A light snow had begun to cover the front yard, making a single sheet over both the concrete and the dying grass. Through the window, Mercedes could see a neighbor's chimney begin to puff shallow clouds of smoke into the still sky, and she could hear the cry of children from down the street. They were outdoors playing, surely, and perhaps they had opened one gift early to prepare for the big day ahead. She couldn't see their red (or green or blue) coats from her frosted perch, but their sounds were cheerful, illuminating and ever present. A waft from the kitchen reengaged her senses; Mercedes looked over her shoulder.
There her mother stood, placing cornbread into the oven before wiping her hands off on her apron. She had some flour on her nose and cheek, but she'd get that off before their guest arrived. Nanette caught a glimpse of her daughter's gaze.
"You looking for something?"
"Do you need anymore help,' Mercedes asked, all the while knowing that her mother would deny it.
Nanette shook her head before putting a hand to her mouth and thinking with conviction. She had made the lemonade and sweet tea, of course, and all else was prepared: mashed potatoes, baked chicken, cornbread, banana pudding, peach cobbler, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and potato salad. Enough food for a week or two and an insurmountable feat for just the day. The cornbread was the last thing to be cooked, and as Nanette looked again at the oven and its timer, she gave a small sigh of acquiescence.
"Can you take the cornbread out in twenty minutes while I freshen up?"
Mercedes nodded and hurried her mother away. She stood up and pranced towards the kitchen, taking in the atmosphere: a Christmas tree with age old ornaments, the lingering waft of a sweet potato pie scented candle, the hum of the stove light in an otherwise dim room and the stillness that only made company with apprehension. She could almost hear her heart beating— more than nervous, she was wrought with incredulity.
How had they gotten there— and how had everything aligned itself so perfectly? She was made up of a rapidly beating heart and hands that had writhed so much they ached, and suddenly, again, she was afraid to watch her driveway and afraid to hear the phone ring. As painful as the intermission was, it was the only thing she knew for sure. The phone could sound its harmonious bellow and foretell a great canceling of plans, or worse yet, she'd hear the vicious rumbling of rubber wheels over shattered rocks and know that her esteemable guest was seconds away and things weren't exactly in place. Mercedes shuttered in peace, and though discomforted, she felt it was one of the last moments she'd be able to address her heart in her stomach. She could hear a sink running in the back of the house.
Mercedes paced around the kitchen before a few specks of white caught her eye, and she saw a return of snow from the sky, flickering ever so lightly across her kitchen's window. The covering from the previous night was light and had likely been scraped from all major roads, but it went unbothered in the neighborhood— almost beckoning for ole Saint Nick's arrival. It brought a smile to her face— and how lovely, also, was it that her mother had gotten the evening off! In turn, she'd have to work the morning shift on Christmas, but, really, after all: it had all come together. Sebastian wouldn't be able to make it to Christmas, and not that she'd ask him to spend that special day with her and her family over his own, but he guaranteed that if it were possible, he'd come around on Christmas Eve. Even if it weren't possible, if the Smythe's had planned something last minute or Nanette had to work, he'd stop by and re-introduce himself and drop off a gift or two. Perhaps it had been easy for Mercedes to agree to this plan because she hadn't expected her mother to have the evening off on Christmas Eve— she hadn't in years— and she'd mistakenly waited until only a few days prior to ask her if she'd be okay with the arrangement. Again, Mercedes hadn't anticipated it ever coming to fruition. Nanette, in a heap of frustration, dragged Mercedes to the local grocer and overstocked on seasonal food, because she did, in fact, have Christmas Eve off, and she wasn't going to turn down a friend of Mercedes's, especially not one she talked about with such a gleam in her eye.
"So, this is your boyfriend,' Nanette had asked, strolling through the dairy aisle. The fluorescent lights flickered in need of repair.
"No,' Mercedes said meekly, shaking her head. "It's just a friend— we've known each other since, like, kindergarten."
"So, why have I never heard of him?"
"Mama, you have. You even met him! It was that crazy boy that dropped me off at the beginning of the school year."
Nanette stopped the cart and turned to the girl. "That white boy?"
The girl nodded.
"Mercedes,' Nani groaned, pushing forward.
"He's nice,' she chased after the cart. "And very sweet. Super intelligent, he's so smart. His parents are, like, rich. You'll like him, trust me."
"Girl,' Nani rolled her eyes. "Hurry up and grab them eggs from over there before I put all this mess back."
