Kevin was on his third strike this Christmas, and he knew he was in trouble.
He blamed it all on those charming jewelry commercials that start airing after Thanksgiving. It’s early Christmas morning. Prince Charming and Perfect Hair are sitting under a large tree in their ironed red pajamas. It looks like all the presents have been opened, but no, Prince Charming whisks out a small box with a red bow. Perfect Hair’s eyes glimmer. Charming opens it. Hair gasps. They hug. Then they kiss. 365 more days of marital happiness are guaranteed because the Prince Charming brought out the perfect present on Christmas morning.
For twenty-five years Kevin was indoctrinated that Prince Charming husbands always produced the perfect surprise on Christmas morning. No worries, he mused as December approached a few months after his wedding, I can cook up that perfect open-gasp-hug-kiss moment easy.
Deeply in debt for dental school, he and his wife Katie stretched and gave themselves twenty dollars to spend on each other. The visit to the jewelry store and the chuckle of the employee (Son, we don’t sell anything for less than two hundred dollars) had left him stumped, but nonetheless confident.
His break came two weeks before the big day when Katie ripped her favorite A-line dress with her violin case after coming home from church on Sunday. Kevin didn’t know what made a dress an A-line meant was (he still doesn’t), but he hatched a plan. Kevin had a sister in town that had a sewing machine—he and his sister would make a new dress for Katie.
The good news was that Rachel, his sister, knew what an A-line dress was and had a pattern. The bad news was that twenty doesn’t go far at a fabric store. In the end Kevin managed to get the very end of a roll that was mispriced and, with the help of two coupons and a growing line of increasingly impatient holiday shoppers behind him, he was shooed out of the fabric store with enough fabric for the dress.
Well, at least he thought it was enough fabric. Rachel said two yards wasn’t enough to make a skirt, not to mention a dress. Nor did she seem to think that one hundred percent wool was the right fabric. But Kevin was insistent that they try (It’s our first Christmas, we have to try!) and they spent a whole afternoon sewing. They had barely finished the bodice when Kevin had to go, but Rachel promised she could finish it on her own.
Two days before Christmas Kevin picked up the already wrapped dress from his sister. “Oh, it turned out beautifully,” Rachel insisted, “Katie will just love it.”
The sun rose on Christmas morning to find Kevin and Katie sitting in front of their borrowed three-foot Christmas tree drinking candy cane hot chocolate. The night before had ended with a reading of Luke 2 and promises that neither of them would wake up before sunrise, but all the same they sprang out of bed while it was still dark, ready to share their first Christmas together. When their few presents had been opened and laughed over (Oh, your aunt’s sweater will never fit! and How did your brother know we needed a plunger?) Kevin though the moment was right. Katie’s hair wasn’t perfect, but he was feeling like Prince Charming. “Ah, you probably thought that dental school recruiting t-shirt was your Christmas present,” he said with a grin, “Just you wait.” He ran into the bedroom and pulled the box out from its hiding place under his gym shorts.
She grinned as she neatly untied the bow (We should save it for next year) and then noisily ripped off the wrapping paper (We can’t save that) but instead of Katie gasping at the sight of the dress, Kevin gasped.
The dress was beautiful. The light of the dawn shining through the window made the dress shimmer. In fact it looked perfectly soft and silky. “Let me see that,” Kevin said, grabbing at the dress. She tried to stop him, but it was too late. One touch made it clear it was silk. Katie crossed her arms and put on her pouty face as Kevin turned it over and found a tag in the collar.
“Funny, I didn’t think my sister would bother sewing in a Dillard’s tag,” he said sarcastically.
She frowned. “I was hoping that if I acted excited enough you wouldn’t notice!”
Humph. He didn’t feel like Prince Charming, he felt like a fool. He marched off into the kitchen on the pretense of getting more hot chocolate.
A few seconds later he heard the pattering of bare feet as she followed him in. “Honey, it was awful sweet of you to try and make me a dress. Rachel called me last week in an awful fret. There wasn’t nearly enough fabric and she knew that I couldn’t wear a wool dress.”
Kevin just put another candy cane in his hot chocolate.
“And when I got a check from my grandparents, I thought it was the thought that would count.”
Kevin cast a sideways look at his wife and saw her how her face, wrought with a mix of guilt and hope, was completely sincere. He was really disappointed, but eventually he laughed, she laughed, and they laughed every time she wore that dress to church.
