It has been a long time since I attempted a short story. Short is not one of my strong suits, all of my completed manuscripts are over 80K words (that's long for a Young Adult novel, not TWILIGHT long, but long). But, I wanted to have something to give all of my blog followers and, since this is a writing blog and I thought short story.
You may read this and decide it isn't complete. You may wonder what happens next. (I hope you do. ) You may want to LEAVE COMMENTS (hint hint) about what you think the main character should do next. You may even want to critique this and tell me what you think is wrong with the story. PLEASE DO!
I'm not a perfect writer (thank goodness, perfect is boring). Whatever I write is up for critique, interpretation, and comments.
I present for your reading pleasure (I hope it's pleasure)....
The Mistletoe Mistake
by Jennifer Wolf
I duck and pretend I’m looking for something on the other side of the hall so I don’t have to acknowledge Eric waving at me from the doorway of the Chem Lab. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to him. Talking to Eric used to be the best part of my day. But now, well, I don’t want to talk to him about what he wants to talk about.
“Rachel!” He says it louder and adds a hand wave. He’s harder to ignore now. When we were freshman, he blended in—stood a couple of inches below the crowd, his head bent over a book, with thick glasses, an over sized t-shirt and baggy jeans. Sometime in the last couple of years, my long-time, comfortable, geeky friend shot up a good six inches, joined the wrestling team, and filled out the t-shirt.
He stands above the crowd now, but some of the geekyness has stuck with him. Enough that he’s waving both arms to get my attention, oblivious to the looks that he’s getting from the people trying to pass by him and into the Lab.
I keep my eyes on the opposite wall, bump into a crowd of basketball jocks and bounce back, smashing my face, (ironically), into a poster for the Christmas social. It looks like I’m not the only one who’s had a close encounter with this poster. It’s wrinkled, smudged, and dangling from one and a half staples. But still, in bright red letters it begs the question,
“WHO WILL YOU MEET UNDER THE MISTLETOE???”
I want to tear out the remaining staples and leave it to be trampled in the mud and bits of rotting leaves that dot the concrete floor of the hall.
I don’t get the chance. Before I can pull myself away, Eric has his hand on my shoulder. “Ouch. Are you okay?” he shields me from the press of bodies so I can stand up straight and step away from the wall.
“Fine.” My eyes meet his chest, but the words from the poster might as well replace the logo on the front of his black t-shirt. “Who will you meet under the mistletoe?” screams at me every time I look at him. Because I know the answer.
And it isn’t me.
“I got it.” He waves a little white box in the air. He still has a little whistle-wheeze in his nose when he gets excited, left-over from the nasal issues that plagued him in grade school, back when I was the only kid who would sit by him on the bus. He always sounded like he had a bad head-cold. A tonsillectomy and adenoid removal two summers ago fixed most of the problem. I’m probably the only one who notices the wheeze now. After so many years, it’s become one of his odd-but-endearing qualities.
“What?” I fold my arms across my chest and lean against the wall so I’m covering the poster. Like I don’t know. Like it hasn’t been the only thing he’s talked about since before Thanksgiving. Like I don’t care.
He answers by opening the box. Lying on a bed of spun angel hair silk is a bracelet made of silver dolphins swimming nose to tail in a circle. It’s so beautiful that I gasp, but cover it with a cough.
“Do you think she’ll like it?” His slate-blue eyes gleam behind the glasses he still wears all the time, except when he wrestles. I breathe in, but he pushes forward before I can say anything. “I thought dolphins because she misses San Diego and Sea World and because she talked about swimming with the dolphins when she was ten and how they felt like wet balloons and how cool that was.” He whistle-wheezes with the last couple of words.
“It’s nice.” I manage. My heart stings with sharp irony. Swimming with dolphins is another event on a long list of things my cousin, Ronnie, has done and dismissed as “whatever” with a head shake and rolled eyes. A list of things I’ve only dreamed of—the wanna-be marine biologist who has only seen the ocean twice.
You’d think Eric would remember the report on dolphins from sixth grade. Who could forget me, attired in full dolphin costume, (borrowed from the preschool my mom runs), making high-pitched chirps in front of a snickering class? That was the first of many nails in the coffin that sealed my social death, back when I was too young to realize I was too old to stand in front of the class dressed like a marine mammal.
