Ariane de Gennaro
“I’ll be home for Christmas,
You can plan on me…”
Carrie Rogers glared at her car radio, where Michael Buble’s crooning voice was emanating from the speaker. She smacked the ‘off’ button, and her car was plunged into sudden silence. She was supposed to be home for Christmas an hour ago, snuggled under a woolen blanket with a mug of her mother’s peppermint cocoa in hand.
Instead, she was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic along Interstate 71.
The red truck in front of her inched forward, and she gently eased her foot on the gas. “Finally,” she muttered, only to come to a halt again. Somewhere behind her a car honked, and she sighed as she put her foot on the brake.
Except it wasn’t the brake.
Carrie’s car lurched forward, catching her off-guard. Her seatbelt tugged against her chest, drawing an involuntary gasp from her lips. Time seemed to slow down as metal crunched against metal, until finally her foot found the brake once more.
“Shit,” she cursed, straightening in her seat to peer over the steering wheel at the damage. The truck turned on its right turn signal and started to inch out of line, to the shoulder of the highway. Carrie followed suit, muscles tensed until she pulled over and put the car in park.
She heard a door “thud,” and seconds later, a shadow fell over her seat. Carrie sighed and pushed open the car door, an apology already tumbling out of her mouth. “I’m so sorry for the damage,” she started, standing up. “I’m sure my insurance will cover—”
She stopped as she took in the man before her. He was dressed in jeans and a red flannel button down, which was thrown over a gray hoodie. Classic man, Carrie thought, as her gaze traveled up to his face. She was surprised to see something almost familiar in the set of his jaw and the gentle swoop of his black hair.
And those eyes, brown with flecks of gold, were so striking that she was sure she’d seen them somewhere before.
The man ran a hand through his hair, surveying the scene. “I’d be more worried about your car than mine, to be quite frank. Big trucks don’t crumple as easily, but your hood… it’s gonna be hard to fix.” He turned back to face her and stuck out his hand, as if introducing himself was an afterthought. “Hi. I’m Ryan.”
At the sound of his name, a memory resurfaced: Carrie was 15, laughing along at a birthday party for her best friend, Faith. She watched eagerly as Faith turned to the freckled boy sitting next to her. “Okay, Ryan: truth or dare?”
“Dare,” he said confidently.
Faith grinned, looking between Carrie and Ryan. “Okay, I dare you to kiss Carrie.”
Carrie could feel the heat rush into her cheeks, red with both embarrassment and anticipation. She’d liked Ryan since the fifth grade, and Faith knew that.
Ryan paused for a moment, then wrinkled his nose. “I changed my mind. Can I get a truth?”
All of the energy seemed to flood out of Carrie as Faith looked apologetically between her and Ryan. Carrie’s cheeks flushed a deeper shade of red. She tried to pay attention to the rest of the game, but her thoughts were a scratched record, playing “he doesn’t like me, he doesn’t like me” on a never-ending loop. It got so bad that she finally excused herself, teary-eyed, and hid in Faith’s bathroom for the rest of the party.
“Ryan Goldman?” Carrie clarified, shaking herself out of the memory and taking the man’s hand. He nodded, perplexed. She tugged her hand away, and when she spoke again, there was a new edge to her tone. “We’ve met before.”
She wasn’t sure if she should be offended that he had forgotten her. It had been almost four years since they’d last seen each other, after all, but she decided to be petty anyway. “I’m Carrie Rogers.”
Confusion flashed across his face for a split second before his expression morphed into one of recognition. “Oh my gosh, Carrie! From Mr. Buckley’s class?” She nodded once, and he grinned. “Woah, it’s been, like, what — three years?”
“Four,” she corrected him.
“That’s crazy. And now here you are, running into my truck.”
“It’s not my fault,” she huffed, annoyed. “It’s this stupid holiday traffic, you were going too slow—”
“So your solution was to rear-end me?” Ryan laughed good-naturedly, and Carrie felt her cheeks grow warm despite the frigid temperature.
“Can we just call a towing company and be done with this?” she asked pointedly. “I’m already an hour late for Christmas dinner.”
His smile faded at that. “Yeah, me too. Let’s … let’s get out of here.”
An hour later, they were standing in a repair shop, watching the snow fall silently outside the window. “I’m sorry, I just have to deal with this,” Ryan was saying into his phone. “I’ll be home soon. Yup. Love you, too.”
They hadn’t spoken about anything other than the accident for the past hour that they’d been at the shop. They were sitting in stiff plastic chairs and waiting for the mechanic’s appraisal of the damage. Carrie didn’t want to be the one to break the silence, but curiosity got the best of her. “Who was that? Your girlfriend?”
