Dec 30, 2016
As usual, it's in plain text below, and downloadable in prettier formats.
Under the Tree
by Tim Pratt
Gabe opened his eyes to a dazzle of lights: twinkling red and blue and amber, nestled in green branches, the sharp scent of pine filling his nose. The floor under him was uncomfortable, and there seemed to be a sharp-edged something digging into his side. He yanked the obstruction out and discovered a rectangle wrapped in paper decorated with candy canes. Had he gotten drunk and fallen asleep at a holiday party and ended up under a tree? God, it was freezing—wait. He was naked.
The last thing he remembered was going to a New Year’s Eve party hosted by some friend of Ivy’s, but there hadn’t been a Christmas tree there... maybe they’d moved on to another party and he’d gotten uncharacteristically blitzed? So blitzed he’d taken his clothes off and fallen asleep on the floor? Ivy would have at least thrown a blanket over him. She was good like that.
He didn’t feel hungover, just cold. Shouldn’t blackouts be followed by hangovers? He’d never blacked out before, so maybe not. Maybe you blackout-ed right through the hangover. Convenient.
Gabe rolled out from under the tree, causing a minor shower of needles, and peered around blearily. It was dark in this cozy living room, apart from the tree. The clock on the wall read 12:02. Had he slept the whole way through New Year’s Day? Under some random tree? With no clothes on? He moved to the couch, unfolding a fuzzy blanket with blue stripes and wrapping it around himself. He searched around the living room and didn’t find his clothes, or his phone. Ughhhhh. With a little effort he fashioned the blanket into a half-assed toga and went into the kitchen. He stared at the stove, frowning. There was an elaborate red teapot there, its spout curved like something out of Doctor Seuss. He’d only ever seen one teapot like that, in Ivy’s apartment. The refrigerator had magnets he recognized from her place, too—she always bought a new one as a souvenir, anytime she went somewhere new—along with a couple he didn’t. There was a photo of Ivy and himself, tucked under one magnet, from their trip to the mountains last year, both of them smiling and windblown at a scenic overlook that hadn’t quite been worth the hike up.
He was suddenly seized with shivers, and stood in the strange kitchen trembling, confused, and frightened in a way he couldn’t quite articulate.
A door creaked and someone walked in from the hallway. He stared, and she stared back. “Ivy?” he croaked. “What happened to your hair?” It had been almost down to her waist yesterday, and now it was short, a pixieish bob that set off her high cheekbones and pointy chin.
“What. No. What.” She walked toward him, slowly, like he might be contagious, or feral. “Are you... Gabe?”
“Where are we?” He looked around. “Where are my clothes?”
“It worked.” She touched his face. “The Christmas miracle.” She suddenly burst into sobs, in that zero-to-sixty way she had, like a dam had broken and loosed a torrent. She clutched at him, and he hugged her back, bewildered but trying to give comfort. “You’re alive,” she whispered. “You’re alive again.”
“Wait,” Gabe said. “What do you mean again?”
It had been almost a year, and though Ivy hadn’t yet gone a whole day without thinking about Gabe, there were sometimes several waking hours when she didn’t. There was no way she’d be able to brave a New Year’s Eve party this year—probably never again—but the office holiday party two days before Christmas was unavoidable. She did the books for an architectural firm—a small enough concern that her absence would have been noted. She put on a red velvet dress and made an appearance, sticking to the edges and corners, and her kind-hearted boss eventually sent Ivy home with a bag full of Christmas cookies his wife had made.
She walked along the gray pavements toward the train station, sliding into the icy pit of memories of last winter, when she heard a terrible wracking cough and stopped short. She’d been so preoccupied, she’d almost tripped over a homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk. She was wrapped in a dirty blanket printed with images of Christmas trees, her long red hair wild and snarled. Ivy had lived in the city for years, but there was enough small-town-girl in her that she had trouble looking past suffering, especially when it was cold and damp out. “Are you okay?” she asked.
The woman looked up at her, and Ivy was surprised to realize she was only in her forties at most, and pretty; then she felt ashamed for assuming the woman would be old and homely, and ashamed again for putting so much stock in appearance anyway. Her mother said “pretty is as pretty does” but society put a bit more emphasis on the external, ad Ivy was still working on that. “I’m all right,” the woman said. “Just one of those cold and hungry sorts of nights. Thanks for asking.”
