I’ll be Home for Christmas
A short story
Katie tugged her large canvas bag full of laundry with one hand as she struggled to keep her duffle bag strap from falling off her other shoulder. She struggled through the front door of her dorm building out onto the sidewalk. The wind howled, blowing her brown hair in all directions. She let her laundry bag drop to the ground so she could pull her gloves from her pockets. Too late, she wished she had grabbed a hat on her way out. She tried to make do with her hood, but it blew off. She looked back at the entrance of her dorm building mournfully, not wanting to wrestle her bags back through the door.
Katie heaved a sigh and crossed her coat-clad arms. She wouldn’t be standing out on the sidewalk in the freezing cold if not for her grandmother. Well, her grandmother and the meteorologists who were all predicting rapidly dropping temperatures and as much as eight inches of snow tonight. While her older sister relished the white stuff―the more the better―it put Katie in the position to accept a ride. Her grandmother, Edith arranged it all. She was talking with his grandmother about how worried she was about Katie driving home in a snowstorm. Katie told her grandma she could take the train if it really looked like it would be bad, but Edith insisted that was silly. Why take public transportation when a nice boy would be driving to Hartford anyway?
Maybe her grandmother had ulterior motives, Katie considered. How misguided.
That was how Katie came to be standing out in the wind and, was that a flurry? She looked up and sure enough, the tiny white flakes fell on her. It had been a cold week, so it was definitely going to stick.
If he didn’t hurry up and get here, she was going to turn around and stay in the dorm for the night. She’d just sleep through the storm and head home in the morning. She could make it fine. It wasn’t like she was in a huge hurry to see her family anyway. That wasn’t true. She did want to see them, desperately. She’d only been home twice since the semester started. The first two weeks, especially, had been difficult. Feeling homesick and wanting her mommy, she started to question some of her life choices.
About to push the arm of her coat sleeve back to check her watch for the time, a sleek black car pulled up and parked in front of her.
“Hey, sorry I’m late,” Joshua said, rounding the front of the car to meet her. He scooped up her laundry bag and popped the trunk. Katie followed, smashing her duffle in, snuggly fitting in between Joshua’s bags.
They both got in, Katie grateful for the heat that already blasted at her. She tugged off her gloves so she could warm them in front of the vents. Joshua pulled away and headed out of campus.
“Your finals go okay?” he asked after merging onto the interstate. So, he wanted to make small talk.
“Fine,” she answered shortly. “Yours?”
“They were fine. I wish I had studied a little harder for calc, but I think I did well enough.” He paused, then cleared his throat as if he wanted to say something more, something else. Something more important. But instead he adjusted the volume on the radio and asked if she wanted to listen to Christmas music.
“This is fine,” she said, indicating the station he had it on, which blared alternative rock.
As they traveled north, they could see the storm had already progressed, and the snow fell harder. It wasn’t only snow though. Joshua turned up the defrost and switched on his windshield wipers. He muttered, “Damn wintery mix.”
Katie hoped he could see better from his side, because snow and ice stuck to the windshield from where she was sitting.
They didn’t talk for a while as Joshua focused on the road, which suited Katie fine. She didn’t want to talk to him anyway. That hadn’t been the case when she discovered they were attending the same college, that day in the library. She thought they would see each other again, hoped even. He apparently didn’t see the need or have the desire.
So she found herself in a car with her old high school classmate, making the slow migration from New Jersey toward Connecticut. Being the last weekend before Christmas, a mass exodus of students headed home, along with people heading both into and out of New York City. Bumper to bumper, a long line of cars in stretched both directions.
She pulled a book out of her shoulder bag and opened it, determined to read for pleasure while on winter break. Everything she’d read her first semester of college had been assigned by professors. She got a good thirty minutes in before she looked up again, noticing Joshua exiting the interstate.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Trying to get away from the traffic,” he said.
“But you’ll also get away from the cleaner road.”
“It isn’t too bad yet.” Anxiety radiated off him.
Katie muttered, “I should have taken the train.”
“What?” he asked, quickly glancing over at her a couple times, trying not to take his eyes from the road for more than a second.
