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Christmas Fiction Romance

Where I come from, there are places for the homeless to go in the winter. When I hiked to the Sky Train this morning, he huddled from the wind in that spot on the CBC Building concrete stairs. He's there again, wearing the same red hoodie under his fleece-lined jacket. His grey woolen mittens have no fingers, and his grey jeans have holes above the knees.

I walk these two blocks to the Sky Train, day after day, for my job at CIBC. I work, not with the public in one of the teller booths, but down in the basement, alone, counting cash deposited by business owners the night before. Every night at five, I reverse the trip to the home I've known since I arrived six years ago. It's a tiny apartment, but a suitable location for my job.

I wrap my coat tightly against Vancouver's December chill. I tell myself I'm grateful for good health, a good job, and, well, I'm grateful I'm not sleeping alone on the street like that guy. I don't even have to sleep alone. Carmel shares my bed.

How sad. My best friend is my cat!

In a week it's Christmas.I struggle with the creeping depression. I could reach outside my comfort zone and help this poor man who slumps, his legs crossed on the step below, lost in some unknown world.

 My black boots catch his eye, and his head raises slowly. Greying hair carelessly covers one eye as it slips from his hood. His lips curve within a short salt-and-pepper beard. His gaze directs me to the wooden bowl at his side, which holds a five-dollar bill and some change.

"Sir, are you cold?" I sputter.

"I'm always cold this time of year. Sometimes I go to der coffee shops, but they won't let me stay if I can't buy anything." His voice is tinged with a slight accent.

"Where are you from?"

"Newfoundland. A small fishing town called Stephenville."

"You're a long way from home this Christmas."

He pushes his hair to the side with a tattered mitten. "Dare was no employment for me dare. I heard the weather was milder here. And tis. No doubt 'bout that. But it's still a damp cold and chills my bones at night."

"What's your name?" I wonder why I'm standing here getting cold myself.

"Michael Murphy." He says this as though he's surprised to hear he has a name. "What's yours?"

"Coral Adams. I'm from Saskatoon."

The glaze has gone from his riveting brown eyes. "Nice to meet you, Coral from Saskatoon."

"Would you like to come for dinner?" I can't believe I just invited a stranger to my apartment. Not just a stranger, but a homeless man.

"Are you sure? I don't want to be any trouble." He pulls his jacket tight as a gust circles the concrete wall to his right.

"It's December, and in the spirit of the holiday season, I insist."

He straightens beside me and assumes his place on the outside of the sidewalk. For two blocks, I tremble with nervous energy. He's about four inches taller than me, and perhaps fifteen years older.

At my apartment, I mention the names of my neighbours who would not recognize me if we met on the street. I want him to think I can call for help if I'm in danger.

"Your place is lovely," he says, removing his shoes at the door. I say nothing of the holes in his socks.

"Perhaps you would like a shower or a bath?" I don't want to offend him, but there aren't many opportunities to bathe on the street.

A muscle clenches along his jaw. He says, "I don't doubt I could make use of your bathroom, Miss."

"It will give me time to put dinner together." I hang my coat in the closet and notice a plaid work shirt that my brother left on his visit last summer. "Let's throw your clothes in the wash. Here, try on this shirt while they dry."

I point to the bathroom and fuss in the kitchen. It feels good to be cooking for a man. Carmel comes out from hiding and rubs on my legs.

The man who emerges wearing a black and white shirt and torn jeans takes my breath away. To conceal the pain carved in merciless lines on his ruggedly handsome face, a grin flashes through his trimmed gray beard. Against the V of his open plaid work shirt gleams a manly wisp of darkish hair.

Why do I feel drawn to touch it? Perhaps I would rub it against my cheek. I would take in the clean, masculine fragrance of his body. I blush and drop my eyes. This is for him; not for me. It is a Christmas gesture of goodwill to someone less fortunate.

  He holds my chair as we settle for a dinner of homemade soup and French bread. He spreads thick butter, and his first few mouthfuls are passionate. A swath of damp wavy hair falls casually on his forehead.

