It suddenly dawned on her that she would be spending the next five days by herself, snowed in, in a log cabin, high up in the mountains. Tara Murphy had been looking forward to this holiday with her husband, Gerry, all year. But at the last minute, Gerry's boss had begged him to forego his holiday in order to save the vital account that would keep their management company from going under.
Gerry had insisted that Tara should go on holiday without him. She had complained countless times but it had proved pointless. Gerry had urged her to telephone all her friends to see if anyone could accompany her on the trip, but at this late stage all her friends had made other arrangements. It was Christmas after all.
When she arrived yesterday the sun had been shining and the views had been spectacular. The cabin, which stood isolated on the highest peak around, was on the edge of a pine tree forest. But when she woke up this morning and looked out the window, everywhere was covered in snow and it was still falling, hard. This was not her idea of a wonderful Christmas.
"Come on, girl, we've got to make the best of things."
Luckily, Tara had stopped off at the supermarket on her way up to the cabin. The rental car's boot had been full of carrier bags laden with groceries that would see her through the next four days. Searching through the cupboards she pulled out a frying pan, took the eggs out of the fridge, broke them into a bowl and beat them with a fork.
After eating her omelette, she put on her coat and ventured outside. To the side of the cabin, under a wooden porch, was a good supply of timber that the owner had chopped up ready to use as firewood. She breathed a sigh of relief that the wood hadn't been left out in the elements. Carrying an armful of logs inside, Tara searched the area next to the wood-burning stove looking for the firelighters. Remembering how her grandfather used to build his open fires she placed firelighters, screwed up newspaper, and finally twiglets inside the stove before lighting it. Shortly after there was a roaring fire in the grate which added a source of comfort to the lounge area. Pulling up the easy chair she positioned it in front of the fire and sat for the next few hours reading her magazine. What else was there for her to do?
On the one hand she welcomed the peace and quiet. Tara led a hectic life, working long hours as an air hostess. Quite often she was away from home several days at a time on long haul flights, which was why, this time with her husband meant so much to her. But then as the day dragged by the peace and quiet became unbearable.
Several times while preparing her dinner, she thought she heard noises outside the cabin. Scared, she ran to the window but saw nothing.
That night she'd slept with her head buried below the ten layers of blankets, well, slept wasn't really the right word. She'd never felt so terrified or alone in her life before. At 6am she got up and cleaned out the fire and started a new one before making herself a bacon sandwich. When she went to retrieve more wood, she stood on the porch looking out at picturesque scenery that at any other time would have been something she cherished. But now, she shuddered at the feeling of isolation gripping her insides, it wasn’t long before resentment towards her husband took over.
She doubted if she would be feeling this way had she been isolated on a desert island in blistering heat, relaxing on a sandy beach. Being trapped in a snowstorm had never been high up on her list of priorities.
The hours dragged by and her mood deepened. This had to be the worst Christmas she'd ever spent. She gave herself a serious talking to and decided to make the best of her time alone. Hunting in the cupboards in the spare bedroom, she found a collection of puzzles. Sitting on the Aztec style rug in front of the fire, Tara emptied out the pieces of the 5000 piece round puzzle. This was new to her she'd never attempted this kind of puzzle before and relished the challenge.
Sometime during the evening, immediately after dinner, she heard a noise on the porch. Jumping to her feet, she ran into the kitchen and picked up the frying pan. Her heart pounded as she hid behind the front door. Fear tickled its way up her spine, she turned to look out the window but all she saw was darkness. A noise she couldn't distinguish sounded outside the front door. Her hand trembled as she held the frying pan above her head, ready to strike. When something scratched the door and flicked the latch Tara sucked in her breath. Her heart missed several beats. Oh my God! Do they have bears up in the Alps?
Then there was nothing.
Tara let out the breath she was holding in and returned to sit by the fire, crazy thoughts of escaped lunatics on the run racing through her mind. Don’t be daft, they’re hardly likely to come all the way up here, are they?
This was Christmas Eve what a way to spend it, scared witless and alone. Gerry would certainly have a lot of making up to do when she got home, if she got home!
After knocking up a chicken stir-fry with the trusty frying pan, Tara spent the evening reading by the fire, one ear cocked listening for her visitor to return. She was just about to go to bed at 9pm when she heard heavy footsteps on the porch outside.
Her first instinct was to scream but she soon realised she’d go unheard. Instead she flew into the kitchen to fetch the frying pan sitting on the draining board.
As if in slow motion she watched the latch go down on the door. Damn I forgot to lock the door when I fetched the wood for the fire.
The door eased open, the cold night air crept in along with the intruder. She was ready as usual with the frying pan held high above her head, unable to breath for fear of alerting the stranger of her whereabouts. She could tell her visitor was a male, but snow covered his coat and hair.
Suddenly, she yelled and charged, whacking the intruder over the head and shoulders nonstop until he fell to the floor.
