Finding a Christmas present for our grandmother had proved to be a near-impossible task. Typically you'd either ask the person what they'd like or you would make an assumption based on their personality, right?
Well, neither Charlotte nor I knew enough about Mémé to know what her taste in anything was like. Would she like that silk scarf? What about that watch? Or perhaps a pair of earrings?
We had already reached out to our parents, only to be turned away with a simple, "Give us a minute to think of something." They never got back to us. We weren't too keen on asking our grandfather either, in fear of him spilling the beans. Asking Mémé was also never going to happen because we knew she would probably insist that we not spend any money on her and thus keep a watchful eye on us.
My sister and I wanted to do this on our own. We wanted to discover enough about our grandmother to have at least a small idea of what she would like as a gift. Although Charlotte and I were at our wits end and still did not know what to buy our grandmother, we decided to head into the city in the hopes of finding something.
And something we did.
It was Charlotte's idea, really. We had spent most of the day searching and buying Christmas gifts when Charlotte happened to spot a bookstore. Because we were in the village, I wasn't at all surprised to see a small and completely overlooked bookstore sandwiched between a pizzeria and a shop full of minerals and stones and possibly drug paraphernalia. We headed inside, fully expecting to find it dark, dreary, and most likely dusty, only to realize that it was probably tidier and cleaner than the nearest Barnes & Noble.
Charlotte immediately perked up after having looked at a couple of Steven King novels. She turned to me, grinning from ear to ear, and said, "Books. Let's get Mémé a couple of books."
Now, most people would probably recoil at that suggestion. I get it; Christmas had become a holiday where meaningful and sentimental gifts were no longer cherished as much as the latest iPad was. But our grandparents were old-fashioned. They loved books and tried their best to keep them in tip-top shape. While they owned their own book shop, most of the books they sold were written either by French authors or French-Canadian authors. They did, however, love a couple of American classics—they simply weren't too familiar with many of them.
So while Charlotte and I had finally decided on what to get Mémé, we still had to decide on which books to buy. That in itself was possibly even more difficult.
"What do you think she would like?" Charlotte murmured absentmindedly, gazing up and down the shelves of books. The solid yet worn wooden floor creaked beneath our weight. "Something old? Something new?"
"Let's stick to the classics," I suggested. "Maybe we could look for some Vonnegut, Hemingway, or Twain novels."
I turned to look at my sister, expecting a response. Instead, she had wandered away from me, something having caught her eye.
"Or," she said quietly, squatting down and reaching for something on the very bottom shelf, a wide grin on her face. "J.D. Salinger." She stood back up, a box set of J.D. Salinger books in her hands. I took it from her and inspected it.
The heavy box set included four books; The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour; An Introduction. Mémé would love this.
"I think this is it," I laughed happily as I looked back up at my sister. And so it was decided. Although the box set drained fifty bucks from my wallet and another fifty from Charlotte's, we were justifiably content with our purchase. It held a special meaning, after all; it proved that although we did not know much about our grandmother, we still managed to pay attention to little details.
Pépé was last on our list, but thankfully we had figured his present out a long time ago. I had managed to overhear him talking about wanting to buy new cufflinks, so off we went to Macy's. By the time we had finally purchased the shiny cufflinks, Charlotte and I were beyond tired. Holiday season was enough to suck all of my energy in just a matter of a few hours.
Once we finally arrived home, Charlotte and I had devised a plan to sneak the presents upstairs. She distracted the adults, who were all gathered in the dining room, while I zipped upstairs and into my room, where I carefully hid the shopping bags in my closet. All that was left for us to do was to wrap the gifts and then patiently wait for Christmas.
By the time the big day had rolled around, I was almost giddy with excitement. I was surprised by my reaction, too—I had not been that way last year, so what was different this year? Was it because my suddenly-changed grandparents were with us? Was I finally ready to open up to them and let them in?
The answer was obvious. I couldn't help but note the way I smiled wider and more happily when either Mémé or Pépé opened a present. Despite all of the problems we had encountered with them in the past, I had finally realized that I truly cared for them, and that I did not want them to go.
"Oh my God," Charlotte laughed as she unwrapped a present my parents had bought her. "Candy-cane and reindeer-patterned pajamas! How'd you guys know?" She carefully unfolded the fleece pajama set, which looked remarkably warm and comfortable. I immediately began to think up of ways to "borrow" them from her.
"I saw you eyeballing it the other day when we went shopping for your father," my mom replied, smiling as she placed a steaming cup of tea to her lips.
