It seemed the perfect idea at the time.
Someone to draw Miles' daughter out of the
recent sullenness overtaking her eleven-year-
“Isn’t it early for all that?” he asked his wife
after she informed him that Charlotte’s
hormones were kicking in.
“Not these days," Cathy shrugged. "Haven’t
When Charlotte asked them if her British pen
pal might visit for Christmas, both Miles and
his wife enthusiastically embraced the idea.
Why, they’d even foot the bill as a Christmas
present to Charlotte. So arrangements were
made for Victoria Welland, whom Charlotte
had never met in person, to fly alone (an
unaccompanied minor, as the airlines referred
to her) from Manchester to Boston.
“She’s so awesome, Daddy," Charlotte
announced as Miles walked in the front door
after battling rush hour on the Mass Pike. "I
just talked to her on the phone. She’s got a
cool accent like Emma Watson.”
“You know, the girl that plays Hermione in the
Harry Potter movies?”
He had no particular affinity for English
accents or Harry Potter. “Oh. Right. Hermione
“And,” she continued, “Victoria actually met
“How cool is that?” he replied, enjoying her
“Very cool, Dad. And we both have so much in
common.” She spun around. “I can’t wait till
Later, as he and Cathy lay in bed discussing
the girl's upcoming visit, doubt swirled in the
pit of Miles' stomach.
“What if they don’t get along?” he asked. “I
mean, it could be a disaster, ruin our vacation
week, and then Charlotte will really be in a
Cathy let out a long sigh, the type that meant,
you-don’t-know-anything. “She’s twelve,
Miles. She speaks Charlotte’s tween language.
Trust me, they’ll be up all night gabbing and
“Well then, now I’m really excited.” He put his
hand on top of the blanket and rubbed the
outline of Cathy’s thigh.
She turned away, pulling the covers tightly
around her body. “It’ll be good for her,” she
yawned. “I mean…she seems lonely these
days. Don’t you think? I wish she had more
Miles made no comment. He didn’t want to
have this conversation again. Lately his wife
had become preoccupied with their daughter’s
social life. Charlotte was a quirky kid,
somewhat awkward, plump, and prone to
social anxiety. To Miles, this was simply a
genetic predisposition that Charlotte would
have to work around. He knew Cathy blamed
their daughter’s lack of social skills on her
being an only child, a belief that only
highlighted their failure to produce a sibling, a
constant reminder of his weak sperm and his
wife’s inhospitable womb.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, Cathy and
Charlotte drove to Logan to pick up Victoria.
Miles elected to stay home to finish the gift-
wrapping, a task he actually enjoyed. The gifts
were piled in Cathy’s sewing room alongside
an assortment of wrapping paper and bows.
Each year he bought a dated Christmas
ornament for Charlotte. He purchased this
year’s ornament on their spring trip to Disney
World—Minnie Mouse dressed as a beauty
queen sporting a 2009 glittery crown. Now, as
he took the ornament from the bag, he
wondered if she would find it babyish. Would
he embarrass her as she opened it in front of
Victoria? It used to be so easy to buy
Charlotte gifts. Lately, he relied more on his
wife’s judgment, like the Hannah Montana
concert tickets she snagged for Charlotte’s
Miles picked up a gift basket filled with tiny
bottles of body lotion, shampoo, perfume, lip
gloss—all in a scent called Vanilla Sugar.
Cathy had put at note on the basket: For
Victoria. The gift struck him as rather
intimate, if not too teenage-like, for a girl they
had never met. But, what did he know? He
slipped the basket into a Santa bag. They had
a family tradition of writing clever gift tags
and he thought he should include their guest
in on the fun. Wishing you a merry Christmas
and a scentsational new year.
When the wrapping was finished, he lugged
the gifts downstairs to the family room and
strategically placed them under the tree. He
turned on the tiny white lights and admired
the fine blue spruce he and Charlotte had
selected from Hansen’s farm last weekend.
Outside the family room window, he noticed a
light dusting of snow, the first of the season,
covering the swing set. Seeing this reminded
him that he hadn’t gotten around to doing the
staining; he wondered if Charlotte would even
play on it next spring.
Miles was fiddling with a nutcracker ornament
when the front door opened.
“Hey Dad, we’re here!" Charlotte called. "And
it’s snowing, Dad. Finally!”
As Miles walked into the entryway, a blast of
cold air met his bare feet. “Hey, you guys
“Everything went smoothly,” Cathy
announced, removing her down jacket.
