Chapter 46 - Christmas with the Karlins
• 6 years old •
"Tina!" I heard Aunt Lizzy exclaim as I was about to enter the living room. I left my shoes outside because it got all muddy when Poopy and I were playing tag earlier. "Where did you get that?"
She held her daughter's little hand up to look at the diamond ring that was obviously too big for her tiny finger.
"From Peanut Butter!" Poopy proudly proclaimed.
Uncle Jake and dad were in the room too, and took a closer look. Aunt Lizzy seemed a bit frantic.
They didn't realize I was in the room yet.
"This..." Aunt Lizzy's voice was starting to get softer. She knelt on the floor so she was eye-level with Poopy. She never let her hand go, and she never took her eyes off the ring. "Isn't this Nathalie's..."
My dad put a hand over his head, staring at the ring as well. Quite sadly too. "My God... I didn't even know Daniel had it. I thought I'd lost that ring a long time ago. Where did the boy find it?"
Poopy was just staring at the conversing adults back and forth. She had absolutely no idea what was going on.
Aunt Lizzy hid a small smile as she patted her daughter's hair. She looked up at my dad with her eyes welling up a bit. "Did he know it belonged to his mother?"
"Yeah," I finally announced my presence and walked over to them. Surprise was evident in all their faces. I was just smiling at Poopy, who in turn was smiling at me. "I knew."
I probably rendered the adults speechless. I found that ring hidden in a box underneath a lot of dad's old stuff in our garage.
"But mommy's not here anymore..." I said, looking down at my feet, remembering the photo I saw along with the ring. It was of her and my dad. "So can Poopy have it?"
They looked at each other before bursting into a fit of smiles and hearty laughter.
I don't think I said anything funny for them to laugh like that.
Dad crouched down and patted my head. "Of course, son. But only when you two get older. Give it to her properly one day. Okay?"
Well, that made sense. The ring was still too big for her after all.
Aunt Lizzy whispered something in Poopy's ear before Poopy ran to my dad and gave him back the ring. She looked really sad about it.
Dad also patted her head and pinched her cheek lightly. Then she giggled, as if already recovering.
"In the mean time, I'll be keeping this." He showed me the ring and kept his eyes on it tenderly, as if recalling an old memory. He then smiled at me. "I'll give it back to you when you're ready."
I nodded. I really am not ready yet. I have to become a man like my dad first, right? I'll be just that when I get bigger.
"Okay, but can we stop by the candy store?" I said, tugging my dad's coat. I didn't want to leave her without a present. "I wanna buy Poopy another ring to replace that one in the mean time."
Aunt Lizzy released a light chuckle before clutching her chest. "Oh Nat, your son is such a sweetheart. God bless his soul."
Dad smiled warmly at me before he took my head. "Sure buddy. Let's go."
• Present •
A week had passed since Richard's call. I spent that week spending time with Kristina and at the same time learning Japanese with her and teaching her self-defense.
She was a quick learner and I couldn't be prouder, but it still didn't put me to ease.
That day I found her crying on the street, thinking I had left without telling her, I resolved to tell her everything from now on. And told her to share her thoughts with me as well.
Tops and Anne joined us in our discussion, and we all agreed to keep in touch when we leave. They also cleared out that misunderstanding last time, when Kristina overheard Anne saying that Tops and I were going to leave tomorrow.
She apologized and hugged Kristina. I know Anne was just as anxious as the rest of us, so we couldn't blame her. She went through the experience of Tops leaving her in short notice back then. Poopy too, when we were still little kids. But her memory of it was vivid. Almost traumatizing.
My cousin and I were indeed related in a sense that we were both stupid enough to leave those girls. But back then we were too young to know better. Too young to make our own decisions.
And right now, we were old enough to know that our decisions are our responsibilities. It weighed on our shoulders.
The next few days went by quickly. I honestly felt like I was up in the clouds. I couldn't be any happier being together with her. Dad made sure to text me from time to time to just relax and not worry too much.
Of course I'd worry. He was out there fighting alone. I told myself I didn't want my dad to fight alone anymore.
But his words were still absolute. I trusted him and knew him better than anyone else.
Uncle Jake told me not to be an adult yet. But being an adult was my only choice in this kind of situation. I had to man up and face all these challenges; and it comforted me to know that they all had my back.
I was going to spend Christmas eve with the Karlins this year. And Aunt Lizzy decided to invite all our closest friends.
I guess she did this knowing our situation. She always knew more than we all thought.
