I was joking around earlier today about how, as big of a grump I am most of the time, the holidays are ridiculously important to me. When I lived overseas the only time I really wanted to be home was Christmas Day. And before I wrote superhero stories, PFP Publishing had actually intended to publish a short story collection of mine that was, no joke, 10% stories set at Christmastime. Maybe it's how I grew up; maybe it's the mystery of the end of the year; maybe it's the perpetual threat of snow mixed with hope and loneliness and love.
Anyway. Here's one of those stories. It's called "bring your compassion," and it's about lonely people making the best of their time together. (It's also the sort of writing style that I was able to get closer to while writing Doc Silence: the Cost of Magic, which was so different from the other books because it got back to my roots.
bring your compassion
We woke up on Christmas morning in a bed without a frame, box spring flush with the floor and covers flung about like a nest. Outside winter was wet and gray, an inch of slush piled through the streets of Boston. Rain spattered against the window and froze, just for a moment, before filling with the heat of the apartment, an ugly morning of tarnished silver.
I woke first, sliding from bed, pulling on a pair of shorts and staring out at that white-gray sky, leaving a steaming palm print against the glass. Somewhere out there families were rising, kids were barreling through houses and condos and tiny little apartment like mine, tearing into gifts, looking for signs of chimney soot footprints or half-eaten cookies. But my family had long ago moved on in one way or another, through tragedy or some grand adventure, scattered to the winds, and Jaime's family, six blocks away, would not allow the bonds of blood to sully their individual Christmases by allowing unwelcome daughters or siblings to cast a shadow on their doors.
I looked over my shoulder at this girl who had staggered into my life six weeks earlier, looked at the way the freckles were cast across her face, her full lips pursed as she dreamed of some other place. We spent Christmas Eve here, us against the world, exchanging the sort of small, self-conscious gifts you exchange with someone you think you might love some day when Christmas comes too early in a relationship, trying to show you care without showing too much, trying to imply what he or she means to you now and what he or she might mean to you some day later. Here in this pair of mittens is a kiss I wish I could give you, hear in this bracelet is a chip of my heart, I thought you might like it. Stay a while, maybe I'll give you the whole thing next Christmas.
Jaime stirred, deep green eyes twirling as they adjusted to the light. I cannot do her face enough justice, I cannot explain the unearthly lines of her cheekbones and jaw, the delicate upturned tip of her nose. She is the type of girl you paint, in your mind, when you think about who you might want to see smiling at you the rest of your life.
"Merry Christmas," she said. She stretches, long, lovely limbs breaking the surface of the comforter. She squeaks at the cold while I admire the different tones of her skin, her nearly gone tan hanging on just a little longer than it should, some vague and distant reminder of a summer long gone.
"Merry Christmas, I said. I knelt down at the edge of the bed and kissed her to entice her out of bed. Instead, she drew me back in.
She left on Christmas day out of South Station, on a day when only the lonely and the desperate deliberately choose to ride the rails. I dropped her off, the world buried beneath a heavy blanket of pure white snow, the season's first storm so late, an unexpected nor'easter dumping winter on us as though to avenge every warm autumn day. She wore all black, a wool pea coat and heavy military-styled boots, a knit cap pulled down over her dark brown hair. She had cut her hair to her shoulders, bangs forming harsh slashes as they were pushed from beneath the cap.
I pulled up to the curb and turned off the ignition.
"Why did you shut the car off?"
"I'll wait with you for the train."
She paused, looked at me with those dark green eyes, her mouth firmly closed before breaking into a small, soft, hesitant smile.
"Okay," she said.
We lay in bed, her back against mine, my hand running up and down her thigh. Outside, the world celebrated. In the kitchen the coffee pot kicked on, gurgling liquid awareness, and we stayed in bed.
"This is shaping up to be an interesting Christmas," she said.
"I don't know," I said. "It feels a little like last Saturday morning to me."
She wriggled, making small struggling noises as she fought to keep our heat sealed beneath our blankets until she faced me. Jaime looked up at me, the tilt of her head doing nothing more than highlighting the wonderful structure of her chin.
"Christmas isn't my best day, you know," she said.
"You mentioned that. I was hoping we could maybe change that a bit."
