Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Some funnies to induce the proper holiday feeling.


You naughty, naughty girl...

Wouldn't say no to that, either...

Been there, done that.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Short Story 2012

The Perfect Gift
by Pia Newman

   It's Christmas Eve and everything is ready for the feast. The apartment is decorated in green-red Christmas motives, the table is set all around with silver plates and cutlery, and the turkey is roasting in the oven. Judging by the delicious scent coming out of the kitchen, it's the best Charlotte has ever made. If only there were someone here to enjoy and share it with.
   She is dressed in black slacks and a red blouse with golden reindeers galloping around the waist. Her grey hair is perfectly coiffed into a frizzy ball around her head; it took the hairdresser half an hour to artfully hide all the bald spots. She is sitting on a chair in the hallway between kitchen, dining room and front entrance. From here, she has the view of her oven, the flickering candles on the dinner table, and the glass front-door. If someone were to stand in front of it, she'd be able to see his shadow through the glass. Not that she's expecting anybody. She's only hoping, though she's not even sure what for. It's not like she invited anybody over for dinner. Who would she invite, anyhow? There's nobody left. Except her estranged son, Danny, whom she hasn’t seen in over ten years, since The Incident with his father. Danny was never able to forgive her, and she isn’t sure she deserves his forgiveness. But she sure does miss her son. Still, she has stopped trying to contact let alone invite him over for Christmas. He only ignores her and she can’t handle the rejection anymore. Libby always tells Charlotte that he’ll come back when he’s ready, that he can’t be rushed. But not even Libby, her young friend and neighbor, is here this Christmas, because she’s back-packing through Australia.
   Charlotte hopes Libby's having fun and has put to rest her guilty conscience about leaving her elderly friend alone at Christmas. Since Libby has no family, either, they usually spend a lot of time together during the holidays.
   "My boss will only let me take two months off between projects, which means my time frame for the trip is December through January," Libby said when she broke the news to Charlotte six months ago. "I'm so excited it's finally working out, but I hate the thought of leaving you alone over Christmas."
   Charlotte hated that thought, too, but she didn't begrudge Libby her experience or her need to see the world. Charlotte was like that once, always looking for adventure.
   Not so much anymore. Arthritis and a crumbling hip don't make travelling easy. These days, she finds her most exciting adventures in books and on TV. But she made a promise not to hide herself behind either one tonight.
   "On Christmas Eve, I want you to prepare the best turkey dinner ever," Libby said to Charlotte two days before she left on her trip. "And don't you dare be cheap and get a small turkey, because you'll pretend to expect lots of guests - at least enough to crowd your table. You will get dressed up like we always do, you will eat the dinner, listen to Christmas carols and fill my stocking with something inappropriate. That’s our ritual, and it will make you remember all the good times we had together. I'll be there in spirit. Only then may you relax on your couch with the present that I'm going to send you straight from Down Under. Promise me you'll do it!"
   Charlotte promised, unable to disappoint her friend and make her feel bad for leaving. Now here she is, her only companions a stuffed turkey and a festive house, whose silence weighs heavily on her heart.
   The turkey is ready. If she leaves it in the oven any longer, it will go dry, and Charlotte is too much of a perfectionist to let that happen. Plus, she has promised to eat at least some of it, so it might as well taste good.
   Charlotte pushes herself up from the chair in her strategic vantage point and shuffles into the kitchen. She puts on her oven mitts and pulls the turkey out of the oven. It is golden-brown and the smell is making her mouth water, triggering her memories of holidays long past. She can almost hear the sounds of family coming from the living room; Danny jumping around and trying to guess what Santa will bring him this year; his father muttering to himself as he's trying to set up the model train tracks around the glittering Christmas tree; Buster's collar jingling along with the Christmas carols as he runs excitedly back and forth between kitchen and living room; Jingle Bells and other carols playing in the back ground. 
   I could at least put the music on
, she thinks to herself as the silence of reality drowns out the memory. Anything to put off eating Christmas dinner alone. But she does take the turkey out to the dining room on her way to the stereo in the living room, and place it in the middle of the table. Maybe she'll feel more like carving it when the music is on.
   She wonders what Libby will send her from Australia. Something fabulous, for sure - Libby always knows what to get - but so far, no package has arrived.
   Charlotte searches for the CD in the cupboard on which the stereo stands, purposely taking her time. When she finds it, she rifles through the jacket several minutes, looking up the songs and testing if she remembers them all by heart. When she finally admits to herself that she could sing these songs backwards in her sleep, she closes the jacket and puts the CD in the player with more force than necessary.
   Stop procrastinating
, she snaps at herself. Just get it over with.
   At least she didn't make dessert. That would just prolong the lonely meal. She considered making tiramisu, her favorite, but now she's glad she didn't go to the effort. Libby sometimes brings a batch over, made by a friend of hers, a professional pastry chef. His tiramisu is to die for, and Charlotte secretly wishes Libby would marry the man, ensuring a daily supply of The Best Dessert On The Planet. The recipe is a secret, of course, and Charlotte's own experiments never turn out as tasty as his, so it definitely wouldn't have been worth it for tonight. She should have bought a new bottle of her favourite single malt, Glenfiddich, though. She would have enjoyed a glass this evening, but she's all out.
   She heads back to the dining table to carve the turkey. The doorbell rings - or is it the bells in the opening beats of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'? Charlotte shuffles to the hall, but there's no silhouette to be seen through the glass. The light on her porch has turned on, though, prompted by the motion detector. Somebody was
here. Maybe they are leaving because she was too slow. Maybe it's the postman, bringing Libby's present!
   It doesn't occur to Charlotte that it's just as likely for Santa to deliver a package on Christmas Eve as it is for the postman; all she cares about is not missing out on the knowledge that somebody, somewhere, is thinking of her tonight. Charlotte hurries to the door, as much as an old lady with a bad hip can hurry. She opens the door just as the light winks out again on the porch.
   There is nobody there. She hears no footsteps walking down the sidewalk, either, even though she’s wearing her hearing aid. Her ears are filled only with her own loneliness and Rudolph's bells playing tricks on her mind.
   She turns and is about to close the door when the hallway light from behind her illuminates the mat on her stoop. On top of the mat, wrapped in red-gold paper, sits a little box with an envelope attached to it.
   Charlotte ignores her protesting hip and bends down to pick up the box. It’s heavy. Her hands tremble as she grasps it and straightens. She fumbles the envelope open, almost dropping the snowman-shaped card as she unfolds it.

