Merry Christmas 2016

Christmas Bonus

Christmas Music and Facetime, Oh My

 

Eva

I’ve been reduced to listening to Mariah Carey. Oh, how far the mighty fall. In high school, heartbroken and jaded by love, “All I want for Christmas is You” seemed trite and gag-worthy. Tonight, I feel those lyrics with a force that shocks me.

“They still might make it,” Papou says from his recliner. “The storm seems to be letting up.”

Guilt laces his tired voice as he keeps vigil with me, watching The Weather Channel on mute to keep up with the latest on the Nor’Easter that appeared out of seemingly nowhere. This is a far cry from our typical Christmas Eve spent at Church, but bitter cold temperatures keep my aging grandparents, devout as they are, tucked indoors and under electric blankets that soothe their aching joints.

A quick glance out the front bay window which faces the street reveals a Silent Night in Ironville, but snow always falls silently.

The ticker at the bottom of the screen remains unchanged. Cancelled flights all over the country, stranded holiday passengers who number in the thousands, travel delays that will likely take days to sort out.

“You should have gone to the bowl game,” Papou admonishes for the millionth time. “You are young. There was no sense in you being cooped up at home with us for a week.”

I offer Papou a smile to combat the tears that threaten to fall. “Rob understood I wanted to spend the holidays with you. He didn’t mind. This isn’t a very important game anyway; it’s more like a pat on the back for not continuing State’s losing streak.”

“Be that as it may, it’s the first time the Miners have received a bowl bid in nearly a decade. You deserved to watch it in person as much as any fan.”

Even if I could have afforded to go, Rob insisted I come home for the holidays. He’s as aware as I am of Papou’s failing health. And he understands better than most time is a precious gift, not to be thrown away. He would give up this measly bowl game for another Christmas with his grandfather, I’m sure of it.

“Don’t stay up too late.” Papou rises from his seat with a deep sigh. “We will postpone breakfast and gifts if we must.”

“It’s fine, really. Rob doesn’t even know what he’s missing. He’s never spent a Christmas morning with us before.” 

“All the more reason to include him this year.” Papou winks before he ascends the stairs, the creak of his knee competing with the sounds of the old wood supporting his weight.

The warm, twinkling lights on the tree combine with the soft music in the background as the television flickers an unending parade of White Christmas shots. My eyelids grow heavy, fluttering closed more often than not. If I haven’t heard from Rob by now, I probably won’t until morning.

Time to head to bed. Or more likely, the closet.

It’s already Christmas anyway.

From the kitchen, my phone sings out a specifically chosen melody. Nearly face planting on the floor in my rushed efforts to disentangle myself from the blanket I had wrapped around me on the couch, I race into the other room, frantically searching the countertops, still smattered with flour from a baking marathon, for my phone.

Just when I know the song will cut off, I spy my cell and swipe the screen to answer the call I’ve been waiting on all day.

“I’ll be home for Christmas,” Rob’s voice croons from the speaker, a little off-key like he usually sings, but deep, clear, and the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard nonetheless. “You can plan on me. Please have no more snow…”

I snicker in spite of myself.

“…and lots of mistletoe, and presents under the tree.”

Before I can respond, a chorus of male voices joins in. “Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.”

A round of applause coupled with shouts of praise follow until Rob’s voice comes back over the line. “Merry Christmas, baby. Sorry I’m not there.”

“From the news reports, no one’s going anywhere tonight. Are you stuck at the airport?”

“Yeah. The whole team’s here. They ran out of room at the local hotels, so we volunteered our block to families who needed them more than we did. The airport’s still packed, though.”

“Any idea when you guys will get to fly out?” They already missed their original flight well over six hours ago.

“It’s not looking good. The last we heard was maybe the day after Christmas, if we’re lucky. Coach is working on it, but it looks like we’ll be stranded with everyone else.”

I guess being a bowl-winning football team doesn’t mean shit when it’s the holidays, and a blizzard is bearing down. “Well, at least you’re not alone?”

“I’m definitely not,” Rob chuckles. “Just me and a few thousand of my closest friends.”

More raucous male singing comes through the line, punctuated by laughter and static. I think they’re actually butchering Jingle Bells. How do they not know the melody to that?

“What’s going on?”

“There were a bunch of kids crying about missing Santa Claus so a couple of us decided to go around and sing Christmas carols. We’re all broke, and there’s nothing but little gift shops here, so it’s not like we can go buy presents for all the kids who are stranded, but we thought we could make them smile at least. A few of them even joined in with the singing.”

I blink around me at the mostly dark kitchen, trying to picture the scene he’s just described.

“Evie? You still there?”

“Yeah.” I clear my throat of surprise. “I’m just…whose idea was that?”

He mumbles something unintelligible. Either his phone gets terrible reception at the airport, or he doesn’t want me to know.

“Rob? Are you okay?” Singing in front of a crowd of people isn’t really typical Rob behavior. While he’s gotten much better at managing his public persona without losing himself, at heart he’s still as shy as they come.

He sighs. “It’s just weird, you know? I spent the last four years listening to you sing at Christmas time.”

My cheeks heat. As many times as I ogled him in the audience, I never knew he was there for me. Or that he was the one leaving me mystery bouquets after every concert.

“Anyway, it’s stupid, but it was my idea. I don’t sing nearly as well as you, but I miss you, and I hate that we’re spending another Christmas apart. So, I thought maybe singing for everyone else would make me feel closer to you.”

“And did it?”

Rob laughs. “Not by a long shot.”

It never occurred to me the high of his first bowl game win would be unseated by missing me. “I’m sorry you’re stuck at the airport on Christmas, Superjock. And that your idea didn’t work.”

“Don’t be. Just because it didn’t help me doesn’t mean it didn’t help others. The rest of the guys kind of got carried away with the idea. Now, in addition to caroling all through the airport, they’ve decided to try and pull off every social media stunt in one night. They want to see if it’ll get them in the Guinness Book of World Records.”

