Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2016 is off to a great start. Mine has been crammed with…. you guessed it, Ninety Days. But I always have a little nostalgia lingering after the holidays, and before they are completely forgotten I thought I would post this outtake from Thirty Nights.
At the time a version of this chapter was posted online, I was astonished at how many fans it had. I thought it was Christmas cravings, but the feeling withstood throughout the year. So here it is, in a final nod to the most wonderful time of the year. The beautiful cover art is courtesy of the talented Carol Sales from Beauty and the Beastly Books Blog. Enjoy and check out her blog as well for some great new recommendations!
*Mature Audiences Only*
May 22, 2015
(three days after Aiden’s Alone Place)
“I have to do some work for a couple of hours,” Aiden says after dinner, caressing my cheek. My heartbeat stutters at his martyred expression and the tone of his voice. Beneath the husky musicality, there is some hesitation. As though a part of him doesn’t want to leave me even for a short while.
But I know better now. I know the part of him that doesn’t want to leave is small—just a pinprick of light in his vast, dark depths. The rest of him would stay away from me in the blink of an eye if it meant that I was safe.
“You know, work is overrated for billionaires,” I say, gripping him to me.
He smiles. “Everything is overrated about billionaires. Especially the billionaires themselves.” I’m about to start defending at least one billionaire, but he tips my face up so he can see my eyes. “Seriously, will you be okay for a while?”
The truthful answer—pathetic as it may sound—is “no”. I will miss him every minute of those bloody two hours. Two hours are long for someone who has only 22 days left. But at least I have some sneaky plans to keep me occupied.
“I’ll be great,” I answer. “You go work. I’ll hang out with Cora and call Reagan.”
The faithful V forms between his eyebrows, and he bends his seraphic face to kiss the corner of my lips. “You know, it feels long to me too,” he whispers. “But—”
“Don’t tell me the but part,” I murmur and kiss him hard. He kisses me back in his urgent, demanding way, perhaps finishing his sentence with his tongue, instead of words. When he pulls away, we are both breathless.
“I was going to say, ‘but I’ll work from the library, so I’m not very far.’” He grins at his trick, and taps my nose twice.
I try to come up with some clever response but I can’t speak from the warm bubble parachuting in my chest. I don’t have him for forever, and I may not have him even for 22 days, but I do have him tonight. And I will do my damnedest to make it a great night. A night he will remember not because of his memory, but because he wants to.
“I like that you won’t be far,” I finally manage. “And if you’re very lucky, I may even interrupt you… there’s no telling whether I’ll be wearing clothes or not.”
He laughs his carefree, waterfall laughter. “I’m rarely that lucky.” And with another kiss, he sweeps out of the kitchen, the lights flickering at his passage.
The moment I hear the library door close behind him, I sprint to Cora’s apartment for my Christmas plans. Somewhere deep in my brain, I wonder whether it really is such a good idea to celebrate the holidays early together in case my visa doesn’t come through. Is there a better way to invite bad luck than to celebrate it? I almost trip in terror but then remember Dad’s words from ages ago: luck favors those who don’t fear it.
I skid to a stop at Cora’s door and knock. She opens it immediately with a big smile.
“Isa, hi, come on in!”
Cora’s apartment is clean and all white, with punches of hot pink and royal blue. But the first thing I notice is not the color; it’s the warmth. Cora keeps her apartment at least ten degrees warmer than Aiden keeps the rest of the house. I know it’s because ever since the desert, he doesn’t like heat. Still, it is nice to have warm toes while wrapping presents.
“Here,” says Cora. “I have everything set up and ready to go.” She leads me to the corner of her living room where on a round, dining table are my Christmas ornaments, a new stocking for Aiden, and neat bundles of twinkling lights.
“Cora, you bought more lights!” I pretend to scold.
She laughs. “I couldn’t resist. This is fun for us too.” She rubs her hands together like it really is Christmas in May.
“Did Benson manage to find a tree?” I grin, sitting at the dining table and curling my legs under me.
