As Close as a Christmas Wish
Christmas Eve meant two things to Katie Mills. Her annual viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and lots of spiked eggnog. Although this year, the eggnog ranked higher on her list of priorities.
She tried not to sigh as the festively lit miniature cactus beside the TV caught her eye. White LEDs twinkled happily on the prickly limbs, her own ode to the hot Arizona night. Ordinarily she loved the holiday, and she had since childhood. But this year, her first without Steve, wasn’t the same.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
Her gaze drifted over the glowing ornament that topped her makeshift tree. A vampire with flowing blond hair and carved cheekbones probably wouldn’t be most people’s star of choice, but she wasn’t most people. And that ornament had been her last present from Steve, given to her shortly after he’d known he was dying. He’d bought it to cheer her up, while simultaneously teasing her about the rows of vampire novels lining her shelves.
You and your fantasies, Kate.
Her biggest fantasy had been that Steve would get well. But he hadn’t, and now a tiny grinning vampire was the last thing she had to remember him by.
A pang of loneliness struck her with the force of an anvil.
“God, I wish I wasn’t alone.”
The tinkle of bells shot her from her painful reveries to the present. She thought it was from the movie, but no, it had segued into a commercial. Before she could blink, an elfin woman with a light blue cast to her skin appeared beside her old La-Z-Boy. She wore a pointy pink hat with a clump of bells on the end and a necklace of icicles, except her ice didn’t melt.
“You wished,” she said simply, and cast an arm toward the cactus.
Katie stared stupidly as the vampire ornament shimmered and shook, rising up into a puff of smoke that soon morphed into a full blown man.
Here. In her living room. And he was wearing a cape to go with his fake fangs.
She breathed in and out, willing her heart not to explode through her chest. “Who are you?” She glanced back at the blue…elf beside her chair. Or maybe she was a smurf. Not that it mattered. Whatever or whoever she was, she was gone.
“Leilani’s work here is done, so she vacated.” With a sweep of his cape, the blond man dropped onto the chair opposite her. His eyes blazed a fiery forest green. “I’m glad you turned your Elf cross upside down to welcome her, or else I’d still be swinging on that damn tree.”
“Elf cross?” What the hell? “Uh, look, I’ve been drinking tonight, so—”
“Yeah, standard Christmas alone. I know how it works.” He draped one ankle over his opposite knee, flashing a bit of winter white leg. Good Lord, did men even come that pale in Tempe? “Drinking, sappy movies, tears and recriminations. Well, Kathleen, that’s over now. It’s just about time.”
He’d called her Kathleen. Only Steve had called her that.
She picked up her reindeer mug and gulped down her heavily rummed liquid courage.
“Time for what?” she croaked once she’d emptied the mug.
“You to live again. There is nothing as painful as a living death, Kathleen. Steve wants you to be happy.”
She choked from a mixture of eggnog—too much cinnamon—and raw pain. “I’m happy. I go to work. I see my friends. I even bowl!”
He arched one nearly white brow. “You are miserable. It’s time for that to change.”
A single tear tracked down her cheek and she swiped at it furiously. Now even her ducts had betrayed her. “You’re not real. You’re a damn Christmas ornament. I’m probably sleeping and when I wake up, I’ll be alone.”
Still. Always. Forever.
“You’ll never be alone again. I’ll be as close as a wish, as far as your heartbeat.”
The phrase, the same Steve had uttered before closing his eyes the last time, robbed her of breath. “Who are you? And why are you saying things only my husband could know?”
“Better question. What will your mind allow you to accept?” He rose and crossed over to her chair, then knelt at her side. The hand he placed on her knee was warm, not cold as she’d expected. “Leilani spoke to him. Steven. He’s okay, Kathleen. He wanted her to give you his message, through me.”
“Through you? You’re a damn Christmas ornament. She’s a Smurf.” What the hell had been in that rum? “This isn’t making any sense.”
“Your mind is closed,” he murmured, lifting his hand. He didn’t aim for her cleavage as she’d first assumed, but instead laid his hand on her chest. “But your heart is open. He still loves you, Kathleen. And tonight of all nights, at midnight on Christmas, he wanted you to know you would never have to miss him again. He’s here with you. In every rustle of the wind.” Branches scraped against the glass as the breeze rose outside. “In every bell that chimes.” And again, the sound that had accompanied Leilani. “You only need to look inside yourself to know.”
Katie sucked in a breath as the vampire off her cactus leaned in to brush his surprisingly soft lips against hers. Her eyes closed automatically, and when she opened them a moment later, he was gone and the little girl in the movie was talking about angels getting their wings every time a bell rings.
She looked around her living room. The same well-worn furniture filled her vision, but the warmth spreading through her made everything look fresh and new. Including the vampire ornament adorning her cactus.
She would never be the same.
A smile lifted her lips as tears filled her eyes. Happy tears. She wouldn’t question her Christmas miracle. Tonight she would just open her heart.
“Merry Christmas, Steve,” she whispered.