The timer on the oven had only struck down to 14:12. Creaking from her mother's room proved that Nanette was walking around, likely changing into a dress or something equally as nice. She was hospitable. Mercedes wore a ruffled green dress that cut off at her calves; she was barefoot with brown painted toenails and her typical vanilla scented perfume following strongly after her. Her twists dropped past her shoulders with one side pushed behind her ear to show off a gold hoop earring. She hoped that she wasn't too overdressed.
She ventured over towards the radio and perused through various stations until she happened upon one playing classical Christmas music. It cut through the stillness of the room in the way that lobby music interrupted the luminal nothingness of a hotel. She swayed and hummed the words before belting out what melody was hers to ride. It was almost as though Christmas felt more real than it ever had and more tangible than it had in years. A few gifts were littered underneath the tree— all from Nanette to Mercedes. Naturally, she couldn't afford to give her mother much, if anything, and Nanette's money was tight between the mortgage and a cacophony of ever increasing bills and taxes. Mercedes was happy to see anything as she aged.
Again, creaking and then the crackle of a burning candle— and finally the oven began its chirping. Mercedes slid over to it to pull the cornbread out just as a solid knock came at the door. She cut her eyes over at the window and saw Sebastian's car parked in the driveway— silent as a thief in the knife.
"Mercedes,' her mother shouted from the back of the house, but the girl was already turning off the oven, wiping off her hands and making her way to the front of the house to let in her very own guest.
Sebastian's back was to the door (which was usually how he greeted her under those circumstances) as she greeted him at the threshold. He turned around to face her and gave a generous smile.
"Merry Christmas,' he said smugly, a wrapped gift tucked beneath his arm.
"Eve,' Mercedes corrected, taking a step back and letting him through the door. As if already notified of the procedure, he walked into the house, placed the gift beside the tree and returned to greet the girl near the door.
"You look nice,' he complimented, shoving his hands into his pockets. He had on a dark gray quarter zip, navy cotton pants and loafers. She'd expected him to put on something more on the Christmas color-scheme, but he was well dressed all the same. She wouldn't fault him for attempting to present nicely for her mother. He did always dress nicely, so she didn't know why she was afraid that he would choose to do differently on that day.
"Thanks,' Mercedes replied, giving the boy a twirl. "It's festive."
Sebastian lifted an eyebrow. "The last time you said something about being festive, you dressed up like a Halloween edition Raggedy Ann doll, so let's hold our horses."
Mercedes rolled her eyes. "Let that go. We can start at you rehashing the same exact outfit from that night but in different colors."
Sebastian looked down at his outfit, mouth agape. "You don't like this?"
Unsure if she'd genuinely unsettled him, Mercedes offered: "You look fine."
Sebastian shrugged. "My shoes cost more than your outfit,' he rolled his eyes. "I brought your mom a gift."
Mercedes was a bit taken aback when she saw the boy come in with only one gift, but she made no mention of it. Knowing Sebastian, he probably had something two times as large tucked away in the backseat of his car for later. He was a dramatist— but she didn't let herself run too far with that fantasy, because it would hurt too much if it wasn't true. Either way, she hadn't gotten him anything, and she didn't want anymore guilt attached to their oftentimes one-sided friendship (though that one-sidedness vacillated greatly).
"I see. What is it?"
"You'll see,' Sebastian affirmed, walking to stand in front of the girl. "Should I pretend like I don't know where anything is,' he whispered.
Mercedes shrugged. "She knows you've been inside."
"You told her that?"
Mercedes rolled her eyes. "She saw you come out of here that one day, don't you remember?"
Sebastian shook his head. "The familiarity I have of your house doesn't equate to just stopping by and dropping you off one time four months ago."
She shrugged. "Then act like a fool."
"Don't act like that,' he whispered hurriedly.
"Act like what, Sebastian?" Mercedes gave an elongated sigh.
Looking up at the girl, he paused. "Like that."
Mercedes gave a pout before allowing her lips to turn into a smile. She leaned into him and wrapped him in a big hug. Sebastian stood inanimate, refusing to wrap his arms around the girl. She looked up, her chin resting on his chest. Looking down at her, Sebastian gave a frown.
"Now you're going to play nice?"
"I'm always nice! You're the one who started making fun of my Halloween costume."
He hugged her back finally. "I always make fun of your Halloween costume."
"Then find a new joke,' she responded, placing her head firmly on his chest and taking in a waft of his cologne.