“I said I should have taken the train. But Grandma insisted I ride with you. Maybe she’s hoping something romantic will happen between us.” She added darkly, “Like that would matter.”
“What?” he said again, turning down the radio. “Can you stop muttering under your breath? I can’t hear you over the heater and windshield wipers.”
“I said maybe Grandma is hoping we’ll make a connection, or something. Not that it would matter.”
“Are you mad about something?”
“Oh no, why would I be mad?” she said sarcastically with a roll of her eyes.
“I don’t know, but I wish you’d just come out with it.”
“You never called,” she said, finally. “I gave you my number and said we should get together sometime to talk. Remember? In the library? When I found out, to my surprise, that you were at Princeton, too.” She added accusingly, “You blew me off. After I―after we―last saw each other.”
Joshua braked suddenly to go around a curve and started to slide on the now ice-covered road. Too late, he remembered he shouldn’t hit the brakes when it’s slick and lost control of the car. Katie let out a squeal of terror when the car slid sideways, coming to a stop in a snowdrift on the side of the road.
Both of them breathed heavily, shaken.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Depends, can we get out?”
He checked his rearview mirror and put the car in reverse. The tires spun but didn’t move. Putting in drive, he tried again, to the same result.
“Do you have any chains? Shouldn’t you have chains or kitty litter or something when the weather gets bad?”
“I don’t have anything.” He looked through the back window, now covered in snow and ice.
“You should have stayed on the main road.”
“I wanted to get away from the traffic.”
“Well the reason for the traffic was because it was the one clean road,” she said hotly.
He glared back at her. “I think there was a gas station a mile back. You can stay here, I’ll walk.”
“I’m not staying here to freeze to death by myself.” She zipped her coat back up and put on her gloves.
He shrugged, as if saying “suit yourself.”
The cold wind hit her as soon as she stepped out. She walked around the car to meet Joshua, his head bent down to shield his face from the elements. Though it was freezing as they started their trek, Katie still felt white-hot anger burning inside her.
“What I want to know is, did you know where you were going to college when you saw me last spring?”
At first he looked at her like she was crazy for getting into it now, but he answered, “Of course I did. What did you want me to say, ‘Gee that’s too bad about Columbia, but I got into my top pick’?”
“Oh, so you felt sorry for me?” she asked mockingly, almost stumbling over the snow.
“You felt sorry for yourself. I wanted you to feel better, not worse,” he said. “It sure seemed like I succeeded.”
She scowled at him contemptuously.
Katie stared at the collection of ink pens and pencils in the office supply aisle at the store, the closest supermarket to school. She came during her lunch break for pens and highlighters. What was the point of it all, though? She didn’t even want to go back to school. She couldn’t face her teachers or classmates anymore. She especially didn’t want to see Rebecca, or to hear her gloating. She’d made several pointed comments about acceptance to Columbia, waiting to hear if Katie got the same news. Katie’s silence seemed to delight Rebecca more, as she progressed to bragging about Columbia’s superior faculty and programs of study. It had been going on for over a month.
Rebecca even found it in her to forget about their lastest petty feud. The cost of Rebecca’s forgiveness came at too high a price, though. Katie didn’t even want to think about it. She was humiliated. Everyone must think her an idiot.
She didn’t know what she would do this afternoon, but she didn’t want to walk back through the doors of school. Not as a failure. It was Friday anyway. No one would miss her.
She picked up a pack of cheap pens. Columbia rejects didn’t deserve nice pens. They deserved bottom-shelf pens. Maybe she should get some in a frilly, garish color ink. Like purple. She didn’t need serious pens anymore. No one serious wanted her.
She wasn’t going to Columbia. She wasn’t going to prom. Her boyfriend took a midnight train to who-knows-where. The guy she dumped him for dated the leader of the cheerleading squad now. No one wanted her.
And then she did something without thinking. She glanced around and slipped the pens into her pocket.
“What are you doing?” a young male voice asked. He must have come down the aisle just in time to see her commit her crime.
Katie sucked in a breath and looked up. She was further startled by who approached her. Ugh. Why did the universe have to kick her while she was down?