"May I ask your age, Michael?"

"I'm forty-two. I'll bet you thought I was older. When I look in der mirror, I see an old man. Living on the street has aged me. I know you aren't supposed to ask a woman's age."

"That's okay. I'm eight years younger than you. Are you going to ask why I'm not married?"

"Not at all. A woman has every right to live as she chooses." He continues to wolf down his soup and accepts another bowl.

The wash finishes and I start the drying cycle. It's odd seeing my brother's shirt animated by this stranger who has the craggy look of unfinished sculpture. I hesitate to open a bottle of wine.

"My weaknesses do not include alcohol," he says, reading my thoughts.

I hand him the bottle to open and take two seldom-used glasses from the second shelf. "Tell me your story, Michael. Why are you on the street? Did you lose your job?"

"I fished. From der time I left school, until two years ago, I fished." He spread another slice with butter and sprinkled it with salt. "Dare was an accident. I crewed on a hook n' line vessel, and der cod was slim and far between. But it was all we knew. Togedder we kept our boat on der water. The draggers made good money, but der hook n' line guys were barely makin' more dan their bait and fuel."

"It sounds like you loved your work on the ocean." I can see the fire in his eyes tempered with sadness.

"I loved der sea. And I would have moved to draggin, 'cept for der accident." His expression is grim, like someone who's struck in the face.

"Will you tell me what happened?" I stir my soup though it is already getting cold.

"Funniest thing," he gives an ironic chuckle. "We were cutting through icy waters, and I looked up to der helicopter scout what checks on the boats in der fleet. Just then, der trawling pole struck me head. Not hard. Just enough to lose me balance. Ever since that moment, der simple sway of der ship has made me seasick." He laughed again. "Me, Michael Murphy. I never got seasick."

I see his broad shoulders heave as he breathes. "That must have been hard for you to lose the life you loved."

He finishes his second bowl and waves away a third. "Yah, dare was no work, 'cept fishin' in our town and der cod were leavin', so I left, too."

"The climate here is milder and you're by the ocean. But why didn't you get a job?" Screams of frustration rake the back of my throat. I don't understand why a hard-working guy is content to sit on the street when there are available jobs.

"I'm caught in a cycle, Coral. No job, so no address. No address, so no job. I don't know anyone for references, no clothes for an interview. By sitting beside a bowl, I get enough to eat most days."

I check the laundry, but the hoodie is still damp.

"What 'bout you, Coral from Saskatoon? What brought you west?" He takes charge of the conversation, turning from the pain of his situation.

"Well, Michael from Newfoundland, I am an enormous disappointment to my parents—my father especially. They had ambitions for me, but I let them down. I had to get away. I see my brother occasionally. He went on to university and 'made something of himself'. Unlike me, who works in the basement of a bank."

"Coral, you have a job and a cozy apartment. You support yourself. Dare's no way you are a failure." He leans closer to me across the table.

I struggle to compose myself despite the provocative vitality he exudes. I press my lips together to resist his compassion. He is comforting me! When did I become the less fortunate?

I rise to check the dryer again. Reluctantly, I decide that it's finally bone dry. There is no excuse to keep him longer. The storm whistles at the windows.

"Would you like to sleep on my sofa?" I have a lock on my bedroom door, so it doesn't seem an outrageous offer. I turn up the thermostat.  

"I would… if it is not too much to ask. I'll go as soon as dare's light though."

I tidy the kitchen, turn on the television, pile blankets and pillows on the sofa, and head for my room. Soon the television quiets, and I imagine him lying in the dark, as I lie behind the locked door with Carmel.

Before the alarm, I quickly dress, and hurry to the living room. He's gone. With a deep sigh and a twinge of disappointment, I stash the blankets, stacked neatly on the sofa, in the hall closet.

Something is different. I continue to prepare for work, pour myself a cup of coffee from the pot he left, and run over our conversations from the night before.

