First Christmas--Day

From the Story Arc: Cold Front

Previous Story in the Arc: First Christmas--Eve by Dr. Bella Dawn Parker (Monday, December 18, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Notes from Paradise by Soviet Bear (Monday, December 18, 2006)

(posted Monday, December 18, 2006)

This empty space
Innocent words that were softly spoken
Now I am lost in a world of broken dreams

Bella’s feet hurt after waiting tables for the last five hours, but she didn’t mind. It was worth it to see the eyes of the kids light up when she brought them a little, brightly wrapped box with their plate of turkey and dressing. It was worth it to see the smiles on the faces of people who hadn’t expected to get a meal today, much less a good Christmas dinner. It was worth it when old Missus Dales and her friends paused in their cooking and serving long enough to touch her hand or give her a squeeze around the shoulders.

There was a long line at the CCCP soup kitchen this Christmas Day, and it wasn’t just the usual street people. It had been a hard year for King’s Row; there were a lot of families here. Well, Bella had taken some precautions, and those big, new ovens were on their fourth round of turkeys before the line at last shortened. By the time it got down to nothing, that final round of turkeys were about half dismembered. Darkness was falling over the streets outside by the time the last plate was collected, the last old fellow shuffled out the door, stuffed to his eyebrows. There were leftovers, but that was planned for too. Meals On Wheels rolled up and helped Missus Dales and Bella portion everything out into aluminum trays, seal them up and load them into the racks in their vans. More people would have homemade Christmas dinners tonight. And the turkey carcasses and leftover veggies were thriftily stewing away in the big stock-pots to be turned into turkey soup.

“Well!” the elderly black woman said, as they loaded the last of the pans into the huge dishwasher and shut the door. “That was truly quite a crowd! You reds done good, girl.”

“We try, Missus Dales,” Bella murmured. “And we couldn’t have done it without you and your ladies.”

The old woman just chuckled, as she pulled on her coat and picked up her pocketbook, and took the arm of her escort home, Crimson Tao. “Just see that you remember that, and keep those Clockworks off my roof!”

Bella waved goodbye at the door, and turned to go down to the basement. There in his room, as usual, was Chug. He looked up. “Youz need Chug?”

“Kind of,” she said, holding out both hands. “Bella wants to show you something.”

Chug put down the crayons he was using and got obediently to his feet. Bella led him down the basement hall, past storerooms full of the junk Petro and Zakat were always dragging home. “Do you remember about Christmas, Chuggie?” she asked. “Or…Father Frost? Back at home?” She never knew exactly what Chug would remember from his old life.

His craggy brow furrowed. “Snow,” he said hesitantly. “Pretty lightz. Presentz!” His stomach rumbled. “Cookiez!”

With a flourish, she flung open a storeroom door. “Merry Christmas Chuggie. This is all for you.”

Chug’s eyes lit up and he gave a crow of joy. Bella had painstakingly decorated a tree with edibles—cookies, popcorn balls, strings of popcorn and cranberries—knowing Chug would probably eat tree and all. It glittered with icicles of spun sugar in the lights she had set up. Under the tree was a stuffed bear as big as Chug was, and brightly wrapped boxes that held more toys. The good set of crayons, the one with all the colors, and a big stack of Chug’s favorite paper, nice stiff stuff that didn’t tear when he colored too hard. Enough blocks to build a castle. Sturdy metal trucks that should survive at least a few sessions of play before he ate them. And a very peculiar set of “action figures” that Petro had made from Clockwork parts. Chug spent the better part of two hours carefully unwrapping presents, carefully eating the wrappings, carefully examining the toys and playing with each one before going onto the next. And yes, eating the tree. And being blissfully happy.

When the last piece of popcorn and ribbon were eaten, Bella helped him gather up his new toys and take them to his room. There she left him crooning some story about Mister Tree and Mister Squirrel to his new bear, while illustrating it at the same time.

A lonely place
Promises made and a love forsaken
No turning back on the road you’ve taken now

Then, she walked to the tram, rather than flying, and walked from the station to her apartment. She’d gotten into this habit, now…partly because when you were walking it was easier to stop and wait while vision gone blurry with tears cleared when something triggered a memory. Partly because she had never walked home when Zach…she’d always rushed home, flying as fast as she could, to beat him home, or because he would be waiting.

And there just was no reason to rush home anymore.