“Dad, this is Victoria,” Charlotte said proudly.
The girl was tall, long-legged, wearing faded
jeans and soft pink sweater. Her chestnut hair
fell in unexpected waves around her shoulders.
Victoria looked at Miles, her green eyes
shining. “Nice to meet you.” She extended
her hand, which he awkwardly shook. “Thank
you so much for inviting me,” she said. “This
is my first trip to the States.”
The lilt of Victoria’s accent, her good manners
and posture, made her seem rather formal for
“So, you had a good flight?” he managed to
Victoria’s lips curled. “Perfect. The flight
attendants were so sweet.”
Then Charlotte grabbed her arm. “Come see
Like a small gust of wind, the girls flew past
him and up the stairs.
“Well, she seems pleasant,” he said to Cathy.
“Good thing you didn’t come with us. My ears
are still ringing.”
“She looks older than twelve.”
“Twelve going on twenty, like so many of them
today,” she sighed. “Cute, though.”
Miles didn’t ask her to elaborate. He wouldn’t
exactly call the girl cute. Thinking back, he
would remember (though unaware of it at the
time), that Victoria had the kind of astonishing
beauty that was almost embarrassing for a
man to notice in a young girl.
They ate dinner by candlelight. Miles noted
that Victoria’s presence added a satisfying
symmetry to their family table.
“So your parents didn’t mind you going away
for Christmas?” Cathy asked as she cut the girl
a piece of lasagna.
“My parents are divorced. I don’t see Dad
much, so it was really up to my mum.
Anyway, she’s a nurse and won’t get much
holiday this year, so she’s quite happy that I
have the chance to travel. My sisters were
“Mom, she has three,” Charlotte said. “Can
you imagine that?”
Cathy sat down at the table. “Three sisters?”
“How old are they?”
She put her napkin to her mouth and finished
chewing. “Sarah is eighteen, Grace is sixteen,
Annalise fourteen, and then there’s me.”
Cathy sipped the last of her wine, as if she
needed to wash down this information before
responding. “Four girls. Wow.”
Miles shook his head. “Must be pretty chaotic
in your house.”
Victoria looked right at him and smiled. “Not
as horrid as you might think.”
He got a kick out of her accent. “So does it
seem pretty quiet here?”
“Definitely.” She looked around the dining
room. “You have such a lovely home. I think
ours is half the size. And with only one
“My parents were planning on having more
kids when they bought this house,” Charlotte
commented. “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we
could have your whole family come here?
Maybe in the summer—”
“Charlotte, you’re getting a little carried
away,” her mother said. “Pass the salad,
Miles tried to change the subject. “Hey, Char,
what do you say we all go to First Night for
She slapped her hands together. “Yes!” She
turned to Victoria. “You’re gonna love it. It’s
this huge party on the streets, and a big
parade and a bunch of free shows, dancing
“Sounds good to me,” Victoria said. “I’ve
never been out on New Year’s. All of Britain is
partying while I watch the telly.”
“Then it is time you experienced a proper
Bostonian New Year,” Miles said in a mock
For the next few minutes they all considered
the First Night suggestion. Cathy felt the
nighttime events might be too rowdy, and
wouldn’t it be better to go in the afternoon for
the family activities?
Charlotte wasn’t buying it. She wanted to be
there for the countdown and the midnight
fireworks over Boston Common.
Victoria sat quietly following the discussion
like a tennis match, while Miles tried to avoid
looking at the girl’s cheekbones glowing in the
“Do you mind crowds?” Cathy asked Victoria.
“It can get a little overwhelming.”
“Mom!” Charlotte groaned. “She’s not a little
“Crowds don’t bother me,” Victoria answered,
Miles poured another glass of wine. “Well
then, I say we head down in time for the
grand procession, catch a few performances,
and then watch the fireworks.”
“I hope I can stay awake,” Cathy said.
“You have to, Mom. Don’t you want to be
there the moment it becomes two-thousand
“I suppose. I’ll try not to be a party pooper.”
“Do you think that is what they will call it?”
Victoria asked. “Two-thousand-ten?”
Charlotte looked confused. “What else would
they call it?”
“Twenty-ten, perhaps,” Victoria replied.
Miles leaned back in his chair. “Ah, now that’s
the twenty-thousand dollar question. What
will we call the new year?”
