***Note: This is an unedited FIRST DRAFT of this story. You can also read it on Wattpad HERE.
Get caught up with Chapter 1 HERE:
The week passed slowly, waiting for our family ice skating. My gift for Dad still didn’t turn up, but all I could think about was my non-date with Dayton. I needed to set it straight right away that it wasn’t a date. He was a friend helping me find my dad’s gift…
But what if that’s all he thought this was? Would I offend him that I even thought he had thought it was a date?
These scenarios were driving me crazy!
In the end, I decided to not say anything at all. We’d focus on the finding the gift…and then I’d go back to making my humanoid. Dayton would go back to…whatever it was he did.
What did he do? I laughed to myself. Maybe he spent all his free time with a girlfriend. I hadn’t thought about that, but I did glance down for a wedding ring and found none—not that that meant anything.
Dayton arrived promptly at four PM on Friday night. Sharky greeting him with his nose pressed in places it shouldn’t be. I laughed as I pulled my giant dog away.
“Wow,” Dayton said. “He’s a friendly guy.” He squatted down, allowing my dog to apply a coat of slobber to his cheek.
“He’s great,” I said, running my hand down his spine. “A little over friendly at times, but a really great dog. Do you have a pet?”
Dayton shook his head. “I had a hedgehog a few years ago that I really liked, but they don’t live long. When he died, I couldn’t see getting another pet.” Dayton shrugged. “I guess, now that I’m over it, I still haven’t replaced him. I got used to being alone.” He flashed me his crystal blue eyes, and I felt like he was giving me a message about my relationship with men.
“You’re smooth. Real smooth.” I said, turning towards my closet in the foyer.
“What do you mean?”
“Ahh, never mind. Did you pack gloves and a hat?” I asked, digging through a basket full of random hats and mittens. “The wind’s blowing pretty good today.”
“I’m from Northern Minnesota. We can handle anything.” He shoved his hands in his coat pockets while I shot him a come-on, tell-me-the-truth glance. He gave in. “My glove and hat are in my truck. Are you ready to get going?”
“We have time to kill. Ice skating doesn’t start until five.”
“I came early on purpose. I have a surprise to show you. Have you ever been to Bluff Overlook in winter?”
“I’ve been up there, but only in fall to see the colors.”
“Well, you’re in for a treat, then.”
I laughed. “But what if I had been there in winter?”
“I came prepared with a backup plan. I’d take you to the place that has the best hot cocoa in the city.”
“And if I’d been there before, too?”
“You wouldn’t have been.” He flashed that awkward smile I hadn’t seen since Comic-Con. “The best cup of hot cocoa in the city is only available at my house.”
* * * * *
As Dayton drove us up a windy road up a cliff on the outskirts of town, he pointed to some holiday decorations along the side of the road, such as plastic statues of a herd of reindeer, a life-size gingerbread house made out of wood, and the most magical of them all, an ice castle lit up with multi-colored flood lights.
“I can’t believe I didn’t know they decorated this trail.” I twisted in the seat to get the last view of the castle.
“I only know because I stumbled upon it. When I first moved here, it was about this time of year. I didn’t know anyone and was quite lonely. It was just me and my hedgehog for Christmas. A week before Christmas or so, I climbed this hill and overlooked the city.” Dayton pulled his car into one of three parking spots in a small scenic overlook near the top. “Take a look down there. You can see the entire city and the ocean, too. It was up here that I had a revelation about life. Even if I didn’t have someone to spend Christmas with that year, I wasn’t alone. There was me and nearly a million people in this city within viewing distance. Many of them felt as alone as I was. I just needed to go out and connect with some of those people.”
I looked at the lights coming alive at the onset of dusk. There were headlights, but the more you looked, the more you noticed all the businesses and homes that were lit up with Christmas lights. I watched the elevated train disappear into downtown. “It’s weird that with all the hustle and bustle, one could feel alone in a city this size. Even with my huge family, I still feel alone.” That’s why I was making a companion. “I guess, I haven’t connected with anyone down there.”
Dayton and I shared a few moments of silence before he spoke. “I wanted to show this to you as just a reminder that you’re not alone. There’s a ton of people like you and me out there. You just need to open yourself up to find them.”
I sucked in my bottom lip, holding back an argument and took in his words instead. It was odd, I hadn’t felt alone for the past few weeks. Maybe it was seeing more of my family, or the promise of my new droid companion…or these few instances of friendship with Dayton.
We watched the city as the lights became more prevalent in the setting sun.
“We better get going. Skating starts in fifteen minutes.” Dayton started the trucks engine, but before he put it in drive, I placed my hand on top of his on the shifter.
“Thank you. This was a really nice surprise.” I pulled my hand away.
As Dayton shifted his truck into reverse and backed out of our parking spot, he smiled, revealing a small dimple on his cheek and I couldn’t help but think it was cute.
