The Only Present Under the Tree

Ella is about to have her world turned upside down. Her father has been offered a job in Australia, and they're flying out on New Year's Day. This Christmas, Ella has to face saying goodbye to her best friend, who also happens to be the boy she loves. (This story came second in last year's Advent competition, but has since been edited and re-uploaded for this year)


1. The Only Present Under the Tree

I didn’t want to leave.

I didn’t want to have to say goodbye. But I couldn’t ignore it anymore, couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t actually going to happen. This would be our last Christmas together. On January 1st, I was going to be leaving everything I knew behind, to start a new life, on the other side of the world.

I’ll admit I’d been selfish over the past couple of months, barley talking to my dad since he announced the new job in Australia. It wasn’t his fault that the company he worked for went bust. I suppose I should be grateful, many people would kill for the opportunity to experience life in a different country. But I didn’t want any of that, I just wanted Kye.

We’d grown up together, living next door from each other since we were toddlers. We’d been best friends for years, but when I was fourteen, he told me he didn’t want to be friends anymore. He wanted to be more than that.

We’d been through high school together, faced every problem thrown at us, beat down the ‘you’re young, it won’t last’ comments from almost everyone. And now we were going to have an ocean between us. I won’t be able to just go next door and see his face, smiling back at me, making me feel like everything was going to be alright.

I jumped when I heard the doorbell ring from downstairs. My pulse skittered, but not in its usual, excited way whenever I was expecting Kye to call round. I rushed down the staircase and took a last look at myself in the mirror by the front door. I looked tired. After weeks of arguing with my dad, and endless hours of crying in my bedroom, I wasn’t looking my best. I quickly wiped away a small mascara smudge before pulling the door open.

Kye bounded into the hallway without invitation. He never needed one anyway.

“Merry Christmas Eve, you,” he said cheerfully, leaning in to give me a kiss before I’d even shut the door. When we pulled apart, he brandished a brown paper bag in front of my face. “Mum baked you some cookies,” he told me. “You know, for Santa.” He gave me a wink and I couldn’t help but smile.

His mum, Sara, had done a lot for me since my mum passed away early this year. She’d always stepped in to make sure I had a motherly figure I could go to whenever I needed to talk. She was close to my mum, so it was nice to talk over our happy memories of her. Whenever I tried to talk about the happier times with Dad, he’d become distant and make excuses to leave the room.

I took the bag from Kye and smiled up at him. He looked angelic with his blonde, wavy hair falling ever-so-slightly into his eyes.

“I’ll be sure to say thanks when I come round tomorrow,” I said to him, already dreading the Christmas dinner that Sara had planned. I had a feeling it was going to be emotional.

“Are you sure you don’t want to exchange presents today?” he asked, an excited sparkle in his eyes. “We’re not that many hours away from Christmas, so it’s totally fine.”

“No,” I said sternly. “No presents until Christmas, okay?”

He sighed. “I suppose.”

He was good at pretending everything was fine. Looking at the two of us now, saving face in front of each other, no one would know that we’d be saying our farewells next week. Kye had been trying to act like nothing was happening. But it was happening, I was moving and he’d have to face it soon.

“Is your dad not home yet?” he asked, glancing around the hallway, waiting for him to appear.

“He’s still out,” I replied.

Dad was having goodbye drinks with some of his friends from our town. He wanted to say goodbye now, at Christmas, rather than just before we left. He’d encouraged me to make an effort to spend time with everyone before we go, but I think he knew I’d rather spend every possible moment that I could with Kye. I knew my dad felt guilty for making me move to another country, and I certainly felt guilty for taking it out on him, but I couldn’t hide my anger. I couldn’t mask how upset I was. Believe me, I’d tried.

“Come on,” I said, grabbing Kye’s hand and dragging him towards the sitting room. “Let’s watch a cheesy Christmas movie, since you love them so much.”

“I do not,” he protested, but I knew how much he liked pathetically romantic, festive films with happy endings.

We curled up on the sofa together and watched a cute film about small town at Christmas. Kye seemed to enjoy it. I tried to, but I just couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking about how different the next Christmas would be for me, for both of us.

I sat up when the credits started to roll.

“Kye…we need to talk,” I said hesitantly. I didn’t want this conversation any more than he did, but we were running out of time. “I only have a week left before I move—”

“Ella, don’t,” he interrupted. “Not now, please. It’s Christmas Eve.”

“Exactly,” I continued. “I’m leaving on New Year’s Day, Kye. You can’t keep ignoring it.”