She was just about to swipe him round the face when he called out her name. “Tara … what the hell …?”
Dropping to her knees and throwing her weapon aside, she took his face in her hands. A face she’d known and loved for the past ten years.
“My God, Gerry, what are you doing here?”
He looked dazed and in shock. “I came to spend Christmas with my gorgeous wife. I wasn’t expecting to get beaten up by her though.”
Tears of guilt and relief poured down her cheeks. “Oh, darling, I’m so sorry, I had no idea you were coming.”
“Merry Christmas, darling. I dread to think what you would’ve done if Santa had been your secret visitor.”
They laughed and shared a loving kiss. Maybe this wasn’t going to be a lonely Christmas after all.
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“I feel like such a jackass,” Stephen said. He glared at his best friend, willing his attention from some women across the bar.
“Dude, are we still talking about this?” his buddy said. He didn’t turn around.
A mix of pumping music, muffled conversations and clanking barware surrounded them at their corner table. “Yes!” Stephen nudged the table causing a mini tremor to roll across their beers.
“Joe, I’m trying to talk to you,” Stephen said.
Joe spun around and faced his long-time friend. “Look, man. You’ve got two choices. Either do it or make it work. What’s there to talk about?”
“I know. It’s just that Melissa is such a sweet girl.”
“Yeah and totally delusional.”
“I know. She has this whole Christmas thing planned. Wants me to meet her family and go to this huge dinner at her parents’ house.” Stephen shook his head and searched the crowd of flirtatious singles for an answer.
“All the more reason to break up now,” Joe said. He lifted his beer to a toast position. “Or, maybe you should wait until Christmas dinner and raise your glass to her family.” He took a quick sip. “Then declare your undying boredom with their daughter.”
“Don’t be a smart ass!”
“All I’m saying is that if you really don’t have it with her then cut her loose before she gets too attached.”
Stephen let out a deep breath. “That’s the problem. It’s too late. She thinks she’s in love with me.”
“Yeah, man. That’s always the problem with you.” Joe rolled his eyes and slapped a hand on Stephen’s shoulder. “I feel your pain.”
A woman in a sleek black dress passed in front of them hijacking Joe’s attention. Conversation over. Stephen knew Joe was right, anyway. It was time to man up and take care of a long-overdue situation. If he broke up with her now, at least she would have a few weeks to recoup before Christmas.
Stephen sat back in his chair and rehearsed in his mind the different ways to break the news to Melissa. In a trance, he rocked his chair back to stretch his long legs. At 6’2 it wasn’t always easy to find a comfortable sitting position. After a moment of perfect balance, his chair tipped too far back and he began the terrifying free fall. Then, before he could steady himself, a figure stood over his head as he lay back suspended in mid-air.
Stephen stared up at the woman holding the back of his chair. Wavy, dark hair hung around her face and past her low-cut black t-shirt. A glowing smile spread across her face as she flipped him back to a sitting position.
“Didn’t your mom ever tell you not to lean back in your chair?” Her voice came from behind him.
It wasn’t until she walked around to face him that he realized it was his waitress. Why hadn’t he noticed her angelic face before? She must have read embarrassment in his awkward smile because she reached over and touched his arm. Then she smiled again, broader this time and he spotted a tiny dimple on her left cheek.
“Yeah, nice one,” Joe said. He got up from the table shaking his head. “Two more, huh?” he asked Stephen. Even though he didn’t get a reply, he turned to the waitress. “Two more beers, please.” Then he walked off in the direction of the men’s room.
Stephen watched her watching Joe. What the hell was the matter with him? Had he turned mute? He couldn’t take his eyes off her, and when she looked back with her big brown eyes, all he could do was smile.
“So two more, then?” she said.
Adrenaline finally kicked in and his voice barely surfaced. “Uh, sure, thanks…” Panicked, he executed a quick scan of her chest for a name tag.
Just before she turned to leave he spotted it. Bingo! “Ali.”
Without turning around, she glanced over her shoulder. “Yeah?”
“Thanks…I mean for catching me.” He memorized her face as if it were the last time he would see it. The fact that she would be back in two minutes with their drinks had not even entered his brain.
Stephen read the first line of the press release for the fifth time. The final version was expected an hour ago, but he couldn’t get a handle on his day. Was it the two-hour break up with Melissa that had him off his game? Or the hour-long call the next day? When he thought about it, it was pure relief running over him. He knew it was the right choice. It was crazy, but he had never felt for Melissa the way he felt at the bar the other night for that split second he looked into Ali’s eyes. It was as though he had downed a pint of Jack Daniels, the heat flowing through him and taking over his body.
After she returned with the beers, they chatted briefly, but it was way too crowded to hold her attention. He considered asking for her number but hesitated and the moment was lost. Now he understood what people meant by the one that got away. That thought gnawed at him as his brain continued to replay the sound of her voice, her radiant smile ever present in his mind.
