You, Actually

“Foreword”: I always have a Christmas blog post, or at least when I started this blog.  I always loved this holiday, mostly because 1) I get to go home, and 2) being with the people who matter most.  The usual Christmas post would always be a letter to someone (even to myself, like last year).  But this year, a lot of changes came.  People came and people left, that is all there is to it.  I have changed — albeit a little, but still I believe I am not the same person I was at the start of the year.

I was inspired by Stephanie Perkins’s My True Love Gave To Me, a Christmas anthology of YA short love stories, and the film Love Actually.  So I present to you this year’s annual Christmas post — a combination of the two things I love the most: The Yuletide Season and a story. I hope you enjoy.

(Illustration by the lovely Aia Arkoncel! Thank you so much for doing this. Heehee.)

“Candice.”

I have a love-hate relationship with my name.   Candice.  It made all the children run towards my mother once, when her shrill shriek broke through the park.  “Candice! CANDICE! Troy made dinner tonight.  You don’t want to disappoint him.  You know how he feels about his accomplishments in cooking school!” I, dressed in my red-and-white striped jumper (yes, I know) with my hair in pigtails, ran to her with the other tots in tow.  “Candies, candies, candies!”

“I’ll just give you a quick hug, sugar,” my dad would squeeze me tight.  “I can only ever have so much of you.” “Watch out, Conrad,” my mother would giggle.  “Dr. Mathison said your sugar level’s up again.” “It’s not your fault, honey.” My dad winked.  You could tell it became a running joke.

Whether it be at home or at school (you should have seen how much of a riot I was at the Halloween masquerade, and me being in charge of food), all I know is my name always grabbed some sort of attention.  A kind of attention that, to be frank, I didn’t quite like so much. 

But on that silent, winter night, I was standing on the porch, slightly shivering.  A box rested on the palms of my hands, the contents buried in wet, powdery snow.  I never expected him to come out, let alone to even peek through the hole in the door.  The porch light glowed in the otherwise dark outdoors, and it blinded me slightly, which kind of helped.  I didn’t feel like meeting his eyes, nor meeting him at all, to be honest. 

“Nick, hi,” I shuffled my feet on the wooden floor.  I peered through the opening behind his head.  The red and yellow lights glowed from the Christmas tree in their living room, settling a sort of halo on top of his black hair.  He finally got rid of those blond tips.  The Chinese Backstreet Boy comment must have finally gotten to him. “Sorry if I’m taking you out of your party, I just — I —“

“No, it’s okay,” he shook his head, glancing behind him.  “They’re just setting up the karaoke machine for my cousins.  Uptown Girl, am I right?”

“Right, yeah.” Is that the light blue suit jacket he swore he would never wear? (“I look like a Smurf, Candice,” he scrunched his nose in disgust as he handed it back to me.  “Do you know what a smurf is?”) Or that white shirt underneath — doesn’t he know it’s freezing? Maybe that’s thermal underwear.  Or maybe not —

“I guess I don’t look like a Smurf after all.” He admitted awkwardly, tugging on the sleeves of his jacket.  He gave a small smile and I suddenly felt lightheaded.  God, Nick, god.  I didn’t notice how he towered over me, and how his outfit hugged the muscles he gained from his constant weight training (“Looks like Popeye got nothin’ on me,” he flexed his arm under my nose.  “And I don’t even eat Spinach.” “Do you need an award for that?” I raised my eyebrow in reply.) and his now svelte structure.

I thrusted the box under his chin.

“What’s this?” he asked, peering suspiciously at the buried contents.  “This better not be one of those exploding pranks, Candice.  You know, I still have to get even with you.”

I took it back quickly, just as he was about to stick his hand inside the box.  “Do you know what this jeans— means?” I shut my eyes.  Of all the days, it had to be those denims. 

He had a teasing look in his eye, the one he had whenever we formed something in common.  “You know, now that it’s the break, I finally have the time to catch you in the act—“

“Nick,” I stopped him.  “I’m not here to catch up, okay? I just— I just wanted to return a few things.”

“If I need something from the Lost and Found, at least I know who to call,” he laughed.  I didn’t answer, and his smile faded.  “Candice?”

I fished quickly into the box and pulled out a red knitted blanket with a laughing Santa Claus on it and words that read…

December 15th, 2012

“‘To the one who’s with me through the highs, and I don’t mean the weed — maybe,’” I read off the blanket and I looked at him, spinning on my swivel chair.  “I still can’t believe you knitted this thing by yourself.” I narrowed my eyes and found some uneven stitching in between.  “What with the crooked thread and all.”

“Hey,  hey,” he protested, pointing at his black frames.  “Just because I have four eyes doesn’t mean I’m all-seeing, okay? And Mrs. Pot liked it.  She said it was original and unique.”

“Mrs. Lu knitted this, didn’t she?” I asked as he turned his back to reach for his glasses cloth.

“With the grin and everything.” he replied quickly.

“So Mr. Straight A’s can’t sew to save the grade?”

