NOTES: My submission for the 2010 Advent Calendar at the Daniel/Betty Livejournal community.
This is . . . yeah, I don't even know. It started off as one thing, and turned into something else entirely. Originally split into three parts, I'm just going to post it in a big lump here. Those of you who have been reading this story over at the B&B community know I've had a hell of a struggle with it. I appreciate all the encouragement and feedback I've received, and I hope everyone here enjoys.
I'm fudging the timeline a wee bit. Wilhelmina was reinstated at MODE in 'The Passion of the Betty', which took place after Christmas. But I just liked the idea of Daniel being forced to find her a gift and couldn't let go of it. So let's pretend a little.
Huge thanks to Michele Who May Write Detty for beta-reading this. As always, her insight is invaluable to me.
After this, I return full-force to "Meet U in LDN". I've neglected my baby too long.
THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR
"Well?" Betty prompted. She was practically bouncing.
Daniel eyed the slip of festive green paper. "I forget. Am I allowed to tell you?"
"As long as it's not me, sure."
"But if I don't tell you, then won't you know I picked your name?"
"Oh. Right." Betty's brow furrowed. "So I guess it is me, isn't it? And now I've ruined the surprise."
"I wish it was," Daniel sighed. He held up the slip, which read 'Wilhelmina Slater' in Betty's precise cursive.
"Yikes. Sorry," she winced. "At least you two are on better footing since she's been back at MODE. Maybe she'll really like a present from you?"
"I'll settle for something she won't throw at my head. Betty, can't we just skip the Secret Santa this year?"
At her expression, Daniel immediately felt Grinch-like for asking. Betty loved the holidays. No, that was an understatement: every year on December first, she transformed into a little Christmas maniac. The Secret Santa campaign was only the beginning. Soon would come the gingerbread cookies meticulously decorated to look like MODE staffers, and Daniel suspected the reindeer socks he'd seen flashing underneath Matt Hartley's trouser legs weren't there entirely by choice.
Even Betty's grin was festive; she had obviously visited the orthodontist over the weekend, and like every year, was now sporting alternating green and red elastics on her braces.
But despite Betty's adorably aggressive Christmas enthusiasm, and the fact that outside his window Manhattan was slowly being buried under the first big snowfall of the season, Daniel wasn't excited about any of it. And the prospect of facing midtown crowds to shop for Wilhelmina Slater — with a 50 dollar price cap, to boot — definitely wasn't bringing on the cheer.
Offended, Betty clutched the glass bowl filled with green and red paper closer. "Of course we have to do a Secret Santa. It's a MODE tradition."
"Which you started," Daniel pointed out, "when you were an assistant. Forcing people around here to be festive isn't really part of your job anymore."
"I don't care. It's fun."
"Really, Betty? Was it really fun when Nick Pepper gave you a cat toy last year?"
Betty was undeterred. "Here, mix them up so I can pick one." She handed Daniel the bowl, which he realised she had taken from the reception desk and emptied of Amanda's jellybean stash; hopefully Betty was good and far from his office when Amanda found out. For now, he gave the bowl a shake and held it out for Betty, who rubbed her hands together with anticipation. She reached in and immediately, her face fell.
"Crap. I got Marc."
"Put it back in and pick again. I won't tell."
She seemed tempted for a moment, but then squared her shoulders and tucked the bowl under her arm. "No. That goes against the very spirit of Secret Santa. It'll be fine. I'm sure I can get Amanda to help me."
Over Betty's shoulder and through the tube, Daniel caught sight of Amanda's distant form upending drawers and sweeping flurries of papers off the reception desk, silently shrieking with rage. Betty followed his gaze, and whipped back around, hunching over the glass bowl.
"Starbucks gifts cards are always a safe bet," Daniel said gently.
"Call me when you're done for the day." Betty began shuffling backwards out of his office. "We'll hit Macy's."
Daniel couldn't help but laugh. "How'd you know I was going to ask?"
Betty gave him a quick look that he interpreted as 'you're predictable' before she ducked through the door and out of sight.
The bit of cheer Betty had brought into his office left along with her. Daniel spun his chair around and watched the snow fall outside his window for a few moments. He willed himself to see how pretty the scene was, and when that didn't happen, he opened the small top drawer in his desk.
It was mostly bare, and what was left inside Daniel picked up and placed in his pocket. He didn't care about glitter clinging to his designer trousers. In the smallest way, the weight in his pocket helped ease the weight pressing against his chest.
But only in the smallest way.
The Herald Square Macy's was exactly the nightmare he had predicted, and if he'd been on his own Daniel would have taken one glance at the backed up crowd at the revolving door — the door! They weren't even inside yet! — and hightailed it.
But what he hadn't counted on was Betty: she was a force to be reckoned with, all stabby elbows and sweet apologetic smiles as she capitalized on her ability to duck under arms and weave around baby strollers like a pro. Daniel followed her lead, barely hanging on. With one mittened hand hooked on the pocket of his overcoat, they emerged in the jewellery section in front of a glittering diamond display.
"There's nothing here for under fifty bucks, Betty."
"Just look, okay? There could be a sale."
That wouldn't be any good either. Sale items made Wilhelmina's skin burn. Already, this felt like a futile effort.
Betty yanked off her mittens in order to more closely examine a necklace, and Daniel smiled as they hung there, suspended loosely from the wrists of her soft pink coat. He batted the left one, sending it into a twirl. "Mittens on a string? How old are you again?"
She turned up her nose. "They're very practical. In fact, you should think about getting some. How many mismatched pairs of gloves do you have now?"
Daniel thought about it. "A lot, actually. Hey, how come it's always the right one that goes missing?"
"One of life's mysteries. Like socks in the dryer. What about that?"
"A cell phone charm? Seriously? And anyway, it's – " he squinted into the display case " – 320 dollars. Actually, you know what? That's fine. Nobody's going to know how much cash I dropped. I'll take it."
"No." Betty pulled him away. "That's against the rules, and it's unfair for everybody who's Secret Santa isn't a millionaire."
"Wilhelmina's not going to tell anyone."
"Doesn't matter," she insisted. "It goes against – "
" – the very spirit of Secret Santa. Got it."
An hour later, after flipping the price tag on what seemed on every item in the store, Daniel conceded defeat. Macy's simply did not carry anything he could give Wilhelmina Slater without offending her diva sensibilities. Plus, his caffeine crash was making him irritable and cranky, and if one more baby stroller rolled over his Ferragamos . . .
"Betty. No more. Please."
