Ripe for The Future, a short story by Eric Taveren at
Ralph Nas

Ripe for The Future

Ripe for The Future

written by: Eric Taveren



“Why did Santa go to music school?”
Sarah sat cross-legged on the overstuffed ottoman threading popcorn to decorate the Christmas tree. They’d set aside today for Christmas prep and her Buddy the Elf pajamas pants visually clashed with her “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” sweater, though nostalgically it was an intentional choice. The TV shone behind her, volume low enough for them to talk but loud enough to not miss their favorite parts. Right now carolers were West Side Story chasing the Grinch through Whoville and Scott had a hard time concentrating on what Sarah was saying.
“Dad. Dad! Scott!” Her use of his name jerked him away from the TV and back to her.
“Sorry,” he said. “That’s my favorite part.”
“I know,” she said, “but you mustn’t let the shiny distract from the real.” He raised his eyebrow at her using his own words against him.
“I mustn’t, eh?” She just smiled sweetly at him. “What was the question?”
“Why did Santa go to music school?”
He had a good idea where this was going, but decided to give it to her anyway. “Why?”
“To get better at wrapping. Get it? Wrapping!”
Scott shook his head in exaggerated disgust and she doubled over laughing. It was good to see her laughing. Real, genuine laughing. The past six months had been hard on her, hard on both of them to be sure, but he was hoping their Christmas routines and traditions would right the ship for both of them. As much as could be expected anyway.
He went back to his task as she composed herself. Over the years they’d accumulated boxes and boxes of Christmas decorations. From handmade kindergarten ornaments to flea market wall hangings to overpriced Hallmark electric accoutrements they had more than any normal household should need. They weren’t, he was reminded suddenly, a normal household anymore. In his hands he held a handcrafted Rudolph, the body made of birch, the antlers from holly sprigs and the nose a bright red bell. Dianne had loved the hideous thing they’d come upon at a church craft sale shortly after they got married and despite his protests they’d come home with it. A few years back he’d joked it’d gain sentience for being so abysmally ugly like in the SNL baking skit and she’d laughed, dancing the wood amalgamation around and giving it a creepy voice. “Scott! Scott! I’m here for your soul.” Every year she put it in a new place to “watch over them” and to haunt Scott’s dreams. Christmas decorations weren’t on either of their minds six months ago when she signed the divorce papers, though his dreams were still haunted.
He set Rudolph aside and checked the clock. “Son of a… nutcracker,” he said, censoring himself. “We gotta go.” He put the box he’d been going through back on the stack of unopened boxes and waved at Sarah to hurry up. “Come on, come on. You’re supposed to be at Grandma’s in twenty minutes and we need to stop at the store on the way.”
She looked at him, mock appalled. “I can’t go out in this! What if someone sees me?”
He rolled his eyes and threw a pair of fluffy candy cane socks at her. “You’d love the attention. You’re not fooling anyone. Now move.”
They were out the door in two minutes. They’d just had their first real snowfall a couple days before and he was glad he’d hung the exterior lights beforehand. Most of the neighbors had been out the same day, knowing time was running out for ideal weather. They’d chatted with him politely. They’d all been very polite since this past summer.
Scott was sure Sarah had no qualms about spending time with her grandparents, Dianne’s parents, but it was still weird for him. Sarah’d known them all ten years of her life, and while he’d known them for fifteen years, they were still Dianne’s parents. They’d been extremely supportive and understanding about everything and most importantly had been there for Sarah, which was all that mattered to Scott.
He strode into the store with Sarah stalking behind him humming God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and snapping her fingers, garnering a few strange looks from the few shoppers without their noses in phones or grocery lists but she didn’t care one bit. Scott gave friendly smiles and shrugs to them as if to say “kids, right?”. They headed to the produce section since he’d promised to bring a fruit tray. The grandparents were hosting a holiday party for their neighborhood. As he was deliberating over the options Sarah shouted to him, “Dad, catch!”