“Oh yes, you just wait ‘til you see it—it’s beautiful. Benson’s hidden it in the back woods so Mr. Hale doesn’t see it.”
“Good idea. We can bring it all in after Aiden goes to bed. Are you sure he doesn’t suspect anything?”
“Not a thing. Benson said he was very distracted all day trying to close a deal he’s working on and yelling at Bob’s immigration team to hurry up.”
Lunatic that I’ve become, the image of the Dragon breathing fire makes me smile. But only because it’s for my benefit.
“Okay, now here are your frames and the rest of your things,” Cora says, uncovering a clear plastic bin under the table. “I’ll go clean up in the kitchen and keep an eye on Mr. Hale.”
After she leaves, I look at the universe of my treasures that I have carried with me for the last four years. They look ridiculously small—shabby even—compared to what Aiden did for me at his Alone Place. Most of the Aeternum roses are now in Denton’s lab, undergoing geraniol extraction. But some are sprinkled throughout the house, even here on Cora’s dining table.
Yes, my gifts are not much compared to his, but they are all I have. I start scrawling, cutting, gluing, and printing for almost two hours.
In a way, giving Aiden anything that belongs in a frame is silly. With his memory, he does not need pictures—he has none anywhere as far as I’ve seen. But that’s why this is important. I am noticing that although he remembers everything, he has difficulty connecting the memories in a positive way. His mind remembers moments, but his self-loathing and guilt connects them in the most savage, self-destructive way. In short, brilliant though he is, Aiden misses the forest for the trees, the frame for the photos. And with this present, maybe he will see a new way to connect the moments that have brought us together… that are making us, us.
I stare at the finished gifts—how much we have done together in such a short time! Uncovered secrets, saved dreams. It’s hard to believe—looking at all these moments—that there isn’t something better for us. That we are racing toward the end and not the beginning.
I don’t know how long I sit here—lost in the future for once, rather than the past—but eventually, a beep from iPhone jolts me back.
Cora: Mr. Hale is roaming the halls. Hurry! 🙂
I laugh at her smiley face, and sprint to Aiden’s temporary bedroom with only twenty seconds to spare. By the time I rip off my clothes and sprawl naked across the bed, he opens the door.
“There you are—” he starts but then his mouth freezes open into a perfect O. His sentient eyes widen and gaze at me so intensely that my entire skin explodes crimson. From my cheeks to my pinky toe. Still, I don’t look away. His Christmas starts tonight even if he doesn’t know it.
At length he closes his mouth, swallows hard, and speaks—his voice low and husky. “I thought you forgot me.”
I shake my head, keeping my eyes on him. “Haven’t we established that that’s impossible?”
He smiles and saunters to me, slowly. On each step, he takes off his T-shirt, and then his socks, and then his jeans. By the time he towers over me, he is only wearing his snug, grey boxers. He lies on top of me without complexities, without elaborate set-ups. Just his heated skin covering every inch of mine.
He leans close, his lips to my ear. “That’s the beauty about your memory,” he whispers. “For you, forgetting is possible.”
“Not if I don’t want to forget,” I answer and bring his mouth to mine. Still, for now, I do forget everything—the ticking clock, his demons, my Christmas plans, Cora and Benson still awake—and focus only on this moment and the way Aiden’s mouth molds with mine. His tongue dancing a slow, carnal rhythm with my own. His hot lips scorching fiery trails over my skin. His strong hands carving new paths over my breasts, my waist, my hips. And our bodies soldered together without space for anything else but each other.
In the afterstorm, we lie there, my body buzzing from within, the sound of our harsh breathing filling the air. Aiden rests his head on my chest as our lungs stabilize and slow down. I wonder vaguely if we are drifting into sleep and how special that would be—us sleeping in the same bed, legs tangled in knots, maybe fighting for the most blanket. I’d let him have it all. If he would only sleep with me.
“I like the sound of your heart,” Aiden murmurs—his voice slightly hoarse. He looks up, his eyes now the calmest of Mediterranean blue. “It calms me, like you. I listened to it on our first night… after you fell asleep.”
