Author's note: And, the conclusion! Wow, I didn't expect such a large response so quickly. Thank you so much!
This chapter mentions sea glass. This thing won't let me put a link in this document, but you can google "blue sea glass pendant" to see some examples. Pretty, huh?
By lunchtime the next day, Jack was ready to punch something.
He had slept in late, and when he finally came downstairs, his mother was waiting with a big smile and an even bigger breakfast. She kept his plate heaped high and his juice glass full. For the rest of the morning, she was constantly asking him if he was OK, if he needed anything, if he wanted to go out….
By noon, he had had enough. He grabbed his jacket out of the hall closet and headed for the front door.
"Where are you going?" she asked worriedly.
"Out." He pulled open the door.
"I'll be back later." He slammed the door behind him, stopping any further conversation.
Jack's feet seemed to automatically carry him to the dojo. It was closed and the lights were out, but Rudy had given him a key in case he wanted to come in and practice after hours. And right now, a good workout was exactly what he needed.
Jack flipped on the lights and looked around. Though it was busy and noisy outside, the dojo contained a peaceful quiet. He took a deep breath and let it out. Something about this place was relaxing and comfortable. It was a refuge, and martial arts was the best stress reliever he had ever found.
He changed into the track pants and t-shirt that were always in his locker. For over an hour, he kicked, punched, hit the dummies, flipped the nun chucks, and swung the bow staff. He had been doing martial arts for so long now that his body responded automatically, without much conscious thought on his part. He could block everything out and just perform until he was sweaty and out of breath.
Finally, muscles started to ache. Reluctantly Jack stopped, knowing that he would be sore tomorrow if he pushed it too hard. He cleaned up and changed back into his street clothes and left, being sure to lock the door behind him.
Jack wandered the mall for a bit, but it was crowded with people finishing up their last-minute Christmas shopping. That kind of atmosphere was not what he wanted. Once again, his feet seemed to carry him automatically to a new destination; Kim's house. She had said to stop by if he wanted. And right now, he needed a friend.
And Kim was a great friend. The best he had ever had. Maybe even more than that, although they had never seemed to be able to take that big step past friendship. At least, not yet. He wasn't even sure that was what she wanted, or what he wanted. Kim was…well, she was Kim, and she was so important to him already. What if they crossed a line and couldn't find their way back to what they had before?
At her front door he hesitated for a second, then boldly knocked. After a moment, a pretty blonde woman answered and smiled when she saw him.
"Hi, Mrs. Crawford," he said politely. "Is Kim home?"
"Yes, she is. Come on in."
Kim's house had a homey, comfortable feel to it. Christmas lights and garlands were strung over doorways and up the staircase. Stockings hung over the fireplace. From the kitchen, he could hear the sounds of talking and giggling. Jack sighed. This is how Christmas should be, he thought. Family, decorations, food, talking, laughing…
"Kim?" her mom called into the kitchen. "You have company."
Kim came to the doorway, and her eyes widened when she saw Jack standing there. He fought back a laugh.
Kim's hair was pulled back into a messy braid. She was wearing pajama pants with reindeer on them and an oversized t-shirt. And her forehead and nose were streaked with what appeared to be flour.
"Hey, Kim. You said I could stop by, you know."
"Yeah…I did say that, didn't I? Ummm…"
They were interrupted when a seven year-old blonde little girl launched herself at Jack and latched onto his leg. "Jack!"
"Hey, Kylie," he said to Kim's little sister, patting her on the back.
"We made COOKIES! Come see my cookies!"
"Yeah," Kim agreed. "Why don't you go check out the cookies, and I'll, um, be right back." She turned and practically ran up the stairs to her room.
In the kitchen, an array of sugar cookies in Christmas shapes was spread out over the counter. An older woman, whom Jack assumed was Kim's grandmother, nodded and smiled when he came in the room. A younger boy and girl stood on stools, stirring bowls of colored icing. They looked up briefly when Kylie dragged Jack into the room, then promptly went back to smearing the cookies and each other with icing.
