I took two more steps on the snowy sidewalk and somehow felt like I hadn’t moved at all. I’d been in line for at least fifteen minutes. I was out of time.
I craned my neck and glared down the line at the bright windows of the chocolate shop. Christmas lights glittered behind the glass. The long line of people ahead of me, all spaced six feet apart, were transfixed, at the chocolate delights under the twinkling glow. I glanced down at my phone. Less than fifteen minutes. I wasn’t even at the bus stop yet. I looked up, groaned, and stepped out of the line.
Then I ran. Past shoppers just as last minute as I was; past the windows of the chocolate shop boasting those adorable snowmen cookies I was supposed to pick up for our date tonight. Letters written in tinsel hung behind the glass, but I didn’t stop to read them. Someone yelled something behind me — it sounded like my name. I didn’t have time. Jack had something he wanted to talk to me about tonight. I couldn’t be late.
It was my own fault for doing last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve. He would understand — he didn’t even really like cookies.
I skidded around the corner of the block just in time to see my bus pull in at the stop a hundred meters down the street. I waved my arms and hollered. The doors hissed open on hydraulics and the block letters plastered on the side of the bus blurred past me — W Y - M - C - L - E - O. I sprinted up to the doors just after the last person stepped on in front of me.
Funny — Cleo. That was my name.
“Thank you!” I panted to the bus driver, swiped my pass, and clung to the overhead handle in the middle of the aisle as the bus lurched forwards through thick, wet flakes of snow. The windshield wipers worked overtime to clear the slush. We careened through a stale yellow light. I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Ten minutes. I could still make it — barely.
I tapped out a quick text to Jack. Running late. Be there soon. Sorry.
The bus driver hung a left and squealed to a halt at the next stop. The doors jerked open. I squirmed the rest of the way to the door and jumped out into the slushy snow. Snuggling into my scarf, I made a mad dash for the metro, slowing just enough to take the stairs without falling to my death at the bottom. I flew past Christmas Eve stragglers and a busker with a violin. Someone got down on one knee as I bolted fast, holding their cap out to me like it was a ring box.
“Cleo, will you—?”
I ignored the pleading voice behind me. No time. Jack hadn’t given me any hints. I’d gotten more and more anxious about our date all day. If he was upset about something, the later I was, the worse it would be. I couldn’t stand the nervousness. I nearly slipped as I swooped around the corner — caught myself on the railing of the escalator and took the steps two at a time down to the train platform just in time to dash on board.
My heel got caught in the doors as they slid shut. I cursed, dropped into a crouch, and grabbed my boot with both hands to yank it free. I had a few seconds to glance up and see a bright, white billboard with big, black letters rush by. Then we were in the dark tunnel. My foot was free. I collapsed into the nearest seat away from the other passengers and caught my breath.
The train clattered on, wheels grinding on the rails to the tune of jingle bells on the intercom. I checked my phone. Three minutes. I breathed out. I might just make it.
Three stops down the line, I jolted to my feet and waited for the doors to hiss open. I squeezed out as soon as there was space, elbowed past an eager commuter, and took the steps three at a time up from the platform. The slick puddles in the hall leading out of the station forced me to slow down. My heart was pounding. My breaths clouded the air in front of my face. At the top of the next staircase, I bolted out of the gates and across the street as the pedestrian light flashed in warning red. The green traffic light faded to yellow, faded to red. Headlights flickered past me as the traffic blundered on behind me.
I stuttered to a stop in front of the double doors of the restaurant and bent over my knees, gasping as I tried to catch my breath. My lungs burned. My eyes watered. I was sure my tears would turn to ice on my cheeks, but I was here. I’d made it.
I stood up straight, righted my long, black coat, and pushed on the gold bar of the door. The inside of the restaurant was warmly lit with Christmas lights and a fireplace crackled right near the door. The hostess greeted me with a smile from behind her mask. I hastily pulled mine on over my fading red lipstick and gave Jack’s name for the reservation.
