24th December, 2010
I never liked parties. And I never knew why I was stupid enough to listen to my best friend, Whitney Graystone, to accompany her for the Christmas Eve ball.
Maybe it was because I hated the thought of spending the Eve of Christmas in my three-room apartment, curled up on the couch, eating Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge ice-cream and watching reruns of Skins.
Or maybe it was because I could never say ‘no’ to my Whitney, who usually got everything she wanted, including the Ferrari she managed to get her Daddy to buy for her this Christmas.
Either way, I was stuck in a hotel function room full of people, and barely knew anyone. Except Whitney, who was in the middle of the dance floor, probably dancing with the tenth guy for tonight.
And it was barely nine.
So there I was, standing in the furthest corner of the room, my back pressed against the wall, pretending to be having a whale of a time, when I wasn’t. In fact, I was seriously contemplating to leave this place immediately, but I knew Whitney wouldn’t be happy.
I played with the empty champagne glass, twirling it between my fingers.
A waitress passed by and stopped before me, a tray of champagne glasses in her hand. “More champagne?” She asked, eyeing me sympathetically.
I took a glass and glared back indignantly. As if I needed her sympathy!
Okay, maybe I did. After all, I was the only young adult who wasn’t on the dance floor. The rest who weren’t dancing were seated together at the same table, gazing at the dancing couples with blissful smiles on their faces, like they were remembering their past romances.
I stared at the old people for awhile, and then looked over to the front of the hall, scanning the dance-floor swiftly for Whitney. Good thing she was still standing. She already had eight glasses of champagne, but had a horribly low tolerance for alcohol. Believe me, I know.
I smiled at the way she was swaying in the arms of some tall dude, gazing up at the guy adoringly. That was Whitney all over. She really did believe in love at first sight. I wouldn’t put it past her to be dreaming of wedding bells and a seven-carat diamond ring at this very moment.
I swept the floor with my eyes once again, and caught the eye of some guy. My face heated up, and I stared back at the glass in my hands. Ever since I had arrived at seven, there was a guy who kept on and on staring at me.
Ah, there he was. To the left of the dance-floor, holding that blond girl oh, so tightly. And he was staring at me over her shoulder.
What a dickhead.
It wasn’t that I was against him staring at me, oh no. I was fully amenable to that. But to stare at me when he had a hot babe – who was probably his girlfriend – in his arms?
Sorry, pal, I don’t go for lewd-eyed, unfaithful asses.
Okay, so maybe I was being over-judgemental. I mean, I couldn’t deny the fact that he was really, really gorgeous. His hair had different shades of black and brown, and his eyes were a piercing blue. I couldn’t possibly forget those eyes. They stared at me as though they could see right through me.
I glanced up, and there he was again! Staring at me, a cocky smirk on his face. I rolled my eyes. Again with the staring. He was making me blush like there was no tomorrow!
Okay, Claudine, don’t encourage him, I told myself sternly. The more you stare at him, the more you think he’s interested. And you don’t want to be a relationship wrecker now, do you?
Keeping this in mind, I kept my eyes firmly on my feet. They looked really elegant tonight, clad in Whitney’s three-thousand dollar Louboutins.
“Excuse me,” A deep, husky voice said. “Would you like to dance?”
I looked up quickly. Goodness, it was that guy! And he was standing right in front of me, with one hand stretched towards me. Asking me to dance!
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I don’t want to dance.” I wasn’t going to be ‘the other woman’! Where was that blonde babe he was dancing with barely a minute ago?
“Won’t, or can’t?” He grinned widely.
I gaped. Did he just insult my dancing skills? For goodness’ sake, he hadn’t even seen them! And I took up Latin ballroom dancing classes since I was five, and I won nationals.
Without sparing him another glance, I strode quickly and purposefully towards the dance floor. “Keep up with me, then.”
24th December, 2011
“For goodness’ sake, Claudine, keep up with me.” Tori Bridgeton says, for the tenth time tonight, and reaches over to give me a little shake. Our night-shift has barely started – it’s only ten-fifteen – but my concentration level is already dwindling.
I sigh, and pull myself together. Chloe will be fine, I tell myself sternly, quit worrying.
I look back at the clipboard, and start typing. The numbers start appearing on the Word Document opened in the screen in front of me, but all I can think about is Chloe.
Chloe, Chloe, Chloe.
