Chapter 11

Chapter 11

December 15th, 2008

“Grandma, do you have Aunt Lou’s phone number?” Dakotah asked.

“Yes, I do, Dak.” Elizabeth replied uneasily. “Why do you ask?” Dakotah had been shut out so far on finding a job, and had been becoming increasingly frustrated. “I wonder if he’s going to ask if they’re still hiring where she works.”  she thought.

“I want to ask her if it’s okay to use a little of the transportation fund to get some Christmas presents and cards.” Dakotah said. “Everyone has been so nice to me this year, and I want to give something back.”

“That’s nice of you to think that.” Elizabeth said, nodding her head in agreement. “What did you have in mind?”

“Mostly cards, but maybe a small gift for Ely and Vanessa, and maybe you?” he replied, slightly embarrassed.

“No gifts for me, please, I have too much stuff as it is!” Elizabeth said, laughing a little. “You’re getting something for both girls? Won’t Vanessa get jealous?”

“Vanessa’s just a friend at this point.” Dakotah replied, pointedly. “Ely’s still my best friend, so I’d like to get her something too! Vanessa isn’t the type to get jealous, anyway.”

“I worry about you, sometimes. I don’t want to see any of you get hurt. Just be careful, okay?”

“Grandma, you sound like I’m headed out to war, or something!” Dakotah laughed.

“Dak, you’ll find out that love can be more hazardous than war.” Elizabeth said, without cracking a smile. “Here’s her phone number. I keep it in this organizer by the phone.”

“Thanks, Grandma.” Dakotah said, not fully understanding her words. “Love more hazardous than war?” he thought. “I don’t think it will kill me!”

Dakotah called the number in the organizer. He hoped she wouldn’t get mad at him for asking, and tell him not to use the money for Christmas.

The phone rang three times, then a fourth. Dakotah wondered if there was anyone there. He was about to hang up the phone, when he heard a click, then silence.

“That’s odd, the phone hung up on me!” Dakotah said, surprised. “I’ll try again.”

Once again, the phone rang and rang. On the sixth ring, the phone clicked again. This time however, there was a voice on the other side.

“Hello.” said the voice. It was male, low, and colorless.

“Ah, hi!” Dakotah said, thinking perhaps he dialed the wrong number. “Is this the Jones residence?”

“Yes.”

“Is Louise there?” Dakotah said, slightly relieved. “This is Dakotah, her nephew.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her.” The voice replied, without a trace of emotion.

“This must be Dylan.” Dakotah thought. “He sounds weird. Maybe he don’t like talking on the phone.”

“Well, would you have her call me when she can?” Dakotah asked politely.

“Okay.” With that, the line went dead again.

“What the heck?” Dakotah said, perturbed.

Instantly after he spoke, the phone rang. The caller ID said Ralph Jones.

Not knowing what to expect, answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, Dak!” a more familiar voice said over the phone. “What’s up?”

“Oh! Hi, Lou!” Dakotah answered, relieved. “Who was that I talked to on the phone earlier?”

“That was your cousin Dylan.” Louise said, apologetically. “He’s not too good with talking to people he doesn’t know.”

“Oh, that’s okay. Dakotah replied. “I’m like that too!”

“So, what’s on your mind? Ready to move to Pig Lick?”

“No, not yet.” Dakotah said, sighing.

“Still ain’t found a job yet?”

“No, still trying, though. Grandma says it’s the worst she’s seen in 25 years.”

“Well, the plastics plant is still hiring.” Louise said, still trying to sell the idea of Dakotah’s relocation. “We’re having trouble keeping people.”

“Why? Is the work that tough?” Dakotah wondered if he was physically able to work there.

“No, not at all.” Louise said, shaking her head. “Problem is with the Japs that own the plant. They talk funny, and their ways are a bit weird, and most folks around here can’t handle that.”

Dakotah had a brief thought about himself and Ely making a go of it down there, but he quickly dismissed it.

“I get along with them just fine.” Louise continued. “If I can get along with Ralph’s people, I can get along with anyone!” She laughed.

‘I’ll keep it in mind, as a last resort.” Dakotah said. “I really don’t want to leave everyone here, if I can help it.”

“I understand.” Louise said, even though she didn’t. “So tell me, Dak, why did you call, if you don’t want to move here?”

Dakotah took a deep breath. “I wanted to know if I could spend a little transportation fund money on Christmas.”

“How much did you have in mind?” Louise said, curious. She wondered if Dakotah would badger her for freedom to spend money on dates and things, but he had kept his promise, so far.

“About fifty or sixty dollars.” Dakotah said meekly.

“That’s not too much.” she said, surprised. “How about a hundred, instead?”

“Oh, no, I don’t need that much!” Dakotah protested. “All I have are a couple of presents, and some cards to buy. That’s all!”

Louise laughed. “I think you’re the first teenager I’ve ever seen turn down money! You have my blessing if you need a little more.”

“Thank you.” Dakotah said graciously. “I will pay you back, someday!”

“You don’t have to pay me back.” Louise said, smiling to herself. “Just go and do your best, succeed, and that will be payment enough.”

Dakotah was at a loss for words. “T-thank you.”

“Question: are you going to get anything for your mother?” Louise asked.

“I-I don’t know.” Dakotah stammered, caught off guard. “Part of me wants to, but it still hurts a lot when I think about that night.”

Louise thought for a moment. “Dak, I’m not going to tell you what to do. One could say to forgive her, but my question would be would she do the same thing again if history repeated itself?”

“I don’t know. I guess she would.”

Louise laughed. “Okay, I changed my mind. I’m going to tell you what I would do. I would send or give her a card, and in it, I would tell her how I feel about everything. You still love her, don’t you?”

“Yeah.” Dakotah said, a light coming into his head.

“Then make sure you put it in the card, so that she knows this without a doubt. Make sure also that she knows how hurt you are too, though I think she knows this, too.”

“Okay.” Dakotah said, thinking about what he would say.

“Now, time for the good and juicy dirt!” Louise said, grinning. “What are you going to get for your girlfriend?”

“I-I don’t know.” Dakotah said, once again blindsided by Louise’s query. “I don’t really have a girlfriend.”

“What about that looker you were seeing? Louise said, annoyed. “She dump you? Or are you still fawning over that other girl?”

“Vanessa?” Dakotah replied, uncomfortable. “We’ve gone out to the movies a couple of times, and out to eat after church on Wednesdays, but that’s about it.”

“Do you not talk to her on the phone? Hold hands? Kiss?”

Dakotah exhaled, wishing the conversation would either end, or go to another subject. “Sometimes, no, no.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m sorry, but you are the slowest mover I’ve ever seen! Me and your uncle were doing it on our second date!”

Dakotah’s face turned beet red. “Aunt Lou, why did you tell me that? I thought you were this conservative Baptist! Haven’t you heard of True Love Waits?”

“First, we didn’t have that program when I was your age.” Louise said, pointedly. “Besides, as far as I’m concerned, that program is for the parents, not for the kids.”

“Why?” Dakotah said, confused.

“Because it gives the parents the impression that Bobby and Julie aren’t messing around, even though they probably are. You’d be surprised how many girls at our church wore the ring, only to get pregnant within the year.”

“It’s not like that at New Hope.” Dakotah said, defensively.

“Maybe they use better birth control up there, who knows? Secondly, I was a total rebel, through and through, and a horny one at that! When I saw your uncle, well, he looked a lot better back then.”

Dakotah wanted to end the conversation, but didn’t know what to say.

“I think you still have it bad for that other girl, don’t you?” Louise said confidently. “You’d be smooching on her, if you had the chance!”

“She’s my best friend. We’ve been through a lot together this year. It was her idea to pair Vanessa and me up in the first place.”

“You’re avoiding the question, which makes you guilty!” Louise said, full of bravado. “I’m sorry, kinda, that I’m talking to you this way, but I don’t want to see you hurt, and if you keep fooling yourself, you will be, I promise you.”

“I’ll be okay.” Dakotah said in a monotone, long tiring of the conversation.

“Just make sure you get your so-called girlfriend a nicer present than your so-called best friend.”

“Got it.” Dakotah said, simply. “Lou, what do you get an elderly woman that wants nothing, and has everything?” he asked quietly , finally changing the subject.

“You mean Elizabeth? I don’t remember, does she have a lot of houseplants?”

“Not really.” Dakotah replied.

“You could get her an African Violet.” Louise said. Those are pretty, and they’re easy to care for. The local home improvement place up there should have them.”

“Oh, thanks! I think she’d like that!”

“One last thing, Dak, before I fix myself something to eat.”

“What’s that?”

“Get yourself something with some of the money. You can consider it your Christmas present from us.”

“Really? Thank you, Lou!”

“Just make sure you buy something more than a box of pencils, so to speak. I trust you.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too, Dak. You’d better call me on Christmas, and tell me what you bought!”

“I will! Goodbye, and thanks again!”

“’Bye, Dak! Take care!” Louise hung up the phone, and exhaled. “That boy is a mess.” she thought to herself.

*****

December 22, 2008

The sun had started peeking out from behind the clouds, as Dakotah headed east on Grange Hall Road. The landscape turned from gray to a brilliant white, as snows from the past few days reflected the sunlight. The scenery elated Dakotah; it had been a snowy season so far, and more snow, the better, he thought.

Today had been an adventure of sorts for Dakotah; he was returning from Ann Arbor, first to the anime shop that Ely occasionally visited, and then to the mall there. Since his grandmother didn’t own a GPS, and asking Ely for directions would tip her off to his plans, he instead went to the library, and found the locations and directions to his destinations online.

The roads were clear that day, as the road crews did a very good job of keeping the roads clean. Still, Elizabeth warned him to look out for black ice, and other slick spots along the way, as the temperatures remained below freezing throughout the day.

The sixty-something miles he had traveled one way was by far the furthest he had ever driven. The time alone on the road was a revelation, as for the first time in his life he truly felt free. Behind him were issues of not having a job, of being in a romantic triangle, of having a mother that forsook him. It was just him, the car, the snowy fields, and the radio playing oldies.

From a gifting standpoint, the trip was also a success. For Vanessa, he found a silver cross pendant at one of the department stores. For Ely, he found a plushie at the anime shop that he hadn’t seen at her house. He also found an African Violet at the home improvement store; since he was going to Ely’s today, he would leave the violet there for Ely to babysit until Christmas, when he would give her the plushie, and then take the violet to his grandmother.

He also found cards for Rev. Daniels, Mama, and his mother; his mother’s card simply read “Merry Christmas, Mom: I love you.” He wasn’t sure how to give it to her yet. He thought perhaps early Christmas morning, while they were asleep, he’d stick it in through the mail slot, and hope that Frank didn’t find it first.

Seeing the town in the distance, Dakotah sighed. “Well, it was fun while it lasted.” he said to himself.

*****

Dakotah noticed Rev. Daniels car was not in the driveway when he arrived. Ely’s car was, however; Dakotah sighed in relief, as he had nowhere to drop the violet off.

“Konnichiwa!”  Dakotah announced cheerily as Ely opened the door.

“Konnichiwa, Lennon-san!”  Ely replied back, mirroring Dakotah’s attitude. She took a deep breath when she saw the African Violet. “Oh, are those for me?” she exclaimed, excitedly.

“No, these are for Grandma.” Dakotah replied, taken aback by Ely’s enthusiasm. “I didn’t know you liked flowers that much.”

“Oh, I love flowers!” Ely gushed.

Dakotah began to think perhaps he made a mistake in choosing her Christmas present. “I can get you one too, if you like. They don’t cost very much.”

“No, that’s okay.” Ely said, shaking her head. “I love plants, but they don’t love me. They don’t last very long before they die. I guess I have a brown thumb!”

