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IT WAS TUESDAY.
A regular, boring Tuesday. Really, no different than any other Tuesday that Anna had experienced in her eighteen years on Earth. Wake up, get dressed, get in the car. Her best friend and next-door-neighbor, John, sat beside her in the back seat of her dad’s ancient green rust-bucket, eating his daily jam donut for breakfast as they bumped along the same old streets of Little Haven, their Scottish border town, on their way to school. Left at the post office, right at the supermarket, slow down at the zebra crossing, wave to Mrs. Stevens outside the town hall.
Anna sighed, staring out the window at the dull December sky. There had to be more than this out there. Anything would be better than another identical day. John raised a silent eyebrow before offering her a bite of his donut. Even his breakfast choice was a stable constant. She declined with a shake of the head as her dad turned the radio up until the car’s tinny speakers rattled with the beat. It was all Anna could do to stop herself from opening the door and throwing herself out of the moving vehicle.
The screech of the wheels pulled Anna out of her thoughts as the car came to a sudden stop, her seat belt holding her in place against the force. The same couldn’t be said of John’s coffee.
“Oh gosh!” cried Anna’s dad, Tony, recovering from the emergency stop. In front of them, a lonely figure stumbled out into the street and dropped to the ground. He lay motionless for a moment, and then a pool of blood started spreading slowly from his head.
Well that’s a bit different, Anna thought.
* * *
Thirty minutes later, Anna still had her nose pressed against the window, while John strained against his seat belt, practically sitting himself in her lap. An ambulance flashed its lights silently at the side of the road as someone was being lifted by paramedics onto a stretcher. An arm, clad in a red jacket, fell off the side of the stretcher and swung lifelessly back and forth. The red jacket, the shiny black boots, a very full white beard …
“I can’t believe Santa’s dead!” Anna said sadly.
A long line of traffic had formed behind them up the street, and a crowd of onlookers had gathered to pay their respects as the paramedics pulled up the zipper on Father Christmas’s body bag.
Anna watched her dad finish giving his statement to a police officer before heading back to the car.
“That’s some poor bugger’s Christmas ruined,” said her dad, jumping back in and starting the engine.
“Ho ho no,” John muttered as Tony pulled out, the traffic following from behind. “Who would do such a thing?”
“Easter Bunny,” Anna replied with a mischievous smirk. “It’s a blatant power move. He’s probably in cahoots with the Tooth Fairy—you know she’s always been a bad influence.”
John shook his head, narrowing his eyes. “That buck-toothed bastard. Who’s going to look after the reindeer? And what about the presents?”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure Mrs. Claus has it covered. Maybe you can lend a hand…” Anna suggested. “You’d make a great elf.”
“Who are you calling elfish? I’ll have you know that I’m exceedingly generous.” He nudged her in the ribs, wiggling his eyebrows up and down.
Anna realized years ago, making bad jokes was as important to John as breathing, and if he wasn’t already telling a joke, he was probably thinking about one. At eighteen, she’d given up hope of them ever getting any better. Still, he was the best thing about this town. She didn’t know how she would have managed without her BFF over the last few years.
“What have I told you about the puns?” she reminded him in a stern voice that didn’t quite cover an attack of the giggles. “While we’re on the subject of elves, I reckon your pullover would be quite popular at the North Pole.”
John looked down at his ugly Christmas sweater in mock horror.
“You’re just jealous because you’re not the one dressed like a festive legend.” He sniffed, proudly pushing out his pigeon chest and thrusting the whole mess in Anna’s face.
“Oh God, it’s awful,” she laughed, pushing him away.
“Wait for it,” he replied.
As if the mess of Christmas tree, gaudy baubles, snow, and tinsel weren’t enough, John pressed a hidden button and the whole thing lit up, fairy lights flashing on and off.
“You’re a lost cause,” Anna laughed, pushing him back across the seat with tears in her eyes. “Get off me!”