Stephen refocused his attention on the release and began to read it aloud. The technique often pointed out inconsistencies and errors, as well as showed the flow of the writing. When he finally made it to the second paragraph, his cell rang.
“Hey, man. What’s up?” Stephen said.
“Just wanted to see how it went with Melissa,” Joe said.
“It’s fine. I’ll give you all the details tonight, but I can’t talk right now. Gotta get a release out.”
“All right. Hey, stop by on your way home.”
“Actually…you want to meet at Gary’s?” Stephen asked. He cringed, waiting for the inevitable reply.
“On a Tuesday?” Joe said. Then he let out a breathy laugh. “You gotta be kidding me.”
“What? I just thought we’d get a beer.”
“On the slowest, most boring night there?” Joe paused. When Stephen didn’t offer a counter he continued. “You just want to go back and check out that hot waitress…Ali, right?”
“Look, I’m gonna say this once because we’re on the phone. But if you bring it up in front of me I’ll kick your ass.” Stephen gave one last thought to what he was about to say. “I felt a connection with her and I just want to see if it happens again.”
“A connection? Oh, yeah, I felt that too.”
“I don’t have time for this crap right now, Joe. Do you want to go or not?”
“Sure. Text me when you’re on your way, and I’ll meet you there.”
“All right. Later.”
Stephen couldn’t help but laugh at himself and Joe’s reaction. He obviously deserved crap for the comment, but he wanted Joe to know he was serious. Tonight he would get the confirmation he needed.
As Stephen trailed behind Joe walking toward the pub, his attention was drawn to the enormous Christmas tree that adorned the middle of the square. The lights had just come on and he marveled at the sparkling beauty looming in the distance. The cool night air settled him as he pondered what it would have been like to have that family Christmas with Melissa. As much as a traditional holiday seemed comforting, the perfection was in the company. It had been several years since he experienced any kind of Christmas at all. When his father re-married within a year of his mother’s death, Stephen couldn’t handle being around family. Christmas became a reminder of losing his mother and the betrayal of his father.
Joe pulled the door open and held it for his friend. “What are you doing?”
Standing a few feet away, Stephen was still entranced by the tree. “Nothing. Just a sec.” He took a few steps closer and stopped. Then he pulled out his cell phone. “I think I got a text,” he said, looking down at it.
“You’re afraid to go in there, aren’t you?”
“No, I thought my phone was vibrating.”
“Don’t be a chicken shit. You wanted to see if she likes you…oh, I mean if you still have a connection.” Joe smirked but quickly tried to bury it.
“What’d I tell you about that, man?” Stephen took a swift step in Joe’s direction, which was all that was necessary given his build looked to double Joe’s.
“Sorry. I’m just messin with you. Seriously though, come here.” He grabbed Stephen’s arm and leaned toward him as if looking behind his back.
Stephen yanked his arm away. “What are you doing?”
“I was looking for your purse! You’re starting to act like a chick. Now let’s go.”
Joe flung open the door and stepped in. As it slowly began to swing shut, Stephen gave it another shove and followed him inside.
At first, they both just stood huddled in the corner as if on a special mission. Stephen scanned the quiet scene. Then Joe thumped him across the chest. “Check it out,” he said, pointing across the room. Stephen followed his gaze to the opposite side of the room where Ali stood talking with another waitress.
“She seems upset,” Stephen said. Heading toward the bar, he didn’t take his eyes off Ali. He took a seat and then looked over to find Joe still standing off to the side. “Come on.”
“I wonder what they’re talking about,” Joe said as he sat down. He ordered beers for both of them.
Stephen turned his back to the bar and studied Ali’s expression. Now closer up, he could tell something was wrong. The woman she was talking to smiled with compassion and rubbed Ali’s arm. The two hugged and over the woman’s shoulder, Ali spotted Stephen staring at her. Her brow furrowed in confusion as she headed straight toward him.
Stephen’s heartbeat picked up the pace as he swung back around on his barstool. Seconds later, he felt a gentle tapping on his shoulder.
“Hey, aren’t you the guy from the other night?” she asked as he turned to face her.
Before he could open his mouth, Joe chimed in. “Yeah…the one that almost fell off his chair.”
Ali and Stephen both shot Joe an incensed look.
“Sorry, I’ve got to make a quick call,” Joe said. He held up his phone and displayed an apologetic smile. “Be right back.”
Her eyes were as perfect as he remembered but held a glistening sadness he hadn’t noticed before. Mere seconds of silence seemed like an eternity as Stephen struggled for some charming words to say. “Good to see you again.” He smiled, hoping to entice one in return.
“Yeah, you too. You know, I was just on my way out, but can I give you something.”
I’ll take anything you’ve got, was his first thought. But instead he went with, “Sure.”
She pulled a small paper from her apron that looked like an event flier. She handed it to him and with a sweet smile said, “Hope you can make it.”
