Erik groaned as he pulled into the supermarket parking lot and saw the number of cars there. He had hoped that the falling snow and the late hour would have emptied the store out. Who went grocery shopping this late on Christmas Eve? He had been hoping to avoid the crowd. Part of him considered pulling out and returning another day, but his flight had only landed this morning, and he spent so little time home, his pantry was sparse.

He sighed and looked at his reflection in the rearview mirror. His mask was flesh-colored, far more subtle than the stark white or black ones he wore while performing, though anyone who looked closely at his face would still notice it. Most thought the mask was part of his stage persona, the nameless, faceless enigma known only as The Phantom. His fans often tried to track down his identity; some went as far as to try and argue that Nadir, his manager and personal assistant might actually be the musician himself. Truth be told, while the anonymity his persona afforded him was nice, he was nameless because he was faceless, not the other way around as his fans theorized. But how could anyone expect the horror that lay beneath the mask?

With a sigh, he put the car in park. He couldn't wait another forty-eight hours, so he was just going to have to deal with the crowd. Thankfully he didn't need much, so he should hopefully be in and out in a few minutes.

The snow was falling in thick, fat flakes that shone brightly against his dark hair and coat. As the automatic doors slid open, he was greeted by the store's harsh fluorescent lights and Bing Crosby crooning over the PA system. He silently nodded to the greeter who had the misfortune of standing by the constant opening of the door. Immediately, he regretted his decision to power through the shopping trip. There was an undercurrent of anxious frenzy in the air. Every shopper seemed frazzled as they tried to acquire forgotten ingredients or make up for poor holiday planning. Already, his skin was crawling and he wanted out. He took a deep breath and headed toward the bakery. All he really needed was some bread and deli meat. That would get him through until everything reopened on the twenty-sixth. After that, he could survive on takeout until his next flight out of town. And it would mean he didn't have to go any further into the store.

He was just about to pick up a baguette—his time in Europe truly had ruined plain sandwich bread for him—when he heard her voice. He whipped around and saw a blonde woman thanking the employee at the bakery counter and placing a pie in her cart. For a moment, he wondered if he was mistaken, but her classic Nordic beauty had floated in and out of his dreams since the last time he saw her. She was older now, they both were, but there was no mistaking her smile. That hadn't changed a bit.

Abandoning the bread, Erik followed her. He wondered if he should say something to her. But they hadn't parted on good terms; they'd both said plenty of hurtful things. She hadn't reached out to him in the time since, another indicator that it would be best to leave her alone. And yet…

He kept his distance at first, pretending to eye groceries whenever she stopped to add something to her cart in case she spotted him. Everyone around them was too preoccupied with their own panicked shopping to pay much attention to the man in the dark coat without a cart or groceries in hand. Every so often, she would consult her phone, but like those around them, she too was oblivious to her second shadow.

The two of them wound their way through the grocery store, until they ended up in front of the frozen vegetables. She reached out to open the door, and he felt his heart sink as he saw the sparkle on her left hand. That should have ended it. He should have cut his losses and walked away then. But his feet, rebellious things they were, instead led him toward the freezer so he was standing just behind her. She seemed to sense his presence, but was rummaging through her purse for something. "Sorry," she mumbled without looking up. She pushed the cart forward a few feet, allowing him access to the freezer. This was his last chance to walk away, to leave Pandora's box unopened, but his hand reached out, gently touching her elbow.

Her head snapped up at the unexpected contact. Her eyes were confused, unrecognizing at first, and he stepped back realizing he had made a mistake in alerting her to his presence. But then the purse dropped out of her hands, the contents scattering across the aisle. "Erik!" she cried, wrapping her arms around him in a bone-crushing hug. "Oh my God, it's so good to see you!"

"Christine," he replied, feeling his cheeks burn as he bent down to grab her purse.

"Is it comforting to know I'm still just as klutzy as every?" she asked. He couldn't help but laugh. She had a way of disarming him with her genuineness and warmth. He felt at ease with her in a way he had never felt with another person. It was one of the things about her that made him fall in love with her. "I didn't realize you were in town," she continued as she tried to gather her errant belongings.

"I just got in today," he admitted, handing her the purse as well as a pen and a tube of chapstick that had tried to escape.

"Ah. What are you doing for Christmas tomorrow?"

Erik pursed his lips in a thin line. "Nothing at the moment. As I'm sure you remember, the holiday has never particularly appealed to me. Perhaps if I'm feeling particularly festive I'll drop in on Nadir."