Kylie handed Jack an un-iced cookie in the shape of a bell. "You make one."
"OK. What color should I use?"
Jack dutifully painted the cookie with green icing, then outlined the whole thing in yellow. Kylie handed him another one, shaped like a star.
"Now you make one for Kim. Blue. She likes blue."
By the time he finished painting the star cookie blue and adding round silver sprinkles to it, Kim had returned. She had re-braided her hair, changed her clothes, and washed the flour off her face.
Kylie pointed to the blue cookie. "Look, Kim. Jack made one for you!" She picked it up and handed it to her older sister, leaving a big finger print in the middle of the icing.
Kim stared at the damaged cookie. "Great. Yummy."
"Aren't you going to eat it?"
"Yeah, Kim," Jack teased. "Aren't you going to eat it?"
"No, and you wouldn't either, if you knew where those hands had been."
Kylie jumped down from her stool and grabbed both Kim and Jack and dragged them back into the living room. "Stand right here!" she insisted, pulling them to a spot underneath the living room doorway.
Jack and Kim looked at each other, confused. "Why?" Kim asked.
"Because you're standing under the tinsel, so now you have to kiss," Kylie explained.
Jack grinned as Kim's entire face turned red. "That's 'mistletoe,' Kylie. Not tinsel. And we don't have any, thank God."
"Well, you could kiss anyway."
He couldn't hold back a laugh as Kim's face got even redder. "Want to go for a walk?" he asked.
"More than anything." Kim grabbed his wrist and practically ran to the front door.
"Mom!" she called over her shoulder. "We're going for a walk! Be back in a little while!"
Mrs. Crawford smiled as the two left the house. She turned to look at her own mother, who was still in the kitchen.
"Was that Kim's boyfriend?" she asked.
Mrs. Crawford shook her head. "No. Not yet, anyway. She insists that they're 'just friends.'"
Her mother shook her head. "Not for long!"
Once outside and on the sidewalk, Kim let go of Jack's wrist and slowed to a more reasonable pace. "Sorry about that."
"No problem. Looks like Christmas is pretty lively at your house."
"Too lively," Kim mumbled.
"Well, it looked like fun to me. Where was your dad?"
"He and my uncle escaped. Said they were doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. I'm guessing they really went to the driving range. Not that I blame them. I mean, I love my family, but sometimes at Christmas, I just want my life and my house back, you know? I have to share a room with Kylie and my cousins so my grandma can have my room. There's no privacy, and it's loud, and crowded…"
She continued to talk for a bit, until she realized how quiet Jack was. I'm babbling, she thought, annoyed with herself. Sometimes it was almost too easy to talk to Jack. He hadn't said a word about himself. He had just walked along with his head down and his hands in his pockets the whole time.
"So…how is Christmas at your house?"
Jack shrugged. "It's OK, I guess. Definitely quieter than at your house."
"You guess? You don't seem very excited. Is everything all right?"
Jack shrugged again.
"Jack?" Kim asked. "You were kind of quiet yesterday at the dojo, too. What's going on?"
Jack stopped walking, but still kept looking at the ground instead of meeting Kim's eyes. "It's just…well, my dad didn't get to come home for Christmas this year."
Kim's eyes widened. She knew Jack's father had left for Germany right after Thanksgiving, but Jack had told her that he would be able to come home on leave at Christmastime. "Jack that's…that's terrible! You mean it's just you and your mom?"
Kim felt disgusted with herself. Here I've been, complaining about my family this whole time, and he doesn't even get to see his this year.
"How is she handling it?"
"I don't know. I mean, I think she's trying to make me feel better, but she's driving me crazy! Constantly asking me if I need anything, or want anything, or want to do something…I had to get out for a while."
"She must be pretty lonely," Kim observed.
"I guess…" Now it was Jack's turn to feel ashamed. Maybe I was being kind of selfish, he thought to himself.
