The Gingerbread House

It wasn’t that Natalie hated Christmas; she could never be that cynical. In the face of blinking lights, baubles, and ornate decoration she stared ahead, and traced the steps between her flat and the office. As far as she was concerned it was a day like any other.

Her hands balled in the pockets of her coat - one pressed against the phone, the other grabbing lint - while she pressed through the carols in the air. She smiled tightly, threw a dollar into a charity bucket without a thought for who they collected, and marched on. How could she begrudge them for trying to spread joy?

And then there were posters featuring snapshots of the season. Santa Claus beamed with rose-coloured cheeks from a billboard, electric train sets behind storefront windows chugged through a scale model Toyland, and of course, there was the nativity; Joseph, Mary, and Christ himself - father and mother, with the child they so adored.

Natalie only looked for a moment, but that was all it took. Her jaw tightened, and she took a deep breath. “One more week, and then it’s over,” she told herself. The holiday would pass, and things would go back to normal.

A wall of heat flew against her as she stepped into a coffee shop. Bright walls and polished wood benches helped to warm her, as did the chatter of strangers absorbing much needed doses of caffeine. The scenery dripped with seasonal spirit, tinsel and fairy lights, but none of that mattered so long as the shop’s aroma swirled around her.

She looked up from the queue and to the specials board, which read ‘LIMITED TIME - GINGERBREAD HOT CHOCOLATE’, followed by the price of each cup. ‘The perfect holiday treat,’ it continued, next to a picture of a gingerbread girl with pigtails, waving as she hung from a candy cane.

It had been years since Natalie had tasted gingerbread, and the thought alone conjured hot, sweet tingles in her mouth. Her mom made it best, not just for Christmas, but all year around. How she wished she could have that again.

Finally, she reached the counter. “Gingerbread hot chocolate, please. Grande, with cream. To go.” The handsome barista took her order and gave her a smile, blissfully unaware of the nostalgia.

Natalie waited by the far counter, and was soon lost in memory. Her parents had divorced when she was in grade school, and she’d spent alternating years between each side of the family; that was until she was fourteen, and her mother was taken by a stroke. It was like a half of her existence vanished overnight.

She was still a boy back then, or trying like anything to appear like one. What would her mom think if she could see how she’d grown? Natalie looked to the outline of her reflection in the window. Her bangs and softened features were a far cry from that child trapped in pubescent hell. Maybe her mother would have been less than comfortable given how much they were alike; or maybe, like her father, she would have thrown her out, cried, and worse. It was impossible to know for sure.

Her attention wandered to the other side of the counter, where the handsome barista whispered pointedly to a woman just slightly older than him. Natalie could barely make out their conversation. “Come on. You’ve got to have something,” he pressed.

His colleague, probably a manager, pursed her lips. “I’ve got everybody vying for holiday shifts. I’m sorry, Caleb. There’s just not enough work to go around.”

“I can either eat or pay rent,” he said. “Come on, Joan. Give me something.”

No matter how hard he pushed she would not, could not budge. She shrugged, wishing there was some other way, meaning this Caleb character was going to be high and dry until the new year. It wasn’t right, and they both knew it.

The handsome barista stifled a frown, and capped the last order. “Natalie?”

Natalie raised her hand, and hesitated as she reached for her order. Poor Caleb. She knew what it was like to starve between paychecks, and was determined to do something.

Opening her purse she counted her notes, the largest of which was a fifty. She paused as she danced between it and the twenty. Did she need it? ‘Only for surgery,’ she thought; the same thing she’d been saving for going on ten years. But while her goal was affirmation, she couldn’t ignore a more immediate demand.

As she took her drink she slid the note toward the barista, and though she barely made eye contact, smiled. “Merry Christmas,” she squeaked, daring only to acknowledge the holiday out of politeness.

Before he could respond she was out in the cold, crunching snow under her boots on the way to work.

* * * *

December twenty-fifth came, and it was a perfectly ordinary day. It was a bank holiday, and while Natalie’s co-workers chose to spend time with family she was determined to spend the day inside a book; perhaps a fantasy novel, with customs far removed from those in the real world.