“Well, would you mind babysitting this one until Christmas? I’ll pick it up that morning, while I’m making my rounds.”

“You’re coming here Christmas morning?” Ely said, surprised.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking!” Dakotah said apologetically. “Is that a bad time?”

“No, but shouldn’t you be spending some of it with Vanessa?”

“She has a big family, and almost all of them will be in for Christmas.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “I’d just feel weird there.”

“But her mom and dad like you a lot!” Ely protested. “Sometimes, you have to give yourself some credit!”

“I know, but I’m planning on giving this to her at church Christmas Eve.” Dakotah said, pulling a small box out of his pocket. He opened the box, showing the pendant to Ely. “Think she’ll like it?”

Ely gasped. “Dakotah, it’s beautiful! How much did you pay for it?”

“I went a little over budget, about forty dollars, but it was on sale!” Dakotah said proudly. “Think I did okay?”

“I need you to go shopping with me!” Ely said, laughing. “I can never find bargains like that!”

“Promise?” Dakotah said, smiling.

Ely smiled. There was an ease between them that Dakotah certainly didn’t have with Vanessa. “I doubt that he’d ever flirt with Vanessa the way he did with me just now.” Ely thought to herself.

“Dakotah, can I ask you something?” Ely asked softly.

“Oh, boy, this is going to be a doozy, I can already tell!” Dakotah said, shaking his head.

“If Vanessa tried to kiss you, would you let her?”

Dakotah laughed nervously. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Think you’d like it?”

Dakotah’s face turned red. “I-I don’t know. Maybe. If she didn’t have bad breath, or something.”

Ely laughed. ”Baka. You know good and well that someone so meticulous as her wouldn’t have bad breath!”

“Yes, it’s been established by everyone that Vanessa is as close to perfect as possible.” Dakotah said, rolling his eyes.

“Don’t you realize that she has the eye of almost every single male, and even a few married men, at the hospital? Yet, for reasons only known to God Himself, it’s you she’s picked?”

“I didn’t pick her.” Dakotah said almost inaudibly.

“I know who you picked, but I’m not available.”

“That’s been long understood.”  Dakotah said pointedly. “But don’t you think I have the right to be alone, too?”

“I know how it is to be alone as much as you do.” Ely replied, sympathetically. “I know I don’t want to ever go there again, so forgive me if I try to bring a little love in your life.”

Dakotah sighed. “You bring love in my life every single day, but you probably don’t want to hear that.” he thought to himself. “There’s nothing to forgive. I know you want what’s best for me.”

“And Vanessa’s the best out there, in my opinion.” Ely said, continuing her efforts.

“I know that, absolutely.” Dakotah replied, tiring of the conversation. “However, I may have a thing for annoying redheads, instead, even if they are inferior.”

“Oh? Annoying? Inferior?” Ely shrieked in mock indignation. ”I’ll show you annoying!”

Ely strode over to Dakotah, and began to tickle him. “What did you get me for Christmas? Did you get me a necklace? Maybe a ring? Earrings? Is this annoying enough for you?”

Dakotah, being extremely ticklish, fell to the floor, laughing hysterically. Ely pounced on top of him, sitting on his back while continuing to go for his ribs. At that moment, Rev. Daniels entered the kitchen, and stared at the commotion.

The preacher cleared his throat, causing Ely to jump to her feet, panic-stricken, and embarrassed. Dakotah lay prone on the floor, trying to catch his breath.

“I thought you two were supposed to be studying Japanese.”  Rev. Daniels said with a mostly straight face, the traces of a smile beginning to appear. “Is this some cultural study that I’m not aware of?”

“Oh, no sir.” Dakotah said sheepishly while trying to catch his breath.” Ely was just demonstrating how annoying she could be.”

“She is good at that!” Rev. Daniels said, chuckling. “She takes that after her mother!”

“Mom used to tickle you?” Ely said, recovering from her embarrassment.

“All the time. But I’d be careful, if I were you. After one such night of her tickling, you were conceived, I think.” he said with a wink. Ely’s jaw dropped, and her face became as red as her hair.

Dakotah didn’t know what to think, but he carried a goofy look on his face, which Ely noticed. “Don’t get any funny ideas!” she snapped, backhanding him across the arm.

“Oh, those are very pretty!” Rev. Daniels said, noticing the African Violets. “Are those for you, sweetie?”

“No, those are for Dak’s grandma.” Ely said. “He wouldn’t tell me what he got me, the punk.”

“I guess we’d better get to work.” Dakotah said, looking at the clock. I’ve been out all day, and Grandma’s probably wondering where I am.”

“Well, I’m getting out of this suit, and getting into something more comfortable.” Rev. Daniels said. “Dak, why don’t you call your grandmother up, and update her? Probably will ease her mind.”

“That’s a good idea. I’ll do that.” Dakotah said, nodding his head.

“If you’ll excuse me.” Rev, Daniels said as he left to go to his bedroom. Closing the door behind him, he walked over to the nightstand, and picked up a framed photograph. It was of a young woman with red hair. Behind her were several flower pots with African Violets in them.

“There are times when I miss you so much, honey.” he said, wiping a tear from his eye.

      *****

December 24, 2008

“Dak, do you have Vanessa’s present?” Elizabeth asked her grandson.

“Yes, Grandma, I have it right here, in my coat pocket.” Dakotah sighed.

“In your coat pocket? After all the trouble I went through wrapping it fancy?” Elizabeth shrieked. “You’re such a boy, sometimes! Don’t you know that a lady appreciates things that are done with an extra flair?”

Dakotah pulled out the present from his pocket, and examined it. “I think it’s okay.” he said with a shrug.

Elizabeth took a deep breath, inspected the present, exhaled, and gave it back to Dakotah. “The ribbon is a little crumpled, but passable. Please don’t do any more damage to it, okay? She won’t think it’s very special if the paper and ribbon are messed up.”

“I’ll do my best, Grandma.” Dakotah said, mentally rolling his eyes.

“Dakotah, just because you two aren’t officially boyfriend-girlfriend does-“

“What does “officially” mean? We’re just friends!” Dakotah said tersely, interrupting his grandmother.

“First of all, don’t you interrupt your elders when they are speaking!” Elizabeth said, irritated. “I thought you knew better than that!”

“Sorry.” Dakotah said, remorsefully.

“Secondly, I wish your grandfather could’ve taught you how to be a gentleman, and how to treat a lady! He definitely wouldn’t have put a nicely wrapped present in his coat pocket!”

“I would’ve liked to have known him, too.” Dakotah said, wistfully.

“Anyway, you’d better get going.” Elizabeth said, trying not to reminisce. “Don’t want to be late for the party!”

Dakotah hugged his grandmother tightly. “Love you, Grandma. Thanks.”

“You be careful out there. It may snow later. Give the girls a hug for me!”

“Okay, no problem!” Dakotah said, grinning.

“Behave!” Elizabeth said, pointing at Dakotah, and smiling.

Dakotah laughed. “I will, promise! Bye!”

Elizabeth waved without saying a word. She watched Dakotah pull away from the curb, and drive up the street. Suddenly, as she was turning, she blacked out, and fell. Regaining consciousness a few moments later, she checked to see if anything was broken. Fortunately, only her shoulder felt sore, as best as she could tell.

“Might have to go to the doctor, after all.” she thought.

*****

Dakotah drove carefully  as he made his way to New Hope. He looked at the clock in the car. “This time last year, I was giving Carl my pork chop. Now, I’m driving a car to a church gathering where I’m going to give a girl who likes me a Christmas present! Things can change quickly, I guess!” he thought to himself, smiling a little. Thinking about that night a year ago, his mother came to mind. “Miss you, Mom.” he said aloud.

He pulled smoothly into the church parking lot, and exited the car. A stiff wind out of the West tried to push his spider-like frame away from the church, but he was determined, and forced himself through the door.

The heady aroma of chili met Dakotah head on, and his stomach began to grumble. Thoughts of hunger quickly dissipated, though, as a trio of young teenaged boys approached Dakotah, grinning.

“Hey, Goku!” the tallest of the boys said to Dakotah. “Beat up any aliens lately?”

“Yeah, I beat up your mom.” Dakotah deadpanned, barely cracking a smile.

“Goku! Goku! Goku!” the other two boys chanted, thrusting their fists in the air.

“That was cold, Dak!” The first boy said, laughing.

Dakotah and the other boys began to laugh.” Well, Zeke, you asked for it!” Dakotah said.

“Hey, what’s Mama cooking tonight? It smells good!” asked the second boy.

“Mama’s not here tonight, Hector.” Dakotah replied, shaking his head. “The girls looked up this chili recipe on the internet, and made a batch. We get to try it out tonight!”

“Oh, man.” The third boy said, shaking his head. “Have you tasted it yet? Is it any good?”

“Nope. Smells good, doesn’t it, Russell?” Dakotah said, trying to sell the boys the chili.

“Yeah, but I’m hungry!” Russell said, rubbing his belly.

“Me, too!” Zeke exclaimed.

“It’ll be all right.” Dakotah said, trying to comfort the boys. “Have a little faith in the girls. I’ve eaten their cooking several times, and I’m not dead yet!”

The boys laughed nervously. Dakotah hoped he got through to them.

“So, our cooking hasn’t killed you, eh, Dak?” a familiar voice announced behind Dakotah. “We can fix that!”

Dakotah turned around to see Ely glaring at him. Dakotah realized why the boys were nervous, as Ely had heard every word.

“Don’t worry, guys.” Ely said, soothingly. “Dad ate some a little bit ago, and he said it was the best he ever tasted.”

“Would he say anything else?” Dakotah asked, knowing he was going to get it.

“Keep it up, funny guy, and you’re going to find rat poison or broken glass in yours.” Ely said coolly, as she turned and walked back toward the kitchen.

“Was that the preacher’s daughter?” Hector said, wondering if she was bluffing.

“Yep. She’s also my best friend.” Dakotah said, smiling.

The boys looked at Dakotah in amazement.

“Dude, you’re some kinda tough!” Russell exclaimed, impressed.

Dakotah smiled. There was much apprehension from Dakotah when he started coming to Wednesday Bible study, as old fears about being taunted surfaced. However, with Mama’s and Vanessa’s help, he was able to connect with the kids, especially the three before him. They looked up to him like a big brother, and respected him when he taught Bible lessons. It also didn’t hurt that he knew Dragonball Z as well, if not better, than they did.

“I bet you’re glad she’s not your girlfriend!” Zeke said, laughing.

Dakotah laughed. He could’ve made a comment about wishing she was his girlfriend, but that would just confuse them, he thought. They had him paired up with Vanessa from the beginning, and if they wanted to think that, then that was fine with him.

“What did you get Vanessa for Christmas, Dak?” asked Russell, excitedly.

“Did you get her a ring?” asked Hector. “Yeah, you had to get her a ring, didn’t ya?”

“No, I didn’t get her a ring.” Dakotah replied, slightly embarrassed.

“Well, what did you get her?” asked Zeke, impatiently.

“Promise you won’t rat me out?” Dakotah whispered, motioning them closer.

“Yeah, we promise!” Hector whispered, with the other two joining in.

“I got her a Vegeta action figure.” Dakotah whispered with a straight face.

The three boys howled. “Dak, you’re so stupid!” Zeke laughed, trying not to make too much commotion.

“Hey guys, c’mere!” Dakotah said, motioning the boys to follow him.

The boys groaned, wondering what else Dakotah had up his sleeve. “Dude, can we eat already?” Russell asked, beginning to whine a little.

“Just a second.” Dakotah said, walking over to where his coat was laying. He reached inside, and pulled out three thin book sized presents, and handed one to each of the boys. They all looked at him, confused.

“Open them. A little something from me. Merry Christmas.”

