Sterling and Blair walked in through the doors of Willingham Academy, neither of them particularly ready to be back in school. With each step they took, the break began to feel like a distant memory. The hallways were already filled with the other students, hugging and sharing all their stories about the break. Various groups were scattered talking loudly about plans for the semester ahead.
“Do they not talk to each other at all over the break?” Blair commented as she walked past a particularly loud group of girls basically squealing at seeing each other. She shrugged as they walked further from the group. “Anyway, more importantly…you need to be on high alert today.”
“I do?” Sterling glanced over at her sister, the confusion evident on her features.
Blair rolled her eyes as she sighed. “Yes Sterl. We established your secret Santa is a member of the Willingham student body and someone from our fifth-grade class. That means we have a narrowed list of suspects and you need to pay more attention to identify them.”
“But I haven’t been able to pick out anyone as acting differently previously.”
“That’s because your observational skills are in need of work. It amazes me you are in AP Chemistry which is all about observing reactions.” Blair mused.
“It’s also about logic and rules.” Sterling defended as she shrugged at her sister, unable to come up with a good argument against her original statement.
“Also, clearly your strengths.” Seeing the argument brewing on the blonde’s face, Blair quickly continued before any words could be uttered from her sister’s open mouth. “All that logic and observation has given you the name of your secret Santa, right?”
Sterling closed her mouth and felt her shoulders slump. Of course, the list of names was now much shorter than previously based on who they had been able to eliminate from the other clues. However, it was still a list of names and not just a single one. “Fine. Observation. I can do that.” She nodded as if the action would somehow confer a confidence that this would work that she was currently seriously lacking.
Blair looked over at her sister as they approached the Fellowship room. “That’s the spirit. Remember, you are looking to see who pays more attention to you or acts strangely.”
“Got it. More attention and acting strange.” Sterling nodded along with her own statements as they walked through the door to Fellowship.
As they took their usual seat on the floor, Sterling looked around at the assembled students. Ezekiel and Hannah B were flanking April on their usual couch as April explained something to them from the devotionals folder. Only Hannah B looked up at them as they passed the trio and gave a little wave before Ezekiel rolled his eyes at her. The other couch had Omar and Brenda sat next to each other, again neither really paying attention to others around them as their focus was solely on the screens of their phones. Various other students were scattered around the room but as Sterling ran through her mental list of names of her fifth-grade class only one other was also in Fellowship with them.
“Hey Sterl. How was your break?” Luke collapsed down to the floor beside her.
“Hi Luke. You only saw me a few days ago.” Sterling gave him a friendly smile as she spoke. When it came down to it, he was still a friend and someone she had spent a large chunk of her life with.
Luke reached his hand up to rub the back of his neck. “Yeah, I did. But a whole weekend has gone by so you might have been up to something interesting then.”
Sterling felt a sharp jab in her ribs and turned to see her sister. As their eyes locked, their twin-link activated.
“Interesting things over the weekend? He knows something.”
“Blair, it’s not Luke.” Sterling shook her head with exasperation at having to reiterate the same point again. “You even said that yourself at the start. Besides, I think I’d know if his nana had died.”
“Maybe it is him and he got someone to help him with the tricky bits…like spelling. You never met any of his grandparents.” Sterling gave the brunette a sceptical look. “Only one way to find out…ask something from the notes.”
Sterling gave her sister one last dubious look before turning back to Luke with a smile. She quickly ran through options of what to ask in her head. “I read a book. The Time Machine. Have you read it?”
Luke frowned. “Uh no but I did watch this show about a time lord. I thought it may be like Star Wars with the whole Time Lord being a different version of a Sith Lord but it was just this group of British people in an old police phone box.”
Sterling shot her sister an ‘I told you so’ look before turning back to Luke. “That sounds…interesting.”
“So, I kinda wanted to talk to you about something.” He shifted in his place to face her better. “I have been asking around and I know you’re not seeing anyone at the moment.” He reached down and took her hand in his. Sterling looked down at the touch, looking at the way his hand smothered hers. It was something she hadn’t questioned when they were dating but since they had been apart, the way his hand felt wrapped around hers just felt wrong. “I had a big plan on how I was going to ask you this but I just don’t think I can wait any longer. I was wondering if you wanted to go to the…”
“Alright everyone, I think it is time we get started.” Sterling’s focus was drawn to where April had stood from her seat, the devotionals folder pressed against her chest as her arms wrapped around it while she addressed the Fellowship group. “I hope you all had a good break. I thought we should start off our new semester and the new year with a passage from Isaiah. Forget what happened in the past, and do not dwell on events from long ago.” Sterling slipped her hand out of Luke’s grasp and turned her attention to the shorter teen as she continued.
By the time lunch rolled around, Sterling had managed to avoid Luke by some rather strategically timed conversations with teachers about assignments that were not due in for a while. The end result had been there hadn’t been another time for the two of them to be alone together since that morning in Fellowship. Sterling had a feeling what he was going to ask her and while she knew she had to let him down gently, she wasn’t sure the middle of a classroom or hallway was the best place for that discussion.
