On December 20, 2018, I requested via my official Facebook page for everyone to come at me with some suggestions for things to throw into a Very Tropey Christmas short story. There were some varied and wonderful suggestions, and for the next few days, I worked to incorporate them into the Hallmarkian story of my dreams.
And now, I present, for a limited time, the very clichely titled “A Christmas to Remember.”
The harder the snow falls, the less hope I have, when I think it should be the opposite. I think it used to be the opposite. But just now, each heavy flake that falls on the other side of the cold glass window where I press my forehead is telling me that I won’t be home for Christmas.
More than that, it’s telling me that I’ll be here for Christmas.
“You counting them or something, Savvy?”
I hate that he calls me that. I can’t believe I used to love it. I can’t believe I used to love him.
Stupid arrogant handsome Donovan Jacobs, coming at you live from Nuremberg, Germany, where we just wrapped a live special on their famous Christkindlesmarkt, and where we are now, apparently, stranded until the snowstorm that just blanketed the Alps finishes draping us in white to match.
I should’ve said no to this job. I had absolutely known better, that it was too risky, too tight a turnaround to make it home by Christmas. But the network had promised a red eye flight home on Christmas Eve, directly to Boston, directly to my parents’ house, and the money would pad my savings account nicely, nicely enough that I could actually possibly quit this job, alongside this a-hole, and find myself a new job where I wasn’t someone’s sidekick.
I push away from the window and turn to face him. He’s wearing a dark teal turtleneck that he knows matches his eyes, please, he bought it for precisely that reason. His whole closet is a study in blues, organized from light to dark, with a special section for non-blue shades that nonetheless complement his looks. I remember the first time I saw that closet. Something in my stomach squelched a bit at the sight of it, but it hadn’t felt like a red flag. It had just felt like a quirk. Like an endearing little fact of his being, a fact I had the privilege of being privy to.
It felt a little like an honor, standing there in the middle of his closet, which could have fit at least half of my apartment inside of it, with him and his eyes, all lit up, all damnably blue, leaning in the doorframe, waiting for me to say something.
So I had said, “This is amazing.”
And it certainly had amazed me. It’s only in hindsight, after he’d broken up with me, that I realized that what had amazed me was how vain one person could be.
“I’m just looking,” I say shortly. I try to insert a smile at the end of it, but when I catch sight of his own smile, the way it is full to the brim with pity, with patronizing, patronizing pity, I can’t quite manage it. “It doesn’t look like it’s letting up at all.”
“Aw, I know. Remember, the weatherman said it would be like this until at least tomorrow night? I know it was in German, but I thought you were following.”
Still so patronizing. Did he always talk to me like this? Did I just never notice? I must have bought the best rose-colored glasses in the business.
At that moment, Claire chooses to walk over and drop neatly onto his lap.
Has there been a worse Christmas Eve? Certainly not in my life. Certainly not stranded at an inn halfway across the world with my ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. His new younger girlfriend, with her beautiful black curls and her dangerously low-cut dresses. At least, that’s the look she’s going with at present. When we were out filming, she opted for a knit-hat and puffy vest that looked straight out of a jewelry commercial. I half-expected Donovan to just drop to one knee and complete my nightmare.
“I’m just so glad to be here with you, Donny,” she says, one eye on me while she says it. It’s impressive, really, how she manages to direct half of everything she says to him at me, as well. Every sickly sweet proclamation, every whine-tinged Donny, comes equipped with a silent “so there, Savannah.”
I get it. She won, I lost.
But I have spent three months reminding myself that actually, I won.
Because I don’t have to be the one he leans closer to right now, the one he whispers to in a carrying sort of way, more stage-whisper than actual whisper, and says, “How about you get me a glass of wine, sweetpea?”
And I don’t have to be the one gritting my teeth into a smile and going off to get said glass of wine.
Nope, I’m free.
But it still feels a little bit like a thorn shoved hard between two ribs when he tugs her back by her hand at the last second and kisses her like she’s going off to war instead of to the bar in the corner of the room.
“I’m going to go up to my room…” I trail off, because nobody’s actually listening. The crew is scattered throughout the room, most of them holding their cell phones in the air, trying and trying and ultimately failing to get any service. The inn’s website had promised free WiFi, but it’s the kind of WiFi that flickers in and out and lets you send out maybe one text every twenty-five minutes. If you’re lucky. And standing in the exact right place. A place which is never consistently the same place.
I retreat to my small room, which contains nothing but a twin-sized bed shoved up beneath the curtainless window and a dresser that the door bangs into every time it opens. It isn’t much, but it’s quiet, and Donovan isn’t in it, so it might as well be a suite at the Ritz. I flop onto the bed and check my phone out of habit. It’s really a hard habit to break, even though we’ve been here three days, and in all that time, I’ve been firmly off the grid.
All it can tell me is that it’s 3:47 PM on December 24th.
At home, that means it’s 9:47 AM. I bet Mom is cleaning up a storm. Dad is probably stringing up the Christmas lights, nice and last minute like he tends to, cursing the cold and leaning the ladder in all of the least-safe ways, without me there to hold it for him like I do every year.
Homesickness yanks hard on my insides, and I squeeze my eyes shut against the thud of it.
There is nothing I can do, there is nothing I can do, there is nothing I can do.
