For years, I’ve watched my friend Rhonda Parrish raise money for the Edmonton Food Bank. I’ve donated in the past, but this is the first year I’ve been part of the blog tour itself. (Oh, and I’ve donated this year too–I definitely put my money where my words are.)
Did you know that for every dollar donated, it will help provide three meals to those less fortunate? But wait, in addition to that, everyone who donates will receive a little something special. For more information on that, check out Rhonda’s blog.
Want to donate? Please make your donations here.
Want to win some stuff? Click here.
A personal note about the story you’re about to read
This story is dedicated to my best friend from high school. It is not at all how our story began, or wound up, but it was our friendship that gave me the foundation to write about Ryan and Ashtyn. Merry Christmas, My Bryan. Thank you for never making me feel invisible.
10 years ago
My dad died on Thanksgiving Day, on his way home from work. He never really had to work, but he put in those extra hours so some of the guys with younger families could be at home for the holiday. Since it was just dad, mom, and me—and I was seventeen—the holiday wasn’t really a big deal to us.
But that year, it rocked my entire world.
After he was gone, my mom disappeared into herself, with the help of a seemingly never-ending supply of vodka. As Christmas grew closer, I don’t think she realized a month had passed since we lost dad, or if she even recognized a difference between day and night anymore.
The last day of school before the holiday break, I was on my way to the loser lunch table, where we always sat with our noses crammed into books as we took bites of tasteless food on autopilot. I loved getting lost in the world of a book—my love of reading came from my dad, and since he’d died I’d spent my time rereading the books he had recommended to me throughout the years. Today’s choice was a childhood favorite, Island of the Blue Dolphins. When he’d read it to me as a kid, he’d told me if I learned to be as strong and smart as Karana, then he’d raised me well.
With my book in one hand, my lunch tray in the other, I dodged landmines of lost bits of food to find a place to sit when someone matched my stride and walked with me. When I got to the table, I looked up into one sparkling emerald eye, dark brown hair flopping in front of the other one. His lips were turned up into a lopsided grin—which sent my insides lopsided. What was Ryan Herd, quarterback of the football team and every teenage girl’s dream doing standing next to me? Smiling at me? I’ve known Ryan since we were in middle school, but the last time I spoke to him was for a group project in sophomore English. The jocks didn’t speak to girls like me unless it was forced upon them by the unholy hell that was group work, that was just one of those unwritten high school rules that never gets questioned.
“Hey, Ashtyn.” He dropped his eyes, staring at his hands that were twisting over on themselves. “I just wanted to know if you would come spend Christmas at my house. We’re having a whole thing, my mom makes enough food to feed an army, and we sing and watch Christmas movies and…”
I held my hand up to stop him, else I think he might have continued telling me Cousin Eddie was going to show up in his R.V. The invitation was sweet, and a welcome reprieve from watching A Christmas Story on repeat all day by myself, munching on the crusts of cold pizza from the night before. “That sounds great.”
His grin widened. “Cool, I’ll pick you up at your house at two on Christmas Eve, okay?”
“How do you know where I live?”
He just looked at me and winked before he walked away.
I set my tray on the table and looked at my friends. I couldn’t ask them to confirm the hottest guy in school just asked me to Christmas, they weren’t paying a lick of attention. That’s why we ate lunch together—we got lost in our own little worlds without being forced into awkward conversation.
Christmas Eve, 10 years ago…
True to his word, Ryan knocked on my door at exactly two on Christmas Eve. I yelled at mom that I was leaving and wasn’t sure when I’d be back, but she didn’t respond. Probably passed out in her bedroom—she wouldn’t miss me anyway. It’s not like she knew what day it was. Or even daytime.
“Cute sweater,” he said.
It was a white sweater with a Christmas penguin bearing gifts. I’d pilfered it from my mom’s closet. I didn’t have anything that wasn’t black and emo, and I was more than a bit uncomfortable in it. He was wearing a red sweater with Fa-la-la-llama written on it. He seemed just as uncomfortable as I did.
“Yours is way better,” I whispered as I grabbed my jacket.
“My mom loves ugly Christmas sweaters.” He shrugged. “Actually, there’s not much about Christmas she doesn’t love. This is her time of the year, so fair warning.”
I motioned to the house where we had no Christmas tree, no stockings, nothing. “Anything is a welcome change to my house.”