There was no need for turkey when she there was a leftover curry in the fridge, and a lack of decoration saved her in storage. The new year was only six days away, and one night of drinking with her friends was all the celebration her holiday season called for.

She collapsed onto the sofa in naught but a tee-shirt and leggings, and thought about her father. Was he lonely too? Not that it mattered. He made it more than clear she wasn’t welcome in his life.

Her aunt, Roxanne, had sent her an email. There was nothing from her cousins. What would they even say? It had been years since they’d exchanged words of any kind.

Natalie held open her book, but regardless how many times she glossed over the words she couldn’t pick them up. Her fingers were cold to the touch, despite the reading on the thermostat. She shifted her position on the cushion at least a dozen times. There was something restless in the air; more than her usual discomfort at that time of year.

She jumped at the sound of knocking. At first she thought it was the neighbors, until she realized it was her own door. Crawling from her nest she wondered if someone in the building was lost.

On the other side of the peephole was a young man; handsome, in that rugged kind of way, with curls slicked back, and the faintest five o’clock shadow. He smiled with the widest corners of his mouth, and rocked back and forth where he stood. In one hand he held a basket, filled with mystery treats.

“Hello?”

The stranger stood upright, and grinned with every tooth in his mouth. “Uh, hi! I’m looking for Natalie?”

Natalie held the door ajar, and peeked through. “Yes?”

“You probably don’t remember me,” he chuckled. “I, er, work at a coffee shop about four blocks from here. Last week a woman… I mean, you, gave me a really big tip, and-”

Though skeptical, she opened the door wider. “I remember. Caleb, right?”

“You do remember!”

“Yes,” Natalie said. “Though I don’t remember giving you my address.”

Caleb nodded, and took a step back. “That’s true. I promise I’m not some weird stalker or anything. You don’t even have to see me again after today if you don’t want to. I just wanted to thank you. I’ve never received a tip that big, and it made all the difference.”

“I’m glad I could help. I know what it’s like living hand to mouth.”

He chuckled, kicked his shoe against the carpet in the hallway, and held up the small basket. In it was filled with cookies; gingerbread figures, with gumdrop eyes and buttons, and lips and hair drawn with frosting.

“So I wanted to give you this,” he said.

Natalie blinked, and hesitated before accepting the basket. “You really didn’t have to,” she said.

Caleb shrugged. “I wanted to, so I did. All I ask is one thing in return.” He leaned closer, and Natalie stiffened. “When you take that first bite I want you to close your eyes, and think about the thing that you’ve always wanted but could never have.”

She stepped back, and forced a smile. “Okay.”

“I know it sounds weird,” he said. “Just trust me, okay?”

Trusting strangers bearing gifts didn’t seem like the smartest idea, but Natalie would have agreed to anything to get back inside and lock the door. “Okay. Thank you. I will,” she said. As soon as he was gone those cookies were going in the trash; they might have been drugged, or worse.

Caleb shuffled, and stepped away. “Thank you again, and please, enjoy the cookies. Have a merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” she said, finally acknowledging the day.

As soon as he was gone, Natalie closed the door and exhaled. She cradled her gift, though as thoughtful as it was she had her suspicions, and left them on the counter. Reason told her to get rid of them entirely, but she couldn’t; she wouldn’t. There was just… something.

She returned to her book, and all the futility of reading it, trying to set her mind on anything else. Just knowing that those cookies were there, waiting, left her twitching more than usual. God, she swore she could smell them, like they were straight from the oven.

Finally, she marched into the kitchen, and stared down the basket. “You’re some evil drug cookies, aren’t you,” she reasoned. “I’m going to eat you, pass out, and that Caleb guy is going to come back, and rob me, or worse.”

The gingerbread men said nothing. They just smiled their frosting covered smiles, and invited her to eat their soft brown limbs.

For every step back she took another two forward, and whined. Reason said she must not consume this strange gift, but she wanted to, more than anything. Her resistance in the face of temptation waned like that of a child.

