Friday, December 14, 2007

Holly Snow stared at the house. Although to most people it would appear to be just another normal two-story residence in suburban Los Angeles, she knew better. Its owner wasn't home, but he remained there in spirit, and she could feel his disapproval in the way the windows on the top floor looked down on just like his perverse blue eyes did. Inside, a pair of golden retrievers was eagerly barking; and friendly as Shelby and Beamer may have been to Holly when they'd met at Thanksgiving, the sounds they were making nevertheless reminded her of the yelling she and her father had been subject to that night.

She turned to her boyfriend at her right, Kent Thomas, who unfortunately looked just like his father. Tall and skinny, he had atop his head a recently trimmed brown set of hair, and yet with the same blue eyes as Rod he managed to convey a calm ocean rather than a raging hurricane. But where the father would be seen in a flattering business suit, all the more so due to his position as the head of just such a retailer, the newfangled sixteen-year-old son wore brown cargo pants and a T-shirt showing off the diversity of North American birds of prey in a colorful montage of a painting.

"I promised my dad I wouldn't do this, you know," she said finally, after an overlong minute or so of deliberation. "Couldn't we do this at my house or something, instead?"

"Well," Kent replied, "as much as I'd love to someday see your house, Holly, most of my friends don't know where you live…"

"It's just down the street from the high school!" she reminded him. "How hard is that to give directions to?"

"…And," he continued without missing a beat, "this is where I've always had my birthday parties…"

"It's your sweet sixteen! Is that not a reason to shake things up a little?"

"…And, because it's my birthday party, no matter where it is, my parents are going to be there anyway, seeing as I'm the fruit of their loins and all."

Holly sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm overreacting."

Kent nodded. "Not that I blame your dad for thinking that way. Hell, I'd try to stay away from them, too, if it weren't for that whole 'parents' thing."

"I thought you liked your mom."

"Comparatively," Kent said, in his turn to sigh. "She's still a gold digger." Rightfully fed up with waiting, he pulled his house keys out of his pants pocket and began walking up to the front door. Reluctantly, Holly followed. "Watch out," he warned her, and as soon as he opened the door, the two dogs leapt to their hind legs in joy, and both teenagers picked one of them to shower with adoration. The favor was quickly returned, as Beamer, the older and male golden, stuck his curious nose between Holly's legs as he had the first time, and Shelby, the younger and female one, grabbed the nearest stinky tennis ball off the floor and begged Kent to throw it for her. "Home sweet home," Kent remarked, blushing at the unoriginality of this statement.

Kent threw the tennis ball gently to the other side of the house, near the back door, which he followed Shelby towards after setting his navy blue Jansport backpack down on the couch in the family room, and once there, he unlocked it to let the dogs outside to play in the backyard after another day spent locked inside. While this was going on, Holly took a seat on the couch opposite Kent's backpack, and removed her own same-brand, same-colored pack from her shoulders, placing it off the couch and at her feet, where it wasn't likely to be confused for the other as it had when they'd first met. Nametags would probably prevent such hilarity from ensuing, but the kids were both too lazy to bother implementing such a safeguard.

Holly had just unzipped her bag and was reaching inside to pull out Kent's gift when the doorbell rang. With Kent in the backyard, and the visitor more than likely being his friend Thomas Fraser, Holly shrugged and saw no harm in answering it herself.

It wasn't Tom.

Instead, a comically short UPS employee, dressed in the characteristic brown uniform with the titular truck parked on the street behind him, stood there. Holly glanced towards the sizeable package in his hands and noticed the addresses—there was Kent's on the delivery end, of course, but more surprising was the return address.

"Thomas residents?" the man asked.

"Uh-huh," Holly said. She lifted a finger to indicate that this man might need to wait a second, and then ran to the back door and called Kent's name.

Within a minute, Kent was at the front door signing for the package, in all probability unaware of the significance of its sender. As Holly was closing the door, they heard another voice shouting at her to "Stop! Wait!" and upon reopening, they discovered that this time, it was Tom. Like the UPS man, whom he'd dashed past on the sidewalk, he, too, was carrying a package.

In his hurry to the door, Tom had ruffled his black hair, wrinkled his teal blue polo shirt, and nearly dropped his square-framed glasses, all of which he readjusted to proper order as he caught his breath inside the house. Holly helped by taking the gift from his hands and setting it down on the coffee table in the family room, and he thanked her for this before turning to Kent and smiling. "Happy birthday, man," he said, still somewhat breathless.