Cathy laughed. “I never thought about it
“One hundred years ago, it was nineteen-ten,”
Victoria said. “So why wouldn’t we call the
new year twenty-ten?”
Miles looked at his wife. “The girl has a point.”
Charlotte disagreed. “It was two-thousand
and eight, then two-thousand and nine, so I
think it will be two-thousand and ten.”
Cathy nodded. “I agree. Two-thousand-ten it
“I’m inclined to go with Miss Welland’s choice,”
Miles said. He looked at the girl and her lips
curved into a flirtatious smile. He raised his
wine glass. “And so, here’s to a merry
Christmas, and a happy twenty-ten.”
Miles woke at six o’clock Christmas morning,
unable to fall back asleep, laying in the dark
still room, listening to Cathy’s soft breathing.
Not a creature was stirring… When had
Charlotte stopped rising early? He
remembered her climbing into their bed, her
mouth smelling of the candy cane she’d dug
out of her stocking. Cathy would groan for
more sleep, and Miles gladly followed his
daughter back to her bedroom to check out
the stocking loot. Now, Charlotte slept till ten
on Saturdays, and they had to wake her three
times on school mornings.
They had tried spending Christmas with out-of-
town relatives and always came back drained.
The past few years they decided to stay put,
believing that Charlotte was better off in her
own home, with her own tree and her own
gifts, piled high like an alter, a peace offering
to an only child—how much you are loved!
Now an unsettling loneliness lurked in the
house, which Miles did not care to greet. He
sat on the edge of the bed, his back stiff from
who knew what, and thought about waking
Cathy. Instead, he put on his robe and walked
down the hall to where the girls slept. Slowly,
he turned the knob, opening it just a crack.
Charlotte was asleep, curled up with her grey
bunny that used to be pink. Victoria slept on
her back, her head turned to one side, hair
splayed over the pillow. She wore blue-
checked pajama bottoms and a black Phantom
of the Opera T-shirt. Asleep, both girls looked
younger, and Miles found this comforting.
By noon, the gifts had been opened, the
cinnamon rolls devoured, the calls to relatives
made, and the girls, still in pajamas, were
downloading music on Charlotte’s new iPod.
Miles joined Cathy in the kitchen as she sliced
avocados, her blond hair pulled up in a
ponytail which Miles found fetching. He kissed
the back of her neck.
“Can I make you a Bloody Mary?”
“Maybe later. I want to get the hors d’oeuvres
ready. What time are they coming?”
Miles brother, wife and kids would be joining
them for Christmas dinner, along with Cathy’s
co-worker and college friend. “Five o’clock,”
he said. “You don’t need go to a lot of trouble.
Want some help?”
She shook her head. “It’s not trouble. I like
cooking for a crowd.” She mashed the avocado
in a bowl. “Why don’t you take the girls
sledding while we have still have snow?”
After it was all over, he would analyze his
actions, trying to determine exactly when he
became undone. Was it when she brushed the
snow off his jacket after he fell off the sled? Or
when her arms encircled his waist as they
coasted down the hill? Or the look in her doe
eyes as he showed her how to make the
At one point, he wondered if she might have
lied about her age (certainly she could pass for
sixteen). No, the idea was ludicrous; if
anything, young girls pretended to be older.
What Miles found disturbing was that none of
the other adults in the house that evening
seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary
about the girl. They remained inside the
bubble of their adult world with its own
vocabulary and complexities while the children
ran off to play ping pong in the basement, and
Miles sat on the leather couch straining to
hear the adult conversation that seemed to
come out of a can.
Then, there was the rest of the week.
“I’m having the best time of my life!” Victoria
announced breathlessly as she wobbled out of
the ice rink toward the bleachers where Miles
watched. “You don’t want to take a stab at
it?” she asked him.
He smiled at her. “I think tobogganing is risky
enough at my age, but I’m glad you’re
enjoying your visit. You looked pretty good out
Miles scanned the crowded rink for Cathy and
Charlotte, and as if reading his mind Victoria
said, “They’re practicing snow plow stops in
the far corner.” She was wearing all white—
hat, jacket and gloves-except for black stretch
pants that accentuated her long legs. “Did
you hear the music they just played? It’s my
favorite. Phantom of the Opera.”
Miles remembered her T-shirt. “Really?”
“Mum’s boyfriend took us last year at Her
Majesty’s Theater in London. You’ve seen it?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“It’s smashing. I’ve watched the movie ten
times.” She placed her hand over her heart.
