This story takes place the week before St. Augustine School’s holiday break, in our novel Always Darkest, and features Mal, Ben, Petra, and Teddy, as well as a freckle-faced kid named Kelly.
“Teddy … Hello … Earth to Ted.”
When the redhead didn’t even glance up from his coffee, she reached out and pinched the back of his hand that was resting next to his mug.
“Hey! Ow!” he whined, in wide-eyed surprise. “What the shit, Petra?”
She gave an impish grin that made her look even more like a wood sprite than usual as she deftly caught the cookie he chucked across the table at her head. She took an unconcerned bite and grinned at their other companions.
Those two were sitting so close together they were practically sharing a chair, advertising the newly-minted nature of their relationship with their almost constantly linked hands. The girl used her free hand to pick up her coffee cup and pretend to offer it to Ted.
“Nice of you to join us. Maybe you should think about upping your caffeination game,” she laughed.
Her boyfriend got in the spirit of the group’s teasing banter by piling on with, “Don’t wake him up too much, Mal. I’m hungry and I’m kinda wondering what it would take to get him mad enough to throw a burger my way.”
“Haha, Ben; you’re a funny guy,” Teddy rolled his eyes and then glared at Petra. “That really hurt,” he protested, still rubbing his hand. “And oh look, I’m getting a bruise. Witch.”
“Hey,” she said with mock-indignation. “You leave my religion out of this.”
Ben grinned mischievously. “I don’t think he meant it that way, Petes. Ted’s just too nice to use the word he was thinking in the middle of a crowded café. I, on the other hand …”
“Knock it off, Brody,” Petra said with a little head shake.
He snickered, but shut his mouth. When she defaulted to last names, it usually meant she was annoyed.
“I’m sorry, Ted,” Petra said, looking appropriately sheepish for having pinched him that hard. “I know I went a little overboard, but you’ve been staring into deep space since you got here, completely ignoring us. I can tell something’s bugging you. What gives?”
He shrugged and Mal gave him a long speculative look. “Teddy, if something’s bothering you, you know we’ll try to help.”
Teddy just gave another noncommittal shrug. “It’s nothing guys, really.” He glanced around the table. No one was buying it. “It’s … it’s just silly.”
Ben could see his young friend doing the thing Ben knew was a bad road; the kid was getting up in his own head something awful. He was too young, too innocent to start developing that particular bad habit, he thought. He tipped the boy a grin and began sincerely, “Ted, c’mon, if you can’t tell your friends, your teammates what’s bothering you, who can you tell?”
Teddy looked almost like he was ready to talk, but was chewing his lip instead. Ben went on, his grin widening, advertising loudly, he hoped, that he was teasing.
“Speaking of teammates, maybe after we get done here, we should go for a run … ’Cause you do look fat in those jeans,” he teased. Then he put up both hands like he was ready to catch something. “So … burger?”
“Seriously, Ben?” Mal asked in a tone to perfectly match Teddy and Petra’s eyerolls. Then she winked. “Picking on friends is no way to make it one the Nice List. And getting on the Nice List will be worth your while,” Mal said with an arched eyebrow.
Teddy blushed, and Petra almost spit out her coffee. Ben pursed his lips, willing his own face not to color with little success, so he just grinned at her. “No fair using Christmas against me. Besides, you already know me well enough to know I’m more supportive when I’m well fed,” he replied, bringing the focus back to their efforts to draw Ted out of himself.
Mal bumped her shoulder into his and looked at Teddy. “Moving on then, before you boys faint from all that blood rushing to your head to make that pretty plum color. You can trust us, Ted. No more teasing, we promise.”
She looked at Ben emphasizing the ‘trust’ and ‘promise’. He just smiled and held up his hands innocently. “Sure, we.”
Teddy sighed. “Okay, but I have to warn you … This is a Santa thing.”