Then, after what must have been an hour of debate, she picked up the gingerbread man from the top and examined it closely. Most unusual was how familiar it was; like the kind her mom used to make. The hair, the nose, even the frosting sleeves were all in the right place. Surely it was a coincidence.

Her lips parted, and the cookie shuddered as though bending into the mouth of a lion. Natalie breathed in the warm cake, and closed her eyes, and as she did she thought about her mom. If she didn’t know any better she would have sworn it was one of hers, and she wished, oh how she wished, that it could have been.

The taste danced on her tongue, tingling as only gingerbread could, prompting a satisfied moan. It was the best cookie she’d ever tasted, bar none. Then, halfway through her second bite, something began to stir.

Natalie leaned against the bench as the world started to tumble. Her body felt warm all over, swimming in the joy of gingerbread, but something was wrong. The room became much larger than it had been before, and she was thrown into a battle to hold her footing.

“I knew those were bad cookies,” she whimpered, and made a dash toward her cell phone on the coffee table. It was in vain, however, as the far end of the living room was suddenly a hundred miles away.

Her leggings slipped off, no longer clinging to her hips, and her t-shirt fell on only one shoulder. What was in that cookie?

At the last moment Natalie turned for the door in the hopes a neighbor would hear her scream. Then she could go to a hospital, get some help, and…

She turned the knob and tumbled into the snow. The world had stopped spinning, but her apartment was gone! Natalie wondered if she was in some sort of a dream, until she turned around. There, she was face to face with a two level suburban home; the same that belonged to her mom so many years ago.

“Oh my god.”

Something was different; her voice! Gone was the soft alto she’d worked so hard to balance, replaced by a squeak unbroken by puberty. She looked down to find she had the hands to match; small hands, still clinging to the last remnants of baby fat.

Had she gone back in time? Natalie stood only to realize that no, this reality was different to the one she’d left behind. It was her mother’s home, but at no point did she ever have a lavender parka, bright pink gumboots, and a high ponytail swishing behind her.

She crawled through the snow, and brushed the dew from her skirt. “What’s happening to me?” she gasped. It was so familiar, but at the same time not.

“Incoming!”

Natalie turned just as the ball of compacted ice flew into her. She crashed in the snow with the wind knocked out of her tiny chest, and looked up to see a pubescent boy hiding behind a tree. From a distance she could have sworn it was her cousin, Mark, without the ‘dad beard’ he showed off on Facebook.

Then, like a backyard ninja a young Thomas appeared from behind, and dropped a snow boulder on his brother’s head. His mad grin was a vision of years gone by, and proof of Natalie’s current circumstance.

She turned to the house, and blinked. It was like staring at a ghost. Though it belonged to another family in her adult life, it had the same stained glass pattern on the door, the same green paint that had since been replaced, and the old swinging wooden seat hanging from the patio roof.

“This can’t be happening…”

Step by step she climbed toward the door. Her little legs made it all the more difficult, stretching higher than she was used to. Mark and Thomas called to her, but she was transfixed on the handle; her breath still, her heartbeat raging out of control until she turned the knob and stepped into the hearth by the stairs.

From around a corner she spied her Aunt Roxy, dressed in jeans and a tacky Christmas sweater, swirling a glass of red in her hand. She leaned on the kitchen bench, and giggled to the person unseen across from her.

“You know I can’t wait until those boys are grown,” she lamented. “Mark my words, I’m going to travel Europe. London, Madrid, Berlin, all of it. The whole continent is going to be my oyster.” She couldn’t have known how prophetic her words were, or that she’d meet an older man in Denmark who would become her third, and she eventually swore, final husband.

She inched nearer, and spied a blond haired man also wearing a gaudy sweater darting back and forth from the cutlery drawer. “Beep beep,” he chuckled, swaying his hips to avoid collusion. Natalie knew him; Daniel, her mother’s boyfriend. He was a nice enough guy, but they were never as close as they could have been. After the funeral he went on with his own life, and she with hers.

