During the course of Masks, roar526 made a comment about an ABQ Christmas Carol. The idea kind of stuck with me, and it's been fermenting and growing while Masks has been going...and going...and going. I need a break from the story that was supposed to be a break from other stories, so I am giving you Mary's Christmas Carol. I hope you enjoy. And, yes, this one will have to be brief. The plot is already pretty much defined, isn't it? LOL.....
He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree. ~Roy L. Smith
Mary did not "do" Christmas. For so many years, it had just been another time in her young life when promises were made and then broken, when she'd watched her father take the vast majority of whatever money they'd had and gamble it away, watched her mother take what was left and consume it in the form of a very different type of "spirit" than most of those cheery songs chirping from every store sound system seemed to be talking about. She could remember a couple of notable and hellish Christmases, in fact, that stood out as red-letter events even in the saga of loss and misery that had forged her. Could remember them when she allowed herself to look back, to pry open the rusted-shut locks of her heart and see vistas that could destroy. If she was honest with herself, did see, in fact, sometimes if she wasn't careful during this season of light and red and green wrappings, the pair of small blond girls standing in the cold, empty living room waiting for promised presents that never arrived....
Mary pulled the black leather coat around her more tightly and wished desperately for June. It was not cold in June. June was a sensible season. June was filled with sun, pools, and the absence of....
"Merry Christmas, Mary!"
"Yeah. Same to you." Which was as close as she could get to the greeting expected of her this morning. At least she'd smiled when she'd said it. Sort of. Okay. Maybe it looked as though she was mildly in pain. She hadn't shot the cheery little Mrs. Geisel had she? She was being good.....
She and Marshall had been forced to split up to take care of this last round of witness visits heading into the holidays, and, as always when they weren't together, she missed his balancing presence. Not that I would tell him this. He's already too smug by half most of the time. But today, I'm getting Christmassed to death. He's good with this stuff. He could run interference.
She was jarred from her reverie by Mrs. Geisel bustling up to her from the kitchen. The tiny lady was carrying a red and green tin and under her soft white curls, her eyes were bright as a bird's. She extended the tin toward Mary with an expectant smile, and Mary realized whatever was in the tin was for her. Oh hell. I hate it when they give me things. What do I say? Do I open it now or carry it with me?
She was saved from trying to come up with a comment by Mrs. Geisel. "They're fruitcake cookies, dear. It's an old, old recipe. Fitting, yes? I am, after all, an old, old woman." She cackled softly and pressed the tin into Mary's hands.
Yeah. That's what I was afraid of. Fruitcake. Damn.
Her expression must have said it all because Mrs. Geisel laughed and patted Mary's arm in a gesture Mary understood the little lady meant to be comforting and reassuring. Maybe on someone else, it would have worked.... "Oh, child. To have a picture of your face just now.... Come. You must taste one, or I won't be satisfied. This is not fruitcake as you obviously know it." And despite her diminutive size, she dragged Mary into the kitchen to the worn dinette set, and before Mary really knew what had hit her, she had a cookie in her hand and a glass of milk in front of her. Mrs. Geisel sat in front of her, bright bird eyes watching. "Eat. Go ahead."
Mary looked at the cookie. I can do this. I have had combat training. I can just bite, mash it up some, and bolt it down with the milk if it sucks. After all, it can't be worse than dinner a la Jinx, right? She took a smallish bite, and to her pleasant surprise, the cookie was actually very good. She took another, larger bite.
Mrs. Geisel laughed as Mary devoured the cookie. "See? I told you. Silly child. Not everything unknown is bad. And not everything you think you know is what you think it is." She pushed the plate of cookies across the table. "Please. Have some more. It makes me happy to see you eat them."
Mary complied. She felt the knot between her shoulder blades begin to unwork itself as the tiny lady prattled on, watching her eat cookie after cookie. Eventually, Mary joined in the conversation. They talked cookies and, perhaps inevitably, Christmases. It turned out that these particular cookies had been something Mrs. Geisel had made every year for her children.
