Note: SURPRISE! Yup, Eko, I'm your Santa. (So your fic is the one I've been freaking out about over on ESK, haha.) But I was so, so, so psyched when I saw I had you as my Secret Santa giftee! And then I read your list and was like, "Whoa. I've, uh, never done this before. But it looks fun!" I guarantee you that your gift will be like no one else's today. You just may have changed my genre preferences. xD
And one more thing, Eko: I worked very hard to stick to your list. However, my own list of what to sneak into your fic was much, much longer, so…be prepared to get bombarded with stuff that I know you'll catch onto, even if most people won't. Happy holidays. :)
Disclaimer: I own nothing except my own personal holiday spirit.
God, I can't breathe… Oh, God, oh, God…
She could feel her heart struggling to break free from her body. Her hand clamped upon her chest in a bony fist: there it was, her heartbeat in her palm, then suddenly gone. Choking on air, she fought to hold her body upright—but no, no, this world was upside down. Why were there so many voices…? And what was this color, it couldn't be…no…not her blood?
Bile spat from her mouth, and the girl trembled with the sickening knowledge: he'd done this. He'd watched, emotionless, as she'd collapsed in this heap of shattered bones. It made her dizzy, this combined with that awful sound and smell…and those voices. Yes, there were voices.
"Good Lord, what possesses a girl like that to go throw herself from a balcony?"
"Probably drunk leaving some holiday party. You know kids these days."
Everything became unfocused as the sirens wailed, their bright lights casting red on the snowy ground. What was blood anymore, what was light…? The girl's bright green eyes fluttered, briefly, before entering something close to dreaming but emptier. Hollow. Forgotten. A news article that'd be fresh for only a week: Accident…or Violent Act?: The Fa-la-la-la-Fall of Dia Emeralds.
You can't judge me. What happened to me wasn't my choice. That, at least, I know to be true.
"I don't understand why you didn't call ahead about this."
"Oh, of course you don't. It's hard to explain, mon amour."
The voices were loud, obnoxious in Terry's ears. The statue on the porch sat perfectly still, his hand curled about a gun barrel and his eyes surveying the figures darting through his woods. Clumsy idiots, whoever they were. City folk. Terry snorted at that and lifted the pipe from his side, taking in a good long draft before letting the smoke out in a puff of air. Course, wasn't any city blood in him, that was certain. None at all.
"My God, what is that?" a voice squeaked. "Oh! Oh, that hurt! Eve, Eve, help me up!"
Terry lifted a busy white eyebrow as one shadow slipped to the floor, the second rushing to his aid. Slender white arms pulled the stumbling boy upwards, and nervous laughter pierced the silence that followed. "Carl, darling, you ought to watch where you're going," a second voice trilled. "You'll hurt yourself again."
"You're absolutely right." The boy dusted off his pants and smiled. "Can't give your grandpa a bad impression!"
Terry choked on his smoke. Grandpa. The kid had said Grandpa. Oh, God. His beady eyes widened as the two silhouettes became more distinguished in the light: the billowing outline of a gown, the shine of dress shoes on the mud. God, no. No. The woman raised her hand over her eyes, squinting, before waving and shouting, "Grandpa Terry! It's me, Eve! Your granddaughter?"
There was an audible click. The beauty's hands flew to her mouth, and she screamed, "Grandpa Terry, no! Put that gun down this instant; you'll scare him."
"Too late," Terry grunted, the pasty boy in front of him a shaking mess of bones. "Now, I'm only gonna say this once, so get it right. If you don't want to look down this gun's barrel no more, leave."
"Grandpa!" Eve gasped.
"What? It's my property, and I get a say in what chicken-hearted bastards are allowed to come on here, don't I?"
"I-i-it's okay," Carl stammered out with a forced grin. "M-m-maybe it's better if we do as he says?"
Huffing, the girl crossed over between the boy and the gun, her red eyes set on Terry's. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself? We come all the way here to spend a Christmas dinner with you, and you point a gun at my fiancé's head?"
"I-I-I don't mind," Carl squeaked out. "I…uh…appreciate the welcome!"
