White-Hot Holiday

By: Coleen Kwan

He thought she would come back with a sassy retort, but she merely shifted in her seat and toyed with her hair. Grinning to himself, he was about to ask her what would impress her when he remembered himself and bit back the provocative question. Luke had asked him to behave, and while his hosts were absent dealing with a crisis, he shouldn’t take advantage of the situation by flirting with Naomi.

Resolved to behaving himself, he followed Naomi’s directions to the center of Burronga. As he drove down the main street, he found his shoulders beginning to tense. Burronga was a bit more upmarket than Mecklenburg, but it reminded him too much of his hometown. The old buildings, the broad streets, the ambling traffic, the wide, blue sky overhead. In a few days’ time, he’d be driving past a similar streetscape, except it would be winter dull and freezing cold and he’d be counting the hours until he could escape.

He recalled the school trip in seventh grade to New York City, how he’d been dazzled by the city’s energy, diversity, and endless possibilities. In Mecklenburg he’d always felt as if he were living under a dome, trapped with small-town folks who thought he was weird because he wasn’t like the other sporty, outdoorsy kids. But in New York the sky was the limit, and suddenly he could breathe. On his return home, he’d announced his intention of moving to New York one day, much to the dismay of his parents, who were perfectly happy where they were and wanted him to stay nearby.

He’d never truly felt he’d belonged in Mecklenburg, and spending Christmas there just reinforced that belief. But his family expected him there each year, and the more he felt obliged to live up to their expectations, the more Christmas brought out the grouch in him. Though he knew he shouldn’t feel that way, the guilt only fed into his silent resentment, and the vicious cycle soured his visits.

He reminded himself he was half a world away from Mecklenburg and shouldn’t let his prejudices against small towns get to him. Naomi directed him to a restored, nineteenth-century, two-story building with a ground floor storefront bearing the name Java & Joolz.

“You don’t have to spend all day here,” she said as they got out of the car that he’d parked right outside the store.

“We’ll see. I don’t like being idle.”

She studied him curiously over the roof of the car. “Yes, I noticed that,” she said drily. “Your boss had to twist your arm to take a vacation, and then you spent the first week learning to scuba dive. And today, you’re so averse to relaxing that you’d rather help me serve Christmas shoppers even though the sight of tinsel makes you break out in hives.”

“Yeah, I’m a nutcase.”

Aaron followed her into the store, thinking it wasn’t so much that he was averse to relaxing as he was attracted to spending the day with Naomi. Once inside, his feet faltered as he took stock of his surroundings. The art gallery and coffee shop screamed Xmas at him. A towering, white Christmas tree stood guard at the entrance, glimmering with shiny balls and ribbons. Giant snowflakes spattered the walls. Curly strings of tinsel looped around the serving counter of the coffee-shop area. Fake snow sprayed across the windows.

One Christmas, back in high school, he’d got a temporary job stocking shelves at a local supermarket. The store had been crammed with cheap, tawdry decorations. All day long, loudspeakers had blared out Christmas songs while the overworked staff clanged bells every two hours to announce a new “special.” The store owners had squeezed every last dime from the season, and the experience had left a lasting impression on Aaron. Ever since then, he’d developed an allergy to tinsel, carols, and clanging bells. Tyler’s store was much more refined, but still the onslaught of yuletide decorations left Aaron reeling, and the heat didn’t help.

It was the height of summer. Outside, people were strolling around in shorts and sandals eating ice cream, but in here it was Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. But he’d promised Naomi he’d help, so he’d just have to get over his tinsel phobia.

“You’ll have to put this on.” Naomi approached him with a red-and-green elf hat.

He looked at the hat. He crossed his arms. “Nope. No darn way.”

“But it’s for shoppers to identify staff when they need help. See, I’m wearing one.”

And she looked real cute in her elf hat, but not him. Nuh-uh. “That thing has pointy ears. And a pom-pom. Men shouldn’t wear pom-poms.”

“Santa wears pom-poms, and he’s a man.”

He leaned toward her. “I hate to break it to you, but Santa isn’t real.”

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