Updated: Feb 25, 2019
by Winter Lawrence | YA Fantasy |
The house is still, but I stay hidden by the bushes between my place and hers for a little while longer, just to be sure. I methodically look at each of the windows, starting on the top floor and then scanning left to right. All of the lights are out. There’s no movement. The family is gone. I know this because I had watched them leave for their weekly dinner-and-a-movie night, but I sweep my gaze across the windows once more anyway. The coast is clear, but now I’m too scared to move. I mean, is breaking into her house really a romantic gesture? We had joked about it a few times, and she had gone on and on about how adorable it would be to find her favorite drink in the refrigerator one day. She had even said it would be cute, and that since I was “normal” and went to school every day, it would make her feel as though a part of me was there with her.
I snort at that as I shift to blow warm air into my cupped hands. There’s nothing normal about me. I’m shy and awkward, and beneath my gangly exterior and my acne-ridden face, I’m just a scared kid, which most abused kids are, so I’m no exception to any rule—in fact, I’m what most people consider the complete opposite of normal. Maybe that’s why I like Karrell so much. Her family isn’t what you’d call traditional either. Her parents weren’t able to have children, so they opted to adopt—three girls so far, and apparently, they’re on a list for a few others.
Karrell is the eldest of the three, and, in my opinion, the prettiest. She has long, curly brown hair, big brown eyes, and an adorable button nose. Sure, she sounds ordinary, but there’s something special about her. I can’t put my finger on it, but from the moment they moved in a few weeks ago, I was drawn to her, like a moth to a flame. She’s magnetic, and so each time I heard her and her sisters in their backyard, I ventured outside. I mean, it isn’t entirely unusual for me to be found outdoors.
Whenever my father hits his second six-pack, I tend to try and get as far away from him as possible—not too far, mind you, because I’ve found out firsthand what happens when he has to call my name twice—I know the horrors he can inflict if he has to search for me. The thought causes a shudder to run up my spine, which reminds me that I’m shivering now for two reasons: my father will be home soon and it’s freezing out. Texas isn’t immune to cold weather, but I’m quickly losing all resistance to it.
I scope out the house one last time, then I get moving. Karrell has mentioned often enough that they always leave the back door open. I’m hoping that holds true tonight. I hurry around the house, my backpack grazing along the brick wall like I’m some kind of thief in the night and reach for the doorknob. I twist it slowly and then breathe a sigh of relief when it opens. Whew. It should be smooth sailing from here. Her house doesn’t have the same floor plan as mine, but I know that the back door opens into her kitchen, the same as mine, since she’s also mentioned that before too. It’s where she and her sisters do most of their school work, because they’re homeschooled.
Before they moved in, I’d never met an official homeschooler before, so it’s always a topic that fascinates me, both because I never thought that it was normal for kids to stay home anymore, and also because she likes it. That blows my mind, since the thought of me being home any longer than absolutely necessary is a torturous one, and to have my father teach me at that! No thank you!
But that’s one of the things I love about Karrell, her passion for things, like her adoration of her parents and siblings and lifestyle. She’s loyal and funny and fierce, and I’m falling for her, big time, which is why I push the door open just a bit more and peek inside. There’s a huge table in the dining area, with tons of boxes and wrapping paper and bows overflowing in piles. That isn’t entirely unusual, given that it’s December, but something about it causes a funny feeling to churn in my stomach.
I step farther into the room and eye all of the gifts stacked in the corner, and then all of the wrapping paper on the center island. Whoa. It looks like Christmas vomited in their kitchen. I close the door behind me, more out of habit than anything, and tiptoe toward the refrigerator. It’s in the far corner of the room, so I have to sidestep Tupperware bins filled with gift wrapping supplies, the dodging and slinking making me feel as though I had just entered some kind of weird Christmas obstacle course. I mean, not that I came in here to judge, but I’m suddenly beginning to suspect that this is the reason Karrell had never invited me inside—because they’re hoarders, of the Christmas kind!
After dodging a couple more bins of ornaments and stockings, I make it to the refrigerator. I pull my backpack off then kneel to retrieve the coveted carton—a quart-sized container of Clover Sonoma Premium Organic Eggnog. It wasn’t easy to find, and once I had located a store that carried the brand—which was on the other side of town—I begged and bartered with one of my teachers to grab one for me; a week of cleaning up her classroom a small price to pay for what I’m sure will be the best surprise.
