Welcome to the conclusion of Hot Chocolate, Interior Decorating, and the Abominable Christmas Tree.
If you haven’t read part one, here it is.
I stumbled out of the car, unsure if the hot cocoa I’d gulped down a few minutes ago would stay in my stomach or display itself across the freezing blacktop.
Liam stepped out of the car and patted my shoulders. I leaned back against the door.
Brittney flipped a strand of hair out of her face, unaffected. Of course she didn’t mind. She was the one switching lanes so fast a Nascar driver would be jealous.
“Come on.” She headed for the doors, joining a crowd of other shoppers. I’d never seen the shy girl this determined or confident for that matter. I suppose girls broke character to help their boyfriends.
Or maybe she was picking up on the lack of confidence from the rest of us and was overcompensating.
No need for that. I rubbed my hands together to fend off the cold nipping at my fingers. I had made this mess. I could fix it. If that took confidence, I could be confident.
Ok, I could pretend to be confident. Same difference.
Liam and I joined the crowd and struggled to keep up with Brittney. People were everywhere, parking their cars, waiting beside the road for someone to drive up their car, streaming in and out of the doors. Did everyone in town wait until the day before Christmas Eve to shop?
When we walked through sliding doors I knew the people I’d seen outside was nothing. Families, parents, and teenagers alike were packed tight, weaving around each other like Brittney had weaved around cars on the way here. The crowd advanced as a whole in a never-ending mass of bobbing heads and shopping bags, suffocating the poor kiosk salesman in the middle of the wide hall.
Brittney stood beside the entrance next to a trash can, back to the wall as she strained to see above the crowd. We shuffled over.
“We’ll never get to the tree shop before the gym closes.” Liam stood on his tiptoes. “I don’t even know where it is.”
I had to agree with him. Perhaps we should give it up now. I didn’t relish shoving my way through that much humanity.
But if I went back to the gym, King would kill me. He’d probably yell at Brittney, too. I bit my lip. We were here already. We were going to get this done.
“Hold on.” I clambered onto the trash can. It was solid enough that it didn’t wobble. A few people looked over at me as I stood, using the wall to stay balanced. Mwahaha! I was on top of the world! Or at least higher than anyone on this floor.
I scanned the shop titles, looking for something with the word tree in it.
“There!” I pointed. Treetopia read the bulky letters swallowed by wreaths. A single man wandered about the store, checking trees, playing with a set of keys, and shooing people out the door.
“We have to get there before he closes!”
Brittney and Liam were already elbowing through the crowd. I slid down after them. There was no way I was getting lost in this jungle without them.
If that tree store closed before we got there…visions of King’s wrath and Brittney’s disappointment flooded my mind, and I pressed forward.
We stumbled into the open spot in front of the door just before the man flipped over the open sign. Liam pulled me through the door, then held it open for Brittney.
“Hey, we’re looking for a tree real fast,” he said.
“We are closing.” The man held up his keys. With his emotionless expression, limp shoulders, and stylish clothes, he looked like boredom personified in a fashionista. Doug was scrawled across his nametag.
“But all we need is a–”
Doug sighed. “The store is now closed.”
Dang it. What were we going to do now?
Brittney stepped forward. “Sir…Doug, I mean…we…”
“I said the store is–,” he started
“I like your vest,” she interrupted.
The man looked down at his clothes. “Uh, thanks.”
“And that shirt! Where did you get it? It frames your shoulders perfectly.”
Doug perked up. “Yeah. That’s why I picked it. Found it at the store right across from here. I’m surprised anyone noticed.”
Brittney awarded him with one of her flickering smiles. Hey, why did he get one of those smiles? He didn’t do anything but wear nice clothes. In fact, he was just about to throw us out of the store!
Liam tugged at my arm.
What? I glanced back at Brittney. Why not stick around? I needed to know what made this guy so appealing.
“The tree, Sam,” Liam said.
Oh. Yeah. The thing we came all this way for.
Liam lugged me away. We passed by a few real trees, but I was pretty sure King would die if a living piece of nature was in the school gym. I wouldn’t be surprised if nature hated King so much it withered in his presence.
We reached the back of the store. There were only three trees left, each set up and standing on a makeshift stage above some boxes.
I swallowed. Two were a healthy, spray paint green. The third was bright pink. And when I say bright pink, I mean it was neon, the sort of neon that could burn your irises faster than the sun.
We were not picking that one, for sure. What would King do if he saw such an outrageous thing?
I inspected the other two trees carefully. I had to pick the absolute best tree ever. Then King wouldn’t want to murder me after that hot chocolate incident, and Brittney would be proud of me for being careful this time.
Brittney. I was going to pick such a great tree she wouldn’t be able to hide her awe. Sure, there were only two trees left, but of the two, one would be awe-strikingly awesome.
“Hurry up! Brittney can’t keep that guy in a good mood forever. He only has so many articles of clothing for her to admire,” Liam said.