“Hey, Underwood.” There is a sudden loud knock on the door at the same time as the greeting is called out, causing me to jump and my phone to fly out of my hand and clatter onto the floor. “You in there?”
If my phone hadn’t just given me away, I’d probably pretend I wasn’t. But especially being as it’s Ed at my door, I have no choice. Ed’s my boss, and he’s cranky on a good day. Today… is not a good day. So today, he’s one small spark away from going up in a raging wildfire.
I do not want to be that spark.
I jump off my bed and fling my door open, cringing when it bangs into the dresser yet again. “Hi Ed, what can I do for you?”
“Left my bag at the market this morning. Can you run out and get it?”
I feel my firmly-affixed smile tighten at the corners. “Can’t a crew member go get it for you?”
“I didn’t ask a crew member.” His forehead is naturally given to wrinkles from what I’m assuming is a lifetime of glaring, but now, even its wrinkles have wrinkles. I can see the winds shifting behind his eyes. His temper is on a precipice. “Don’t want them rooting around my stuff. I asked you. I trust you. It’s a compliment, Underwood, and you should know by now I don’t give those out lightly. You saying you want me to take it back?”
I wish there was a mirror nearby that I could glance in and confirm that my smile still looks like a smile and not like a growl. Because honestly I’m not sure.
But he’s right, he doesn’t give out compliments lightly. And if I could get a good reference from him when I leave this place, I could pretty much get any job I want after here.
“It’s just…” I clear my throat. “It’s snowing pretty hard out there right now. You need the bag now?”
“Market’s closing at the end of the day, Underwood. What do you think they’re going to do with it then, huh? You think I have a chance in hell of tracking it down? Huh?”
His face is turning an alarming shade of red, so before he even finishes speaking, I yank my coat off the hook next to the door and wrap my scarf around my neck, hoping to calm him down before he fully erupts.
“No, I understand, absolutely. I’ll just pop out and pick it up for you. You left it in the stall where we were set up, then, right?”
“Unless it got feet and walked or someone moved it.” At least his tone has lessened from a yell to a grumble. We’re heading the right direction. He tosses me a set of keys. “Take the rental. It’s a ten minute drive, the snow might make it twenty. I’ll expect to see you in an hour.”
And then he’s gone, and I’m left holding the keys, looking over my shoulder out the window, wishing I was holding the bottom of my dad’s ladder in Boston.
Or anywhere else, doing anything else.
By the time I get the car brushed off, I have lost feeling in all of my fingers and all of my toes. I yank my gloves off and hold my hands up to the vents in the old white Volkswagen rental van we’ve been driving back and forth for the past three days, wishing it would warm up a little faster. But considering the age of this thing, I’m guessing I’ll be at least halfway back before the vents start spewing anything but icy air. So I give up and force my fingers to grasp the gear shift, putting the van in drive.
The one plus is that nobody else is on the road.
Let me rephrase that: nobody else is stupid enough to be on the road. It’s just me in my clanking white van and the white street and the white flakes on their endless freefall. A whitewashed world. Colorless, joyless, empty.
Tis the season to be jolly.
I jab a finger at the radio to turn it on and start flicking through the stations in search of Christmas music. I need to inject some level of cheer in my life. Make the best of my circumstances and all that. But what I find is a lot of static, with intermittent guitar riffs and German lyrics, and then some more static, and then I’m just jabbing the button with increasing frustration, with building and building and building irritation, and this is just getting ridiculous, can not one thing go right, for Pete’s sake, I just want to –
The van hits ice.
I grind my foot down on the break, but it’s too late, the tires have already lost traction, I’m already spinning, spinning, spinning –
and in a ditch.
I’m in a ditch.
I sit for a moment, my heart pounding, static still blaring over the speakers. Unless it’s coming from my head now. It could very well be coming from my head, as my thoughts struggle to catch up with what the hell just happened.
I got careless, is what happened. Complacent.
I’m such an idiot.
An idiot in a ditch.
I look out the windshield and see nothing but a world of white. Rearview mirror confirms the world of white continues behind me, and the windows to my left and my right agree wholeheartedly that I am somewhere, absolutely somewhere, but I have no idea where.
Which direction was I going? Did I spin in a complete circle or half of one?
And more importantly… how the hell am I going to get out of this ditch?
I experimentally lift my foot off the brake, but the van seems pretty indifferent and remains where it is. I try hitting the gas, but the van also apparently does not care for that effort, because all it does is rev. I press a little harder, it revs a little louder.
I press it all the way down, and the van decides to hell with this.
And it dies.
It just… gives up on life, right here in a ditch on Christmas Eve, the static its last words, and now even that’s gone, and even though the van never fully warmed up in the first place, now I can see my breath.
And I realize that I’m in a hell of a predicament.
I don’t have much hope for it, but I try turning the key and restarting the engine.
My lack of hope was warranted.
I yank my phone out of my coat pocket, but all that tells me is that now it’s 4:17 PM on Christmas Eve.
And that I have zero signal.
I climb out of the van and look down the street in both directions. The snow is falling so quickly that I can’t see any tire marks at all, nothing to indicate where I’d come from. I have absolutely no idea which way to turn.
One way will take me back to the inn. The other will take me back to Christkindlesmarkt.
Either one is better than here.
I eeny meeny miney moe my way through it, and take a step forward.