“I know it’s unethical, okay, Ms. Secretary-Treasurer,” he made a face.  “But in my defense, Mrs. Pot said we could give it to anyone we wanted — sharing the Christmas spirit, y’know — and I thought of you first.”

“Why me?” I smiled inwardly.  “Is it because I’m such a warm person?”

“No, it’s because you’re cold,” he laughed, and groaned when a pillow met his face.  Joking.  And I sewed the lettering on.”

“Yeah, I can tell,” I ran my fingers over the bumpy, mismatched colored thread.  “You’re the only one who thinks that orange, black, red, and white are fitting on this kind of scheme.”

“You’re Candice,” he looked at her like it was obvious.  “Duh, you matter both during Halloween and Christmas.”

“Very perceptive,” I applauded as he bowed.  “She approved of this, even the weed lettering?”

“The only A-worthy project, baby,” he thrusted his fist in the air.  “But I sewed that on when I brought it back home.  At least I could say I learned about embroidery and cross-stitching — knitting?”

“It’s lovely, Nick,” I smiled, running my hands through the fabric.  “I can’t wait to use it.”

“Let’s use it now, yeah?” He waved the Love Actually DVD in my face. 

“You actually want to watch Love Actually?”

“I love to watch Love Actually, actually,” he frowned.  “Okay, too many actuallys.”

He brought out bottles of Coke and set them on the coffee table.  Mom and Dad were out on their annual pre-Christmas date dinner (to enjoy the luxury of actually sitting in the restaurant and not having to suffer the waiting time of an hour on the 25th) and Troy was playing basketball with his friends at the university auditorium so we had the whole house to ourselves. 

“But it’s a toasty twenty-three degrees Celsius in here.” I protested.

“Turn off the heater and open the windows,” Nick shrugged.  “Let’s freeze together.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Only when I’m with you.”

I snorted.  “Weirdo.”

He smiled.

While I popped the popcorn and poured the drinks in glasses (coasters, never forget!), he stuck the DVD in and flopped onto the couch.  I knelt down on the floor to remove some of the Christmas knick-knacks Mom set, remembering the last time a Christmas party went too wild.  The whole party broke the record, and a whole lot of other things with it. 

I tucked a lock of hair behind my ear and looked up.  “Hey, what are you staring at, Wise Guy? Go, open the windows.  This was your idea.”

“Who’s at the door?” (Say it’s carol singers)

“They don’t even sound like carol singers,” Nick rolled his eyes, his mouth full of popcorn.  “I mean, what if the husband had the same tape as he did?  Didn’t Paolo—“

“Peter.” I corrected him.

“Didn’t Peter think of such a technicality?”

“Ugh, you dope,” I punched him in the arm, my feet tingling from the cold.  The blanket was warm, but it wasn’t quite fitting to my height.  “Can’t you just forget that and just focus on his pretty effortful gesture? That is so tough to do.  I can’t even do that.”

“You know what would have been more effortful?” he nudged back, gesturing towards the television.  “If the dude stood up during the wedding instead of taking videos of Keira Knightley’s face.  That would’ve been more applause-worthy.  He wouldn’t have had the problem of looking for cardboard.”

“Keira Knightley’s so gorgeous,” I replied, tossing a chocolate button in my mouth.  “I could take videos of her all day if I have to.  I am clearly for team Peter.”

“‘I know you’re my best friend and all, so here’s some advice.  Don’t marry her because she’s mine.  I’m tired of being in the sidelines all the time, pretending to hate her just so I could stomach the fact that I can never have her.  Well, not today, not anymore,’” he spoke.  “‘If you wanna take it outside, I’d be most welcome for it though I’d advise against it.’ See? It’s so easy.  He has two legs, he could’ve stood up.”

“If only everyone had your charisma,” I looked at him.  “Well, clearly, you didn’t see him react to it at all.  He probably decided that it was for the best.  He’s a good friend.”

“Yeah, a good one, a keeper, but he’s a stupid person,” Nick argued, sticking his hand in a half-empty pack of Maltesers.  “God knows I would have stood up.”

I almost spat out my Coke.  “What?”

“I would have stood up.”

“You would?!”

“Uh, yeah, Captain Obvious,” Nick raised his eyebrows.  “If I was really into her, y’know for the long run, I would get up and just get her.  I get the whole “everybody is unique” thing, so I would know I could never find a one like that like anywhere at all.”

He looked at me and I found my heart beating faster than usual.  That was until he burst out laughing, setting his Coke down so it wouldn’t spill.

“You’d do that just for fun, wouldn’t you?” My eyebrows knit together. 

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Nick nodded, stuffing his mouth with popcorn.  “I would totally, wholeheartedly freak the hell out of the groom on his very special day just for the fun of it.  And the thing is, you wouldn’t know it until I explode from holding it all in.”

“You are such a good friend.” My face scrunched in disgust.

“Correction,” he held up a finger, fishing his phone out of his pocket.  “Great friend.  It’ll probably get the groom really thinking about his relationship.  Could be beneficial.”

Bleep.

“Who was that?” I asked, pausing the movie.