"Thanks, you guys," she grinned, reaching over to give my parents quick hugs. "Next up is Mémé!" she grinned, grabbing the wrapped box and handing it to our grandmother. My heartbeat immediately picked up; that was our present. I watched my grandmother's every move, watching expectantly as she began to unwrap it. Charlotte and I exchanged a quick glance before turning back to Mémé. We were expecting a happy smile or something along those lines.
"I love it," she whispered, her eyes tearing up. I straightened up, bewildered by her reaction. I looked at Charlotte, who looked back at me. She also looked surprised.
"Really?" I asked tentatively. "I mean…we're glad you love it, Mémé, but…" I trailed off, not knowing how to ask her why she was crying.
My mom placed her cup of tea down on the coffee table and walked over to the loveseat in which my grandmother was sitting in. She carefully wrapped her arms around her shoulders and smiled at her. Charlotte and I followed our mom's example while my dad cleared his throat, looking away. Pépé watched on, a sad smile evident underneath his gray mustache.
"Thank you, girls," she whispered, patting my arm. I didn't know why, but watching tears roll down my grandmother's sunken cheeks had me blinking away a few tears of my own. Never being one to withhold her emotions, Charlotte laughed as she wiped tears away with the back of her wrist.
My grandma carefully took a book out of its case—Nine Stories—and slowly opened the front page. She held it up to her face and took a deep whiff. "I love the smell of books," she smiled as she set it back down onto her lap. She dapped at the few stray tears remaining on her cheeks with a napkin my mom had fetched.
"All right!" my grandfather said, leaning forward from his seat near the Christmas tree, taking a medium-sized, rectangular present into his hands. "Let's continue, shall we?"
We turned out attention to him, waiting to hear someone's name to be called out.
"Julia!" Pépé smiled, standing up and handing the present to my mom, "this one is for you. It doesn't say from whom, however."
My mother chuckled and took the present from him, tearing the wrapping paper away. Once she opened the box, she gasped. My father looked pretty smug.
"It's a cashmere scarf," she grinned, holding up the dark wine-colored fabric. "Oh, it's so soft!" she gushed, running her fingers along the scarf.
"I almost got into a fistfight with a spoiled fourteen-year-old," my sister laughed triumphantly. "Can you believe the brat just walked up and took the scarf out of dad's hands? Ialmost ripped that braid off her head."
"Charlotte," my mother said sternly. She looked at where my father had been standing just a moment ago only to find him missing. He probably went to the kitchen to pour another cup of coffee.
"Don't worry, mom, I would never do that. I can get arrested for that now," my sister reasoned. My mother sighed and shook her head before turning her attention back to her new scarf, quite obviously in love with it already.
Charlotte chuckled and turned back to the unopened presents. Before she could reach for another one, however, my grandfather stopped her.
"Hold on a minute," he said, standing up just as my father walked back into the living room. He didn't have a coffee mug in his hand, however—instead, he slowly carried in a big box and very carefully set it down on the floor beside me. I looked for a tag but found none.
"Now that one," my grandmother smiled eagerly, "is for both of you."
Charlotte and I didn't hesitate. We raced to open it first, only to realize that the box had a lid. There was no need to unwrap it. I gripped the lid and lifted it, only to see a small, furry brown head pop out. I shrieked and jumped back, not expecting to see a living creature greet me. Charlotte shrieked.
"A dog!?" she cried as she scooped the chocolate lab pup from the box. I inspected the box and suddenly felt stupid for not having realized the holes that had been punctured in there. "How did you hide a puppy from us!? Oh my God!"
"We picked her up from the breeder yesterday afternoon," my dad explained. "She's been hiding in our bathroom."
That made sense—hide the dog in a place where Charlotte and I didn't have much reason to go to, namely my parent's en suite bathroom (which was littered with our father's stinky socks). I watched as Charlotte cooed at the hazel-eyed puppy and extended my arms, wanting to carry her. My silent request went ignored.
"Whose idea was it?" Charlotte asked, grinning as she looked at everyone's face. She placed a kiss on the pup's head and cuddled her. I once again extended my arms, close to reaching the puppy's little bum, but Charlotte took two steps away from me. Denied again.
"It was ours," my grandpa explained, watching with amusement as I quietly followed my sister around the living room in the hopes of getting my opportunity at cuddling with the dog. "We asked your parents beforehand, of course. They agreed after some convincing," he grinned, his eyes sparkling as he looked at my mom.
"I was on board from the get-go; you know how much I love dogs," my dad quickly quipped. "It was your mother who needed the convincing."