Tops, Anne and Sean came early to help out. They looked pretty excited as soon as they entered the house.
Everybody looked great.
We set up tables and chairs on the backyard garden where we planned on grilling some meat. Lucky it wasn't that cold out tonight too. Tops brought hot soup, Anne brought desserts, and Sean well...
Sean brought alcohol.
"Where's Ella?" Kristina suddenly appeared behind me. She had just returned after changing her clothes and I couldn't resist the grin tugging up my cheeks.
She had her hair down and it cascaded gracefully on her shoulders. She wore a beige-colored, knitted dress with a button down neckline. The sleeves slid down to her wrists and the length was knee-level, just as her mother insisted. The dress also hugged her curves softly.
I noticed that she wasn't wearing any jewelry. And I sighed in relief.
"Why'd you dress up all pretty tonight?" I asked, teasing her a bit.
She laughed before holding my hand and gazing at my eyes with her sapphire ones. She was attractive to a fault and she didn't even know it. "Because I wanted to look pretty for you."
I broke out a smile and gently placed her hair behind her ear to get a better look at that beautiful face. "Well good for you, your mission was a complete success."
"Alright lovebirds, I'm right here!" Ella announced her arrival quite loudly. She had just come in, carrying some paper bags. It was probably more food to celebrate the occasion. "Sorry I'm late. Traffic was crazy."
Anne took the food and placed them on the table. Aunt Lizzy was in the kitchen preparing some things, Tops was setting up the speakers to put on some music, Uncle Jake just started grilling the meat and Sean was acting as his assistant.
Though he was probably just standing there to be first in line to eat.
Ella gave her best friend a warm hug. "Merry Christmas!"
"Are you okay?" Kristina asked, suddenly looking worried. "Did something happen with Chie?"
How could she even tell?
Ella just smiled as she shook her head. "Just got into a small fight. Don't worry. Tonight we celebrate!"
Kristina gave her another hug for comfort and silently told her that Sean was also here. Ella said she didn't mind.
Aunt Lizzy finally came, bringing some ham, baked mac and cheese, roasted chicken and other food.
Everybody helped set the table again and frankly speaking, we needed more tables with the amount of food we were about to devour in just a blink of an eye.
Everybody was having so much fun, setting all our worries about the future aside for tonight.
As everyone gathered around the table, eating, laughing and overall just enjoying their selves, I found myself quietly watching them.
When was the last time I spent Christmas with all the people I cared about? And the family circle even grew.
I never imagined I'd be sitting here, with all these people. I never thought it'd happen. Just a year ago, this would've been a faraway dream.
I met the girl I loved again, I made up with my best friend and cousin, my best friends made up and got together, I gained more friends I could trust...
Do I deserve to be this blessed?
Sean cracked open a bottle of wine as Aunt Lizzy, Anne and Ella giggled at whatever they were chatting about. Tops passed the wine glasses to all of us and we toasted to a Merry Christmas.
As I had anticipated earlier, all the food disappeared in an instant. Even the desserts Anne brought. I'm convinced every single person in this house right now had the appetite of a horse, but later concluded that we were all just having such a great time to realize we were downing the food in such impressive pace.
Uncle Jake whispered something in Tops' ear and he nodded before changing the music. The song Time After Time played.
Uncle Jake stood up and took Aunt Lizzy's hand, asking her for a dance. She gladly accepted and they sweetly danced to the music. We all cheered and the girls sighed dreamily.
That was the kind of love we all longed for. That was the kind of relationship we aimed to have in the future.
When the song ended, several song requests poured in and everybody danced to their hearts' content.
I just stayed in my seat because I obviously didn't have the same energy as them. I enjoyed watching them as I sipped on my fifth glass of wine.
Kristina was laughing as her dad twirled her around. Ella and Anne then took over and the three of them danced around a circle. Lizzy joined after a little while.
Sean just sat down to rest. I don't know if he was drunk or just tired after dancing like he wasn't gonna live the next day.
Tops was dancing with Aunt Lizzy and it was hilarious. Their energy was unbeatable and I felt exhausted just watching them.
"Who told you to just sit there?" A voice snapped me out of my thoughts. I looked up and felt a lazy grin form on my face. It was my lovely girlfriend.
I made a face and she quickly shut down my silent plea to let me sit this one out. I didn't resist much anyway. Who could ever resist her?
She pulled me by the arm and invited me for a dance. "Let's go Romeo."
I chuckled in reply, recalling the scene we made at the school festival which seemed like ages ago.