The old man frowned, then suddenly jumped forward, causing the poor boy to recoil in fright. "This yellow-bellied coward," Terry stated, "is gonna marry my Eve?"
"Grandpa, please. You're referring to mon amour de ma vie," Eve protested, her tongue dancing around the French syllables. "I'd appreciate it if you used kinder language."
"Alright, then." Terry raised his eyebrows. "You got a name, kid?"
The boy swallowed noisily, color swirling in his cheeks. "Carl, sir."
"Carl. Huh." Turning back to his granddaughter, the old man asked, "Where the hell does a man get a name like Carl? Where did you pick up this kid—Pansy Academy?"
"French class, actually." Her arms wrapped about her petite body: a myriad of pastels wrapped on a tiny frame. "It's terribly cold, Grandpa Terry. Couldn't you let us go inside before you interrogate us?"
Two wills stared each other down before one bent, the gun lowering just enough in his hands. "City folk," Terry spat. "Always needing their damn conveniences."
Yet the door opened, anyway.
You'd run, too. You wouldn't have just taken that, would you? I'm not so different from you.
"Oh. My. God." Carl's eyes widened, the sight before him terrifying beyond words. "There is almost nothing in this kitchen. How can you live," Carl gasped, "without an oven, stove, microwave, blender, fire alarm…?"
"….refrigerator, set of measuring spoons, or dishwasher?" He held aloft a rusty ladle sadly. "See this pathetic instrument? It could have been great, once. It's been abused in this environment."
Eve chuckled to herself; she hadn't said yes to the man without knowing food was his first love. "Oh, darling. We've been over this: Grandpa Terry lives off fishing, mostly—skinning the things, then cooking them over an open fire. I told you to pack your cooking ware before we left."
"I thought you were kidding when you said that," the chef whispered.
"Well, that's why I packed for you," the blonde replied with a wink. With a dramatic flourish, she procured a microwave oven from her suitcase and laid it, proudly, on the countertop. "Anything bigger than this wouldn't have left the taxi."
"Tu es magnifique!" Carl cried as he planted kisses on both her cheeks. "Oh, there is hope for this holiday dinner yet!"
"Well." Eve hesitated, a manicured finger playing with her wispy curls. "I do hope nothing goes wrong."
"What? You think I won't come through?" The boy stopped rummaging through the cabinets and frowned. "You do know I can cook almost anything with whatever I'm given, don't you? My dinners can do wonders!"
"No, no, je crois toi," she insisted. "Of course I trust you. It has nothing to do with the dinner, though. It's just…" She drank in a heavy sigh and batted her eyelashes together pleadingly. "Do you promise you'll still love me when I tell you?"
Carl couldn't help it; he laughed. "Eve, you are the only woman in the world who would bring me a microwave oven to the middle of nowhere. Of course I'll still love you."
"Aw, you're sweet," Eve murmured, wrapping her arms around his neck and tasting his lips. Carl's cheeks burned against hers, and together their mouths fit just right: the result of infinite practice in this past month alone. Eve pulled herself away slowly before bringing her mouth up to his ear and whispering, "So you wanna know why I'm here to see my grandfather, instead of our friends?"
"Mhm?" Carl sighed, lips traveling down her neck.
Everything stopped; the cook couldn't say exactly how he'd flown himself away from this Venus' body, nor how his eyes managed to become big as baseballs in terror. "Oh my God. Schizophrenic? Is he—?" His voice dropped as he caught sighted of the man through the door. "Eve, dearest, are you insane? Isn't this dangerous?"
"Carl—!" The blonde shook her head and groaned. "I thought you would be more understanding about this. Of course it's dangerous to be with him, but what isn't dangerous?"
"Getting in the car and speeding home?"
"Don't even joke like that." She bit her lip and took the microwave oven into her hands. Twirling its cord about her finger, she added, "It's…it's not like he's the only one in the world like this. Grandpa just sees things that aren't there. Like, well, an imaginary friend. He's not catatonic, or…" Oh, it was no use; she could see the look in Carl's eyes. Tears began to spring in her own, and she desperately wanted, right then, to toss the stupid oven out the window. She'd made sacrifices for him; why couldn't Carl do the same for her? "Don't judge him, please. You have no right to. He's normal, he just…just has a different view of normal. All I want is for us to get along, so that he can come to the city. He needs what this forest can't give him: help."
