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Three Cheers for Christmas Time!

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Click, clack, click, click, click, clack, click, clack, click, click, click, click, click. Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee! A bright and cheery beeping interrupted my focus. “Ugh…” I paused my game and picked up the brick, glanced at it, then ended the call. “Nope.” Unpause. Click, click, click, click, click, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack. Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee! I ended the call without looking up from the game. “Brian, stop calling me.” Cli-- Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee! I picked up the brick and threw it across the room. “Agh! Brian!!” I paused the game and leaned back against the cold, leather couch. “You’ve been really annoying lately…”

Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee!

“Brian!”

Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee!

“I’m not answering Brian!” I crossed my arms and frowned.

Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee!

I buried my head in my hands and leaned against my knees. “Ugh…”

Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee!

I ran my hand through my hair before standing up and walking over to where I threw my phone, then leaned over and grabbed it. I turned it over and upside down. “Not broken. This thing is hardy.”

Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee!

“Agh!” I shrieked and dropped it again.

Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee!

I bent over and picked it up, answering and putting it to my ear as I stood. “Brian?”

“Where are you?!? Are you okay?!?” I pulled the phone away as he shouted.

I looked back across the room with its white walls, black leather couches and chairs, gray carpet, final fantasy on the wide television, movie posters and a framed Bucs jersey on the wall. Why would I not be okay, Brian? “Uh… yeah… Are you?!? You’ve called me a --” Oops.

“So you do know that I’ve been calling you.” His voice sounded annoyed.

I leaned on the phone and held it between my head and shoulder as I sat back down on the floor in front of the couch. I unpaused the game. Click clack clack click. “I was at a part of the game I couldn’t pause.”

“And yesterday?”

“I was in the shower?”

“All day?”

“I took a nap?”

“All week?”

I bit my lip. “Uhh…” What else do people do? Would he believe it if I said I was deep cleaning my house?

He sighed, “Look, I’m glad you’re okay. Are you mad at everyone? Howie told me you were ignoring his calls too.”

“What?! No! Of course not!” I pursed my lips and mumbled. “It’s just that Secret Santa thing…” Click clack clack clack.

“Oh, yeah. Who do you have?”

“It’s-- Agh!” The phone fell in my lap as I jerked away from it. I paused the game quickly, hung up the call, and chucked the phone across the room again. I dropped the game controller on the ground and ran my hand through my hair. I can’t believe I almost told him… That’s what he’s been trying to figure out all week, who I have for Secret Santa… He wasn’t worried about me at all! And he’s getting Howie to do his dirty work! I clenched my fist. You’re so mean and sneaky Brian!

Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee!

“I’m ignoring you, Brian!” I pointed across the room at where I’d thrown it.

Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee!

“Ugh…” I groaned and leaned against the couch again. “Fine…” I stood up and shuffled over to the phone slowly.

Beedle dee dee beedley dee dee!

I picked it up slowly and put it back to my ear. “Brian…” I frowned.

He laughed, “I’m sorry that was mean. Consider it payback for ignoring us over Secret Santa.”

“Let’s talk about anything else!” I shouted as I walked back to the couch and flopped on the floor.

“Okay… Did you want to drive to Howie’s together tonight?”

I unpaused the game and rolled my eyes, “So you can ambush me together? No thanks.” Click clack clack click click clack.

He laughed again. “Why would I ambush you when I could just ask you on the phone and you’ll tell me. Who do you--”

“WHAT’S A SECRET SANTA?!!”

He laughed. “You’re terrible at keeping secrets. Do you want to drive to Howie’s together tonight or not?”

Okay… not an ambush… I paused it again. “For what?”

“What do you mean ‘for what’? For Secret Santa.”

“I will hang up and throw this phone again, Brian! I’m not telling you!”

“I’m not asking you to tell me. We’re exchanging the gifts tonight. Do you want to drive over to Howie’s together?”

