In the next couple of days, the teachers give up on actually teaching us anything and just show us videos of stuff that vaguely relates to their topic, in the desperate hope that we might learn something. The snow melts to the perfect level – enough to be pretty, but not too much to shovel. Everyone's all hyped up on candy canes and talking excitedly all the time about what they're going to do over break and throwing snowballs at each other as soon as they get outside. I promise myself again and again to kiss Melissa under the mistletoe, but every time, I lose my nerve.
It's Christmas time.
Finally, the last bell rings and the school explodes. I manage to find Melissa and she promises to hang out with me over break, gives me a quick hug and a candy cane and then disappears into the crowd.
I make my way home, humming “Let It Snow” under my breath and fingering the unused mistletoe in my pocket.
Wood ends up not having to work on Christmas and in the days before, we decorate the apartment the way we do every year – dig out our two-foot, plastic Christmas tree, string a bunch of burned-out lights on the door and set up our headless Santa doll on the coffee table.
“Well, it's a lot of work...” Wood wipes his forehead in mock exhaustion. “But it's worth it.”
I grin. Decorating took fifteen minutes.
On Christmas day, we wake up at noon, give each other the traditional Christmas noogies, eat our traditional Christmas feast of corn dogs and soda, and throw our presents at each other with the traditional Christmas finesse.
“It's a tie!” Wood rips off the wrapping paper. “Oh, hey it's a watch. Thanks!”
I laugh. He thinks it's a tie every year. “You don't even wear ties!” He gave me a couple of books and a package of beef jerky, which we're both sharing now.
He shrugs. “One of these days I might. What did you get Melissa?”
Every year, I want to give her a poem, but I never do and it ends up getting shoved in my secret place with all the others. “A little stuffed animal and some chocolate.”
“That's pretty good.”
“What did you get Amelia?”
At the mere mention of her name, a stupid smile spreads across his face. “Roses. They should be delivered today. I wrote something sweet on the card and...well, she deserves more, but she knows I can't really afford it...”
I lifted an eyebrow at him. “Better watch it...if she moves in here, we won't be able to have any more bachelor Christmases.”
He just shrugs again. “Would it be that bad?”
Am I this pathetic around Melissa? Maybe it's genetic.
He goes over to Amelia's house later and, not expecting him back til morning, I grab a bag of stale chips and watch the Peanuts Christmas special until I fall asleep in front of the TV.
It's the most wonderful time of the year.
Tanya wakes me up by jumping on my stomach and barking at my face.
I sit bolt upright, throwing her off with a yip. I look around wildly for Wood and when I don't see him, I let out a relieved sigh.
“Sorry.” I reach down to rub her head, but she growls at me angrily and yaps again.
“Shh...I have neighbors!” I yawn and stand up, shuffling to my room and giving her a bowl of kibble. She wags her tails as she eats and I can see she's not starving-skinny anymore. In fact, I might have to watch what I feed her.
The phone rings and I moan, making my way back to the living room in time to answer it on the third ring. “Hello?”
I take the phone away from my ear and squint at the caller ID. It's Rock.
“What time is it?”
“It's...about eleven thirty. Why?”
I gotta get an alarm clock. “No reason.” I rub my eyes and remember that I'm mad at him. “What do you want?”
“I just...thought we could train today? The roads are clear now and...”
I stay silent for a long time.
He sighs. “I'm sorry.”
I still don't say anything. I don't know what to say. I miss him, but hanging out with him like everything's okay again would almost be like betraying Melissa.
He sighs again and hangs up.
I put the phone down and slide down the wall to the floor, staring at the opposite wall, deep in thought. He must feel pretty bad...but it serves him right for treating Melissa so badly. And Gina, too, for that matter. But...on the other hand...I know what it's like to feel alone. I know Rock has other friends, but I also know I'm his best friend and we're always there for each other. I don't know which friend to comfort, Melissa or Rock.
I'm so deep in thought that I don't notice Tanya until she licks my face.
“Ew!” I wipe my cheek, but I can't help but laugh as Tanya cocks her head at me. “Thanks. I needed that.”
I stand up and follow her back to my room, where I get dressed in Melissa's favorite outfit. Rock was right about training...I should really take a run. Alone, though.
I make sure Tanya's settled before thudding down the stairs and starting my jog. I don't really pay attention to where I'm going...I just let my legs do the thinking for me.
It feels great to run again...it feels like all my thoughts melt away into just putting one leg in front of the other. I go as far as I can, until my toes start to get numb, then stop, look around to get my bearings and run back.
I slow to a walk about a block away from my building, my shoulder, for some reason, really sore. If Rock was here, he'd tell me it was because I didn't stretch.
I'm trying to get my breath when Owen and Cheryl appear from nowhere.
“Hi Dash.” Owen grins.
I look at them warily. They seem innocent enough...in fact, the only thing out of the ordinary is that Cheryl's holding a cat. It's cream colored, except for the back legs, tail, and a little footprint shaped patch on its forehead, which are brown.
“Did you have a nice run?”
I nodded, still a little breathless. “Where...” I gesture at the cat. Now that I think about it, the patch on its forehead is more gold-ish.
“Oh, I've always had him,” Cheryl shifts him in her arms. He doesn't resist. “We just took him to the vet for his checkup.”
I nod, starting to walk towards the apartment. Owen waves goodbye and they turn away, but the cat watches me over Cheryl's shoulder, not blinking. Then, it turns slightly so it almost looks like it's whispering to her.
I shake my head. My imagination runs away with me way too often.
I take the stairs slowly, my thighs aching and almost hug the radiator once I get inside. A winter jacket. An alarm clock and a winter jacket, that's what I need. As I slowly warm up I notice that Wood's bedroom door is closed now and his shoes are by the front door. He must have gotten back while I was out.
Once I can kind of feel my fingers, I straighten up and head to my room.
Tanya's sitting on my dresser, sniffing at my mother's ring again. I snatch it away. “Hey, where did you get this? I thought I put it – ” I turn...and freeze.
My nightstand cabinet is wide open and completely empty. Its contents are spread out over my bed and Melissa is sitting right in the middle of them. Right in the middle of every poem, every song and every lovesick piece of literary trash I've ever written about her over the last four years.
My mouth hangs open.
She looks up at me, eyes brimming with tears. “Dash, I...you...how...I...” She clamps a hand over her mouth and looks back down at the piece of paper in her lap.
I look at Tanya, who wags her tails and hops off my dresser, sitting down in front of me as if expecting a treat.
I ignore her and look back to my bed. There's all kind of stuff there...mostly poems and stuff, but also jewelry I had never given her, thinking it would be too romantic, pictures of her I had saved, some dried up dead flowers and a piece of that coat she had spilled paint on so long ago.
“Um...” I rubbed the back of my neck. “Sorry...this must seem...pretty creepy...”
She shakes her head and holds up a piece of paper. “Can you play this?”
I glance at it and, much to my relief, I see that it's one of my least sucky songs. I walk over to my closet and pull out my guitar, looping the strap around my shoulder. I strum a chord, then look up at her. “Um...do I have to sing too?”
She smiles tearfully and shakes her head.
I know the piece by heart, but I still have to work to get the notes right. As I play, I feel a little thrill at finally being able to do it in front of her...for her to know the way I feel about her. Then, I get caught up in the music and don't think of anything else.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on top of mine, stopping the sound. I look up.And the girl of my dreams kisses me on the lips.