He hated Christmas. Correction, he just hated holidays in general but he hated Christmas above all others. People walking around with a determined, bright smiles pasted on their faces and the mindless storm of shopping always seemed to rub him the wrong way. Chris grunted as a passerby flew by him with several paper sacks weighting her arms. He ignored her and the mumbled apology as he continued trudging ahead in the mash potato snow to his apartment. Flurries of delicate shaved ice drifted and swirled about him in the frigid cold. He hardly felt or appreciated it. He took a moment to look behind him and remarked on how his footprints were lost in the general traffic of sloshing feet.
As he paused he distantly noticed the clanging bell of a Salvation Army donation bucket. The din drew his attention and he looked up. An older woman, rather frail looking amidst the bulkily dressed shoppers, rang the bucket as the occasional dollar slipped into the tin. She rang it again and Chris listened as the bright chime hollowed into a mournful dirge in the wintry air. Or perhaps that was just his imagination forcing his environment to suit his mood.
Like drawn to like, Chris made his way through the crowd to the old woman dressed in the bright red and white of a Mrs. Santa Claus outfit. It seemed improperly fit to her narrow frame or, as Chris observed more closely, like it was a shadow of a beautiful youth she once possessed. Her hair was once a honey-gold but had long since melted into snowy white and her sallow cheeks were rouged heavily with cheap make-up. There was no smile in her eyes like he would have expected from a Salvation worker. Instead they were hauntingly distant and sad, like the pale memory of a memory long forgotten.
Chris walked up to her and dropped a twenty into the shaking coffee can she held out. He didn't know what caused him to blurt out his first words. "What makes you come out here?"
The woman looked up at him, her eyes cutting through then past him. Chris's heart froze at the empty gaze. "Hope," she answered simply in a faint accent.
Chris stood beside her and watched the crowd pass them by as he pondered her reply. There was no hope in her eyes that he could see, only loss and despair. That was the reason he didn't have any mirrors in his own apartment, he had grown tired of seeing the same thing in the morning and down the hall. As he continued thinking, he noticed how she shivered. But it wasn't from the cold; it was from crying. The delicate point of her chin had a single tear frozen to it.
Something stirred within him and Chris found himself shrugging off his heavy brown coat and wrapping it around the old woman. Another passerby clinked a quarter into the bucket.
"What do you hope for?"
She continued to shiver despite his aid. Chris had only managed to free the tear from its frozen prison to continue it journey from her chin and mix with the muddied snow at their feet.
"I hope for..." a thick tremor ran through her as fresh tears coursed through her. "I don't know anymore."
They had drawn a crowd, Chris noticed. He gathered up the woman as she sobbed and shuffled her to an out of the way corner. She wasn't in any condition to be doing this. Chris turned back and fished into the collection bucket and found the padlock at the bottom. He snagged the coffee tin and tossed it into the bucket before locking it up and carrying it into a nearby store. He spoke briefly with the manager and left the bucket there.
Chris returned to find the old woman still shaking in the corner, her crying reduced to thin sniffling. He wrapped an arm around her and guided her into a small coffee shop across the street. He ordered tea and cinnamon sticks for them both and quietly waited.
"Why are you helping me?"
"I honestly don't know." And he didn't. There was something about her, deep down inside of those forlorn gray eyes that drew him. And now that he was with her he couldn't leave. Perhaps a part of him was still looking, still hoping, like she was. Perhaps. "What's your name?" He decided on switching the subject from him to her.
"Funny how I didn't know that," she murmured.
Chris sipped gingerly at the freshly arrived tea.
Katarina stared sadly out the frosted window. "So much of it seems so wrong."
Chris followed her gaze out the icy pane and grunted in agreement. "They don't see it any more. Or perhaps that's the way I see them."
The woman across from him nodded. "And the children. So many of them don't believe anymore, or even knew what it once was. Now it is just 'gimme, gimme, gimme'. I read that fewer and fewer children ask for others. They want toys and video games for themselves. Very few care to ask for the spirit of the season. For snow, for a loved one to get better, for a new daddy. I believe, perhaps, they have lost hope too."