For extra emphasis, he pulled out the white handkerchief his mother had insisted he always carry, and waved it in Betty's face. She rolled her eyes and told him he was being dramatic, but admitted they weren't getting anywhere.
She'd simultaneously been on the hunt for Marc's gift, but was beginning to realize that whatever she bought him, he'd hate on principle. She and Marc had been on even shakier ground since Betty's promotion in the spring, and Daniel suspected Betty was hoping a really thoughtful gift might help soften Marc's bitchiness a little. He didn't think she should hold her breath on that one.
"And you're no help," she said to Daniel. "You mean you've got no insight since he's been your assistant?"
"He likes ascots," Daniel said, loosening his own. He wasn't sure he could get on board with the look – they made his neck itch like crazy. "And Photoshopping pictures of Jake Gyllenhaal's head on the bodies of guys in short-shorts. Other than that – sorry. I'm pretty bad at this stuff. Obviously."
Betty sighed and set down a pink metallic martini mixer. "I don't believe in gift cards, but in Marc's case, I might make an exception."
A few minutes later, settling into their table in the Macy's cafe on the bottom floor, Betty mused, "Maybe jewellery isn't the right angle here for Wilhelmina." She unwound a cozy loose-knit cream scarf, and wrapped her hands around her hot chocolate. Steam wafted from the opening in the lid, and she lifted the cup to her nose. "Mmm. Christmas in a cup."
"Speaking of jewellery . . . that's new," Daniel said, gesturing at her throat.
Betty's 'B' necklace was absent today, as it sometimes was when she felt like mixing it up a little. In its place, she wore a pretty silver snowflake pendant nestled against the collar of her jewel blue blouse. It was quite delicate and staid compared to Betty's usual preference for bold statement jewellery, and Daniel said as much.
"Early present from Matt," was all she said, fingering the pendant.
"Ah. Where is he today, anyway?"
"At home. At his place."
"It's Friday night. No plans?"
"Nope, not tonight. Told him I was shopping for his present. He can't be with me for that, obviously."
"But you're not shopping for his present," Daniel pointed out, confused. "You're helping me. And buying for Marc."
"So what? I'll just go out another day to buy his gift. Duh, Daniel."
Daniel frowned. "Okayyy." This was a thorny subject it seemed, but that wasn't quite enough to quell his sudden and deep curiosity: "So things have been okay since the . . . you know."
He knew well enough that Betty wouldn't appreciate him saying the words "pregnancy scare" out loud in public, even if the bustling Macy's cafe crowd couldn't possibly be less aware of them.
Some part of his brain still couldn't quite compute Betty in that situation. As she confided the whole incident to him over the phone a few days ago, he'd sat in the back of his town car and tried to imagine how things would've changed if Betty had actually turned out to be pregnant. That whole future had seemed murky to him, unclear. Would she and Matt have married? What about her career? Would she have been happy about becoming a mother so unexpectedly?
Betty, who loved to love people – any child of hers would never feel anything but cherished; he was certain of that. He imagined years down the line Betty would declare everything had turned out for the best – and she would mean it, too. But what would she be giving up along the way? She had so much ahead of her; all her dreams, her ambitions . . . she must have been terrified, imagining all those choices disappearing before her eyes as she waited on the little plus or minus sign.
Daniel had also tried to imagine where he would've fit into that scenario. Cool rich uncle, perhaps? Bringer of the best birthday presents? He just couldn't picture it. He wouldn't ever presume his relief was anywhere near as powerful as Betty's – but it was there.
But Betty's story had also gotten him thinking – would he ever have children of his own now? With whom? Right now, just the thought of getting out there and dating again – it exhausted him.
The weight in his pocket changed; it became heavy as rocks, as lead.
"Yeah. Yeah, things have been good," Betty said lightly. "You know, spending lots of time together. Lots."
"Makes sense. That kind of experience can bring a couple closer together, I suppose."
"Mmm hmm. Definitely."
She fiddled with the rim of her cup. Daniel ducked his head until she met his gaze, raising his eyebrows when she did.
"Okay, let's try to jump into the mind of Wilhelmina Slater," Betty said, abruptly changing the subject. Daniel went with it for now. She'd talk when she was ready.
"Let's not. I'd like to not sell my soul to Satan this close to Christmas."
Betty ignored him, in full brainstorming mode now. "What does Wilhelmina Slater want? What makes her the happiest? What puts that extra bounce in her step every day?"
"I don't know. Attempted murder? Botox?" he said. "Dead baby ducks?"
"Okay, besides all that. You can't give her dead ducklings as a present. Well, you could. But I would never speak to you again."
Daniel truly thought about it then. He'd known Wilhelmina for over fifteen years, had butted heads with her on a near-daily basis for four of them, and there was only one thing she ever seemed to want –
"I've got it." Daniel said. "It's perfect."
Feeling confident with his gift idea – or as confident as one can be in predicting Wilhelmina Slater's behaviour – Daniel and Betty left Macy's and headed toward Penn Station to catch the train to Queens. Daniel had insisted they take the town car, but Betty had refused; they would undoubtedly get stuck in rush hour traffic, and she hated the thought of all that unnecessary pollution when they subway would get them there twice as fast, with zero emissions.
Daniel wasn't crazy about the human pollution created inside subway cars – especially now, during flu season – but knew a losing argument when he saw one.
As they headed down West 34th, Daniel saw Betty's eye catch on something. Pausing in front of a small photography store, she looked at the display in the window of photos printed on t-shirts, mouse pads, calendars – even on underwear.
"Why would you want someone's face printed on the crotch of your boxers?" Daniel mused, turning to Betty. She had a rueful expression on her face.
"Come on. I have an idea."
Inside, she flagged down the clerk and pointed to the display in the window; specifically, at the underwear. "A pair of the men's briefs in small, please. For Marc," she said, turning to Daniel. He stared at her, but she just shook her head. "If you care about me at all, you won't ask how I know what kind of underwear Marc wears."
"What photo do you want?" the clerk asked, unfazed.
Betty already had the browser open on her Blackberry. "This one," she said. A head-and-shoulders shot of Jake Gyllenhaal smouldered out from the tiny screen.
Daniel snorted with laughter, and then abruptly stopped when the mental pictures already began forming. Still, he had to admit there was no way Marc wouldn't love it.
The total came to only $24.50, but Betty seemed to have anticipated this. Grimacing, she held up her Blackberry again. "And can I get this printed on a mug, please?"
This one was a photo pulled from the archives of the 'Betty's Daily Disasters' blog; specifically, the butterfly costume from Halloween '06. With perspective, Daniel now thought she looked very sweet in it, but he didn't get why she was putting it on a mug.