Before he realized his mouth was still hanging open, she walked off. It wasn’t exactly how he imagined it, but the feeling was there. In her presence, he could barely breathe. Did she feel it too? The difference tonight was an unnerving feeling of sadness. He had to find out what was causing her pain. Somehow he sensed that he could help her.
“Chrissy, can you take Ali’s section?” He heard the bartender’s voice behind him.
Just hearing her name caused a stir in the depths of his gut.
“Sure,” a young woman said. She stood at the end of the bar holding a tray. When the bartender walked to the back, she rolled her eyes and waved another girl over. “She’s been here two weeks, and she just takes off in the middle of her shift.”
Stephen took a sip from his beer, pretending not to be listening.
“Chrissy, give her a break,” the other girl said. “I heard her husband’s dying or something. That’s why she had to leave.”
“Oh my God, sorry. I didn’t know.”
As the two girls walked off, Stephen glanced down at the flier still in his hand. It was a fundraiser and blood drive for a local hospital. His whole body sank and he felt sick to his stomach. Reaching for his beer, he wondered how he could have been so wrong. Was this whole thing so one-sided? He downed the rest of his beer, staring into the bar mirror in front of him. Something just wasn’t right.
“Promise me something,” he said. His face was drained of color but his eyes spoke to her.
“Anything,” Ali said.
“No matter what happens, I want to be home for Christmas.”
She smiled and nodded. “Of course, Harry.”
“I mean it. I wouldn’t be able to stand being in here. You know that.”
“And…when this thing’s all over…”
“Don’t—” Why did he continue to say things like that?
“Please, let me say this.” Harry placed a bony hand on hers as she sat on the edge of the bed.
“You know I hate it when you use that word. We don’t know anything for sure.” She gave him a scolding look accompanied by a sweet smile.
“When this is over, I’m hoping you’ll finally be able to move on with your life.”
She opened her mouth to speak but didn’t get anything out in time.
“All these years, you’ve wasted so much time being by my side,” he said.
“How can you say that? I love you.” She brushed a hand across his forehead. “Any amount of time with you…those are moments I treasure. Moments I’ll always treasure. Now c’mon. I don’t wanna hear any more of that talk. Let’s start making plans for Christmas. Should we have a party?”
Harry smiled and let out a chuckle that turned into a cough. Ali grabbed a glass of water from the side table and transferred it to his hand. He had to do it himself, but it was painful to watch his hand shake as he tilted the glass to drink. Better that than to dent his pride even further. Harry had been such a strong and capable man just a few years ago. “Thanks,” he said handing her the glass. “So, who do we have to invite to a party anyway?”
“I don’t know, we could ask Phil and Taylor.”
“Yeah, that would be a fun dinner. I just love it when Phil gets hammered and then tells me how much he’s going to miss me.”
She couldn’t help but laugh at that one. “Oh, yeah. Sorry I forgot about that. Well, we’ll figure out something. And, I’ll roast the turkey with the bacon on top so you can pick at it every time I open the oven.”
“That sounds perfect,” he said.
The two sat in silence for a few minutes as Ali rubbed Harry’s arm. When she saw his eyelids fighting to stay open, she stood up and looked over at him.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll see you later.”
“Why are we here?” Joe asked. He stood next to Stephen seated in a chair and shuffled his feet. “You said she was married, right?”
“So what, it’s for a good cause anyway. You didn’t have to come, you know.” Stephen continued to fill out the form he was given upon arrival.
“Oh, yeah? Did you forget what happened when we were juniors?”
Stephen had hoped that was long forgotten. “That’s was a fluke. I hadn’t eaten all day.”
“Why don’t you make yourself useful and go sign up too. I’m going to turn this in.” Stephen headed back to the table where he had picked up the paperwork. A small, white-haired woman took him back to a room and told him to have a seat in the comfy chair.
Attempting to distract himself, Stephen studied the posters on the wall. Two things couldn’t be allowed to creep into his consciousness. He was not chasing a married woman. Donating blood was a worthy cause, and that was the only reason he was there; and he could handle this, no problem. Look at that guy, he thought to himself. He stared up at a poster of a man with prosthetic legs crossing the finish line of a race. Perseverance, it stated at the bottom. All I have to do is have some blood sucked out of my arm.
The door opened and a bottom-heavy woman with a giant grin walked in. “We all set?” she asked.
When the woman pulled up a chair next to Stephen, he turned his eyes back to the poster.
“It’s okay, hon. I’m just taking your blood pressure.”
“Yeah, I know. Just thought…that’s a great message up there.”
“Sure is. Reminds me of Ali,” she said. “Now that one is persistent.”
His head snapped back, eyes glued to the woman.
“That’s why you’re here, right?” she asked.
“How’d you know?”
“Most of the people here usually come because of Harry and Ali.”
“Oh, really?” A little small talk was fine. He wasn’t trying to be nosy.
“Those two are like family round here. I think it makes Ali feel better to give back. Keep busy, ya know?’
