The calm of morning’s fog left Roz needing a crank up so she popped her so-called vitamin along with her cherry tart and cappuchino and waited from the vibes to push Christmas spirit through her veins.
Jingle bell, well, why not? She bopped her head and wrote down the spark of genius for her mother. Her Christmas list was now complete. Just buy, she rolled her eyes and scanned for a likely Santa for her own future. She sipped and sipped again.
Six hours to shop and wrap and run to Mom’s and happy, happy, happy with the nieces and nephews.
She slurped the last dregs, licking the froth of leftover whip cream on the mug lip. Time to go. Purse hung over shoulder, she ran out into the mist turned into rain.
A screech of tires made her turn.
A Santa-red hot Porsche clipped her hip. She tumbled into the parking lot garden. Chapstick, blush and blusher brush and wallet, credit cards, pennies, and pens and all the stuff she carried with her rolled across the pavement. She lay still, heart pounding in her ears wondering what had happened. What hurt?
“You okay?” A man’s knobby jointed hand rested on her shoulder. “I just bumped you. Sorry. I mean, I really am sorry. Didn’t see you coming, you know?”
Roz blinked at the dreamiest green eyes. He had curly dark hair and looked like an elf, she thought, who wore green, for heaven’s sake? Her hands stung. She sat up carefully, shifting onto the garden border, wrinkling her nose at the bark dust. No doubt she had splinters. She hated bark dust.
“What hurts? Should I call the Medic? You’re bleeding.” The man stood then crouched then stood and crouched, acting like he didn’t know what to do.
“I am?” She looked at her hands, then down her body to the torn pants and scratched up knees visible in the tears. “Oh. Uhmm. I think just stunned.”
“Can I help you up?”
She shook her head. “My purse…”
“Oh. Let me get that.” He crawled around the garden like a chipmunk on steroids, holding himself on one arm and twisting into odd shapes. He stuffed it into her purse like the touch of it gave him a strange disease.
Slowly, Roz pulled herself to her feet. Home first? Or shop first? She didn’t have time for getting hit. She ought to bop the guy with her purse when he gave it to her. How dared he drive so carelessly. A tear trickled down her cheek. What a fine Christmas eve this was turning out to be.
“Here. Oh, oh, please don’t cry. Look, I’ll make it up to you. Money, lunch, flowers, what can I do for you?’
“I was supposed to shop. I look like a disaster.” Roz sniffed and took her bag. That was nice of him “How can I drive with my hands torn up.”
He placed a hand on each of her forearms. “Not another word. I’ll take you. My pleasure. My name’s Steve Forbes.”
Roz pulled back and away. “Ha ha. Right. No, thanks.” She rolled her eyes and turned to her car. The last thing she needed was some imposter pulling her leg. A shiver ran up her back as she crawled into the driver’s seat when he opened her car door for her, his eyebrow quirked.
“What do you mean? That is my real name. I get kidded all the time. There’s more than one Steve Forbes in the world. I don’t have anything better to do and you really don’t look like you should go alone.” He smiled. “I’ll just follow you to the mall, help carry your packages. What can it hurt?” He closed her door.
That smile, so happy, was what did it for Roz. Changed her mind. She swallowed. Why not?
Two hours later, Steve had three sacks per hand and she one and only two hours to go to get to her mom’s and from her left eye she saw the Christmas negligee of her dreams. She’d cleaned up her hands and bandaged her knees and only had two items to go. How was she going to dump Steve?
Coffee. The aroma drifted across the hallway along with the smell of chocolate chip cookies.
Steve nodded toward the shop. “Let’s stop. My treat.”
“Let’s dump the bags first.” Roz smiled. Now was the time. Get rid of the bags. Dump Steve. Get jazzed up. Buy what she liked and then heavenly sleep.
When they returned, Steve slid onto the stool beside her, placing her cappuchino and chocolate chip cookie on the table beside his. “You look tired.”
Roz rubbed her scratchy eyes. So right. She’d take another vitamin. She reached into her bag, but Steve grabbed her arm.
“Don’t. Christmas Trees and Happy Happy isn’t worth it. Let yourself relax.”
Her smile tightened. How dare he? “Look. After tonight, I’ll have seven blessed days off.”
He didn’t let go. The happy smile on his face had dissipated into a stern mask. “Start now. You might not make it. Was that what had you all jumpy you didn’t even notice me on the road?”
“What? My vitamins?”
“Ha ha. Vitamin C, right.” Steve slid off the chair, grabbing his cookie and coffee. “Look. I got to run. Take care of yourself. I thought you might be someone nice.”
“Huh?” Roz stood, too. “Just who do you think you are. Blame me for not watching the run then butt into my life.” She bit her lip, then held out her hand. “Nice meeting you.” He had dumped her. Well, that was the same thing, wasn’t it.
“Right.” Steve stalked off.
Roz sagged onto her chair. She looked at the cookie that had smelled so good. She lifted it and took a bite. Merry Christmas to you too, she thought. She reached into her purse, grabbed another vitamin, slurped her coffee down and went shopping, got the negligee, but somehow the joy to the world was gone.
Finally, fifteen minutes before closing she dashed past toward the mall exit, but saw the face in the window. Green eyed kitten. Fluffy hair. That was it. A Christmas present for herself. She could drop it off at the apartment and then party with her folks and have someone always with her. A friend. The jingle bells sang through her blood and when she pushed her new kitty into her car in its crate, she sang joy to the world once more.