“Joshua,” she said calmly, as though it was perfectly natural to see someone who moved two years ago striding toward her in the office supply aisle of the supermarket. He was still tall and blond and annoyingly cute. “I’m―nothing. I’m not doing anything.”
“What did you just put in your pocket then?”
She stared at him silently for a few seconds, then slowly took the pens out of her jacket pocket. A blush of shame crept up her neck.
Joshua looked down at the pens and slowly asked, “Were you going to pay for those?”
Katie scowled up at him. “What are you going to do about it, snitch on me? What are you even doing here? You don’t live here anymore. Go away.”
“My grandparents live here. I’m visiting them this weekend.” He checked his watch and noted her uniform.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Go call the principal and rat me out, if you need to.”
He shifted from one foot to the other, caught off guard by her hostility. “I’m not going to rat you out. Or snitch on you.” He assessed her, with her eyebrows lowered darkly and her free fist clenched. “You don’t want to get caught, though.”
“I know how to not get caught,” she said, thinking of the carton of eggs she accidentally shoplifted from the market after her first kiss. “I’m not the goody-goody you think I am. I’ve done…things.”
“Okay,” he said skeptically, a small smile playing on his lips. “I could buy the pens for you, if you don’t have money.”
“I have money,” she snapped. “I don’t need anything from you.”
He watched her for a moment as she stared, unseeingly, at the mechanical pencils. “What about a ride?”
She didn’t have a quick answer. She considered the offer. “Where?”
“I don’t want to go back to school.”
“Fine. We can just drive. Away.” He added, “Maybe somewhere with food. I was going to stop for a bite to eat, and you’re probably missing lunch right now.”
Katie put the pens down and followed him out of the store. She tossed her backpack in the backseat of the sedan and then made herself comfortable in the front passenger-side seat. Joshua drove for ten minutes before stopping at a sandwich shop. They went in and ordered before finding an empty booth next to the window.
They had started on their sandwiches before Joshua finally asked, “Katie, are you okay?”
She picked through her potato chips as though searching for a specific one. “Senior year isn’t ending the way I thought it would.”
“Everything. My boyfriend was supposed to take me to prom. Instead he skipped town without even saying goodbye.” Honestly, things were not great with him. And to think she’d seriously considered sleeping with him. She couldn’t even manage to lose her virginity. She really was a failure. “And,” she started. She didn’t like admitting it out loud in front of people. She sighed. “And I got rejected by Columbia.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Top choice?”
She nodded. “I dreamed of going there my whole life, but they don’t want me.”
“They don’t want a lot of people. Keeps their acceptance rate low.”
“They wanted Rebecca.”
Dismissively, he said, “Haven’t generations of her family gone to Columbia for two hundred years? They had to accept her or risk the donations drying up.”
Katie covered her face with her hands. “Going to Columbia was all I focused on forever. It was everything to me. And now I’m not going. It’s like I don’t even know who I am anymore, with this door closed,” she said, “Everyone must think I’m an idiot.”
“Literally no one in the world thinks you’re an idiot. Other schools accepted you,” Joshua said confidently. “Good schools. Which ones?”
Katie watched some people pass by outside on the sidewalk. “My three backups, plus Princeton and Stanford.” She turned to face him again. “But I can’t go to Tufts. My grandparents want me to go there, so my mom doesn’t. She’s already acting like that’s my default choice and wants to avoid hearing them gloat. I know she still hates the idea.”
Her mother was desperate to not give her parents the satisfaction of the big win. She had even suggested they wait to see if Columbia found a spot for her after the other kids decided where they’d attend. They wouldn’t all go there just because they were accepted. But Katie’s letter didn’t say she was on the waitlist, it said “thanks, but no thanks.” She muttered self-deprecatingly, “I probably only got into Tufts because my grandpa went there.”
Joshua was quiet for a moment before saying, “Then go to Princeton. Screw them all. You can’t please everyone.”
“So don’t please any of them?” she asked. Not pleasing her family had never been an option.
