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Authors: Elyse Douglas

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BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
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Men strolled the sidewalks, dressed in dark suits and boiler hats, smoking cigars. She could see the orange glow as they puffed and inhaled and blew the gray smoke skyward. They gave her the once-over inquiring glance, then moved on, shaking their heads. She stared in fright and wonder as riders on horseback looked back at her in surprise, regarding her as a spectacle and a kook.

Then, like a dissipating dream, the vision faded. Another world emerged. A world of beeping model-T Fords, bell-ringing trolley cars and clunky wagons carrying fat wooden barrels and bales of hay. Faces flashed before her in a kind of strobe light: hooded faces, bearded faces, faces with scars and pop-eyes, faces of the angelic and demonic, faces of children laughing, coughing, dying. Then, as if sucked away into some kind of cosmic vacuum cleaner, in an instant, all faces, buildings, cars and carriages disappeared into a ringing silence.

Everything stopped. Stopped dead! No movement or sound! An uneasy stillness pulsed.

Despite being anchored to the ground, Jennifer felt as though she were about to stumble, lose her balance and fall off the edge of the world. She grabbed a desperate breath, feeling the rise of a natural prayer for help.

Then she saw something. Something on the path where the kid had disappeared. She narrowed her frightened eyes. From deep in the park, on the winding path, a figure approached from a snowy fog—a figure covered by something—a sheer black cloth, like a shroud. The figure moved silently along the winding walkway, stiff-legged like an old man. Jennifer wanted to run, but she couldn’t move. She wanted to cry out, but the sound caught in her throat. The figure moved toward her deliberately, the wind ruffling the edges of the cloth.

When the figure finally stopped, abruptly, and waited, Jennifer swallowed. She was cold, feeling as heavy as a boulder. A blast of wind swept in from the north and the shroud began to unravel. It whipped around the body in a circular motion, slinging the gossamer fabric wildly about in a maddening frenzy of flips and curls until it extended high above the figure, connected only to the neck. It fluttered like a dark sail, snapping like a whip in a forceful wind. Finally, it shot away and soared. Jennifer watched it rise into the burgundy-stained sky, over barren trees, like a dark kite, until it drifted out of sight.

Jennifer’s eyes slid from the sky and lowered uncomfortably. She stared soberly, temples throbbing, as her eyes came to rest on the uncovered figure 25 feet away from her. It was Lance.

CHAPTER 7

 

Jennifer was breathless from the sight of him. He wore a dark taupe parka, blue jeans and the oil-tanned waterproof boots he always wore in the winter. As he approached, his long brown hair scattered in the wind. He moved with an easy unhurried stride, as if he had made peace with time, as if patience had been captured and tucked away in his back pocket.

He stopped only a few steps away from her. Jennifer recognized the lively humor in his amber eyes, the fan of wrinkles around them, the soft lines in his still boyish face.

She stood rigid. She didn’t believe what she saw. It was a tragic projection or an hallucination. She would simply stand frozen until it, or she, melted away. Until reality—her reality—returned.

And then Lance spoke in his light, airy tenor voice, as he took in the scenery. He grinned a little. “Well...I can’t say I understand how these things work, but I think that someone must have gone a little overboard with taking you back in time. But then, it shows that life passes swiftly, and that our time on earth is brief. It’s only been a year, hasn’t it? Not a hundred.”

Jennifer was silent. Her heart dared not take him in. She could easily shatter into pieces.

The sky became a quilt of white and gray. Falling snow softened the light. The wind played with the bare tree branches, rattling them as if to stir them from death.

“Let’s take a walk, Jennifer,” Lance said, reaching for her hand. “There’s a beautiful spot not too far from here.”

She clenched her teeth. Air escaped between them in sharp terrified gusts, puffing out white clouds of vapor, like steam from a train.

“Don’t be afraid. It’s all right. It’s only me.”

She shook her head, slowly, resolutely. She could not give in to the fantasy. “No! No... it is not you! I don’t know who or what you are but you are not Lance. Lance is dead!”