There'd been a moment, sometime, where she'd noticed that he always seemed scared. That his hand refused to leave his gun, and that whenever he spoke of keeping her safe, he truly meant it. When had she realized it wasn't just a fatherly instinct? When she saw that his eyes saw everything in nothing? When had she decided to bring him to the doctor?
It wasn't until Carl had put his arms around her that Eve realized she was crying. "Oh, Eve, I—I didn't mean to sound cruel," the boy stammered out. "I'm sorry. He just, h-he has a gun, and…no, not 'and.' You're right. I didn't have the right to judge him." Carl smiled weakly. "Even if he did try to shoot me."
"You can't blame the schizophrenia for that, Carl. But…" Happiness swelled within her like a bubble, fizzing to the surface with a little giggle. "Thank you for trying to understand. Really. And, you know, I'd like him to come to our wedding. I'd like him to know you better."
Their hands connected, and Eve leaned forward to leave a simple, fragile kiss upon his cheek. No more words were needed. After all, que mes baisers soient les mots d'amor que je ne ted is pas.
But running isn't worth it in the end, is it? Humbug, humbug, and a Merry Christmas to those who can be merry.
"Police are investigating the rather unfortunate coma of twenty-two year old Dia Emeralds, heiress of the world-renowned Goddess Fashion Industries. After celebrating the holidays with friends and family, Dia walked over to the balcony…only to end her own party far too soon."
The warning came across the scene in large red letters: CONTAINS DISTURBING CONTENT. Terry watched, unflinching, as a bloody body filled his twelve by twelve inch TV, her gown brand-name and her eyes hollow with fear. Blood splattered on the tidy sidewalk, and soon the screen switched back to the pretty red-head announcer and her microphone.
" The fall is said to have spanned almost five flights, resulting in a coma that has yet to lift. Police are still unable to say whether this was an accident or an attempt at murder, but they are currently pursuing a suspect that is, allegedly, on the run. Yet the question that's on everyone's mind is who will inherit the multi-million dollar corporation—"
"Poor sad bitch," Terry muttered to himself as he changed the channel. "Everything in the world going for her but a brain." His hand stroked the gun in his lap almost nervously, and he turned his gaze to the window. Yup, it'd be a white Christmas. Snow was already falling, and damn it, he'd have to spend his holidays shoveling. Well, that, and surviving Eve and her little French-boy. I swear, if I hear them sweet-talking in that damn language one more time, I'll shoot the kid for real.
Terry shut his eyes as the little footsteps came closer. "What do you want now?"
"Grandpa…don't say it like that." Eve nestled her head on his shoulder and smiled, snuggling close like a child. "What are you watching?"
The man grunted as he turned his attention to the screen. "Infomercials, apparently."
"Sounds riveting," Eve deadpanned.
"Damn straight." He shifted in his seat; having someone beside him was far too warm, too unusual. The girl backed away into herself, eyes confused and hurt, but then she smiled again as if nothing had changed at all.
"Carl has been so looking forward to meeting you, you know. He's been talking about cooking dinner for you all the way here." She giggled. "He hopes to earn your approval through your stomach."
Terry snorted. "Tell the kid good luck with that. He's—"
The man paused, catching a glimpse of the chef in the kitchen. The boy was whisking an egg away, humming a song under his breath: "…City fog and brave dialogue converge on the frontier. Make haste, I can feel your heartbeat." He paused and frowned at his batter. "Er, something, something, then, the silver sound is all around and colors fall like snow. The feeling of letting go I guess we'll never know. Yeah, that sounds right."
Terry gave his granddaughter a pointed look.
"What?" she protested. "Don't you like Owl City?"
"…You know what, I'm not even going to ask." He trained his gaze on the windows, fogged over with frost. Memories of Eve drawing hearts on them with her pinky entered his mind, and he blinked them away as he held his gun closer.