“It’s just Becca Lewinsky,” he rolled his eyes. 

“I thought you hated her.”

“Mannheim decided to stick us together as science partners,” he grumbled, typing furiously.  Whoop, the message sent.  “I just told her we’d start our project tomorrow.  God, she’s so stuck-up.”

“What’d she say now?”

“She’s blaming me for taking my ‘early Christmas vacation’ and my negative effort is going to cost her science club membership.  She told me it was okay that we start it late — ugh.”

“Is she gonna be your first victim? Y’know for Project Stand-Up?”

“Patent pending,” Nick typed Future Plans – stand up in wedding and pretend to profess feelings in his Notes.  “And no, I’m not even going to waste a gold mine prank like that on her.  I wouldn’t even go to her wedding, y’know, I don’t even know if she’ll have a wedding — No, I’m not gonna let her ruin my night.”

“I’m going to remind myself of your prank then,” I said, getting my own phone out.  “‘Nick Lu will stand up at my wedding to pretend to profess feelings.  Remember to ‘miss out on his invite.’”

“Hey!” Nick frowned.  “No, you’re not.”

“Uh, yeah, I would.  It’s my wedding!”

As Keira Knightley ran to best friend Peter to kiss him goodbye, Nick tapped me on my knee and said, “You know, I’m not going to ruin your wedding at all, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Yeah, right.” I rolled my eyes.

“No, really.”

“Yeah? And why do you expect me to believe you?”

He met my eyes, as he pulled the blanket up.

“Because I’d already be standing.”

(Enough.  Enough now.)

PRESENT

“But this is yours, Candice,” Nick handed me back the blanket.  “This is yours.”

“I know,” I said, pushing it back towards him.  “And since it’s my gift, I can give it to whomever I like.  And I’m giving it back to you.  Consider it a present.”

“A regift?” he wrinkled his nose.  “You must be joking.”

“Does this face look like I’m laughing?”

“No,” he winked as he poked my nose.  “This face looks super cute.”

I blushed.

No, focus.

I shut my eyes as I stuck my hand out.  “Nick, come on.  Take it.”

“Do I look like I want it? Sorry, sweetheart, no exchange.”

“Candice Lee!” someone clapped excitedly from behind.

Crap.

“Mrs. Lu,” I smiled weakly as Nick’s mother enveloped me in a big embrace, slightly lifting me up off the floor.  “Good evening.  How’ve you been?” “Why, missing you, of course,” Mrs. Lu smiled, her cheeks red from the clearly crackling fireplace inside.  She turned to Nick.  “Nicholas, why didn’t you say that Candice was coming over? You weren’t even decent enough to let her in?”

“I was just here to drop off a few things, Mrs. Lu,” I said.  “I was going to leave right after—“

“Nonsense,” Mrs. Lu shook her head, pulling me in by the arm.  “You must be freezing.  I’ll get you some tea.  Nick, take off her coat and carry that box — will you be a gentleman, please? Do I HAVE to do everything?”

“Yes, Ma,” Nick shut the door behind him.  I slipped my coat off as he received it, his hands touching my shoulders.  The warmth coming from his palms soothed the cold off me, and I prayed to God I wasn’t tingling under his grip.  He always had a firm hold.

“You know, I’m not staying long, Nick,” I said.  “I just wanted to drop these off.”

“I didn’t let you in, remember?” he whispered through gritted teeth.  “And no, I’m not getting your blanket back.  Why would I wanna stare at my Home Ec project?”

“Just… come on, Nick, please.  You don’t get it.”

“Apparently, there are a lot of things I don’t get, Candice.”

“Are you okay with Christmas songs?” Mrs. Lu chirped from the living room.  “Louie’s coming home soon, and I’m surprising him with the extended family fly-in.” She popped beside me and whispered, “The cousins are in the den.” I yelped slightly, then remembered that she could run as fast as The Flash (“She’s a marathoner,” Nick explained, after wondering how she came from yelling in the forest to suddenly talking from behind me a second after). 

“Christmas songs are beautiful, Mrs. Lu,” I smiled as Nick set the box down on the kitchen table. 

“I know something else that’s beautiful,” I heard him mutter, looking right at me.

“Do you want anything to drink? Tea, maybe?” Mrs. Lu asked, scrambling through the cupboards.  “I remember you like the matcha one.”

“Yes, but I can make my own tea,” I said, finding it hard to swallow.  “You go do what you have to do for Mr. Lu.  I’m sure that needs more of your attention.”

“But, honey, I haven’t seen you in so long—“

“It’s okay,  Mrs. Lu,” I shook my head.  “Thank you, though.  And I need to talk to Nick anyway, you know, to catch up.”

“You two kids have fun,” Mrs. Lu looked at Nick.  “The mistletoe’s there, if you need any more help—“

Ma, Papa’s coming home in a few minutes, remember?” Nick widened his eyes.  “Don’t you have plans?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Lu chortled.  “But you know me, I don’t like to kiss and—“

Ma.”

“See you later, Candice.” His mother left the kitchen, giggling.

“She hasn’t changed at all.”

