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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer
#23

Crystal




On Christmas Eve, only a week after being grounded for a year, Crystal got cabin fever and snuck out of the house through her first floor bedroom window. She was wearing the dress she bought with her mom’s credit card but without her mom’s permission, which was actually not the reason she’d been grounded. It was hard to get out the window in her high heels, and she dirtied the dress in a tumble into the snow-covered bushes, but oh well.

            Crystal went around to the front yard, her shoes punching through the icy crust of the snow, and peeked in through the living room window. Her parents were both smashed onto her dad’s recliner and making out with each other. On the TV screen in the living room, two reality show contestants were also making out with each other, but they were trapped in a tiny iron cage, not smashed in an easy chair. Crystal felt bad for her parents because they weren’t hot, nor had they ever been hot based on the pictures Crystal had seen of them as teenagers. The wind was gentle but very cold and Crystal wished she had a coat, but there was no way to get one out of the hall closet without being seen. She went around to the garage and stole her mom’s car using a spare key that her parents didn’t know she had. She’d taken it out of her dad’s dresser one day last summer while he was in the back yard playing the harmonica in his fraying hammock.

            Crystal couldn’t do anything about her parents maybe hearing the garage door opening, but she hoped they were too occupied to notice and she didn’t turn the headlights on until she was out of the driveway and a full block down the street. She wouldn’t be legal to get her permit for another five months, but her parents had assured her that there was no way she’d be getting her permit until she could prove she was trustworthy, which she had no immediate plans to do. She cranked up the heater in the car and scanned through the radio stations looking for Christmas songs that weren’t slow and lame. She drove slowly and didn’t honk the horn at all. She could resist some temptations just fine.

            There were a lot of cars in the driveway at Jacob’s house. The driveway was slicker than she thought and she accidentally bumped into the back of a minivan kind of hard when she was parking and left a dent in its bumper. Standing on the front porch, she could hear someone playing a halting rendition of The Holly and the Ivy on a clarinet inside the house. She rang the doorbell once and the music faltered, but no one came to the door. She was shivering uncontrollably now in the short, light dress and she rang the doorbell six more times in quick succession. An angry looking man with hair down to his shoulders answered the door. He was wearing a thick, shapeless sweater. “What?” he asked.

            “Are you Jacob’s dad?” asked Crystal . She was trying not to laugh at the man’s exaggerated frown.

            “Yes I am. What do you want?”

            “Is Jacob home?”

            “We’re having a family gathering.” The man started to close the door.

            “So he’s home. Can I talk to him?”

            Crystal thought he was going to slam the door in her face, but instead he turned and shouted back down the hall. “Jacob! A girl is here to see you on Christmas Eve while your grandparents and cousins and everyone else is here!” Then he disappeared from view, leaving the door cracked open. Crystal could feel the warmth coming out of the house through the sliver of yellow light and she was about to step inside to wait for Jacob when he came out onto the porch and closed the door behind him. He was wearing a sweater almost like his dad’s and glasses. Crystal had never seen him wear glasses before. “Where’s your coat?” Jacob asked.

            “I’m not cold,” said Crystal . “Where’s your lip ring?”

            “I take it out when my grandma’s around,” said Jacob. “My mom doesn’t want her to know about it.”

            “That’s just wrong!” said Crystal . “That lip ring is you!”

            Jacob didn’t seem to care much.

            “Isn’t that missletoe?” said Crystal .

            Jacob looked up. “That’s a leaf stuck in a spiderweb. What are you doing here?”

            “I stole my mom’s car!” said Crystal . “Come drive around with me.”

            “You’re retarded,” said Jacob. “I’m not driving around with you.”

            “Why not?” asked Crystal . “It’ll be fun! We can make out.”

            “I don’t want to make out,” said Jacob. “We’re doing Christmas stuff.”

            “When break’s over, I’ll make sure everyone at school thinks you’re gay,” said Crystal .

            “How?” asked Jacob. “Aren’t you expelled?”

            “Suspended!” shouted Crystal . “It’s temporary!”

            “Whatever,” said Jacob, and he went back into the house. The brief wave of heat before the door closed again felt wonderful on Crystal ’s bare arms and legs.

            As she pulled out of the driveway, Crystal noticed that the little red flag indicating outgoing mail was up on the mailbox in front of Jacob’s house, which was stupid since the mailman wouldn’t be back to pick up any mail until the 26th. Anyone would be able to steal it between now and then, for example, her. She pulled up next to the mailbox and remembered to turn her hazard lights on. Inside the mailbox there was only one letter. It was from Jacob’s older brother who still lived at home even though he was, like, thirty-three and it was addressed to his girlfriend who was studying portrait painting at some special school. Crystal drove down the street and, after signaling her turn even though there weren’t any other cars around, pulled the car into an empty parking lot in front of a boarded-up, out-of-business hobby shop before opening up the letter. She only got through the first paragraph before she was too disgusted to go on. It was a bunch of wordy, mushy stuff about destiny, longing, completeness, evocative smells, that one afternoon when it seemed like time stopped just for them, blah blah.