Natalie stopped when she heard the voice that had sung her to sleep for so many years. “You should take the boys. It’ll open their eyes,” she said.

Aunt Roxy laughed. “Drag two kids across Europe? No thanks. If it’s all the same to you, I want the unfettered experience of a free woman.” She turned and noticed Natalie standing there. At five seven it was the only time Roxy ever seemed tall in the girl’s eyes. “What are you doing here? Food’s not ready for at least thirty minutes,” she chided gently.

“Let her stay,” the other woman said. She leaned back from the stove, and beamed down. “Are you okay, sweetpea?”

She was just as Natalie remembered; straight, dark hair hanging around her face, a tight smile with deep, concave dimples on either cheek, and warm, brown eyes the colour of earth. It was as if an entire lifetime of memory had been condensed into one moment, where only the best of her mother shone.

The trapdoor inside her chest fell open. Natalie couldn’t hold back the fat, ugly tears spewing down her face. How, after all this time, was she face to face with a woman she’d been forced to leave behind?

Her Mom signalled to Roxanne to take over cooking, while she bent down and wrapped her daughter tight in her arms. Nails gently scratched the back of her neck, soothing the girl the way she would during her childhood.

“It’s okay, sweetpea,” she whispered. “I’ve got you.”

Natalie squeezed for all the strength her little arms had, and begged between sobs that the moment would never, ever end.

* * * *

The table was set with enough food for an army battalion, though there were only the six of them. Mashed potatoes, yams, green beans and corn floated on plates around the centrepiece; a great roast turkey almost half the size of the girl in front of it.

Natalie could hardly remember the last time she’d sat down for a meal like this. Over the years friends and colleagues had invited her to family events, and on the few times she indulged them she was an outsider, like David Attenborough filming wildlife. As sweet as they were there was no connection, leaving her more empty than she was before.

But this was different; this was her family. Daniel sat at the head of the table, her mother next to him, while Natalie sat beside her with Aunt Roxy on the other end. Mark and Thomas sat across from her, and had only just sat down when they started flinging peas at each other.

Once they were settled, everyone took hands and bowed their heads, except for Natalie. Her digits were so small in her mother’s palm, which was just as soft and as warm as she remembered it. That silk touch was everything she ever wanted, but how could it be real? Less than an hour before she was a grown woman, alone in her apartment, reading a novel and trying to pass the day.

Daniel broke the silence. “Lord, we thank you for the bounty we are about to receive, and give thanks to the many hands who helped to bring it here. We ask that you bestow grace and compassion on those less fortunate, and to give us the wisdom and courage to serve your will. Amen.”

The table echoed, “Amen.”

Natalie was quiet through the carving of the turkey, and didn’t reach for the food. The last time she prayed was with her father, and once he was gone she had no more use for it. Yet there she was, a daughter in the heart of a miracle. Was this an answer to a prayer she never dared to speak?

“What’s the matter, sweetpea? Aren’t you hungry?” Her mother scooped up her plate and took samples of everything, enough to satisfy a seven year old girl. She then poured Natalie some sparkling apple juice in a champagne glass that as a small child made her feel so adult.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

Her Mom raised her eyebrows expectantly. “What do you say?”

“Please,” she said. That, also, was a relic from her childhood.

“You may,” her Mom said, smiling and cupping the girl’s cheek. “And don’t forget to wash your hands, alright?”

“I won’t.”

She scuttled down the hall, through the laundry and into the ensuite on the other side. As soon as the door was locked Natalie yanked her tights down along with her underwear. Sure enough, her transformation had been absolute.

“I have to know what was in that cookie,” she muttered, and dressed herself again.

Natalie decided if she were in a dream it was the most vivid she’d ever had. Not only was she aware of her situation, but the finer details; the electric charge of her fingers gliding across her arms, and the absence of fine hair across them. Every smell, every sensation, was just like that of her old home, down to the grubby handprints her younger self left on the walls.

It had to be a dream, and not a memory, because no matter how exact the detail she was still wrong. On her way back to the dinner table she caught her reflection in the mirror at the back of her grandmother’s china cabinet. The seven year old staring back was not the one of her childhood; the long hair and dress was a fantasy, and nothing more.

