All of my love to Hadley Hemingway.
Without her, this story would have never come into existence.
Without her, it would have been dark and dreary and the worst kind of Christmas.
Without her, there were commas all over the place and questionable word usages.
Basically - I am a mess without her.
(This story won Host's Pick and Best Drama in the Under the Mistletoe Contest.)
The sunset off Kino Bay, Mexico was unreal.
Water to sky.
Sea to air.
Baja hidden just beyond the horizon.
The jagged jut of a small, unforgiving island lay a mere two miles offshore. Isle de Alcatraz, though it didn't have anything on its celebrity twin. Less than a square mile, it was uninhabitable by any human standards, nothing but rough black rock dotted with the snowy white dusting of bird shit. Orbited like an atom, electron seagulls and proton pelicans battling for air and fish and a place to nest. Diving into the steady, lapping ocean. Swimming through the unshakable, blistering sky.
A bird-speckled watercolor of pink and purple, red and gold, painted heavy over the horizon.
The washed-out night of New York had nothing on the sky here. There, it was too bright to see anything beyond the street lights and the billboards and the fluorescent glare of humanity. There, the city swallowed up the stars. But way out here, the sky opened up and the spangled mouth of the galaxy returned. Civilization was so far away that it couldn't fuck up the view. It had been such a long time since I'd been anywhere remote enough to see the constellations that I'd almost forgotten they had been there all along.
The stark white beach house a few feet up the sand was a pale comparison to the colorful sunset going on behind my back. Single room. Whitewashed walls. Dirt floors. Sparse bed. Bare light bulb. The only decoration was the crucified Jesus pinned to the wall like a butterfly to a board, just three feet above the meager pillows, and a single struggling poinsettia on the windowsill.
Didn't matter, the burning eye of God watching over the bed. Didn't matter, the meager surroundings, or the dirt beneath my toes. Didn't matter, the solitude broken only by the surf and the birds. This was supposed to be an escape. A double-time fall-down into somewhere too far away to find me.
Misplaced on purpose.
I sat on the beach for a long time after the sun went down and tried not to think about Alice. Tried not to think about Jasper and the mess I'd left behind when I booked that flight yesterday. Pseudo-name, of course, so they couldn't track me. One I'd never used before, Anthony Masen, a throwback to a long-dead uncle on my father's side and a movie role I'd lost out on to some douchebag with a cocaine habit and a crooked nose. I flew coach, red-eye, and hated every minute of it. Crossed the border at thirty thousand feet. Went through customs in an airport that was really just a glorified tool shed. Shaved my head in a bathroom that looked like the set of a horror movie, the water running brown and the light overhead flickering more off than on. Rented a shitty, rust-covered car the color of watered-down wine. Drove too fast and basically all damn day before the asphalt faded out and I hit the water.
The Sea of Cortez called an end to my mad dash from reality.
Back home, the city was buried in snow drifts. It was piled in the alleyways, blackened from the dirty dregs of human nature, and turning into ice that wouldn't melt until mid-summer. The wind was cold enough to blister. The lights were overwhelming and Christmas music was neverending. Inescapable, the bustle of the city amped up to an almost unbearable level. Here, it was warm. The breeze was a soft kiss and the sand was still hot from a day of baking beneath the sun. Everything moved slowly, even the people. Even the tides.
Two days before Christmas, two thousand odd miles from home, and I'd never felt so alone.
I woke to a flood of sunshine. To sweat-dampened sheets and someone knocking on the door. It took an entire minute to remember where I was, crucified Jesus and whitewashed walls. Mrs. Castillo, the plump, smiley woman I rented the beach house from, was waiting for me outside. She was dressed in festive red, her dark hair peppered white, and she was holding a tray of something that smelled delicious. I blinked back the daylight and culture shock, both bright enough to stun me speechless. Fresh off a red-eye flight from another universe and still reeling a little from the shock of it.
"Buenas dias," she greeted, pushing the tray at me, giving me no choice but to take it. "I hope you slept well." Her English was halted and careful, but clear and concise.
"Very well, thank you." I inhaled a luscious mouthful of sweet and savory, salt and spice. "This smells fantastic.
"Fruit, and tamales," she grinned. "Sopapilla, and my special chocolates with chiles from my garden. Sweet, but oh so hot at the end." She puckered her lips and kissed her fingertips, the universal sign for damn, that's good. "You are too skinny, flaco."
I thanked her with a kiss to her cheek that made her giggle like a preteen girl at a movie premiere and took the tray. She was right, probably, but I'd always been this way and would likely never change. Tall and lean, eyes too big for my face and hands too large for my gangly limbs. Too much unruly hair to even bother to control. I'd given up a long time ago.
I sat on the beach and ate a mango from the tray. Made a fucking mess of it, but goddamn, it tasted better than any mango I've ever eaten before. I licked it off my chin and sucked it from my fingers, following it with some of Mrs. Castillo's chocolates. She was right, they burned a sticky molten path clear down my throat; sizzling hot and scorchingly sweet, baking in my stomach while I baked in the sun. I didn't leave the beach all morning. I watched fishermen tugging nets into their boats and the clouds change shapes as they careened across the water. Swam the two miles out to that rocky prison island and wandered around the entire edge of it, sidestepping bird shit and nests and stunted cactus, dodging rabid seagulls. Swam back, the sea surprisingly calm and warm, and threw rocks into the water while the sun dried my clothes. Put four into my pocket, all washed smooth and in varying shades. Pale pink skin to dark black coffee, all rattling against my leg as I walked, lost in thought.
Alice was probably convincing herself that I was dead in a ditch somewhere. Jasper was probably calling my mother, my friends, every name in the proverbial black book trying to track me down. I probably should have called, but my phone wasn't getting any reception and I didn't want to talk to anyone anyway. Talking meant explaining where I was and why I'd fled. Talking meant trying to justify the fact that fleeing didn't necessarily mean I was unhappy. I was too happy, that was the problem. Too comfortable and too safe. Watched over like an expensive pet and fondled every time I needed reassurance. Spoiled and overfed by people who cared about me more than they should.
How was it possible to feel so fucking lonely when I was never really alone?
Before I realized it, I had walked two miles along the water line and ended up in the "civilized" version of town.
Somewhere in the middle, I got turned around. Confused north and south, the gentle stretch of sand on either side strikingly similar. I meant to head back to Old Town, Kino Viejo, and my meager room, maybe read that book I'd been dragging around with me for the last six months now. Instead, I ended up in New Town. Kino Nuevo. Dubbed this by the locals, it was the plasticized resort version of their authentic village. The saccharine rendition of their pleasantly sweet original. A bacterial rot of manicured lawns and RV parks that had sprung up a couple miles north, like an encroaching rash. The tourists separated themselves with a two mile buffer of desert and only ventured local for the day before scurrying back to their brand name hotels at night. All clean concrete and flower boxes. Street lights and chain restaurants. Parking spots and pavement.
I preferred the dirt roads, honestly.