"Grandpa, I hate that thing." He rose an eyebrow and she sighed. "That…that gun," Eve gestured. "You're always holding it, and it makes me nervous. Someday you could shoot someone, and then what would you do?"
"Hide the body?" Terry joked, but he could tell she was far from amused.
"Just put it down while we're here, okay? You've been scaring Carl."
A scream came from the kitchen in the middle of a catchy refrain, and the loud sound of a pan being slammed against the floor echoed in the house. "A rat, that's all!" he called, and Terry tried, again, to forget that this boy was going to bear his great-grandchildren.
"Eve, I reckon a twig could scare that boy."
"Fine, then it scares me." She extended a hand, and added, "You know, they're laws about guns where Carl and I live. It's a good city, and the crime rate is fairly low—"
"Is it lower than in the country?" Terry interrupted. "Cause last I checked, y'all have more problems than the handful of hermits down here."
Her cheeks flushed pink. "Grandpa, please. The gun."
"I know what this is really about," he continued, waving her words away. "This is about that disease—that one you're so sure I have."
"If by that, you mean the schizophrenia, then yes, that scares me, too. But only because it could hurt you," the blonde insisted. "You're not in any danger here, you're right. Frankly, the most dangerous thing here, Grandpa Terry, is you."
He stood up, letting his fingers slide up and down the smooth gun's surface. "So it's safe to say that you still don't believe me. You're still sure that—"
"Mom and Dad died because of an accident!" The words rushed out angrily, jumbled with fear. "There were no…no conspirators, no outside whatever, because sometimes bad things just happen. I refuse to believe," Eve retorted, "that they were being watched beforehand and then executed. I would have noticed, Grandpa. The police would have noticed."
The singing had halted from the kitchen; the silence had leaked into the living room. "But you didn't," Terry mumbled. "I did, damn it, and I plan to be ready when they come back."
"No one is coming, Grandpa. Those people you saw weren't real." She swallowed noisily. "Just like that salesman, that—that Won you were arguing with many years ago. There was no one at the door, Grandpa. You said that man had pestered you every month, but when I saw him, you were talking to thin air." Her voice quivered; her hands shook. "And then, then there was that man you made up—Basil, the other hermit, just like you! I couldn't see that man either, Grandpa!"
Terry didn't speak a word. Were there times when nothing you could say mattered? Instead, he took slow and steady steps to the door, his boots clomping with every step. "It'll be snowing soon. I'm gonna go out for a walk for a bit, alright?" His fist tightened on the gun. "Don't wait up for me."
He shrugged on his coat—a Christmas gift from many, many years ago—and paused on the first step. "Merry Christmas, Eve. You and your pansy both."
The door slammed, and a tiny voice from the kitchen asked, "Um. This isn't….my fault, is it?"
"No," the blonde whispered, shaking her head. "I…I think it's mine."
People say they have your best interests at heart. Well, that's a lie. They're always selfish, aren't they? And I guess I'm no better. I guess…
Snowflakes slipped into the nooks and crannies of Terry's hat with timid, fairylike steps; the man kept his gaze on what lay ahead, rows and rows of stark bare trees. They were real, weren't they? He wasn't insane. He wasn't…that word of Eve's.
Reality. Illusion. Tangibility. Fantasy. Couldn't anyone distinguish between the words?
A twig snapped, and Terry's ears perked up at the sound. "Someone there?" Someone real? More snapping took place: a curse flown on the breeze, feet dashing against the ground. "H-hey! Come back here, dammit!"
The forest was a maze of oak, a shadowed labyrinth of misshapen woods. Terry held his gun at the ready, mind racing with his stride. Someone's here. I know it. I know they're real, I just know I'm not making things up, I—
"Aw, shit!" The scream came on from not too far ahead, and Terry sped up, trigger at the ready. "No, I haven't done anything, don't shoot, I—!"
Breathing heavily, Terry stopped at a clearing to see the boy lying on the ground, foot caught on a tree root. Just as Carl had fallen earlier. "What are you doing here?" Terry growled. "This is private property."