Just as a red car appears out of the snow like the first splash of color this world has ever known, like my eyes had forgotten the world had ever been anything but white, and it takes them a minute to adjust.
I don’t know what I want. Do I want them to pull over? Do I want them to keep driving?
I stand on the side of the road and keep my arms at my sides, neither waving them on or waving at them to stop, figuring I’ll just let the chips fall where they may without any interference on my part.
And at this point, I realize that they could be anyone.
I could’ve just served myself up like a freaking ham on Christmas Eve to some axe murderer who figured he was out of luck for tonight, not exactly the weather to go out and find some prey, but hey, look at this dummy standing on the side of the road in the middle of a blizzard.
I open the van door and grab frantically around for something, anything. A baseball bat would be great. Maybe a flare gun. I wouldn’t mind a taser.
All I can find is the snow brush, so I grab that and hold it in both hands as I spin around to face the figure climbing out of the driver’s side door.
It’s a man in a black peacoat, hat pulled low on his head, smiling an improbable kind of smile as he approaches.
Any smile would be improbable under these circumstances, I guess.
“You okay?” he calls out, and I hold my snow brush a little more tightly. His voice is deeper than the snow piling around my boots.
“I’m fine,” I say shortly, taking a couple small steps back as he gets closer.
The closer he gets, though, the more my grip on that snow brush seems inclined to loosen.
Like, really really handsome.
Like, Donovan would throw a fit if this guy was put on camera beside him.
His smile is close-lipped and stretched and crooked, but it goes all the way up to his eyes, which look to be brown – shoot, he’s really close now if I can tell that – and look to have no shortage of depth to them. They’re like a whole vat of hot chocolate. They’re that warm, that sweet.
Nope, he’s way too close.
I dart around the front of the van, skidding along the snow and ice as I run.
“Whoa, hey, hi. Uh… sprechen Sie Englisch?” he asks in very stilted German, holding both gloved hands in the air in the universal sign for “I come unarmed.”
“I’m American,” I say, leaning over the hood of the van, keeping a wary eye on him. Just because he’s handsome doesn’t mean he can be trusted. Aren’t most serial killers handsome? They lure you in with their pretty brown eyes and their nice stretch of a smile, and then bam, your head is no longer affixed to your body, no, it’s across the room, still smiling like an idiot because the last thing you’d seen was that face.
“Oh thank god, I didn’t know where we were going to go from here if you didn’t.” He laughs a self-deprecating laugh, and shoot, that’s charming, too. He’s gotta be the most successful serial killer around with a laugh like that. The ladies probably follow him into his murder-cellar willingly. “That’s as much German as I know. Well, that and, ‘ein Bier, bitte.’”
I stand on my tiptoes to better see him, the hood of the van coming to about my chin. “I see you learned the necessities.”
“I came prepared,” he says with a solemn nod, or as solemn as he can make it while his eyes are still sparking with humor. “So what happened here?”
“I hit some ice and skidded into this ditch, and then the engine just kind of gave up on me. So… I guess I’m stuck.”
“Huh,” he says, glancing down the length of the van. “I could lift the hood and pretend I know what the hell I’m doing, but it’s really freaking cold out here, so I’ll save us both some time and admit that I would have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to cars. Did you call a tow?”
He leans on the opposite side of the hood of me, arms crossed, a lock of brown hair plastered to his forehead where it escaped his hat. He looks like he has all the time in the world, and even though he said it was cold, he doesn’t look it at all. While I’m pretty much set to vibrate mode over here.
“No cell signal,” I say, adjusting my grip on the snow brush.
Doing so, however, calls his attention to it.
His smile grows and grows until it finally shows teeth. Nice, even white teeth.
It’s like he was holding back from using his secret weapon, but now he’s unleashed it, the full force of his smile, and what a thing that is. I almost drop the brush right then.
“Are you… is that for me? To beat me to death with if I make any sudden moves?”
I glance away from him and toward the brush.
“It’s all I had.”
He shakes his head in mock censure. “You shouldn’t have said that. You should have said you also have a knife in your pocket. Or something. Something a little more… fierce.”
“Oh,” I say, clearing my throat. “Well, yeah. Obviously I meant this is all I have besides the very sharp dagger I have in my pocket.”
“Ah,” he nods. “Obviously.”
We stand there staring at each other for a beat longer before I huff out a laugh and lower the snow brush to my side. “Okay, not the best idea.”
“No, I admire your resourcefulness. I bet those bristles sting a hell of a lot if you jab them in someone’s eye. But… I promise you don’t need to use that particular technique on me. I’m just here to help.”
“I don’t suppose you have any cell signal,” I ask hopefully.
He tugs his phone out of his pocket and glances at the screen before shaking his head with a sigh. “I don’t know why I looked, I haven’t had any this whole trip. Wishful thinking.”
“I’ve been doing that too,” I say with a laugh. “Habit.”
“How long have you been here?” He glances back up at me as he shoves his phone back into his pocket.
“Just three days. For work. I was supposed to be on my way back home, but -”
“But the snow,” he finishes for me, nodding ruefully. “Same. Well, about being stuck. I’ve been here for a little over a month. In Europe, that is, not just here. But I was planning on being home for Christmas, even though my mom doesn’t believe me.”
