A Christmas Maggie
by Tiffany Reisz
When he’d heard “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” playing on the radio that morning, Daniel’d had a wonderful, awful idea. Anya looked so delectable in her little slip of silk negligee, he ordered her to stay in it all day long. Now evening, she still wore it…but not entirely without complaint.
“C’est l’hiver,” Anya reminded him unnecessarily. Of course it was winter. A foot of snow had piled up outside the windows of his New England estate, trapping them happily inside. “I should be in flannel.”
Daniel rolled his eyes at his little spitfire of a Québécoise lover.
“You wouldn’t wear flannel if I bribed you with a million dollars and threatened you with a beating.”
Daniel knew his Anya. She barely had a cent to her name, but that didn’t stop her from designing and sewing her own clothes—clothes that wouldn’t look out of place on the runways of Paris and Milan. Even the negligee she’d shimmied into and out of last night had been one of her creations.
Smiling, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her slight form against his. God it was good to have a woman in his life again, in his home, in his bed…especially a woman with Anya’s tastes.
“Perhaps if you bribed me with a beating…then I would wear flannel for you.”
“I like the sound of that.” Daniel cupped the back of her thighs and slipped his hands over her bare bottom and up her back. At moments like this he felt the age difference between them most keenly. She’d only turned twenty-three while he could reach out and touch forty with his eyes closed. His rough hands would never recover from his year of rappelling and mountain climbing in South America. The smoothness of Anya’s young skin served as a bitter reminder of how many years separated them. He didn’t like to think about what else should and could separate them.
“I only said ‘perhaps,’ Sir. No promises.”
Daniel dipped his head and kissed her. Anytime she called him “Sir” in that respectful tone he couldn’t resist a kiss. That word empowered him like nothing else. The second a “Sir” escaped her lips, he had to drag her to the bed, the floor, the sofa…
But today he pulled back. Too much to do.
“No. None of that.” Daniel gave her his most stern stare. “Work. Now.”
She flashed him a faux pout. “Yes, Sir.”
Anya turned her back to him, and he gave her a quick swat to hasten her retreat to the living room. They’d had the tree up with lights on it since December 1st but hadn’t decorated it with any ornaments yet. Now Christmas Eve, Anya tore into the boxes Daniel had brought out of storage and started digging through all the glass stars and candy canes and silver and gold garlands.
“So tell me why we had to wait until Christmas Eve to decorate the tree…?” Daniel asked as he opened a box and removed a small sock monkey ornament—a gift from his friend and former lover Eleanor.
Anya shrugged, a move that caused her nightgown to lift up high enough for Daniel to see the pale pink birthmark on the top of her left thigh. His groin tightened at the sight of so much skin illuminated by the Christmas lights.
“Ma mère…she always had us wait until Christmas Eve to decorate the tree. Papa had to work so much, he never had a day off until then.”
“That’s very thoughtful of your mother.” Daniel placed the sock monkey ornament high on the tree, front and center. Maggie would have gotten a kick of such a silly thing on the otherwise traditionally decorated tree. Maggie…where had she come from? Daniel exhaled and tried to away push thoughts of his late wife. Maggie had been dead for as long as Anya’s mother. Time to move on…both of them.
“She was far kinder to my father than he deserved.” Anya pulled a footstool to the tree so she could adjust a string of lights near the top. “She tried to make him a better man by treating him like a king. It didn’t work.”
“I’m sorry.” Daniel reached out and tickled the back of her knee to coax another smile out of her. She responded by hanging a candy cane on his ear.
“Lovely. Thank you.” He poked her in the stomach with the candy cane and she flinched harder than he expected her to. But she quickly laughed, tore the candy cane from his hand, and placed it on the tree.
They continued decorating. Anya had a habit of repositioning nearly every ornament he placed on the tree. At first he assumed she was showing off her perfectionist side again, but soon he realized she did it solely to annoy him. And it would have except the impish grin on her face only made him adore her more.
As Anya climbed back onto the footstool to put the star on top of the tree, Daniel reached into the box and pulled out one last ornament. While she was distracted, Daniel hid the last ornament on one of the bottom boughs. When he looked up from the floor he could see right up Anya’s nightgown.
“Anya, if you were one of Santa’s reindeer, you would be Vixen,” he said, tracing a line up the back of her leg with his fingertips. He slipped his hand between her thighs and teased her until she moaned softly.
“You ordered me to wear this,” she said, her voice breathless and soft. “You didn’t tell me to put any panties on.”
“And for very good reason.” Daniel pulled her off the footstool and dragged her to the floor.
“What is that reason, Sir?”
Daniel turned her onto her stomach and over his knee. He flipped up the back of her negligee and exposed her exquisite backside.
“Christmas spankings.” He swatted her hard a few times just for the pleasure of hearing that indignant yelp of hers.
“Spankings are for birthdays.” She squirmed on his lap.
“It’s Jesus’s birthday.” He gave her one more playful slap on her thigh before pushing her onto her back.
“Maman said he was actually born in Spring,” Anya protested as Daniel kissed his way down her stomach. With one hand he pulled the straps of her nightgown down her arms while the other hand yanked it up from the bottom. He could have simply ripped the damn thing off but that would have taken a second longer than he wanted to wait.
“You’re arguing theology with me?” Daniel pushed her thighs open wide and found her clitoris with his lips.
Anya gasped in pleasure.
“Not anymore, Sir.”
His mouth was too occupied to tell her to shut up and enjoy herself. But his tongue inside her seemed to work better than an order.
Once had had her sufficiently wet and more than sufficiently aroused, Daniel kissed his way up her body to her lips. He let Anya taste herself as he opened his pants and pushed into her. As he sheathed himself deep inside her, she raised her hips, and moaned into his mouth.