"Let's try to jump into the mind of Marc St. James," Betty said, sounding as reluctant as he had earlier. "What makes him the happiest? What puts that extra bounce in his step every day?"
"I don't – oh. Yeah. Good thinking." Besides fantasizing out loud about Jake Gyllenhaal, nothing put a smile on Marc's face quite like an easy opportunity to make fun of Betty. "I don't say it enough, but you are a really, really good person."
As she handed her credit card over to the clerk, Betty sighed. "I know."
After a crowded and unhygienic subway ride, Betty and Daniel entered the Suarez home some time later. Betty had bossily insisted he come to dinner in Queens as payment for helping him with his shopping – typical Betty-logic that warmed him from the inside out just when he so needed it.
"Oh, God. What smells so good? Can I have some right now?" Daniel's mouth watered as he stomped snow off his shoes.
"You'll have to get through me first. Hey, Papi! Hilda! Justin!"
Only Hilda appeared, dressed in distressed jeggings and a red sweater with a v-neck so deep Daniel levelled his gaze somewhere near her left earring when he greeted her.
"Where's everyone else?" Betty asked, hopping around awkwardly as she pulled off her left boot.
"Picking up some groceries," Hilda said dismissively as she lead them to the dining area. "Betty, listen –"
"How can you not have any chilli pepper in the house?" called a deep voice from the kitchen. "You guys are Mexican. That's like my family running out of garlic."
Hilda closed her eyes in irritation, and shouted back, "I told you, we ran out. Just use some freaking hot sauce!"
"And I'm telling you, it ain't the same thing." From the kitchen loped in a broad, dark-haired guy wearing jeans, a navy Henley unbuttoned almost all the way, and a heavy gold cross around his neck. A dishrag draped over his shoulder and he was clutching a wooden spoon. "Oh, hey Chipmunk."
"Bobby! Hi! What are you doing here?" Betty seemed to be directing the question to her sister. Hilda shrugged.
"Got a treat for you, Chipmunk. I'm cookin' up a Talercio family special. A little South of the Border meets the Old Country. You're gonna love it."
"Wow." Betty blinked. "You cook. That's . . . not something I would've guessed. Ever."
Daniel silently agreed. He looked more like the kind of guy you found underneath your car with a wrench – either fixing it or hotwiring it.
He shrugged in way that was simultaneously humble and full of swagger. "Man of many talents. Hey, bro."
"Oh, right. Bobby, this is Daniel Meade; Editor in Chief of MODE magazine, and a very good friend of mine. Daniel, this is Bobby Talercio. From the neighbourhood."
"Betty's boss man, huh?" He shook Daniel's hand firmly; as expected, he had a crazy strong grip. "She's told me a lot about you."
Daniel sincerely hoped that didn't include his long-ago make out session with Hilda. "Good to meet you."
"Bobby is Hilda's, um, old friend from high school." Betty shot him a significant look. Gossip gears slotted into place, and Daniel was suddenly in the extremely uncomfortable position of knowing that this man, a total stranger, was someone's baby daddy – without him knowing he was someone's baby daddy. And that the baby mama was standing right there, tapping her faux crocodile ankle boots, looking agitated and nervous.
There really wasn't a Miss Manners tip for this kind of scenario.
Luckily, he didn't have to say anything. Betty and Hilda appeared to have a silent but heated discussion, which ended when Betty blurted out, "Well, this is so, so great!" with almost manic enthusiasm. Daniel stared as she did a sort of revised version of her Go Daniel! dance. "It's Bobby Time up in here! Wha-at! Everybody's favourite time! Bobby Time! Yay . . ." she trailed off, hands falling to her sides.
"Aw, Chipmunk." Bobby grinned. He chucked Betty under the chin and turned to Daniel. "Ain't she the cutest? She's kinda got a little crush on me, you know."
Daniel bit the inside of his mouth as Betty puffed her cheeks in consternation. "Gee, Betty. Does Matt know?"
"That's what I said. You got a good guy in front of you, Chipmunk." Bobby did that two figured gesture, pointing at his own eyes and then at Betty's. "Keep your eye on the game."
Betty clapped her hands together. "Okay! Enough about me. Hilda – how's dinner coming along? Is there enough for one more?"
"You kidding? Giada di Laurentiis over here made enough spicy spaghetti Bolognese to feed an army. You two can set the table."
Bobby and Hilda disappeared back into the kitchen, finally giving Daniel the opportunity he'd been aching for:
". . . 'Chipmunk'?" he teased, leaning in.
Immediately, Betty's palm went up in his face. "No, Daniel. Just – no."
Daniel was undeterred. "How come he gets to?"
"Because Bobby still thinks I'm nine years old. Here, go put these on the table." She handed him a fistful of cutlery from the sideboard and shooed him away.
Justin and Ignacio came through the door just as Daniel and Betty finished setting the table. A weird nervous anticipation tingled in Daniel's gut; he still felt it sometimes when he showed up at the Suarezes' unannounced, like this would be the time they finally called him out and asked what the hell he was doing here. He hurried to the door when he saw the two were struggling with bulky bags and packages.
"Daniel! Good to see you again," Ignacio greeted him with genuine warmth – as always – and handed him several bulging reusable grocery bags. "Would you mind?"
"Not at all, Mr Suarez. Hey, Justin. Great hat."
"Thanks! HUDSON's October issue, page 64." Justin took off his grey Trilby and immediately began straightening his hair in the hall mirror. "Sorry we're late, AB. Grandpa took half an hour in the pharmacy. If I didn't love these shoes, I totally would've walked home myself."
Betty grinned at her father. "That long to refill a prescription?"
"Not even." Justin stage whispered, "Flirting with that Jean lady the whole time. Ew."
"Hey. Allow an old man his privacy, huh? Daniel, help me unload these in the kitchen, will you? You too, mijo."
"Papi, wait." Betty touched her father's arm, her expression serious. "Daniel, could you . . . ?"
Daniel suddenly remembered what Betty had told him about her father's opinion of Bobby Talercio, and his sudden reappearance in Hilda's life. Best let Betty do her peace-keeper thing, then – especially since it seemed like Bobby was going to be a pretty permanent fixture in the Suarez household soon.
Wow, he really knew a lot of things that probably weren't his business.
"Yeah, sure. Come on, Justin. Show me where this stuff goes."
