A Christmas Short by Lori Sizemore, @lorisizemore
Daphne Howard drove back into her hometown and nearly turned around and left again. She actually stopped at the post office, but Mrs. Lawrence spotted her and waved hello. Then it was all over—her family would know she’d actually made it before she got back to the edge of town limits.
Why couldn’t this be the year that the big blizzard hit? Why couldn’t there be a little snow on the road? Anything so she could call her mother and say, “Sorry, can’t make it!”
When Daphne pulled into the long driveway, she counted nearly a dozen cars. With three brothers and even more aunts and uncles, that wasn’t surprising. Unpleasant, but not a surprise. She’d just have to deal. It was only tonight and tomorrow, Christmas Day. Then she was out of here.
Daphne let her used sunshine yellow convertible roll to a stop behind her brother’s minivan and her aunt Tillie’s SUV. She could do this. In less than five minutes, she’d carted in the box of presents and hugged every warm body within the two-story farmhouse. All except her parents.
Mama was first. She elbowed her way through three boys a foot-and-a-half taller than her, their picture perfect wives, and Daphne’s seven nieces and two nephews. Big families—that was the Howard way.
Mama grabbed Daphne tight and whispered, “I’ve missed you so much, baby girl.”
Daphne bit the inside of her bottom lip to keep the tears from spouting. If she started now, she’d be a goner by the time she saw her dad.
The front door opened and closed behind her as she inhaled the vanilla scent that would always be her mama. Cold air swooshed across them. A smiled etched its way across her face in anticipation, but a bit of scolding, too.
Daphne’s dad had just come home after a mild heart attack. He should be resting, not out blowing leaves or whatever he’d been doing.
But, when Daphne turned, it wasn’t her dad standing there with big, brown eyes, staring her down. Josh. Daphne glanced at her mother, who gave a guilty little half-smile and avoided her gaze.
She’d left this house, in her wedding dress, one year ago exactly tomorrow… and her mother had invited the man she’d left waiting at the altar for Christmas Eve dinner?
Everyone stopped to stare at her. At the both of them, really. Even the kids seemed to hush their chatter when they saw Josh appraising Daphne from across the room.
Daphne did the only thing a mature, rational woman could do—she walked out, just like she did a year ago.
She found her dad upstairs in her parents’ room. She shut the door behind her and leaned against it. Her dad struggled to sit up, his hair tousled from a nap.
“She is a crazy lady,” Daphne mumbled.
“Your mom? Tell me about it.”
“What?” Daphne shook her head and crossed to her dad. She’d been standing at the door, guarding it, while her poor dad tried to stand. She was some daughter. “Daddy, let me help you.”
He waved her away. “I hate being sick. Your mother treats me like a child. ‘Don’t eat that, get some exercise, lie down, take your medicine.’ It’s enough to make you… Daph?”
Daphne settled down on the bed beside him. “Yeah?”
“Is that why you left?”
“What?” She couldn’t stop wondering what Josh could be doing, just downstairs, right now.
“That’s exactly what your mother does to you. Not the being sick part, but hell. She picked your wedding day. And your dress. And your major in college. Is that the reason?”
“Maybe a little. But Mama only does it because she’s afraid of losing you.” Daphne eyed her dad suspiciously. “Did you set me up?”
“Are you kidding? She’s driving me nuts. I’m not going to defend that. So what’s wrong?”
“She invited Josh. I can’t believe she invited Josh. For Christmas. At the house we were supposed to get married in. At Christmas.”
“She’s still close to him, baby.”
“You’re defending her.”
“Meh. I’ll pay you fifty bucks if you go get me a bacon cheeseburger and sneak it in.”
“Not a chance.”
“You’re a good girl, Daphne Anne.”
* * *
Daphne marched back downstairs with determination. She wouldn’t let a little bit of awkwardness turn her into a child hiding from the mess she’d made. She’d just walk up to Josh and… um… apologize and then… Well, she’d figure it out.
She approached Josh, who held her youngest niece on his hip. Daphne opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
Josh raised his eyebrows expectantly and then, apparently, decided to take pity on her. “You look beautiful, Daph’. Merry Christmas.”
Just then, Mama came over and took the little girl from his arms. “I’m sure you two would like some privacy. You probably have a lot to talk about.”
Daphne leveled a gaze at her. “Mother.”
She glanced around the room at her family only to realize every person in the room stared at the two of them. “This is going down as the second worst Christmas of my life.”
Josh stepped past her, taking her hand, and pulled her to the door. He paused there and looked from face to face. “You know, I love this family. I loved the idea of being part of this family. But y’all really need to get over the whole ‘taking care of Daphne’ thing. She’s been a grown woman for a while now. Mrs. Howard, all of you—with all due respect—let her live her own life. Go back to making eggnog or making babies, or whatever you people do around the holidays, but let her do her own thing.”
Daphne stared up at Josh in disbelief. Where had this man been a year ago? The two of them were practically trampled by her family’s beliefs about how things should be.
Come to think of it, where had she been? It sure wasn’t anymore his responsibility than hers to stand up to them.
“I think my mom’s right.”
“You what?” Josh examined her like she’d spoken in some foreign language.
“She’s right, we need some privacy. We need to talk.”
Daphne opened the door, stepped out onto the porch, and inhaled the scent of pine trees and snowflakes in the winter air. “Come on,” she said and led him to the old swing that hung from the big tree out back.
She sat down on the swing and patted the seat beside her. “I need to show you something.”
Josh settled onto the seat next to her then ducked his head to look up at her from the side.
“Here.” Daphne pulled the worn piece of paper out of her pocket and smoothed it on her jeans.
“What is it?”
“Look.” She held it out until he took it. “It’s an advance. I finally sold one of my stories to a magazine. It’s not much, but—“
“This is incredible. You did it.”
Josh kissed her, surprising her. His lips captured hers and her heart started to race.
When he pulled back, the cold winter day felt like a sweltering day in the middle of summer. “I really missed kissing you,” she murmured.
He stood and said, “Wait right here. I have something to show you, too.”
In only a couple of minutes, he came jogging back to the swing, a magazine in his hand.
He held it out to her and her hands shook as she flipped through the travel magazine. Glossy pictures, write-ups about local activities. Except it wasn’t local to anywhere she’d ever been. “Um, so… Alaska?”
He gave a shake of his head. “Page seventeen.”
Daphne took her time, reading through the article about a small festival, with ice and snow and hot… wait. Something looked familiar here. “Did you take these pictures? Oh, my God. You? How?”
“My new job. I travel, snap pictures, and get paid for it. I’m going in a few days to Times Square for New Year’s Eve.”
“I thought you wanted to work for the newspaper.”
“Yeah, well, I thought you wanted to live and die in this stupid town.”
“You mean you didn’t want to stay here and have fifteen babies and visit my parents twice a week for dinner? Seriously?”
Josh knelt on the cold ground in front of her. “Only because I thought it’s what you wanted.”
Daphne considered their engagement. The way her mother had swept in and planned everything. And Daphne had been too afraid to say boo to her about it. “Oh, God. I ruined our lives.”
“They’re not ruined yet.” Josh slipped her hands in his, warming them. “You want to go spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square with me?”
“You could forgive me after I just left you here?”
“I think we can do things right, this time. What do you say?”
“Happy damn New Year, baby. Kiss me!”