He turned just as two bananas hit his chest. He instinctively grabbed at them and realized his mistake as soon as they were in his hands. “No,” he said, partly because of the rush they were in and partly because of what the bananas meant.
“Well, what are the odds,” Sarah said, a pair of bananas in her hands as well. “You’re holding bananas… and I’m holding bananas. You know what that means.”
“Please no.”
“Banana dance,” she said with a grin.
“Sarah, we really have to—”
“I don’t make the rules mister, I just play by them. Banana dance.”
He knew arguing wouldn’t help, and if he wanted to get to the grandparents in time there was only one option available. “Fine,” he said, taking a deep breath and hoping no one he knew was watching. “Banana dance.”
And then they danced.
A banana in each hand, they moved as if looking in a mirror, swinging hips and miming biting the fruit in perfect unison. It wasn’t a fancy dance, it was a dance a three-year-old would make up since that’s how old Sarah’d been when they’d created this father-daughter absurdity. As ridiculous as it was, Scott found himself grinning like a fool. In front of him Sarah was letting loose and there was nothing that could stop the high that brought him. He went into the final spin and collided with someone.
“Oh my god, I am so sorry,” he said, dropping the bananas and reaching out to steady the tottering person he’d nearly knocked over. The woman caught hold of him with one hand and righted herself, balancing a package of snowman shaped sugar cookies in the other.
“That’s okay,” she said, looking up from the cookies to Scott’s face. “I should have been watching where… Scott?”
His focus had been on making sure she didn’t fall over, but now he looked up and met her eyes. He knew those eyes.
Her smile confirmed his memory hadn’t failed him. He stared for a moment, then realized he was still grasping her arm and released her, cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
“Jesus Scott, you got old.”
He laughed and gestured to all of her. “I’m not the only one.”
She laughed and playfully punched him in the arm. Back in high school, nearly twenty years back, they’d been good friends. Mutual friends had always assumed they’d date and get married, but he and Becky had always been nothing more than friends. Then they’d gone off to college, her to California and him to Pennsylvania, and that was the last they’d seen each other. They’d chatted on the phone a bit the first two years, but their lives inevitably pulled them in different directions.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. She held up the cookies.
“Buying cookies, obviously. What are you doing, aside from assaulting passersby with under-ripe produce?”
“Oh, yeah.” He bent down and quickly picked up the fallen bananas. “It’s kind of a long story, you see—”
“Dad,” Sarah interrupted. Scott turned to see her, arms folded and watching the interaction with zero appreciation for the unlikely reunion. She tapped her wrist.
“Right. Becky, this is my daughter Sarah. Sarah, this is a friend from high school. We haven’t seen each other for, well, for a long time.” Sarah just tapped her wrist again. “And,” he looked back to Becky, “we’re running late.”
“No worries,” Becky said, giving Sarah a big smile. “It was nice to see you. We’ll have to catch up later.”
“Yeah, that’d be great,” Scott said as he felt Sarah tugging on his coat. He quickly grabbed a random tray and turned to follow his daughter. Back in the car and heading to the grandparents Scott was navigating the wave of nostalgia currently sweeping his thoughts from the present. A few of his high school friends were still in town, but the years apart at college had turned them into acquaintances and while he’d see them occasionally around town the relationships were different. The appearance of Becky brought back memories he’d not thought on for years.
“Do you like her?” Sarah asked.
“What? Who?”
“Your friend, Becky. Do you like her?”
This was not a conversation he’d been planning to have for a while. He knew he wasn’t ready to date, not that he had designs with Becky anyway, but he’d figured it’d take more than six months for him to be ready to start again.
“Do you like your friends?” He asked, trying to buy time to think of something better to say.
“That’s different,” Sarah said. “Becky is really pretty.”
She was, Scott had to admit. The years had treated her well, better than they’d treated Scott, that’s for certain. California life seemed to have kept her active and whether it was genetics or lifestyle or a combination of both, she didn’t look a day over thirty. Her hair was not the same as high school, now shoulder length and wavy where it had been long and straight. But her eyes and her smile were the same, vibrant and inviting.