They looked at each other for a split second, and at once began to tear into the presents. Inside each was a Dragonball Z DVD.

“Thank you, Dak! Thank you!” they all gushed.

“Now all I ask you to do is take care of these, and share them with each other, okay? That way, it would be like getting three DVDs.”

The boys nodded their heads in acknowledgement. Hector began to cry.

“What’s wrong, Hec?” Dakotah asked, concerned.

“I-I didn’t think I’d get anything for Christmas!”  Hector cried.

Dakotah began to tear up, as well. “All I can say is enjoy, dude.” He held out his hand, and each boy gave himself and each other a high five. “Now let’s get some chili!”

The boys ran toward the kitchen, leaving Dakotah alone. He said a silent prayer  for all the boys to get something else for Christmas. Suddenly, Vanessa came from behind, and hugged Dakotah with one arm from the side.

She gazed into his eyes, and smiled. “Do you realize how awesome you are?” she said.

“It was just the DVDs I got from my mom last Christmas.” Dakotah said, embarrassed. “I wasn’t out any money on them.”

“But you gave from the heart, and that’s all that matters.” Vanessa said, squeezing him. “Let’s go eat while there’s some left! It’s very good, if I do say so, myself!”

*****

Christmas Eve supper at New Hope went smoothly; Rev. Daniels said the blessing, and everyone ate their fill. Vanessa’s assertion of the chili’s quality was correct, as seconds were given out until it was all gone.

The members of Dakotah’s Sunday School class had earlier agreed to have a post party party, with dessert, and a Dirty Santa gifting game. Almost everyone from the class was there, nine in total.

“Just make sure you clean up and lock up before you leave.” Rev. Daniels told them before he left.

Dessert was simple, cake and ice cream bought from the local grocer. Dirty Santa produced a lot of laughter, as some of the gifts could be classified as odd. Dakotah finished the game with knee-high striped socks. Dakotah himself brought a 20-pack of AA batteries to the game.

“Batteries?” Ely had asked him earlier.

“Everyone uses AA batteries.” Dakotah said simply. “They’re very practical.”

Dakotah was showing his socks to Vanessa, when Ely called out from the kitchen. “Dak, Van, can you come help me, please?”

The two promptly rose from the table, and made their way to the kitchen. As Dakotah entered the kitchen, with Vanessa close behind, they saw Ely at the table facing them, holding her hand up, palm out.

“Stop right there, you two!” Ely shouted, grinning. Dakotah and Vanessa looked at Ely, confused. She pointed up at the top of the doorframe, above Dakotah’s head.

Taped to the top of the doorframe was a sprig of mistletoe.

“Pucker up, you two!” Ely laughed.

“W-what do you mean?” Dakotah said, his face becoming beet red.

“You two are under the mistletoe, so you have to kiss each other, silly!”

The other students had heard the commotion, and were now watching the drama unfold.

Panic seized Dakotah. “K-kiss?” he stammered. He looked at Vanessa, who was embarrassed and speechless.

“Go on, go on!” Ely continued to coerce, motioning with her hands.

“Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” chanted some of the other students. Dakotah’s heart was racing; kissing Vanessa wasn’t the worst thing in the world, far from it, but being in the middle of a spectacle like this was mortifying, and he was sure Vanessa felt the same way, too.

Dakotah looked into Vanessa’s eyes; she had a sheepish look on her face, to which Dakotah guessed was “let’s get this over with”. He nodded to her, and she nodded back.

Amidst cheering,  Dakotah took a deep breath, closed his eyes, leaned forward, and puckered. He felt a light peck on his lips, then nothing.  He waited a couple of seconds before opening his eyes, then saw Vanessa looking down, and stepping away.

“Are you okay?” Dakotah asked, but Vanessa said nothing, and took another step back, away from the door.

Dakotah glared over at Ely, anger creeping up from within. He was surprised to see her countenance not  gleeful, but becoming rapidly sad. “I hope you’re satisfied!”  he thought to himself. If it were only the three of them, he would have said it aloud.

He was in the process of turning around to check on Vanessa, when Rebecca Jennings nudged Vanessa aside, stood in the doorway next to him, looked up, and smiled.

“It’s my turn.” she said seductively. Pressing her body against his, she  pinned him against the doorframe, and kissed him, very passionately.

Dakotah was too much in shock to squirm, much less try to get away. After what seemed like an eternity, she released her hold from him, and stepped back.

“Merry Christmas.” Rebecca said, smiling.

Dakotah smiled back, ever so slightly, not able to speak. He looked to his right, and saw Ely, beginning to fume. He looked to his left, and amidst the students, was Vanessa, beginning to tear up. Looking down, she began to stride quickly away, across the meeting area, and into the hallway where the classrooms were.

Dakotah was frozen in place, indecisive, for a few seconds. Gathering his wits, he instinctively followed Vanessa into the classroom area.

Rebecca turned, and was about to follow Dakotah, but Ely grabbed her arm, and spun her around.

“I don’t think so!” Ely barked.

“What’s your problem?” Rebecca said, snarkily.

“Don’t you think you’ve done enough?” Ely said, exasperated.

“What have I done? All I did was take advantage of the mistletoe, and kissed him!”

“You call that a kiss? Did you check his tonsils, too?”

Rebecca smirked. “For someone who’s inexperienced, he has a lot of potential. You should’ve taken advantage of it, while you had the chance.”

“You know Dak and I aren’t like that!” Ely protested. “We’re just friends!”

“Really?” Rebecca said, becoming bemused. “He was eating out of the palm of your hand, until you dumped him on Miss Perfect.”

“What’s wrong with that? Ely said, defensively. “They are good together!”

“Are they?” Rebecca said, shaking her head. “A blind guy can see he’s not really interested in her, and she’s not trying to make him interested.”

“So, what’s your angle, Becky?” Ely said, pointing her finger at Rebecca. “He’s not cute, popular, or rich!”

“That’s mean of you to say that!” Rebecca said, taken aback slightly. “He’s not a hottie, but he’s not a dog, either!”

“No, he’s not bad looking, but you still haven’t answered my question. Why is someone like you, who’s socially upwardly mobile, throwing yourself at one who is the opposite?”

Rebecca sighed. “Look, I admit, I’ve been playing the social game at school for a while, and I’ve become good at it. But people in student council, the rich kids, the jocks, they’re all the same to me. They’re boring, shallow people who are just interested in what people think of them.”

“And you’re not one of them?” Ely said derisively, rolling her eyes.

“Does your dad know that you’re becoming like that troll at UM you’re seeing?” Rebecca said, jabbing back at Ely.

Ely seethed; she wanted nothing more than to smack that smirk off Rebecca’s face, but thought better of it.

“This has nothing to do with Hannah!” Ely said, raising her voice. “Why do you want Dak? Is he some trophy you want to make you feel superior?”

Rebecca exhaled, tiring of the conversation, and Ely’s attitude. “I wish you’d believe me when I say that I’m not out to hurt Dakotah. He’s different. I mean, he’s smart, he’s geeky, but he acts really mature, too, like an older guy.”

Ely had to admit to herself that Rebecca was right about Dakotah’s personality. Having spent most of his life around adults, he naturally acted like one in manners and speaking, for the most part, though Ely also knew there was a childlike element to him, too.

“What you say is true.” Ely acknowledged, though still not letting her guard down. “But I still have my doubts about your true intentions, especially after the way you came on to him!”

Rebecca laughed “Well you two have him locked into a shell. All I did was open his eyes to the possibilities!”

“I don’t think he’s ready for such a relationship all at once.” Ely said, shaking her head. “You mess with him like that, and he could open himself up to be really, really, hurt. I’m not going to let that happen, if I can help it!”

Rebecca sighed. “I don’t want him to get hurt either, Ely.” she said, her countenance becoming serious.” I’m tired of people that are superficial and false. I want something…..genuine!”

Ely sighed. “Look, Becky, I want to believe you. Part of me wants to hope you really care about Dak, but knowing your past, I still have a lot of doubts.”

“You know, you’re the only person at school who can call me that, and get away with it!” Rebecca said, smiling. “But, I’ve also known you for a long time, Liz, and I can tell you have feelings for Dakotah, too!”

“He’s my best friend, and I care about him, that’s all.” Ely said, shaking her head.

“Deny it all you want, that’s okay with me. But I won’t forgive you if you change your mind and go after him, because we all know it’s you he really loves.”

Ely shook her head, not saying a word. She wondered where Dakotah and Vanessa were.

“I hope they are doing okay.”  she thought to herself. “This is turning into a bad shoujo manga.”

*****

Dakotah’s mind was still twirling as he followed Vanessa down the hall. “I can’t believe Rebecca kissed me!” he thought to himself. “What the heck was that all about? It’s not like she likes me, or anything!”

Vanessa entered the room where their Sunday School class was held, and shut the door behind her, leaving the lights off.

Dakotah slowly entered the room; the only light source being the glow from the streetlights reflecting off the snow outside.  In the corner, he could begin to see the outline of Vanessa, sitting in a chair. Without saying a word, he sat down next to her. The wind could be heard howling outside, but still it wasn’t enough for Dakotah not to hear her muffled sobs.

“Hey,” Dakotah whispered softly. He reached out and lightly laid his hand on her shoulder. She instantly brushed it away.

“I’m sorry.” Dakotah whispered again, almost inaudibly.

Nothing was said for a moment; Dakotah tried to think of something to say that would comfort her, but could not. Instead, he began to ramble whatever came to mind .

“I don’t know why Ely did that.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “She should’ve known better, Heck, she knew it would embarrass us! It kinda ticks me off, you know? And Rebecca, why did she do that? I don’t get her at all!”

“Did you not enjoy that?” Vanessa sniped.

Dakotah was taken aback, as he had never heard her use that tone of voice before. “I remember seeing you freaked out, me being mad at Ely, and then there she was. I was as shocked as anyone!”

“It didn’t look like you were shocked.” Vanessa said, her words tinged with jealousy, which was also new to Dakotah. “You certainly weren’t pushing her away!”

“I didn’t know what to do!” Dakotah exclaimed, becoming exasperated. “Until tonight, I’ve never kissed anyone before!”

“It was my first kiss, too.” Vanessa said, dejectedly. “It wasn’t what I had hoped for, as a first kiss.”

“If I were going to kiss you, it would have been somewhere by ourselves. It would have been special.”

“If.” Vanessa muttered.

Dakotah sighed. “Vanessa, you are so awesome. You have been my rock the past few weeks here. There’s no way I could’ve interacted with those kids without you backing me up.”

“But.” Vanessa said sadly. Dakotah could see the pain in her eyes, even in the low light.

“We’ve also had good times going out!” Dakotah said encouragingly, trying lift Vanessa’s spirit. “The movies were lame, but we had fun anyway, right?”

“But.” Vanessa repeated, more forcefully.

Dakotah took her hands into his, and gazed into her eyes. “I care about you very, very much. It hurts me to see you like this.”

Vanessa pulled her hand away from his. “But you don’t love me.”

“I do love you.” Dakotah countered.

“Small “L”, not capital “L” Vanessa countered back.

“You already knew that from the beginning.”

Vanessa sighed. “I mistakenly involved you into my selfish desires. I’m sorry.”

“What do you have to be sorry about?” Dakotah exclaimed, confused. “You’ve done nothing wrong! I do not regret one second I’ve spent with you!”

“You’d rather had spent them with Ely, or maybe even Rebecca, don’t you? Vanessa replied, becoming tearful.

“Look. Ely doesn’t want me.” Dakotah replied, noting Vanessa’s fragile psyche, but becoming irritated, nonetheless. “She has a relationship with someone else. And why do you keep bringing up Rebecca? I’m not interested in her!”

“You and Ely have that spark when you two are together!” Vanessa said tearfully and forcefully. “We don’t have that! Rebecca is aggressive, and she’s very capable of seducing you!”