He might be an NCAA, bowl-winning quarterback, but my Rob has a heart of gold. Aside from Mike, Alex, and TJ, I’m not too sure of his other teammates yet. “What all are they going to do?”

“So far, the mannequin challenge, the flash mob challenge, the Harlem Shake, planking, the ice bucket challenge, the running man challenge, and…I think that’s it. Maybe more caroling in between. They’re still making a to-do list for the night.”

“I guess that means you won’t be getting any shut eye.”

“Nope.” He sounds more cheerful about lack of sleep than expected. “I’ve been tasked with filming.”

Aha. That explains the happiness. If he’s behind the camera, he doesn’t have to be in front of it.

“Well, it sounds like a night of fun and debauchery, as one would expect from a college football team.” At least they’re making the best of a bad situation. It could be worse. Rob’s teammates could be running around trying to find single stranded ladies to hook up with.

Actually… “Where’s Alex in all of this?”

“Listen for yourself.”

Sure enough, Alex’s voice comes through the line. He’s singing…Last Christmas. 

“Does he know that’s a song about a gay couple?”

Rob laughs. “Pretty sure he does. He knows every word. Hang on a second. You’ve gotta see this with your own eyes.”

My momentary sadness at the disconnected call fades when Rob sends a Facetime request. I accept and within seconds, an image of a very enthusiastic Alex singing and dancing to the same song appears on my little screen. The bedraggled crowd of stranded travelers appears absolutely enthralled by the performance.

“…A face on a lover with a fire in his heart.” Alex latches onto Mike’s arm, staring up at him with an adoring expression that quickly turns theatrically heartbroken. “A man undercover, but you tore me apart!”

He even does all the vocal glissandos like in the original version. I never knew Alex could sing like this.

The man constantly surprises me.

After only a few moments of not playing along at all, Mike pushes Alex away, much to the amusement of the audience who laugh at the spectacle.

Rob’s voice interrupts Alex’s performance. “He’s really enjoying this.”

“I’d say so.”

“Mike doesn’t seem to be having as much fun with it.”

My chest squeezes for my pseudo brother. “This is his first Christmas single. Give the guy a break.”

Rob’s answering laughter seems out of place for my request. “Yeah, and this is my second Christmas notsingle, and we’re still not together. You don’t see me acting like a big jerk about it.”

“I can’t see you at all, Superjock. You’re pointing the phone the wrong way.”

Rob’s tired face comes into view after a whiplash motion of the camera. “Better?”

I can’t help my pouty expression, no matter how hard I try. “I guess it’ll have to do. It’s better than last year at least.”

That dimple I adore makes an appearance with Rob’s smile, his teal eyes sparkling even though he looks so darn tired. “I’ll take it. If I have to move the chains one yard at a time with you, then that’s what I’ll do.”

“You only get four downs on a drive, QB.”

“So, I have two left. I got this. Have a little faith in me.”

“Your ego’s showing again.” He’s so much fun to mess with. If I can’t do it in person, I can give him a run for his money this way.

He rolls his eyes instead of taking the bait. “I have to go record social media challenges for a bit, and I forgot how late it is. You should try to get some sleep.”

It’s my turn to roll my eyes. He knows exactly how well I’ll sleep.

“I wish I was there,” Rob whispers. “Only two more weeks of break, then we’ll be back on campus.”

In the presence of others, his response remains cryptic, not revealing what I wouldn’t want anyone else to know.

The picture jostles a bit, and Rob’s attention is diverted to the side.

“Hey, is that Evie? Merry Christmas, little sister!” Mike’s face comes into view as Rob angles the phone away from himself. “How’s the weather at home? I heard you’ve got a foot of snow and counting! Did you make the Greek cookies yet?”

In spite of his former sour expression, Mike seems as chipper as can be. 

“I made them earlier, and don’t worry. There’s an extra two dozen waiting for you.”

Another whiplash motion, and Rob frowns on the screen. “Why does he get special cookies?”

Though I can’t see his expression, the tone of Mike’s voice is playful and smug, and I can only imagine the shit-eating grin he must be wearing. “Because I’mspecial.”

Rob lifts his eyebrow, clearly questioning Mike’s assessment. “What kind of special cookies are we talking about here?”

Mike explains before I can get in a single word. “They’re these little twisty things with sesame seeds on them. If you dunk them in milk, they’re soft, but plain they’re crunchy. Evie knows those are my favorite, so she makes me extra.”

“Why didn’t I know you could bake?” Rob returns his attention to me.

“I dunno. You never asked? It’s not like we have a kitchen in the dorms, so you wouldn’t really know this information about me.”

“Is special cookies code for something else?” Alex’s face pops up behind Rob’s shoulder.

By the way Alex’s body jerks, I’m guessing Rob elbowed him in the stomach for that lewd implication.

“Only you could turn koulourakiainto something dirty, Alex.” Still, it’s hard to stifle my laughter.

A look of sheer pride crosses Alex’s face. “It’s a gift.”

“Impressive singing,” I tell him in all honesty. “How many travel-weary ladies have you wooed so far tonight?”

He seems to think it over as the screen view widens to reveal all three of my boys. Mike shakes his head while Rob rolls his eyes.

“I lost count a while ago, but trust me, the number is well into the double digits.”

“Too bad you don’t have any condoms packed in your duffel bag,” Mike snickers.

“You underestimate my level of preparedness. I was a Boy Scout, remember?”

Rob throws his head back in laughter. “You were a Bear Scout and lit another tent on fire. The den leader kicked you out.”

Alex shrugs, not the least bit offended. “They wanted a heat source; I made one. I can’t help it if they didn’t appreciate my brand of creativity.”