“Your friends aren’t pretty?” He asked.
“Well, yeah. But they’re my friends, like eww. Also, I’m not allowed to like people yet.”
“You’re not allowed to date,” Scott corrected. “Like people all you want. But to me Becky was just the same. She was never more than just a friend.”
Sarah gave him an “if you say so” look but didn’t press it further. They reached the grandparents a few minutes later and Sarah was sprinting into the house past a startled grandma at the door.
The Paulsons lived in the older part of town, large Victorian houses in pristine condition and passed down through generations. He wasn’t sure if they’d ever had a mortgage payment on it. Martha smiled and gave him a quick hug, careful not to smush the grocery bag.
“What’s with her?” She asked, nodding the direction Sarah’d ran.
“Just full of holiday spirit,” Scott said, thinking back to the fountain of energy she’d been all morning. Martha took the bag from him and peeked inside as they walked toward the kitchen.
“I thought you were bringing a fruit tray?” she said, giving him an appraising look. “Scott, dear, how are you holding up? I know Christmas was a big deal for you three.”
What could he tell her? That he was at his wit’s end trying to make Christmas as perfect for Sarah as he could? That there was an emptiness in the house where Dianne should be no matter how many decorations he hung up? That all the things that brought Christmas joy were now laced with undertones of betrayal and abandonment?
“Oh, I’m fine,” he said, plastering that fake smile he’d perfected the past few months. “Keeping busy at the library and with the kid and now the holiday.”
The smile she returned said she believed that about as much as she believed in Santa. “You hang in there,” she said, squeezing his arm. “Now, go do your errands, grab a beer, take a break. There’s plenty of kids to keep Sarah occupied and we’ll pick up any slack.”
Back in the car Scott just stared at the old house. Martha’d paid the neighbor boy to put up their lights and he’d done a good job. Scott had done it the past five years, ever since his father-in-law Randy had fallen off the ladder. He would have done it again if they’d asked, but things were different now. Christmas dinner was still happening, but with just Sarah in attendance. They didn’t want to ruffle Dianne’s feathers, they’d said. She wasn’t going to be there either, but better safe than sorry. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He could get through this. Three weeks until Christmas. Plenty of time to check all the boxes and give Sarah the holiday she deserved.

Scott rubbed his temple with one hand and held a cold glass of eggnog against the other. Sarah’d been practicing for the Holiday Talent Show all morning and while she wasn’t a poor singer, if he could only stand Mariah Carey singing it for so long, his daughter was on a slightly shorter leash. Not for the first time did he wish he had some brandy to mix in with the drink.
He heard the track start over and knew he couldn’t take any more. He ran upstairs to her room and knocked loudly so she could hear over the song. A small crash came from inside and the door opened, a glaringly innocent smile greeting him.
“Yes Daddy, person who I love so very, very much who wouldn’t dare investigate what’s under my blanket.”
His eyes darted to the blanket on her bed and noted that while there was definitely something hidden under there, it was smaller than a person, so he wasn’t too worried about it.
“Let’s take a break for a bit and hit the mall. Still have a few presents to get, and I’ll even let you spend some of your allowance a month early.”
She scrunched up her mouth instantaneously, clearly weighing her options. He knew she’d been looking forward to singing that song since last year’s talent show, when her nemesis at school had attempted the same song and butchered the last “you”. She’d never admitted as much, but he knew the feud between them and had seen Sarah’s eyes glint at that cracked note. On the other hand, the mall. Revenge vs retail, tough decision for a young girl.
“I’ll get my jacket,” she said, pushing him back into the hallway and shutting the door. He heard some more crashing before she reappeared. “What are you waiting for?” She asked him, darting by.
The mall, with two weeks to go until Christmas, had well and fully embraced the holiday spirit. The commercial holiday spirit that is. Christmas lights and fake trees littered the walkways and Michael Buble crooned Ave Maria from the speakers, reminding all men just how inferior they were. The mall swarmed like a holly jolly anthill.