"But Nadir's Muslim...or at least he used to be."

"He most certainly still is, which is what makes him a perfect companion for the day. If I get any wild ideas, I may even pick up take-out from that Chinese place on Main."

Christine chuckled. "Don't bother with that one. The owners sold it, and the quality has really gone downhill the past few years. My husband and I really like Golden China. That opened up last year on Brown Street. The food's wonderful. They only take cash though, so it usually takes some planning ahead."

Her casual use of the word husband struck him harder than expected. But he didn't dare show it. "Thanks for the recommendation," he said, keeping his voice casual. "Congratulations on the wedding, by the way. When was it?"

"Our third anniversary is in March, actually." She set her purse back in the cart, seemingly looking for reason to break eye contact. "I tried to send you an invite, but without social media or a permanent address, you were a hard man to get a hold of. And when I finally got through all of your people to Nadir, he said you were touring. Somewhere in Asia, I think?"

Nadir had never mentioned ever speaking to Christine. Erik wondered if that had been cruel or a kindness. Time had dulled the worst of the wounds, but he wasn't sure he would have had the strength and willpower to sit through a wedding now, let alone three years ago. "Yes, I'm afraid the nature of my stage persona necessitates all of the layers of security. I apologize for the trouble and for not being able to be there. Who is the lucky man?"

"Raoul. Do you remember him? He and his older brother were friends with Meg and I back in school. Phillippe was your age, Raoul was a year ahead of Meg and I."

Erik plastered a friendly smile on his face, but couldn't hold back the bite in his words. "The blond business major with parents on the board of the university who could barely contain his crush on you and followed you around like a lovesick puppy? That Raoul?" Christine's cheeks flushed, and she turned away. Erik sighed. Even when he and Christine were dating, Raoul had never quite gotten the memo that she was off the market. And with his dashing good looks, generational wealth, and boyish charm, Raoul had everything that Erik did not. Erik had never been able to stand him. But he also didn't want to hurt Christine. "I'm sorry, that was uncalled for. Old habits die hard, I suppose. I'm happy for you, really I am. I'm sure it was a lovely ceremony. And I know you must have been the most beautiful bride."

Her face turned beet red. "Thanks. Actually, that's what all this is for. We're hosting his family's Christmas. We just bought a house this fall…"

"Oh, that's wonderful. Congratulations."

Christine giggled uncomfortably. "So this is our first time hosting in the new place. I'm terrified. His parents already don't like me, they wanted him to marry some trust fund baby, so everything has to be perfect, or I'll never hear the end of it. Raoul says as long as I'm happy, that's all that matters, but if he wanted me happy, he wouldn't have offered to host." She suddenly squeaked. "I'm sorry, I haven't seen you in years, and the first thing I do is unload all my problems on you."

"Buy you a drink?" The words slipped out before he could stop them.

Christine raised her eyebrows. "Really?"

Erik couldn't judge her tone. Did she think he was hitting on her after she just told him she was married? Or that after how spectacularly terrible things had ended between them she was shocked that he would dare to suggest they spend any amount of time together? Or was she genuinely flattered by the offer? "I just thought—it seemed like you could use one, that's all. You wouldn't have to worry about your broccoli defrosting either, cold as it is outside. It'd be perfectly safe in your car."

"No, I'd love to. This is the last of what I need. What about you?"

"I can go now," he answered.

She gave him an odd look. "But you don't have any groceries."

"There's nothing I so desperately need that cannot wait," he replied smoothly. "Truly, I thought this place would be deserted."

"You underestimate us procrastinators," she replied with a laugh. "Come on, hopefully the line at the register isn't too long."

He obediently followed Christine to the front of the store. As they waited in line to check out, she asked about his most recent tour. She seemed stunned to hear him describe the massive undertaking: a two year venture across six continents, hundreds of shows, night after night. "I couldn't do it," she declared with a shake of her head. "I'm not sure how you can. I need my own bed too much."

Erik decided it would be in his best interest not to tell her that while he did in fact own a bed, he owned a whole house even, it was practically an unused purchase. He'd finally caved and bought the house after Nadir berated him for hours after he had collapsed from exhaustion one too many times in the recording studio. And even then, Erik had merely turned the house into his own personal studio, built to his own preferences and specifications. The bed was added a few weeks later, when Nadir dropped by unexpectedly to finalize tour details. They had fought again about the reasons why Erik had bought the house in the first place, and the next afternoon, delivery men showed up unexpected and uninvited with traditional furniture. But a month later, he started his tour, and the house had sat empty since.