Tori glances at me, and sighs herself. “I’m sorry, Claudine, I know you’re worried, but you can’t go on like this. You’re doing less and less work every day, and you know I can’t cope without you.”
“I’m sorry.” I mutter, immediately feeling guilty.
I don’t mean to shirk my duties as the administrator to Greenwood hospital, but I can’t help it. Chloe came down with a nasty cold two days ago, and I had her checked into the infant ward. She’s getting a little better, but I still can’t stop worrying.
Okay, so maybe checking into the hospital just for a cold is a little extreme, but Chloe means the world to me, and she’s all I have.
I look over at Tori, busily typing on her keyboard. Her honey-blond bangs falls into her eyes, and she brushes it away impatiently. I feel a quick pang in my heart and look away.
Tori reminds me so much of Whitney Graystone. Whitney and I had ended our friendship one year ago. No, eleven months ago to be exact. We were friends on the 24th of December, 2010, but when I found out I had Chloe one month later, she broke off all contact with me.
She couldn’t be friends with a teenage mother, you see.
When I found out I was pregnant, I immediately dropped out of school. I couldn’t possibly bear the humiliation and embarrassment. I got a job as an admin in this hospital, met Tori, and the rest is history.
“Can I just go check up on Chloe?” I say, after typing busily for about ten minutes.
Tori looks up at me, and grins. “No, you may not. But you can do so if you type for another fifteen more minutes.”
“Not now?” I plead, widening my eyes at her innocently.
She shakes her head at me fondly. “Claudine Milson, don’t you want to get this admin stuff over and done with as quickly as possible? If we get this done, maybe the hospital will let us take a half-day leave on Christmas!”
I roll my eyes. Christmas means nothing to me, especially not after what happened last Christmas. But Tori seems so depressed about not having a Christmas holiday, that I decide to do this for her.
“Fine,” I say, turning back to the computer. “But mind you, just fifteen more minutes.”
24th December, 2010
“So tell me,” I said, as I drew the guy’s arms confidently around my waist. The bare touch of his arms almost made me weak in the knees. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you that it’s rude to stare? It’s a good thing you’re decent-looking, or I would’ve kneed you in the balls about two hours ago.”
The guy stared at me, half-offended. “You think I’m only decent-looking?”
Well! So that was all he got from whatever I had said. He was so egoistic and confident and cock-sure of himself.
“I beg your pardon.” I replied, swiftly, taking the lead in this dance. “I meant to say ugly.”
He chuckled, now knowing that I was only joking. Of course. Who could call this guy ugly? He was as gorgeous as a Greek God. More gorgeous, in fact. Looking at Hercules didn’t make my heart race, the way it was right at this moment.
“So, what’s your name?” He asked, grinning.
“Oh, we’re on first-name basis now? What about your girlfriend?” I added, hoping to catch him out. The more time I was spending with this guy, the more I seemed to like him. I liked his ability to think quickly on his feet, his easy-going demeanour and good sense of humour.
And this was really bad. I didn’t want to like someone that quickly, especially if he had an unfaithful streak in him.
“Girlfriend? What girlfriend?”
I rolled my eyes. Playing the innocent card, wasn’t he? “That blond girl you were dancing with? Anyone ever told you it’s wrong to play around with girls?”
He stared at me in astonishment. “That blond girl was my cousin.” He said, slowly, as though he was talking to a first-grader. “Her name is Marie Duval. I’m Zeke Duval.”
Oh. So he was the cousin of the host. Whitney’s close friend was Marie, and the latter had invited Whitney for the dance. And Whitney had invited me.
“Fine.” I said, huffily, annoyed at myself for getting so mixed up. “I’m Claudine Milson.”
“Claudine, huh? Pretty name.”
“Zeke’s a disgusting name.”
He laughed and I stared at him, surprised at the way he was able to laugh at my insult and not take offense at it. He drew his arms tightly around my waist, and my heart thumped harder. If that was even possible.
“I like you already.” He said, smiling.
It took all my willpower not to answer ‘That makes two of us’. Because I really liked him. I never knew a guy who had such a straight-forward, easy manner. Never knew a guy who could set off a million butterflies in my stomach just by his mere touch.
This guy was special, and, as cynical as I was, I couldn’t help admitting that fact to myself.
I looked up at him. “Yeah?”
“What do you say we skip out of this place? We feel like a coffee.”