I shouldn’t be surprised that he wants her. Ronnie has been one-upping me ever since she was born, two days after me. She was the chubby cheeked, blue eyed cherub with tons of the “family” red hair. I was the bald, (my hair grew in a disappointing brown), greyish, alien-child with a bad case of baby acne. The proof is in the first photo taken of us together—one of a million where she looks poised and serene and I look like I have diaper rash.
Our mothers are twins so even though my mom married the stable accountant from their hometown and Ronnie’s mom, Aunt Daphne, married an up-and-coming commercial producer from California, they got together for everything. Including (Dad says), toilet training. I think Ronnie beat me at that by three months.
When she lived in San Diego, my cousin was a minor skin irritation, but this summer her parents finalized a messy Hollywood-style divorce. Now she lives two houses down from me and is a full-blown case of poison oak.
Mom keeps telling me to be nice to Ronnie, that it was tough on her when her mom caught her dad in the hot tub with the actress from a deodorant commercial he had just shot. An affair I know more about than any sixteen-year-old should, thanks to thin walls between the living room and my bedroom and long (loud) talks over coffee between my mom and Aunt Daphne.
Ronnie got a little red Miata in the divorce settlement, and she doesn’t act like it was hard on her. When she talks about her parents it’s with the same “whatever” and eye roll that she talks about everything. Unless she’s trying to impress someone.
“Or maybe I should have got the galloping horses.” Eric touches the bracelet reverently. “Because she had to sell her horse when her dad moved into a condo in the city. But I thought that seemed a little too young.” Her own horse, ridding lessons, dressage camp, more dreams of mine, all cast aside by Ronnie when she hit puberty.
“Could you maybe hint to her that someone,” he puts the lid on the box, “not me,” he tucks it back into his pocket, “just someone, might be wanting to meet her at the mistletoe on Saturday? Or maybe say something about me and feel things out—”
The bell rings, saving me from listening to him gush about how great my cousin is.
“—we’re late for class.” I start towards my next class, drama, (just to fill my performing arts credit). The only class I have with the drama queen herself.
“—put the note in her locker.”
“Wait.” I whirl back around, not sure if he said, ‘I already put the note in her locker’ or if he was asking me to feel her out on the idea before he puts the note in her locker.
“Move along to class you two, or you’ll have detention.” The vice principal sweeps me down the hall with a wave of his hand. I hesitate and look back at Eric, dying to say something, anything, to stop his plan and save him from the humiliation my cousin will surely heap on him, but I don’t have a choice.
I can get out of a tardy slip with Ms. Leineger, the drama teacher, if I can come up with a dramatic story about why I’m late. Ronnie rocks at that, (she’s always late), but I can’t do it. Maybe if I told the class the truth. The guy I pitied, supported, helped, befriended, and finally fell in love with last year, is in love with my cousin. Ronnie the Great—with her brilliant-blue eyes, fiery red hair and Barbie-doll figure (which I suspect was also part of the divorce settlement, a year ago, she was as chestless as I am)—could probably have any guy at school. But by some evil design, she tolerates, flirts with, and sometimes even hangs out with Eric. A guy who, (by her own reckoning standards), should be gum on the bottom of her Italian leather pumps of popularity.
Eric. The one guy at this school who should be mine.
Ms. Leineger looks up hopefully when I walk through the door. I think “Tardiness Stories” are the highlight of her day. When she sees it’s me she doesn’t even ask, just waves me towards my seat. She starts to say something about letting it go this one time when a breath of red-hot wind blows the classroom door open behind me.
Ronnie enters in all her glory—low cut green shirt, body hugging grey sweater, designer, (ripped in all the right places), jeans, more-expensive-than-Ivy-League-college boots, and her long, curly, oh-so-natural-I-just-ran-my-fingers-through-it-to-get-it-this-way, red hair pulled back in a head band.
“Oh, Ms. Leineger, sorry I’m late,” she breathes. The whole class leans forward and Ms. Leineger gets that ‘this is going to be good’ gleam in her eye. I have to admit, Ronnie is quite an actress, probably because she’s always playing a role. Her dad put her in no less than eight of his commercials. He was talking TV auditions when Aunt Daphne put her foot down and said she didn’t want a Hollywood brat for a daughter. The weird thing is, I think acting was the one thing that Ronnie wanted to do.
