Christmas Eve, 1972
The rain pelt so hard it sprang up from the porch like bullets. The detective removed his hat, water dripping down his face, hiding tears but for his red-rimmed eyes. He couldn’t help crying, after what he had seen and for the scene before him. The Christmas tree lit with multi-colored lights and draped with silver tinsel. The cookies on the mantle. Frank Sinatra crooning “Jingle Bells” from the record player. And a small boy wearing red pajamas. These were the reasons the detective wiped his nose like a baby, and steeled himself to bear the bad news.
* * *
Mikael Sasha Coen already knew why the detective had come. Someone once said he could smile with only his big, blue eyes. He tried this by focusing his eyes hard into the sadness that seemed to hunch the detective’s shoulders. He curved the corners of his mouth upward just a little. It was enough to make the detective smile back.
“He should leave the room,” the detective said.
Daan shook his head. “The sooner he gets used to hearing bad news, the better.”
The detective scratched his sideburn.
“Mr. Coen, I’m so sorry to say this, tonight of all nights. But there’s been an accident. Your wife’s car went over the Ballard Bridge. She didn’t make it.”
Daan Coen keeled over and keened, a sound more piercing than nails dragged against a chalkboard. The detective described what happened. The grates were slick. His wife had been speeding to beat the drawbridge, raised to let a party yacht into the Fremont canal. She skidded and lost control. Daan sobbed and asked the Lord why. But Mikael thought he knew that, too.
After a moment, Daan asked,
“But wouldn’t she have seen the warning lights? Wouldn’t the gate have dropped? I don’t understand how this could happen.”
The detective pursed his lips. He spoke in the way adults sometimes did that made Mikael feel as if he’d been naughty.
“Not here,” the detective said.
Mikael watched from the porch as Daan left to identify the body. He’d promised to stay with one of the neighbors that lived in the apartment units of The Bridgewater. As Mikael turned, he heard a chattering sound, and it drew his attention to the stoop next door. A young girl sat with her head pushed between her knees, her body rocking back and forth and her arms enclosing her shivering shins.
“What’re you doing? It’s raining,” he said.
“No shit,” she muttered. “I’m locked out.”
“Why?” He bit his lip. “Also, you shouldn’t talk like that. My dad says bad words send people to hell.”
The girl didn’t answer. When she looked up, he saw the gray eyes of a feral cat ready to scram into the city gutters.
Mikael walked inside and turned up the music. He took the cookies from the mantle and went back to the porch, holding them in the rain, in view of the girl.
“Want a cookie?”
“I’m fine. My mom is coming soon.”
“You want to help me open my presents?”
The girl shrugged and stared at her knees.
Mikael sighed and stomped back to the Christmas tree. He moved the gifts from beneath the tree, one by one, into his bedroom. He knew the girl would come out of the rain soon. No kid could resist Christmas presents. On each trip to the tree he passed a photo of his mother. It was the kind with two faces, one of the smiling front and the other a profile. The two-faced photo was ghoulish, and each time he passed it became harder to look at because of the goosebumps that tickled his arm. He didn’t want to open presents in front of the ghost that had once been his mother.
Mikael waited on his bedroom floor. The music blared from the living room, but over the smooth, velvet voice of Sinatra came the soft pattering of uncertain footsteps.
“I’m in here,” Mikael called.
The girl appeared in the open doorway of his bedroom.
“Hi,” Mikael said.
Her eyes were glued to the presents.
“Where are your parents?” she asked.
“My mom is dead. My dad went to see her.”
“A car accident.”
He sniffled and pushed the presents towards her.
“Here. You can have them all.”
He handed her a football wrapped in gold paper, something he never wanted. Mikael’s father wanted it for him, in the same way Daan wanted other things. Be a good, Christian man. Don’t cry. Stand up straight. Don’t tell lies.
The girl tore the paper from the gift, filling the silence with the sound of shredding paper. Her eyes sparkled. She tossed the football in her hands as if it was something she was made to do.
“My name is Montgomery. But you should call me Monti. I’m seven.”
“My name is Mikael.” He paused, thinking of his Norwegian grandfather for whom he was named, a strict Lutheran who built the walls that enclosed them now. It was a name his father wanted for him.
“But you should call me Sasha. I’m seven and a half.”
Monti shoved an entire cookie into her mouth. She smiled, showing the crumbs stuck between the gap in her front teeth.
“Why aren’t you sad?”
“I was sad yesterday,” he said. “My mom said goodbye yesterday.”
She took another cookie and ogled the rest of the gifts.
“I can’t take your presents.”
“Yes you can. I don’t want them.”
She sputtered cookie crumbs from her mouth.
“Why the hell not! I’d kill for this many toys.”
“They’re from my dad. And he’s the reason my mom’s gone.” He picked another gift and laid it in her lap. “Also, you shouldn’t swear.”
She nodded, as though everything he’d said made perfect sense. He felt very brave next to her, so he whispered through clenched teeth,
“I hate my dad.”
He watched her pick a scab from her knuckle.
“Why were you locked out?” he asked.
She shrugged. “My moms got stuff to do.”
“She’s not home right now? Will she be back in time for Christmas?”
And then she smiled, sending dimples to her cheeks and sunlight to the rippled, gray eyes. It was a smile that meant they’d be friends forever.
“That’s right! She went to the midnight service at Mt. Calvary. I had to use the bathroom and she forgot me. That’s why I was locked out.”
“How could she forget you? And why didn’t she come back?”
Monti’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t tell lies, Sasha.”
He swallowed. She’d been nice enough to use the name he wanted. Her eyes turned red and wet. Sasha decided it was okay if she didn’t want to tell the truth about why she’d been locked out.
They sat in silence while she opened the rest of his gifts, his mood lifting in tandem with her joy. He liked making her happy. He was the captive audience and she the ringmaster, and surrounding them was a circus of domestic tragedy.
After some time, when the world grew quiet and everyone awaited the coming magic of Christmas spirits, she said something he would never forget.
“I’m sorry your mom died. If my mom died, I don’t think I’d cry either.”
Copyright © 2020 by Marissa Harrison
All rights reserved.