“Yeah,” he answered with a shrug. “You haven’t ever done anything really bad, have you? You have a lot of good karma stored up. It’s not like you have any making up to do, like me,” he said, reminding her of the trouble he’d gotten into before his family moved. I already screwed up. I have to work harder to please my family now. I really have to prove I’m not an idiot.” He added, “You’re a free woman.”
Food for thought. She never considered “screwing them all.” She liked making them proud.
After they finished eating, Joshua didn’t think he should take her home just yet. That would be a waste of an afternoon playing hooky. When she assured him she didn’t need to go into the city to do a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because she’d “been there, done that,” he drove around the city a bit before stopping in front of a building that was unfamiliar to her.
“Laser tag?” she asked dubiously.
“Yeah,” he said, looking at her. “Have you ever been?”
“No, never. Do you come here often?”
“When I was younger,” he said with a nod. “I loved this place. My twelfth birthday party was here.”
“Did you invite the whole class?” Katie asked. “I can’t imagine Rebecca playing laser tag.”
“Oh, she’s vicious. Never underestimate her.”
Joshua led her in and paid for two players, helping her suit up and showing her how to shoot the laser gun. He made her play for over two hours, long enough to take on a group of eleven-year-old boys as seriously as though they were at war. Only then was he sure she had enough adrenaline pumping through her veins to forget about Columbia for a while and agreed to take her home.
In front of the door of her house, Katie looked up at him. “Thanks for lunch. And laser tag.”
“You’re welcome. You’ll be okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, finally climbing up out of her funk. “And I’m sorry for taking my anger out on you. That wasn’t fair.”
“It was not.”
“I feel a little better about life now.”
He smirked. “You’re welcome,” he said, though not explicitly thanked. “You should go to Princeton,” he said matter-of-factly. “Being away from home helps to give you perspective. You’re very sheltered here. You should get out of your bubble.”
“I am not sheltered,” she protested. “I’m not some inexperienced goody-goody, you know.” She peered up at him and really looked at him. He still loomed over her at six fee tall, his blond hair neatly framing his handsom face. Even though they spent the afternoon shooting laser guns at sixth graders, he was somehow more serious.
She was having a reckless day. She skipped school and nearly shoplifted. What more could she do to prove her edginess?
She thought of it in an instant. She kissed him, hard, on the mouth. Surprised at first, he recovered quickly and kissed her back enthusiastically. Not satisfied to press thier lips together, she licked his lips to allow her tongue entry into his mouth. She fervently made out with Joshua on her front porch in broad daylight, wondering what the neighbors would think of her? She’d had two boyfriends this school year and now she had her tongue down another guy’s throat.
Who cared what they thought of her? She didn’t need to please anyone in town either. She didn’t have to do what other people expected. They thought she would zig, well, watch her zag now.
Joshua’s hand held her torso firmly, his thumbs drawing slow circles on her hips, successfully driving her crazy. Could it be that he did want her, when no one else did?
“Come inside,” she commanded, reaching an unsteady hand for the door. “To my room.”
“Your―are you sure?” he said, concern etched on his annoyingly perfect face.
“I’m sure. Don’t you want to?” she asked. Pressed flush up against her, she could feel that, yes, he very much did. At this point, it satisfied her. Hadn’t he always wanted to make her a notch on his bedpost? Well, she’d make him one on hers. “Yes, you do. Come on,” she said, pulling him by the hand, confident she could successfully do one thing today.
Night had fallen and the snow fell harder as they walked along the side of the road. Their breath came out in puffs of steam. Katie did not wear the right shoes for this. At least she had the forethought to wear thermals under her clothes before she left. She zipped her coat up to her chin and pulled the hood over her head, though not effective in the wind. Her wet socks squished in her shoes, but still they trudged. She lost her footing once, and Joshua grabbed her arm to steady her and pulled her closer to walk beside him.
She knew she slowed him down, her endurance terrible. When she got back, she would finally take her roommate, Janice up on her offer to go on a run. Her roommate invited Katie every time she laced up her tennis shoes. Katie said she would never feel like going. Jance said she didn’t wait until she felt like it, she had the self-discipline to just do it, and she’d keep asking Katie to join until she said yes. As the cold air burned Katie’s throat, she decided on a New Year’s resolution to get more fit. Janice was right, all Katie did was sit inside and study. She needed to move more.