Right after the next Halloween they found out that Katie was pregnant, and if ever there was a time for a Prince Charming moment it was now. Kevin’s homework load was getting more intense and a very morning sick Kate found working almost unbearable. The evenings and weekends of carefree running around had turned into quieter, more meaningful nights. Sometimes Kevin would read as Katie laid her head in his lap until she fell asleep, or, more likely, she’d read silently as he tried to cram yet another hundred anatomy terms into his overfull brain.
Kevin knew that Christmas would be the perfect time to show how much he really appreciated Katie. He had been saving for months now, skipping a lunch here and there and saving as much change as he could. Their budget was now only ten dollars, but with all that he had saved, he had enough for two pounds of See’s Chocolate. At first Rachel’s suggestion of chocolate had seemed ridiculous (Girls don’t gasp over chocolate!), but he had changed his mind. Everything Katie wanted since the pregnancy chocolate had turned into a major food group. If Kate ever felt bad about something (which happened a lot) then chocolate was surely the answer.
So chocolate it was that found its way under Kevin’s gym shorts three days before Christmas. Once again, Christmas found them out of bed early despite vain promises to the contrary. Once again, hot chocolate was the treat of choice (Katie had three mugs of it) as they opened presents under a tree that they now owned. Once again, Kevin waited for just the right moment to announce that the pens inscribed with his dental school logo were not her real present, and he sprang up to get the box of chocolates. He shook it gently as he came around the corner. Katie grinned and Kevin knew this was the moment. His whole life he had waited for this.
She gasped as she opened it. She pulled off the lid and immediately threw one of the chocolates into her mouth. She hugged him, gave him and a kiss that left chocolate on his cheek and then threw another chocolate in her mouth. She looked like she was in heaven.
“What kind is your favorite?” Kevin asked as he picked up the lid and started reading the list of what was inside. Cherry, double chocolate, caramel—and his personal favorite, orange.
“Here, have one,” she tried to say between chewing the two chocolates that were already in her mouth, “they’re great.”
He looked at the box but didn’t see anything that looked like orange. Of course maybe one of the two that Katie had been taken was the orange chocolate one. He was just about to ask when he noticed that instead of two empty chocolate slots there were three empty chocolates slots.
Katie seemed to notice the disparity in math, too, because she quickly started talking about the new sweater her aunt had sent.
Kevin interrupted. “Darling, you took two chocolates, but three are missing. Maybe they gave us a bad box…”
Katie’s guilty face made it clear that it had been a mistake. At least not See’s mistake. “I found them,” she confessed, “when I was doing laundry…” Kevin didn’t seem to understand so she went on, “I needed chocolate so bad yesterday. I couldn’t live knowing there was chocolate right there and I couldn’t have it. So I snuck one, put the wrapping back on, and this morning I took two in hopes that you’d lose count and not notice.” She burst into guilty sobs and Kevin swallowed his pride, gave her a big hug, and told her it was okay. It was at least a week before Kevin realized that her gasp, hugs, and kisses had all been faked. He really hadn’t gotten that perfect moment after all.
The next twelve months had brought an end to the pregnancy and the beginning of parenting. Somehow Kevin managed to survive his classes even though baby Charlotte didn’t seem to believe in letting anyone sleep. In fact he even managed to love Charlotte to death despite his desperately baggy eyes. Katie gave up work and took up feeding, changing diapers, and blogging. She also took on most of the shopping, budgeting, cleaning, and worrying about the house. All her extra work was vital to Kevin who was staying at school later and later every day. What free time he had was spent sending off applications to residency programs and he already had two interview trips planned for the holiday—one right before Christmas and one starting the day after. The only thing Katie really wanted this year was time, and it was the one thing he couldn’t give. Kevin need some way to say I love you, it had to be something amazing, something heartwarming and meaningful. And something that she wouldn’t find beforehand. If he couldn’t deliver a surprise this year, he knew he probably never would. It was a Prince Charming Christmas or nothing this year.
But things were getting complicated. One of this interviews would leave him coming home late Christmas Eve. There would be no time to shop before Christmas morning. He started talking to all his friends at school and of the course of a few days he formed a fool-proof plan. Maybe this wouldn’t be a third strike Christmas after all.
Katie’s sat hunched over the edge of the bathtub scrubbing Charlotte’s hair when Kevin came in the door a week before Christmas. Without looking up she said hello and started talking about how this was Charlottes third bath today. Kevin listened quietly without saying anything.
“First she had an accident, and then she dumped my lunch on her hair and then ten minutes ago…” she trailed off as she realized something was different. Looking up from Charlotte’s hair she turned to see Kevin in the doorway holding a large sack.