“Would you like some cookies?”
“Mmm, maybe. What kind?”
Ivy opened the gift bag and offered one. “Butter cookies with peppermint, see?” There was a circle of red-and-white peppermint pressed into the top of the cookie.
The woman reached up and took the cookie, turning it over. “Red and white on top, plain on the bottom. Two sides, just like me. You’ve got the Christmas spirit, eh? How about we flip for it?” The woman flipped the cookie like it was a coin, and it spun a couple of times and landed on the sidewalk, peppermint side up. The woman beamed at Ivy. “You got the fairy godmother instead of the bad fairy. That’s nice. I’m feeling festive. You just won yourself a Christmas miracle. What would you have, if you could have anything?”
Ivy smiled uncertainly. “Peace on Earth?”
The woman seemed to take it seriously. “I could do it, but since you got fairy godmother, I should tell you, the only way would be to knock everybody unconscious, or give them the brains of a sweet potato. Even then, I could only manage it for a few hours. The bigger the magic, the shorter the duration. That’s just the law of conservation of whatever. You don’t want something more personal?”
“No, I’m fine—”
“Don’t leave a wish unwished.” The woman’s voice was firm and sure. “A loose Christmas miracle? All that potential energy? Something awful could happen. Come on. If you could have anything. What would it be?”
For reasons Ivy couldn’t understand—something about the woman’s eyes, so clear, so cold—she spoke the truth: “I wish Gabe was still alive. My boyfriend. He was killed by a drunk driver last New Year’s Eve. I miss him so much.”
“Pretty big,” the woman said. “But not too big. Benefits from certain seasonal resonances. The return of the light, Sol Invictus, like that. More appropriate for an Easter miracle, maybe, but we’ll make do.” The woman stood up, stepping on the cookie without appearing to notice. “Thanks for the kindness. Enjoy your gift.” The woman walked away, with no indication of illness or decrepitude, letting her blanket drop off her shoulders onto the pavement as she went.
Ivy put the exchange out of her head—just one of those surreal city interactions—and didn’t think of it again. Until two days later, when the clock struck twelve and Christmas Eve became Christmas, and wishes came true.
Gabe didn’t believe her. He couldn’t believe her, any more than he could believe he could fly, or turn invisible, or shoot fireballs out of his eyes. He kept not believing her when she showed him the date, and year, on her phone; when she pointed out that she lived in a different apartment, moving over the summer because the old one had too many memories; when she showed him the obituary, and the memorial pages his social media presence had become. He only gave in and believed her when she played a voicemail she’d saved from Gabe’s own mother. Hearing his mom’s voice crack when she said she loved Ivy “like the daughter you’ll never get to be, now,” broke through the hard shell of impossibility and spiked his heart.
Ivy brought him his robe—she’d kept it, and a couple of his t-shirts, to remember him by, she said. He wondered if she’d slept in them. He wondered when she’d stopped sleeping in them.
“This isn’t possible,” he said.
“It’s a miracle.” She climbed onto him, and kissed him, and he responded, but then suddenly she pulled back. “Wait. No. You’re right. This isn’t... you can’t be. You can’t be. Who are you?”
She jumped off him and took two steps back, staring at him like he was something dangerous, and a chasm of ice yawned inside him. “It’s me, lambsy.” On one of their early dates he’d gotten tipsy and sang “Mairzy Doats” at her, because of the line about ivy, and “lambsy” had stuck as a pet name. “I’m... look. I still have that scar on my thigh where my brother stabbed me with a fork when I was ten.” He twitched the robe aside to show her. She kept shaking her head, and he thought desperately. “I... Remember how you told me you stole your little sister’s favorite Barbie doll and threw it in your neighbor’s pond when you were nine, because she got the biggest piece of your birthday cake? You said you never told anyone else that, not even your therapist, right?” The energy suddenly went out of him, and he slumped. “It’s me, Ivy. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know how to prove it. All I know is I love you.”
She came back to him, took his hand, held it. “You’re you.” She sounded like she was convincing herself. “My Christmas miracle.” She took his hand, and took him to bed, and made him feel alive again.