She waves the piece of paper in her hand far too dramatically for it to be a regular excuse note. “I just got this in my locker.” She puts her hand over her heart and sighs like a young maiden in a Jane Austin romance. “Someone wants to meet me under the mistletoe at the Winter Social on Friday.”
The girls in the class squeal and ooh. The one straight guy in class whistles from the back corner. She waves the note towards me and I strain to see the handwriting. I’m hoping that someone besides Eric wrote it.
He didn’t hand write the note, but for me, Eric might as well have written his name across it in neon green ink. He cut the letters for the note from newspapers and magazines, something he learned from the campy 1940s detective movies he loves to watch.
“Who’s the lucky guy?” Ms. Leineger’s beams, ever the romantic.
“I don’t know. He didn’t sign his name,” Ronnie blushes a pretty pink. I wonder how she learned to do that on cue.
“So are you going to meet him?” A pimply senior girl from the back row asks.
“Of course I’m going to meet him,” Ronnie giggles—playing up the innocent young maiden thing.
“What if he turns out to be a major geek?” Straight Guy from the back asks.
“I can afford one kiss for a major geek,” Ronnie bats her eyes. “I know all about charity. I went to Catholic school for eight years. The nuns were big on being charitable.”
The class buzzes over that while Ronnie slips into the seat next to me. She leans the opposite way, towards Hali, a devoted Ronnie disciple, and whispers loud enough for everyone to hear, “Megan told me she saw Aiden Holt and Kyler Ward hanging out by my locker. It has to be one of them.”
Aiden Holt and Kyler Ward, the only two people at school who spend more time in front of the mirror than Ronnie does. Hot, athletic, popular, but not enough brains between them to power a night light. I wish one of them had sent the note. Ronnie deserves a guy like that.
“Would you really kiss a geek?” Hali whispers.
“As if.” Eye roll, wrinkled nose, and a flip of red hair towards the front of the room. Her audience gone, Ronnie is done playing sweet and innocent.
The snow is falling wet and slushy as I climb into the family SUV after school. Dad insisted I take this today instead of my clunker Maverick. “The roads will be bad, better take the Suburban.” And of course I have to take Ronnie home. Red Miatas weren’t built for snow.
I wait a good ten minutes, wasting my gas money while the car idles, before she emerges. She’s surrounded by an adoring entourage of Ronny-ites. She knows I’m waiting, but she keeps chatting like she has all day. I think seriously about driving away without her. Let one her fan club take her home. But Mom would kill me, ground me, something. Mom thinks I should be taking care of Ronnie, like my cousin needs or wants my help.
Her crew finally splits up with a round of fake hugs. Then they dash through the wet mess to their individual vehicles. Ronnie—to cool to dash—struts across the parking lot with a black umbrella tucked against her shoulder to protect her from the storm. She opens the door, shakes the snow off, and settles herself into the passenger seat without apologizing for making me wait. She doesn’t look at me, just says a sideways, “The weather here sucks.”
I put the car in drive without answering. She changes the radio station without asking, adjusts her sweater over her new chest, leans back, and stares out the window. The windshield wipers slap back and forth in time to the song she chose on my radio, one I will now hate forever.
“Hey,” she says suddenly, and sits forward. “Isn’t that Eric?”
I follow her gaze to the shoulder of the road. A very wet Eric, wearing nothing warmer than his wrestling jacket is walking with his head down, huddled against the storm.
“We should pick him up,” Ronnie’s voice is uncharacteristically concerned, “he looks cold.”
I would have picked him up without her suggestion, but it annoys me that she noticed him first.
Before I’m all the way off the road, Ronnie rolls down the window and sticks her head out into the storm. “Hey Eric,” she says. “Need a ride?”
He turns around, wary—geek habits die hard—but his face splits into a grin when he sees Ronnie. I fade into the background, nothing but a chauffer to the queen. “Thanks. I forgot wrestling practice was cancelled today and I missed my bus.”