“So…how is Harry doing?” Stephen asked.
“He’s a fighter, that one. Been real tough on Ali though, now that he’s back in the hospital.”
“I bet.” A prick in his arm startled him and he drew in a breath. He had been so distracted trying to find out about Ali, he hadn’t even noticed that she had prepared his arm for the draw. This would be a piece of cake. Is it getting darker in here?
“She’s an angel, that one,” the woman said. “All the time she spends helping others even with Harry not working and all. But, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how she—”
“You’re an angel,” the man whispered.
Ali looked down on the tall, dark-haired man who was just coming to. After a few blinks of his deep blue eyes, he tried to focus in on her. “Hey,” she whispered back. “You feeling okay?”
“What?” He crinkled his brow like a little boy trying to get the math right. “What happened?”
“It’s okay, you just passed out. No worries. It happens all the time here. Do you remember me? I’m Ali from Gary’s Bar.”
“Yeah, of course I remember you.” When he reached for the side of the chair to pull himself more upright, he grabbed hold of her arm instead.
Ali felt a surge of heat travel up her arm and land right on her face. “Well…I just wanted to make sure, since you just called me an angel.” A smirk spread across her face as she caught his reaction.
“Shit, are you serious?” He eased himself up further and leaned his elbows on his knees. Each time she had seen him he was seated, but it was easy to see that he was tall and solid. “You must think I’m a complete loser.”
“Yeah, sure. I mean any guy that comes and gives blood for total strangers has to be a jerk right?”
“Well, I didn’t say jerk,” he said.
“Then, what shall I call you?”
“Oh, sorry. I’m Stephen.” He stood and reached out to shake her hand.
His touch felt familiar. Life had been so different the past few years, becoming almost routine if that was possible. There was no room for connections or meeting new people. Even in her volunteer work, she was all business. This felt like anything but business. Something stirred inside her, making her come to life. “Listen, Stephen. This actually happens more than you know. Why don’t we go get you something to drink, maybe a snack? There’s a little coffee shop just down the hall.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to take you away.” His pleading eyes contradicted his words.
She felt locked in his sights for a few seconds, not being able to speak or turn away. Then, when she saw him take a step toward her, she shifted her gaze from him. “It’s the least I can do for getting you into this mess.” Ali convinced herself that this was the right thing; that this guy with the rugged good looks, who seemed to keep popping into her life had no effect on her. This was simply a friendly gesture. “Besides it’s winding down now. They can handle it.”
“Here you go.” Ali set down a muffin and a glass of orange juice in front of Stephen.
“Thank you. But you didn’t have to serve me ya know.” He didn’t hide his embarrassed smile. He enjoyed the attention. “Don’t you do enough of that at the bar?”
“Yeah, but I actually like it sometimes.” She shrugged and a little grin developed across her face. “It’s kind of nice being around people that are happy and having a good time.”
It dawned on Stephen what she was referring to. “I’m sure it is. The nurse that was taking my blood told me about Harry.”
“Oh…she’s a sweetheart.”
“She said the same thing about you. Actually she called you an angel…” he trailed off, hoping she got the hint.
“Ohhhh,” she said, giving a slow motion nod. “So that’s why you called me that.” A giggle escaped and she caught herself.
“From what I can see, she’s right,” Stephen said. “But, when you’re all things to all people, it’s kind of tough to be there for yourself.” He studied her expression and hoped she might open up about her life.
“I’m all right,” she said. She lifted a sugar packet out of the holder, then slid it back in as if going through files.
“Yeah? So when do you get to have fun?” Stephen tilted his head trying to regain her attention.
“Well, fun’s not exactly on the top of my to-do list these days.” She pushed the sugar packets aside and put on a brave smile.
Stephen debated what to say next. His desire to do something could cause him to regret his words. How could he make her see he wanted to help her without sounding too pushy? Even though they had seen each other only a few times, the connection was magnetic. She had to feel it too. Before he could say anything, he heard her suck in a huge breath.
“Oh my gosh! I can’t believe this,” she said.
“I have to be at work in less than an hour. By the time I grab the bus, get home for my uniform then bus it back over there, I’ll be late.” Ali rose from the table with a sense of urgency. “Sorry to cut this short, but I’ve got to run. Thanks so much for coming.” She turned to walk away.
“Wait!” Stephen stood up abruptly almost knocking over his chair. “Let me give you a ride?”
“No…I already feel bad enough. I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You’re not asking. I’m offering. Please, let me do this. I’ll wait in the car while you get your stuff, and we’ll be on our way.”
The car felt like a long elevator ride without the awkwardness. A feeling of comfort swept over Stephen and he relaxed, enjoying the closeness. He felt her eyes on him a few times as he drove.