A couple of her girlfriends were supposed to visit for Christmas brunch and exchanging gifts, but she texted them lies about a horrible bout of food poisoning, and sent similar texts to her family so they wouldn’t want to spend hours on the phone with her. They were very concerned about her mental health as the anniversary of Gabe’s death approached. They’d tried to get her to come home, but she’d declined, saying she couldn’t handle a giant southern family Christmas—not yet.
She and Gabe spent the day in bed, pretty much, doing what you’d expect, but also talking. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Leaving that party, heading to the car, then... nothing. It’s like I blacked out.”
“You were hit by in a crosswalk. Drunk driver. They said you were gone instantly. I always wondered if it was true.... I guess so.”
He clutched at her. “Oh, shit, Ivy, did you see it? We were together, when it happened....”
She shook her head, then nodded. “I mean, no, I didn’t see the impact, we were walking with Melissa, remember, and her heel broke, so I was helping her get her shoe off, but you were singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and you didn’t notice and you walked ahead and... I saw you after, though.” She traced her fingertip along his unshattered jaw, his unbroken limbs. “You look better this way.”
“How is this possible, though, Ivy? How am I here?”
“It’s a miracle. You don’t question miracles.”
So they didn’t question it. Eventually they left the apartment—being very careful at all the street crossings—and ate Chinese food and looked at the holiday decorations in the windows and sat in the cold in Dolores Park. “I want you to do all the things you missed doing,” she said.
Gabe held her hand and leaned into her. “I don’t miss anything, though. It hasn’t been a year for me. It’s been one long night’s sleep.” He paused. “I take that back. I missed you. Even if I go to sleep next to you, I miss you until I’m awake again, unless I see you in my dreams.”
They went back to the apartment, and had sex again, and dozed, and at one point even watched TV—he was annoyed at missing so many episodes of his favorite shows—snuggled together companionably, as they’d once spent lazy stay-at-home evenings.
She started crying at one point, and hyperventilating, having an anxiety attack, certain he was a hallucination and this was a psychotic break, and he held her and told her to count the Christmas cards propped up on the table, and the books on the shelf; had her name the colors of the ornaments on the tree; talked her through focusing on her breathing; eased her and grounded her, as he’d always done, so patiently, until she felt better. “Let’s take a picture,” he said. “If I show up in a picture, I’m real.”
That made sense to her, even though it didn’t objectively make much sense, so they leaned their heads together and she took a selfie on her phone. She looked at the picture, and there he was, grinning, wearing his old t-shirt and a pair of her baggiest sweatpants. Real. Real real real.
“I’m going to need a new phone,” he said. “I’m going to need a new everything. How are we going to explain that I’m, like, back alive again? Are you going to have to keep me like a secret in your closet?”
The engine of anxiety at the center of her body started to spin up again, and to stall it she said, “We’ll think about all that tomorrow. Now is now.”
“Now is now,” he murmured, and held her.
She was awake when he vanished. It was a mercy, really: if she’d awakened on Boxing Day to find him gone, she might have thought he’d walked out—that he’d chosen to leave her. But she was propped on her elbow in bed as midnight neared, looking at him on his back, his face serene in sleep, his broad chest rising and falling in slow breaths. She put her hand on his chest, just to feel him... and a moment later he simply vanished, and her hand fell through to the sheet beneath. She stared, then frantically ripped the sheets and blankets off the mattress, and looked under the bed, like he was a missing earring. “No. No no no—”
The alarm clock by her bedside read 12:00. Christmas was over.
So was her Christmas miracle.
The redheaded woman was in the same spot, reading a very old book with crumbling pages. Her hair was brushed this time, and she had on a red party dress. Ivy thought of old stories of angels pretending to be vagabonds to test the kindness of mortals, but she knew this woman was something more complicated than an angel. She had the wild thought that the book was some kind of magic tome, and considered snatching it away, but it was in some language she’d never seen, so even if it was, it wouldn’t do her any good. Ivy dropped to her knees on the sidewalk, and the woman looked up from her reading, annoyed. “Yes?”
“Gabe. My fiancé. He was back, and then he vanished. As soon as Christmas ended.”
“Was there a question?”
