Prompt: Someone’s First Christmas Without a Loved One; Christmas Time; Weave a Christmas Song into a Short Story: “Wintersong” and “Song for a Winter’s Night” by Sarah McLachlan.
Peter froze at his desk as the lights overhead began to shut down with a soft ‘wump’ one-by-one. He swore softly to himself; he had not thought to check if Helen would be working still.
“Hello?” wafted Helen’s voice across the small office suite. She had likely noticed the glow of one computer monitor. Peter slouched further behind his monitor. Hopefully, she would just assume someone had forgotten to turn off their computer and go. But he knew she would not. He knew all too well that leaving her employees to flounder was not in Helen’s nature. “Peter, is that you?” She was only a few desks away now.
He sat up a bit straighter. “Just me, Helen,” he said quietly. “I, um, lost track of time.” She gave him a pointed look; they both knew that was a lie. They both knew what he was avoiding.
“Walk down with me,” she said. It was not a question, nor even an invitation. He sighed, rising from his desk, and reaching for his coat. Pulling his computer bag out from under his desk, Peter leaned across his workstation to undock his laptop. “Leave it,” said Helen; her tone was gentle, but her meaning was firm. He was not to spend Christmas attempting to escape his life by working. He nodded and followed her toward the elevators, slinging his empty bag over his shoulder.
The elevators chimed pleasantly, and the doors slid open. The pair of them stepped in and Helen pressed the ground level button.
“Do you have plans tonight?” she asked. Helen knew he did not, and Peter’s silence confirmed it. “Would you like some?” she asked again into his silence. “You know you’re always welcome with Walt and me. The girls love your weird games you make up.”
Peter forced a smile. “Thanks, Helen, but I think I’m just going to go home,” he said as the elevator chimed again, and the doors slid open to reveal the building’s lobby. It was all he wanted to do, to go home. But was it even home anymore, without Hannah? Her things were all still there, almost exactly as she had left them, but things did not make a person. Things did not make a home. It was the warmth of her smile, the quiet gasping of her laugh, the comfort of her at his side that was missing. And every time he said he wanted to go home, that was where he was referring. Hannah had always been home. The only thing he desperately wanted was to join her, but it was impossible, she was in a place he could not go.
He knew it was Christmas Eve, but all Peter wanted to do was to go home. But tonight was the night he had been especially dreading, for months. Christmas had always been her favorite; not just the day, but the entire month leading up to it. Her eyes had lit up at the sight of Christmas lights. He could still hear her manic laughter as she would get tangled in the tinsel while attempting to decorate every square inch of their apartment with it.
They crossed the lobby in silence and exited the office building. Before Peter could bid Helen farewell, she caught his arm and stopped him on the pavement beside her. “Why don’t you do that thing you and Hannah were talking about last year?”
Peter looked at Helen in confusion. A dawning look lit his face as his brain finally caught up. “You mean… get a dog?” They had been on their way to do that very thing last Christmas Eve when his world had fallen apart. He had almost entirely forgotten.
“I haven’t exactly been functioning at top capacity,” Peter said with a sigh. He gave his sweater a tug. “I don’t think anyone’s noticed, but I’m pretty sure I’ve worn this thing three times this week.”
“We’ve noticed, honey,” Helen said gently. “But maybe it’s what you need. Someone to depend on you, maybe it will help you take care of yourself again.” She smiled, “In helping a dog, you might help yourself.”
He smiled faintly. “We’ll see,” he said before bidding Helen farewell and a merry Christmas. With a small wave, he began to walk down the glistening pavement towards his apartment building. His thoughts drifted to Hannah, as they attempted to so often, but this time he let them arrive.
Their first Christmas in their apartment, it had snowed Christmas Eve. Peter had woken at three in the morning to find Hannah on their balcony, dressed in her pajamas and slippers, twirling in the falling snow, her hands thrown up to the skies. He was never sure how she knew, but she had always had a knack for sensing when it was snowing and had to go out in it.