Dinner was surprisingly delicious, which even Ignacio acknowledged (although he'd added "chilli pepper would've given it that extra kick – but not bad." Bobby had opened his mouth, but Hilda's sharp fingernail in front of his nose silenced him). Betty, knowing Daniel's weak stomach for spicy food, had grated half a block of cheese on top of his portion, as well as poured him a tall glass of full fat milk – a little embarrassing, but he'd regret it tomorrow otherwise.
"Oh, girls, I almost forgot," Ignacio said during dessert (a sinfully rich black forest cake from a neighbourhood bakery. Daniel barely refrained from licking his plate clean). "I found something today in one of old boxes of decorations – you know, the ones you three never let me put up."
Hilda waved at the wall of pastel-coloured tinsel and faded cartoon Frosty the Snowman cut-outs. "For good reason. They're tacky as all get-out, Papi."
Justin closed his eyes in utter disdain. "I can't even . . . don't make me look."
Ignacio excused himself from the table for a moment. When he returned, he set an eight by ten framed photograph on the table. Immediately, everyone at the table leaned closer. "Remember this?"
The sepia-tone, slightly blurry candid shot showed a very young, very startled Ignacio Suarez sprawled on his back in a bank of snow. His bell bottom jeans, full sideburns and aviator glasses dated the photo to sometime during the '70s. Off to the side, a lovely petite woman was doubled over with laughter, wearing a camel overcoat, slim gloves, and an elegant beret atop her short black curls.
She was slimmer and much younger here than other photos Daniel had seen her in – he guessed this was taken quite some time before her children came along – but he would recognize that radiant smile anywhere.
"Oh my God, I haven't seen this in ages," Hilda gushed. "Papi, look at you in those tight jeans!"
"Grandma was such a fashionista. No budget whatsoever to work with, and she's totally owning that Jackie O look. I knew I got it from somewhere."
Betty traced the cheap plastic frame with her finger. "She does look so beautiful. This was your first winter in America, right?"
"That's right. Late November, 1973 – the first time either of us saw snow." Ignacio smiled lovingly at the photo. "She's laughing because she doesn't know yet my ankle is broken, and she's going to be shovelling the sidewalk by herself for the next six weeks."
This elicited a laugh from everyone.
"My nonna has a couple pictures like this, too," Bobby said. "Don't get much snow in Napoli, either."
"What was it like?" Daniel asked. He wasn't looking at the picture; instead, he studied Ignacio's expression as the older man gazed down at the face of his beloved deceased wife.
He wasn't sure what he was asking.
"Difficult, of course. The cold was like nothing we'd ever experienced. We lived over a convenience store in Queensbridge. The heating worked when it wanted to, which wasn't often. We didn't own a car, and back then, the buses and trains were even less reliable. Aye, standing on the corner at 5 in the morning to catch the bus for my early shift – the wind and the ice down my back – those were the times I thought we had made the biggest mistake of our lives. That I had made a mistake bringing Rosa here."
"You had no choice, Papi," said Betty, touching her father's hand. "You were saving her life."
At that, Bobby's eyes flickered curiously over to Hilda. Daniel himself had only ever heard the bare bones of that story, but it had been enough to spur him into action and purchase four first class tickets to Guadalajara all those years ago.
"Oh, I know that now, mija, and I don't regret a single choice we made." Ignacio lifted Betty's hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. "How could I? They all lead to you, and Hilda, and Justin, and our wonderful life here together. But as a young man, I worried. She was used to the finest things back home, you know? She had housekeepers and servants, and here – she was the one cleaning houses. I never wanted that for her. But my Rosa . . . she never complained."
"No, she didn't. She taught herself how to skate instead," Justin said, jumping in. He seemed to take delight in these stories, although he surely must have heard them many times before.
Ignacio laughed. "Yes, she did. The woman who had never seen ice outside of a freezer before."
"That was Mami," said Hilda, resting her face in her hands. "Always finding the bright side in every situation. Gee, doesn't that sound familiar?"
Everyone's eyes turned to Betty, who ducked her head and smiled. "Mami learned to love winter, didn't she? After a while. She taught us to skate, and took us tobogganing in Flushing Meadows. Even when we complained we were too old."
"Threw a mean snowball, too," added Bobby unexpectedly. He rubbed the back of his head. "I'll never forget that one time. Nailed me from at least 20 yards away."
"What did you expect? Sneaking out of her 16 year old daughter's window in the middle of the night."
"Papi!" Hilda covered Justin's ears, who was making a face that said, TMI.
"What? He's just lucky she didn't make it to the frying pans in the kitchen."
"Sounds like you were a very lucky man, Mr. Suarez." Daniel's voice was raspy, like he'd been silent for days instead of minutes. "To have someone like her."
Daniel was aware of Betty watching him. When Ignacio lifted his gaze from Rosa's eternally joyful smile, he looked right into Daniel's eyes.
"I was. We all were. And every day she is missed. But she's also with us every day, alive in our memories."
Daniel's chair squeaked as he stood abruptly. "Um. I'm sorry. Would you excuse me a minute?" His throat was closing up but he managed to say, "I just remembered a phone call. About the Book."
Daniel felt the various looks of sympathy around the table (Hilda must've mentioned something to Bobby, because even he looked understanding). He knew he didn't have to feel ashamed, not in front of these people, but still, he needed to go.
"Of course," Ignacio said quietly. "Take your time."
In the kitchen, Daniel pulled out his phone. He quickly dialled his desk, and when he heard his own voice on the answering machine, he said in a clear voice, "Hey, Jarrod. Daniel here. Just making sure you followed up on the changes to the Halle Berry feature. I know my email was last minute. Yeah. Okay. Let me know how goes. Appreciate you taking it on. Have a good weekend."
He hung up, and stared blankly at the sauce stains around the pot of leftover Bolognese on the stove. He'd have to remember to erase the message before Amanda arrived on Monday morning.
His hand went into his left pocket, and his minded drifted.
Daniel had woken up Tuesday morning craving an omelette full of vegetables and sodium. Half awake, hunger gnawing at his gut, he had dug into the back of the kitchen cupboard to open a new bag of salt – the shaker he'd been using for months was down to the last few grains – and immediately felt all the air whoosh from his lungs. He'd been struggling to get it back ever since.
Now, it hit him all at once. He had only ever spent one Christmas with Molly. That, too, in St. Bart's, where they had lounged on the beach for the most of the day, getting drunk on umbrella cocktails and burying each other in the sand – and later, twisting and moaning for hours between miles of white sheets. Not at home decorating a Christmas tree, building a fire, opening gifts, or anything else that meant building a tradition. The only thing Daniel had unwrapped that day was the tie holding up Molly's black bathing suit.