She felt the prickle of tears being born and tried to hold them back. “Why couldn’t he stay?”
The woman shrugged. “You shouldn’t question miracles. What did you expect? Bringing someone back from the dead, and I didn’t even have a body to work with? Twenty-four hours is a pretty good miracle.”
Ivy clenched her hands into fists, her nails digging into her palms. “If you give someone a gift, and then you take it away—”
“Possessions make terrible gifts,” the woman interrupted. “They just clutter up the place. The best kind of gift is an experience. Something to build memories on. You got some good memories, didn’t you? Better than your last memories of him, all broken up in the street. So tell me: would you give up what you had yesterday? Would you take it back?” Her eyes glittered, strangely avid, and Ivy paused before shouting a furious reply. Whatever this woman was, she was powerful. Who knew what she might do?
“No,” Ivy said. “But if I’d known I only had one day with him, I would have done things differently.”
“Live and learn. Or is it live and let live? Or die?” The woman took a noisemaker from some hidden pocket, stuck it between her lips, and blew, producing a sound like a dramatically dying duck. Ivy flinched back from the noise. “Enjoy your new year. I’m going to visit a friend of mine, we have this whole tradition. You won’t see me around here for a while.”
“I—thank you.” Ivy had gotten a day with Gabe, and it was better for her last memory to be him, sleeping peacefully, in her bed. Even if this did feel like losing him all over again. “For the miracle.”
“Don’t thank me, thank... no, you’re right, it’s me.” The redhead rose and walked off, leaving behind her blankets and bags and all the essentials for surviving life on the street, like they were props forgotten by a performer at the end of a show... and maybe they were.
Ivy had the picture of Gabe, so she knew it had really happened, but she put the experience out of her mind as best she could, focusing on her work, and socializing with friends, and volunteering with abused children: looking for meaning, and a way to fill her days with something other than crying. Around October she gave in and went on a couple of dates with people her friends set her up with, and they were nice enough men and women, but none of them were Gabe, and their smiles and chit-chat and kisses were intolerable to her. Her therapist told her to be patient, that things would get better, but she didn’t understand. Ivy’s process of getting over Gabe had been interrupted by his miraculous reappearance. The miracle had reset her clock of grief.
All year, she walked the long way around to avoid the block where the redheaded woman had sat. Ivy’s sanity couldn’t stand another encounter with her.
She did Thanksgiving with her family, to stave off doing a big Christmas, and planned to just hide her way through the holiday, but her ex-girlfriend and present best friend Melissa insisted she spend Christmas Eve at her house: “You aren’t going to ghost ship through another holiday, girl.”
So Ivy hung out with Melissa and her fiancée Chelsea, and they drank spiced apple cider bourbon punch and ate a cheese log and watched Die Hard and Bad Santa and Scrooged. She actually had a nice time, and went to sleep on Melissa’s couch by the soft lights of their tree, and dreamed, of course, of Gabe.
He woke at midnight, naked on the floor under a tree, but this time it was just a little artificial one standing on an end table: the fiber-optic kind of toy tree, with the glowing white branches, except it wasn’t turned on. The apartment was dark, and he wandered, calling for Ivy, confused. Last thing he remembered, he was drifting off in her bed—
“Shit. A Christmas miracle.” He’d come back to life, again, but this time, she wasn’t home; clearly she hadn’t expected him. Maybe she’d gone to see her family, or maybe she was staying over with some new boyfriend or girlfriend. That idea brought a sharp pang, but he pushed through it. Had she forgotten him? Two years now, since he’d died, or so he determined once he got the TV turned on and confirmed the date. He looked around for a tablet or laptop or something that would let him message Ivy, wherever she was, but she must have taken that stuff with her. She didn’t have a landline, and anyway, he didn’t know her phone number. She was unreachable.
He went looking for his old clothes and they were gone—another pang—so he settled for putting on one of her robes, even though it was pink and had a ruffly hem and barely fit him. He was ravenous—it had been a year since he last ate—and he ransacked her kitchen and made himself a sandwich, a bowl of cereal, and a bowl of ice cream. He’d always had a tendency to stress eat... but it didn’t much matter anymore, did it? No need to worry about keeping in shape when he was reborn every year, unchanged.