Sebastian thought for a second. "We can talk about how you're the same height as the average Nicaraguan street orphan."
Mercedes pushed him away playfully. "You're such an asshole."
"There's no way you thought I was going to change just for Christmas."
She scrunched her nose. "Behave in front of my mom."
"Mercedes, don't—,' he sighed and stopped. "I know how to work my way around an older woman, alright?"
Mercedes looked away in disgust. "Ew."
Returning to the kitchen, she pulled everything from its foil and took all the lids off of their containers. Her mother had dishes and utensils already set out, so Mercedes reached only for glasses and napkins. Retrieving the lemonade and sweet tea from the fridge, she looked over the kitchen to assure everything was there that was meant to be.
Standing at the frame of the kitchen, Sebastian watched Mercedes sashay from one step to the next, his arms crossed and his weight against the supporting wall. He'd offer to help, but he knew she'd deny him.
Mercedes heard as did he when Nanette came down the hallway to greet them. They both turned to face her, though Mercedes remained tucked away in the kitchen.
"Hi, Sebastian,' Nani began, wrapping the boy in a side hug. "I've heard a bit about you. I didn't realize we'd met before,' she nodded towards the door.
Sebastian scratched at his eyebrow, feigning shame. "It was a quick encounter; I've been meaning to properly introduce myself, but Mercedes tells me you're always working hard."
Nanette looked over at Mercedes, devoid of much grace before looking back at the boy. "Usually working, yes,' she said lazily, a decade's worth of tiredness long soaked into her bones. "But not always. I'm happy that we get to have you here. I've only seen one other friend of hers since the school year started."
Sebastian nodded. "Yeah, Marley?"
Nanette nodded in response. Her interest was only then piqued. The boy knew a bit about his daughter, that was clear. She smiled at Mercedes. "Did you take the cornbread out?"
With the attention directed back to her, Mercedes nodded and pointed at the cornbread. It sat in a rounded glass container on top of the stove beside the rest of the baked goods. Nanette smiled and ushered both of the children over to the nook in the kitchen where the dining table and chairs were as she brought them plates and glasses, utensils and napkins. At once, she shrugged her shoulders a bit and offered up her hands.
"Would you like me to make you guys' plates?"
Sebastian looked at Mercedes for guidance and watched the girl shake her head.
"No,' she said, looking at Sebastian with wide eyes. "He's a big boy— he knows how to do it. Right, Sebastian?"
Sebastian gave a sly smirk to the girl, knowing that she'd probably take that afternoon as an opportunity to be a royal pain in his ass, because she knew he wouldn't be snarky with her in front of her mother. So, he played it cool.
"I can make my plate, but thank you for offering. I really do appreciate it… My family usually caters, so it's been a really long time since I've had this type of home cooked meal. I'm pretty hungry too, so… Looking forward to it."
As Sebastian stood, Nani raised her eyebrows. "Catered,' she gave a haughty laugh.
Mercedes followed after the boy, snickering a little as well.
Hearing this, he turned around and offered playfully: "What? You didn't tell your mom I live in a gated estate and have a million dollar trust fund?"
Playing along, Mercedes turned to look at her mother as well. "She didn't ask."
From her mother's expression, Mercedes was unsure if the woman was impressed with Sebastian or not, but as she turned around to face the kitchen once again, she saw how the boy flashed his charming smile at her mother before his eyes dropped down to her once again, and the presentation of charm washed away quickly, giving way to a fullness in his cheeks that reached his eyes and a smile that showed less of his teeth and more of his lips spread wide across his mouth. He gave her a wink before continuing his journey to food.
He piled his plate, cautious about the potential of going after seconds, and returned to the kitchen table before grabbing his glass and getting a cup full of lemonade. He gave a pleasant sigh as he passed back and forth by Mercedes, hitting their shoulders playfully each go around. When he sat back finally, he sat his hands in his lap, confident that the meal wouldn't begin without a prayer.
Nani cocked an eyebrow, sitting across from Sebastian at the table. "After you,' she started.
Sebastian cut his eyes over at Mercedes.
Mercedes raised her eyebrows before nodding thoughtfully. "I think Sebastian wants to pray, mom,' she said with a wide smile.
"That is not,' Sebastian shook his head. "I'm fine with praying, I'm— I'm,' he touched his chest. "A believer, but… sorry. I'm—,' his face was bright red.
Nani looked down with a pleasant and piteous smile. "I'll pray."