New Town was infested with the very worst of Americanized Christmas. Neon lights crawling up the palm trees and plastic wreaths slung from every street light. Big blow-up Santas on the front lawns of the hotels and again, the inescapable Christmas music. I was about to turn around, hightail myself out of the eye of a public that would surely recognize me, when a colorful mishmash of stalls caught my eye. They were set up on the sidewalk overlooking the beach, their patrons selling everything from sombreros to snorkel gear, sunscreen to straw hats. There was some guy hawking rock lobsters the size of my forearm. Another pushing bay scallops pulled fresh from the water and seared quickly on a piece of red-hot metal, handed over on a flat green leaf that served as a plate and a napkin.
I couldn't help myself.
I bought a hand-woven hammock, dirt cheap, blue and yellow and fringed on the ends from a woman with pretty brown skin and six children hanging onto her skirts. I didn't know how long I intended to stay, but I needed somewhere to lie around if I meant to read that book. The sagging bed at the beach house wasn't going to cut it. I wandered around the rest of the market, the hammock rolled up beneath my arm, pulling my hat down low while trying to avoid the hurtling clusters of screaming children and the tantalizing offers coming from the stalls I passed. Lost in the heat and the noise and the flurry.
Just another face in the crowd.
Carefree as a goddamn hurricane.
The last stall in the row was selling jewelry.
Tiny clear tubes like test subjects were strung on to necklaces and woven into bracelets, each containing a tiny reproduction of a classic painting. Not precise replicas, but the intoned imaginings of the late-greats. Degas and Klimt, Pollack and Dali and Chagall. Munch and Picasso. Impressionists and surrealists. Plein air and pointillism.
All of them painted painstakingly onto a single grain of rice.
When I glanced up from a pile of bracelets, she was smiling at me. My hand fell to my side, my mouth nearly fell open. Something about that face. Those lips. The soft, sun-faded cotton dress and the deep, dark tan. Those freckles. Hair in a salt spray disaster around her shoulders. Eyes like the chocolate Mrs. Castillo had given me last night.
Deceivingly simple at first taste, wickedly hot on the tail end.
"Hi," I stammered, unsure of my tongue or my hands or what my face looked like right now. "These are really something." I fingered the row of necklaces hanging between us, miniature masterpieces that rattled against one another with my touch.
"Thanks. I've got a thing for old dead guys." Her smile never wavered and she obviously thought she was making a joke because she burst out giggling, covering her mouth with her hand. Her fingers were long and thin and her nails were unpainted and I'd heard a lot of laughter in my time, but nothing that sounded like that. Free and alive, not forced or deliberately played, as I was used to. Like a goddamn song and so fucking lovely, I didn't want her to stop.
"I'll take two."
"Take your pick." She nodded her head toward the tables between us, rows of bracelets, necklaces swaying in the breeze, and I picked two at random, not really caring, just scrambling for more time.
"Will you engrave them?" I asked.
"Five each." She pointed her chin at the sign near my elbow with her prices scrawled in blocky handwriting. I shook my head, shocked that she'd do something so precise for so little.
"That's too cheap, you'll go blind doing this. You should be charging ten."
"This is Mexico." She narrowed her eyes at me. "I don't know where you're from, but I'm not trying to rip anyone off here."
"I'll pay you ten. Each. Two names."
"Fine, fine," she muttered, snatching one of the necklaces away, but smiling as she did it. She plopped back down in her seat and glanced at me, pencil poised over paper. "First name?"
She made me spell it, even though I wasn't sure there was any other way to spell it, and set to work, hunched and silent while I took the opportunity to study her. She was small and pretty. Not just pretty, beautiful. Pink beneath the heavy tan, flyaway mane of hair sunkissed golden over the brown. She was barefooted and braless, not a hint of makeup, and her lips were chapped. She tucked the grain of rice back into the necklace and screwed the cap on as she walked toward me, handing it over and managing to keep our fingers from contacting.
"Amazing," I exhaled, my name crammed into the empty space around a Monet.
"What's the next name?" She was ready for it, staring up at me expectantly, already fumbling with the second necklace. I couldn't help the grin. It just came on, the one that I knew made me look sincere and completely fucking filthy all at the same time.
"Yours? Who names their kid that? Seriously?" She gaped at me. Her mouth dropped open and I caught a glimpse of her tongue.
"No, your name." I set my palms to the table between us, crushing bracelets beneath me to lean in close. "I want you to write your name on the second one."
"Who the fuck are you?" Her eyebrows dipped low and her tone went harsh, her step backward putting space between us that I didn't like at all. I leaned back on my heels, trying to give her some room even though I didn't want to, shoving my hands into my pockets and gripping that little glass tube between my fingers tight enough to shatter it.
"You know my name. I'm asking for yours."
"That costs more than ten bucks, buddy." Her eyebrow arched, but her eyes drifted down across my face. Dipping into my my shirt collar and tripping down my arms. Winding around my fingers. Making something in my stomach go soft and my dick go hard at the same time.
"I'll pay you double," I said, roughly. "Then have a drink with me."
She shook her head fiercely. "I'm working."
"I'll wait," I promised. She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth then bit down hard while she eyed me, probably trying to decide if I was a psychopath or a serial killer. I wiped the lecherous smile off my face and tried to look trustworthy. "I'm just lonely. Bored. It's only some company, nothing more," I said, hoping I was lying.
She did it. Turned around and sat down and etched her name onto the back of something that looked like a Van Gogh.
Five simple letters.
"Fine," she huffed, her eyes lifting to meet mine. "But don't make me go searching for you."
She found me three hours later. I spent most of that time fast asleep on the beach, head pillowed on the hammock, working off the jet lag, waking with a start only when I felt something prodding my arm. Her foot, bare but for a sheath of sand that clung to her skin and a clumsily woven bracelet strung around her ankle, nudged at my bicep.
"You better be careful doing that," she said, eyebrow arched. "The local boys will jump you for your wallet."
"Good thing I don't have it on me." I stood and brushed the sand off, nodding my head toward a little beachside beer hut just a couple hundred feet away. The sand around it was littered with a tacky light-up nativity display, life-sized and neon-colored. The palm trees were strung up the trunks with more lights and loud, shitty Christmas music spewed from the open windows. It was chock full of of colorful vacationers in tropical button downs and fake Santa hats, but it was the closest thing I'd seen to a bar without wandering into the belly of the beast.
"There's no way I'm going in there." She shook her head intently and I was already falling hard for her stubborn streak. "I can't walk two feet into that place without getting groped somewhere completely inappropriate. There's a bar in Old Town." She cocked her head in the opposite direction. "It's the only place I drink."
"In Kino Viejo?" I asked, both surprised and relieved. She blinked rapidly, seeming shocked that I'd busted out some Spanish. I wondered if I'd totally mangled it.
"Yeah, I live there. You should try it out some time, gringo," she teased.
"I'm staying there too."
She looked me up and down, her eyebrow arching again. "I would have pegged you for a Nuevo type."
"I'm trying to get away from that shit. Live simply, you know?" I shrugged, because she was right. I totally was a New Town type and was completely out of my element here. Playing normal for once, just some guy on some beach. I hadn't gone chasing around after a girl in so long, I didn't even know what to do. Typically they just fell into my lap and stayed there until I pushed them away.
We walked down the beach, mostly silent except for the occasional remark about the water or the salty sea air. I had hundreds of questions I wanted to ask her and was sure she had the same, if not more, to ask me. But, neither of us seemed to want to break the mutual secrecy. I followed closely behind as she led me through the darkened alleyways, eyes glued to the back of her neck and my hands itching to touch her, wondering just what a girl like her was doing in this tiny beach town hundreds of miles from the border.