We danced and moved our bodies like no one was watching and I never laughed this hard in my life. I'm pretty sure we looked ridiculous but I didn't care.
I don't know if it was the wine or the Christmas spirit, or the upbeat music or just the euphoria spilling out of my system. It was just exhilarating.
This was the kind of happiness I never imagined I'd have. Even though it would become just a fleeting memory in the future, I'll live in the moment. I'll treasure it.
Uncle Jake and Aunt Lizzy sat down, clearly exhausted but satisfied. Ella and Anne took their seats too. All of us followed soon after.
"I wish for you kids to have the kind of happiness that will last," Aunt Lizzy said, looking at all of us warmly. Her kind eyes met all of ours one by one and expressed her sincerest wishes. "Whatever happens in the future, I just wish all of you happiness. You all deserve that."
Ella raised her glass and the rest of us followed.
The parents went back inside to retire for the evening. I didn't even realize the time. It was already way past midnight.
Our friends decided to go home too, but judging by the teasing looks on their faces, they probably just wanted to give us some time to ourselves. And I honestly thanked them for that.
Plus, Tops said he was going to give his present to Anne tonight.
We all hugged each other goodbye and Tops said he was going to tell us something tomorrow.
It was quiet now that everyone had left. I helped Kristina clean the table and throw the trash. We used disposable plates, cups and utensils so it would be easier for us to clean up.
To rid of the silence, I turned on the radio and connected it to the speakers.
This song came, and I decided to stand up and ask Kristina for a last dance. She smiled at me playfully before taking my hand.
I placed both my hands on her waist. Her arms were around my neck and her head rested on my chest. The song played and we slow-danced the remaining hours of tonight.
Here I am waiting
I'll have to leave soon
Why am I holding on?
We knew this day would come
We knew it all along
How did it come so fast?
The words of the song matched our situation perfectly. I held her tighter and took a deep breath as the melody tugged on my heartstrings.
This is our last night
But it's late
And I'm trying not to sleep
'cause I know
When I wake
I will have to slip away
Kristina pulled me closer into a warm embrace. I guess she was feeling the same as me.
Happy, sad and afraid.
We didn't know what was waiting for us in the future. It was a scary thought. But I know I shouldn't think about that at the moment.
Tonight, I just wanted to be with her and not think of anything else.
And when the daylight comes
I'll have to go
But tonight I'm gonna hold you so close
'cause when the daylight comes
We'll be on our own
But tonight I need to hold you so close
I ran my hand on her soft hair before she looked up to meet my eyes. I smiled.
I cupper her cheek gently and memorized this feeling of warmth. It was bittersweet, this feeling, but I wanted to remember it to my heart's content. I know this memory was going to save me from a lot of things in the near future.
Here I am staring
At your perfection
In my arms, so beautiful
The sky is getting bright
The stars are burning out
Somebody slow it down
This is way too hard
'cause I know
When the sun comes up
I will leave
This is my last glance
That will soon be a memory
I felt my heart break into a million pieces. Though I said I wouldn't think about it tonight, it still attacked my mind violently.
I looked at her face, and judging by her expression, I was probably making my feelings too obvious. I couldn't force myself to act tough about it.
Her eyes narrowed softly as I felt my hands shake on her waist. I just stared at her, memorizing her features as if it was going to be the last time.
Thoughts of reporters bothering her while I was away made me bite my lip in frustration. I taught her self-defense, but I still wanted to protect her myself.
I was the reason why they went after her in the first place, and they'll continue to bother her. Not only her, but her family as well.
Thoughts of being overpowered by Richard and being unable to come back home resurfaced. What will I do then?
Thoughts of her breaking down and crying alone when I leave was like getting stabbed in the chest a million times.
I really don't want her to go through that.
She was too precious.
She reached for my face and ran a thumb across my cheek. Only then did I realize that it was moist.
I had actually cried in front of her.
Even though I wanted to show her that I was strong for her, I completely showed her how weak I really was.
I averted my eyes in shame and before I could hide my face on her shoulder, she held my face with both her hands and wiped my tears before they could fall down.
"I'm sorry..." I said, my voice barely coming out of my throat. She shook her head, her eyes welling up as well.
And when the daylight comes
I'll have to go
But tonight I'm gonna hold you so close
'cause in the daylight
We'll be on our own
But tonight I need to hold you so close
Ooh whoa... Ooh whoa... Ooh whoa...
Ooh whoa... Ooh whoa... Ooh whoa...
"I love you," she said, her tears trickling down her cheeks. I felt my heart squeeze at the sight. I held her face and kissed her tears.