Gabe found a pad of paper and a pen and tried to write Ivy a letter, since he didn’t expect to see her before he vanished again, but what could he say? She’d be heartbroken to know she’d missed him... right? Or would she just freaked out that he’d reappeared?
He sat on the couch instead, and turned on her TV, and caught up on the year’s worth of TV shows he’d missed, and tried not to think about whether or not he was crying.
She slept late Christmas morning, and then helped Melissa make a ginormous brunch of mimosas and bacon and poached eggs and hollandaise, and then they lazed throughout the afternoon, watching TV and playing the weird zombie board game Chelsea had gotten from Melissa (that reminded her of Gabe, too, but he hadn’t been a literal zombie, at least). Eventually it was approaching dinner time, and they offered to go out with her for Chinese, but she declined. “This has been great, guys. You took my mind off... everything. You’re the best friends ever. But I just want to go home and read the internet and introvert for a while.”
They farewelled, and she swiped up a ride on her phone (at least she wasn’t spending Christmas day driving people around for money), and let herself into her apartment a bit after seven p.m.
Someone was sitting on her couch, and she screamed and reached for her pepper spray, but he just raised a hand in a wave “Hey. I thought you must be visiting your folks.”
“Gabe?” Then she understood, and started to sob.
They lay tangled together in bed. Midnight approached, and Ivy was apologizing for the thousandth time. “I didn’t know, she never explained, I had no idea it would happen more than once—”
He put his finger over her lips. “Shh. You’re forgiven. Let’s not spend the little time we have together on that. Fill me in on what you’ve been doing for the past year.”
Gabe listened as she haltingly talked about work, and Chelsea and Melissa getting engaged—that was nice; maybe they’d have a Christmas wedding and he could hide in the back and watch, god—and the volunteering she was doing. Eventually he said, “Are you, ah... seeing anyone? I mean, I’d understand—”
Now she shushed him, and then kissed him. “You,” she said. “You, you, only you.”
That gave him a pang, too, just as bad as the one he’d felt when he thought she had moved on. How did that make any sense?
He stayed awake, this time, until the end, thinking he’d have some feeling, some sensation, but she was just starting into his face and then blink—
Gabe opened his eyes, naked, under a real tree. Ivy was sitting on the carpet wearing a Santa hat and a short red dress, grinning at him. She slid a large wrapped box toward him. “Hey babe. Merry Christmas. Open that up.”
He did, and found a set of clothes: ultra soft boxer briefs, his favorite brand of jeans, a waffle-knit Henley in his shade of blue, fuzzy wool socks, and a set of reindeer antlers. He put those on, but didn’t bother with the rest, grabbing Ivy, kissing her, and tumbling her onto the carpet. “I want to unwrap you.”
Later, he ran his fingers through her hair. “It’s gotten so long.”
“You like it long,” she murmured. “I’m growing it out for you.”
That pang again, and this time, he was able to identify it. “Ivy... this... I’m no good for you. This relationship. It’s been three years since I died, and... shouldn’t you have someone else in your life now?” He paused. “Or do you, and I’m just your side thing?”
“I don’t want anyone else but you. This can work, Gabe. I know it’s strange, but it’s fine, it’s just... a long-distance relationship. I tell myself you’re out of town, traveling a lot.”
He disentangled himself and sat up, blinking at her. She was so beautiful, under the lights of the tree, and he loved her more than anything, but because he loved her, he had to say it. “You can’t live your whole life for just one day a year, Ivy. You can’t put everything on hold. It means so much to me, but... it’s no kind of life.”
“I’m a grown-up, Gabe. I can make my own choices, and I choose you.”
“You want to have kids.” He said it calmly, as straightforwardly as he could, but she flinched back like she’d been slapped. “Three kids, remember? I can’t give you that.”
She set her mouth in that stubborn line he’d once found so frustrating and endearing all at once. “We don’t know that we can’t have children. If I was ovulating on Christmas, or, wait, maybe if we saved your sperm—”
“No!” he shouted. “I’m not—no, Ivy, god. To have a baby, and not see it grow up? Or to see it grow up in increments, like one of those time-lapse things online where the parents take a photo of their kid on the same day every year, and you see them go from infant to teenager in a minute? Don’t do that to me. Please, please don’t.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
He shrugged. “Move on. Don’t be home next Christmas. Just... leave a bag of clothes for me, maybe a little cash, and I’ll get out of here.”
