City dwellers marched to the beating capitalist drum that echoed through the holiday season. Glittering strings of light twinkled on trees and created glowing storefronts that beckoned both peevish and jolly shoppers. Stores called for last minute restocks and turnaround, carriers delivered under the flood of mail and packages, salt trucks and snow shovelers worked like elves. The frenetic energy these activities generated was all in the name of Christmas.
Bella was almost used to the maddening holiday pace by now, even from the impatient residents who avoided the frenzied fray with thinning tolerance. As she moved toward the nearest subway exit, she found herself caught up in the herd of people spilling out of the opening doors. Resurfacing from the tunnels, she was met with stingingly cold, fresh air and the blaring sounds of traffic. She tripped on one of the concrete steps, barely catching her balance in time. The force of the throng was only a step behind her.
Not being trampled to death was one obstacle down, but there were still a few blocks of melting ice to go. At least she could take her time avoiding slips once she reached her quiet neighborhood, Murray Hill. When she moved to New York City almost a year ago, she quickly learned that the East and West Village were very popular and highly priced, just as Upper Manhattan had always been out of the question. But she found that in Murray Hill, there were pockets of lower priced apartments that could be snagged if one was lucky enough to find a recently vacated unit. Of course, every New Yorker had his or her own opinion about the nicest or most inexpensive spots to live. Regardless, Bella was happy with where she'd ended up.
Her cheeks were red from the wintry temperature, despite her scarf, gloves, and knit hat. She stomped up the stone steps to her apartment building, and tore her mail from the box, and stomped up more steps to her unit. She heard holiday music playing from inside, and when she opened the door, her pseudo-roommate Alice was twirling around the kitchen—dressed in jeans, sweater, and giant pink furry slippers—dotting mugs of hot chocolate with mini marshmallows.
Alice was subletting Bella's living room for six months while she transitioned from a bad breakup and finished her graduate studies. They had done some sporadic apartment hunting, but nothing had jumped out for Alice yet. She'd been a good roommate so far and kept the things that weren't in storage neat, tidy, and out of the way. They turned the hall closet into Alice's, and made the bathroom a game of Tetris to fit all of her cosmetics. Bella had grown accustomed to having her around, and found that it was pleasant company whenever she walked in the door.
"You'd think it was the apocalypse coming," Bella said in greeting, methodically undoing her winter layers. She draped them over the back of the couch.
"I won't have any time to shop until after finals. And then there will only be the scraps left," said Alice. "For you."
Bella took the steaming mug from her. "Thanks."
They sat at the breakfast nook and Alice sorted through the mail while Bella let the welcome heat start to work its way into her. Alice tossed a package at her, and went on sorting.
She glanced at it, frowning at the unknown sender. The handwriting was so small and neat with an old-fashioned flourish on some of the letters.
"I don't know an Edward Cullen. Must be yours." She nudged it back toward Alice, who was humming Wonderful Christmas Time by Paul McCartney while tearing open a family holiday card.
Alice peered at the package and replied instantly, "Nope."
She set her mug down and studied the soft paper package. "Are you sure you didn't buy something online?"
Alice cast aside her mail and looked more interestedly at it. "Positive."
"There's no name on it," she said.
"But you live here. That's the address on it, isn't it? Who else could it be for?"
Bella had no answers. Her Christmas presents were souvenirs her parents brought back from their annual holiday vacations. She certainly wasn't expecting anything from anybody else. She continued to sip her hot chocolate.
"Open it," Alice said suddenly.
"It must be a mistake. What if it's for someone else? Isn't that against the law?"
"Maybe there's a clue inside or a letter that would solve this whole mystery. Come on. Open it. I'm curious now."
Bella relented, also wanting to solve the mystery, and opened it cautiously. She pulled forth a tissue-wrapped bundle. Out of it slid a dress. She held it up. It was an interesting dress and above the norm fashion-wise: teal with a two-inch wide purple strap that started at the back of the right shoulder and crossed over to the middle of the front. It ended in the shape of a flower. Its dark purple was a lively contrast over the teal dress. It also appeared to be her size. There was no card.
