SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Evelyn Krieger
It seemed the perfect idea at the time. Someone to draw Miles’ daughter out of the recent sullenness overtaking her eleven-year-old being.
“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 you noticed?”
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 Granger.”
“And,” she continued, “Victoria actually met J.K. Rowling!”
“How cool is that?” he replied, enjoying her enthusiasm.
“Very cool, Dad. And we both have so much in common.” She spun around. “I can’t wait till she comes.”
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 mood.”
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 giggling.”
“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 friends.”
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 eleventh birthday.
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 were fast.”
“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 a child.
“So, you had a good flight?” he managed to ask.
Victoria’s lips curled. “Perfect. The flight attendants were so sweet.”
Then Charlotte grabbed her arm. “Come see my room.”
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 envious, though.”
“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 bathroom.”
“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, please.”
Miles tried to change the subject. “Hey, Char, what do you say we all go to First Night for New Year’s?”
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 and music.”
“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 British accent.
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 candlelight.
“Do you mind crowds?” Cathy asked Victoria. “It can get a little overwhelming.”
“Mom!” Charlotte groaned. “She’s not a little kid.”
“Crowds don’t bother me,” Victoria answered, politely.
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 ten?”
“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 before.”
“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 is.”
“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 perfect snowball?
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 there.”
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 sooo sexy.”
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 cocoa?”
Miles came to bed late that night, surprised to find Cathy still up. She wore a silky black nightgown.
“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 whispered.
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 be more…spontaneous.”
“We can’t do that anymore,” Cathy said, her voice hoarse. “We’re running out of time.”
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 course.
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 carried away.”
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 growing crowd.
“I saw the portables back by the ice sculptures,” Cathy said. “I’ll take her. Victoria?”
“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 face.
“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 real?
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 handcuffed.
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 time.
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 walk.”
“Her flight is at two, but I suppose we should leave extra time.”
He grabbed his coat. “Shouldn’t be much traffic today.”
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 the car.
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 publications include: Writer’s Digest, Family Fun, Learning Magazine, Baby Talk, Journal of Reading, and Lilith.