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Claudia and the Christmas Elves

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I tilted back my head and stared up into the night sky. It was cloudy enough I couldn’t see the moon and stars, but the parking lot lights were tall and cast long shadows. Snow fell through them, spinning and twisting in a dance to music I couldn’t hear, and I wished I could capture their spark.

“Come on, Claud.” My best-friend, Stacey McGill, linked her arm with mine and gave me a little tug. “We’re going to be late.”

Snowflakes clung to her curly blonde hair – she was naturally blonde, but she dyed it lighter, and the curls were completely fake – and long, dark eyelashes, making her gleam. I cast one more glance up at the snow, then let her hurry me along toward the entrance to the Washington Mall.

Almost everyone else waited for us just inside the doors. We were five minutes early, but Kristy Thomas thought five minutes early was barely on time and on time was late. We weren’t the last to arrive, though. A second later, Mary Anne Spier came running up. She was holding hands with her step-sister, Dawn Schafer, dragging her along much more obviously than Stacey had done for me.

“It’s so cold I want to curl up and die, y’all.” Mary Anne laughed as she pulled off her handmade knit cap and shook out her short dark hair. It fanned around her face and settled back, revealing pale skin and cheeks rosy from the cold.

Y’all?” Stacey echoed. “Are you dating Logan again?”

No!" Mary Anne's voice was loud, and she bit her lower lip, flushing. "No. Kerry came over to bake Christmas cookies earlier."

“Much earlier.” Dawn slowly unwound her scarf, revealing her tanned skin bit by bit. “She was knocking on the door at eight a.m. Doesn’t she know we’re on vacation?”

“It was ten!” Mary Anne argued, but she kept smiling. “Not everyone wants to sleep until noon.”

“So seven a.m. to my poor California body.” When she was finally unwrapped and pulled off her hat, Dawn’s long white-blonde hair fell all the way to her thighs, a heavy curtain that made my fingers itch for my paints. Watching it slither along her back with every movement reminded me of all the pictures I could create on it, images that would come alive as she walked or emphasized her words with smooth hand gestures.

“It’s not her fault you didn’t get in until late last night,” Mary Anne crossed her arms over her chest and frowned a little, the smile slipping away.

“Come on, sis, don’t get mad.” Dawn put her chin on Mary Anne’s shoulder and wrapped her arms around her in a hug, her hair spilling around them. “You know how I get when I don’t sleep enough. And those sugar free cookies you made tasted great.”

“Yeah?” Stacey finished fluffing her hair and stepped closer. Dawn immediately extracted herself from Mary Anne and turned to Stacey, beaming. “Mom wants to try a new cookie recipe for me.”

“I brought some.” Mary Anne pulled a small plastic container out of her giant purse. “I have the good stuff for the rest of you, too, but this is for Stacey and Dawn.”

“That’s Mary Anne, always prepared.” Kristy sounded normal enough, but her mouth had a bit of a sour twist to it. Then she clapped her hands together once, and the expression was gone. “Come on. I made a chart of who wants to hit what stores and mapped out the best route to maximize our time before the movie starts. Move out!”

“Did not sign up for the army,” Dawn murmured to Stacey, who covered her mouth with hand while she laughed so she wouldn’t spray cookie crumbs. She passed the cookies to Dawn, and in the army or not, when they followed Kristy, they were in step.

I watched everyone head toward the escalator, the four of them paired off. It hadn’t been like this in the beginning, when we first created the club, and when Dawn joined, she was the one who might end up odd one out, her or Kristi. It was always me and Stacey, best-friends forever.

Things had really changed, over the years.

“Come on, Claudia!” Kristy bellowed from halfway up the escalator. She didn’t even need to cup her hands around her mouth. “Hurry up.”

People turned to stare at me and my cheeks heated, but I hurried after them anyway. After all this time, I didn’t have much room for embarrassment, not when it came to my friends.

#

I got ahead of myself. You don’t know who I am or who any of my friends are or what the club used to be for us. For all the mysteries I read – and don’t tell anyone, but I still sometimes read Nancy Drew books – I never learned how to tell a story well. That’s okay. I didn’t need words. I had my art.

Way back in seventh grade, Kristy Thomas, Mary Anne Spier, and I were all neighbors. Kristy and Mary Anne lived next door to each other, and I lived across the street. Back then, Kristy lived with her mom, two older brothers, and her younger brother, and one night when her mom had a hard time finding a baby-sitter, Kristy had a Great Idea.

That Great Idea was the Baby-sitters Club. The three of us, plus Stacey McGill, who had just moved to Stoneybrook, Connecticut, and was becoming my best-friend, started the club, but it didn’t stay small for long. It only lasted through eighth grade graduation, but in that time, we had new members, associate members, and junior members, weddings, funerals, vacations, parades, fundraisers, fights, boyfriends, going away parties, welcome back parties and hours and hours and hours of baby-sitting.