“Gerard Butler plays the Phantom. I think he’s
That word leaving her mouth stunned him,
and he felt his forehead begin to perspire in
the frigid rink.
“In fact…” She bit her bottom lip, looking off to
the side for a moment. “You remind me of
him. A lot. Has anyone told you that?”
Miles shook his head. He could feel her looking
right through him.
She removed her gloves and blew on her
hands. “My hands are ice. Shall we get hot
Miles came to bed late that night, surprised to
find Cathy still up. She wore a silky black
“What took you so long?” she asked coyly.
“Paying the bills. Sorry. I thought you were
tired and went to sleep.” He sat down beside
her. She smelled of mint.
She took his hand. “I was tired…but then…I
remembered the date.” She gently ran a
fingernail over his thigh. “It’s time,” she
He looked into his wife’s expectant eyes. His
mouth went dry. He waited for the right words
to form, to explain how he could no longer go
on this way—the hormones, the tests, the
disappointments, the scheduled screwing.
When was the last time she had actually
wanted him, and not just the end-product?
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Just tired, I guess.”
She sat there staring at him, waiting.
Miles laid his hand on her bare shoulder.
“How about tomorrow morning?”
She lowered her eyes. “Okay.”
She turned off the bedside lamp. In the dark
room the clock radio glowed midnight. He
could feel Cathy’s hurt spreading into the air.
“I think I…I mean, we could use a break from
the timetable,” he said softly. “To let things
“We can’t do that anymore,” Cathy said, her
voice hoarse. “We’re running out of
Driving down Beacon Street, Miles saw the
T-shirts in a boutique window. What karma,
he thought. He knew he would buy some. The
sales lady, a young woman with purple-
streaked hair, helped him find the right sizes.
Both shirts were black. The one he picked for
Charlotte had 2010 in gold glitter across the
front. On the second shirt, the word twenty-
ten was written in rhinestones, for Victoria of
Later, he delighted in their girlish excitement
as they modeled the shirts. Victoria wore hers
with a short jean skirt, black tights, and pink
suede ankle boots.
“Won’t you be cold?” Cathy asked the girls.
“We’re going to be outside for the fireworks. I
don’t want to hear you complaining, Charlotte.”
“You always say that, Mom. We have warm
coats and stuff.”
“Let’s glitter our hair,” Victoria suggested.
“And put on a festive make-up.”
“Cool idea! Can we Mom?”
“I suppose for tonight it’s okay,” Cathy
answered hesitantly. “Just don’t get too
Miles watched the girls scramble off to the
bathroom. “She sure has a lot of spunk.”
“Charlotte?” Cathy asked.
“I meant Victoria.”
Cathy nodded. “Yeah, quite a contrast. I think
she has really perked up Charlotte. At least for
this week, anyway.”
Thousands of revelers packed the streets
around Copley Square waving neon wands,
blowing plastic horns, 2010 coat pins flashing
in the night. The girls, seemingly impervious
to the December chill, navigated the crowd,
darting this way and that, jumping around in
ways only the young can get away with.
By eleven-thirty they had marched in the
parade, admired the ice sculptures, and seen
Chinese dancers and then a reggae band—all
which Miles viewed through Victoria’s wide
eyes, his mind drifting into an unknown place.
They stood together on the Common watching
a group of fire jugglers when Charlotte
announced that she needed a bathroom.
“Good luck,” Miles said, looking around at the
“I saw the portables back by the ice
sculptures,” Cathy said. “I’ll take her.
“Okay. Don’t move from this spot,” Cathy
warned Miles as she took Charlotte’s hand.
Miles and the girl continued to watch the
jugglers throw flaming torches into the air.
“Don’t try that at home,” he joked.
“I could use some fire now.” Victoria crossed
her arms. “I’m afraid I’m getting cold after all.
And now my legs are tired.”
“Let’s sit down for a minute.” He put his arm
around her and guided her toward a bench.
She sat next to him, their thighs touching. “I
can’t believe I’m leaving tomorrow,” she said.
“I had so much fun. I feel like this was all a
dream and now it’ll be back to school,
homework, chores, and my annoying sisters.”
“Real life, huh?” Miles said.
She nodded, a sad shadow passing over her
“I know what you mean. But you can come
back,” he said, not recognizing his own voice.
“Maybe in the summer.”
She looked at him with gleaming eyes. “For
He nodded. “We’ll swim in Walden Pond, go
blueberry picking, walk the Freedom Trail.”
