Here’s a short story to thank you all for a great year. Merry Merry!
When the store’s bells jingled, Kate stood up so fast she whacked her head on a back room shelf. Peeking around the doorway, she spotted a man in a puffy jacket pressing her front door closed. Instead of glancing around the showroom—kayak rack, wood-topped glass display case, Kate and her sloppy ponytail, wetsuits hanging like rubber mummies—his gaze homed in on the red kayak in the front window, draped in Christmas lights.
Three weeks ago, the day after Kyle left, Kate had heaved that kayak—shiny and red, her most expensive model—onto racks in the storefront window. There, done, she’d told herself, wiping dusty hands on tired jeans.
The last two years, Kyle had helped with the holiday display. This year, judging only by his increasingly infrequent texts, he wasn’t even coming home for Christmas. So instead of wasting hours on a fancy showpiece, arranging and rearranging dozens of small but shiny temptations—“holiday bait,” he’d called it—and running outside herself to check each subtle change, Kate had filled the window with one big-ticket item. Added a string of lights, and ten minutes later she was finished.
Which left the rest of that afternoon—hell, the rest of December—to clean out her storeroom. Or perch on the hard stool behind her counter, playing endless rounds of Solitaire and Angry Birds. Day after lonely day, waiting for someone—anyone—to set the door’s sleigh bells jingling.
“That one for sale?” the man asked, pointing at the kayak. His fingernails looked manicured. Did men do that too?
“Yes of course.” Kate pasted on her retail smile. “Would you like to try–”
“No need.” He slid out a silver money clip and selected a credit card.
Yesterday afternoon, after searching for a fresh roll of paper towels and instead finding the brimming bag marked “Xmas,” Kate had scattered an array of colorful boxes around the kayak in the front window. Unlocking the door this morning, Christmas Eve, she’d smiled despite her black loneliness; it looked like the kayak was paddling through a sea of presents. All it needed was that plastic Santa in the cockpit. So, in defiance of common sense—what was the point in adding eye candy now, on this final shopping day of the season?—she’d dug Santa out of storage too.
And now she had a buyer holiding out a credit card. Thanks, Santa, for saving my store.
After five years in business, Kate had learned that making it through the long dark winter was like paddling upwind against a building sea breeze; each month was harder than the last. She usually made it through December by tempting shoppers inside with her artful displays of affordable stocking stuffers. Not this year.
And just like paddling upwind, sometimes there were lulls and you actually made some headway. Like a guy waltzing in to buy a fancy kayak on Christmas Eve, not even asking how much it cost.
She stole a look to her left at its yellow sistership. Maybe she’d be able to keep it after all.
“I’m short on time,” he said, tapping his foot. The crease between his eyebrows had deepened.
“Um… do you have racks?” she asked.
“Racks?” He cocked his crew cut to one side.
“Roofracks. For your car.” He was still frowning. “How are you planning to transport it?”
“Oh! Can’t you do that?”
“I can, but–” Not every time you go paddling, she wanted to add. Instead she reached for his credit card and carried it back to the counter. Better ring him up, before he came to his senses.
“This for you?” He didn’t look like a paddler, but she was stalling, waiting for her credit card reader to wake up. “Great boat. I paddle the same design—that yellow one, right over there. Oh—and I’ll need your address.”
He rattled off a street right on the ocean, adding, “Number 121. Can you get it there right away?”
She nodded. “Just sign here.”
“I’ll take those lights, too. Save me another stop.” The money clip emerged again, just long enough for a twenty to be transferred to the counter.
“They’re not outside lights,” she reminded him, handing back his card.
“Well okay then, thank you very much for coming in today! Want me to toss in those fake presents as–”
But the bells were already jingling behind him.
Who bought a top of the line kayak on Christmas Eve, without really looking at it—or asking the price?
But that one sale would cover December’s rent.
Twenty minutes later, Kate was driving the red kayak up Main Street, fan belt squealing with cold. The setting sun played peekaboo until she reached the ocean, where it gilded both white surf and slate shoreline.
