Welcome to Chapter Eight of my Christmas novella! I’ll be sharing the whole novella – one chapter a day – for the first couple of weeks of December (my Christmas gift to you, my wonderful readers!), so make sure you come back each day to read the next instalment of Emily and Matt’s story.
If you’ve just found this, I’d recommend starting back at the beginning of the story (here).
Monday, December 2
Emily couldn’t sleep. It was one fifteen in the morning and she was wandering around her house instead of being tucked up warm in bed. Well, warm was a moot point. It was thirty degrees out there, even at one a.m., but she should have been in bed.
It was the pain in her hand which had woken her but the pain in her heart that had kept her awake.
She was leaving Brisbane.
Not now but soon. Moving to the other end of the country, if by some impossible chance she was accepted. If the letter ever arrived. And if not that position then something else. Either way, the life she knew was coming to an end. It was as exciting as it was terrifying. Mostly terrifying—she’d never been good at change, unknowns, feeling out of control, or saying goodbye—but she couldn’t deny the tiny spark of excitement inside her at the thought of a grand adventure.
If only it didn’t mean saying goodbye to her family. Frustrating though they could be at times, no one understood her like they did.
Her brothers all lived their own lives now, with wives and families, but the Mitchells were still a close group.
She was surprised to realize she’d miss Matt McLaughlin. He’d made himself part of her life in the past week, picking her up each morning and waiting in the staff car park to bring her home each afternoon. She didn’t want to be reliant on him, but she had no other choice. And she’d promised Luke.
Her kids had been impressed by her bandaged hand. One had actually asked if it was bandaged so heavily because she was getting robotic parts put into it to make her a cyborg. She might have worried once exactly what TV this child was watching to inspire such a question, but she knew his parents and the strict rules they had for his media exposure. He just had a creative imagination.
He’d be an award-winning writer one day. And she’d be able to say she taught him to read. Him and over a hundred other kids. Would she still be teaching kids to read next year?
She should go back to bed and try to get some sleep, only she wasn’t tired. Would hot chocolate help? Probably. But making it also involved asserting more energy than she planned. Perhaps she should just sit on the couch for a bit . . .
A knock at the door wrenched Emily awake. Sunlight filled her house. What? Had she fallen asleep on the couch? And what was the time? She casually searched out the wall clock.
What? She sat up so fast her head spun. She was going to be late. Why hadn’t her alarm gone off?
Oh, but it had. She heard it faintly playing still in her room. She hadn’t planned on needing it when she’d left her bedroom at one a.m.
The knock came again. Matt. Already. And she was still in her pajamas. Pajamas which were comfortable but far from elegantly attractive. Reluctant as she was to open the door to him in her half-dressed state, she couldn’t leave him standing out there. But how—
Her phone. She’d call him.
After she turned off the alarm, that was.
Matt knocked again on Emily’s door, louder this time. Still no answer. Had she found another lift to school this morning? Driven herself? He selfishly hoped not. He was actually enjoying this driving her around. Being her knight in shining armor come to save her.
How long did he stand here calling before accepting the reality that she wasn’t home? The ringing of his phone had him pulling it out of his pocket, grinning as he looked at the display. Speaking of Emily . . .
“Hi. I’m here, so you can stop knocking, but I accidentally slept in. Your knocking actually woke me, so I’m not even dressed yet. You could go wait in the car if you wanted or get some coffee. Or not. Do you even drink coffee? I can’t even remember. Anyway. Give me five minutes and I’ll be out.”
Matt doubted that. No girl he knew could get ready that fast. Most guys he knew couldn’t. But just for the fun of it, he timed her.
Four minutes and thirty-two seconds later, Emily walked out the front door looking as awake and prepared for the day as she did every morning. It took a lot to impress Matt but that definitely did. No one would have guessed this poised woman had woken up less than ten minutes ago.
At least until she lost her balance and lurched into a plant. He grinned. There it was. Proof that she was human after all.
“Want me to go through the drive-thru on the way? Get you some breakfast?”
Dropping her gigantic purse on the floor at her feet, Emily stuffed a granola bar in her mouth while reaching for the seat belt behind her shoulder. He had to admire her skills. Dressed and ready to leave in less than five minutes, seat belt and eating at the same time and—Matt shook his head in wonder—had she finished that entire granola bar already? In the time it had taken him to put his keys in the ignition and start the car? And all with one hand still heavily-bandaged. Very impressive.
“Thanks, but no time. I have a meeting starting at eight.”
Hence the granola bar breakfast. “You had an early meeting Friday too.”
“And another one tomorrow. The life of a teacher.”
“As many hours volunteering as paid work?”
She laughed. “Pretty much.”
“There are jobs where they actually pay you for all the hours of work you do.”
“Yeah, but I’d choose a classroom full of five-year-olds over an office full of adults any day, no matter what they paid me.”
She was passionate, that was for sure. He liked kids, sure, but twenty-five of them at a time? Each with their own opinions? He’d take the office full of adults. At least he could ignore them if need be without being sued for negligence.
