“Carol of the Bells” had always been one of my favorite Christmas songs. As I walked alongside my younger sisters, Mikaela and Victoria, through a crowded New York City mall, I couldn’t help but hum along. It was December first, after all, so even the Scroogiest of people couldn’t argue that the Christmas season had begun.
“Now that we’ve had our coffee, I am wide awake,” Mikaela said, practically bouncing off the walls. “What do you need a fancy dress for anyway, Jordan? Do the teachers all dress up on the last day of school in formalwear and dance the children off for the break?”
Smirking at her, I made my way to the gown section of Manhattan Dresses, a shop I’d always wanted to go into but had never been able to before. “No, we definitely don’t do that,” I assured her. “By the last day, we are all dragging, running on fumes, praying our little frequent flyers can manage to stay out of the office.”
I shook my head, dreading the last few weeks before Christmas break. Thankfully, in most schools in Texas, including the one I taught at in Galveston, we got two weeks off for Christmas and a week off at Thanksgiving, which was why I was able to fly to New York to stay with my sister Victoria for a few days. She was a lawyer with an apartment in the big city. Her way of life was completely different than mine, and so was Mikaela’s, but we were so close, even with the distance between us, and it was nice to get to spend some time with them.
As I looked through the racks of dresses, Victoria lamented, “I wish we could go to Holly Well Springs with you.”
“I know,” I said, sliding a green dress back to take a look at it. “It was just an impromptu decision I made to go because I love it so much. I haven’t been there since we were kids. I hope Mom can go.”
“I know she wants to,” Mikaela said, wandering around a bit, looking at some of the items next to where I was shopping. “She should be able to with Betty taking over most of the Christmas decorating this year.”
“The lodge is always so beautiful at Christmas. It’s awesome you get to go to Holly Well Springs and the lodge this season.” Victoria didn’t even pretend to shop, only stood near us. I knew it bothered her that everyone thought because she was a lawyer she had a lot of money, but she didn’t. She was doing just fine, but New York was expensive, and she wouldn’t start making the big bucks in her line of law unless she became partner. She would eventually—I just knew it. My sister was so smart and talented.
“It’s like going to the North Pole for Christmas,” Mikaela said with a laugh.
“Yeah, they are both magical places, though Holly Well Springs is a little different than being at home. Whenever I’m at Sun Valley, I always feel like I should be working.” I smiled at them both and then noted a blue dress that I absolutely loved. Looking at the tag, I let out a little grunt.
“What’s the matter?” Victoria asked. “Too expensive?”
“It’s way too expensive,” I told her. “And I would never buy it, but I kind of wanted to try it on. It’s a size too small, though.”
Mikaela came over and looked at the tag. “It’s a ten. You’re a twelve. All dresses are different. You should try it on.”
“Are you serious?” I shook my head at my sister. Both of them were tiny compared to me. Not that I was fat or insecure about my weight. I was perfectly happy with my curves, but they didn’t know what it was like to try to shove yourself into a pair of jeans like making salami whenever you were retaining water either. “If I tried to put this dress on, I’d bust the zipper.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Victoria said, jumping in. “Take it over to the dressing room and try it on. Why not?”
“For the reason I just said,” I replied, but by then, Mikaela had the dress in her hand and was walking to the changing room.
“We’ll get you out of the damn dress. If the zipper goes up, it has to come down, right?” she argued.
I knew that wasn’t always the case, but it seemed I was backed into a corner. To lighten the mood, I said, “Victoria, maybe you should try on one of these dresses and go back to the barista, see if he likes you even more in an evening gown.”
She giggled. “I don’t want to encourage the man. I’d rather not date someone who makes minimum wage and doesn’t have the ambition to try to climb his way out of there.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Teachers weren’t known for making a lot of money, but I did okay. I owned my own home and drove a decent car. Whenever I found a man, I’d want him to be able to help provide for me and any future children we might have. I wasn’t looking for a millionaire or anything, but ambition was a good trait to find in a man.
In the dressing room, Mikaela hung the dress next to a full-length mirror and grabbed my hand. “Yell if you need us.”
“Oh, I’ll be yelling all right.” I knew this was a bad idea. But sisterly pressure had gotten the best of me, again. This was exactly why I was always the one who got in trouble when we were younger. Mikaela was the innocent baby, and Victoria, being the middle child, found a way to blend into the background, out of sight and out of mind. So whenever Mom came looking to see who had done whatever it was we’d messed up, I was usually the one to blame. I was the oldest. I supposedly “Knew better.”
And in this case, I knew better, too. I was going to end up paying for a ten-thousand-dollar gown because my curvy ass couldn’t get out of it.