“We’re exchanging them on the 18th because you and Kevin are going back to Kentucky on the 19th.”

“Yes…”

“That’s next week.”

“Nick, the 18th is today.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s--”

“Nick, I love you, buddy, but it’s today.”

I loosened my grip on the phone, but caught it before it fell. “Oh no...”

“Oh no, you almost threw your phone again or oh no, you messed up your game because you’re talking to me?” He laughed.

“Oh no!” Time to panic?

“You actually sound worried… You haven’t bought your gift yet, have you?”

“I was so busy avoiding you guys so I wouldn’t tell you that I forgot!” Time to panic!

“Nick…” He sounds frustrated... “Do you want me to go with you?”

“Then you’ll know who I have!”

“I won’t pay attention to what you get. Do you want help?”

“It’s called Secret Santa for a reason, Brian! It’s a secret!”

“Nick…”

I frowned. “No… It’s fine… I should go now though…”

“Okay, but did you want to drive over together at 6:30?”

“Yeah, sure… I’ll call you once I’m in Orlando. Bye.” I hung up hurriedly. Oh no… I looked back at the television. Oh a save point. I unpaused, saved the game, exited back to the main screen quickly, and powered down the console. Once it was off, I put the controller on my knees and leaned on them. I’m the worst… My stomach feels like there’s bugs crawling around in it. I’m the worst friend ever… And Kevin will just smile and say I can give it to him when he gets back. I’m the worst…

I can’t mope! It’s tonight, not right now! I stood quickly. I still have… I looked at the brick.

 

Saturday, December 18th, 1999 at 1:30pm

Five hours to get a gift and get there! I can do this! Keys! I started marching out of the room and turned down the hall, then turned around and walked the other way. First I need to shower!

 

~*~

 

2:12pm

I slammed my car door and peered into the window for a moment. Aviators, check. Nike baseball cap… I pulled it down low over the sunglasses. Check. Bucs hoodie. I pulled up the hood and tightened the strings. Check. I’m unrecognizable. I frowned. Probably not... I just have to focus and not get distracted. Four hours to go!

I started singing to myself in my head. Power walking through the parking lot… Don’t recognize me. Don’t recognize me. Don’t recognize me. Car. Walking away from the car. Can’t get hit. Have to get Kevin’s present… Don’t make eye contact with anyone. No eye contact. No eye contact. Car. Car. There’s lots of cars in this parking lot... Why did we have to pick the busiest day ever to do Secret Santa? Ugh. Everyone else probably bought their gifts a long time ago because of that. Nick you’re just procrastinating. Stop procrastinating and it won’t be busy... Car. Don’t get hit by the car. Made it! Now what?

I looked down at the sidewalk then out at the rows of stores wrapped in concrete.

I don’t want a lot for Christmas…

Ugh, Mariah Carey… This song is the worst. Okay… Oh! Sam Goody. Maybe I can get Kevin some new music.

All I want for Christmas is you…

Ugh, Mariah Carey, why are you in here too? I paused at a small table near the front and eyed the sign on it. Stocking stuffers? I picked up a small frame with our logo on it and pressed my thumb against it. They make such weird merchandise for us. I shook my head and put it back down. Then looked up around the store. A large picture of my face stared back at me from the poster wall. Who needs a picture of my face that big? I don’t get it. I put my hands in my jean pockets and walked over to the CD racks and thumbed through them. He has this, has this, has this, has this, has this… If only Kevin were a Backstreet Boys fan. I bet I could find him some weird merchandise he didn’t own already. Has this, has this, has this...

 

2:54pm

I flicked the CDs back in place. Gotta go. Can’t waste time here.

I walked out of the store and stretched. Oh good, just regular Christmas carols. Clothes? No, Kevin can buy his own clothes. Kitchen stuff? No, he’s never home. Luggage? Maybe Kevin needs new luggage for when we’re touring. I crossed the plaza and walked into the store.