As much as seeing all three of them cheers me up on this otherwise lonely Christmas Eve, I can’t fight the yawn that tears out of my throat.

“It’s late. Go sleep, Evie,” Mike advises. “At least one of us should get to spend the night in a warm, comfortable bed.”

“Special cookies, talking about Evie’s bed like you’ve slept in it before…” Alex shakes his head. “You disappoint me, Michael.”

“That’s it,” Mike grits. “Now you’re gonna get it. I’ve put up with your shit all day.”

Alex pops his eyebrows like he knows exactly how much he’s gotten on Mike’s nerves. In a flash, he takes off, Mike hot on his heels.

For a few moments, Rob stares in the direction they ran before returning his gaze to the phone. “Hashe slept in your bed before?”

“Of course.” I’m with Alex. Riling them up is just too easy to pass on. And I need some way to stay awake for as long as Rob wants to Facetime with me.

Exhaustion must be ruling Rob’s brain, too, because he doesn’t fall for this, either. “Uh, okay. Could he maybe not do that anymore? It’s a little weird.”

“Gee, Superjock. Way to act like a jealous boyfriend. Please, don’t hold back on how you feel about your friend sleeping in my bed. I wouldn’t want you to strain yourself trying to control the situation.”

Rob’s expression doesn’t change other than an infinitesimal lift of his eyebrows. “Trying to control you is like trying to control wildfire. Not a possibility. I choose to strainmyself in ways I think might actually yield results.”

“Such as?” Has he been playing mind games with me that I’m unaware of?

A Cheshire smile spreads across his kissable lips. “That’s for me to know, and you to find out.”

“But…”

Commotion off screen pulls Rob’s attention away. 

“We ready?” he calls to a faceless voice. “Sweet.”

“Time for you to go film a crazy night of boys gone wild?”

“Something like that.” He offers me another cryptic smile. “Merry Christmas, my Evie. I love you.”

Before I can respond back in kind, the screen goes black.

“Merry Christmas, Rob,” I whisper to an empty room.

 

 

Home is Where the Heart Is

 

Rob

The snow has let up substantially, but the roads are still a mess, making every mile feel a thousand times longer than it should.

Mike and Alex have already been dropped off at their respective houses, and my stop is last.

The car pulls up to the curb. The driver turns around with a friendly but tired smile. “Merry Christmas to you. Thanks for chipping in.”

“Worth every penny,” I tell him honestly before climbing out. “Merry Christmas. Be safe.”

“Will do!”

No sooner do I close the door than he pulls away, another several hours of driving ahead of him on his way north.

If that guy isn’t Clarence the angel in disguise, then this has been the weirdest yet luckiest Christmas of all time.

Everything is dark and quiet on the home front, save for the gleam of candles in the windows. The lights Mike and I hung during the only day we had off for Thanksgiving break offer a warm welcome, in spite of being covered by snow. If anything, the added layer gives the entire a house a sort of dreamy quality. It’s almost like being at the North Pole. The rolling snow banks that have to be at least two feet high add to the fantasy.

The driveway hasn’t been shoveled yet, but there are tire tracks which indicate at least several trips to and from the garage. The packed snow will be a bitch to clear away tomorrow, but if Alex and Mike both agree to help, we should be able to get it done in an hour or less. 

Snow crunches under my feet as I trudge my way up the sidewalk, my duffel bag thrown over my shoulder. The closer I get to the quiet house, the more I reconsider my surprise presence. It’s only six in the evening, but it appears no one’s home.

I don’t know where they had to be on Christmas day, but it’s not like anyone expected me, so they might have made other plans.

The door knob doesn’t budge on the front door. Locked up tight.

I didn’t drive nearly twenty-four hours with a ragtag bunch of guys in a rented mini-van, determined to make it home for Christmas, only to give up this easily. My sore, overworked muscles protest as I make my way around back in the knee-deep snow. 

Once I round the garage, a glimmer of light shines like a beacon from the kitchen window. The faint sound of Christmas music filters out into the night, offering me the tiniest bit of hope that all is not lost.

As quietly as possible, I sneak in the back door. Shrugging off my coat and snow-covered boots in the mud room, I’m acutely aware of the scent of warm vanilla mixed with spices. My mouth waters and my stomach gurgles. It’s been hours since I tasted anything other than Red Bull.

The sight that meets me in the kitchen almost makes me give up the game and reveal myself.

Almost.

Knowing full well this surprise might completely backfire, I count on the volume of the music and her focus on the current task at hand to give me enough cover to make my way around the kitchen island. I don’t stop my forward movement until my chest hovers at her back, close enough to feel the heat radiating from her body.

She hums to herself, completely oblivious to my presence as a loony smile erupts over my face.

Unable to restrain myself a second longer, I wrap my arms around her waist and bury my nose into her hair.

Home at last.

She stiffens for only a moment in my arms, then tries to twist around to face me. I hold on tighter.

“How?” she breathes.

After a couple more heartbeats of hugging my fill, I spin her around, unable to compose my expression to match the seriousness of my tone. “Santa let me hitch a ride on his sleigh.”

“You hitchhiked here?” Her eyes widen. “All the way from Texas? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?”

I glance around, but we’re alone. The only light coming from the living room appears to be from the tree, and other than the Christmas music that’s playing from her phone on the counter, there’s not another trace of human presence in the whole house. “Where is everyone?”

“They went to visit some friends, but I stayed behind to clean up dinner and do a bit more baking. Does your mom know you’re here?”

“Yep. And I didn’t hitchhike. Me and a couple other guys pitched in to rent a van, and we all took turns driving through the night to get home for Christmas.”

She blinks at me like she can’t translate the words spilling from my mouth. “You-you drove? Your mom’s been worried sick. She feels so guilty she got one of the last flights out before they started cancelling everything. She cried to my mom on the phone because you were stuck at the airport for Christmas. You need to go home and see her.”