“What is it about kids? Most people I know struggle to spend a few minutes with them, let alone days on end.”
Emily shrugged. “They have their moments, don’t get me wrong. But they’re honest. Sometimes brutally so. You never have to guess where you stand with a five-year-old. They have no guile and tell you everything. I’m pretty sure most of their parents would be shocked with the things I know about their families.
“But it’s also the chance to be there for them when sometimes no one else is. One of my boys, Tijay, his parents split up this year. He went from having what he thought was a happy home to having two houses and parents who won’t even talk to each other. School was the one thing that didn’t change when everything else in his world did. I hate that he’s in pain and wish every day that I could bring back the happy boy who started the year, but it thrills me that I can be at least one adult in his life who he knows he can trust.”
Matt had never considered it like that.
“You really love these kids,” he said, stating the obvious, to hide how deep her comment had struck him. She was there for kids, when sometimes even their parents weren’t. He knew personally that that was no small thing. He had a lot more in common with Tijay than he wanted to admit.
“It’s hard not to. Like I said, they have their moments. Really, they do. One of them threw up on my foot the other day. I walked around for the rest of the day with a wet shoe that smelled like vomit. Then there’s another one who I’m certain has spent more time sitting on the time-out spot than she has the actual carpet this year. And one whose name will be etched in my head forever because I have to call her back to attention at least twenty times a day.
“But then—they have their moments.
“Do you have any idea the incredible joy and sense of achievement there is when you’re sitting beside a kid who suddenly gets it? Someone who’s struggled all year with reading or something and suddenly, they get one right. It clicks. I feel like getting up and doing this silly little happy dance or crying with pride, but, of course, I can’t. So I just praise the kid and move on to the next thing we have to learn, all the while thanking God for the absolute privilege of being there in that moment.
“For a whole year, I get to be one of the most important people in these young kids’ lives. I see their tears, their frustration, their joy, their excitement. I pray them through those moments, even if they never know it, and take the time to see them when others might think them too young to matter. It’s as humbling as it is rewarding.
“I know, it probably sounds crazy.” She shrugged again. “I guess you’re either a teacher at heart or you’re not. Kids, especially young ones, have a way of either making or breaking you.”
They would have broken him for sure. He’d only had to sit through one nativity play rehearsal to know that.
“You’ll be a great mother one day.”
She sighed. “I hope so. But until then, my students—” She stopped suddenly. Matt sent another glance in her direction. She’d turned to look out the window. Was she as captivated by those three birds she was watching as she seemed, or had she been meaning to say something else?
Emily shook her head. “Never mind.”
“Because if you need someone to talk to—who’s not either family or trying to flirt their way into your life—I’m happy to listen.”
Matt thought for a moment she might keep speaking and tell him what it was she’d been about to say but instead she simply smiled and went back to looking out the car window. He was surprised by the disappointment he felt. He hadn’t realized how much he wanted to be the one she talked to. It hadn’t taken more than one day driving her around to know that Emily rarely asked for help. She stewed on things alone and pushed herself to the very limit before giving in and asking for it.
But he wanted to. Desperately. Because it was getting harder and harder to see Emily simply as Luke’s sister. Every day Matt spent with her, she became more intriguing.
She liked avocadoes, but only on bread. She prayed for the kids in her class by name and spent her weekends building a stable so her Sunday school kids could put on the most amazing nativity ever. She could go from asleep to ready to go in less than five minutes, and clearly didn’t need makeup to look as beautiful as she did. And she hated math. She was intriguing, to say the least.
He wouldn’t go so far as to say he liked her, but she had definitely crossed into friend territory. If not good friend. And Matt didn’t even mind. Not one little bit.
He wished he knew what to do with her abundance of suitors though. He couldn’t send them away, but they were annoying. None of them were right for her anyway. Emily needed someone special, not just some random guy her brothers sent her way to fulfil a childish pact.
Emily needed a man who saw her passion before they judged the late nights and early mornings. Who saw the gritty faith before they saw what often looked like craziness. Who saw the girl who pushed herself beyond exhaustion before they were taken in by her veneer of strength. She was strong, no doubt about it, but it was a strength that came from within.
It hit Matt suddenly how much he wanted it to be him. He sucked in a quick breath, letting it out as normally as he could so as not to gain Emily’s attention. That was not part of the plan. She was his best friend’s little sister, for goodness’ sake. But she was quickly becoming so much more.
God, you know she’s Luke’s little sister, right? The one I was supposed to be protecting not falling in love with.
Oh no. He was not in love with Emily. Not at all. Well, maybe a little. He cringed. Maybe a lot.
Fine. So he was attracted to her. Maybe even on his way to falling in love. But it didn’t matter anyway. He had commitments of his own to keep, and he wasn’t looking for a serious relationship any more than Emily was.
“You drove past the entrance.”
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter of Deck the Halls (and bring a hammer). Read on for Chapter Nine!