(This was one of the earlier short stories I published, and one of the first longer pieces. Originally published in The Newfoundland Quarterly, Vol. 100, No. 3, Winter 2007)
The 12 Days of Christmas
The beep beep beep wakes him at 4:30 am. Alex glances at his clock long enough to realize that it is not his alarm that is going off. Almost instantly he is asleep again.
4:30 is very early for someone who doesn’t have to work at 6:00. The alarm doesn’t bother him. He rarely even hears it. If he does, it is short, four or five beeps coming through his ceiling, her floor, and then she turns it off. Other sounds follow then, the sounds of her shower running, her footsteps moving from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen, sounds not designed to keep him awake. If he woke up at these times, he was always asleep again before she left for work. Alex’s last thought was how much he wished he could be a morning person, like her, and get a day’s work done before noon. He falls asleep listening to her footsteps.
Sometimes the footsteps weren’t only hers. They would come and go, seemingly random. A visitor coming for dinner, or her boyfriend, gone for weeks, working somewhere, home again. It was easy to tell when he was home. He walked so much heavier than she did, so indelicately, so forcefully. Alex could hear the muffled conversations that meant she wasn’t alone.
Alex always said he could sleep through anything. But he didn’t like to sleep when he could hear the voices above rise to shouts, mostly incomprehensible, but sometimes peppered with words as forceful and indelicate as his footsteps. It’s hard to tell crying from laughing through the ceiling. Alex often wondered if, during times like these, they ever thought about the other person, six feet beneath their floor. Sometimes he was sure he heard crying. But that was the kind of thing you had to will yourself to ignore – that intrusion of someone else’s life into your own. It’s not yours. You can’t make it yours.
Winter in a basement apartment is hard sometimes. Even apartments mostly above ground with large windows, like his, were darkened, not just by the shorter days, but by the snowdrifts and the banks that block the light, pushed up by the snowplows, making it look like the shades are always drawn. But Alex liked winter, liked walking in the crisp evenings when the stars were out and his breath showed in the air. It made him feel very alive somehow, and made him think of February nights, walking home very late and the steam from his breath mingling with another’s beneath the streetlights.
He liked the strain in his shoulders when he shoveled the driveway, clearing a space and cutting a path around to the back of the house through the drifts. He liked chatting with the neighbours about the amount of snow they had this year compared to last, and helping the elderly man next door clear the sidewalk that ran between their houses.
There was a girl named Rachel living in the basement apartment of the house next door, and when she saw him out shoveling she would come out and join him. They would always talk about school. Rachel was enrolled in the same program as Alex had been, and they talked about courses, exams and professors.
Several times during the beginning of winter she (not Rachel – the other she) came home while he was shoveling. He would always smile at her and say hi, and she would quickly say hi back, never meeting his eyes and always hurrying up the steps into her house. She never seemed to be out shoveling at the same time as Alex.
They spent their nights sleeping eight feet apart, and Alex didn’t even know her name. The absurdity of this almost made him laugh out loud in the snow filled driveway. He thought about walking up to her front door and introducing himself, but he’d been living there for months. It would be strange to do it now, after so much time had passed.
He saw her outside shoveling once, talking to Rachel, and he was going to go join them. But he didn’t, feeling that if he did, she would go inside.
The week before Christmas, Alex left a card in her mailbox, saying something like Season’s Greetings! with a picture of a snowman on it. The Christmas cards came back to him from his family and friends, two or three every day. But there was nothing from her. He thought it was possible she didn’t celebrate Christmas, but he could see the Christmas tree through her living room window from the street. The lights were all the same colour, clear and sparkling prettily through the glass, the angel on top.
Alex had friends over for drinks, and brought a girl home to watch a Christmas movie one night, and he talked to his mother on the phone, apologizing for not being able to make it home for Christmas this year, all the time with the footsteps moving above him. He loved Christmas, and he was enjoying this one, truly on his own for the first time, yet surrounded by friends. But after his friends would leave there were always the noises from upstairs, muffled noises that sometimes kept up into the early morning hours, and always the beep beep beep at exactly 4:30 am. She was gone by 5:30 every morning. It was something else he didn’t know about her. Where did she work, that she had to leave before dawn every morning?
Rachel had not made it home for Christmas either. Like him, she couldn’t afford the time off work or the ticket home. Christmas day, in the afternoon, after sleeping late and opening a couple of gifts while on the telephone to his family, he went across the snow-covered lawn to Rachel’s apartment and they sat down to watch some Christmas specials together, talking about how much they missed their families but how good it felt, in a way, to be independent like this. They ordered fried chicken from a fast food restaurant, and ate it with canned peas, instant mashed potatoes and real cranberry sauce that Rachel had made herself. They drank some wine that Alex had brought, and it was well towards midnight when he said goodnight to her and went back to his own apartment. It had been a good Christmas.
