Five more minutes to seven and though it was still early, the Christmas tree lot was about to close. The forecast of a snowstorm had everyone hurrying home earlier than usual, though some people didn’t seem to mind. A group of five friends were headed to a pre-Christmas Cards party, laughing among themselves as they told how they’d earned big dollars in their trades that Christmas, vowing never to tell their means for it. But as Gabrielle watched them walk by, she wasn’t going to any party. She just needed to find a tree for Christmas Eve. She tightened her grip on her son’s hand and approached the attendant. 

“How much for that tree over there?” She pointed to a small tree about four feet high, some of its branches lying limply to one side. Sitting too close to the corner, its branches had been carelessly brushed aside by many of the day’s customers. “Forty bucks,” the attendant said, pulling his knit cap over his head as two people entered the lot and walked straight towards the back where the bigger trees were. “I haven’t got all day, lady. You want it or not?” 

“Can I pay you twenty for it? It’s all I got and a few of its branches are already broken.” Gabrielle figured she could turn that side towards the wall. The rest of the tree was still good. The man exhaled, frowned, and nodded just as the new customers told him they wanted the six foot Fraser fir. A last minute purchase before he closed. Gabrielle guessed the tree cost close to a hundred, way more than the man would make with her twenty.”Twenty then. But, look, I can’t help take it to your car until I help those other guys first – unless you want to wait till I’m done with this sale.” But I want a big tree, like last Christmas, Zach signed to her after tugging at her arm and pointing at one of the bigger trees at the back lot. We agreed that we’re getting one your size this year, remember? She signed to him before handing a twenty dollar bill to the attendant. “My son and I will do it. Thanks.”

The man glanced at Zach. Seven years old and small for his age, he was really too young to help her, but Gabrielle couldn’t blame the tree attendant for needing to take care of a bigger sale. She was ready to carry the tree herself if she had to. 

“On second thoughts, lady, it’s free. That’s why it’s over on the corner anyway. Too many broken branches as it is but you can point that side to the wall.” He pushed away her money and smiled. “I’ll be back to help you when I’m done with-” 

“No, no, go ahead and help those other people. My son and I will manage,” Gabrielle said, tucking the twenty-dollar bill in her coat pocket. She should insist that he take the money but she’d learned in the past year to accept such small acts of kindness – even pity – with grace. “Thank you so much, sir.” 

“Merry Christmas, Miss, and you, too, young man.”                      

As the man walked away, Gabrielle led Zach to the four-foot tall tree that was really just a three footer up close. It still would work, she thought, as she didn’t have the room for anything bigger, not in the small one-bedroom apartment they were renting. With Zach taking over the little bedroom, Gabrielle slept on the futon in the living room, which served as the couch during the day. They didn’t have much, but for now it was home.                    

Beggars can’t be choosers, Gabby, and this is what charity is, she told herself as she watched the man walk away. Maybe he recognized her, though she prayed he didn’t. But then, why wouldn’t he? She was Gabrielle Petrakis, ex-wife of former city treasurer Damian Petrakis, who fled the country after embezzling millions dollars from the city coffers.

Forget that he’d done it while their small city was going through a tough time, so soon after a giant computer company who’d provided so many jobs moved their corporate offices to another state with better incentives to benefit their bottom line. Worse, he left her and Zach alone to face the Feds with their evidence, the District Attorney with the charges levelled against him and his assistant, and the condemnation from the public who believed that surely, being Damian’s wife, she should have known. But she didn’t, not when theirs had been a marriage of convenience – a marriage between two families that now turned their backs on her, refusing to be associated with someone who should have known what her own husband had been up to – and therefore had to be his accomplice. Her only crime was agreeing to the arrangement in the first place, foregoing reason and most of all, her heart.

Yet through it all, Gabrielle had kept it together for her son’s sake, even when the news reporters followed her as she picked up Zach from day care, leaving her alone only when she had her son in her arms. At least they granted her that, respecting her son’s privacy, though they still took pictures anyway, blurring Zach’s face for the final copy. She’d learned to weather through everything alone, discovering too late who her real friends were and that just because one was family didn’t mean they’d stand by her at all. Who knew Gabrielle’s own mother valued her reputation in society more than her relationship with her own daughter and her grandson?

