Let It Snow

Chapter 2

 

<<< “Here’s your room.” Giorgina Toronto opened the door and flipped on a light.

“Thank you,” Michael said with a small nod. He reached inside his pocket to pull out a tip, then remembered he was at a private home.

Tony appeared from behind his mom. “Cool, huh? This used to be where my uncle stayed when he lived with us. Put your stuff away, then you can come to my room.”

Michael tossed his suitcase onto the bed before following his friend down the hall. Tony’s room was amazing, covered with sports posters and pennants; a picture of a Corvette hung on his door. There were video game systems, a boombox with loads of CDs, and action figures that covered the dresser.

“This is great,” he said.

“I was thinking we could go to the arcade tomorrow, play some games. There’s a couple of cheerleaders I know that we can see about taking to the movies.”

“On a date?” Michael’s nose wrinkled.

“Just to look cool,” Tony said with a snicker. “My mom would kill me if I did anything with a girl. I just want to make this vacation special for you” He went to his closet and pulled out a large wooden box filled with plastic tracks and cars. “C’mon. Let’s take this down to the basement and have a mega race.”

 

Michael hadn’t had a big Christmas since before the explosion in Switzerland, and even then it hadn’t been like at the Toronto house. There were aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. There were friends and relatives and people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. There were more people than could fit in the house really, but they managed to find a place for everyone.

Tony was great, making sure he met everyone. There was a large group of cousins and they all sat around, talking and playing video games. Christmas music played, though it was hard to hear over all of the talking and laughing. When it was time to eat dinner, it was almost like heaven. There was so much food. Everything was homemade, and Michael was convinced he had just tasted the best thing he’d ever eaten until he took a bite of the next dish. It was all fantastic, and he marvelled at how different it was from the Christmas he’d spent at the Naval base the year before.

It was nearly midnight and Michael was having a hard time staying awake, but he wanted to say goodbye to everyone. Once the last guest had gone and the living room was empty, Tony moved to his side. “Did you have fun?”

“It was great,” he said with a smile.

Giorgina and Giuseppe Toronto stepped in from the recreation room. They held a package in their hands. “Merry Christmas, Michael.”

Tony smiled. “We wanted to give it to you earlier, but we didn’t want to embarrass you with all the people around.”

When the family had opened presents after dinner, Michael was surprised to discover that some of Tony’s relatives had brought him gifts. He’d gotten a shirt, and a portable music player, and a wallet. For him, that was a big haul, and he really didn’t expect anything else.

“Open it.”

He pulled off the paper to reveal an authentic league sports ball autographed by Janis Miller.

“Tony said you play football,” Giorgina remarked.

“He’s really good at it, too.”

Michael stared at the gift, dumbfounded. His friend’s family had already done so much for him, he didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” he finally managed.

Rubbing the blonde boy’s head, Joe Toronto smiled. “We’re gonna head to bed, now. You boys can stay up a little while longer, but not too late, okay?”

Tony nodded, pulling his friend’s arm. “C’mon, let’s go play Space Colliders.”

 

“Hey, I beat you too easy. You’re not even trying.” Michael glanced over to see Tony had fallen asleep with the video game controller in his hand. He chuckled to himself. “Sure, play like a baby.”

It was almost two a.m. and the house was quiet. Michael rose and walked around the large living room. It reminded him a lot of his old house—the house in Gale. He missed that house.

There was a large window that led to a balcony. The boy stepped out and stared at the moon. It had been one of the best days in a long time, and he wondered why he was feeling sad. He wanted to be happy, but instead, all he could think about was his family.

“Michael?”

It was Tony’s mom. She was dressed in a robe and slippers. She stepped out onto the balcony, shivering as the cold air hit her. “You boys really should get to bed.”

“I know. I’m sorry. In just a minute?”

“Are you all right?” she asked, her voice a bit softer.

Michael sniffled, running his fingers under his nose. “I miss my mom.”

Giorgina looked at him, deep sadness in her eyes. “It’s okay to miss her. You’re supposed to.”

Staring out at the nighttime sky, he fixed his eyes on the North Star. “Sometimes I have a hard time remembering her, remembering what she looks like, and it scares me. I don’t want to forget her.”

The woman took a few steps towards him, her gaze also moving to the stars. “Sometimes memories are in the heart. It’s not only seeing someone in your mind, but feeling them.”

“I feel her sometimes,” Michael said, the faintest hint of a smile on his lips. “But most of the time I feel alone.”

Tears slipped from the woman’s eyes. “You’re not alone this time. You’re here, with us. And you’re a part of our family.”