John bloody loved Christmas, but Anna couldn’t bear it. She had loved it as a kid, back when she was all excited about Santa and presents and trying to hide her advent calendar from her mom so she wouldn’t find out she’d eaten every chocolate by the fifth of December, but that was before her mom had gotten sick. Before she’d had to say goodbye. These days, on the scale of Things She’d Really Rather Not Do, Thank You Very Much, Christmas hovered somewhere in between having her teeth cleaned at the dentist and stabbing herself in the eye with a pencil. She missed her mom a lot …
Something about her dad’s tone made it clear it was not the first time he’d said her name.
She gave her dad a forced, cheery smile. She’d gotten good at those.
“Sorry, I was miles away,” she said, wishing she really were. Miles and miles and miles.
“I said, do you want to pick some music?” he repeated, turning the radio knob. “Any preferences?”
Before Anna could reply, a voice interrupted the static.
“We interrupt your regular program with some sad news,” the local DJ announced. “We’ve just been informed that local Santa, Nathan Ormerod, has sadly passed away—”
Before he could finish, Anna leaned forward between the two front seats and changed the radio station herself. News in Little Haven traveled fast … like, it-happened-two-minutes-ago fast. All across the world, people were living exciting lives, going on daring adventures, and the most dramatic thing to happen in Little Haven was the town boozer, aka Little Haven’s Father Christmas, had drunk himself to death after another bender.
“That’s sad,” Dad commented as Anna and John exchanged a silent look. “I know his mum. I’ll send a card.”
“At least it wasn’t the real Santa,” Anna said under her breath. “Right, John?”
“Right,” he agreed, dramatically wiping the sweat from his brow. “Phew.”
“Have you got your ticket for tonight?”
Anna looked up to see her dad grinning at her in the rearview mirror.
“I already told you,” she said, pushing her long brown hair behind her ears. “I can’t go to the show. I’ve got to work.”
“You deserve a break, love,” he said, tapping the steering wheel in time to the music as they rolled along toward the school. “You know what they say about all work and no play.”
“Well, I don’t need a break,” Anna assured him. Not to mention the fact she couldn’t afford one.
Beside her, John carried on eating his gooey donut, nursing his cup of coffee between his knees, and said nothing. The last thing he wanted was to find himself in the middle of an argument between Anna and her dad. It was December, it was bloody cold, and Tony Shepherd was his lift to school.
And Anna … well, Anna was his everything.
“You won’t be saying that next year when you’re at university—and it’s wall-to-wall lectures,” Tony told her with a knowing cluck. “What about you, John? Have you heard back from art school yet?”
John shook his head. “Um, no, not yet, Mr. Shepherd.”
Tony frowned at him in the mirror. “Is that normal?” he asked.
John gulped hard, accidentally squished the remains of his donut in his hand, curled his shoulders forward, and wished he could disappear.
“Dad!” Anna exclaimed, glancing over at her friend as his cheeks turned bright red. She reached sympathetically toward John’s hand but stopped just short.
It was a sore subject. Everyone else knew what they were doing when they finished their exams in the spring but John still hadn’t heard back from any of the art schools he’d applied to. Unfortunately, Tony had all the tact of Rudolph after one too many seasonal eggnogs.
“John doesn’t need to go to art school anyway,” Anna added. “He’s already the best cartoonist ever. You ought to be teaching the classes.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t mind hearing back from at least one school though,” he replied, scratching at some jam on the cuff of his sweater. “Be nice to know what I’m doing in September.”
Tony offered John an apologetic grin to make up for his gaffe, and John tried to conjure a smile back but just looked as though he had terrible gas.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine, son,” Tony said. “Hey, why don’t you bring Anna to the Christmas show tonight? It’s going to be a right laugh.”
“I’m working!” Anna reminded her father for what felt like the thousandth time. “And so is he. John, tell him.”
“She’s working,” John mumbled, staring at the remains of his squashed donut, mind still stuck on his missing art school acceptance letter. “She’s got to pay off that plane ticket.”
“John!” Anna yelped as though she’d been stung.
“What ticket?” Tony asked, confused.
“You said tell him,” John whispered as his pulse started to beat worryingly fast. All the blood began to drain from his face as he slowly realized what he’d revealed.
“I didn’t mean tell him that!” Anna replied, wide-eyed.
“What ticket?” her dad repeated.
“It’s nothing,” Anna insisted. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
If there was one thing Tony had learned from being a single parent, it was that when your teenage daughter said it was nothing, it was definitely something.
