“So how are your courses going?” My mother asked casually as we draped the last of the fake holly leaves over the fireplace.
“Fine,” I said automatically, and didn’t bother to elaborate further.
She turned to look at me, a frown creasing her forehead.
People often said I looked like exactly like my mom, even though she always claimed I took after my father in terms of both personality and appearance. But after turning sixteen, I began to notice how we had begun to look more and more similar, which was something that actually bothered me.
We both had the same long wavy hair which often curled at the ends, although hers was usually twisted into a bun at the back of her head, and my hair was more red, like my dad’s, while hers was much more golden blonde. We both shared the light sprinkle of freckles across our faces, but my mom’s were faded with age. We were both about average height, and I had noticed I was catching up to my mom’s height. It looked like I might pass her soon. Even our faces looked eerily similar: same long-lashed bright green eyes, straight nose, even our lips were shaped the same. But if there was one thing for sure, it was that I had the same smile as my dad.
I couldn’t help but wonder how two such different people could work so well together. My mom was a workaholic, who hardly ever took breaks or time off and was constantly on some business trip or other. She loved her work, hated to be staying still, and was calm yet stern, and rigid.
Dad was almost the opposite. He always had time for me or for my older brother, with or without work, and was generally easygoing, cheerful, kind, and very protective.
That was the way it had been ever since my brother had packed up and left for university, and things had changed.
My mom put her hands on her hips in a gesture I recognized as the universal “oh-no-it’s interrogation time” pose. “Would you care to elaborate?” Even her tone was overly formal. I wondered if she even realized how stern she sounded when she spoke sometimes.
“They’re fine, mom.” When I sounded stiff, I gave her a nonchalant smile. “My teachers all seem very attentive and my grades have all been in the 80’s and 90’s so far.” “That’s good, sweetheart.” She said, and I was relieved to see her genuinely smile. “Make sure you participate so these grades stay consistent and continue to improve.”
I nodded, even though in my head I felt nothing but relieved. I had managed to pacify the tiger mother, at least for the moment. As long as you told her things that satisfied her, she wouldn’t have any need to resort to more disciplinary means.
It was why I never let my disappointment show whenever she had to go away on another trip.
Or even how I really felt Faith and I were more than just good friends by this point.
It was exactly the same reason I never dared to talk about my brother anymore when she was around.
“So, speaking of school…” She continued, and I mentally braced myself for whatever she was planning on asking me next. “How have your friends been?”
The question itself threw me off-guard. “Oh. Uh, they’ve been good. My friend Liz says she finds the course-load difficult, though.”
“Good, good.” Mom nodded. I was slightly confused. Since when was she concerned about how my friends were doing? “And have any of them started...seeing people?” “Uh, you mean dating?” I clarified for myself. “No...well, Layla has been going out with this boy for a couple months now…” “And what do you think about that?”
I was really confused now. “It’s fine, I suppose. It’s her business.” OK, was she going to tell me what her point was to all this, or what? “And have you had any...interest in any of the boys at your school?”
Ah. There it was. The real reason she brought up any of this in the first place.
I shook my head. “No. I have a couple guy friends, but that’s all it is.” “So you would not be interested in seeing them?”
I wanted to change the subject so badly. Not only was this really awkward, I wasn’t used to my mother asking me any questions like these.
“No, they’re just friends.” I answered truthfully, but firmly. “Why?”
She sighed, and ran a hand through her elegant twist. “I just wanted to know about what you’re planning for the future, honey.”
“Mom,” I said, a little incredulously. “For the future? What exactly do you mean?” “Well, I know you’re going to make me proud.” She clarified. “You’ve already made me proud with your academic and athletic endeavours. But now it may be time to start thinking about actual relationships, who you want to associate with.”
“Like who?” I asked quietly.
“Like a boyfriend, for instance.” She continued. “And in the future, a good career, respectable husband and successful family.”
Each word she said next made me feel like I was sinking further and further into some deep pit.
“Mom, that’s, uh--” I coughed. “--That’s still awhile away, I think.”
She looked slightly confused, as though the idea that an eleventh grader getting into a prosperous marriage could be that far away at all. “Why, Lucy, honey. It’s never too early to start considering the future. Especially at your age.”
She had a point, but I was barely able to stand where this conversation was going. I had a feeling she and I had very different views on the subject of a romantic relationship, and I couldn’t bear to talk any more about it.
Not with her.
“Right, mom.” I said, forcing a reassuring smile. “I’ll think about that.”
Her face smoothed back into gentle satisfaction. “Good. That’s good, sweetheart.”
She cleared her throat, smiling brightly all of a sudden. “Now, why don’t I go see what your father is up to, hmm?” And she left the room, leaving me standing in front of the fireplace with agonizing thoughts spinning around in my head.
My mother wanted me to have a “respectable” relationship, did she? Right. That had certainly been what she had wanted--no, planned for my older brother. Only that hadn’t really worked out that well, from what I remembered.
