Exercising the craft—December 21, 2015

By Ekta R. Garg

Prompt: You wake up on a Saturday and while lying in bed think about your to-do list. When you leave your bedroom, though, everything is different: the house, the people, everything. Your room stays exactly the same, but it contains a clue about what changed. So what happened? And can you fix it?

***

Maddy opened her eyes and inhaled long and deep. A yawn forced its way out, and she covered her mouth out of habit. No one there to see her, and yet she was still worried about good manners.

The sun streamed through windows facing her bed. She stretched her limbs, rolled to her side, and pushed herself into a sitting position. Another yawn. She planted her feet on the floor and turned toward the sunlight. The sun offered a betrayal in its brightness. A person could stay indoors all day long and think the temperature on the other side matched the promise of that brightness.

Maddy knew better. She’d trudged home through the parking lot to the spot farthest from the door to her office the previous evening as the sky shook out its daily allotment of winter precipitation. By the time she’d made it home on icy streets, the snow had stopped but the temperature had dropped. Dropped and kept dropping through the night.

Typical Christmas morning, I guess, she thought. I wonder if Jack managed to send me that report before he left the office yesterday.

The clock told her in deference that it was 8:15. She padded to the bathroom and took care of her morning routine while her brain sorted through the corrections she’d asked Jack to address. Just as she left the bathroom, she caught sight of the empty mug on her dressing table.

She made a face at the ring the hot chocolate had left on the inside of the mug. Her sister, Sarah, had sent her the tin the previous week with a note that promised that the hot chocolate would be “the best thing ever to cheer up your holiday!” Why didn’t Sarah get it already that they were no longer kids? Just because Sarah had a gaggle of them now didn’t mean she had to act like one herself.

Still, the previous night, after coming in from the winds that pierced her bones, she’d craved something warm. The cheerful red tin of hot chocolate had offered within itself a promise of that warmth, and before she could talk herself out of it she’d made herself a cup and carried it to bed. The chocolate had filled her stomach and induced a pleasant sleepiness, and she’d managed to get the mug to the dressing table before coming back and snuggling under her comforter.

Just like she and Sarah used to do on Christmas Eve every year. When they would stay with their grandparents…

Maddy shook her head. She had to work today. She had to check on the report from Jack, then email the CFO of the new client organization in Japan so that when the sun made its way back around to that part of the world he would have the latest results in his Inbox. She had to make a decision on what she would wear to the company’s New Year’s thing. Once again she’d be going alone. But then, she hadn’t had a date to the New Year’s thing for two years.

She went to her bedroom door and pulled it open. Instead of the tasteful living room of her one-story townhome, she saw a hallway leading to the left and to some stairs. A distinct smell met her. She knew it but didn’t want to believe that she would actually smell the aroma of her grandfather’s pipe ever again.

“Maddy? Sweetheart?”

Her heart drummed. “Pop-pop?”

“Down here, Maddy. Come here.”

She took a look behind her. There was her bedroom from the townhome. She turned back around and looked at the second-floor layout of her grandparents’ home. The smell of cookies wafted in her direction. But above that was the pipe smoke. The smell of family. The smell of home.

She followed the smoke down the hall, down the stairs, and into her grandfather’s study. He turned away from the desk and stood up, pipe in hand, a tendril of smoke curling up from the end. The tendril made wavy lines in the air as he held out his arms to her.

“Come here, sugar plum.”

“Pop-pop!” Maddy said. The name came out of her mouth with an exhale, letting go of the breath trapped in her chest since her grandfather had died. “Pop-pop, I miss you so much!”

She rushed forward and squeezed tight. He patted her back first, as he always did, then stroked her hair a few times with all of the love she’d known to exist in the world. Then he pulled away and kissed her on the forehead. Cupping her cheeks in his hands, he grinned at her.

“I love you too, honey. How are you?”

“I’m…” She looked at the mug in her hands, then stared back at him. Her hands and feet went cold.

“Am I…dead…too?”

Her grandfather laughed, a warm, rich sound that had always filled the corners of every room. It had always pushed away any hurt, any pain. Pop-pop’s laugh made everything better, always.

“No, you’re not. But you are experiencing something special. I’m here to remind you not to forget about Christmas.”

She scoffed. “Forget about Christmas. What a ridiculous thing to say. I can’t forget about Christmas, Pop-pop. I’ll never be able to forget it, no matter what.”

“I’m not talking about who died on Christmas, love. Your parents are gone, and so are Gram and I. I’m talking about what we taught you about Christmas. About love and giving. And magic.”

Maddy shook her head. “Christmas is just another day. And a non-working day at that. There’s no such thing as magic, Pop-pop.”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

She paused. Definitely couldn’t argue with that, now, could she? The warmth of her grandfather’s chuckle filled the empty crevices in her heart, and she could feel the palpability of his love as he stepped forward and put his arms around her once again.

“Go back to bed, sweetheart. You work hard all year long; you deserve a day off. Heck, if I were you, I’d take the whole week off. What’s the point of being a CEO if you can’t do that once in a while?”

She made noises to protest, but he shushed her and held her in a tight hug.

“Go back to bed. Watch Christmas movies. Stay in your PJs all day. Eat some of that fabulous dinner that Sarah sent you with the hot chocolate, then drink some of the chocolate too and Skype your sister. My god, Maddy, if we had Skype in my day, do you know how often I’d be on there?”

“That’s assuming you could figure out the computer,” she said in a laughing sort of sob.

He smiled again. She couldn’t see it, firmly pressed against his chest in a hug the way she was, but she could feel it.

“Well, that’s besides the point. Skype with Sarah and her kids. Be their family. Let them be your family, and put family first. She’s the only sister you’ve got, and you need to make her a priority. Do you understand?”

The laughter had disappeared from her voice; the only thing that stayed was the sobbing. After a few more moments of hugging, Pop-pop gently pushed her away and out the door. She wanted to protest, wanted to beg for more time with him, but she knew she’d received a gift and didn’t want to look greedy. Instead, she ran back up the stairs to her bedroom-in-the-townhome, dropped the mug on the nightstand, and fell into bed. Tears flowed down her face as she closed her eyes, but she pulled the comforter over her with the stout resolution that this Christmas things would be different. She would be different.

Never again would she doubt the possibility of Christmas magic.

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