It takes all my willpower to swallow the words back, even though I want to scream them so bad. The old man in front of me stares expectantly.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat your order, please? It’s been a long day.” Understatement. I’ve been standing at this damn counter for nine hours, with only two bathroom breaks and one ten-minute lunch.
The man nods sympathetically. “One bacon cheeseburger and a coke, please.”
“One bacon cheeseburger!” I yell to Xavier, who gets to work slapping together a burger.
I hand the man a paper cup. “That’ll be five dollars and forty-three cents.” The man dumps pre-counted bills and coins into my outstretched hand and moves to sit down.
I put the money into the cash register and chug some cheap instant coffee. The garishly bright lights flicker, and the space heater pops like the oil in the deep fryer. I look over to the register where my sister Ivy used to work and sigh.
A woman with puffy lips and poofy blonde hair breezes in through the creaky door, sending in a blast of frigid air and sending out thoughts of Ivy.
“Hello, welcome to Elevation Burger! What can I get for you?” I say in my falsetto.
“Hi there,” the woman says in a heavy southern accent. Her ‘hi’ sounds like ‘high’. “Could Ah have two orders of fries and a custom-made burger with a toasted potato bun, quarter-pound grass-fed beef pattie, tomatoes, caramelized onions, lettuce, pickles, bacon, American cheese, bacon, mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise? And a fountain drink and double chocolate milkshake to go with that.”
“Two orders of fries! One quarter-pound grass-fed burger with a potato bun, tomatoes, caramelized onions, lettuce, pickles, bacon, American cheese, bacon, mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise! Double chocolate milkshake!”
Xavier looks at me, like seriously? He starts frying a hamburger patty.
“A toasted potato bun,” the woman adds.
“Toasted potato bun!”
I punch her order into the register and subtly nudge the tip jar toward the woman. She looks like she can afford to give tips, given her mink coat.
“Eight dollars and fifty-one cents.” The woman swipes her credit card through the reader and drops a quarter into the tip jar. Scrooge. She takes the paper cup and saunters over to the fountain machine.
Ten minutes later, I hand her the tray with her food. She sniffs as she looks at it.
“Didn’t y’all hear me? Ah asked for two orders of fries and Ah only see one.” Xavier shoves some fries into another container and sets it on the tray.
The woman sits down, inspects her burger, and comes back up to the counter. Oh for Christ’s sake! Eat your goddamn food, woman!
“Is there something wrong, ma’am?” I smile so tight at the woman that my cheeks hurt.
“Mah burger is missing ketchup. Honestly, d’ y’all want to make money or what?”
I give the woman a handful of ketchup packets as five more customers walk in.
One more hour. One more.
As I’m bundling up my coat and getting ready to leave, Xavier taps me on the shoulder.
“Uh, Holly? I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, but I’m gonna need you to work all the evening shifts next week. And the whole day on the twenty-fifth.”
“But… I still have school. And it's Christmas. I thought Debbie was working next week.”
“She said she caught COVID. Law says she has to isolate for ten days.” That lying bitch. How many times has it been? Four? Five? “Again, I’m sorry. But you know we’re understaffed.”
“Fine. I’ll come in next week. And on Christmas.”
It’s 10:01 when I finally get home. I fumble with my keys in the darkness; the lights aren’t on inside. I flick the light switch as I step inside and throw my boots into a corner.
Dad is passed out on the greasy, saggy living room couch. Five beer bottles lie on the floor next to him. I toss them in the recycling before Mom can see them. Let her think he’s getting better. Let her think the AA meetings he’s supposedly attending are helping him. False hope is better than no hope.
I’m heating up a can of Giant-brand tomato soup when Mom trudges in.
“Hey, Mom. Do you want soup?”
She grunts affirmatively and collapses into a rickety chair at the table.
“How was work today?” I ask as I ladle soup into two chipped bowls.
Mom hangs her head. “I wanted to quit.”
“Same,” I murmur.
“I want to quit every day.”
“Same.” We both start spooning soup into our mouths.