Instead of telling Christine any of this, he turned his focus back to her. She had always been upset with how hard he pushed himself for his career. It was a fight they'd had so many times, and he wasn't interested in rehashing those negative memories. "You have the voice for it. If you wanted, you could easily—"

"Erik, we've had this conversation," she said warningly, as she loaded her groceries onto the conveyor belt.

"I overstepped my bounds. I apologize." He was quiet a moment as Christine continued to unload her cart. "What is it you do?" he asked, suddenly feeling foolish that he didn't know.

She bit her lip, looking away again. "Raoul and Phillippe have essentially taken over their parents' company. Real estate, development, that kind of thing. I've more or less taken over the company's social media and PR."

"Oh."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, turning to face him, her bright blue eyes burning with a fury.

"I—It surprised me, that's all. You were so passionate in school about music, and since that's what your degree is in…"

"Things changed," she snapped.

"Yes, I suppose they do," he agreed, lowering his gaze. "I don't mean to hurt your feelings. You just seemed so excited the last time I saw you. If you wanted, I could make a few calls."

"That's not why I stopped singing, Erik."

"Then why?"

"It's—it's complicated…" Instead of elaborating, she turned to the cashier and pulled out her credit card. "I'm not really interested in getting into it." They hadn't even left the store yet, and Erik was beginning to wonder if this had been such a good idea. Already her words held the same bite that had been so common before their split. And yet, when the cashier handed Christine her receipt, she smiled, wished them a merry Christmas, then turned back to him. "Shall we?" He nodded and followed her out through the doors and back into the snow. She led him to what seemed to be a brand new Audi. It was beautiful, but decidedly not what he would have ever imagined her driving. "Nice isn't it?" she asked as she remote-started the car and popped the trunk. "Certainly better than that piece of shit I used to drive around. How many times did you have to pick me up from the library because it wouldn't start?"

"I would have pegged you as someone who would have a more practical car, a Honda perhaps, or a Subaru."

"Well it wasn't my money that paid for it." There it was again, that tone she had when he asked her about music, and her smile was more of a grimace. Dare he even say it almost sounded like resentment. "But it does have all-wheel drive, heated seats, the whole nine yards, which is hard to turn down on a night like tonight." She shut the trunk and tilted her head toward the car. "Hop in."

He dutifully climbed into the passenger seat. Christine climbed in as well, closed the door, and immediately began to fiddle with settings, windshield wipers on, heat up, radio down. "Okay, where to? I don't even know what's open."

"Truth be told, I didn't even consider the holiday," Erik admitted. "But there must be something open, right?"

"For sure," she agreed. "For all the sad people who are alone, no friends or family." Her face suddenly went white. "I—I didn't mean you though."

Erik just sighed and looked straight ahead. "It's more or less an accurate description." And it was true. Christine was one of the few people who had ever heard most of his life story. His neglectful mother who couldn't stand to care for the monster she had birthed, the rotating foster families and group homes where even a monthly government check wasn't enough to justify keeping an abomination around, the physical and mental abuse, his time in juvenile detention for killing his foster father. It'd been self-defense when the man had tried to molest him, the records long since sealed and expunged, but a loving family was something Erik was not familiar with.

"You have friends though," she protested. Erik merely hummed. He wasn't sure he quite agreed with that sentiment. After all, they hadn't seen each other in years, though he certainly wasn't going to tell her he didn't count her as a friend. The only other person he might consider a friend was Nadir, but did a paid employee count? "We'll just have to drive around. I'm sure we'll find something."

They drove around for a while, but every restaurant or bar they could think of had either already closed for the night or was in the process of closing. "Huh, well I'd say at this point I'd settle for a cup of coffee, but I'm not even sure we could find that right now," Christine said, tucking a stray blonde curl behind her ear. "I'd invite you over to my place, but I'm not sure my husband would be thrilled with a guest twelve hours before the entire extended de Changy clan arrives."

"Mine is in no shape for guests," Erik said. "It's been sitting empty for years. I think Nadir has a cleaning service come by every now and again to dust, but everything's covered in sheets. I haven't had time to make it habitable."

"I guess we'll have to take a rain check. How long are you in town for?"