The beep beep beep was right there again at 4:30 on Boxing Day morning, but this time it did not go away. A very persistent alarm clock, it beeped for two solid hours before it shut itself off, while Alex lay there wondering where she was, and why she had not shut it off. He got up at one point and looked out the front window at the driveway, and her car was not there.
Alex woke up to the same sound at 4:30 the next night, the beeping going off steadily until 6:30 in the morning. He thought that this was a needlessly long time for an alarm clock to go off. He slept till noon that day, after the alarm stopped.
Day three, and after he got out of bed he looked out the window and realized that her car hadn’t been in the driveway since Christmas Day, when he had gone across to Rachel’s place. There were no tracks of any kind in the new snow that had fallen in the last couple of days.
On day four, he went upstairs and checked the mailbox outside the front door of her apartment. It held several days worth of mail, and he decided that they must be out of town for Christmas. Visiting relatives maybe, or gone to Veradero to spend New Year’s on a beach in the sun. Alex thought of her lying on a beach, wearing sunglasses and reading, and he thought that wouldn’t be such a bad way to spend a week over Christmas.
By day five, he was getting tired of the 4:30 alarm. He couldn’t get a solid night’s sleep, and it was making it hard for him to concentrate at work. He tried going to bed earlier, so he would already be rested by the time the alarm went off, but he just couldn’t sleep that early.
Day six went much the same way.
Alex was lying wide awake in bed, unable to sleep because he knew the alarm clock was going to wake him. When the beep beep beep started, right on schedule at 4:30, he was already sitting up, pulling on his jeans and heading out into the living room to watch TV. He watched the late night talk shows, some early morning news, and he could still hear the beep beep beep over Leno and Letterman. He turned up the volume. What the hell, he thought, there is nobody upstairs.
The tenth night, at three o’clock in the morning, Alex was staring out his window at the quiet, snowy street outside, and the stars glittering through the streetlights above. He put on his shoes and his jacket and went outside. He walked for hours. When a neon clock outside a bank said it was 4:30, Alex felt glad he wasn’t at home. He had been walking for a long time, so he decided to head back, thinking he should get home just when the clock stopped. He fell into bed at 6:45, and woke to the beep beep beep of the garbage truck outside exactly an hour later.
Alex put on his shoes and his jacket and went outside. He walked up the steps onto her back patio, and gently tried the door. It didn’t open, and he took three strips of packing tape from where he had placed them inside his jacket and stuck them to the glass, forming a box with the door frame next to the lock. He took out a screwdriver and made three sharp backhanded jabs at the glass. He took out the pieces of glass that had cracked, reached through the hole, and unlocked the patio door. He slid it open and stepped inside. He fitted the pieces of glass back where they came from, pressed them in place with the tape, and slid the patio door shut behind him.
He looked around the dark kitchen, barely lit by the orange-yellow light coming through the sheer curtains from the street. He was in the kitchen, and could see that there was a table in front of him and a counter beyond that, separating the kitchen from the living room. The green glowing display on the microwave said 3:12 am.
Alex took a step towards the living room with its dark Christmas tree, but was stopped, quite suddenly, by a moral dilemma.
Should he take off his shoes?
He stood in the living room of a stranger’s house, made stranger because his own living room was directly below him, separated by eight inches of carpeting, lumber, and plaster. There was the propane fireplace in the wall that he had already known was there (he could see the exhaust vent on the outside of the house) with the rows of Christmas cards on the mantle. There were gifts under the tree, and a sweater was thrown across the back of the couch.
He stood in front of the fireplace and picked up one of the cards. It had no salutation, just a star on the outside and a standard Christmas greeting, with a handwritten ‘Fr. Paul and Wanda’ written in blue ink at the bottom. Alex replaced the card and looked at the row of them. He realized, suddenly, that he could learn her name, and he paused for a few moments at that thought, looking around the room. He picked up another card, a larger one. It had an expensive print of a Christmas scene on the front, and when he opened it both sides were filled with small, neat writing. A Christmas letter. He looked at the top of the left hand side.
‘Dear Holly and Michael,’ the letter began. He looked at the front of the card again and noticed that the Christmas scene was bordered by just that, a lattice of holly. Holly. It was signed by her Ever Loving Aunt. He replaced it on the mantle.
