“First Christmas I remember was when I was three.” Matt Lincoln swirled his bourbon on rocks. Christmas songs were playing faintly in the background and a string of lights twinkled above the bar. The drunk on the bar stool next to him was nodding and about to pass out, but in the dark dive on Christmas Eve, there was pretty much no one else to talk to, so Matt kept going.
“That was the year the tree caught fire and burned the house down. I remember the big red fire truck with the flashing lights and the smell, mostly. Fluffy, our cat, died in the fire, but my folks and I got out okay.” Matt looked into his glass, took a sip, ran his finger under his buttoned-down collar. He hadn’t been home yet to change out of his corporate uniform. “As far as I know that was the first one. Some have been worse than others. Usually I don’t lose a pet, but there have been lots of other losses. Mom and Dad both died on a Christmas. Different ones, of course.”
“My God, that’s awful!”
Matt hadn’t noticed that a young woman had come up behind him as he was talking. The drunk was now snoring softly, his head resting on the bar, so Matt turned away from him and toward the woman. She smoothed her red, party dress under her as she settled on the empty stool next to Matt.
“Hi. My name’s Matt,” he said extending his hand.
She took it and replied, “I’m Holly.”
“Holly? Really?” She was pretty in a wholesome sort of way, clean and scrubbed, with her dark hair swept up in a fancy do, and with subtle makeup instead of the raccoon eyes a lot of girls wore during the holidays when they went out to celebrate on Christmas Eve. Matt was suddenly conscious that his own hair was a little too long, and he was a little too clean shaven to be in step with the current fashion. Still, when Matt smiled at her, she smiled back.
“Oh, it gets worse,” she said. “It’s Holly Angel. And I was born on December 25th, so you can imagine.”
“Wow. That must have made for some interesting birthdays.”
The bartender wandered over and raised an eyebrow.
“What would you like?” Matt asked.
“Got anything like a champagne cocktail?” she said, addressing the bartender.
He nodded and wandered off again to get her drink.
“Did those terrible things really happen to you on Christmas?”
“Yes, and a lot more besides. I don’t know why, but every year, the day hits and so does some form of disaster. I used to think it was only because I was expecting it, but I’ve been tracking it for about thirty years, and I’m pretty sure Christmas just hates me.” He loosened his tie, undid the collar button, and took another sip of bourbon as the bartender set a mimosa in front of Holly. Matt indicated to add it to his tab, and Holly nodded her thanks as she picked up the champagne flute and tasted her drink. She smiled, an honest smile, and to Matt, she did look a little like an angel.
“Do you suppose it’s because you offended it in some way?” she asked.
Matt turned a little more toward her and put his elbow on the bar, leaning his head on his fist. “I used to think that, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. I’ve tried observing the heck out of it right down to caroling and giving out fruit cakes. I’ve tried celebrating Yule and Hanukah and Kwanzaa and Saturnalia as well or instead, but nothing seems to work. It gets me every year. Last year, I got fired. I mean, who calls someone up on Christmas day and fires them? Really?”
The bartender was trying to rouse the drunk, offering to call him a cab. The drunk wasn’t responding, so the bartender shrugged and moved back behind the bar.
“So what have your Christmases been like with it being your birthday? Do you get double presents?” Matt waved for another bourbon.
“No,” Holly said, shaking her head. “My folks didn’t have a lot of money, and I was an only kid, so a couple of presents. Sometimes clothes.”
“I know, right?” Holly said.
“Well, you at least got cake?”
“No cake. I would have settled for a fruit cake, honestly.”
“That is rough. Looks like you turned out okay, though.” Matt picked up the new drink and lifted it to Holly.
“That’s sweet of you to say. I don’t suppose I’m any the worse for wear, but it is kind of lonely. Everyone is with family this time of year, and no one is interested in coming to a birthday party. Usually, people just forget it all together.”
“So, do you spend most Christmas eves in a bar alone? “ Matt asked.
“No, usually there are parties, but I just couldn’t face another one. I mean, I like my friends, but they are all off to see family the next day, so they don’t stay out very late. Sometimes they remember and make a sort of birthday and Christmas combination out of it, but that’s too much like when I was a kid.” She slowly twirled her champagne flute.