"We're doing a good job."
"I hope so." I kissed her; she snaked a hand up behind me and took hold of my hair, keeping me in place.
"Yeah, a good job," she said.
"Want me to bring the coffee in here?"
"How about the coffee waits a bit," she said.
And it did.
We stepped from the car into the whipping winds coming off the water, kicking snow up into our faces, collecting on clothing and eyelashes. Jaime darted into the station; I took my time, stomping through the snow, watching her shadow-like shape as she launched herself ahead of me. A moment later we were inside South Station's cavernous halls. They always struck me as being a place that might have once been beautiful, before Au Bon Pan took over, before the walls became covered in Harvard University and Red Sox apparel.
A beautiful place where people say goodbye. I'd never had a good experience here. Either I was leaving, or someone else was. Train stations are made for goodbyes. You would think they should offer some kind of solace and hope--there is a better place beyond the next horizon, there is an escape to for everyone somewhere--but really, it is in these way stations and hubs for leylines where you realize what you've known all along, that you are going away, or someone else is, and your world is about to change.
I stomped the snow off my shoes. She was brushing the snow from her bags. Jaime caught me watching her.
"You gonna be okay?" she said.
"Yeah," I said. "Just can't figure out why it had to be today."
"Cheaper ticket," she said. "And I've never done Christmas Day very well."
"I think you get it right once in a while."
We fell asleep again, waking in late morning. I crawled from bed, as before, retrieving two cups of coffee from the kitchen--black for both of us, me because I couldn't be bothered, her because she hated to mask any of her experiences behind any other sensation--and placed hers on the makeshift nightstand next to the bed. I returned to my perch by the window.
"You don't stay in bed very well, you know," she said. She sat up, taking the blankets with her, wrapping them around like a cloak, the afghan draped over her head like a hood.
"I don't know."
"It's because you can't be bothered to sleep," she said, taking her coffee in both hands as though holding some fragile creature.
On the street below, I could see a family piling into an SUV, four little ones (the oldest, looking sullen and self-conscious, dragging his feet, hustled along by a gentle mother's hand on his shoulder). Rain was coming down in sheets now, ice water from the gods, some practical joke on the holiday itself. Then again, holidays have a tendency of helping folks forget the unfortunate pieces, awful weather, dark moments.
"Hey," she said.
"For making this just like last Saturday."
"It's better for Christmas morning to be like a good Saturday morning than for it to be like just any other day."
"Everything is all set when you get there?"
"Yes," she said. We were standing just far enough apart for it to be uncomfortable, obvious we were no longer in each other's orbits. Nearby, a couple dressed in primary colors sat on a bench, hand in hand, her head on his shoulder. They were both very blond, and very lean, and very tired. A police officer would spare us a glance once in a while, more for lack of something interesting to look at than anything else.
"Got a place to stay?"
"With friends. We've been over this."
"Just making sure."
"No you're not," she said. "You're making small talk. I know you're not that forgetful."
I looked up and made eye-contact with a pair of wreathes; I followed from them the trail of garland running around the circumference of the hall. I never understood the purpose of wreathes, unnatural formations best meant to be forgotten outside one's house, left to dry until Valentine's Day.
"I do get it, you know," I said. "Why you're going."
"I know. I've just had enough of the cold. So have you."
"I'm just not done here yet," I said.
"I know. These things happen."
We ate breakfast in bed. Afterward we stayed there. I laid on my stomach, and Jaime, inexplicably, lay on top of me, her head resting between my shoulder blades. Her breath was warm against my skin. When she spoke, her words were slightly muffled with her mouth pressed against me.
"You know," she said. "I suddenly get that saying, when people say they wish it could be Christmas morning every day of the year."
"You wish you could sleep all day and eat breakfast in bed and have your coffee delivered by a ravishingly handsome man every day, is what you're saying," I said.
"And also have nowhere I need to be, and to have sex a few times before noon, but otherwise your summary is pretty accurate, yes."
"Sounds good to me."
"Why don't you have anywhere to be?" she asked.
"You've got to have someone in your life who wishes you were there on Christmas morning."
"Not anymore," I said. "Things change. People move on. One way or another. You're the one with family in the city, though. Why don't you have somewhere to be?"