“So…how’s the sleuthing going?” Blair dropped down into the seat beside the blonde, instantly reaching over to steal some of her lunch.
“It is going.”
“Care to elaborate on that vague response?” Blair continued to reach over to steal items off her sister’s lunch tray until the blonde relented and just slid it over to between them.
“Ok, so Jessica and Brett are off the list. On my way to math earlier I saw them together and let’s just say they were not leaving room for Jesus between them.” Blair scrunched her nose up at the image.
“I walked past Chase earlier and he was bragging with his friends about scoring a date to the winter formal with Hannah G so I think we can cross them off.”
“So, who are we left with?”
Sterling reached into her backpack and pulled out her notebook. Flipping to the back page she read down the list. “We had fifteen people left on our list as of this morning who we think fit the criteria and were in my fifth-grade class.” Sterling crossed off Chase, Hannah G, Jessica and Brett to add to Franklin and Ezekiel who were already discounted by their discussion last night. “That leaves us with Omar, Hannah S, Darren, April, Justin and Luke.”
“Ok, so we have five suspects left.”
“There are six…”
“Nope. I have discounted the ice queen and my vote counts for double here as your judgement is still clouded about her for some reason. What was Luke saying this morning?”
“I think he was going to ask me to the dance. He started saying how he had a big plan on how he was going to ask me but didn’t want to wait.”
Blair just looked at her sister. “It’s Luke. He as good as admitted it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Sterl…the boy is still hung up on you after all this time. The puppy dog eyes he sports when looking at you really is quite nauseating. He has known you virtually your whole life, goes here, knows loads about you and then said he had a big plan…It’s him. Our work here is done.” Blair pulled the tray of food over towards herself and continued to eat the remainder of Sterling’s lunch. “Maybe you guys are just meant to have a second chance.”
Sterling knew that what Blair said was accurate in terms of the clues fitting with him. They had dated for so much of their lives, he would know a lot about her. He just never really showed that level of thoughtfulness during all those years. Then if Blair was right and he had enlisted someone to help him with this plan, maybe that was why it didn’t sound like Luke.
When the final bell of the day rang, Sterling was tired. The first day back after the break always felt more draining than usual but this time having to constantly try to look for her list of potential Santa suspects and what they were doing had taken it to a new level of exhausted. That coupled with dodging Luke to avoid having an awkward conversation when her mind wasn’t really on the task had left her in need of that final bell more than ever. As she walked back over to the Volt, she barely registered what Blair was saying. Her sole focus on placing one foot in front of the other to get her back to the car and then home. She also held the belief that when she got home, she would be picking up her penultimate clue from her Santa.
“What do you think?” Sterling quickly looked over to her sister, eyes slightly wider than usual at the realisation that she had no idea what she was required to have some thought about. Blair rolled her eyes before thrusting the object in her hand at her sister. “I said, we could ask around to see if anyone saw someone come over to the car to put this here.”
Sterling looked down at the envelope in her hand. She noticed her sister turning to look around the parking lot to see if anyone from their list was in sight. Leaving Blair to her fruitless searching, Sterling opened the car door and slipped in before opening the envelope.
The first thing that she saw was a black and white image. As she looked at the picture, she took in the scene. There was a sole person standing in the middle of what appeared to be a forest. They were surrounded by a variety of plants but that was it. Just a lone figure amidst all the flora. Placing the image down on her lap, she pulled out the note.
Today is the first day of the new semester and also the 11th Day of Christmas. The penultimate day of our little adventure. I thought a lot about what I should gift you today and the image is more symbolic than being the real gift. The real gift today is actually a thank you for a gift you gave me. For a long time, I felt that my value was measured in my achievements, of having people to follow my lead. That if I didn’t have people around me who looked up to me, that I had somehow failed. What I realised is that even when I had those people around me, I was still isolated. That actually being surrounded by people made me feel more lonely than when I was alone. Sometimes being alone is just what you need. It was what I needed to really figure out the path I wanted to take. So, thank you for giving me the gift of finding myself and realising what truly matters.
Your number for today is simply the number of people in the image.
Tomorrow is our last day. I know how tempting it will be to just turn that dial until the box opens tonight but I hope you resist that temptation otherwise we’ll have nowhere to go.
Sterling was snapped back to the present by the door slamming as Blair took her seat. “So, what did you get?”
Blair took the image from Sterling’s hand and looked at it. I stand by my statement of yesterday…they ran out of ideas. A duck and a picture…” She lifted the picture closer to her face. “That I’m pretty sure is a stock image from the internet.” She handed the image back to the blonde as she started the car. “They should have just stuck to like the ten days of Christmas.”
Sterling looked back at the note. Maybe Blair was right and it was Luke after all. The comments about having people to lead just took her right back to just before they broke up and he had lost his captaincy of the golf team. Her own words from the day they broke up also jumped off the page at her. Being alone doesn’t mean lonely. Was this it? Was it Luke after all? Sterling couldn’t help but feel disappointed at the thought that all of these clues, all of the gifts just led back to someone she had outgrown.