Black three a.m. and a yowling cat, meeeooow, scratched on Roz’s nerves like someone shredding her skin. She tiptoed into her apartment, setting down her bag of presents and the cat carrier. Her other bags, the cat litter, cat food, and toys, her negligee and cookies sat on the breakfast bar. She flipped on the lights of her Christmas tree. It had begun to snow outside, the lulling of sound like a deep sleep.
After dumping cat litter into the box and setting it into the pantry on a newspaper, she pulled little Elfie out. Elfie was the perfect name for the triangle-faced cat that purred at her touch. She leaned back against the refridgerator. Blessed silence. Thank goodness. Roz almost fell asleep. She shook herself awake and set the kitten into the cat litter. Then set out food.
Surprisingly, the kitten knew what to do. Scratch, scritch, scratch. Roz rolled her eyes. Yuck.
She grabbed her nightie off the counter and dressed quickly, then pulled back the covers. The kitten mewled. Good, Elfie had followed. She clicked on her Christmas tape, crawled into bed, Elfie tucked under her arm. Blessed sleep fell upon her like a gift.
Electric awakeness jerked Roz upright in her bed. What was that?
Thump Thump. Oh, my goodness, footsteps. Hands covering her mouth, icy rigidity flicking her muscles taut, Roz froze.
Rowrrs, yooooww. Oh my goodness, Elfie. Huh, huh, huh, what should she do. Silence. Pad. Pad.
Thump, something on her bed. Roz screamed.
The lights to her room flicked on. Steve. Oh, my God, Steve. “What … huh, huh, what do you want?”
Such a glorious smile that man had, it almost made her relax. He didn’t move. She shifted her glance left to right? What could she use for a weapon.
Her lips were so dry. Somehow she got out, “Yes. No. What are you doing here?”
“Your apartment door was open.” Steve smoothed rumpled curls. He wore gym shorts no tee. And a beard. “Okay. I’ll just go. You should close the door.” He walked away.
Roz hopped out of bed, went to the door and peeked out. “Wait. Why are you here?” She wiped sweaty hands on her leg. “Are you following me or something?”
Steve turned with a chuckle. “I heard the crash, thought you’d hurt yourself.”
“What was it… Oh.” Her mind felt dull, a buzz running through her head. Slowly she took in the Christmas tree which lay across the room, ornaments smashed, water leaking out of the holder. “Oh, did you do that?” She turned to the kitchen for a towel.
“Ha ha. Right. I’m just going to go now, glad you’re okay.”
“You never answered. What are you doing here? You some kind of stalker.” Her lips felt numb. She grabbed a diet coke and chugged.
“You’re such an idiot. More like a guardian angel. I’m your next door neighbor. Don’t you notice anything?” He glared at her drink. “Right, more caffeine. Just what you need. You’re going to hurt yourself, you know. Can you imagine what would happen to you if a creep came in here instead of me?”
Movement flashed at the corner of her eye. What was that?
Then she saw. Elfie.
She batted at a Christmas tree ornament, it skidded toward her couch put just before it went in, the kitten pounced. She laughed.
Steve laughed too. “There’s your villain.”
“Oh, my goodness, my kitten must have pulled the tree down.” All her tension slipped away. Suddenly the whole day seemed funny and the louder she laughed the more Steve laughed.
When finally she caught her breath, she moved toward Steve, her hand outstretched. “Thank you.”
Steve crossed his arms. “Uh-uh. You want to thank me, you hand over your Christmas trees. I saw them when I collected your things.”
“Diet pills. My vitamin C.”
“Look. I’m not kidding. Hand them over, we can be friends.” Something in the set of his jaw, and the glint in his eyes, and the crossing of his arms spoke pain and steel both. Maybe he really was her guardian angel.
She dug into her purse, then hesitated. What right did he have…
“I just don’t want to see you hurt. You get jazzed up, some accident will happen, except next time you’ll get hurt. I’ve been there.” He pulled up his sleeve. A scar ran up the length of his arm. He held out his hand.
The buzzing in Roz’s head grew in intensity. She rubbed her dry mouth, tasting metallics on her tongue, her eyes scratchy and heavy. Outside the snow fell in gobs of heavy flakes like a sleeping potion except her heart kept beating too fast. Would she ever sleep after this? God she needed sleep. She dug out the green and white pills and went to him and handed them over.
Steve’s voice sounded harsh. “Where do you get them anyway?”
“Dealer. He’ll have you shooting up, next.”
Roz bit her lip. Her friend had offered. “How do you know?”
“Car accident. I wanted to ace all my exams at school. Now, I’ll” he shrugged his shoulders and walked to the door.
Steve turned back to her. “I’ll never be the same, never play a fiddle. I became a cop instead.” He faced her. “What?”
Roz moved to his side and kissed his cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered. She smiled. “Merry Christmas.”
He blinked several times, touched her cheek, then kissed her on the lips. “I like the nightie. Merry Christmas. Have a nice sleep. Lock the door behind me.”
Hands at her throat, heat rushing up her neck, Roz thought, what a nice smile that man has. Then she locked her door. The buzz in her head had softened. Slowly she wandered to the tree, set it upright, filled the water bowl, picked up Elfie and carried her to bed, thinking so that’s what joy to the world feels like.