“Right this way.” She spun on her black heels and strutted to the back of the restaurant between sparsely set tables and quiet murmurs of customers.
In the furthest, most secluded corner of the restaurant, Jack stood next to a small round table set for two. He was still wearing his coat and a thin, grey scarf I had given him for his birthday last year in November. When he saw me, he smiled wide through the scruff of his dark beard. His eyes glittered under the Christmas lights. He was framed by the holly and green garlands behind him.
My heart fluttered in my chest. The hostess stood aside and let me carry on by myself. I pulled off my mask again and Jack popped a bottle of champagne as I got close. He looked happier than I’d seen him in days. I hadn’t realized he was so excited about Christmas.
I smiled, still trying to catch my breath, and unraveled my scarf. I stepped in for a quick kiss on the cheek and said, “Hey! What did you wanna talk about? It’s been eating at me all day. Can we start with that before I get all anxious about it?”
His face fell. My heart pounded in my throat and my cheeks went slack. How did he manage to look so happy if he had something awful to talk about?
“You didn’t get the cookies?” he said.
I spluttered. Stuttered. Blinked several times. “Cookies?”
“What about the bus — didn’t you take the bus?”
I started to ring my scarf in my hands. “Of course I … I always take the bus. What do you—?”
“You took the metro here, too, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I took the train— Jack, what is this about?”
“Didn’t you see the violinist?”
I looked around. He was still holding the champagne bottle like he was about to pour it. There was no violinist. What was he talking about?
I tossed my scarf and coat onto the back of one of the chairs. “I was running late. I don’t understand.”
He set the champagne down on the table and cleared his throat. He wiped his hands down the front of his dinner jacket and looked like he was about to speak. Tilted his head. Looked at me.
“Did you even see the billboard?” His eyes were wide like a puppy’s.
A sad puppy dog. Had I done something wrong?
“Jack!” I cried, throwing out my hands. What the hell was wrong with him? What was he talking about?
He waved his hands. “Sorry! Sorry, I didn’t — this isn’t what I thought would happen.” He shook his head and stuffed his hands into his pockets. Then he stepped in close, took one hand, and looked me full in the face.
Was he about to break up with me? Oh, God, I knew it. Was that what he wanted to talk about? We’d been dating for … for years. Had he gotten bored? My chest hurt. Was there someone else?
“Cleo…” he said, very softly.
I was already bracing myself. My eyes prickled with tears.
He dropped to one knee and pulled a small, black velvet box from his pocket.
I think I squeaked. I definitely stopped breathing. He flicked the box open. The diamond ring inside reflected lights back at me, sparkling in my eyes like a disco ball, and I could barely see through the tears gathering on my eyelashes.
“For the fifth time…” Jack kissed my hand.
I think I sobbed.
“Will you marry me?”
I gasped through a laugh. “Fifth? What?”
His face twisted between an incredulous laugh and a grimace. “Cleo!”
“God!” I squeezed his hand. “Yes, Jack, yes! I’ll marry you, but—”
He slipped the ring onto my finger. I still couldn’t really see as I wiped more tears away. He stood and pulled me close, wrapping me in his arms.
“What do you mean, the fifth time?” I said.
Jack kissed me on the mouth and lingered a long time, breathing warmth back into my cold lips. When he pulled back, he looked at me like I had just said something incredibly stupid. My makeup had to be ruined by now.
What did it matter? We were getting married!
“Cleo. I had the cookie place put tinsel in the window. I put an ad on your bus for you. I paid for a billboard in the metro, I bribed a busker…!”
I shook my head. He seemed to the realization: I had no clue what he was talking about.
“You didn’t see any of it on your way here?”
I half laughed, half sobbed, and wiped at my cheeks. “I was late…!”
Jack burst out laughing, wrapped me in his arms, and kissed the top of my head. “Good God, Cleo.” His laughter vibrated through my own chest until we were both breathless from it. “Merry Christmas.”