We were seniors in high school now. The Baby-Sitters Club existed again, some of our old charges took it over, but most of us didn’t baby-sit anymore. Kristy did the most, but even she was too busy to sit often, busy with the high school softball team and the Future Business Leaders of America and the debate team. Mary Anne sat some, but she spent most of her time at this little craft store downtown and volunteering in the children’s section of the public library. Stacey worked at her mom’s boutique. I pitched in there sometimes, too, especially in December, but mostly worked at the art school that opened a couple years back. I taught basic painting classes to eleven to thirteen year olds in exchange for a small paycheck, but mostly for the discount supplies and free classes.

We were still friends with some of the other old members, but the four of us are closer than anyone else. (The five of us, really, when Dawn’s in town, but she spent most of the year in California.) I think it’s because we were been friends so long. Stacey’d been my best-friend since seventh grade, but I’d known Kristy and Mary Anne practically since birth. No matter how much or how little we had in common, that meant something.

But you can’t stop change, that’s what my older sister Janine says, and she’s a real, live genius, so she’s usually right. And things changed. Stacey’s still my first and only bff, but she and Dawn were super close now too. Kristy and Mary Anne were friends, but not the way they used to be. The club changed. We changed.

And me?

Earlier this year, an old friend carved her way back into the clay of my life, and ever since, I’ve had that strange, breathless feeling that usually meant I was falling in love.

#

Back when I was thirteen, I solved a mystery at the local museum. Precious coins had been stolen and hidden in one of my favorite sculptures. I noticed the change in how it felt, and kept speaking up until I convinced the artist to check it out with me. I was right, we caught the thief, and the museum made me an honorary trustee and asked me to help plan a student show.

Every year since, I worked on that same show. It surprised me, how much I liked that side of gallery work. I’d always planned to be an artist and have my artwork displayed in galleries, but I was thinking about maybe working at a gallery part time, too. Working closely with other artists was far more inspiring than I ever expected.

Mostly, I was a loner. My teachers gave me praise and – some – constructive criticism, but I didn’t have many peers. Most artists my age weren’t at my level, and older artists were either jealous of me and the attention my work got or they were friendly enough, but interested in very different things. Like their children and their partners and their day jobs.

I liked kids well enough, but I wasn’t ready to be a parent. Not by a longshot. Maybe not ever.

I’ve only known one other artist my age who was good. Really good. Better than me. She was my mentor, briefly, but obsessed with her work. She thought I should give up everything else for my art, and I couldn’t do that.

(Stacey sneered at me back then, and snapped, “For your art or for her?” At the time, I didn’t really know what she meant, but Stacey was always a little more sophisticated than I was. She grew up in New York City, and that must have been why.)

In eighth grade, Ashley breezed into my life in bell bottoms and flowered shirts and heavy boots. She spun me around and around, until I was breathing art and sleeping art and dreaming art – and bailing on my friends and not doing any of my homework and skipping BSC meetings.

All that part sucked, and I shouldn’t have done it, but sometimes, I missed the way I felt with her, standing in front of a painting, really looking at it. She would talk or point something out or just stand next to me and breathe and suddenly I saw the angle of the brush strokes in a new way or felt the soft stroke of a beloved sculpture. She would take my fingers and brush them over the clay and sculptures bloomed from my fingertips.

She could have made me a better artist, and that would have been wonderful, but looking back now, I think Stacey understood better than I did exactly what was going on.

I missed out on the art, but I think I missed a lot more than that, too.

#

As long as I’ve known her, Ashley’s dressed like a hippie, in long skirts with ruffles at the bottom and lacy shirts and boots or those Birkenstock sandals Stacey yells at Dawn for wearing. I loved it when she wore arms full of silver bangle bracelets. When she spoke, she underscored her words with soft gestures, like they were tangible and she could sculpt them into something beautiful, and each movement was underscored by the sound of her bracelets moving.

I always thought she was interesting, and beautiful in her own way, like Stacey was gorgeous in her sophistication and Dawn pretty in an all-natural, bright sunshiney way and Mary Anne cute and preppy, but lately, I caught myself looking at her when we’re both supposed to be working on our art. For once, I wasn’t paying attention to the way shadows play across her skin – or, not just to that, because I was always an artist, no matter what else I did.

Lately, I’ve wanted to tuck her hair behind her ear, where shorter bits have come free from her braid, and run my thumb over her earrings – she has five piercings in each ear – and kiss her. Maybe there would be clay smeared on her cheek where she scratched an itch and I would have paint smeared on the inside of my wrist.

Her long fingers worked over the clay, her touch so skilled it made me grow warm whenever I imagined how her hands might feel in my hair or sliding down my body.

“Claudia, is something wrong?” Ashley’s voice broke my concentration, and I realized she was frowning at me, her hands still on her clay.

Oh, dear Lord. I wasn’t just thinking about staring at her, I was actually staring at her.

Claudia?” Her voice was low, and she leaned forward a little. She wore an oversized gray button down shirt to protect her clothes from the clay, but she looked even more beautiful like that. Her eyes were wide and her mouth very red.