Lance lifted an arm, searching for words. “Yes... in a manner of speaking, I suppose I am dead.” He smiled warmly. “But I’m here now. And I’m real.”

The sight of him was unbearable. Jennifer spun around and walked briskly away into a blaze of light and snow. She couldn’t see or hear anything!

Lance called out and it echoed. “Don’t leave, Jen! We don’t have a lot of time.”

She stopped. She shut her eyes.

“Please, Jen. Please come back. I have to talk to you.”

Jennifer turned unsteadily. His expressions startled her. She knew all of them so well: compassion and expectation. They disarmed her. “Who are you?” she asked, with effort.

“You know who! It’s me, Lance Russell.”

She could only manage to force out, “How?”

Lance lifted his arms, then slowly dropped them back to his side, letting them slap against him. “Come on, let’s walk.”

Jennifer felt an overwhelming rush of hope. She moved toward him, cautiously. His familiar smile cooled the heat of her confusion and fear.

The world gradually returned to reality, as if a great storm had nearly passed. Traffic noise droned; couples and families reappeared, rambling through the falling snow; children sledded on a hill nearby, screaming cheerfully. The world as Jennifer knew it was back, and it helped to calm her.

“Trust me, Jennifer?” Lance said, as he removed his glove and reached again for her hand. She wanted to touch him, to hold that hand, to feel the human warmth of him, but she was afraid.

He gently took her hand. She closed her eyes, savoring its warmth, trying not to think about his inevitable departure.

They started down a path into the park. Darkness settled around them. Park lights blinked on, casting a comfortable intimate light on the path of fresh, glittering snow.

“So, tell me, Jennifer,” Lance said. “How have you been?”

Jennifer allowed her eyes to linger on him for a moment before she whispered. “I don’t care about any of that right now.”

“Well, I’ve heard rumors about you,” he said, lightly.

“What rumors?” she asked, defensively.

“You know… cold stares, cold shoulders and a cold, cold heart.”

“That’s not funny.”

“No, it isn’t.”

She let out a deep sigh. “God, I don’t understand this, and I know that none of this is real, but I don’t care. I’m beginning to feel alive again.”

Lance turned, squeezing her arm. “Speaking of funny.”

She raised her eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you
are
alive.”

“Only when I’m with you. When I’m not, I might as well be dead.”

He grabbed her shoulders and looked directly into her eyes. “Don’t say that! Ever!”

His sharp tone surprised her. “It’s true.”

He relaxed his grip and spoke tenderly. “You’ve got to forget me, Jen, and get on with your life.”

She ignored him. “… How…did you get here?”

Lance narrowed his eyes. “I was given a gift—a kind of Christmas present, I guess you’d say, to come back and see you.”

Jennifer turned away. “I’m sure I’ll wake up in a minute and be relieved because I’ll realize I’m not crazy.” She faced him, trembling. “But I’ll be completely devastated because you’ll be gone.”

“It’s not a dream, Jen. I came because I had to. I couldn’t stand to see you so unhappy.”

“Oh, Lance,” she cried. Her body grew limp as she leaned into his chest. “I knew that nothing—not even death—could keep us apart. I just knew it.”

Lance’s body stiffened as he searched for the right words. “Jennifer… you know I’ve always loved you.”

“Of course, I know. You don’t even have to say it. We both loved each other from the very beginning—from the first time we saw each other at my Christmas party, when we were 10 years old.”

Suddenly, from above, a mother-of-pearl light descended toward them, floating like a bubble. It hovered over the ground in an open space, became a scintillating blue egg that cracked open and exploded, bathing the area with the fullness and beauty of a pastel dawn. Jennifer and Lance became like a still-life, detached, held by the glory.

Jennifer applied a gentle pressure to Lance’s fingers. She smiled to herself because the whole scene was preposterous, a fantastic fiction being played out in three-dimensionality. But she didn’t want to close her eyes, she didn’t want to disbelieve. If she shut her eyes, the catastrophe of Lance’s disappearance would be possible. She knew she was living in a fugitive moment, in some creation where destruction was imminent, but for now, she wouldn’t try to understand. She would just make sure that she didn’t release Lance’s hand.