Nervous blue eyes darted this way and that before landing on his. "I—I haven't done anything wrong. I swear. I was just g-going for a walk."
"Looked a lot more like running to me," Terry challenged. "Now, who the bleeding albatross are you?"
Being brave isn't about never making mistakes. It's…well, I guess it's owning up to them. That's why I'm a coward. That's why I've always been one.
"But, baby, it's cold outside."
"Well, what else can I do? I can't just sit here and wait for him." Eve shook her head. "I just…well, it's freezing out, he's all alone, and something could happen to him. It'd be my fault."
"You know that's not true."
Carl had been trying, very very hard, to get his fiancé's mind off of her grandfather and on other things, like Christmas dinner, carols, and other cheerful topics. Yet, a permanent frown was etched on his fiancé's face, and nothing he could do would remove it. She hugged her jacket close about her and sighed. "…I'm sorry, Carl. You didn't sign up for this kind of Christmas drama, did you? I hate to leave you alone."
"Then don't." He flashed her a winning grin and wrapped a scarf about his neck. "I'm coming, too! After all, Terry is my grandpa now, isn't he?"
"Carl…" She smiled back and hugged him close. "Oh, I love you!" Carl could smell the lingering trace of perfume on her neck, and her blonde curls tickled his cheek. It was a shame, he thought with a sigh, that they would be leaving this warmth to go out into the dark, frigid wilderness.
What was worse, dinner was getting cold.
What's real and what's fake are hard to decipher. You want truth? Ask a thousand people, and you'll get a thousand truths. See, the truth is what you want it to be. That's it. Nothing I say will change that.
"I want a name. Give it to me, or I'll shoot. I'm dead serious."
The metal glinted in the moonlight, and the boy swallowed anxiously. "F-fine, then. I believe you. My name…it's Ray. I was enjoying the night air. That's all."
"Like hell it is. You were running. Why?" Sweat dripped down Terry's brow, but he stood his ground and remained impassive. This kid is real. He has to be. Eve is just showing off her fancy psychology words—it's that French class all over again.
The boy stood up shakily. A shock of brown hair fell in his eyes, and he wiped the dirt from his long blue shirt before replying. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Let's just leave it at that."
"I 'wouldn't believe you' if you told me? What kind of an answer is that—the Twilight Zone or what?"
"Look, old man," Ray replied through gritted teeth, "I know I'm not supposed to be on your property. I'm sorry. Really. Just…just let me off with a warning, alright?"
Part of Terry was tempted to do just that; this boy hadn't done much except interrupt Terry's solitude, and he could say the same thing of his granddaughter and her fiancé—both of whom he didn't plan on shooting. Well, he hadn't decided on the pansy yet. That might happen someday. Someday soon.
Then, Terry's gaze wandered to the ground, and something cold and strange seized at his heart. "Just tell me one thing, first. Why is there…blood…on your shoes?"
He paled. "N-none of your business."
Eve is safe inside, Terry reminded himself. She's safe in my cabin, with Carl, and he'll—damn, he'll just run to a corner and hide if anyone barges in, won't he? Well, I raised the girl right; she'll arm herself and beat the crap out of any freaks who sneak in, won't she?
"I don't think you heard me right, so I'm gonna ask you again," Terry snarled. "Now, why the hell is there blood on your shoes? Or does my gun need to clean out your ears for you?"
Ray froze, the gun inches from his nose. He twitched. "M-maybe I…I might have been standing near some…some blood. That body's blood."
Terry froze. "What body?"
"That girl's. That…that heiress bitch's." Then, just as suddenly as the smirk had appeared, it vanished, and a terrified child's face replaced it. His hands covered his mouth, and Ray doubled over, throat tightening with something neither man could name. "Oh, God. Oh, God, what have I done?"
What if all sides of a truth were lies, though? What if what you see, and what I see, aren't two sides of the same coin? What if we're all looking through fog trying to catch glimpses of light, but keep winding up nowhere? Where's the truth, then?
Her eyes had been fiery: two hard emeralds on a porcelain frame. They'd been the same as her namesake, hadn't they? He'd watched her glide across the entryway with her regal bearing, her hands lifting her gown up the stairs. "Excuse me," she'd say, once or twice, whenever a photographer came her way. "I have no time, thank you."