Make my wish come true…

Ugh… Why? I scanned the luggage in the store. What does everything cost in here anyway? I glanced at a kid sized suitcase on the floor and pulled up its tag. How is this $100?! That means there’s nothing Kevin sized in here that’s $50 or less. I put my hands back in my pockets and walked back out.

 

3:07pm

I started singing in my head again. Okay… Gotta get Kevin a gift that he’ll actually like… Everything here is terrible… Why is Kevin so hard to shop for? He’s just hard to shop for, Nick. Maybe next time don’t wait until the last minute to go shopping. I just forgot okay… Blame Brian for being sneaky… He’s so sneaky… Trying to find out my Secret Santa... All these stores are terrible… They’re so terrible…

 

3:16pm

I sniffed a candle. Blegh, pine barf. I glared at it. First snow? What a weird name for pine barf. I plopped it back on the shelf. Does Kevin even like candles? That seems more like a Howie or AJ thing. Ocean breeze? I picked it up and sniffed it. Blegh. What is that?! That doesn’t even smell like an ocean. It’s not salty enough… It smells... sweet? Like it’s trying to be candy instead of an ocean. Sandy beaches? I picked it up.

I don’t want a lot for Christmas...

Arg! I have to get out of here! Why is everyone playing this song?! Sandy beaches, I bet you smell terrible anyway! I put it back on the shelf. Then power walked out of the store.

Kitchen stuff? Maybe Kevin needs kitchen stuff after all. I’m running out of stores! He eats when he’s home! I stopped at the front table with kitchen gadgets displayed and picked up the first thing I saw. A tiny ice cream scoop? Seems unnecessary, but okay... I leaned down and read the price tag. Melon baller? Why would you want to ball melons? I put it back in the jar and picked up a tiny spatula. Why is this so small? I picked up a tiny whisk. Why is this so small? Why are there so many small versions of perfectly normal kitchen tools?! I picked up a tiny pencil sharpener. What? I bent down again and peered at the label. Carrot peeler and sharpener?! What?! I put it back down and put my head in my hands. I hate this store, everything is confusing and unnecessary!

I don’t want a lot for Christmas…

My eye started twitching, so I turned and stomped out of the store.

 

3:34pm

Oh good, normal holiday songs… I’ve been here for an hour. Only an hour and half until I have to meet Brian… There’s literally nothing! Kevin, why are you so hard to shop for?! I groaned. It’s not your fault… I put it off too long. I should have shopped sooner. I frowned and looked up. “Fanfare?”

The store in front of me was brimming with various sports paraphernalia. NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, colleges… Shirts, hats, lawn chairs, mugs, helmets, footballs… This… This might work. I walked in slowly in awe. This could definitely work. Ooh, John Lynch jersey. I beelined over to the red 47 jersey and ran my fingers over it. I could buy this… I could always use a new jersey... No, no, I’m shopping for Kevin. I bopped my hat with my hand. For Kevin, Nick!

I don’t want a lot for Christmas…

“...There is just one thing I need…” Oh no… It’s gotten to me.

I locked eyes with a guy across the store examining a UF branded folding table for tailgating. I looked away quickly and pretended to look at the jersey again. Quick, is he looking at me still? I glanced back. Yup, he’s staring at me. He looks confused. Does he recognize my voice? I coughed. Don’t get recognized. I have to find Kevin’s gift. I ran my hand on my forehead. Okay… Kentucky, Kentucky, Kentucky… Ah! My eyes landed on a table of various college sweatshirts. I picked it up. One Kentucky sweatshirt! This will do! He’ll actually like this! I checked the price tag. $60? I’ll pretend it was on sale… I look at the tag, oh, but this is a medium. That’s too small… Maybe they have more? I carried it over to the counter.

“Hi, do you actually have this in a large?” I held it up.

The employee shook his head, “What’s out is out unless it’s a Florida team. We should have more after the new year if you want me to include it in our next order.”

I frowned. “How about anything else Kentucky?” I literally can’t find anything else he would like… 

He shook his head.