When he began to thrust, he couldn’t help but laugh as his back tapped the bottom boughs and sent all the ornaments tinkling and shivering. He lay flat along Anya’s body hoping to avoid knocking the tree over in his enthusiasm. Or hers. And her enthusiasm often eclipsed his. She’d come so loudly last week that his ears had rung for a few hours after.
As he moved in her, Daniel studied her face so lost in the moment, lost in the pleasure. Her eyes wore the most beautiful glazed look. A strand of red hair fell across her cheek and he blew it off with a puff of air. She laughed and he whispered an “I love you” in her ear.
“I love you too, Sir,” she whispered back, arching underneath him. He’d given her one explicit order at the beginning of their relationship—she was always to call him “Sir” when he was inside her. This was an order she happily complied with every time.
He held back and waited as long as he could before coming. Everything disappeared when he was inside Anya—his sorrow, his memories, the dreams that still haunted him on the bad nights that thankfully had become few and far between since bringing her home with him.
Anya clenched around him with a lusty cry. He would have laughed at her vocal acrobatics, but he was too pre-occupied with his own orgasm.
He pulled gently out of her and watched her face for any telltale winces or grimaces. The girl had been a virgin before him, and sometimes he left her raw from her thrusts. But she wore only a smile of angelic bliss.
“Simultaneous orgasm,” he said as he rolled onto his side and pulled her back to his chest. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
“It’s a Christmas miracle.” Anya pressed into him and sighed.
“I’m not sure if God gives Christmas miracles to sinners like us.” He gently bit the back of her shoulder.
“We are not sinners,” she protested and Daniel heard a note of hurt in her voice. “We love each other. I’m your…” she paused and searched for the right word.
Daniel grinned into her skin.
“Property is the word you’re looking for. A nice Old Testament concept. I think God would respect that.”
“Moi aussi,” she said, slipping into French. Me too. She did that often when tired or spent. On those rare occasions she didn’t fall into French after sex, he knew his job wasn’t quite done yet.
They lapsed into contented silence as they stared up at the Christmas tree from the carpeted floor. He and Maggie had made love so many times under the tree that he knew this view well. Maggie had been Christmas crazy. Her first husband had been both an atheist and an asshole and had outlawed Christmas in the house. When she and Daniel had married, it had been a December, Christmas-themed wedding and all seven years they spent together, Christmas had meant not only celebrating the season, but commemorating their love.
Anya stretched out her hand and tapped an ornament.
“What is this?” she asked, gently removing it from the tree to inspect it closer.
Daniel’s stomach dropped, but he kept his voice even and calm.
“Maggie gave that to me our first Christmas.”
A simple ornament, it consisted of nothing but a bell painted snow white with the words “Daniel and Maggie’s First Christmas” on it and the year they were married.
“It’s pretty.” Anya’s voice held only sincerity and no hurt that he could detect.
“Maggie loved Christmas.” He took the ornament from Anya’s hand. “She has an older sister named Carol. Maggie said when she was a little girl she drove her parents crazy. She thought it was so unfair Christmas was all about Carol. They sang Christmas Carols. They read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Four-year-old Maggie was so jealous, her parents had to start singing ‘Christmas Maggies’ just to shut her up.”
“Did you read her A Christmas Maggie?” Anya asked, taking the ornament from his hand and placing it back on the tree.
“I did better than that. I found a beautiful leather-bound early edition of the book and had a bookbinder friend of mine sewed in a new title page that said A Christmas Maggie. She cried when she opened it our second Christmas together.”
Christmases with Maggie had been perfect, every last one of them better than the one before. Until the last one when they knew it would be their final Christmas together. And even then…
“Do you miss her?” Anya asked the question so softly he barely heard her.
“Of course. She was my wife for seven years.” He spoke matter-of-factly, almost brusquely, and only realized the error of his tone when Anya wriggled off the floor and fled the room, tears on her cheeks.
“Dammit.” Daniel came to his feet and followed her. She’d run not to the bedroom they shared but one of the guest rooms. He turned the knob and found the door locked. “Anya, open the door right now. That’s an order.”
The order was not obeyed. Nor the next one to talk to him or the one after to please please talk to him.
Daniel rested his forehead against the door and took a deep breath, cursing himself. Anya, barely twenty-three, virgin before him, he reminded himself. In other words…emotional, sensitive, scared, and fragile. His marriage had always been a touchy subject between them. Anya admitted once that she feared he’d never love her like he’d loved his wife. No amount of reassurance had made that fear in her eyes completely disappear. By saying that of course he still missed Maggie, he’d played right into Anya’s deepest fears.
“I’ll be downstairs,” he called through the door. “I’ll be there when you want to come out.”
He almost added “I love you” but the one bitter spark of anger at her overreaction stopped his tongue.
For the rest of the evening, Daniel straightened the mess they’d made of the living room with the Christmas decorations. He called a few relatives to wish them a Merry Christmas and pretended everything was perfect when they asked about his new girlfriend.
“Together since summer,” he told his cousin Matthew in Ontario. “She’s not a ‘new’ girlfriend anymore.”
“Lost that new girlfriend smell already, huh?”
“And your mother wonders why you’re still single at thirty-three, Matt.”
He considered and discarded the idea of calling Carol, Maggie’s sister. On the phone, their voices sounded almost identical. Hearing Carol on the phone was akin to coming face to face with the ghost of his dead wife. And Maggie had been haunting him far too much already today.