"Thank you!" Charlotte cried, finally handing the puppy over to me so that she could throw her arms around our grandparents. She squeezed them tightly. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
I looked down at the furball in my arms, which had yet to make a sound. She stared up at me with bright greenish-brown eyes, curious and enthusiastic. True love at first sight is not a hoax, folks. I fell for her.
"Thank you," I said, looking back down at the puppy. She was whipping her head this way and that, obviously eager to explore her new surroundings. I set her down and allowed her to trot away. "She's the best gift I've ever gotten." I mimicked my sister's actions and hugged my grandparents as a way of expressing my thanks. And just for good measure I hugged my parents, too.
"We've ever gotten," Charlotte corrected me.
"Of course," I replied flatly. "And since she's ours that means that we have to share responsibilities. Having a dog comes with its own set of responsibilities, you know."
Charlotte waved me off with a perfectly manicured hand. Oh, my sister.
"What are you going to call her?" Mémé asked.
"We'll have to think about that one," Charlotte said, looking at the little furball as she sniffed the tree. "I'm sure Willa and I will be able to decide on a cute name for the most adorable, lovable little baby in the—no! No, no, no don't pee there!"
Too late. The damage was done.
"Your grandparents bought you a dog!?" Sofie shrieked excitedly. I had to pull the phone away from my ear, wincing at the volume of her voice.
"Yeah," I replied. "Can you believe it? Actually, I don't know what I'm more surprised by—the fact that they bought one for us or that my mom is willing to allow a puppy into her house."
I looked down at the newest member of the Vallincourt clan as she sniffed the dead grass in front of our house. We were only going to spend a few minutes outside since the dog needed to poop—I was equipped with a nice, plastic bag and some gloves. Charlotte, after a decisive and intense game of rock, paper, scissors, was stuck at home, cleaning up the bright yellow mess that the little brown furball had left in the living room.
"Oh my God, I need to meet her! What's her name, anyway?" Sofie asked excitedly.
"We haven't decided on a name yet. I've been calling her Furball for now," I explained as I watched my dog trot ahead of me. She was so happy, sniffing and exploring new things, completely ignoring the cold temperature. I wanted her to find a spot, and soon—she was just a little over two months old, so her tiny body wasn't equipped to spend long periods of time outside in the cold Jersey winter. Thankfully, she found a nice spot to do her business—I was beginning to lose feeling in my fingers.
"You'd better pick a name, and soon," Sofie said. "Otherwise she'll be stuck with Furball."
I laughed and told her I'd call her later—there was a nice pile of poop I finally had to clean up. Before I could hang up, however, Sofie quickly reminded me to be ready at seven in the morning.
"I'm going to pick you up and we'll meet everyone at the station near the university," she said. "We're leaving our cars there. I'll drive you back of course."
"Gotcha," I smiled, my smile widening with excitement.
"Yeah?" I asked.
"Promise me…promise me that if something good happens tomorrow, you won't run away," she said solemnly. I was taken aback by Sofie's sudden change in tone, but agreed nonetheless.
"Of course," I said. "No running away."
After our Christmas day dinner, I decided to help my mom out with the dishes. I had told her all about my plan to go to the city with a couple of friends for the day, and unsurprisingly she was not all too happy. Once I told her about what Mémé had told me, however, her demeanor changed.
"Well…all right," she relented, handing me a dish to put in the dishwasher. "Just make sure to be home by ten, okay? Just because you're on winter break doesn't mean your curfew has changed."
"Understood," I smiled. We continued putting the dirty dishes in the washer in silence.
"You know," my mother began after a few moments. "You've been more…social lately. You've gone to parties, I saw you talking to a couple of boys after the Christmas concert at school, and now you're going on this outing…what brought it all on?"
I glanced at my mom and looked back down at the fork in my hand.
"I don't know, I just finally decided to follow Sofie's advice and put myself out there. It's practice for college in a way. I've always kept to myself and I realized how unhappy I was. So I decided to reach out to new people and I made great new friends," I explained.
"And they're good people, I'm assuming?" my mom asked, eyeing me. I nodded. She trusted my judgment.
"Sofie and Colt are friends with them, too. They're all great guys," I smiled.
"So they're all boys?"
I froze. Well, when she put it that way…
"Now that I think about it…yeah…" I said, trailing off. I wanted to end the conversation now.
"Mhm," my mother said, her eyebrows slightly raised. "And what kind of boys are they?"
"They're great," I said awkwardly. "Well…they're athletes, like Colt. They're nice to me."
"And are you interested in one?" my mother pressed, the ghost of a smile on her lips. Oh, God. I was interested in two.
"Maybe," I admitted, my cheeks becoming pink and my gaze fixed on the rack of dishes I was adjusting. My mother kept silent, pointedly asking for more.