"Don't get me started," she said. She started chuckling. The rhythm of her laughter against my body was almost tickling. "Don't get me started on that at all."
She started kneeding my back with her knuckles, and I drifted off again, as she talked about places she's never been.
She looked at the doorway to the trains, anxious for the call to board. She did this with only her eyes, irises retreating to the corner of her eyes, long lashes aimed at me like armed fences.
"You're going to get a ticket if you leave your car there much longer," she said.
"It's Christmas, maybe they'll be in a forgiving mood."
"Sure, that happens all the time," she said. She turned her gaze back to me. "I probably could've picked a better day to leave. I'm sorry."
"It's fine," I said. "We had a pretty good year, didn't we."
"We did. A pretty good year isn't so bad for people like us, is it."
"We exceeded all expectations," I said. She smiled. I reached out, grabbed the lapel of her coat, drew her in. She pressed her face against mine. "It's all better when it's self-inflicted, Jaime."
"Better than not."
"Yeah," I said. She brushed her lips against mine, lightly at first, but breaking into a real kiss, one more, one more for the road, like they used to say. One more for the road. Pack your bags and bring your compassion and kiss me goodbye like you mean it or don't do it at all. "Be brave."
"I always am."
A call for her train over the intercom. Honestly, the station was empty enough they could have called her by name.
"You should get going."
"I should." She paused. "Like a good Saturday morning."
"Not all Saturday mornings turn out the same way. Sometimes it rains."
"Sometimes it snows," she said. "Goodbye."
"Goodbye, Jaime. Be brave."
And then she walked out the hall into the eddies of snow on the tracks, looking back once before she boarded, and she was gone.
Christmas fell on a Saturday, like any other Saturday, when we were still strangers but knew we wouldn't be, not forever. Gifts were exchanged, but the better gift was that of time, for two people who otherwise would have spent the day like any other day, rising alone, cold, watching the world pass us by.
Instead, something more. Here's a little piece; stick around, I'll give you it all. It's easy to give it all away, even easier if you're inclined to give it all away, to be brave in the face of heartbreak and disappointment. You don't learn anything by being cautious, you don't learn anything by keeping the shield up past your eyes. Armor only gets in the way of feeling the sting, but be brave, and the sting has its own rewards as well.
We spent Christmas night in the claw-footed tub in my apartment, the only piece of that place worth a damn for romance or aesthetics, using the hot water to chase away the seeping cold the thin apartment walls couldn't keep out. Jaime dunked her hair in the water, brushing it back form her face. She leaned into the crook of my arm.
"We should do this next year," she said.
"The whole thing. It's been nice."
"We could do it all again tomorrow."
"That would be nice too. But let's make sure to do this next Christmas."
"If you want."
"I promise," I said. But we both knew, then and there, that these are not the kind of promises anyone can keep. You make them to preserve the moment, not the future. "We'll do it all again next year."
I walked down the street from the station and stopped on the bridge. Once upon a time I worked in South Boston, six or eight blocks from the train. It was cold then, too, a bastard commute on winter days, with freezing air tearing off the water, burning eyes and cheeks. I leaned my elbows on the railing, watching the cold winter light glinting off the nearly frozen water. I'd always lived by the ocean, the black waters that don't freeze, that stay in constant motion, at war with the physics of freezing. I heard a car driving past, and turned to watch; from the back seat, a brightly clad child, round-faced and wearing a ridiculous hat with a pompom as large as her head on top, placed her hand against the windowpane as the vehicle drove by. I raised my hand back to her, and she watched me with luminous blue eyes as they drove on.
People pass by and pass along every day. It's what we do. We aren't built to stop moving.
I wrapped my coat around me tighter and headed back to the car. Somewhere else, Jaime was headed West, that flawless face looking out a window as the world rushed by; really, there is nowhere else to go from here, if you want to run away. We always follow the sun. It's instinct. It is tradition.
But instead I headed north, to find my way home, and to salvage Christmas day.
About the author
Matthew Phillion is the author of the Indestructibles YA novel series, its spinoff Echo and the Sea, and the Dungeon Crawlers series of RPG-style novellas.