Her favorite bar looked suspiciously like someone's house. It sat in the middle of the same dusty street I had driven down that first night, painted bright green and yellow, two stories rising above the rest of the single-level town around it. A small front room was filled with scattered tables and rickety chairs, fraying rugs on the floor. Another Jesus was pinned to the wall, watching over the patrons and their liquid sins. Groups of people clustered together in slurred conversations I couldn't understand, all of which stopped immediately the moment Bella ushered me through the door. Every eye landed on me before wavering to Bella with pinched brows. All of them looking at her as if they couldn't understand her, but weren't surprised by her all the same.
The kitchen had become the bar, countertop manned by a plump brown woman who gave Bella a hug and a talking-to in rapid fire Spanish. Bella just blushed and snatched a six pack from the biggest refrigerator I'd seen here yet, hightailing it up a flight of stairs. The lady winked at me as I followed, the front-room buzz flaring louder with every step I took.
The rooftop was the VIP section, if there was such a thing here. Hoisted high above the rest of the village, overlooking the ocean, peppered with sleeping cats on the low walls and more mismatched furniture. Bella selected a corner table, the top painted with a chipped Virgin Mary, well away from the other two patrons. One was slumped in a corner, snoring soundly with ten empty beer bottles in front of him, while the other crouched over a guitar that had seen a hundred years worth of better days. He was plucking out a complex melody, the battered instrument crying out an appropriately melancholy Christmas tune. The scenery was kind of fascinating, but I was stuck on her. Bella propped her feet up on an empty chair, draining half her beer while the pink sky set her skin aglow and drenched the rooftop in a pool of soft gold that felt thick enough to swim through.
We didn't talk. Just let the sun set and that guy make his guitar sing and the alcohol disappear, a local beer that tasted better here than it ever would after it was imported to the States. She sat close enough that I could almost feel her, but too far away for me to watch unnoticed. Instead, I burned my eyeballs staring at the falling sun, then tried to see beyond the singed spots when she pulled herself out of her chair.
She danced like she was dreaming.
Like her body was following her mind and her mind had absolutely no intention of complying to limitations. Fluid like water and sultry as a heat wave. Bones gone soft and pliable, skin turned to gold under the last fading rays of the sun. A shimmery dewdrop halo at her hairline, soft damp curls all around her face, feet sliding soft and sure across the sand-scattered floor. I watched her while I finished my beer, then hers. Reached out and grabbed her wrist when she swayed close enough to pull her into my lap, setting my mouth to her neck. She squirmed, but not for long, leaning up against me and exhaling into my hair as I pulled my lips away and licked the soft spot below her ear. She tasted like fire dipped in honey. Like the sun coated in a sticky candy shell and those chiles Mrs. Castillo had put in the chocolate, sweet and spicy in a way that made me want to beg for more, even if it made my eyes water.
I nudged my nose along her jaw as my arms slid around her waist, pulling her closer, hoping she could feel what she was doing to me because I could barely concentrate. Searching for her hip bones while I searched for her mouth, finding both at the same time and pushing myself up against all of her. She broke away, breathing heavily, gulping and gripping my hands in hers, pulling them away from her.
"I should go," she exhaled heavily.
"No. No, you really shouldn't." I tried to dive bomb her, a sneak attack seal of my lips over hers, but she dodged me and I ended up with the smooth stretch of her shoulder instead. Not exactly a step down though, and I was fully willing to accept any sort of prize right now. She smelled so fucking good but was still holding my hands away, pushing me off even though I wasn't really fighting her, only nudging gently to see where she'd let me go.
"It's late. I need to get home." Her voice was wobbly and I pushed my fingers through hers, clasping our palms together and pulling them between us. Fists to our stomachs, eye to eye, just inches apart.
"Can I come with you?"
She shook her head. "I'm not that kind of girl."
"I didn't say that, but I could really use a place to be," I shrugged.
"And you think I'm that place?"
"Yes," I said simply, but I really wanted to say was "Fuck yes. I like you. You have a such a pretty face. I don't know how I found you, but I think this you might be a miracle. I'd like to see what you look like in the dark. I'd like to know what you feel like underneath that dress. I'd like to whisper your name to you. I want you to scream my name at me."
She looked at me hard for a long time before lifting her eyes to the sky, letting out a heavy breath. "Ok, sure. Fine. But I have to stop and get Magda first."
"What's that?" I asked, not really caring, pushing my face back into her hair.
"Not what. Who."
Magda was five years old and fast asleep.
Dark-skinned and ebony-eyed, at least from what I could tell by the momentary flutter of her eyelids. She was shuffled from the arms of a teenage girl into Bella's, heavy as a bag of flour. Bella pressed money into the teenager's hand while Magda pressed her face into Bella's shoulder and the teenager handed over a stack of cut paper snowflakes. I followed them to a little house around the corner, hidden behind a fence of unruly sagebrush with a yard of soft brown dirt.
I inspected the entirety of the house while Bella tended to her daughter. It was small, but so full of life it was practically overflowing. Handwoven rugs in a rainbow of colors thrown over the concrete floors and crayon drawings of magical creatures tacked to the walls. Patterned curtains and chipped dishes. Walls painted blue and yellow and red. Kitchen table covered in sticky splotches of jam. A tall, slender cactus in a painted pot stood in the corner, its thorns draped in strings of popcorn and ornaments made of seashells, topped with an angel fashioned of corn husks. Three small packages wrapped up in newsprint lay at its base, each with Magda's name written on them. There was a fireplace, only a small indention in the wall, but it looked as though it was rarely used. Three doll beds were set up inside, lined up in a row with their night-gowned inhabitants tucked in tight.
The shelf above the fireplace might have been called a mantle in a more civilized world, but here it was just a place to hold photographic evidence of a life I was starting to piece together. A middle-aged woman with frizzy hair and an even frizzier expression, dressed in wilted cotton, holding a spatula in an outdated kitchen. A man smiling beneath a giant seventies cop 'stache. A group of high school girls in bikinis lofting beer bottles into the air in salute, Bella right in the middle, looking younger and carefree. Magda, over and over and over, sleeping and crying and smiling, aging ever so slightly from one picture to the next. A guy with the same deep dark skin and night vision eyes as the baby version of Magda, perched on his on his knee.
I turned to Bella when she reappeared, nodding toward the photographs.
"Gone." She didn't offer any more. That single word, enough of an explanation, and the shrug her way of telling me not to push it further. Whoever he was, I had the sneaking suspicion he was probably dead and not just a deadbeat.
I woke in a puddle of sweet and sticky sweat. To hair in my face and hands on my chest and a flower-printed sheet draped over us. The snowflakes I'd helped her hang from the ceiling last night were fluttering in the nearly nonexistent breeze, a snowstorm in the middle of the Mexican heat. She was humming under her breath, tracing the veins in my neck with a fingertip, and I sunk my hands beneath the sheets to pull her closer. She was still fully dressed. The only article of clothing we'd lost during our silent midnight make out session had been my shirt, now crumpled beneath my head. I hadn't done such a thing since middle school, frantic kissing and fondling that didn't lead anywhere further than the two of us passing out, exhausted and only halfway drunk, some time before the sun rose.