"I'm not sure exactly. I doubt long," he answered. It wasn't entirely truthful. His tour was over and he didn't have any pressing engagements or performances until spring. He was supposed to be starting work on a new album. But the only reason either of them had made it this far was the total spontaneity of it all. There was no way he would ever call her out of the blue to catch up, certainly not now, knowing she was married. Clearly this was a sign that all of this had been a terrible mistake, that he should politely ask her to bring him back to the store and to his car, tell her it was lovely to catch up, and then never see her again. But just as in the grocery store, his subconscious had other plans. "What about there?" he asked instead, pointing to a small, squat brick building with a flashing, neon OPEN sign in the window.

"That's a liquor store, Erik, not a bar," Christine said, but she pulled into the parking lot anyway.

"Which suits our purposes does it not?"

Christine laughed. "And where would we drink it? We can't do it in the store, and we just determined neither of our homes are great alternatives."

"What about right here?"

"It works," she agreed, "until a police car drives by, and we get in trouble."

"Hmm, you're right. The grocery store is much less surreptitious. We'll have to head back that direction regardless, unless you're planning on driving me home."

She smiled again. "You're just bound and determined to get us arrested for public intox, aren't you? My husband would kill me, my in-laws would be mortified…" There was a mischievous fire in her eyes, one that had often gotten them in trouble when they were in college. "I could have a drink or two."

"I'll be back then," Erik said, stepping out of the car and heading into the store. It was empty besides the boy behind the counter, who barely looked old enough to be working there. Clearly the more senior employees had been able tfo secure the night off to be with their own families. Erik ignored the boy's stares as he walked into the fridge and grabbed a six-pack of a winter ale he vaguely remembered having in their apartment.

He dropped the six-pack on the counter without a word. He could feel the boy's eyes tracing the outline of his mask as he scanned the box. "You ever hear of The Phantom?" the cashier asked as he scanned the box.

"The musician?" Erik replied, keeping his voice cool, indifferent.

"Yeah. He wears all these different masks."

"So?" Erik swiped his credit card, dodging what was being implied.

"You're in a mask," the boy replied.

"Are you suggesting that one of the world's most prolific performers is in your store on Christmas Eve, alone, buying cheap beer instead of celebrating with his family or other celebrities?"

"Well when you put it like that, it does sound ridiculous," the kid admitted with a nervous laugh. "It'd be the most interesting thing that's happened to me though."

Erik grabbed the beer and walked toward the door. "Maybe put the bar a little higher."

"Merry Christmas to you too," the boy sarcastically called after him.

He ignored the remark and made his way back to the car. "Ooh, what'd you get?" Christine asked. He held up the box as he climbed in. "You remembered!"

"Of course I did. I almost bought a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps for old time's sake."

Christine visibly gagged. "I still, to this day, cannot drink that after that night. Sometimes peppermint candy or even just the smell of peppermint makes me want to hurl. I thought I was going to die that night."

Erik chuckled. "And I'm sure Meg didn't appreciate you throwing up all over outside her building. I'm pretty sure you drank close to a full bottle all on your own."

She just shook her head and put the car in reverse to back out of the spot. "We were so dumb. Have you talked to Meg in the past couple years?"

"Frankly, I've lost touch with almost everyone. It's hard you know, with my career, the pseudonym, the traveling. And I was never very good at it, even before I started having to hide my professional identity."

"Well she's in New York, now. Actually she's a soloist for the New York City Ballet. She's hoping she'll have a shot at being a principal in another season or two."

"Oh? Good for her. I'll have to see about getting tickets the next time I'm there." He noticed Christine's hands seemed to wrap a little tighter around the steering wheel. Meg had always been a gifted dancer and had roped the two of them in for doing music for a few of her solos while they were all in school. The three of them had often talked about making it as performers, and truly for all of them, it had seemed more a matter of when rather than if.

She pulled back into the grocery store parking lot, and Erik pointed out the Lexus he had driven there in. "And you were teasing me about my car?" she said, as she pulled next to it.

"Nadir rented it, not me," he explained, grabbing a beer and carefully working the cap off with a key. "I haven't owned a car in years. If I'm in one place longer than a week, which doesn't happen often, I'll usually have him rent one for me." He handed Christine the bottle and pulled out another for himself. "Though, as you pointed out, it is hard to turn down a deluxe leather interior with all the bells as whistles."

"So how is Nadir these days?" she asked before taking a sip.

"Well, I haven't fired him anyway," he grumbled.