"Before, of course, the accident. God rest them."
Mary nodded, felt suddenly glad she'd stayed, glad she'd eaten the cookies. Mrs. Geisel's son and daughter had been murdered as a part of a mob operation. The son had gotten involved because he'd owed them money. The daughter had been collateral damage, visiting in the office on the wrong day. Mrs. Geisel had witnessed it all from the seat of her daughter's car waiting to be taken to the doctor. At the age of 70, she'd entered witness protection on December 20.
The old woman looked every one of her years for a brief moment as she smoothed the wrinkles of the colorful green and red cloth on the old dinette table with her fingertips. "I...I have not made them since.... Last year, I could not do it. When Christmas came, I went to the store and I had a list even with the things I would need to buy to make them, but suddenly, I walked to the front of the store and put my cart away empty and came back home."
She looked away from Mary, out the window over the tiny kitchen sink, her eyes suddenly full of tears. "I could not do it, not when there would not be anyone coming to eat them, you know. Nothing is worse than a plate of cookies with no one to share them with."
Mrs. Geisel looked back at Mary, and she smiled gently. "One eats them all oneself, you know, and let me tell you, my girl, there is not one healthy thing in these! None of this fat-free nonsense! These are a holiday indulgence, to be sure." Mary was suddenly struck with admiration for the little iron woman sitting in front of her, battling back tears and talking about cookie recipes.
"Well, Mrs. Geisel, all I can tell you is that I'm glad you made them this year. These are amazing."
Mrs. Geisel beamed. "I knew you'd like them once you gave them a fair try. And I have another box for you to take to your partner, too." Her eyes were twinkling again with happiness. "I know how men like to eat, and that one skinny like a rail, too. My late husband was that way, and the food that man could eat! So I do not expect you do share. Share! There is no such thing with them..." She got up and bustled about the kitchen gathering up the other box.
As Mary drove away with the two red and green tins of cookies on the seat beside her and Mrs. Geisel waving in the driveway some time later, she eyed the pretty poinsettia flag hanging from the spry lady's porch. Apparently, some people were able to forgive the season for its indignities. Mary didn't know whether it was a sign of hope or defiance.
When she got back to the office, she gritted her teeth, mentally preparing as she rode up in the elevator. The doors opened and she swept her eyes over the scene in front of her. Her cookie-induced good mood evaporated almost immediately, the gloom she'd left the office with descending on her like a heavy, wet black wool cloak. Damn. Has it actually gotten worse since I left? How is that even possible?
A Christmas tree stood in the corner decorated with an odd assortment of ornaments assembled over the course of the last three years. Marshall's doing. We never had any such damn thing before he showed up. Pure crap, that. The witnesses liked it, though. Any of them who passed through the office during the holiday season for any reason or knew about it from previous experience had been known to "gift" the Marshals with an ornament for the office tree resulting in the current chaos of color, motif, and material. There were several that had a law enforcement or Wild West theme, but equally at home were Santas, snowmen, and unidentifiable kid-made projects that seemed to delight her partner most of all.
He freakin' acts like he's been given gold, frankincense, and/or myrrh whenever one of those kids gives him a star made out of Popsicle sticks. It's...embarrassing. And I still haven't figured out what that one is. Why do kids make this stuff? Why don't their parents stop them from handing them out? She flicked her finger against a red and green ceramic amorphous shape with a crooked smiling face incised into it as she passed, shook her head in irritation and walked on to her desk.
Garland had been strung up around everything not fast enough to get away, and around Marshall's desk there was an honest-to-God strand of old-fashioned bubble lights. I didn't think they even made those anymore. And who the hell puts those on a desk? And, more importantly, WHY?
Mary refused to be charmed. All the festive colors and flickering lights just made her edgy, as if at any moment.... She refused to finish that sentence even mentally. Her edginess took its usual form, and as she crossed the office, she snarled at Eleanor.