Mom and Dad were already at Crescent Lake when we arrived. Mom had a suspicious smile on her face as her eyes scanned Dayton from head to toe.
I intervened before she could make any judgement. “Mom, this is my friend Dayton.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you were bringing a friend.” She winked at me.
“It’s not like that. He’s just a friend. Promise. He’s the engineer making my humanoid at Dream Droids.”
She shrugged and shook Dayton’s hand. “I bet meeting your client’s family helps in creating a perfect companion. Do you do that with everyone you work with?”
Dayton smiled. “No, not everyone. Just the special clients, like Ivy.”
Dad shook his hand next.
After pleasantries were exchanged, A new silver mini-van pulled up, and I had to do a double take. Jeanine was driving it with her husband, Alex, at her side. Esme and Else were in the back.
“How do you like our new wheels?” Alex said as he exited the door, patting his hand on the vehicles hood.
“Nice.” I wrapped my arms around Esme and Else as soon as they got out of the van. “Look at all that room inside!”
“How’d you swing it?” Dad asked. “Last time we talked, you said you were stuck with the old beater until Esme could drive.”
My ears perked up. Jeannine had spent an hour at Thanksgiving complaining about how they didn’t know how they’d swing Christmas gifts this year.
“The dealership was having a great Christmas sale, and we ended up with a little extra money for a down payment this season.” Alex pulled a black stocking hat over his mop of dark-brown hair.
A little extra money? Like by selling a limited-edition, collectors-series Spiderman worth $1500? I looked over at Dayton who was looking at me like he could read my mind.
I didn’t have to say anything as Dad took over. “What happened? Did you get a bonus at work or something?”
Alex laughed and turned away from Dad to open the back of the van. “That’s exactly what happened, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.” He pulled out ice skates and began handing them to each of his girls. “Our old SUV started leaking coolant this week.”
Dad’s mouth opened, but he shut it as his words were drowned out by the engine of an old orange mustang that Iris’s boyfriend, Max drove. Mary and Gary were crammed in the backseat.
“Where’s Trevor?” I asked, seeing that Max’s son wasn’t along.
“He’s with his mom today.” Max went around the car and helped Iris out. “Their family’s celebrating Christmas a little early. It’s a shame they both ended up on the same weekend. I remember how much fun he had here last year. This is probably the most fun Weldon family tradition.”
“Oh, come on. All our traditions are fun,” I said with a playful smile. Iris was lucky to have a man like Max. He was thoughtful and present and seemed to make her happy. Over the two years they dated, we spent quite a bit of time together, and I always had a blast, but today, Max and Iris weren’t on my agenda. I needed to get to know Gary more.
As I told Dayton, I didn’t know much about him. “Hi Mary. Hi Gary, glad you could come.” I smiled. It was then I realized all my siblings and siblings-in-laws were staring at me. I looked around, and that’s when I caught Dayton’s blue gaze.
“Oh, you’re probably wondering who this is. Everyone, this is my friend, Dayton.”
Dayton shook each one of their hands while I did the introductions. While he was making some small talk with Mom, Iris whispered to me, “I thought you weren’t getting him for a few more weeks?”
“Get him?” I choked on my own saliva. “Dayton isn’t my droid. He’s my droid’s creator. He just came along today to…get a sense of my family.” It wasn’t a lie, but it might have been a little misleading.
“Oh,” Iris said.
Before she could say more, Ivory flagged us down the hill to where a little shack was set up on the shore of the frozen lake. “The rest of us are down here,” she yelled as she bounded up the hill. Once she was close enough to notice Dayton, she stopped. “Oh, who is that hottie?”
I turned to his reddened cheeks that I knew wasn’t from the chilly air. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It’s fine. I haven’t had this much attention in quite a while.”
After finishing putting our warm clothing on, we trudged down the hill to the ice skate rental shack. I quickened my steps so Dayton and I walked side-by-side with Gary.
“So, Gary. We didn’t have much time to chat last week. Mary tells me you’re a computer engineer.”
“That’s right,” he said.
When no more elaboration came, I kept the chit-chat. “That sounds like a fascinating career. Do you enjoy what you do?”
“It’s okay,” he said.
There was a bit of silence, and I tried again. “You’ve ice skated before?”
Now, his two-word answers were getting quite fun. “What do you like to do in your free time?”
“Not much,” he said with a shrug.
I was starting to wonder what Mary saw in him, but she came to his rescue.
“Gary is a collector of old toys. You should see his basement! He has nostalgic toys—in their original boxes—lining his elaborate shelving system. It feels like you walked into a toy story in ‘60’s!”
“Hmm,” I said. “I didn’t get that out of you.”
“Not many people do.”
My jaw dropped. Gary said four words! I sucked in my lip when he continued. “My brother was a big collector. When he passed away five years ago, I inherited his entire collection.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, looking away and walking forward. I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.