Her fists tightened. Why couldn’t it be real? It was like some beautiful form of torture. Would she still have eaten the cookie if she’d known what would happen?

“Come on, sweetpea. You need to eat,” her mom called.

Natalie steeled herself, and scampered back to the table. She climbed the chair the same way she once would have a high fence, and stared down the portion on her plate. It smelled warm and rich, with a layer of thickened gravy pooling at the bottom. The pieces of meat had already been cut into bite size chunks, ready for her to skewer with a fork.

Her mom turned and gave a knowing smile. It was the little things once forgotten that came flooding back, and sent warm shivers down the girl’s body.

Mark kicked the underside of the table, despite the numerous warnings from others. His frown deepened with every orbit of his food in the gravy. “Can we open our presents yet?”

“Yeah, presents!” Thomas echoed.

Aunt Roxy leveled them with her eyes. “After we’ve finished eating.”

“But I’m already finished,” Mark whined. He peered to his cousin across the table. “Come on, Nat. Don’t you want to know what Santa got you?” His eyebrows waggled, as though the name was supposed to excite her.

“I don’t believe in Santa,” she said, though without her usual conviction. In this dream place who could say that he didn’t exist?

“Why not?” Mark pressed.

“I just don’t, okay?”

Natalie’s mother reached beside her, and placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. The effect was instant, soothing the hairs on standing on the back of her neck. “Santa Claus isn’t for everyone,” she said. “Natalie never took a liking to him. That’s all.”

The girl exhaled. She couldn’t remember the last time somebody stood up for her. In the adult world it might have been condescending, but it was okay if it was her mom; she, of all people, understood, and always had.

Mark bounced in his chair. “But, but… presents!”

“After we’ve eaten,” Roxy said with finality in her voice.

Both boys rolled their eyes and turned back to the meal, though how they could be bored by such rich and flavorsome food was a mystery, especially to Natalie.

She took a scoop of mash with her fork, lifted it to her lips, and savored the creamy texture. Then she turned to her mother, whose watch was fixed on her, as was her smile, and she blushed.

“Thanks, Mom,” she whispered.

Her mother said nothing, but with a glance gently encouraged her to continue eating. Natalie did so, happily. Dream or not, she wouldn’t pull herself away.

* * * *

The boys sprinted to the corner of the living room where there stood a plastic tree with flecks of painted snow. It was modestly decorated, with bulbs in sapphire, silver, and ruby red, and a spiral of golden tinsel reaching the angel on top. Underneath was an array of presents through which Mark and Thomas sifted; anything without their names on it was cast across the floor.

Daniel followed immediately after, assigning himself the role of ‘Santa Claus’ and telling the boys to wait their turn. He tried his best to deny any knowledge when they pointed to a larger box.

“What makes you think you’re getting a Nintendo?” he shrugged.

Natalie stayed with her mom, and even helped her carry away the dishes. Wherever she went the girl was two steps behind. Dream or not, she wasn’t going to go far, nor was she going to say anything to spoil the mood.

When they finally made their way to the sofa Natalie sat on the floor between her mother’s legs, and lay her head on her knee. This, she decided, was the only present that mattered.

“Are you okay, sweetpea?” her mother asked. Natalie nodded to her. “Just feeling clingy, huh?”

Roxanne laughed. “They’re cute at that age. Such a pity they have to grow up.”

The girl cringed. If she was in a dream she’d soon have to wake up, and she’d be alone again. She prayed it wouldn’t end; giving up her old life would be a small price if it meant holding onto the only family she cared about.

Mark and Thomas got their Nintendo - one of the old systems that would soon become a collectors dream - along with some new winter clothes, and some action figures; Daniel received a Harley Davidson model kit and some cologne, and Roxy some exotic coffee grinds along with tickets to ‘Cats’. Even Natalie’s mom gained a number of new CDs for her collection, and raced across the room to play some Tori Amos.

