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Tuesday, December 4, 12:30 p.m.
All she needed was a pair of panty hose.
So now here she was, in the middle of a crowded mall in the suburbs of Philadelphia, just twenty-one days before Christmas, wishing like hell she could just go to her meeting with a run in her stocking.
Because until today, Astrid Martin had almostalmostmanaged to ignore the holidays. Aside from a few anemic decorations at the nursing home where she worked, and the occasional snippet of a Christmas song as she flipped through the channels on the radio, her exposure to all things merry had been nonexistent.
But it was kind of hard to ignore the holidays here. Fake icicles. Giant red and green Christmas balls hanging from the ceiling. Enough garland to circumnavigate the globe.
She tucked her chin into the scarf around her neck and averted her eyes, heading for the department store at the far end of the mall. Unfortunately, she didn't see the temporary kiosks that had sprung up in the middle of the promenade, and walked forehead-first into the banner of one of them, which read: Wrapping for R.U.F.F. We'll wrap anything for a buck!
"So sorry," she murmured to the two women who manned the booth. They were dressed like elves, in hats with jingle bells and red shoes that curled up at the toes.
"No problem," one of the elves said. "Hey, you look like an animal lover. Here."
The elf handed Astrid a flyer.
"Resources for Underprivileged Furry Friends (R.U.F.F.) needs you! Join our team of volunteers, and give underprivileged animals the gift of hope this Christmas."
Astrid was, in fact, an animal lover. And last year, she might have been tempted to jointhe R.U.F.F. volunteers in helping their furry friends. But not this year.
This year she was boycotting Christmas.
She gave the elves a polite smile, and ran away. Or rather, she tried to run away. Instead, she ran straight into a sweater.
A sweater covered in cat hair.
A sweater that covered a very broad chest, which was attached to a good-looking guy.
Easy smile. Hazelnut eyes. Hot-chocolate-brown hair, with just a touch of marshmallow at the temples.
He bent to pick up the flyer she'd dropped when she bumped into him, and as he handed it to her he whispered, "You've got a run in your stocking."
His breath was warm in her ear, like the steam from a mug of hot cider.
Astrid tugged at her scarf. Who did this guy think he was?
Over his shoulder, she could see the elves at the wrapping booth watching them with interest. She snatched the flyer out of his hand and shoved it into her purse. "Thank you. I think."
She skirted around him and headed toward the department store, this time taking care to watch where she was going.
"Merry Christmas!" he called after her.
December 4, 3:07 p.m.
The sloes of Astrid's sneakersinto which she'd changed after her big meeting (at which no one even so much as glanced at her brand-new panty hose)squeaked on the freshly waxed tiles of the third-floor hallway at Tall Pines Nursing Home.
Paper daisies pasted on the doors of the rooms, announcing the residents' names with fading cheeriness, rustled as she walked past.
Astrid stopped in front of a daisy that read VERA T.! She knocked and pushed open the door. A nurse towing a rolling blood-pressure machine was on her way out.
"Good luck," the nurse said to Astrid under her breath, "She's in rare form today."
The nurse disappeared and Astrid entered the room, closing the door behind her.
A woman for whom the adjective birdlike seemed to have been invented perched on the edge of an oversized armchair near the window. A lime-green-and-orange striped dress covered her slight form from neck to ankle. It looked as if it had seen better days.
The same could be said for Vera T. herself.
"Vera, how are you?" Astrid said brightly.
"How do you think I am? I can't breathe without this damned tube up my nose, I have no teeth, and I'm wearing a diaper," Vera said. "Plus we had butterscotch pudding for dessert again. Butterscotch pudding sucks."
"I know it does. But look on the bright side. At least you don't have to chew it."
After a moment of shocked silence, Vera began to squeak and wheeze. It took Astrid a second to realize she was laughing.
"Oh. Oh, dear." Vera pressed a trembling, bony finger to the corner of her eye. "I haven't laughed like that in ages."
Neither, thought Astrid, had she.
Not counting the automatic responses to sitcom gags, or the fake noises of amusement she'd perfected for her boss's corny jokes, it had been almost a year since she'd laughed. Three hundred and forty-eight days, to be exact.
"Mind if I sit down?" Astrid moved the portable oxygen tank around to the other side of Vera's recliner.
The older woman turned to face Astrid and gestured to the vinyl-padded rocking chair beside her.
"I hear you've been giving the staff a hard time," Astrid said. "Want to talk about it?"
"No." Vera frowned, and stared out the window.
Astrid waited her out. Besides the fact that the view from Vera's window wasn't great, if there was one thing she'd learned as an advocate for the elderly, it was that many of them were desperate to talk.
Or rather, they were desperate to be heard.
They had problems no one had the time, inclination or patience to deal with, and that's why Astrid was there. She listened, and tried to figure out how to make sure everyone got what they needed.
"I hate Christmas," Vera finally said. "No one gives a fart about me since Milton died."
Astrid sighed. "I know the feeling. I lost my husband, too."
Vera's sour expression mellowed. "How long has it been?"
"Eleven months, four days, six hours and" Astrid checked her watch "seven minutes. But who's counting?"
Actually, it seemed as if she'd been doing nothing but counting since David had died in a car accident last year. The day after Christmas.
She'd eaten breakfast alone three hundred and forty-eight times. Done The New York Times crossword puzzle forty-two times. Watched twenty-one episodes of Antiques Roadshow, gone to the movies twelve times and to the ballet twice. Alone.
