The Christmas tree was coming down: a fir with short, soft needles. Ellen’s parents preferred fir to spruce, so when Ellen and Nate moved to their new apartment, she wanted fir. They put up the old ornaments, bought a new one, sang “O Tannenbaum,” unwrapped their presents, drank their eggnog, watched the blinking lights in the darkened room,. Now it was after New Year’s and time to put the tree outside for recycling.
Ellen peered through the curtains at the Hutchinsons’ house across the alley. Twilight was her favorite time, the soft, smoky light covering the rusty cars and potholes. Today the snow that had fallen and lightened everything, was still falling. Mr. Hutchinson was shoveling his front walk. Someday, she and Nate would have their own house to live in by themselves, with nobody else walking in the hall, no voices in the hall but their own.
It was hard to find this apartment–Nate wanted to get a kitten from the Humane Shelter, and most apartment buildings did not allow pets, but this was an old building, constructed in the seventies, so they would be able to get a pet someday. To their right, lived a young couple like them, and to their left, a middle-aged, recently divorced man with a parakeet he doted on.
Ellen was trying something interdisciplinary and taught Arnold’s “Dover Beach” in the Intro to Art class a couple weeks ago. Alliteration, onomatopoeia, Sophocles. It puzzled them–the sea of faith, the gleaming cliffs, the shingles. One kid said that he helped his father hammer shingles on houses. She sighed. She would go back to teaching tomorrow. Tonight, she and Nate would put away the Christmas ornaments.
Ellen thought it was a lovely tree and they would have a lovely life. She and Nate had found each other, and now life lay before them–gleaming, endless, rich, complex. She noticed the bills on the table and laughed to herself: perhaps life was only complex and not gleaming and rich and endless.
“What’s so funny?” Nate was pink-cheeked from the cold outside, where he had helped a neighbor jump-start her car.
“Not funny. Happy. I think I was lucky finding you.”
“Nah–I was lucky finding you.” This was their standard joke.
They had met in college, and after they fell in love and endured the initial rocky period, they thought they were lucky enough to look forward to a smooth and untroubled life. And for the most part, it was untroubled. What they did not expect was that the cap on her front tooth would fall off, that he would not be able to find a teaching job, that her mother would lose her job at the pharmacy, that his father would be in a car accident which would take a year to recover from. Still, Ellen and Nate had each other. They had their future.
She stood next to the tree and looked up to its top. She loved that it was taller than her head. She unhooked the bluebird, the unicorn, and the red stocking and put them in the box with the egg-tray cardboard holder. She reached for the little glass house and cradled it in her hand. Her aunt had given it to her. It was clear glass with two windows on each side and a steeply pitched roof and chimney. “This is us, you know,” she said.
He pointed to a castle ornament they had bought on their honeymoon in Pittsburgh. “This is us, I think.” He leaned over and kissed her.
The sound of a siren in the parking lot startled her, and the ornament slipped from her hand. It tinked on the floor. The chimney broke off.
When she was little, she had a kitten that died of feline leukemia. Inexplicably, she thought of him.
“Don’t be sad,” Nate said. He bent down to pick it up. “It’s just an ornament. We have lots of others.” He waved at the tree, the lower branches of which were bare because the ornaments had already been removed.
“I know. I know.”
He picked up a shard and it pierced his finger. She went to the bathroom cabinet and found the peroxide. “It’ll be all right,” she said.
“I know. I know.”
She poured the peroxide on a cotton ball and dabbed it on his finger. “Dear,” she said, “we’re so lucky to find one another among the seven billion people on this planet. We might have passed by each other in the night, missed each other, not gone to the same college at the exact right time, or died in childhood of leukemia or in a car accident, or been born a thousand years ago, or never been born.” She trembled inside and tears welled up in her eyes.
He embraced her, and his bleeding finger left a drop of blood on her shirtsleeve. “Now, honey. That didn’t happen, and here we are.”
“I know. I know.”
The ambulance’s siren stopped. She could hear voices downstairs. A few minutes later, Ellen and Nate went to the window and saw two men roll out a stretcher with someone on it. A woman–Laura from downstairs–got into her car and followed the ambulance.
Nate leaned in the doorway and rubbed his brow. She went over to him and embraced him.
“Why so tight?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” She laid her head on his shoulder. “Let’s sing ‘O Tannenbaum’ one more time. I love ‘Your boughs are green in summer's glow / And do not fade in winter's snow.’”
“That’s us.” He kissed her on the tip of her nose. “Lucky us.” Outside, the wind howled and the snow swirled, lovely and thick, no longer salt grains ticking against the window but ghostly flakes circling. The snow would pile up, the snow would melt, there would be spring grass, mild breezes, dandelion puffs in the air.
The two of them held hands and looked at the bare, beautiful tree.
Cezarija Abartis' Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Pure Slush, and New York Tyrant, among others. She participates on Fictionaut, ShowMeYourLits.com and Zoetrope.com. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 Online Fictions of 2012. “History,” published by The Lascaux Review, was chosen as April Story of the Month by The Committee Room. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/cezarija/