Dakotah rolled his eyes, and sighed. “Now you’re giving me no credit of having any self-control, that any pretty little thing can throw herself at me, and I’d go gaga? Gee, thanks.”

“My point is that you don’t like me.” Vanessa said, beginning to cry. “I’m just pathetic.”

“Are you kidding me?” Dakotah said, incredulously. “If anyone in this building is pathetic, it’s me. A year ago, I had exactly one friend, who wound up getting killed. My mother ignored me, my stepfather hates me, my father is who knows where. I can’t find a job, and I can’t afford school. I’m not good looking either, to boot!”

“I think you’re cute.” Vanessa said.

“You’re beautiful!” Dakotah said, accentuating the syllables as he spoke. “You work really hard! You’re very smart, way smarter than I am, plus you’re polite, considerate of others, and God-fearing. It is a blessing to me to have you as one of my closest friends!”

“You say I’m all that, and yet you still don’t love me. I’d call that pathetic, if you ask me.”

Dakotah sighed. He and Vanessa were at an impasse, and Dakotah didn’t know what to do or what to say. He then realized he had her present in his pocket, and took it out.

“Vanessa, I’ve been waiting for the right moment, but it hasn’t worked out the way I wanted. I’m sorry that tonight has been a mess, but here. Merry Christmas.” Dakotah looked down, and held the present out for Vanessa to see.

“Why are you giving me this?” Vanessa said, tersely.

“Because you’re my friend, and you mean a lot to me.” Dakotah said in all seriousness.

Vanessa frowned. “I don’t want it. Give it to Ely or Rebecca.”

“Ely’s already getting a plushie, and Rebecca’s not getting anything.” Dakotah said, dismayed. “It took a while to find this! I don’t know if you’ll like it, but at least I cared enough about you to get you something!”

“Maybe I can’t give my heart to you yet.” Dakotah continued. “I still have to prove to Ely that I’m better for her than Hannah. If she still rejects me, I can move on with my life, knowing I tried my best.”

“That’s like me trying to prove to you I’m better for you than Ely, isn’t it?” Vanessa said, coldly. “A silly concept, isn’t it?”

Dakotah shook his head, eyes beginning to tear, without saying a word.

“I’m going home.” Vanessa said, retrieving her coat. “Tell your grandmother Merry Christmas for me.”

“I’ll do that.” Dakotah said, choking up. “Merry Christmas.”

Vanessa exited the classroom, striding quickly down the hallway toward the exit, with Dakotah following.  Nearing the exit, Vanessa met Ely and Rebecca, who were entering the hallway from the meeting area.

“Van, I’m sorry!” Ely said, apologetically.

Vanessa strode past Ely without saying a word.

“Van! Please wait!” Ely shouted in vain.

Dakotah stepped in front of Ely. “Let her be. She doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now.”

Vanessa pushed hard against the door, and exited into the Arctic blast. Dakotah turned to the girls, lips pressed tight.

“Ely, I guess we have some cleaning up to do before we leave.” Dakotah said, tersely. Everyone else had already left.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Ely said, dejectedly.

“I’ll help.” Rebecca offered, trying to smile.

“I don’t thi-“ Ely started to say.

“Rebecca and I have some things to talk about.” Dakotah interrupted. “Go ahead and get started. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”

Ely glared at Rebecca, then left without saying a word.

“Ah, about earlier…..” Rebecca said, awkwardly.

“Yeah, about earlier.” Dakotah said, warily. “Please explain.”

“I saw an opportunity, and took it.” Rebecca said simply.

“Even though you knew you’d be hurting Vanessa?”

“She was setting herself up to fail, anyway. She’s way too timid to ever make a move on you.”

“Maybe that’s what we agreed on in the first place, until Ely and I sorted things out once and for all.” Dakotah said, assuredly. “We both felt the risk was too great.”

“There has to be a little risk in life, or it’s not worth living.” Rebecca said, pointedly.

“That’s true.” Dakotah said, frowning. “But you don’t hurt your friends in the process.”

“Like I said, she was going to get hurt, no matter what. Ely has your heart, and there’s nothing Vanessa could do to change that.”

“And what makes you think you could?” Dakotah said, curious. “Besides, why me? Why am I suddenly irresistible to you?”

“Because you’re real, not fake, Dakotah. All of the guys I know are superficial, and view me as a trophy.”

“Don’t you see guys the same way?”

“Yeah, for a while, because that’s how I thought the game was played.” Rebecca said, without emotion. “You’re different. You actually care about people. I guess I want you to care for me, too”

“I do care for you, but just as a friend.” Dakotah said, sympathetically.

Rebecca went up to Dakotah and put her arms around him, holding him close to her. “I can give you what Ely won’t give you, and Vanessa can’t  give you.” she purred. “Someone that can actually love you the way you need to be loved.”

Dakotah chuckled, and pushed Rebecca away, holding her at arm’s length. “I’m flattered, really I am.” Dakotah said, his brief smile fading rapidly. “I don’t trust you, though. Trust is everything to me. I’ve been hurt too much in the past by people I’ve trusted. I’m sorry, but you have a bad track record, and I find it hard to believe that you’d change just for me. Ely, I trust. Vanessa, I trust. You? Uh-uh. Maybe someday you’ll earn my trust, and we can build something from there.”

“You hurt Vanessa when you kissed me, and whether or not you felt it was justified, I feel it was a bad time for you to confess your feelings in front of everyone.” Dakotah continued, making sure he kept eye contact with Rebecca. “I can’t let you treat my friend like that.”

“Sorry.” Rebecca said, dejected.

“You’re still my friend, and I will forgive you, if you make it right with Vanessa.” Dakotah said warmly. “Right now though, you need to get home. Snow’s starting to drift out there.”

“You’re right. I’d better be going.” Rebecca said, nodding her head while looking out of the window. “I’ll try to call her before Sunday.”

“Good. C’mere.” Dakotah said, bringing Rebecca close, then hugging her tightly. “Merry Christmas.

“Merry Christmas!” Rebecca said, smiling a little. With that, she put on her coat, and left.

“Well, wasn’t that just cozy.” Ely said, having witnessed the scene in secret. I’m sure she’s already planning the name of the baby.”

“If it’s a girl, I’ll make sure it’s named Elizabeth.” Dakotah said, rolling his eyes.

“If it wasn’t Christmas Eve, I’d smack you!” Ely said, not understanding Dakotah’s demeanor, as they made their way back to the kitchen.

At the threshold leading into the kitchen, Dakotah stopped, and removed the mistletoe that Ely had placed earlier. He looked down at it, twirling it around  with his fingers.

“You know, you caused a lot of trouble tonight.” Dakotah said, pensively. “What possessed you to put this mistletoe up, knowing how much it would embarrass us?”

“I just wanted to push you two along a little.” Ely said, looking down. “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“I’m used to it.” Dakotah said, tersely. “Being embarrassed used to be a way of life for me. However, Vanessa isn’t used to it, and I think you hurt her really bad. You may have even ruined any chances of us becoming a couple.”

“Oh, she’s just upset a little.” Ely said, nonchalantly. “She’ll get over it.”

“If you saw the way she acted towards me in the classroom, you might think differently.” Dakotah said, becoming irritated. “She kept pairing me up with you or Rebecca, and rejecting any words I had to say.”

Dakotah reached into his pocket, and pulled out Vanessa’s present. “She didn’t want this, either.”

Ely gasped, at a loss for words.

“She told me to give it to you or Rebecca.” Dakotah said, sadly. `”All the trouble I had to go through with asking Aunt Lou for the money, of having to pick it out, and Grandma wrapping it, all for nothing, because you had to meddle.”

“I-I’ll straighten it out.” Ely said, shaken. “I’ll call her when I get home, and make her understand why I did what I did.”

“I hope you’re right.” Dakotah said, softening his countenance a little.

“You didn’t help the situation either, by not pushing Rebecca away!” Ely said, suddenly becoming angry. “And you were complaining about the possibility of Vanessa having bad breath? Do you know how many boys that slut has shared saliva with?”

“All I remember about her kiss is that I know she did it.” Dakotah protested. “Honestly, I was too much in shock to do much of anything. I was still trying to get my head straight after kissing Vanessa.”

“That wasn’t much of a kiss, if you ask me. Looked like a couple of kindergarteners playing spin the bottle.”

“It wasn’t the time nor the place for that.” Dakotah said, defensively. “If or when we take the next step in our relationship, it will be on our terms, not yours. Same goes for me and Rebecca.”

“If you mess around with Becky, you’ll get hurt.” Ely said, gritting her teeth. “Don’t come to me for comfort when you get your heart broken!”

“You’ve already broken my heart, so she can’t do too much damage.” Dakotah replied sharply.

Ely looked at her feet, without saying a word.

“It’s not like I trust her at this point, and I made sure she knows that.” Dakotah said, plainly. “She says she’s changing her ways, and all she wants is someone who’s not in it just for themselves. Honestly, I don’t think Rebecca knows what she wants. We don’t have anything in common, other than church.”

Dakotah thought for a brief  moment. “I guess the same could be said for Vanessa, too.” he said, with a hint of sadness.

“What do you mean?” Ely said, confused. “You two are great together!”

“We do make a great team.” Dakotah agreed, tying up the bags of trash. “But I don’t think she’d ever go to a comic-con.”

“I’d think she’d go anywhere with you!” Ely said, encouragingly.

“Yes, out of politeness, because she likes me, but I’m sure she wouldn’t like it. In some ways, she’s more conservative than I am.”

“You’re not as conservative as you think.” Ely said, putting away the pot and pans. “You’ve loosened up quite a bit since I first met you.”

Dakotah thought back to that day in the hallway, on his birthday. It felt like years ago. “Yeah, I guess so. Do you think you’ve changed since then?”

“Nah. I’m the same old me.” Ely laughed.

Dakotah smiled. “If only you could see yourself back then.” he thought to himself. “You’ve changed your hair, you wear contacts, your clothes are far more stylish than they were when I was in school. Yeah, you’ve changed, alright.”

“What are you thinking about?” Ely asked warily, noticing that Dakotah was staring at her.

“Just noting how pretty you’ve become.” Dakotah said, sincerely.

“You’re seriously messed up.” Ely replied, shaking her head. “You can’t possibly compare me to a girl who could win Miss Michigan if she entered.”

“No way she could win.” Dakotah said with a straight face. “She couldn’t sing if her life depended on it!”

Ely laughed as she started to sweep the floor. “She is tone deaf, isn’t she?”

“Rebecca can really sing, though.” Dakotah said, knowing he was about to draw Ely’s ire.

Ely hit Dakotah in the head with the broom, making him yelp, though it didn’t really hurt.

“I knew that was coming.” Dakotah said, brushing some fuzz off his head

“Maybe you should go after Becky, since you seem to like pain.” Ely said, picking off some lint Dakotah missed.

The two finished cleaning the kitchen, shutting the lights off as they entered the meeting area.

“Major drama on Christmas Eve is starting to be a tradition with me, I’m afraid.” Dakotah sighed. Do you remember me telling you what happened last year?”

“About supper at your mom’s last year?” Ely answered. “Yeah, I remember.”

“As messed up as things got here, I wouldn’t trade it for last year.” Dakotah said, wistfully.

“That’s because you have me in your life now!” Ely said, smiling.

“You better believe it.” Dakotah said, nodding. He stopped, and turned toward Ely.

Ely stopped, and looked back toward Dakotah. “What are you doing?” she said, confused.

“There’s one last bit of unfinished business here.” Dakotah said, smiling awkwardly. He took the sprig of mistletoe out of his pocket, and placed it over his head.

“You’re not serious!” Ely exclaimed, shaking her head. “You know I’m not going to do that!”