"Why do you suppose that is?" Chris found himself asking, his mind lulled by her voice. He found himself staring at her now as she continued watching the passing crowd outside.
"They've stopped believing. They don't believe in the magic anymore. And because of that he has disappeared."
"You don't believe? What am I saying? Of course you don't. Adults have long since stopped believing."
A memory of a time surprisingly not long ago in his thirty-year past crept up on him. "Actually I used to believe in him in my own way for the longest time."
"I believed in the spirit of Christmas and that Santa Claus was sort of the... avatar of said spirit. He was a figurehead for something far grander than a circled number on a Hallmark calendar."
"And how old were you before you stopped believing?" "I was twenty five."
"You are a rare person, Chris."
"No, I was just stupid."
"No, you were innocent, which isn't the same as stupidity. It is what lends power to the magical, innocence. It is what fuels the holidays. But there are so few now. Not even the children are as innocent as they once were. Now magic is gone from the world." She mumbled something about television.
"None are innocent."
"No," she agreed. "Not by the terms we are talking about."
Silence filled the space between them as they stirred their teas with warm cinnamon and drank. Before long the tea was gone and they were left with a cold pot and a bill.
Chris paid the tab and they stepped back outside into the brisk cold. They stood on the curb not knowing what to say or do next. The drawn out silence was interrupted by an errant boy that collided into the both of them. The boy, no older than six, collapsed onto the floor and began crying. Chris picked him up and Katarina neared.
"Hey there, buddy. You okay?"
The boy only cried louder. "I want my mommy!"
Chris smiled gently as he wiped away a tear from the soft, round face and looked around. The view granted by his height offered some more insight than the boy previously had, sighting a frantic looking woman bustling about the holiday crowd. Chris looked at Katarina and she nodded in agreement as they crossed the snow slick street. The woman was delirious with fright and when Chris presented him to her she all but cracked from the tension. The woman gathered up her son and smothered him with hugs and kisses while the child sniffled quietly. She thanked Chris profusely for helping find her son. He only shrugged it off and disappeared back into the crowd with Katarina. When he turned to look at her he caught a glimpse of her smiling tenderly at the mother and child joining the rest of the shoppers. Perhaps it was the moonlight, or the expression on her face, but somehow she looked years younger just then. When she turned and looked at him the youthful glow remained.
"I suppose there's still hope for some," Chris commented and Katarina agreed.
"Well, I'm sure you've got a wife to go home to," Katarina said. "And I shouldn't keep you. Thanks, for everything." She handed Chris his jacket back then turned bravely to face the night.
"Wait," Chris called out. "Would you mind coming with me to the park? There's something I do there every winter. I think you'll enjoy yourself." Katarina looked at him cautiously. "Come on, for the spirit of Christmas."
"I thought you said you stopped believing."
"I still hope to bring it back, at least for myself."
His words won her over and she followed his lead down frozen streets and haloed street lamps. Chris found a street vendor selling scarves and hats and Chris bought one of each. He propped the hat on at a jaunty angle and flung the bright red and white scarf about his neck. Katarina looked at him curiously as he made his purchases but didn't say a word as they continued on their trek. They arrived at a winter wonderland that was Menway Park. There were four-foot snowdrifts everywhere and all of the softwood pines' branches were heavily laden with inches of sugar-frosted snow. Distantly the sound of heavy branches releasing their loads could be heard as a soft 'fwmp' made its way to their ears. Chris lead the way through covered trails to a secluded clearing surrounded by pines, their crystal resin glittering in the full moonlight like topaz.
"This is it."
Katarina looked about her for some sign of his Christmas tradition but found none. "What happens now?"
"This is where I come to make a snowman, and maybe remember why I did it the first time all those years ago." His eyes grew sadly distant. "I haven't had much success yet."
Slowly, almost mechanically, he began rolling the snow into a large ball; Katarina, not knowing what else to do, followed suit and began her own. The simple motions of packing the snow into a large ball helped Chris remember when he was no older than the boy whom he helped find his mother. He remembered steaming cups of hot coco and spicy gingerbread cookies. The Christmas tree was decorated by the whole family with homemade ornaments. A few years back he had started his own tree in his own home. He had started with a humble collection of decorations but it grew along with his feelings for the woman who helped him collect them. Chris hastily shut his memories behind a steel door.