I cover her mouth with my hand to stop the avalanche of word vomit. “I’m a big boy, Evie. Mom knows I’m safe, and that I made it to Ironville. She’s also aware there’s another woman in my life, and she has to share me now. But, if you want me to go, I will.”

No sooner do I release her and turn to leave with my heart on the floor than she fists my shirt in her little hands with surprising force.

“Are you crazy? You just got here!” With that, she pulls me to her lips and kisses me with the sort of welcome home I’d been expecting.

It’s been a week since I last breathed her in, felt her tiny body against my own, and didn’t wonder what she was doing at any given moment. Knowing there’s no one around to interrupt, what starts as nothing more than a kiss quickly turns heated. 

She threads her fingers through my hair to keep me locked against her as I hoist her onto the counter in an effort to close the height gap. With that hurdle out of the way, my hands roam anywhere and everywhere. She wraps her legs around my waist, crossing her ankles like I might ever try to escape.

I could die right here, right now a very happy man.

“I missed you so much,” she whispers as her lips carve a path of heat down my neck. “You were amazing at the game. As much as I hated not being there, watching you on national television was so cool.”

“Mmhmm,” I mumble. I’m too busy kissing my girl to make conversation.

“Tell me everything. I want to hear about all the stuff I missed.” 

Her teeth latch onto my earlobe, and I’m a goner.

Words are not happening. I’m barely able to stay upright.

Using Evie as my anchor, I let the week of stress, endorphins, exhaustion, and everything else go, so I can feast on her and recharge my batteries. The kitchen of her family’s home might not be the smartest spot, but I’ll blame that on sleep deprivation if I need to.

My brain focuses on one goal and one goal alone.

Pulling her flush against me, I wrap my hands around her hips and hope to hell I can pull off one last Christmas miracle.

“Rob,” she pants as she finds the rhythm I’ve been waiting for.

Still no words form in my brain, only sensation. A heady but seemingly incompatible combination of lightning and calm zing through my veins, obliterating everything else except the tiny speck of knowledge this will have to be enough to last for a whole week until we get back to State after break.

That, and the incessant prayer for Evie’s family to not walk through the door and catch us.

I’m all too aware that somewhere upstairs is a shotgun with my name on it if I do anything YiaYia doesn’t like.

She definitely wouldn’t like this.

Evie’s basically riding me like a cowgirl, perched on the edge of the kitchen counter and panting against my neck in time with my thrusts against her that I can’t hold back.

It’s been too long, she feels too good, and we’ve earned this Merry Christmas a few times over, dammit.

She tastes like cookies as my tongue works over her mouth, swallowing down every moan and whimper that pull me a little closer to the finish line.

Just as she shudders against me, a sure sign she’s close, my hand slips from its position on the counter only to plunge into the sink of hot, soapy water next to us.

Evie shrieks as her shirt gets soaked by the back splash, but she doesn’t release me from her clutches, instead laughing at our typical bout of awkwardness. 

Her body vibrates against me with her laughter as she wraps her arms around my neck. Try as I might to regain ground, the moment’s gone.

Evie must notice me pouting about it, because she peppers my cheeks with sweet kisses. “Oh, Superjock. It’s okay. As much as I missed you, I don’t think it was going to happen for me, anyway. You smell awful.”

I peer at her smiling face, my confidence at being able to please her taking another nosedive. “You like the way I smell.”

“Usually, but not today.” She wrinkles her nose. “You smell like…”

“I’ve been driving in a car full of other guys for an entire day?”

Her face pales as her expression falls. “Oh my God.”

She pushes me away and hops off the counter only to race to the oven. As soon as she pulls open the door, black smoke billows out, the acrid scent of burnt food spilling out into the kitchen. “The cookies!”

So lost in our make-out session, neither of us must have heard the timer go off, but we both jump as the sound of the smoke detector shrieks in our ears. 

“Turn it off,” she yells as she points to the offending white cylinder on the ceiling, all the while waving a dish towel in front of the open oven.

Yeah, we’re definitely not getting back that stolen moment now. While I pull out a chair to reach the alarm, Evie opens several windows in the kitchen. The blast of freezing air assaults my previously heated skin.

By the time the situation is under control, Evie gazes at me with tears in her eyes and a trembling lip. “I wanted to make special cookies for you, even if you wouldn’t get them for a few days.”

I glance at the stove top where the tray of cookies resembles blackened heaps of ash. “Maybe they don’t taste as bad as they look?”

“Are you kidding me right now? They’re completely ruined!” 

The first sob slips past her kiss-swollen lips. 

Not today. Not on my watch.

If I don’t get any perfect Evie O faces for Christmas, then she doesn’t get to cry over burnt cookies, either. It’s not like I have any regrets about why they got burned in the first place.

Just as I’m formulating a plan to fix this mess, a song floats on the still-smoky air that solidifies my reroute.

I pull Evie into the center of the kitchen, then sway in time to the music until she stops sniffling enough to gaze up at me with questioning eyes. “What are you doing?”

“Dancing with you.” I offer her a smile to convince her I’m not bent about our latest mishap. When the next line starts, I sing along. “Baby, it’s cold outside…”

Her mouth opens and closes a few times before she regains composure. “And singing, too?”

“Yeah. Maybe you could sing for me instead? Or maybe we could sing together. Sure beats sitting in a crowded auditorium, working up the nerve to talk to you or give you a bouquet of roses.”

A look that can only be translated as wonder crosses her face. “You really are the most romantic guy on the whole planet, you know that?”

That’s funny because most of the time I feel like the whole planet is against me. But if I’ve still got a dog in this fight, then I’m not going down until she kills every last shred of hope I carry. “Gosh, your lips taste delicious.”