"You wouldn't do that. You need him too much. He was the only one who could get through to you when even I couldn't. Someone has to be the voice of reason, because I know you sure aren't."

"My job is to create art and to share it with the world. Nadir's job is to make sure I do mundane things like pay taxes, get visas, or eat and sleep."

Christine just shook her head with teasing exasperation. "He really is your father." She smiled and turned to him. "Remember that time when we got smashed at Sorelli's birthday party? Neither of us were in any state to drive. I was so drunk, I couldn't even properly say Nadir's name properly. I just kept telling you over and over to call your dad."

Erik laughed and shook his head. "I knew exactly who you were talking about, but everyone else was so confused because they knew I didn't have any family. They were so surprised to find out my 'father' was hardly any older than I was. Nadir, on the other had, was hardly amused by any of our nonsense."

"He did come though. I know you always grumbled about him, but he'd do anything for you."

"Of course he would. I pay him.'

"You weren't paying him that night at two am," she countered. "He cares about you and your wellbeing. A lot of people do."

"Oh?" Erik raised his brow, not that she could tell. "Name three."

"Well Nadir for starters…"

"You already said him."

Christine sighed in exasperation. "He still counts. What about all your fans?"

"They don't care about me for me. They couldn't give a damn about Erik Destler so long as the Phantom keeps putting out music. What about someone who actually knows my name."

"Okay, so Nadir. Just because you constantly dismiss his loyalty doesn't mean I have to. And Meg does. She and I have been following your career for years. She used to joke that we should demand backstage passes whenever you were performing."

Erik ran his thumb across the label of the nearly empty beer bottle. "So that's two. Who's your third?"

"Isn't it obvious? Me. I mean I know we've fallen out of touch, but that doesn't mean I don't support your from afar." Instead of answering, not trusting his ability to put his feelings into words, Erik finished his beer. He put the empty one back into the six-pack, pulled out another, and quickly got to work opening a second. Before he could take a drink, Christine snatched the bottle out of his hand and handed him hers. "So are my three people acceptable?"

He chuckled and repeated the process. "I suppose so."

She took a drink. "So I never really asked. Are you seeing anyone? I mean I know if you so much as look at a woman, it's in all of the gossip columns, but that all seems like nonsense. I didn't know if maybe 'Erik' was seeing someone, even if 'The Phantom' was not."

He shook his head and took a large gulp to try and buy himself a moment to think about how much he really wanted to share. She was married, after all. Would she be jealous if he were seeing someone? "It's just not really feasible. I'm on the road for months or years at a time, and then when I am in one place, I'm working on my next album or planning a tour. I mean I've had a few, well flings I guess is the closest word, though I hesitate to put that much weight on them." He could feel his face getting warm at what he was admitting to and was glad his mask prevented Christine from seeing. "With my stage persona so carefully hidden, I have to have rules about who I see and what they're allowed to know, and it's a whole mess of red tape. By the end of it, it's really more of a transaction than a relationship. It's hard to get to really know someone like that. And of course, all of that is without getting into the abomination that I have to call a face."

"You know I don't like it when you talk like that," Christine said softly. And it was true. She'd always chided him about his self-deprecation and had encouraged him to see a therapist about it. I saw this guy after my father died, she'd said. He really helped me, and I think he might be good for you too. But Erik had refused. There'd been an endless revolving door of shrinks in his childhood, and he'd learned very quickly that anything he did confide in them quickly made its way to judges or foster parents. Christine was one of only two people he'd ever shown his face to as an adult, and even then, it was well into their relationship before he could bring himself to do it. Nadir, poor, stupid, loyal Nadir, was the other, and that had been during a fight over Erik's resistance to flying through public airports. He had a private plane now, and almost always insisted on using private airports as well, even though they were more inconvenient. Security was more lax, and officials were less likely to push back against the mask. In a fit of rage, he'd ripped the mask off to show Nadir why he'd never allow any random TSA agent to see his face, and the discussion had ended right then and there. He'd half expected to never see Nadir again, but he was right back in his office the next day, and the two never spoke of it again. "I know you've had a hard life," Christine said, pulling him back out of his thoughts. "And that people treat you differently because of your face, but it's still part of you, and it's part of what makes you so wonderfully special and unique."

Erik grunted. "That's a wonderful speech. Straight off of Sesame Street. Do you have kids you've practiced it on?"