Mrs. Toronto approached him, extending her arms. Michael felt panicked. He rarely gave hugs, much less received them. But there was something about the woman, something that reminded him of his mother, and he realized at that moment he really wanted to be held. He let her pull him close, feeling her arms wrap around him. As she stroked his hair, Michael let himself relax, let himself feel.

Then he began to cry. >>>

 

Michael shook off the memory and pulled out his cellphone. “Damn.”

“What’s wrong?” Yule asked.

“I can’t get a hold of Sara. She’s not answering at her apartment, and her cell phone is off.”

“Did you try the Home’s main number?”

“Yeah, but there’s a message about it being closed for the holiday. I know there’s a bypass number that gets you to one of the staff, but I don’t have it programmed into my phone.”

“I don’t think I have it, either.”

Michael sighed and glanced out the window. “Hey, the snow’s stopping.”

“Let me go and see if they’re starting flights soon.”

Dialing his sister’s cell phone again, he grumbled as he got the voice mail. “Sara, it’s Michael. We’re still trying to get out of Paris. I’ll call you when we get a flight.”

The elder man returned. “Trop neiger.”

“What?” Michael asked.

“They say there’s too much snow on the field. It’s going to take them a while to clear it.”

“Oh, c’mon.” He glanced at his watch. It was nearly midnight. If they didn’t get out soon, they would never make it back in time.

Yule looked down and didn’t say anything. For the first time, Michael realized that his father was just as upset as he was. Despite his hard demeanor, he had been looking forward to spending the holiday with Sara, too.

Shifting in his seat, Michael tried to come up with something to talk about. “What were Christmases like in the desert? Did you celebrate?”

“Christmas was nice. I mean, we never got snow, but that was the pleasant time of the year, temperature-wise.” He smiled, the memories coming. “Barir was Muslim, so it wasn’t customary to celebrate Christian holidays. But he was aware that Christmas-time was when the accident had happened, so he tried to make it nice for me. Especially that first year.”

“Did he succeed?”

“Well,” Yule said with a chuckle. “That depends on what you consider ‘nice’.”

 

<<< Matthew Bruce walked into the main gathering area of the large mansion. Despite being Muslin, Barir usually had a simple Christmas tree on display. This year, however, the whole house was decorated, lights and tinsel everywhere.

“Merry Holidays,” his employer said with a smile.

It was December 22nd. “I think you’re a few days too early.”

“I hear in America you celebrate Christmas for a month and a half.”

“Well, the stores do,” he answered. But he knew the man was right. From the day after Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, it was all mistletoe and candy canes.

“I have a party planned for tonight. Lots of my friends and business colleagues. You’ll be here, too, won’t you, Matt?”

“You gonna serve liquor?” Matt knew full well Barir’s thoughts on alcohol, but he didn’t know if he could handle being at a party without a way to relax.

“I won’t be drinking it, but I’ll have plenty for my guests.”

Matt nodded. “If you bring the scotch, I’ll bring my body.”

 

Matt returned to the main drawing room six hours later to be greeted by a crowd of people. There were at least three dozen guests, and a host of soldiers and military officers. Barir introduced him to everyone. Many of them he already knew him as Matthew Bruce, but since he was officially dead, he had to feign ignorance and play the role of Ulysses David.

As he made his sweep of the room, his eye caught sight of a woman standing near the fountain. She had wavy black hair and dark brown eyes. She had been watching him all evening, and he was curious to finally meet her.

“Are you here alone?” he asked as he approached.

“Not really.” Her beige lips parted into a perfect smile. “I’m Barir’s sister, Hafa. I’m the wife of Muhammad Nawzad.”

Nawzad was a powerful player in the region, and also a collector of beautiful women. Matt was sure the marriage had been arranged.

“My brother tells me that you were in the U.S. military,” the woman remarked.

“Yes. Though that seems like a lifetime ago.”

“And now you’re in his army?”

Matt nodded. “I was fortunate that he let me join. I had nowhere to go and he gave me a place to stay. I owe him a lot.”

Running her finger over the rim of her glass, her mouth twisted. “It must be so much different than what you’re used to.”

“In some ways, yes. In some ways, no.” The liquor was starting to go to his head, and Matt looked the woman up and down. “Though it’s nice to know there are beautiful girls in Katra, not just in America.”

The woman giggled and took a sip of her sparkling water. “I’d love to hear about your adventures in the military sometime.”

“I think that can be arranged.”

 

Matt had gotten drunk. He had purposely poured himself three times his normal limit in the hopes he’d fall into an unconscious stupor; December 23rd was the worst day of his life, and he had hoped to sleep through it. However, though he couldn’t remember the last half of the party, he woke with only a minor hang-over and the knowledge he’d taken a leak in Barir’s swimming pool.