Maybe this will work? “That’s okay… I think this will work.” I literally can’t find anything else, it has to work. I handed him my card as he scanned it and put it in a bag.

“Receipt with you or in the bag?”

“Bag’s fine.”

He handed me my card and the bag. “Happy holidays.”

“Thanks. You too.” I nodded and took the bag from him while putting my card back in my wallet.

Gotta avoid eye contact with table guy while I leave. I glanced at him, then blocked my face with my hand. He’s still staring at me. Nailed it!? I walked through the doors and eyed a bench across from the store. Ugh, I need to sit down. I flopped on the bench, tossed my bag on it, and pulled the brick out of my pocket.

 

Saturday, December 18th, 1999 at 3:56pm

I leaned on my knees and put my head in my hands. Kevin… I’m sorry… I keep acting like you’re hard to shop for, but I’m just trying to do something great in hours when we decided to do this in November… I’ve had a month to shop for you in lots of different places and figure it out… I’m the worst. Even though you’d like this in the right size, it’s not really what I was hoping to get… I wish there was something I could get you so you know I’ve always enjoyed being around you, appreciated you as a friend, and loved you like a real brother... I lifted my head quickly. Oh! I’ll go get that!

I jumped up, grabbed the bag, and started running the opposite direction. I stopped quickly and turned around. Also a gift box… Alright Hallmark…

“I won’t even wish for snow…”

Agh!

 

~*~

 

4:46pm

I dropped my three bags by the door and ran through the house. I have to find it! I threw my hat on the floor and started taking off my sweatshirt as I ran up the stairs. I have to hurry so I can drive over! Gotta hurry!

 

5:04pm

Gotta hurry! Have to drive! I fixed the collar on my blue polo as I leaped down the stairs, then dumped the contents of the two smaller bags in the big bag with the last part of my gift and ran out to my car.

 

5:15pm

“So what’s wrong with takin’ the back streets?” I tapped the steering wheel as I drove down the highway.

 

5:28pm

“And that’s about the time she walked awaaayyy from meeee!” I wonder what they’re listening to in the car in front of me. Is it this?

 

5:37pm

“Noooothiiiinnnnngggg to hiiiiiidddeeee… Beeelieeeveeee what I saaaaayyyyyy…” I fist pumped and gestured with my left arm dramatically.

 

5:53pm

“Brian’s… a liar… His pants… on fire… Get mad… while you wait… Traffic’s made me late!”

 

6:20pm

“All you people can’t you see, can’t you see… I’m waiting for this light to turn green… Every time it’s red, I am really late. And I hate making Brian wait!” I tapped the steering wheel and mumbled. “Even though he’s sneaky…”

 

6:37pm

I pulled up to the Marriott and parked in a spot, then I pulled the items from my bag, hurriedly trying to put them together. I held the brick between my cheek and my shoulder as it rang.

“Hello?

“Hi Brian! There was traffic! Do you just want me to drive because my car’s running?”

He chuckled, “That’s fine.”

“Cool cool, I’m just packing my gift.”

“Do you mean wrapping?”

“Oh no…”

Brian chuckled. “You have a box. That’s a start! I’m sure Howie has gift wrap.”

“Ugh, I hope so… This day has been stressful! I’m never procrastinating again!”

Brian laughed… hard. He laughed so hard he may have even sat down. I don’t know, I couldn’t see him over the phone. That would be crazy, looking at people while you’re talking to them on the phone...

“Bri-an…” I whined. Oh no…

He laughed even harder. After a few minutes, he cleared his throat. “Thanks for that, Nick. I’m coming downstairs.”

I frowned and crossed my arms, “You’re welcome, I guess.”

“Stop frowning and finish packing your gift so I don’t see it! Unless you just want to tell me--”

“I’m hanging up, Brian!”

He laughed again. “See you downstairs.”