They started walking again, in awkward silence for a few moments. Finally, Kim spoke.
"Jack, why don't you and your mom come over this evening? We have a huge meal, and there's always plenty left over. I know my mom wouldn't care."
Jack considered the offer for a moment. It would be nice to get out of the quiet, lonely house for a while. But he wasn't sure his mom was up for a big crowd of people she didn't really know that well. And he wasn't sure he was, either. "Thanks, but I think maybe we should just stay home tonight. In fact, I should probably get back home. I kind of walked out on her and left her alone."
They had circled the block twice, and were now back in front of Kim's house. He walked with her up to the front porch, where she laid a hand on his arm to stop him from leaving.
"Don't go yet, OK? I have something for you."
She turned and dashed into the house. Jack smiled; she was always such a bundle of energy. It was only a few moments before she returned with a rectangular-shaped package wrapped in red holiday paper.
"You got me a Christmas present?"
Kim shrugged and nodded. "Yeah. Go ahead and open it!"
He tore of the wrapping paper. Underneath was a framed photo of the two of them, standing on the Great Wall of China, smiling happily. The frame itself was painted and decorated with various miniature symbols of China; the flag, chopsticks, a small dragon, and various Chinese alphabet characters. Jack remembered when Rudy had taken the photo; right after he had won one of his preliminary matches. Before the bad stuff with Kai had gone down.
He looked up at Kim, who suddenly looked embarrassed. "I, uh, deocrated the frame," she explained sheepishly.
"You made this?"
"Yeah…sometimes I do craft stuff like that, with my sister. I know it's kind of lame."
"No!" Jack said quickly. "It's not lame. I love it. Really. Thanks, Kim. And I, uh, I have something for you, too."
Nervously, he reached into his right jacket pocket and pulled out a small cloth bag. He had been carrying it around for two weeks now, trying to find the right moment to give it to her. It was a good thing she had initiated this gift exchange, as he had talked himself out of it a dozen times.
Kim pulled open the drawstring on the bag and reached inside. She pulled out the necklace inside and held it up. It was a simple piece of blue sea glass encircled by a silver wire, attached to a black cord.
Kim opened her mouth, but couldn't speak. Inwardly, Jack groaned. She hates it, he thought.
"It's just sea glass. It's not really valuable or anything. I found it on the beach, and I know you like blue, so I had that guy who sells jewelry at the mall make it into a necklace."
Kim was still speechless, and Jack felt himself sinking even lower. She really hates it.
Finally, she broke the silence. "Jack, I…I absolutely love it!" She squealed and threw her arms around his neck. He froze for a moment, his brain unable to process that Kim was hugging him, and she was pressed up against him right now…Without conscious thought, his arms automatically wrapped around her back and held her.
After a few seconds she pulled away, but their eyes were still locked on each other. Jack's heart was racing, his head swimming. Their faces were only a few inches apart. Is this one of those moments?
He looked her directly in the eyes and she held his gaze. His right arm still rested gently on her lower back. He leaned in closer and so did she. They were just millimeters apart now. Jack closed his eyes..
..and heard a thump and the sound of giggling. He opened his eyes and looked over Kim's shoulder. She turned her head, following his gaze. They both saw three sets of small hands, pressed up against the glass of the living room window. Three pairs of eyes watched them.
"Little MONSTERS," Kim growled. She turned and shook her fist at her sister and cousins. They all squealed and ran off. She and Jack were alone again, but the mood was broken.
"I should, probably… get back inside," she stammered.
"Yeah…I should get back to my mom."
They stared at each other awkwardly for a moment, until Jack pulled her into a quick hug. "Merry Christmas, Kim. Thanks for listening to me."
"Merry Christmas, Jack," she said softly as she watched him walk away. Kim looked down at the necklace, still clutched tightly in her hand, and smiled.