It bothered Sarah not at all. She was at the mall. This was her heaven.
They spent the next couple hours traversing the stores and walkways. Part of him would have liked to go faster, though the crowd wouldn’t allow for that. But the other part was content with their pace and the time he was able to spend with his daughter. A few times she ran into friends and disappeared for five or ten minutes, but then she was back, bright and bubbly and he found himself wishing Christmastime, as stressful as this year was for him, would never end.
Those feelings didn’t last. Standing in the doorway of the Forever 21 he looked across the flood of people a face stuck out to him. Dianne. She was shopping in one of those boutique toy stores where half the toys are wood and ninety percent were educational. And she wasn’t alone. With her was Ron, the man she’d left them for, and his two kids, a boy and a girl who he’d never bothered to learn their names. The sight wrenched at his heart, reminding Scott it should be him and Dianne in there, not Ron with his too perfect smile and his out-of-a-Pottery-Barn-catalog kids. Whatever joy he’d built up this day with Sarah had been cut out with a red-hot scalpel.
The thought of Sarah spun him around, hoping to distract her so she wouldn’t see her mom and her new family. As he turned about though he saw Sarah staring, emotionless, across into the toy store.
Son of a Nutcracker.
Scott weaved through exiting pre-teens, scanning them as he went trying to find Sarah. He didn’t have to look too far as she stood by the register. He stopped in front of her, standing in her line of sight.
“Hey Sprout,” he said, subconsciously reverting to a retired nickname from when she was younger, “let’s get out of here, yeah?” She didn’t respond. She didn’t move. She just stared into his chest toward where her mother had been. “Sarah?” He put a hand on her shoulder. That seemed to snap her out of whatever mental prison she’d been in. She looked up at him, eyes red and threatening to leak.
“I wanna go home.”
Scott didn’t say anything for most of the car ride home. He wanted to give her time to think, to process whatever emotions roiled in her head. Not that a car ride was enough time for that. His own turmoil was evidence enough and he couldn’t expect a pre-teen to rationalize emotion faster than an adult. But they would need to talk about this, that was for sure. The only problem was what he was going to say.
They’d been over the realities of their new life, of her mom’s new life. It hurt both of them to think that she could leave and move on so quickly, though he imagined the moving on for Dianne had started much earlier. Still, to see her so carefree and casually shopping with her new family… it was a gut punch.
“Sarah,” he said, deciding that letting her fester with unknown thoughts might be counterproductive, “do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” she said immediately. Emphatically. As much as he respected the word “no” and everything that came with it, he knew there were times as a parent when you had to override that response.
“Honey, it’s okay to be upset. I’m upset. I just think it might be better if we talk out what we’re thinking.”
“I said no,” she growled, voice dropping low. He knew better than to keep this going so let the ride finish in silence. When they got to the house The girl that he saw get out of the car had lost all of the joy from the morning, the brightness in her eyes. The face he saw was tear streaked with hateful eyes, clenched jaw, and pursed lips. His heart broke.
She slammed the car door, forgetting her bags in the car, and stalked inside. He ran after her. He couldn’t let her shut herself in her room in that emotional state. She might not like him for badgering, but he had to, right? As he reached the kitchen she was nearly to the stairs and he did the first thing that popped into his mind.
“Sarah,” he said, and tossed a couple of bananas to her that were sitting on the counter. He held two himself. She turned and caught them. Scott held his up and gave her the same face she’d given him at the grocery store. She raised the bananas slowly, holding them out with extended arms, then squeezed. The peels ruptured, crushed banana oozing between her fingers. Her eyes darkened, narrowed. Her arms shook with the effort of her grip, bits of banana dropping to the floor. Eventually her fist closed completely, the top halves of the bananas falling to the ground. She flicked the pasty residue from her hands as if flicking off mud, then turn and stomped to her room. She hadn’t said a word.
Scott stood there for a moment, staring at the broken, destroyed bananas at the foot of the stairs. This was not how today was supposed to go. This was not how Christmas was supposed to be. Still in his jacket, he went outside and sat on the porch bench.