“Just traveling for fun?” I have so much else I need to be doing right now. Going to the market and getting Ed’s bag. Getting this car out of the ditch somehow. Getting somewhere warm, before I lose my toes to frostbite. But for some reason, right now, I just want to lean on the hood of the van and talk to this guy in the nice coat with the more-than-nice face.
“Yeah, I finished a big project at work, so I gave myself some time off.”
“Wow, you can do that? What do you do for work?”
“I… started a company,” he says a little sheepishly, shrugging. “It’s kind of taken off, so that gives me a little freedom.”
“Wow,” I say, impressed. “What kind of company?”
“We make all natural pet supplies,” he says. “Our headquarters are in San Francisco. And we kind of tie it into shelters and rescue organizations, using any platform we have to get word out on adoptable animals. And it kind of took off from there. We got some cool endorsements, celebrities who support animal rescue, and that really propelled us. Aaand… sorry. I could go on and on about this, and so… I do, ha. But I’m sorry, you’re probably freezing.”
“No,” I protest, even though I am. I’d forgotten it for a moment, though, hearing him talk. Hearing how passionately he cares about what he does. I want that. I want it so badly, to feel that way about what I’m doing. “No, that’s really cool. And I asked.”
“Well,” he says quietly, his eyes locked on mine in a way that makes the six feet between us feel more like six inches, that bumps the temperature up at least a degree or two. “Thank you. What do you do?”
“I cohost a travel show,” I say with a shrug of my own, although mine is more indifferent than self-deprecating. “It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I went into broadcast journalism, but it’s a step on the way there, I think. I hope.”
“Wow,” he says, nodding slowly. “Anything I’d know?”
“It’s called Around the World with Donovan Jacobs.” I try not to roll my eyes as I say it.
“Wait, you – wow. You’re on that show? Of course I’ve heard of it. I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t, but I’m not sure I’ve ever watched it. I always thought that Donovan guy sounded like a bit of a tool. No offense.”
I let my head fall back as I laugh, squeezing my eyes shut against the snowflakes falling into my eyes. “Oh, none taken. None taken at all. He absolutely is a tool.”
“But you’re on it, too?”
“I do a lot of the side bits. Like at the Christkindlesmarkt here, I helped one of the vendors make chocolate pretzels. And then I blew glass to make an ornament in another. Donovan prefers not to get his hands dirty.”
“Wow,” he says in a way that makes it feel like the highest of compliments, like he isn’t just saying it, like he means it. “That’s amazing.”
I shake my head and look down at the van, unable to keep the smile from growing on my lips. “Like I said, it’s not the dream. But it’s not a bad way to pass the time.”
I can feel his eyes on me in the silence that stretches between us. I flick mine up to meet his when it stretches too long, and as I do, he reaches his hand across the hood.
I shift the snow brush into one hand and reach my other hand out to grab hold of his.
“Savannah,” he repeats as he wraps his warm gloved hand around my much smaller one. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too,” I say, and I mean it. I’m not sure I’ve ever meant it more, especially considering that just minutes ago, I was desperately searching for Christmas songs on the radio to bring an ounce of cheer into this holiday.
And then I was delivered something even better.
“So, not to sound like the biggest creep in the world, but… can I give you a ride somewhere? Anywhere? I can’t just leave you stranded out here.”
I open my mouth to say yes immediately before I think it through and close my mouth with it unsaid.
This really does go against every safety instinct I have. I should just do what I was going to do and pick a direction and start walking. But it’s so cold. And I don’t want him to leave. I don’t know the last time I looked in someone’s eyes and felt this kind of pull.
He clearly senses my hesitation, so he adds, “I promise you can bring the snow brush.”
I don’t need a mirror nearby to know that I answer with my most real smile. “Yeah. Yeah, okay, that would be great. Thanks.”
I make sure the van is locked, and then I follow him to his car. He holds the passenger door open for me, and I slide into the warmth with a grateful sigh. He hadn’t turned his car off when he stopped, so it’s toasty inside. I never want to leave.
Especially when he slides into the driver’s seat beside me and looks over at me.
“So,” he says, and I am suddenly very, very aware that there is not a large van hood between us. “Where to?”
I fiddle with the snow brush in my hands, thinking. “Well, I was on my way to the Christkindlesmarkt to pick up a bag my boss forgot there. But I have no idea how close we are to it, and I don’t want to make you drive me all over the place…”
I trail off, and he jumps in. “No, it’s no problem at all, the market it is. I think we’re pretty close, anyway.”
I look over at his profile as he puts the car in gear and starts to drive. His profile is all straight lines and edges, trimmed in scruff that says he hasn’t shaved in at least a couple of days, and I’m glad I have the brush to hold onto so that I don’t give in to my urge to reach out and trace the curve of his jaw.
Because really, Savannah. Boundaries.
“Where were you headed?” I ask, breaking the comfortably silence.
“Well, I checked out of my hotel earlier today, when I thought I’d be getting out of here, and now I’m just kind of going place to place trying to find somewhere to crash tonight. So far, everywhere’s booked because of -”
“Because of the storm,” I finish for him, nodding slowly. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Yeah,” he says wryly, “me neither.”
“There might be room at the inn I’m staying at,” I say carefully, not wanting it to sound like I’m saying it suggestively.
But very badly wanting to mean it suggestively.
“Room at the inn,” he says, glancing over at me quickly before returning his eyes to the road. “I feel like Mary.”
“You giving birth tonight?” I ask jokingly.