Somehow, I didn’t think whatever I felt about Faith came into what she saw for my future. And God knows, my mom was good at getting her way. It was one of the reasons she was so good at her job, why she was on request for international meetings nearly 24/7.
If she had a definitive plan for what I was supposed to be down the road, then I had a bad feeling she was going to follow through with it no matter what I said or tried to change it.
For the first time since the school year had started, I felt almost...trapped. Like there was no place to go, not with my mom here discussing what she most clearly expected of me later on.
I was driven by the urge to get out of the house, as far away as possible, right now. I sighed, and pulled out my phone to check if anyone was available.
After letting my mom know quickly that I was leaving, I ended up getting dragged out to the mall with Layla and Crystal, who immediately started fawning over all the latest winter fashion, like form-fitting sweaters and warm snug tights. For the most part I ended up trailing behind them as they marched ahead, eager to buy and maybe get some Christmas shopping out of the way.
I ended up in Old Navy, which wasn’t the most glamorous of stores, but they had a great sale going on and we thought it couldn’t hurt to take a look. I ended up picking out a little black and gold skirt for my younger cousin, and a vest for her twin brother. I also cracked and bought a pretty flowered headband and baseball cap for them as well. I didn’t have a whole lot of younger relatives in general, so I usually found buying things for them easier as they didn’t have quite so picky-I mean, particular preferences just yet.
I was done earlier than the other two, and leaned back against a shelf as I waited for them to finish. I pulled out my phone and checked my messages while I was there.
“Need help with anything?” A familiar voice asked. I looked up, startled, and grinned. “Oh, hey, Liz!”
She gave me a small smile. “Hey.” She was wearing normal casual clothes, just her striped orange and pink sweatshirt and jeans, but the only difference between her and the shoppers was the name tag pinned on her chest which read “Hi, my name is ELIZABETH” in bold letters.
She noticed me looking and made a face at her tag. “Yeah, they wouldn’t settle for my nickname.” I rolled my eyes in sympathy. “Control freaks.” “Oh, yeah.” She nodded solemnly, and I cracked up.
“I didn’t know you were working today,” I continued. She shrugged. “Yeah, I started not that long ago. This is more of a seasonal job anyway, so I’ve just begun working weekends. You?” I shook my head, suddenly feeling underwhelmed with myself in comparison. “Nah, I don’t have a job yet.” “Too bad. You should get one sooner than later.”
“Why?” I joked. “You want me to buy you stuff or something?” She shook her head seriously. “Nope. So you can buy Faith a nice present.”
I felt my cheeks burn up, and prayed she didn’t noticed. Judging from the barely-concealed smirk on her face however, I must not have done such a great job with that.
I sighed. “I knew coming in here was a bad idea.” “No, it was an amazing idea,” She retorted, grinning viciously. “Now I can tell you all my wise advice, especially when she’s involved.” She looked around me, frowning. “Is Faith here too?”
I shook my head, for once feeling immensely grateful for her absence.
“Aw,” She said, shaking her head in disappointment. “I wanted to push you two into a change-room and lock the door.” She gave me one of the most suggestive, evil smirks I had ever seen. “Who knows what could happen then?”
I wanted to sink into the floor and never come back up. The longer I had this conversation, the more I was sure Liz was trying to throw me into my own personal circle of Hell.
“Just. Stop. Talking.” I ordered, pressing my palm to my forehead. “But you know it’s true,” She persisted. “I can neither confirm nor deny any sort of accusation. Now, seriously. Shut up.”
She raised her eyebrows, evaluating whether or not I was being serious. I scowled at her, my cheeks still flushed from the terrible imagery she had placed in my head.
After a minute or two, she shrugged, and cracked a smile.
“Oh, Liz!” Crystal exclaimed, two shopping bags over one arm. Behind her Layla lugged four bulging bags with an ease built up from many past shopping sprees. “Hi.” Liz greeted easily. “You guys doing Christmas shopping?”
“Yeah,” Crystal nodded, and launched into a brief description of all she had bought so far with Layla jumping in to regale her own purchases.
I stood to the side, trying to cool down while the attention was off me and Faith and whatever twisted fantasy Liz could concoct. She was notorious for having the most dirty mind out of all of us, except for maybe Layla, and never hesitated to hide it in any case.
Sometimes I thought she really needed a filter. No, scratch that. She definitely needed a filter.
“Anyways, I better get back to work.” Liz said, giving a thumbs-up in sarcastic enthusiasm. “See you guys.” And she walked off to go help some lady out with a rack of swimsuits across the store.
“Ready to go?” Crystal asked me. I nodded quickly. “Yeah.” “Great!” Layla beamed. “I wanted to check out the next store anyways. They have some killer accessories.” I rolled my eyes. “You sound like a valley girl cliché from a coming-of-age 80’s movie.”
She tossed her hair and gave me a true death stare, all narrowed eyes and downturned mouth. We held our breath as she finally snarked, “And is there a problem with that?”