“She hasn’t stopped embarrassing me yet,” he stuffed his hands in his jean pockets.  “So yeah, you haven’t missed much.”

“Take the blanket, Nick.”

“No.”

“Just take it,” I said.  “Temperature’s colder now than last.  Charlie needs an extra one, maybe?”

“The labrador has her own blanket, thank you.”

“Come on, Nick.”

“No, Candice.”

I walked over to the box and fished out the white water gun.

“This one then.” I thrust it towards him.

December 5th, 2000

“Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three…” I counted, my hands on my eyes. 

I swiveled as I counted up to thirty.  “Okay, come out, come out, wherever you —“

A jet of water hit my face as I uncovered my palms off my eyes. 

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEK!” I shrieked, swearing to God that an avalanche was on the way because of the vibration coming from my throat.

“AAAAHH!” the mysterious water gunman fell down on the snow.

I wiped the water dripping down my face.  “Blonde Tips?”

“I HAVE A NAME.”

“Well, what’s your name then? Lance Bass?”

Someone guffawed “Oh my god” from behind the trees. 

“You’re such an idiot, Peter.” Haley Atkinson yelled from the bushes.

“I’m not Lance Bass,” he grumbled, running a hand through his spiky hair.  “My name is Nicholas.  Nicholas Lu.  But I go by Nick.”

“But NSYNC’s another possible, more appealing name.” Peter Collins echoed.

“PETER, SHUT UP!” Haley snapped.  “This is hide and seek, not hide and speak.”

“Well, Nick,” I frowned.  “Whose idea was it to SQUIRT WATER ON MY FACE?”

“Should we name names now?”

“What do you think, detective?”

“YOU BROKE MY EARDRUM.”

“It was your choice to get screamed at,” I said, slapping his pointer finger away.  “No one just doesn’t react when they’re being hit by water in this weather!”

“Aren’t you always dead inside?”

“Thanks a lot.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Not in that sense!”

“HEY!” Peter called from behind one of the trees.  “SHUT UP AND FIND US ALREADY!”

I growled as Nick rubbed his ear gingerly, trudging my way to the snow-covered miniature hills.  “YOU DON’T WANT HER TO FIND YOU, PETER! SHE’D SCREAM FOUND YOU INTO YOUR EAR UNNECESSARILY!”

“I don’t care if she does!” Haley replied from the other corner.  “It’s freezing and my mom said never stay out if it’s dark and cold.”

“Then COME OUT, HALEY!” Nick screamed.  “Just COME OUT FROM WHEREVER YOU’RE HIDING BECAUSE —“

Then, suddenly, a huge glob of snow fell on top of me.

“AHHHHHH!”

“CANDICE!”

“CANDICE, IS IT SO HARD TO FIND ME? I’M RIGHT HERE!” Peter yelled.

“YOU’RE RUINING THE GAME, PETER!” Haley screamed back.

“THESE TWO IDIOTS ARE BUSY ARGUING TO EVEN PLAY THE DUMB—“

“IF YOU HADN’T NOTICED,” Nick yelled back.  “CANDICE IS UNDER THIS SNOW AND I’M TRYING — CANDICE!”

“Right behind you.” I stuck my arm out and slapped him behind his leg.

“Ahh!” He yelped.

“Y’know, that’s actually not such a stupid idea,” Peter clapped.  “I should have buried myself in the snow.”

“Then you’ll freeze, you idiot!” Haley snapped.

“I’m stuck,” I said, trying to wriggle out of the layers.  “I’m stuck.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Nick said, digging furiously.  “What’s holding you down?”

“This branch under—oof,” I grunted, flailing slightly.  “I can’t move.”

“Hold on,” Nick dug through the snow.  “Let me look for it.”

I used my elbows to sit up and I saw his cheeks redden from the snow digging.

“So, Candice,” he breathed out.  “Sweet name.”

“Pfft,” I rolled my eyes.  “Can’t remember the first time I heard that before.”

He continued digging in reply.

“So, you’re new here?” I asked.  “‘Cause I haven’t seen you around.”

“Yeah, I just moved from San Francisco,” he said.  “Pretty scared to be the new kid, I gotta admit.”

“Don’t worry, Blonde Tips,” I waved his fright off dismissively.  “You’ll fit right in.”

“How so?”

“Peter told me you’re pretty smart,” I explained.  “And you’re sort of okay-looking.  You could fit right in with the popular kids, in fact.”

“So when you were new, you fit right in too, I assume.”

“Why do you say that?”

“No reason.” He cracked a smile.

I reddened slightly.  “Can you — uh — hurry up?”

“I’m not a gopher.” He rolled his eyes.

“Then be one for now.”

“Since when did you get so bossy?”

“Since, maybe — I don’t know — there’s the possibility of freezing to death?!”

“I’M TRYING TO GET YOU—“

“Oh, and Nick?”

He turned to face me, his face blotchy red, huffing.  “WHAT?”

A jet of water shot out and hit him straight on the nose.  “In.  Your.  Face.”