A mailbox marked 121 sat on top of a varnished post curving up from the ground like a bow. She turned into the drive and the truck—quieter, now—climbed a steep hill until the gravel circled back on itself. The house was wrapped in porches. Somewhere out of sight, surf crashed into shore.
A massive front door opened to reveal a shaggy-haired man in khaki pants—not the buyer. An employee, then.
“That goes at the end of the driveway,” he told her, pointing back down the hill.
“But…” it’ll get stolen, she wanted to say.
“Never mind, just leave it on the grass and I’ll move it.”
She climbed out, loosened the kayak straps. “Why down there?”
“Big Christmas party tonight. He wants something to mark the driveway.” His shrug seemed to add, “Crazy, right?”, before lips stretched into a distracted smile. “Thanks for delivering it so quick.”
“No problem–” but he’d already closed the front door.
She set the kayak down on the circle of soft grass and drove around it on her way out, bile washing up in her throat. She couldn’t even afford her own stocking stuffers, and a guy had just bought her most expensive kayak as a party ornament!
As soon as she got back to her store, Kate’s neighbor jingled through the door and asked what happened to the window display. Kate explained, trying to ignore the large crystal—blinking red, then green—hanging around Cindy’s neck.
“But that’s so great!” Cindy said.
“I guess…” Kate sighed. “If all he wanted was a lawn ornament, he could’ve bought some cheap plastic thing.”
“No different from all those boats you sell that you predict will only be used once.”
“This is totally different!” Kate frowned. “Those kayaks represent hope. And hope is the only–”
“Can’t pay the rent with hope.”
“You do.” Kate waved at their shared wall. “Crystals are just hope by a different–”
“Crystals,” Cindy announced, “are a scientific force of nature. You should get one—turn your life around. Heard from Kyle?”
Kate shook her head.
“What, he’s not coming home for—wait, did you guys break up? Aw, Kate…”
Cindy reached out for a hug, so Kate put the counter between them.
“It’s fine,” she replied, keeping her voice steady. “Imagine if we’d gotten married, had a few kids, and THEN he’d sailed away and never called…”
“You can always dream up a worse scenario than the one you’re actually in.”
“It’s called hope,” Kate repeated, stretching her lips into what might pass for a smile.
A woman wrapped in a thick scarf knocked and pointed next door, so Cindy went back to work. But a few minutes later, she returned with a pale blue ribbon dangling from her fingertips. One of her alphabet crystals; the K, of course.
“Maybe this draws Kyle home. If not, it stands for Kayak.”
“Cindy!” Kate blinked back a fresh round of tears; she’d never been particularly nice to this woman. “I don’t have anything for–”
“Shut up and turn around.” Cindy tied the ribbon around Kate’s neck and kissed her on the cheek. “Merry Christmas! I’m going home, and you should too—it’s after six.”
So Kate turned off the lights, pulled on her jacket, and patted the yellow kayak goodnight on her way out.
Tomorrow was Christmas. It would be warm enough for paddling, but she couldn’t go by herself. So instead she’d drink way too much cocoa and watch all her favorite black and white movies. Not think about last year, when she’d spent all day waiting for Kyle to pop the question.
Maybe the K just stood for Kate.
Her truck squealed away from the curb. But the thought of an empty cold apartment made her detour to check on the kayak. Would it really spend Christmas Eve out by the road, with only that funky mailbox for company?
A few hundred yards away, she spotted a lit shape—not a sleek kayak, though. White lights pointed up toward the sky. Like… a penis.
Kate shut off the truck and got out. The problem was the weird mailbox; the lights had been draped over it as well. She rearranged the string to follow the kayak’s deck, chuckling and shivering and then starting to cry all over again. Poor kayak, turned into a giant lawn–
A flashlight beamed right into her eyes. “What the—oh, it’s you.” He lowered the beam, and she recognized the caretaker’s shaggy outline. “Forget something? Or maybe you’re trying to crash the party.”