The time crept closer to midnight and Anya still hadn’t come downstairs to talk to him. He considered going to bed but didn’t want to sleep alone in the room they shared. So instead he sat in the big armchair Maggie had given him as a birthday gift one year. She’d called it his Masterpiece Theater throne and said any librarian worth his salt needed a chair that pretentious.
Before he closed his eyes, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny box of Tiffany blue. Opening it, he stared at the princess cut diamond engagement ring. In the low light of the Christmas tree, the diamond sparkled like the Star of Bethlehem. If he didn’t close the box soon, wise men and shepherds would start showing up on his doorstep. But he couldn’t close it. Not quite yet. Tomorrow morning, Christmas morning, he’d planned on surprising Anya with the ring as her last present—the ring and a promise to love her and keep her for the rest of his life. But now he wondered if the fight hadn’t been a moment of serendipity saving him from making a huge mistake. Anya…so much younger than he, so much less experienced and so sensitive. Until their fight this evening, he’d been absolutely certain she was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, the woman he wanted to raise children with. He didn’t even care if they were his children or her younger brothers and sisters she called every single day to check on. But now…now he wondered if Anya hadn’t been right to be afraid. Did he love her as much as Maggie? And if he didn’t, should he marry her anyway?
Sleep slowly stole into the room and crept up on him. The ring fell from his fingers as his eyes closed.
A few minutes or a few hours later, he felt a hand on his knee gently shaking him awake.
“What?” he asked, his eyes still shut.
“I told you that if you sleep in that damn chair, you’ll get a permanent crick in your neck.”
“Then you shouldn’t have bought it for me, Mags,” Daniel said as pried his eyes open. Mags? “Maggie?”
Daniel sat forward in the chair, suddenly more awake than he’d ever been in his entire life. In front of him kneeling on the floor by his feet with her chin on his knee was Maggie, his wife who had been dead and buried for years.
“What?” he asked again, his heart pounding wildly in his chest. “What are you doing here?”
She gave him a wicked blue-eyed smile, her chestnut hair falling in waves around her oval face. She didn’t look a day over thirty-five, younger than he’d ever seen her. In fact she looked breathtaking—so young, so beautiful, so untouched by the pain and suffering the cancer had inflicted on her, the cancer that had killed his beautiful wife.
“Merry Christmas, Daniel.”
Daniel didn’t bother asking any more questions. How Maggie got there…why she was there…he couldn’t care less. He came out of the chair, dragged her to her feet, and held her more tightly in his arms than he’d ever held anyone in his life. He didn’t know what to do–hold her for eternity or drag or to the ground and make love to her for the rest of his life. While he decided, he kept his arms around her, pulling her even harder against him.
“Good thing I’m dead,” Maggie gasped in his ear. “Or you might kill me.”
Daniel laughed through tears as he buried his face into her hair and inhaled. Vanilla…Maggie’s hair always smelt faintly of vanilla.
“Don’t say that. Don’t say you’re dead. I know I’m dreaming so at least let it be a good dream,” Daniel whispered, pulling her even closer, so close he could feel her heart beating against his chest. He loved that feeling–heart to heart. After sex he would stay inside her a few moments just to relish that sensation as long as possible.
Maggie reached up and pinched him viciously hard on his arm. Flinching, Daniel laughed and pulled back to look at her face.
“You’re not dreaming, Daniel.” Maggie grinned at him.
“Then how are you here?”
She shrugged and her eyes gleamed with secrets.
“Someone upstairs decided you needed something for Christmas. Something that wouldn’t fit into a box. Not even one this size.” She held up the tiny box of Tiffany blue.
“Look…I can explain-” Daniel began but Maggie cut him off.
“I’ve been gone a long time.” Maggie kissed him quick and soft on the lips. “You’re allowed to move on, fall in love, get remarried…”
Daniel shook his head.
“I know I’m allowed. I even know that’s what you wanted…” In the months before Maggie died, she’d brought up Daniel’s future without her several times. She did everything she could to persuade him that not only should he move on after she died, she wanted him to. Even in her last hours she’d whispered to him, I’m going to die but you’re going to live for a long time. Promise me you won’t live alone…you’re the best man I’ve ever known. Don’t let that go to waste…don’t give up on love, on life…promise me…And through his tears he’d nodded and replied with a hoarse, I promise, Mags.
“Then what’s the problem?” Maggie arched an eyebrow at him. How many times had she asked him that question during their marriage? He’d never figured out a good answer to that question.
“Anya…She’s…too young, too…” Pausing to search for words he could only sigh. “She’s not you.”
“Very true.” Maggie nodded sagely. “And for that you should be eternally grateful.”
Daniel’s eyes widened in shock. “What is that supposed to mean?” He glared at her. “You were the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“And you were the best thing that ever happened to me too. Our marriage was strong most of the time. I didn’t know I could love anyone as much as I loved you. Didn’t even think I was capable of that kind of love and happiness. But.”
Maggie smiled at him again, a mysterious other-worldly smile. In life he’d never seen her smile like that.
“But…for such an intelligent man, you have a very bad memory,” Maggie teased as she raised a hand and ran it through his hair. She tapped him on the forehead.
“I remember nothing but amazing days with you. And even more amazing nights,” he said, running his hands up her arms. She wore red silk pajamas, a pair he’d gotten her for Christmas one year. Boxy and boyish, they hid her incredible curves but she needed something to wear when family came around. And nothing turned him on more than stripping her out of them and slowly revealing the female figure beneath the masculine cut.
“Really?” She pursed her lips at him. “Let me show you something. Close your eyes.”
“I always loved this game,” Daniel said, closing his eyes as she’d asked.
“Don’t get your hopes…or anything else up, you Wicked Man. Open your eyes.”