            Crystal threw the letter on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat and then decided to drive to a gas station to throw the letter in a garbage can. On the way she saw a man walking on the side of the road, trudging through the slush in soaked jeans and sneakers, his narrow shoulders hunched against the cold. She slowed the car and rolled the window down. “You want a ride?”

            The man looked at her for a moment, and then got in the car without answering. It was hard to tell how old he was. He had a lot of scruff on his cheeks and chin and a tattoo of a scrawny cat on his neck.

            “Where are you trying to go?” asked Crystal . They drove past houses with sagging inflatable snowmen in their front yards and white lights dangling from their gutters in a way that looked nothing like icicles.

            “ 1618 Burgundy St. ” said the man. His voice was quiet in a way that made it sound like that was all the louder he was capable of talking.

            “OK,” said Crystal . “How do we get there?”

            “Just keep going this way,” said the man. He was scowling through the front windshield and rubbing his left bicep through his coat sleeve.

            “I’m Crystal ,” said Crystal . “If you don’t want to puke your guts out, do not read that letter on the floor.”

            “OK,” said the man.

            “That one right there,” said Crystal . She took her eyes off the road long enough to point at the letter down by the man’s feet.

            The man looked but he didn’t pick it up.

            “It’s a love letter,” said Crystal . “If you want to call it that.”

            “Who gave it to you?” asked the man.

            “Um, no,” said Crystal . “Eww. It is not to me. The guy who wrote it is almost forty and he still lives with his mom and dad.”

            The man suddenly turned his head and looked at Crystal . She stayed focused on the road, but she could see him staring at her out of the corner of her eye.

            “Why are you out driving around by yourself on Christmas Eve?” asked the man.

            Crystal smiled and glanced over at him. “ ‘Cause I got grounded.”

            “Grounded?”

            “Yeah,” said Crystal . “ ‘Cause right before Christmas break I got expelled.”

            “Expelled? How old are you?”

            Crystal tried to look coy. “How old do you think I am?”

            “17?”

            “Younger,” said Crystal .

            “16?”

            “Younger,” said Crystal .

            “Stop the car,” said the man. “Let me out.”

            “When would a girl be too young for you to be…interested?” asked Crystal .

            “I said let me out!” shouted the man, grabbing Crystal ’s arm.

            “Fine!” Crystal shouted back, pulling over to the side of the road. “I hope the next girl who gives you a ride is nasty! And then I hope her ex catches you in the car with her and uses your face as a, like-” but the man had already slammed the door and started walking away.          

            On her way home, Crystal stopped by the gas station just three blocks away from her house. She threw the letter in one of the outdoor garbage cans between the pumps, careful not to accidentally read anymore of it. Then she went inside with the intention of stealing some gum or something, but the old Mexican man working the counter said, “Merry Christmas” with such a sincere smile that she paid for the gum and complimented him on how fast he counted out her change. 

            Back at the house, the garage door was still standing open and the wind had formed a small snowdrift just inside the entrance. Crystal accidentally pulled the car too far forward in the garage and knocked over some rakes and shovels. After crawling back through her bedroom window, Crystal changed into sweatpants and a hoodie and crawled under her covers. She felt small. She got out of bed and went down the hall to the living room. She was glad to see her parents were in separate chairs now, playing catch with a beanbag by the light of the Christmas tree and the TV, on which a newswoman was giving an upbeat report about avoiding tragedies.

            “Mom, Dad?” said Crystal . “Can I open up a present early?”

            Her mom glanced at her dad and then said, “I guess so. You can open up that one.” She pointed to a small box wrapped in silver paper and tied with a green ribbon.

            “What is it?” asked Crystal , taking the box from under the tree and shaking it.

            “Open it and find out,” said her mom.

            “It’s a new phone,” said her dad.

            “Raymond,” said her mom, shooting him a withering glare.

            “What?” he said. “Isn’t that what it is?”

            Crystal ’s mom just looked up at the ceiling.

            Crystal tossed the box back under the tree. “Forget it. I’ll open it tomorrow with the others.”

            “Careful with that,” said her dad. “It’s a phone.”

            “I know!” shouted Crystal . “I know it’s a phone!”

            “I don’t get you,” said her dad, shaking his head. “I thought you wanted a phone.”            Crystal stomped back to her room and spent the rest of the evening in bed. She wondered if she was getting sick. She couldn’t warm up. All she could do was lie there and try to forget the present was a phone, but it was all in vain. She knew it was a phone and she knew she always would know it was a phone, and that was almost beyond what she could stand.