Claire scowled as she bustled down the busy street. It was Christmas Eve, and every store window was alight with candles and cheery decorations. Why people were still out shopping she’d never know. After all, if they’d just go home, she could close up shop and finally be done for the season. Until the after Christmas sales, at least. Grumbling to herself, Claire pulled her scarf closer around her face.

She shouldn’t complain so much. The more people spent while out shopping, the more money she made. Owning a shop downtown during Christmas meant extra money her pocket, but the long days were tiring nonetheless. By Christmas Eve all she wanted was to go home to her rather large house and close out the overly bright, festive world.

Claire had never put up Christmas decorations. It seemed both tedious and pointless. She simply couldn’t see the point in squandering money on lights that are only used once per year, and then wasting the time putting up decorations only to take them down a month later. Her neighbours didn’t feel the same, though – they put out decorations like their lives depended on it.

She’d always loved winter, though. As a child, the idea of Narnia being always winter but never Christmas had sounded delightful, like some sort of paradise just out of reach. Something about Christmas brought out the worst of Claire’s cynicism – perhaps it was the crowds, or maybe the endless line ups. There was an awful lot of money going out for a holiday that claimed to be about spending time with loved ones. Claire shook her head to clear it of the thought; loved ones were as made up as flying reindeer.

She pushed through the crowded street, trying to get back to her shop. The light changed, and the mass of shoppers surged forward. Claire jogged to try to catch the crossing, barely making it to the crosswalk in time. A taxi honked at her, its driver gesturing rudely. So much for holiday spirit, Claire thought.

As she turned to shout at the taxi, Claire was suddenly struck from behind. The lights on the Christmas tree in the square blurred together as a swarm of good Samaritans descended on her. The world went dark, and the cold, dirty slush of the street enveloped her.

Claire opened her eyes, and immediately shut them again. Why was the light so damn bright? Slowly, she peeled one eye open and peeked at the room. A drab beige curtain hung across the doorway, blocking her view of what had to be a hallway. A small window looked out over a parking lot, which was mostly devoid of cars. The whiteboard on the wall said Today’s Nurse Is: Michelle. Next to that was the date – December 25.

Taking stock of herself, Claire found she was hooked up to an IV. The bag said it contained morphine. This must be a hospital, Claire thought. The smell of industrial-strength disinfectant and boiled peas confirmed her suspicions. A plastic bag in the corner labelled “Patient Belongings” sat on the chair in the corner.

Claire wrapped her shoulders in the thin blanket hanging over the railing on her bed, and swung her legs over the side. She must have pressed some sort of button, because it was only a moment before a young woman in scrubs entered her room, looking concerned.

It was Michelle, Today’s Nurse. Claire wasn’t able to process most of what she said. They were words, of course, they just didn’t make any sense. At least Michelle was friendly – she smiled a lot, and she brought Claire a warm blanket and some tea. She also gave Claire strict instructions to stay in bed until the doctor arrived.

Claire had thought talking to Michelle was confusing, but it was nothing compared to talking to the doctor. All she understood was “hit by a delivery truck”. He had said something about post-traumatic amnesia, but those words didn’t register as real.

Apparently, the hospital staff had searched for someone to contact on Claire’s behalf, but hadn’t found anyone. There was no one listed as next-of-kin on her medical records, and no emergency contact.

After reviewing her test results and telling Claire about her prescriptions for the next few weeks, the doctor discharged her from the hospital. Fortunately, she hadn’t broken any bones, and had gotten away with only bruising. She had hit her head quite hard on the pavement when she fell, which the doctor said had caused the memory loss.

The sky opened up and began to snow as Claire left the hospital. It was her favourite kind of snow – big, thick snowflakes that stick to whatever they land on. Claire’s jacket had dried out overnight, of course, but it was still covered in mud, as were her boots and scarf. Since she hadn’t driven to the hospital, she had no way to get home.

Claire decided to walk until she found a taxi. She strolled happily for several blocks before it hit her – she had no idea where she was going. Claire looked around her, trying to get her bearings before panic set in. There were no buses, and she had only seen one or two cars. There wasn’t anyone around she could ask.

It was snowing harder now, and the wind had picked up. Claire couldn’t see her footprints to retrace her steps. The winter she had once loved so much had turned on her, stranding her in the middle of the city. Confused and scared, Claire began to run, in the hopes she could find somewhere that made sense.

Claire tripped, and fell to the curb, scraping her knee in the process. Her jeans had ripped, exposing her raw skin to the cold. Coughing and crying, Claire sat in the snow. She huddled against a lamp post, arms wrapped around herself. How did she get here?

Eventually, the snow stopped and Claire ran out of tears. As she stopped, gasping, she heard…singing? That couldn’t be right.

Wiping sweat and tears from her face, Claire followed the sound, and found a family on the front porch of a large home, singing Christmas songs. The neighborhood looked familiar, but Claire couldn’t quite place it.

All the windows were lit up with candles, and each house was adorned with lights. Some houses had wreaths on the front doors, while others had festive and cheery scenes playing out on the lawn. All of them, except for one house. It sat in the dark, quietly brooding. Undisturbed snow covered the driveway and piled up on the windowsills. The house was almost invisible against the brightness of its neighbors.

Claire stepped forward, towards the family on the step. She tried to call out to them, but her voice caught in her throat. What would she even say? Do you know who I am?  Or perhaps, how do I get back to where I was, or why am I alone?  In the end it didn’t matter; the parents saw her grubby, disheveled self and hurried their kids away.

The glare of the lights shone down on Claire. She stumbled towards them, unsure of what to do next. As she got closer, the front door of the house opened. The light got brighter, and Claire could see a tree inside, covered in decorations. A worried-looking couple stood in the doorway, holding a hot drink and a blanket. They hurried toward Claire, and enveloped her in the blanket, ushering her inside.

The warmth of the house hugged her, and finally Claire felt like she had reached somewhere safe. Like the neighborhood, the couple looked oddly familiar, and yet Claire couldn't remember exactly why. As she watched the fireplace, the lights on the tree danced on the edge of her vision. The flickering glow became increasingly demanding, and her memories came trickling back.

December 18, 2023 20:08

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