He knew me so well. He was barely a stranger, and already he knew me more than Whitney did. I was tired of all the fanciness of this place. Parties like these made me feel stifled, uncomfortable.
I shot a quick look over to Whitney, who seemed pretty sober. Sober enough to stand on her own two feet, anyway. She could get back by herself. She was a big girl, after all.
So, I grinned up at him. “My sentiments exactly.”
25th December, 2011
There’s only half an hour left to our shift when Tori gets the call. She picks it up, talks in low tones for a while, and ends the call. Then she looks at me with an anxious expression on her face.
“What is it?” I ask, half-worriedly. Tori’s usually so carefree and cheerful, so when she’s this worried I know there has to be something wrong.
“It’s my brother,” She says, sighing. “I have to get back.”
I nod, immediately understanding her predicament. Tori’s younger brother, who’s eight this year, has terrible asthma attacks sometimes. Her parents could handle it, but they can’t nurse to save their lives. Or their son, for that matter.
So occasionally, Tori gets an SOS call for help from her parents and she has to take an emergency leave to get back to her brother.
“Go,” I say, waving her away with one hand. “I’ll cover up for you.”
She stands up and picks up her jacket. “Are you sure you can manage?”
“What, do I look like I was born yesterday?” I say, in an injured sort of tone. “Of course I can. I’ve done this before, remember? Just tell me what I need to do, and I’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” She says, smiling slightly. “Finish up this file, there’s just about ten more contact details left. And Tricia asked me to check up on a patient in ward 18C, so do you mind doing it for me?”
I wrinkle my nose. I don’t particularly like the whole nursing thing. I’m more of an admin worker here, and as long as I don’t get to see or touch anyone else’s blood, I’m cool.
“He’s not…like, bloody or anything, is he?”
“The patient is just sick, Claudine. Geez. It’s not like he’ll explode into a fountain of blood right in front of your very eyes.” Tori rolls her eyes at me, and gathers up the files in her arms, leaving one of them behind for me. “Okay, so, don’t skip out to check up on Chloe anymore, alright?”
I’ve been to Chloe’s ward five times already, checked up on her, and she seemed fine. Good, in fact. She was babbling happily when I carried her, and she didn’t scream or anything when I fed her the medicine like I feared she would.
“I won’t,” I say, widening my eyes innocently.
Tori shakes her head at me, smiles and finally leaves. I smile as I watch her walk through the glass doors of the hospital. She’s such a worrywart sometimes, but I love her.
I finish up typing Tori’s contact details file, and save it under a folder named Patients’ Private Information.
When I’m done, I go to the children’s ward to check up on Chloe once more. Chloe looks utterly gorgeous, her dark, wavy hair framing her little face perfectly.
“Merry Christmas, beautiful,” I whisper, and reach down to brush a few strands of hair out of her face.
I stare at Chloe a little while more and then decide to go check up on that patient from Ward 18C.
The corridors are fairly quiet, and I tread as softly as I can on the linoleum.
“18C, 18C, 18C…” I mutter, under my breath, to remind myself. I have the memory of a goldfish sometimes, I swear. “15…16…17…ah, here it is!”
I push the door open quietly – after all, it is 6am in the morning and the patient’s probably asleep – and enter the room.
And then I get the shock of my life.
For, lying on the bed, no more than fifteen feet away from me, is the one guy whom I swore I’d kill if I ever spotted him again. But I never could find him, of course.
24th December, 2010
“You know, you never did tell me why you were staring at me.”
I clutched the coffee tightly between my hands. The warmth was so comforting. The streets were especially cold and deserted at this hour – everyone was done with their Christmas shopping, and everyone had closed shop and left for home. Everyone, save for this little coffee shop, which was always open.
Zeke frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t know why. Maybe it was the fact that you looked beautiful in that blue dress of yours.”
I blushed. No guy had ever called me beautiful. Hot, yes. Gorgeous, yes. But never beautiful. The word ‘beautiful’ took it to another level altogether. To me, hot and gorgeous was guy-code for ‘fuckable’. And I had indeed been proven correct when my ex dumped me because I wouldn’t have sex with him.
But beautiful? It meant lovely, wonderful, stunning, exquisite. Adjectives that made me feel completely special.
I didn’t know what to say. So I settled for something else altogether. “It’s turquoise.” I said, grinning. “My dress is turquoise, not blue.”
Zeke raised an eyebrow. “And I’m supposed to know that, because?”