She picks up the next line, playing along as we sway across the worn tile, taking turns singing to each other. In another lifetime, I never would have imagined a moment as perfect as this.

It’s strange how tragedy shifts a person’s priorities. In that respect, bad times can be the best things that ever happen to us.

The singing, smiling girl in my arms is definitely the best thing that ever happened to me.

The song ends, but I don’t let her go. I want to prolong this little bubble of happiness for as long as possible. 

“I forgot what a good dancer you are,” she whispers, then stops our motion. “I also forgot I have more dough! I’ll just make you more cookies!”

Before she can carry out her plans, Evie’s mom bursts into the kitchen, with the rest of the family hot on her heels. “Rob! You made it!”

Evie’s warm arms are replaced by hugs and kisses from everyone as they chatter about the unexpected snowstorm, the delayed Christmas plans on my account, and how happy they are to have me here.

I’ve never felt so much like part of a loving family as I do when I’m at the Papageorgiou house. Once these people welcome you into their fold, there’s no going back.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You smell like a pig sty.” YiaYia slaps my cheek affectionately. “Go shower while I fix you a plate. You must be hungry after all the travel.”

Evie and I exchange a surprised glance. That’s an unexpected offer from such a traditional woman.

“Oh, that’s all right. I actually have to get home and see Ma. She’s waiting for me.”

“Not anymore.”

Everyone’s heads turn toward the newcomer in the doorway.

“I couldn’t wait another minute.” With a bright smile and understanding eyes, Mom opens her arms for the hug she’s undoubtedly been missing.

She feels like comfort and nearly every good thing in the world when I wrap her in my arms.

“Dad’s not back yet?”

“No.” She squeezes me once more before holding me at arm’s length, looking me over for any signs of wear and tear as she’s done my whole life. “His flight got cancelled, too, and he wasn’t as resourceful as you to get back home.”

“I’m surprised he even made it to the game. He’s got bigger clients than me to take care of around the holidays.”

“He wouldn’t miss watching you play for the world.”

Even though he has more money to burn than I do, he clearly has no problem missing Christmas with his wife. I shake off the unhappy thoughts when Papou claps his hands.

“That settles it, then! Christmas begins now! Robert, you go shower, and we’ll get out all the food.”

And so it goes. I’m herded upstairs with my duffle bag as the house erupts into controlled chaos while meals are reheated and gifts are pulled from under the tree.

By the time our bellies are full and the living room is littered with crumpled wrapping paper, my eyelids are losing the battle to stay open.

Quiet conversations wash over me, mingled with the familiar lines from It’s a Wonderful Life playing on the television. Evie’s warm weight feels better than any blanket where we’re snuggled up on the couch.

Tini chatters on about her latest boyfriend, as Evie’s muffled laughs vibrate through me.

“And he got me this gorgeous designer purse, too! Honestly, he spent so much money on me, I feel like a spoiled princess!”

“You should not accept such things.” YiaYia clucks her tongue. “It is not fitting.”

“What am I supposed to do? Tell him I don’t want them and to take them back? Rude much.”

Mom’s warm laugh increases my peacefulness. “I had a boyfriend once in high school who spent an entire paycheck on me for Christmas. I remember thinking he was an idiot for doing that. We’d only been dating for two weeks!”

“Young love is priceless,” Papou offers, then chuckles. “It is only with age and wisdom that we realize expensive gifts won’t keep the girl with us. That, and several heartbreaks, regardless of the amount spent.”

YiaYia makes a strange sort of spitting sound, but I can’t pry my eyes open to see what she’s doing.

“You never spent so much on me. Is this because you thought me a sure bet?”

“Mama,” Diana laughs. “He’s given you a lifetime of gifts and love. I’m sure that adds up for as long as you’ve been together.”

“Still, every woman wants to feel spoiled now and then,” YiaYia retorts.

“See?” Tini crows. “I can’t give my presents back! You just said so!”

“I said nothing of the sort,” YiaYia bites out.

“Gifts mean nothing if not given with love,” Mom responds in a much quieter tone of voice. “All the diamonds in the world aren’t worth an ounce of adoration.”

I feel like I should be taking notes, but my arms wrapped around Evie are lead weights, incapable of movement.

“Do you think we should just let him sleep there? He doesn’t look very comfortable,” Diana questions to everyone else.

Evie snuggles further into me, and I’d like to respond I’m quite comfortable, but that would likely be overstepping the bounds of YiaYia’s generosity about letting me shower here, especially in light of her argument with Tini about propriety. 

Just a quick nap, then I’ll go home with Mom and sleep in my own bed. As much as I hate to leave Evie to hide in the closet of her bedroom, sleeping with her here all night has always been out of the question.

Shotguns and all that.

 

***

 

A strange noise pulls me from sleep, but it’s not enough to completely wake me. Warm, comfortable, and with Evie’s scent all around me, I chalk it up to the usual dorm antics and snuggle back down for another hour or so.

The next loud bang annoys me enough to pry my eyes open. They feel like sandpaper. It takes a few moments of blinking for the room around me to come into focus.

And when it does, sheer panic seizes my chest.

This is not my dorm room. This is not my bed.

But, Evie is definitely sleeping on top of me on her family’s couch in the living room of the Papageorgiou house.

I’m dead meat.

There’s no way to escape without waking her, so I shake her a bit until she moans and squirms around, which is not doing anything to counteract my morning wood. Just one more infraction I could be crucified for.

“Evie,” I whisper, hoping not to alert anyone else I’m awake. “Evie, wake up.”

“Ten more minutes, Rob,” she mumbles.

“Baby, you gotta wake up. I have to go. Now.”

She sits up with a start, wedged between my body and the back of the couch. Casting a confused glance around the room, probably the same as I did when I woke up, she focuses her gaze on me. “What’s wrong?”

My eyes must be popping out of my skull at her relaxed tone of voice. “What do you mean what’s wrong? I fell asleep! Here!”