"Thanks," Kent said. "But did you really have to run?"

"You were about to close the door on me."

"But we didn't know you were there until you tried to stop us," Holly said.

"The important thing is that you're here," Kent nodded.

"What's that?" Tom said as soon as he saw the package in Kent's hands. "Who's that from?"

"I…" Kent began, setting the box down next to Tom's gift, "don't know."

"I do," Holly said, prompting immediate glances at her from the boys. "Well, I do."

"Then…" Tom said.

"Claire," Holly answered.

"Oh," Kent and Tom said together.

Holly bit her lip and shrugged.

"She never mentioned getting you anything," Tom said.

"Probably for the best," Kent said.

"It certainly would've spoiled the surprise."

"Actually, I was referring to Jimmy."

"Oh, that," Tom said, making a worried look at Holly. "Yeah, you're right. Definitely for the best."

"How did she get your address?" Holly asked.

"I don't know," Kent said with a shrug. He and Holly both glanced at Tom, and from the shocked look in his slate gray eyes he showed upon this sudden turn in his direction, they both gathered he couldn't have told her, and this was repeated when the two boys did the same turn to Holly, who, in asking the question in the first place, really should have been automatically excluded from the proceedings. "Well," he reasoned, "it's not like I wouldn't get her a gift when her birthday comes around." Turning towards Holly, he began to ask, "Which is…when, by the way?"

"February seventh, 1992," she clarified.

"Two-seven?" Kent said, a smile spreading across his face. "Twenty-seven?"

Holly grumbled. "It's just a number, Kent. Also, I think you might be reaching a bit here."

"Yeah, I know," Kent said, somewhat embarrassed and red in the face. "But Weird Al's my favorite artist, which makes that my favorite number, which means I'm going to notice it everywhere."

"Just be careful not to turn into a psychotic Jim Carrey when you do," Tom remarked.

"I noticed it in you," Kent told Holly.

She simply shrugged. "Well, when my birthday is December twenty-seventh, who wouldn't?"

"Not to dwell on the negative here," Tom said (ignoring a joking "That's exactly what you do," comment from Kent), "but you guys are only separated by thirteen days."

"Since when are you triskaidekaphobic?" Kent asked.

"Aren't we all just a little bit? I'm just saying, to some people, that might be seen as a bad sign."

"More to the point," Holly said, her eyes returning to Claire's package, "Claire sending you a package is odd, don't you think?"

"Not as odd as her staying with Jimmy," Kent said. "Not after what he's done to her."

"Kent, it's your birthday. We all want her to leave him, too, but not only is that out of our hands, it's just a bad idea to think about these kinds of things on a day that you should be happy, right?" Kent realized she was right, and made a reluctant smile. "Besides," Holly added with a more genuine grin, "once you get my gift, you won't want to think about anything else."

Tom raised his eyebrows in curiosity and turned to Kent, who was even more surprised by this comment than his friend, not least due to the fact that he would be the one getting this gift. "Looking forward to it," he said simply.

"Good on you," she said. As the boys contemplated what she'd gotten him, Holly walked a few steps over to her open backpack and pulled out the very gift she was talking about (prompting another simultaneous "Oh" from Tom and Kent), and set it alongside Claire and Tom's gift on the table. The box containing her gift was smaller than the others, but in order to have fit in her backpack, this was to be expected, and nobody questioned it, both mature enough to understand the "big things/small packages" mantra. "So, when's everybody coming over?" Holly asked. "I really want to meet these other friends of yours."

Tom and Kent looked at each other, both slightly nervous. Tom was a year younger than Kent and Holly, his own fifteenth birthday having passed on Sunday the ninth, but in fact he was the oldest of a group of friends that were all still in middle school, all of whom he'd known long before meeting Kent last fall and welcoming him into the group. It was rather strange for a high school kid like Kent to have friends several years below his age bracket and in a completely different school level, but this wasn't what was worrying the boys. Holly already sensed what was doing that.

"Oh, come on," she said. "We've talked about this. Rick can't be that bad, can he?"

"You're going to eat those words, woman," Tom shook his head.

"He takes some getting used to," Kent said. "Especially if you happen to be someone like…well, you, Holly."

"Meaning?" she said.

"He's going to hit on you."

"He may be kind of an asshole," Holly said, "but I'm sure I can handle it."