Daniel opened them and inhaled in surprised. The dark and quiet living room had suddenly been transformed. Light came in from everywhere–the tree, the Christmas candelabras in the windows, the lamps, the red and green candles…voices filled the room, laughter. Two dozen people–Maggie’s family and Daniel’s family mixed together as Christmas music played in the background.
“Shit.” Daniel grabbed Maggie’s hand and pulled her against the wall as another Maggie passed them holding a bottle of wine and three empty glasses.
“No one can see us,” she said, squeezing his hand. “This is just a memory we’re in.”
“A memory?” Daniel glanced around. He saw himself standing by the fireplace with Maggie’s sister Carol talking softly and smiling. He knew this memory. Christmas number three with Maggie–the Christmas they’d decided to invite everyone in both families to her house in the country. “God, it is. I do remember this. You gave me a watch that year.”
“A Daniel Roth watch–seemed fitting.”
“And I gave you…”
“This.” Maggie held up her hand to show a three-stone diamond ring on her right ring finger.
“One diamond for each year of happiness you’d given me.” Daniel took her hand and kissed the ring.
“I loved being married to a man who knew how to buy jewelry.”
Daniel grinned as he surveyed the scene. “This was a good Christmas. I loved having my parents here, your parents, the sibs…”
“The kids,” Maggie said, nodding toward Rachel and Jayson, Maggie’s niece and nephew.
“Yes. The kids.” Daniel swallowed as eight-year-old Rachel stuck a bow on top of four-year-old Jayson’s head. Jayson ripped it off and slapped it onto Rachel’s head and the screeching laughter of the children echoed off the walls.
Maggie led Daniel toward the fireplace where he and Carol whispered back and forth while sipping at their wine.
“So will you finally talk my sister into having children?” Carol asked, smiling at Rachel and Jayson who now had become enamored of the toy train that wound around the Christmas tree.
“She says she doesn’t want kids,” Daniel watched himself say. “I think she means it.”
“Motherhood would be so good for her. She’s just a Type A, always has been. Having a baby would calm her down. All your priorities change when you have children. You want them, don’t you?”
Daniel watched the younger version of himself inhale deeply, saw his eyes soften as he looked at Jayson staring with silent fascination at the toy train.
“I do. Very much.” Daniel knew “very much” had been an understatement. Once the shock of being married to a goddess like Maggie had worn off, all he’d wanted was to have a child with her. A daughter with Maggie’s mind and wit, a son with his love of books…he ached to add to their family of two.
“Talk to Maggie. Maybe she’ll come around.” Carol smiled at him. “Do it soon. She’s running out of time.”
“I’ll talk to her tonight.” The younger Daniel lifted his wine glass to his lips while the older Daniel could only wince.
“I remember that conversation,” Daniel said as Maggie took his hand and led him away from the fireplace, away from the memory. “It didn’t go as I’d hoped.”
“I remember it too. It went a lot like this.” Maggie bent over and blew out one of the candles. Every light in the room went out but for the ones on the Christmas tree. In the darkness, Daniel heard harsh whispering.
“Keep your voice down,” Younger Daniel ordered. “The kids are sleeping downstairs.”
“Yes, let’s worry about the kids,” Maggie from the memory said. “They matter so much more than we do.”
“I never said that.”
“You don’t have to say that. I told you before we got married I didn’t want children. I have my work. I have my life with you. I have everything I need or want. Asking me to have kids is like asking me to take on a second job. Why would I do that when I love my first one so much?”
“But having kids…it’s not supposed to be a job.”
“What would you call something that involved non-stop manual labor, Daniel?”
“Are you actually angry at me for wanting to have children with you?”
“Yes. Yes, I am. It’s not who I am. It’s not what I want. You’re asking me to be someone and something I don’t want to be. How would you feel if all of a sudden I decided I wanted us to be vanilla? No more kink, no more submitting to you in bed…and elsewhere? No more you being in charge in the bedroom?”
Daniel watched his younger self blanch at the question.
“I’d be furious,” he admitted. “And I’d hate every second of it. But it’s not-”
“It is the same thing,” Maggie countered. “Exactly the same thing. Deciding we’re going to be a vanilla couple from now on is just like you asking me to be a mother. It would be a total betrayal of my very self. So either you accept that kids are just not part of our future or I’m not part of your future. What will it be, Daniel? Your decision.”
And Maggie in the memory had fallen silent. And Daniel watched his younger self fall silent too. Neither of them spoke.
Not a single word.
“Close your eyes, Daniel,” Maggie whispered and Daniel obeyed readily wanting to get out of this memory as quickly as possible. When he opened them again, they’d returned to the present, to his living room with his Anya still angry and secluded upstairs in her room.
Daniel could barely meet Maggie’s eyes.
“I hated myself for weeks after that,” Daniel said. “Not for talking to you about having children. But because I didn’t answer when you asked me ‘What will it be?’ I should have answered immediately. I should have said, ‘You, Maggie. No matter what.’ I’m sorry. I’m so, so-”
Maggie stopped his apology with her fingertips on his lips.
“It’s all right. You were upset and hurt and sad. You had dreams, and I crushed them.”
“You had your own dreams that I was asking you to give up.”
“You were. But I stood my ground. That night and every single time we had the fight about kids.”
“We didn’t fight that-”
Maggie snapped her fingers and before Daniel’s eyes a parade of memories flashed.
We’ve discussed this before. I’m done talking about it.
We can adopt. You don’t even have to-
How many times do I have to tell you-
You would be an amazing mother. Once you had a baby, you would-
What? Be miserable?
And on and on it went…seven years of marriage, heated conversations, subdued fights, resentments waxing and waning…
The ghosts of a hundred arguments past went silent and Daniel could only press his hand into his forehead to steady himself.