Mom is about to get up to clear away the dishes when I say, “We, uh, have parent-teacher conferences on January fifth. I was wondering…well, maybe you could go, ’cause, uh, Dad…can’t.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. I have the evening shift that day.”
“No, it’s fine, I should’ve known. Stupid to bring it up.”
“You do know I’m graduating from high school on May twentieth, right?”
A sigh. “Yes, Holly, I know.”
“Okay, good. I’m going to bed.” I regret the callous words as soon as I say them. I don’t even give a crap about parent-teacher conferences. But Mom is supposed to.
Sometimes I get really angry when I think about how I’m the only one watching myself grow up. How I’m the only one who’s there to cheer me on. How I’m the only one who’s there to remind myself that life is worth living.
Ivy used to be my cheerleader. Now she’s cheering for god-knows-who instead.
Ivy’s the type of person who’d rather die than allow anyone to see their inner cracks. She was always smiling, always giggling, always holding doors open for people. Seemingly impervious to the pitying looks of our neighbors when Mom and Dad’s yells echoed down the street. Seemingly impervious to the world falling apart around us.
Ivy imagined that the chipped plates we ate off of were gilded gold. She imagined our bent-up twenty-year-old Chevrolet was a horse-drawn carriage and that our shack of a house was a fairy castle. Sometimes, I wonder who those hallucinations were meant to fool. Her or me?
One time, we got home to see the living room littered with shattered plates and Mom hunched in a corner, sobbing.
Ivy grabbed my hand and pulled me along as she sprinted to the park. She was only twelve, and I, two years younger.
“C’mon, Holly, let's play hide and seek!” Ivy said cheerfully when we got there. I could barely detect the crack in her voice.
“But…didn’t you see Mom? She didn’t look good–”
Ivy grasped my shoulders and shouted, “EVERYTHING IS FINE, HOLLY!”
Her eyes widened and she stepped back. “Everything is fine,” she said quietly and took a deep breath to calm herself. “Now let’s play hide and seek.”
Ivy disappeared the day she graduated. All she left me was a note:
Holly, my sister, my joy,
I’m not going to justify myself. I think you know better than anyone how bad I had to leave. You know how to reach me.
I love you.
Ivy’s always the one who calls me. For some reason, I never call her.
Waking up on Monday for school is a struggle. I rush through a shower, shiver into my clothes, hop into my bent-up thirty-year-old Chevrolet, and speed on over to school.
My phone rings as I pull into the parking lot. It’s Ivy.
Ivy starts singing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” when I pick up the phone.
“Holly! It’s so good to hear your voice! So! I was calling about our annual Holly-Ivy Christmas Eve Campout! Christmas Eve is on Friday, so I thought I’d drive over then. I’m not that far away.”
“Oh, seriously? I thought you weren’t coming for Christmas…”
“Of course I am, silly! You’re my sister, obviously, I want to spend Christmas with you.” After two years, now you want to see me? “Soo, park at five on Friday?”
“Alright. I’ll see you then.”
“Yay! This is gonna be so fun! Bye, Holly! Love ya!”
The Holly-Ivy Christmas Eve Campout isn’t actually a campout. Ever since we were little, Ivy and I have spent the night of Christmas Eve in our sleeping bags by the Christmas tree. That’s why we called it a campout. Ivy and I had wanted to catch Santa Claus in the act of bringing presents, but we always fell too deeply asleep. By the time we were old enough to realize that Dad would be the only person coming in late at night, the campout had become a tradition.
To make it a true campout, Ivy and I would make s’mores by melting marshmallows in the microwave. We’d sing Christmas carols and gossip into the night. Mom would sing “The Holly and the Ivy” as we snuggled into our sleeping bags, and we’d drift off to the sweet sound of her voice.
Ivy didn’t come last year. And I understand. I wouldn't be too keen on spending Christmas with a burnt-out mother and a father whose BAL will never be low enough to drive.
But I still felt/feel forsaken.