She stared at him. “Don’t you love me?”
“More than anything, Ivy. You’re all I live for, at this point, literally. And maybe you can make a place for me in your life someday. Find someone who understands you have a weird Christmas thing because of your dead fiancé, and lets you run off and spend the day alone, and we can see each other then. Or maybe you can even tell them about me, though I wouldn’t do it until right before Christmas, so there’s proof. But... you have to move on. I can’t keep you from living your life.”
“How could I ever find someone I loved as much as you, though, Gabe?”
“Oh, that’s obviously impossible,” he said. “But second-best for the whole year is better than very best for a day.”
He woke the next year under a small artificial tree, and there was a messenger bag and a pile of clothing, and a letter on top. “Call me if you change your mind,” it said. “Dating sucks.” There was a phone, too, programmed with her number.
Gabe dressed, slung the bag (with the phone, the cash, a spare key to her place, and an iPad loaded with his favorite shows, or at least the ones that were still running) over his shoulder. He went down to the street and walked for a long time through the cold night, until he reached the block where Ivy had met the woman who gave her the miracle. He wasn’t sure the woman would be there—it had been years—but she was leaning against the stone wall in a little alcove, surrounded by bags and blankets, wrapped in a blanket decorated with leering cartoon snowmen, her hair so red it looked like holly berries or bishop’s robes. “Hi,” he said. “I’m your miracle.”
She squinted at him. “Oh, right. What was your name? Dave?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. What do you want? Shouldn’t you have Ivy climbing all over you, like you’re a building at Harvard?”
He sat down on the sidewalk. “I want you to break this curse.”
“It’s not a curse. Believe me, you’d know if it was a curse. If the cookie had crumbled a little differently, you’d know for real.”
“Ivy can’t move on with me popping into her life every year. I need to stay dead.”
The woman sniffed. “The evergreen doesn’t die. The sun returns after the solstice. It’s a whole thing. You want to mess with that kind of symbolism, you’re braver than me.”
“What if I kill myself?”
She shrugged. “You reappear next year. Look, I get that it’s kind of a drag. Your lady’s getting older and older, less and less hot, and for you there’s no gap, so it’s like you’re having sex with the same boring woman day after day after day except every time she’s got more wrinkles—”
He leaned away from her. “You have a really ugly mind, don’t you?”
“Ha. Call me experienced. You want me to break the miracle? Snap the tether that binds you to the season and leave that Christmas miracle just whipping around wild like a broken power line? Sure, I could do that, but there’s no telling what would happen. Dead reindeer falling out of the sky on Christmas day. Families waking up to find thousands of fat men in red suits rotting in their heating ducts. Snowmen coming to life with burning coal eyes, stabbing people to death with icicles. Krampus, maybe, he’s in the collective consciousness more lately.” She cocked her head. “Actually, that would be kind of interesting.” She reached out; her fingernails were long, red, and perfectly manicured, which was odd for a street person. “Shall I?”
He jumped up and backed away. “No. How long will this last? This miracle.”
She spoke in a chirpy voice and a fake English accent. “Why, for as long as the spirit of Christmas lasts, guv’nor!”
“What are you? Why are you doing this?”
“I’m something else, and I do it because I like to see what happens when nobody knows what’s going to happen. So far you guys have been pretty boring, but you showing up here is promising development. Stay frosty, Dave.” She shooed him away, and he went.
He spent the day wandering, walking up and down the length of the hilly city, watching TV shows in a café with headphones on, trying to read and getting distracted. As night fell, he sat on the steps near the little beach by the chocolate factory, and he stayed there as the hours went by, looking at the dark water. When midnight approached, he texted Ivy: I left your bag hidden in the trash can by the In-N-Out in North Beach. I love you. Merry Christmas.
She waited for him the next year, and when he saw her, his face fell, and wasn’t that a knife in the gut?
“It’s okay,” she said. “I just wanted to tell you... I met someone. His name’s Rob. I think you’d like him.”