“Alas,” he says ruefully, letting go of the steering wheel with one hand to pat his stomach. “This is just schnitzel and bratwurst.”
“Ha,” I scoff. Even with his coat on, it’s clear that he has no belly to speak of. “And beer, I’m guessing?”
He shrugs and shoots me a sheepish smile. “One or two.”
“Ein oder zwei,” I shoot back, because I did a solid week of Duolingo before this trip and at least got that far.
His laugh warms the car to the extent that I wish I could tug my hat off, but I’m way too worried about what my hair situation might be. As though he reads my mind, he reaches up and pulls his own hat off.
And naturally, his hair is only made more adorable by the fact that it’s damp and wavy and flattened. He places his hat onto the console between us and slashes one hand through his hair, ruffling it back to life. It looks almost black, but I think that’s the wetness. It’s probably more like dark brown when it dries, which would make it a matched set with his eyes.
“Here,” he says, pointing ahead of us. “I think this is it.”
I squint out the windshield in the direction he points. It’s hard to tell through all of the snow, but I think I see the outline of the little shops that line the market.
It’s also hard to tell, but… it looks completely deserted.
“Shoot,” I mutter under my breath. “I hadn’t thought that it might be closed.”
“Well, maybe they’ve just boarded it up,” he says as he slowly turns into what looks like might be a parking lot buried under all of this snow. “It’s worth checking out.”
“You…” I trail off. “You don’t have to come with me, you know. I can go check it out, and you can go do whatever you have to do, or…”
“And leave you stranded here if nobody is there? What do you take me for, lady?” He smiles as he says it, grabbing his hat and yanking it back down over the waves that had just started to resurrect themselves. “Like it or not, you’re stuck with me.”
Like it or not? Ha. I hope he can’t see how wide my smile is as I duck my head to unbuckle my seatbelt.
We climb out of the car and start crunching through the snow toward the shops, the only sound our footsteps.
“This is a little eerie,” he says to me under his breath.
“I’m suddenly less worried that you’re going to kill me and more worried that someone else is going to beat you to it,” I say, smiling up at him.
“Hey,” he says, pausing mid-step. “You left the brush behind.”
I lift my hands to confirm. “I did. But don’t worry, I’ve still got that dagger in my pocket.”
He laughs and continues walking. I fall back into step beside him, but I go too fast, and my legs fly out from underneath me.
“Gah,” I yelp as I fall backward, but just before I hit the ground, Charlie catches me around the waist and yanks me back to my feet.
And against him.
Fully, fully against him.
With my puffy coat and his peacoat between us, but it doesn’t really seem to matter to my body, which I swear goes red from head to toe. I hope he can’t see it in my face.
“Oh,” I whisper, clearing my throat and bringing my hands up between us. I know that I was cold just a few seconds ago, but I can’t remember it. Everything’s just warm now. “Thanks.”
“Yeah,” he mirrors my throat clearing with one of his own. “No problem. Careful there.”
With the angle he looks down at me, with the angle I look up at him, I would just need to lift the slightest bit onto my tiptoes. Just the slightest bit.
Or he would just need to lean down the slightest bit.
Just the slightest bit.
I wonder if he’s thinking it too.
He’s so close that I can see the flick of his eyes back and forth between mine, can feel the warmth of them, want to dive headlong into them.
But the moment stretches taut, and neither of us move. I can swear I hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears, I can swear I feel his pounding beneath my hand.
He huffs out a breath that sounds a trifle uneven, unless I’m imagining it, and he looks down, away.
I think I was imagining it.
I step away from him reluctantly. He lets one hand hover under my elbow for a moment before confirming that I’m standing steadily. As we start walking again, the silence settles between us so thickly that I swear it’s nearly opaque, nearly a wall. We’re both lost in our own heads.
I wonder if he, too, is wishing we hadn’t let the moment pass us by.
I wonder why he looked away.
“There,” he says suddenly, pointing ahead and to the left. “See the smoke coming out of that one?”
“That’s the food hut,” I say, walking a little faster. “Maybe someone’s still in there.”
He gets there ahead of me and tries tugging on the door, but it doesn’t budge. He knocks on it with one padded fist, calling, “Anyone in there?”
I join him, adding my own pounding and my own voice, until the door abruptly swings open.
A man I recognize from one of the shops I visited earlier – was it the pretzel one? – squints down at us. He has grey suspenders strapped over a red sweater and a mustache that droops heavily over his upper lip. The rest of his grey hair is limited to a ring around his otherwise bald head.
“Ja? Was ist?”
“Uh, hallo,” Charlie says. “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”
It doesn’t sound any better on this attempt, but it makes me smile.
It is possible that everything he does would make me smile, but I don’t want to explore that thought too deeply.
“Yes,” the man answers in heavily accented English. “What is it?”
“I was here earlier with the film crew,” I jump in to say. “We left a bag here?”
The man squints out over our heads at the snow. “Where you leave it?”
“I think it was in the main tent,” I say apologetically. “Is anyone still in there?”
A long moment passes, and I wonder if perhaps I spoke too quickly and he didn’t understand my English. I open my mouth to say it again, but he looks suddenly over his shoulder.
It’s then that I hear the muffled strains of an accordian.
I lean a little bit forward, trying to subtly look around the large German man, but he swings back to face me before I can see anything.
“Now is not such good time. You come back in the morning, ja?”
