Authors: Kieran Scott
Table of Contents
This book is dedicated to my family, but especially
to my brother Ian, who would sooner perish than
let a Christmas tradition die.
And, of course, to Stephanie Lane, whose beautiful
brain spawned a kooky little guy named Paul.
IT WAS ONE OF THOSE PICTURE-BOOK-PERFECT WINTER nights. The kind where it’s cold enough to see your breath, but not so bitter and windy that your ears start to burn. The kind where you can hold hands with your girlfriend and stroll along the salt-covered sidewalks, looking in windows and checking out Christmas decorations, without shivering and blowing into your fingers.
And for the first time in my life, I had a girlfriend to hold hands with. Not just any girlfriend, either. Sarah Saunders was the most beautiful, sweet, perfect girl in school. The girl every guy wanted. But she was mine. Mine, all mine.
“So, what do you want for Christmas?” Sarah asked, her blue eyes sparkling as we paused in front of the Gap on Ridgewood Avenue. Her cheeks were pink and her blond hair stuck out from under her white knit hat, tumbling down over her shoulders.
She squeezed my fingers and my heart went all acrobatic on me. Was she kidding? Right at that second I had everything I wanted. But I wasn’t about to say that. Too cheesy. Even for me. And everyone knows that I, Paul Nicholas, can be pretty cheesy— especially at this time of year.
“Well . . . you know I want my Jeep,” I said with a grin, picturing the souped-up red Cherokee I’d been begging for ever since I got my license last spring.
knows you want your Jeep,” Sarah said with a laugh. “Everyone knows you’re getting your Jeep . . . and that it’s going to have a five-disc CD changer, and a navigational system, and the hottest rims available. . . .”
Huh. Maybe bringing the catalog to school every day and showing it to all my friends had been overkill. But I couldn’t help it.
“Okay, okay,” I said, tilting back my head to look up at the sky as we strolled down the street. “Um . . . you could give me back my favorite sweater,” I joked.
“Oh no!” she said, pointing at me. “You are never getting that one back. I love that thing. I fell asleep in it last night and wore it to bed!”
My grin widened. The thought of Sarah cuddling up in my clothes was too cool. It was such a girlfriend-type thing to do.
“All right, what do you want for Christmas?” I asked, turning the tables on her.
She stopped and looked around Ridgewood Avenue—all the brightly lit stores, some unique, like the place that sold all the African and Far Eastern art, some not so unique, like, well, the Gap. It was one of the quainter retail meccas of Bergen County. One of very few nonmall shopping experiences.
“You could pretty much get me anything and everything in this town and I’d be happy,” she said, waving her mittened hand. “Seriously. I’ve seen something I liked in every single store we’ve been in.”
Well, that took the pressure off. But there was no way that was going to happen. When it came time to buy something for Sarah, whatever I got was going to be amazing. Just like her.
“C’mere,” I said, pulling her toward me.
She yelped, then giggled and wrapped her arms around my neck. I leaned down so that we were forehead to forehead and I could feel her breath on my face. She smelled like peppermint and freshly baked sugar cookies.
I remembered the first moment I’d seen her—the moment I’d fallen in love. It was the day our choir director, Mr. McDaniel, had handed out the Christmas carols so we could start rehearsing for the winter concert. Sarah had walked into the classroom wearing a tight red sweater, glancing around with new-girl nervousness, and I had stopped breathing. She was the most Cameron Diaz-y girl I’d ever seen in person. And then McDaniel had told her to stand next to me on the risers. All the guys in class were drooling as I shared my music with her and we started to talk. That was when the really unbelievable thing had happened.
It turned out Sarah loved Christmas just as much as I did. She loved carols, she had her own Christmas snow-globe collection, she even knew
How the Grinch
by heart, just like me. (The original cartoon in its purest form, not the psycho, acid-trip Jim Carrey version.) Every year my friends pick on me about my Christmas obsession, but here was a girl who understood—a girl who really got the fact that this was the most wonderful time of the year. She was my soul mate.
“Know what I want for Christmas?” I said as Sarah smiled up at me.
“What?” she asked.
“Mistletoe,” I said. “Tons of it.”