He intended to use the time to sort out his thoughts, to figure out how to get through to Sarah, but something about the peaceful street, snow just starting to fall, emptied his mind. He just took in the houses around him, his community, the people he’d known and become friends with over the past ten years. It was the same as it’d always been, all the houses with Christmas lights, half with lawn decorations. Minivans and SUVs dotted driveways, dusted with snow like sugar cookies. It was his neighborhood. And it wasn’t.
A waving hand caught his attention, and he squinted to see through the bundle of scarf, earmuffs, and plaid Stormy Kromer cap. “Becky?”
His old friend did a couple giddy hops and made her way up the drive and onto the porch, taking a seat next to him as if not a day had passed since high school.
“‘Sup Duuuuude,” she said, and suddenly he was back in high school too. He laughed, melancholy musings on the back burner but still there, simmering.
“Are you stalking me?” He asked.
“Yes,” she said simply. “Not random like the grocery store. Had to figure out where you lived and everything. Ran into Jimmy at the Starbucks and he told me. Though I am disappointed I’m not seeing your ridiculous dance again.” She grinned and gave him a playful shove. Scott’s face dropped however at the thought of the dance, and of the lack of dance that’d just occurred. She read his face well enough. “Are you okay? Is this a bad time?”
“No. Kind of. You see…”
And then Scott told Becky everything. Told her about the divorce, about the affair Dianne had been having, and the new family she’d settled in so quickly with. Told her about Sarah and the struggles immediately following the divorce, a summer of hiding in the house and monosyllabic sentences. He talked about how a part of him felt like a stranger in his community. This house had been his and Dianne’s and all the memories, Scott’s and his neighbors, were of the two of them here. Now with just him he felt almost like an imposter, pretending things were normal when they very much weren’t. He knew logically his neighbors wouldn’t judge him or hold the divorce against him, but he couldn’t help feel their politeness said otherwise. And he told her about the crushed bananas.
“And all I want to do is make Christmas perfect for her. To hide the divorce and the weirdness with her mom for just a moment, just for the holiday. I want her to be happy and carefree. She’s just a kid, you know? Sometimes I’m afraid I’m trying too hard, other times that I’m not trying hard enough. I want her to know that I’m there for her, that her happiness is priority number one.”
“Have you told her that?” Becky asked. He realized she’d taken his hand as some point during his emotional vomiting. He didn’t take it back.
“Not in those exact words, but that’s one of the things I’m afraid of. I want it to seem natural, I want her to forget the badness and enjoy the holiday.”
“You know that’s impossible, right?”
“What?” Scott asked.
“Forgetting her mom, forgetting the divorce. It was six months ago. And from what you told me, Christmas was a big deal in your family. No matter what you do, even if you make this the most perfect Christmas ever, that hole where her mom was will always be there. This Christmas, next Christmas, the one following. Sure it’ll shrink with time, but now? Right now? The very first Christmas post-divorce? It’s going to be rough no matter what you do.”
“Not the encouragement I was looking for,” Scott muttered.
“I’m not trying to encourage, I’m trying to help.” Becky took his other hand and shifted to face him directly. “Do the Christmas thing: decorations, talent show, presents. Make this year special. But don’t think it’ll cover up the pain. Your old family dynamic, the Christmas in your memory, that’s gone. There’s no changing that. But move forward with Sarah. Make this Christmas and all the coming ones special in a new way.”
Scott took the advice in, really listened to it. He’d been so preoccupied with recreating the past he’d overlooked how the past could never be. Since when had Becky become so wise?
“I’m glad you’re back,” he told her.
“As you should be,” she said with a grin, then leaned forward and hugged him. As he returned the hug something in him shifted. For six months he’d felt apart from everyone except Sarah. He’d felt disconnected. That was part of the reason he felt distant from his neighbors. It was part of what kept him at arm’s length from his in-laws. The one person he’d felt the closest to in his life had abandoned him and that aloneness had sunk in somehow. But with this hug, with the action of inclusion and understanding that loneliness shrunk. And it felt good.