I cackled as he screamed, then scrambled out of the snow, as I ran to the other edge of the forest with him trailing not far behind.

“CANDIIIIIIIIICE!!!!!!”

PRESENT

I sipped my tea nervously, pulling the tea bag in and out of the hot water.

“For sure, I know you’d take it.”

I waited with bated breath for a response.

I knew that coming over here with all these stuff was such a bad idea, knowing that I’d just cause a fight instead of a conversation.  I knew that subconsciously, but I knew I’d lose the courage when I saw him.  He always knew how to do that.

“Nick?”

There was only a rustle.

Sighing, I walked over to the box, fishing out an envelope gingerly.  Nicholas Lu in cursive was already running through the purple color, as I slowly shook some of the water out. 

“Nick, I know I should gi—“

As I spun around, a stream of water hit my face.

“Fourteen years later,” he smirked, blowing on the top.  “Thanks, Candice.”

“SO MATURE!” I growled, wiping some of the water off as he got a head start.  He ran into the hall as I chased him through the different rooms in the house. 

“Anything but the china, dears!” Mrs. Lu called from upstairs.

“And the ceramic moose, Ma!” Nick yelled.

There was a silence.

“Anything but the china,” Mrs. Lu replied.  Break anything but the china.”

“Right, I—“

“AHHHHHH!” My face met his chest as we both toppled onto the floor. 

The black Ming vase shook before it fell, and I held back another shriek as Nick stuck his arm out.

It landed right into his palm, as we both breathed out collectively.

“Anything but the china, dears.” Mrs. Lu reiterated.

“Everything’s fine, Ma,” he replied.  “Nothing broke.”

“Nothing broke?”

“Nope.”

“Your Papa’s ceramic moose?”

“Still here.” He tapped the coffee table.

She grumbled and muttered in Chinese, but something told me I didn’t want to hear it.

“You okay?” he whispered, touching my arm gently.

“Yeah, of course.  Why?”

“Ma said not to break the china.”

We broke into a fit of laughter, and I could feel his chest heave under my cheek. 

“Ma would kill me if I—“

“Shut up, Nick.” I giggled.

He tilted his body slightly to put the vase back onto its spot and he shoved it a little to the middle with his fingers. 

“There.”

“Great.”

“In other news, Miss Lee, it looks like you’ve been…”

I groaned.

“Water-LU’d.”

“Your puns,” I growled, punching him in the arm.  “Who could forget about your puns?”

He squirmed slightly, wincing.  “Yeah, definitely no broken bones.”

“You can never break this china.” I declared proudly.

“Yeah, I know,” he gave a small smile.  “I know I can never.”

I tried not to think of the distance between his eyes and mine, nor did I mind the fact that his hand was on the small of my back.  It was shaking slightly,  and my skin was tingling. 

“Candice.”

He met my eyes just as I looked away. 

I was afraid he would ask me why I came and what I wanted to say.  All I knew was I wanted to give up the things that no longer made sense this Christmas, or at least the things that used to. 

I thought that we made sense.  All the others said we did.  Peggy even rigged the votes one time so we could be voted one of the Winter Dream Couples at the formal last year.  Too bad it didn’t work.  Too freaking bad.

“Candice, I—“

My heart stopped as he reached for a loose strand of my hair and tucked it behind my ear.

“I missed you.”

I tried to smile.

“Yeah, right.” I choked.

“Really, I did.”

I bit my tongue.

He smiled as he tipped my chin up with his finger.  “Do you remember that one time in Peter’s party, when he broke the piñata after, like, a hundred swings?”

“All the kids ran,” I whispered.  “I remember.”

“So much confectionery.” he laughed softly, groaning at the memory.

“It was like a stampede.”

“And I remember we were like this when Martha shoved you towards my side because she wanted the Gobstoppers.”

“Explains the Frequent Dentist Visitor Card in her wallet.”

“She has one?”

“She sure needed one.”

“But I knew that,” he began.  “When you were with me, I knew that I got the only one I wanted.”

“Nick.” I sighed.

“Really,” he admitted.  “You beat all the other jellybeans.”

“Even your favorite red ones?” I asked.

“You’re my only favorite.” He smiled, touching the tip of my nose.

“Do you wanna know something else?”

“Do I?”

“I wished for a lot of things this Christmas.” he said.

“Cool,” I said, propping my chin on the back of my hands.  “What did you wish for?”

“I wished for a new bike, you know the one with—“

“The little tassels and the training wheels?”

“For your information,” he frowned as I giggled.  “I can beat you by a mile now.”

“Yeah, right.”

“And for me to gain muscle because I was too limp—”

“Sounds like you got what you wished for—”

“—and for you to come back.”

“Nick, I—“ I shut my eyes.

“And thinking about it, I could have done away with the bike, and the muscles—“

“But that wish came true too.”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t given to me, okay? I had to spend, like, three hours a day to gain — God awful.”

“Nick—“

“You came back, Candice,” he said.  “I wanted you to come back.  It’s been so long—”

“I—“

“All those things I wished for, I could get or could not get, I don’t care,” he said.  “I could deserve them in so many ways.”