The memory was one of his happiest, and he wouldn't trade it for the world. But spending their one and only Christmas together on a tropical island far away from home only made their whole relationship feel even more like a dreamlike slice from someone else's life. And all he had wanted with Molly – what he still wanted – was reality, with everything that it entailed.
More than death itself, Molly had feared being forgotten. Daniel had promised he wouldn't let that happen. But their memories together were so few. Not half a lifetime like Betty's parents, with children and grandchildren to colour them brighter.
I'm trying, Molly, he thought, twisting the object in his pocket.
"Hey." Betty entered the kitchen with a stack of dinner plates from the table. "Need any help? With the Book?"
Daniel pulled his hand out of his pocket and crossed his arms. "It's okay. All taken care of."
"Oh." She set the dishes in the sink, and began running the tap. Over her shoulder, she asked, "Are you sad, Daniel?"
The way she said it, the lilt in her voice sounded almost childlike. To the simple question, he gave a simple answer.
"Yeah. I am." He didn't even realize his eyes had filled until he blinked and felt his lashes stick together. "I'm sad, Betty."
Betty and Daniel stayed in the kitchen for a while. Daniel took over the dishes while Betty separated the leftover pasta into Tupperware containers and sent Ignacio and Justin to the neighbours' houses to distribute them. By the time they had finished cleaning up, snow began falling in huge fluffy clumps, making soft sounds against the windows.
Betty suggested they take a walk. Daniel protested that they'd slip and break their necks.
"The infrastructure in Queens isn't that bad, Daniel. The sidewalks are salted."
"It's cold. Like, nose hair-freezing cold."
"It's better. Haven't you noticed that when it snows, it somehow gets warmer?"
Daniel did know this, though he never really understood why. "Where should we go?" he asked, because Betty was already pulling on her boots. She gripped his elbow for balance with one hand while lifting his coat off the rack with the other.
"Doesn't matter. We're just getting some air."
"These shoes don't hold up against water," he tried finally. "I'll lose a toe. Another one."
"Please. I know that story isn't true. Bobby!" She leaned into the living room, where Hilda and Bobby were watching a Christmas special. They sat on opposite ends of the couch, but Daniel suspected that would change the minute he and Betty left. "Can Daniel borrow your boots?"
"Anything for you, Chipmunk. In the cupboard."
Betty rolled her eyes, but bit back a smile when Bobby threw her an exaggerated wink. She fetched the boots and gave Daniel a look like, anything else?
Moments later, bundled up in scarves and gloves with Daniel sporting Bobby's heavy-tread yellow Timberlands under his charcoal dress pants, they took a left from the Suarez front gate and headed out into the night.
"See? Not so bad, right?" Snowflakes sparkled in Betty's dark hair, which had gone wavy from melted snow.
"No. It's nice, actually."
The cold felt cozy, in a strange way. On the bridge overhead, the 7 train screeched towards Midtown – the same train they had taken to get to Queens, the same one Betty took every day to join him at work. Then the street was utterly quiet and still, save for the crunch of salt under their boots.
"Bobby seems like a good guy. I think your dad warmed up to him a little today." The falling snow muffled Daniel`s voice, making it sound as though he and Betty were in a soundproof box.
"Me, too. God, it'll make things so much easier for Hilda if he does. Thanks for not giving it away that you know about the baby, by the way. Sorry if that was awkward for you."
"It's okay. I'm glad you trust me with this stuff. And I always like hanging out with your family" Daniel said. "Whoa. Who lives there?"
The house was decked out top to bottom with flashing multicoloured lights, revolving snowmen, an LED Santa on the roof, and an elaborate manger not dissimilar to the one on the Suarez front yard. In fact, most of the houses on the street had some version of the Nativity scene displayed outside. For some reason this made Daniel feel a little guilty, though he couldn't explain why.
"Oh, just Papi's mortal enemy." At Daniel's yeah, right expression, she admitted, "Well, only during the holidays. He and Mr Bramwell get a little crazy trying to one-up each other for the most over-the-top decorations in the neighbourhood. The rest of the year they play dominos in the park every other weekend."
Daniel smiled. "That sounds more like your dad."
"Oh, yeah. They go way back. Mr and Mrs Bramwell immigrated here from Barbados the same year as my parents." She glanced at Daniel. "That photo we were looking at? Mr Bramwell took it. Apparently he was laughing his butt off at my dad too, and that's why it's blurry."
As they passed the house, averting their eyes lest they risk damaging them, Daniel said, "Don't tell your dad, but I think Mr Bramwell kind of wins this year."
"I know. I think the full-scale sled and eight reindeer on the roof is what gives him the edge. Oh, I know where I want to go."
She lead them past corner stores, a butcher's shop with a sprig of mistletoe taped to the front door, and an rather industrial-looking school building, where Betty veered them off the sidewalk.
"Jackson Heights Middle School. You went here, right?"
"Yep. And Hilda and Justin, too."
"It looks kind of . . ."
"Rough? Nah, just a little run down."
Colourful graffiti decorated the steel and wood park equipment. Daniel noticed that the school grounds were deserted, and the streetlamps didn't provide a lot of illumination. "We should probably head back soon. Don't you think?"
Betty smirked at him, trudging through the snow to a pair of swings. "Relax, Daniel. I used to throw tea parties under that jungle gym."
"I don't see how that would stop someone from knifing us, but okay."
She brushed snow from the seat and settled in while Daniel leaned against the pole. For a few moments he simply watched Betty swing back and forth as snow collected on the shoulders of his coat. A lowered Mazda with blue lights under the carriage drove past, a deep bass beat thumping from inside; it fishtailed at the intersection, but righted itself mere inches from the stop sign pole. The bass faded away as it took off again around the corner.
Betty continued to swing, but he could feel her sneaking glances at him.
Daniel reached into his pocket and retrieved the item he'd been carrying around all week and sleeping with under his pillow.
"I found this in Molly's apartment," he began slowly. Betty dug her boots into the snow-sand mixture under her feet and halted the swing. "In a bag of salt, of all places. I didn't look in the cupboards too closely when we were cleaning up."
Betty opened her mittened hand and Daniel gently placed a small handmade dreidel into her palm.
The little toy had obviously been made by a child's hand, with tiny fingerprints permanently etched into the clay surface. A child with a love for sparkly things: the whole thing had been rolled in blue and gold glitter before being baked and coated with something clear. That didn't stop the stuff from coming off on Daniel's hands and in his pockets.