The house was only a fifteen-minute drive from the hospital. As promised, Stephen waited in the car while she ran in. He checked his messages and replayed waking to the sight of her face. Her smiles evoked such a range of emotions that it baffled him. On the one hand, her face was like a beautiful bright light that you couldn’t turn away from. But the eyes; there was a hidden sadness that made Stephen want to take her into his arms. He wanted so badly to will that pain from her. He wasn’t sure how he would make it happen, but somehow he would give Ali some happiness. Whether her heart was spoken for or not, she deserved it.
A text alert pulled him from his trance just as Ali hopped back in the car. He burst out laughing as he read it.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“My friend Joe is still at the hospital. He wants to know where the hell I am?”
As days went on and Christmas drew nearer, Stephen became more desperate to spend time with Ali. He struggled to define his feelings and wondered if the loneliness that the holidays brought was the real reason for wanting some companionship. He decided to take some time, trying not to think of her and staying away from Gary’s. It was like trying to tell a child not to think about the summer vacation just days before. Stephen was getting anxious, and one day after work he found himself driving to the bar on the way home.
He had worked late that night, so if she was working, she should already be there. When he stepped inside, the music was pumping. It was karaoke night which tended to bring in a rowdier crowd. After a couple of laps around the place, it was clear she wasn’t there, so he parked himself at the bar and ordered a beer.
As he sat, Stephen ignored the buzzing in his pocket. If it was Joe, he didn’t want to hear how pathetic he was for staking out the bar. What if it was work? He had mentioned to the receptionist he might stop off at Gary’s on the way home. Things were pretty hectic around there lately, but at this point he didn’t want to think about work either. He had done way too much of that lately. Like many people do at this time of year, he had buried himself in work to avoid the holidays.
Stephen downed another beer. He considered asking the bartender when Ali’s next shift was, but decided against it. Then he heard a loud outburst from a table behind him. He turned and saw two men and a woman drinking and talking. They had obviously been there a while.
One of the men stood up and yelled, “There she is! Where ya been, honey?”
Stephen followed the man’s gaze to the entrance of the bar, and walking toward the group was Ali. Instinctively he smiled as if she had smiled at him first; but Ali hadn’t seen Stephen and was focused on the man that just yelled to her. Only, her expression was not that of greeting friends.
Ali squeezed out a grin and nodded but continued to walk past the man.
“Hey,” he said, grabbing her arm. “We’ve been waiting for you, girl.” Lanky and sporting a crew cut, the guy looked like he just got off a shift, pumping gas.
“I’m not working today.” Her voice was calm but determined. She pulled her arm from his grip. “I just came in—”
“Good!” the man cut in. He jumped in front of her blocking Stephen’s view of Ali. “Sit down and have a drink with us.”
Stephen’s face fueled with rage. He stood and hesitated for a second, but not being able to see her face, to see if she was afraid, was too much to handle. He commanded long strides toward the two and stopped inches from the man. “Move it!” he said to the back of the guy’s head.
“What the— ” He turned and eyed Stephen. “Mind your own damn business, ass wipe!”
Ali stepped back and to the side. Their eyes met for a brief moment before his shot back at his enemy. In those few seconds, they had read each other’s mind. His look asked, Are you okay? While hers seemed to say, yes, thank you.
“I’ll tell you what,” Stephen said without blinking. “I’m gonna let you walk back to your friends with some of your dignity left.” From the smell of the guy’s breath and the obvious poundage he had on him, Stephen knew it would be an easy take-down if necessary.
The guy shot out a gravelly laugh. “Whatever, man.” He slowly turned toward his friends, but then snapped back with a swinging fist right toward Stephen’s head.
Stephen caught his fist before it connected, swung the guy around with his own arm, wrenching it behind his back and then railroaded him toward the table of friends. In an instant, the man was bent over, face down in a plate of nachos.
“What the hell, man?” the other guy shouted. He and the woman jumped up from the table.
Stephen leaned over, ignoring the friends and whispered in the drunk’s ear. “I’m gonna let go, and then you and your friends are outta here…okay?”
“Listen,” Stephen said. “We can end—” Before he could finish his sentence, Stephen felt a sudden slam against the side of his head. He turned to find the woman holding the other half of a beer bottle that had just shattered against his head. He reared up, letting go of the man.
“Tommy! Get out here,” Ali shouted. She rushed toward the bar. A man with long dark hair was already heading toward her.
“Every one of you, get your asses out of here before I call the cops!” he said. He held up his cell phone in warning. The drunken guy used his shirt to wipe the hot wing sauce from his face.
“Stephen, oh my God! Are you okay?” The voice came from behind him, and he felt someone grab his arm. Melissa reached up and locked her arms around his neck. He wasn’t bleeding, but a read welt appeared on the right side of his forehead. “I’ve been looking all over for you. I’m so glad I found you.”
Stephen watched Ali over Melissa’s shoulder. She was still standing next to the manager, but her eyes locked in on him. She watched as Melissa poured her drama over him. “I’m fine,” he said. Then he took her hands from around his neck.