A party marked by a phallus? Kate snorted. Not a—
“Actually, that’s a very good idea I’ve just had,” he went on, as if she hadn’t made a sound. “You probably have something interesting to say, unlike most of the guests.” Pointing the flashlight at her truck, he went around to the passenger door. “I’ll take a ride—save me climbing that damn hill for the tenth time today.”
When he pulled open the door, she heard a few discarded coffee cups fall to the pavement. She blushed, but it sounded like her unexpected passenger was chuckling as he tossed them back into the footwell and climbed inside.
Not knowing what to do next, she started up the truck. It—he—smelled like curry. Or cumin, maybe.
“I’m Karl,” he told her. The truck climbed the hill, not squealing for once. “With a K, in case you’re wondering.”
Kate touched the crystal, then dropped her hand back to the wheel. Surely a coincidence.
He was looking at her. “Now’s the part where you tell me your name.”
“Kate. Also with a K.”
“How remarkable. So, Kate with a K, why were you moving my kayak lights?”
Blood heated her cheeks. How long had he been watching her? “Didn’t look right,” she mumbled.
“That’s no surprise,” he replied, cheerily. “I used up all my light-stringing patience on that damned tree.” He pointed through the windshield, but at first Kate only saw the house; a single candle-shaped bulb shining in each upstairs window, first floor spilling light out onto side porches. It wasn’t until she drove into the circle that she noticed that its grassy hub now sported a fir tree. It was thick with white lights.
“Wow, that’s beautiful…” She dragged her eyes back to the windshield just in time to stomp on the brakes—a dark sedan stood in the driveway, the last arrival to a gravel circle filled with glinting vehicles.
Surf pounded—no wait, that was a bass drum, inside the house. Karl opened his door, and she heard an electric guitar riffing Jingle Bells. A dark suit danced by the front window, arms around a little black dress.
“I don’t think this is a very good idea,” she said, before he could get out of the truck. “I’m still in my work clothes and… I’ve got to get back.”
“Back to what?” Like he really wanted to know. not like a wiseacre.
“Back to….” A phone that wouldn’t ring, and an empty refrigerator.
“Come on. There’s a ton of food. And everyone’s too drunk to even notice your jeans.” He slammed the door before any coffee cups could escape again.
What the hell, it beat starving alone. Kate followed Karl up the front steps.
He was just about to push open the enormous door when something crashed inside and the music screeched to a halt; Karl pivoted right instead and followed the porch around to the back, where waves pounding rocks almost drowned out the raised voices inside.
“Wow—what a view.” Though the breeze bit right through to her bones.
“Better than TV. Come inside—we can watch the waves, until they get things sorted out upstairs.” He waved her toward a sliding glass door beneath the deck; she stood back to let him pull it open.
Once he closed the door behind her, it was warm and cozy inside. He crossed to a small fridge. “Boss insisted on a live band, but the room’s not really big enough for dancing. Beer?”
“Sure.” This must be his apartment. So far out of her comfort zone…
But it wasn’t like her comfort zone was really all that comfortable at the moment. And no one should spend Christmas Eve alone.
“You live here?” she asked, though the answer was obvious. She dropped her jacket on top of his, over a chair just inside the doorway.
“Two years next June.”
“Must get kinda quiet this time of year.”
Upstairs, a reedy female voice started singing: “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus…” Once the guitar player and drummer joined in, they drowned out the waves.
Karl raised his voice a few notches. “Except when it’s too damned noisy, like tonight.” He handed over a cold bottle. “Cheers. And Merry Christmas—or whatever you happen to celebrate this time of–”
“Christmas is my favorite holiday.”
“Really?” He crossed the room, settled onto a leather couch that faced the ocean, and rested his feet on a low table. “Why is that?”
“Because it’s all about hope. And hope is the only thing…” she spotted a shiny kayak paddle, standing behind the couch. “Wow, is this yours?” Now THAT was inside her comfort zone. The blade had one nick and a few good scratches. “You didn’t buy this beauty from me—I’d remember.”
“I’ve had it for six years,” he said.
