Better than my birthday and New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve was without question my favourite night of the year. Even at nineteen, the anticipation of Christmas Day still got me, and celebrating on Christmas Eve with my friends and whoever happened to be in the pub – all inhibition free – was something I always looked forward to.
This year, the shine had worn off somewhat. Declan had sent me one text message the day before, saying: Hello. How are you?
Not entirely dissimilar to the one I'd sent him, the one he ignored. I wasn't trying to be petty or play games when I gave him the same treatment. I was trying to move on from what happened between us. Lucas had given me some things to think about when he'd spoken to me about Declan, yet I couldn't silence my biggest fear that he'd used me as a form of amusement, picking me up and dropping me when he'd got what he needed from me. Before, it was someone to talk to, someone to listen to him and give him a boost when he felt low. I drew the line at being his “friend with benefits”. The only I way to ensure I didn't slip up was to pretend he didn't exist.
He'd hurt me in ways I hadn't expected to hurt. Being used caused enough pain on its own, but mostly I hurt because I saw something in him other people missed. Kindness, a person who took things to heart, who would go out of his way to help someone if they asked. And it hurt because, although I saw those things in him, it wasn't enough. I was back to being less than a friend, and whether it happened right away, or it took a few months or years, someone else would eventually get to have everything I'd been trying to make mine – even when I hadn't realised I was trying.
On the inside, I was a mess. I absolutely refused to let my inner misery show on the outside. On a whim, I bought a red dress, especially for my big night out with Kara and Lucas. We were only going to our local, but everyone made more effort on Christmas Eve, and I needed to try something new to bust me out of my funk. Who knew a dress would do the trick so well?
“Wowser,” Kara said, as I took my coat off in the already crowded bar. “Someone's smokin' hot tonight!” She ran her hands down the soft material around my waist. “You've really got this hourglass figure thing down.”
I laughed. “It's not too bad, is it? I had to have a vodka before I could leave the house wearing this dress, but I'm glad I did.”
“You should be. You look stunning.”
Always hard to believe, especially when it came from Kara who, as my best friend, was legally obliged to say I looked good. It was part of the BFF contract. However, I felt pretty good considering how lousy the past few days had been. No doubt the vodka had a hand in it, but I wasn't complaining. Whatever it took to keep me from stomach-clenching pain was cool with me.
Sounds of wailing karaoke singers filled the air, and several already drunken revellers danced around them, high on the party atmosphere. Currently, a woman wearing a Santa hat and a black dress she might need surgery to get out of, was singing an off-key version of I Will Survive, and getting right into the face of anyone with the misfortune of getting too close.
“That is a frightening woman,” Lucas said, eyes fixated.
“No shit.” Kara sat down beside him again, and I gestured towards the bar to let them know I was going to get a drink.
There were four bartenders tripping over each other behind the small bar to serve the thirsty masses, but it still didn't seem to be enough. Everyone was jostling each other while they waited, and instead of getting caught in the crush, I ducked around to the very end of the bar, then stared at one the barmaids I knew well. This trick always worked. If you stare at someone long enough, they will feel it, and sure enough, the bubbly brunette greeted me with a wide smile.
“Merry Christmas, Eden! What can I get you?”
“Merry Christmas, Anna! I'll have an orange juice to start, don't want to burn out too fast. It's gonna be a long night!”
Anna gave an understanding nod. “Good thinking.”
She scurried away to get my drink, and I watched as she expertly weaved around her younger and less experienced co-workers. The woman had been working at the pub so long, she was as much a part of the fixtures as the ship-themed décor. Once she'd handed me my orange juice, I paused by the bar for a second to figure out how to get back to my friends. Not so easy with a drink in my hand.
While I contemplated my next move, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and from the way my skin tingled, I didn't need to turn around to see who. I inhaled a slow breath because my anger had already flared and I hadn't even seen him yet. Punching him in the face – as I desperately wanted to – was a surefire way to get thrown out of the pub, ruining my night completely. It took a minute, but eventually, I rotated myself around to look at him. A sheepish expression graced his face, but that wasn't the thing that bothered me the most. Over our heads, he help a sprig of mistletoe. As if that tiny gesture would make up for everything.
“Get screwed,” I said, nudging past him with my drink to go back to my table with Kara and Lucas.
Tears scalded the backs of my eyes but I wouldn't cry. Not for him. Not now. A week of torturing myself was more than enough. I wouldn't let him back in so I could go through it all again.
But he's here now. He's not going to just leave quietly. Lucas is here, he'll stay.
Declan had made an effort to put on a red Christmassy shirt, close in shade to my dress, and he'd brought mistletoe, which meant he wouldn't go home, not right away at least.
I slammed my drink down on the table as I sat down, making Kara and Lucas jump.
“Which one of you invited him?”
They exchanged nervous looks, and Lucas said, “I didn't invite him, exactly. He asked what I was doing tonight, and I told him.”
Throwing my head back, I gave a frustrated growl. “Is it time to go back to York yet?”
“No.” Kara gave my hand a sympathetic squeeze. “But you can get through this. We'll drink, we'll dance. You won't even notice he's here.”