“It’s okay. It was a long process. He had a tumor on his spinal cord that gave him a lot of pain. He’s in a better place now. Having his collection makes me still feel connected with him. I never thought I’d be passionate about collecting toys, but I’ve been slowly adding to it.”
What if I lost a sibling…like Iris or Ivory? The two I was closest to. “I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to look at their things. I think I’d burst out in tears every time.” Just thinking about losing one of them brought tears to my eyes even though they both were standing a few feet ahead of me.
Dayton spoke up. “When I lost my parents, I kept my dad’s coin collection. At first, I never opened the box they were stored in. But after some time, I found myself sitting in front of them, thinking that his hands touched each one. I don’t add to the collection, but when I’m feeling particularly lonely, it helps me feel…well…connected to someone, even if they are long gone.”
I said nothing more. This conversation had gone so melancholy, I couldn’t bring up the missing Spiderman. The whole thing felt so trivial at this point.
Soon, we had all ordered our skate size, and Dayton and I were alone on a bench, lacing up.
“So,” Dayton began. “You have a few suspects…Like Jeanine and Alex who just came into a little cash and bought a car, Felix, as you tell me is a little competitive about winning, and now Gary, who collects old toys.”
“I hadn’t thought of that! I was so caught up with his story about his brother…and your story…”
Dayton smiled, then nudged me with his shoulder. “Remember, that’s why you took me along!” He stood up in his skates.
“Do you even know to use those things?” I asked, nodding towards his feet.
He laughed. “Did you already forget that I’m from Northern Minnesota? The land of ten-thousand lakes—and they all freeze in winter. Of course, I know how.” He squatted down and helped me tighten my laces around my ankles. We hit the ice first, doing a lap around the plowed part of the lake.
When we were out of earshot of the rest of my family, I asked, “What’s our next step to solve our Christmas Mystery?”
“We have our suspects. They have a motivation, I think. Felix wants to win. Alex needed some cash, and Gary has a collection to upkeep. Is there anyone to add to our list?”
“Like I said, I think Iris, Ivory, and Faye are innocent…Dad, too, since he’d get the present on Christmas, anyway. Mary, Mom, my nieces, and Max…I don’t see any reason for them to do it.”
“Okay, let’s stick to the three suspects.” Dayton spun around and now skated backwards in front of me. “Next, we need to look for clues and narrow down our suspect list…or check for an alibi and confirm their stories. Alex may be the easiest one. Did he really get a bonus from work?”
“How do we prove that? I can’t call his boss.”
“True. But perhaps your nieces can confirm it. You seem pretty close to them.”
We skated some more as my family joined us, one by one, along with a pile of other people here to watch the tree light up. Soon, my ankles ached, and the lake grew so crowded, I skated Dayton off to the shore to sit beside my nieces on a line of hay bales. This was my opportunity.
“Hi Ivy,” they said, nearly in unison. Then they shyly waved to Dayton.
“Can we join you?” Dayton asked.
They nodded and scooted over.
“That’s a pretty sweet mini-van,” Dayton said.
The girls giggled, then Esme spoke up. “I don’t think there’s anything about a mini-van that’s sweet.”
“I don’t know,” Dayton said. “I bet you have a TV in the back.”
“We do,” Esme said.
“Then it’s pretty sweet,” Dayton said with a smile that showed off his charming dimple again. The girls seemed to notice, too, as they looked to each other and giggled again.
“What would you rather have, Else?”
The littlest of the sisters spoke with her toothless smile. “When Dad showed us his bonus check, I tried to convince him to buy a convertible. I didn’t get my way.”
“Maybe you didn’t try hard enough,” I said. “Maybe they didn’t give you enough time to convince them.”
Else laughed. “We’ve been arguing over what car to get for weeks already! Mom and Dad could have bought it a lot earlier, but they couldn’t decide. Mom wanted the mini-van and Dad wanted another SUV with four-wheel drive.”
“You should know, Mom’s always win,” Dayton said. “At least they did when I was growing up.”
“So…” I said, trying to be sneaky. “Your dad got his bonus a while ago already?”
“He got it right after Thanksgiving. We’ve been going to the car dealership nearly every other day!” Esme said.
“I’m glad it’s over with, even if Mom won with the mini-van,” Else said.
Dayton threw me a look telling me to move on to our next suspect.
“Are you all tired out already?” I stood up, reaching out for their hand. “How about we go around a few times, together? Maybe we can even have a race?”
The girls looked at each other, then got up on their skates. Soon, we were off, doing laps and chasing each other. Dayton stayed on the hay bales, but as I passed, I couldn’t help but admire the smile on his face.
To get that enjoyment out of life, when it sounds like he had quite a tragic past, was something I admired.
GO TO THE NEXT CHAPTER HERE
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