"Jeez, Eleanor. Does this office have to be the place Christmas comes to die every damn year?"
Eleanor glanced up from her desk to gaze conspicuously at the floor behind Mary. "Hmm. Left your little reindeer-dog at home, did we, Ms. Grinch?"
Mary smiled her not-smile and walked over to lean her palms on Eleanor's desk, glad for the challenge, glad for a direction to aim this nameless frustration. "Tsk-tsk. Better watch that. Don't want to get on Santa's naughty list, do we, Ms. Sunshine?" She flicked a finger at the little metal bobble Santa that bounced in response to the pressure. Mary sneered and strode back over to Marshall's desk.
It was still empty. She wished he'd get here. She wanted to tell him about Mrs. Geisel, and...and...she just didn't like it when he wasn't around. She sat the tin of cookies down in the middle of his empty blotter and retreated to her own space. Glumly, she prodded the pile of her mail around on her desk with the eraser of her pencil. A red envelope poked out of the stack, catching her attention. She pulled it out and looked at it. There was nothing on the outside of the envelope. Frowning, she used the pencil to tear the envelope open.
Her frown grew as she surveyed the green and white paper that come out. She looked up with narrowed eyes as the elevator chimed.
"What the hell is this?" she demanded.
"And a cheery good afternoon to you as well," said Marshall as he crossed the room and divested himself of his coat and scarf. He grinned at her as he slid into his chair.
"Marshall," she growled. Her tone was full of violence, of torments not sanctioned even by Dante at his most creative.
He remained unfazed; his insouciant little smile did not dim at all. "Oh, come on, Mary. If I remember correctly, you can read, right? I mean you did have to pass the test to get into the Marshal Service just like the rest of us. I don't think they would have let you in just for threatening to shoot them..." He saw her eyes narrow and her hand move toward the glass paperweight on her desk, and he decided to let that particular line of teasing go.
"It's an invitation. To a Christmas party."
"No shit, idiot. That much I gathered. But why are you inviting me? To a Christmas party?"
Marshall's smile was gentle now. He laced the fingers of his hands together, looked down at them. "Yeah. Silly me. I can't figure out why I'd want my partner and my best friend at a Christmas party I'm throwing. I guess I'm just strange that way." He looked up at her, and Mary felt a little silly. Her anger deflated, leaving her with nothing but the underlying despair this season always created in her.
"Marshall....you know I don't... Christmas."
Marshall got up from his desk, came across to hers, sat on the top and crossed his long legs. He tilted his head and looked down at her with his earnest blue eyes. He knew. He'd never been able to get the exact story out of her, not even with his patented combination for handling her: blatant antagonism and gentle patience. He suspected this was more of those ghosts of her past coming back to strangle the joy out of the holiday for her, but he knew better than to push her. She'll tell me when she's ready, when she can. Still, though...
"Mare...Come on. It will just be a party. It will be Stan and Eleanor and Bobby D., and some of the others from the office here, a couple of other people I know well, and we're just going to have a good time. Nobody's going to tie you up and force feed you eggnog or fruitcake. Promise."
"I don't know..."
"I also promise that nobody there will expect you to be in any way holly jolly." This was said with a straight face.
She smiled, pushed him gently. "God. You really are an idiot sometimes. You know that?" She was still smiling and shaking her head as she pulled the papers she'd previously shoved away toward her again. She took the green invitation and, after a moment of consideration, placed it in her "To Do" box. She would have to make that decision later on.
As she pushed him, he allowed himself a grin, satisfied that he'd at least pulled her from that state of blind anger to amusement, and he slid off her desk to go back to his own and start the paperwork waiting on him there. He was, of course, aware she had not agreed to come to the party, but that was a battle for another day. He watched her surreptitiously as she began to do her own paperwork, watched her pick up the green invitation, watched her weigh it in her hand and her mind, watched her place it in the sorter. Mentally, he sighed. Well, at least she didn't throw it away altogether. I think that's progress of a kind.