“I’m not ignoring it,” he argued. “I just…” His voice trailed off. He stood up from the sofa and walked over to the Christmas tree by the window. We’d decorated it two weeks earlier. “I just wanted us to have a happy Christmas,” he sighed. “I didn’t want this hanging over us. Can we not just forget that it’s happening for one more day?”

He turned back around to look at me, his eyes staring down at mine. He was hurt, just as I was, and there was nothing we could do about it. I walked over to join him by the tree.

“What’s going to happen to us, Kye?” I whispered, as though saying it quietly would make it less difficult.

It was the question that had been burnt into the back of my mind since I’d found out I was moving. It had hung over the two of us like a raging storm cloud, ready to burst, but neither of us had dared to bring it up before now.

“What’s going to happen to us when I leave?” I asked again. “What are we going to do?”

I wanted him to have all the answers. I wanted him to wrap his arms around me and tell me that it was going to be fine, like he usually did. But this time, he couldn’t.

“We can make this work, Ella,” he said determinedly, grabbing hold of my shoulders. “I promise we can. We can keep in touch with each other all the time, we have Skype—”

“For how long? How long are we going to be able to keep it up?”

He knew exactly what I meant. We weren’t stupid; we both knew how little a chance long distance relationships actually stood at working out. How long would it be before we started getting frustrated by not being able to do simple things like hug each other? Or go on dates? Or simply walk around together, holding hands? We were going to want that. As much as the thought of Kye doing any of that with another girl made my heart ache, I couldn’t expect him to just settle for seeing me on a computer screen every night. It wasn’t fair.

“I can’t make you do that,” I told him, trying to keep my voice from breaking.

“I want to,” he insisted. “I don’t care how we see each other. I don’t care if the only contact we have is through a phone call. I’d rather have that than nothing. I don’t want anyone else, Ella.”  

I believed him. I knew he meant it. Yes, we were only sixteen and yes, we had our whole lives ahead of us, but we only wanted each other. An ocean between us wasn’t going to change that.

It was then that I allowed myself to cry. I’d done plenty of crying over the past few weeks, but never in front of Kye. I’d carried on forcing a smile, pretending it was fine, but not now, not anymore.

He wrapped his arms around me whilst I cried, kissing my forehead and telling me that distance didn’t matter. I don’t know how long we’d been standing there for when we heard the front door open. I jumped back from Kye as my dad walked into the room. I turned to face the tree as I quickly tried to wipe away the tears.

I turned back around with an overly enthusiastic smile on my face. “Hey, Dad,” I greeted. “Good night?”

“It was,” he replied, glancing between Kye and me.

I could tell by the look on his face that he clearly knew what we’d been talking about. I looked over at Kye, who was trying to avoid my dad’s stare. He was as hurt as I was but he didn’t want to show it, not in front of my dad.

“I best get going, anyway,” Kye said a few seconds later. “I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”

I nodded. “I’ll see you in the morning.” He leant forward to kiss my cheek before walking towards the door.

“See you tomorrow, Kye,” Dad said to him. “Tell your folks I can’t wait for dinner. I’ll bring a bottle.”

“Will do,” he replied cheerily. I watched him walk out of the sitting room. “Hey,” he said, popping his head back around the door. “You never know, we might just get snow this Christmas.”

“Fingers crossed,” I said. He gave me one last smile before leaving.

We’d wanted a white Christmas for years, but it never happened. Every year, Kye would get optimistic. He loved snow. I wondered if it would snow next year, whilst I wasn’t here. The thought broke my heart.

When I heard the front door close, I walked into the hallway, heading for the stairs.

“Are you off to bed already?” Dad asked me.

“I’m tired,” I told him. I was lying, of course. I couldn’t have slept even if I’d wanted to, but I needed to be alone. “I want to be lively for tomorrow.”

Dad nodded before opening his mouth to say something. He hesitated and then thought better of it. He simply said, “Goodnight, Ella.”

I went up to my bedroom and threw myself down onto my bed. I glanced around, looking at the boxes I’d already started to fill. Most of my pictures were down from my walls already, but I still had my corkboard hanging at the side of my mirror, filled with pictures of Kye, me, and Lila, one of my closest friends. That was another goodbye I was dreading. It was going to be a difficult week.

Feeling emotionally drained, I pulled some pyjamas on and crawled into bed. About an hour later, I heard Dad walking up the stairs and closing his bedroom door.

I lay there for hours, looking at the room that would no longer be mine after next week. I stared at the picture of Mum that was on my bedside table. It was a picture of her inside Kendall Books, her favourite independent bookshop in our town. She adored the owner, Mr Kendall. He always had a new read for her every time she went in. I still had all of her old books, packed up and ready to take with me.