“Ok, ok.” I paced between the two trees. They were identical as far as I could tell. How was I supposed to know which one was better?
“This one!” I pointed to the one on the left.
“No! You can’t buy that one. You have to pick one from the boxes.”
“That’s a display tree.”
Oh. I knew that. I grabbed the box under the tree I liked. Before I could open it and make sure it was awesome, Liam had my arm, dragging me toward the counter.
“Help me with this, would you?” The display tree had looked so much lighter. I swore I was carrying a box of bowling balls, not a bunch of fake greenery.
The fashionista man was now at the counter, showing Brittney some bag. He frowned when he saw the tree.
“I already cashed out,” he said. I didn’t know what that was, but I assumed it meant he wasn’t going to let us pay for our tree.
Brittney smiled again. “I’m sorry, but we only need this one tree.”
After a long sigh, Doug caved and pulled out a scanner. I couldn’t blame him. Anyone would melt under Brittney’s smile. He scanned the barcode. “Thirty-five bucks and twenty-three cents.”
She pulled out the cash. After paying and wishing Doug a fond farewell, she led us out.
We were soon shoving the tree into the backseat of the car. Though we’d won a small victory, no one celebrated. We were too tense. Would we make it back before the school closed?
We made the return trip in less time than it had taken us to reach the mall in the first place, which didn’t help the contents of my stomach. Oh well. At least we were still alive.
We pushed open the gym doors and lugged the tree inside. The kids cheered like a village welcoming back their warriors after a fierce battle.
King drooped, and I swore he lost three inches of height. “You did it.” He grinned at Brittney in a way that made me believe he might actually care for someone other than himself, his Xbox, and his Toms.
Brittney nodded. “Sam picked it out. He and Liam got it for me.” And lo and behold, she gave me one of her smiles. I flushed as red as Rudolph’s nose on Christmas Eve and ducked my head.
Liam bowed. “Why don’t we set this sucker up before security kicks us out?”
There was a chorus of alrights from the students. Someone procured scissors, and Liam cut the tape.
I couldn’t believe it. We’d actually done it. We hadn’t wrecked the car, burned half the mall, or been assaulted by a snowstorm. We’d found the tree on time, too! I hadn’t failed after all.
Ha. I was so naive.
Liam pulled back the cardboard flaps.
Bright, burning pink branches stuck in the air.
Oh no. I’d taken the pink tree. I’d picked the wrong one.
The kids froze, staring at the pink thing resting in the box. I didn’t look at King. I didn’t want to see the murder in his eyes.
I ducked down to check the tree label. The black and white picture of the tree wouldn’t help, however, the sticker clearly read NEON PINK.
Oooooooh snap. Oh snap oh snap oh snap. King was indeed glaring death, arms rigid at his sides.
Someone started laughing.
Not a casual, stifled giggle mind you, but the outrageous laughter of boundless mirth. Brittney bent over, hands on her knees, shoulders shaking. A flurry of whispers broke out.
“You…you think this is funny?” King asked.
Brittney didn’t answer for a moment, wiping tears out of her eyes. She straightened. “Oh, King. This is hysterical.”
King’s face darkened. What was she doing? Didn’t she know what King was like when he was mad?
“King, let it go and have a little fun. It’s Christmas, after all.” She straightened, motioned to the tinsels. “This Christmas party isn’t going to fail because you didn’t get everything perfect.” She tapped the box. “Even if we got some things horribly wrong. It’s not about the decoration, right? It’s about the fun. Besides, even you have to admit, the tree is a little funny.”
I tensed. The tree completely clashed with the white and blue theme. But who could argue with Brittney?
King sighed. He scanned the tree. “It’s too late to get another. We….” He looked at the kids. “We will decorate it the best we can.”
The whole crowd let out a relieved breath. Someone in the back snickered. Another near the front remarked on how ridiculous the tree was.
I should have felt embarrassed. I’m the one who’d made the mistake. But in all reality, I was just glad the pressure had left the room.
Liam grabbed the top of the tree. “Well, anyone want to help me set up this abomination?”
The students laughed and gathered around. I stepped away. I’d done enough damage.
“I’ve got some decorations over here!” A girl held up a length of blue tinsel. King wandered over to check them out.
Brittney too, stood apart from the crowd, hands behind her back. I swallowed, hard. Now would be a good time to say sorry.
I approached. “I….” I stared at the ground. “I’m sorry I grabbed the wrong tree.”
Brittney watched the teenagers pull the tree out of the box and stumble a little under its weight. “It’s alright. It’s not all your fault.”
I looked up. “Really?”
“I should have checked the label.”
She nodded toward the kids. “It’s ok. Besides, look at the kids.” Tiny wrinkles formed around her eyes as she smiled. “They think it’s hilarious.”