He stroked my cheek.  “But you, I— I don’t even deserve to have you here with me.  At all.”

“Nick.” I croaked, feeling the back of my eyes pinch.

“And yet you’re here.  When I saw you at the front door, I thought you weren’t real–“

I tried to stand up, but he wrapped his arm around my waist.

“Nick, please, I—“

“Don’t,” he begged, holding me close.  “Candice, don’t.  Can’t we just stay like this for a little longer?”

“God knows I would,” I blurted.  “I really would, but I can’t.”

“You can,” Nick whispered.  “Please.”

Just as he leaned in towards me, the front door swung open.

“Nick?”

December 16th, 2013

“Let it be known that today is the day I ask Nicholas Lu to the prom.” I grinned widely.

“Say it louder and you’re close to a Principal Mackenzie PA.”

“Shut up, Peggy.” I nudged her.

We walked towards Biology and she squealed excitedly in the sea of people. 

“But oh my god, my dreams are coming true,” she clapped her hands together.  “You and Nick are finally going to Winter Formal!”

“We are never not there, Peggy.”

“Yeah, duh,” she squinted.  “But, like, this year you’re finally going together.  Like as a couple.  The way things should have been since forever.”

Maybe it was the fact that Nick got rid of his blond tips in place of wavy, mussy hair.  Or maybe it was the fact that he ditched his cargo pants for form-fitting jeans, I don’t know.  But let it be made clear that this question was nothing more than just a question.  Will you go to Winter Formal— I felt my throat constrict as I tried to form the words.  I wasn’t even saying them aloud, I just thought them.  It’s so simple, Candice.  Just ask the eight words: Will you go to Winter— hmm.  Will you go to — later.

“We are not a couple.”

“But shouldn’t you wait for Nick to ask you?” she asked, ignoring my comment.  “After all, I thought it was going to be that way.”

“Hmm, I never thought of it that way,” I said, my excitement fading a little.  “You’re right.”

“But either way,” Peggy added quickly.  “I’m sure it’d be great for the both of you.  Time’s changing, Candice.  It’s about time you both did too.”

“Don’t scare me!”

“I’m not scaring you, why would I?” she smiled.  “It’s more like me acting as the one that knocks both your heads together and saying, ‘hey, dumdums, the whole world knows you’re into one another.  Why don’t you know it too?’”

“We are not into one another,” I said.  “I’m just asking him as a friend.”

“As friends,” Peggy rolled her eyes.  “With a dream like Nicholas Lu? Yeah, right.”

Peggy,” I huffed.  “You know Nick doesn’t think of me that way.”

“Hey, Candice.”

“Adam,” I jumped.  “Hey.”

Peggy’s eyes widened.

“So, Winter Formal’s coming up, and I was wondering…”

“Hey, Adam,” Peggy chimed in.

“Hey, Peg,” Adam nodded in her direction.

“Yeah?” I motioned for him to continue.

“I was wondering if, y’know, you’re not busy, maybe we can—“

“I can’t.”

“YOU CAN’T?” Peggy blurted.

I widened my eyes at her.

“Oh, right, she can’t.”

“Lu got to you first, didn’t he?”

I blushed furiously.  “I, uh — something like—”

“Damn,” Adam shook his head.  “Well, all right, thanks anyway—“

“But,” I spoke but he already turned his back.  “Should I have explained it?”

“Yeah,” Peggy looked on as he disappeared into the hallway.  “He’s been so into you since we were freshmen.”

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

“Well, I didn’t even know that.”

“Well, now you do.”

“Nicholas.”

He jumped behind his locker door.

“Can-dice,” he shut his locker.  “You know I hate it when you do that.”

“Sorry,” I jumped a little on my toes.  “I’m kind of on edge today.”

“I can see that,” he commented.  “You’re sweating so much.”

“I am?” I reddened, self-consciously wiping my forehead.  “Oh, right.  It’s hot today, isn’t it?”

“No, actually,” Nick wrinkled his nose, tugging on his red sweater vest.  “It’s nippy.”

“Nippy,” I rocked on my heels.  “Strange word for cold, isn’t it? Nippy.”

“I guess so?” Nick smiled questioningly, his dimples showing themselves off.  God.

“Why’re you in such a rush anyway?”

Will you go to Winter Formal with me? I screamed in my head.  WILL YOU GO TO THE WINTER FORMAL WITH ME?

My palms started to sweat, and I fanned my back with the purple envelope.

“Well, I’m off to the gym,” he said, locking his door.  “And I have to buy a few things.”

“A few things?”

“Yeah.”

“Like what?”

“Since when did you become my grocery list?”

“Sorry.”

He huffed.  “Anyway, I’m buying some things for Winter Formal.  Need a carnation corsage.”

“You’re already buying a corsage?”

“Well, I’m ordering one,” he said.  “You can’t find those damn things in shops anywhere.”

“What?”

“Didn’t you hear me? I’m getting a carnation corsage.”

“Yeah, but—“

“You know how Becca’s so choosy.”

I froze.