“I don’t know. I guess I just want to have my own time. Does that seem selfish?” She turned to Matt as she asked.
“I don’t think so. I’m here alone, too. We could both be someplace else, but here we are being on our own and taking time for ourselves. I don’t think that’s selfishness as much as, what, self preservation?”
They sat silently sipping their drinks. The drunk was starting to stir slightly, so the bartender helped him to his feet and moved him toward the door.
“Say, Holly, would you like to get some supper? There’s a kind of nice little Italian place around the corner from here.”
“That sounds like a good idea. Drinking on an empty stomach usually ends badly for me. I could actually eat a horse. Do you suppose they have that on the menu?” she asked as she stood and headed for the coat rack at the end of the bar.
“I’m pretty sure they do,” Matt said laughing, “but only if you order a day ahead.”
Matt paid his tab and helped her on with her coat.
They left the dark bar and stepped into a cold, clear night. Walking down the nearly empty city street and turning the corner, they arrived at a business as tiny and obscure as the bar they had just left. This part of the city seemed to have an abundance of little enterprises that snuggled at the feet of towering office buildings.
The Italian restaurant was like a cliché from an old movie, with red-and-white-checkered tableclothes and wax-draped Chianti bottles with candles in them. It was full of warm smells and waiters with white shirts and black aprons. The place was more crowded than the bar they had just left, with a smattering of families chowing down, maybe before heading off to midnight mass.
After a short wait, Matt and Holly were seated. They perused the menu, woefully lacking in horse dishes, then ordered their food and a small bottle of wine. As they ate their antipasto, Holly asked, “Do you remember every bad Christmas?”
“Oh, sure. Like when I was fifteen, it was a school ski trip over the holidays, and I broke my leg. I remember them all.”
As the evening went on, they played the ‘what happened when’ game. Holly’s memory of every miserable gift she had gotten instead of a real birthday present wasn’t quite as encyclopedic as Matt’s memory. When they came to what happened when he was twenty-nine, Matt went quiet.
“You don’t have to tell me. I’m sorry I’m being so personal,” Holly said, reaching across the table and touching his hand.
“It’s okay. That was the Christmas my wife left me. I probably should have seen it coming, but I didn’t.” He stared at the remains of his chicken marsala, then looked up and smiled. “So, if you don’t mind my asking, why are you single? Or are you?”
Holly laughed. “I don’t mind. Yes, single. Boyfriend liked my roommate more than me. I wouldn’t have minded so much if they had been honest about it. Not that I would have approved of a ménage a trois, you understand, but at least we might have all been able to stay friends. The lying and betrayal were a bit more humiliation than I was willing to take. So I lost my best friend, my boyfriend, and my apartment in one stroke. Slightly traumatic. I haven’t dated much since then. That was about two years ago. Guess I’ve had a little trouble moving on.” She picked at the residue of her eggplant parmesan.
“Did it happen at Christmas?”
Holly laughed again. “No. It was in the summer time, so I guess it could have been worse.” She paused and looked at him. “Do you ever guess what it will be before hand? The Christmas disasters?” she asked.
“No. I suppose I should be able to guess, but it always comes completely out of the blue. Honestly, it’s made me worry about the people around me. I quit having pets. But trying to second guess it is useless and kind of exhausting. I guess I’ve gotten sort of philosophical and just figure Christmas is going to screw me however it’s going to, and I’ll just take what comes. Honestly, the rest of the year is usually pretty good.”
When Matt paid for dinner, Holly insisted on getting the tip. They both paused and shuffled, not sure what to do next as they put on their coats.
Holly finally asked as they moved toward the door, “Do you like science fiction movies?”
“Yes, I love them. I was hoping to catch Gliese 8 sometime over the holidays.”
“If we can get a seat at the late showing, you want to come with me?” she asked.
“I’d love to, but it might be sold out. Let me check.” Matt pulled out his phone and checked for times and availability. “If you don’t mind sitting a ways back, we can get in the 10:30 showing. “
“I don’t mind. Is it 3D? I’m not a fan of 3D.”
“No, it’s 2D. I’ll reserve some seats. We should be able to get there in plenty of time.”