How could opening it make it even more unexplainable?
Alice's hazel eyes were awestruck. She pulled out the tag. "Oh, my God. It's Versace."
"VER-SA-CHEE." She let Alice hold it up. "How do you not know... Never mind. What a dress! And you have no idea who sent this to you?" Alice held it against herself to test the fit.
Bella laughed at her reverence and growing excitement. "Really. I don't have the faintest idea who this is from or why."
"What about Secret Santa? We're doing that in one of my classes this year. I got stuck with someone who I don't even know from a different major. That's another reason I don't care for required electives."
"No Secret Santa for me. Jenks likes to take the office out for a holiday lunch." She began to gather the tissue paper and packaging. "I better return to sender."
Alice clutched the dress to herself in refusal. "You can't give up a dress like this. Bells, please. Use your good sense. When will you ever get another one like it?"
"But it's not mine. This person obviously made a mistake. And what if the intended person never gets her Christmas present?"
The guilt started to loosen Alice. She handed it back. "Your morals are really inconvenient."
"Apparently." Bella repackaged it except for the seal, which was torn. "I guess it would've been nice to receive a gift like this from someone special."
"Maybe you should put it on before returning it... Just to see what it looks like."
She narrowed her eyes. "Al, don't enable me." She looked down at the package with consideration. Such temptation, and it was right in her hands...
They looked at each other, mischief and triumph circling the air.
She ran to her bedroom. Alice wasn't far behind and stopped at the door to wait. Five minutes passed.
"Come on, Bells! I'm dying out here. Let me see."
"All right, all right." Bella's sigh filtered through the door. When she opened it and showed the tight dress off with a few ungraceful catwalks, Alice was all approval with a few snaps of her camera phone.
"It looks so good. Really."
She went to the mirror and looked at herself. The dress seemed to transform her into a sexy sophisticated woman. Sexy and Bella didn't usually cross paths. People had always described her as "cute" and "sweet." She combed her wavy brown hair with her fingers and then smoothed it back and gathered it over one shoulder. The dress clung smoothly on her, accentuated some curves she'd forgotten about under all the jeans and sweaters she wore. Past the details and curves, it stopped mid-thigh in an elegant teasing way.
"I really should return it."
Alice came up with a pair of black pumps. "Try these on with it."
The pumps were like a face-lift and completed the overall dramatic effect. "Damn it." She chewed at her bottom lip. "I want to keep this dress."
Alice fist-pumped the air. "World, say hello to Bombshell Bella."
"Har, har." She slipped off the pumps, gave the dress one last look of admiration. "I'm sending it back!" And she escaped to her bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
For the rest of the week, the dress hung on her closet door. She liked to look at it. It represented far-fetched dreams, some abstract fantasy that she'd never have the guts or grace (or money) to make a reality. Additionally she knew she'd never have an occasion in her life where she could wear it to.
She'd never felt so torn in her life. Sooner or later, she would have to make a decision.
Rosalie, a coworker and friend, would give a fresh second opinion. There was no doubt how Alice felt about it. After Bella told her the whole short story of this holiday mystery, Rosalie did not give her the answer she was looking for.
"But it's not for me."
"Then return it."
"So keep it."
Rosalie's cut-and-dried responses were unhelpful. Bella did a number of things to help herself reach a decision.
First, she called her mother and asked if she knew an Edward Cullen. Renee had no idea and launched into family gossip and reminders about the Swan Family Christmas Party this year, and could she pick up a few party platters at the grocery store beforehand?
Second, she did a LinkedIn and WhitePages search for Edward Cullen. Four possibilities came up: Eden Cullen, Edwin Cullen, Edgar Cullen, and one genuine Edward Cullen. Their places of employment and addresses reached varying locations, from Texas to Hong Kong. However, the Edward Cullen worked for some kind of creative media agency in New York. His listed address also matched the sender of her mystery package.