Sarah bit her lip, then stood on her toes to kiss me. And the moment our lips touched, it started to snow. I swear—at that
moment. It was like something out of a Rankin/Bass Christmas special. I pulled Sarah closer, and that was when I knew. I knew it without a doubt.
This was going to be the best Christmas ever.
LAST CHRISTMAS, I GAVE YOU MY HEART. . . .
HERE’S THE THING YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND: MY family has more Christmas traditions than an elf has pairs of pointy earmuffs. Most of them came from my dad’s side of the family. Some of them came from my mom’s. A few of them originated during my formative years as a clueless, round-faced, asthma-plagued shepherd in the church play. But each and every last one of them is sacred.
Leaving carrots out for Rudolph? Sacred.
Waking my parents up by blasting
John Denver &
the Muppets—A Christmas Together
from my stereo at five A.M. every Christmas? Sacred.
Alternating tree toppers each year so that Dad gets his star and Mom gets her angel? Sacred.
Having the brightest, most elaborate, most electricity-consuming light display in Bergen County? Not just sacred, but our claim to fame. Our lights have gotten us on the Saturday-after-Thanksgiving WB11
for five years running. Dad is convinced that the field reporter lives to interview us from our rooftop while we’re setting up. I, however, think the woman is just addicted to Mom’s hot chocolate.
But the most important tradition of all? No matter what, I have always, without question, gotten everything I asked for. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve never abused the privilege—asked for fifty DVDs or sweaters in every color or a complete library of PlayStation games with a flat-screen TV to go with it. Nothing greedy like that. So I figured my years of responsible son-dom were ready to be cashed in. This year I had only asked for one thing. My Jeep. It’s gonna be so cool, looking out my window on Christmas morning and seeing it there in the driveway, all shiny and new, with a nice huge bow on top. And once I have it, I won’t have to do this anymore:
“Holly, can I have a ride to the mall?”
It was Friday afternoon, November 24, the day after Thanksgiving, and it was time for my first Christmas mall run. I was on the phone with Holly Stevenson, who has been my best friend ever since we won the water-balloon-throwing contest together at day camp. Believe it or not, she hates Christmas. She used to love it when we were kids, but for the past couple of years? Forget about it. (I know, the name is ironic, right? I mean
? It’s just
) But she does have a good reason. Her father left her and her mother two years ago
for a department store elf. You’d think that her being so anti-Noel and me being so, well,
would cause problems in our friendship. But hey, you don’t just give up the girl who pulled you a mile and a half through the snow on a sled the day you broke your arm in three places. We manage. We just don’t talk much about Christmas. Which was reason number one why asking her to come to the mall with me to shop for her least-favorite holiday was a serious risk.
Reason number two? Holly is also the only girl in my particular reality who hates malls. She buys all of her clothes at the Salvation Army store on Route 17, mainly to avoid the crowds. And here I was trying to get her to do the unthinkable—dive into Paramus Park on the biggest shopping weekend of the year.
“I’m sorry. I thought I just heard you ask me to take you to the mall,” Holly said in a sugar-sweet tone. “Did someone spike your eggnog?”
“Why don’t you ask Marcus and Matt?” she asked.
“They’re playing basketball at the Y,” I told her. They’d called earlier and asked me to come, but today I was on a mission. “Besides, I want a girl’s opinion.”
“Come on,” I said desperately. “I’ll buy you waffle fries at Chick-fil-A.”
“Throw in a coffee milk shake.”
“You got it,” I replied with a grin.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” Holly said. “And you’d better not be wearing that stupid Santa hat or the deal is off.”
I looked up at the furry white rim of the chapeau in question and pulled it from my head. “I wouldn’t even think of it.”
After hanging up with Holly, I jogged downstairs, still clutching the hat. I just couldn’t bring myself to leave the Holly-offensive accessory behind. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I never leave the house without it. In fact, I pretty much never leave my room without it. I honestly don’t know how this habit started and believe me, I’d break myself of it if I could, but I’m a little bit OCD about the Santa hat. Whenever I try to put it away, I get this horrible, overwhelming feeling that somehow Christmas will be destroyed if I do.
