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Friday, December 4, 2015

A Gift to Forget by Meradeth Houston

Sometimes memories are best forgotten.

***

(Source)
The parcel sat on her table, next to the previous day’s one. Small, wrapped in faded paper, she hadn’t had the heart to unwrap them. She remembered clearly the last time someone had given her any kind of parcel: it had been at work, and White Elephant gifts didn’t exactly fall into the same category. Plus, that had been years ago, long before she’d moved.

Heat curled around her shoulders, warding off the chill that still seemed to seep into her toes. The wind battled against her windows and the teacup in her hands only seemed to warm her palms.

“Another foot of snow is expected tonight, promising a white Christmas!” The weatherman was far too cheerful about this prospect. The urge to stick her tongue out at the television set was only curbed by the distraction of her oven timer sounding.

While the weather might have been frightful, her cookies smelled divine. Not that she wanted to eat all two dozen, but seeing as she knew no one in town, she figured it was a small sacrifice for some holiday cheer.

Tea, milk, Love, Actually streaming, and for a few minutes, she forgot about the storm. About the lack of any friendly faces at her new job (walking in on a business where everyone had been together for at least a decade didn’t bode well for the new person). Or about the small parcels on her table.

She really should open them. See what on earth someone had left, so carefully, on her doorstep. But, looking over at them, they made her smile. Maybe tomorrow. At least then there’d be something to look forward to.

Two movies later (A Christmas Story, and Christmas Vacation—both just for laughs), and she had a crick in her neck from the couch. With shambling steps, she made her way to her bed, turned her heating blanket to ‘high’ and fell sound asleep.

Sunlight streaming through the blinds woke her. How was it that no matter how she arranged them, somehow the light always hit her in the eyes? Curtains—she was buying some the next time she remembered.

Laying in bed, she stared up at the ceiling, it’s bright white stripped by light. Against the far wall, she’d set a couple paintings her friend had done for her, back before she’d moved. Today, she told herself, today she would hang those finally.

Remembering there were cookies for breakfast, she wrapped a blanket around herself—the sunshine meant another drop in temperatures, though she couldn’t quite figure out how that was possible.

Downstairs, cookies and hot chocolate made for a pleasant breakfast. She stared out the window at the pristine expanse of white that stretched from her front door, across the street, and to the neighbors. The sun caught on the crystals, reflecting a sea of tiny diamonds.

Staring out the window, absently pondering the potential book she’d read later on, she noticed that the expanse of snow wasn’t exactly pristine. A set of footprints marred it, running from the house across the street in her direction.

Moving toward her own front door, she stared out at the tracks, following them across the street to her own door.

Was this the answer to who left the little packages?

Steeling herself against the chill, she opened the door just enough to peek out onto her stoop. Sure enough, another small package sat there, this time with a bright bow adorning the top.

There weren’t cameras, were there? No one in this little town would be so crewel, would they? But the single set of prints didn’t seem to lend itself to that.

Had she seen whoever lived in the little house across the street? The place had been shrouded in shrubbery when she moved to town, but the winter cold now revealed a tiny blue house with bright white shutters tucked back from the street. A wisp of smoke emerged from the the roof and the sunshine reflected off the windows. Had she ever noticed anyone inside?

The bite of the cold seeped through her PJs and she shut the door, peering down at the lumpy little package in her hands. The paper was the same type—vintage and a bit wrinkly, like unsteady hands had applied the tape.

The three of them on her plain wooden table made a cheerful pile, something she hadn’t enjoyed since her parents left, a few years back. Just the sight of it made her grin. A little part of her didn’t want to open them, fearing that by doing so some bit of the magic they held would escape, like the smoke from her neighbor’s chimney.

With a fresh supply of cookies, she settled at her table, her speakers blaring a little Trans-Siberian Orchestra (might as well). The wrapping paper was a lot thicker than what she was used to, making the modern stuff seem like tissue paper. Taking care to not rip anything, she eased the first small gift from its wrapping.

Shaking her head, a thrill ran up her back. The second and third gifts went much the same. Together, on the table, she stared at them for at least an hour.

And she knew what she needed to do. She threw on some warm clothes, and gathered up a few supplies from around the house. It didn’t take more than five minutes to put it all together, and she even found a length of ribbon to tie her makeshift gift together.

It wasn’t hard to follow the gift-giver’s footsteps across the street. A few courageous people had driven past, too, making the street a little easier to navigate. But she still got snow down her boots as she walked across the snowy lawn, up to the front door, hidden behind the bare branches of what had been lilacs.

There was no bell, so she knocked, the wooden door a crisp white she fleetingly hoped she wouldn’t accidentally smudge.

The woman who answered had a face that she’d once heard described as “apple doll”—whatever that meant. Her eyes met hers from behind spectacles, startlingly dark and intense despite the web of wrinkled that surrounded them.

For a moment, she stood there, staring down at the old woman, her mouth opening and closing with unspoken words.

“Did you like them?” The woman asked, her grin dimpling her cheeks.

“I did. Thank you so much. I brought you a few cookies I baked last night. It’s not much of a thank you for your thoughtfulness, but I hope you enjoy them.” She held out her little package, her grin pulled tight in the cold.

The woman pulled the gift against her plump bosom. “I wanted you to know that you’re not completely alone this Christmas.”

“Thanks. That’s good to know. It’s been a bit hard since I moved here.”

With a nod and a shrug, the woman patted her arm and started to scuttle back inside her little blue home. “Thank you for this.”

“No trouble at all!” With a wave and a smile, she carefully made her way back toward the street.

A rush of wind tossed a fine mist of snow into the air, and she looked up to see that storm clouds started to build on the horizon, promising more snow to come.

She hurried back into her house, pulling back on comfortable clothes and settling onto her couch to read and watch the snow start to fall.


It didn’t take more than half an hour for the woman’s tracks, and her own, to be lost to new flakes. And when the ambulance finally arrived across the street, there was no trace that she’d ever visited, except for several half-eaten cookies and three small “gifts” she hid behind her water heater until the ground thawed enough for her to burry them.

***

Meradeth's never been a big fan of talking about herself, but if you really want to know, here are some random tidbits about her:

>She's a Northern California girl and now braves the cold winters in Montana.

>When she's not writing, she's sequencing dead people's DNA.

>She’s also an anthropology professor and loves getting people interested in studying humans.

>If she could have a super-power, it would totally be flying. Which is a little strange, because she's terrified of heights.

Find Meradeth Houston online at:www.MeradethHouston.comFacebookTwitterInstagramTumblr,AmazonGoodreads, and of course her blog!