Ryan wasn’t joking. The outside of his house looked like a winter wonderland, complete with fake snow in the flowerbeds and light up elves placed throughout the yard. The giant tree in their living room was visible through the picture window and it was covered in twinkling white lights that glittered in the disco-ball ornaments and silver tinsel that swayed whenever someone walked by. Someone was always walking by. Once I was lead into the kitchen I was introduced to Ryan’s younger brother and sister, though I already knew her, his mom, his aunt and her boyfriend, and the next-door neighbor, Chelsea, who had a long-standing crush on Ryan even though she was only eight.
To say his house was full was an understatement, but I could tell his mom, a short woman with the same emerald eyes, her hair pulled into a French braid that hung down her back, and an ugly Christmas sweatshirt that featured a polar bear drinking a Coke, was loving every second of the chaos. She was in her element and pulled me in for a hug the instant she laid eyes on me. “Oh, Ashtyn, it’s so good to meet you. I’m Millie. I hope your mom doesn’t mind that you’re here on Christmas Eve.”
I shook my head but didn’t say anything further. There was no need to point out how crappy my life was, not in the middle of all of this love and togetherness that might suffocate me if I let my guard down.
Ryan’s little sister, Everly, who was a freshman with an attitude problem, swiped a cookie off a plate. “So, Ashtyn, what are you doing here?”
Ryan wrapped an arm around my shoulder and tugged me closer. “I invited her.”
“Amanda’s gonna be pissed.”
I turned to him, eyes wide. “You’re back with Amanda?” She was the lead cheerleader, popular, huge boobs, and always spoke in rhyme even when she wasn’t doing cheers.
He shook his head. “No. I’m not. But even if I were, it’s none of her business that I invited you over here. It was my choice.”
Millie shooed Everly out of the room and thrust a pile of plates into my hands and a smattering of silverware into Ryan’s. “Go set the table for,” she mouthed the names of the people as she counted them off on her fingers, “twelve. That’s all of us and a spare or two, just in case. Around here, we never know who is coming and who is going.”
Ryan led me to the dining room, which wasn’t far given it was just over the kitchen bar. Yay open floor plans. There was a table with eight chairs around it, and beside it a card table with four padded folding chairs, though the padding was held together with stringy duct tape and a wish. Everything in the house seemed well-used—or rather well-loved. It made for such a stark contrast to my near-clinical upbringing. The maids came once a week to clean the house, not that Mom or I made that much of a mess. I must have looked so tense and out-of-place in his house of chaos.
“It’s a bit much, I know.” He dropped the silverware onto the card table with a heavy clang, followed by two smaller tings when a couple spoons made a break for the floor. He picked them up and tossed them into the sink from where he stood—he was also the point guard on our basketball team, so of course he made the shot.
“No, your mom’s great. She’s, um,” I paused. What could I say that wasn’t going to make me sound awful? “She’s everything my mother isn’t.”
Ryan tilted his head. “I know you don’t have any siblings, but…”
“Let’s just say where your house is a mess, mine is clean. Where your mom is a cuddly teddy bear, mine is as cuddly as a porcupine. It’s just not her thing. My dad, well, that’s not important. You don’t have yours around either.”
He gave her a half-smile. “Nah. I don’t. It was so hard, and it took me so long to get over him walking out on us. But the way you moved on after your dad, you know.”
Yeah, I know. “He died. I know. I’m reminded of it all the time. In the end, I can’t change it, right? So I just put one foot in front of the other. Each day in my rearview mirror is a day closer to the day I get out of this god-forsaken town.”
“You’re going to school in Kentucky, right?”
I nodded. I’d gotten my acceptance just a couple weeks before Dad died, so at least he got to see that I had been accepted to college and had a future ahead before his was cut short.
“Where are you going?” I walked around the oval table, placing a plate in front of each chair.
He shook his head. “I don’t think I will. I’m not cut out for school. I’ll probably enlist. That’s what we do around here, right?” Growing up in a military town, yeah, that’s the unwritten rule. College or boot camp. Some lucky guys did both.
I picked a fork and knife out of the pile on the card table and wrapped them like a burrito and I slapped it into his hand before I dove back into the pile for more silverware. “But weren’t you offered a football scholarship?”