"You have to go," she whispered, the kiss she left on my neck completely contradicting her demand.
"You're gonna kick me out before the sun has even risen? Damn woman," I chuckled, "that's just downright cruel."
"If you leave early enough, she'll never even remember you were here."
"You don't want her to remember me?"
Bella sighed heavily. "This is complicated, Edward."
I didn't respond. No shit, it was complicated.
Her eyes narrowed. "I have to put her first. Always."
"What makes you think I won't?"
The furrow between her brows told me that she'd probably heard the same statement before from someone with no follow-through. I didn't want to wonder how many someones.
"You don't even know her. Or me." When she sighed, her tits squashed against my chest, pillowing out of the neckline of her top and I yanked my eyes off them to find her gaze again.
"Let me, then."
The mattress shifted, two little hands gripping the edge and two big black eyes peering up at us. Bella flung the sheet away, scrambling off me as if to show her daughter that nothing had happened, while I began wishing for the first time all night that I didn't have a hard-on underneath my jeans. The little girl blinked up at us, a browned sugar version of her mother with an equally brilliant smile. She crawled up onto the bed, lodging herself firmly between us to let her mother kiss her face before she looked right at me.
In that unabashed way that only a kid could pull off, she asked who I was and if I was there to play with her.
An hour later I was on the beach, shirtless and trying my hardest not to eye-fuck Bella. She had on a tiny little bikini top and a weak excuse for shorts and had been prancing around in front of me all day like that. She was obviously on to me and the eye-fucking because she had been using her kid as a shield, plopping her down on my stomach to pin me into place and letting the little girl talk me through a half-English monologue about the ocean and all of the improbable things that lived there. Mermaids. An awful lot about mermaids. Magda was apparently going to be one someday, although I wasn't sure how she planned to accomplish that.
"So, tell me more about these mermaids." I grinned at Bella as Magda finally tired of me and ran off to dig a hole in the sand. Something I didn't quite see the fun in, but I wasn't judging.
"The fishermen say it's magic." Bella pointed at the island. "They blame the mermaids when they crash a boat, but we all know it's because they're drunk."
"Well, I don't know about mermaids. All I saw was birdshit, birdshit, and more birdshit. Maybe a cactus or two."
"You went out there?"
"Yeah. Felt good. Water's nice around here."
"You SWAM there?" Her mouth dropped open, a look of horror on her face when I nodded. "Don't ever do that again."
"Because there are monsters out there," she nearly whispered. "You might think the locals are being superstitious, but I've seen them. 'Mermaid' is putting it really, really nicely."
"Monsters? You can't be serious."
"Oh, I'm serious… Giant ones. Big enough to take a whale. They wash up on shore, ripped to shreds."
"And you've seen these monsters?"
"Yeah." She shuddered. "Cold and wet."
"What do you have against cold and wet?"
"Nothing. I just prefer hard and hot." She sighed with a smile as I slipped my fingers under her chin and pulled her close enough to kiss.
"Is Edward coming with us?"
Bella was pulling Magda into a light lacy dress, white with red yarn flowers embroidered all across the front. She glanced at me from the corner of her eye before turning back to Magda, trying to brush some of the wrinkles out of the lace.
"Only if he wants to," she answered, sounding way too noncommittal for my taste.
"I want to," I said.
"You don't even know where we're going." Bella shook her head, still not looking at me, and spun Magda around to button up the four little silver buttons up her back.
"I don't care where you're going. I'm going too."
"The church. The nativity play is tonight." Bella managed to get out before Magda slipped from her grip and hopped on my toes, grabbing me by both hands and screaming with near delight.
The entire town was packed into the church. Inside was stifling hot, chock full of people in festive dress and holiday cheer, all of them exchanging smiles and handshakes and greetings. Everyone seemed to know Bella. She was pulled into hug after hug after hug, an entire village worth of embraces. Halfway through it, she reached behind to wind her fingers through mine, holding on tight lest we get separated. She tried to introduce me a few times, but stumbled over her words and ended up slipping into Spanish that I didn't understand, a blush staining her cheeks, avoiding my gaze.
Magda scampered away to the front of the church, settling in with a large group of children, and I ended up on a rickety wooden bench beside Bella, accepting a candle from a basket passed down the aisle. As the rest of the crowd settled in around us, Bella squished up close and whispered in my ear, translating as the priest spoke in more rapid-fire Spanish. The congregation rose a few times to sing songs that sounded familiar, but I didn't know the words to. I hummed along, clinging to the melodies.
A single flame ignited a single candle at the front of the room which was then passed up and down the aisles, the church slowly filling with flickering light as we sang. Bella lit my candle and I turned to light the candle of the woman next to me. When the whole room was aglow, we stood to sing again and I pulled my eyes off the flame in my hands to sneak a peek at Bella. She was even more beautiful than ever before. Her eyes shining and her skin glowing. Her singing off-key as the smoke from her candle danced with her breath. The smile on her face and the easy way she leaned against me.
The air too thick. The scent of burning sage was too heavy and the singing was too loud and my head was spinning.
I stumbled outside, slipping through the crowd and gasping for breath as I emerged into the hot evening air. I remembered this. Too well. The yearly church services, dragged along by my mother and her tenacious grip on her own childhood traditions. It was the only time of the year we ever set foot in a church, the only time of year she ever let me light something on fire, and that was the only reason I ever looked forward to it. Nostalgia was a total bitch when you were running from it.
That's when I saw him.
Ambling down the dirt road on the back of a tired-looking donkey that had a bad case of mange and ragged ears. The creature was hauling a cart piled full of burlap bags, the wheels lopsided and nearly flat. I stood outside the church and watched their slow approach. Santa was skinny, the suit hanging limp off his frame, the red fabric stained and patched back together at the elbows and knees. The white trim around the sleeves had gone grey and the beard didn't fit quite right, tangled and dirty. The hat had lost the pompom off the end and, when he hopped down off the donkey, his bare feet hit the dirt instead of shiny black boots.
Santa grinned at me through that snarled grey beard before he disappeared inside, burlap bag of gifts slung over his shoulder.
Where was I?
I leaned against the stucco wall of the church and thumped my head back against it. In my world, Santa was powered by snow. By a team of spotted reindeer and a by shiny red sleigh. By the magic of elves. His suit was snappy red velour. His beard was snow white. He landed on rooftops and squeezed his opulent waistline down skinny chimneys to eat cookies and leave presents wrapped in shiny paper. This Santa wasn't at all what Santa was supposed to look like, at least not from what I remembered. This Santa was a fraud. A misrepresentation. A weak excuse, and I felt terrible that Magda was so excited for something that fell so miserably short.
I ducked back into the church in time to see the fraud Santa swarmed by the children, handing out gifts from his burlap bag to a chorus of squealing delight. I found Bella right where I had left her. She looked at me strangely when I slid back into place beside her and then took my hand between her own.
"Are you ok?" she asked.
"He needs a new suit," I whispered, eyeing the imposter Santa.
Bella shook her head. "No. He doesn't."