“No problem,” Ronnie takes credit for my rescue. He’s heading for the back door, but she slides across the bench seat and against me so he can climb in front. She touches the back of his jacket, “You should take this off. You’re drenched.”
“Oh, yeah, right,” he leans back outside, almost falls off the seat, (Ronnie giggles), peels off the jacket, and puts it in the back seat.
She puts her hand on his arm, and he flexes to her touch. “Your shirt’s wet too, but you probably shouldn’t take that off. We wouldn’t want you fogging up the windows. Rach needs to be able to see.”
Eric blushes and grins. He looks good with his wet shirt clinging to his chest and his wet hair dark and plastered across his forehead.
“So how’s wrestling going?” Ronnie hasn’t moved her hand from his arm. Primal jealousy surges through me. I have to force my eyes back to the road.
Eric mumbles an answer towards the floor. She keeps talking, flirting, drawing him out, until they’re both laughing at one of his stories. Ronnie’s fake-sweet, flirty voice grates on my nerves. I dig my fingernail back and forth along the steering wheel. A voice inside my head is screaming at me to say something—break into the conversation, make them acknowledge me. Fight for him. Say something cute or witty like Ronnie. But nothing comes out.
I pull into Eric’s driveway. He finishes his conversation with Ronnie before he slides out. He grabs his jacket from the back seat. “See you tomorrow, ladies,” but his eyes are on Ronnie. He glances back at me once, “thanks Rach,” and beams like he’s already under the mistletoe, sharing his first kiss with my cousin.
After Eric goes inside, Ronnie uses one of my sweatshirts, slung over the backseat, to wipe up the puddle he left on the seat. She scoots over and slumps back into the real Ronnie—brooding out the window, “whatever” written across her face.
My insides are eating me up. Did I see something that would make me think she really does like Eric? She acts the same around all guys, but her usual targets are higher on the social scale than him. I can’t keep quiet so I let it out, slow, casual, “So. You and Eric?”
She turns from the window, looks startled, but covers it with a lemon-sour face, “What? Me? Eric? Geek of the wrestling world?’ Eye roll. “No way.”
Her easy dismissal of Eric infuriates me. How can she flirt with him like that and then brush him off like he was nothing?
“Eric’s a great guy,” I defend. “And he’s not a geek, he’s nice and he’s...he's not bad looking.”
“If you like lost puppy-dog cute.” She sighs and looks back out the window. “I mean he has the muscle thing going on a little, but those glasses? And just, the whole…” she waves her hand in the air, like she’s flicking him away, “I don’t know. He’s just a geek.”
I should say more, should continue to defend him, but why try to convince her that Eric’s a good guy? Better to convince him that he’s made a mistake with Ronnie that he needs to give up the whole Winter Social thing before she shatters his heart into a million pieces.
She turns back outside and draws little curly q’s on the window that Eric’s wet clothes fogged out. “Still,” she draws a little flower that Dad is going to make me clean off the windows as soon as he notices it, “he is a nice guy. Okay to hang around. Kind of like a comfortable sweater.”
Her tone gets lower—dreamier. “The kind of guy you could trust.” Something in her voice pricks at me, like she’s letting something past her actress façade, a smudge on her perfect mascara, a chink in her armor. “The kind of guy who would never hurt you.” Her curly-q morphes into a heart. “The kind of guy you wouldn’t catch in the hot tub with—” Her drawing becomes all sharp edges and she brushes her hand across the glass to eradicate it. Her expression sets again. I grip the steering wheel hard. For a second I saw something that scared me, a piece of my cousin I’ve never seen before. A piece that might go for a guy like Eric.
A little green monster bubbles up in my throat. “Speaking of your dad, when do you leave for Hawaii?”
“Hawaii?” The lemon-sour face is back.
“Mom told me you were spending Christmas in Hawaii, with your dad.”
Pain, then anger, flashes across her face. She jerks at a lose thread on her jeans. “I’m not going. Ve-ro-ni-ca will be there.” She pronounces every syllable of her Dad’s girlfriend’s name with disgust. As much as I dislike my cousin, I can’t help but feel sorry for her on this one point. Who wants their dad to run off with some woman who is only eight years older than you and has your same name? She shrugs her ‘whatever.’ “Awkward right?”