“What ticket, Anna?” he said for a third and final time, breaking out his best stern father voice. Even after all this time, he wasn’t very good at it.
“It’s just…” She searched for the right words to break the news to her dad, but they simply didn’t exist. She motioned for a little help from her supposed-best friend, but he turned away, suddenly very interested in something out the window, and about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Out of options, Anna took a deep breath and pasted on a brave smile.
“I’m going on a trip, all right?” she said finally. There, that would do. No more information than necessary. All she had to do was stay calm and they could discuss it later, at home, when she was prepared, and her dad wasn’t driving half a ton of heavy metal toward a crowd of her friends. “That’s what the ticket is for. No big deal.”
“What trip? A school trip?” Tony looked very confused. This was the first he’d heard about any trip.
“No,” Anna replied. “Just me. On my own.”
“When?” he demanded. “Where?”
Anna bit her lip and looked back out the window.
“Let’s talk about it later,” she suggested.
“So you can avoid the subject again? I don’t think so. We’ll talk about it now,” Tony countered. “I hope you’ve checked when university starts, because…”
Stay calm, she told herself as her dad started on his well-practiced “The Wonders of College” speech.
“You can’t be missing the start of the semester,” her dad went on as her blood pressure started to rise. “If you’re not there at the beginning, they won’t let you start up late, it’s not like high school, where you can have a week off here, a week off there, Anna, this is serious grown-up stuff—”
“I’m not going to uni!” she shouted.
Sometimes, staying calm was easier said than done.
Tony slammed his foot on the brakes and the car squealed to a standstill. Anna felt her seat belt snap her back as John’s coffee went flying. Dramatic reactions ran in the family. Twisting himself around in his seat, Tony yanked at his own seat belt as he stared at his daughter in disbelief.
“What?” she said innocently, straightening the collar of her white school shirt. “I don’t mean I’m not going ever. I’m going to travel first, that’s all. Just for a year, or maybe—”
“Don’t be so stupid!” Tony interrupted. “You’re doing no such thing.”
Anna felt her jaw tighten, defiance written all over her face. She knew her dad would never understand. She knew he wouldn’t want to let her go. This was exactly why she had avoided telling him in the first place. She sat silently.
Able to play the same game, Tony started driving again without another word, turned into the school entrance, and pulled into his parking space in the staff parking lot.
“At least no one will notice the jam stain now,” John whispered, pulling his coffee-covered sweater away from his body to take a better look at the damage. Anna unclipped her seat belt and jumped out of the car, crossed her arms, and leaned back against the door without a word.
John got out of the car more slowly, trying not to drip the coffee on the seats. “See you inside then,” he muttered in Anna’s general direction, nervously pulling on the straps of his backpack. “Thanks for the lift, Mr. Shepherd.”
Father and daughter gave him exactly the same look as he backed away. Even though Anna would hate him for even thinking it, sometimes she was her dad’s double. He was definitely better off out of this one.
“You know this is going to hold you back,” Tony said, running his hands through his already messy hair. He was trying so hard not to overreact, but sometimes she made it so difficult. “Where are you planning to go on this trip of yours?”
Anna folded her arms across her chest tighter and shook her head as her friends traipsed past, pretending not to notice them. “Australia first. The ticket’s open so I can figure it out as I go.”
“Oh, well, that’s all right, if it’s open, eh?” Tony replied, loading sarcasm into every word. “Think of all the beautiful places you could get mugged or killed!”
“Stop trying to run my life!” she shouted back. “You can’t tell me what I can and can’t do, I’m not a little girl anymore.”
“Then stop acting like one,” her dad said loudly, the features on his face pinching together into a picture of disappointment. He shook his head slowly. “If your mother could see you now.”
Anna breathed in sharply. Everything around her went quiet. It felt as though he’d punched her in the gut.
“I can’t wait to get away from you,” she muttered, pushing past her father and heading into school before he could see the massive tears welling in her eyes.
He wanted to take back the words the moment they were out of his mouth, but it was too late. She disappeared in the crowd, melting into a sea of school uniforms, and leaving him all alone.
Copyright © 2018 by Blazing Griffin