“Becca?” I repeated slowly.  “Becca Lewinsky?”

“Is there any other Becca we know?” he slipped his coat on.  “Yeah, I asked her just a while ago.”

“But you hate Becca Lewinsky.”

“If I hated her, would I ask her out?”

“But—“

“And didn’t Adam already ask you?”

I felt myself shake uncontrollably. 

“No,” I croaked.  “I turned him down.”

“What?” he frowned.  “But he’s so—“

“—into me, yeah,” I snapped.  “I know.”

“So why’d you turn him down?”

“Wait, how did you know I asked him?” “I saw him talk to you a while ago,” he said, staring at his feet.  “Why wouldn’t he not want to ask you anyway?  You’re great.”

“Whatever, Nick, it’s none of your business.”

“Why’re you— are you mad?” he asked, frowning.  “Shouldn’t you be flattered?”

“Don’t think anything, Nick.”

“Well, it’s not like I’m not going to see you there anyway.  If you wanna hang out at the thing, you can just tell me—“

“Have fun at the Formal with her, man.” Adam skulked past the both of us.

“Yo, Smith!” he called.  “I’m not going with her, I—“

Then the realization dawned on him. 

“Oh,” Nick looked at me, embarrassed.  “Was that what you wanted to ask me?“

My eyes pricked.

Oh, was that what you wanted to ask me? His words hung on like unwanted baggage.

“Candice, wait, don’t go—“

“Goodbye, Nick.”

“I thought—“

“I said, don’t think anything—“

PRESENT

“Candice,” he scrambled to his feet as I rushed to the kitchen.  “Candice, wait.”

“Not anymore, Nick,” I called from inside.  “Not anymore!”

“Hey, Candice.”

“Hey, Becca,” my head was bent down as I bit my lip. 

“Do you need help with your things?”

“No, it’s all right, I—“

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” I got my bag and closed the box.  “I wasn’t supposed to be here for long anyway.”

“Candice, I can explain—“

“There’s clearly nothing to explain at all, Nick,” I said, not caring if the tears were rolling down my cheeks.  “I just know that I can’t do this anymore.  And that there was a reason why I shouldn’t have come by— I shouldn’t have—“

I pushed past him, rushing out into the living room, and —

“SURPRISE!” everyone leapt out from behind the furniture.

“Candice!” Mr. Lu enveloped me into a hug.  “I’m so happy you could join us tonight.”

“Surprise, Mr. Lu,” I whispered.  “But I can’t stay long.  I just dropped by for—“

“Welcome back, dear,” Mrs. Lu kissed her husband.  “And Candice, didn’t I— Nicholas, weren’t you supposed to set up an extra place setting at the table for her?”

“Ma, not now—“ Nick frowned.  “Good evening, Pa.”

“Ah, Nicholas,” Mr. Lu patted him on the back.  “You didn’t tell me your Candice was coming.”

“Ha.” I let out bitterly.

“Nicholas?” Mrs. Lu snapped at her son.

“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Lu.”

“Rebecca!” Mrs. Lu clapped a little too enthusiastically, while shooting Nick a “FIX-THIS” glare.

“I have to go.”

“Don’t cry, Candice.”

“I’m not, Mr. Lu,” I smiled, wiping the drops off my face.  “I’m just so happy you’re home.”

“Aren’t we all?”

I pulled away forcefully from the Lus and walked out the front door.  The temperatures dropped, and I checked my watch.  I didn’t realize how late it was.  Mom would have my head, and Dad too.

“Candice, wait!” Nick called from the door.  Mrs. Lu motioned for her husband and the guests to go to the dining room.

“I said NO, Nick,” I called back.  NO.

Becca popped out from behind his shoulder and tapped him.

“Should I explain to her? Or should you?”

“I don’t know if she even wants to talk to me—“ he sighed.  “How could you fall for an idiot like me?”

Fell for,” Becca corrected.  “It’s been so long since we— ten months now?”

“Do things have to be different?”

Becca followed his gaze out the door.  “With her, it always felt different.”

“I’m sorry.”

She squeezed his hand as she opened the door.  “Merry Christmas, Nicholas.”

“CANDICE!”

My name ripped through the air in the night, and I ignored it.  It was the same sort of yell I heard when I left him standing dumbfounded at the exit of school last year, when he realized everything.  I wanted to punch Adam and hug him at the same time, but it didn’t matter.  He went with Becca Lewinsky, I didn’t even go.  Peggy was on the phone with me all night, even if I insisted otherwise. 

“Larry Martin can wait, okay? You’re more important.”

“I’m just painting my nails.  You wanna know what color?”

I heard the laughter on the phone, and all of a sudden I felt lonely.  “Apple green, I’m assuming?”

“Did you see what he was wearing?” “I haven’t seen him yet, dear.”

“Don’t lie to me, Peg,” I sighed.  “He’s probably by the punch bowl, because they’re finally serving piña colada.”

“But do you really have to know?”

“Yes.”

“Fine,” she said.  “Okay, he’s wearing a—“

“CANDICE LEE!”