The heart in question starts thundering loudly—very pleased with itself. He smiles and rests his head on my chest again, listening. Every time his lips touch me or his fingertips brush my skin, my heart tries to break out of my chest. We talk now and then… about his work, about my dreams if I get my green card, about our favorite places in Portland and favorite foods. I learn that, like me, he hates TV but really likes public radio. His favorite book is Brothers Karamazov as well. He, too, loves the Portland food carts and orders take-out every Wednesday. He is an undefeated Trivial Pursuit champion—figures!—but his real interest is chess. I melt as I discover how much we have in common. More than just troubled pasts and inner pain. Even without those, we’d still fit together, simply because we were born that way. Albeit two worlds and fifteen years apart.
At length, his voice deepens and slows, as does mine. On any night, I’d stay here, hoping in vain that he’d forget about sleeping apart. But not tonight. Tonight, I have a turkey to roast. “I better let you sleep,” I finally say, caressing his cheek. “You’ve had a long day.”
His arms tighten around me, and his eyes still as though he is imagining something. But before I can ask, the tectonic plates shift and his arms loosen. “It’s safer this way,” he murmurs, kissing me one last time.
I nod, fighting the chilly emptiness that surges up my spine.
“You believe me, don’t you?” he presses as if he can sense it. “You know this is just for your safety.”
“I know,” I sigh, kissing his scar. I can’t argue with his motivation. Not to mention that if I did, he’d feel even worse about all the normal things I’ll be missing if I stay with him. Hideous thought.
“Come on, I’ll tuck you in,” I say, unraveling myself from his arms and legs. He grins and watches me as I throw the comforter over him and switch off the light.
“Sweet dreams, Elisa.”
“No dreams, Aiden.”
That’s the best wish for Aiden’s sleep—he can never trust his dreams. I listen to his low chuckle for a moment after I close the bedroom door. I love you, I think, then shuffle to his real bedroom to put on my pajamas and wait until he is fast asleep.
Benson and Cora find me in the living room about half hour later, Benson carrying a huge Douglas fir that dwarfs even him. They have already strung the lights on it—hopefully they were busy with that and didn’t hear our sexcapades.
We secure the fir in a deep pot by the piano, and plug in the lights. A soft glow illuminates the massive glass wall, casting long, cheerful shadows on the polished hardwood floor. I watch entranced as the isolation of Aiden Hale cracks a little. From Benson’s slack mouth and Cora’s misty eyes, they might be thinking the same thing.
“Thank you,” I tell them, staring at the twinkling lights woven in the branches. “I couldn’t done this without you two.”
To my surprise, Cora gives me a hug. Benson clears his throat, which I think means “don’t mention it,” and turns around to string more lights along the glass wall.
“Oh, come on, Benson,” Cora teases. “Turn around—I know you’re choking up. You’re the biggest softie there is. And I mean that literally.”
“Will you two keep down the giggles?” Benson pretends to hiss but he still doesn’t turn around. “The man sleeps with one eye open. He’ll wake up and catch us here, looking like idiots.”
The two of them razz each other as we hang the ornaments that Reagan and I have accumulated over the years. Cora and I stream a garland over the fireplace and I hang Aiden’s stocking where I’ve spelled Dragon in sparkly dust. After Benson plugs in the last string of lights and Cora fluffs the Santa pillows, we step back and look at our handiwork. It still looks like Aiden’s home, but without the loneliness. It looks cheerful, as though you’d expect laughter and old-world music from each corner.
“Isa, are you sure you don’t want me to help with the cooking?” Cora says. “I’m having too much fun. We’ve never had holidays her—” She stops abruptly as though she said one sentence too many.
But it’s too late. My body absorbs her words faster than my mind does, and a chill runs up my spine in shock. “Never?” I whisper.
Cora shakes her head, her lips pressing together as if to block any other disclosures.
“Why not?” My question sounds almost like a sob. Surely his parents must come here or Marshall or his other Marine friends… But just as I think this, I understand. Yes, his parents would want to come. As would his friends. But would Aiden let them? Would he ever risk their lives for himself? I know the answer to that one. No, he wouldn’t.