“I’m just seeing an opportunity, and deciding to take advantage of it!” Dakotah said, his face becoming red.

“You’re asking me to kiss those lips after Rebecca touched them?” Ely said, indignant. “I’d probably catch herpes!”

“Okay, okay, you can kiss me here instead.” Dakotah said, pointing at his cheek.

Ely sighed. “Fine, but this is as just friends. Don’t take this as if I’m in love with you, or anything.”

Dakotah nodded, grinning. He leaned over to receive her kiss, as she stretched upward to meet him. As she was about to apply the kiss, he shifted, cupping his fingers under her chin, and directed her lips onto his, lingering for a couple of seconds before letting go.

He expected her to slap him hard across the face instantly, and he felt that he deserved it, too. However, no slap came. Her eyes flashed anger for a second, then softened. She leaned upward, touching his cheek with her fingers, and kissed him again, staying there longer than the first one.

The shock of the second kiss went through Dakotah’s body, all the way to his toes. After they parted, he was unable to breathe for several seconds.

His eyes focused on Ely before him. She appeared to him to also be in a state of shock, her eyes full of emotion, unable to speak.

“Uhhh….yeah.” Was all Dakotah could muster.

Ely’s eyes began to focus, her mind accessing the situation. “This never happened. Got it, “just friend”?” she said, showing a slight frown.

“Ah, okay.” Dakotah said, not wanting that reaction from her.

“Things are the same as they always are.” Ely said firmly. “I have Hannah, and you have Vanessa.”

“Maybe.” Dakotah said, shrugging his shoulders. “She might not want me now, considering I’ve smooched two other girls.”

“She will not know of what happened here, nor will anyone else!” Ely shouted forcefully. ”Promise? If you tell her that we kissed, you can forget being friends with me!”

“I won’t tell her, I promise.” Dakotah said, unsure of whether she was bluffing. “I don’t want her to get hurt, either.”

“Good.” Ely said, satisfied with his response. “Let’s go home.”

“One question.” Dakotah asked, stopping her before she reached the door.

“What?”

“Did you like it?”

“Like what?” Ely said, as she pushed the door against the force of the wind, drowning out any chances of further conversation.

Dakotah got in to the car, snow already drifting halfway up the hubcaps. Driving home, he looked up into the black sky.

“Lord, if I die before I get home, I’ll arrive in Heaven satisfied with my life!” he said aloud.

*****

Christmas Day, 2008

As a repeat of last year, Dakotah rose to the smells of breakfast cooking. This time though, the sight of his grandfather gazing back at him from the dresser didn’t faze him. Next to his grandfather’s picture was a freshly made copy of Andre and him at graduation in a brand new oak frame he bought with the transportation fund. He briefly wondered if his grandfather and Andre were talking about him in Heaven, but he quickly dismissed it, and looked out the window.

The sky remained grey, with an occasional flurry, which was fine with Dakotah. As he made his bed and got dressed, he pondered the events of the previous night.

“You may have sworn me to secrecy, but I’ll never forget that kiss!”  he thought to himself. Thinking about Vanessa tempered his elation, as he wondered how he could repair their friendship. Rebecca briefly came to mind as well, but he quickly shuttled those thoughts away.

Today’s itinerary was a busy one; breakfast with Grandma, home to drop his mother’s card off, on to Mama’s to give her Christmas card, then to Rev. Daniels for lunch, and to exchange gifts. Picking up the violet, he then would surprise his grandmother that afternoon.

He wanted to call Vanessa up, and wish her Merry Christmas, but didn’t know when the best time was. “Maybe after breakfast.” he thought.

He entered the dining room, where Elizabeth was finishing placing the silverware. “Merry Christmas, Grandma!” he announced cheerily.

“Well, you’re up and at it early!” Elizabeth beamed. “Merry Christmas! Breakfast will be ready as soon as the biscuits are done!”

“Need any help?” Dakotah asked.

“Sure! Get the food off the stove, and put it on the table.” Elizabeth said, cheerily.

“It looks good, and smell even better!” Dakotah exclaimed.

“Did you expect anything any different from your grandmother?” she asked, laughing.

Dakotah laughed. It had been a mostly care-free eight weeks living at his grandmother’s. Although he missed his mother, having no Frank to berate him daily had been a blessing. Elizabeth’s insistence to do the vast majority of the housework left him with plenty of free time, a lot of which he spent studying Japanese. He had found early on he had a knack for the language; now, he could read most of it, and he was beginning to understand conversations, though he didn’t understand most slang and regional accents. As a result, he was far ahead of Ely in fluency, which was perfectly fine with him.

Soon, the table was set, and Elizabeth placed the plate of biscuits on the table.

“Grandma, it seems a shame that all this food is on the table, and only the two of us to enjoy it!” Dakotah said, thoughtfully.

“Most of it will heat up well, so it won’t go to waste.” Elizabeth replied. “Dak, will you say the blessing?”

“Sure!” Dakotah said, cheerily. He had come a long way in the past year in speaking in front of others, particularly such things as blessings. “Dear Lord,-“

Dakotah was interrupted by the doorbell ringing. He and Elizabeth were both puzzled by the timing.

“I’ll go see who that is.” Dakotah said, rising out of his chair.

“The Christmas Guest, perhaps?” Elizabeth said, curious.

Dakotah opened the door to see Vanessa standing before him. It was evident even to Dakotah that she had mostly a sleepless night; even the meticulous application of makeup could not cover the bags under her tired eyes.

“Vanessa! Come in! You’re just in time for breakfast!” Dakotah said animatedly, motioning her toward the dining room.

“No thank you, I can’t stay long.” Vanessa said flatly.

“Merry Christmas, Vanessa!” Elizabeth said, happily. “Won’t you join us for breakfast? Christmas Guest indeed, eh, Dak?”

“I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but I can’t stay. I just stopped by to talk to Dakotah for a moment.” Vanessa said, sadly.

“But dear, you’re as pale as a ghost!” Elizabeth protested. ”Won’t you at least have a biscuit and jelly, maybe some hot chocolate?”

“She won’t give up unless you eat something.” Dakotah said, smiling. “She’s like that to everyone!”

Vanessa sighed, then smiled slightly. “It does smell good. I might have a little something, after all.”

“Good!” Elizabeth said, joyously.” Dakotah, get her a plate!”

Breakfast ensued with small talk about Vanessa’s job and school, and the Wednesday night Bible study class they led. Vanessa ate quickly, finishing first even though she did most of the talking. She patiently waited on Dakotah and Elizabeth to finish.

“You two go on, I’ll clean this up.” Elizabeth ordered, as Vanessa and Dakotah began to help.

“Can we talk, someplace private?” Vanessa asked. “I think my car won’t take long to warm up.”

“We can go in my room. Grandma won’t care.” Dakotah replied, pointing to his room.

Vanessa nodded, and followed him into his bedroom, sitting at his desk while Dakotah sat on the bed.

“Rough night?” Dakotah asked, sympathetically.

“I think I dozed off for a couple of hours.” Vanessa said, shaking her head. ”Look. I have some things to say. Forgive me if I’m not coherent, but I’m exhausted. Eating breakfast is making me sleepy.”

“Want to switch places?” Dakotah offered, smiling. “Bed’s pretty cozy.”

“It looks wonderful, but I have to leave soon. I’m needed to help cook.”

“Okay, shoot.” Dakotah replied. “What’s on your mind?”

“First, I want to apologize for last night.” Vanessa said, looking into Dakotah’s eyes. “I was being rather childish and spiteful towards you.”

“You don’t have to apologize.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “You were hurting.”

“It was no excuse, Dak. You were the only one to come looking for me, to see if I was okay. And for your concern, I bit your head off, and insulted you.”

Dakotah reached forward, and took her hands into his. “I forgive you, Van.” he said, looking deep into her bloodshot eyes. ”Last night is in the past. Our friendship is more important than whatever craziness happened last night.”

“Ely called me last night, and we talked it out. We’re okay now.” Vanessa said, beginning to smile a little. “I think her heart is in the right place, even though she’s messed up in the head a little, sometimes!”

“You ain’t lying, there!” Dakotah laughed.

“Becky even called this morning, to check on me. She didn’t offer an apology, though.” Vanessa said, shaking her head.

“I believe that. I believe she’s a lot more off in the head than Ely, if you ask me!”

“She’s just young.” Vanessa said, thoughtfully. “Doesn’t help that her parents have given her everything she ever wanted, too.”

“That makes sense.” Dakotah said, thinking. “Me rejecting her advances probably came as a shock.”

“Maybe. Or it may make her more determined. We’ll see.”

A thought flashed in Dakotah’s mind. “Oh! I just thought of something! Hang on!”

Dakotah reached into the closet, got out his coat, took Vanessa’s present out of the pocket, and handed it to her.

“Merry Christmas.” he said, warmly. “Forgive me that the wrapping is all messed up. Grandma would have my hide if she knew how it looks.”

Vanessa smiled. “That’s fine. It always gets torn, anyway.”

She opened the box, and gasped. “Oh, Dakotah, it’s beautiful! You shouldn’t have!”

“You’re worth it.” Dakotah said, grinning.

Vanessa put the pendant on and looked in the mirror, admiring how it looked on her. Wheeling around, she put her arms around him and hugged him tightly.

“Thank you.” She whispered into his ear. “I love you.”

“Love you too.” Dakotah whispered back. “Glad you like it.”

Vanessa released from her hug, but didn’t let go, gazing into his eyes from only a few inches away, her own eyes full of emotion. As the seconds passed, Dakotah thought she was going to kiss him. He was unsure of whether or not to kiss her first, but doing so would start something he wasn’t ready for, he thought.

Vanessa smiled, and backed away. “I almost got carried away there.” she said, sadly.

“Can’t say I wouldn’t have liked it.” Dakotah said kindly.

“I wanted nothing more than to give you one better than Becky did.” Vanessa said, looking down. “It’s not time yet, though.”

“I agree.” Dakotah nodded. “Who knows? Maybe someday, eh?”

“You won’t know what hit you when that day comes, I promise!” Vanessa said, smiling.

“I bet I would, too!” Dakotah said, laughing.

Vanessa smiled. “I’d better go. They’re probably wondering what happened to me.”

“Tell everyone I said hi!” Dakotah said, as they left the room. The two of them went to the kitchen, where Elizabeth was washing dishes.

“Thank you for breakfast!” Vanessa said, smiling broadly. “It was really good!”

“Thank you.” Elizabeth said, nodding her head. “I’m always happy to get good company.”

Vanessa put on her coat, reached in her pocket, pulled out a card, and handed it to Dakotah. “It’s not as nice as what you gave me, but Merry Christmas.”

“Thank you! I’m sure I’ll like it.” Dakotah said, curious as to the contents.

“Don’t open it until I leave, okay?” Vanessa asked.

“Got it. Call you later?”

“You better.” Vanessa said, smiling. “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas!” Dakotah and Elizabeth said in unison as Vanessa left.

“I think I like her as much as Ely.” Elizabeth said. “Maybe even more so. She has a levelheadedness about her that I really like.”

“Yeah, she’s rock solid.” Dakotah agreed, nodding.

“I was talking about her personality!” Elizabeth teased, jabbing him in the ribs.

“Grandma!” Dakotah protested, embarrassed. “That’s what I was talking about, too!”

“Not to put you on the spot, but I doubt if you’ll find better than her.” Elizabeth said, becoming serious.

“I know.” Dakotah said, nodding his head. “Everyone says that, even Ely.”

“You don’t feel that way?”

“I do in my head.” Dakotah replied, stoically. “But not in my heart. Not yet.”

“Well, you’d better make up your mind.” Elizabeth said, “She’s not going to be around forever.”

