I’ve had a Christmas story in my archives for a couple of years now that I’ve meant to revisit, revise, and publish. But as I near the end of my first draft of my first novel, I realize that a lot has changed since I wrote this short prequel to it. Still, there’s a sweetness to this story that I really want to share with you all. So in the spirit of the Christmas season, take a peek into the lives of my main characters, Ellie and David. We could all use a little more love in our lives right about now.
I tucked my ears into the scarf around my neck as a car flew past me, the whipping wind much colder than the actual air. It was December, and the last day of classes was officially behind me. Frost kissed the ground and the trees that still held green leaves. Florida wasn’t supposed to be this cold. I longed for the humidity and the bright, hot sun. But I kept myself walking with the promise of warmth in David’s on-campus apartment.
The promise of David himself wasn’t a bad motivator either.
We met two years ago during our freshman year and started dating a few months later. He was the reason I was walking towards campus instead of driving away from it. Neither rain nor sleet nor hail could keep me away. I was his human FedEx.
A big gust of wind followed me through the door of the apartment building. I rubbed my arms as I made my way towards the stairs to the second floor, hoping friction would heat me up faster than the weak heater. The lobby had marble floors and a front desk that would never be manned again. Instead, flyers for campus activities littered the desk top. Each apartment had a welcome mat in front of the door. The campus brochure for the apartment called it “a little piece of home.” Once I got to the right door I picked up the welcome mat to look for David’s key, but instead found a bright yellow sticky note. It read: payback’s a bitch.
I rolled my eyes and proceeded to knock on the apartment door. David had taken to leaving a spare key under the mat for me so I could come whenever I wanted. His roommate, Jasper, didn’t like the idea so much. I tried to surprise David once by being there when he got home, but instead I walked in on Jasper doing an Elvis impress in his underwear. He’d been trying to take away the key ever since.
But Jasper had already gone home for the weekend. And David was taking his sweet time answering the door.
I placed my cheek against the wood. “Open up!”
I heard footsteps and then a deep voice. “I will as soon as you back away from the door.”
“How would you know I’m leaning against the door? You’re on the other side of it.”
“Your voice is pretty muffled, sweetheart.”
I laughed and pulled away from the door and then David opened it. He stood at least a head taller than me, so I had to look up to find his face. He had damp, brown hair falling in front of his eyes. It was a look very few people got to see. David almost always had some type of product in his hair. But he didn’t have to look so put together around me.
Instead of saying hello, we just smiled at each other. And then he bent down to kiss me. I’d never felt safe and secure with someone before. But when David’s hands cupped my face it felt like nothing would ever go wrong.
David broke the kiss and pulled me into his apartment.
I held up the yellow sticky note from the hallway. “Your roommate’s an asshat,” I said.
David laughed, and the entirety of his long frame shook. “Let me see it.”
I gave it to him. “What are you going to do?”
He stuck it on the door behind me and shrugged. “I’ll think of something later. Make him think twice before taking the spare key.” His grin was mischievous. “Come on.” He took my hand again and pulled be further into his apartment. It had two bedrooms and one bathroom, and the tiny kitchen only had one stove top burner, but David loved it. He paid for his share by teaching guitar to some of the kids at the elementary school nearby. He called it his first step towards independence.
David’s bedroom sat at the end of a small hallway that held both bedrooms on one side and a bathroom on the other. It was small, but immaculate, down to the hospital corners on the end of his bed. He’d told me when I’d first noticed that his mom had drilled cleanliness into him. Old habits were hard to break. I didn’t mind though, it was a nice break from the clutter in my room at my Grams’ house.
We lied down on his plaid comforter and I laid my head on his chest. I never got tired of listening to his heart beat. It was a sign that he was alive, strong, and there. I kissed his pulse.
Even though I knew that the most that would happen tonight was a little bit of kissing, my nerves started swelling in my stomach. We’d decided to wait to have sex. Not for any religious reasons on my end—though David would say otherwise— but because I just had this feeling that it wasn’t time. Something in my heart was telling me not yet. David said it was my conscience, that it’s God’s way of telling me to wait. But how could God tell me anything if I wasn’t sure he existed?
David’s arms wrapped tighter around me and he kissed the top of my head. “I love you,” he murmured.
