I followed Leah up the stairs. My heart beat against my ribcage like a boxer jabbing a punching bag. I took deep, slow breaths to calm. In and out. In and out. I felt a little bit like orphan Annie, checking out Dr. Warbuck’s mansion. Only I wasn’t a cute, singing red head little girl. I was more like a stray cat with gunk eyes and fleas. Probably ticks, too.
Leah McCloud put on her superhero cape and allowed me to stay with her for the remainder of Winter Break. I didn’t know what I expected when I arrived at LAX. Whatever I thought was wrong. It started with walking out of the airport and being welcomed by a reasonable temperature. No snow. Then, the chauffeur. Now, I was under the impression that private chauffeurs only existed in movies and for the President. I’m not even sure if I’d know how to correctly spell the word. We didn’t exactly need it in Rivertown.
Nevertheless, Leah and the McCloud family’s chauffeur picked me up from the airport with Leah in tow. I immediately felt guilty, knowing what that must have cost to get a driver with LA’s prices the day before Christmas. Leah assured me that Frank was salaried. It was then I knew that I crossed over the threshold into Bizarro World.
The roof over the grand staircase at Leah’s was comprised of clean glass. Warm sunlight beamed through white clouds, giving the stairs a bright, heavenly glow. They winded around and when we got to the top, I followed Leah down a hallway. I passed some art pieces I wanted into look into later. They looked like original pieces. Then, there were petite tables with vases of fresh flowers every few feet. In the hallway? I thought, scratching my head.
Leah opened a set of white double doors. “This is your room. Will this do?”
I opened my mouth but no words followed. I scanned the room. It was the size of the second floor of my house. It had warm redwood floors with a white and gold swirled oriental rug. The walls had gold and beige striped wall paper, that contained a hint of golden glimmer. There were two patio doors with heavy thick white curtains tied to the sides. I could see a modest sized balcony on the other side, with miniature palm trees in ceramic vases. I was glad my cardiovascular system was in decent shape, because I thought surely, my heart would stop.
“I get to sleep here?” I asked. I wondered where I would hide my beat up suitcase and dufflebag. I wanted to stash them right away. It didn’t belong inside the luxury, penthouse suite in the Hilton.
“Yes!” Leah threw her arms around me and gave me a hug. I felt a few bones in my back crack and pop. “Girl, I am, like, so excited you are staying with us. It’s just like having a sister.”
“I’ve always wanted a sister,” I said. How old would my brother be right now? I wondered, doing mental math.
Leah’s eyes bulged. “Seriously? Me too! I guess now we have what, like, 80 sisters, huh?”
“Well,” I said taking my suitcase and stuffing it under the California king sized bed, “I am cautiously optimistic.”
Leah rolled her large, round eyes. “You are so in. Unless you suddenly move to France, you are in.”
“Well, who knows what I’ll do next,” I said, sitting on the bed. “I am officially a runaway. Never thought I’d do that.”
“Why did you runaway?” Leah said taking a seat next to me. “You told me you’d tell me when you got here.”
“I don’t feel like talking about it, really.”
“Nuh-uh, Miss Merritt. You tell me. I invited you to spend Christmas with me! We’re, like, in a pretty serious friendship now.” Leah snorted and burst into giggles.
I curled my toes in my Nikes. “Um, okay. My friend, Trina, and I didn’t think I was a healthy environment and needed to leave.”
“Environment, like, it was smoggy or something? Because it’s not any better here in LA,” Leah said.
I stared at her for a moment. I had to blink a few times. “No. Like, my mental wellbeing.”
“Oh,” Leah said nodding. “You and that boy? Nash?”
I pressed my lips in a hard line. “My dad has never been…. And my mother’s death happened on Christmas day, like 1AM or something. Then, as I’ve told you, Nash is newly single. Now he’s dating a girl who is way to pretty. Not saying he’s more than a friend, but–”
“Say no more,” Leah held her finger to my lip. “My boyfriend broke up with me three months before Freshman year. Then, I come back for fall break, and there he is. With all our friends, and some new thing on his arm who looks like Elvis. I know that’s a weird, but bitch looks like Elvis.”