I hung up the phone and folded the sweatshirt over the second part of the gift. I hope Kevin likes it. I closed the box quickly as I peered over my shoulder. Brian better not sneak up on me.

I jumped at a knock at my window. Brian waved and smiled. I made stupid faces at him for a minute, he made stupid faces back, we laughed, then I unlocked the doors.

“We’re already late, Nick.” He grinned.

“If it’s that bad, then stop smiling.” I grinned back at him.

He punched my shoulder. “Pack your gift?”

I pointed to the back seat. “Packed. Yours?”

Brian set a plastic bag in the back seat, then buckled his seatbelt. “Wrapped. Let’s go!” He pulled my car door closed and gave me a thumbs up.

I backed up and we started the drive to Howie’s house.

 

6:54pm

“Every time our eyes meet…” Brian drawled.

“This feeling inside me…” I started singing with him.

“Is almost more than I can take…” I miss times like this when we would just sing together whenever. Everything’s always busy now… Oh well, at least there’s now. I beamed as we sang together for the rest of the song.

 

7:12pm

As soon as Howie opened the door, I ran through and into his entry room. “Hi Howie, I need wrapping paper!”

“Glad you’re okay, Nick?” He stared at me like I was a crazy person. Maybe I am? “It’s in the dining room. Write your name on a gift tag so your Secret Santa can put it on your present.”

Brian laughed, gave Howie a hug, and shut the door. “He’s high strung today. He thought we were trying to get his Secret Santa out of him.”

“Just checking in. Trying to figure out what he wanted for dinner…”

Brian laughed again. “I almost got it out of him by asking casually. He’s a terrible liar.”

“I can hear you!” I shouted from the doorway to the dining room.

Brian cupped his hand by his mouth, “I know, I’m talking loudly on purpose.”

I grumbled as I walked into the dining room. I grabbed the gift wrap roll, scissors, tape, and a bow off the table and put them on the floor. I sat on the floor, spread out the supplies, and hurriedly wrapped the gift.

Brian walked into the room. “Oh, we got the same wrapping paper, Howie.”

“AJ asked if he could wrap his here, so I asked Kevin to bring your wrapping paper so it would be more of a surprise for everyone.”

Brian ducked under the table, “Bet you’re glad you didn’t wrap yours now.”

“Haha, Brian.” I frowned at him.

“That’s what happens when you ignore our calls, Nick.”

I stood and squished the bow in my hand. “You just wanted to find out who I had!”

“And I would have if you’d wrapped it differently. It all worked out for you.” He smiled as he wrote his name on one of the gift tags.

I set my gift on the table and frowned. “You could have just told me you brought wrapping paper.”

Brian smiled, “Consider us even for ignoring my calls.”

I crossed my arms, “Ugh, fine. Sorry Brian, sorry Howie.”

Howie smiled, “It’s okay. I just got pizza. I figured you’d eat anything.”

“Yup!” I smiled. I gave a quick glance to the gift tags, grabbed an empty one and wrote my name.

Brian walked out of the room toward the kitchen.

Howie grabbed a tag and placed it on a gift to the side of the table with a green bow, then left.

I grabbed Kevin’s tag quickly, plopped it on my gift and put the gold bow on top of it, then put it on top of Howie’s gift. After all the stress today, I think I earned a pizza.

I grabbed a slice of pizza from the box in the kitchen, flipped it closed, and walked into Howie’s living room. Brian was hugging Kevin and AJ next to the Christmas tree in the corner of the room. Howie’s a fast decorator…  The center of the room had been rearranged to circle a glass coffee table. There was one couch and three chairs.

I waved as I shoved the pizza in my mouth, “Hi Kufin! Hayjay!”

AJ frowned as he sat back down. “What?”

Kevin put his hand in head, “Nick… swallow…”

Oops. I swallowed. “Hi Kevin! Hi AJ!” I shoved the rest of the pizza in my mouth.

Brian started laughing again.

“Is this the first thing you’ve had to eat today?” Howie asked.