“So? You’ve slept on the couch before.”

“Not with you. I heard a noise, and it’s probably YiaYia loading the shotgun. You gotta let me up, so I can sneak out. Maybe no one’s noticed us here yet.”

Evie casts an annoyed expression my way. “I’m pretty sure you’re not about to be murdered, and I’m also pretty sure that at least someone knows we slept here. This blanket wasn’t over us last night.”

Sure enough, there’s an old, knit blanket covering our legs. The same one that’s usually draped over the back of the couch.

They wanted to make me comfortable before killing me? Weird, but maybe that’s a Greek thing.

As groggy as I felt mere minutes ago, my mind kicks into overdrive, formulating a way out of this. “Maybe Tini covered us up. So, here’s the game plan. I’m gonna sneak out the front door, and you go up to your room. I’ll come back later for my duffel bag, and it’ll be like nothing ever happened.”

“You’re being ridiculous. Did you get a concussion at the game I didn’t see?”

“I’mbeing ridiculous? Your grandmother doesn’t even want Tini accepting expensive gifts from her boyfriend because it’s ‘not fitting.’ This would notmake her list of things that are fitting, and I didn’t even give you your gift yet, so she probably thinks I’m a loser on top of taking advantage of you under her roof!”

“I’m pretty sure you driving all night in a rental just to make it home for Christmas is one of the best gifts of all time and is proof of how much you’re nota loser.” Evie shakes her head, but it’s obvious she’s fighting a smile. “Although, YiaYia probably wouldn’t be too happy about what almost happened in the kitchen last night.”

My heartbeat picks up as sweat breaks out on my forehead. “Fuck, does she have those nanny cam things set up around the house? I’m a dead man. She’s going to kill me, you’re going to live a long life without me and find someone else to marry, and holy shit, this is the worst Christmas ever.”

The first laugh Evie’s been fighting breaks free, furthering my panic. Someone will definitely have heard that.

She bends down and places the sweetest kiss on my lips, morning breath and all. “This was the best Christmas ever. You were the best present ever. And no one is going to die this morning.”

“Oh, good. You are awake. Robert, you can help me make the breakfast since we postponed it until your return.”

I crane my gaze over the couch to see Papou’s head sticking out of the doorway from the kitchen. He offers a tired smile and a little wave.

Obviously to lure me into his trap. 

Because there’s no way he missed me sprawled out on hiscouch under hisroof with hisgranddaughter practically straddling me. My only saving grace is the blanket that’s covering my boner. Kind of.

Fuck it. If I were him, I’d kill me, too.

Evie laughs again at the undoubted expression of horror painted on my face that’s probably fifty shades of white. “I’ll go help him while you get this,” she gestures at my tent, “situation under control.”

“How am I supposed to get upstairs to the bathroom without running into anyone else?” Damn my giant horse dick. Unless I use the throw pillow under my head as a cover, anyone who sees me is bound to notice my “situation.”

“Papou is always the first one up in the morning. I’m sure you won’t run into anyone else for at least another hour.” She pats my leg a little too close to where my dick is straining against my sweatpants, a wicked smile spreading across her lips. “Up and at ‘em, Superjock. The clock’s ticking.”

Completely disregarding my level of alarm, Evie climbs off me without a care in the world, ambling into the kitchen with a cheery, “Kali mera, Papou.”

Good morning, my ass. This has disaster written all over it.

I have two options: I can sneak out as previously planned, and disappoint my girlfriend, or I can do what Evie suggested, and pretend nothing happened.

No, wait. I’ve got it. I’ll run a combo play.

I’ll sneak out, wait out Papou and YiaYia’s anger, then come back under the guise that I needed to get Evie’s gift from my house.

Everyone wins, and I stay alive.

It’s perfect.

Until it isn’t.

The Lady is in the garage here, true. But, I have no idea where Evie put the keys. My boots are in the back mud room, which is only accessible through the kitchen. Where Papou and Evie are supposedly cooking.

Maybe I can make a dash for the bathroom and just stay in there until everyone forgets I’m here.

That won’t work, either. There’s only one bathroom in this old house, and people will notice if it’s occupied for a couple of hours.

Shit, shit, shit. I’m running out of time, and all my options suck.

Why is this more stressful than being in the pocket in my first bowl game appearance?

Okay, deep breath. Time to regain control of the situation. First up, mindset. A solid mental outlook is key.

I am a nineteen-year-old man, in a committed relationship with my girlfriend for over a year. Her family loves me. They treat me like I’m one of their own. It’s not like I’m some punk-ass kid off the street, only looking to deflower their oldest daughter.

Nothing happened they can be angry about. 

Well, almost nothing, thanks to a poorly placed kitchen sink.

So, we fell asleep together on the couch watching movies? Who cares? Everyone knew I drove all night to get here. It’s not like they can fault me for my exhaustion. I didn’t know Evie would fall asleep on top of me. I certainly didn’t plan it that way.

If they wanted her to move, they could have woken her up and made her go to her own bed, right?

Right.

Okay, next up. The morning wood situation. I’m kind of surprised all my panic hasn’t deflated the damn thing, but after last night’s near miss, my balls are in some serious pain. The thought of having to make it an entire week before I can get some release reignites my rapid heartbeat, so I do what I probably shouldn’t.

I imagine a half-naked, bloody Evie. That always does the trick. 

Hey, if I’m gonna be saddled with that burden, might as well make it work for me.

And it does. Somewhat.

Enough that I suck it up, peel myself off the couch, and practically crawl up the stairs. Fuck, I’m sore this morning. Each agonizing step reduces my boner a little more. By the time I reach the bathroom, all I can think about is a hot shower, a couple Advil, and more sleep. 