Rolling out of bed, he staggered over to the window. There was a strange howling outside and he opened the curtains to see swirls of beige and brown. It was a bit ironic that two days before Christmas, he would be buried in by sand storm instead of snow.

Plopping down into the chair, he considered pouring himself a drink, then decided against it. The anniversary was here—there didn’t seem much use trying to run from it.

“Maggie,” he whispered.

The memories flooded, hitting him hard. He replayed the events of the chateau over and over, asking the “what ifs” again and again. He thought of his son. This would be Mikey’s second Christmas alone. How was he handling it? Was he okay? Did he even remember him? A part of him desperately wanted to go back to the States and re-claim his boy. It would be just the two of them, but he would find a way to make it work, find a way to build a new life for them.

But there was no way. Without him there, Mikey was safe. Well, safer. There was always a chance that the project leaders could try to eliminate him. However, a small boy was not much of a threat. A small boy with his hotshot father was another story.

It was a depressing thought and Matt decided to get the bourbon anyway. Pouring himself a glass, he sat and stared at the walls. In his old home in Gale, his formal dining room was bigger than his whole suite in Katra.

Black Torrent destroyed your life, his mind whispered.

Resting his head on his hands, the images came again. Stephen, Sally, Michael. The carnage, the blood. He squeezed his eyes shut, the tears he had disciplined himself not to shed coming forward anyway.

There was a knock at the door.

The small apartment was part of a larger compound that was connected by a series of narrow corridors. Someone from the main house could make it to his quarters without ever having to step outside.

Wiping his sleeve across his eyes, he regained his composure and opened the door.

Hafa stood in the hallway, a small box in her hand. “Marhaba,” she greeted.

Matt was surprised to see her and simply stepped back, as the woman entered.

“Ooh, this looks so nice. You can tell you’re an American.”

“I’m sorry. Did Barir need something?”

“No, I came to visit you.” Her voice lowered. “After you told me about your family last night, I realized you might not want to be alone today.”

Matt shook his head and realized he must have been more drunk than he thought. He never told anyone about the incident.

“Where’s Muhammad? Shouldn’t you be with your husband?”

The woman fiddled with the fringe on her scarf. “He’s on holiday. He left this morning.”

“Without you?”

The woman shrugged. “He often leaves on holiday without me.”

It was clear they both knew what that meant. Matt bristled. “I would never leave you alone. I’d be afraid someone would steal you away.”

Hafa smiled and took a few steps towards him. “I could never leave my husband. But I’m not afraid to find my own pleasure when he’s away.”

Matt was taken back by the woman’s forwardness. She was beautiful, and the thought of having company to keep his mind off of things was appealing—even if that just meant sitting and talking.

Ten minutes later, however, they were both in the bedroom. >>>

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“A half a cup of sugar, one tablespoon of vanilla...” Sara stared at the recipe book, her mouth twisting to the side.

When she had heard that she would be spending Christmas with her father and brother, she had decided to bake cookies: snickerdoodles, almond snaps, and gingerbread men. However, as she searched the kitchen cabinets, she realized the flaw in her plan. While it was obvious the men used the kitchen for light cooking, the pantry lacked many of the staples one would need for baking. She had been able to find most of what she needed, but she was missing the nuts and ginger.

“Well, I guess I could make a variation.” Poking through the spices, she grabbed a jar from the back. The bottle wasn’t labelled, so she opened the cap and took a sniff.

“Mmm. Cinnamon...”

 

<<< Sara’s eyes fluttered opened, a strong scent licking her nostrils. Something was cooking in the kitchen. Swinging her legs over the bed, she slid her feet into the worn pink slippers and threw on her overcoat. It wasn’t until she was halfway down the hall that she remembered what day it was.

“Feliz Navidad,” Lucia exclaimed when she saw the girl enter the kitchen.

Sara smiled wide at the cook. “Merry Christmas,” she said in English. She continued in Spanish. “It smells so good.”

“We’re making breakfast. All the boys are up and in the main room, waiting to open their presents.”

Sara nodded, but she was only half paying attention. Her eyes were fixed on a large platter of sweet rolls and donuts. Lucia gave her a shake of the head. “Those are for the family, poca flor.” The woman then pulled out a cloth napkin and handed it to the child. “This one is for you.”

Sara’s smile widened and her eyes lit up. She opened the napkin to find an extra large roll with a glob of frosting on top. “Gracias, Lucia.”

“Now go enjoy your breakfast. We’ll have our Christmas later.”