“You need to eat.” Kevin frowned.

I swallowed. “I was just really busy today. I’m getting more pizza, anyone want any?”

They shook their heads.

“What were you doing?” AJ asked, “Glad you’re alive, by the way.”

“A little of this, a little of that.” I leaned back in the doorway.

AJ crossed his arms. “You forgot we were doing this today and had to finish your shopping this morning didn’t you?”

Brian laughed again as I shook my head and wandered back into the kitchen.

“Okay… Well now we know that Nick’s present might be terrible.”

I frowned as I chewed and walked back into the room. “Ifs nuh turribuh.”

“Nick… swallow…”

I glanced at all of them, then shoved the rest of the pizza in my mouth. When I swallowed, I repeated, “It’s not terrible.”

AJ smiled, “But you aren’t denying that you went shopping today.”

I settled on the couch next to Kevin and crossed my arms. “I’ve been busy!”

AJ mimicked playing video games, then grinned. “I’m teasing because I love you!”

I frowned. “Fine, fine, just get it all out of the way now.”

AJ pointed a finger gun at me, “Pew, pew.” His grin grew, “I’m done.”

I leaned back into the couch. “You’ll still be in town, AJ? Howie?”

Howie nodded. “You can stay here if you want.”

“Yeah, come hang out if you get bored in Tampa.”

I frowned, “I should probably see my family for a little bit… Since I’m here…”

Kevin gave my shoulder a light pat. “One week until our show.”

I smiled, “Yeah. You’ll all be back soon. Present time?”

Kevin chuckled and tousled my hair. “Hopefully you like whatever you get.”

Brian walked back toward the kitchen, “I’ll grab the gifts. I have to label mine. Everybody else good?”

It was a chorus of “Yeah.”

I stood up too, “I’m getting another pizza. Anybody else?”

AJ, Howie, and Kevin shook their heads.

I walked into the kitchen, grabbed another slice of pizza and walked out as Brian was walking by. “Want help?”

“Sure,” he smiled.

I took the top couple of gifts and carried them into the room, setting them on top of Brian’s pile after he set them down next to the glass table.

I settled back in next to Kevin and started eating my pizza again.

“Nick, you’re in charge of passing out gifts.” Brian walked into the kitchen.

“Muh? Fwai?”

“Youngest passes out gifts!” He called from the kitchen.

I swallowed. “Okay… Everyone at once?”

He walked back in with a pizza slice. “Whatever you want.”

“Okay… You’re eating a pizza… So I guess…” I wiped my hands on my jeans and pulled apart the gift pile. “Howie can go first for hosting?” I handed it to Howie.

“Alright! Thanks, Nick.” Howie smiled. He unwrapped the paper carefully and placed the wrapping paper and the silver bow on the table. He laughed and started pulling out the items, “A sleep mask, an alarm clock, a shower cap, a candle…” He sniffed it, “Hmm, sandy beaches.”

He set it on the table, so I leaned over and sniffed it. Blegh!

He laughed, “And… a card that says ‘I will help you get back at Nick the next time he pranks you. Thank you, AJ, for trying to help me relax.”

AJ grinned.

I let go of the candle. “What?!”

They laughed and hugged.

I crossed my arms and pouted, then pulled through the pile. “I guess AJ gets his next because Howie guessed him right.” I handed it to AJ. “Even though he’s plotting…”

AJ grinned. “Thanks, Nick.” He pulled his chair closer to the table.

AJ unwrapped the paper and put the blue bow in his hair. He pulled out a small leather bag. “Hmm… I wonder which one of you had me...” He unzipped it and started putting the contents on the table. “Some eyeliner… A facial hair comb... A new beanie… New sunglasses… Black nail polish?” He laughed, “I get it, a tour touch up kit. Kevin?”

Kevin laughed, “You got me. There’s one more thing.”