I didn’t tell Peggy of what I hoped when I hung up. 

“Don’t lose hope, Candice,” she offered.  “You never know that he’s going to show up on your front door step with flowers and marshmallows.”

“He’s with Becca Lewinsky,” I reasoned.  “Do you want his head nailed to a piece of wood for hanging out with someone other than his girlfriend?” I spat the last word out.

“Who cares about Becca Lewinsky?” she grumbled.  “We all know Nick is just using her because he can’t bring himself to say that he’s into you, that he’s always been into you.”

“Nick is not that shallow,” I defended him.  “If he cares about someone, he’d go for her.  And well, now, he likes Becca Lewinsky so I’m happy for them.”

“You shouldn’t be.”

“GO AWAY, NICK!” I yelled back, running faster. 

I knew it was better not to turn around, knowing that I’d be on my way to running in his direction.  And we didn’t want that.  Becca didn’t want that.

“CANDICE, STOP RUNNING!”

“I SHOULD HAVE DONE THIS A LONG TIME AGO!”

I closed my eyes as I tugged on the bed covers.  The stars on the ceiling glowed in the dark as I exhaled.  I waited for that doorbell to ring, for him to come up those stairs, and burst into the door.  He would come, I told myself as I felt my eyes growing heavier and heavier by the minute.  He would, I just know it. 

“BECCA AND I ARE NOT BECCA AND I ANYMORE!”

I stopped, but I didn’t turn around.

“Did she decide that when she walked in on us?”

“She only came back to collect some of her things,” he panted, stopping.  “We’ve been broken up since March this year.”

But no, not even a message from him on my phone.  I did not dream of anything but blackness that night, and I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the photos from the previous night.  I didn’t want to see anything but him with me on his arm, like what was supposed to be.  But not everything is meant to go the way it should be, I whispered to myself everyday.

I turned around.

And it was like the dream had finally come.

He was in a white dress shirt with a red tie looped around his neck and slacks under a thick black coat and a scarf wrung around his neck.  His hands were in his pockets and he glowed under the moonlight. 

“What do you want, Nick?”

He took a step closer.

“This night last year, I took someone else to the Formal,” he began.  “Becca Lewinsky was dressed in green and I was in white.  She wanted us to fashion the color palette of elves.”

“Okay…” I frowned.

“But at the back of my mind, I always thought of seeing you in the most beautiful dress every year.  It was red-and-white, the one with the ruffles on the bottom, and that candy cane headdress you always wear.”

“I thought I looked stupid.”

“At eight-thirty, the spotlight would always shine on your right side, and I’d stand on stage, wishing that I could freeze that moment the way winter freezes everything over.”

“Nick…”

He brought out an envelope — the purple envelope I left in the box.  He opened it and read:

Will LU go to the Formal with LEE (me)?

“I tried, I really tried,” I said shyly.  “I know you like puns.”

“Well, I know I like you.”

“Oh, Nick.”

He fished inside the envelope again and brought out a mistletoe. 

My eyes widened. 

“Did you—“

He just grinned. 

He pulled me by the hand and hung it over us with his other. 

“This invite is the cutest invite I have ever seen in my life,” he whispered, and I could smell the cologne wafting off his neck.  “And I should have seen this as a sign, as more of a push that I should have asked you to the Formal every year since I met you, to have asked you to dance ’til your shoes worn out, to stuff our faces with shrimp cocktails and—“

“—piña colada?” I giggled.

“You remembered.” he smiled. 

“I missed your dimples, Nick.” I put a finger on his right one.

He interlaced his fingers with mine.  “I missed you.  God, you don’t know how much I missed you.”

He kissed my hand.  “I couldn’t stand not talking to you, Candice.  Not for one moment was anything the same—“

I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him towards me.  We met in between, feeling his lips smile against mine.  I shivered as he held me, dropping the mistletoe on the ground. 

“Mistleetoe!” he exclaimed, exhaling.

“You stopped to tell me that?”

“I love you, Candice,” he kissed me on the forehead, eyes, and nose.  “Another thing I should tell you.”

“I love you too, Nick,” I said, my stomach fluttering as the words finally left my mouth.  “You have no idea how long—“

He kissed me again.  “Sorry, I just really wanted to–“

I kissed him back, cutting him off, and I pulled away.  “I did too.”

A silver chain fell in front of my eyes. 

I took it into my hands.

It was a red-and-white candy cane pendant strung around a chain with words engraved on the stripes. 

To my Candice Cane,
Love, St. Nicholas

“I was supposed to give that to you during the Winter Formal.”

“Ah, clever,” I teased. “Did Becca have a nickname?”

“Yeah,” he smiled, putting the necklace on.  “‘Not you.’”

“But St. Nicholas,” she repeated, laughing.  “Really?”

“You know how St. Nick loves his sweets,” he pulled me close.  “And for as long as you shall live, you’ll always be at the top of my list.  Don’t you forget it.”

“Merry Christmas, St. Nick.” I nudged him.

“Merry Christmas, Candice Cane.” He kissed the top of my head, putting an arm around me.

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