I mumble my agreement, feeling the terrible weight of pity for my nemesis.
“He sent me a big fat apology, though,” she fingers one of the rips in her jeans. “Wish there was someplace decent to spend it in this frozen wasteland. I could get something new to wear to the Winter Social. Not that I care what I look like. Nobody around here worth impressing anyway.”
I pull into her driveway. She picks up her umbrella and her backpack and opens the door. Then she looks back at me with a gaze that makes me feel the full weight of my inadequacy. “You should think about getting something new for the Social if you’re going. And get an eyebrow wax. Those things are scary.” She gets out and slams the door behind her.“Thanks for the ride, bye cuz.” I mutter under my breath. The eyebrow comment was enough to chase any feelings of pity I had for her away. My bushy brows have been a sore spot for me since sixth grade when a boy caught a wooly caterpillar and told everyone he had found my lost eyebrow.
As her perfect figure disappears into the house, one thought curls around my brain. I have to find a way to save Eric from having his heart stomped on. I have to find a way to save him from the claws of my evil cousin.As much as I hate to admit it, the eyebrow waxing has done wonders to bring out my eyes—plain brown, but with the eyeliner Aunt Daphne used, they look kind of dark and mysterious. The “moms” insisted on joint make-overs for me and Ronnie, (although I’m the only one who needs it) to get ready for the Social. My mom and Ronnie’s mom are so happy to be back together, that they’re oblivious to the fact that Ronnie and I hate each other. We’re forced to listen to a million ‘when we went to the Winter Social’ stories while Aunt Daphne does my face. She’s good. Before he was big, she used to do all the actors’ make-up for the commercials Ronnie’s dad did.
My mom pulls me aside while Aunt Daphne argues with Ronnie about the shirt she’s wearing, (too low cut, or not low enough, I’m not sure) Mom feels like she has to remind me to be nice to Ronnie. (When is someone going to remind her to be nice to me?) “Stick with Ronnie tonight, k? She’s upset about her dad bailing on her for Christmas, and she needs a friend.”
I shake my head. “Ronnie has plenty of friends.”
Mom looks at me intensely. “Girls who like her because she has money, or because of what her dad does. I don’t know if she has any real friends here. Aunt Daphne says she’s pretty lonely.”
I doubt my cousin has any clue what it means to be lonely. But I shrug. “Yeah, sure mom. I’ll take care of Ronnie.”
I turn away, but Mom grabs me in a hug. “I knew I could count on you.” I shake her off, but a twinge of guilt lingers in my chest.
After that, Mom focuses on my hair, straightening it until it’s sleek and shinny. When look at myself in the mirror, I look older, prettier. The red and black blouse Mom bought me, (half off at a store in the mall Ronnie would die before she entered), makes me almost look slim.
I feel good until Ronnie floats in like a snowflake on the breeze. She’s wearing a fuzzy white sweater with matching boots, ultra-skinny jeans, and a sparkly blue shirt that matches her eyes. Her hair is pulled up in a sloppy bun, with little curls falling over the back of her neck and around her ears. When she slides the cuff of her sweater off her long wrist, I can’t help but imagine Eric’s bracelet there.
But I’m not going to let that happen.
Dad insists on taking a bunch of pictures (so embarrassing). I sure they’ll come out with me—mug shot stiff—and Ronnie—catalog model perfect. We can add it to the collection. Then he tells me I look beautiful and tries to kiss me on the cheek. I blush and duck away. Ronnie stares at the wall and her face twists.
The Winter Social is held in a barn outside of town. The people who own it once had kids that went to our high school. The kids have grew up and moved away years ago, but they still let us have the Social here.
The yard is full of cars and Christmas lights. A full moon makes little crystals glisten on the snow. Everything looks so pure and beautiful, it’s hard even to dislike Ronnie. Then she makes me drop her off at the front so she won’t get new boots wet. We’re late, (early or even on time are not in that girl’s vocabulary). I have to park clear in the back and trudge through the snow by myself.
I catch my breath as I walk inside. The barn looks magical. This year it’s decorated with sprayed white branches and clear lights. The center is opened up for dancing. Long tables on either side are heaped with cookies and crock pots of hot cider.