She soon returned, and Natalie’s mom reached down to cup her shoulders. “You haven’t opened any of yours, sweetpea. Go on.”

Natalie pried herself away to accept the parcel Daniel handed to her. Christmas was not as magical for her; none of her wishes came true. Even after giving up on ‘boy’ gifts, people struggled to buy for her, and usually relied on gift cards or cash.

Thinking nothing of it, Natalie shredded the red paper to reveal the plastic pony underneath, with a synthetic mane and tail, opposable limbs, and an array of clips, combs and bows with which to decorate. In another life Natalie had thought of buying one on the internet, though by then she was an adult. To suddenly have a dream denied in her little hands brought tears to her eyes.

Her mom beamed down to her. “Don’t act so surprised. You’ve been asking all month,” she said, and knelt down to wrap her arms around the girl. “Merry Christmas, sweetpea. Do you like it?”

Natalie nodded more times than she had to, and pulled the toy from the plastic. “Do you want to play with me?” she asked.

“Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”

* * * *

The afternoon settled, and while the boys were distracted by Super Mario, Daniel and Roxanne took charge of cleaning. Meanwhile, Natalie had a chance to curl up with her mom on the sofa, and brushed the hair of the plastic pony in front of her. She bunched the hair with the bows and clips, and arranged it every which way.

“Why don’t you give her some braids?” her mother asked.

Natalie blushed, and stared at her feet. She was twenty seven in the real world, living as a woman for ten of them, and the most interesting thing she knew to do with hair was curl it in a bun. Her cheeks burned hotter with embarrassment when she admitted she didn’t know how.

Of course, her mom held no judgment. She just smiled and said, “would you like me to show you how?”

The girl nodded, and sat between her mother’s legs while she reached over and combed the pony’s tail into three strands. She crossed them left over middle, right over middle, left over middle, right over middle, weaving a pattern the girl struggled to follow.

Natalie attempted the braid herself, and only had to be shown twice more before making sense of it. Her face lit up with pride when she found her rhythm, and continued to beautify her new toy.

“Left over middle, right over middle, left over middle…”

The mother combed her fingers through her daughter’s hair, sending a shiver down her neck. “Would you like me to give you a braid?” she asked.

How many hours had Natalie spent fantasizing about moments like these? It was a life she was once not allowed, of a parent passing sacred knowledge of the feminine to her child. Her body tensed; no matter how many years had passed, it still seemed forbidden.

She nodded, granting permission to run the brush through her hair. As a child the strands were softer, and less prone to knotting. Her mother’s hands were delicate and aware, imparting more on the girl than simple touch would alone.

Natalie inhaled and stilled her breath, as though wanting to hold the moment forever.

Finally, she opened her mouth, and let out a tiny squeak. “Hey, Mom?”

“Yes, sweetpea?”

Her jaw hung open. Words escaped her, until finally she found some. “I’m really glad we could have this,” she said.

“Me too, baby.”

Natalie tensed, but quickly melted again under each pass of the brush. “I love you,” she said.

Her Mom put the brush down, ran her palm over the back of the girl’s head, and leaned forward to kiss her crown. She was always so delicate. “I love you too, Natalie,” she said, “heart, mind, body, and soul; more than anything else in the whole wide world. Never ever forget that.”

The girl leaned back, and fell into her mother’s embrace. Tears fell, matched only by the width of her smile. It ached, as though her cheeks would shatter, but Natalie didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, she was home.

* * * *

The day drew into dusk, and the sun sunk behind the suburban landscape. From the swinging chair on the porch it was the perfect view, and Natalie’s mom had drawn her out to enjoy it with her.

She pulled the girl into her lap, and let her head rest under her collar. Even through the winter layers they were still connected, and sharing their warmth. The bond between them held over the years between two bodies that were once joined.

Natalie closed her eyes, and drew closer. She’d push the air between them if she could, so long as they were together. She nestled into a ball under her mother’s arm and sighed, feeling more of her former life slip away.

“I remember when I used to sit out here and read in the springtime, and how just before the sun would go down you’d come running up those stairs,” the older woman said. “You always smiled, but I knew something was hurting you. I just thought it was you growing up.”