The girl turned and hurried back to her room. As she neared the door, she could hear Ernesto snickering and Jorge squealing in delight. She crept to the end of the hall and peeked around the corner.

Through the banister, she could see the main living room down below. The Lira boys were gathered around the Christmas tree, more presents than she could count underneath its branches. It was a blur of colored papers and ribbon as they tore open the boxes, glancing briefly at each gift before moving on to the next one. Tauro and Gabriella Lira sat on the couch together, watching their boys.

Christmas was one of the holidays that Gabby insisted was “just for family”—which was her polite way of saying “Sara isn’t invited.” During those times, Sara was told to remain in her quarters or stay with the servants. While it often upset her when she first arrived, she had gotten used to her status in the household.

Returning to her room, she placed the roll on her dresser and pulled a box out from under the bed. Over the last month she had been making small presents for the staff and family. It wasn’t much, but she wanted to do something... and maybe her foster mother wouldn’t hate her so much.

There was a slight tapping. Sara jumped into the bed, hiding the roll under the blanket. The door opened just as she pulled the sheet up to her chin.

Tauro Lira arched his eyebrow. “You don’t have to hide anything from me,” he said. “I know Lucia made you a special treat. I told her to.”

Sara smiled and blushed. “Feliz Navidad, Papi.”

“Merry Christmas, Lily. Did you make a wish for Santa Claus?”

Sara shook her head. Santa hadn’t come to visit her since she was six.

Stepping in, the man closed the door. She noticed he had something behind his back.

“Did the boys open all of their presents?” she asked.

“Of course,” Lira said. “I think the record before this three minutes. Sixty packages in ninety seconds today.” He shook his head. “Those kids are spoiled.”

Sara noticed her box of trinkets and tried to shove it back under her bed. The General snatched it before she could hide it. “What’s this?”

“Presents for everyone.”

The man’s eyes softened. “You made us all gifts?”

She nodded, her eyes dropping to the floor.

Picking up the package with his name on it, Lira tore it open. Inside was a handmade frame with a photo of him and Sara at the ocean side. “This is beautiful.”

“Jose printed the picture for me. I have one, too, so I can have it in my room.”

“I shall take it to my office, so that Gabby won’t rant about it.”

The girl giggled and pulled her legs up to her chest. “Am I still allowed to have dinner with you tonight?”

“Of course. And we have a grand feast planned. I am even having the kitchen make macaroni and cheese, just for you.”

Sara didn’t get American food often, and the thought of the dish made her smile.

“And I have something for you.” He pulled out a large package and handed it to her.

Sara pulled open the paper to see a tall blonde-haired doll with blue eyes that closed when you tilted it. “Thank you, Papi,” she gasped, hugging the doll close.

The General stroked her cheek. “Merry Christmas, Sara.” >>>

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Flights have started, but we just have one runway open so far. We can only get so many planes out at a time.”

“Well, how long before our flight?”

The woman checked the monitor. “It looks like you’re scheduled to leave at 10:30 a.m.”

“That’s eight hours from now!” Michael shook his head. “What about another flight? What do you have in the way of openings?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re booked. You’ll just have to wait like everyone else. Now, please, if you’ll step aside, I need to help the next person in line.”

Michael sneered, returning to his chair. “This is insane,” he complained to the open air. “My first Christmas with my sister and I’m going to miss it.”

“No, you aren’t.”

“What do you mean?” he asked as his father approached.

Yule held up two tickets. “They start boarding in five minutes.”

Michael rose. “How the hell did you manage that?”

“Father and daughter were on their way back to the States. I bought their tickets.”

“Really? How much did it cost you?”

“Don’t ask. It’s coach, though.”

“Who cares?” Michael slung his carry-on over his shoulder. “C’mon, I don’t want to miss this. Should I call Sara?”

“No time. Just go and we’ll see if we can call her from the plane.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was just past 10:00 p.m. when Sara found herself staring out the large picture window off of the living room. The view of the Gale Skyline was spectacular, and she marvelled at how beautiful the city was. A movement caught her eye. An airplane. For a moment she had thought it was the comet.

Laying down on the couch, she pulled the covers to her chin. It had been a long time since she had thought about the Christmas Comet. That had been just a few months after she had arrived in Gale. It was the first time she had truly been on her own, and it was a time of great apprehension and excitement. She had no idea what the future would hold, but she knew that she was finally free—free of the orphanages and foster homes, and all the bad memories.

A smile gracing her lips, her eyes descended as her mind drifted back to that first December.

 

<<< “Hey,” Sara greeted Kenny with a wave. “I’ve been looking for you.”