Dear Charlotte,
We wish you a Merry Christmas Eve. We're very sorry we couldn't make it to your party ourselves, but we have quite a long drive ahead of us to be with our loved ones. Enclosed, you'll find a little something to get you and your other guests started on a merry night.
All the Best. Meg and Greg.

   Who are Meg and Greg? And what party? They must have left the present at the wrong door, but nobody else in this street is named Charlotte. She shakes the box. It makes no sound; whatever's inside is packed up tight. With one last, half-guilty look at the neighboring houses, she clutches the box to her chest and closes the door behind her. She carries the box to the table, already unwrapping it. Her eyes light up. It's a Glenfiddich gift box. Even if it was meant for another Charlotte with incriminating taste, this Charlotte is happy for the mistake. She ran out of her last batch of whisky three nights ago, so this is perfect timing. She enjoys a glass of it every once in a while, but doesn't often buy a bottle for herself. Libby is usually the one who notices when her supply is running low and sneaks in a new bottle without Charlotte ever seeing her do it.
   Hm. Libby... maybe this is her present? Libby knows she likes the stuff, and could guess that she'd be out of it by now. But why sign the card 'Meg and Greg'?
   Charlotte pulls the bottle out of the box and sets it on the table next to the turkey - there's nobody here to see and criticize, is there? She is about to get herself a glass out of the kitchen, when the doorbell rings again. This time it's unmistakable; whoever's outside is keeping his finger on the button to make sure he or she is heard. This person must know she sometimes forgets to put in her hearing aid.
   But when she opens the door, she's looking at a stranger.
   "Are you Charlotte Tisdale?" he asks. He has a warm smile that brightens his youthful face. Charlotte guesses he's in his late twenties.
   "Yes," she says, astonished but also hesitant. Maybe he's a serial killer. On TV, the least suspicious people always turn out to be the murderers.
   "Nice to meet you," he says, sticking out his hand. She shakes it, despite her doubts. "I'm John. I hope I'm not late."
   "For the turkey dinner. I hope there's still some left."
   All Charlotte can do is blink at him.
   "Oh, right, I almost forgot," he says. He rummages through a bag slung over his shoulder and unearths a Tupperware bowl. "I promised to bring dessert. It's tiramisu. Made it myself. I'm told it's to die for." He winks at her as he quotes her own words at her.
   Impossible. Charlotte takes the bowl and lifts the lid to peek inside. The scent of coffee, vanilla and Marsala makes her mouth water. A smooth surface of chocolate powder meets the eye, sprinkled with white coconut flakes. It's definitely The Best Dessert On The Planet.
   "You're--." She wants to say 'Libby's pastry-chef-friend', but is interrupted by a tiny fuzzball zooming onto the porch and jumping around the two of them excitedly. The fuzzball, whose wagging  tail indicates it might be a dog, is closely followed by a woman in her late forties. She smiles shyly at Charlotte and John and tries to subdue her excited pooch, who reminds Charlotte of Buster. When Buster was young, he had the same springs in his hind legs as this little fellow. He'd been her best friend through those first years after her husband left with Danny. If not for Buster's unquestionable love and steady presence, she wouldn't have gotten through the pain.
   "Rufus, no jumping!" The woman bends over, and the fuzzball launches itself into her arms and begins to lick her face. Charlotte expects the woman to leave in an embarrassed hurry, but she stays. "I'm so sorry, he has no manners. I only just got him and he's so young and silly. But he's housebroken, so he won't ruin your floors. I'm Beth, by the way." She sees Charlotte staring at the fuzzball and suddenly looks worried. "This is the right address, isn't it? You're Charlotte? I was told you wouldn't mind if I brought my dog."
   Before Charlotte can ask who told her this, another person joins them on the porch. Another stranger. Another man who introduces himself, brings a gift and acts as if he got an invitation to her lonesome turkey dinner. Which turns out not to be so lonely after all.