"He's a great person," I said, not knowing which one I was talking about. Both Scott and Santi were great people. "He's…smart, funny, and an overall great person. He's friendly and kind."
My mom was smiling. I just wanted to go to my room now.
"And do you think he might have feelings for you?" she asked. I shrugged my shoulders. No more questions, please.
"What's his name?" she continued, obviously amused. I looked at her and took a deep breath in.
"S-˝ I began to say, only to be interrupted by my dad. Thank you, dad!
"Honey, the ham was amazing, as usual," he grinned, sauntering over to my mom and wrapping his arms around her middle. He placed a kiss on her temple. I made a face, but I was secretly relieved that he had come into the kitchen.
"I think Furball's running around upstairs," my dad said, winking at me. "Maybe you should go check up on her."
I quickly put the last dish in the dishwasher, closed it, and bid my parents goodbye. Didn't have to be told twice. I could hear my mom giggling as I raced upstairs, tip-toeing past the guest room. My poor grandparents had clocked in for the night—a side-effect of getting old, they said, was that their bedtime had changed drastically.
I poked my head into my bedroom—no Furball. I decided to venture into my sister's room, only to find her taking selfies with the poor dog. She pressed her face against Furball's and would grin or smile enthusiastically as she took picture after picture.
"What are you doing?" I asked as I walked closer to her bed. Furball wagged her tail excitedly as Charlotte placed her down on the ground. She went back to sniffing around.
"Taking pictures to put on Facebook," she grinned, her eyes fixed on the phone in her hand. "Making everyone jealous of my baby."
"Did you also mention that your baby pissed all over the Christmas tree?" I asked as I flopped onto her bed. My answer came in the form of a pillow being thrown at my face. I laughed and slipped onto the floor, clapping and whistling in an effort to catch Furball's attention. She darted over to me, looking up at me excitedly as I scratched behind her ears.
"What are we going to name her?" I asked Charlotte. "Any suggestions?"
"How about Mocha?" Charlotte said, peering over the edge of her bed to look at us. I shook my head. "Next," I replied. "Too predictable."
"Next," I repeated. My sister huffed and said, "Well you think of something, too! I can't be the only one coming up with names here."
"That's the problem, I don't know. I can't come up with a single name," I explained, smiling when the little furball decided to climb onto my lap. "None are good enough for her."
"Okay well, we definitely have to come up with a name by the end of this week. I'm planning to get her tags next weekend and in order to engrave a name in the tag, we need to come up with one," she said, turning her attention back to her phone.
"Okay," I said. "If worst comes to worst, Furball will have to do."
Charlotte snorted. "Not happening. Hey, what were you and mom talking about down there? I only managed to hear a couple of things."
I mock-glared at her. "Eavesdropping, are we?" I teased. She made a face at me.
"Nothing. She just said that she's noticed a change in me, more specifically with my social life. Then she asked about these new friends I've made and she realized that they're all guys and then she asked me whether I had developed feelings for any of them," I replied.
"And did you tell her?"
I shook my head. "I was about to, but Dad walked in and decided to get a little freaky, so I ran up here."
Charlotte cackled at that. "You always hated displays of affection, didn't you, Willa?"
I stood up, Furball in my arms. She perked up from her semi-asleep state. I walked over to the doggy bed that my grandparents had also bought for her and set her down. Charlotte had claimed her as her roommate already. It was actually quite a bad idea to keep her in any of the rooms, especially since they were all carpeted. For the time being, Furball should at least remain in the kitchen or a room with tile flooring. At least until she was housebroken.
"They make me uncomfortable," I said. "Anyway, I'm off to bed. Long day ahead of me tomorrow!"
Charlotte grinned and pointed at me with her phone. "You are going to tell me all about it when you get back, you hear me?" she said. I laughed and nodded before saying goodnight.
It was going to be a long day indeed.
I carefully crept down the stairs at six fifty-five in the morning the next day, my scarf and gloves in hand as I tried my best not to wake anybody up. Sofie had texted me five minutes ago, telling me to go outside. I quickly scribbled a note for my parents, telling them I would remember to be home by curfew.
I opened the door to the coat closet, swiftly put my jacket on, and made my way outside, careful not to slam the door behind me. I caught sight of Sofie just as she was rounding the corner.
"Morning," she chirped as I settled myself in, taking a sip from her hot chocolate. "You look adorable!"