He gave me a mischievous smile. “Does little-miss-nose-always-in-a-book gossip?”
“I listen to what’s going on around me. How else would I know that the current rumor is that my mom killed my dad when he tried to make her go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting?”
His eyes grew wide and I slapped another silverware burrito into his hand. “Is that true?”
I shook my head. “Real simple—car plus freak snowstorm plus idiots on the road equaled he never made it home that night.” I wiped a tear out of the corner of my eye. “It’s so different without him. He was always the buffer between me and my mom, but now she and I just co-exist. There are days she doesn’t even speak to me. It’s as if I’m the invisible one, not my dad.”
He wrapped his arms around me in a hug that was tight and smelled a little like Axe body spray. But it was the best one I’d had since my dad died, so I held him tighter and let the tears roll.
“Ashtyn, for whatever it’s worth, you’ve never been invisible to me.”
Everly slipped into the room and plopped down in one of the chairs at the big table. She rapped her fingers on the table to make it obvious we weren’t alone.
Millie set a large platter with a turkey down on the table before she stuck two fingers in her mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle. Like a herd of elephants, heavy footsteps made their way to the table. Everyone was forced to hold hands while they said a prayer of thanks for the food, and then it was winner take all style event. Ryan and I hung back, and I dropped into a chair, falling into my normal chameleon mode. All I needed was a book.
Ryan looked at me and smiled. “Everyone’s nervous their first time. I’ll get you a plate.”
My shoulders dropped and I cracked my neck, and all at once, every eye was on me. I gave a shy little wave. “Uh hi.”
“Was that you?” Ryan’s little brother asked, his eyes as wide as saucers.
“That was wicked. Can you teach me to do that?”
Millie swatted at him with a napkin. “Ignore him. He’s in the phase where bodily functions, noises, and secretions are great fun.”
Chelsea, the little girl from next door sat down across from me, her eyes fastened on mine, not blinking. I was locked into a staring contest—that wasn’t broken until Ryan set a plate down in front of me. It had a little bit of everything on it and my stomach rumbled so loud, once again, every eye was on me.
Ryan’s little brother’s jaw hit the floor. “You did that too? Ryan, where did you find this girl? She’s awesome.”
I gave him a sheepish smile, but Millie was quick. “Max, stop. Ashtyn deserves to eat in peace.” I’m pretty sure if I looked up the word mother in the dictionary, the definition would say see Millie Herd.
“It’s okay.” I shrugged. “It was a bit embarrassing, I admit. But I haven’t had anything home cooked since before Dad died last month.”
A collective gasp rattled the silence in the room and the bright smile and sparkle in her eyes disappeared. “Nothing?”
I put my hands up. “I’ve eaten, don’t get me wrong. But it’s been what I got out of the cafeteria at lunch and what I could warm up out of the freezer, or pizza. We’ve ordered a lot of pizza. Mom just doesn’t try anymore.”
Millie gave me a soft smile. “You are welcome over here for a home-cooked meal whenever you want. If you couldn’t tell, once you come here once, you’re a member of the family.” She turned to everyone else, who had stopped eating, Everly with her fork still in the air, and clapped her hands. “Let the girl eat in peace. Focus on your own plate. We’ve got to get through presents before we go to the church, so come on.” At the mention of presents, forks started flying once again.
After dinner they had a gift exchange where I mostly just sat and watched as Everly made fun of Max’s gifts. Chelsea, the little girl from next door, gave Ryan a popsicle stick frame she’d decorated with sequins and glitter, and put a picture of herself in it. The struggle to maintain his composure when he wanted to laugh out loud was adorable. But he held it together for the little girl before he planted a kiss on her forehead. “I love you too, Chels. Thank you.”
Once all the presents were opened, Ryan turned to me. “I have something for you. It’s not much, but it made me think of you when I saw it.” He pulled out a small package wrapped in red wrapping paper with pictures of kittens in stockings all over it.
I took a moment to run my hands around the edges, and I could tell it was a hardback book. Oh, but the possibilities were endless between those covers. Dad taught me that.
Pulling back the paper I held my breath to reveal the original cover of Fahrenheit 451. My fingers traced the flames as they shot up around the man and a tear rolled down my cheek, splashing onto the cover below.