 

 

All’s Well That Ends Well

Eva

The scent of frying bacon makes my mouth water. Normally, I’m a caffeine first, food way later type of morning person. Today, however, I plan on chowing down.

“Kali mera,” YiaYia rasps as she staggers into the kitchen like she spent the night drinking heavily. “Where is the coffee?”

Papou whistles to himself at the stove as he continues flipping strips of bacon and scrambling eggs.

They’re being weird.

Luckily for me, Mama strolls in a moment later, yawning. “Good morning, family. How did everyone sleep last night?”

I expect this question to be aimed at me in combination with a dirty look, but instead she pins her parents with the death glare.

Maybe I haven’t had enough coffee after all. I hunker down at my spot at the table, chugging the contents of my mug to prepare for what promises to be an epic showdown. Rob might’ve been onto something to be worried about us falling asleep together on the couch.

Something’s definitely up. With Tini still in bed, I’m defenseless and at their mercy for a potential interrogation.

YiaYia and Papou don’t grace her with an answer.

This is a set up. I can smell it.

The silent stares continue all around as a cold sweat breaks out on my skin.

“Really?” Mama scoffs. “You don’t feel the need to apologize? Not even a little?”

“I’m sorry!” I blurt out. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep on the couch with Rob! Nothing happened, I swear!”

As all eyes turn to me, I realize my mistake. “You…weren’t talk to me, were you?”

Mama looks at me like I’m insane. “No. I was talking to your apparently perverted grandparents.”

Oh, gag. TMI. Please don’t form a mental image, brain.

Before either YiaYia or Papou can respond, Tini skips into the kitchen, far more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than is her normal morning MO.

“I’m Twitter famous!” She thrusts her cell into the air like a trophy.

YiaYia latches onto the distraction like a lifeline, grabbing the phone from Tini’s clutch. “What did you do? Is this the internet thing that all the teenagers display nudity with?”

Tini’s expression wrinkles with disgust, and she aims a questioning glance in my direction. I know what she’s asking without saying a word. Why does YiaYia know about that kind of stuff?

My silent stare in combination with a prim sip of the last dregs of my coffee conveys the answer. You don’t even know the half of it, sister.

“What is this?” YiaYia questions, glancing between the two of us. “When did this happen?”

“Last night.” Tini’s smile is far too blinding for this early hour. “They didn’t know I was recording it. But, look how many likes and retweets I have!”

Uh-oh. This spells trouble with a capital T. 

Mama peers over Tini’s shoulder, then taps the screen and suddenly the kitchen is filled with music…and singing.

Oh, crap.

I scramble out of my chair, but it’s too late. My family huddles around Tini’s phone, effectively blocking the screen from my sight, but the sounds of Rob and I singing to each other ring in my ears clear as day.

How many people have seen this?

Mama raises her head, a soft smile on her face. “You two are so cute together.”

“I like this young man.” Papou nods before returning to his post at the stove top. “I think we will keep him.”

YiaYia continues to watch the scene play out as Tini aims her bright expression my way.

“This clip has gotten so many hits, Evie! After Rob’s win at the bowl game, the Miners were already trending. This pushed it over the edge!”

My head pounds a steady rhythm. So much for sneaking a decent night of sleep during break. “Rob’s going to kill you when he sees this.”

“Why?” She scrunches her brow, truly confused.

“Do you really think an NCAA quarterback wants the whole world seeing how adorable and romantic he can be? It doesn’t exactly scream football god.”

Tini purses her lips, seeming to think it over. “Nah. Everyone loves a cream puff hiding inside a big, buff dude. Ovaries are exploding all over the Twitterverse this morning.”

“Why, oh why do I walk in at the mention of ovaries?” Rob’s sigh is heavy before he glances at me with a worried expression. “Are you sick? It’s not time yet…”

YiaYia strides right up to him, still holding onto Christina’s phone. “Perhaps you would care to explain this.”

Without looking at the screen, Rob’s eyes widen, and his face visibly pales. I can only imagine what he must be thinking, but frankly, I’m too busy reining in my laughter to help him out.

We’re not the ones in hot water this morning, and YiaYia’s distraction efforts are admirable if not merely postponing the inevitable.

“I…” Rob doesn’t get any further with his potential excuse before YiaYia presses play on the video. 

His shoulders slump, and he damn near closes his eyes in relief, but manages to reel it in at the last second. “Who did this?”

“Me,” Tini giggles. “You two didn’t even notice me standing in the doorway.”

Yeah, and we wouldn’t have about twenty minutes before that, either.

Thank God for small disasters.

Much like YiaYia, Rob grasps the out with both hands, deflecting attention away from less savory issues. “And you felt the need to post it on Twitter? Why would you do that? That was a private moment.”

The moment the words leave his lips, he realizes his gaffe.

“I mean,” he verbally stumbles. “Not that anything indecent happened or anything like that, but it’s just…that wasn’t meant for other people to see or hear.”

He squeezes his eyes closed and gives up.

“Speaking of things that other people aren’t meant to hear,” Mama leads.

My body trembles with both excitement and rapidly increasing nausea. I can only imagine what’s about to be said, but if it gets me and Rob off the hook, I’m all for it.

I’ll deal with the social media shit storm later.

YiaYia’s entire face purses like she’s sucking on the sourest of lemons. “Diana! Enough! This is improper to speak of!”

For his part, Papou just laughs as he continues to cook, not interacting with anyone.

“Nothing happened!” Rob yelps. “We fell asleep on the couch! That’s all!”

Like earlier, all eyes turn toward him, the temperature of the room seeming to chill a few degrees.

“I’ll come back to your suspicious behavior later.” Mama gestures between Rob and me before turning her attention back to YiaYia. “In the meantime, all I require is a simple apology, then I will drop it.”

“I refuse to apologize,” Papou practically howls.