Benson and Cora watch my face as though my thoughts are written there in capital, bold letters. Neither of them says a word—perhaps worried they have already said too much.
“So… so what does he do for Christmas? For New Year’s? Is he all alone?” I whisper, my hand flying to my mouth as though it doesn’t want the words to become real. But I know they must be. Here I have been these last four years, missing my parents so much at Christmas that the pain felt like an iron hand choking me every minute until the holidays were over. But at least I had the Solises and Reagan, when just up the hill from me, surrounded in wilderness and cold glass, a man who has fought for his own land—who is better than the sum of all my best parts—sat alone, missing people that are still alive. How can he stand it? How has it not killed him for the last twelve years? Does he see the ones he loves in every twinkly light and miss them in every ticking second?
A sob builds in my chest and I shudder. What have I done by planning Christmas? Am I going to bring him pain tomorrow instead of good memories? How many years will this little whim of my fantasy cost him?
“Cora!” I choke out, hot tears welling in my eyes. “Benson! We have to take all this down. We have to get rid of it, right now. Oh, how could I have been so stupid?”
Cora and Benson flit to my side, Cora taking my hands. “Isa! No, don’t you say that,” Cora whispers urgently, squeezing my hands like Reagan does. “You’re not stupid. This is the best thing for him, sweetheart. Oh, I wish I hadn’t say anything!”
“H-h-how can it be the best thing for him?” I shudder again, trying to swallow the sobs. “Cora, he h-hurts on Christmas. No, no—we have to bring this down. ”
Cora starts to explain but at that moment, Benson’s arm comes around my shoulders—my knees buckle under the weight. “If he hurts on Christmas it’s not because of Christmas. It’s because he’s alone. But now he doesn’t have to be. Now he has you. So why take that chance from him, hmm?” Benson’s gentle eyes are crinkly at the corners, and he’s watching me like I might break.
“Yes, yes, good point Benson!” Cora nods feverishly. “Isa, sweetheart, if I had a coin for every time I wished his parents and friends didn’t listen to him and broke through that door, I’d be richer than Mr. Hale. But they can’t do that because they know their presence alone brings him pain. But with you, it’s different. He only has good memories with you. Listen to Benson. Don’t take that away from Mr. Hale without at least trying.”
I sniffle, trying to find some sense in what they’re saying but the terror of hurting him is too strong for logic. “But who am I to do this for him? I’ve known him five minutes! If his parents and friends respect his choice, who am I to presume I’ll be different and make him happy?”
Benson smiles and pats my shoulder three times—my knees buckle again on each pat. “You’re the only woman he wants. That’s gotta count for somethin’, eh?”
It does—it counts for a lot. It counts for the warmth that radiates in my chest at Benson’s words, for the weak flickering of hope that glimmers now and then, but it doesn’t count enough to cause Aiden pain even for a minute.
“Isa, sweetheart,” Cora continues with a small smile. “Every couple that has so much going against them must be meant to be together. Or else why would the universe bother?”
Because there is no such thing as universe conspiracies, I want to say. But I want to believe her words too much to argue with her.
“Don’t let them win,” she urges, sensing my weakness. “Be a little selfish!”
“Yes, exactly—be selfish on Christmas,” Benson says, shaking my shoulder and making my teeth rattle.
I smile at his enthusiasm—at their eager faces and nervous smiles. And somewhere in their words, I see their logic. There is such a thing as too much selflessness. Aiden too selfless to allow me in his life, and I too selfless to push him. Is that the trouble here?
“Come on, Isa,” Cora says in a final tone, seeing my decision before I make it. “I’ll help you with the turkey. And maybe some steak too. If there is one thing that always puts Mr. Hale in a good mood is steak.”
I smile and wipe my eyes with my sleeve. “All right, but if I see even a trace of hurt in his eyes tomorrow, I’ll call it off.”
“Makes sense,” she approves. “And you won’t see pain.” Benson nods with certainty.
“You two go to bed, I can handle this. Besides, it will be more quiet that way.” They start to argue but perhaps sense that I want to be alone. So eventually they head to their apartments, threatening to come check in on me and make sure the tree is still up. As they are about to turn the corner, I remember.