The brown-haired boy turned, smiling when his eyes caught sight of her. “Sara! Happy Holidays. I was looking for you, too.”

“Really? What for?”

“I just found out my family is going to Barbados for Christmas. I’m going to spend the holidays on the beach, sipping margaritas.”

“That’s great,” she said, the corners of her smile sagging.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Well, I thought you said that maybe I could come to your house for Christmas.”

The boy’s eyes widened before he cringed. “Oh, gee, that’s right. I totally forgot about that. I’m sorry, my dad just sprang this on me.”

“That’s okay,” she said, forcing her smile to return. “It’s not your fault. Besides, Barbados sounds amazing. I’m sure you’ll have a great time”

Kenny looked concerned. “Where will you go for Christmas? Can’t you go home?”

“Oh, no. I just moved here from South America. I’m still settling in, I couldn’t possibly—”

“What about your family?”

She shrugged and waved her hand. “It’s complicated. But don’t worry, I have someone to spend it with.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

“All right,” her friend said. “But you have to come over for New Years. My family always has a big party.”

“Okay. That sounds like fun.”

Kenny still looked concerned. “So, who are you going to spend it with...?”

 

Sara placed the frozen dinners down, pushing one towards her gray tabby. “Feliz Navidad, Spintzer.”

The cat gave a small meow and blinked towards her. It was clear he knew it wasn’t customary to be given human food, much less a whole platter-full. He sniffed hesitantly at the turkey and mashed potatoes. Since his owner seemed to be enjoying her meal, the cat decided it must be okay and started to bite at the meat.

“So, what did you ask Santa for?” She watched as the cat continued to eat. “I suppose a turkey dinner would be a cat’s wish. I wanted to spend the holiday with my family—my real family. But I don’t suppose that’s going to happen for a while.” Poking a hole in the jellified pudding, she sighed. A part of her wondered if she should have taken the General up on the offer to fly her home for the holidays. He had assured her the she would be allowed to celebrate with the family. However, with the boys moving on, some already married with kids, she felt more like an outcast than ever.

Scooping the remains of her meal onto the cat’s platter, she inhaled deeply. “That was good. Now what?” She stared at the television. On the screen, the newscasters were showing pictures of the sky. “The comet,” she whispered. “I almost forgot.”

The Christmas Comet was moving close to the earth and would be visible in the nighttime sky on December 25th. It was already late afternoon and the sun would be setting soon.

“You’ll have to stay here, I’m afraid. But don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about it when I get home.”

Licking a glob of gravy off his nose, the tabby jumped off the table and landed on the couch. Curling into a ball, he gave a meow before falling fast asleep.

Gathering her coat and gloves, Sara headed out the door.

 

Even though it was Christmas evening, the lakefront was filled with people, couples and loved ones snuggling close. Sara found it a bit ironic that after all of the years of being an orphan, this was her first Christmas where she was truly alone.

Finding an open spot against the railing, she stared up at the sky. Some clouds had rolled in, making it difficult to see the stars. A young man stepped next to her, a small boy in his arms.

“It should be right over there. Not too long from now,” he said to the child.

“I’m excited, Dad.”

Sara glanced at the two and smiled.

“Are you here alone, miss?” the man asked.

Sara thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No. I’m just waiting to find my family.”

The man was about to say something more when his son pointed to the sky. “I see it!”

One of the larger clouds moved aside to reveal a long bluish-white streak. There were gasps and squeals, followed by laughs and clapping. Soon, a hush fell over the crowd as the everyone stared in quiet at the natural beauty.

Tears welled in Sara’s eyes.

“Don’t you want to be back home in Paraiso for Christmas?” Manuel had asked her, right before she’d left for Gale.

Feeling a warmth in her heart, Sara sighed. “I am home.” >>>

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Yule shifted, trying to stretch his legs out. His foot caught on the seat in front of him and he shifted his weight back to his other side. “This is not comfortable.”

Michael chuckled. As often as Yule teased him about being spoiled by the amenities of money, the truth of the matter was that the older man was just as spoiled. He was sure the man couldn’t remember the last time he had to fly coach.

“I hope Sara’s not too upset,” he said, flipping through a food and wine periodical.

“She’s strong.” Yule said, shifting again. “She deals with this kind of thing all the time at the orphanage. Beside, we’ll make it back on time.”

His father was right, and Michael smiled at the thought. It was amazing how his sister could be so strong, yet so delicate at the same time. She reminded him very much of...

 

<<< “Kelly?” Tony Toronto’s nose wrinkled and his eyes narrowed. “But you always spend Christmas at our house. My mom looks forward to it.”

