Anna and the Apocalypse Book

John bloody loved Christmas, but Anna couldn’t bear it. She had loved it as a kid, back when she was all excited about Santa and presents and trying to hide her advent calendar from her mom so she wouldn’t find out she’d eaten every chocolate by the fifth of December, but that was before her mom had gotten sick. Before she’d had to say goodbye. These days, on the scale of Things She’d Really Rather Not Do, Thank You Very Much, Christmas hovered somewhere in between having her teeth cleaned at the dentist and stabbing herself in the eye with a pencil. She missed her mom a lot . . .

“Anna?”

Something about her dad’s tone made it clear it was not the first time he’d said her name.

She gave her dad a forced, cheery smile. She’d gotten good at those.

“Sorry, I was miles away,” she said, wishing she really were. Miles and miles and miles.

“I said, do you want to pick some music?” he repeated, turning the radio knob. “Any preferences?”

Before Anna could reply, a voice interrupted the static. “We interrupt your regular program with some sad news,” the local  DJ announced. “We’ve just been informed that local Santa, Nathan Ormerod, has sadly passed away—”

Before he could finish, Anna leaned forward between the two front seats and changed the radio station herself.

News in Little Haven traveled fast . . . like, it­happened­ two­minutes­ago fast. All across the world, people were living exciting lives, going on daring adventures, and the most dramatic thing to happen in Little Haven was the town boozer, aka Little Haven’s Father Christmas, had drunk himself to death after another bender.

“That’s sad,” Dad commented as Anna and John exchanged a silent look. “I know his mum. I’ll send a card.”

“At least it wasn’t the real Santa,” Anna said under her breath. “Right, John?”

“Right,” he agreed, dramatically wiping the sweat from his brow. “Phew.”

“Have you got your ticket for tonight?”

Anna looked up to see her dad grinning at her in the rearview mirror.

“I already told you,” she said, pushing her long brown hair behind her ears. “I can’t go to the show. I’ve got to work.”

“You deserve a break, love,” he said, tapping the steer­ ing wheel in time to the music as they rolled along toward the school. “You know what they say about all work and no play.”

“Well, I don’t need a break,” Anna assured him. Not to mention the fact she couldn’t afford one.

Beside her, John carried on eating his gooey donut, nursing his cup of coffee between his knees, and said nothing. The last thing he wanted was to find himself in the middle of an argument between Anna and her dad. It was December, it was bloody cold, and Tony Shepherd was his lift to school.

And Anna . . . well, Anna was his everything.

“You won’t be saying that next year when you’re at university—and it’s wall­to­wall lectures,” Tony told her with a knowing cluck. “What about you, John? Have you heard back from art school yet?”

John shook his head. “Um, no, not yet, Mr. Shepherd.” Tony frowned at him in the mirror. “Is that normal?” he asked.

John gulped hard, accidentally squished the remains of his donut in his hand, curled his shoulders forward, and wished he could disappear.

“Dad!” Anna exclaimed, glancing over at her friend as his cheeks turned bright red. She reached sympathet­ ically toward John’s hand but stopped just short.

It was a sore subject. Everyone else knew what they were doing when they finished their exams in the spring but John still hadn’t heard back from any of the art schools he’d applied to. Unfortunately, Tony had all the tact of Rudolph after one too many seasonal eggnogs.

“John doesn’t need to go to art school anyway,” Anna added. “He’s already the best cartoonist ever. You ought to be teaching the classes.”

“Yeah, wouldn’t mind hearing back from at least one school though,” he replied, scratching at some jam on the cuff of his sweater. “Be nice to know what I’m doing in September.”

Tony offered John an apologetic grin to make up for his gaffe, and John tried to conjure a smile back but just looked as though he had terrible gas.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine, son,” Tony said. “Hey, why don’t you bring Anna to the Christmas show tonight? It’s going to be a right laugh.”

“I’m working!” Anna reminded her father for what felt like the thousandth time. “And so is he. John, tell him.”

“She’s working,” John mumbled, staring at the remains of his squashed donut, mind still stuck on his missing art school acceptance letter. “She’s got to pay off that plane ticket.”

“John!” Anna yelped as though she’d been stung. “What ticket?” Tony asked, confused.

“You said tell him,” John whispered as his pulse started to beat worryingly fast. All the blood began to drain from his face as he slowly realized what he’d revealed.