The Christmas tree was standing neatly in the corner, trimmed with soft gold ribbon and small, elegant decorations. The strings of lights were clear, but dark now of course, and the angel on top of the tree did not look like she lit up. Alex reached up, gingerly, and took the angel down. There were no wires, no lights inside her. Alex turned it around and realized suddenly that it was probably very old. The face was hand painted, and he put it back on the top of the tree.
There weren’t many gifts underneath the tree. Alex guessed that most had been taken with them, with Holly and Michael, wherever they had gone for Christmas. They had names now, they weren’t just pronouns with faces. He bent down and looked through them. They ranged in size and in shape, in weight and in how much they rattled. He tried to figure out what they could possibly be, but he had no idea. What would Holly and Michael get each other for Christmas? He couldn’t even guess. He knew nothing about them. The only thing he noticed was that all the gifts had one thing in common – they were all signed ‘Love.’ ‘To Holly, Love Michael,’ ‘To Holly, Love Michael,’ ‘To Michael, Love Holly.’ ‘To Michael, Love forever, Holly.’
Alex carefully replaced the gifts, leaving them exactly where he thought he had found them. He left the living room and headed towards where he thought the bedroom would be. He was in the entrance hallway. On a small table by the front door there was a pile of mail. Alex picked it up, almost idly, and flipped through it. Right on top of the pile was a letter, for him, addressed improperly. He flipped through the rest of the stack and found two more. So many people can’t get the ‘A’ right in the address, he thought. He started to put the letters back in the pile, but then put them in his pocket instead.
He found the bedroom easily enough. He reached for the light switch, automatically, and stopped himself just in time. It didn’t matter, there was light enough coming through the large windows facing the street.
He looked around the room. A double bed against the wall, its foot towards the window. A double dresser on one side, a desk on another, a television on a chest of drawers in the corner. Photos on the wall and on the dresser. Holly was in some of them, so he assumed they were of family and friends. There were almost no pictures at all of Michael, except for two on the wall, in wooden frames, of he and Holly. The first was obviously posed by a professional photographer. Michael’s hand was on her shoulder, and Holly’s head was inclined slightly towards his, a pose meant to show closeness and affection. The other picture of them was a regular 4 x 7 that looked like it was taken with a disposable camera, somewhere sunny where the ocean sparkled behind them like jewels.
He looked around the room again, and then at the alarm clock on the bedside table. It said 4:07 am. He sat down on the bed and lay back with his feet still on the floor. He closed his eyes, but opened them again when he became afraid he would fall asleep. He smiled when he realized how ridiculous that fear was. He put his feet up on the bed and stretched out. He closed his eyes.
When the beep beep beep came he was almost asleep. He had been having a half dream, half memory of something, and he sat up quickly. He looked around the dark room and noticed that it had started to snow outside. That was good, he thought, it would cover his tracks at the patio door. He stood up and straightened the comforter on the bed, pulling out the wrinkles he had made. Then, he reached over and turned off the alarm clock. He left by the patio door, closing it tightly behind him, and went down the stairs. Taking off his jacket in his own apartment, he lay down on his bed and fell asleep.
The next day he awoke at 2 in the afternoon and felt, more than anything else, like he had slept. He woke up quickly and went into the kitchen, making coffee and feeling better than he had in weeks.
He was sipping his coffee and watching television when he heard the mailman lift the lid on his mailbox. He went out and got the mail and he realized he still had those letters in his pocket. It had been stupid to take them, but all he could do now was hope they would not be missed. He took them from his jacket pocket and placed them on the coffee table with the rest of the mail.
There were two Christmas cards, both from places that had probably gotten his address from his credit card slips. At least they had coupons. There was a bill and some junk mail. And there was a short letter from Holly, written inside a small Christmas card.
Thanks for the card Alex! it said. Sorry for being so late replying but you know what the holidays are like. I was so glad to get your card. It was funny, a couple of days before we got it, Michael and me were talking about how we live just feet apart from each other, and we don’t even know each other’s names. Strange how things work like that.
I hope you have a great Christmas, and Happy New Year!
Alex sat back and finished his coffee. Soon he heard a car pull into the driveway, footsteps going up to the front door and the front door being opened with a key. He thought about going out to shovel the snow that had fallen overnight, but he heard both voices upstairs and decided to wait. He thought about how, if he met her outside now, while shoveling snow or leaving for work, he could call her by name and it wouldn’t seem strange to her that he knew she was Holly. She had sent him a Christmas card after all.
© Copyright Keith Collier 2013.
Originally published in The Newfoundland Quarterly, Vol. 100, No. 3, Winter 2007.