I glanced down at my rather simple attire but thanked her nonetheless. If anyone looked adorable, it was Sofie. She was wearing a light blue chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a navy striped skirt, black stockings, and a pair of black ankle boots. She had haphazardly thrown her scarf and her navy wool peacoat on the backseat of the car. Her hair and makeup was, as usual, flawless. The girl must have woken up at the crack of dawn to look as great as she did.
I just threw on some new jeans, the new ivory cable-knit sweater Charlotte had tastefully picked out as my Christmas present, and my trusted pair of leather brown boots. Of course, because I had spent little to no time on choosing my outfit, I had decided to spend a little more time than usual on my hair and the small amount of makeup I had put on my face. If Sofie said I looked cute, however, then the girl was telling the truth. I was already feeling great. It was going to be an amazing day, I just knew it.
"You look amazing, as usual," I smiled, tugging on the seatbelt. The heat was on high, so thankfully I didn't have to suffer from cold butt cheeks. Leather seats were nice and all, but they were more of an inconvenience during summer and winter.
"Thanks," she grinned. "I'm planning to take a whole bunch of pictures today, so I have to look perfect. I got a text from Jacques this morning, by the way. He said to have fun and to enjoy the day, even though he's not here."
I chuckled, knowing that everyone would miss the comedian of the group. He had taken off for Florida last Friday morning, but not before giving poor Ellie a big hug and encouraging her to do her best at the concert. He had made such an effort to console her the day Colt had shrugged her off that he had forgotten all about the fact that he would not, in fact, be able to cheer her on at the concert. Instead, he left that responsibility up to Kyle and Phil, who did a magnificent job at supporting Ellie. Although they had only recently become acquainted with her, their presence meant a lot to her.
Colt, meanwhile, had been quieter than usual at the concert.
All of that was forgotten by now, however. Today was going to be a day full of laughter and fun, not drama.
"That's sweet of him," I said. "It really is too bad we won't have him here with us."
Sofie nodded in response, taking another gulp from her Styrofoam cup. She suddenly swatted me on the arm as we came to a stop at a red light.
"Tell me all about your new puppy!" she cried. "I want to see her! Maybe she and Wiggy can become friends! Oh my gosh, how cute would that be, Will!?"
Sofie continued making plans for our dogs to have doggy play dates until we arrived at the Montclair State University train station, where a few other cars were parked already. We could see movement in a familiar white Jeep. I had not even taken my seatbelt off when I saw a large, looming figure approach Sofie's side of the car.
It was Jules.
The big oaf smashed his face against the glass and grinned at his girlfriend, who in turn let out a small chuckle. I sighed and slowly climbed out. Santi, Colt, Phil, and Scott were all getting out of the car, too. Colt threw me a wide grin and a quick wave.
"Morning, guys," I smiled at them as I readjusted my bag on my shoulder.
"Willa," Santi smiled, walking up to me. "How was your Christmas?"
I grinned brightly, taking note of how my heart sped up when he fell into step with me. "It was great. We have a new member in our family now, actually."
He turned to me, eyebrows slightly raised. "Who?"
"A dog," I laughed. "She's supposed to belong to both my sister and me, but of course, my sister has hogged her so far."
"That's great," he smiled. "What breed?"
"A chocolate lab," I informed him. "I have to admit though; I'm a little worried about her. I love being a pet owner and everything, but it's a huge responsibility, and I'm going to college next year, so I don't know how I'll manage to take care of her. I mean, we haven't even picked out a name for the little Furball!"
Santi looked bewildered at my sudden outburst, but placed his hands on my shoulders, steadying me. He chuckled and looked straight into my eyes. I nearly melted into those chocolate pools.
"You'll be fine. She'll be fine. Make sure to train her well. I'm sure your parents knew what they were getting into when they got you the dog. They knew that you were going away to college. Maybe they got the dog more for themselves than for you," he laughed, his hands sliding down to rest on my arms. I didn't know what he was saying anymore, I just wanted him to keep his hands there a little while longer. "And if you're still having some trouble, I can help you out."
"Guys," a voice behind us said. It was Scott, who was approaching us. "Let's go buy our tickets. The train is coming in a couple of minutes."
Santi and I began to head over to the platform, where the electronic ticket booths were. "You're right," I sighed, laughing a little at my nervousness. "It was actually my grandparents who bought us the dog. Of course, my parents knew about it beforehand, so in a way you're completely right. Plus, my dad had dog when he was growing up—he knows a lot about them."
"Anyway," I continued, looking at my friend and smiling. "How was your Christmas?"
Santi chuckled and said, "Well maybe not as exciting as yours, but definitely loud. Very loud. Lots of cousins and family over. Which, of course means more presents, but I think I would much rather have had less people over at our house. I had to share my bed with a cousin who's a crazy sleeper. I woke up on the floor. I actually have a bruise on my back already."
