Ain’t No Party Like … Skipping the Party
Authors’ Note – If you’re already a reader of Always Darkest, or even last year’s Fic-mas stories, you’ve met Petra. She’s never had a story all her own though, and we decided it was time. She’s pretty important in the sequel. If you haven’t yet been introduced to her, this is simply a tale of an unhappy teen at Christmas who has an opportunity to be better than where she comes from.
“Petra! What have you done?”
Petra looked up from her phone with an expression that said she’d as likely been disturbed by a buzzing mosquito as her irate mother.
When Petra didn’t immediately respond, her mother went on with furious determination. “Our guests will be here any minute, and you … you … You’re ruining it already!”
Petra blinked slowly, then forced a bright smile. “Whatever do you mean, Mother?”
“Your appearance! Go to your room right now and change! And …” Her mother snatched a white-tasseled red felt hat off one of the servants scurrying by and thrust it at her daughter. “Put this on!”
“Pass,” Petra said blandly, taking her feet down off the coffee table, rising, and brushing past her mother, exchanging a wink with Mary, their current housekeeper and Petra’s former nanny. Her mother huffed several times, clearly at a loss for words, which had been Petra’s goal all along.
The last thing she wanted was to be at some stuffy professional “networking” holiday party. Petra certainly had no intention of being the demanded Norman Rockwell family portrait poster girl either. When she was younger, they’d sort of forced it on her, but not anymore. Not this year.
She’d shaved her head for the occasion. Well, sort of shaved. The sides anyway. She’d bleached the stubble and dyed it a festive bright red. The top was dyed forest green and waxed up into liberty spikes. Mal had helped her attach jingling silver bells to the ends this afternoon and they tinkled pleasantly every time she moved. She’d purposely dressed in all black, donning her most distressed ripped black skinny jeans over equally ripped and worn out fishnet stockings. Her shoes sort of matched her hair though. They were oversized elf shoes in bright green and red stripes with bells like the ones in her hair, but bigger. Louder.
Her shirt was the piece de resistance, she thought. She’d had it custom painted in the place over at the University Mall. It was black, too, but it also featured a jacked and angry Rudolph standing over the bloody lifeless corpse of another reindeer. The caption said, ‘They Used to Laugh and Call Him Names. Used to.’ Petra was very satisfied with the picture she’d created.
Her mother trailed after her, a litany of all the ways she was failing as a daughter bouncing off her harmlessly. This was what her mother was like around her work friends. Petra preferred the usual benevolent neglect she typically experienced, especially since Alex left for college, but she wasn’t surprised that tonight her mother was being a ninety mile an hour bitch.
As if to prove the lecture wasn’t troubling her, Petra paused by the sixteen-foot-tall gargantuan blue spruce that dominated their main hallway, its star reaching the top of the grand staircase. “Oooo, shiny,” Petra said, plucking off one of the small bright silver balls. She took out her septum ring, slipped it into her jeans pocket, and replaced it with the ornament. She was not altogether thrilled with how it felt or the smell, but was pretty happy with the disgust that wrinkled her mother’s face.
“Young lady,” her mother snapped.
Hot damn, she hated being called young lady. Sister Margaret who taught her English class never seemed to call the girls anything else. Mal had solidified their budding friendship by explaining that ‘lady’ was a term of oppression perpetuated by the patriarchy during the first week of class. Petra had thought for sure that was worth about a year’s worth of detentions, but the sister had just given her a clenched-jaw smile and said that was an interesting point. Petra had nearly pissed herself trying not to laugh. Even the memory of it was enough to put a smirk on her face which just seem to irk her mother even more.
“I said, ‘young lady’!”
“I’ve been speaking to you!”
“And I’ve been ignoring you. Your point?”
Her mother sighed dramatically, looking extremely put upon. “I don’t deserve this. After everything I’ve done for you!”
“Everything you’ve … Look, I told you I had plans, but no, because Alex is off at school, you need me around to sell the big lie.”
“That this family isn’t falling apart. Cuz that’d be bad for business. We can pretend you guys aren’t always about one extra martini away from a messy divorce, that Mary didn’t have more to do with my potty training than you, that any of us can stand being in the room together anymore! Jesus Fucking Christ I miss Alex. At least he gives a shit. Without him around this whole facade of us being one big happy family is complete bullshit!”
Her mother looked like she’d been slapped. Then she looked like maybe she wanted to do some slapping. “Don’t you dare …”
“Oh, I dare, alright. You haven’t bothered to say ten words to me since Thanksgiving that weren’t you bitching about my grades … which are actually pretty stellar, by the way. Then, suddenly yesterday you tried kissing my ass and when that didn’t work you demand I show up as underaged eye candy at your sham of a Christmas party! No thank you!”
“What’s all the fuss about in here?” Petra’s father asked, as he came in from the connecting hallway. “I could hear you in the kitchen.”