“Well…” I hedge. “My boss really wants the bag today. Is there any chance at all of getting it now? Please?”
He sighs with enough gust to it to fell a tree, had one been in the vicinity.
“You come in then.”
“Umm…” I glance at Charlie, who is surreptitiously making his own effort to see what’s going on in the background. He looks down at me when he feels my eyes on him and shrugs, letting me know that it’s up to me. “Okay. If that will help get my bag any sooner…”
“Bag, bag, bag,” the German man scoffs. “Is Christmas! Weihnachten! We celebrate. You come in now.”
He steps back and swings the door open the rest of the way. Charlie and I follow him through a small narrow hall before reaching another door.
When he swings that door open, the music we had been hearing whispers of, hints to, erupts in full life.
And Charlie and I step into a different world.
“We celebrate!” The German man says, throwing one arm grandly out in the direction of the festivities. We are in a giant tent filled to the brim with Christmas trees and people – people dancing, people singing, people laughing.
More than a few people drinking.
“Go get food, drink. Dance!” The man starts drifting in the direction of the dance floor as though he’s being pulled toward it, reeled in by an invisible rope. “You need something, you get Hans.”
“Hans?” I call after him.
“Yes, me! Hans!” And then he’s gone, lost in the dance floor, his nearly bald head popping up occasionally as the only indicator that he has not been swallowed whole by the swirling mass of people.
“I have no words,” Charlie says from beside me.
“Ditto,” I murmur, still too busy trying to take it all in. It’s such a stark contrast from the silence we had been traipsing through moments before. From the endless white world I felt like I’d been trapped in earlier. Certainly from the inn, with everyone holding their cell phones in the air, wishing to be anywhere but there.
I do not think anyone here wishes to be anywhere but here.
“Well, it’s up to you.” I turn to look up at Charlie as he speaks. “Stay or go?”
I feel my smile stretch across my face, and his stretches to match it. His eyes crinkle at the corners, and maybe it’s contagious, because I suddenly find that I don’t wish to be anywhere but here, either.
Here with him, specifically.
“Ein Bier?” Charlie asks, his hand reaching out and sliding down my arm before landing firmly in mine. He squeezes tightly, and I feel that squeeze to my toes.
“Ein Bier, bitte!” I have to practically shout to be heard over the music.
But it’s a happy shout. A joyful shout.
An “I cannot believe any of this is happening, but I hope it never stops” shout.
We dance, of course. It takes a couple beers for us to loosen up and get the rhythm down. Or maybe it takes a couple beers for us to think we’ve got the rhythm down. Either way, we are completely and utterly embraced by everyone present. They link arms with us, they swing us. Sometimes I lose Charlie in the mix, but before the next song starts, he’s always right back by my side, his arm around my waist, smiling that smile down at me.
We eat pretzels and cookies and goulash. We throw tinsel at the trees with the children. We join in a gingerbread house competition and lose horribly because Charlie keeps trying to toss gumdrops in my mouth and I keep laughing too hard to catch them and we run out of time before we have more than three walls up.
An older woman ushers us to a corner where we discover a box of puppies, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person’s eyes light up the way Charlie’s do just then. He sits on the floor and lets them crawl all over him, and he laughs with so much joy that I swear my heart lifts clear out of my chest.
There is a miniature ice skating rink off to one side, too small to do anything more than go in circles, but we go in circles, over and over again, until we’re both dizzy, and I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed this much in my life, no, I know I’ve never laughed this much in my life.
I don’t know what it is, what any of it is, but I think it’s magic. Christmas magic.
And I think –
I think it’s a little bit falling-in-love magic.
Just a little bit.
Just a sway and a shift and a life-altering jolt of a bit.
I get so used to his arm around me, I don’t know how I used to stand without it there. I get so used to the sound of his laugh that I can’t imagine I ever thought there was a better sound in this world. And he says my name like it’s poetry, like he’s the first to ever say it, like this whole time I thought it was pronounced differently, but then he comes along and makes the way he says it canon.
And then it’s ending.
I can see it in the yawns of the children first, and then in the yawns of their parents. The beer is all gone, and the food is mostly picked over. Only one member of the band still plays, the lonely trumpet-player, but I think he’s seconds away from slumping over on his stool and letting out a snore.
Charlie and I sit off to the side on a bench against the wall and watch it wind down. At some point my head drops onto his shoulder, and neither of us seem to mind. I battle my own yawns as I wonder somewhere in the back of my mind what time it is.
“Poor van, sitting out in the cold,” I say more to myself than Charlie, but he hears it and laughs.
“We’ll call a tow as soon as we get to this inn of yours. They have a landline, I assume?”
“They do. I used it to call my parents to let them know I wouldn’t make it home for Christmas.”
“How’d they take it?”
“They were bummed, but they said it was more so for me than for themselves. Because they’ll still have everyone else to spend it with, and I… won’t.”
“Well, you have your coworkers, right? And… Donovan?”
I laugh shortly. “Ugh, Donovan.”
“No love lost there?”
“Well…” I say ponderously, not sure if I want to reveal this much. Ah, to hell with it. It’s so warm in here, and I’m so pleasantly drowsy, and I want him to know everything there is to know about me and my life. “We used to date.”
“Oh… oh. Used to? So that’s gotta be awkward, huh.”
