Andrea had pretty much given up on Christmas. Sure, she liked all the trappings that came with the season – the trees, the ornaments, the lights. But it was all so...commercial, fake. No one really meant any of the things they said when they wished you a Merry Christmas. It was just like someone saying hello or goodbye. It didn’t mean anything.
She’d felt this way since she could remember. Or rather, since her father had gone away two days before Christmas leaving her family to fend for themselves. That had been the worse year in memory, and she often partied and worked and shopped as hard as possible during the Christmas season just so she would be too tired to remember it.
But this year was going to be better.
Tonight was her company party, the last of a string of parties she’d been to for the week. It was Friday, and Christmas was Sunday. She looked forward to the party – lots of noise, music, food and the yearly bonus the boss handed out. She needed the bonus to finish paying for her trip, booked for Christmas Eve, a trip she’d been saving for and dreamt about for months. It made things cramped for time, but she’d already packed most of what she’d need.
It seemed the perfect solution to the yearly angst. Her brother was going to be out of town, and she didn’t want to spend it with any of her married-with-children friends who’s happy holidays brought nagging and painful memories.
This year she was going to be gone on a cruise ship known for it’s partying atmosphere. The only worry was that despite having saved all year for it, her bank account was still on the red side – needing that bonus money to cover everything. This cruise was her present to herself. The only catch was she’d hoped to have a friend going with her and had booked a room to herself. That had caused the redness in her bank account – the friend part had fallen through. Regardless, the bonus would make up the difference and this meant that she wouldn’t have to share with anyone.
Andrea looked around the apartment, satisfied with it’s clean condition. She hated going on vacation to come home and have to clean – nothing like reality biting really hard. Glancing in the mirror by the door, she appraised her appearance. The red satin dress with the slit up the side, fit her almost like a glove, set off her light skin and showed her greatest asset – her legs. The shiny black stilettos added to the effect, and she smoothed her hair as it lay in dark curls around her shoulders, knowing the stylist had been worth every penny. She wouldn’t have to do anything to it during the cruise.
Satisfied, she grabbed her wrap and clutch, stepped out and locked the door. Passing the apartment next door, a twinge of guilt invaded her satisfaction, but she firmly pushed aside. Everyone at work would be bringing a friend – but she hadn’t invited anyone. She hadn’t been on a date for weeks and her last relationship had ended very badly. Her neighbor, Jared, was the only male she talked to regularly, but he wasn’t exactly someone she wanted to take to a social function – he seemed so laid back. What if he didn’t have a suit?
She shrugged away the idea that it shouldn’t matter and stepped outside. The clouds were heavy and hung low in the sky, a sure sigh snow was on it’s way. She flagged down a taxi and told him the address where the party was being held. This was going to be the kick off night – she could hardly wait.
Packages were mis-delivered to his apartment all the time. Jared was used to telling people that he had their stuff. In fact, the postman regularly left them with him now, figuring it was sure to get to the right people that way. When the package came for his neighbor, his heart skipped a beat.
Not one to push his company on anyone, he hadn’t seen her much in the past week, exchanging even fewer words. His neighbor was gorgeous and he definitely wanted to get to know her better. It didn’t help that he day dreamed about her all the time.
But he hardly ever saw her, and they had been neighbors for almost five years. Perhaps now...now she would have to see him, and he wondered if it would make any difference.
At two in the morning Andrea stumbled up the stairs, so tired she couldn’t see straight as she fumbled with the door key. The party had been even better than last year, the bonus had been exactly as expected, and she could hardly wait for Christmas Eve. Stopping in front of her door, she wobbled on the stilettos and tried to focus on the post-it note stuck there, frowning her confusion. A package? Who would be sending a package?
Squinting at the note, she spotted Jared’s name and shrugged. It would have to wait till tomorrow – there was no way she was going to knock on his door this time of night.
Jared thought if he waited till late in the morning, she might be up. When he knocked and got no answer he realized, with a sinking stomach, that she wasn’t up yet. He was debating on the wisdom of knocking again when she suddenly flung open the door.