Katie shook Joshua off her arm. “I’m fine. I don’t need your help.”
He shot her a wary glance but let her go. “Fine.” They went a few more steps, him considering her. “I did not blow you off. It was self-preservation.”
Confused, she said, “What?”
“I didn’t call you because I didn’t want to hear what you had to say.”
“You don’t know what I wanted to say,” she said with difficulty, panting and shuffling clumsily through the snow. “You said I should go to Princeton―without mentioning you’d be there―and then wouldn’t even talk to me when we ran into each other.”
“When I said you should go there, I didn’t know we would end up twisted in your bedsheets later that afternoon. I wasn’t expecting it.”
“I don’t remember you stopping.”
“Well, no, I didn’t want to stop. I’m not supid. But it changed things.”
“It did. Why do you think I wanted to talk when I saw you?”
He stopped to face her. She had to stop too. The wind blew and snow swirled between them. He practically yelled, “Because I knew what you’d say.”
“How could you possibly know?”
“You’d say you were just sad and it was a mistake that you wish never happened,” Joshua said, the resentment apparent in his voice. “And my personal favorite, ‘please don’t tell anyone.’ ” He didn’t wait for a response, instead turning on a heel to continue on their way. They could see the outline of a few buildings up ahead.
Katie hurried to catch up to him. “Wait!” She grabbed his arm to slow him down.
Without stopping, he said, “I always liked you, you know.” With a brief glance at her, he added, “No, you didn’t know. And maybe not genuinely at first, but later I did. A lot. You only hated me, though. So fine. Everyone has an unrequited crush some time in life. I admit, I usually don’t. But it happens.”
Dumbstruck, she asked, “You had a crush on me?” She added, “Wanting what you can’t have is not a crush.”
“That isn’t—don’t tell me what I do or do not feel,” he said, glaring and turning away from her.
She watched him for a moment while he avoided eye contact. “You’re wrong. I wouldn’t have said any of that.”
“Oh yeah?” He finally looked at her again. “Then what would you have said?”
“Just…things. I would have asked about you. Where do you live? What are you studying? Do you like college?” After a pause, she added, “Do you want to see my dorm room?”
He looked at her sharply. “You would have?”
“Well, I’d make you take me to dinner first. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me. I’m not a fast girl.”
“I didn’t think you were.” He let out a long breath, the steam coming out in a puff. “Let’s talk about this later. We’re almost there.”
The gas station attendant told them they were stuck until morning, and pointed to a hotel across the road. It was a bit of an ordeal though. Being underage, Joshua had to call his dad to get them a room. But finally they walked into a room. He turned up the heat while Katie shut herself in the bathroom and turned on the hot water. She peeled off her wet socks and let the bottom of her leggings dry on the vent while she soaked in the tub.
She stayed in the hot water until her fingertips looked like prunes before drying off and putting her dry base layer back on. With her hair wrapped in a towel, she went back to the room. Joshua had made a trip back to the gas station for snacks. He handed her a hot travel cup.
She took a sip. It was hot chocolate. “No coffee?” she asked, otherwise grateful to warm her insides.
“I’m not staying up all night to study for finals,” he answered, as though that was the only reason to drink coffee past six in the evening.
Joshua finished his hot chocolate and got up to take his turn in the bathroom. Katie called her parents to let her know she was warm and safe, but running late. Then she helped herself to one of the deli sandwiches and a bag of chips. She found It’s a Wonderful Life on television and reclined back on the bed.
Joshua joined her, now in boxers and a white t-shirt. He took the other side of the bed, leaving at least a foot between them. She felt oddly nervous now that they didn’t have to yell over the wind.
“Sorry I didn’t call,” he said. He looked down at the blanket on the bed, then over to her. “I don’t understand you. I don’t know the right things to say or do. And I learned it’s best to keep my guard up.”
She took his nearest hand in hers. “You did the right thing. You listened to me wallow and cheered me up. I’m sorry I made you feel like you don’t matter. I didn’t know I had any effect over you.”