A princess in a modern fairytale, she'd been called. Heiress to riches and fame and glory. The love of all the public. An angel for paparazzi fodder.
"May I speak to you for a moment?"
This princess had wrinkled her nose, the visitor neither famous, nor wealthy, nor well-dressed. His hair was much too long in her eyes, and he smiled as if he'd never cared a day in the world. "I'm quite busy, thank you," she'd replied in a clipped tone. "Maybe you can speak to my agent about an interview some other time. One by phone, perhaps."
Yet he'd remained persistent, trailing after her even when she'd thought to lose him among the throng of gowns and suits and wine. "Miss Emeralds, just a moment," he'd insisted. "This won't take long!"
"Just talk to him, hm?" someone snapped to her left. "People are staring."
The balcony had been ideal: secluded, far away from the dancing crowds and the camera-bearing hounds. "What do you want from me?" the heiress sighed. "An autograph? A photo? What?"
"N-no. None of that, actually!" he'd assured her with a laugh. He extended a hand. "I'm Ray Fisher. I'm here to say, well, thank you for your donation to the homeless shelter down the way. We get a lot of donations around this time of year, but…that amount you gave us at the end of this year really pulled us through. We were scared of closing, actually." He smiled wider. "I just wanted to thank you in person. And, if you're not busy, we're having a Christmas party of our own tomorrow, and you can consider yourself the guest of honor."
Dia cast a passing glance to his extended hand before frowning and turning away. "Oh. Don't thank me. Daddy does this every year, whether I'm aware of it or not. He thinks saying I give to the needy is good PR, trivial as it is."
The broad grin that had spread so readily on Ray's face now faded in an instant, eyes widening in disbelief. "Wait, you mean you never gave any of it?"
She leaned her arms on the balcony and groaned. "I…could care less," she remarked in answer. A finger toyed with her short black curls, and she added, "Poor people are poor people. There will always be poor people. As long as I am not one of them, I fail to see how their existence impacts me."
"H-how can you say that? People are people," Ray protested. His words were gaining in volume, rising with emotion. "Just because you've been born into a life that doesn't leave you on the streets doesn't mean you should stop caring about the people who aren't so lucky! It's a happy accident of birth that separates you, and that's all."
"But, Mr. Fisher, we're separated all the same." Dia propped her chin on her hands as she surveyed the world beneath her with a sneer. "Who am I, and who are you, to challenge fate?"
He could have done it easily in that one instant. And, oh God, did Ray want to. He could have run forward and pushed that ostentatious and stuck-up brat to the pavement with a single shove of his muscled arms. The thought occurred instantly, and Ray stepped forward, feebly wishing he could act upon it
Then it happened. Fate.
A single trip on the slippery floor, and the next thing Ray knew, he was watching a girl careen off the balcony in a parachute of green silk and bejeweled fingers.
Yet who was he, and who was she, to challenge fate?
Things aren't always the way they appear. A victim may be the criminal, just as surely as a criminal may be the victim. Things are just strange, sometimes. Who can label good guys, and who can label bad? Because, for the life of me, I can't tell you the difference.
"We just walked that way."
"No, Carl, I don't think we have…"
"I'm sure of it! I distinctly remember the tree shaped like a banana!"
Eve let out a little whine, the sigh freezing into mist on the winter air. "So we're lost. Wonderful." Her ruby eyes flitted from one tree to the next, and she hiked up her skirt to run one way. "Look, Carl! Look!"
The chef raised an eyebrow. "Look at what?"
"The sky!" Eve breathed; her cheeks were lit with a faint blush at her discovery. "Look up at the stars—they're beautiful tonight!" An array of diamonds cloaked the sky in their splendor, and Carl let himself partake in their beauty for a moment before replying.
"They're beautiful, but…we're still lost, aren't we?"
"No, look!" Eve protested. Her finger pointed upwards, and she explained, "The North Star. If we keep going that one way, we won't go in circles."
