Christmas cascaded over the city. Small children left noseprints on shop windows, whispering longingly amongst themselves as they eyed the latest dolls and model airplanes sitting tantalisingly behind the glass. Cardboard Santa Claus cutouts materialised in the same shops along with flashing, light-up billboards urging customers to take advantage of annual Christmas sales. Snow began falling – sporadically at first, and then more steadily until a thick white layer blanketed the ground at all times. Colourful fairy lights glistened amongst the houses; strains of Christmas carols and the scent of chocolate-chip cookies wafted from every window.
It seemed as if every single person in the city was thoroughly in the Christmas spirit. Every single person, that is, except for her.
Last year, she recalled, she had been one of the lucky ones. She had been one of the ones who giggled like little girls at the unmarked gifts left on their office desks, knowing full well who they were from. She had been one of the ones who blushed at the sight of mistletoe, one of the ones who did not have to look away or fight tears prickling in the corners of her eyes. She had been one of the ones who had someone to hold, someone to love. Last Christmas, she thought regretfully as she gazed out the window, she had been one of those lucky ones; and oh, what a joy it had been.
She wouldn’t have given it up for anything in the world, and yet, on days like this – was it Christmas Eve already? – all she wanted was to run to him, run across mountains and oceans and continents and all the obstacles that stood in her way until she was safe in his arms. It was a silly fantasy, she knew; but being alone in a world filled with togetherness was a grating experience. She could only stand so many enthusiastic friends gushing about Christmas dates and family get-togethers before she went insane.
It was late by the time she reached home; she would not admit to herself that she had stayed at work long past the end of her shift just to avoid the aching emptiness of her flat. With a sigh that pressed down on her very soul, she fished the key out of her coat pocket and let herself in.
The darkness seemed overwhelming, the quiet eating at her even as she turned the light on with a sharp click. She gazed around the flat; her lacklustre attempt at decorating the place was almost pathetic. A tiny Christmas tree drooped in the corner, four red and gold baubles – the most that it could take without collapsing – weighing down its painfully thin branches. Tinsel was draped over the unlit fireplace, and a chipped plaster Santa Claus figurine sat in frozen merriment on the coffee table.
In short, it was perfectly horrible.
She sank into the armchair, sighing forlornly as her eyes caught on a photograph wedged next to the laughing Santa. Automatically her gaze slid down to her finger, and she smiled wistfully at the ring sparkling there. It wouldn’t be long now, she told herself – after all, the only reason he was working overseas was so that they could earn enough money to manage a decent married lifestyle. His contract would end in April and then they could finally, finally be together once more.
But for now, she was sitting in an empty flat on Christmas Eve – alone, as ever.
She was broken out of her melancholy reverie by the annoyingly cheery jingle that signified an incoming phone call. If anyone else had been in the room, she would have been embarrassed by the speed with which she leapt towards her bag, fumbled with the zipper, and extracted her phone from the depths of the rough canvas.
His voice melted like golden honey into her ears; she sank back into the chair, closed her eyes, and listened to him, constructing his animated expressions in her mind as he told her about his day. She couldn’t have cared less about what he was talking about – indeed, if he had been impressing upon her the dangers of dancing armadillos, she probably wouldn’t even have noticed. But his voice – oh, his voice! It transported her back to a happier spell; back to when she had been able to hear that voice in her ears throughout long, lazy summer days; back to when their hopes and dreams seemed to be eternally hovering just an arm’s length away; back to when time slowed down and halted just for the two of them.
She almost didn’t hear him when he asked the question.
“What would you do if I was standing on your doorstep right now?”
She laughed wearily, knowing that it was just another one of his games specifically designed to cheer her up; and they usually worked, these funny little tricks of his. It usually made her happy to fantasise with him about what it might be like if they could be together at that very moment. But right now, even this was hard pressed to make her feel any better. And she opened her mouth to tell him so, to thank him for trying, but she wasn’t feeling very well right now, and perhaps they could talk again in the morning… she really just wanted to go to sleep and forget the whole day.
That was when the doorbell rang.