“The person on the phone?” Ryan raised his eyebrows, then chuckled. “No, that was my mom. I don’t have a girlfriend, in case you were wondering.”
Carrie’s face flushed yet again. “I wasn’t.”
Just then, the mechanic came out of the garage with spots of grease streaked across his face and clothes. “Do you kids want the good news or the bad news first?”
“The bad,” Carrie answered, just as Ryan replied “the good.” She glared at him, and he offered her an apologetic smile.
The mechanic looked between them, bewildered, before speaking again. “The good news is that both vehicles are fixable,” he told them. They both nodded along like puppets on a string.
“The bad news is that it’s going to take a while — maybe all night. And it’s Christmas, so that’ll cost you extra.” The mechanic grinned at the mention of money.
“I need to get home,” Carrie told him. “Like, now. There’s no way I can drive out of here tonight?”
“Not unless you Uber,” Ryan suggested. Carrie ignored him.
The mechanic shook his head. “You’re not likely to find an Uber around here, not on Christmas. Besides, with that snow? Neither of you are going anywhere.”
Carrie and Ryan both turned to glance out the window, where the snow was falling hard and fast.
“But … but I have to leave,” Carrie insisted.
“The roads aren’t safe,” Ryan interjected.
Carrie rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Mr. Weatherman.”
“I’m afraid he’s right,” the mechanic conceded. “You two are snowed in for the night.”
“For the night?” they echoed in unison.
The mechanic threw his hands up, exasperated. “Where else are you gonna go?”
Carrie opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out.
“Gosh, this must be the most snow Ohio has gotten in years,” Ryan remarked, gazing back outside.
It took all of Carrie’s willpower not to roll her eyes again. “Where are we supposed to sleep?” she asked.
The mechanic reached up to scratch his head. “I don’t know. I’ve never had customers stranded in my shop before, to be honest,” he chuckled. “I live alone in an apartment upstairs. I’d be happy to bring down a few blankets, if you want to sleep on the chairs in the waiting room.” He gestured, and Carrie followed his gaze to the cold plastic chairs she’d been sitting in an hour earlier when she first arrived. There was nothing she loathed more than the idea of sleeping on those chairs — except maybe sleeping next to Ryan.
“Seems like we don’t have much of a choice,” Ryan remarked. Carrie wished she could disagree, but he was right.
They were stuck.
Carrie watched Ryan out of the side of her eye as he spread out a blanket on the floor, then added another on top of it. The mechanic had retreated to his apartment a while ago, leaving the two of them alone in his empty shop. “You can sleep here,” Ryan said, gesturing to his newly-made sleep mat. “I’ll take one of the chairs so you don’t have to.”
“I could take a chair, too,” she clipped, irritated by his kindness. Who was this thoughtful guy, and what had he done to the Ryan who had humiliated her in ninth grade? Even though it had been years and Carrie was sure he had changed since high school — or at least, she hoped he had — there was still that 15-year-old-girl inside of her who was crying because the boy she liked wouldn’t kiss her in Truth or Dare.
“It’s fine, really,” he insisted. “You kept complaining about how uncomfortable they were earlier, and they don’t really bother me as much. Besides, I know this isn’t exactly how you pictured spending your Christmas.” He gestured to the vacant store, where shelves of auto parts lined the walls. A sign above the counter read “Franklin’s Auto Body Shop” in bright red letters that shimmered in the starlight. The moon shone through the window and reflected off the top of the snowdrifts that were newly piled outside, making the entire shop seem brighter than usual.
He took off his puffy winter jacket and tossed it to her. She caught it by the hood, head cocked in puzzlement. “Merry Christmas,” he smirked. “You can use it as a pillow, if you want.”
She threw it back at him. “I can use my own, thank you.”
Carrie laid down on the blankets on the floor, not checking to see if he had caught it. She closed her eyes, praying that sleep would swiftly find her.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Her eyes shot open.
“Hmm?” Carrie mumbled, not bothering to turn around and look at him.
“Why do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you,” she answered immediately.
Somewhere behind her, he scoffed. “Really? You’ve been hostile to me ever since the accident this afternoon — which is funny, because you’re the one who hit me, so really it should be the other way around.”
She sighed, finally rolling over to face him. Her eyes found his brown gaze, and she forced herself not to look away like she had done the entire rest of the day. “I don’t hate you,” she repeated slowly. “I don’t know enough about the adult ‘you’ to hate you. It’s been four years.”
Ryan kept staring at her, as if sensing there was something more. “But .. ?”
“But the ‘you’ four years ago wasn’t that nice to me, that’s all.”
The words rolled right off the tip of Carrie’s tongue, — like they’d been waiting these past four years to be let out. She pursed her lips, bracing herself for his reaction. To her surprise, he burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” she asked after a few seconds.