He hugged her back. Not just the polite return hug, but a real embrace. He needed this, needed that feeling, that warmth. He felt Becky stiffen at the unexpected forcefulness, but then she too made the hug something more. Something healing.
When he finally let go and leaned back he saw something new on her face, something he’d never seen before.
“What?” He asked. “Was that weird? Sorry, I just—”
“No, no,” she interrupted. “It not that. I’m just happy to have helped.” She looked at him for a long moment then slapped her hands to her knees and rose. “Well, I think that’s enough interpersonal emotional delving for one day. See you around, Scotty.”
He gave a tight grin. She knew he hated that nickname. And he knew after what’d just transpired, he wasn’t going to say anything about it. And she knew that too. He watched her go and came up with a new plan for Sarah and for Christmas.

“This! Is! Impossible!”
Scott heard her frustration from the other room and through the shut door. It’d taken Sarah a couple days to get back to normal, or whatever normal was these days. She was in her last week of school before break and he was glad for her friends and the role he knew they played in her emotional stability. Something new was getting under her skin though and he wanted to nip it in the bud.
“What’s going on in there?” He shouted from his room. Her door burst open in response and Sarah came out, arms laden with various dresses and festive shirts.
“I don’t know what to wear.” She tossed all of them on his bed and flopped dramatically next to them. “The dress is too boring, the Christmas shirts too basic, and I need, I need to look better than Tiffany.” She lolled her head to the side to stare at the clothes. “This is going to be a disaster.”
Scott took in the shirts she’d been looking through. He saw Santa, gingerbread people, a workshop elf, and a snowman. With the Christmas icons lying next to the dress he had an idea. “Why don’t you let me handle this?” He asked.
“What, let you decide the fate of my fledgling social life?”
Scott nodded, and gestured to his own outfit, a cardigan overtop a buttoned shirt and deep blue jeans. “I’m not so bad a dresser,” he said.
She raised and eyebrow, gave it a couple seconds of thought, then let out a resigned sigh. “Fine. Fine. But this is all on you now, bud.”
He laughed, shoved all her clothes in a bag, then went to JoAnn’s. The next morning he went through work on autopilot, helping patrons find books, work the computer, and repairing books when there was down time. But his mind wasn’t on work. It was on making this Christmas the best for Sarah, though not by forcing the idea of Christmas’ past on to her. And first things first, the Christmas talent show.
He was by no means a great seamster, but he’d taken Home Ec and knew his way around a sewing machine. Or at least he thought he did. The library had an assortment of creative tools for patrons to use: 3D printers, a laser cutter, and even sewing machines. So on his lunch break he was hard at work making her perfect Christmas costume. Then the sewing club ladies found him.
They entered with what seemed to him a slow motion swagger, farmer’s market tote bags swinging with skeins of yarns poking out the top. Floral blouses gave them the look of a roving botanical garden. On each nose rested a pair of bifocals, frames a couple colors short of a rainbow. They strode in like they owned the place and every sewing machine needed to bend before their will.
“Mr. Scott! Heavens, what are you doing to that poor fabric?” One of them, Bernice, asked. Scott looked up to find Bernice and four others giving him looks ranging from amused to aghast. He immediately felt defensive, but quickly squashed that as he knew they all were pretty much the nicest ladies in town. Except for Gretchen. Don’t cross Gretchen.
“I’m making a dress for Sarah for the talent show,” he said, holding up the admittedly ragged looking jumble of thread and fabric. Bernice “tsk tsk’d” him and snatched his progress out of his hands, holding it up and inspecting hit. She pondered a bit, then looked back to him.
“You need this by Saturday?” Bernice asked. Scott nodded. “Well, ladies! Looks like we’ve got a project today.” Then like a drill sergeant Gretchen assigned duties and gave out orders and within a few minutes there were five much more qualified than him women working on Sarah’s dress.
He offered his thanks and was about to get out from underfoot when one of them tugged on his sleeve.