Ever so gently, as if the carton is made of a precious, fragile material, I stand with the eggnog in hand and then slowly pull open the refrigerator door. I’m so stunned by the contents though that I stumble backward and nearly drop the container. Holy smokes. My mouth begins to water as I step closer to examine the plethora of confections—there are cakes and pies and tarts and cookies and pastries on every shelf, shoved into every nook and cranny the refrigerator has to offer. Now this is my kind of diet! I slowly reach for a nearby cake, the creamy, whipped frosting too much of a temptation to resist, but just before my finger connects with the sweet treat, I hear sounds in the distance that freeze me in place.
Uh-oh! Someone is coming down the stairs! I quickly close the refrigerator but then just as hastily pull it open and place the carton of eggnog between a plate of cannoli and a bowl of grits, then I slam the door shut, hook my backpack around my shoulder, and hurry to the door.
“Mike?” Karrell calls, her voice drifting in from the living room.
My heart sinks as I stop short and glance over my shoulder, toward the archway. Crap! How does she know it’s me? And more importantly, can I make it out the back door before she can confirm that? I eye the distance between myself and the obstacle course of Christmas-stuffed bins I’ll have to traverse to make it to safety and realize that it’s no use. She’s going to make it into the kitchen before I can leave, which means I’ll have to explain everything…and possibly be banished from her life forever over a really, really stupid choice—
“It is you!” she says as she rounds the corner, a beaming smile set on her adorable face.
I hold my hands up, as if in surrender, and I clear my throat, somehow thinking it will help reduce the sudden heat of embarrassment that I’m sure is scorching my cheeks. “Karrell…” My breathing is coming out in spurts, and my heart is beating erratically. I try to stay calm as I lower my hands and turn to face her, but I’m close to hyperventilating. “This isn’t…I mean, I know I snuck into your house…but I didn’t think anyone was home…and it was just to surprise you—”
“It’s okay,” she says, that smile of hers still gleaming. She takes a couple of steps toward me. “Really, I was actually hoping for this…” She lets that cryptic message hang in the air as she glides even closer.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you privately.” She reaches for my hands. “Been waiting to invite you over so you can see what we do and how we live.”
“I…” I glance down at our joined hands and then back into her soft brown eyes. “I don’t understand…”
Her smile deepens and she gives my hands a reassuring squeeze before she steps away. “I know, but I’d like to explain.” She gracefully spins on her heels and then skips to the refrigerator. She pulls open the door and squeals with delight—a sound that I’ve come to adore. “You got it!” She reaches inside and retrieves the carton of eggnog. “Oh, Mike! You really are special!”
My cheeks blaze again, but this time in a good way. “I…I know how much you like it.”
“I do! There’s just something magical about it!”
Yes. I understand that magic now, and as I watch her open the carton to take a huge gulp of the creamy beverage, I can’t help but smile. Until that moment, I hadn’t known the immense pleasure one could receive from doing something nice or kind for another person.
Karrell skips back over and offers me the drink. “Would you like to try it?”
I nod, because my words are failing me, and then I gently take the eggnog from her. I take a sip and marvel at the creamy richness of the beverage when it isn’t tainted with rum—which is one of my father’s favorite mixes.
“It’s good, right?” she inquires, clearly eager to hear my response.
I smile and nod. “Yes. It’s delicious. Totally worth having to clean up Mrs. Lynch’s classroom for a week.”
Karrell’s smile falters.
I suddenly feel as if I’ve committed some crime…you know, aside from the breaking and entering. “It’s no big deal,” I add, hoping to alleviate her sudden somberness.
“I know…” she looks up at me and smiles again, “but I was wondering…are you close to this Mrs. Lynch?”
The question throws me off guard, so I shake my head sharply. “No…I mean…she’s nice and she’s smart…” I’m not sure where Karrell is going with any of this, so I really don’t know how to respond.
“She’s always been nice to me,” I say at last, hoping that doesn’t stick my foot too deeply into whatever mudhole I’m heading for.
Karrell smiles, though this time, a solemn thoughtfulness hangs in the air, making it more a gesture of pity than anything else. “Kindness counts far more than people realize, Mike, and, if I may…” she looks away, as if bashful now, “you’ve definitely received the short end of the stick when it comes to having a nurturing, loving person in your life.”
I watch as she shifts her booted foot back and forth; its a habit, I’ve noticed, that she does often when she’s nervous. “I’m fine,” I say, just to make her feel better.