"But he's supposed to-"
Bella silenced me with a finger to my lips. "It's not the wrapping that counts, Edward."
We sat out on the beach with a bottle of tequila after Magda went down for the night. The excitement over the hand-sewn doll she'd received from the skinny Santa completely overshadowed any doubts I had about the state of his dress. The kid was beyond ecstatic. She tucked the doll into one of the small beds inside the fireplace before allowing herself to be put down for the night. When she'd been washed and brushed and dressed for bed, she ran through the house and flung herself up against me, little arms around my neck and soft hair against my cheek. She made me promise to be there in the morning when she woke up and left a sticky kiss on my cheek that I didn't bother to wipe away before she skipped back to her bedroom.
I sat outside while I waited for Bella to sing three Christmas songs, in English this time, her voice wafting through the open doorway. The celebrations at the church were still going on full-swing in the streets, fireworks and sparklers, shouts of well-wished joy. The moon was huge, a mirror ball sitting just above the water, splashing bits of light out across the sea. The tequila was warm, but I cracked it open anyway.
"There you are."
I glanced back over my shoulder, Bella padding through the sand toward me, lit up silver and shadowed blue in the moonlight. She'd changed into something soft and white and short, the fabric glowing against her sunbaked skin, her hair loose and her eyes shining.
"I like it here," I said honestly, reaching out a hand and letting her slip her fingers through mine as she settled beside me. Bella took the bottle and swallowed a healthy gulp before handing it back.
"What in the world are you even doing down here, gringo?" Bella's question was laced with a laugh, her head shaking, her voice soft and puzzled.
"You keep calling me that, but I'm pretty sure you're one too." I took another mouthful and handed the bottle back to her, just enough moonlight to see her roll her eyes at me. It was quickly becoming one of my favorite responses to anything I said, that eye roll.
"I've been here long enough that I qualify for local status." She shrugged, staring off at the black blotch of that rocky island wallowing offshore.
"And how long is that?"
"Six years." She took a strong gulp out of the bottle, licking her lips.
"And how'd a girl like you end up in a place like this?" She was so unexpected, the very last thing I thought I'd find here, and I was having trouble deciding if she was real or not.
"I came down with my girlfriends after we graduated high school," she said, trying hard to sound nonchalant. "Met a guy. Didn't come back."
"Your parents were ok with that?"
"They're either dead or don't care about much of anything, much less me. Or her." She tipped her head back toward the colorful little house behind us.
"And the guy? The one from the photograph, what happened to him?" I asked, holding the bottle out in her direction.
"You're digging," she accused, taking it from me.
"Yes." I didn't deny my curiosity. "Where is he?"
Her mouth wrenched to the side while she stared at me, and she slammed back a mouthful from the bottle before answering, a grimace riding her face like a tidal wave as she glowered at the island.
"A mermaid got him."
I woke up in the middle of the night.
Wrapped in warm sand and drenched in a starry night sky, the sound of water licking the shoreline and the heavy weight of a girl on top of me. Her silhouette was just an inky black shadow against the stars and her fingers were tripping across my skin, her breath in my face and her hair in my hands. She was fumbling with my pants, dipping beneath the waistband and fondling my cock, fingers impatient and chest heaving.
I caught her by the wrists.
"Let me take you to bed." I was ready to sink into her mattress with her on top of me, but she shook her head.
"We'll wake her," she whispered. "Here. I want you here."
I sat up and pulled her into my lap, sliding my hands up her thighs, bare skin, and the soft hem of her dress. Her knees sank into the sand and her breasts brushed my chin as I lowered my face to the warm space between them, my lips meeting her breastbone and her heart thumping like mad just below it. She felt so good, her breath on my neck and her hands on my shoulders. Fingers trailing into my hair and her hips pressed up tight against mine. I held her tight, licking salt off her skin.
"I haven't done this in a long time," she whispered.
"I'm clean," I panted into her chest. "And I'm yours."
Bella's hands found my cheeks and pulled me away from her cleavage, tilting my face up to look at her and kissing me deeply. She kept her mouth locked on mine as her hands slipped away, rising on her knees to get her fingers back down my pants. She pulled my cock free and groaned against my lips as she rubbed me between her thighs, hard and fast against the damp cotton of her underwear. Her breath came quick and sharp, hips moving frantically as she ground against me like this was race and the finish line was on a time limit.
"Slow down," I panted, pulling her off my lap. She landed in the sand on her hands and knees and I fell on top of her, pushing her skirt out of the way. I leaned over, pressed my chest against her back and sunk into her as slowly as I could make myself. Reached around her hip to rub my fingers through the slick wet between her legs and trail a damp path of it up her stomach to grab blindly for her breast. Bella moaned, shoving her hips back hard against me, begging for more, harder, faster, faster and I obliged her, slipping every hot hard inch of mine against every soft wet inch of hers and goddamn, was it incredible.
Bella came with a sigh and I followed with a groan that felt like it came all the way up from the tips of my toes, heavy and hot and practically blinding. The heat of the sand, the warmth of her skin, the burning hot trail of my cum on my leg when I pulled out, was all a lot to process. My cock was throbbing double time and my heart was beating hard enough to stun me, if not outright kill me.
"Jesus Christ," I swore, rubbing my forehead against her shoulder, head spinning and fingers gone numb, not even feeling bad for using that particular name in such a particularly vulgar way, birthday or not.
"You pulled out," she panted, pushing back against my chest. I let her topple me, landing back on my heels as her ass landed firmly in my lap, pinning my cock between her cheeks while my arms went automatically around her waist. I breathed into her hair, trying to regain some composure, sure now more than ever that I never wanted to let her go.
"You have to tell me you love me before I knock you up," I teased, pushing her hair aside to kiss her neck. "Merry Christmas," I whispered.
"It's not Christmas yet," she chuckled, pulling me down into the sand. She tucked me back into my pants while I pulled her dress back down over her hips, shaking my head, not really giving a fuck what the exact date was. I'd never felt so satisfied with a gift. Never felt so thankful to have received something I didn't even know I asked for.
The next morning, after a breakfast of fresh squeezed oranges and fried dough drenched in powdered sugar, the three of us made our way to the beach, passing my place on the way to let me change out of my sandy shorts. I meant to bring that damned book this time, instead of spending the entire day in a state of torment due to Bella's skimpy swimwear. I needed something to distract myself, especially from the fact that watching Bella dote on the miniature version of herself was almost as sexy as that itty bitty bathing suit. I was fantasizing about the kid's nap time already, about undoing those knots around Bella's neck with my teeth, when I stepped into the beach house.
Alice was standing in the middle of the room.
"What the fuck are you doing here?" I stammered, coming to a halt just inside the doorway.
"Packing up your shit, Edward. I'm taking you home." She stalked around, picking up clothes and throwing them on the bed, grimacing at my sweat stained t-shirts and rolling her eyes at the hammock. Her eyes fell to my feet, to my rolled up pants and sandy toes and the sunburn across my ankles. She rolled her eyes again.
"How did you find me?" The words caught in my throat and I was having a hard time thinking straight. Alice was dressed sharp as ever, in a grey power suit with her hair done up and enough makeup on her face to supply a small cosmetics store. She was wearing patent leather pumps, dusty from the dirt floor, and had a run in her tights. Completely out of her element.
