We’re coming to the end of our annual Christmas Week Short Story Challenge here on the blog. As always, the wide range of stories that resulted from a single writing prompt and set of words has amazed me. My own story went in a direction I wasn’t quite expecting when my son and I were watching Hallmark holiday movies and brainstorming ideas (possibly while drinking mimosas), but sometimes you just have to follow where the story leads.
I hope you enjoy it.
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The Gift of Joy
Maggie stood in the doorway to what her husband Peter laughingly called his study and felt the bittersweet memories wash over her. It had been two years since she’d gotten the call that had changed everything but sometimes, in moments like these, the pain felt as fresh and sharp as if it had just happened.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
In hindsight, accepting one of the New Year’s Eve house-party invitations she’d received from her well-meaning friends might have been smarter than spending the day clearing out what she’d privately always thought of as the apartment’s junk drawer, but she’d put off the task far too long already.
Besides, though she didn’t normally have an aversion to company, keeping her social mask in place this year when happy families and loving couples seemed to be everywhere was a challenge she just wasn’t up for. Oddly, this holiday season had hit so much harder than the last.
Wasn’t grief supposed to fade?
Maggie squared her shoulders, blinked back the tears and memories threatening to drown her, and entered the room, setting down the empty boxes she carried and trying to decide where to start.
The rest of the apartment echoed with emptiness, having already been cleared and packed for the movers, but this room still had that warm, lived in feeling, as if it was just waiting for Peter to breeze through the door and call out “honey, I’m home” like he was staring in an I Love Lucy episode.
This room was Peter all over, warm, welcoming, and more than a little disheveled. His coat still hung on the hook behind the door, one sleeve sticky with something that might or might not have been chocolate, and his reading glasses peeked out from beneath a splayed open book on the table by his favorite chair near the old fireplace that was more atmospheric than functional.
Maggie picked up the book and gave it a shake to dislodge anything stuck between the pages; Peter had constantly tucked notes between the pages of whatever book he was reading at the moment for “safekeeping” and then forgotten about them completely. She smiled to herself, remembering the laughter that had ensued one night when they’d found a handful of notes tucked in an old Northern Ireland travel guide and tried to decipher them. They’d given up on the notes and planned a trip to the Giants Causeway, the Cliffs of Mohr, and the castles of Ireland instead.
He’d proposed on that trip, as they stood on the battlements of Blarney Castle, gesturing to the surrounding countryside and proclaiming, “my kingdom for a wife!”
What could she do but say yes? It was a public service.
Maggie put the book she held into the box marked “donate to library” and then made her way around the room, gathering up books along the way and shaking out their hidden secrets before placing them in the box.
Magazines followed the books – someone might enjoy them – and then all of the random paperwork and notes went into a box to be kept and sorted through another day.
Before long, the room took on the same empty feel as the rest of the apartment. The boxes were almost full – she’d had to empty the garbage and recycling boxes at least twice – and all that remained was Peter’s desk, an old French mahogany campaign writing desk with three brass-handled drawers and glossy crossed legs.
She’d kept that for last, not because it was so difficult, but because it felt like the last bit of Peter. Once she cleared out the desk and packed up the boxes, he’d be gone for good. No more pretending he was just at work or away on an extended business trip.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
I can do this, she told herself as she reached for the first brass handle. The left-hand drawer was filled with pens and paper-clips; sticky-notes and postage stamps – all quickly dealt with. The middle drawer, which stuck a bit before she was finally able to coax it open, held Peter’s iPad and a random assortment of cables, chargers, and USB drives. She put the USB drives and iPad and its charger in the box with the papers to go through later and tossed the rest of the items in the donate/recycle box.
The last drawer appeared to be full of random keepsakes: horse-chestnut seeds from their trip to the Isle of Wright, a letter opener shaped like the Empire State Building, and a small dove grey leather journal embossed with an image of the Eiffel Tower.
Tucked in the very back corner of the drawer behind a stack of old postcards they’d sent themselves from random places was a small box wrapped in bright paper and topped with a bow tied with more enthusiasm than skill. The little folded tag attached on one corner said “Maggie” in Peter’s messy scrawl.
Maggie dropped into the chair behind the desk and stared at the box for a long moment before reaching out and untying the ribbon with hands that were steadier than she felt. She carefully untaped the wrapping, being careful not to tear it. She could almost hear Peter beside her impatiently shouting, “just rip it already,” as he always used to.
Inside the box, nestled in a bed of soft cotton was a heart-shaped piece of rose quartz on a fine silver chain.
Maggie closed her hand around the stone, which felt warm to the touch. Logically she knew it couldn’t be, but logic had little to do with it.
She remembered the necklace. She and Peter had been at an artisan fair when she’d first seen it and immediately felt drawn to it. The artist manning in the booth told her the stone represented the capacity of giving and receiving love and that wearing it close to the heart would irradiate fear and sorrow, but Maggie talked herself out of the purchasing, saying “I don’t really need it” as they’d continued on their way. Later in the day, when they’d passed the booth again on their way home, the necklace had been gone.
Maggie closed her eyes and was transported back to the fair. The summer sun warmed her face and she again heard the laughing sounds of children playing. She felt Peter’s hand in hers and felt his shoulder nudge her as he pointed out something interesting in a passing booth or someone with a crazy hat.
And she found herself surprised. By joy.
She slipped the necklace over her head, feeling the stone come to rest by her heart.
Quickly finishing clearing the rest of the room, she emptied the trash and recycling one last time, taped the boxes closed, and then carried them down to her car. The movers arrived shortly thereafter for the furniture and the remaining boxes.
Once they were gone, she walked through the empty apartment one last time before turning off the lights, locking the front door, and slipping the keys through the landlord’s mail-slot.
She felt the rose-quartz warm against her skin as she walked to her car.
She was ready to move on.
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Wishing you all a 2020 filled with joy.
Happy New Year!