Before he knew it Chris had a giant ball of snow that nearly reached his waist. He looked over at Katarina, her mind fully focused on building a rough sphere as large as his own. Grinning, Chris balled up a fist-sized packet of snow and launched it at the woman. She toppled over in surprise with her hair in disarray now that her Santa hat was knocked off. Shocked at first, she spluttered as she dug snow out of her ear. Chris's mouth curled into a wide smile at the look on her face as she stared at him, flabbergasted.
"What was that for?"
"For the spirit of Christmas," he answered glibly.
Katarina wasn't an amateur at packing snow herself. Within moments a storm of white flew in the air between them. The sound of laughter filled the air as they lobbed volley after volley of snowballs at one another. She had a beautiful laugh, Chris noticed, full and vibrant like crystal chimes. Her smile sparkled in her eyes and seemed to melt away the worry lines and wrinkles that formerly tugged at the corners of her face.
The rough makeup that was poorly applied had washed away in the snow and a part of Chris wanted to take a closer look. He charged in with a large clump of snow in his hands and charged, Katarina shrieking as she bolted for the trees. Her fleeting form dodging amongst the shadow filled and lengthened in the illusory night and Chris's desire to catch her doubled. When he finally had her the snow in his hands had long been abandoned for the warm body in them now. He heard her breath catch, or was that his own. She was beautiful. The old, sad gray eyes he had first seen had now changed into bright winter blue orbs that he found himself tumbling into over and over. Her steaming breath smelled faintly of cinnamon and her skin was now flushed into a natural, healthy glow.
He kissed her.
Chris's mind whirled with the rush of blood and excitement and his heart throbbed in the pit of his stomach. She tasted faintly of peppermint and somehow the smoky aroma of chestnuts. He pulled her deeper into the embrace and they moaned into the other's mouth as she returned the kiss. When they parted they were both dizzy with sensations and feelings.
"I'm sorry," Chris stammered. "It's just..."
Katarina looked at him with a flustered expression. "We should finish that snowman."
"Yeah, we should."
The two of them trudged through the snow, neither talking in an uncomfortable silence. Chris was embarrassed by his bold move but even now he could feel her lips kissing him back. There was something about her that awakened forgotten feelings within him, feelings that he had thought long abandoned to save the rest of him. They found the clearing and the two lumps of snow where they had left them. Chris rolled them back into the center of the clearing and then handled Katarina's smaller snowball and placed it on top of his.
"Needs one more," Chris commented. "A snowman isn't complete without a head."
"I agree. It's traditional."
Chris looked at her and smiled. She smiled in turn before she could catch herself. Chris began another ball of snow and Katarina joined in. Strange how intimate two people could get with snow and gloves between them, Chris thought as his hands patted down more snow. Before long the head was completed and Chris piled that on top of the rest. A momentary search and he had stones for the eyes, mouth, and nose.
Chris looked at her inquisitive face and he began wondering just how old she really was. At the beginning she seemed close to fifty but now... now she bordered on the near side of thirty. "No, no carrot. I always seem to forget that." It was his wife's job to bring the carrot, he swallowed.
Katarina fished around in her Santa suit and produced a large peppermint candy cane. "How's this?" She shoved it into place.
"Perfect," Chris said, and meant it. Ceremoniously, Chris took the hat off of his head and placed it at a chipper angle then wrapped the scarf snuggly about its neck. He stood back to admire their work and found Katarina in his arms.
"It's beautiful," she said after they stared at it for several moments. She turned and looked up at him as a single tear slid down his cheek. "You are remembering," she stated softly in her clipped accent.
"So am I."
Chris looked down and saw her own tears gliding down her face. He raised his hand and wiped them away with his thumb. "Do you want to..."
"Yes," she answered before he could finish. "I'd love some hot coco."
Startled by her correct response, Chris fumbled for words to say. He still was when she slipped out of his arms and tugged him towards the park exit. Chris took the lead when they left the park and they slipped through the thinning crowd with arms intertwined.