“Okay, look, I know the book sucked, we had to read it in eighth grade, but it’s a first edition and I know how you like books…”
I looked up and locked onto his eyes. “It’s a wonderful book. It was the first book my dad and I read together. This is the book that taught me the true value and importance of books. The fact you—did you know this book was so important to me?”
Ryan shook his head. “No. Mom and I were going through some donations up at the church and ran across the book. Immediately I thought of you.”
I looked up. “But you’ve haven’t talked to me in years.”
He nodded. “I know. I was scared. I’m Mr. High School with being on the basketball and football teams, and I’m not supposed to hang out with you. But I’ve always been fascinated by you. How you walk through school not caring what people say about you. You never let them under your skin, or so it seems, and I think it’s amazing. Everyone at that school could learn a lesson from you about how to be a class act. Especially Everly.” He tilted his head in his little sister’s direction, but she was too busy texting on her phone to notice. “I know I haven’t said many words to you, but every single one was true. You’re an amazing girl.”
Everly flipped her phone over in her lap. “Will you just kiss the girl already so we can go get on with our do-good routine?”
I shook my head. “You don’t have to kiss me,” I whispered. Not that I’d mind if he did. He was the hottest boy in school, of course he could kiss me. He just gave me a piece of my dad without realizing it. Of course he could kiss me.
He leaned in and placed a soft, chaste kiss against my lips. The tiny sugar granules from the cookie he’d just shoved in his mouth felt like sand on my lips, but I didn’t want to wipe them away. I didn’t want to change the moment at all. Somehow, I knew my entire life just shifted course. “Merry Christmas, Ashtyn.”
Millie hopped up and rubbed her hands together. “All right, are we ready to go spread some holiday cheer?”
Everyone grumbled and moaned, but they put on their coats and scarves, so I followed suit. “Where are we going?” I hissed at Ryan.
“Didn’t you know my mom runs community outreach holiday meal at the church?”
I shook my head again. Of course, the longer I stared at his mother over the course of the afternoon, the more familiar she looked to me, and that’s when I put it together. She’s on the news every holiday for hosting a huge feast for those in need, so she’s always trying to get donations.
“Yeah, well, Mom wants to make sure we stay grounded in reality, so ever since we’ve been big enough to pick up a ladle, she makes us go help out. Everly hates it.”
“Quelle surprise,” I said, in my best snotty French accent. “What about you?”
He shrugged. “It’s what we do. But they are such amazing people who have such gratitude for the simplest of things—a meal, that we take for granted every day.”
Ryan looked super cute with his hairnet and his ugly llama Christmas sweater as he dished out mashed potatoes. I, myself, was on gravy duty.
“What is so funny?” Ryan whispered.
“Just call me the gravy to your mashed potatoes.”
His face went beet red and he ducked away. What a role reversal, now he was the one trying to be invisible.
For most of the meal, things ran smoothly. Each person got one slab of turkey, a glop of mashed potatoes, a scoop of green beans, a ladle of gravy over top, and a roll. We worked like a well-oiled machine, and even when the line got long, Millie’s marching orders got everyone through the line efficiently. That woman must have been a drill sergeant in a past life or something. Drill sergeant, mom, was there anything this woman couldn’t do?
Toward the end of dinner, when we were supposed to be cleaning up, a little girl who couldn’t have been older than four walked up to Ryan and tugged on his hideous sweater.
“Hey Camella.” He picked her up and placed a kiss on her bright pink cheek. “What do you want me to sneak you today?”
“Can you get some milk? Mom said the baby needs milk.”
I turned around to find a woman holding a wriggling toddler, exhaustion painted on her face like smoky eyeshadow.
My heart ached for her and my eyes pleaded with Ryan’s, but it didn’t matter. That little girl had him wrapped around her little finger the moment she toddled up.
After he’d rummaged through the fridge and found some milk for her baby sister, which her mother took with a gracious nod, I collapsed against him. He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed. “You okay?”
I nodded. “Yeah. This is just a side I’ve never seen before. How do you know all of them?”
“A lot of them are regulars. Working at these things, you see the same faces a lot. Sometimes we won’t see them for a long while—which is always the hope, that they got on their feet—but then they show back up. Camella’s had my heart since before she could speak.”