Karrell looks at me, that sorrowful gaze still in place for a moment longer before she forces a smile. “You are fine…now!” she says, her fervor suddenly returning with a vengeance, “and if it’s up to me, you’ll be fine always!” She grabs my hand and spins around. “Come on! Let me show you around!”
I dutifully follow, a little stunned by her cryptic words, but a lot more amazed by her strength as she yanks me around the maze of bins in the kitchen and then drags me into the living room.
“So here we have the main work area.” She hurries ahead, toward a long, wide table that takes up most of the living room. The piles of wrapping paper and bows and ribbons doubles those in the kitchen—perhaps even triples them! In some places, there are wrapped gift boxes stacked as high as the ceiling, while other piles of unwrapped presents are strewn about—a system seeming to be in place, but as my eyes scan over the hoard, I can’t quite discern the logic. Perhaps, they’re using one of the many sorting contraptions that are scattered on the table, some big, some small, but all reminding me of something I’d see at a pack-and-ship store.
“It’s…” I start, but then I don’t know where to go from there. I mean, there’s no furniture—no TV—nothing personal. It looks like a factory…a weird, suburban-like Santa’s workshop. “Is this one of your homeschooling projects?” I finally ask, daring to look at her with what I’m sure is a baffled expression. “Is this what homeschoolers do?”
She giggles. “Sort of, I guess…” she walks over and stands in front of me, “but only our kind of homeschoolers…because we’re special…for a special guy…” She slowly shifts her hands toward her hair, in a way that demands my attention.
Enraptured, I watch as she tucks her thick, curly hair behind her very pointed, elven ears.
I can tell that she’s waiting for some sort of reaction from me, and I know, somehow, instinctively, that this is an important moment. I press my lips together as I reach for her ears and gently stroke the outer lobe all the way up to its sharpest point. I can feel its magic—can sense the truth even though my mind wants to deny it. “They’re beautiful,” I finally say and then let my arm fall to my side as I look into her soft brown eyes. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say next though, especially as the word “elf” ricochets around the inside of my head like a pinball. Can it really be? I mean, even after losing my mother so long ago that I barely remember her, and even after all of the beatings and the days without food, and the constant loneliness, I still believe in Santa Claus. In my heart, I’ve always known that he’s real, and as I dare another glance at Karrell’s ears, I remind myself that I’ve always known that she and her family are special.
“Come on,” Karrell says as she once again takes my hands and begins leading me toward the stairs.
“We work long days this time of year, but usually, we have more time for other projects.” She glances over her shoulder as we climb the steps. “People think that Santa only works one day, but that’s far from true.” When we get to the landing, we take a left, down a short hallway that leads into what was probably designed as the master bedroom, but that is now acting as a library, complete with five small yet fully equipped desks. “There’s a lot of research involved,” she says as she walks over to a rather tidy workspace, “but it’s not as bad as you’d think. In fact, most times it’s fun and fulfilling.”
I search around the room, my attention on the handwritten notes scribbled onto a large whiteboard that’s hanging as the focal point on a red-accented wall. There are several printed-out pictures too, small, festive magnets holding them in place. My stomach sinks as I make my way over, my gaze focused on one particular picture that was taken of me talking to Mrs. Lynch. I remember that day because it had only happened last week, when I stopped her to ask if she could buy the eggnog for me.
“How did you…?” I look at her, this time accusingly. “Are you following me?”
Karrell blushes and immediately looks down at her shifting foot. “We…yes…but only because we want to…save you.”
“Save me?” I’m so stunned that my voice cracks in that annoying pre-teen way. I back away from her, toward the door. “I don’t need saving,” I add defensively, and on a note that only truly abused people can hit.
“Wait!” she says sharply and hurries over to me. “Please…this is my first time breaking the news…which is only worse because it’s you…”
The way she says that last part makes my heart flutter. “What about me?” I hedge.
She smiles up at me. “It’s you…and I like you…” She slowly reaches for my lip and very gently brushes her fingertip over my nearly healed cracked lip. Then she steps closer still and shifts both hands to my turtleneck.
I flinch away, ashamed by the bruises there.
She must sense that she’s gone too far because she steps away from me and goes back to looking at her shifting, twitchy foot. A silence descends upon us, which gives me a moment to absorb the entirety of the evening. “So earlier,” I say, speaking as the thoughts drift into my mind, “you said that I’ll be fine now…and that if it was up to you, I’d be fine always?”
