a seat at one of the two-person lab tables near the back. I found it odd an English room would have or need lab tables, but apparently, Mr. Davenport was far from traditional. He was that one fun teacher every school had, the teacher everyone hoped they got. Lucky me, huh?
And about two seconds later, I got even luckier.
‘Cause Camille walked, looking as beautiful as ever in a black peacoat, jeans, and trendy ankle boots with little buckles on the sides. Her dark hair was loose as it always was. She didn’t notice me as she made her way to one of the tables in the middle of the room, shrugging out of her coat and draping it over her bag on the blue and white checkerboard floor. I may have drooled a little as she slid onto the stool and flipped her hair over her shoulder, the long, deep cocoa tresses spilling down her back to her waist. The olive green long sleeve shirt she wore clung to her delicate curves, and although I couldn’t see at the moment, I knew that color would bring out her gray eyes. I could hardly wait for the moment she realized we had this class together.
More classmates trickled in one by one until finally, the bell rang and Mr. Davenport came to sit on his desk after writing his name on the dry erase board at his back.
“How’s it going, seniors? Everyone have a good vacation?”
The usual “Yes” was mumbled, some even hooting and hollering.
“Very good,” he nodded, smiling as his eyes trailed over every student. “Welcome to AP English, a class where the fate of your final grade depends on how you deliver the one and only project you’ll be assigned.”
He held his hands up as gasps and all kinds of sounds exploded throughout the room. “Allow me to explain. You see this?” He held up what looked like a grade book. “I have to fill this thing in every week; no ifs, ands, or buts. However, everything I throw at you will be easy work. I’m not giving you homework, either, and tests will only be limited to when necessary. Your final, which you’ll be working on since day one, is how you pass my class. That means it counts as eighty percent of your final grade, so take this seriously.”
“What’s the final?” Someone asked from across the room.
“A book. You’re going to be writing a book.”
The class spazzed immediately. Mr. Davenport simply chuckled and held up his hands again, silencing my peers almost as quickly.
“I should mention it’s not a full-length novel, just a novella. And you’ll have a partner too. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Do we get to pick partners?” Another classmate belted out.
“No, I’ve already paired you, and with good reason. If I let you pick, you’re going to pick a friend, and if you pick a friend, you’re going to procrastinate and eat shit. Yes, I just cussed; get used to it.”
We laughed in unison.
“So, with that being said, let’s not waste any more time. I’m going to call out partners. Sit with each other and get to know each other if you don’t already. In half hour, I’ll start laying down the requirements and answer any questions you may have.”
One by one, names were called. I sat in the back, watching everyone move around to sit with their partner. Camille still hadn’t noticed me, that is wasn’t until Mr. Davenport said, “Camille Evans, you’re with Hendrix Carter,” that she did.
My heart may or may not have jerked to a stop. The room suddenly felt overheated and extremely quiet. I saw, rather than heard, her gasp as several classmates in the near vicinity turned their heads to look between us. But I didn’t look at them. I kept my eyes on her, unsure of whether I should move or let her come to me. To be honest, I was so shocked, I don’t know that I could’ve moved if I wanted to. I was superglued to my damn stool, waiting for the moment she’d turn around and blush a furious pink.
‘Cause she always did…
A few more minutes ticked by, neither one of us making an attempt to move. I wondered if perhaps she was doing the same thing I was; waiting for me to come to her. Although Mr. Davenport had already begun calling other pairs, he pointed at her with his pen and then pointed at me, as in telling her to get a move on. That kicked her into gear. Her arm shook just slightly as she reached out to grab her coat and her bag, and then her eyes slowly trailed to the back of the room in search of me, locking on mine almost instantly. And there was that adorable blush, a little swallow bobbing her throat along with it.
My entire body buzzed to life as she slid into the stool beside me, laying out her binder and pencil pouch on the table without a word. Palpable tension could probably be felt across the world, minute after minute flying by in complete silence. I watched as she took a deep and tucked her hair behind her ear, gray stare landing on my face.
“So, um, I guess we’re gonna have to talk to each other now since we’re working together,” she said, earning her a smirk.
I dropped my hoodie and pivoted toward her just slightly. “We’ve talked before.”
“Ten words in two years hardly qualifies.”
“I’m sure it was more than that.”
Camille rolled her eyes and retrieved a clean sheet of paper from her binder, smoothing it out on the table. “Hardly. But that’s besides the point.”
“Then what is the point?”
“I just told you, Hendrix.”
“Oh, right.” I tipped her chin toward me with a finger. “Project. Communication. Got it. And for the record…Drex works just fine.”
That flush reappeared again and I couldn’t help but grin as her pen tumbled from her grasp. I caught it with a swift hand and passed it back, noting how her plump lips parted the longer we stared at one another. I’d never been this close to her before. She was even more beautiful, a flawless angel, and holy fuck did she smell good. Like warm sugar cookies, all sweet and delicious.
Honest to God I hadn’t meant to do it, but I couldn’t even stop myself. Her mouth just looked so soft. Did she taste like cookies too? Before I knew it, my thumb was brushing along her bottom lip, my mind wandering off to places it should not be going to. Camille wasn’t that type of girl and that wasn’t my only intention with her anyway. Still, I couldn’t help myself, and when she didn’t protest or pull away, I traced the top one too, shaking my head in amusement when I realized what I was doing.
“So this story. What should we write about?” I asked, hoping to distract her from my wayward ass.
“I uh,” she cleared her throat. “I don’t know. D-do you like to read anything in specific?”
“Not really. Do you?”
“Yeah, but you’re not gonna go for that.”
“What is it? Sci-fi? Wizardy stuff?”
Camille chuckled softly. “No, um, I like to read romance.”
My eyebrow shot up curiously. “Do tell.”
“Romance, you know like, boy meets girl, boy lays on the charm, girl falls for him. That kinda thing.”
Once again, I couldn’t control myself, leaning toward her until our arms brushed. “Is that what you like, Camille? For guys to lay the charm on you?”
She tensed and swallowed deeply, shrugging, her head shaking a little too. “I um, I don’t kn… Cami works just fine.”
Avoiding the question, are we?
“Fine, Cami,” I said to appease her, liking the way her name sounded off tongue. “But that doesn’t answer my question.”
“I don’t know the answer to it,” she whispered.
“Because boys don’t usually lay any sort of charm on me.”
And that right there, ladies and gentlemen, was my green light. The confirmation to my personal pact. Everything she knew was about to be turned upside down because we were not only going to write the romance novel she dreamed up, I was going to make sure she lived it too.