“Yeah, and I’ve only been in business for five. I miss paddling,” she added, dropping onto the opposite end of the couch. “I started the business because I loved it so much. Now I’m too busy in the summer. And too broke in the–”
“Hope is the only thing that what?”
“Hope,” she repeated, “is the only thing everyone can afford. Kind of a mantra for me, these days.” The beer slid down her throat, cool and refreshing, melting away that lump of unshed tears. Outside, the upstairs lights lit up each wave’s white crest. What a spot.
“Does that mean you still believe in Santa Claus?” he asked.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. He brought me a gift today—your boss!” Then her smile faded. “But my boyfriend’s down in the islands. And he seems to have forgotten how to text.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of a boyfriend.” Karl’s shrug stirred the air between them. Definitely cumin, she decided.
She picked at the hem of her sweater, which was starting to unravel. “Quite a view,” she said, just for something to say. “It’s–”
“Mesmerizing,” they both said at the same time, then laughed. So easy, just sitting here; even the cold bottle felt good against her palms.
He took another drink and then said, “I have a confession to make.”
“Let me guess—you intentionally hung those lights to look like a penis?” Dang, three sips of lager and she was already buzzed.
“Is that why you were out there moving them off the mailbox?” He chuckled, then set down his beer to hold up his hands in surrender. “I hereby plead not guilty to everything except poor quality control.”
The bass drum thumped. Sleigh bells ring, are you listening…
“So what’s the confession then?”
“I asked my boss to buy that kayak.” He angled up his bottle for the final slug of beer, Adam’s apple bobbing. “He agreed, as long as he could use it tonight for–”
“I’ve been driving by your shop three or four times a day, checking it out. So beautiful.” He was looking out the window, but she could see his right cheek reddening. “The kayak, I mean.”
“You could’ve just come inside yourself!”
“I couldn’t afford it. So I would’ve felt like a stalker. Or bought something cheaper that I didn’t need, just to make you happy.”
“This makes me happy,” she said, without thinking. “Sitting here, drinking a cold beer, not pretending to be anything but myself, watching the waves…”
The crash of cymbals overhead: a horror movie sound track.
She clunked the bottle down, catching it just before it tipped over, and stood up. “I’ve gotta go.”
“But you just said…”
“I know, but I’ve also just realized…”
“That you’re alone with someone who’s admitted to stalking you?” He set down his empty bottle, like he was about to get up. “Sorry. I should’ve–”
“And nobody knows where I…” She stopped herself, heart racing. If she bolted out the door, could she make it to the truck before he…? Probably not. And besides, the keys were in her jacket. She forced herself to look back at him, instead of running away.
His dark head was cocked to one side, studying her. “How could you possibly be scared of a guy who owns a carbon fiber paddle?”
It was so unexpected, she snorted. “Excellent question.”
Her heart slowed again, though she remained standing. He hadn’t moved. “So, you’re not an axe murderer then?”
“Nope. Too bad, I’m missing a great opportunity…” Smiling, he stood up at last. “Want another beer?” He crossed to the fridge to pull one out for himself.
“No thanks. I’m driving.” And already half-drunk.
Upstairs, the drums were back under control, and the singer was dreaming of a white Christmas.
“Starving,” she admitted.
“Stay right there.” He set down his beer and slipped out the door.
She rubbed at her crystal and watched the waves, trying not to think about a Christmas Day paddle—red and yellow kayaks, side by side—until he reappeared outside with a steaming plate in each hand. She pulled open the door just enough for him to slide inside, along with another mouth-watering aroma: teriyaki.
“Wow, that smells delicious.” Her stomach rumbled.
Karl set the plates down on the coffee table. Fished his own fork and knife out of the dish drainer, found another set inside a drawer.
“There’s a huge carrot cake up there too, so I’ll have to make a second trip.” He tore off a paper towel and ripped it in two. “Fresh out of fancy napkins,” he added, handing over her half before sitting down again.
“Merry Christmas Karl.” She raised her empty bottle to clink against his full one. “And thank you.”
“Merry Christmas Kate.” He held her gaze, smiling. “Here’s to hope.”