This might have been her first Christmas alone, if not for the fact that she'd decided she wasn't going to have Christmas this year. Or maybe ever.
All the things she and David used to lovethe lights, the carols, the cold. They would only serve to remind her how empty the holidays would be without him. If only she could go home, lock all the doors, and not come out until after New Year's
She could survive the holidays. Hell, she could survive a nuclear attack. She still had a case of powdered milk, forty gallons of water and three cases of canned beef stew in the basement, left over from her and David's Y2K emergency plan.
Along with a cabinet full of Johnny Depp movies and an amply stocked liquor cabinet, what more could she possibly need?
Vera patted Astrid's hand, a silent message from one lonely soul to another.
Astrid smiled and leaned forward, the rocking chair creaking softly. "Vera, I want you to know you can talk to me. Tell me what you need."
Vera shook her head, sucking in a labored breath.
"No, really. Please. What can I do for you?" Vera gave Astrid a pleading look, but said nothing.
"I know it's hard, but you can do it. You can tell me. What do you need?"
"I need " Vera pointed toward the floor, her eyes bugging. "I need you to get your foot off my oxygen hose."
"Oh! Oh, my goodness. I'm so sorry." Astrid jumped up and pushed the rocking chair off the hose.
Vera drew in a deep breath, and broke into a coughing fit that lasted a good three minutes.
When it was over, Astrid said, "I don't think I've ever asked, but how long ago did Milton die?"
Vera rearranged her oxygen tube and settled back in her chair. "Seventeen years, nine months and twenty-two days."
Astrid shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Wow. That's a long time."
"You still miss him?"
Vera smiled. "Oh, no, dear. He's right here with me."
"You mean in your heart?"
"Why, no," Vera said. "Right here."
"In the room?"
"Of course. He talks to me all the time."
Astrid broke out in goose bumps, despite her utter disbelief in all things supernatural. "He talks to you? What does he say?"
"Oh, he pesters me like he always did. Don't you, Milton?" Vera's gaze flitted around the room. "He's always telling me what to do."
"Really? Like what?"
"He tells me what to wear. How to fix my hair. What to put on the television."
"Milton watches television?"
"Sure. He likes that MTV. Says he enjoys the music, but I think he just likes looking at the bosoms. He says Beyoncé is booty-licious."
"He says you're not bad, either. 'Course he's always gone crazy for blondes."
Astrid hesitated. "When did he first ?"
"When did he first talk to me?" Vera said.
"Oh, just a few weeks after he died. He just started nagging me like he never left. Been doing it ever sincewhat's that?" Vera cocked her head again. "Milton wants me to change the channel. There's a rerun of Charlie's Angels on. He likes that Farrah Fawcett."
Astrid patted Vera's hand and rose. "I'll leave the two of you alone."
December 4, 5:50 p.m.
CAPONE ATTACKED her as soon as she walked in the door.
"Jeez, can't you wait until six o'clock?"
Astrid already knew the answer to that one. A twenty-three-pound cat didn't stand on ceremony when it came to the dinner hour. Anytime after lunch could be considered supper time.
Astrid shed her coat and kicked off her shoes on the way to the cabinet where she kept the cat food. Capone pushed his dish across the kitchen floor with his forehead.
So much for the dignity of cats.
She scooped a can of Kitty Bits into Capone's dish, and it was gone before she rinsed the spoon.
"You need to go on a diet, buddy." Astrid scratched the cat's head and he hunkered down, stretching out to his full length on the linoleum. She rubbed him behind his ears until something else caught his attention and he darted off.
Astrid opened the fridge. A bottle of ketchup, half a container of yogurt and a wilted stalk of celery.
She checked the freezer.
The only thing that looked like it hadn't been there since the Clinton administration was a lone bean burrito.
Looked like she was going to have to go shopping if she wanted to eat. As she slipped back into her shoes and coat, Capone pounced in front of her, pushing something shiny across the floor with his paw.
"What have you got there, buddy?"
Capone lay on it.
"Come on. Move." She rolled him over, picked the thing up off the floor and examined it. "Oh, wow. Where did you find this?"
It was a little silver ring, a love knot, which David had bought for her on their first date. They'd gone to the theater in Philadelphia, and afterwards, on their way to dinner, they'd passed a street vendor selling jewelry.
David had picked this ring out and slipped it on her finger, and she'd felt an unspoken promise in the gesture. A glimpse of the future.
After the date was over, she knew she'd found her soul mate. She'd worn the little silver ring until David had replaced it with her diamond engagement ring just three months later.
She hadn't seen it in years. Had thought she'd lost it.
She slipped it onto her finger and smiled through her tears. It was like finding an old friend.
December 4, 6:15 p.m.
THE GROCERY KING parking lot teemed with drivers who under normal circumstances would be cursing at each other, but in deference to the holiday season waited patiently for pedestrians and other cars to pass.
Hypocrites, Astrid thought, as she slogged toward the store from her parking spot miles away. At least this year she could feel free to be as cranky as she wanted.
And she was getting crankier by the minute, because she realized she was going to have to walk past the Christmas tree corral in the corner of the lot, where she and David used to get their tree each year.
Douglas Fir. Seven feet tall. Or was it eight? She could never remember.
But she did remember the important stuff.