“You’re so good with her.” I glanced over to find Camella rubbing her eyes before she laid down on the cold, linoleum floor, her mom’s ankle as a pillow. “Do we have books around? Maybe I could read the little ones a story before they go?”
“Hold that thought,” he said before he took off running. A few minutes later he returned with a well-worn copy of The Night Before Christmas.
I settled in a spot near Camella and started the book. Three pages in, several other kids had caught on and moved a little closer to listen to the story. By the time I finished the book, at least fifteen little kids were curled up in balls on each other, just listening to my voice.
“Keep going,” one of them said.
A moment later, Ryan came back with several story books. I took the one on top and read until every single one of the kids had fallen asleep.
Christmas Eve, present day
Over the past ten years, I’ve spent every Christmas with Ryan’s family. Ryan wasn’t always there, it often depended on if he could get time off or if he was stationed somewhere with a decent enough internet connection for a Skype call. Still, something felt off about this year. Ryan hadn’t returned any of my messages—for someone who said I was never invisible to him, he sure made me feel that way recently.
I couldn’t be too angry, after all, he had a life in—well, wherever the hell he was stationed. He was a Navy Seal, so he went placed he wasn’t even allowed to name, to execute missions we only heard bits and pieces about on the news. He was a big deal in high school, so why wouldn’t he be a big deal in the real world?
My connecting flight in Pittsburgh was delayed because they had to deice the plane—and I missed dinner and gifts at Ryan’s mom’s place. That was always my favorite, and not just because Ryan and his mom managed to score awesome first editions for me every year. It was always so warm and loving, even with Everly’s sarcastic rays of sunshine.
By the time I got to the church, I knew they’d be wrapping up serving the meal. Every single thing I loved about Christmas Eve, and I’d missed it, thanks to mother nature and Delta not getting along.
It was shaping up to be my worst Christmas yet.
I slipped into the church kitchen and tried to sneak up on Millie, but she noticed me immediately and gave me the biggest hug with one arm, and with another she waved someone out of the kitchen. “How’s my other daughter?”
“Fashionably late.” I turned around. “Is there something going on?”
Millie rotated her shoulder. “Old softball injury, flares up every now and then.” She eased into a smile. “There’s still time to read the kids a story if you want. Camella was going to do it since it looked like you weren’t going to make it, but I’m sure she won’t mind letting you take over.”
“Camella’s back?” I’d seen her family come and go over the years, but she hadn’t been to a Christmas meal in a while.
Millie grinned from ear to ear. “As a volunteer. You know she caught up with me last month and asked if she could help out. As if anyone in my family could ever say no to that girl.”
I stepped out of the kitchen and into the large basement room. Strands of tiny white lights zig-zagged along the ceiling, all leading to the center of the room where there was an artificial Christmas tree that was so tall, there wasn’t room for a star on top. The tree was decorated with tiny ornaments that the kids would get to take home with them tonight. They each featured a star, it was the North Star, representative of the one that helped the shepherds, but also Millie’s non-profit organization, which she’d started after Everly graduated and moved out. Millie’s Meals provides hot meals to those in need throughout the community. She’d partnered with local grocery stores to provide food they were just going to throw away, and between that and non-perishable donations, she had been going strong. She’d even raised enough in the first year to buy a used food truck, so she could take her meals on the road to those who couldn’t make it to her events in the community. She’d been so successful, other cities were trying to mimic her model across the country.
Through it all, the Christmas Eve dinner was the one she planned for all year and was always her biggest event. Even still, I’d never seen quite as many children parked around the tree for story time as I did right now. It’s a good thing I didn’t get stage fright.
Camella stood up and handed me the same ratty copy of The Night Before Christmas I’d been reading for the past decade.
I took the chair she’d left and cracked the spine, the smell of the pages taking me to a familiar place. Where Ryan watched me from the corner, Camella asleep on my lap, the hum of the parents talking to one another on the other side of the room while Millie handed out care packages.
I opened my mouth to speak but was interrupted when the door opened and Santa came in. He wasn’t fat, in fact Santa had some muscles, and he didn’t carry a large sack. Just a tiny one in his hand.
He walked up, and all the kids cheered and greeted their hero. But he only had eyes for me.
Familiar, emerald eyes. I knew those eyes well. Even though he wasn’t supposed to be here.
“Ho, ho, ho. What do you want for Christmas?”
“I think I just got it,” I whispered. “You’re here.”