He looked down at the center of his desk and noticed for the first time the red and green tin. Puzzled, he opened it. "Oh, yes! Cookies!"
Despite herself, Mary smiled.....
The night for the Christmas party arrived, and Mary watched as everyone was filing out of the office. Her mood had been steadily deteriorating all week. She had to decide whether or not she was going to go, but she just could not handle the thought of so many people so cheery over this holiday...this holiday when everything can collapse just like a house of cards, only cards never had the weight to crush and kill like...like....
Guilt had dug in sharp little claws each time she looked at Marshall, each time she listened to him telling Eleanor about his preparations for the party. Of all the people she knew, he was the last one she wanted to disappoint. Fucking Christmas. If it weren't Christmas, I wouldn't be in this damn position. Now I'm going to wind up hurting Marshall because of this stupid holiday. I HATE this....
She was currently standing near the windows looking out at the darkening sky. Her reverie was shattered as Marshall stepped up beside her. He was holding his jacket and looking down at her with a gentle question on his face.
"Mare, um, you know I haven't asked about it this week, but this is kind of the moment since I'm leaving to go home and finish get things ready and all, and so I was just wondering if you knew whether or not you were thinking you might possibly be..."
She cut off the awkward flow of words coming from her partner. "No. Marshall, I can't. I'm sorry. I...just...not for Christmas. There's not enough alcohol in all of the stores in Albuquerque to get me through it. I know it's horrible, and I know I should be there, and..."
He waved a hand, forced the smile over the disappointment because he knew she needed it. "Hey, no, I understand. Look. I'll call you or something. Just don't stay here too late working, okay?"
She smiled a wan smile. "Yeah, well..."
They stared at each other another moment, and it seemed that both would say something, that unsaid something that would change this unsatisfactory moment into the thing it could be, give it the wings it needed to fly, but neither could find a way to articulate those strong emotions. Marshall looked down at the coat in his hands, slipped it onto his broad shoulders. Mary tapped the pen she had in her hands against her palm, a nervous little tattoo. Their eyes met again.
Marshall stepped forward, and before Mary realized what he meant to do, he drew her into a brief, hard hug. Startled, she wrapped her arms around him and reciprocated. He whispered in her ear. "Gonna say it even if you don't want to hear it, Mare. Merry Christmas." And he let her go, turned around and took the stairs out of the building. Mary could only watch him go, the feeling of his arms around her both comforting and disquieting her even though he was now gone.
The office was dark except for the pool of light around her desk and the security lights near the elevators. She'd turned off the other lights hours ago. The darkness suited her mood.
Mary sighed and leaned back in her chair putting her hands in the small of her back and stretching until she felt the subtle pop relieving the tension of so hours folded over her desk. All her paperwork was done now, and there was really no reason to stay here any longer. She rose and carried the three piles of forms and folders to their respective places, leaving one pile on Eleanor's desk, one in basket outside Stan's office, and then opening the filing cabinet to put away the third.
She was dawdling, and she knew it. This filing didn't have to be done now, didn't have to be done by her at all. Angrily, she slid the last folder into its slot and slammed the drawer closed, turning to lean back against the cabinet to stare across the empty office.
I'm here doing this so I can legitimize missing Marshall's party. Because after all, if I was busy with official stuff, then it's okay not to go, right? He won't be able to be mad or hurt then, right? Damn. I hate this. I hate feeling this way. I hate this season and everything associated with it.
She glared at the festive red and green on everyone's desks but her own, at the tree with its lights, and she realized as she did so that the string of lights was still gently blinking. Great. They can't even unplug the fucking thing. I have to do that, too. She stalked over to the tree as if it were a dangerous creature seeking to do her bodily harm, and she reached down to grab the plug. As her hand touched the green plastic, she felt a curious tingling numbness spread up her hand, and the world went dark.
You can R&R now, or read on. Chapter 2 will be up momentarily.