AJ pulled a small card out of the leather bag. “One big brother pep talk.” He grinned, “Thanks Kevin. I’ll save this for the right time.” He stood and gave Kevin a tight hug.

“Merry Christmas, AJ.” Kevin smiled.

AJ sat back down and started painting his nails. I covered my nose, blegh. I stood and pulled through the pile quickly. “Brian.” I handed him his present while looking at the ground.

Kevin glanced at me, but didn’t say anything.

I glanced back at him and bit my lip. He knows…

Brian shook his head, then smiled, “My turn already! Let’s see. It’s either Howie or Nick! This is getting easy!”  He pulled the wrapping paper off the present with the green bow and opened the box. “Great! New basketball shorts and a Kentucky baseball hat. And, a card…” He laughed, “Thanks Howie! I will happily use the shower before you any time we’re sharing a bathroom. I’ll treasure this.” He stood and gave him a hug.

“I know we set a $50 limit, but sometimes you need to include something priceless.”

We all laughed.

I picked up my gift and Kevin’s gift. I handed his gift to him quickly and sat down on the couch again. “Kevin goes next. I should go last since I handed them out.” I leaned on my present. He’s going to hate it…

Kevin smiled, glanced at Brian and then me. “Let’s see what Brian or Nick picked out for me…”

He knows… He’s going to hate it. Am I sweating? I think I’m sweating.

Kevin chuckled, “Probably Nick since he’s refusing to look at me.”

“What? No? Not me. What did Brian get you?” I sputtered out quickly and looked at the gift box with the gold bow as I bit my lip.

Kevin chuckled again as he unwrapped the gift, “And you can’t have yourself for Secret Santa.”

Ugh! I buried my head into my gift. I should have handed Kevin his first, then anyone could have been his terrible gift giver...

He lifted the box lid and ran his hand on the sweatshirt. “A new Big Blue sweatshirt! Thank you, Nick. I needed a new one.”

Am I sweating? I think I’m sweating… Should I just tell him?

He pursed his lips.

He knows… Ugh… I should just say something… “They!” I sat up, “...They didn't have the right size… I know it’s too small... I owe you the right size after the holidays… Or a different one the next time we’re in Kentucky…” I hung my head, but peeked up at him.

He smiled and patted my shoulder. “That’s okay, Nick. You tried your best. It’s not your fault if they didn’t have the right size.”

I leaned on my gift again with my arms crossed. I feel terrible… And he’s still smiling about it… “There’s… something else there too… Inside of it...”

“Oh, okay...” Kevin unfolded the sweatshirt and started laughing. “Nick?”

I buried my head in my crossed arms, “It’s a great stocking stuffer!”

 

~*~

 

4:22pm

I ran back into the Sam Goody and beelined for the stocking stuffers table by the door. I snatched the Backstreet Boys frame from it and hopped into the line to pay. Don’t make eye contact with anyone! Don’t talk to anyone! You have to leave Tampa in half an hour!

I don’t want a lot for Christmas…

WHY?!?! It’s only been two hours! I bounced on my heels, fiddling with the frame as I waited in line. This is taking forever! Half an hour… half an hour… half an hour… Oh, my turn! I handed it to the employee behind the counter.

He looked at it and rolled his eyes, “Teenage girls like such stupid things… Boy bands aren’t even real musicians.”

“A--” I started. Arg! Nick, don’t get recognized! I can’t tell him we’re a vocal harmony group or that I can play the drums and Brian’s teaching me how to play guitar… I took a breath. “All music has value.” That… works? It’s true… I handed my card to him.

He rolled his eyes again as he ran it. “Whatever. Receipt with you or in the bag?”

“Bag’s fine. Thank you.” I took the bag from him and ran out of the store. There’s still time! Have to get home and find it!

 

~*~

 

Kevin held up the picture frame. “I’ll treasure this cheesy Backstreet Boys merchandise, maybe put a picture of all of us in it. Thank you Nick.” He chuckled.