I lifted my head to look at him. “I love you too.”
David studied my face. I watched as he took in every inch, careful not to miss one spot. He freed one of his hands from my waist and traced the dark circles under my eyes. “You look tired.”
“That’s definitely what every girl wants to hear when she’s inches from her boyfriend’s face,” I joked.
“You know what I mean. Are you sleeping all right?”
“I’m fine,” I told him. “Not panicking, I promise.”
David’s concern stemmed from the semi-regular panic attacks I’ve had ever since I moved to Florida. I went to therapy to try and stop them, but so far all it’d done was prolong the time until the next one. David was with me for most of the recent ones. He learned to recognize the signs. Before, during, and after.
“Are you sure? We could take a nap if you want. We’re already in my bed.” He smiled as he said it, and I laughed.
“Right, because we’d actually sleep this time.”
“You won’t know unless we try.” He kissed my forehead.
“What if I don’t want to sleep?”
“Then what do you want to do?” One of the things I loved most about David was that his concern didn’t smother me. I knew he worried about my panic attacks, that he wanted to fix whatever was causing them. But he never pushed when I told him I was okay. He let me come to him when I was ready.
I looked around his room, thinking. Then I noticed his guitar catty-corner to where we were on the bed. I bit my lip. “Will you play for me?” I asked.
“Right now?” He whined and held onto me tighter. “But I’m comfortable.”
“Please? Please please please please please?”
David laughed. “All right.” He let me go and got up to grab his guitar.
I scrambled to sit up so he’d have room for both himself and his guitar on his bed.
Once he settled in he asked, “what would you like me to play?” He strummed the strings with his thumb.
“Do you know any Christmas carols?”
He started playing the first couple of notes of a song and I laughed. “You have to sing with me,” he said, still playing.
I wrinkled my nose. “I only sing in the shower. I have an audience of one, thank you very much.”
“Come on, please?” He gave me the biggest puppy dog eyes I’d ever seen. “Please please please please please?”
I’m not sure if it was the look, or the fact that he could do all that and play Jingle Bells at the same time, but I gave in. We sang through Jingle Bells, then Baby, It’s Cold Outside, and then a hearty rendition of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. His strumming turned soft then, and I lied back down on the bed and listened to the way his fingers traced over the strings. He sang Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire and I felt my eyelids grow heavy. I think I caught the first few notes of I’ll Be Home For Christmas before I drifted to sleep.
David’s playing tended to have that effect on me, making me sleepy. I suspect that was why he agreed to playing in the first place. But it didn’t stop him from teasing me when I woke up. “I was playing specifically at your request, and you fall asleep on me.”
“Did you ever think that maybe you were just that boring?” I teased back.
“Not possible.” He was sitting back against his headboard next to where I was laying, which made it easy for him to lean down and kiss me. “Are you feeling better?”
I nodded. “I am.” That was when I noticed what was in his hands: my used copy of Wuthering Heights. “What do you have there?” I asked.
He flapped the book in his hand and shrugged. “After you fell asleep I grabbed it from the side pocket of your backpack. I wanted to see what all your fuss was about.”
“And?” I raised an eyebrow.
David handed the book to me. “I couldn’t make it past the second page.”
I laughed. “That’s because you don’t know how to appreciate the classics.”
David nudged my shoulder. “I appreciate books written in modern English, thank you.”
“This is modern English.” I held out the book in front of the two of us like an idol. “Just not quite as modern as you’d like.”
David tapped the cover with a finger. “Tell me then, oh wise English major, what is it about this book you like so much?”
I frowned. The book in my hands was well read. There were notes written all over the margins, the pages were yellowing and musty, and the spine creased in many places. All were the signs of a well loved book.
But I actually didn’t love it at all. “David, I hate this book.”
David looked at me like I had two heads. “Then why do you read it so much?”
I thumbed over the softened pages so that they fanned out like a flip book. “Because I’m trying to figure it out,” I said.
“What do you mean?” David’s brows hooded his eyes in a way that made him look younger. It was the look he gave me when he wanted to know more. It was a childlike curiosity that I loved and would do anything to keep alive. It reminded me that even through our differences, we’d always have learning.