The Hebrew letters on each side had likely been carved by Molly's hand, though. Kindergarteners weren't allowed to touch the kind of sharp tools that would make such precise lines.
Daniel watched Betty turn the small toy over, examining it carefully.
"I guess the salt was to keep the clay dried out," she said finally.
"Oh. That makes sense."
"Did she make these with her class?"
"She did. To teach them about other holidays. Not just Christmas."
"That's really great," she said softly. "Why did she keep this one?"
"She said the kid who made it refused to take it home. Said it was a present for her." Daniel was surprised how steady his voice was.
Betty nodded, smiling. "Kids do that. They learn about sharing and being generous, and they like how it feels to give someone a gift." She held the toy up, turning it under the glow from a street lamp. For a moment, the surface gleamed like precious metal. "When Justin was in preschool, he gave away these light-up sneakers he was crazy about to a kid in his class. I know – Justin, giving away clothes? But he wouldn't take them back. Kept saying they were a present for his friend. When the other mom managed to pry them off her own kid, Hilda had to tell Justin they were a different pair before he would wear them again."
"Guess he's always been a really good kid, huh?"
Pulling off her mittens, Betty stood the dreidel upright in her palm and gave it the gentlest spin, taking care not to drop it. Watching the top of her bent head, Daniel felt an almost crippling pang of regret that Molly hadn't had the chance to get to know Betty the way he thought his wife should know his best friend.
Another example of just how goddamn unfairly life had treated Molly.
Daniel eased off the pole, and brushed the snow off the empty swing beside Betty. He sat down, but didn't push off. Betty faced him, the chains above her head squeaking as they crossed. She cradled the dreidel between both hands in her lap.
"That isn't the only thing I have," he said. "From her school. Her students. When she died, they made me stuff. Like this book full of drawings of her. They wrote things they loved about Molly, why she was their favourite teacher. The school sent it to me in this big box. But not right away."
"They waited a few months. I got it after the Community." He paused. "I'm – I'm really glad they did that."
Daniel hated to think it, but the way he'd been behaving in his grief right after Molly's death – he thought it was possible he would have thrown the box away without opening it.
"What else was in the box?"
"Cards, paper flowers. Remind me to show you some time."
"I'd really like that," she murmured, watching him closely. Though half-shadowed from the night, Betty's face eased him, made it less painful to speak.
"Do you think it ever stops?" Daniel twisted his own swing to face her. "This feeling?"
"The feeling like . . . when I think about her, it's like I've been punched in the throat." An ungraceful explanation, but he couldn't think how else to say it. Betty seemed to understand, though.
"No, not entirely," she said slowly. "And you wouldn't want it to. It's how the people we love stay with us, even when they're gone."
"I can't believe the people we love would want us to feel like this. I don't." By using the word we, he realized he was calling on Betty's experience with cancer, with death. God, Betty was so young. He shouldn't be looking to her to help him understand the complexities of his own grief. Angry with himself, he began to get out of the swing. "You know what, never mind. It's getting late."
She clutched his coat and pulled him back down. "That's not what I meant. Let me finish."
"Betty, I'm being really self-centred." He pressed the heels of his hands to his eye sockets. "Your dad was married to your mom for years and years. And you . . . that was your mother. My whole relationship with Molly, beginning to end, only lasted a few months. I don't know why I'm so –"
"Stop. Listen to me." She tugged his hands away from his face. "Don't trivialize your feelings. You loved Molly – so much – and you lost her. That's all that matters. You have everyright to feel the way you do. It doesn't just . . . go away one day. It's a process, and God, Daniel. It's Christmastime. Of course it's going to hurt."
"This is – it feels so different than when my dad died."
Daniel took a slow breath, in and out. "I just thought after all that Community stuff – saying goodbye to her that one last time – I thought I was over it. I felt okay after that, I really did. I went to work, I hung out with friends. Hell, I even – "
Something stopped him from mentioning what had happened in the Bahamas with Amanda. At the time, he hadn't felt guilty about their no-strings arrangement, but it was as though he couldn't consolidate that with what he was feeling right now. How can a person flip-flop so much? It made him feel disingenuous.
"You even what?"
"I . . . I even went drinking with Becks. Flirted with some women, you know?"
"I never thought I'd say it, but that's good."
He half-smiled. "I guess. But today, it feels like five months ago. Except without, you know. The throwing things part. I'm not angry anymore."
For a moment they gently swung back and forth, not even high enough to lift their feet off the ground. Daniel imagined a sixth grade Betty grinning down and waving furiously from the upper storey window of the school. He felt a smile tug his lips.
"What I meant before," Betty said, "was that even though it hurts sometimes to remember the people we've lost, we have to treasure it anyway. Sometimes I'll be on the train and a woman will walk by wearing Mami's perfume and all of a sudden – I'm a little girl again sitting on her dresser, watching her take the curlers out of her hair and thinking there couldn't be another person in the world more beautiful than her. When that happens, my breath just goes . . . but I feel warm inside, too. Like she was touching me. Reminding me she's still here. It's a different kind of sad, Daniel. If sadness can be happiness at the same time, that's what it feels like."
Daniel's chest tightened again as another enormous wave of tenderness for her swept through him. She smiled back at him, and he nodded slowly. "I think maybe I know what you mean."
"You do. And if you don't now, you will soon."
"I believe you. Betty?"
"I won't ever forget her, will I? I promised I wouldn't. But sometimes it feels like all I remember is . . . all the things we didn't get to do."
It felt better to voice the fear out loud.
Betty rose out of her swing and stepped in front of him, their knees nudging as Betty reached for his hand. Gently, she folded the dreidel back into his palm. "Molly changed your life for good, Daniel. She'll always be with you because of that, no matter what. But it's up to you to focus on the happy things – to choose how she would want to be remembered."
Daniel looked up into Betty's face, backlit from the streetlamp. "She's not the only one," he murmured, "who changed my life for the better."
Betty tilted her head, smiling down at him warmly. "Come on," she said after a long moment. "Your nose looks like it's about to fall off."
Chuckling, he rose out of the swing, tucking the dreidel back into his pocket. On an impulse, Daniel offered Betty his elbow. She grinned and accepted it, and they began making their way back up the street. The snowfall had slowed a little, so the flakes swirled and danced before landing.
As they passed Mr. Bramwell's place again, Daniel said, "Betty?"
"I wish I could've met your mom."
Betty squeezed his arm, leaning in closer. "Me, too."
"Think she would've liked me?"
"She liked all my friends."