His laughter started to die. “Wait, you’re… you’re serious? The reason you’ve been so standoffish all day is because I wasn’t nice to you three years ago?”
“Four,” she corrected him before she could stop herself. She hoped the darkness hid the blush that was creeping into her cheeks. “It sounds silly, now that you say it,” she acquiesced, “but you absolutely broke my 15-year-old heart.”
“Me? You broke mine!” he replied, incredulous.
Carrie raised her eyebrows. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I had been in love with you since, like, eighth grade,” Ryan laughed. “Ah, grade school crushes. Those were the days, huh?”
Carrie blinked back her shock. “I– really?” she stuttered. He nodded. “Because I had been in love with you since fifth grade.”
His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “No way.”
It was her turn to gape at him in shock. “You didn’t know?” she asked. “I thought it was pretty obvious.”
“I’ve always been a bit oblivious,” he admitted, sheepish. He paused to shake his head, running a hand through his hair and smoothing it back.
“Then why didn’t you kiss me?” she blurted out. The second the words left her mouth she wanted to take them back, to force them back inside her lips and wipe both of their minds.
But that was impossible. “Kiss you?” Ryan repeated, seeming thoroughly confused.
“At that party, playing Truth or Dare …” He shook his head, genuinely clueless. Carrie stared at him in disbelief. “You really don’t remember?”
“I mean … maybe?” He shrugged. “It might not have seemed like it, but I was super shy in high school. I liked you, sure, but I never, ever would’ve acted on it. Especially not for some silly dare.”
Carrie just sat there, at a loss for words. It’s not that big of a deal, she told herself, but it was. She’d spent the past four years believing that there was something wrong with her that made her fundamentally unkissable. Even though she was a sophomore in college, she’d never even had her first kiss. It’s not that she hadn’t liked other guys since then, she had just never had the confidence to pursue them.
Ryan chuckled, still stunned by the realization. “Wow. Imagine what could’ve been, if only we’d known.”
“Yeah, that’s… wow.”
They sat there in silence for a few moments more until — to Carrie’s surprise — Ryan was the one who broke it. “So how’s life been these past four years? I would’ve asked earlier, but we were kind of … you know.” He gestured to the shop around them.
Carrie gave him a genuine smile for the first time. “Life’s been good,” she told him. “I got into fashion school, so I’m currently working on getting my bachelors in fashion design.”
“I’m impressed,” Ryan whistled. “But then again, I’m not surprised. You were always making your own clothing, you had the coolest outfits. Didn’t you make your own homecoming dress one year?”
Carrie laughed at the memory. “Oh, god, that dress was horrendous. It was the first full piece I’d ever made, and it was a total disaster.”
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Ryan admitted.
Carrie’s face turned pink, and she could’ve sworn Ryan’s did, too.
Neither of them got any sleep that night. They unintentionally pulled an all-nighter, talking until dawn about the trajectory their lives had taken since they’d last spoken. Carrie learned that Ryan went to trade school to become an electrician, and was currently in the middle of starting his own company. “It’s not as exciting as design school, but I enjoy it,” he joked.
The mechanic came downstairs the next morning to find Carrie and Ryan huddled together under a blanket, laughing like old friends. “Did the two of you get any sleep?” he mused aloud, but neither of them took notice.
He cleared his throat, and only then did Carrie turn to look at him. “They cleared the roads overnight,” he informed them. “You both should be good to leave now.”
“Oh, thank you.” Carrie found herself forcing a smile onto her face, surprised by the sinking feeling in her stomach. The auto shop had been their safe haven, a welcome escape from reality. Now, her and Ryan had to step off memory lane and step into the real world.
The mechanic gave Carrie and Ryan back the keys to their respective cars. They both stared at them for a moment before looking back up at each other.
“Do you still live in town?” Ryan asked her.
Carrie nodded. “My parents do, yeah.”
“I’m not far. If you’re free while you’re home on break, maybe I could pay a visit?”
A smile sparked across her face. “I’d like that.”
They turned to walk out the door. Just before they stepped into the cold air, they heard a whistle behind them. “Mistletoe, lovebirds,” the mechanic hollered.
They both looked up, and sure enough, a bright green sprig of mistletoe was hanging over their heads.
“This wasn’t here yesterday,” Carrie protested. The mechanic just smiled mysteriously and disappeared into his stockroom.
Ryan gave her a wry smile. “Guess we have no choice but to follow the rules.” He leaned forward, cupping her face in his hands, and tenderly kissed her on the lips. She kissed him back instinctively, their lips interlocking like long-lost puzzle pieces.
Ryan pulled away, grinning widely. “Merry Christmas, Carrie Rogers.”
Carrie smiled back. “Merry Christmas, Ryan Goldman.”