Ben almost made another joke, but the look he was now being given by Mal, and worse, Petra made him think twice. Their friend was finally opening up; play time was over. Ben just looked at Ted with polite interest.
“So, this year I’m getting stuck babysitting on Christmas Eve. I mean, not that I mind having my little brother, but my parents and some of their grad school friends are going to the Christmas party at the ski lodge near the townhouse they booked. We’re sharing the place with my dad’s college roommate and his family, so I’ll have Kel, and four other rug rats, all under the age of eight, cooped up in what’s basically a hotel room with nothing other than a TV and whatever gets brought for toys. No cell service. And no Wi-Fi,” he added darkly.
“Man, that sucks,” Ben commiserated. “But what’s that have to do with Santa?”
Teddy made a face like he’d tasted something sour. “It’s Brad and Joyce, my parents friends … They’re like super rational. They don’t really have any use for religion. They don’t like myths or legends. And they don’t really celebrate Christmas … I mean they sort of do, but like for its historical significance and ‘because it’s easier to observe than abstain’. Their words.”
“Jeez, they sound like a blast to have around for the holidays,” Petra said with a deep roll of her eyes.
Teddy shrugged. “I mean, they’re really great people mostly … But we’ve spent Christmas with them before. And it was so dry. Everything they did came with this big explanation and was so cold and intentional. For me, Christmas without the magic just isn’t the same.” He flushed a little, embarrassed to sound so much a like a kid, but everyone was smiling at him in an understanding way, so he continued. “And Kelly is still at the age where he really believes in Santa Claus. I just don’t want to see Christmas ruined for him.”
“I’m sure Kelly’ll be fine, Teddy,” Mal offered, garnering encouraging nods from Ben and Petra.
“Yeah,” Ben said with a shrug. “Just do the ‘Yes, Virginia’ thing. It’ll all come out in the wash.”
“The what?” Petra asked, looking annoyed. Ben had a habit of knowing things nobody else knew and then looking at them like they were crazy when he had to explain himself.
“You know, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’. Chicago Sun Times editorial from the 1890’s.” He glanced around. “Guys, c’mon. It’s like super famous. There’ve been movies and cartoons and plays?”
Mal raised both eyebrows at him and smirked. “You are such a dork.”
He laughed. “Me? What’s the chemical formula for glucose?”
“C6H12O6,” she rattled off.
“Yeah,” Ben grinned. “I’m the dork.”
She laughed and leaned against his arm, twining her fingers with his.
Teddy puffed out a long dramatic breath through his cheeks. “But see the Atherton’s have an older kid, too. She’s a sophomore in college now, but … When I was in kindergarten, like five or six years old, our families did the ski weekend for the holidays thing for the first time. That was the year Jenn told me there was no Santa.” Teddy paused. “And you know, maybe a little bit older kid being a jerk wouldn’t have been a big deal, but when I ran crying to the adults, Joyce jumped in before anyone else could say anything and … That was the day Santa died for me.”
Ben shook his head. What kind of adult did that to a little kid? “Wow, man. That’s rough.”
“Holy shit! I remember you coming back to school and telling me about that bitch!” Petra said, way too loudly, drawing stares from some neighboring tables in the café. She covered her mouth for a second. “Sorry … It’s just, well … So, Jenn is a real person that really did that … I’d always thought …”
“Always thought what, Petra Catherine Knapp?” Teddy demanded.
“That she was like, you know, one of those girls you just … made up.”
Ben whistled and Mal looked very uncomfortable. Ted stood up and walked out the door without a backward glance or another word. Petra moved to stand up but Mal reached out and grabbed the tail of the jacket she was slipping on. “I’d let him go. He’s being a little weird today and you know Ted … He goes full ginger temper at the drop of a hat, but he’ll cool off. He always does.”
Petra took her coat off and dropped back into her chair. They started talking casually about holiday plans to pass the time. Petra grinned at how Ben’s ears colored when Mal asked, “So you’re really going to come over?”