“I didn’t mean tell him that!” Anna replied, wide­eyed.

“What ticket?” her dad repeated.

“It’s nothing,” Anna insisted. “I’ll tell you about it later.”

If there was one thing Tony had learned from being a single parent, it was that when your teenage daughter said it was nothing, it was definitely something.

“What ticket, Anna?” he said for a third and final time, breaking out his best stern father voice. Even after all this time, he wasn’t very good at it.

“It’s just . . .” She searched for the right words to break the news to her dad, but they simply didn’t exist. She motioned for a little help from her supposed­best friend, but he turned away, suddenly very interested in something out the window, and about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Out of options, Anna took a deep breath and pasted on a brave smile.

“I’m going on a trip, all right?” she said finally. There, that would do. No more information than necessary. All she had to do was stay calm and they could discuss it later, at home, when she was prepared, and her dad wasn’t driving half a ton of heavy metal toward a crowd of her friends. “That’s what the ticket is for. No big deal.”

“What trip? A school trip?” Tony looked very con­ fused. This was the first he’d heard about any trip.

“No,” Anna replied. “Just me. On my own.” “When?” he demanded. “Where?”

Anna bit her lip and looked back out the window. “Let’s talk about it later,” she suggested.

“So you can avoid the subject again? I don’t think so. We’ll talk about it now,” Tony countered. “I hope you’ve checked when university starts, because . . .”

Stay calm, she told herself as her dad started on his well­practiced “The Wonders of College” speech.

“You can’t be missing the start of the semester,” her dad went on as her blood pressure started to rise. “If you’re not there at the beginning, they won’t let you start up late, it’s not like high school, where you can have a week off here, a week off there, Anna, this is serious grown­ up stuff—”

“I’m not going to uni!” she shouted.

Sometimes, staying calm was easier said than done.

Tony slammed his foot on the brakes and the car squealed to a standstill. Anna felt her seat belt snap her back as John’s coffee went flying. Dramatic reactions ran in the family. Twisting himself around in his seat, Tony yanked at his own seat belt as he stared at his daughter in disbelief.

“What?” she said innocently, straightening the collar of her white school shirt. “I don’t mean I’m not going ever. I’m going to travel first, that’s all. Just for a year, or maybe—”

“Don’t be so stupid!” Tony interrupted. “You’re doing no such thing.”

Anna felt her jaw tighten, defiance written all over her face. She knew her dad would never understand. She knew he wouldn’t want to let her go. This was exactly why she had avoided telling him in the first place. She sat silently.

Able to play the same game, Tony started driving again without another word, turned into the school en­ trance, and pulled into his parking space in the staff parking lot.

“At least no one will notice the jam stain now,” John whispered, pulling his coffee­covered sweater away from his body to take a better look at the damage. Anna unclipped her seat belt and jumped out of the car, crossed her arms, and leaned back against the door without a word.

John got out of the car more slowly, trying not to drip the coffee on the seats. “See you inside then,” he muttered in Anna’s general direction, nervously pulling on the straps of his backpack. “Thanks for the lift, Mr. Shepherd.”

Father and daughter gave him exactly the same look as he backed away. Even though Anna would hate him for even thinking it, sometimes she was her dad’s double. He was definitely better off out of this one.

“You know this is going to hold you back,” Tony said, running his hands through his already messy hair. He was trying so hard not to overreact, but sometimes she made it so difficult. “Where are you planning to go on this trip of yours?”

Anna folded her arms across her chest tighter and shook her head as her friends traipsed past, pretending not to notice them. “Australia first. The ticket’s open so I can figure it out as I go.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right, if it’s open, eh?” Tony replied, loading sarcasm into every word. “Think of all the beautiful places you could get mugged or killed!”

“Stop trying to run my life!” she shouted back. “You can’t tell me what I can and can’t do, I’m not a little girl anymore.”

“Then stop acting like one,” her dad said loudly, the features on his face pinching together into a picture of disappointment. He shook his head slowly. “If your mother could see you now.”

Anna breathed in sharply. Everything around her went quiet. It felt as though he’d punched her in the gut. “I can’t wait to get away from you,” she muttered, pushing past her father and heading into school before

he could see the massive tears welling in her eyes.

“Anna, wait!”

He wanted to take back the words the moment they were out of his mouth, but it was too late. She disappeared in the crowd, melting into a sea of school uniforms, and leaving him all alone.

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