Just to be safe, Holly hailed a cab, and they made the theater with time to spare. Holly got the popcorn and drinks, small ones because they were both still full from supper, but what was a movie without popcorn, they asked one another.
They settled into the cushy seats just before the previews started and watched the movie, jumping at the appropriate times, laughing at the right moments, sniffing a little during the sad scene, and munching popcorn. When the feature was over, right down to the end credits and bonus scene, they agreed it wasn’t the greatest they’d seen, but pretty darned good for an evening’s diversion.
“I guess I should walk you home now,” Matt said, reluctantly, “Or we can get a cab.”
“I don’t live too far from here, and it’s a pretty nice night. Not as cold as I was expecting, even in a dress with my bare legs hanging out.”
Matt resisted the temptation to tell her he thought they were pretty terrific legs. He’d heard somewhere that you never complimented a woman below the neck until you’d known her a while.
As they walked, Matt realized he was holding Holly’s hand. At first he was self conscious. He wasn’t sure who had reached out first or when it had happened, but he relaxed and let it roll.
The night was crystal clear, and the stars that could be seen through the glare of the city lights were diamond bright. The downtown district was surprisingly silent, for a city. Had it not been so, they never would have heard the mewing coming from the alley they were passing by.
“Did you hear that?” Holly asked. They both stood still and listened.
“Yes. I think it’s coming from the dumpster.”
Matt moved into the alley as Holly pulled a small flashlight from her handbag. Together they searched around and then in the dumpster.
The long-haired cat, a gray puff ball, had managed to climb on top of the dumpster’s contents but not high enough to make the leap to freedom.
Matt said in a soothing voice, “Good kitty. Let me help you out of there.” He reached in and gently picked the creature up under its belly. It looked young, not a kitten, but not yet fully grown. As he held it close to his chest, it began to rumble a purr.
“Do you suppose it belongs to someone around here?” Holly asked, returning her flashlight to her purse.
“I haven’t seen any lost cat posters around in a while. If it has a chip, we can get it back to its owner, but I think for tonight we ought to get it in someplace warm.” Matt stroked the gray head.
“That sounds reasonable. Let’s check to see if the 24/7 has cat food. And maybe kitty litter?”
The neighborhood’s all night convenience store had an actual name but everyone who lived downtown called it the 24/7. The clerk was not as bored as they might have expected on an early Christmas morning. Some desperate looking drunks were frantically trying to find something to take home for last minute presents. Matt and Holly laughed imagining what sort of reception those were going to receive.
Cat food and kitty litter were acquired, but a litter box was going to be trickier.
“I’ve got a big roasting pan that should work. Let’s stop by my apartment and pick it up. Then we can take Fluffy to your place,” Holly said, stroking the cat.
“Well, look at him. What else would you call him?”
“Let me make sure.” She gently took the cat and turned him away from her. “Yep. Him.”
The cat was content to ride in Matt’s arms as they made their way to Holly’s apartment to secure the roasting pan. Matt admired her World Market meets Pier One décor, both modern and ethnic, bright and comfortable and unpretentious.
“I’ve got it. Let’s go,” Holly said, waving the roasting pan. “I never use this. I inherited it when the folks downsized.”
“Look,” Matt said, a little uncomfortable. “You don’t have to come with me. It’s late, and you probably want to get some sleep.”
“Don’t be silly. How are you going to carry all this?” She indicated the cat, food, litter, and roasting pan.
Matt could see she had a point.
He was surprised how close they lived to each other, mere blocks apart. His town house was a remnant of his marriage, really too big for one person, but he’d never had the energy to sell it and move to someplace smaller. His ex had taken a lot of the furniture, so it was bachelor sparse, but had a nice sofa and a good television, the staples of a single man’s life. The one thing his ex did leave him was the kitchenware–she had never been a cook.
Fluffy wandered around, checking out the place while Holly used the rest room. When she returned, Matt was standing in the middle of his living room watching the cat move from place to place, sniffing, purring, until it finally jumped up onto the sofa and settled down into a furry pile.
“That didn’t take long. I think he’s moved in.” Holly said.
“I’ll take him to the vet as soon as I can. You know, to find out if he has a chip.” Matt’s voice was sad. Holly walked across the room and hugged him.