“You know, if I hadn’t gotten my diagnosis,” Maggie said, gently prying Daniel’s hand off his forehead, “we would have gotten divorced in a couple of years.”
Daniel shook his head. “No. That…no.”
“I’m not conjecturing. I know.” She smiled sadly at him. “I know,” she repeated.
“Divorced…you and me?” Daniel reeled from the very thought of it. They’d had such a good marriage. Divorce seemed utterly inconceivable. And yet…so many fights he’d forgotten. Time had erased all those bad memories.
Maggie sighed. “Divorced. Yes. And the consequences wouldn’t have been pretty.”
“I can’t…” Daniel said. “No. I don’t-”
“But you need to, Darling. You need to see…” Maggie touched his face, closed his eyes for him, and Daniel braced himself.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself standing in Maggie’s office at her Manhattan law firm. She’d been a partner and had made millions in her practice. Her office gleamed with money and success and power.
“Maggie…no…” Daniel whispered as his eyes came into focus. She said nothing, only crossed her arms over her chest like she always did when embarrassed or nervous. Another Maggie sat at her desk. No, not sat. Not really. Slumped over would have been the words Daniel would have used. This Maggie, the divorced-from-Daniel Maggie he’d never met, reeked of alcohol. A dusting of white powder marred the otherwise pristine surface of Maggie’s black desk.
“I never told you that in my late twenties I had a little bit of a drug problem. Manhattan law firm. High-powered. High stress. Me trying to deal with all the pressure. I indulged more often than I should have. Behaved much better in my thirties. But after you and I divorced I threw myself into my work and all those old bad habits came back.”
Daniel said nothing. He walked around the desk to get a closer look at this Maggie he’d never met before. One tiny drop of blood had leaked from her nose and onto a contact.
“She’s alive.” Maggie nodded at herself. “Physically, at least. Emotionally, spiritually…gone. It’s Christmas Eve and this Maggie is supposed to be auditing a contract. But this Maggie will work herself into an early grave by age fifty. She won’t need cancer to kill her. She’ll do it to herself.”
Daniel knelt by her chair. He started to touch her hair but pulled his hand back.
“She’s not real.” Daniel stood up and walked back to his Maggie. “I refuse to believe she’s real.”
“She’s not. She’s merely a shadow of what could have been. Let me show you another shadow.”
Maggie exhaled heavily.
With a single blink Daniel disappeared from the penthouse office and discovered he now stood in a cramped and dingy apartment. Glancing out the window he saw narrow brownstone houses, trash in bags piled high on the street, plastic faded Santa Clauses illuminating the dirty front porches. It appeared to be Queens or the Bronx maybe.
“Where I am?” Daniel asked. He’d never set foot in this place before.
“Home sweet home. After we divorced you refused a cent of alimony from me. You took the first library job you could get. Small branch in the Bronx. You spent most of your days at work trying to keep homeless people from moving into the bathrooms.”
Daniel shrugged. “At least I’m working in my field. Sort of.”
“You took the first job you could find after our divorce. And married the first woman you dated after our divorce.”
“I did?” Daniel stared at Maggie in shock. She nodded.
“You did. A page at the library named Mara. A couple years younger than you but already with two small children.”
At that Daniel had to smile. “I’m a step-father?”
“You were a step-father. The marriage lasted about six months. You bonded with the kids far more than the mother. Mara was jealous that you seemed to love them more than her. And you did. Vanilla woman, wouldn’t even consider any D/s in the bedroom much less anything kinkier. She left you and took the kids, and this is your Christmas two years after our divorce.”
Daniel heard a key in the door and saw a different version of himself come in. That Daniel looked tired, haggard, older than he had any right to. In his hands he carried a bag of Chinese take-out.
“Your family in Canada invited you back home for Christmas. You had too much pride to tell them you couldn’t afford the airfare this year. You lied and said you had a new girlfriend and wanted to spend Christmas with her. But it’s just you alone with Chinese food. It’ll be the same Christmas after Christmas. You’ll give up on love, on marriage, on your dreams of fatherhood. And this will be you until you die…”
Daniel watched himself sink into a battered arm chair and turn on the television to an American football game. He didn’t even like American football. But it was noise, light, movement…Dozens of women during his life had told him he was sexy, handsome…he’d even gotten gorgeous a time or two. But this Daniel had gone soft around the stomach, a heavily-lined face, and nothing in those blue eyes of his so many women had swooned over. Nothing at all.
“I’m a wreck.”
“Yes, you are. At least you don’t have a nose full of coke and a fridge full of vodka.”
Daniel looked at Maggie.
“You’re telling me that it’s for the best you died of cancer? I can’t…I won’t believe that.”
Maggie gave him a look of deepest compassion.
“I’m telling you that things happen for a reason. Even the bad things. That’s all.”
Daniel turned away from the vision of himself.
“Can’t you show me something good? Something that doesn’t make me feel like throwing up? Please, Mags?”
Maggie took his hands again and kissed his now bare ring finger.
“I can show you something absolutely beautiful if you really want to see it.”
“I do. Please let me see something beautiful. A good Christmas memory. We had as many of those as the bad ones. Didn’t we?”
“We did, my Love. We absolutely did. But I won’t show you a good memory of us. Not yet anyway.”
“What could be more beautiful than you and I having a good Christmas together?”
Maggie raised her hand, snapped her fingers, and Daniel now stood outside the bedroom where Anya had hidden herself away from him.
“What your Anya is doing right now.”
Maggie pointed at the door and Daniel looked at her in embarrassment.
“She locked me out.”