The farthest corner of the barn holds the biggest tradition of the Winter Social—sprigs of mistletoe tied with bright red bows. The dance is heavily chaperoned so parents can't complain about school sanctioned make-out sessions, but the tradition of exchanging gifts and first kisses under the mistletoe goes back to the beginnings of the Social. The mistletoe is tucked away, private, but not really. The biggest source of gossip for our school post-homecoming through Prom is what happens in that corner.
Ronnie is easy to spot, surrounded by her adoring fans. Eric is too, standing close enough to watch her, but not close enough to draw her attention. Not that she'd pay attention to him anyway, not in public.
I check my watch. Eric’s note to Ronnie said 8:30. That gives me about eight minutes to get into position. Eric will be early, Ronnie will be late. I know she’ll show—her appointment at the mistletoe with the anonymous admirer has been the only thing she and Hali have talked about in drama all week.
This is only my second Winter Social, but I know this barn well. Mom has her fall party for the preschool here. To the left of the mistletoe is a little nook that was once used for hanging saddles and stuff. If I can get there quick enough, and someone isn’t already there in a post-mistletoe make-out session, maybe I can intercept Eric before he makes a fool out of himself.
I brush off a couple of my friends who want to talk, and make my way, casually, towards the nook. My only plan is to get to the mistletoe first. After that…?
A strategically-placed chaperone eyes me suspiciously, but since I’m alone, she doesn’t say anything. The nook is empty, cold, and dark. I rub my arms, check my watch, and wonder how long it will be before Eric gets here.
Ronnie is on the other side of the room. She has this look on her face like all of this is beneath her--not even looking towards the mistletoe. When Eric figures out what she’s really like, he’ll thank me for this.
At 8:23, (exactly), Eric walks towards the corner of the barn, the mistletoe, and me. He keeps his hand in his jacket pocket, probably hiding Ronnie’s present. I step out in front of him, just before he reaches the mistletoe.
He stops dead when he sees me. “Hi.” Swallows. “Rachel.” He glances over his shoulder, towards where Ronnie was, but she’s not there any more. “Um, I'm waiting for—”
“She’s not coming,” I blurt it out quick, like ripping off a band-aid, (or like the wax Aunt Daphne used on my eyebrows).
“What?” He takes a step forward and stumbles. I catch him by both arms. The muscles in his arms flex and clench under my hands. The muscles in the side of his mouth are working too, like he’s trying to keep from crying.
I grip his arms harder and look into his eyes. “She’s not coming, she…she’s not like you think she is. She’s not…” What? How can I explain how mean and shallow and selfish my cousin is? How can I explain that she’s had everything I’ve ever wanted and never appreciated any of it?
His eyes glisten behind his glasses. (Please don’t cry, please don’t cry.) His arms tremble. (Please don’t cry.) Over his shoulder everyone is looking at us, looking at the mistletoe, waiting to see what will happen next.
I do the only thing I can do. Stand on tip-toe, (eyes open so I don’t miss), and presses my lips against his. He freezes for a horrible split second, then leans into me and kisses me back.
It’s the movie-moment I’ve been dreaming of; when the stars align and friendship morphs into love, when the cheesy music plays, when all is right in the world, when Eric finally realizes we’re meant to be together.
But it doesn’t happen that way.
His kiss feels awkward, empty, forced. And when he pulls away I see Ronnie, only few feet behind him. Her hand goes to her mouth, eyes wide with shock and…Relief? I’m waiting for relief, because I saved them both—him from the humiliation of her rejection, her from the horror of being caught under the mistletoe with a geek.
But I read betrayal in her eyes. Betrayal and tears. She turns around, pushes through the crowd, and flees into the snow.
Eric doesn’t see her. He keeps his head down and fumbles for the box in his jacket pocket. He thrusts it at me, “I guess this is for you now.”
I take it and force a smile. “Thank you.” He won’t look me in the eye. I open the box and slip the bracelet over my wrist, where I wanted it to be, where it should be. But somehow, it feels heavy, and it doesn’t shine as much as it did before.
The look on Ronnie's face haunts me. Is it possible that my horrible cousin is human? Is it possible for me to hurt her?
Did I make a mistake?