She could attempt a phone call or scope him out before asking about it in person, but that seemed like such a socially abrasive action just to clear up a discrepancy over a mailed package. The trouble was, Alice was rubbing off on her. She wanted the dress. However, the moment he asked for it back and apologized for the mix-up was the moment she would instantly give it up.
This conclusion led to the third: write a Thank You note.
She ducked low at her desk, feigning hard work around the ringing phones and grumbling copy machine, and carefully penned a letter on company stationary.
Dear Mr. Edward Cullen,
Thank you very much for the Versace dress you sent. It is so beautiful and unlike any gift I have ever received.
Unfortunately I can't remember if we've ever met before.
Who are you?
That ought to do it. Simple, appreciative, and to the point. She mailed it directly, partially clearing her conscience.
If he never responded, she'd done all she could. Right?
Two days later, she choked on her morning coffee as she stumbled upon a message in her e-mail inbox.
From: Edward Cullen
Date: December 7, 2011 7:51 AM EST
Dear Ms. Bella Swan,
Sorry. I thought the woman who it was for still lived where you apparently live now.
I hope you aren't disturbed by my email. Regular mail is so slow, and usually clogged up this time of year.
"So, he's letting you keep the dress?" asked Alice over lunch on Saturday.
They met at a casual restaurant they'd been to often. It had a full bar, and in the summertime it had a lovely outdoor area marked off and donned with hanging basket plants. Since it was now winter, they sat inside where it was temperature-controlled and decorated for the holidays. It was very noisy with the chatter echoing off the loft-style interior.
"I'm not sure. He didn't really mention it. Just apologized for confusing me with some other woman."
"That is so odd. And you haven't replied yet?"
"He probably assumes you'll send it back to him," said Rosalie.
"Damn. I guess I should ask. But is there even a tactful way to ask a question like that?"
They all said nothing. The waiter refilled their glasses discretely and left.
"I know," said Alice. "Offer to meet him over coffee and bring the dress with you. If he prompts you for it, you can just return it over a friendly cup. But if he doesn't—"
"It'll be an awkward date," said Bella. "Why would I do that to myself?"
"Furthermore," said Rosalie, flipping her blond hair off her shoulder and taking a sip of wine, "you don't know anything about this guy. He might be a white-collar creep or an old man. Grandpa Cullen."
"I don't think he's that old or retired. He works at a social media agency. Jenks isn't even sixty yet and he shuns anything digitally advanced. But, you know, this Edward Cullen could be married or something. Still awkward."
"If he's married, he shouldn't be meeting young women for coffee in the first place, " said Rosalie.
Bella abandoned her chicken Caesar salad. "All this speculation is giving me a stomach ache. I should just return the dress and be done with it."
Still, she had trouble sending it off for reasons she didn't even know anymore. And rereading his email didn't help. There was no more mystery as to where the dress came from, only for whom it was intended. She had to admit to herself that what truly kept her from letting go was the mystery of him. It was starting to take up space in her brain. Her imagination went from Edward Cullen: the adulterous middle-aged man sending inappropriate gifts to his mistress, to Edward Cullen: mafia hit man sending the dress as some kind of insider veiled threat to a woman who decided to escape for her life. But that was unlikely...
The online correspondence made her a little more daring than she'd ever dare to be in person. She replied to his e-mail.
From: Bella Swan
To: Edward Cullen
Date: December 8, 2011 8:42 AM EST
Dear Edward Cullen,
No problem. Accidents happen. Did you want the dress back? If not, I will enjoy wearing it this holiday.
Thirty minutes later a Facebook notification popped up in her personal e-mail inbox.
"Edward Cullen has requested to be your friend."
A Christmas short story I wrote...just in time for Valentine's Day, ha! Thanks to dollegirl for her encouragement and to my beta kimpy0464. Any errors are mine.
Four more parts to come.