With eyes wide open Natalie turned and glared at her. “Mom…?”

She reached to cup the girl’s cheek, and smiled. “Did you think I forgot?” she chuckled dryly. Tears sizzled down her cheeks, and inspired her daughter to do the same. “I’ve been watching you from afar, for all your life. Oh, my poor, sweet girl. I wish I would have known.”

Natalie gasped, and tripped over her words. “So you know that I… that…”

“You’re a girl,” her mother said. “You’re my girl, and that’s all that’s ever mattered. I’m so proud of you for making it real.” She leaned her brow against her daughter and hummed. “I am so proud of the woman you’ve become, and always will be.”

Natalie pulled back, and sat on her knees. The people, the surroundings; they all seemed so real. Suddenly, she began to tremble.

“You’re… you’re only a dream…”

Her mother pulled closer, and took her hands. “No, sweetpea. This place is a dream. The people inside are a dream, but I’m… I’m…”

“She’s real,” said another voice.

Natalie turned to the handsome barista at the bottom of the stairs, wearing a soft smile with his hands buried in his pockets. He kicked a clump of snow from the path, forced a grin, and then turned away.

“It’s not her body, but her spirit,” Caleb explained. “This is your actual mother, Natalie. Enjoy this. Please.”

The girl trembled, so much that she couldn’t form words. “Then you… know…”

“I had a stroke,” her mother continued. “My body failed, and the universe took us away from each other.” She held onto Natalie for dear life, and ran her glove over her hair. “And I’ve been watching you this whole time, wishing I could reach out; and now we’re together, even if it’s only for a day.”

Natalie bolted upright. “You mean I have to leave?”

Caleb cleared his throat. “Your Mom is real, but this world isn’t, Natalie. This is only a mystic halfway point. It doesn’t last.”

“Listen.” Her Mom stroked the loose hair from her braid. “We’re going to see each other again, sooner rather than later. I promise.”

Natalie sniffled. “You mean, like, in the afterlife?”

The older woman smiled. “Maybe even sooner than that. Who can say?” She stood from the seat and guided her daughter toward the stairs. “Just promise me that you’ll be good, and that you’ll keep making me proud.”

“Do I really have to go?”

Caleb offered his hand. “Sorry, kiddo.”

“You don’t get to call me that,” the little girl snapped with all the cadence of her older self. The barista mock frowned, while her mother laughed.

“I love you, Natalie,” her Mom said.

Suddenly, like an oil painting in the rain the colors of the world started to bleed. They ran into the ether, wiping the canvas clean until only Natalie and her mysterious benefactor remained.

She screamed to the vacant steps, “I love you, Mom! I miss you! Every day!”

And then there was nothing; not even white.

* * * *

It was dark when Natalie stirred, save for the lamp beside her sofa, and the glow of the space heater. A warm odor tempted her from where she lay; steaming chocolate in a mug sitting on the coffee table. She sat upright, but stopped when she saw the toy pony, complete with brushes, clips and bows sitting beside it.

Grabbing the toy, she made sure to inspect every facet, just to be certain that it was, in fact, real. Even more peculiar was the braid in it’s tail, wrapped in the same pink bow she’d used in the dream; assuming it was a dream.

“How...?”

Under the mug of chocolate that had no business being hot there was a note. It read: ‘I thought you could use this to help finish your cookie. I hope the day was everything you needed it to be. See you around, maybe. Merry Christmas. -Caleb.’

Natalie picked up the headless cookie that had fallen by the wayside, and considered it carefully. Eager to return to the dream, she took another bite, but whatever magic it held had passed. Instead she leaned back, and enjoyed the warm spices that tickled her tongue.

Through the ceiling, past the upstairs apartments, and far up in the heavens she wondered if her mother was watching, and if she really was as proud as she said. Considering her mystery gift Natalie decided that yes, it was all true, regardless of how unlikely it seemed.

“Merry Christmas,” she wished to nobody in particular, and smiled more broadly than she ever had.



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