"You know what I mean. Even though I . . . well, there's lots of reasons why she wouldn't. How about even though I punched your boyfriend?"
Betty laughed. "I bet even then. It was stupid, but – you were just sticking up for me." Looking up at him, she added, "I didn't have a lot of people in my life to do that. So actually, I think Mami would've loved you for it."
Daniel opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He pulled Betty in by the shoulders and hugged her tightly, pressing his cheek against her woolly white cap.
"You're welcome," she whispered into his coat.
When Betty and Daniel returned the Suarez house, Ignacio was waiting for them in the kitchen with hot chocolates. Immediately, Betty took hers into the living room, her excuse being she should call Matt.
"Daniel, forgive me," Ignacio said as soon as Betty was out of earshot. "I didn't mean to be insensitive to what you're going through."
This brought Daniel up short. Stricken, he said, "Mr. Suarez, please don't say that. You didn't – there's nothing – you don't need to apologize." He looked down into his hot chocolate mug. "To be honest, it actually sort of helped. To hear you talk about your wife like that. With love and without . . ."
"I understand," Ignacio said gently. Daniel noticed then, possibly for the first time, that Betty had her father's eyes. "And I haven't forgotten what it feels like to see reminders of your loss everywhere. But you'll get there, too, son. Just give it time."
"That's what Betty said." Suddenly, Daniel wished he had the words to tell Ignacio how much his daughter meant to him, but all he could murmur was, "I don't know what I would've done without her."
Ignacio's tender smile and fond glance into the living room told Daniel that no explanation was necessary. He looked back at Daniel for a long moment. "You know, it may not be my place to say this, but one day, I promise you – you will be able to move on."
"Do you think so?"
"I know so." Ignacio reached out and placed his palm on the side of Daniel's neck. The gesture was so comforting, so fatherly, that Daniel bowed his head. "You have a very big heart, Daniel. When you are ready, there will be plenty of space in it for someone else."
The MODE Christmas party was in full swing. An electronica mashup of "Christmas Eve Sarajevo" and "Gaudete" thumped over the speakers and the heavily spiked eggnog flowed. Amanda was parked under the mistletoe sporting a glittering mini and a predatory expression, one hand on her outthrust hip.
Jarrod from layouts walked past her on his way to the punch bowl: a flash of green sequins, blonde hair, white teeth – and he was gone, the door to the copy room swinging, a red plastic cup rolling across the floor.
Someone needs to makeover these parties, Betty thought. Same deal every year.
"Okay, this eggnog smells like lighter fluid." Matt stared down into his cup dubiously. He took a tentative sip and nearly spit on Betty. "Oh my God. Tastes like it, too. You sure you want some?"
"That'll be Amanda's touch. I keep forgetting this is your first MODE Christmas party." She took the drink he had fetched for her. "The trick is to nurse one cup and one cup only."
"If you say so." He touched Betty's collarbone with one finger. "Didn't like my present, I guess. You only wore it once."
"No, no! The pendant was beautiful. Really," she insisted, although with a twinge of guilt she thought, beautiful, but not me. Betty's hand also went to her collar to finger her 'B' necklace. "I've just been feeling really close to my mother these last few days. And she gave me this for Christmas one year, so . . ."
Matt's eyes softened. "I understand. Sorry. Didn't mean to sound whiney about it."
"You weren't. Tell you what: I'll wear it the next time it snows. Promise." Betty felt a wave of affection for him when he smiled broadly in that way that made his resemblance to a young, pre-couch Tom Cruise even more striking. Her uncertainty, for now, went away as he put his arm around her and began leaning down for a kiss.
"Suarez. Baby Fartley," Marc intoned from behind them.
Matt sighed and pulled back. "Okay, seriously, Marc? That's actually starting to catch on with people."
Marc was holding the novelty mug with Betty's butterfly-costumed photo on the front. He waved vaguely at Betty's form. "I just came to say that ensemble is . . . not hurting me physically to look at."
Betty looked down at her red skirt and filmy black blouse with green buttons. "Um, thanks?"
"And, you know. That column you submitted last week about nail salons going green? I probably won't let Mandy use it to line Halston's dog carrier."
"I appreciate that." Baffled, Betty stared at Marc as he shifted uncomfortably, and then felt a slow grin spread across her face. "Wait . . . are you being nice to me?"
Immediately, Marc stiffened and held up a finger. "Don't get used to it, Mrs. Clause. You're still a job-stealing little gnome. One day your unholy lucky streak will run out and when that happens – " He leaned in until his nose was mere inches from Betty's " – guess who will be there waiting?"
"I'm glad you like my present," Betty said, grinning. "Merry Christmas."
Marc squinted at her. "I find you tiresome." But he took a sip from the mug and gave a little half-smile.
"You're totally wearing them right now, aren't you?" she called after his retreating form. She turned to Matt and waved an invisible pom-pom with her free hand. "Yay!"
"So that was a good thing?"
"Definitely. Ooh, speaking of good things." The saxophone intro to one of Betty's favourite holiday songs began. Her ears perked up and she found herself searching around the room. A crowd of Modies shifted, and – there.
Daniel stood nursing his own cup of eggnog near the reception desk, wearing a nice pale blue sweater layered over a collared shirt. She thought he looked a little contemplative – maybe even nostalgic. But not heartbroken.
Just in case, though, Betty nudged Matt's shoulder. "Hold my drink a minute, will you?"
"Uh, sure," he said, taking her cup. "Where are you going?"
"To make sure a friend isn't all alone on Christmas."
Weaving around the crowd, she tucked her hair behind her ears and tapped Daniel's shoulder. "Want to dance?" she asked when he turned around.
Daniel seemed surprised for a split-second, but then he gave her a smile so sincere it was almost grateful. "I'd love to." He set his cup down, took her offered hand, and together they found a spot on the floor.
They'd only ever danced together once before. She'd learned that while Daniel was a good dancer – very competent, in fact, which made her suspect childhood ballroom dance lessons – in her opinion, he didn't really throw himself into the music. But then again, the only people who'd ever been able to match Betty's exuberance were Justin and Hilda during their impromptu dance parties in the Suarez living room – when she and Hilda weren't arguing over who had to be the guy and lead.
Gio had been a close second. During their short-lived romance, she'd gone out dancing more with him than she ever had before, or since. They'd become regulars at that reggaeton club, and a few nights in, after getting her good and liquored up, Gio had coaxed Betty into pressing her body flush against his to learn some deeply raunchy moves that she also hadn't done before. Or since.