“I know.” Michael shuffled his feet. “But Kelly invited me this year. I think it would be kinda rude to say ‘no’.”

“Not if you tell her you have other plans.”

Michael bit the side of his lip. “Don’t be mad, okay? You know, this is Kelly, she’s our bud. Just like going to Andy’s.”

Tony turned, his jaw clenched. “Whatever. I’ll call my mom and let her know.”

“Tony,” Michael called. “Next year.”

Toronto always tried to keep the hard demeanor, but he was too much of a softy. A smile cornered his mouth. “Next year.”

Snow drifted from the sky and Michael stared out at the lawn of the Bruce estate. “Next year.” he whispered.

It was next year. It was December 24th and Christmas was around the corner... and he was alone. Tony and he had stopped talking months ago, and while Michael was sure that Giorgina would’ve invited him anyway, he couldn’t bring himself to face his former friend.

Then there was Kelly. The year before had been pure magic, and he had dreamt that he could spend future holidays with her and her family. But that was before everything changed, before everything fell apart. Kelly had disappeared shortly before the end of the school year, without a goodbye and no word of where she was going. Despite his efforts to track her down, she was gone, and his dream of spending another Christmas with her nothing more than a fantasy.

“I’m all alone,” muttered again.

During the years shortly after the Switzerland blast, Michael had spent most of the holidays with his grandfather, which was just as good as spending them alone. His teen years, however, had been filled with holidays celebrated with friends. Though far from perfect, Michael didn’t realize how much those times had meant to him until he was faced with spending Christmas by himself again.

Glancing around the room, he shuddered. He didn’t know why he had come back to the house of his childhood. He hated to go there, hated the memories. But now he wanted to remember, to think back to the few good times he had spent within its walls.

“Damn you, Tony,” he cursed, hurling a glass carafe into the fireplace. Everything had been fine, perfect even. He never expected it would be his best friend who would ruin it for them all.

The phone rang, causing Michael to jump. He yanked the receiver from its cradle.

“Hello?”

It was Christine, his former guardian and CEO of the Bruce empire. “Michael? I was worried. You weren’t at your place.”

The woman maintained an apartment for him for when he was in Gale. “I just wanted to be home,” he answered simply.

“I understand. Will you be spending Christmas there?”

Michael thought for a moment and shook his head. “I think I’m going to go camping. There’s the cabin out in the North Woods.”

“All right. But, if you change your mind, I’m going to my mother’s in East Haven. You’re welcome to come along.”

“That’s kind of you, but I think I have to get used to this alone thing again.” He hung up the phone without saying goodbye. He knew it was rude, but he didn’t care. He felt like shit and wanted her to know it.

Sitting down on the couch, he buried his face in his hands. “Mom,” he whispered, wishing she was there. He wished anyone was there, really.

Rising, he headed to his room to pack.

 

The drive to the North Woods took about three hours, and Michael managed to make it there by nightfall. It was a full cabin, with electricity and an indoor bathroom. Not much like camping out, but when he was a kid, that was as much of “roughing-it” as his father wanted to deal with.

The next day was pleasant. Michael chose to take a hike and walked six miles through the dense forest. It was a bit eerie trudging through the snow-covered paths. Everything was unusually quiet; the trails were empty and even the animals seemed to be hidden away for the winter celebration.

Deciding to bunk-out under the stars, he made a quick dinner, then settled down with a book. It was some corny science fiction novel Tony had given him a few years earlier. It had no plot and involved a lot of scantily clad women running around shooting space blasters. Skipping to the end, he read the last page then looked at his watch. Four more hours left to Christmas, then life could go back to normal.

“I hate the holidays,” he grumbled.

Crawling into his sleeping bag, he stared at the sky. An unusual light appeared above. It had a bluish white glow, and a tail with a slight curve. “The Christmas Comet,” he suddenly remembered. He had meant to set up his telescope to have a better look.

Watching it in the nighttime sky, Michael wondered how many other people were looking at it—how many people around the world were staring up at the comet? Was Tony watching it? Was Kelly? Perhaps someone else who had him in their heart?

A tear came to his eye.

“Damn,” he said, shimmying out of the bag. “It’s cold out here. I’m going to go sleep inside.” >>>

 

Yule nudged his son. “Mikey, you all right?”

Michael smiled. It was odd. Most of the time his father called him by his full name, but every now and then he would revert back to his childhood moniker. “I was just thinking about the Christmas Comet.”

“Oh, gosh. I haven’t thought about that in years. That was a huge event, wasn’t it? One of the few things almost everyone around the world could see.”

“Did you see it?”

“Yeah. I was in Katra still.” The man quieted. “That was a rough Christmas.”