“You don’t know the half of it. He brought his new girlfriend with on the trip.”
“Oh wow. I’m sorry. How long were you together?”
“Just a little over eight months. And you really don’t have to be sorry, though. He’s pretty awful, actually. I was just oblivious to it, somehow.”
“Ah, love makes fools of us all,” he says quietly. I lift my head up to meet his eyes, his steady eyes. “Did you love him?”
I scrunch my face up and tilt my head from side to side. “Ehh. I thought I did, but I’m not so sure anymore. I think I liked the idea of being in love. But now that I see him, and I see how he is with his new girlfriend, I’m not sure I ever even liked him, let alone loved him.”
“Well, it still sucks to be stuck with him on Christmas.”
“It is not wonderful,” I agree.
“Me, however,” he says, turning my hand over in his, because of course it’s still there. Of course I never want it to leave his warm grip. “I’m not too bad to be stuck with on Christmas.”
“Is that so?” I rest my chin on his shoulder. “You completely derailed our gingerbread house.”
“I wouldn’t have if you had managed to catch one gumdrop!”
“And you knocked us down at least three times ice skating.”
“I knocked us down? I think you’re remembering that wrong.”
“Am not. And your tinsel was all in clumps instead of spread out all over the tree.”
“It looks better that way.”
“Mmm,” I say, feeling my eyes start to close but fighting it. “I guess you’re right after all.”
“That it looks better that way?”
“No. That you’re not so bad to be stuck with on Christmas.”
Hans brings me Ed’s bag before we go, luckily. I’d almost forgotten it entirely. I can’t believe this one small errand turned into so much. The snow is still falling outside, but softly. Like there’s an end in sight, when there hadn’t been before.
When now, I’m not so sure I want one.
Because an end would mean I go back to Boston and Charlie goes back to San Francisco. Different coasts, different lives. No more Christmas, no more magic.
No more of my hand in his.
No more of him smiling down at me.
No more of this feeling of falling.
The best kind of falling, except when it can’t last.
And this can’t last.
We are quiet on the drive as these thoughts swirl and dip and dive through my mind. I want a dozen times to ask him what he’s thinking, but I keep finding I’m too scared to know. Maybe it has nothing to do with me at all. Maybe he’s just thinking about finding a place to stay tonight and then getting back to his real life in the morning. Maybe I’m already fading, already becoming part of the past.
A pleasant memory of a Christmas Eve in Germany. Nothing more, nothing less.
When I want so much more.
So we park at the inn with all of this still unspoken within me. He walks me in, and we are instantly bombarded.
“Where the hell have you been?” Ed thunders. “I was this close -” he shows me his fingers, barely a millimeter apart “- to calling the cops. This close. You should’ve been home hours ago. And who is this?”
He rears back and glares at Charlie accusatorily, as though somehow this is all his fault.
“This is Charlie. The van broke down on my way, and he rescued me.”
“Well how the hell did that happen? Why didn’t you call -”
“No signal, remember?” I’m too tired to be yelled at right now. Too tired and too aware of the fact that Charlie is no longer holding my hand. That it’s already over.
“So what then, you walked here?”
“No, we went to the market and got your bag.” I hold the bag in question out to him. “It just took a while because… well, they were celebrating Christmas Eve.”
“They were celebrating? Well, what the hell did that have to do with you?”
“Ed,” I say finally, digging the heel of one hand in my right eye. “It’s fine, okay? I got your bag, I’m back. I’ve got to talk to the innkeeper now.”
And then I step around him and signal Charlie to follow me with the flick of my head. We pass the door to the main parlor room, where only a few crew members are left.
A few crew members and Donovan.
“There you are!” He practically runs over and swoops me up in his arms.
I keep my own arms rigidly at my sides.
“I was worried sick. I was just about to go after you, wasn’t I, Ed? Seconds away from it.”
“I’m fine, Donovan,” I say, my voice as stiff as my body. I try to push free of his grip, but as I do, he notices Charlie.
And he keeps his arm heavy across my shoulders in a possessiveness that sets my teeth on edge.
“And who is this, Savvy?”
“Charlie,” the man in question says, stepping forward with one hand outstretched.
Donovan looks down at his hand like it’s a bug he would very much like to squash. I drive an elbow hard into his side and use his moment of surprise to slip free. I take a big step forward and turn so that I’m standing at Charlie’s side instead of his.
Because that’s the right side.
“What brings you here?” Donovan asks stiffly, shooting me a look of hurt that is about as real as his hair color.
I know that he dyes it. He’d never admit it, but I’ve seen grey there and then gone from one day to the next.
“Charlie rescued me when the van broke down,” I interject. I lean a bit to the right and feel the warmth of Charlie beside me. I don’t lean fully into him, though. As badly as I want to, I don’t know what he wants.
“Nah, she had it covered.” He looks down at me with so much fondness in his eyes that I almost think I do know what he wants. God, I hope that what he wants is me.
“Savvy.” Donovan tries again to pull my attention. He leans forward and reaches out to touch my hand. I jerk it out of his reach, and this time along with the hurt, he manages to manufacture a few tears.
“Savvy, please,” he says, and I wonder if he has no dignity. Zero dignity. “I think that we should talk. I think I made a mistake.”
Definitely zero dignity.