“I’m really glad for you. I... maybe don’t tell me too much, though? I’m not sure I can handle it.”
“I’m supposed to go over to his place in the morning, to spend the day together, but....” She reached out and touched his knee. “I have until morning. Is this okay? Now that I’m moving on? Could we... for old time’s....”
He smiled, and it was that smile she loved, and he touched her, and it was the touch she loved, and it was a miracle of a night.
The next morning she kissed him goodbye and left. She went to a nearby BART station and caught a ride to the East Bay. She wandered around downtown Berkeley and the university campus, where she’d gone to school. Where she’d met Gabe when they were both undergrads.
There was no Rob.
The next year, she confessed she didn’t have a boyfriend. Gabe got upset and said he was poisoning her future and ran out and never came back.
The next year she didn’t get him any clothes, so he couldn’t run away, but he ran away anyway, into the cold night, down the dark streets, naked, and she never did find him, though she looked all night and day. She wondered if he’d spent Christmas in jail somewhere.
The next year, with as much willpower as she could muster, she didn’t set up a Christmas tree, and he didn’t appear at midnight. Was that the secret? He needed a tree to appear under?
At 12:15 there was a knock at the door, and Gabe was there, shivering. “Oh, thank god, I was afraid something had happened to you! I woke up under a tree in the park down the block, and I thought....” He shivered, and grabbed her, and held her close, and she took him in.
“You really love me, huh?” he asked later, in her bed.
“You’re just now figuring that out? I’d rather have you for a day once a year than not have you at all. Maybe that makes me crazy. Maybe it makes me a romantic. My life isn’t empty, though, Gabe. I have friends. I volunteer. I got a new job—I’m an office manager now, in charge of keeping everything running at a bigger company, making good money. Sure, my family thinks I’m weird and spinstery, but I can live with that.”
“But you wanted children—”
“I wanted children with you, dummy. Let’s do this, okay?”
They did it. They experimented with the nature of the miracle. She set up a little plastic tree in a hotel a few blocks from her house, and he appeared there. The next year, she stayed at a little bed and breakfast in Sonoma, two hours away, and he appeared there, too. Once they’d determined that all he needed was her and a tree, she saved up her money and vacation time and they spent Christmas in a new place every year: Florence, London, Paris, and, when she got sick of the cold, Sydney, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. They ate in the finest restaurants, saw the sights, and added to her refrigerator magnet collection,. Every moment together was magic, and precious, because it was only once a year. He was her destination and her gift, and he told her his “life” was simply day after day of wonders.
She got older, sure, and worried he would find her unattractive as time went by, but he professed to find her as lovely at forty as she’d been at twenty-five, and his ardor never flagged. Fifteen years after his death, she snuggled up against him in a ski lodge in Switzerland and said, “Every Christmas with you is the best Christmas ever.”
“Every day’s a holiday for me, and every day, you’re my gift,” he said.
On the seventeenth Christmas after his death, Gabe woke up naked under a tree in a strange room, which wasn’t surprising: he never knew where Ivy was going to take them. She wasn’t waiting for him, though, which was peculiar, and he looked around, frowning. Flames crackled in a brick fireplace, and the walls of the room were hung with framed paintings: a lot of Hieronymous Bosch, some Goya, and, incongruously, cartoons by Schulz and Watterson and Breathed. The furniture was broken-in and comfortable looking, and the wall-sized windows looked out on a dark, snowy forest. This wasn’t a hotel room, and didn’t look like a vacation home, either. Maybe it was some weird “rent-out-my-house” thing?
The tree was odd, too: the only lights on it were red, and the ornaments... they were all human figures in terrible torment: a man surrounded by horses, one attached to each outstretched limb, frozen in the act of tearing him apart; a blank-faced woman lashed to a great wooden wheel; a pair of legs and sandaled feet sticking out of a lion’s mouth; a robed man tied to an anchor; another man pierced with a dozen tiny arrows. “What the hell?” he said.
“They’re saints,” a woman said. He spun, and recognized the redhead from the street, but more smartly attired, in a green dress, with sprigs of mistletoe in her hair. “Depicted at the moment of martyrdom. Neat, huh?” She held a glass of what looked like eggnog in her hand. “Do I know you?”