That's it! The vase which sits on my bookcase is missing. Michael Murphy seemed charming, but he is a thief. He's stolen my vase, probably to buy drugs. He said drinking wasn't his weakness; it must be drugs.

The warm fuzzies disappear, and I think the worst of him. His good looks distracted me. I was a fool to share a meal with a strange street person who stole from me at the first opportunity.

When I see him sitting on the CBC steps, I cross the street to avoid an encounter. It's too late to accuse him of stealing. The damage is done. And I've learned my lesson.

Christmas spirit, my ass. Tomorrow is Christmas and my one gesture to be kind to a stranger has bitten me in the ass. No wonder I haven't put up a tree or bought a turkey. It's all foolishness.

Returning from work, I am thinking about the bank sending down donuts and wine to celebrate. What a combination! But that may be my only Christmas celebration, so I shouldn't badmouth it.

I have anticipatory pangs of excitement nearing the Post Office. Even if he stole from me, last night was extraordinary. I look for Michael on his usual step, but he's not there. It's Christmas Eve. Perhaps there is a warm meal and bed somewhere in Vancouver and he is taking advantage of the offer. Maybe some other homeless folks invited him to do drugs.

My apartment is unusually dark and lonely. Shadows from the streetlights reflect on the ceiling as Carmel welcomes me home.

"You're only glad to see me because you're hungry." I scoop a special treat of seafood from a can.

After a hot bath, I curl up with my latest romance novel, and remember the man who slept beyond my door the other night.

Christmas morning I wake with a cat walking over my shoulder. My childhood memories are of sneaking early to the tree and rescuing overflowing stockings from the mantle, of my brother and I wearing new pajamas, the only gift they allowed us the night before. In my faded nightgown, I start the coffee and feed Carmel. I have no tree, no decorations, no presents. What I have is a day without responsibilities.

I spend the morning with my coffee, reading my romance novel. When I visualize the hero, he is olive-skinned with graying hair. He has broad shoulders and wears a blood-red hoody over a black and white plaid shirt. He says his lines with a Newfoundland accent.

"Luckily, I'm not still in my nightgown," I say aloud as my doorbell rings. The clock on the stove reads ten after three. Why would anyone be wasting their Christmas Day visiting me?

The door swings in to reveal a tall, olive-skinned man in an ill-fitting suit. He holds a vase, my vase, with artistically arranged evergreens and holly. On the highest bough is a beautifully carved wooden angel secured with a red twist tie.

My eyes meet Michael's. My mind swirls with emotions: guilt for accusing him of stealing, embarrassment that he sees how I spend my Christmas Day, and joy as a warm glow radiates through me.

His words break the silence. "Merry Christmas. You need to wear a warm coat. It's feelin' like dare might be snow."

I take the vase inside and place it on the coffee table. "What do you mean?"

"Put on your winter coat. I'm takin' you walkin'." His touch was reassuring as he helped me with my scarf. "I've missed you," he says as he wraps it twice around me.

We walk silently for several blocks. My mind races with the assumptions and accusations. He merely took the vase to make a Christmas Gift. And now he's taking me for a walk.

Music streams from the side door of a church I've walked by a hundred times. Inside, carols are playing. From a magnificent Douglas fir, hang handmade ornaments: paper chains, paper snowflakes, and origami birds. Long tables line the room, and raucous community laughter fills the air. We sit, and as a chatty man serves us a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, Michel touches my hand across the table.

September 17, 2022 00:43

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1 comment

Robert Hart
21:24 Sep 28, 2022

Hi Mary I enjoyed your story - thank you. I have a few comments. I thought the opening was a bit jerky with too much 'tell' and not enough 'show'. Short stories are difficult as so much has to happen quickly - I struggle with this too and I'm happier writing at novella or novel length. I'd also like to understand better how Coral screwed up the courage to risk a stranger entering her life. I enjoyed Michael's character as I could picture him more clearly. It's really hard to give a picture of the storyteller when writing in first person ...

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