With a sigh, I undressed and pulled the zipper down on the gown. The blue fabric was so soft, it felt heavenly between my fingers. The inside was a bit more rigid, especially in the part that had to support the rhinestones around the bodice. I took my time, easing my hips into it, sliding my arms through the sleeves, and pulling it up. Miraculously, I was able to get it up. Now, for the hard part. The zipper.
Ever so carefully, I reached around behind me and tugged it up. It began to move with no problem and got as far as I could reach. By then, I was satisfied that I’d get a good idea of what I would look like with the dress on.
I looked stunning. Even with my hair a bit messy and my makeup streaked from walking around the mall, I could honestly say I looked prettier than I’d seen myself in years. The blue brought out my brown eyes, and the rhinestones made everything look sparkly. Of course, with the price of this dress, I began to wonder if maybe those were diamonds and not rhinestones.
Sweeping the curtain aside, I stepped out to where my sisters were waiting for me. “Well?”
They both gasped, and Mikaela covered her mouth. “Jordan! You look amazing!”
“I love it,” Victoria agreed. “It’s really too bad you can’t afford it, but at least now you know what kind of a dress to look for if you ever need to go to a formal event.”
“Like the wedding of a princess or something,” Mikaela chimed in. We all laughed.
“That’s true. I do think I should stick with my size, though. I feel like this is super tight.” I turned to look in the mirror, wondering how long I could breathe in this.
“It doesn’t look like it’s too tight,” Victoria noted.
“I think I should take it off before I bust a seam,” I told them. I was tempted to take a selfie but decided not to. I wasn’t big on social media, so I wouldn’t post it anywhere, but I kind of wanted to remember what I looked like.
I didn’t need to do that. Mikaela pulled her phone out and took a pic. “I’ll send it to you.”
“Thanks. Don’t post it anywhere, though,” I told her.
“Of course not.” She rolled her eyes at me. “Just wanted to remember this moment. I’m going to miss you guys so much.”
We all felt the same.
“Do you want a hand with the zipper?” Victoria asked.
Part of me wanted to tell her no, I could manage it, but then, if I did end up ripping the dress, I didn’t want to be the only one responsible either. “Sure, that would be great.”
Victoria nodded and followed me into the dressing room, closing the curtain behind her. I kicked my clothes aside, wishing I would’ve hung them up before I stepped out, but I was afraid to bend over in this gown.
“Okay, here we go.” Victoria took hold of the zipper and started to move it down slowly. She got it almost to the small of my back when it stopped moving. “Hmmm.”
“Hmm?” I repeated. “Hmm what?”
“Nothing. It’s just not moving anymore. Let me wiggle it a little bit.”
Panic welled up inside of me as my sister tried to get the zipper to go down. What would we do if we broke it? Or worse, what if it never came off? We’d have to go find one of those snooty sales associates who would probably body shame me for stuffing myself into the gown to begin with.
Victoria tried for several minutes to get the zipper down, but it didn’t budge. “I don’t see that there’s any fabric stuck in there.”
I felt my lungs restricting, and sweat began to bead up on my forehead. I was having a panic attack. “Just get it off, Vic.”
“I’m working on it,” she said, and I could hear the frustration in her voice.
“Here.” Mikaela came through the curtain. There wasn’t much room in there for all three of us, and I could just see the two of them fighting over who got to unzip it, ripping the dress in half the way they’d ruined one of Mom’s favorite sweaters in high school. I’d gotten blamed for that, too.
“What is it?” Victoria asked.
“A pencil. Duh.” Mikaela was probably rolling her eyes. I couldn’t see her through my tears—and the fact that she was standing behind me and shorter. “You run it over the zipper, and it’ll let go.”
“That’s bullshit,” Victoria said. “That’ll never work.”
“Let her try,” I told the logical one.
“Fine.” Victoria let go, and Mikaela did something with the pencil that sounded strange. Then, a second later, Mikaela pulled the zipper down, and I was saved.
“Thank god.” I stepped out of the dress and began to pull on my sweater and jeans, not caring that I was in my underwear in front of my sisters. I was just glad to be free. Once I was dressed, I hugged them both. “You guys are the best.”
“No problem,” Mikaela said. “Glad to help.”
I didn’t mention that they were the ones who had told me to try it on. I was just thankful that we hadn’t ripped it and I was out of it.
A little while later, I found myself in an Uber, waving back at Victoria who was standing outside of the mall. We’d shared a tearful goodbye, but we all knew we’d see each other soon. In just a few weeks, we’d be celebrating Christmas at the lodge together. I couldn’t wait to see them.
I just needed to survive the last few weeks of school.