“Becky said she ran into you at the store,” she said, and Scott had a second of confusion before he realized that the lady was Becky’s mom. It’d been so long since he’d seen the two together she’d turned from Becky’s mom to Mrs. Williams in his mind, and he’d completely overlooked that when she’d entered the room.
“Yeah. I almost knocked her over.”
“But you held on tight, that’s what counts.” She looked down at the section of dress she was working on. “Your little girl’s going to love this. You’re a sweet man, Scott.”
“Thanks,” he said, a little embarrassed. She’d been coming to sewing club for years and he’d never once asked about Becky. It’s crazy how priorities shift when you have a family, a life separate from your past. But wait, held on tight? Surely she meant him catching Becky at the grocery. Unless…
“You run along now,” she said, winking at him. “Leave this to us.”
It took two days for the ladies to finish, followed by profuse thanking from Scott, and when Saturday came and the night of the big show, he had Sarah close her eyes. He gently laid the dress in her waiting arms. She opened her eyes to see a colorful dress, an amalgamation of Santa, elf, snowman, and gingerbread cookie patterns sewn together in alternating diagonal bands, a repeating pattern of Christmas spirit to cover her from head to toe, if you count the Santa hat and mistletoe socks he grabbed at Target.
“OMG I love it!” She squealed, bouncing up and down and alternating between hugging it and admiring it with outstretched arms. “This is so slay.”
He didn’t know the exact connotation, but knew it to be positive, so smiled and said, “Glad you like it. You should probably try it on and then we can get ready for the big night.” Definitely winning Christmas. When she came bounding down the stairs he knew he owed those ladies big time. She nearly floated as she spun and danced about. Tonight was going to be perfect.
After a dinner of one part meatloaf to two parts sugar cookie, they climbed into the car and headed to the community center auditorium, Scott not minding her belting of “All I Want for Christmas is You” and finding himself humming along. He ushered her backstage where all the participants waited and found a seat front and center. He’d only been there a few minutes when someone plopped down next to him.
“Not stalking this time, scout’s honor.” He turned to find Becky removing her winter outerwear, stuffing the smaller articles inside that large hat. “Though if we stick to this pattern the next time will be another legit stalking. Consider yourself forewarned.” He helped her slide out of her coat and he was reminded again of Sarah’s estimation. Becky was pretty. Beautiful.
“I’ll have to watch my back,” Scott said, handing her the jacket which she folded and rested on her lap. “Who are you here for?” He asked.
“Sarah’s dress,” she said matter-of-factly.
Of course her mom would have mentioned the dress. But being here for the dress was also being here for Sarah. He was about to protest and say she didn’t have to, but thought better of it and just said, “Thanks.” She gave him a smile and while the auditorium slowly filled with fellow parents and the organizers struggled, and failed, to get the show started on time they recounted the events of their lives the other had missed. Scott had unloaded on Becky the prior weekend, so it was mainly about her life in California, pursuing theatre but never finding success in that, getting involved in finance, living a busy life but not a wholly fulfilling one. So she moved back home, able to work remotely with sporadic business trips. There were obviously other chapters in the story, but their conversation was interrupted by the MC tapping on the mic.
“Good evening everyone, Happy Holidays, and welcome to the annual Holiday Talent Show. I hope you’ve all grabbed a cup of hot cocoa and are ready for an evening of our town’s finest.” Applause ushered him off stage as the first performer entered.
Scott and Becky watched a series of entertaining performances as they waited for Sarah. One boy did a Christmas themed magic show, a trio of twenty-somethings did an interpretive dance routine to Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, and a man told the Three Kings story while juggling scene appropriate props. On a unicycle. Scott was fairly sure a simple sung song wouldn’t win, but that’s not why Sarah was doing this. As luck would have it, her nemesis, Tiffany, was slotted before Sarah in the show. Tiffany came out and sang Santa Baby and she really leaned into the smoky seduction aspect and based on the chatter around him most of the audience was none too comfortable given Tiffany’s age. A polite clap followed the grinning girl off stage and then Sarah was there.