He laughed and reached into his pocket, taking his wallet out. "But you know what? I would do it all over again. We do this only once a year you know, so I'll take a bruise on my back any day for a chance to be with my family," he said softly, a smile still on his lips. He was a family man. I could feel my heart thumping away in my chest.
I took my own wallet out of my bag and swiftly bought my ticket. This was it. New York City, here we come.
The rest of the group was slowly catching up to us, everyone absorbed in their own conversations. I looked around, expecting more people to arrive. If the train was coming in five minutes, then where were the rest of the people the guys had invited?
"What's wrong?" Santi asked.
"I thought more people were coming," I said.
"They're running late," Scott, who had been silent up until now, answered as he looked down at his phone. "I just got a text from Marco and he says he's taking the next train. Actually, Kyle, Marco, James, and Gina are all running late. I haven't heard from Veronica or Catherine."
Those were people I did not know, except for Kyle. The others were strangers to me. I suddenly felt a little nervous. We were a pretty big group already—there were already seven of us. Add the others and in total, we would make up a gang of thirteen. Holy crap.
No, Willa. Do not shut yourself off. Sure, you may not know them and they may not know you, but that didn't mean you should shut yourself off. Make friends. Look, there were more girls coming! You wouldn't be subjected to listening about football games the entirety of the trip! Look on the bright side.
"You okay?" Santi asked, gently bumping shoulders with me. I looked at him.
"Yeah," I replied. "Why?"
He shook his head. "You looked a little spooked all of a sudden."
"I heard you got a puppy," a happy voice bellowed before I could answer Santi. I turned to see none other than Colt approaching us, a wide grin on his face. "If that's the case, I think I'll be over your house a lot more often."
"Don't think so," I smiled back. "My family can't afford the chaotic amount of food your stomach demands."
Santi snorted, always one to appreciate playful arguments between friends. He and Kyle did it very often.
Colt pulled a face and turned his attention back to the rest of the group, which had finally caught up to us. We were the only ones at the station—I wasn't surprised, either. Not many people wanted to go out onto the blustery New Jersey streets just one day after Christmas. Not with all the drinking and late-night parties, anyway. Plus, this particular station was mostly used by the college students, who were luckily away for winter break.
We heard a train approaching in the distance. Two small lights were slowly becoming bigger and bigger.
"All right!" Sofie announced. "Everyone has their tickets, right?"
We all assured her that yes, our roundtrip tickets had been bought and that yes, we would put them in a safe place. She grinned brightly, her excitement contagious. But it wasn't just Sofie's attitude that had made me excited, too; Santi's promise was still at the back of my head. Someplace special, he had said. I wanted to know what it was.
"Excited?" Scott asked beside me. I smiled as my eyebrows shot up. "You have no idea," I replied.
"Good," was all he said before taking a precautionary step back just as the train pulled up to the station.
"Jules!" I heard Sofie hiss. She was furious. She was scolding her boyfriend, whose face was most likely red from laughter. "Jules, stop it! People are sleeping on this train!"
That only made the buffoon laugh even harder.
I knew that Jules would annoy me one way or another on the long commute to Manhattan, so I had opted to sit in the regular two-seaters rather than the group seats. Although Sofie was trying to quiet her boyfriend down, she was also causing quite a ruckus herself. Their honeymoon phase was finally over; Sofie was finally becoming annoyed at Jules for the stupid things that he did. She no longer thought of his moronic actions as endearing—she saw him as the occasional idiotic oaf. Finally.
That isn't to say she didn't like him any less, however. Those two still cared for each other very much. They were just finally coming to terms with the fact that there were things about themselves that the other couldn't stand, and that it was okay. My friend wasn't exactly a saint, for there have been many times I had caught Jules sighing exasperatedly while Sofie unleashed the newest round of gossip.
I was only examining the dynamics of a relationship from afar, however. I had yet to actually be in one myself.
"What are you thinking about?" my partner asked, snapping me out of la-la land. I turned away from the scenery outside my window to look at Scott. Much to my surprise, he had chosen to slide into the seat next to mine. I was so sure Santi would be neighbor for some reason, but I was just as comfortable sharing my seat with Scott, too.
"Nothing. Just daydreaming I guess. It's still early," I explained. "Way too early for me to function."
He chuckled and rubbed a hand down his face. "No kidding. That's why I decided to sit next to you. I knew you wouldn't be making as much noise as the ones over there," he said, motioning over to where Jules, Colt, and Sofie sat. Phil and Santi had claimed the two seats across from them while Scott and I sat two rows ahead of them.