She reached for Mercedes's hand and leaned her arm over the table to grasp Sebastian's. Mercedes grabbed his other hand, closing her eyes as the words spilled from Nani's lips. He didn't listen closely to the prayer, instead he eyed the red nail polish on Nani's fingers before turning over Mercedes's hand in his own to look at the pink, chipping polish. Mercedes squeezed his hand but did not open her eyes, and Sebastian closed his own shortly before Nani ended her prayer.
"Amen,' the three said in unison, all reaching for their forks and beginning to impart on the small spread. Sebastian took a few bites before giving an automatic sigh of approval and placing his hands on his lap.
"This is really good, Mrs. Jones."
"Call me Nanette, Sebastian."
Sebastian's face grew a bit red. "This is really amazing, Nanette. Thank you."
"You're welcome,' she nodded, picking over her plate before taking a stab at a piece of chicken. "So, remind me, Sebastian. How do you know my daughter?"
He cleared his throat. "Well, Mercedes and I go to school together. We actually met back at Independence in grade school. We were classmates. We've known each other probably since kindergarten,' he shrugged, looking over at the girl for assurance, but Mercedes's eyes were trained hard and fast onto her mother.
Nani furrowed her eyebrows. "Who are your parents, baby?"
Sebastian scratched at his brow before answering with deflation. "My father, whom you may or may not know, depending on how much you follow our politics here, is Emmett Smythe." He was uncomfortable, and he had been. Nanette was nice, but Mercedes was playing tentative, and Nanette had a certain assurance about herself that did not make Sebastian feel welcome. Either she knew more about him than she let on or she could see straight through him. Likely both.
"He's a lawyer in the city. Word is out he makes DA in the next few years. My mother is just…' he paused.
"She and my aunt co-own a few yoga studios, but they come from a pretty big farming family. They own a lot of ranching property in Ohio, Nebraska, Iowa, the whole nine."
"Smythe,' Nani nodded. "I do know that name. I've seen some campaign signs. Is he running?"
Sebastian shook his head. "I'd consider that a test run. They're looking at numbers and likelihood to win. It's probably, uh… You'll see his name on ballots probably before the next presidential run."
Nanette cleared her throat, brushed some crumbs from her fingers, smiled and nodded politely. "That's good for him."
They all talked over the food, mainly Sebastian and Nanette sharing pleasantries and the few similarities they shared while Mercedes beamed eagerly (and cautiously) on the other side of the table. She chimed in when Sebastian encouraged, but more than anything, she was happy that the conversation was going well. More than well, it was going better than she had even dared to dream.
"Your parents just let you out of the house so easily? On a holiday?"
Sebastian was done eating, so he pushed his plate away from him a few inches. "Is Christmas Eve a holiday?"
Nanette shrugged, giving the boy a smirk, still expecting an answer.
"We're all having dinner tomorrow night. My sister is going to come down from Columbus, so… everyone is lying in wait for that. They didn't mind."
"You didn't tell me Savannah was coming down,' Mercedes piped in.
She shook her head, and Sebastian shrugged.
"Then I didn't."
The room was silent for a few seconds before Mercedes cleared her throat and stood up, collecting their plates and heading back into the kitchen. "Mom! Sebastian bought you a present."
"Really,' Nanette gushed, putting her hands into her lap in a hurry. "Sebastian, you really shouldn't have. I'm gonna make you take it back."
Sebastian winked. "I think you can use this one."
Nanette and Sebastian stood up from their places at the table, and Sebastian let the woman lead them out of the kitchen. In front of the tree, he grabbed the present he'd brought for Nani and handed it over with an apprehensive smile.
A thin box was contained within a rather wide, red box. Nanette handed the wide box over to Mercedes before opening the thin box; she looked over the object before opening her mouth a few inches in shock.
"This is too much, I can't even imagine how much this cost you,' Nanette began, closing the box again and trying to hand it back over to Sebastian.
"No, no,' he said, holding his hands up. "It's yours. It's for you. I thought it would come in handy at work."
Mercedes got on the tips of her toes to look over into the box when Nani reopened it; within it was a silver digital watch encased in a crimson lined cushion. She raised her eyebrows, impressed.
"There are some instructions underneath the top shell. You can click through the sides to see the full date, you can switch behind time zones. I believe it has a radio signal as well— it can pick up the temperature."
Mercedes raised her eyebrows. "Wow,' she panned, dramatically.
Nanette closed the box again softly and reached for the bigger one that Mercedes still held. She gave a sincere smile and then brought the boy in for a hug.