“You do.” He let his hand slide away so he could crawl into the bed.
She slid under the covers too, staying on her side. Her body sort of hated her for it. Valiantly ignoring their proximity, they turned their attention to the movie. “That’s going to be me,” she said, pointing at George Bailey on the screen.
“Standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve thinking about jumping into an icy river?”
“No, not that part. He wanted to go out to explore the world and go on great adventures. But instead he never did.” She added, “I was supposed to travel and report on important things. Grandma brags about it to all her friends. I’m going to have to disappoint her.”
“Because I’m not going to be a journalist. I’ve been writing on the paper this semester, and I hate it. It’s different in college. In high school, I just had Rebecca to deal with. She’s so competitive and assigned me petty topics at first, to punish me. I had to prove to her I could do it, so I did. But now, everyone is competitive. Really, really competitive. Rebecca and I were the stars in high school. But everyone at Princeton is a big star,” Katie explained. “It was my first taste of the real world, and I don’t have the hunger the other reporters at the paper do. I’ve always been driven to do well in school. I’m not as driven to be a journalist.” She quickly added, “And I had to write for the business section. I don’t care about business.”
“Mmm, yeah, me neither,” Joshua said.
Katie paused. Suspiciously, she asked, “What’s your major?”
“Business.” Then he grinned and chuckled.
She laughed softly, too. “You know what I did when I got my beat assignment?”
“Brow-beat the editor to let me write something else. Something softer. After a few months, he did. But he thought my story ideas were boring. And so were some of my articles.” After a moment of thought she continued, “I got so homesick when I first came to school, too. How am I supposed to go on grand adventures out in the world if I just want to be at home with my mom?” She shrugged. “It’s been a semester and I’m kind of over it.”
Joshua asked, “Are you going to change your major?”
“No, I’ll stick with English lit. I stumbled into a creative writing club. We started with short stories. And in November we did National Novel Writing Month. Just for fun.”
“You wrote a book?” he asked, not surprised, but as though it made perfect sense.
She tilted her head. “A short novel. A novella.” She grinned and shook her head. “It’s not that good―I was writing what I know. The manuscript will live on my bookshelf forever, but I did it. It has characters, rising action, everything. It was harder than I thought it would be. And I really resented the changes the other group members suggested, at first. But then I realized we’re all helping each other improve. So I worked on it and got better.”
“Are you going to become a novelist then?” Joshua asked.
She bit back a small smile. “Maybe? Maybe I’ll edit. I’m pretty good at giving constructive criticism. I want to find another critique group, though, with mean people.”
“You want to hang out with mean people?”
“I want brutal honesty, so I can get better. I’ve been coddled too long.” Her eyes drifted back to the movie for a minute. “I’m a little nervous that my family will be disappointed though.”
Joshua rolled his eyes. “Would you stop that already? Stop worrying about whether everyone else approves. Do they run all their decisions by you? Live your own life.”
“I’ll probably be a starving artist.”
“Marry rich,” he said simply.
Her grin widened. “I do have that option.”
The next morning Joshua bought a shovel before they walked back to his car to dig it out. Well, he shoveled while Katie turned up the heat and defrost inside. The snow and wind had died down, and the department of transportation had grated the roads. It was still a slower ride than normal, snow-packed sections of road and the occasional ice patch. But before long, Joshua pulled up to the Katie’s house and helped her with her bags.
“Here we are,” he said as they stood on the porch at the front door.
“Yeah. Again,” she said.
“What are you doing for New Year’s Eve?”
“Nothing.” But then, she quickly said, “Wait, no. There’s a town thing. A big party in the square. I go every year.”
“Do you―would you want to come?”
“Sure,” Joshua said. He leaned forward, as though to kiss her, but as she lifted to her toes and raised her chin, he pulled away at the last second. She made a small sound of protest. “I’ll wait until the ball drops. Is there a ball?”
She shook her head. “It’s just a countdown, with a big clock.”
“When the clock strikes midnight then,” he said. “Bye Katie.” He turned then, sneaking a peek and a grin as he skipped down the stairs.