I clapped a hand over my mouth, pretending to look thoroughly shocked. “You’re colour-blind?”
“No!” He said, indignantly. “But if I knew the different shades of colours, apart from your usual red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and pink, then I’d seem pretty gay to you, wouldn’t I?”
True that, I mused to myself. I mean, if he had said that this tablecloth was mauve instead of purple, then I would’ve been extremely concerned about the sexual orientation of the guy sitting next to me.
I smiled. I seemed to smile a lot when I was with him. “Aren’t you?”
“Of course not.” He answers, almost immediately, seeming to be quite offended that I’d even doubt his sexuality. “My best friend is, though.”
“That’s cool. I would love to have a gay-best friend.” I replied. “So, does he have the hots for you, then?”
He grinned, and looked at me closely. “Do you?”
That clever jerk. He could turn the tables on me so well! But before I could reply, before I could even react, he curled his hand across the back of my neck, and pulled me towards him gently. My eyelids fluttered close.
My lips brushed his, once.
And then he was kissing me deeply, hungrily, his tongue slipping into my mouth and curling around mine. And he was pulling me onto his lap, his hands pulling at the black buckle of my white coat, and easing apart the buttons. And I was sinking my hands into his beautiful, thick hair and kissing him back equally fervently, feverishly.
I couldn’t get enough of him, and it seemed like he was having the same problem. We couldn’t get enough of each other.
And that fact was confirmed when he pulled away from me, his stunning blue eyes heavily lidded with passion and desire.
“Let’s get out of here.”
And once again, once again, I was leaving. Leaving with him. Leaving was his forte, as I found out the morning after. I had left the ball dance, and now I was leaving the coffee shop. Leaving for a cheap hotel with a small room and a single bed. And then he slammed the door shut, his lips never once leaving mine, and from then on, there was really no going back.
The bed was way too small, the room not quite soundproof. We both barely knew each other, didn’t know each others’ likes and dislikes, didn’t know anything about each other apart from each others’ names.
But we both didn’t care. There was such a strong force of mutual attraction and desire for each other that we didn’t care about trivial details like these.
I wanted him so badly, and he wanted me too. And that was all that really mattered.
25th December, 2011
I stand there, the wind completely taken out of my sails. I’m breathing hard, heavily, so much so that I have to clasp a hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t disturb any sleeping patient around.
And I can’t think of anything else, except that it’s Zeke Duval right there.
It’s him, it’s him, it’s him. Right there. There. So close.
And to think, all this while I had been searching for him. Searching for answers from him. I had always wanted to know why he had left, why he decided to abandon me. I thought we really had something going on between us the night before.
Clearly, he didn’t feel the same way. Clearly, he didn’t think there was anything going on between us at all.
But still, his leaving wasn’t an answer enough for me. Absence wasn’t an answer. I needed to hear him say that that night meant nothing, see him walk out of my life instead of just seeing the empty space beside me on the bed the very next morning.
I needed something tangible. I wasn’t, and still am not, a fan of the unseen.
And then I had Chloe. God, Chloe.
I knew she was his child the moment I laid eyes on her. Not because of the fact that I hadn’t had sex with anyone else ever, but because she was him, in a more petite, feminine way. Her wavy dark hair that curled prettily at the ends. Her gorgeous blue eyes that seemed to pull you in if you just looked into them.
Him. All him.
I wanted to scream at him, yell and curse and beat him till he was black and blue. After all, he had left me with a kid I totally didn’t want, and my future was utterly and completely ruined. Ruined. Just like that.
His fault. All his.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t find him. I had tried for three months, and then given up completely. I forced myself to believe that Zeke Duval was gone forever.
And he was never coming back. Not now. Not ever.
But here he is now. Sleeping, peacefully, right there.
I stare at him, and to my greatest surprise, I find tears running down my cheeks. I want to go up to him and slap him so he’d wake up. And then I would yell at him and demand him to give me back my life. My life the way it was – perfect, before he ruined everything.
That is my first instinct.
My second instinct is to take Chloe. And run.
It’s a primitive, maternal instinct that comes to my mind so suddenly, so overwhelmingly that I take a step back. I want to run, far far away from Zeke Duval. Because Chloe’s mine. All mine, and he doesn’t have a right to know her. He doesn’t have the right to know she even exists.
So that’s what I do.