Seeing her disheveled state and the thick robe wrapped haphazardly around her shoulders, he became embarrassed. At least she was wearing pajamas, not something more revealing. Cute teddy bear ones too, he noted, quickly trying to shift his gaze to her face.
“Yes?” she mumbled, eyeing him warily.
“Um, you got this package,” he said, feeling like a fool. What was he thinking? This was the stupidest thing he’d ever done...
“Oh yeah.” She stared at it and then at him blankly, before opening the door. “Come on in.”
He gulped and entered before she changed her mind. “Uh, did you get the note?”
“Yeah, but I got in real late,” she said, sitting down on the couch and tucking her feet under her robe.
She didn’t reach for the package, so he placed it on the low coffee table.
“Does it say who it’s from?” she asked, eyeing him wearily.
Surprised, he looked at the return address. “It says Morgan Waterson.”
“That’s funny, he already sent me a present.” Andrea glanced up at him. “Morgan’s my brother, I don’t think you’ve met him.”
Jared shook his head as she reached out and picked it up. She tried pulling the tape off, but couldn’t get it to pull off enough to open it.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his pocket knife. “Need this?”
She flashed him a grin, taking the knife and cutting open the tape. She pushed back the paper packaging to pull out a thin felt stocking, the kind kids used to hang for Christmas years ago.
There was no sound – she stared at it, her mouth hanging open as she held it from her fingertips as if afraid it would bite.
“That’s...um, that’s cool,” Jared said, feeling awkward. “Is it yours?”
She nodded, her eyes looking suspiciously moist. “I - I didn’t know it was still around.” There was a small note tucked in the top, and she pulled it out, wiping at her face.
“Mom found these before she died,” she read out loud. “I forgot to send it on to you. Merry Christmas, Morgan.”
Sighing, it seemed as if she deflated, the air leaving her body and the stocking falling to her lap from her limp hand. She looked so forlorn, Jared wanted to pull her into his arms.
“I haven’t seen this stocking since I was a girl,” she said, absently stroking the faded felt and tracing her name with it’s glittered outline. “Not since my dad left us.” As she rubbed her fingers over the fabric, there was a crinkle of paper. She looked up at him startled before feeling inside to discover an envelope, yellowed a little with time, her name written on it.
“What in the world...” she slipped a finger under the flap and ripped it open to read it through before looking up at Jared, her face draining of color. “It’s – my dad – I,”
He reached over and gently pulled the paper from her fingers, since she wasn’t going to be able to get anything else out and read it for himself.
“Dear Andrea: Never doubt that I love you. Leaving you this Christmas was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’m going away to battle, and it’s likely I won’t come home, so I didn’t want you to have to deal with that. Its probably the coward way out, but I wanted you to remember me here, and not think of me wounded or dying half the world away. Take care of your mother, she needs you, and remember your brother loves you too. You will always be my little sprite, Love, Dad.”
Tears were running down her cheeks when he looked back up, feeling a catch in his throat and an ache in his heart. “I –,”
She shook her head, wiping now at the tears. “You see, I thought he’d just left us. Mom never explained why, only that he was gone. We never knew...or at least I didn’t.” She took the letter back and pressed it flat on her knees with shaking fingers. “I always hoped he come walking back someday.”
Jared wished now he’d never come. What a terrible thing to have during the Christmas season! It was like getting a telegram from the past that someone had died.
“I’m glad you’re here, Jared,” she said softly, still looking down at the paper and touching it softly.
He stared at her in surprise. “Why?”
Andrea smiled through her tears, as if her heart wasn’t breaking. “You understand. I’ve watched you. You know everything that goes on in the apartments. Everyone knows they can count on you, even the mailman.” She tilted her head to one side and regarded him with curiosity. “I’ve never seen you date or with a girl though. So, why haven’t you ever asked me out?”
He gulped, feeling his palms start to sweat. This was a little more than he’d expected. “I – I was afraid you would say no – you are always, um, busy.”
Her giggle surprised him, her face still wet with tears, her eyes sparkling with a light that captivated him. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to ask you. How do you feel about cruising?”