“Smart girl. You need locked out every now and then so you can get your head on straight. But she didn’t lock me out.”
“I hope you’ve got a key then.”
“Oh, Daniel…” Maggie said, clicking her tongue. “Where I’m from we don’t need keys…”
And with that she took him by the hand and swept them both right through the door.
Daniel’s heart tightened in his chest at the sight that greeted him. Anya had taken the blanket off the bed and wrapped herself in it for warmth. In the corner of the bedroom she huddled on the floor next to the heating vent, a telephone pressed to her ear with her grey furball of a cat, Leonard, curled up at her feet.
“Anya.” Daniel spoke her name softly and stepped toward her. “Sweetheart, I’m so-”
“She can’t hear you, remember?” Maggie took him gently by the wrist. “We’re not really here.”
“She’s got to be cold. Of course she’d pick the coldest room in the house to hide in.”
“Crying women with breaking hearts don’t always make the best decisions, Daniel. Remember when we got into that fight on our fifth anniversary and I ended up backing the car into a duck pond?”
“That one duck is still in physical therapy because of you.”
Maggie grinned at him. “Exactly. Now shush and listen. I’ll translate if you need me to.”
Back in the old days, Maggie would have gotten The Ouch for telling him to “shush.” The Ouch had been her name for a particularly vicious stare Daniel would given her when either annoyed with her or, even better, pretending to be annoyed with her for the purposes of inflicting erotic punishments. She always called it The Ouch because whenever she saw it, she knew she’d be in pain the next day.
But now Daniel couldn’t take his eyes off Anya long enough to give Maggie The Ouch. His little girl looked miserable…the blanket pulled tight around her, and her beautiful face lined with dried tears. It killed him that he couldn’t gather her in his arms and hold her until she felt warm and safe and loved again.
“It’s okay, my Love,” Maggie whispered to him as she squeezed his arm. “Where I am, there’s no pain, no pettiness, no sorrow or jealousy. It doesn’t hurt me to see you look at her.”
Daniel smiled at Maggie and his heart swelled with his old love for her. It felt comfortable and warm like his favorite pair of jeans pulled straight from the dryer. His new love for Anya felt completely different. It scared him, exhilarated him, dug into him like fingernails in his back.
Kneeling down next to Anya, Daniel studied her face as he listened to her soft voice speaking into the phone. He’d had to learn French and learn it quickly once he and Anya had gotten together. His little spitfire Québécoise lover took a little too much pleasure in correcting his errors. She took so much pleasure in it that he started correcting any and all of her mistakes with English. The wooden ruler he kept in his office and her perfect round bottom had gotten very well acquainted.
“Did everything arrive in time?” Anya whispered. “We had a heavy snow, and I couldn’t walk to the post office for a few days.”
She paused and someone on the other end answered her.
“Who is she talking to?” Daniel asked Maggie.
“Here…” Maggie said. “This might help.”
Daniel watched as Maggie reached out and touched a large mirror hanging on the wall. The image in the glass wavered and turned into a new picture. A young man stood in the middle of a narrow hallway holding a cordless phone to his ear. He had shaggy auburn hair and pale skin, hazel eyes, and a face that would turn handsome in a year or two once he put on a little weight.
“That’s Etienne, Anya’s brother. Haven’t met him yet. Just saw a picture.”
“He’s the guardian of the family now with Anya in America. Their father is useless,” Maggie explained.
“Anya told me the same thing.” Daniel looked back at Anya on the floor. In the mirror Etienne walked down the hallway to a living room. A small tree barely three feet high with only one sad strand of white lights decorating it stood guard over a mountain of presents wrapped in elegant silver and gold paper.
“I can’t believe you were able to afford all this,” Etienne said staring at the presents. “How did you do it?”
“Daniel asked me to stay with him. With the money I saved on rent I could buy the presents.”
Etienne winced. “I would rather you hadn’t gotten the presents. I don’t trust rich men.”
“He’s a good man,” Anya protested. “Very good. The best. And he’s so kind to me. And so handsome I can’t…nevermind.” She smiled a little no doubt realizing her brother was the last person on the planet who’d want to hear about her attraction to her boyfriend.
“If he’s so kind to you then why do you keep so much from him? Hmm? Did he know you had a mountain of presents to mail when you walked them to the post office?”
Anya grimaced. “He would have driven me if I’d asked. But if he’d seen the presents he would have wanted to know where the money came from. And if I told him it was all I had, then he would have made me let him pay for them.”
“You should have let him if he has that kind of money.”
“I have some pride, Etienne.”
“Too much pride, Anya.”
“I have to agree with Etienne,” Daniel said, wanting to badly to touch Anya. He was here, alive, unlike Maggie. Why couldn’t she see him? Why couldn’t he hold her? “The girl is 90% pride and 10% spite.”
“And 100% in love with you.” Maggie grinned at him.
“I like that kind of math.” Daniel turned his attention back to Anya. Of course the girl took every last cent she had and spent it on her six younger siblings. He should have known, should have helped. He’d been so caught up in finding the perfect engagement ring, creating the perfect Christmas for the two of them that he’d forgotten she had her family back in Quebec that she worried constantly about. What else was she keeping from him?
“Are the little ones asleep?” Anya asked, tucking the blanket tighter around her.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Etienne said with a roguish grin. Oh yeah, Daniel realized. That kid was going to be a heartbreaker. Better keep Kingsley away from him. “Of course they aren’t sleeping.”
“Can I talk to them?”
“They’d never forgive you if you didn’t. They’re all in Camille’s room trying to get her to sleep.”