Rob steps up beside me, leaning down to whisper in my ear. “What the hell is going on in here this morning? I was expecting to die, and then I was too sore to care, and now your mom is messing with her parents? Tini posted a video of us on Twitter that has a couple hundred thousand views without our permission, Papou is busting a gut over a pan of bacon, and…did I miss anything? I feel like I woke up in the Twilight Zone.”

“That about covers it,” I agree.

We watch, Rob on my left and Tini on my right, as YiaYia continues to squirm under Mama’s glare while Papou cackles, seemingly puffing his chest out a bit in pride.

“Oh no,” Tini mumbles. “Not again.”

Rob and I swivel our heads to stare at Tini, but he beats me to the question burning the tip of my tongue. “What’s again?”

Tini makes a gagging motion, deep breathing before she responds. “Ever since you went away to college, YiaYia and Papou have been getting…a little vocal during their frisky times if you know what I’m saying. It’s like they forgot two other people still live here, and since Mama’s room is right next to theirs, she hears. A lot.”

Rob chokes on a fit of laughter. “Are you fucking with me right now?”

“No,” Tini answers, her tone dead serious. “I wish I was.”

“This doesn’t let you off the hook for Tweeting that video,” Rob whispers. “But if no one says a word about me and Evie sleeping on the couch together last night, I’ll let it slide. This time.”

“Done.”

They reach around me to shake on it. I’m left feeling like the odd woman out; the middle child caught between her siblings’ collusion.

“Fine.” Mama breaks the staring match. “If you won’t apologize, then I’m moving out.”

Papou laughs even harder at her threat. “I will never apologize for being a good husband. You would not exist if I was not.”

Oh, eew. I don’t want to think about that. As far as I’m concerned, my mother, aunt, and uncle were all immaculately conceived.

Hell, Tini and Iwere immaculately conceived.

“I’m moving out, too,” Tini pipes up. “I’m sick of wearing earbuds to bed to block out the noise.”

YiaYia sputters, her face turning an unhealthy shade of red. “This is not proper conversation! You two will show some respect for your elders!”

“I have mad respect for Papou right now,” Rob laughs.

“Shut up,” Mama hisses at him. “You’re not helping.”

“Do you still need my help with anything, Papou?” Rob continues, enjoying the game a little too much. “Need me to fetch some mistletoe or something?”

Papou’s pride reaches new heights. “I do not require the assistance of plants.”

Rob completely loses it. Doubling over at my side, his whole body shaking with laughter.

“I dunno,” Tini muses. “Lots of people claim certain herbs are beneficial to that sort of thing.”

“What do you know of this?” YiaYia accuses, once again trying to divert the spotlight.

Mama calls her out on it. “Oh, no. This isn’t about Christina. This is about you and Dad getting a little too carried away. If anyone should be getting a lecture on indecency, it’s you two.”

Rob actually falls in a heap to the floor, clutching his side as tears roll down his cheeks. “Oh, God. It hurts. No more. I can’t take it. I need Advil.”

In a flurry of motion, Mama and YiaYia rush into action, one pulling the bottle of pills from the cupboard while the other kneels on the floor by Rob’s side.

“Should I call your Mom?” Mama feathers her hand over Rob’s forehead like he might have a fever from laughing too hard. She glances up at me, all joking aside. “Is this normal after a game?”

I fight the urge to roll my eyes at his theatrics. It wasn’t that funny. “Depending on how rough the play is, he might be sore for a few days, yeah.”

Tini leans toward me, whispering in my ear. “He was really nervous about you two sleeping on the couch, wasn’t he?”

Even see she can see through his act. 

“Yep. He was pretty sure YiaYia was loading the shotgun to kill him.”

She aims a curious stare at the scene on the floor where Mama is fawning over Rob as YiaYia doles out ibuprofen and sips of water. “He’s like some kind of magical unicorn. He sings, dances, drives all night to see you for Christmas, and is practically a prude instead of trying to sneak up to your room to bang all night.”

“Yes, and now you’ve just shown the rest of the world mymagical unicorn. Thanks for that.”

Tini rolls her eyes. “If anyone can handle a stiff competition, it’s you. But, there really isn’t one. Guys don’t do all that stuff just to get into a girl’s panties.”

That truth stings a little.

Rob eventually pulls himself off the floor with Mama and YiaYia’s help.

“Breakfast is ready!” Papou announces.

YiaYia busies herself with dishing out the food as Mama sets the table.

Papou approaches Rob, throwing an arm around his much larger shoulders. “I suppose I should thank you, young Robert. You are quite skilled at romancing my granddaughter. It has forced me to reevaluate my own marriage and to take steps to renew our often-overlooked love.”

Rob grins at me. “Best Christmas ever.”

“However,” Papou tightens his hold on Rob. “Do not get any ideas. The blanket I covered you with this morning can just as easily be made into a noose should you mistreat my Eva.”

I can’t help but laugh as Rob visibly gulps, that panicked expression from earlier returning to his face.

“Let’s eat!” Papou offers one last warning squeeze before departing for the table.

“Maybe I should bail,” Rob whispers as he approaches me. “He knows too much, and I want to live to see another Christmas with you.”

I wrap my arm around his waist, enjoying the heat and feel of his solid body against my own. “What? And miss the best Christmas ever?”

Rob glances at the table where everyone is eating and talking merrily over a much less stressful topic: snow removal. When he’s satisfied no one is paying us any attention, he sneaks a quick kiss to my lips that tastes like the adoration his mother spoke so highly of last night. “You haven’t even gotten your present yet. How do you know this is the best Christmas ever?”

“Because you’re here.”

“You don’t have to stroke my ego, baby. I’m not going anywhere. I already think you’re worth dying for.”

That’s sweet if not a little morbid. And more importantly, it’s so typically my boyfriend. “Merry Christmas, Rob.”

Another quick kiss. “Merry Christmas, my Evie.”

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