Matt was more of a stay-in-with-a-movie kind of guy, she'd learned early on.
Those lessons were, of course, entirely irrelevant at the moment. Daniel's hand sat at the most appropriate spot on her waist, neither too high nor too low. They swayed pleasantly, matching the other pairs on the dance floor.
"Did you like your present?"
"The mitten clips?" he asked, chuckling. "Definitely."
"You don't have to actually use them. I got you a real present, too."
"I don't know. Maybe I'll start a new trend. You can put them in next month's What's Hot column."
"If you wore them, I have no doubt they'd take."
The song hit the second chorus. Feeling full of mischief, Betty began nodding her head and fluttering her eyes shut, though she couldn't entirely suppress her grin.
Daniel smiled at her, puzzled. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing. You're putting me to sleep here, that's all."
He laughed. "Am I?"
"Yes. Put some effort into it, man."
His blue eyes took on a lively spark. "Are you sure?"
She matched him with a mock-haughty expression. "Bring it."
And then, to her surprise, and almost perfectly in synch to the crescendo of saxophones, Daniel sent Betty spinning out. Their hands caught, and with a tug he swiftly brought her back to his body. Betty laughed delightedly as he took her more firmly in his arms.
"That's more like it!"
Her full red skirt swirled around her legs as Daniel took the lead and really threw both of them into the music. Betty dimly realised they were taking up more than their fair share of the dance floor, and that some MODE staffers were watching curiously, but Betty was having far too much fun to care. Daniel, it seemed, was also unconcerned about his staff seeing him let loose. As Darlene Love wailed about the lights in Little Italy, he swayed them back and forth exaggeratedly, without a care for how goofy they looked.
"Hey." She giggled as Daniel twirled her under his arm. "Are you finally going to tell me what you bought for Wilhelmina?"
"I didn't buy her anything."
"What? And you're still standing? How did she react?"
"Well, her face didn't move enough for me to know for sure, but I think she was happy." He spun her out again, and she accidentally bumped his chest with her shoulder. Neither cared; they weren't on competing Dancing With the Stars here. "I gave her total control over next month's issue."
Betty laughed. "That was your present?"
"Yup. Told her I would sign off on any ideas, whatever she wanted. No arguments from me. Wrote up a formal agreement on MODE letterhead and everything."
"Well, it's definitely exactly what she wants. But are you sure that's a good idea? I mean, you only just recovered all the stolen money from Connor Owens, and you know how ritzy Wilhelmina's shoots can get."
"You know, I never thought I'd say it, but when it comes to what's best for this magazine – I think Wilhelmina is it."
"So you trust her?"
"Whoa. I wouldn't go that far," Daniel laughed. "God, I hope I didn't just do something really stupid."
Betty shook her head. "No. I think you remembered what the spirit of Secret Santa is all about. Cheesy as it sounds."
"Thank you. For reminding me."
His smile sharpened and became playful. "Hey. You ready?"
"Ready for – Daniel!" She squealed as Daniel swiftly lowered her into a precarious dip, so low she felt her hair brush the floor. She scrabbled at his shoulders, eyes watering with laughter. "I swear, if you drop me – !"
"I won't," he said, grinning. Just as easily, he pulled her back upright just as the last saxophone notes faded into the next song.
She knew the smile on her face was warm and affectionate, because that's how she felt looking at him right now. Still in his arms, she asked, "Are you sad, Daniel?"
He said nothing, just smiled from someplace deep and shook his head. Betty felt her eyes prick a little..
"May I cut in?"
Betty and Daniel both turned and gaped at Wilhelmina, a vision in crimson. She had a raised eyebrow aimed at Daniel, as though he were a fumbling intern who had kept her waiting for her mid-morning caviar fix.
It took Daniel a moment to respond. "Uh, yeah, sure. Of course. Betty, you mind?"
"No, no. Go ahead," she said, eager to beat a retreat. "I'm thirsty anyway."
Daniel seemed mostly baffled, but a little bit pleased all the same. As Betty turned to leave, she saw Wilhelmina gesture to the space on the dance floor she and Daniel had just occupied. "None of – that. Understood? And mind your hands unless you'd like to lose them."
Chuckling, Betty half-danced her way to the outskirts of the floor. Her cheeks were flushed and joy bubbled up in her heart.
He was okay. The first holiday was the big test, and he was going to be okay.
Matt's expression was strange when she rejoined him. He passed back her cup, and she took a drag.
"Oh, ew. Eggnog is totally not a thirst quencher."
As a Kelly Rowland cover of "A Wonderful Christmastime" began to play, Betty looked up at Matt over the rim of her cup. She thought about loss – people coming and going from your life, some who stay forever and some who don't. Or can't, she thought, touching her necklace again.
She didn't know what the future would hold, but she thought, right now, just be in the moment.
"Come on," she said, taking Matt's eggnog cup and setting it aside with her own.
"You ready to leave already?"
"No." She grinned at him. "Let's find some mistletoe."
Later that night, Daniel went home a little drunk and a lot tired – but light, somehow.
He stumbled over some shoes he'd left on the bedroom floor, and made his way to the walk-in closet. Once there, he felt around for the light switch and unfolded a stepladder wedged between a pair of suitcases.
The two cardboard boxes were stacked on top of one another, and he pulled the smaller box to the closet floor. On it was a return address for a run-down elementary school in the Bronx not dissimilar to Jackson Heights Middle School. The larger box still up on the shelf was simply labelled 'Keepers'.
Stretching his leg out awkwardly to dig into his pocket, Daniel pulled out the dreidel. Glitter sprinkled off as he set the top on the floor beside his knee and gave it a gentle spin. It twirled and wobbled off-kilter until it landed on a symbol that looked like a stylized W. He didn't know what it meant, but somewhere in his mind he recalled Molly telling him all the symbols put together made the phrase "a miracle happened here."
Warmth and air flooded his chest and he closed his eyes for a moment, smiling. He opened the small box and carefully placed the dreidel inside, on top of a Crayon drawing of a skinny stick figure with long yellow hair floating just above a field of scribbled grass and loopy flowers.
Then he shut the lid securely, knowing the next time he opened it would be the following December. He'd show Betty then, too.
The box went back up on the shelf, and he switched off the lights and began getting ready for bed.
When he eased under the covers a few minutes later, Daniel flipped over to face the empty left side of the bed. He ran his hand over the sheets, under the pillow.
Somebody else will sleep here, he realized. Maybe even soon. Daniel briefly wondered about her, before his eyes drifted shut and he fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
He dreamt of a young girl playing with a tea set.