If only. I felt his presence and he was still halfway across the room. I wouldn't last the whole evening if he intended to stay. Couldn't take the intensity of his eyes on me, watching me, making me want to go to him. To talk, to listen. He'd had seven days to show up at my door, but he waited until my favourite night of the year. And now I was expected to drop everything and hear him out? He cut me off. Again. I wouldn't go backwards.
Declan joined us after a few minutes, and I blinked away the tears that lurked under my eyelids. No more tears. Not tonight.
“Hi,” he said, and Kara gave him a forced polite smile in response.
I turned my attention to the sound of someone wailing out an ABBA song. Dreadful as it was, it was a good distraction. If I filled my ears with the sound of the woman's screeching, it drowned out the thoughts in my head, the ones that told me I wasn't good enough. Not for him. Not for anyone.
Declan's presence wasn't as easy to ignore as Kara suggested. I never expected it to be, but I also didn't expect my chest to tighten every time his arm accidentally brushed mine, or when he tried to talk to me. How could I ignore him? How could I not? Whatever I did, it hurt, and so I did the only thing I knew how to do when there was nothing else left.
Emeli Sande's Clown was not helpful to the party atmosphere, but it perfectly summed up everything that had been on my mind. I took my place in front of the crowd, so completely immersed in my confusion, I didn't even get nervous. I'd sang the song a million times in private, knowing I could hit the notes, and hit them better because I felt every single word.
The room grew silent. People watched. And I poured every emotion I had into the lyrics. I wouldn't look at Dec. I wouldn't look at anyone. It was just me and the music, and by the time I reached the final chorus, my cheeks were wet with tears.
The rapturous applause sounded distant as my shaking legs carried me through the crowds and outside into the cold.
My song had opened up everything I'd bottled up. I hadn't even told half of how I felt to Kara and Lucas. The fears Declan had played me, the true severity of how much I hurt over him. Knowing him but never really knowing him, and being stuck with that constant connection to him, but never having it become anything more meaningful than a handful of conversations and a one night stand. No matter what I did, Declan had always been in my life, even when he wasn't. He stayed in my head. The guy I could never quite get over.
“You're full of surprises, aren't you?”
I wrapped my arms around myself, an instinct brought on by the shiver I got from the sound of his voice.
Turning my head away, I hoped he'd gone temporarily blind so he wouldn't see the tears I hadn't had chance to dry yet. His hand touched my shoulder again. “Look at me.”
“Please,” I said, taking a step back. “I promised myself I wouldn’t go through this with you again.”
Declan gave a cool, almost dismissive laugh that crumbled my self-esteem a little more. “What do you mean? Hardly anything has even happened yet.”
Right. To him, it was just as I thought. A bit of fun. A way to fill the time when he was bored. It seemed like every time I built him up, I got knocked on my ass. It was probably my own fault. I always read more into it than there really was, and at the end of it, all I had left was the ever-growing feeling I was worthless, unattractive, unlovable.
“I don’t know why I'm still standing here.” My voice was low, a slight tremble betraying my promise not to let him see how much I felt. How much I’d felt for longer than I would admit, even to myself.
“Eden, I don’t understand. Why are you… are you upset with me?”
The sound of my name on his lips made me ache with everything I wanted from him. With him. But he was just too damn blind to see how much he meant to me. Or, as every setback made me believe, how utterly repulsive I must be to him that he kept setting me up before dropping me again, sending me back to that place where I doubted everything.
So much weakness. I knew the rules. Don’t let a man dictate your happiness. Don’t be so weak that you need a guy in your life to make you smile. Well, that’s really easy to say when there isn’t someone in your life you’ve gotten so used to having around, the world feels… off when they remove themselves from it. I didn’t want to be weak. I’m not. I had plenty of other things to keep me going, but just in that moment, when it felt like our time was up again, I couldn’t find them. They were out of my reach, and I was frantically grabbing on with the very ends of my fingertips to something that never really existed.
Now it was my turn to laugh. Not a happy laugh. Not my laugh. A bitter, ugly sound that made me hate how angry I’d gotten, how I’d let him make me this angry by allowing him to wander in and out of my life so many times.
“You're really stupid enough to ask why I'm upset?”
“Stop saying my name.”
“What else should I call you?” His lips twitched into a grin, and the fury burned brighter. Could he really not see this was not the time?
“I don’t want you to call me anything. I don’t want you to call me. I don’t want text messages when there’s no one else who will listen to your bullshit. I’ve been waiting, Dec. Waiting for you to deal with whatever crap it is that keeps you away before coming back as if you never went away, and all I’ve realised is that you only do it because I’m convenient. Because I always listen no matter how long it’s been. I never did it for any other reason than that… I don’t know, I guess I just can’t not listen when someone wants to talk. And every time, it goes further. Sometimes too far. Far enough to make me think there might be something worth exploring, yet here we are again. You calling the shots, and me thinking, maybe this is the time he gets it. Even sadder is that I’ve realised you do get it. You just don’t care. We’re still teenagers, and you’re still laughing at me for not knowing how to kiss.”