He fidgeted with his napkin and gave her a shy smile, “If your dad is really inviting me.”
They moved on to which dumb Christmas movie they could all watch as a group and the relative merits of various types of eggnog, which Ben claimed was ridiculous. All eggnog was equally awesome and should be consumed in buckets not cups.
None of them noticed Teddy return until he cleared his throat and telegraphed his toss of a foil wrapped packet at Petra. She caught it and raised an eyebrow at him.
Ben recognized the smell immediately. “No way! Five Guys! You shouldn’t reward her behavior with that, Ted. I was way meaner.”
“It’s their veggie sandwich. I only throw food my intended target will actually eat,” Ted explained with a wink.
“Ugh. Never mind. She’s definitely the one who sucks then.”
“You little shit!” Petra said, face breaking into a smile anyway as she unwrapped her favorite burger substitute in all of downtown. She loved a place that catered to carnivores but didn’t forget that people like her existed. “I actually felt bad and you were just doing a storm off as a bit! Unbelievable!”
Ben chuckled. “At least I know where the line is now. But if I manage to piss you off, I like a double with bacon.”
“I’ll file that away for future reference.” Teddy sat back down with a grin. “Anyhow … before I had my honesty questioned …” Petra stuck out her tongue at him before taking a gargantuan bite out of her sandwich. “I was about to say that I just want to find a way to my brother’s Christmas, no … that’s not what I mean. I guess I don’t want him to lose … I want him to hang on to that … what the word …” Teddy fished around in his mind for the right turn of phrase, but couldn’t seem to come up with it.
“His sense of childlike wonder?” Ben offered.
“Yeah, something like that.” Teddy nodded thoughtfully before he continued. “The Santa thing is going to come up … And my parents are going to handle it poorly.”
“Have you tried talking to them?”
“I did, Petra, but it went exactly like I thought it would. They got all, ‘He’ll have to hear it sometime, son’ and ‘He probably already knows from other kids’. It was so frus …” Teddy was interrupted by the chirruping of his phone as his friends shared incredulous looks that Ted’s parents could be so dismissive of him trying to protect his little brother.
“Hey, Mom,” Teddy said into his phone. “Okay … Yeah, no, it’s fine. I’m on my way.” He sighed. “Yes, really.” Teddy stood up, looking around the table at his friends’ expressions. “Half hour,” he said. “No, I need the half hour. I have to make a quick stop … Don’t worry about it, Mom, I’m already packed, and I took care of Kel’s toy bag stuff before the sitter got there. Yeah,” he finished and ended the call. “Sorry guys, I’ve been summoned. I won’t see you before break so, have a merry, okay?”
Mal frowned, “But there’s still two days of class.”
“I know, but I guess we’re leaving earlier than we had planned. Somebody’s surgery got canceled so my mom’s calendar opened up.”
“Sorry we didn’t help more, Ted,” Ben said as he stood up, offering Teddy a handshake and being wrapped in a quick hug instead. “Merry Christmas, man.”
“Merry Christmas. And you did help. You really did. Talking about it, joking around with you guys, it made it better. Thanks.”
Ben grinned, stepping out of the way so Mal and Petra could get their own round of Ted’s enthusiastic Christmas hugs. The kid was like hugging a bear. You could almost forget he was an even better wrestler than he was a runner until he did something like shake your hand or throw his arms around you.
“Glad we could help, although I’m not sure I understand how …” Ben trailed off.
“I think I have a really good idea,” Teddy smiled. “This is up to me, and I’m gonna keep Christmas for Kel if it kills me.”
“Let us know if we can do anything from here,” Mal offered, hugging him a second time.
“I will. I gotta get going; I wasn’t making it up when I said I have to make a stop.” Teddy turned to leave the shop, then called back over his shoulder from the door, “Hey, I’m back on the 27th, let’s get coffee.”
Read the rest in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas – Holiday Tales With a Twist Vol. I