“Somebody might miss him and really love him, but if not, I think you need a cat named Fluffy,” she said softly.
Matt kissed her on the cheek. “You know, you’re a really nice person. Thanks for,” he paused, “well, for everything.”
Holly touched his face. “I’d like to see you again, if you’re interested.”
“How about brunch in the morning? For your birthday? I’ll pick you up at, what, ten? That gives you nine hours,” Matt said, brightening.
Holly laughed. “Make it eleven, and you’ve got a deal.”
Matt walked Holly home, discussing where they might be able to get brunch without reservations on a Christmas morning. In the end, Matt decided his place was the safest bet.
He ran all the way back to his condo with his mind racing. He and Fluffy set their alarm for nine am and settled down to sleep.
In the morning, Matt went to the 24/7 to make his required purchases and spent the morning in a flurry of cooking. By the time he picked up Holly, the birthday cake would be cool enough to ice.
She was wearing a thick, pink turtlenecked sweater, jeans, and warm-looking, blue suede boots when he called for her. Matt was glad he’d worn his fisherman knit sweater and jeans—they looked like a couple as they walked out of her apartment together.
When they arrived at his townhouse, Fluffy greeted Holly with much leg rubbing. “How’s my favorite kitty?” she crooned at him.
Matt waved his arm in the direction of the kitchen and the food laid out on the island.
“I didn’t know what you liked, so we’ve got biscuits and gravy, eggs and bacon, pancakes, and caviar, and mimosas, coffee, and tea. I’ve got some fruit, too, because my mom’s voice is always in my head. If I missed anything, just let me know. I’ll figure something out.”
Holly surveyed the food and shook her head. “This should last us a couple of weeks. Did you make all this this morning? How did you even do that?”
“I am a marvel in the kitchen. Besides, it’s your birthday, and you deserve it.”
Holly’s eyes filled with tears, and she swiped at them looking embarrassed. “You’re a really nice guy,” she said.
She moved into him and stood on her toes to give him a kiss. Matt kissed back, and it was nice for everyone all around, except Fluffy who felt left out and meowed loudly to indicate the oversight.
They dug into breakfast, eating until Holly groaned. Fluffy mooched eggs from Holly, and Matt offered him bacon, but he declined.
“So what would you like to do next?” Matt asked as they put away the excess food and filled the dish washer.
“You know, something I’ve always wanted to do on my birthday is ice skate. Unfortunately, all the places to skate are usually closed.”
Matt went to his computer and checked the three local places listed on the internet. He found she was right. He momentarily stared into space, then snapped his fingers. “Give me a minute,” he said, and grabbing his phone, disappeared into the bedroom. A few minutes later he emerged with a grin on his face.
“We’re going to have to bundle up to stay warm. Do you own ice skates?” he asked as he dug in the coat closet, pulling out a ski jacket and densely knitted cap with ear flaps.
“Yes, and I’ve got a ski jacket and long underwear, the whole deal. What are you up to?”
“We’re going to stop by your place to get your gear, then go for a ride.” He patted Fluffy and said, “Hold down the fort, Fluff. And behave yourself.”
They got Matt’s hybrid out of the condo garage and ran by Holly’s apartment to equip her.
“I’ll back for you in a few minutes,” he told her. “There’s something I forgot.”
By the time Matt got back, Holly was somewhat greater in circumference than normal with the extra padding of warm, winter wear.
Driving north out of the city, they passed suburbs with Christmas decorations and fields covered in frost. This had not been a white Christmas, but the temperature had hovered below freezing for several weeks. Half an hour into their trip, Matt pulled off the highway and onto a blacktop road. Finally, he stopped at the wire gate blocking the entrance to a dirt road that led into a stand of bare trees.
Matt jumped out and opened the gate, then drove the car through, leaving the gate open. Holly looked at him with questions in her eyes, but he just smiled. About one hundred yards down the road, Matt pulled to a stop and pointed to their left.
The trees opened onto a clearing with a small pond in the center. Cat tails stood yellow and dry along the south bank, rustling in the breeze. A shed, weathered and slightly askew, stood near the road. Matt got out and ran around to open the door for Holly.