But hadn’t she become stronger through it all though? Hadn’t she found the will to leave everything behind – the fair-weather friends and the old family connections that granted her easy access to the many parties she actually hated to attend but had to for Damian’s sake, making it appear that they were a happily married couple? Hadn’t she picked up the pieces alone and with Zach by her side, travelled by train all the way to the east coast, to a small town where once, she’d spent the happiest summer of her life? No longer having assistants to rely on, Gabrielle found the school district for Zach and enrolled him herself, and attended the PTA meetings even when she could tell that other parents were looking at her and probably wondering, isn’t she the wife of…?

Gabrielle pushed the thoughts aside and letting go of Zach’s hand, she grabbed a roll of twine from the table and started smoothing the tree’s branches upwards.

Zach, can you help me with this please? She signed to him. You can push up the branches on one side while I tie the twine around it.

But this is a small tree, he signed, lowering his chin before adding, why can’t we get a big tree like daddy got last year?

Because daddy’s bought it with stolen money, that’s why, she almost said out loud but Gabrielle bit her lip, her hands paused in mid-air.

Because it won’t fit in the house, love, she signed, sighing when she saw his face grow sadder. Remember when we talked about getting you a tree your size this year? Remember?

Please remember, she implored silently as Zach lifted the nearest branches with his little arms. Some days he understood what she was going through, and some days, he couldn’t understand it at all. But then why should he? He was just a child, an innocent victim to Damian’s greed and her naiveté.

“What kind of a wife are you not to know what Damian was doing all along?” Her mother had asked her the moment the news exploded all over social media and the big networks. The same woman who had destroyed Gabrielle’s first love so she could steer her daughter to the wealthier, more dashing Damian then joined all Gabrielle’s society friends who turned their backs on her and Zach. She’d barely been able to get out of the house with Zach’s clothes and favourite Legos before the Feds came in to lock the house up.

Sorry, Mrs Petrakis, they’d said. Is there any place you can go? Friends or relatives? Social services can also help you.

“Gabby? Is that you?”

Gabrielle froze, her arms circled around the upturned branches of the tree. Though it was familiar male voice, deep and warm, she knew it couldn’t be possibly true – not after eight years.

“Gabrielle, it’s me, Ryan,” the man continued as he walked to her right side. “Here, let me help you with that.”

“I’m okay. Really, I’m fine,” Gabrielle said as Zach took a step back, startled, and she was forced to let go of the tree to grab her son’s arm before he’d have the chance to run away. After all the visits from city officials asking her endless questions to the intrusive media outlets waiting outside the house the moment the news of Damian’s crime was first revealed, Zach was afraid of strangers.

It’s okay, love, Gabrielle quickly signed. His name is Ryan Rodriguez, and he’s an old friend.

More like a former friend, she thought as Zach hid behind her and she was forced to twist around so he could see her hands.

Would you like to meet him? She signed, though she spoke the words, too, like she always did. Ryan grew up with your daddy and me.

Then how come I’ve never met him before, if he’s daddy’s friend, too?

He’s– Gabrielle paused. How could she tell a 7-year old that sometimes grown-ups got themselves caught up in complicated situations?

“I’ve been out of the country,” Ryan said in a deep voice, though his hands and fingers moved to sign the words he spoke as well.

Zach peered at the tall man standing before them, his brow furrowing. Standing a head taller than Gabrielle he slouched forward and grinned, a row of white perfect teeth against days old stubble and a firm jaw. Though she hadn’t seen Ryan in over eight years, she would recognize him anywhere. He still had the same magnetic eyes, dark blue and beautiful. She wanted to run into his arms and feel him hold her there and keep her safe – but she didn’t. She couldn’t, at least not in front of Zach. Besides, for the last eight years, she thought, he never even bothered to drop her a note.

So what was he doing in front of her now?

You know sign language! Zach signed excitedly before facing his mother. He knows how to sign, Mom.