I swallowed hard, my mouth so dry my lips ached, and tried to think of something to say, but I couldn’t.

“Come here,” she said.

I set down my paintbrush, careful not to drip paint, and got up. She twisted around on her stool, watching me approach. What was going on here? What did I plan to do when I reached her? I had no idea, no plan, but still I crossed the room one step right after another.

When I stopped, I was close enough to reach out, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.

The silence between us was charged, so intense my stomach twisted and I wished I hadn’t eaten that Kit-Kat bar right before I came here to paint.

Before I babbled out something stupid or, worse, did something inappropriate, there was a light knock at the door.

“Claud, you ready?” Stacey’s voice startled me, and I took a quick step back from Ashley. There was no reason for me to do that. I didn’t immediately look away from her, though, and for a second, I thought I saw regret slip across her face.

“Sorry I’m late,” Stacey said. “I got stuck with a customer while Mom was talking to a supplier.”

She was late? I glanced at the clock and realized I’d lost twenty minutes watching Ashley sculpt. Stacey was late, but I was running later still, and we were supposed to go buy snacks for the party tomorrow night.

“Let me just clean up.” I rushed back to my easel, crossing my fingers that I hadn’t accidentally started painting Ashley into the abstract design I’d been working on for weeks. Stacey joined me there, gently tugging on the slender gold necklace wrapped four times around her throat.

Abstract art is not always her favorite thing – she loves math and to be on the edge of fashion trends, and it makes sense that she prefers structure to her art – but I have been working with her to teach her to appreciate it.

“I like it,” she said at last, the words coming slowly. “The colors … it’s nice.”

She might not have the artistic vocabulary to critique what she saw, but I basked under her praise. It always felt good to know someone liked my work.

I cleaned up quickly, left my smock shirt in the cabinet with my supplies, and grabbed my big patchwork purse. When I was ready, I turned to say good-bye to Ashley, but she was staring intently down at her sculpture, frowning. I didn’t want to interrupt her, and I still wasn’t sure what had happened between us, or almost happened between us, or hadn’t happened at all. Maybe I was imagining a moment just because I really wanted it to be true.

I swung my bag over my shoulder and followed Stacey out the door.

#

Dawn’s mom and Mary Anne’s dad were out of town for the weekend. I was surprised that Mary Anne’s dad left her alone even now, but he had really loosened up since he married Dawn’s mom.

Of course, they didn’t know about the party.

Their house is this really chilly old renovated barn. (Why they had to renovate is sad, their old house burned down back in eighth grade – everything happened back then, or maybe it just feels that way – and Mary Anne lost almost all the mementos she had of her mother, who died when Mary Anne was young.) It’s a great place to party because it has big open spaces and lots of room.

It wasn’t a super wild party, that’s not really our style, but there were wine coolers Kristy’s older brother, Charlie, in town on break, bought for us, and someone spiked the punch with rum. No one was all that drunk.

Stacey rushed up to me when I was in the kitchen looking for a corkscrew. “Claudia, come quick.”

“What’s wrong?” I grabbed her arm. “Is it your diabetes? Do you need some honey? Do you need to sit down?”

“No, no, I’m fine. Just come on.”

I let her pull me out of the kitchen and toward the front door. In the hallway, she stopped so fast I bumped into her.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

She smiled, a little smug and knowing, and my curiosity peaked.

“Stace?”

“Just wait,” she said. “You’ll like it, I promise.”

“Like what?” But even as I asked it, the doorbell rang. “Did you order pizza?”

She kept smiling and gave me a little push. I shrugged. “Hope you have cash, because I’m broke,” I laughed, and opened the door.

It wasn’t pizza.

Ashley Wyeth stood in front of me, a long dark red coat blocking most of her outfit.

“Hey,” I said, and felt my cheeks heat.

“Oh, look.” Stacey bumped the back of one of my knees with her foot and I stumbled a step forward. “Someone hung mistletoe over the door. What a strange place for it.”

I looked up, and sure enough, Ashley and I stood together beneath mistletoe I was absolutely certain had not been there a few hours ago when I first showed up. I stared at it for a moment, then looked back at Stacey, but she was gone.

That’s when it all clicked into place.

“Good lord,” I said. Part of me was thrilled, because if my friends were playing matchmaker, they knew my secret and they were fine and that meant a lot to me, and part of me was thrilled to see Ashley, who didn’t often attend any parties, but the rest of me was hot all over with embarrassment.

She reached out and touched my cheek. No snow had fallen in over a week, but the air was so cold it stung my skin. Her fingers were bare despite that, and soft.

“It’s tradition,” I said inanely, and she shook her head.

“When I kiss you, it’s because I want to kiss you, not some stolen belief.”

“When you—” That’s as far as I got, because she stepped in close and tilted her face up and dropped her hands to my waist.

I did what anyone would do in this situation. I froze and gaped at her unattractively.

That’s when she kissed me.

I so owed my friends a big thank you for playing matchmaker. Maybe I’d even resurrect our pizza toasts.