Petra’s mother gave him an exasperated ‘are you kidding me?’ look, then puffed out a theatrical sigh. “You deal with her. I’m going to check on the help.” She stomped off noisily on sharp heels.
“By which she means go grope the bartender who’s maybe got five years on me,” Petra said darkly, rolling her eyes in disgust.
“Petra, that’s enough,” her father said gently. “Now, what’s this all about?”
She took a deep breath. Her father was the calm one. Not better, but more relaxed. He hadn’t even batted an eye at her appearance. “I don’t want to be here. You guys will introduce me to everyone as part of your show, then you’ll ignore me while Creepy Jim from mom’s office who’s older than you flirts with me and tries to cop a feel. I’m here as a piece of furniture … No, it’s worse. I’m a decoration that gets thrown out when you’re through with it!”
He seemed to think about that for a minute. “Okay. Any chance you’re going to just go change like your mother asked you and not make a scene here tonight?”
Petra noted that her father didn’t disagree with anything she’d said. He didn’t even look sorry about it. She really did miss Alex. She hoped he’d change his mind about coming home for a weekend at some point soon. It was maddening with his dorm being only a few blocks away, but once he’d gotten out of the house, he’d mostly stayed gone.
“Not a snowball’s chance in Hell. Sorry not sorry.”
Petra’s father reached into his suit coat and pulled out his money clip, peeling off several large bills and holding them out to her. “Here you go. Have fun, and I’ll see you tomorrow at the charity breakfast.” He held the bills away for a second. “Just do something about your hair before then.”
“I will,” she said with a practiced sweet smile. He let her have the cash. “Thanks, Daddy!” she said cheerfully, leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll figure out how not to shock Gran and Papa, I promise,” she laughed.
“Good. Now get out of here before your mother comes back. She’ll need at least three drinks in her before she’s tolerable to be around again and three more will put her back in ‘avoid at all costs’ territory.”
“Good call,” she agreed, heading out immediately. She stopped in the foyer long enough to pull on her long coat and grab the bag she always left in the hall closet for when she needed to bail at the last minute, whether for a party or to avoid her bickering parents.
Her mother came back into the hallway just as she was about to close the door. The shrill whine of her responding as predicted followed Petra out onto the stoop. Thankfully, closing the door muffled the ensuing argument that would turn off like a faucet the minute the first guest rang the bell. Petra started up the street with hardly a care. She was too grateful to not be stuck in that house with them fake not-fighting, or being cornered by Creepy Jim, to give even a sliver of a damn. She hoped Teddy was home. They could hang out, or maybe go kick around Church Street a little.
She pulled out her phone and tapped his name at the top of her Recents. “Hey, Teddy … Yeah, totally got out of it. I owe you and Mal big time for helping with the hair. Em too for the shoes. I thought Mom was gonna have a stroke … You still gonna be around tonight? … Dude, yeah, that sounds like way more fun. Elsie’s parties are even better than mine. Wonder if we can talk Mal into it? … Of course she is. What about Emily? … Cool. I’m gonna walk up around the block and just … I don’t know … Shake off the stink of fake way-too-early Christmas … It’s so not funny … Okay, cool. See you in a few.”
Petra headed up the side street that, while it would take her well out of her way in getting to Teddy’s, would also provide the fifteen or so extra minutes she wanted to get in a good mood. Elsie throwing a last-minute party was a pleasant surprise. When she’d told her mother she had plans it was more I-have-plans-to-not-be-currency-in-your-office than any real agenda to go do something. Now, she had a pocket full of cash and a bounce in her step.
A Friday night party with friends, even if they couldn’t pry Mal off her couch, where she was supposedly helping Ben with some required math crap, would be preferable to smiling until her face hurt and rejecting the advances of some old creep who just because he was related to the president of the company felt like he had some … some claim on her, and had since she was maybe fourteen. And her parents didn’t seem to be bothered by it. What the hell? Who was okay with their kid being reduced to an object? Worse, who reduced that kid to an object themselves? One to be trotted out to preserve the illusion of family?
Petra stopped at the corner and took out the money to count it. Jesus, he really did want to get rid of her tonight. That was quite a pile. Being a fly in their ointment pays a hell of a lot better than being a party decoration, she thought to herself. She shivered a little, telling herself it was entirely the cold. It had been an unusually chilly fall. The lead up to winter hadn’t been especially promising either. She glanced around. Snow littered the edges of the sideway in grimy little piles and everything looked kind of grey in the fading light.
The sky was clear of any promise of fresh snow to cover up the dirty run-down appearance the icy crumbling mess gave the city. Of course, this little neighborhood, so close to her own more exclusive one, was dirty and ramshackle on a good day. Maybe there was more snow in the forecast; she hadn’t looked. Or warm weather to melt it all would be okay, too. In fact, she thought as her ears began to tingle with the cold, warm weather would be better. She shuffled along, slowed by the elf shoes for another few minutes, but as the tingling turned to burning, she took them off and stuffed them into her shoulder bag in favor of the doc martens they’d been pulled on over.