I shrugged. “This book is supposed to be a classic. It’s withstood the test of time. They taught it at my high school— upper level, but still. And books are supposed to help you relate to something. There’s a bigger picture, a bigger commentary about the world as it was. Most of the classics I’ve read have commentary that’s still relevant today. But this book.” I placed the book against my chest. “I’ve read it countless times and every time I can’t bring myself to get past Cathy and Heathcliff. I can’t find a bigger picture because I’m too busy trying to find a shred of humanity in either of them. They are irredeemable, unlikeable characters that I go back to again and again hoping for something more. But there’s nothing. I read somewhere that love was their only redeeming quality. But if that was the case, Heathcliff would have let her rest in peace. And he couldn’t even do that.” My heart was pounding in my chest and I had to stop talking. I was anxious, suddenly, and terribly angry with fictional characters. Why couldn’t he have just left her alone?
“Hey, you’re okay.” David smoothed the hair back from my face. “Where’d you go?”
I closed my eyes and shook my head, dispelling the negative thoughts that were trying to creep in. “Nowhere, I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry for?”
I opened my eyes. “I get a little bit too overwhelmed about fictional characters sometimes.” About Heathcliff and Cathy a bit more than others, but I didn’t want to have to explain that just yet.
“That’s nothing to be sorry for. It’s part of who you are.”
“I’m glad you see it that way.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes and I had a feeling this conversation wasn’t one David was going to let go. I needed to steer the conversation to safer waters. “You were right. I’m not getting a lot of sleep. But it’s not because of panic attacks, I promise.”
David scooted down on the bed so his face was level with mine. “Then what is it?”
I took a deep breath. I didn’t really want to have this conversation either, but talking about my family issues was better than talking about the other issues. Safer waters didn’t always mean safe. “I think Grams wants to go to Great Falls for Christmas this year.”
“And you’re not ready.”
“Are you sure that’s what she wants to do?”
“I saw that she was looking up flights on her computer. She hasn’t said anything to me, but I know she misses my mom.”
“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?”
“Probably, like, three years?”
“Do you think maybe you could try…?”
I shook my head. “Not a chance. Visiting my mom would just end with us fighting and that’s not exactly what I want for Christmas.”
“I know, but she is your mom, after all.”
“David, the last thing I’ve even heard from my mother is in the form of a Birthday card showing me the new girl she’s decided to sponsor for Cotillion. She went on and on about how grateful this little girl is for being able to dress up and go to tea parties. What it doesn’t say, but implies, is that I was never grateful for it. It also doesn’t say that my mom is doing just fine without me. It’s all very underhanded and Virginia-like. Christmas would not be a good idea.”
David sighed. “I guess not.”
“I’m not exactly stressing about going. Grams would never make me. But I know she wants to go and I’m holding her back. I feel pretty bad about that.” I started playing with some fly away strings on the end of the comforter so I could focus on that instead of whatever face David was surely making. He’d told me on more than one occasion that my family situation broke his heart. And while I knew he meant well, I didn’t always want to see that.
David placed his hands over mine. I still didn’t look up.
“Listen, I wasn’t going to ask because I know it’s usually just you and Grams for Christmas, but I think it might actually be a good alternative this year. My mom really wants you to come over Christmas morning and be with us while we open gifts. And, you know, I would really love it too. You could spend the night with us and everything. And that way Grams could go to Great Falls and not feel like she’s leaving you behind, and you won’t have to go.”
Any anxiety I had felt over the last few days evaporated. I loved David’s family and it warmed my heart constantly to know that they returned the affection. My first instinct was to ask David if they were sure, because I didn’t want to intrude. But I’d been with David long enough to know that they wouldn’t invite me if they weren’t. So I swallowed the question and finally looked into David’s eyes. “You are literally my hero,” I said, and I leaned over to kiss him. He tried to pull back after the first kiss like we normally do, but I wasn’t having that. I held him close to me and deepened the kiss, molding into him when his arms wrapped around me. I never knew what else to do in situations like this. I never knew how to thank him properly. Because this offer would mean more to me and Grams than he’d ever know, and the words “thank you” just felt empty.
When we had to pull back to breathe David nudged my nose with his. “So is that a yes?” he asked.
I laughed. “That’s definitely a yes.”