“I know.” Dakotah said, thoughtfully. “I guess I need to go get ready to make my rounds. Are you sure you don’t need any help?”

“I’m fine, Dak. Make sure you don’t pick out anything wrinkled to wear!”

“I can dress myself just fine, Grandma!” Dakotah laughed, shaking his head, as he left the dining room.

Entering his room, he opened the card that Vanessa gave him. Inside was a twenty dollar gift certificate to the local Christian bookstore, and a letter folded inside. Dakotah unfolded the letter.

“Every day that I’m with you, I feel that we grow closer. I think if I knew you were to set aside your feelings for Ely for good, I would fall in love with you. If I could know someday that we would be together for the rest of our lives, I would be the happiest girl in the world.”

               Merry Christmas

               I love you

              Van

Dakotah folded the letter, put it back into the card envelope, and sighed, shaking his head.

*****

Dakotah took a deep breath as he pulled out onto the street; it was only a couple of minutes by car to his mother’s house, but already it seemed like hours. He had not been by there since he was kicked out almost two months ago. Sometimes he had an urge to go there, but always panicked, and stayed away.

Dakotah had picked out a simple card for his mother, not much more than “Merry Christmas” and I love you, Mom.” Inside the card, he repeated the text with his own handwriting. He wasn’t up to confronting his mother about that night, especially via a Christmas card.

As he turned onto Maple Street, the lump in his throat began to enlarge, and the knot in his stomach began to tighten. Everything that was so familiar to him over the years seemed odd to him now, as if he were as stranger.

Finally, he saw his mother’s house, with the car parked under the carport. Dakotah decided in advance not to park in front of the house; instead he parked across the street, a couple of houses down. As it was only 9 AM, he hoped that they would still be asleep, and he could deposit his card without alerting them to his presence.

Quickly, Dakotah crossed the street, and started walking up the sidewalk to his house. Heart pounding, and unable to breathe, he noticed the front porch was still snow and ice covered from earlier snows. Unperturbed, he stepped catlike upon the porch, and pushed the envelope through the mail slot, spinning in his tracks and exiting off the porch in only a couple of seconds.

The task accomplished, Dakotah quickly strode down the sidewalk and across the street to the car, glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone was opening the door. Not seeing anyone, he entered the car, being careful not to slam the door. He started the engine and pulled out onto the street carefully, taking care not to spin his tires.

Dakotah breathed in deeply, and exhaled. “I’m glad that’s over with!” he said to himself aloud.

*****

Next stop for Dakotah was Mama’s; she lived to the north about fifteen miles from Dakotah’s old house, and about ten miles east of New Hope and the Daniels’ residence. Dakotah made quick work of traveling there, as the roads were clear.

Dakotah had only been at Mama’s once, as a passenger with Vanessa, to ask for advice on teaching the Bible study class. He was initially unnerved by the myriad photos of Andre, but Mama’s explanation helped him understand. “Child, these are memories of good times, not a reminder of the one bad time!” she said. Still. he didn’t have the courage to see Andre’s room; Mama had left it as it was on the day he died.

As he approached Mama’s, Dakotah noticed cars parked all along both sides of the street. Children were having snowball fights, and teenage boys were playing football in the 20 degree weather. Dakotah wondered if this was a good time to pay his respects to Mama on Christmas, due to the hive of activity there. He quickly decided to forge ahead, since he already got her the Christmas card, and he really wanted to see her today.

Dakotah parked the car in front of a vacant lot a half block from her house, and proceeded to walk there. He wondered if his mother had found her card yet. As he approached the house, he saw a football whizzing through the air, on a collision course with his head. Instinctively, Dakotah raised his hands and managed to catch the ball, though the cold weather and the velocity of the ball stung his hands enough that he let out a yelp.

“Good catch, man!” said one of the teens.

Dakotah tossed the ball back to the teenager. “Is Mama here?” he asked.

“Is your mama here?” asked the boy, cracking a smile. “I don’t think you’re gonna find your mama here!”

“No, not my mama!” Dakotah said, laughing a little. “Ramona Phillips! I always just call her Mama.”

The young man squinted at Dakotah. “Uh huh. If you say so. Yeah, she’s here. She run us out of the house!”

“Okay, thanks!” Dakotah said, and headed up the walkway to the house.

“You better watch out, man!” the teen yelled, giving Dakotah a funny look. “When she gets to cooking for a lot of people, she gets crazy!”

“I’ll keep that in mind!” Dakotah yelled back, giving a thumbs-up.

There was no point in knocking at the door, as people of all ages and sizes kept a steady stream in and out. Most of them ignored him, though some gave him a friendly wave.

“Weren’t you at Andre’s funeral?” more than one of them asked. When Dakotah answered in the affirmative, they always either shook his hand, or said Merry Christmas.

The living room was loud, hot, and full of people. A large Christmas tree hugged against a wall, covered heavily with lights, ornaments and tinsel. Underneath was a small mountain of presents. He scanned back and forth looking for Mama, but didn’t see her. As he made it closer to the kitchen, he could somehow hear her over the din. It was apparent she was shouting.

“Don’t let that turkey overcook!”

“Vonesha! Stir those beans!”

“Anyone seen the marshmallows? Gotta get the sweet taters in the oven in five minutes!”

“NO, NO, NO! The rolls ain’t done risin’ yet!”

Dakotah gingerly opened the door; a blast of heat even hotter than in the living room made Dakotah sweat instantly.

Mama, detecting the door opening, began to wheel around. “I told you kids dinner ain’t ready yet! I’ll-“ At that moment, she saw Dakotah standing before her, mouth agape. Her countenance immediately softened.

“Baby, what on Earth are you doing here?” Mama said, slightly confused. All the girls in the kitchen stopped what they were doing, and turned their attention to Dakotah.

“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to interrupt!” Dakotah said, apologetically. “I just wanted to give you this card, and wish you Merry Christmas!” He took the card out of his coat pocket.

Mama quickly wiped her hands on her apron, and took the card. “You all get back to work!” she barked. “We only got an hour before it’s time to eat!”

“I won’t keep you.” Dakotah said, feeling out of place. “I know you’re busy.”

Mama read the card, and the note Dakotah placed inside. She smiled warmly, and placed the card on top of the refrigerator. She hugged Dakotah tightly, holding on for more than a few seconds. Dakotah noted she smelled of sage.

“Bless your heart.” Mama said, tearily. “I’d adopt you, if I could! You gonna stay for dinner?”

No, I have to go, I’m afraid.” Dakotah said, shaking his head. “I’m having lunch with Rev. Daniels and Ely.”

“Really?” Mama said, surprised. “I figured you’d be visiting Vanessa and her people today!”

“There’s going to be a lot of people over there, most of them I don’t know, and I’d feel out of place.” Dakotah said, uncomfortably. “Besides, she already had breakfast with us at Grandma’s”

“More than here?” Mama asked. “You act like you’re right at home here!”

“Yeah, but there isn’t anyone here sizing me up, wondering if I’m good enough for Vanessa.” Dakotah said, pointedly.

“Well, I think you’re plenty good enough for her.” Mama said, smiling. “Don’t you let anyone tell you no different, you hear?”

Before Dakotah could answer, Mama swiveled, and stared at a teenage girl. “What are you doing, Monesha?” She thundered. ”You have to butter the rolls before you bake them! You ain’t gonna make no good woman for no man if you can’t learn how to cook! Especially a fine young man like this one!”

“Sorry, Auntie Ramona.” The girl said apologetically. Finding the butter, she began to slather the rolls.

Dakotah bowed his head down, embarrassed. “I guess I’d better go.  Merry Christmas, Mama. Hope everything comes out right!”

“Merry Christmas, Dakotah. Don’t you worry about Mama. I have it under control! You be careful out there, you hear?”

“I will! See you Sunday!” Dakotah sliced through the crowd in the living room, and exited, the cold slapping him rudely across the face.

*****

Dakotah made his way west, under stubbornly overcast skies, toward the Daniels’. He wondered to himself what Ely’s mood would be like when he arrived; would she be distant, or close? He hoped it would be the latter, but he knew better than to expect it.

He pulled up in front of the house, and after inserting Rev. Daniels’ card and Ely’s plushie into his coat pockets, walked up the freshly swept walkway to the front door.

“Merry Christmas, Dakotah!” Rev. Daniels greeted before Dakotah could reach the door.

“Merry Christmas, Alan!” Dakotah answered cheerily.

“Boy, Dakotah, you smell good!” Rev. Daniels commented as Dakotah passed. “What kind of cologne is that, anyway?”

Not know of what Rev. Daniels was talking about, Dakotah sniffed his forearm. “Oh, I must’ve picked that up at Mama’s.”

“Mama’s the best cook in town, in my opinion.” Rev. Daniels said.

“Today, she wasn’t doing any cooking, just ordering the girls around.” Dakotah said.

“She’s just training the next generation of fine cooks, just like she was trained.” Rev Daniels said.

Dakotah nodded in affirmation of Rev. Daniels’ words.

“I heard you were in a kissing contest last night.” Rev. Daniels said, suddenly.

The statement caught Dakotah off guard. “Uhhh, sorta, I guess.” he said, becoming embarrassed.

“Now, I’m all for a good time, but that was a little much, don’t you think?” Rev. Daniels said, his countenance turning serious. “Feelings were hurt, and I don’t like that.”

“I didn’t, either.” Dakotah said, becoming defensive.

“Ely, would you come in here, please?” Rev. Daniels said, raising his voice. Dakotah felt uneasy.

Ely walked in, looking down. “I’m sorry about last night.” she said, subdued. Dakotah had never seen her like that before.

“I had already forgiven you.” Dakotah said, feeling strangely, since they had already “made up” last night. “Alan must not know what happened between us last night.” he thought. “Alan, everyone has hashed things out already. Do you not know this?”

“I know Ely talked to Vanessa last night, but I’m not convinced that she resolved anything.” Rev. Daniels said, pensively. “She may be older than either of you, but she’s been pretty sheltered emotionally.”

“Vanessa stopped by this morning, and we had a little talk.” Dakotah said, beginning to smile. “We convinced her to stay for breakfast, and I was even able to give her the pendant! She’s pretty happy, if you ask me!”

“That’s good.” Ely said, still subdued.

“Well, I’m glad that’s settled!” Rev. Daniels said, becoming relieved. “The last thing I want is bad feelings in my church.”

Dakotah walked over to his coat, and removed the card and the wrapped plushie. “Here you go.” he said, as he handed them out. “Merry Christmas!”

“I had no idea what to get you, Alan.” Dakotah said, smiling sheepishly as the preacher opened the card Dakotah had given him.

Rev. Daniels read the words Dakotah had written inside. “You know, it’s time like these that make all the trials and tribulations of being a minister worthwhile.” he said, smiling warmly.

“Did you go to Ann Arbor to get this?” Ely said, flatly, showing little emotion.

“Yes, I did.” Dakotah said uneasily, noting her odd behavior. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah. It’s great.” Ely continued in her monotone voice. “Thank you.”

“Merry Christmas.” Rev. Daniels said, as he handed a package to Dakotah. “Ely picked it out, and I paid for it, so it’s from both of us!” he said, laughing.

“It’s some sort of Gundham series.” Ely said. “Got it on sale.”

“Cool!” Dakotah said, pleased that he received a nice gift, but concerned that Ely was still acting strangely. “Thank you very much!”

“Glad you like it!” Rev. Daniels said happily. “Food about done, Sweetie?”

“Cheese is starting to brown.” Ely said.

“What are we having?” Dakotah asked, curious.

“Potato boats!” Rev. Daniels said, smiling. “Ely and I have them every year. Her mother used to make them all the time, so we remember her on Christmas by making them ourselves.”

“That’s neat.” Dakotah said. “They smell good!”