I fell back into the bed and laughed for the first time in awhile. “Sorry, I know it’s not funny…”
Leah collapsed next to me. “Girl, yes it is!”
“Thank you so much for letting me stay here.”
“You know how shitty my family is,” Leah said, switching her gaze to the ceiling. “They won’t do it in front of you. So you’ve, like, spared me the drama this Christmas. Thanks for coming.”
“I get it. My parents fought all of the time,” I offered. “I remember sleeping in the closet.”
Leah buzzed up and headed towards the door. “Dinner is at 6. My aunt, uncle, and cousins will be here for our annual Christmas dinner.”
“Sounds like fun.” I said forcing a smile.
Leah turned back and rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry. You and I will get drunk afterwards to forget the stuffy boringness and excess calories.”
When I heard the door click shut, I kicked off my shoes. I snuggled under the sheets which just so happened to be woven by angels.
I heard Dr. Jones’s voice in my head. “How do you feeeeeel?”
Before I answered my subconscious therapist, my eyes closed and I slept like a corpse.
I rolled over and looked at my cell. My heart jumped. I scrambled out of bed and tore open my duffle bag. It used to be Nash’s wrestling bag. It still kind of smelled like him. I scowled. Even in LA, Nash was around every corner of my mind. I saw that he texted me ten times. This is getting ridiculous. I thought as I poured my clothes on my bed. Get out of my head!
I found a pair of black skinny pants that were a little bit fancier than regular pants, yet not too dressy. I wished I had at least asked Leah what kind of clothes their family wore. I slid into a plain white t-shirt with a low dipping V neck. I completed the outfit with a grey, oversized, button up sweater that sort of reminded me of my grandpa.
Without time put on makeup, I scurried to the door and ran for the stairs. I combed through my hair with my fingers, piled it on my head, and made a messy bun. Luckily, it always looked like I planned for it to look bed head chique. My bun trick disguised my hair-care laziness. Or tardiness.
I took three steps, but I wasn’t used to wearing those gray heeled ankle boots. I tumbled down a few more steps before I caught myself.
“Aye, dios mio!” A small maid yelled. She rushed over to me and helped me up. “Are you okay, mija?”
“Yes,” I said wiping my hands on my pants. “The only thing that is bruised in my pride.”
“Nothing, sorry. Can you point out where the family is having dinner? I’m late and this place is like a museum. Do you have a map, handy?”
The maid stared at me for a moment and then sniggered. “Aye, you are a funny girl. Yes-yes. I show you the room.”
The maid took her arm and linked it through mine.
“Your accent reminds me of my best friend, Trina’s mom,” I commented as we arrived to the landing. The maid guided me towards the rear of the house. “I’m Brie, by the way.”
I heard voices traveling down the hallway. My heart fluttered.
“I’m Sylvia. I come from Puerto Rico.”
“Yes!” I squealed. I had no idea why that was exciting. “So is Trina’s mom.”
“Here we are, senorita Brie.”
I walked into the dining room to find a lengthy table, draped with a stark white table cloth. There were silver platters in the center with food that looked like wax. I felt my mouth water at the smell. There was a massive candelabrum in the center with dancing little flames on top of red and green candles.
The family around the table looked just as picturesque. Ties and kakis, Christmas colors, little black dresses, pearl earrings. Their eyes were set on me with frozen smiles on their lips.
“Brie!” Leah got up and came to my side. She gave me her usual bone cracking hug. “Family, this is my college roommate and future sorority sister, Brie Merritt.”
I beamed a gigantic smile and a stiff wave. My hand crashed down to my side and I didn’t know where to put it. So I folded my hands behind my back. I leaned on one leg, hoping to look stylish, but casual. I told Dad to sign me up for finishing school instead of equestrian club. I joshed to myself. I had to bite my lip to prevent a laugh.
Leah led me to the chair next to her spot.
“So sorry I’m late,” I said sliding into the red velvety cushion on the chair. I sunk in an inch.
“Girl please,” Leah left out a puff of air. “We all know you are jet lagged! It’s fine.”