 

<<< Yule was staring at the wall when the knock came. It was 5:30 and he wasn’t expecting anyone.

“Who is it?”

“Hafa,” a soft voice spoke.

Yule bristled, not sure if he wanted to open the door. Taking a drink of his vodka, he stood and turned the knob.

The woman was standing there, dressed in a form fitting dress which was cut to reveal just a bit of cleavage. A sheer scarf was wrapped around her chest in a weak effort for modesty, and a silk veil covered her head. “Merry Christmas.”

Yule looked down, remembering how the woman had first dropped-by his apartment years earlier. “I thought you weren’t coming here anymore?”

“I said I wasn’t coming here to sleep with you. I said nothing about visiting as friends.”

“Is that all we are now... friends?”

Hafa grimaced. “You were my best friend for many years. I don’t know why a lack of sex should change that now.”

“It was more than sex and you know it.” Yule bit back the bile. “Or perhaps it wasn’t to you.”

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. “What do you want me to say, that I love you? You know I do. But I’m married. I made that clear from the beginning. I love my husband. I know the kind of man he is, and the women he keeps, but that doesn’t change how I feel. At this time in his life, he needs me, and I need him.”

“And where does that leave me?” Yule moved to the window, staring out into the nighttime sky. “I wish you’d never come here that day.”

He could feel the woman flinch, struggling to hold back the tears. He didn’t care. He was saying things to hurt her, because he was hurt.

“I brought you a gift,” she said, placing a box down on the table.

Yule didn’t want to open it... didn’t want anything from her. But there were conventions, even in these situations.

“I know you can’t get that easily here. I picked it up when I was in Paris.”

It was Trento Scotch, one of the most expensive brands. “It gives a good drunk,” he commented. “I’ll have to have some tonight.”

Finally breaking down, the woman buried her face in her hands. “You’ll never know how much you meant to me.”

There was commotion in the hallway. Three children burst into the room.

“Mama, Mama, come see. The light is in the sky. The comet.”

Hafa stared at him for a long moment before heading out the door. “Goodbye, Matt.”

He knew that was their last goodbye. He never answered her.

Opening the scotch, he poured a large glassful. It burned on the way down and he liked the feel of it. Pouring himself another glass, he grabbed his bag and headed outside.

The garden was large, and most of the staff had gathered outside to stare at the comet. The light hung high in the sky. While it should have been an amazing sight, he looked at it and felt more empty than ever. His mind flashed back to Switzerland. For the past, decade, he rarely thought about that night. Now it was all he could think of.

“Michael,” he whispered to the nighttime sky. “Wherever you are, Merry Christmas.” >>>

 

“Are you all right?” Michael asked, adjusting a small pillow behind his head.

Yule nodded and glanced at his watch. “It’s past midnight in Gale.”

“I know. I can’t wait to get home.”

“Me, too.” Yule leaned back in his chair. “Merry Christmas, son.”

“Merry Christmas, Dad.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Sara stepped onto the cold tile floor. Her nightgown was sleeveless and her arms were covered in goose bumps. But this is how he liked her, how he wanted her to look.

The man came up from behind her, his body heat warming her. She could feel his fingers brush her hair aside, his lips pressing against her shoulder. Sara gasped, the yearning inside her growing as his hand snaked around to the front of her gown.

“Martin, we can’t do this,” she whispered.

“If we were together, you wouldn’t be alone on Christmas.” He turned her to face him. “I wanted to be with you on Christmas, wanted to make love to you on Christmas morning.”

“No, we can’t do this anymore. I can’t be with you. I’m—” The words died on her lips. She was going to tell him she was the Dark Flame.

“You still love me,” he said with an arrogant smile.

“No, I don’t,” she challenged.

“I know you do, I can see it in your eyes.”

Sara turned, moving away from him. “My life is different now.”

“I want you back.”

Her heart started to race. Could she really want him back, too?

“Sara?” Martin called. “Sara...”

 

“Sara?”

Sara’s eyes fluttered open. Daylight filled the room and she held up her hand, squinting to see. It wasn’t Martin Bling’s face that greeted her, but her brother’s.

“Michael,” she exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck.

He laughed and pulled her close. “Why are you sleeping on the couch?”

“The house is so big and quiet, it’s spooky.” She pushed away. “How did you make it back?”

“Lots of luck and $15,000,” her father muttered.

Sara blinked three times.

Michael squeezed her arm. “We really wanted to be home to spend Christmas with you.”

Yule took off his coat. “Something smells good.”

“I made cookies. Oh, and cinnamon rolls for breakfast.”