The next Christmas she had crafted their very own star to top their first Christmas tree. The pattern on it was H’s and P’s interlaced. It was one of the most hideous things Peter had ever seen, but Hannah had been so proud of it. For seven years it had sat prominently a top their tree. A pang of guilt echoed through his chest as he thought of their tree, and all its trimmings, discarded in their bedroom closet.
By the time he realized where his feet had carried him, Peter found himself standing on the sidewalk outside the animal shelter that Hannah had been planning to bring him to. He swallowed uneasily. What if he failed this dog, whichever one he ended up getting? If they even allowed him one.
On the sidewalk he remained, until the woman inside at the reception desk waved hesitantly at him. He cursed himself, having not noticed her sitting there. He took a deep breath and reached for the door handle.
The woman smiled warmly at him as he entered. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“I… I think I would like to get a dog,” he stammered. No. He cleared his throat, “I mean I am here to get a dog.”
The woman’s smile grew. “What type are you looking for?”
“May I see the one that has been here the longest?” Peter asked after a moments’ thought. That seemed like the thing Hannah would have asked.
“Of course! I know just the one,” the woman exclaimed. She rose from the reception desk and beckoned for Peter to follow her, “This way.”
He followed her into a large room with four aisles of kennels running perpendicular to the door they had entered through. She led him to the far-left aisle and then a quarter of the way down. The kennel she stopped in front of appeared to be empty. But then Peter saw a head lift from a bed in the back. A honey-colored pit bull with pale green eyes studied the two humans standing at its door.
“She’s been here for three years,” the woman said quietly. “She’s only five; dozens have met her, but she’s just so shy with new people none have been willing to give her the time she needs.” A pang shuddered through Peter’s heart; that sounded all too familiar to him. He felt a brush of warm air upon his neck, and after glancing around for an air vent and finding none, he took it as a sign from Hannah. This was the one.
“I’ll take her,” he said firmly.
“Are you sure?” the woman asked. “She’ll require some time and guidance to get acclimated. She’s been alone here for so long; she’ll likely need some slow reminders of what love is.”
Peter found he was smiling. “I have all the time in the world for her,” he said. The dog’s ears pricked up; slowly she stood and made her way towards the front of the kennel. At first her little body was slung low to the ground, her tail tucked between her legs, but the longer she sniffed Peter through the gate, the taller she became, and her tail slowly began to wag.
After an hour or so of paperwork, Peter found himself back on the pavement, a small bag in one hand, a leash in the other. He looked down at the dog at his side, she looked up at him expectantly. His breath caught in his throat as his heart stuttered. It was not lost on him that her name was Hope.
“Ready to go home, Hope?” he asked. She cocked her head in response, setting off at a trot as Peter started off towards home once more.
It took an hour to get into the apartment building. First, Hope was frightened of the automatic doors, then the elevator, then the long corridor of doors that went nowhere; on more than one occasion Peter wondered if he had made a mistake. But as they sat immobile on the steps between the third and fourth floor, he thought back to those first few days, weeks, months even, without Hannah; he had not been able to leave his apartment for nearly three months after her death. He had only just been able to sleep in their bedroom again within the last month or so versus out on the sofa in the living room.
Who was he to tell Hope she needed to stop being afraid and go faster?
Once they had finally gotten inside the apartment, Peter showed her around. Hope showed very little interest in anything. When he set about to making dinner – grilled chicken and rice for the pair of them – Hope just sat in the middle of the living room, staring at him over the half wall. He found she cowered if the overhead lights were on, so he was cooking in the near dark. After managing to burn three of his ten fingers, he decided some alternate light sources needed to be found.
His thoughts drifted once again to the Christmas tree, likely still in a heap in the bottom of his bedroom closet, where he had thrown it in a moment of rage following Hannah’s death. He had always dreaded looking at it again; if he had broken her star, he did not know if he would be able to live with himself. After dinner, he vowed, they would go and look at it, he and Hope together.