“Cora! Benson! Wait.” I take out their gifts from my purse and skip to where they are standing, rooted to the spot. “Merry Christmas!”
They stare open-mouthed as they take the small packages from me. I start feeling really foolish. “Umm, it’s not much. Just a small thank you,” I mumble.
They tear the turquoise wrapping paper, Benson struggling a little with the bow and his enormous, sausage-like fingers. Cora opens her box first.
“It’s daffodil bulbs,” I say. “We’ve been experimenting with new breeds at the lab. They’ll be purple and white because they’re crossbred with hyacinth.”
“Thank you,” she says in amazement. “I’ve never seen purple daffodils.”
“Well, they don’t exist unless you make them in a lab, but that’s why I thought you would like them. I saw you had some paper-whites in the kitchen.”
She gives me a warm smile like she thinks I am Father Christmas himself. Then she turns to Benson and jabs him in the ribs. “What did you get, Benson?”
He lifts the lid of his box and pulls out a glass jar. His forehead crumples in confusion.
“It’s thief detection powder,” I explain.
His eyes widen and his face morphs from confusion into downright ecstatic pleasure. Apparently it’s true what they say: inside every adult man—even one as enormous as Benson, there’s a tiny boy waiting for the right toy.
“No fucking… I mean, I’m sorry… no way!”
“Yes way. I always had a jar around in case someone stole supplies to make psychedelics. It will turn the hands of the thief blue and it can’t be washed, unless you have the antidote. That’s the second jar,” I point.
Benson is gaping at me like a huge guppy fish. “Are you telling me you made this yourself?”
I nod, blushing. “Maybe you can use it to catch someone if they threaten Aiden…” I trail off, whether from embarrassment or fear that someone might actually hurt Aiden, I have no idea.
But it must be clear to Benson because he steps closer to me and lowers his head until his gentle brown eyes are level with mine. “It’s my job to protect him. Don’t you ever worry about that. His only enemy is inside him.”
I nod, afraid that if I say something I’ll choke up, and I’ve had enough emotional meltdowns tonight for Cora and Benson to safely label me as clinically unstable.
After they go to bed, I stuff the turkey quietly, fiercely glad that Aiden’s house is so big and that he has exiled himself to the farthest bedroom in his effort to stay as safely away from me as possible. I also marinate some steaks and bake cookies for his stocking because apparently, he has been known to ask for them in convoluted ways, like “Not sure what the big deal is about cookies? Can you make some for my office staff, Cora? Chocolate chip are their favorite.”
By six in the morning, I am finished. The tree is trimmed, his presents are wrapped, his stocking is filled with cookies and naughty coupons, and Christmas carols are downloaded on my iTunes account. After one last glance at our very own North Pole, I tiptoe to his bedroom and inch the door open quietly.
He sleeps. On his back as though he’s lying on cold ground, and hands in loose fists over his abs like he is holding a weapon. The only sign of rest is his peaceful face. As I did on that second night together, I want nothing more than to curl next to him and kiss him awake. The craving is so strong that it propels my feet forward to the bed. Like Aurora reaching for the spindle under Maleficient’s spell. But as I stretch one single finger toward his hand, his alarm goes off. Fur Elise! The melody startles me so much that I gasp. Instantly his eyes fling open.
“Elisa! Baby, are you okay?” he demands urgently, bolting upright—all signs of sleep disappearing.
“I’m fine, I’m great—don’t worry,” I assure him, perching next to him and slithering my way into his arms.
“What’s wrong? Why are you up so early?” Still urgent, but his arms tighten around me like titanium bars.
I press my lips on his chest. “There’s nothing wrong. I came to wake you up but you distracted me with your alarm clock.”
He groans. “You came to wake me up? Elisa, I’ve told you—that’s dangerous. Do I have to lock the door at night?”
“No, no, I was going to call your name,” I improvise quickly and get back to more vital matters. “Your alarm is Fur Elise?”