Taking the roundabout route to blow off some steam before she got to the Sullivans had seemed like a great idea. But now not only her ears, but her fingers, were red and starting to hurt. Time to pick up the pace, she thought. As she turned a corner to head back down to the waterfront, she found herself on a street she didn’t immediately recognize. It was a long row of neglected houses and flickering street lights trying to sputter to life in the gathering dusk. She didn’t usually venture too far onto any of these side streets. She realized she’d sort of been conditioned to avoid them. Her parents seemed to have some sort of weird dread of people less well-off than they were. But Mary lived over here somewhere, so how bad could it be?
She decided to duck into the little mom and pop store with the faded sign on the closest corner in hopes that they’d have some coffee or hot chocolate to warm her up until she made her way to Teddy’s building. The bell on the door jingled as she went inside, but the proprietor didn’t look up. He was too focused on the two kids in front of him.
The little boy was maybe four. He looked about Kelly Sullivan’s age. The girl was probably nine or ten. It was hard to tell. They were both small, too thin, and bundled up in winter clothes that were too big, and while she had the round cheeks of a kid not quite approaching adolescence, Petra thought she had some of the oldest eyes she’d ever seen.
The dumpy, balding man behind the counter still hadn’t acknowledged that he had a new customer. He was too busy glaring down at the little kids in front of him. “Look, kid, you just don’t have enough money. I ain’t a charity.”
The little girl sighed quietly. “Yes, Mr. Carrey I know. I’m sorry, Mr. Carrey.” She turned and tugged the little boy’s hand and they shuffled out of the store. As they slipped past Petra, making themselves as small as possible, she saw silent tears sliding down the little girl’s face into her scarf. At least they were dressed warm.
The door closed behind the kids and Petra’s gaze settled on the scruffy disgruntled Mr. Carrey. She cleared her throat. He finally acknowledged her presence with an irritated sniff. “What is this, freaks and losers on parade?”
She let her eyes travel slowly over the parts of him that were visible above the level of the counter. Her expression said she’d taken his measure and found him wanting. “It definitely is,” she replied. She turned and walked out, ignoring the shower of profanity and complaints about ‘kids these days’ just like she’d ignored her mother’s piercing clucking of disapproval.
Out on the curb, under the streetlight that was going to become necessary before very long, the little girl sat with her arm around her brother who was sobbing inconsolably, but not loudly or particularly noticeably. She was comforting him like it was something she’s needed to do before. “I know, Billy. I know. Mama will be home soon. She might have some more money.”
Petra stood for a minute, watching them. She called out, “Hey, kid! Come here a minute.”
The little girl looked fearfully her way. “Um … no … um … I’m not s’posed to talk to strangers.”
Petra walked over to them. “I’m Petra. I might look pretty strange, but I’m really pretty much just a kid like you.”
“Oh … um … I’m Theresa,” she said softly.
Petra reached into her pocket. She held out the money her father had paid her off with to the little girl. “Take this.”
The little girl got up and eyed the wad of cash. She reached out her hand, then stopped. “I … I can’t.”
“Sure you can. I don’t need it. I have my bank card. It’s Christmas money.”
“I really can’t,” the little girl said, shaking her head.
Petra chewed her lip. Then she grinned and opened her shoulder bag, showing the little girl the shoes inside. “Of course you can. Look, I’m not supposed to tell, but I’m an elf. Like from the North Pole. You know who sends elves from the North Pole don’t you?”
The little girl gave her a worldly smirk that was definitely too old for whatever her chronological age was. “Santa’s not real, lady.”
“You sure?” Petra took the shoes out of her bag and pulled them back on, careful to keep the cash pinned between two of her fingers the whole time. “Would anybody who doesn’t work for Santa walk around town looking like I do right now?”
A small giggle escaped Theresa’s lips. “I guess maybe not.”
“See, so you can take Santa money.” She held it out again, then hesitated. “But this Christmas present has one condition.”
“You can’t spend it in this store here. That guy is on the Naughty List.”
Theresa smiled and for the first time looked her age as she reached out and took the money. “Thank you, lady. A lot.”
“It’s Petra, and don’t mention it.”
She started to walk away. Theresa called out, “Petra! Hey, Petra the Elf! This is too much!” Theresa had never even seen a hundred-dollar bill before, but she knew what they were, and she was currently holding five of them.
“No, it isn’t. It’s just right. Merry Christmas!”
The little girl was crying quietly again, but she was grinning from ear to ear around her tears. “Okay! Okay, thanks! Merry Christmas, Elf Lady!”
As she walked away, Petra heard Billy’s tiny sniffly voice ask, “Sissy, we eat now?”
“You bet, Billy. We can eat. Right now.”
Petra headed back toward the waterfront, happily whistling We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
She was very glad her ears had gotten cold.