I shook my head, holding in my laughter. Layla certainly had her moments. “No, ma’am.” “That’s what I thought.” She began striding towards the exit. “Now, let’s go. Unless anyone else has anything they’d like to say?”
“We wouldn’t dare.” I muttered under my breath as Crystal giggled and nudged me forwards before Layla could notice.
About an hour or so later, I had finished the majority of my Christmas shopping, even the presents for Crystal, Liz, Willow, and Layla, who very loudly pointed out a beautiful glittering necklace shaped like a tiara in the store window and stared at me until I sighed and pulled out my wallet.
It was going to be Christmas after all, though I did firmly tell her I was not going to buy her a birthday present after that. She simply tossed her hair and told me I was a bad liar.
She knew me too well.
My mother was getting a new briefcase, which my father and I had agreed to split the balance for. It was simple but showy, black leather and shiny bronze buckles on the durable adjustable strap. I hoped she would like it.
Dad was easy enough to get presents for, he was fine with just about anything as long as it wasn’t Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes merchandise. They were a little too “young” for his old taste, as he liked to joke in the most corny ways possible. I settled for a red and silver coffee mug and a Pittsburgh Penguins baseball cap.
Additionally, there was a little jeweled model jasmine flower for Crystal, the only edition of Final Fantasy Liz didn’t yet have (she didn’t like expensive gifts in the slightest), and a couple of new books for Willow on scientific wonders and phenomena. Layla, of course, would be receiving the pricey crown necklace she had been swooning over.
I even stopped by the music store to pick up new guitar picks and a pack of blank CDs for my older brother, who had stopped coming home for Christmas a long time ago.
As usual, I guessed I would be sending his presents up to Calgary in Alberta for him.
I wondered if it was snowing there, and whether he was dressing warmly enough for the cold. He always did have a recklessness when it came to facing any type of weather condition.
Rain? Umbrella. Hurricane? Boots. Blistering heat? No shirt. He had always claimed it was because he was invincible. I had always claimed it was because he was a fortunate idiot.
Thinking of my brother lead me to thinking about Faith, of all people, but to be honest, the train of thought there didn’t really surprise me. In fact, the two of them were a lot alike, now that I thought about it.
Speaking of Faith...I knew Liz was right, even though I didn’t like to admit it. I should buy her a nice Christmas present. It was a pretty great idea, only there was one small problem: I had very little idea of where to start.
I wanted to buy her something nice, but it couldn’t just be something pretty, like a necklace or bracelet. While those two were always nice gifts, and worked out for someone like Layla, Faith wasn’t really the type of person to be amazed by things like that just based on aesthetic value. So...that was a no-go on jewellry.
Maybe a new bag? Faith’s was old and typically bursting at the seams with books and pencils, but at least it was in still pretty good shape. Besides, she seemed pretty fond of the model and I was sure they didn’t sell the same type of backpack anymore.
Maybe some new pencils, like an art kit...but Faith already had a large variety of artistic supplies, and to me, getting her some new ones would seem more like something a close relative might do, or something Faith could easily pick up herself if she had the need to.
I still picked up a small pack of rainbow sharpie markers anyway, since Ms. Castle had mentioned something about how we might be working with more defined colours in the next unit, but I wasn’t satisfied.
Call me a sap, but I wanted to buy her something more personal. Something that would stand out. Something that she would be able to find more meaning in, than say, a pack of coloured markers from Michaels.
No, she was one of my best friends...I wanted it to be a little more personal than that.
OK, so first I had to think about what I knew about her.
For starters, I knew she loved art, and was amazing at it, even if she refused to acknowledge it out of some sort of spiteful modesty. I also knew she was really into a bunch of different shows and movies she told me she liked to stream on her laptop at home, everything from Doctor Who and Merlin to various anime like Fullmetal Alchemist and Sailor Moon. She was also really into comics as well, something we both shared in common. I loved the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Justice League. I had watched a lot of the cartoons and read a lot of original comics Dad had stowed away in the basement when I was just a little kid.
OK, so that was a pretty good start. But where should I go from there?
Something that combined the two…
After a couple hours or so, I only had the vaguest of ideas, which wasn’t really enough to go on. I spent the majority of this time haunting the Hot Topic on the first floor, probably creeping out the cashiers and employees with how I marched around from shelf to shelf and wall to wall, staring intently at all the products I thought she might like best. Dresses? T-shirts? Bags? Various necklaces? No, wait, I had already passed over the jewellry. Weird toys and cute plushies?
I left the store feeling even more lost than before.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know Faith well enough, or didn’t know what she might want, but I just didn’t know exactly what to get. But...I did know someone who just might.
Liz looked confused when I walked back into Old Navy. She was placing folded shirts away on the shelves in the front. “Hey, didn’t think you’d be back so soon. Here to buy anything else?”
I shook my head. “It’s about Faith.”
I so hated how she smirked automatically in the most evil way the moment I mentioned her name. “Figures.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I scowled at her, but felt secretly relieved all the same.
“I need your help.”