He shakes his head as though he doesn’t believe me, but then lies back down with a sigh, taking me with him. He tucks me into his fragrant chest and kisses my hair. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Tell me why your alarm is Fur Elise.”
“Why wouldn’t it be? I have good memories with that melody,” he shrugs as though this should be obvious.
I can’t speak over the heart galloping in my chest. He must like me. He must. Not as much as I love him, but enough to want to wake up to my melody.
“Now tell me, why are you up at six in the morning on a Saturday? Are you worried about your green card? Did you have a bad dream?”
I press my lips on his chest. “Such a pessimist, Aiden. You’re worse than me. Why couldn’t I have a good reason to want to see you?”
A hint of the terror I felt last night flickers again but it’s too late now. He’ll see what I’ve done no matter what. “I have a surprise for you.”
His face relaxes, and the tectonic plates shift until his eyes become the clearest turquoise. “A surprise?” he smiles.
I nod, trying to calm down my pulse. He waits—probably for me to tell him what it is—but I’m having a bad case of stage freight. Maybe we should just stay here. I start kissing him, running my hands over his abs. He responds immediately.
“I like this surprise,” he murmurs against my lips and rolls me over his body so that I’m straddling him.
“Umm, it’s… in the… living room,” I breathe, barely coherent now that his lips have found a path down my throat toward my breasts.
“Oh… well… we… can…do…it…there…too,” he says between kisses. “Where… do you… want it?” He pulls back to examine my face intently as though his life depends on my answer. It’s enough for me to remember what’s happening.
“It’s not sex… well, at least not all of it.”
He smiles. “O-kay…” he draws out the word into syllables, now looking confused. “Are you sure you want me to see it? You seem a little… I don’t know… nervous.”
Too late now. Too late now. “Will you promise something before we go in there?”
The smile disappears at the serious tone of my voice. “Promise what? Elisa, what’s going on?”
“Promise me that for today, you will be selfish.” I run my fingers through his stubble and over his scar.
“Selfish? I’m … confused.” The deep V folds between his eyebrows.
“Well, for today, when you see what I have planned, I want you to be selfish. If you don’t like it, I want you to tell me right away. And if you do like it, then just enjoy it without thinking about right and wrong and all those moral principles you torture yourself with.”
The V disappears as he understands, and he smiles. “Am I that bad?”
He shakes his head. “I’m a lot more selfish than you think I am. Case in point: you being here against my better judgment. But if it means this much to you, I promise. For today, I will be selfish. Not a hard thing to do with you…,” he adds quietly, as though speaking the last sentence to himself.
“Thank you! Now come.” I hop off him and take his hand. “Come and be selfish.”
He chuckles, climbs out of bed and slides on his pajamas. Please, let him love it. Or at least don’t let him hate it.
I fix my eyes on him the moment we cross the threshold of the living room. He stops dead on his tracks, as the overhead lights start flickering. But he doesn’t seem to notice them. He just stares unblinkingly for seventeen seconds, then blinks furiously, then stares again—his mouth open, arms hanging to the sides. A full minute later, he still has not said a word, but he turns to me slowly, looking like he is seeing a real-life elf. I’m shaking in my socks. Bad idea. This was a bad idea.
“Merry Christmas?” I meant to say it as a wish but it comes out like a question.
He doesn’t answer but the tectonic plates shift furiously in his eyes.
Eventually, the plates stop, and he gazes back at the tree. He still has not closed his mouth but he treads into the living room, stopping first at the tree and the presents underneath, touching his stocking, running his hand over the garlands and the Santa pillows. It’s not until I see his laser-focused eyes that I realize he is not remembering or hurting. He is recording this with all his senses—his super-memory absorbing every last detail for life. I breathe a small sigh of relief. If he is doing that, he cannot hate it. He would have flinched once or recoiled. But instead, he looks utterly engrossed. He walks back to me where I’m standing almost prostrate from nerves.
His eyes are glowing with a bright, new light I have not seen before, and he sinks on his knees until we are face to face.
“Elisa.” He cups my cheek gently, his thumb brushing over my lips. “You’re giving me Christmas?”