”Are you sure you don’t want to come home for at least Christmas Day?”

“I’m sure, Mom. I need to fill in. My comrades need a break. It’s been a rough year.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine.”

The truth was…if she went home, she knew it would be a disaster. They would try to take care of her. Mom would try and make everything cheerful and bright and festive…try and make her smile.

And she knew what would happen. She’d look across the dinner table at them, and remember last year, with Zach sitting next to Dad…she’d open presents she really didn’t want and try to pretend they were wonderful and remember how Zach’s smile had just made her heart sing when he’d realized that he was part of her family…and she would break down and ruin it for all of them. Because then they would remember last Christmas too, and the whole holiday would turn into a morass of grief for all of them.

She’d had them change all the furniture around, so her rooms would seem less empty without Zach. But the couch had had to go, and she’d gotten them to buy and bring in a new one before she came back to the place…more, in an odd way, than the bed, it held too many memories of him that would make her lose control every time she looked at it. And besides, she had to have another place to sleep, narrow enough that when the bed seemed too big and lonely, she could curl up and doze. This new couch was cushy enough, soft enough, long enough to serve that purpose.

Days of yearning
Seasons turning
A night in December
I’ll always remember

She unlocked the apartment door, turned on a couple of low lights; there was nothing here to say it was Christmas. Not like last year. Not like any year, really. She didn’t want any reminders of Christmas at all, which pretty much let out the TV and radio to fill the silence. So she put on the opera DVD she had left in the stereo, and sat down at the computer as she always did, writing her daily email to Zach.

Hey sweetie. Today was the big soup kitchen Christmas dinner, and we did good. Missus Dales turns out to make as good a roast turkey as she does fried chicken, would you believe it? And sweet potato pie to die for. We made a lot of people happy today, I think. At least, they looked happy when we rolled them out the door. And I wrote you about what I’d planned for Chug, and added all the things you suggested, well, Chuggie loved his Christmas room and all his new toys. He ate the tree, down to the last needle. You would have laughed so hard.

Oh baby, I missed you so much there today, and I know I wasn’t the only one. People kind of kept looking past me, like they were looking for you, and remembering at the last minute you weren’t going to be there.

Sera keeps wanting to show me that place, the Heart of All Time…and maybe you. I dunno. I’m not sure you’re sticking around, actually. I mean, you were always one for chasing what came next, never looking back. And…I’m not sure you want me looking for you…the truth is, I’m afraid. I’m afraid, every day, that I’ll just wake up in a hole I can’t get out of, and all I’ll want to do is just lie there until I join you. Seeing you again, even…wherever you are now…I’m so afraid I would lose the will to stay here.

It’s hard, baby, knowing you aren’t coming back through our door again. It’s so hard. Last night I must have laid there for hours, staring a hole in the ceiling, just like most nights, really. I think I kind of passed out for an hour or two, and when I woke up, nothing seemed worth getting up for. Every day is like that, to be honest. I either can’t sleep, or I sleep and dream about you, mostly nightmares. I wake up and wish I could just lie there and not have to do anything, because nothing seems worth doing anymore. And then I remember why I don’t want to have to get up, and the pain starts all over again.

But I’m trying. I’m being strong, or at least I’m giving a good imitation. I try not to let anyone know how hard it is to keep going without you, even when it hurts so much inside that all I want to do is give up. I won’t give up. I’ll take care of them for you.

I know for sure that is something you want.

I love you. So much.

She hit send and it went off to Zach’s email box. She didn’t know what happened to those daily emails when they got there, and she didn’t want to know. At least this felt a little like talking to him. She shut down the computer, and got ready for bed.

Without a trace
Feeling the past slipping through my fingers
Here in my heart where the memory lingers on

Last of all, she went to the spare closet, and took out one of a couple dozen sealed plastic bags. She’d been saving this one for tonight…

Days of yearning
Seasons turning
A night in December
I’ll always remember

She opened it carefully, took out the soft, flannel shirt, and the scent that said Zach wreathed around her like a caress as she buried her face in the folds. Part the aftershave he liked, part leather, part something all his own…she wrapped it around a pillow, got into bed, and turned out the lights. Holding the shirt-wrapped pillow close in the dark, as slow tears fell, she clutched it to her until at last, she fell asleep with the scent of him filling her dreams.

The empty space

((Lyrics: “This Empty Space,” Miriam Stockley))