“Let’s go. Now!” Tommy said.
“C’mon, Stephen,” Melissa said. “Let’s get you home and put some ice on that."
The two crept back from the group and left the bar. Outside, he convinced Melissa he was fine and didn’t need her to accompany him home. She told him she had been worried that he didn’t return her calls and wanted to make sure he was doing all right especially so close to Christmas.
After the two said their goodbyes, Stephen sat in his car staring out the windshield. What had he read in Ali’s eyes when Melissa arrived? It wasn’t worry or fear or even guilt for what happened. She looked hurt. How could that be? Was he projecting his own feelings on her, or could she really have been jealous to see him with Melissa?
Ali headed up Third Street, hoping her directions were accurate. Her toes were already starting to feel numb as she crunched them up in her black boots. Though she was having second thoughts, she pressed on. Face to face was what was needed here, and she wouldn’t mind seeing his face again. Up ahead, she saw the building and picked up her pace.
Once inside, she paused in the lobby to admire the holiday decorations. Along with a beautifully decorated tree, there were lights strung all along the windows and red velvet covers draped over the counters. She sighed when she thought of her own home and how un-Christmassy it was at the moment. She promised Harry he would be home for Christmas, but what was the point if he didn’t have a traditional festive atmosphere. That’s what he loved most.
Ali reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded up piece of paper. After a quick glance, she hopped in the elevator. Was she about to make a total fool of herself? As each floor passed, her heart rate increased. Maybe this was a mistake, she thought as the door dinged and slid open. Unable to summon the courage, she reached for the button to close the door, but a woman stuck her hand against the door, so it popped back open. She held it there as three other people entered the elevator, the last one being Stephen.
When their eyes met, she froze, mortified.
“Hey,” Stephen said. His face lit up in delight and surprise.
“Hi,” she said. The awkward elevator cliché was bad enough, but this was even worse. What would she say now? For a few seconds they both just stared and smiled.
“Were you coming to see me?” His voice was low.
“Yeah, actually. Just wanted to talk to you for a sec.” She glanced at the others to see if they were listening.
The elevator doors opened and they all stepped out. While the three walked toward the exit, Stephen stepped to the side. “Tracey, I’ll be right there.” The woman that had held the elevator door turned and gave a head nod.
Ali and Stephen moved over to a corner and stood next to a palm tree decorated with lights.
“I just wanted to come by to tell you I’m sorry about what happened.” Stephen smiled, and she continued before he could respond. “Actually…I guess I really wanted to say thank you.”
“That guy was an ass. Do you know him?”
“Not really. He’s kind of a regular though. Guess that stuff just comes with the territory. I’ll get used to it.”
Stephen sighed. “You shouldn’t have to.” He looked past Ali to his co-workers to make sure they were still there. One of them pointed to his watch, but Stephen ignored him.
“So how’s your head?” Ali resisted the urge to touch him in that very spot.
“It’s—” Stephen’s attention was pulled away by the same guy pointing to his watch. He was mouthing Let’s go. “It’s fine. Listen, I’m late for a lunch meeting, but maybe we could get together later and finish this conversation?”
“Oh sorry, I can’t. Big day today. Later this afternoon I’m going to get Harry discharged and then bring him home for Christmas. Gosh, I haven’t even picked up a tree yet. So much to do…”
“That’s great news. I’m sure you’re very excited to get him back.” Stephen took a few steps toward the door, guiding her to do the same. Just before they reached the others, he stopped again. “Ali, I’m not sure why I’m telling you this. But, I just wanted you to know…that girl that showed up last night. That was my ex-girlfriend. She was just worried about me.”
“Oh, uh, that was nice of her.” Ali couldn’t help a smile from taking over her face, hoping she didn’t look like an idiot. “Well, good luck with your meeting.” Heading toward the door, she looked back one last time to see if he was watching her leave.
Stephen smiled and waved and then shouted, “Ali…I’m happy you’re able to bring Harry home and Merry Christmas.”
“I hope it will be,” she said to herself as she walked out the door.
Stephen leaned against his car and gazed up at his work in pride. He couldn’t have done it without Joe’s help, and now he smiled at how much the two of them had experienced together. As he breathed heavily, a mist formed beyond his lips. It would have been smart to wait inside the car, but the cold wasn’t penetrating him, and he couldn’t sit down. A mix of emotions swarmed his body and mind: excitement, anxiety, fear, longing. Whatever was happening to him, there was no turning back now. It was done and Ali was sure to arrive any time.
Twenty minutes later and a car finally pulled into the driveway. Ali was driving and a man with sandy-colored hair was in the passenger seat. Stephen’s heart raced as he followed the car up the driveway and waited for Ali to get out.
The first thing he saw was her expression: lit up like a gorgeous Christmas tree. She gaped at the house before her as she opened her door. “Oh my God, Stephen. Did you do all this?” Her mouth hung open, her eyes glistened.