She finally looks up at me and nods. “Yes, you can be, if you choose to stay…with us…with me…”
My heart definitely skips a beat then. I would love nothing more than to be with her, but I don’t understand what she means.
She pulls up her sleeve and exposes several gnarly looking scars—like burn marks. “We, as in kids like you and me, we can choose to stay behind; at places where people hurt us, or…” she takes my hands into her, “you can come with me and my family tonight. Santa is offering you an elf position, Mike, to help with Christmas definitely,” she assures me, “but to also help us all year long, so that we can spread joy and good cheer to others in need.”
“Joy and good cheer…” I repeat those words, too shocked by all of the news to form any other cohesive thoughts.
“Yes, Mike, kindness counts, and you can help us pass it along, if you choose to come with me, that is…?”
That statement helps me snap back into my senses. “But how can I stay?” I search her eyes. “I have to—”
“No,” she interjects. “You don’t have to go back there. You never have to go back there again if you don’t want to. You can stay with us. You can become one of us.”
I look down at our joined hands. “Us…as in…an elf. I can become an elf?”
“So we would stay here?” I look around the room, not entirely sure if I could be my father’s neighbor.
“Not here,” she assures me. “Another elf family we’ll take over this house until Christmas and then they’ll leave too. We were only here because we wanted to be close to you, because you don’t have much time…”
Her tone, and those words, send a chill up my spine. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that sometimes we get orders to try and hurry, because Santa gets a bad feeling—”
I jerk away from her and scoff. “A bad feeling? Like what?” I snort. “I mean, my father isn’t that bad, Karrell, and it’s not like he means—”
“Mike,” she whispers, though her solemn expression carries the weight of her contempt for my mounted defense—the victim’s mentality that I can tell she once bore. “He had a bad day at work and he’ll be home soon. And, he’s already stopped for a few drinks…” It’s a warning that I know I should heed. “I can’t force you to come with me,” she adds, “but I hope you do.”
I shake my head, so confused and overwhelmed that I actually stagger backward and crash against the wall. The jarring impact helps ground me, and then I hear the rattling bass of an approaching vehicle. Zeppelin is blaring, which means that I’m out of time. I need to make my decision, which seems like such a simple choice, really, given that the alternative is a better option than certain death, but fear of the unknown, I suddenly realize, is definitely a worthy adversary.
Karrell offers me a hand. “You’ll be safe,” she promises, “and you’ll be loved, and in turn, you’ll be able to help others.”
Others like me, I think as my fingers absently brush against my turtleneck. Yes. I would like that—love it, in fact, so I almost can’t help but slowly, with a shaky hand, reach for hers.
As our fingers intertwine, she smiles. “Come on!” she squeals, once again radiant.
She drags me along and we hurry down the stairs, through the living room, and then past the maze of Tupperware bins in the kitchen. Her excitement is contagious and I’m suddenly beyond curious to know where we’re going. Will I stay with her and her family? Will I get to meet Santa? The questions are suddenly endless, that is, until, Karrell pulls the door open and I hear him; my father calling. Fear roots me to my spot and Karrell’s grim expression only heightens my alarm.
“Mike?” he snarls again as he rummages through the bushes, looking for me. It’s a familiar sound, because I had hidden there so many times in the past; so often until I learned that it was easier to submit to his will earlier, lest his wrath mounts.
Karrell presses a finger to her lip and holds still as a statue. I don’t even breathe, and so it feels like an eternity passes while my father shouts my name a few more times before he finally disappears back into the house.
“Hurry!” Karrell whisper-orders as she tugs me along, through the backyard and toward a gate that opens onto the alleyway behind our houses.
As we hook a sharp left and hurry ahead, I see her family’s minivan parked at the end of the street. The side door slides open when we near and her two sisters poke their heads out, all smiles and big, welcoming waves. I wave back, eager to begin this new chapter of my life, but when Karrell climbs into the minivan, I stop short and then back up a few feet. I look at each of them, the three sisters and the two parents who aren’t really related but who have become each other’s family, and then I turn to look back at my house. I stand that way for a moment longer, everyone eerily silent as I say my goodbyes, because they all seem to know that I’ve made my choice without me having to say as much.
I finally know where I belong.
As I turn and climb into the van, the tops of my ears begin to tingle, and as I settle into my seat, surrounded by Karrell and my new family, I'm actually glad, for the first time in my life, to be heading home.