Etienne carried the phone back down the hallway. Daniel winced at the sight of the house. House? It looked more like a two, maybe three bedroom apartment. Small, cramped, dark and dismal. Old carpet, stained walls. The place looked clean but only the presents under the tree gave any hint that love lived in the home.
Inside the mirror, Etienne opened a door to a tiny room that held twin beds. Children aged between eight and fourteen piled on top of or around the bed. The smallest girl, Camille, clung to a pink elephant stuffed toy and whispered to one of her sisters.
“Beautiful family,” Maggie said and Daniel saw his late wife smiling at the children. “I do love kids. Other people’s kids. Just never wanted any of my own.”
“I did,” Daniel said with a sigh. “So much. I loved the thought of taking care of these little people who couldn’t take care of themselves.”
“You always took such good care of me. You’ll make a wonderful father someday. I’m sure of it.”
“If that day ever comes…” Daniel watched the scene in the mirror. Etienne entered and told them Anya was on the phone. Smiles crossed all the faces, but Camille lunged for the phone and ripped it from Etienne’s hand.
“Hello, my little monkey,” Anya said and Camille giggled. “Are you ready for Santa Claus?”
Camille’s small, sweet face clouded over. “Papa said he wasn’t coming this year.”
“Don’t listen to Papa,” Anya said. “He’s on the Naughty List. You listen to me. Santa’s coming for all of you. He told me so.”
“Yes. Santa spends a lot of time Christmas shopping in New York City.”
“That’s where you live.”
“I did live there. Now I’m in a big house out in the country. It’s so pretty.” Anya wiped a tear off her face. Daniel could hear the pain in her voice beneath the forced levity.
“Can I come visit you?”
Anya’s eyes seemed to flinch at the question.
“I’ll come visit you first. I miss you. All of you.”
Camille sighed heavily and sadly, far too sadly for a child so small. Daniel wanted to pick the little girl up and hold her in his arms and tell her silly stories until she smiled again.
“I miss you too. Nobody’s here to sing to me.”
Anya gasped loudly in feigned shock.
“Not even Etienne? He won’t sing to you?”
Camille shook her head. “He says he can’t sing or it’ll ruin Christmas for everybody.”
“He’s right about that actually,” Anya said and Daniel chuckled. “But I can sing to you if you’ll get into bed and turn out the lights. Promise?”
“Promise, promise,” Camille pledged, solemn as a judge. She told Etienne that Anya was going to sing to her. Etienne took the phone from her hand and pushed a button to turn the speakerphone on. All the kids gathered even closer to the bed. Camille laid her head down on the pillow and pulled her pink elephant in close, holding him by his fuzzy foot.
Anya cleared her throat and closed her eyes. Quietly in a voice both melodic and tremulous, she began to sing an ancient carol in her native language.
“The first Noel, the angels did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay…”
Daniel’s throat tightened at the sweet sound of Anya’s singing voice. Rarely had he heard her singing before and never like this, never to soothe a child on Christmas Eve.
All of Anya’s brothers and sisters listened intently to the words. Until the chorus when the two older girls, Aimee and Nicole, began to sing along.
“Noel…Noel…Noel…Noel… born is the King of Israel…”
“She has a beautiful voice,” Maggie said, her voice nearly a whisper.
“And a beautiful heart…” Daniel stood up. It physically hurt not being able to touch Anya and comfort her. Her grumpy grey cat Leonard slept at her feet but couldn’t do much for her other than help keep her toes warm.
“She does have a beautiful heart. And soul. And face and body,” Maggie teased. “You’re lucky. She’s a catch. But then again, so are you.”
“I don’t feel like much of one right now.” In fact, Daniel felt horrible. He’d made Anya question his love for her and on Christmas Eve of all days.
“Come here. I want to show you one more thing.” Maggie tugged on his arm and Daniel reluctantly let her lead him away. He didn’t want to leave Anya. Not now. Not ever. But since he couldn’t help her, couldn’t talk to her, it was best to just leave until he could again.
Maggie took him from the guest bedroom and down to the living room, back to the Christmas tree.
“Beautiful tree. She did a good job decorating it.” Maggie nodded her approval.
“She’s a designer. You should see the clothes she makes for herself.”
“She made an all new wardrobe for her sisters for Christmas.”
Daniel stared at Maggie.
“What?” Maggie asked. “I peeked.”
“That girl amazes me sometimes. Who am I kidding? She amazes me all the time.”
Maggie only smiled into the tree. She reached up and lightly touched the little sock monkey ornament.
“A young woman named Eleanor gave that to me,” Daniel said. “She’s an-”
“Oh, I know exactly who Eleanor is.” Maggie’s eyes widened. “I know who she is even better than you do. You just thank your lucky stars you didn’t end up with that one.”
“Well, I know she doesn’t want kids either.”
“Least of your worries, I promise. Her future…” Maggie whistled through her teeth. “Let’s just say it gets…interesting. But I won’t say any more. I’d hate to ruin the surprise for you. I’m almost out of time anyway. And there’s something else you need to see.”
Daniel’s heart clenched at her words “out of time.” He wasn’t ready to let her go again. Not now. Not ever.
“What is it?”
“Nothing much,” she said with a sly smile. “Only this.”
Maggie waved her hand and the living room exploded with light and sound once more. Daniel heard laughter and music. Voices everywhere speaking French and English. Spinning around he saw a room full of children and teenagers wrapping and unwrapping gifts. And in the middle of it stood Anya looking beautiful and flushed and frazzled.
“Where are we?” Daniel asked before realizing the absurdity of the question. “I mean…when are we?”
“One possible future. You’ve invited Anya’s siblings to come for Christmas. Anya’s never been happier.”
Daniel watched as another version of him came into the living room, Camille slung over his shoulder.