"I kind of feel like taking a nap," Scott yawned, glancing over at me.
"Go right ahead," I said. "I'll wake you up when we get there."
He looked at me for a moment, a lazy smile etched across his lips. The guy managed to look attractive even with bleary eyes and a not-quite-there smile. Without saying another word, he shut those baby blues and headed off to dreamland.
Or tried to, at least.
A sudden burst of laughter erupted yet again from behind us. The culprits: Colt and Jules. Oh, Sofie was angry now. I could imagine her at the moment, seething and red from embarrassment. Our train car had been silent before we hopped on. We were just a bunch of loud teenagers, incapable of using our inside voices. Great.
"Forget it," Scott groaned, leaning over to rest his elbows on his knees. He cradled his head in his hands. "Not gonna happen."
I chuckled and offered him a consoling pat on the back. It was very quick gesture, a friendly one more than anything, but I couldn't help the way my stomach twisted with giddiness the moment my hand landed on his back. My fingers had felt through his white long-sleeved shirt, making out the fine bumps of his spine. I was definitely in a good mood.
"So this puppy of yours," Scott began. I glared at him playfully.
"Not you too!" I said, mock-exasperatedly. "No one's asked me anything about my overall Christmas!"
He laughed and leaned back in his seat.
"Okay, okay," he said. "Tell me, how was the rest of your Christmas?"
I relaxed in my seat, glancing out the scenery as the train began to slow down. We were arriving at another station.
"It was good. Quiet but good. I pigged out on my mother's homemade mashed potatoes," I grinned, guilty of my gluttonous episode the night before. "I got some amazing gifts, as did everyone else. It was really nice."
"How did your grandmother react to your present?" he asked. I had happily texted him the same day Charlotte and I had found our grandmother's present, expressing my relief at having found the perfect gift.
"She began to cry," I replied, furrowing my eyebrows upon remembering Mémé's unexpected reaction. "It was unnerving, you know? They're just books…"
He stared at me intently, as if he wanted to say something but couldn't bring himself to say it. I had noticed that Scott did that quite a lot. I wished he would just tell me what was on his mind, but I didn't want to pry either.
"They're not just books to her. It's sentimental. If you think about it, she was probably very moved by your actions. You went out of your way to figure out what she likes and then went out to search for it. Your actions brought her to tears because it shows how much you care about her and love her," he murmured, offering me a small smile. He definitely had a point. A very, very good point.
"Makes sense," I reasoned. "And what did you find under the Christmas tree?"
Scott laughed. "Sports equipment, a couple of video games, a laptop for college, and a hideous sweater from my Aunt Colleen, who I'm sure is still bitter over what I did to her award-winning peonies when I was seven," he sighed.
"What did you do to her award-winning peonies?" I asked, expecting a good story. He immediately regretted ever saying anything about those peonies; I could tell from the way his facial expression twisted into one of reluctance.
"Nothing," he said. "Forget I said anything."
"Hold on," I said. "That's not fair! You can't just bring up a potentially good story like that and then refuse to tell me anything else!"
Scott shook his head and looked away, obviously embarrassed. I backed off, knowing that the poor guy would probably crumble under pressure. I didn't want to force him into telling me anything unless he was comfortable with it, even if it was only a silly story about peonies.
"Okay," I sighed. "So this puppy of mine doesn't have a name yet. My sister's badgering me to think of a name, but for some reason I just can't. Nothing's good enough."
"Keep your mind open to anything. Pay attention to other people's names. Think about the names of television or movie characters. You'll figure it out sooner or later," he suggested. "Hey, have you worked on that English paper?"
My eyes widened—I had forgotten all about it. What with my newfound social life, I had placed my studies on the backburner. My blasé attitude was not going to get me an A+ on that paper, however, so I had to kick it into high gear.
"No," I sighed. "I mean, I've been working on it here and there, but to be honest it's not up to par with what I can really do. I guess even I'm infected with Senioritis."
I shifted my gaze back to the window. I saw nothing but the backs of houses, some trees, and the occasional sprinkle of snow. Although the scenery was incredibly bland, I still couldn't help but feel a little uneasy under Scott Maher's watchful gaze.
"Don't sweat it," he finally said after a few seconds of silence. "You know…we never spoke much in the past. To be honest, it sucks. You're a great person, Willa. Before we became friends this year, I always thought of you as the type A, the distant and unapproachable girl who didn't like to take breaks from her books. It was just an observation, so please don't take that the wrong way. My point is, you're a hard worker. You always handed your projects and essays in on time, and I was always sure you got nothing but A's."