"This is very kind, Sebastian,' she began, waving the box emphatically. "I won't forget it. You seem like a very intelligent, thoughtful young man. I'm happy Mercedes has a friend like you,' Nani looked over at her daughter and gave her a wink.
Sebastian smiled, though the smile was not out of gladness or even affection— he knew he'd be able to throw the woman's approval in Mercedes's face for an eternity.
The trio sat and talked for what may have been twenty minutes or perhaps a few hours, but eventually Nanette retired to her room, bid Mercedes turn the lights out when she was finished and left the two to their own devices.
When the door was shut, and they no longer heard the woman shuffling around her room, Mercedes and Sebastian met each other's eyes with raised eyebrows.
"How do you think that went,' he asked with a rare show of curiosity and apprehension.
"She likes you,' Mercedes gave with a smile. "I was so worried."
Sebastian shrugged. "You shouldn't have been— I told you I was great with parents."
"Sure,' Mercedes rolled her eyes. "Mr. Cool, Calm and Collected,' and then she shrugged. "I haven't introduced that many people to her, so this was kind of a big deal."
Sebastian, sitting on the same sofa as the girl, patted her on the back generously. "I was never going to displace you. I'm happy to be here, really— I'm happy you trusted me enough to share today with me. I really like your mom. I see where you get the straight-forwardness from."
Mercedes rolled her eyes as she tried to swallow the smirk beginning to form on her lips. "She likes you."
"I like you, so why wouldn't I treat her with just as much respect?"
Mercedes smiled as they gushed over each other— a rarity. "Thank you. Seriously. Sometimes you're an asshole, and other times you're like… the perfect guy."
Sebastian raised his eyebrows and allowed himself to lean into the girl a bit. "You flatter me,' he whispered before returning to his spot and putting his hands into his lap. "I did get you something."
Mercedes sighed but a weight was relieved from her chest. "You didn't have to get me anything, you know that, right?"
Sebastian shrugged. "It's the season of giving— you know how much I like to lord this type of stuff over you,'— he winked at the girl.
Mercedes rolled her eyes and decided against playing bashful. She crossed her arms. "What is it then?"
Sebastian pushed himself away from Mercedes, making room so that his elbow would not hit her. He pulled a box from his pocket, a few sizes larger than a ring box, and flipped it in his hand a few times before putting it into Mercedes's hand.
"You can open it,' he said with a sturdy tenor. He wasn't nervous.
Mercedes took the box graciously, though she assumed it was also a watch or some gadget that she'd have to find use for upon receiving the gift. After opening the box, however, she saw something entirely different: a gold plated necklace with a delicately detailed 'S' pendant. She raised her eyebrows before pulling it out of the box.
"Wow,' she mused, holding it up for his sight. The letter, to her, was reminiscent of the boy's name, but she didn't dare to be so bold. "The 'S' is for what?"
Sebastian looked over with a generous amount of leisure. "Sailene."
Indeed, Sailene was her middle name, and she didn't remember when she had told him or if she had. She recalled him calling her 'Mercedes Sailene' a few times, usually to be patronizing, but she didn't remember if this was information that he'd had from a nascent age or whether she'd reintroduced it to him in their later years. All the same— Sailene shared the same initial letter as Sebastian— this she knew— and this she tip-toed generously around.
"It's beautiful,' she said. But perhaps she felt bold. It was being so kind, too kind now to deny her. "Think anybody will mistake it for 'Sebastian'?"
He looked at her briefly, his eyes lifting from the gold, but her eyes were fixed on the latter. He sighed. "Why would they? We keep our distance."
Mercedes nodded with determination. "Thank you,' she responded shortly. "It's lovely."
She thought that, perhaps, she should have been more thankful, but she was doing everything in her ability to not question him further on the necklace. She was scared, either way, of what he would say, so it seemed best to simply go where he granted— to follow the gentle currents of the conversation.
Sebastian smiled, taking the necklace from her hands. "I'll put it on you,' he offered, and the girl dipped her head, pulling her hair up neatly.
"It is the first letter of my name,' he admitted, as if it weren't obvious. "Maybe it will remind you of who bought it,' he said.
Mercedes waited as the lock clicked, and Sebastian's hands moved from her neck. She let her hair float onto her neck again.
When she looked up at him, his eyes were soft and there was no sign of harm or sarcasm. He gave a pleasant smile— the sweetest ever given.
"Do you think I could forget?"