“Is it alright for me to help your mother?” Ryan asked as he signed the words. Zach grinned and nodded as Gabrielle found herself smiling. Apart from his aides at school, it wasn’t every day that Zach got to meet someone who signed as well as Ryan was signing and as of that moment, Ryan had become his best buddy. Even Damian hadn’t bothered, choosing instead to enunciate his words so that Jeremy could read his lips. Damian had always been distant to Zach, blaming a busy work schedule for his lengthy absences from home, but Gabrielle couldn’t blame Damian for acting that way. Such had been the price of their marriage – Damian got the name and recognition he needed from her parents’ connections, and Zach got a father, even if it was by name only.

“Ryan, you really don’t need to-”

“I got this,” he said as he took the ball of twine from her hands and set it on the table before tackling the tree that had now left pine needles stuck to Gabrielle’s parka. “I worked at a Christmas tree lot once, when I was high school, remember?”

“I do, yes.” Of course she remembered. They’d been seeing each other then.

Why did she dump him again? 

Ah, yes, Gabrielle’s mother had decided that dating the mechanic’s son was a big mistake – not when she had Damian, the son of the town’s richest man, madly in love with her. Forget that the three of them had gone to school together, with Damian and Ryan one year ahead of her, but some decisions had to be made with the mind, not the heart. Besides, at sixteen, her mother had insisted, how could Gabrielle possibly know what was best for her?

“I really appreciate this, Ryan. I mean, it’s been years since we’ve seen each other and the first thing you end up doing is this. It’s embarrassing-”

“What’s embarrassing about helping you with a tree? It’s Christmas,” he said as he wrapped the twine around the tree branches, now all neatly swept upwards.

Just as the Christmas tree shop attendant was closing a big last-minute sale of a Noble Fir at the back of the lot, Ryan hoisted the bundled-up tree over his shoulder. Wearing a thick parka, he looked huge next to her petite frame, and she could tell that it wasn’t all thick clothing. There was some serious muscle to go with the perfect square jaw.

“So where’s your car?”

Oh, crap, her car. Gabrielle almost hesitated but she chided herself. It’s only a car, Gabby. It’s not like it’s going to change his perception of you, whatever it may be. At least you’ve got a car. 

“It’s over there,” she said, pointing to a VW Beetle three car spaces away. Once, she drove a Mercedes Benz, complete with heated seats and a rear-view camera. Once.

“Let me get it onto your roof then.”

Holding Zach’s hand, Gabrielle followed Ryan towards the car, a ball of twine in his other hand. Another five minutes later, he’d secured the tree to the roof of the car, and Zach laughed at how Ryan had to jerry-rig it by wrapping the rope through the windows so the tree would stay in place on the short drive home. It meant that Gabrielle would have to leave the rear car windows open but it was a short enough drive that it didn’t matter.

And between the two of them working to secure the tree to the roof of the car, Ryan had struck up a conversation with Zach about Legos. As he took a step back to make sure the tree was safely secured, Zach tugged the sleeve of his parka.

Can you help us take the tree to the house? I don’t think my mother can do it alone. 

“Oh no! No!” Gabrielle exclaimed, embarrassed. “Ryan probably has to go somewhere, love-”

“Oh, no problem at all. I don’t mind,” Ryan said. “I’d love to get it into the house for you if you want.”

Afterward, would you like to build a Lego airplane with me? Zach signed before Gabrielle could tell Ryan – without signing the words – that he didn’t have to. She wasn’t quite sure about wanting him to know where she and Zach now lived – not when he would have surely known the grand house she and Damian used to live.

Stop it, Gabby.

“I’d love to,” Ryan said as he signed, before glancing at her, “but only if your mother says yes.”

Zach tugged her arm.  

How could she say no to such a sweet face, her son’s deep blue eyes imploring her? Gabrielle sighed and turned to face Ryan, the street light behind her making his own blue eyes sparkle. She couldn’t understand why she was making it so hard for herself.

“Yes.”

She looked beautiful – stunning was more like it – and Ryan couldn’t stop staring at her. Her blue eyes were just as magnetic as he remembered, and her long blonde hair, falling down her shoulders from beneath a knit cap, was straight and lustrous.            