The relief of blurting out my thoughts made my legs weaken, and I leaned back against the wall of the pub, not caring that the stone was sharp and cold against my back. I was numb from my confession, frozen, waiting.
Declan scrubbed his hands through his hair, pacing back and forth in front of me. Droplets of moisture continued to rain from my eyes. I wanted to run. I'd opened myself up in a way I didn't think he deserved, but I couldn't contain it. Even if it was the biggest mistake of my life, I couldn't.
“I'm not laughing, Eden.”
“Then where have you been? Why did you disappear? Why do you always disappear?”
He shook his head. “I don't think I can answer that.”
“You owe me something. Some kind of explanation, because you just left me. You ignored me, and then you showed up tonight, holding fucking mistletoe, like you could kiss me and I'd accept it. If you're not laughing at me, what is it? Why do you always hop into my life, then back out again as if I was never there?”
“Because I'm a dick,” he spat. “I'm the tosser you always thought I was. Does that answer your question?”
I pushed off from the wall with my heel and stood in front of him, grabbing his shoulders to make him stop pacing. “Don't fob me off with that self-pitying crap, Declan. I want the truth, just for once. Give me an honest answer.”
“That was my honest answer.” He pushed me away, snuffing out that flame of hope that maybe he'd come through for me this time.
Another ugly, bitter laugh flew out of my mouth. “You're right. I'm an idiot for thinking anything different. You're just the same as always. Doing what you want, whatever you need to do to make you feel good, and to hell with everyone else. I should thank you. This is what I needed to get you out of my life for good. Solid proof that you don't care about anyone but yourself.”
Declan smashed the side of his fist into the wall, his eyes darkening, then filling with the hurt I'd only ever caught glimpses of before. “You think I'm the one who doesn't get it? For an intelligent girl, you're fucking stupid sometimes.”
The intensity on his face triggered my own pain again. Not for me, for him. I just couldn't figure out how I was responsible for it.
“What are you talking about, Dec?”
His voice lowered. “Why do you think I always come back to you?”
“Because I make it easy. I always listen, and you make me forget about the last time you dropped me, but it's never enough. You never stay.”
He nodded. “You do make it easy. And that is why. Me disappearing isn't because I suddenly feel better and don't need you anymore.” He straightened up. “Eden, you terrify me. For most of our lives, you put up with me being a prick but it never stopped you being around. You never told me to grow up. You never told me you didn't want to talk to me again. You never whacked me across the face even though I deserved it sometimes. You yelled at me, you stormed off. Sometimes it took a few days until you came back, but you never tried to make me change. Even Lucas has bitched me out for my attitude sometimes, and I can't say I didn't have it coming, but I never got that from you. Out of everyone in my life, you've never tried to make me into something I'm not. So when I leave you behind, it has nothing to do with me laughing at you for always being there. I'm just... amazed. Amazed and scared. Because the longer I stay around you, the more chance there is that I'll screw up. You'll see what everyone else sees, and then... you won't be there anymore.”
I'd tried hard to make my tears stop, but I realised they were never going to stop now. Not after Declan's confession. Not after realising things weren't easy for him, either, and that he'd suffered too. I didn't want that for him. In some ways it would almost have been better if he had been mocking me because that way, I wouldn't have to see that look in his eyes. His expression told me everything I'd needed to know for the last week, and it ripped at my insides.
He said I'd never whacked him across the face before, but I'd never been closer. The frustration of him not talking to me, when all he had to do was say this the morning after and... I wouldn't have wasted so much time. Time I could have been with him like I wanted to.
“I've known you for eight years,” I managed to choke out. “For at least three of those, you were an asshole. And guess what? I didn't go anywhere. What makes you think I would now? God, Dec, do you think I sleep with every guy who sends me a few text messages?”
“Do you think I put up Christmas trees for girls I'm not interested in?”
The Christmas tree. The lights I'd wanted shining on us; lights he'd put up because he knew I'd like them. Lights that had made me hate Christmas decorations since the night we were together.
“Okay,” I said, swallowing hard because this was it. The moment I asked the big question and watched as things got much better, or much worse. “So... when you came here tonight, what were you planning to say when you saw me?”
Declan shrugged. “I hoped I wouldn't have to say what I said. I hoped you'd-”
“Kiss you without any questions?”
“I hoped you'd understand. I don't think either of us knows each other as well as we think we do.”
“So,” I began, taking the tiniest of steps towards him, “what are the chances of us trying to get to know each other?”
Dec reached forward, placing his hands on my waist and drawing me in closer. “Chances are good. Really good.”
“You have to promise to stop running, Dec. If we're trying this, I can't take it if you suddenly drop out of my life again. I want to try, but I need to know you're going to stick around and talk to me instead of pretending I don't exist.”
When his eyes connected with mine, the hurt had faded away, and been replaced with the softness he showed the first time he kissed me. Well, technically, the second time, but who's counting?
Dec leaned into me, his lips just a fraction away from mine. “Damn,” he said, giving a teasing smile. “I left the mistletoe in the pub.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Christmas is overrated.”
Dec's grin widened, and he pressed his lips to mine. “You're wrong. Christmas isn’t so bad after all.”