"I love you too."
That kiss wasn't counted.
We just stared at each other until the song finished. We didn't even notice that the song already finished.
After seeing our flushed faces, we laughed. We laughed out the heaviness in our hearts, the built-up frustration, and the overwhelming loneliness.
When will this storm end?
"You still look handsome in that state and it pisses me off," she said, semi-glaring at me. It was probably to lighten up the mood. I chuckled in response.
"Close your eyes." I said. She did.
I took something out of my pocket and carefully placed it around her neck. My lips were on her ear as I fumbled a bit on locking the chain on the nape of her neck. I fixed her hair when it was finished.
She opened her eyes to see her present and gasped.
"Merry Christmas," I smiled, happy that she seemed liked it. She gently held the pendant between her fingertips and smiled her beautiful smile.
The chain was pure gold. Thin, but I made sure to get the strongest of its kind so it wouldn't break easily. The pendant I chose was that of a rose, as a symbol of love, longing and devotion.
It was also because she used to really love flowers growing up. She stopped picking them from their garden because she realized she wanted to watch them grow instead of watching them die shortly after they were picked.
She gave me a flower crown once before, so now I'm giving it back through a necklace. A flower that will never die.
I know she doesn't usually wear any jewelry, but I hope she wears this one.
The necklace looked lovely on her.
"It's beautiful," she breathed, admiring the work of art which held so much meaning to both of us. She looked up to meet my eyes and sent me a tender smile. She stood on her toes and gave me a kiss. "Thank you. And not counting that kiss."
I hid a laugh. She was using all of my excuses now. But I wasn't complaining at all.
"Now for my present," she said. She took my hand and pulled me to the living room. She made me sit on the couch and it left me all the more curious.
I was still in a bit of a daze to notice what she was doing.
She pulled out a box from under the table and smiled shyly. I chuckled. She looked adorable.
She sat beside me on the couch before handing me the box. It wasn't wrapped but it was held shut by a white ribbon.
I looked at her and hid a smile. She looked even more excited than me. Whatever it was inside, I was happy and I'm sure I'll treasure it just as much as I treasured her.
I untied the knot and held my breath as I opened the box.
She put a lot of shredded crepe paper inside it. It was a moment of suspense. I slowly took it out bit by bit and tried my best to maintain a straight face.
She'd think I'm crazy if I kept smiling like an idiot because that's I think I'd be doing if I wasn't controlling myself any better.
When I took out most of the crepe paper, I saw a small notebook inside the box.
The cover was of leather and the size was small enough to fit in my pocket.
I looked at her, my lips tugging up into a smile. I don't know if it was empty, or if she wrote something in it, but I loved it already.
She giggled at my face and hugged my arm. "Not yet. Open it."
I obliged and opened the notebook.
And I stopped as soon as I did.
I can't believe this.
My heart thundered in my chest as I released a breath to calm it down. Warmth spread across my body and I felt myself tearing up again. God when did I get so emotional like this?
There were photos of us inside. The small notebook was actually a pocket photo album.
The first page was of us in our first official date in the Aquarium. It was a selfie of us with her holding the phone. It was also candid because our dolphin friends joined in behind of us and we were laughing because we saw them just before she pressed the button.
The second page was when we went to the beach. It was when Ella and her friends went out and left Kristina and I in the cottage. This was actually the first time I took a selfie with her. I remember being awkward with it at first, but it eventually became natural because we had a lot of fun. She looked beautiful in this one too.
The third page was of us and our group of friends having lunch at our school rooftop. I remember Ella suddenly telling us to smile while our faces were still stuffed. She laughed loudly when she completely captured the looks on our faces.
I snorted at the memory and felt Kristina resting her cheek on my shoulder as she watched me flip through the pages.
The fourth page was another photo of us friends. This was when Anne brought the whole group to her apartment to help move her furniture. We had several drinks that evening and this photo completely captured the goofy grins on our drunk faces. At least Tops was awake in this one.
The fifth page was of Kristina and I on the staircase. I remember this. This was taken the night of the school festival, judging by the annoyed look on her face.
In that photo, my arm was around her waist and I had pulled her closer to spite her at that time, and she in turn was glaring at me. Her mom took this photo in such perfect timing.
"I hated you so much in that one," she commented. I turned my head a bit to meet her eyes and sent her a smirk.
"No you didn't. You already loved me since then."
She rolled her eyes before laughing and pinching my side. I chuckled.