“I’m—the Christmas miracle. Where’s Ivy?”
“How should I know? I haven’t thought about you guys in years. After a promising middle, you got so dull and domestic. I was going to peek in again when she was about seventy to see if you were still giving it to her on the regular, but.” She shrugged.
“Why am I here? Why did I wake up under this tree instead of with Ivy?”
She sat in an armchair near the fire. “Hold on, I’m all-seeing, but I do need to look first....” She stuck her finger in the eggnog and swirled it around, peering into the glass. She grunted. “Looks like Ivy took a tumble about a month ago. She went back east for Thanksgiving, slipped on some ice, cracked her head. Brain swelled up, and she died in the hospital, never regained consciousness, surrounded by family, all that. Not a bad way to go. Pop, out like a light. Well, you know, you had the same thing—”
He knocked the glass out of her hand and grabbed her by the front of her dress. She looked more amused than intimidated, but his anger and rage were towers rising from a sea of black despair, so he didn’t care. “Bring her back. Bring Ivy back to life. You did it to me, I know it’s possible—”
“You are a gift, you don’t receive a gift. That would be like giving a toy fire truck a little boy for Christmas. Don’t be stupid. Let go of me before you lose a hand.”
He backed off. “I... this isn’t... there must be something I can do. Take away my miracle, let me stay dead, and just transfer my life to her, all right?”
“What, so Ivy can wake up under my tree, all boo-hoo-hoo, and then beg me to take her life so you can have it instead? Each of you getting the other a gift they don’t have any use for, like some Gift of the Magi shit? No thank you.”
He fell to his knees and implored her. “Then just let me die. Please. Maybe she’s somewhere, there must be souls, since you brought me back, so if there’s an afterlife, and I can be with her....”
The woman sighed. “Like I said, if I let you go, we’ve got a loose miracle. Right now the magic is channeled and controlled. Cut that connection, and all kinds of weird random disasters would happen. I’m not opposed to that, to be clear. Is it what you want?”
“I can’t live like this. An endless Christmas, without her. But I don’t want to hurt anyone... isn’t there some other way?”
“Well, since you asked.... Magic can be altered. It can change form without going wild, as long as the equation still balances. Hmm. I’m not usually so nice, but it’s Christmas, and this eggnog is pretty good, so. Take down Saint Catherine from the tree there.”
He looked at her blankly. “What?”
“The ornament, the woman on the wheel. I’m guessing you didn’t go to Catholic school?”
He found the ornament, the stoic woman bound to a wheel, and handed it over.
“Heads, you get the fairy godmother. Tails, the bad fairy.” She flipped the ornament, which spun awkwardly a few times before landing on the carpet.... saint-side up.
“You and Ivy are lucky, Dave. I’m almost never sugar and spice and everything nice twice in a row.” She picked up a fireplace poker and gave him a smile. “I think you’ll enjoy next year.”
“What—” he said, and then she smashed him over the head with the length of iron.
He woke, naked and disoriented, underneath a tree in the same dark living room. It looked like the same tree, even, a year older and thoroughly dead, its needles gone, branches bare, ornaments missing... but a fire still burned in the hearth.
“Gabe?” Ivy said, and he rolled over to find her on the other side of the tree, also naked. “What happened?”
“You—baby, you died, you hit your head, and I... I think I made a wish?”
She sat up, and there was an envelope tucked under her body. She picked it up, turned it over, and showed him the front: To Ivy and Dave.
“It’s Gabe,” he muttered, but tore it open. The card inside wasn’t for Christmas—it was a detail from a Goya painting of a nightmare menacing a sleeping woman—but a message was written inside:
Old miracle: one rebirth for 24 hours. New miracle: two rebirths for 12 hours. Law of conservation of blah blah blah. Feel free to use my house but don’t make a mess.
Love and kisses, Aunt Elsie
He handed the card to Ivy, and she read it. “So... we only have twelve hours together, but... it’s twelve hours every year? Together?”
“And there’s no sense of time passing in between Christmases, not really—it’s just like going to sleep for the night” He touched her face. “So I’ll wake up beside you, every day, for... as long as there’s a spirit of Christmas.”
“Now is now,” she said.
“Now is forever,” he said, and kissed her there under the tree.
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