I continued to toss and turn in my bed, trying to fall asleep. The last time I stayed awake that long on Christmas Eve was when I was a kid. I couldn’t sleep from excitement, and when I’d heard rustling downstairs, I’d jumped out of bed to go and have a look. Of course, I know now that it was my dad dressing up as Santa each year, but back then it was the most amazing thing in the world. I only wished it was excitement that was keeping me from sleep this year.

I’d finally started to nod off when I heard movement downstairs. I clambered out of bed and tiptoed my way to the staircase. I walked down a few steps so that I could see through to the sitting room. I spotted my dad standing there, wearing a Santa hat. My dad, after all these years, still snuck downstairs in the night to put presents under the tree.

I watched him walk over to the fireplace. He picked up a picture of him, me, and Mum. It was one of my favourite pictures of all of us, standing outside the house. It was taken by Kye after my mum went into remission. She had this huge, beaming smile on her face, thinking that it was finally all over. We didn’t know back then that cancer was going to come back.

I saw my dad’s shoulders shaking. I knew he’d hate knowing that I was watching him cry, but I walked down the last few steps and entered the sitting room.

“Ella,” he said, startled when he saw me. “What are you doing down here?”

“I could ask you the same question,” I said. “I’m pretty sure you don’t have to pretend to be Santa anymore, Dad.”

Despite the tears he was trying to blink away, he let out a chuckle. “I know. It was a habit that I never grew out of.”

“You don’t have to hide it from me, you know,” I told him, looking at the picture in his hand. “You’re allowed to be sad. You’re allowed to miss her.”

He let out an exhausted sigh. “When did you get so grown up, hey?”

He put the picture back down onto the fireplace and looked towards the tree. I followed his gaze and saw that there were no boxes underneath the branches. There was just an envelope. I glanced back at my dad, confused.

“Go ahead,” he urged. “Take a look.”

I stepped towards the tree, eyeing up the large envelope. I noticed it was addressed to Dad. Curiously, I crouched down to pick it up.

“It’s yours,” I told him, wondering if he’d made a mistake.

He grinned. “I know, but it’s just as exciting for you as it is for me.”

I looked back down at the envelope in my hands. It was quite heavy. I opened it slowly and peered inside. It seemed like a few letters and a booklet. I pulled out the first letter. Reading over it, I almost dropped the envelope in surprise. It was a letter to confirm that Dad was now the official owner of Kendall Books.

“What…what does this mean?” I stuttered.

Dad started to laugh. “It means I own the shop now, obviously.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

“Old Mr Kendall had decided enough was enough, Ella,” he explained. “He’s is getting on a bit now. You know he didn’t have any kids he could rely on to take over the shop, so he asked me.”

“Seriously?” I squealed.

“I only took the job in Australia because I thought I had no other choice,” he told me, walking over to take the envelope from me. “I thought that moving to a different country would be better, a fresh start. I was trying to run from the memories.” He looked over again at the picture on the fireplace. “I’ve realised now that I can’t escape it. She’s gone and she’s not coming back, but I can’t just bury my head in the sand. I have to accept it, and I have to honour her memory, not tuck it away.”  

“You really mean it?” I asked him.

“That’s where I was today,” he told me, pointing at the envelope. “I was sorting out the details with Mr Kendall, not saying my goodbyes.”  

I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t feel real. We were staying here. I wouldn’t have to leave Kye. Not only were we staying here, but we were going to take over Mum’s favourite place. It felt like a dream. I rushed over to my dad and hugged him.

“I’m sorry for how I’ve acted, Ella,” he said. “If you ever want to talk about your mum, you can come to me, okay?”

I pulled away and nodded, wiping away the tears that had started to spill from my eyes once again. I was pretty sure I could create an ocean with the amount of tears I’d spilt over the past few weeks.

As I stood there, I noticed that the light from outside the window seemed a little strange. It wasn’t like the usual night-time sky. I took a few steps towards the window and peered through the blinds.


There was a thin layer of snow covering the floor and there was more falling down from the clouds above. Kye had finally gotten his wish.

“Looks like we’ll be getting a white Christmas after all,” Dad said, peering over my head at the snow outside.

“I love you, Dad,” I said to him, stepping away from the window.

“Love you too, kiddo,” he replied, ruffling my hair. “Now get to bed.”

I beamed at him before walking out of the room. I turned at the doorway and saw him putting the envelope back where I found it so that when I woke up, it would still be there, proof that all of this was real.  

It was the only present I needed under the tree.

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