“This place belongs to my cousin. He tested the ice yesterday and says it’s solid and safe. He told me he left skates in the shed, so I’m hoping the pair I usually wear are here. Happy birthday.”
Holly eyes once again glistened with tears. “This is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
Matt found his skates in the shed and put them on, sitting with Holly on a bench just inside the shed door. Together they wobbled their way down to the pond and started to skate. Matt was fairly miserable at it, but Holly knew her way around the ice.
“I could never get the hang of skating backwards. That completely impresses me,” he said as she glided around him. Then she took a graceful leap from one foot to the other, but the skate hit wrong and slid out from under her, landing her on her butt. Matt laughed, but that threw him off balance, and he followed her down onto the ice. They tried to help each other back up but were laughing so hard, it took more than one attempt.
Finally, Matt started to get his legs back. He hadn’t made much of an attempt to skate over the years, but with a little help from Holly, he was able for the first time to skate backwards, covering an an entire yard and a half. By the time that feat had been accomplished, they were both freezing, and the light had begun to fade.
“I think this is the part of the day when we go for hot chocolate,” Matt said, wobbling toward the shed.
Holly replied, following him, “That sounds like a really good idea.”
Once they were settled into the car Matt cranked up the heat, then reached for a thermos in the back seat.
“What’s this?” Holly asked.
“Hot chocolate. There should be an extra cup just behind your seat.”
“You think everything,” Holly said as she retrieved the cup.
“I’m trying.” Matt smiled at her and took the cup from her.
Once they had thawed a bit and sipped some hot chocolate, they drove back to the city with the night fast descending on them. On the way, Matt told Holly about his cousin, Dave, his wife Julie, and the two monsters that they claimed were their children. “Worst kids in the world. Not to be trusted with weapons, tools, or other implements of destruction. Dave and Julie once came home to find every sock the family owned standing in the yard on sticks. I swear. No one could explain why.”
“I’m sure there was some logic to it. Kid logic, maybe.” Holly smiled at Matt. “Please thank them for the use of their pond. It was wonderful.”
“I will. I’m glad I could give you that.”
Holly reached out and squeezed his hand.
They stopped by Holly’s apartment so she could get out of her heavy winter clothes, and Matt could find the leftover Indian food she had stashed in her fridge for what had originally been her planned solo evening.
“I swear to you,” she called from the bedroom, “I can never order Indian food without getting enough for a family of five.”
Back at Matt’s place, Fluffy acted as though they had been gone for a week and demanded attention and food before anything could proceed. Finally, Matt peeled off some of the winter layers while Holly set out the chicken tikka masala and saag paneer, rewarmed and just spicy enough to chase away the last of the chill.
At long last, it was time for the birthday cake. The 24/7 had unbelievably produced a small package of birthday candles that Matt put on the cake and lit.
“Okay. Time to make a wish and blow out the candles,” Matt said, stepping back.
Closing her eyes, Holly made her wish, then blew.
“Do you know, I don’t think I’ve done that more than three times in my whole life. This has been the best birthday I’ve ever had. And it’s all thanks to you.”
“And you too, of course,” Holly said, stroking his gray fur.
“One more thing,” Matt said. He went into the bedroom and came out with a package wrapped in plain white paper. It had no ribbon or card. “You can probably guess I didn’t originally get it for you, but I really do think it’s your present. I just didn’t know that when I bought it.”
“Oh, Matt, this is too much.”
“Don’t say that until you see what it is,” he said, uncomfortable.
Holly ripped the paper off the package. She stared at the contents and did not move.
“I know it’s kind of silly,” Matt said, apologizing. “It’s a game. I understand if you don’t really want it. I mean, it’s just a token because you needed something for your birthday, and I just thought you might….” Matt’s voice trailed off as Holly continued to stare.
“This is,” she started, then stopped again.
“I’m sorry,” Matt said. “I just thought. You know.”
“This is, “ Holly said and swallowed. “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life. How did you even find something like this? This is so completely awesome!”
She turned the Harry Potter Monopoly game over and started opening the box. “We have to play this. We have to play this now. I mean right now.”
Matt let out a deep sigh. Okay, he thought, I didn’t blow it.