I nod and swallow hard. “I thought… I thought we’ve missed out on so many years … and who knows if we ever will have the chance… so maybe we celebrate it just this once. Even if it’s silly and it’s in May. And maybe now you will have some good memories… you know, to compete with the bad ones.” I don’t why I am whispering and tearing up, but abruptly he takes me in his arms in a hold so strong, it glues me back together.
“Baby, why are you so nervous about this? I love it.” His voice is soft, but emphatic.
“You do?” I pull back to look at his face. It’s lit up, looking as carefree and happy as a real Christmas morning.
“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because, well, I thought you don’t celebrate Christmas. Because maybe it’s too… too painful?”
“Apparently not with you,” he answers with a true, blinding smile. “Merry Christmas, Elisa.”
“Merry Christmas, Aiden.”
I can’t stop my stupid tears. But they are happy tears. There is no pain in me at all. Only happiness and that sense of origin, of a new start. Abruptly I realize that even though I’m the one who planned Christmas, Aiden is the one giving it to me.
He kisses me on the mouth and dries my tears with his fingertips. “Seeing as how I’m supposed to be selfish today, I order you to stop crying immediately even if it’s good tears.”
“Yes, Lieutenant.” I giggle, executing a Marine salute and wiping my eyes.
“Oh, I like this obeying thing. Okay, now stand up and take off your clothes.”
“No!” I laugh, smacking his chest. “Christmas is starting in two minutes. Go sit on the couch.”
His laughter dances around the room—so beautiful that I almost start crying again. “Yes, Ma’am.” He marches to the sofa by the tree, looking at the ornaments. “Are these yours?”
“Mine and Reagan’s. I borrowed them for the day.” I take my eyes off him only long enough to start the hot chocolate.
“And the lights and the tree?”
“Cora and Benson helped me. They’re amazing, by the way.”
“Yes, they are. You must have made their year with this.” He smiles as he tries to peek into his Dragon stocking.
“Aiden, no! No peeking!” I shout and he laughs again, sauntering my way. He looks so happy—like he has no past today. I pour the now-ready hot chocolate in mugs and hand one to him, wishing I could record the sound of his laughter.
“Ready to open your presents?” I say.
He looks at them with a strong emotion on his face. My hands start sweating in nerves so I start playing Christmas carols on my iPhone. He takes it from me and hooks it to some fancy speakers, humming along to Baby, It’s Cold Outside. I wish Dean Martin would stop ruining the sound of Aiden’s voice. Then he switches on the fireplace and turns to me.
“A dance first.”
He takes my hand, and we start twirling. I can’t stop grinning. “Gosh, your lips look delicious,” he sings in my ear. I listen to his voice, marveling that we are the same wounded Elisa and Aiden that we were yesterday, and maybe that we will be tomorrow. Just a bit more selfish for what we want today.
When the song ends, we sit by the tree, and I put all my effort not to look like a quivering mass of jello.
“There are no presents here for you,” Aiden says, and his face falls.
“Yes, there are. Here he is,” I say, and put my hand on his face. “And here,” I grab his cock, who also is excited for Christmas, probably wondering about his present.
“You’re getting daring, Elisa. I like it. Okay, which should I open first?”
“This one,” I hand him the smaller box. I have to sit on my hands so I don’t bite my knuckles. I follow his gaze as he opens the box, even though I know what he is seeing. A double frame; on one side is a photo of his home and on the other, my one-way ticket to America the day he bought his house. I would have never parted with this ticket but ever since I met him, it seems I came here for him alone.
He looks at me with a strong emotion on his face, the one without name that I saw at his Alone Place.
“Is this the real ticket?” he asks, his voice low.
I nod, swallowing so that tears don’t rise to my eyes.
He looks at it again even though I know he has memorized it. His Adam’s apple rolls once in his lovely throat. “Why are you giving it to me?”
“Because this whole journey was worth it just to meet you. Even if it is only now.” I don’t tell him that the ticket was bought with the last of my parents’ money or that all these years it has lived behind their picture on my nightstand.