"But we could still—"
"It's a long-shot," his fiancé admitted, "but at least it's something, Carl. My feet are tired of walking around the same…banana trees. And my throat's hoarse from calling him."
Well, this was your idea, Carl thought to tell her, but it wouldn't be too smart to antagonize a woman with a wicked right hook, so he kept his comments to himself. He wasn't naïve enough to believe he was the one with the authority in this relationship, anyway.
They ran onward, shouting and shouting until, finally, the name 'Terry' no longer had meaning on their lips.
People are so busy thinking, "I'm all alone; there's no one who feels like I do," to notice that we're all actually alike. For some stupid reason, we're always pushing each other away—but I have no right to talk. Sometimes being alone gives us the excuse to keep denying that fact. Sometimes being alone prevents us from being forced to face our fears.
"…You don't believe me, do you?" Ray cocked his head at the man before him, and sighed. "I know. It's not like I have any reason to make you trust me. But…it's what happened."
"And the police?"
"I don't think they'll believe me," Ray whispered. "They'll just…just pin it on me and on my anger. They'll say that I tried to kill her. But I didn't. I swear to God, I was angry, but that was an accident. Even if part of me didn't want it to be."
He hung his head, and it took Terry a few moments to realize the odd sound coming from him was a sob, so frightened and hollow that it took all doubts of the boy's story from his mind. "Alright, stop that," Terry admonished him nervously. "I didn't come out here to see a grown man cry."
"But she could die, and then what? Then it'd be my fault. Even if I didn't do it on purpose, I did fall into her, and—"
"And so you decided to run off, get found out on my property, and then make me your unofficial rant potato?" The gun lowered in Terry's hands, and he sat himself down beside the young man. "You know, I want to warn you about something, young man. Murderers…they're at the top of my shooting list. Anyone who tries to kill someone, 'specially a girl about my granddaughter's age, deserves all the ammo I've got and then some. The way I figure, people who do that stop being a 'he' or 'she' and just become…a thing. An it. Something on the same level as, say, soda. But." Terry clapped a hand on Ray's back and smiled. "I don't think you're soda."
Ray brightened up, startled. "Y-you don't?"
"Well, you didn't mean to do it, right?"
"And she's still alive, right?"
"Well, yeah, but—"
"Then don't worry about it." Terry stood up and stretched. "I figure that things could have gotten much, much worse than a coma. I reckon she'll get up soon." He paused. "I think."
The boy crossed his arms and shivered. "Oh, God, I hope so. I…I need to apologize to her, even if she doesn't believe me. I need to fix this, and I guess running isn't doing that, is it?"
Running. Terry hadn't thought to call it that, but…the word fit, in more ways than one. "I know what it's like," he murmured. "Not being believed." He shut out images of tears dripping down his granddaughter's face, of those screaming-matches that had ensued when he'd first sworn to never go to the hospital. "I can take care of myself. I don't need anyone." Those had been his words. That had been his excuse, for the past six years, for his solitude.
That was running, too, wasn't it?
"You got a place to stay for the night?" Terry heard himself say, and that was, at the very least, his first step in the right direction.
Christmas is a magical time. I don't admit this often, but it is. People are kinder. Gentler. More willing to share their hearts. Miracles can happen on Christmas, if you let them. I just never expected…never expected miracles of this sort. If you can call them that.
Eve and Carl exchanged glances and let out a collective sigh. "We're still lost, aren't we?" Eve muttered. 'The North Star did absolutely nothing."
"Maybe we picked the wrong star?" Carl offered weakly.
"Maybe we should've brought a map," Eve groaned. "What if something happened to Grandpa Terry, and we're stuck here, in the middle of nowhere, with no way to help him?"
Carl cleared his throat and bit his lip. "Uh. About that, Eve. I think…I actually think Terry will be okay. I mean, he lives here, doesn't he? What could happen?"
"I have no idea," Eve replied. "And that, frankly, is what scares me the most."
They cuddled close on the ground, sitting beside what Carl had dubbed the 'squash' tree, and let their weary eyes take in the lonely woods about them. "Some Christmas Eve, huh?" Carl mumbled. "Alone in the cold, no food, and no way of getting home."