I know. I should seek professional help.
I came around the corner into the kitchen to find my father leaning over the Formica table, studying the blueprints for this year’s light extravaganza, tentatively titled “Santa in Space.” It included a flying Santa saucer, nine NASA-outfitted reindeer, and a few aliens pieced together from costumes he’d bought at the Party City post-Halloween blowout. Yes, post-Halloween. I told you, we take this holiday seriously, and if that means planning in advance, well, that’s what my father will do.
As always at this time of year, Dad was sporting an L.L. Bean flannel tucked in over a turtleneck and a pair of thick cords. His semibald head reflected the dim light from the chandelier above as he cleaned his glasses. When Dad was a kid, he wanted to be a lumberjack, but unfortunately he’d been cursed with the build of an accountant and the brain of an astrophysicist. These qualities had combined to make him the third-most-visited orthodontist in northern New Jersey.
“Hey, Dad,” I said.
He looked up, startled, and knocked over his Frosty the Snowman mug full of peppermint tea. (The klutz factor may have also gotten in the way of the lumberjacking career. Of course, it’s not that comforting to the metal-mouthed kids in his chair, either.) Luckily he managed to grab all of his plans before the tea lake spread too far. I quickly mopped up the mess with some paper towels.
My father took a deep breath and reverently laid out the blueprints again, smoothing down the corners. “Sorry, son,” he said. “Did you say something?”
“Yeah . . . I’m going to the mall to pick up a gift for Sarah,” I told him.
This got his attention.
“I like that Sarah,” he said, straightening up and giving me one of those fatherly smiles. “She’s got the spirit, that one.”
“Yeah, she does,” I said.
Sarah Saunders has now been my girlfriend for exactly twenty-eight days, ever since we had our first kiss under the mistletoe at Macy’s. And it has been the best twenty-eight days of my life. I love everything about Sarah. I love the fact that she’s always interested when I talk about my Jeep, even though everyone else is getting sick of it. I love the fact that she’s systematically attempted to taste everything on the cafeteria menu—however unidentifiable—just to find out what she likes the best. I love that she takes my varsity soccer jacket from me every morning at school and wears it around all day. There is nothing sexier than a beautiful girl wearing your clothes.
Sarah and I had been spending more time together recently because we were both on the organizing committee for the Holiday Ball. I’m in charge of decorations, and Sarah took over the Secret Santa program. She’d spearheaded the campaign to up the maximum expenditure per student from five dollars to ten. Of course, we don’t get much alone time because neither one of us has our own car . . .
Sarah can’t stop talking about the fact that her boyfriend is soon going to have the hottest car at school. Her boyfriend. Me!
Anyway, last weekend she met my parents and it was great. She spent almost an hour talking with them about present buying, innovative wrapping techniques (my mom took notes), and what she expects to get from her parents for Christmas.
Okay, so her interest in the holiday veers toward the gifts, but that’s okay, right? Everyone likes to get presents. And that’s why I had to find something perfect for her.
“I’m gonna go outside and wait for Holly,” I said as I shoved my arm through the sleeve of my ski jacket.
“I’ll walk out with you,” my father said, dropping his red drafting pencil. “I need to make an Island stop.”
An Island stop. Code for “I need to go to Treasure Island and do some more damage to the old credit card.” I swear, during the month of November my dad keeps that place in business.
In fact, all the Nicholas family Christmas craziness really comes from my father. You see, my father
my grandfather. And my grandfather was kind of . . . well . . . one light short of a working strand. The man left his tree up year-round. He made toys in his basement. He had every kid in town under the age of twelve categorized as either naughty or nice.
In short, the man thought he was Santa Claus.
And while my father doesn’t stray quite so far over the line, he does make sure to honor his father’s memory not only by following all the old man’s traditions, but by doing the whole holiday to the hilt. Why does my mother put up with it? you ask. Well, she’s just a happy person in general. I’m sure if the woman could carol 365 days a year without getting arrested, she would. As for me, I grew up infected by the Christmas spirit. I know everyone around me thinks it’s lame, but I happen to think it’s cool in a way. It’s cool to love something so purely. It’s cool to keep my grandfather’s memory alive. It’s cool to get my face on the news every year.