“What’s that, Baby?”
Kevin grinned, said Ho, Ho, Ho, and walked over to their Christmas tree (placed on a table out of little baby reach) and silently started pulling presents out of the bag. Katie wiped her hands on a towel and walked up behind him.
“Honey, what’s going on? We only had eight dollars each this year, how…”
Kevin gave her a kiss on the cheek. “They’re not for you. At least, all but one aren’t for you. I was elected chief secret keeper for the dental school this year. None of the other guys can hide presents from their wives, so they gave they all to me. I’m keeping them here and they’ll come pick up their respective presents on Christmas Eve after I get back. Their presents will never be alone in their houses without them watching.” He pulled the last present out with a flourish and placed on top of the tall stack.
“You said all but one…that means…”
“That means one of them is yours. But none of them are labeled, so you don’t know which is yours. When I’m out of town interviewing, my present to you will be as safe as if it were still at the store.” He kissed her again. “You better keep your eye on that girl.”
Kevin’s interviews went well but left him drained. He called every night from his hotel to say good night to Charlotte (She’s smiling, Dear, I think she knows your voice) and then to say good night to Katie (Once we get a residency we’ll starting making some money—it won’t be much, but it will be something). The days melted away until the twenty-fourth and Kevin found himself being picked up at the airport by Katie and a sleeping Charlotte.
Their conversation on the drive rolled from his interviews, to her updates on the neighbors, at the blogs Katie followed, and finally to the blogs the neighbors followed, but it never quite managed to land on the subject of Christmas presents. Kevin tried to move in that direction (he enjoyed teasing), but every time he did, Katie quickly moved on to something else.
They made it home and at the prearranged time all of Kevin’s buddies showed up to collect their loot. They were all full of chuckles and winks as they went on their way, thanking Kevin heartily for providing a surprise Christmas this year (Elsa knows the minute she sees the package what’s inside) and it was past midnight when all the presents were gone except one very thin, rectangular one.
“We really should keep our promise and not get up early tomorrow,” Kevin said with a yawn. “I don’t think I’ll be very cheery before about nine tomorrow.”
“Actually, we’re setting the record for our earliest Christmas. It’s technically already Christmas morning.”
Kevin gave her a tired half smile as he climbed into bed. “May this be the latest we’re ever up on Christmas Eve.”
“It won’t, in a few years we’ll be up even later putting our presents for Charlotte,” Kate said sleepily as Kevin turned off the light and quickly fell asleep.
An hour later, Kevin felt Katie sit up in bed. Kevin clicked on the light and rolled over to look at her. She just sat there with a frown on her face. “What’s up, Baby? Bad dream?”
She looked over at him sheepishly. “I can’t sleep. This is the third year you’ve tried to keep your present a secret from me and I know how important this is to you. The first two years I could fake being surprised, or at least try, but this year I can’t. I just have to let you know, I can’t go on pretending.”
Kevin sat up straighter in bed. “You found out what the present is? How? I thought I had the perfect plan.”
Katie grabbed his hand. “I tried so hard this year, Kevin, honest. I didn’t lift a corner of wrapping paper or even shake one of the presents. But a guy from Craig’s sheet music called and asked if you liked violin the song you bought. It’s really sweet of you to get me some sheet music, I’m genuinely excited, but I can’t try and fake that gasp you’re looking for.”
Kevin patted her on the hand. “When did you find out?”
She looked down at the covers. “The day after you left. It wasn’t hard to guess that it was the thin package.”
Kevin gave her a hug. “Thanks for telling me, Honey. Don’t worry about it. It’ll still be a great Christmas.”
It was. Charlotte loved all the wrapping paper and ignored all the fancy toys from grandparents (They never spent this much on me for Christmas!). When all the presents were opened and Charlotte was down for her first nap, Kevin and Katie went back to the tree and he handed her the floppy, thin present.
“Thanks in advance,” she said sheepishly as she carefully untied the bow and then ripped off the paper, throwing it in the pile for Charlotte.
Then she gasped. Then she threw her arms around Kevin and gave him a wallop of a kiss. Fallen to the ground in the midst of all the embracing was a single sheet of paper with the following printed in green and red letters:
“I really don’t have an interview next week. We get to spend it all together. Merry Christmas.”
Critique: Other than a few typos and what are probably cut and paste errors, I LOVE THIS STORY!
What I liked best: Love your writing style—the humor, the cleverness.
Publication ready: YES! You’re in!