Hiding behind a bush, I watch as Ivy enters the park and plops down on a wooden bench. She’s wearing a gray coat, a red hat, and beige Uggs. She’s cut her glossy black hair. It looks good. Sophisticated. She doesn’t pull out her phone. She just sits, waiting.
I inhale, exhale, step away from the bush, and begin walking toward her.
Ivy jumps up and throws out her hands. “HOLLY!” she yells, so loud it can be heard through half the country. Something inside me breaks at the sight of my sister. I run towards her and she envelops me in a bear hug so tight I can barely breathe. But it’s a nice kind of asphyxiation. The kind that tells you you’re loved.
“Damn, I missed you, Ivy,” I choke out when she pulls away. Ivy looks me up and down, taking in the tiny changes that only become noticeable when they accumulate over time.
“Me too, sis! C’mon, let’s get hot chocolate. It’s freezing!”
We walk over to Starbucks and order the cheapest hot chocolates on the menu.
“So. How you been?” Ivy asks through a mouthful of cocoa.
“That’s not what you wanted to say.” Damn. All this time and I’m still an open book to her.
I stir my hot chocolate. “Dad’s probably passed out in a puddle of his own vomit in some godforsaken alley. Mom can barely keep her eyes open. I eat lunch alone at school every day. I have to work my awful job on Christmas so Mom can pay the bills. So yeah, I’m doing fantastic, thanks for asking."
“That’s not what you wanted to say either,” she frowns.
I can’t take it anymore. “Where have you been all this time, Ivy? You take off, leave me a four-line note, and now you’re back? You call me and all you talk about are banalities?”
Ivy wrings her hands. “I am so sorry, Holly. I was such a mess that day. I…I was going to kill myself. I even drove to the bridge. But I looked down at the water so far below me and…I couldn't do it. I was so flooded with shame and regret and disappointment and sadness. I’ve been running from those feelings ever since, and I’m just so stupid. I’ve regretted leaving every day. I should’ve come back, but I panicked every time I got in the car and–
“I needed you, Ivy,” my voice cracks, and tears leak out. “It’s just so hard without you. I’ve missed you every day since you left.”
“I needed you too, Holly.” We both throw ourselves into each other’s arms and start crying. Some of the other Starbucks customers stare at us, but we don’t care. The tears wash away the pain, wash away the anger until all that’s left is love and understanding.
After our tear ducts have dried, Ivy and I shop for campout supplies and head home. We decorate the plastic Christmas tree(which Mom and I didn’t have the heart to do), make s’mores, gossip, and sing along to Christmas carols. Just like old times.
Mom gets home and we all have another cry-fest. Dad is practically sober when he gets home. Mom orders dinner from the K&W cafeteria and we actually have a normal family dinner.
In the evening, Ivy and I crawl into our too-small sleeping bags and Mom kneels down beside us and begins singing, her voice wending and spiraling through the air.
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir…
And for one infinitesimal second, as Ivy lies beside me and the Christmas tree lights twinkle, everything in the world feels...right.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
This is a very nice story with some very good literature. It flows, which I sometimes have trouble with. I like that "Ivy" and "Holly" are the names you used for a Christmas story. Very cool.
Oh, thank you so much for your sweet comment! I was definitely feeling Christmas vibes when I wrote this, but now I'm sad because Christmas is still two months away.
I like that this ended on such a tender note— and a note of *normalcy* There is so much dysfunction in this family that it feels natural that these sisters would grow close and rely on each other. And setting this at Christmas just makes all those emotions come across more strongly. These little lines here made me smile: “But it’s a nice kind of asphyxiation. The kind that tells you you’re loved.” Those are the best kind of hugs :)
Oh, thank you! That's one of my favorite lines too.
BTW, thank you for reading my stories, Aeris! I don't have many readers because I don't submit to the contests, so it really means a lot when someone reads and leaves feedback.
You’re absolutely welcome! I recognize that it’s an investment on someone’s time and energy to read my short stories and I never wanna take that lightly, so I’m always happy to return the favor ☺️ I look forward to seeing what you continue to come up with!