"No." The word was a sharp, short staccato. That wasn't the reaction Erik was expecting. One of the many factors that had led to the demise of their own relationship was Erik's unwillingness to even entertain the idea of a family. Christine had been so close with her father before he passed, and she wanted that with a child of her own. Erik, on the other hand, wasn't willing to risk passing on his face, or to be perfectly frank, give up the time that would be necessary to raise a child. He wondered if they had been unable to have children, or if there was something else at play, but decided it wasn't his place to push.

He finished his second beer and helped himself to a third. Though he wasn't drunk by any stretch of the imagination, the alcohol coursing through his veins was giving him the confidence to try and broach the subject that they had been skirting around all night. "Do you love him?"

"Jesus Christ, Erik," Christine sighed. "Do you really want to do this?"

"It's a simple question, Christine. Yes or no."

"He loves me. He's good to me. He wants to make me happy."

"That's not what I asked."

"What do you want me to say?" She was twisting the bottle in her hands, which Erik realized was empty. He made short work of prying the cap off the final beer and offering it to her. She took it without complaint, but when she realized he wasn't going to answer her question, she sighed again. "It never would have worked out between us. You know that right?"

When he remained silent, Christine sighed again and shifted in her seat. "You wanted so much from me, Erik. You wanted me to be your student, your partner, your Muse. It was a lot to ask. I mean, don't get me wrong, I loved you so much and wanted so desperately to please you, but it felt like nothing I did was enough."

"Christine, you were always more than enough," Erik replied softly, staring down at his lap, desperately wanting nothing more than to touch her.

"I wanted too much from you, too," she continued. "Your career was taking off, and all touring and traveling and long nights in the recording studio, they took their toll on me. I needed more stability, but that would have meant holding you back from your potential. I have all of your albums. Just when I think you've finally reached the top of your abilities, you release something new that makes me reconsider everything I thought I knew about music. You're a genius, Erik, but your pace is grueling. I couldn't keep up with you. To be honest, I'm not even sure how you do it. What we had was amazing. You pushed me to be better than I ever thought possible. But we both wanted, we both needed things that the other couldn't give us. And that's okay. We can still cherish the memories we made. We had some great times. But that doesn't mean that splitting up was the wrong decision."

Erik could feel his eyes burning with unshed tears, but he didn't dare look at Christine. He tried to swallow the lump in his throat. She was right, of course, but it didn't make the truth hurt any less. "Are you happy with him?" he asked.

"Most days," she replied.

"Content?" She nodded. "Then I wish you both the best. Truly, I do."

She opened her mouth to respond, when suddenly a buzzing came from her purse. Christine swore, grabbed the bag, rifled through it a moment until she pulled out her cell. "Sorry, it's Raoul. He probably thought I'd be home before now." Erik waved his hand, and she answered the call. "Hey, sorry…no, I'm still at the store...No, yeah it's not too terribly busy…" As she spoke, he downed the last of his beer. "I ran into an old friend, and we got to talking...Erik, you remember him?" She laughed at something her husband said. "Yes, that Erik. No, I'll be home soon… Mmkay. Bye." She hung up and dropped the phone in her cup holder. "I'm so sorry. He was just worried with the weather and all…"

"You don't have to explain yourself." He dropped the empty bottle back into the six-pack. "But it seems I should let you go."

Christine sighed, finished her drink, and nodded. "I suppose so. I don't want to worry him." Erik held out his hand, and she gave him the bottle. He placed it back with the other empty ones. "It really was good to see you Erik." He nodded and started to reach for the door handle but paused. Instead he grabbed Christine's phone. "What are you doing?"

He plugged in the familiar ten digits and handed it back to her. "Adding my number so you don't have to try and get past Nadir the next time you have an invitation, a life update, or—or if you just want to talk." Christine smiled. "Though I can't promise I'll be on the continent if you do call."

"Thank you, Erik." She leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Really. For everything."

"Goodbye Christine." Erik opened the car door and stepped out into the snow. He raised his hand and waved as she drove off, then climbed into his rental, dropping the empty six-pack on the passenger floor. Breathing deeply to try and calm his pounding heart, he crossed his arms on the steering wheel and pressed his forehead against them. He allowed himself one strangled sob, before straightening in his seat, rubbing his burning eyes, and starting the car. The windshield wipers began to brush the powdery snow aside. As soon as the windshield was exposed, he realized there was the pitter-patter of rain. Erik just sighed again, put the car in drive, and began to make his way back to the empty house.