I looked at him, not knowing how to answer to his admission. Thankfully, Scott always knew how to fill in the awkward silence.
"Not to mention your tutoring skills. My test scores in science went up after studying with you. Patel actually pulled me aside one day and asked me what I had done," he laughed.
"What did you tell him?" I asked.
"I told him the truth. That I managed to get help from a fantastic tutor," he replied.
I smiled a little, but immediately looked away. "Thanks," I managed to say.
"Nah," Scott quickly replied. "I should be thanking you. If anything, you saved my butt. I would have had to quit sports if I didn't pull that grade up. And…well, if it isn't too much trouble, I was wondering…"
I immediately perked up, fully alert. Was he going to ask me what I didn't dare ask him? Was he going to ask me to continue the study sessions?
"I was wondering whether we could keep studying together. I'm sure Patel has a couple of tests coming up the minute we go back to school," Scott said, also looking down at his hands. I couldn't find my voice. Just a few weeks ago I was more than bummed out and disappointed because I was completely sure that Scott and I would never have our study sessions anymore. I liked spending time with him. I liked talking to him. Sure, our friendship had grown rather quickly and somewhat randomly, but I felt like I could tell him anything and everything. Except for one thing, of course.
"Sure!" I smiled, still not daring to look up at him. "I like having company anyway."
Scott returned the smile and thanked me. We sat quietly for a couple of minutes. I turned my attention back to the window while Scott looked down at his phone.
"They're not even at the station yet," Scott sighed, his blue eyes scanning the screen. "Those idiots are going to hold us back. Looks like Catherine and Veronica aren't coming, either—they're hung over."
I shifted around in my seat. I could already feel my bum becoming numb.
"So I guess that means we'll have to sit around Penn Station while we wait for them," I said softly, trying to catch a glimpse of our friends. Colt and Jules had quieted down; Sofie had probably intimidated them enough to make them shut up. I could hear Phil and Santi talking in hushed voices.
"Not exactly," Scott said, tucking his phone back into his pocket. He ran a hand through his hair. "We might as well walk around a little bit, right? We could get some breakfast."
"You're right," I said, realizing how hungry I had become at the mention of food. "I'm starving." I immediately covered my abdomen with my arm, hoping that the mention of food wouldn't flare up those obnoxiously loud stomach growls.
Scott turned around to update everyone else about the others' delay. I heard disgruntled sighs all around.
"Let's just go without them," Jules said. "We'll meet up with them somewhere else."
"That actually sounds like a good idea," Phil agreed. "We'll be waiting for them for well over an hour. We could use that time to do something productive."
After everyone agreed with the de facto leader, we all went back to talking amongst ourselves. Santi and Phil went back to their conversation while Jules and Sofie exchanged hushed words of affection. Colt had apparently become a little too uncomfortable with this, so he quickly swapped seats and sat down in the row beside ours.
"Sup, guys?" he grinned as he plopped himself down.
"Nothing," Scott sighed. "How much longer until we reach the city?"
"About half an hour, give or take," Colt replied as he glanced down at his watch. "Hey, I was thinking of having a scrimmage at my house sometime this week. My backyard's pretty big. Interested?"
For the remainder of the trip, I had nothing else to do but to aimlessly stare out the window while Scott and Colt enthusiastically talked about sports. I had unwillingly become the third wheel.
So, I think an apology is in order. My sudden disappearance (three months, holy crap!) has freaked many of you out and I'm so terribly sorry, guys. If anything though, I think my professors ought to apologize also! The reason behind my long absence is, well, due to my crazy schedule. College life ain't easy, so please be patient with me, everyone. Just when I thought I had everything under control...I'm given two research papers and a group project, on top of tests.
Now for the good news; I'm almost finished with this semester! My winter break begins early next month, which means I will have more time to dedicate to the story! Don't worry, everyone, I won't pull another disappearing act. It really knocked my conscience every time I opened up my email to see reviews asking about my whereabouts.
Now, on to the story! I had initially intended to keep the entire city outing in one chapter, but after numerous edits I finally decided to break it up into two chapters. It would have been way too much to read in one sitting, and I like for my readers to absorb the information. If I put too much into one single chapter, it may prove to be a little overwhelming.
And finally, one last, quick note: guys, don't lose hope. This story is by no means finished yet. I've read your reviews and I've noticed that many of the readers feel as if the story will end a certain way due to the path the story seems to be going. The thing is, you don't know what will happen. I know how it will end. I have had it planned out from the very beginning. Please don't lose hope and be patient with me.