He winked at me. “Ten years ago, not long after your dad died, you told me you were invisible, but I knew you were wrong. Over the years, I’ve tried to convince my heart what my head knew—that I belonged in the friend zone, so you could go out and live your life. You were too good for me. Too intelligent. Too close. Too perfect. The problem is, the heart wants what the heart wants, and time and time again, mine has proven that it only wants you.”
I clasped my hands to my mouth and he wrapped an arm around me. The embrace was familiar, yet more possessive. I loved the way it fit on me.
“Do you remember prom night? As we were out walking the beach long after curfew?”
I nodded. I’d be a liar of the most epic proportions if said I didn’t. We’d ditched our awful prom dates at the end of the dance and decided to go hang out on the beach instead of going to the after party. The night was clear, stars freckled the sky and the waves crashed at our ankles, lapping around them as the moon pulled the water back out to batter the shore once again. We’d changed out of our prom clothes by then, but my hair was still in its fancy updo with a crown of baby’s breath, and we walked hand-in-hand, which was not something we did, but for some reason, that night it felt right. Almost necessary. Two people reaching for something familiar after a botched attempt outside our comfort zones.
He stopped walking and tugged me back. I whirled around and landed hard against his chest, shaking some of the flowers free from my bouncy, brown curls. He laughed as he tried to shove the tiny white buds back into my hair. His fingers found my chin and he tilted my head up so I looked in his eyes, and time stopped. The waves paused mid-crest and the world fell silent. I never thought about kissing him, but in that moment, I invited it. His lips on mine were just what Dr. Heartbreak ordered. I’d take two of those and call him in the morning.
But he didn’t.
He brushed the lone errant curl from my updo behind my ear and let out a cross between a sigh and a frustrated growl. “Promise me something.”
“If you’re still single ten years from now, and I’m still single ten years from now, we’ll marry each other.”
I shoved his chest. Being young and naïve, like I believed I’d be single and in need of a pity proposal when I was twenty-seven, I placated him. “Well, duh.”
Now, here it was ten years later, and he was in front of me in a Santa suit, reminding me of the best night of my life and a random teenage promise.
“In the ten years since, I’ve kicked myself for what I did that night.” He took the book out of my hands, handing it back to Camella. “I made an egregious error, and I hope you’ll forgive me.”
He cupped his hand behind my head and pulled me to my tiptoes while his lips crashed down on mine. Just as ten years ago on the beach, everything around me disappeared and time stopped. The only difference was this time his sugar-cookie laced lips tangled with mine. I melted into him, a tiny moan climbing up my throat, but there was nowhere for it to go because he wasn’t letting go of me and I’d waited ten years for this moment and didn’t want it to end.
He finally pulled away and everything around us came back into focus—the little kids who watched us through fingers clasped over their eyes, his mom in the corner sobbing, and a few parents in the back of the room slow-clapping.
“What was that for?” My voice was a husky whisper that I didn’t recognize.
He dropped down to one knee and held up a tiny gift bag. “We made a promise ten years ago that we’d be each other’s fallback. But you’re not my fallback. You’re my only. I fell in love with you in this very spot ten years ago, when you were so scared of my family and scared of what we were doing here and your nerves radiated off you like the flames on the cover of Fahrenheit 451. No other woman has ever stood a chance over the years because I always compared them to you. You are the first girl I loved. The only girl I’ve ever loved. Marry me, but not because of a promise we made after a crappy dance ten years ago, but because you feel it too.”
I clasped my hands to mouth to muffle the schoolgirl squeal.
“Is that a yes?”
I nodded. “Yes. I will go wherever you lead me because you’re the only person who has ever made my life make sense.”
He pulled a small box out of the bag and lifted the lid. Inside was a small teardrop-shaped diamond on a thin gold band. He slipped it onto my finger before his thumb wiped away the tears I didn’t even realize I was crying.
“You that you have never been invisible to me, and I will make it my life’s purpose to make sure you never feel that way again.”
Merry Christmas, everybody.
If you want to make a donation to the Edmonton Food Bank, click here: http://bit.ly/Giftmas2018
If you’re coming into this tour in the middle, don’t forget to go back! Amanda Wells was the host yesterday.
For the next stop on this tour, allow me to introduce you to author J.B. Riley.