*****

Lunch was served, eaten, and cleaned up in thirty minutes; Rev. Daniels and Dakotah did most of the talking, while Ely spoke only in short sentences, never once trying to continue the conversation. This unnerved Dakotah to no end, as Ely usually instigated most of the conversation.

“I guess I’ll be heading home.” Dakotah said, looking at the clock.

“You don’t have to leave yet, Dakotah.” Rev. Daniels said. “I’m not leaving to my folks for another hour yet.”

I’m going to Hannah’s now.” Ely said, simply.

“You are going to be back in time for dinner, aren’t you?” her father asked.

“Yes, that’s why I’m leaving now.”

“Walk you to your car?” Dakotah asked, gingerly.

Yes, if you insist.” grumbled Ely.

“Be careful going home, Dakotah. Merry Christmas! ” Rev. Daniels said.

“Don’t want to forget this!” Dakotah said, picking up the violet. “Merry Christmas!”

Ely and Dakotah put their overcoats on, with Dakotah tucking the violet under his coat. Instead of walking to Ely’s car, she turned, and walked to his grandmother’s.

“Okay, what’s up?” Dakotah said, warily. “You’ve been acting weird all day!”

“I hate you, Dakotah Lennon!” Ely barked.

Dakotah was unable to speak, not believing what she had said.

“There was always this barrier I put between us to make sure you didn’t get too close, and you shattered it!” Ely said, angrily.

“I’m sorry!” Dakotah said, not knowing what else he could say. “I didn’t realize that it was such a bad thing!”

Ely stared hard at him, deep into his eyes. “I do not want you to come here anymore. Do you understand?”

“W-what?” Dakotah stammered, trying to grasp what she was saying. “What are you talking about?”

“You crossed the line.” Ely said, coldly. “I don’t want you here anymore.”

“Hey, you kissed me back!” Dakotah said, protesting. “Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“All the more reason for you to stay away. If we can’t be just friends, then we can’t be friends at all.”

“What about your studies?” Dakotah cried, beginning to panic. “Who’s going to help you?”

“I’ll be fine.” Ely said, emotionlessly. “I appreciate all you’ve done, but I can go at it alone now.”

“What about church?” Dakotah said, his heart pounding. “Do you want me to stay away from church, too?”

“No. The church needs you, Dakotah.” Ely said. “We just won’t sit next to each other anymore. Sit by Vanessa, or even Rebecca, I don’t care!”

Dakotah was speechless. He felt his insides begin to melt. He looked up at the cold steel sky, and began to trudge the final steps to the car. He wheeled around toward Ely.

“I will always, always, always love you!” he shouted defiantly. Ely remained poker-faced, not even offering the slightest twitch. Dakotah entered the car, and buckled up, Starting the car, he looked one last time at Ely, who had already turned and was walking toward the house. Numbly, and trying with everything in his power to concentrate, he carefully pulled out into the street.

Passing her father silently, Ely entered her room, picked up the plushie Dakotah gave her, and fell into her bed, sobbing.

A couple of moments passed; suddenly, a light rap on the door broke the silence.

“What’s wrong, Sweetie?” came her father’s voice from the other side of the door.

“Nothing.” Ely answered, her voice cracking.

“May I come in?” Rev. Daniels said, patiently.

Ely went to the door, and opened it, turning her face away from her father.

“All right. Nothing, eh?” Rev. Daniels said, his suspicions confirmed. “You’re just in here, bawling your eyes out. Move along now, nothing to see here, is that right?”

Ely remained silent, staring at the floor.

“Let’s try this again.” Rev. Daniels said, his voice adding a little urgency. “What happened?”

“Ely took a deep breath, and exhaled. “I told him never to come here again.”

Her words took him aback. “Come again?”

“I told him he’s too close, so he needs to stay away.” Ely said, sniffling.

“I see.” Rev. Daniels said, ever so slightly raising an eyebrow. “So, what really happened last night?”

“Nothing!” Ely said, becoming defensive.

“Right.” he said, starting to become irritated. “After all these years, you’re going to start lying to me now?”

Ely’s face turned pale. “I’m sorry.” she said, weakly.

“And?”

“Dad, I don’t know why you’re butting into my personal life!” she wailed.

“Because I consider Dakotah to be a good friend, and a valuable contributor to the church.” he said, pointedly. “If he did something dishonorable to the point where you had to ban him from here, I need to know about it!”

“H-he didn’t do anything bad, Dad, I promise!” she said, evasively.

“For goodness sake, Elizabeth, what did he do, then?” he said, exasperated.

“He kissed me, Dad!” Ely’s face instantly became red.

“Aaahhhhhh….” Rev. Daniels nodded.

“Then I kissed him back.” she said, quietly.

Rev. Daniels let the words sink in, and then, he began to smile. “You know, maybe I need to keep a closer eye on him. Three girls in one night! He’s becoming quite the playboy, don’t you think?” he said, beginning to laugh.

“It’s not funny, Dad!” Ely shouted, becoming flustered.

“Lord help you, you’re such a mess!” he said, moving aside a stray lock of hair from her face. He placed both hands on her shoulders. “Look, sweetie, I know this has put you in a pickle, but kicking Dakotah out of your life is not the answer.”

“I feel like I cheated on Hannah!” Ely cried.

“That’s an interesting concept, but since you are not married nor engaged to her, I wouldn’t call that cheating. You two are dating, which is the process of finding out if a couple wants to spend the rest of their lives together.”

Ely didn’t say anything, pondering what her father had told her.

“Let me ask you this, if I may.” Rev. Daniels continued. “What did you feel when Dakotah kissed you?”

Ely paused for a moment, her face began to flush. “I liked it. I liked it a lot. It scared me!”

“The possibility of a relationship with him messes up your plans, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” she nodded. “Everything I’ve worked for in the past couple of months is messed up because I was so stupid!”

“I don’t think you were so stupid as much as you were for once being honest with your feelings.” he said, grasping her hands. “I wonder how Dakotah felt when you kissed him?”

“He was probably in Heaven.” Ely said, shaking her head.

“Probably so.” Rev. Daniels nodded. “You gave him Jacob’s Ladder, and you promptly kicked it out from under his feet. That’s a long way down, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” she said, looking down. “He probably feels horrible right now.”

“Sweetie, I’m not saying Dakotah is the answer.” he said, lifting her chin up. “In fact, last night should clarify how you feel about Hannah, right?”

“Yeah.” she said, numbly.

“Ely, this is a process that will take some time. I’ve never told you this, but it took your mother a year before she finally chose me.”

“No way!” Ely said, shocked.

“Way.” Rev. Daniels said, chuckling. “I was against a football player from Michigan. Last I heard he’s not doing too bad. Owns a car dealership in the U.P.. Point is, she followed her heart, and chose a poor, scrawny, theology student with a bad sense of humor.”

“Poor and scrawny, huh?” Ely said, beginning to crack the slightest smile. “Are you saying Dakotah is now like you was then?”

“No. I had parents that loved me and supported me.” he said, his countenance turning serious. “Your mother was the first real challenge I ever had. Dak’s life hasn’t been as easy, as you know. However, there’s something special about him that I can see through his shaggy hair. This is why I don’t want you to push him away, at least not right now. He always says you need him, but I think he needs you just as much, if only as a friend. Besides, you really don’t want him to go away, do you?”

“No.” Ely said, beginning to tear up.

“Then go after him!” Rev. Daniels said forcefully. “Tell him you’re wrong, and beg him for forgiveness. I’m sure he will!”

“I’m supposed to meet Hannah at 2!” Ely said, beginning to panic. ”I’m going to be late if I go after Dak!”

“Go. Call her up, and tell her family showed up. Dakotah’s like a son to me, sometimes.”

“Dad’s that’s creepy.” Ely said, giving her father an odd look.

“Yeah, I guess I can’t have my son and daughter kissing.” He deadpanned. “Future son-in-law, maybe?”

“DAD!”

*****

It was all Dakotah could do to concentrate on driving; Ely’s statement had shaken him to the core. “Is something wrong with me?” he thought to himself. ”First mom, now Ely? Who’s next? Vanessa? Grandma?” Nothing seemed real to him anymore.

He didn’t feel like going home, but there was nowhere else for him to go, either. In his mind, he wasn’t in the proper mental state to go to Mama’s, or Vanessa’s. Besides, as cold as it was, his grandmother’s violet wouldn’t last long in the car, anyway.

He wondered again if his mother received his card, or if Frank found it first, and tore it up. At the moment, he didn’t care one way or the other. It was just another reminder of another heartbreak to him.

As his grandmother’s house came into view, he noticed some at once both familiar, and odd. It was his mother’s car! “Why is she here?” he thought, panic gasping him quickly. “Is it because of the card?”  He wasn’t sure if he was ready to deal with her yet.

Dakotah parked the car in the carport, and after retrieving the violet, entered the house through the kitchen entrance. There, sitting at the table, was both his mother and grandmother, having coffee.

“Hello, honey.” his mother said, forcing a small smile. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.” Dakotah replied, stone-faced.  He sat the violet on the table in front of Elizabeth. “I’m sorry, Grandma. You said you didn’t want anything, but here. Hope you like it.”

“Well, isn’t that nice!” Elizabeth chirped happily. “It’s beautiful, Dak! Thank you!”

“I’m glad you like it.” Dakotah replied, his countenance softening ever so slightly.

“I’ll have to go find a proper pot for it.“ Elizabeth said, looking under the sink in vain. “Perhaps there is one in the attic. If you’ll excuse me.” With that, she puttered out of the room, leaving Dakotah and his mother alone in the kitchen.

The feeling of tension and awkwardness was palpable. “So, honey, how are you doing?” His mother asked, not knowing what else to say.

“Fine.” Dakotah replied, even though he wasn’t. Earlier in the day, he would’ve at least welcomed her, but that was then. Now, he just wanted her to leave.

“That’s good.” Sylvia said, looking into the face of a son she didn’t recognize.

Dakotah wanted nothing more than to go someplace alone, and cry. However, his mother was there, and it seemed like there was something else she wanted to say. He just wished she’d hurry up.

“Thanks for the card. It meant a lot to me.”

“You’re welcome.” Dakotah said simply.

His mother took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Son, you have every right to hate me, but I’m here to ask for your forgiveness for everything I’ve done, and everything I needed to do, and didn’t.”

“I forgave you long ago, mom.” Dakotah said, matter-of-factly. “I love you, remember?”

“Oh, son!” Sylvia exclaimed, tearfully. She walked over to him and embraced him. At first, he resisted, but his emotions got the better of him, and he hugged her back, tightly, and began to cry, not just because of his mother, but for the absurdity of his whole life.

“I’m sorry, son.” she said, releasing him. “I wish I could make it up to you, somehow.”

“You can’t. Not as long as Frank is in the house.”

“I’m afraid I’m stuck with him. We spent too much money in the past, and now we’re up to our eyeballs in debt. I have to have his disability check to pay the mortgage.”

“I’m afraid I’ll never step foot in that house again as long as he lives there.” Dakotah said, pointedly.

“Would you mind if I come over and visit sometimes?” his mother asked.

“I don’t mind at all, as long as Grandma says it’s okay.”

“She already has.” Sylvia said, smiling a little.

“You can call too, I don’t mind.” Dakotah said, softly.

“Well, I’d better go. I have to check on the ham for dinner.” Sylvia said, headed toward the door.

“Having dinner this year?” Dakotah said, curious. They had always had their Christmas meal at lunchtime before.

“Frank’s boys are coming over, and spending the night. Wish me luck.” she said, grumbling.

“I’ll pray for you.” Dakotah replied, suddenly feeling sorry for her.