Her son, Zach, had her blue eyes, though he had someone else’s Roman nose and broad lips. And as the boy excitedly glanced back at him as Gabrielle made her way out of the tree lot, Ryan saw dark wavy hair sticking out from under the boy’s woollen cap. His throat tightened, the holiday greeting he’d wanted to say to them drying on his tongue. Zach was just as his sister had told him.                  

He looks just like you.                    

It was knowledge he kept with him through all the years he spent fighting the wars he’d signed on to fight. When Adele told him that Zach was deaf, Ryan asked her to send him educational material so he could learn sign language. He worked hard at it, dreaming of the day he’d one day be able to sign with Zach like it was nothing – and now he had. The boy couldn’t stop looking at him with his wide blue eyes, a broad grin on his lips.                    

Ryan wanted to touch them, just to make sure they were real. But of course, they were real. He wasn’t crazy enough to be seeing things – not yet. He may have been damaged by the wars he’d fought on foreign shores, but as far as he knew, he was still sane. Distressed at times, and often plagued with nightmares – but still sane.

What was she doing here, of all places?

Last he’d heard, she was somewhere in Arizona, not far from where she used to live with his former best friend, Damian. Former friend, the thought made Ryan scoff. Though Damian hadn’t stolen Gabrielle from him, for Ryan had long believed that no one really steals someone’s affections from another – it’s a deliberate choice – it was a much better excuse than what really happened: that Gabrielle had made her decision and picked Damian over him – the rich kid over the mechanic’s son. Former friend, because the idiot then ran off with his lover after stealing all that money from the city coffers, leaving Gabrielle and Zach to weather the storm that followed.                    

Bastard.                    

Last he’d heard, she’d been seen in a women’s shelter in the outskirts of Phoenix. It was where Ryan had been searching for her till he decided to busy himself with something more familiar – fixing the beach house that his late grandmother willed to him – instead of waiting for the nightmares to worsen with each day that passed, with no sign of the woman and her son. And with winter in full swing, the house needed his attention more than a woman who probably preferred not to be found, for why else would she have disappeared like she did? Besides, just as his sister told him, Ryan needed something that would root him to reality, and keep him busy.                    

Adele may be two years younger than him, but she was smart. Fresh out of law school and already working for a top law firm, she doted on him like he was her kid brother. And why shouldn’t she? He’d been through hell and back, one of two men to survive a roadside bomb that killed three of his men while on patrol. At least, living in the beach house, the sight of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance seemed to temper his nightmares somewhat, even if the only thing he yearned for was the warmth of the woman who’d made the wrong decision so long ago, only to pay dearly for it.

As Gabrielle started the engine and let it warm up for a few minutes, she told Ryan that it had been her landlady’s old car, a VW Beetle she was too attached to get rid of. The older woman agreed to give it to Gabrielle only if she shouldered all expenses to get it running.                    

It cost Gabrielle over two grand to get it drive-worthy – the exact amount she got for selling the only jewellery she had left, a necklace and earring set that had belonged to her mother. But it worked, especially during the hot summer months when she didn’t have to wait too long till the engine warmed up like she had to during the colder months. Ryan had taken off his knit cap and pulled down the zipper of his parka the moment the heater blasted hot air in his face, Gabrielle could see that he had that major stubble action going, sending off an almost dangerous and reckless look about him.

Gabrielle stepped on the brake and shifted the car into first gear, easing it away from the parking spot and into light traffic. If anyone who’d known her while she was married to Damian saw her shopping and driving by herself, that too in a rickety car, they’d have insisted it wasn’t the same Gabrielle they knew- the one who charmed people with her smile and knowledgeable conversations.

The one who stood by her husband in front of the media when the allegations first started trickling in and he assured them that it was a huge mistake and that further investigation would prove him innocent. The one who opened the door early in the morning to answer the ringing of her doorbell only to be blinded by camera lights and flashbulbs, and reporter demanding to get a comment about the news that Damian had been last seen in the Cayman Islands – with his personal assistant, Tiana. No one needed to know about the marriage of convenience, made even more convenient when Gabrielle found out she was pregnant three months after the wedding – a pregnancy that Damian had nothing to do with.                    