It was almost 3:30 when Jack got back home. He entered the front door, hung his jacket up on a hook, and set the photo down on the small table by the door. The front door opened into a foyer. Beyond that, a large doorway opened into the living room. Jack could see his mother sitting on the couch. As he got closer, he could see that she was holding a book on her lap, but didn't appear to really be reading it. He could also see that her cheeks were flushed and her eyes looked red. She had been crying.
"Hey, honey," she said, as cheerfully as possible. "Where did you go?"
"Just to the dojo for a while, and to Kim's." Jack entered the room and sat down on the couch next to his mom. "Mom…I'm sorry I left like that. I was just, I don't know-"
His mom quickly shook her head. "Don't apologize, Jack. I was pushing you too hard. I just want you to have a nice Christmas so badly, and I don't know how to make that happen without your father here."
"Well, you deserve a nice Christmas too, Mom. And maybe, we just kind of have to get through it this year, and it will be better next year. Have you heard from Dad yet?"
She shook her head. "No." He could hear the hurt in her voice. Or was it worry?
"Well…maybe he's just waiting to call tomorrow, on Christmas."
She nodded. "That's probably it." Rapidly, she changed the subject. "Are you hungry?"
"Yeah, actually." The workout and walk with Kim had given him an appetite.
"Why don't we go to that Japanese restaurant you like? It's still early; we can beat the dinner crowd, if there even is one tonight."
"Sushi for Christmas? That's kind of weird."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Well, nothing about this Christmas is normal. We might as well do something different."
He nodded, suddenly feeling better. "I'll get my jacket."
By the time they returned home, it was dark. The only lights in the house were from the Christmas tree and the lighted garlands over the living room doorway. Jack entered the quiet house first, but stopped as he looked through the doorway into the living room.
In the dim light, he could see the outline of a person, sitting on the couch, staring at the Christmas tree.
He put a hand up behind him to stop his mother, who was coming in the door. "Call the police," he mumbled softly. Heart pounding, adrenaline pumping, he clenched his fists and slowly advanced towards the living room, ready to defend his home, his mother, and himself.
He was almost to the doorway when the figure on the couch stood and turned to face him. Jack froze in disbelief. Behind him, he heard the clatter of his mom's cell phone hitting the floor.
The man in the living room held up his hands in a gesture of defeat. "Don't attack, son. I surrender!"
Chris Brewer laughed, and Jack felt himself rushing forward. His father pulled him into a hug. Jack swallowed back the lump in his throat. Nothing in his life had ever felt this good, with the possible exception of almost kissing Kim.
His father released him and turned to hug his mother, who had appeared beside Jack in the living room. They shared a long embrace and a long kiss, which would have grossed Jack out in the past. But not tonight. Everything had gone from being crap to being amazing in just a few seconds, and nothing felt weird or out of place right now.
"But how did you get here?" his mom was asking as they finally pulled apart. "I thought you didn't get approved to take your leave?"
"I didn't," Chris explained. "Several of the other guys in my apartment did, though. On the day they were supposed to leave, one of them woke up with an ear infection. He couldn't fly, so my CO approved me to take his place. He gave me his plane tickets. But he lives in Las Vegas, so his flight ended up there. I had to rent a car and drive over from there. I'm sorry I didn't call, but I've been in the air or on the road for the past two days."
"You must be exhausted," Lisa said.
"Are you kidding? I'm wide awake!" He punched Jack playfully in the arm. "Ready for a Kung Fu Cop video game tournament?"
Jack grinned. "Are you kidding? I'm taking you down, old man."
"Just let me change clothes and then it is ON!"
His mother laughed, watching them. "I'll make some hot chocolate."
Three hours later, after talking and laughing and playing round after round of video games, Jack finally climbed the stairs to his room. He pulled out his phone and found a text from Kim.
Yeah, he texted back. My dad's home.
That's amazing. Merry Christmas Jack.
Merry Christmas, Kim. Good night.
Jack glanced at the picture Kim had given him, now sitting on the night stand next to his bed. A cool present, an almost-kiss, and a surprise visit from his dad.
It was shaping up to be a pretty good Christmas, after all.