“I had a little help.” Stephen’s smiled stretched the entire length of his face as he scanned across the fully decorated front. Not only were they able to cover the whole house with lights, but also included the huge tree on the front grass and the surrounding shrubbery. A freshly cut Christmas tree leaned up against the garage.
Ali shut the door and took a step toward Stephen. The man in the front seat opened his door and stood, leaning on the open door.
“But…I don’t understand,” she said. “Why did you do all this?”
Stephen paused searching for the answer - the best answer. He couldn’t be totally honest. The reality was that in his heart he just wanted to make her happy. If that meant providing a nice Christmas for her and Harry, then that’s what he needed to do.
“Isn’t it obvious?” the other man said.
The three waited out an uncomfortable silence before the man spoke again. “He’s obviously one of those do-gooder types.” He flashed a tiny wry smile and reached his hand out to Stephen. “Hi, I’m Harry.”
“Great to meet you. I’m Stephen.” He had a genuine smile, noticing that Harry provided the same for him. Strangely, there didn’t seem to be any suspicion or animosity lurking.
“I figured,” Harry said. He struggled to close his door before Ali noticed and ran over.
“Oh my gosh, Harry. I’m sorry. Let’s get you out of this cold.”
Stephen followed and the two guided Harry up the walk to the front door. “I’ll come back for the tree,” Stephen said.
“This looks awesome, man! I can’t thank you enough,” Harry said.
Inside, they got Harry into a chair and Ali pushed a foot stool over to him.
“I think this calls for a toast,” she said. “You two get acquainted, and I’ll go get some wine.” Ali walked across a small carpeted area and around a corner.
Acquainted? Stephen was stunned. He hadn’t thought that far into his little plan. What the heck were they supposed to talk about?
“So,” Harry said. He nodded at Stephen. “This must be kind of awkward for you, huh?”
Crap! He didn’t expect to be instantly put on the spot and couldn’t think of a thing to say except, “Uh…”
“I mean who wants to sit around at Christmas time with some strange guy that’s dying, right?”
“Oh!” Stephen let out a breath that sounded a bit too close to a laugh. “I mean, no. I just—”
“Hey, don’t sweat it. But, I am going to give you a warning about Ali.”
Here it comes. Stephen braced himself for the inevitable threats to back off.
“I love Ali, with all my heart. She’s sacrificed everything to care for me over the last few years.”
“All I’m saying is that when I’m gone you better treat my sister right.”
In an instant, Stephen’s throat became constricted and he struggled to breathe. He didn’t just hear what he thought he heard. He held up a finger and shook his head. “What…what, what did you just call her?”
“My sister, man. Don’t hurt my sister.” He must have noticed the stunned look on Stephen’s face because he began to laugh. “Shit! You didn’t think…?”
Stephen grinned and chuckled, shook his head again and stood up.
“You did, didn’t you? Now that’s funny.” Harry laughed once again; this time harder and he began coughing.
Stephen went over to him. “Harry? You all right?” But Harry continued coughing. He pointed to the direction of the kitchen. Following the path that Ali took, Stephen ran toward the kitchen. “Ali, Harry’s choking,” he said as he entered.
Ali grabbed a glass of water and took off back to the living room, leaving Stephen floored and bracing himself against the counter. What the hell was he going to do now?
He stared at the back door and talked himself out of escaping. Then, he finished opening the wine and took a giant drink. Ali walked back in just as he finished the whole glass. The look on her face said it all.
Stephen finally got to see that glowing angelic smile, and though it was at his expense, he reveled in it.
“There were some girls…at Gary’s that day you ran out. They said your husband was dying?”
Ali took a few steps toward Stephen, their faces inches from each other. “I haven’t been working there long. Most of those little twits don’t even know me.”
“I feel like such an idiot,” he said. His eyes shot to the ceiling as he ran a hand through his hair.
“Are you kidding me? You did all this thinking you were doing it for me and my husband? Let’s just say you made a Christmas wish come true and leave it at that.” Then, she reached up and grabbed his face, pulling his head down to her. “Thank you, Stephen.”
A long and gentle kiss washed away all of his doubt, all of his embarrassment and uncertainty. For the first time, being around Ali felt perfect. It felt right.
Christmas day had been everything Harry wanted, and everything Stephen and Ali didn’t realize they had missed. The three enjoyed a long afternoon of eating, listening to music and getting to know each other. Harry couldn’t resist a few more digs about Stephen thinking he was Ali’s husband. A few times he referred to her as the old ball and chain or his better half. Stephen laughed at the stories of Ali as a child and felt a pang of sadness watching brother and sister relive memories for the last time. It made him cherish his own family memories even more. That night he called his father to wish him a Merry Christmas.
Harry died two days after Christmas and was buried on New Year’s Day. Ali said that Harry probably hung on to make sure she was taken care of, and Stephen vowed to keep his promise to do just that.
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