Gabrielle pushed the thoughts away and focused on the road in front of her, glad that the forecasted snow hadn’t arrived yet. At least she was now all prepared to spend Christmas with Zach and their little tree. They’d make a popcorn garland and she had a few crocheted ornaments from her grandmother to put up, along with some origami creations she’d made from an unopened origami set she found at the thrift store. She even hung a mistletoe by the front door, just for fun, from a sprig that came with the turkey and fixings from the church food drive, along with a leg of ham from her son’s therapy clinic. Who she’d kiss under the mistletoe, she had no idea, but it was there anyway, just for the heck of it.                    

“Just wanted to say I’m really glad to see you, Gabby,” Ryan said, glancing at Zach in the back seat, “and him, too. I don’t think you left an address with anyone.”                    

“I’m sorry,” Gabrielle said. “It was just too crazy back then. I needed to go someplace…safe.”                    

Ryan watched her for a few minutes, not speaking, before Zach leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder, and he had to twist his body to listen to him sign. She wanted to ask Ryan a million questions but with Zach in the back seat asking him what type of Lego plane they would be building once the tree was set up, Gabrielle knew her questions would have to wait.

What was he doing these days? And why was he in Ocean City of all places? When last she’d heard, his grandmother had died and surely her beach house where she and Ryan spent that last glorious summer together eight years ago must have sold to some developer by now? Was he married? Was that why he never bothered to find her the last eight years – not even a hello, how are things? Did he have a girlfriend? Was she wondering where he was right now? What about kids? Gabrielle bit her lower lip, stealing a glance at him as she drove, the questions still coming.

Had it really been eight years since they’d last seen each other? Where had he been all this time? And why was her heart beating so fast at the mere sight of him, the scent of his cologne making her imagination run wild? Did she still love him?

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….                                                                           

Her questions were answered three hours later after Ryan set up the Christmas tree in the corner and after they decorated it with whatever she had on hand, including a bag of extra ornaments her landlady had left by the front door. By then, they’d also finished eating dinner of garlic herb chicken she’d prepared in the slow cooker that morning.

Gabrielle couldn’t help watching Ryan help Zach assemble the plane out of Legos. Normally she helped Zach build his creations, but tonight, he was more excited to have his new friend help him. They talked in sign language and Gabrielle tried her best not to eavesdrop, but it was hard.

Do you live around here? Zach asked him.

Ryan nodded. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his thick parka and scarf hanging behind the door, and his boots sitting next to Gabrielle’s shoes by the entrance. He wore brown woollen socks with white and black stripes. My grandmother has a house not far from here. She gave it to me and so I’m fixing it up.

Is it close to the beach?

Right on the beach, Ryan replied, his hands flawlessly signing the words.

That must be awesome in the summer!

Ryan glanced at her but he returned his attention to Zach just as quickly. Yes, it is. You and your mother should come by some time.

Are you married?

No, I’m not.

Are you seeing someone?

She should really put a stop to all the probing questions, Gabrielle thought, but she wanted to know the answer to that last one probably more than Jeremy did.

No, I’m single.

Would you like to spend Christmas with us? It’s just mom and me-

“Zach!” Gabrielle exclaimed, tapping him on the shoulder, her cheeks burning in embarrassment. “You can’t ask him such things.”

“It’s alright,” he said, signing the words so Zach could understand, too, though his attention had now drifted back to his plane and he got up, holding the plane up over his head as if it were in flight. “Kids don’t beat around the bush. It’s refreshing.”

“It’s still embarrassing,” Gabrielle said, still blushing.

“How’ve you been, Gabby?”

She shrugged. “I’ve been better, but it’s good. At least, I don’t have to go to any parties anymore and pretend I’m having fun.”

“You attended quite a few through the years,” he said. “That’s what Adele told me while I was overseas.”

“Overseas? Where?” Cameron remembered Adele, his younger sister. They ran into each other once, just after the charges had been filed against Damian. Adele worked for the District Attorney, and Gabrielle could still remember expecting a look of harsh judgment from Ryan’s younger sister, just as she’d seen from almost everyone else. But there was none, Gabrielle remembered now.