Sylvia scurried out of the house, into her car, and by making a U-turn, began to make her way home. From the porch, sighing, Dakotah watched her disappear up the street. As he was about to turn to go inside, he heard a familiar honking, only far more furious than usual. Ely pulled up, and parked where his mother had been, only a few seconds prior. Dakotah’s heart began to race, and he felt a lump quickly grow in his throat.

Ely popped out of her car, hustled up the walk and the steps, stopped before Dakotah, and bowed deeply.

“Gomenasai.” she said, raising up to gaze deeply into his eyes.

“W-what are you doing here?” Dakotah said, dumbfounded.

“I came here to tell you that I was wrong, to say I’m sorry, and to ask you to be my friend again.” Ely said, sincerely.

“Is there any reason I should trust you at this point?” Dakotah cried, becoming exasperated. “You’re no more rational than my mom!”

“I know, I know, I messed up.” Ely acquiesced. “Between you and me and Hannah and Vanessa and Becky, I’m so confused! I don’t know where you and I fit in all this.”

“I will always be your friend until the day I die.” Dakotah said, taking her hands into his. “But you hurt me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. My head was telling me it was for the best, but my heart was telling me it wasn’t. They say our hearts can lie to us, but our minds are pretty stupid too, sometimes. Dad opened my eyes, and made me realize I need you as much as you need me.”

Dakotah’s eyes widened. “Your dad? How much does he know?”

“He knows everything now, including the kisses!” Ely laughed. Dakotah groaned in embarrassment.

“He said he had his own trials when he was dating Mom.” Ely continued. “He’s definitely shipping us, in case you haven’t figured it out yet.”

“I’m glad he doesn’t hate me for kissing you.” Dakotah said, relieved. “I’m glad he likes me. I think he’d be a cool Father-in-Law!” He laughed for a split second, then caught himself, as those words were but a fantasy to him, and not to be shared. His face reddened a bit.

Ely raised her hand. “Easy. Don’t get carried away. You’re not even my boyfriend.”

“I know.” Dakotah said, shaking his head.

“Look, I don’t know where this is going between any of us. All I know is that I need our friendship. Will you forgive me for earlier?”

“Done.” Dakotah said, smiling.

“I can’t promise I’ll never hurt you, but I’ll never turn my back on you, okay?”

“”And I’ll do the same.” Dakotah replied, almost at a whisper.

They embraced, holding each other tightly, Ely shivering as she realized how cold she had become.

“You two get in here out of the cold!” Elizabeth shouted, opening the door a little. “You’re going to catch pneumonia!”

“That’s okay, Elizabeth, I have to go.” Ely said apologetically. “I wish I could stay, though!”

“I cooked plenty, if you change your mind.” Elizabeth said. “I always cook extra on Christmas in case someone unexpectedly shows up.”

“I’ll be having dinner at my grandparents, thanks.” Ely replied. “I have to go, though. Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas, dear.” Elizabeth said in a grandmotherly tone. “Be careful out there. The roads become slick after dark!”

“I will. I’m an extra careful driver!” Ely said brightly, giving a wink and a thumbs-up.

Elizabeth laughed, and Dakotah smiled. “Call me when you get home, okay?” Dakotah asked.

“Sure thing! Bye!” Ely hurriedly made it to her car, and smoothly but quickly pulled out into the street. Dakotah watched her until she was out of sight, then came inside.

“I think you have some explaining to do, young man.” Elizabeth said, tersely.

Dakotah swallowed hard. “Okay.”

*****

“So she came by to apologize for a misunderstanding?” Elizabeth said, skeptically.

“Yes.” Dakotah said simply. He didn’t want to go into details about the kisses, or Ely banning him from her life, and calling the whole thing a misunderstanding was, at the core, the truth.

“Dakotah, this whole thing with Ely and Vanessa is weird, but since they are seeking you out to apologize to, or whatever, I’ll not question the matter further.” Elizabeth said, shaking her head. “I do wish you would let Ely go her own way, and pursue Vanessa. She is mature, works hard, and has her act together. Ely is a nice girl, but she’s so flighty!”

“Ely’s more fun than Vanessa, and we have more in common.” Dakotah countered.

“A lifelong relationship is not solely built on fun.” Elizabeth said pointedly.

“Grandma, it’s not like I’m going to marry either one of them this week!” Dakotah protested.

“Just pointing out that in the long run, stability is preferable over a good time.”

“I understand.” Dakotah said, wanting to end the conversation. “How much longer until dinner?”

“Oh, about an hour, I guess. Why?”

“I was going to call my aunt, and wish her Merry Christmas.” Dakotah said cheerily, relieved that no more talk about the girls was forthcoming.

“That sounds nice! Tell Louise I said hello!”

“Will do!” Dakotah replied, retrieving the phone number from the organizer. He dialed the number, wondering if Dylan was going to answer again.

“Howdy!” bellowed a familiar voice after the second ring. “Merry Christmas!”

“Unk!” Dakotah exclaimed, pleasantly surprised. “You made it home for Christmas!”

“Yep!” Drove 1400 miles through six states in 24 hours to get home! I’m a mite wore out, but I’m here!”

Dakotah could hear Louise in the background, but he couldn’t understand what she was saying.

“Your aunt was wanting to know how your Christmas is going! I hear you been having to beat girls off with a stick!”

“Well, I don’t know about that.” Dakotah said, slightly embarrassed. “Tell her everyone liked what I got them! Mom even came by for a bit!”

“Oh, yeah?” Ralph said, interested. “You might want to tell this to Louise, yourself.” He gave the phone to a surprised Louise.

“Merry Christmas, Dak!” Louise said. “What did you tell Ralph a minute ago?”

“Mom came by, and we sort of made up.” Dakotah said, unsure of his aunt’s reaction to the news.

“You’re not moving back there, are you?” Louise said, suddenly concerned.

“Not unless Frank leaves, don’t worry.” Dakotah reassured. “I’m pretty happy where I’m at, right now.”

“Still plenty of job opportunities at the plastics plant.” Louise offered.

“There are still some possibilities out there.” Dakotah said politely. “Maybe in Ann Arbor.”

“Dak, that’s pretty far!” Louise said. “Don’t know if it would be worth your while to commute that far to work.”

“I can always take him to the oil fields! They start off at 60K a year!” Ralph said, loud enough for Dakotah to hear in the background.

“No you will not take him there!” Louise shouted back. “There’s somebody dying there almost every week!”

“I think if worst came to worst, I’d pick the plastics plant.” Dakotah said, trying to settle his aunt down.

“Well you have more sense than your uncle, which isn’t saying a lot,.” Louise replied, toning her voice down. “So, everyone like their stuff?”

“Yeah, everyone did. Your advice on the African Violet was great!”

“Good! Well, I have to get back to fixing supper! I’d give your uncle the phone, but he’s already passed out on the couch!”

Dakotah laughed. “Merry Christmas, Aunt Lou!”

“Merry Christmas, Dak! Tell your grandma I said hi! Call me sometime, okay?”

“Got it. Love you!”

“Love you too!” Dakotah hung up the phone.

“Still trying to sell you on moving down there?” Elizabeth asked.

“Yeah, she says there’s still plenty of jobs there.”

“I hate to say it, but you may have to, if things don’t get better.”

“Well, here’s hoping that things do get better.” Dakotah said. “The last thing I want to do is leave my family and friends.”

*****

Dinner was delicious, and uneventful; baked ham, mashed potatoes, and no phone calls nor visitors highlighted the meal. After they cleaned up the dishes and pans, Dakotah called Vanessa’s home, where he received a playful scolding from her father for not showing up. Vanessa, completely exhausted, explained that her family made a big deal about the pendant Dakotah gave her, and they expected her to bring him over for a get-together sometime soon!

Soon after, Ely called to say she was home, but didn’t give much in the way of details, especially her afternoon with Hannah. Dakotah felt it wasn’t the time to press for details, so he dropped the subject. Ely announced she had a busy day tomorrow, so she bid goodnight.

Dakotah retired to his bedroom, and put a DVD Ely gave him for Christmas in the player. After ten minutes, he was fast asleep.

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10 responses to “Chapter 11

  • wileybr549

    I guess I should be happy that I completed the behemoth as quickly as I did. In retrospect, I probably could’ve edited a lot of dialogue out of it, but I feel that everything that was said had value.

  • Sandi

    Well, I read all 12 thousand plus words, and actually enjoyed it all.
    Whether this is going to sound weird or not, it reminds me of a “soap”, where intrigued and relationship issues abound.
    I now have a mental image of what the main characters look like.. I wonder if my images are the same as yours.

    On a proof-reading issue… this sentence suddenly become present tense…..??

    “Ely silently passes her father, enters her room, picks up the plushie Dakotah gave her, hugs it and falls on the bed, sobbing.”

  • wileybr549

    Glad you liked it, Sandi! I see what you’re saying about the presenr vs past tense, as I everything should be in past tense. I’m open to suggestions as how to make that sentence read past tense. How about “Passing her father silently, Ely entered her room, picked up the plushie Dakotah gave her, and fell into her bed, sobbing.”

    I think I’ll edit the post. I appreciate any suggestions you, Briar, or anyone else make on improving the writing. I’m not an English major, lol!

    There are mental images I have of the characters, too. I’ll try to put some of them in the Part 1 wrapup blog, which will come after Chapter 14.

    The pace of my writing has actually increased a bit. I averages a little over 300 words a day while writing CH#11(WP has the length at 16,800 words) If I can keep the remaining three chapters under 10K words apiece, I should have no problem getting them done before the year is out.

    As for comparing the story to a soap, Ely herself compared the happenings of Christmas Eve to “Bad shoujo manga”, which in most cases is like a teenage Japaneese girls’ version of a soap opera, only in comic form.

    I myself would hope that the story stays real, and not stray toward the overblown melodrama of a soap.

    • Sandi

      It is not a melodrama, as TV soaps are always too far from the ‘actual’ for my liking. Your story is full of personal misunderstandings, heartbreaks, intrigue and likeable characters.
      For instance, one soap here is based on a street of about 20 houses. It is the longest running soap in the world, having been on the TV twice a week since 1960. But, in real life, how many streets of twenty homes do you think have suffered so many births, deaths, marriages, multiple tragedies, murders, court cases and prison sentences!

  • BriarCraft

    My sincere apologies for not making it over here sooner. I got the email notification the day after I got back from my trip and I’ve been playing “Catch up” ever since.

    Your writing style has improved 400% since Chapter 1. The flow is so much smoother with the addition of gestures and movement here and there in the dialog. It seems that Dak is going to end up working at the Japanese-owned factory and he will probably do well – or at least that is where your hints are pointing.

    As to all the confused emotions and insecurities, it reinforces my own experience that the teenage years are the very worst part of a person’s life. If you manage to survive them with sanity intact, there is a fair chance you’ll have a good life. Otherwise, there’s always basket weaving at the loony bin.

  • wileybr549

    No apologies necessary, Briar! Seen that you posted your blog, I knew that you had been up to good things, and a delay in getting to this blog was expected!

    It seems to me that the longer chapters flow better than the shorter ones. I admit, I was tempted to split this one in two, either before of after Christmas Eve, but I’m glad I didn’t.

    Well, let’s hope Dakotah doesn’t take up basket weaving, lol! As for his future, you’ll just have to keep reading! :’ )

  • wileybr549

    Work on new chapters are always slow starting, and Ch#12 is no exception. However, I’m finally getting a feel on how it’s supposed to go. Hopefully, I can finish it before the end of the month.

  • wileybr549

    This has been an exceptionally difficult chapter to write; my earlier hopes were wildly optimistic, as I’m not even halfway finished with it. Sometimes it’s because of lack of time, sometimes fatigue, other times, lack of inspiration. Tonight, it’s been all three. 😦

  • wileybr549

    I’m back! I think! :’ )

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