Their first Christmas Eve dinner was served with little fanfare. Hope looked at it uncertainly; likely a sharp contrast to the same kibble she had been eating for the past three years. Peter did have a small bag of it from the woman at the shelter, in case Hope would not eat new food. And since no shops would be open until the day after next. However, after a few moments of watching Peter eat from his own plate, Hope finally gave her own plate some attention. She did not finish before she started a soft whine; it was not a needing whine, but more of an uncomfortable whine.
Perhaps dinner would have to wait. He set his plate on a side table and beckoned for Hope to follow him down the corridor to his bedroom. She followed along, though hesitantly. Peter made himself walk in a more confident manner; he could not very well hope to instill confidence in Hope if he himself was slinking around his own home.
He took a steadying breath before he pulled open the closet door. Surely no ghosts would fly out. And even if they did, would a ghost of Hannah really be so bad? He swallowed uneasily as Hannah’s wardrobe came into view. The glimmer of a sleeve of one of her Christmas sweaters caught Peter’s eye and a choked sob-laugh combination escaped him. How had he managed to forget about those obnoxious things?
As he knelt to inspect the discarded Christmas tree in the middle of the floor, Peter swore he caught a whiff of Hannah’s perfume still lingering on her clothing. Gently, he began to rummage through the wreckage of the tree. The three sections had come unattached, unsurprisingly. Ornaments still clung to their branches, however. The tinsel and strings of beads were tangled where the sections of the tree had come apart. But Peter’s breath caught in his throat when he finally found the top of the tree, Hannah’s star still there. It had a crack running across a portion of it, but it was thankfully still intact.
It was a painstaking job, untangling the tree and then transporting it back to the living room, taking the better part of an hour. Peter imagined his dinner was quite cold. He could remember the cold rage that had gripped him as he had dragged the tree down the hall, flinging it into the closet with a scream. But Peter could not for the life of him remember what had set him off. Perhaps it had just been the emptiness, of both himself and the apartment, that had overwhelmed him. As he worked to reverse his destructiveness, Peter noticed Hope following him warily from room to room.
When he finally had the thing erected, everything back in its place, Peter sat back on his haunches. He clicked on the lights and turned back to look at Hannah’s reaction, as he had once done. But she was not standing behind him. A jolt of pain ran through his heart; strange how he had forgotten that. Tears began to well in his eyes as he turned his head back to the Christmas Tree, now alight with color.
The living room took on that warm, multi-colored glow that Hannah had always loved. Her star sparkled, illuminating little H’s and P’s across the ceiling by the lights she had hidden inside the ceramic star. The faded, warm scent of cinnamon and pine began to envelop Peter. He watched how the light caught certain ornaments, how the tinsel twinkled in the lights, how the small sprigs of jingle bells sang merrily in the jet of air from the HVAC vents nearby. Peter found himself smiling through his tears, realizing he was noticing all the little things that Hannah would have been gleefully pointing out to him.
A different jingle sounded from behind him as Peter reached up and whipped his eyes with a sniffle. He was startled by the feeling of warmth beside him and the press of something up against him. Blinking back his flood of tears, Peter looked down to see that Hope had come to sit beside him, her side pressed into his, the closest she had come on her own since they had been in the apartment.
“Is this better?” he asked gently, motioning to the tree and the gentle light it emitted. Hope gingerly licked his cheek, clearing away more of his tears, before sliding down to lay at his side, gazing at the tree.
Peter felt a warmth washing over him as he draped his arm gently across Hope’s back. He turned his gaze back to the tree; another pang jolting through his heart, though this one a bit more pleasant. It felt as though he was thawing from the inside out. As he gazed at the tree, feeling an overwhelming longing for Hannah, he felt Hope’s head move to his lap. He stroked her fur. Perhaps with the help of his dog – no, their dog – he would find himself once again.