Instead, Adele had asked her how she and Zach were coping, and if ever she needed any help, to just ask.

That night, they sat around the tree with its broken branches that faced the wall. Ryan and Gabrielle watched as Zach excitedly opened his presents, forgoing the cookies-and-milk routine, for as far as Zach was concerned, Santa had already arrived in the form of a new friend though his excitement bubbled over when Gabrielle retrieved presents she’d hidden under the futon.                    

There were presents from the shelter where she and Jeremy stayed when they first arrived in Atlantic City, and a few from the nearby church that included two gift cards. Gabrielle had bought him a Lego set he’d put down on his Christmas list, and the moment Zach tore open the wrapper, he excused himself and went into his room to start building it, leaving them alone in the living room.

Ryan found himself speechless as he watched her put away the discarded wrapping paper in the recycle bin. He would have helped, but Gabby had ordered him to stay where he was, and he wasn’t about to argue with her, not after so many years of being apart. But what could he say that would tell her just how he was feeling, that after so many years he’d spent in darkness, mired in questions about decisions one made when one was too young to know better, his world had grown brighter in a matter of minutes.

“Thank you for staying,” Gabrielle said as she took his hand and squeezed it. Her fingers felt soft and warm against his callused palm, and as she brought his hand to her lips, Ryan caught his breath. “I thought I was dreaming at first when I heard you call my name tonight. But I’ve never seen Zach this happy since…”

Her voice faded, and she took a deep breath and sighed, lowering his hand back on the futon.                      

“Are you happy?” he asked. “Us – here together. Is this what you want?”                    

“Of course,” she said, nodding. “That’s why I came here to live for the winter at least. I didn’t even know you’d moved back in and maybe I should have stopped by the beach house, at least out of curiosity but I couldn’t, not when I told myself that it must have been sold a long time ago. But I wanted to show Zach the place where I used to be so happy, before I made that terrible decision-”

“Please don’t blame yourself, Gabby,” he said, touching her cheek with the back of his hand. “If anyone should be blaming himself, it’s me. I should have fought for you, said no instead of letting you walk out the door, and then enlisting because it was the only thing I could think of without making it look like I was running away.”                    

He exhaled. “At least, you stood up for me in front of your mother that time while I ran away to a life that I thought would help me forget you. Only I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. And then, Adele told me about how Zach looked just like I did when I was his age, only I couldn’t say anything, not when anything I’d say would only have humiliated you. Certainly not in the middle of his campaign for Treasurer.”

She lowered her gaze as Ryan continued. “But you bore it all with dignity, and all that time, I told myself I was fighting for a bigger cause – for the country – when all I was really doing was run away from the truth till I couldn’t run anymore.”                    

The IED had done it, Ryan thought. Seeing his friends dead and dying as he lay wounded amidst the crumpled remains of their vehicle had given him back the courage he needed to face her. It told him, once and for all, to stop running.                    

“Yet here we are,” she whispered, “and neither of us are running now, so it’s not all bad, is it? Not when both of us are where we’re supposed to be.”                    

Ryan swallowed. “I guess you could say that.”                    

“Well, I’ve done enough talking the last eight years, at least inside my head, but right now, I just want to do this.” Gabrielle leaned towards him and kissed him, softly at first, her lips warm against his own.

Ryan pulled her to him and kissed her, the feel of her body filling him with a warmth he hadn’t felt in a long time. She was in his arms, and she was real, just as the little apartment with its drab beige walls and where she slept on the living room futon so that their son could sleep in the bedroom was real. She tasted of laughter and smiles, of love lost but now regained. She felt of family and home.                    

When Ryan pulled away moments later, it was only to whisper the words he’d long wanted to tell her, after eight long years of waiting, blaming and running. I love you, he murmured as they both leaned back and for the next few minutes, he held her in his arms and heard her whisper the same words back to him just as Zach emerged from his bedroom to show them what he’d built with his present of Legos.                    

It’s a house, Zach told them proudly as he sat in the space they’d made between them. A home.

 

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