The revelers grew louder as the countdown
neared. Wasn’t it just yesterday that he had
welcomed 2009? He felt the weight of this
year’s last moments passing over him,
crushing him, his own life slipping away.
Victoria rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m
feeling warmer now.”
And suddenly he watched himself turn to her,
heard himself say her name, felt his hands
grasp her shoulders, pulling her close, and
then the taste of her warm sweet mouth.
How long did it last—a split second, a minute—
before she pushed him away, her eyes filled
with fear? What was it she had said as she
ran and disappeared through the crowd?
Victoria! The blasting horns swallowed his
call. He pushed through the crowd looking for
her white coat. Where would she go? He
heard the blood pulse through his head, his
heart banging, and finally, Cathy’s voice.
“Miles!” Her gloved-hand waved above the
crowd. “Over here!”
Charlotte came running, grabbing his arm. “It’
s almost time, Dad! Hey, where’s Victoria?”
Cathy’s eyes widened as Miles tried to push
out the words. “We got separated!”
Throughout the search a silent prayer echoed
in his aching head. He tried to follow his wife’s
quick sensible actions and at the same time
calm Charlotte’s hysteria. Then came the
ringing of the New Year, which had suddenly
lost all significance.
They found her several blocks away, waiting
inside a lost-and-found warming tent, a police
officer in charge. Charlotte ran to Victoria,
hugging her. Cathy let out a cry. Miles stood
still, his throat raw, fully expecting to be
The officer asked a few questions. Cathy
answered, not looking at Miles. “She seemed
pretty upset,” the officer told them.
“Well of course, ” Cathy exclaimed. “My God,
we were so worried!”
Victoria started to sob. “I just want to go back
home. I want my mum.”
Cathy took the girl’s hand. “You’ll feel better
after some hot cocoa. Let’s get you in the car.”
Victoria was silent on the ride home. Miles
couldn’t speak. His heart beat wildly
anticipating the moment he would lose
everything. He could feel Cathy mulling over
the situation, Charlotte brooding in the
backseat. By the time they got home, both
girls were asleep.
The next morning, when Miles heard the girls’
laughter coming from the bedroom, relief
washed over him. With a clearer head, he
tried to replay last night’s scene. Then shame
coiled around his insides. If he had been
drinking, then maybe…God, what had gotten
into him? He wondered if he should apologize
and just how he would go about this. Victoria
would be leaving today. He was running out of
Downstairs Cathy was preparing breakfast.
The house smelled of pancakes.
“Snowing again,” she said. “Happy twenty-
ten.” She looked at him. “Everything okay?”
“Didn’t sleep well,” he answered.
“Want some coffee?”
“No thanks. I think I just need to go for a
“Her flight is at two, but I suppose we should
leave extra time.”
He grabbed his coat. “Shouldn’t be much
Outside the snow fell like a whisper. He
walked until he couldn’t feel the cold anymore,
until he lost track of time, until he felt it was
safe to return.
“Well that was a long walk,” Cathy said as he
walked through the front door. She was
eating breakfast with the girls. “Come eat.”
He took his time removing his coat, then
hanging it in the closet. He couldn’t face her.
Nor could he move through the minutes of the
morning until Victoria was on her way home.
He offered a quick excuse to Cathy about
wanting to call his mother to wish her a happy
New Year. That would buy him time for the
girls to finish eating.
“Sure you don’t want to come along?” Cathy
asked Miles as he lugged Victoria’s suitcase to
He offered another excuse for not going to the
airport. “I’ll owe you one,” he said to his wife,
kissing her on the cheek.
After a quick good-bye, Victoria looked at
Miles for only a second before getting into the
car. Then he watched and waved from the
driveway as Cathy and the girls drove off.
Inside the stillness of his home, he drank a
cup of coffee, then began dismantling the tree,
one ornament at a time. He was bending over
to remove Charlotte’s 2006 Barbie ornament
when he spotted a white envelope beneath the
tree, his name handwritten across the front:
Mr. Clarkson. He tore it open, unfolded the
paper inside, and then stared at the girlish
script. I will never tell.
She had dotted the i with a heart.
Evelyn Krieger is a writer
and learning specialist in the
Boston area. She has won
numerous awards for her
stories and essays. Her
Writer's Digest, Family Fun,
Learning Magazine, Baby
Talk, Journal of Reading,