They spread the board and various game parts out on the living room floor, then read the directions to make sure they remembered how the game went. Neither of them had played Monopoly for years, and apparently there were some special rules for this version. After the eighth removal, Fluffy understood that the middle of the board was not his territory. In spite of Fluffy’s help, after a few hours of play, Holly won. Matt demanded a rematch at some unspecified time in the future.
“Speaking of time, what time is it?” Holly asked as they put the pieces back into the box.
Matt looked at the clock on his microwave. “Nearly midnight. I didn’t realize it was so late. Do you have to be someplace tomorrow?”
“I’m supposed to call my folks. Maybe drop by. Nothing urgent. How about you?”
“I’m supposed to say ‘hi’ to Dave and Julie and the terrible children. And I’ll thank them for you.” He paused for a moment. “Would you like to come along and meet them?”
Holly looked uncertain. “I probably shouldn’t. That’s your family, and I don’t want to intrude.”
“Probably wise. I wouldn’t want to you meet the monsters so early in our relationship. Might scare you off.” He’d said ‘our relationship’, and internally, he winced, but she had let it slide by without comment.
“Will you call me as soon as you find out if Fluffy has a chip?” she said as she collected her coat and slid the Monopoly game under her arm.
“I will. Do you want me to drive you or walk with you or call a cab?”
“I think I’d like to walk. You don’t have to come if you’re tired, but I’d like the company.”
Matt grabbed his coat and a paper bag with leftover cake and Indian food, and they headed toward her apartment.
They talked about their day and the planned rematch for the game as they walked. At her door, Matt set down the food, took the game from Holly and put it down as well, then pulled her close and kissed her. “Thanks for letting me do these things for you. It’s been the best time I’ve had in a really long time.”
“Thanks for making this the best birthday I’ve ever had.” She stared at Matt. “Do you realize it’s after midnight?”
“Yes,” he said. “Sorry to keep you out so late two nights in a row.”
“But that means Christmas is over. Did anything bad happen?”
Matt slowly shook his head. Somehow, he had completely forgotten about Christmas.
“Let me think,” he said. He ran his mind back over the past twenty-four hours. He’d acquired a possible pet, he’d met a terrific woman, he’d had good food, and seen a pretty good movie. He’d ice skated without breaking anything. No one had died.
“Huh,” he said. He shook his head again. “Let me get back to you on this, but so far, not a single bad thing has happened to me in the last day.”
Matt kissed Holly again and hurried home. When he got there, he went on line and checked his bank account. He hadn’t had his identity stolen. His apartment hadn’t been robbed. No one had called to fire him.
The next day, Matt visited a vet who scanned Fluffy, found no chip and declared the cat in pretty good shape. Fluffy objected to the shots and wormer, but was otherwise cooperative.
Dave, Julie, and the horrible children were fine and happy to see Matt and hear about his skating adventures. They all went skating together, and Matt demonstrated his new-found skill of skating backwards. They didn’t believe he hadn’t had a disaster and were sure it would manifest over the next few days. But that’s not how it worked, Matt knew. It always socked him on the day, even if it had been brewing for months.
That evening, he called Holly.
“How was the visit to your folks?” he asked.
“Pretty good. They told me all about the great time they had with the other inmates.”
“The other people in their retirement complex. It has assisted living for when they need it, but mostly they do retired people things and enjoy ignoring their kids. They like it a lot. Always something to do, and stuff going on. Like Christmas parties and such.” She paused. Matt didn’t know what to say.
“How’s Fluffy? Did you find out anything?” Holly asked.
“He proved to be both healthy and a free agent. He is now officially my cat.”
Matt held up the phone so she could hear Fluffy purring, then settled the gray fur ball on his lap.
“Holly, about Christmas day. Nothing bad happened. In fact, it was a wonderful twenty-four hours. So many good things happened, and I don’t know why.”
“I know,” Holly said in a voice as warm as summer honey, “It’s because it wasn’t Christmas. It was my birthday.”
Matt sat with that for a moment then asked. “Holly, would you like to spend your next birthday with me?”
She sighed. “I can’t think of anything I’d like better.”
Copyright 2018 Marilyn J. Evans