“Thank goodness,” I said, knowing to put my cloth napkin on my lap. That is where my fine dining education ended. I leaned into Leah’s ear. “I don’t know how to act, like, with etiquette or whatever. I’ll just watch you.”
“Brie, we are the McClouds,” Leah whispered back, “not the Kennedy’s. Don’t worry.”
Leah gave me a playful shove and I sailed into the shoulder of the gentleman next to me.
“Oh, God,” I said, my ears burning hot.
“Hello, I’m Dillon.”
Dillon reached for my hand. I shook his hand, and after, wondered if I shook it too stiffly for a family dinner setting.
“You’re Dillion?” flew out of my mouth.
Dillon raised a brow.
“Sorry, it’s just, I remember Leah saying that she had a cousin at BU named Dillon.”
“Ah,” Dillon said nodding, “you were envisioning something else.”
I stared into two baby blue eyes. “Yes, I was. Although, you do look familiar.” Maybe I seen him before on campus?
“He gets the dark hair from my aunt Lindy,” Leah said nodding at a lady with milky white skin and onyx waves. “Our fathers are brothers.”
My eyes darted from Leah to Dillon. They didn’t look remotely related. Leah was tall and round with thin light brown hair and honey brown doe-eyes. Dillon was almost opposite.
“So you are rushing Theta?” Dillon said crinkling his forehead.
“Oh, nothing,” Dillon said revealing a dimple in his left cheek.
“It’s a really nice house.” I said. The salad was being passed around family style. Leah scooped the romaine lettuce and plopped it on my china plate for me. She passed the bowl to Dillon.
“Would you like a drink, Brie?” Dillon asked.
Dillon asked for the merlot and poured me a glass. I sunk down in my seat a little.
After the best meal I’ve ever had, the group of dinners moved to the living room. I met Leah’s mother and father who looked like Barbie and Ken at 45. It felt a little naughty of me that I knew about the demons that lurk below the surface. Luckily I didn’t have to talk with them for long. Leah and I sat down next to the 20 foot Christmas tree.
“That tree is out of this world,” I said, admiring the red velvet ribbons, strands of white beads, and twinkling lights.
“We others in the house,” Leah said taking a sip of her wine. “This is the best one.
I noticed the presents in silver shining paper with flouncy red bows beneath. A vivid memory flickered. That terrible night, I tiptoed to the front window. I was right next to my tree. It leaned a little, and anyone could see the pole. That didn’t matter to me, it was perfect. Right next to my foot was a little present. I almost stepped on it when I decieded that I should go see Santa’s sleigh. I was relieved that I didn’t step on it. It was all I could get with my piggy bank money.
But I knew he would love it.
I glanced at the entryway. I could have gone back upstairs and visited that gift. It was in my suitcase in a shoebox of things I can’t part with. Part of me wanted to visit it and give it a good shake.
“I got you one,” Leah said.
“What?” I almost jumped when Leah pulled me out of my mind, back to her living room.
“I saw you looking at the gifts,” Leah said with a impish grin. “I got you one. I think my parents did too.”
“No,” I said shaking my head. “You’ve done enough. Absolutely not.”
“Just take it,” Leah urged with sparkling eyes. “I like giving gifts.”
“I just can’t,” I said with a weak voice. I knew Leah wouldn’t like that.
Leah threw up her arms. “Why the hell not? It’s paper. You open it. You smile and pretend to like what is inside. It’s not hard!”
“I don’t know what happened to my gifts under the tree the night my mom died. Presents just represent death, now. God, I’m such a bummer, aren’t I? So sorry, Leah. I think I’ll go back upstairs now, thanks for–”
“Don’t you think it’s time to open a gift again, Brie?” Leah rested her hand on my knee. “I don’t know what happened that night. Maybe one day you will finally tell me. But wouldn’t your mom want you to enjoy the fun of gifts at Christmas?”
“Thank you for the gift, Leah, you are so sweet.” I said, my soul twisting inside. “But I can’t. If it’s okay with you, I would love to donate it to a woman’s shelter.”