“No,” is all I say. Firmly. Unequivocally. And then I turn back to Charlie, who is watching this all with an inscrutable expression in his eyes. “Let’s see about getting you a room at the inn.”
I can hear Donovan sputtering behind us as we walk to the front desk.
I can’t help but think a little rejection would do the man good.
Luckily, there is one room available, so in just a few minutes, we are standing outside of it. It’s at the exact opposite end of the hall of mine, so I don’t have much of an excuse for why I linger, but then, he lingers too, not fully stepping into it yet.
“Well, tonight was fun,” I say lamely, looking at his chin instead of his eyes because I’m too worried I’ll do something dumb like start crying if I actually look him in the eyes.
“It was,” he says quietly. “It was… pretty great, actually.”
“Really great,” I nod, slowly lifting my eyes to his lips.
And I swear, I swear, his head is a little bit closer to mine. I don’t know if it’s me on my tiptoes or him leaning down or both, but I swear he’s a little bit closer.
He’s going to kiss me. I feel it in my bones, he’s going to kiss me. I can feel his breath against my lips and then –
A door across the hall bangs open.
“For hell’s sake, Underwood, would you stop making so much noise? I’m trying to get to sleep here,” Ed barks as Charlie and I practically leap away from each other.
“Oh,” I say, as awkwardly as anyone has ever said anything, already backing down the hallway, already cursing Ed and timing and my own cowardice. Already knowing I’m going to regret this. “Goodnight then.”
“Goodnight,” Charlie says back, and I think I see regret in his eyes, too. I think it’s there.
“Goodnight,” Ed growls.
I back away another step, and then I tear my gaze away from Charlie’s and retreat to my room.
I vow to be braver tomorrow morning.
But when I wake up in the morning, he’s gone.
Back home in Boston, I mope. I still can’t believe he was gone when I woke up the next morning. Room empty, car gone. No sign that he’d ever even been there. The innkeeper had only said that he left, nothing more and nothing less. He looked a little sorry when he said that there had been no message left for me, as though he knew that he was letting me down.
As though he could see the fissures opening wide in my heart.
Because I had let him go. I had done this. I had run away like a coward last night, and so why would he stay. The airports had opened, and he had gone.
And I’m home, reliving that night again and again and again.
I sit in my cubicle outside of Ed’s office on New Year’s Eve, listening as around me everyone compares fun plans for the night. Ed comes out and leans on my wall, his expression as close to sympathetic as it’s ever been.
“You have any fun plans tonight, kid?”
I think he feels bad for me. He had been there to see the look on my face when I had discovered Charlie was gone, and rather than snarl at me to get over it, he had patted me awkwardly on one shoulder.
“No,” I say, not meeting his eyes. “Just a low-key night.”
He leaves me alone after that. I work on sorting through stills from our Christkindlesmarkt piece, saving any that I’m in to a separate file. I’m trying to beef up my portfolio so I can start applying to new jobs, like I’d said I would, but my heart’s just not in it. Both it and my mind are a thousand miles away.
In San Francisco.
I have no fun plans for tonight, unless you count curling up in pajamas and replaying another couple hundred times the way he’d said my name.
Yes, just like that. That’s how he said it.
Boy, it’s still really vivid, even after a whole week. Amazing what the mind can hang onto.
And yes, that’s how he’d clear his throat, just like that.
I swing around in my desk chair abruptly, my heart stuttering, sputtering, either shutting down or roaring back to life, I can’t tell which.
And he’s there, he’s there, he’s there.
I say it like a question, even though it can’t be anyone else.
Maybe it’s asking something different.
“You were gone when I got back,” he says, taking another step closer, another step closer. Around us, my coworkers don’t even pretend to be doing anything but staring at us, silent.
“You were gone when I woke up,” I say slowly, shaking my head.
“I went to show the tow truck where your van had gone off the road,” he says. “It took a little longer than I expected, but I didn’t think you’d be gone.”
“We had to catch our flight.” My mind can’t seem to catch up with what is happening. I stand up as he reaches the doorway to my cubicle, my chair banging backward into the desk. “The innkeeper said there were no messages.”
“I didn’t think to leave one. I’m sorry. I was trying to help, by getting the tow to the van. I didn’t… it wasn’t supposed to be it, though. You weren’t supposed to be gone.”
“You weren’t supposed to be gone,” I whisper. My hands can’t seem to stop shaking. I clutch them tightly together in front of me. “I hated that you were gone.”
He steps closer, and now he’s within touching distance. I could reach out and touch him.
I want to reach out and touch him.
And I have just had a week of regretting so badly every time I had wanted to touch him and hadn’t, so this time –
I reach out and touch him.
Just one hand, against his chest.
I feel his pounding heart.
It is like an echo of mine.
He reaches out and pulls me to him, his forehead resting against mine as I breathe him in.
I can’t believe he’s here, I think, and then I say it.
“I can’t believe you’re here.”
“Of course I’m here,” he says. “I couldn’t let the year end without telling you that I’m in love with you.”
I half-laugh, half-sob, my fingers clutching tightly to the lapel of his coat. I lift my eyes to meet his.
“I’m in love with you, too.”
And when he kisses me, every regret falls free of me.
Every unsaid word bubbles up within me, ready to be said.
Every missed moment feels like it has been returned to me.
And I know that no Christmas will ever give me a more wonderful gift than the man I have in front of me.
But I hope to spend all of the rest of them by his side.