She scowled at me with her eyes narrowed. "Some 'tween with a cell phone posted a picture of you making out with a girl on a beach in Mexico," she spat. "You're a fucking movie star, Edward, you can't go unnoticed for long."
"I think I made it pretty clear that I didn't want to be followed," I grumbled at her.
"Yeah, nice try with the name. Real original. Your hair looks terrible, by the way."
"That. That right there." I stepped up close, hissing with a finger prodding hard into her chest, forcing Alice to take an unsteady step backward. "That is exactly why I left, Alice. After all the shit I've done trying to make a bunch of ungrateful, judgemental assholes smile, you're gonna come down on me about my hair?" I snapped. "I'm sick of this shit. I'm done."
"You can't just be done," Alice snapped back at me, her mouth tightening and her hands going to her hips. "It's almost Christmas!" she snarled. "Do you even know how upset your mother is right now? I can't believe you thought it would be ok to just skip town."
"I'm certainly not going to go skipping back," I spat.
"Oh." Alice's mouth clamped down into a thin, hard line, her eyes drifting over my shoulder. "Oh, I see."
I turned to find the sun shining in a burning bright halo around Bella, Magda clinging to her skirts, both of them framed in the doorway. My heart wrenched violently.
"We'll be outside." Bella looked at me with a pinched face and turned Magda away. I rounded on Alice, intentionally lowering my voice.
"I'm. Not. Leaving."
"You're not leaving here? Or not leaving her?"
"Get the fuck out of my head, Alice. Go home."
Alice tossed the shirt she was holding onto the pile on the bed. "You know how this has to end, right? Don't be stupid, Edward." She stalked out of the beach house, the rev of an engine announcing her departure.
I took a few moments alone to get my head on straight, before stepping out into the sunshine. Bella was sitting in the sand a few feet from the water with Magda in her lap. I plopped down next to them, feeling defeated. All I could think about was her. About the way her body felt under mine, over mine, around mine, all night long. About the way her mouth felt. About the way her breath came slow and heavy, then fast and hard. About whispering her name. About her groaning mine.
About how I couldn't leave her.
"Go find Edward a seashell, baby." Bella set Magda on her feet and the girl ran full tilt down toward the water, her mother twisting her fingertips roughly together, chewing on her lips. "What the fuck was that?" she asked when her daughter was out of earshot.
What was I even supposed to say right now? That it was my curse? The widescreen bane of my existence? The reason I ran clear to some beach town in Mexico and stumbled into her bed? That I was dying to just read a book, a normal book, a regular book, instead of another damn movie script? It sounded so selfish, calling the fame and the notoriety something to be ashamed of, but I was just a guy. As ordinary as they came. Discovered in some shopping mall when I was still a babyfaced teenager, swept up in a riptide I could never swim clear of. That didn't mean anything right now. I felt like a coward. Like a liar. Desperate not to lose her over this.
My entire world was a concrete wasteland and here she was, a lone flower bursting up through a tiny crack in the pavement.
"It was my life. My real life."
I sat on Bella's bed beneath a snowfall of paper flakes, beneath the damp air and the heavy weight of reality, watching her braid her hair. She was from another world, this woman. Another time entirely. Somewhere easy and peaceful, somewhere ancient and deep. Running a brush through her hair, wrapping strands of it around her fingers, staring at a spot on the floor as if she could see right through, clear into the underworld. Sitting right in front of me, but so fucking far away she seemed almost impossible.
There, and then not.
"Come with me." I was pleading. I knew the sound of it well enough to recognize.
I didn't care.
"That's like asking me to move to Mars." She set her hairbrush down and finally turned to look at me. Her eyes were watery and huge, chin unsteady and hands trembling.
"I can't just disappear," I sighed. "You've got to understand; they'll come looking for me and at some point, they'll find me. I can't hide. No matter how much I want to."
"I can't just leave," Bella said heavily. Her eyes fluttered to the child in my lap, wrapped in my arms. Magda was covered in sand and needed a bath, her hair ratted and her mouth curled up in a sweet, sleepy smile. She'd spent the day building an army of lopsided sand men topped with limp seaweed hair and crooked pebble smiles. Her mother and I watched her in silence as the sun set on another perfect day that had gone terribly awry.
"This is her home," Bella whispered. "It's all she knows."
"I'm not asking for eternity here, Bella. I'm only asking for a chance."
"A chance to what?"
"Change your mind."
"I don't know, Edward." She shook her head, staring at her lap before her gaze fluttered back toward us, drifting over her daughter. The girl's fingers were twined up in my shirt, her dirty knees tucked up against my chest.
"I'll bring you back," I promised. "If it's terrible, I'll bring you both home."
"What if she falls in love with you?" Bella's eyes met mine. I wanted to ask what would happen if she fell in love with me, but didn't. "What if we go with you, and you break her heart?"
"Go where, Momma?"
We both glanced down at Magda, her dark eyes fluttering sleepily even though she was obviously awake and listening. I held her even tighter as Bella rose and came toward us, sure that she would take the girl off to bed, not wanting to relinquish my little prize for this brief moment that I had it in my possession.
"To see the snow, baby," Bella smiled hesitantly, sinking to her knees in front of us. She brushed some of the wild hair out of Magda's face, her other hand heavy on my knee. I stared hard at the top of her head, wondering if she was really worried about Magda's heart, or her own.
"Snow?" Magda slurred, blinking heavily.
"Real snow," I said.
Magda's eyes rose to look over our heads at the paper versions fluttering against the ceiling. She smiled dreamily and tucked her face back into my chest, her words coming soft and quiet, but sure and strong.
"I want to go with Edward, Momma. To the snow."
The relief in my mother's voice was obvious. She breathed a heavy sigh and hugged me tightly, standing on her tiptoes in the doorway despite the biting winter cold. I put my arms around her, the familiar smell of her perfume and those same pearl earrings she wore every day surprisingly comforting. I felt a sharp stab of guilt for even thinking I could ditch her on such a holiday.
"Mom," I exhaled, squeezing her closer. "I'm sorry, I-"
"Hush." She pulled away, shaking her head. "I'll yell at you later." She glanced beyond my shoulder and her stern face melted into a smile unlike anything I'd ever seen before. I followed her gaze, my own smile matching hers, and held an arm out behind me.
"Mom, this is Bella. And Magda."
Magda smiled widely, bundled up into a round, roly poly version of herself. She was rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed beneath a woolen hat and scarf, a heavy down coat and a pair of pink snowboots she'd picked out herself earlier that day. She looked excited and impatient, snowflakes littering her shoulders and her eyelashes, the wind fluttering the curls around her face.
Bella, in a simple purple peacoat I'd insisted on buying, looked downright terrified.
"It's so nice to meet you," my mother smiled warmly, ushering us all inside and touching Bella's arm softly in reassurance as I shut the door. "Edward has spoken fondly of you. Both of you."
"Thank you for having us, Mrs. Cullen." Bella dipped her head and my mother shook hers in return.
"Oh, dear, call me Esme." She glanced down at Magda who was fighting valiantly with her gloves, struggling to remove herself from her wintery confines. I watched in a fair amount of astonishment as my prim and proper mother dropped to her knees on the plush carpet, chuckling as she unzipped Magda's coat. "Aren't you freezing, my dear? It's very cold here compared to the beach."