I turned to the last page and held my breath again. How many times did I hold my breath tonight? How was I still alive?
The last photo was of us when we were kids. We were in the garden and little Kristina had just placed a crown of flowers on my head and knighted me Sir Peanut Butter. It was also our last day of playing together before I left for London with my dad.
My face said it all in the photo. I didn't realize Aunt Lizzy had a photo of this. I didn't even realize she was there when this happened.
I closed the photo album and turned to give her a hug. A big hug. I sighed loudly on her shoulder as she rubbed her hand on my back soothingly.
"I love it. I love you. Thank you." I said, really meaning it. She placed a hand on the back of my head and began running her fingers on my hair.
"I got the idea when I saw our old childhood photo in your wallet," she said, giggling. I laughed in reply. I was about to explode with all this happiness. The kind of happiness only she could give me. I really didn't deserve her.
"There's still another present in the box," she said.
I slowly broke the hug and looked at her curiously. She was all smiles. "There's more?"
She nodded and motioned for me to continue digging under the mass of shredded crepe papers.
What I pulled out from the box made me hide my face in my hand in an attempt to hide my stupid grin. My heart was trembling.
She laughed when she saw my reaction and held my hand.
It was the blue handkerchief with the initials P.B or Peanut Butter as I proudly claimed that nickname back in my childhood.
I watched her while I was still hiding my face and broke out a chuckle when I realized she was still laughing at my reaction.
She held the blue handkerchief with me and ran her thumb across the initials. She showed me the opposite corner of the handkerchief and this time, she hid her face on my shoulder.
She added an initial.
I laughed heartily at the realization and she did too. I can't describe what I was feeling right now, but I loved it.
"I'm giving this back to you." She said, looking up at me, half her face still buried on my shoulder. "So you can give it back to me."
I was silent as I tightened my grip on her hand.
Her brows creased slightly and I felt her kiss my shoulder before gazing at me with those beautiful sapphire eyes.
"Come back to me."
I wish the world would just stop right at this very moment.
It was only about a week left before our departure. My heart sunk at the mere thought.
I nodded and kissed her forehead ever so lightly. I wasn't counting that one either.
I will. I'll do my best in everything I can and come back to her as soon as possible. I'll fight alongside my dad. I'll face Richard straight on. I'll come back to her.
♡ ♡ ♡
Tops created a group chat with all our friends then video-called us not a moment later.
"Hey!" He started, looking like a huge bundle of joy. Good thing he called in the afternoon, because I was going to murder him if he ever called me early in the morning. Holidays were for sleeping in.
"Hi guys!" Anne chirped. She was with Tops at the moment, looking just as happy as he was. She was waving at the screen, excitement evident in her actions.
I noticed that Tops already gave her the ring and I smiled. That's good. He didn't wimp out.
"Danny get your lazy arse up! We have something to say!" Anne yelled. I groaned. I was still in bed, just watching them from the screen of my phone with one eye open.
Ella and Sean joined the call and it got even louder.
"Where's Tinz?" Tops asked, still smiling like an idiot.
I tilted my phone to my right and Kristina waved her hand at the screen while her eyes were still closed.
Her head was resting on my arm. She actually came in earlier this morning to wake me up for breakfast, but eventually gave up and fell asleep with me.
Anne and Ella cooed as Sean snickered. Tops was delighted that everybody was present.
"Alright! Now that everyone's here, I have an announcement to make."
What, were they getting married already?
Anne continued for him.
"Since we only have a few days left for Christmas break and before the boys leave for London, how about we all go on a trip?" She grinned.
Ella's eyes gleamed with excitement. "Say no more. I'm definitely in!"
"That's great!" Anne jumped up and down. I felt Kristina mumble something, but I felt her smile. I pulled the blanket up to her shoulder.
In the middle of their mini-celebration, Tops cleared his throat.
"My family owns a private resort out of town. It has a beach, an indoor pool, a spa and everything." He said. "Let's all go tomorrow. I'll pick everyone up first thing in the morning. Sound good?"
"We got all the food covered." Anne winked.
"Hell yeah dude!" Sean cheered. A free vacation at a private resort? With free food? Who wouldn't want that?
Everyone was practically cheering. Everyone except for sleeping beauty beside me of course.
"Tina?" Anne gently called, hiding her giggles.
I looked at Kristina and hid a smile when she snuggled closer to me, probably not fully aware of our little audience.
I moved the camera away from her and nodded at my friends. I know she wouldn't want to miss this either. She did say she wanted to spend more time with all of us.
"See you guys tomorrow."