Low clouds began to churn and thicken. On the stage in front of them, a curtain of snow was parted by the invisible hand of the wind, and Lance and Jennifer saw images slowly appear and come to life, as if they were emerging from a thick fog.

 

There was a Christmas tree, full and radiant. The form of a living room took shape: a couch, a recliner, a television set, a roaring fireplace. About a dozen children, nine to eleven years old, were dressed in the colors of Christmas, sipping punch, munching cookies, laughing and talking. Two boys were dominating the room, contriving mischief.

A ginger-haired girl of 10 was standing near the fireplace, where one solitary stocking hung. The name JENNIFER was sewn into the red velour fabric in white thread. There was a shyness in her body language: downcast eyes and hands folded tightly behind her back; a worrisome look in her shiny eyes. She was watching one particular boy, a brown-haired kid with a lanky body and pugnacious face. Jennifer scrutinized the boy as he stealthily crept over to a living room plant, stole a final glance to make sure he wasn’t being watched, and poured his cup of red punch into it.

Little Jennifer enjoyed the act and smiled. She gathered her courage and went over to him.

“Hi…” Jennifer said, startling him.

He whirled, caught in the obsession of his act. He leered at her. “What do you want!?”

She moved closer to him. “Do you like my party?” she asked, twisting her hands.

“It’s all right.”

“Do you like girls?”

He shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. “They’re okay.”

“Do you think I’m pretty?”

His eyes wandered the room, evasively. “I don’t know.”

“Do you like me?”

He shrugged again. “I don’t know!”

“But you’ve seen me around, haven’t you? At school, I mean. I’ve seen you.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen you around.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No.”

“I think you’re cute,” Jennifer said.

“So?”

“So, will you be my boyfriend?”

Young Lance was insulted. “No way!”

As he hurried away across the room, the front door flew open, too fast, too far. It slammed loudly against the back wall, with a loud BANG, alarming the children, who froze. Carefree expressions turned to terrified ones.

John Taylor entered, a big man standing wobbly and slack, like a child learning to walk. His face was red and swollen, hair recklessly askew. He groped for the doorknob, seized it in an over-exaggerated sweep of his arm and closed it, much too carefully.

The room was suddenly filled with quiet agitation—like a kind of evil had just stepped out from the shadows and was positioning itself for an attack.

Mr. Taylor measured the silent room’s reaction to him, showing an intimate, guilty pain in his dazed, watery eyes. His ravished face was gaunt with defeat and worry. Little eyes stared back wide and still.

Mr. Taylor’s attention fell lazily on a slouching woman standing in a corner. She was prim and reticent, dressed in red, with a white satin trim around the high-collared neck. Her hairdo of blond twists and curls, obviously new, was a special treat for the party. It had been a pretty face once, a face now fallen into heaviness and cheerless resignation, since life had passed her by years ago. Mrs. Taylor tried to avoid looking into her husband’s face, but lost the battle. She wilted even more when he examined her carefully, to read, again, their old novel of struggle, grief and disgust. But this time, he saw that the last page had just been rewritten. The ending was inexorably clear: her eyes were lusterless, blank, reflecting darkness. Not a flicker of love was left for him.

Finally, he focused his attention on his daughter, little Jennifer. All the eyes in the room followed his as his hesitant gaze came to rest on her. She stood shaking, in stabbing embarrassment and dread. Her father staggered. There was an absence of sound or breath in the room. It was a death for her. It was the final killing of a wounded innocence.

“I’m sorry, little princess,” he said, reaching for the wall to steady himself. “I’m real sorry. You know you’re my little princess. You’ll always be my little princess...” Jennifer refused to look at him. He wiped his mouth and refocused. “Well... you all go on with your party, now. I’m real sorry.”

BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
13.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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