AJ, Howie, and Brian are laughing too. Ugh, he hates it… “If you don’t like the one in there, that’s fine…”

Kevin pulled the frame back toward him and quickly perused the note I’d written before peeling it from the photo. He smiled and tousled my hair. “Of course I won’t, Nick. It’s the thought that counts at Christmas. I read you loud and clear.”

I looked up at him with a small smile and caught him beaming. My big brother...

 

~*~

 

4:46pm

I dropped my three bags by the door and ran through the house. I have to find it! I threw my hat on the floor and started taking off my sweatshirt as I ran up the stairs. I have to hurry so I can drive over! Gotta hurry!

I threw my sweatshirt on the stairs as I continued running up them. I have to find it! I ran into my room and tripped on my suitcase. My sunglasses fell on the floor. I picked them up and shoved them on my head before standing up. I picked up my suitcase and threw it on the bed. Then a second suitcase. Then a third. Then a duffle bag. I unzipped them one by one and started throwing things out of them. It was like a clothing hurricane hit my room. As I found small papers and photographs, I set them on my bed. I unzipped a small pocket inside the duffle bag and pulled out a small stack of photographs. Finally found the rest! I shuffled through them and pulled out the one I was looking for: it was a little crumpled and had a tape fix from the time the corner got caught in a zipper. There was also a tiny rip on one side near the yellowed date numbers 1994. I smoothed it and smiled at the old photo. Kevin leaned on my head as he held a bagel and smiled at the camera. I was mid-bite, but instead of looking at the camera, I was looking up at Kevin with… adoration might be the best word. This crumpled, ripped, and taped picture with old yellow numbers will definitely say everything. I grabbed a pen and one of the pieces of paper on my bed and scribbled a quick note.

“This Christmas, one of my best gifts is having you for an older brother. Hopefully you feel the same and enjoy this reminder of your little brother even while we’re apart. See you soon and Merry Christmas, Kevin. Your little brother, Nick.”

 

~*~

 

Kevin set it on the floor and wrapped me in a hug. “Our friendship is always a gift, little brother.”

I hugged him back, beaming.

Howie, Brian, and AJ leaned over to look at the photo.

“That was an early one.” Howie smiled, “One of our mall performances?”

“Too early in the day for the high schools, so probably?” Brian responded.

“I think my mom took that one… If you want one that’s less ripped, Kevin, I can ask her.” AJ added.

He picked it up and smiled, “I love it. Rips and all.”

“Sorry, it got stuck in my suitcase zipper once.” I frowned. “I always bring it when we tour or travel.”

Kevin’s smile grew and he tousled my hair again. “I love every rip.”

I glanced at AJ, “If the offer for another one is still out there, I’ll take one.”

AJ smiled. “Done. I’ll ask her on Christmas.”

Kevin patted my shoulder. “Alright, Nick, what did Brian get you?”

I tore open the paper and pulled up the lid.

“Okay, part of it was sincere and planned out, but part of it was a last minute addition.” Brian chuckled.

I pulled out a basketball.

“That’s my promise to get some hoops in with you for the rest of the tour and when we’re recording.”

I beamed, then pulled out a set of dominoes.

“Because you lost the double eleven and were worried about it.”

Basketball and dominoes. The gift is time. I smiled. “Thanks Brian.”

“Don’t thank me yet.” He chuckled.

I pulled out the last item and held it up. “Why… is it a calendar of my face?” More cheesy Backstreet Boys merchandise… Who are we?

All of them started laughing.

“Why?”

Brian caught his breath, “You need to be better about remembering dates, but I wasn’t sure if you would trust anyone besides yourself to help you remember them.” He started laughing again.

Everyone else roared with laughter. I stared at it, then started laughing too. Even if we get sick of each other sometimes, the best gift at Christmas and all year is being with the people who really care about you. I stood up and tackled Brian. Pretty soon, we were in a big group hug, still laughing.

“Merry Christmas, guys!” I shouted.

“Merry Christmas!”