"I've never seen the snow before," Magda said solemnly. "You need special shoes." She held out a foot to display a pink rubber snowboot and got another laugh out of my mother as she helped to pull them off.
"That you do. And an awful lot of clothing."
"Why do you have a tree in your house?" Magda was steadying herself on my mother's shoulders with her head was tipped to the side like an inquisitive puppy, eyeing my mother's festive decorations with a frown on her face.
"It's called a Christmas tree," my mother said, pulling Magda from her other snowboot.
"We have a cactus." Magda informed her.
My mother could barely hide her gleeful smile as she stood, taking Magda's hand in her own. "We have a lot to teach each other, I think. I have cookies that need to be decorated, why don't you come help me and you can tell me all about Christmas at your house?"
The two of them disappeared hand in hand down the hallway and I turned to find Bella still standing near the door, still in her jacket, not a word uttered since we'd arrived. Her eyes were wide and her face was pale, but I didn't think it was all from the cold.
"You ok?" I asked, nearing slowly and reaching out to unbutton her jacket.
"I still can't believe this is happening." Bella shook her head, her eyes on the giant tree. I freed all of her buttons and pulled the jacket from her shoulders, tossing it across a chair in the hallway before turning back to take her hand.
"Can't believe this is happening? Or can't believe I actually convinced you to come with me?" I chuckled, not quite believing it myself.
"Both," she laughed hesitantly, taking in our surroundings. We'd spent most of the day either driving through the deserts or on an airplane, private this time, chartered by a relieved, yet still pissed off Alice. Magda absolutely could not contain herself, asking me exactly twenty two times when we would land, and then running up and down the aisle of the airplane singing Christmas carols until she passed out, face down on the floor, somewhere over Nebraska. We made a couple of stops before heading to my mother's house, snow gear an absolute necessity, then drove through the city in a picture perfect snowstorm.
Magda left imprints of her face and fingers all over the inside of the limousine window.
My mother's house looked like an advertisement for a magazine on most days, but Christmas was no joke to her. The porch was done up in icicle lights and sprigs of holly. The windows were trimmed with evergreen boughs and pine cones, the mantle covered in an army of candles. The tree was perfectly decorated, not an ornament out of place, and there was a crackling fire in the fireplace instead of doll beds. It smelled of ginger and pumpkin, brown sugar and garlic, mellowed piano renditions of Christmas classics playing softly in the background.
Bella wandered into the living room, stopping near the tree to touch a silver globe ornament with one finger.
"This is so beautiful," she mused, studying the tree's matching silver trimmings, snowflakes and delicate glass orbs, the lights reflecting on her skin and in her eyes.
"It's alright," I shrugged, stepping close enough to brush my face against her hair. "Pales in comparison, though."
We spent an easy afternoon with my mother in a winter wonderland far removed from the Mexican heat I'd stolen them from. Bella eventually relaxed and accepted a glass of wine, the color coming back to her cheeks and her smile returning with a refill. She lounged on the couch in front of the fire with me for most of the afternoon, while Magda and my mother decorated an army of gingerbread men. Magda stormed the living room to show us each and every one that she finished, a frilly pink apron doubled up underneath her arms to protect that white lace dress of hers.
I enlisted Magda's help to set the table, rearranging everything she put down, and then ducked into the kitchen to find my mother while Bella ushered Magda off to wash her hands before dinner. Mom was moving between the stove and the sink, humming to herself as she flirted with the layers of a trifle, cream and fruit and sponge cake piling beneath her fingers, much too pretty to eat. The room was even warmer than the rest of the house, the lights bright and the windows steamed up. Her cheeks were pink and her collar was open to the heat, a secretive smile on her face.
"You're outdoing yourself," I accused gently, moving into the kitchen to settle on a barstool at the counter.
She ignored me, spooning whipped cream, only glancing at me briefly. "She's quite lovely, Edward."
"Which one? The girl or the kid?" I winked at her, stealing a cookie off the plate in front of me and shoving it all into my mouth before she could protest about me ruining my dinner.
"Both, but Bella in particular. She's very pretty but doesn't seem to know it, which is always a good quality in a girl."
"I agree. She's fucking stunning."
"Language." My mother shook her spatula at me sternly. "And Magda is a doll, yes. I'll be sad when you take them away."
I sighed heavily, the cookie suddenly feeling like a lead weight in my stomach. "Me too."
True to my expectations, my mother made enough food to feed a group of twenty, rather than just the four of us. I helped her load the table, then carved the turkey while Magda entertained the three of us with Christmas carols sung in Spanish. We let her roast marshmallows in the living room for dessert and put her to bed only when the clock hit midnight, despite her determination to stay up late enough to catch Santa in the act. She picked the purple guest room with the big picture window that overlooked the snow-covered backyard. I sat in an armchair in the corner while Bella snuggled into the pillows to read her my mother's ancient copy of The Night Before Christmas.
Magda was concerned that Santa was not only very fat, but also very clean, and used such fancy donkeys.
"Did you have a good day today?" Bella asked, putting the book aside and smoothing Magda's hair on the pillow.
"Yeah! And we get to open presents tomorrow!" Magda squealed. "Maybe then Mrs. Esme will let me decorate more cookies."
"I think you made enough cookies to last us all year long," Bella chuckled. She made Magda promise to stay in bed until the digital alarm clock read seven o'clock and then planted five kisses on each of Magda's cheeks, one for every Christmas so far. Just as I was shutting the door behind us, Magda called my name.
"Yeah, kiddo?" I opened the door wide enough so that a slice of hallway light fell across the bed, illuminating Magda's face.
"Are you gonna marry my mom?" she asked.
"Magdalena!" Bella gasped, her mouth dropping open and all the color from the wine draining away in an instant. Her eyes darted to mine and I lifted my eyebrows placidly before turning back to her daughter with a sly smile on my face.
"I don't know, sweets." I winked at her. "Maybe."
I shut the door behind me with a grin, the hallway suspiciously deserted. Bella was paused halfway down the staircase, her embarrassment temporarily forgotten as she studied the wall of pictures my mother had dedicated to the two men in her life. She'd managed to keep it tasteful, thankfully skipping some of my more awkward years, but Bella wasn't even looking at me.
"Is that your dad?" she asked, pointing to a photograph of the old man in his doctor's jacket, his arm around my mother. It was taken the night the hospital had dedicated their new surgical wing in his name. The three glasses of bourbon he'd had made his cheeks go red and his goofy grin seem even larger than normal.
"Yes. Ugly bastard, wasn't he?" I laughed, my father's handsome face with with that slicked back hair smiling at us.
"I was going to say that you take after him," Bella chuckled.
"I think I look more like my mom, actually."
"Where is he?" she asked, still staring at my father's portrait.
"I could take this opportunity to tell you that a mermaid ate him." I winked at her and she rolled her eyes at me before looking back at the picture. "He died a few years ago," I told her. "Heart attack. Very sudden."
"Your poor mom." Bella leaned into my shoulder and let me wrap an arm around her.
"She's a tough lady. She might steal your girl, if it makes you feel any better."
Bella turned to me, one step higher, which brought her up to my height, and gripped my shirt sleeves tightly. "I think you already did that."