“Did anyone ask for a Camille for Christmas?” Daniel bellowed to the room. “Santa left her on the front porch. Anyone?”
“I did!” Anya came and to him and took a squealing, giggling Camille from his arms. “I wanted a Camille to do my dishes for me. And cook. And clean. And brush Leonard and scoop his poop.”
“No! No! No! Not poop!” Camille cried out in giggles. “Give me back to Santa!”
Daniel couldn’t stop staring at the other version of himself, the future version. He looked like an idiot, grinning from ear to ear like that as he gazed at the room full of children and Anya beaming like a new bride. New bride? Daniel glanced at future Anya’s hand and saw his engagement ring shining on it. In this version of the future, he’d asked her to marry him and she’d said yes. He liked this version of the future. Whatever it took, he’d make it happen.
“I’ve never seen you look happier either,” Maggie said. “Not even on our wedding day.”
“I was terrified on our wedding day.”
“Thought you were making a mistake?” Maggie asked with a wink.
“Thought you were.”
“Marrying you was the smartest thing I ever did.” Maggie waved her hand and the lights dimmed, the laughter died, and the future faded away. Once more they stood in the quiet, Christmas tree-lit present.
“We were good together, you and I.” Daniel took her into his arms and held her close. He felt her fading on him already and refused to let her go. Not just yet anyway.
“Better than good.” Maggie relaxed into his arms and slowly swayed. “I can sing too, if you recall.” Softly she hummed an old favorite Christmas song of his.
“Have yourself a Merry little Christmas…” Maggie sang into his ear in a voice lower and huskier than Anya’s, but no less beautiful.
“Not this one,” Daniel begged, spinning Maggie as she sang. “This one’s so depressing.”
“No it isn’t. It’s just honest,” she protested. “Through the years we all will be together…if the fates allow…”
“The fates didn’t allow,” Daniel said as he pulled her tight to him. “I wish they had sometimes.”
“I know, my Love. I know you do. And I did too once upon a time. But the fates had other plans for us. And in time you’ll be standing where I am and the whole course of your life will stretch out before you like an open scroll…and you’ll see and understand. And then you will be grateful things happened as they did. I promise.”
“I believe you. I do. Only it’s hard…hard to believe.” He closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of vanilla on Maggie’s hair.
“I know it is. It’s like trying to see in the dark. But someday you’ll stand in the light.”
“And we’ll be back together?” he asked, hoping in some way he would be reunited with Maggie, with everyone he’d ever loved and lost.
Maggie smiled once more at him. One more smile. One more wink. One more soft kiss on his lips.
“If the fates allow,” she whispered.
And then she was gone.
Daniel started, stunned by her sudden departure. “Maggie?” he called out and heard no answer.
A mantle of sadness settled over him. Gone…once more she had left him before he was ready. He sat back down onto the chair. The box of Tiffany blue rested on the arm of the chair. In his hand he held the little box tight and knew what he would do. But not yet. Not quite yet. Not until morning.
Sleep came for him as he relaxed into the chair. Visions of Christmases future danced in his head. He and Anya…they would get married and they would be happy together. And all her brothers and sisters would come live with them and he would finally have the house full of children he’d always wanted. And it wouldn’t matter once bit they weren’t his own children. He would make them his children by loving and treating them like the father they deserved. They would sit at his feet and listen to stories he would read them. Even now he could feel Camille’s chin on his knee.
“Monsieur…you’ll hurt you neck if you sleep like that.”
Daniel slowly opened his eyes. Sunlight and snowlight filled the room. And Anya, his beautiful Anya sat at his feet.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t sleep in this chair. I’ll get a permanent crick in my neck if I do.”
He reached down and pulled Anya off the floor and into her arms.
“What are you doing?” she demanded as she wiggled on his lap.
“Playing Santa. Tell me what you want for Christmas.”
“It’s Christmas morning,” she reminded him. “Shouldn’t we have had this talk weeks ago?”
“Just tell me. We’ll see what Christmas miracles I have in my pocket.”
Anya sighed as she rested against him. Nothing felt better than Anya’s head on his shoulder.
She raised her hand and touched his face, his lips.
“I have you. There’s nothing more I want or need.”
Daniel’s chest tightened. He knew he should be on his knee for this but it felt so much more natural to have Anya on his.
“Not even this?” He held up the Tiffany box and laid it in the center of her palm. Her eyes went wide as the sky when she opened the box.
“But…” she started to protest and Daniel stopped her mouth with a kiss.
“But nothing. Marry me, Anya. That’s an order.”
He took the ring from the box and slipped it on her finger. Tears flooded her face as she threw her arms around him.
“Yes, Sir,” she breathed in his ear.
“Good girl.” Those two words were all he could push past his throat. He’d never been so relieved in his life.
For a few minutes they merely held each other and cried and laughed and kissed. But finally Daniel came to himself enough to start teasing her again. He couldn’t go five minutes without teasing her.
“Now that ring cost a fortune. So I expect something equally valuable right now in return as my Christmas gift. Pay up.”
Anya blushed from ear to ear.
“I have a present for you. I do.”
“Good. Go get it. I want it. If it’s not at least twelve pairs of new socks, you will be roundly punished until next Christmas.”
“I can’t go get it,” she said, nervously turning the new ring on her finger. “It’ll be late.”
“Shipping problems are unacceptable. No excuses. How late are we talking?”
Anya took his hand and kissed it before she slowly settled it flat onto her stomach.
“A little less than nine months.”
Merry Christmas, Everyone. All my readers and friends are presents to me every single day. I have all I need or want in the people I know and love. I hope we’re all together for years to come. If the fates allow…