I shut the door, and walk quickly down the corridor towards Chloe’s ward. But I’m waylaid by Holly Cramer, a nurse in-charge of this particular wing of the hospital.
“Claudine?” Her forehead furrows with concern as she stares at me. “Is everything okay? What are you doing here?”
I have to swallow hard to keep the bile from rising. No one must know what I’m going to do. No one. No one must know that Chloe’s father is in this very building.
“Um…everything’s fine.” I say, forcing a smile onto my pale face. “I just…I just came to check up on a patient because Tori told me to.”
“Oh,” There is a flicker of recognition in her eyes. “You mean the patient from Ward 18C, Zeke Duval?”
I barely manage a nod.
“He’s quite something to look at, isn’t he?” She says, in a confiding whisper, a girlish grin on her face. “What a pity, right? I mean…who would’ve guessed? Lung cancer, and at such a young age, too.”
I stare at her, thunderstruck. “W-what?” I finally manage, the little colour in my face drained out completely now.
“Lung cancer. Third stage.” Holly clarifies. “Didn’t Tori tell you?”
Zeke Duval. Cancer. Those two things just don’t go together.
A million questions spin through my mind. How? How can he possibly get such a horrible illness? Why? Is it retribution, for leaving me to fend for myself that Christmas morning? Why? Why him? Why can’t it be someone else?
And even though I really, really hate the guy, I feel such a tremendous, sudden pain in my chest. Like my heart’s being ripped out, right out of my body.
“You know…” Holly continues, obviously not noticing the emotional trauma I’m going through right now. “For some Christmas activity, all the patients were told to write about the best thing that ever happened to them. You know what this guy wrote?”
“What?” I say, finally, realising that she’s staring and waiting for an answer from me.
“Here,” She says, and flips through a couple of pages on her clipboard. She unclips a faint blue-coloured paper and hands it over to me. “His response was so inspiring and touching I simply had to keep it.”
Numbly, I take the paper from her and scan through it.
The best thing that ever happened to me, Zeke Duval,
Last Christmas, I met the girl I’ve been waiting for all my life. She was The One for me. I just knew it. It was crystal clear.
I met her at a Christmas Eve party, and she was wearing blue. Turquoise. She looked beautiful, but she didn’t quite realise that every guy had his eye on her the whole night. We danced, and she danced superbly well. I literally struggled to keep up, and I had to hope she didn’t notice my difficulties. After that, we had coffee together, and her smile was really the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.
But I had to leave. It was the right thing to do.
She was perfect. I wasn’t. I was sick – although she didn’t know it. I couldn’t let someone that perfect like someone who was going to die, anyway.
So I played the bastard card by leaving that very Christmas morning. I’ve hated myself a thousand, ten thousand times for that. Many times, I replay that morning in my mind. I would have stayed in bed, watched her wake up and see how she looked like the first time she opened her eyes that Christmas morning.
Anyway, I’m now running out of paper to write this on, so I’ll just end here.
The best thing that ever happened to me was what happened Last Christmas.
I read Zeke Duval’s note all the way to the end. And when I’m done, I know that there’s only one thing that I can do. Should do. Want to do.
“Thanks, Holly,” I say, and return the paper to her.
Without another word, I slip off to the Children’s ward, and lift Chloe out of her little cot.
“Wake up, beautiful,” I whisper, and Chloe opens her little eyes. She sees me, and starts babbling happily.
Carrying her in my arms, I walk steadily to Ward 18C. I pause in front of the door.
Is this what you really want to do, Claudine? What happened to those twelve months of hurt, pain and sadness you went through?
I shake that little worry from my mind. This is exactly what I want to do. Not the brightest idea in the book, maybe, to surprise Chloe on Zeke like that. But Chloe belongs to him, too. She belongs to us.
And now that I’ve found out that Zeke never meant to leave, I’m not leaving him, either. Not anytime soon.
Last Christmas, I gave Zeke Duval my heart, and he broke it. Badly. But he never meant it. He never meant to leave me. And knowing that I was the best thing that ever happened to him is good enough for me.
This Christmas, I will meet Zeke Duval again. And whether I fall for him again or not, whether I get my heart broken again or not…it doesn’t really matter.
What matters most is that I’ll pick up the broken pieces and just keep going. Keep living. With Chloe. With Zeke, maybe. And that’s all that matters, really.
Holding that resolve firmly in mind, I push open the door and go inside. With Chloe.