Leah pouted. “Fine. Excuse me,” Leash said as she got up and stormed towards the dining area.
Brie, you hard headed, ungrateful little shit-stain! I scolded myself.
I decided that the night was over. My head was pounding, my stomach was too full for my liking, and the wine made my mouth feel dry. Plus, my eyes burned for more sleep. I hadn’t slept much for 48 hours and I yearned to sleep in my borrowed, rich person, angel sheets.
When I reached the stairs I heard someone calling for me. I turned around.
“Brie, wait up,” Dillon said doing a light jog. “Where are you headed so early?”
“Do you see these dark circles?” I pointed to my eye. “This is not normal. Unless you are uncle Fester.”
“All I see are two, captivating, blue eyes,” Dillon said, looking even more familiar.
“Thank you Dillon,” I said, feeling my heart skip a beat. “I am seriously wiped. See you soon?”
“Where’s your phone?” Dillon asked taking a step closer to me.
“Hmm, okay. Old school then,” Dillion said as he reached for the inside pocket of his sports jacket. He pulled out a silver pen. He grabbed my arm and flipped it, exposing my wrist. I ripped my arm away, afraid he might see my scar.
“What are you doing?” I asked, feeling my cheeks drain of color.
Dillon chuckled and yanked my hand towards him. He flipped over my hand. I closed my eyes. I just knew he would see and ask. I just knew it.
“Here’s my number, little miss jumping bean,” Dillon said when he was done scribbling on my palm. “Let’s hook up for New Years. Have you ever been out in LA for New Years Eve?”
I shook my head.
Dillon laughed and gave me a wink. “Then you haven’t lived yet. Let me take you out, Brie.”
“Um, okay, with Leah, right?”
Dillon rolled his eyes. “Leah and I don’t roll with the same crew. She probably won’t want to come. Say you will come.”
I stared into his eyes. Being pushy must be a genetic trait.
“I’ll let you know.”
Dillion laced his fingers into mine and gave the top of my hand a small, wet, peck. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Dillon spun on his dress shoe and made way for the living room. My stomach felt like a soup comprised of contradicting ingredients.
I hated being called ‘hun’. Plus, he might have been mocking Theta. There is, also, the issue that his hair would stay still in a tornado. No man should use an entire jar of jell for one dinner at his aunt and uncles.
Nevertheless, my hand was still tingling from where his lips touched. I felt like giggling just thinking about that dimple. And, I could see the outline of carved pectorals and abs.
I grunted and went upstairs to my room. I closed the door and locked it behind me. I fell backwards on the bed, It was so nice not to worry about a stray spring ripping through the mattress and stabbing me in the kidney.
My phone buzzed.
Those 10 messages.
I knew I shouldn’t look, my mood was already way off. I sighed. I couldn’t take it any longer.
Nash: Merritt, I’m looking for U. Where did U go?
Nash: Did you go home? 😦 Y no bye?
Nash: I hope you are feeling okay. Trina texted and said you were puking and spending the night with her. I’m glad you are safe. Text me. Good night.
Nash: How is your hang over? Do you need anything?
Nash: Are you okay? Trina won’t answer her phone either. SMH
Nash: By the way, Jessica said that you are the most amazing girl she’s ever met. No one can take your place. I hope you know that.
Nash: Y no answer? 😦 U Mad?
Nash: I can’t believe you left for LA! No goodbye?
Nash: OK, something is wrong. So, at Stella’s, I’ve been thinking and thinking. Before you went and barfed, you saw me kiss Jessica. Was it me and Jessica? I thought you liked her. What’s going on.
Nash: Fuck you, Merritt! Where are you? This is my last text.
I whipped my phone across the room without caring if it broke. I stuffed my head in my down pillow and demanded that my mind relax. I was working on my mediation and breathing, when my eyes poped open.
“Zack Efron!” I said to my vacant suite. “Dillon looks just like Zack Efron…that’s where I know him from.”
I felt butterflies flutter about my stomach. Aristocrat, Zack Efron’s doppelganger, roommates cousin wants to take me out on a date. I thought.
I stuffed my face in my pillow and allowed myself a much needed scream.