Clad in her homemade outfit which got tons of oohs and ahhs, she reached center stage and adjusted the microphone to her level. Her grin was sweet and if she had any ounce of stage fright she wasn’t showing it. “Happy Holidays everyone,” she said, people greeting her similarly. “I’m going to sing one of my favorite Christmas songs for you, I hope you like it.” Becky whistled loudly next to Scott and he jumped. Yes, Becky was definitely back.
Sarah took a tiny step back, composed herself, then looked out to the audience. She took a breath, head swiveling as she took in the faces. Then she froze. Scott furrowed his brow. Maybe the AV guy wasn’t ready with the music? It was queued up to start after the a cappella solo, so he should be waiting on Sarah. He found the guy at the side of the stage just as confused as Scott. What was Sarah staring at?
Scott turned in his seat and his heart sank. There, a dozen rows back, sat Dianne and her new family. What did she think she was doing here? He understood wanted to see Sarah perform, but to bring the whole family, to rub Sarah’s nose in it? How could she be so selfish or oblivious or any other narrative word that came to mind? No wonder Sarah had frozen. He had to think of something, to break her out of this stupor and to save her a year’s worth of ridicule from Tiffany. Images of Sarah’s face after the toy store flashed in his mind, of her tears and the deadness in her eyes. His mind extrapolated that into her teenage years, adulthood, this traumatic moment scarring her for life. This was not the Christmas he’d planned. But what could he do?
“I don’t want a lot for Christmas, there is just one thing I need.” The voice came from beside him and he watched in equal parts horror and relief as Becky sang. Relief that she’d figured out what to do. Horror because he knew what had to come next.
“I don’t care about the presents, underneath the Christmas tree,” he sang, voice not nearly as good as, well, most people’s. “I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know.” His voice snapped Sarah out of her trance and now she stared at him, shock plain on her face. Her dad was singing. In public. He nodded his support, prodding her to join him. “Make my wish come true,” he and Sarah sang together, “All I want for Christmas is you.”
The music kicked in and Sarah went into the song full force, the timidity from her mom’s appearance gone completely. She danced and sang and flashed that face-splitting grin, filling Scott’s heart. When she finished the audience roared with applause. Part of it was because it was a fun performance, but part was definitely showing their support after her falter in the beginning.
When the show was over, Scott and Becky met Sarah by the cocoa table, and she ran and leapt onto him in a massive hug. “I’m so proud of you, Sprout,” he whispered in her ear, and she hugged him even tighter. When he finally set her down after a few overly dramatic spins, she took in Becky who had sensibly stepped back for their moment.
“Thanks,” Sarah said, “for back there.”
“Don’t mention it,” Becky said, visibly relieved the hostility from the grocery store was no longer there. Sarah looked back and forth between the two of them.
“So are you two hooking up or something?”
Scott spit out the hot cocoa he was sipping and started choking. He looked to Becky to make sure she wasn’t offended, but the look he got back was amused and… intrigued? It may have been years since he’d seen her, but he still knew her looks. Was she here for… oh. Scott swallowed hard. She met his eyes and they didn’t need to say anything to let each other know their position on the matter. He realized in that moment, in that look, that maybe there was something here to explore.
Instead of answering directly he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and composed himself. “Why don’t we walk around the town center some, check out the craft show.” Maybe they’d find a new ugly Rudolph, just for them.
“Oooookay,” Sarah said, eyeing them both, then turning and skipping the direction of the homemade trinkets. She definitely was feeling better. Given last week’s reaction to seeing her mom’s new family, this was a miraculous improvement. Christmas was back on track. Becky fell into step beside him.
“Kids say the darnedest things, don’t they?” Her smile was mischievous.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Scott said, feeling awkward all over again.
“Don’t be,” she said.
He grinned as they turned a corner, and two surprisingly festive Santa hat adorned bananas flew at him. Sarah stood ten feet away with a pair in her own hands grinning like a fool. Yes, this Christmas was turning out just fine.

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