“That sounds great,” Michael said with a smile.

“But aren’t you guys tired?”

“We slept on the plane.” Yule suddenly yawned, then let out a laugh. “Nothing a bit of coffee can’t handle.”

Rising to her feet, Sara headed for the kitchen. “I’ll go make a pot.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Dinner was turkey and pork roast, with potatoes, stuffing, and yams. There was cranberry sauce and green bean casserole, and some Arabic dish Yule had mumbled the name of. It was a grand feast, and the three ate until they could barely move.

Afterwards, they had watched football. Michael could tell Sara was bored, but she did her best to pretend to be interested. Once the games were over, the television went off and Yule pulled out a photo album. Michael never knew his father has gone back to the house and gathered so many pictures.

“Steven wanted to be a chef and an astronaut, both at the same time. We used to tease him that he would open the first restaurant on the moon.”

Sara stared at the picture of the dark haired boy with the chef’s hat on his head. “I wish I could have known him.”

“He was great,” Michael said wistfully. It was already dark outside and her brother glanced up at the tree. “I think we should open presents now.”

Sara wrung her hands and went to the hallway, grabbing a handled bag. She pulled out two packages, handing the larger one to Michael.

“Merry Christmas.”

It was heavy, and from the shape he could tell it was some sort of statue. Ripping off the paper revealed a figure of a male angel dressed in armor, a sword and shield in its hands.

“It’s the archangel, Michael,” Sara explained. “He’s the one who is supposed to have defended heaven and thrown out the rebelling angels.”

“You know I don’t believe in—”

“I know,” she said. “But he reminds me of you. The Black Torrent, defending the good and just.”

As much as Michael felt such stories were akin to fairy tales, he found himself moved.

“You’re my guardian angel,” his sister whispered.

Grabbing her hand, he squeezed it hard. “Thank you. I love it.” Placing the statue on the mantle, he turned as she handed the much smaller box to Yule.

“You didn’t have to give me anything,” the man grumbled.

“Of course I did.”

He opened the box to reveal a small gift card. It was to Eggwards, a restaurant he and Sara often visited.

“I’m giving you a year of lunches,” she announced. “Every single week I’m going to take you to out, my treat. Whether you like it or not.” Sara glanced back at her brother. “And Michael’s going to make sure you go.”

“That’s right,” he warned. “I’m going to make you relax, even if it kills you.”

Yule laughed and nodded. “All right, then. It’s a date.”

Michael wrung his hands. “Your turn.” He reached behind the tree and pulled out a large, flat package. “This is from both me and Dad.”

“Though it was Michael’s idea,” Yule added. “He gets full credit.”

Sara smiled wide. “What is it? A picture?”

“Open it and see.”

Tearing off the paper, Sara’s face lost all expression.

Michael had wanted to make his sister’s first Christmas special. He’d agonized over gifts, hesistant to get her jewelry or some bauble which would just sit on a shelf. He wanted something personal, intimate. Marcel Marconi’s paintings hung in many of the homes of his friends. The artist was known for doing portraits of loved ones who had passed away, and that was when the idea came to him.

“I wanted you to have a picture of you two together. Even if it’s just a fantasy.”

Running her finger across her mother’s face, Sara shook her head. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”

Michael glanced at Yule. The man was always so stern, so stoic. However, as he stared at the picture, tears escaped own his eyes. “I didn’t see this before now. Maggie and our daughter.”

The thought of his father’s infidelity usually caused Michael to bristle. But for the moment, it was all right.

Clearing his throat, Yule clapped his hands and rose. “How about some dessert? I’m looking forward to that pecan pie.”

“And my cookies,” Sara reminded.

The three Bruces made their way back to the kitchen.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Sara?” Michael called, stepping out onto the rooftop.

The woman was standing by the ledge, staring out at the sky.

“You’re going to get sick in this cold.” He pulled off his sweater and placed it on her shoulders.

“I just wanted to look at the stars.”

The night was clear and filled with thousands of tiny dots of light.

“Did you have a good time today?” he asked.

“One of the best days of my life.”

A bright speck appeared and plunged downward, fading out as it disappeared into the horizon.

“Ooh, a shooting star!” Sara squealed. “You’re supposed to make a wish.”

Even though he felt silly, Michael did as his sister told and closed his eyes. A moment later, they both opened them.

“What did you wish for?” he asked.

“You’re not supposed to tell, or it won’t come true.” Sara glanced down. “But to be honest, I didn’t make one. I already got what I wished for.”

“Funny thing—” Michael smiled softly. “Me too.”

Squeezing his hand, Sara turned back to the sky. The siblings stared out together in silence.