If I could just kick this Santa hat habit, I’d be golden.
My father and I walked out the front door to find a dirty Taurus with New York license plates idling in front of the house. Some guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth rolled down the window as we approached my dad’s car. His wife was behind the steering wheel and there were three, if not more, large children in the backseat who appeared to be reenacting the latest episode of WWE SmackDown! Limbs kept flying into view sporadically. Suddenly a pudgy freckled face was flattened up against the window before being pulled down into the fray again, leaving behind a trail of saliva.
“Hey! When do your lights go up, man?” the guy shouted over the din.
“Shut up!” his wife screeched, turning toward the backseat. “For the love of God, shut up!”
“We start tonight,” my father responded calmly.
The guy muttered something under his breath and the woman now turned her venom on him. “You said they’d be up already! You
we’d have a nice family outing!”
The Taurus peeled out and careened down to the end of the block, where it ran the stop sign and caught a little air before coming down on the other side of the intersection. My father and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.
There is nothing more Christmas than the Paramus Park mall during the holiday season. Sure, there are people who would take issue with that statement—the ones who swear by the rival Garden State Plaza. Let me just say, they don’t know what they’re talking about. The people at the GSP do
know how to decorate, they stick their Santa in the most remote, most unpopulated, least Santa-worthy end of the mall so that most people can’t even
him, and they don’t play Christmas carols until the week before Christmas. Pathetic.
Paramus Park is where it’s at. It’s smaller, it’s homier, there’s tinsel everywhere, and it has a calmer, cheerful vibe. Isn’t that what holiday shopping is all about?
Holly and I walked through the sliding glass doors and the second Holly’s Skechers hit the linoleum, a woman carrying about fifty bags slammed right into her side and kept walking. Sometimes I really think Holly is invisible to all people over twenty-five. The girl cannot walk through a crowded place without getting constantly bombarded.
“Is it possible to suffer death by mall?” she asked through her teeth, stepping up next to me.
I smiled and shook my head at her, taking in a deep breath of the mocha-scented air. There wasn’t a mall surface that hadn’t been decked with ribbons, fake fir garlands, big, shiny plastic Christmas ornaments, and twinkling white lights. Registers beeped, “Joy to the World” blared over the loudspeakers, every store had replaced its regular bags with special red and green ones—this was the mall the way it was meant to be.
And soon I was going to be a part of all this. Starting next week, I was going to begin my dream job as an assistant Santa at the Paramus Park North Pole. My mother had picked up the costume for me last night and I swear, when my dad saw it, he had tears in his eyes. I couldn’t wait to get started. But today I had another mission.
“Come on,” I said to Holly. “It’s gonna be fun. It’s not like I wore the hat.”
It was shoved inside the breast of my zipped-up jacket, but she didn’t need to know that. “Okay, but one screaming kid steps on my foot and we’re outta here,” she replied, shrugging out of her long black coat.
“But I WANT it! I want it I want it I want it! I WANT it now!”
Right on cue, a mother who was clearly at the end of a very frayed rope came barreling out of K•B Toys, forcibly dragging a purple-faced child behind her. He clung with both hands to her one arm, digging his tiny Nikes into the floor. Tiny Nikes that were headed straight in Holly’s direction.
I grabbed Holly and pulled her out of the kid’s way.
“My hero,” Holly said sarcastically, flicking her red hair over her shoulder and turning to glare at the offenders.
“Well, maybe Santa will bring it for you,” the mother suggested desperately, pulling her sleeve back up before the kid managed to strip her bare and give the line at the merry-go-round a real show.
“Santa?” the kid said hopefully. The screaming stopped. “Okay.”
There it was. The magic of the big guy.
Crisis averted, the mom picked the kid up and headed for the doors.
“So, what are you getting Miss Perfect for Christmas, a lobotomy?” Holly asked, starting to walk, her coat folded over her arms.
“I don’t get what your problem with Sarah is,” I said, sidestepping a stroller to catch up with her. “She’s always nice to you.”
“She tolerates me because I intimidate her,” Holly said, rolling her big green eyes.