   The table is crowded. Charlotte had to lay out two more place settings to accommodate everyone who came. There are eight people sitting side by side at her table, enjoying the turkey - carved expertly by John - talking, laughing and generally having a wonderful time. Charlotte has met none of these people before, and none of them know each other, but they all came so they wouldn't have to spend Christmas alone. She no longer asks how this miracle came to be. She knows it's Libby's doing, and that is enough.
   The doorbell rings again. Beth offers to open the door, but Charlotte insists on going herself, even though her hip hurts. Rufus takes off with a yap and reaches the door long before Charlotte. When she opens the door and sees her next visitor. Her jaw drops.
   It's Danny. Her prodigal son.
   He looks so grown-up
, she notices. Her little boy is an adult. Well, of course he is, he’s in his early forties, but she remembers him from when he was barely on the cusp of adulthood, and that’s how she’s pictured him for years. Now he’s older, more refined, tall, handsome, perfect. Even his uncertain smile is perfect. She feasts her eyes on him, fights back the tears. She's afraid to blink and find him gone, afraid he's a trick that her mind is playing on her, created by whisky and the miracle of the unexpected companionship.
   "Hello mother," Danny says. "Merry Christmas."
   "What are you doing here?" she whispers, then immediately wishes she could take back her words. They sound accusatory, unfriendly, instead of conveying that all she wants to do is take him in her arms and never let go. But she's so afraid of doing something else wrong where Danny is concerned, that she's always unable to think straight around him.
   He doesn't get defensive, the way she expects. The way he usually does. Instead, he holds up a page of ads out of a local newspaper. "Your friend sent me this." He taps a finger on one of the ads. Charlotte leans forward and reads it.

Who wants to celebrate Christmas with me? My name is Charlotte, and I'm tired of spending Christmas alone. I hereby invite all who feel the same way to join me at my house on Christmas Eve for my famous turkey dinner. If you're interested, give my friend Libby a buzz (see her number at the bottom), she's handling the whole organization. I look forward to meeting you. Happy Holidays and all the Best. Charlotte.

   "I remember those turkey dinners," Danny says. "I missed them every Christmas we spent without you."
   It's a peace offering. The chance at forgiveness she's always hoped for. Charlotte no longer hesitates. She steps forward and does what she should have done a long time ago: she lays her arms around her son and tells him how she feels. "I'm sorry, Danny. So sorry. And I love you so much."
   "I'm sorry, too, ma," he says, hugging her back. Charlotte closes her eyes, breathes in his scent. He hasn't called her 'ma' since he was a little boy.
   Oh Libby
, Charlotte thinks, letting the tears flow. You were right. Your spirit is here. And you sent me the perfect gift for Christmas.