The students not helping with the tree gathered around the décor girl, picking out ornaments. They bumped and jostled each other, relaxed now that King wasn’t bossing them around. I smiled a little myself.
“Good things can come from mistakes, too,” Brittney said. With an encouraging pat on my shoulder, she joined the crowd of decorating students.
I shoved my hands in my pockets. Liam and a few of the students propped up the Christmas tree, made sure it was stable, and let it go. I let my smile grow. Brittney was right. It was pretty funny. It would definitely be a conversation piece at the dance.
Kids swarmed the tree and started placing ornaments.
“Hey, Sam!” Liam motioned me over to the bins of decoration.
“What?” I asked.
“I found the perfect decoration for you.” Liam pulled out a small, clear tub.
A tub of full of blue glitter.
He reached inside and grabbed a handful, an evil smirk on his face.
Nuh-uh. Nope. I backed away. Liam pulled back his hand and I started running. He gave chase.
“You afraid of a little glitter?” Liam hollered.
“Never!” I ducked behind the nearest person right as Liam chucked the handful at my face.
Fortunately, my face was no longer there. Unfortunately, King’s was.
He scrunched his eyes shut, and the handful hit his face and poofed out.
No one breathed. Of all the people I could have picked to hide behind….
Brittney raised a thin, warning eyebrow at King.
He exhaled and turned around. “That’s it.”
He rushed the décor table, grabbed another tub of glitter, and chased, not for me, but Brittney. “GLITTER WAR!”
Brittney squealed and ducked behind me, just as King threw another handful. It hit me square in the chest.
King bent double laughing.
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” I said. I dusted the glitter off my shirt. Was King actually laughing with happiness? Was that even possible?
“Whatcha waiting for, people?” Liam said. “Every man for himself!” He made for the decorations. The kids yelled and followed.
The battle was on.
I don’t know how long it lasted. The teenagers armed themselves, making alliances and using the tables and tree for cover. Howls and shrieks bounced off the cinder block walls and glitter rustled and floated, kicked up by running feet. I managed to take five handfuls of glitter to my face about and had to pause to pick specks out of my eyes.
Everyone had fun, but I think Brittney enjoyed it the most. She beamed like a lightbulb, enthusiastically hunting down children to coat them with glitter.
Maybe she was right. Some mess-ups could turn out ok if you make them.
Parents started texting their children, wondering where they were. The security guard finally found us and kicked us out.
Before we left, we decided to take a group selfie. I couldn’t help but remember the last time I’d been photographed with glitter in my hair. I was disheveled and sparkling, but this time I wasn’t pink. This time I wasn’t alone.
And this time, I was smiling.
“We ended up taking the tree down because it really didn’t match. But we kept the glitter,” I said.
“The teachers are going to kill you.” Samantha sat back, crossing her arms. She was trying to watch me with that critical mom-look that Mom always wore when listening to my stories, but she couldn’t quite pull it off, so it was less intimidating.
Besides, I wasn’t about to lose my grin. “But the students will love it! And we’ll clean it up after.”
“I don’t know how you get away with this stuff.”
“It’s my charming smile,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “Mhmm. I’m sure.” She picked up her book.
“Is that it? That’s all you have to say?” I deserved a little more praise than that for my amazing storytelling skills.
She peered over her book. “What do you want me to say? Congratulations, Sam. You’re not the failure everyone thought you were.”
I scowled. “Actually, now that I’ve thought about it, I’d rather you keep quiet.”
Samantha smirked and slipped back into her fairy tale world.
“Come on. It was a good story. You have to admit that.”
She didn’t answer. An evil thought popped into my mind. I leaned forward, grabbed her book, and ran outside.
“HEY! Get back here!”
The door slammed behind me, muffling Samantha’s next words. “I’ll get you for this, pipsqueak!” she said.
“Only if you can catch me first!” I crunched through the snow, cold washing over me. I bent down, tucking the book under my arm as I formed a snowball, grinning wickedly.
She would have no idea what hit her.
Poof! A snowball hit the back of my head.
“Hey!” I turned. Mom stood beside the car, black work bag still over her shoulder, heels sinking into the snow. She smiled.
“No fair!” I chucked mine at her, missing terribly.
“Merry Christmas!” Samantha jumped around the corner and nailed me. Soon we were all caught up in a snowball fight. The streetlights gave us just enough light to aim but didn’t scare all the darkness away so we could hide around house corners. When we were sufficiently soaked, Mother straightened, adjust the strap on her bag like she hadn’t participated in the childish game at all, and walked inside to make hot cocoa.
I raced Samantha to the door, looking forward to that cup of hot cocoa. And this time, I wouldn’t spill it on a tree.
I’m surprised I managed to post this half in a reasonable amount of time! I hope y’all enjoyed the conclusion. What was your favorite part or line? The glitter war was probably my favorite section. 🙂
Have a stupendous weekend!
-Gabrielle R. Pollack