"Stole my daughter. Made Magda fall in love with you. I knew you would."
"Would it hurt your feelings if I told you that I was sort of disappointed to hear that?"
"You are?" Bella's face turned wary instantly and I had to wrap my arms around her to keep her from moving away before I could explain.
"Yeah. Because it's not exactly her affection I've been chasing after this whole time." I leaned in to press my mouth over hers and felt her relax against me with a sigh. "Nice perk, but it's her mom I'm trying to win over."
I sent Bella off to unpack in the other guest room and kicked my mother out of the kitchen to finish cleaning up. She gave me a kiss on the cheek, wished me a merry Christmas, and tottered down the hallway to her bedroom, humming lazily underneath her breath. I turned off all the lights and put out the fire, leaving the tree aglow before I climbed the stairs again, expecting to find Bella in bed, possibly asleep after such a long day.
The sound of of dripping water led me to the bathroom, the mirrors steamed and the clawfoot in front of the windows filled with bubbles and Bella. She glanced up at me with a smile and I knelt beside the tub, admiring the gleam on her skin and cursing all those damn bubbles for impeding my view.
"Merry Christmas," she whispered, accepting my mouth as I leaned over the tub to kiss her.
"I didn't have time to get you anything," I admitted.
"You don't have to. I didn't get you anything either."
"Yes, you did." I kissed her once more, Bella looking just as confused as her daughter had when I mentioned the snowman earlier. "You came with me. You're here. You and Magda."
"That's not a gift." She shook her head.
"It is to me. But, if you really want to rectify it, I can think of other ways to gift me." I winked wickedly at her before I dunked my face right into the water to bite her nipple through the bubbles.
"Edward!" Bella gasped, pushing me away, her face going red. "We're at your mother's!"
"So?" I scoffed. "She's had four glasses of wine. She wouldn't wake up even if Santa fell through the roof on top of her."
Given the very limited amount of time I'd allowed my mother, she had adapted quickly. Efficient was always her middle name and she didn't disappoint. Magda not only got the three newspaper-wrapped presents from underneath the cactus back home, but she also received several picture books and a fancy doll in a green velvet dress from "Santa," otherwise known as Esme. Bella unwrapped a kimono that I recognized from my mother's own closet, a souvenir from a trip to China I'd taken her along on a few years earlier while pimping some movie. It was soft blue silk patterned in pink peonies and Bella's jaw dropped right open when she pulled it free of its wrapping.
"Esme," she exhaled heavily, running her fingers over the silk. My mom put her hand over Bella's and smiled, bigger and brighter than I had seen from her in a long time.
"It will look beautiful on you, Bella. Put it on."
The rest of the morning was spent slowly unwrapping gifts, drinking coffee, and relaxing in front of the fireplace. Bella curled up with me on the couch, the silk robe smooth under my fingers because I couldn't keep my hands off of her, the fire crackling happily away and snow falling softly all around the house. My mother dozed in the armchair near the tree, Magda played with her new doll in front of the fire, and Bella snuggled into my chest. I thought everything was damn near perfect. For the first time in a long time I was completely content, utterly happy. The only thing that broke the feeling were the sounds coming from the little girl at my feet.
Magda was sniffling.
"What's wrong, baby?" Bella asked, pulling the girl from the pile of wrapping paper and cuddling her close. On closer inspection, there were tear tracks down Magda's cheeks and those big brown eyes were watery, her chin tight and her bottom lip trembling.
"I asked Santa for a daddy," Magda hiccuped, "but he didn't bring one."
"You have a daddy, baby," Bella mumbled dejectedly.
"But he never comes home." Magda's big eyes were getting bigger and wetter by the moment and I knew I had about four and half seconds to act before this perfect morning dissolved into a puddle of tears, from both mother and child. I pushed off the couch and picked Magda up right out of Bella's lap, walking with her to the windows. It had stopped snowing, but a hand to the glass to wipe away the fog showed us both a frosted winter wonderland. Magda curled her arms around my neck and I held her tight, trying to figure out what to say to her.
"You know... I was really lonely when I met you and your mom," I admitted, not exactly sure why I was saying this to a five-year-old. Something about Magda made me want to be honest. Something about the morning I'd just spent, the way that I'd spent it, made me feel nostalgic for something I didn't even know I was missing. The solid weight of this little girl never failed to amaze me and I adjusted her in front of me so that we were face to face. Magda sniffled and put her head down on my shoulder, wrapping her arms around my neck so tightly it was nearly uncomfortable.
"I think my mom was lonely too," she whispered. "Will you come back home with us?"
"I'm trying to figure that out, kiddo."
"You could be my dad," she said, sounding surprised by her own revelation.
I tried not to react, but I couldn't help it. Bella's intake of breath behind us had me fidgeting, my heart suddenly pumping overtime, and the room way too hot. My shoulders stiffened and my neck turned red.
"Maybe, kid," I choked. "Maybe… How about you go get your boots and your jacket and we go outside for a little while? We can play in the snow."
"Yeah!" Magda squealed, easily distracted, and hopped out of my arms, running off to find her snow gear. I stared out the window, Magda's words echoing through my big empty brain. A sneak peek preview of what that kind of life could look like played out on the glass before me in two second snippets, fragile as a castle made of sand. The busy mornings and the lazy afternoons. The quiet, peaceful evenings. The kid, her hand holding and those sticky kisses. The girl, her killer smile, those legs, waiting for me in bed. Finally falling asleep with someone special, instead of alone. The refrigerator full, instead of only mustard and beer, and covered in crayon drawings. My house full of noise, instead of lonely and silent.
A hand on my shoulder nearly made me flinch, but when I looked down, all I could see was the top of Bella's head resting against my arm. She wrapped her arms around my waist and I returned the gesture, tugging her in close, struggling to swallow the lump in my throat.
"I bet you'd be the best," Bella sighed, her voice soft and sure.
"The best what?" I asked, my own voice wobbling with uncertainty .
"You sound just like your kid, asking me to come home with you."
"She is mine, after all." Bella hugged me closer, chuckling under her breath.
"Thought you weren't that kind of girl? What made you change your mind?"
"You." She looked up at me, those pretty eyes wide and her mouth in a smile. I covered her cheek with my hand, holding her still to kiss her, just about ready to accept or agree or sign on for whatever it was she was offering me, when we were interrupted.
"I'm ready!" Magda announced, tugging at my sleeve, dressed for an arctic expedition save for the jacket she couldn't zip by herself. Bella disentangled from my arms and dropped to her knees, zipping her daughter up tight.
"Are you excited?" Bella asked. "I used to play in the snow all the time when I was your age." She adjusted Magda's hat and helped her slide into her gloves.
"How do you play in snow?" Magda asked, glancing warily out the windows. "Won't I get wet?"
"Maybe a little, but Edward will show you what to do." Bella looked up at me with a serious "mom" face on. "No snowballs," she warned me.
"Fine, fine," I laughed. "We're gonna build a snowman."
"You can't build a man out of snow." Magda crumpled her nose in confusion, shaking her head at me, and I laughed out loud, taking her hand as we stepped out the door.
"Sweetie, if you can build a castle out of sand, we can build a man out of snow."