He leans in and kisses along my jaw to the corner of my lips. “Thank you.” His voice is new, almost humbled.
“You’re welcome. And now, you have a frame!”
He chuckles. “So I do. I think I’ll put it on my desk in the library. It will shock the hell out of Cora and Benson.”
I almost float like a helium balloon. I love you, I love you, I love you. I snap a picture of the moment lest the words break through my locked teeth. “Ready for the other?” I ask.
“Will it make me cry?”
I laugh. “I don’t think so. You’re pretty tough.”
“I don’t know. That last one almost took me out.” He reaches for the big box with a grin. I scoot next to him for this one.
“Another frame,” he muses.
“Yes. I know you don’t really need it with your memory but I thought you should see a new way of connecting things.”
He raises one eyebrow. “New connections?”
“Yes, or associations. You remember everything. But maybe there is a happy way to connect the memories.”
He tears the turquoise paper and holds out the big frame. I watch every flicker of emotion as he takes it all in.
The front page of the Oregonian the day I arrived here. Javier’s sketch of that first painting. The front page of my PowerPoint presentation. A picture of Paradox Café. Byron’s Poem scrawled on the same paper as my paintings. Our Baci quotes. The dried Centifolia rose. The receipt from Powell’s Books. A copy of the front page of Fleming’s book. Bob’s business card. The signature page of the agreement for the sale of my supplement. A dried Aeternum. A picture of him sleeping. A picture of us signing my books. A map of Burford and one of the United States…
Now that I see it, I’m embarrassed. It’s cheesy, but it’s everything we have had together.
“Explain it all to me,” he says softly.
“What is the connection you see?”
He looks suddenly lost despite his perfect recall. “Us,” he says after a moment. I tingle at the pronoun.
“Well, your arrival here all way through yesterday, judging by the dates. The journey that brought you to me?”
“Yes, that’s there. Anything else?”
He shakes his head, and my heart breaks that he does not see himself there at all.
“What do you see?” he asks before I can speak. The tectonic plates are utterly still. He has no memories for this, nothing to interfere. And for what I have to say, that’s the best I can hope for.
“I see what sets you apart from everyone else.”
He swallows hard once. “What is that?”
“You told me what makes me special—my calmness and all that—but you don’t know your own worth. I think it’s time you hear it.”
He looks like he wants to argue so I press on, my voice gaining strength on each word. “From the first time I saw you, you have saved me in one way or another. At first, I’d just have these dreams about you, and every night they made the countdown slightly livable. On our embargo, you woke me up in every sense of the word. And now you’re helping me with my green card, even with my career. You are so determined to keep me safe that you even think you should save me from yourself. But there is one thing you are saving me more from than all others.”
“What?” He looks like the question is burning him.
“My past. You were right at Bob’s. I have lived every day trying to keep my parents alive because a part of me feels guilty about moving on, and an even bigger part still cannot cope with their… death. But then you came along and are bringing out the real me. Where I had a past, now I have a future. Things that used to hurt, now hurt a little less.”
I take his hand in mine and kiss it. “Thank you!”
He looks lost, eyes drifting a thousand miles away, then back again as though he is torn by two tremendous, opposing forces. Then somehow he resolves the conflict because he smiles and gazes at me. “There are two responses to that, Elisa. But in keeping with the rules for Christmas, I’ll only give you the selfish one. I have loved every minute. Even the ones I’ve hated.”
Before I know it, I’m in his arms in one of his bionic movements. He kisses me hard, as if the strength of millions of memories is fueling him. My lips and tongue rush after his, their only goal to taste this moment for as long as he is willing to give it. I love you, my mind is singing. I love you. His lips consume me as our clothes come off. He kisses me slowly, as if each kiss should last one thousand years. And this moment becomes private, even from my own thoughts and my own words.
Around us rain pine needles, twinkling lights, and a song that for the last four years, I have not been able to listen to.
You’re all I want for Christmas.
All I want my whole life through.
Each day is just like Christmas.
Anytime that I’m with you.
My parents wink and walk away, as their favorite carol is now mine.