"Mhm." She squeezed his hand and smiled, wryly, before adding, "Could be worse, though. I could be alone without you."
Without much to do except look at stars, dull scenery, and snowfall, the two held each other close and let their lips do the talking, both being too tired to come up with any French at this time of night. It wouldn't have been anything short of blissful if, at the worst moment possible, a voice hadn't announced, "Get your hands off my granddaughter this instant, or I'm pulling out my gun and you're losing what little brains you've got."
Family reunions, Carl and Terry thought bitterly to themselves, were vastly overrated.
Because that's what Christmas is all about: people learning to help people. It's the one day of the year that you can admit that you're not alone, and that people can support you to the fullest extent. It's an excuse to give, even when you've received nothing at all.
"Pass the salt, please."
Eve flashed Ray a shy smile, and then to Terry a look that plainly said 'I-can't-believe-you-brought-a-wanted-man-to-my-turkey-dinner.' In return, Terry shrugged and passed the salt.
"This is the best turkey I've ever had," Ray exclaimed, and Carl let out a little cry of delight from the other end of the table.
"Really? Is it? Oh, Eve, did you hear that—? My turkey is a success!" He beamed.
"Hard to believe you did all this with just a microwave oven," Terry grunted. "It tastes…well, damn it, it's actually good."
Carl smiled so hard his cheeks might crack. "Just leave cooking to me, Gramps! I can cook anything with whatever I'm given!"
"…Don't call me that, ever again."
The boy paled. "Yes, sir."
Terry dabbed at his chin with napkin and glanced over his shoulder to see the TV blaring in the background. Some commercial or other was on, and Terry cleared his throat, the words getting stuck in his throat. "So. I, uh, wanted to ask you something, Eve."
"About that hospital of yours…" Terry took a big bite of turkey. "Cn yew drve meh dere?"
Eve frowned. "I'm sorry…?"
He swallowed. "I'm, uh, thinking about going. Not because I want to, you understand, but just because it worries you so damn much."
The fork clattered to the tabletop, and Eve opened her mouth to speak. Instead, nonsense spluttered out, making strange sentences peppered with "Really?" and "That'd be wonderful!" as well as "Are you…teasing me?"
"No, I…I'm not." Terry closed his eyes and sighed. "The salesman, the wanderer, they were all…I guess…it wouldn't hurt, to find out."
"It's on! It's on!" Ray exclaimed, and all heads turned to the news report and the cute news anchor reporting.
"After a recent break in the Dia Emeralds case, police are reporting that a witness has called to report that the fall was, indeed, accidental. The testimony of the witness has yet to be tested, but on a happier note, a Christmas miracle has made itself known tonight in a girl's hospital room. Yes, heiress Dia Emeralds has, as of Christmas night, awoken!"
"Oh, thank God!" Ray breathed, eyes moist with disbelief. "Oh, thank God, thank God, thank God!" He collapsed into a sobbing heap on the table, and Terry patted the boy's back, looking away awkwardly.
"I told you, Eve," Carl whispered with a grin. "My dinners can do wonders!"
Call it a miracle, fine. Go ahead. I know that's the only way to believe anything remotely impossible. Like meeting people who don't exist, perhaps. Or convincing the most stubborn man alive that everything he's been believing is a lie.
But that, too, is a lie, is it?
Maybe my daughter and her husband died in an accident. Maybe it was a planned murder. But no matter which it was, they're gone, aren't they? I could apprehend the culprit, but even that would do nothing to bring them back. It's time I let that go. It's time that I just…took advantage of what time I have left. That I spend it with someone other than ghosts.
…Even if I have to go to a damn French-themed wedding.
End Note: Yeah, this is pretty much the strangest holiday oneshot in the history of ever, but I enjoyed writing it. It could have beem darker, but I kept having to curb it in a more humorous direction to make it Christmas-friendly….so we've got a Mystery/Humor genre. Weird. But I had to do it this way for you, Eko, because…just because. I didn't think regular fluff would cut it. (hug)
Happy holidays, all. And I will be shocked if anyone reviews this quite unusual Santa present. Haha.