A Christmas Story
Sarah shifted into park and cut the engine, quickly hurrying inside the benevolent warmth of the flower shop to escape the hungry talons of the frosty winter air. She was in a hurry, and looked over the selection of plants with a quick, critical gaze.
She hadn’t been looking very long when a loud "HaISSHH!" from the other side of the store startled her into awareness. Turning casually, she saw a very pretty young woman—late teens, very early twenties at the oldest—fighting off the urge to sneeze again. She was sitting behind the counter reading a magazine—the store was noticeably empty—and as Sarah watched, the tickle slowly worked on her. She pushed back a lock of long, black hair behind her ear, then casually placed one finger under her nose, inhaling softly. For a moment this seemed to work, and she sighed softly and visibly relaxed. The reprieve was only momentary, however—her upper lip curled delicately as she once again brought her manicured finger up to her sculpted, curved nostrils. Her nose crinkled ever so slightly, and her wide, reddened eyes drew down until only a sliver of light could be seen through them. She turned to the left, the smooth skin of her brow creasing a bit, and inhaled through parted, plum-colored lips, the tip of her tongue visible against white teeth. Her shoulders raised as she inhaled, and she finally gave forth with a wet, satisfying fit of sneezes—"HAESHOO! HAESH! ESHOO! ESHoo! Het-ESHoo! Huh…huuhESSHH!"
When the fit was over, Sarah called, "Bless you!"
The girl looked up suddenly, almost as if she’d been unaware of Sarah, a silver tear tracing down her smooth cheek. "Oh, thank you," she said, brushing at her skin.
Sarah picked up the poinsettias she’d chosen and walked over to the counter. "Don’t tell me you’re allergic to these flowers?"
"Oh, no," the girl said, laughing. "Thank God. I’ve just got this damn cold that I can’t seem to shake." She began to ring up the flowers.
Sarah nodded. "Always harder to get rid of a cold during Christmas. All the stress."
"Tell me about it. I think this is the first day since Thanksgiving when there hasn’t been a line at the counter." She handed Sarah her change, smiling. "Anyway, merry Christmas."
"Same to you. Hope your cold improves."
The drive to the train station was uneventful—Sarah turned on the radio and (attempted to) sing along with the Christmas tunes. By the time Chris’s train pulled up at the platform, she was in a better mood than she had been in days.
He got off right away, grinning like an idiot. She felt just as huge a smile spread over her features as she ran to meet him.
"Sarah!" he yelled, lifting her up and into his arms. "I missed you so much."
"I missed you too, sweetie," she said, letting her eyes close in bliss. The two were best friends, had been inseparable during college but now lived too far apart to see each other more than a few times a year. And since neither had built a family of their own yet and both Chris’s parents had died a few years ago, they were spending the impending holidays with Sarah’s family—her mom, dad, and little brother Andy, now seven years old.
"Feels good to hold you again," he murmured.
She wasn’t sure if she was imagining it, but his voice sounded a bit congested, a little deeper than usual. She quickly dismissed it. "You too," she murmured back. "Come on, let’s go home."
"So what have you been up to lately?" Chris asked as she pulled onto the highway.
"Let’s see…my boss went nuts on me the week before vacation, I’m doing too much work for too little money, and my coworkers are all assholes."
"Well…sounds promising, then."
She laughed. "I’m sorry. Guess I’m still a bit upset by all of it."
"No, no problem. I think corporate workers are required by law to hate their jobs."
"Sounds damn plausible to me." She glanced at him affectionately. "How’s life as a brilliant novelist?"
"Oh, it’s tough—getting up at ten, writing for an hour in my bathrobe, eating a nice big lunch, taking an afternoon nap—"
"You can shut up any time now."
He laughed. "Sorry."
"Yeah, well, as much as I hate to admit it, you deserve it. You’re a wonderful writer."
"My God! A sentimental statement from Sarah Campbell—I shall record it for posterity, so that your children may know that at one time you were capable—"
"You can shut up again," she said, laughing despite herself.
He laughed with her. "It’s just so unusual. I’m shocked."
"Yeah, well…the holidays bring out the sticky sap in everyone, no?"
He was about to reply when a loud, wet sneeze interrupted him—"Huh-ISHOO!"
"Aha! I knew you were sick!"
He kept a loose fist pressed to his mouth, turning away. "IIISSSHHHOO!" He sniffed. "What makes you think that?"
"I thought you sounded congested when you got off the train."
"I’d reply to you with something witty, but I can fe…feel an attack coming on." His dark, curly head of hair dipped forward as he sneezed again—a beautiful "HIIISSHHOO!"—and his handsome features compressed into a mask of pure anticipation.
They stopped at a red light, and Sarah looked over at him as he struggled, fascinated. He kept the loose fist pressed to his mouth, an (she hated to admit it) adorable double chin forming where there was usually only a strong jawline. His curved nostrils flared as he inhaled slightly, puppy-dog-sweet eyes fluttering shut. His brow creased, almost narrowed, and his chest expanded almost erotically. She had to admit it—even in the throes of a cold, he was one of the sweetest-looking (and simply sweetest) men she’d ever met. It almost sickened her.
The sneezes exploded out of him, one after the other—"iiIISSSHHoo! IISSHHOO! Huh…hih-IIISSSHHHoo! Sarah, I—ISHOO! I think no…now’s a good—ISHOO! HuhISSHHOO!—time to te…ehSSHHoo! IIISSHHH! Tell you that…IISSHHOO!"
"Bless you," she said. "Tell me what?"
"Thank you. That the light…HIT-CHOO! ISHOO! Uh…"
Suddenly a horn honked behind her, and she was startled into looking up at the streetlight, which had turned green.
"Oh shit," she muttered, flooring the accelerator. "Thanks for the warning."
"No pro…ISHOO! Problem."
"Bless you," she said again as the guy that’d been behind them swept past. "You okay?" Real concern was in her voice; she’d never seen him sneeze more than once or twice at a time.
He sneezed into his fist three times before he could answer—"Ha-IIISSSHHHoo! ISHOO! ESHOO! Uh. Yes, I’m okay. I’ve been sneezing like this ever since I got this cold. Hell on the train, I can tell you."
"Want to stop somewhere, get it under control?"
"No, I’m fine." He managed a smile. "I love you, Sarah."
"Ugh, please." He’d known how she’d respond; he was only baiting her. Worked every time, too.
They drove in silence for the rest of the trip, the calm broken only by Chris’s restless sneezing, which actually seemed to have gotten worse by the time they arrived at Sarah’s parent’s house.
"Bless you," Sarah said as her friend sneezed again, for what seemed like the hundredth time.
"Thank you," he managed, valiantly trying to resist another sneeze. It worked, for the moment.
"Chris, are you sure you’re okay? You’ve been sneezing constantly for the last half-hour. I’m sure our local doctor’s office is open today, they could get you in—"
"No, really, I’m fine. I feel perfect otherwise." He met her concerned gaze. "Really."
She allowed herself to believe him, settling back into her seat as she put the Explorer into park. "Okay, I’ll leave it alone. But if you get worse—"
"Yes, yes, you’ll airlift me to the hospital. I get it."
She smiled and cut the engine. "Good. You ready to go inside?"
He nodded, smiling. "Can’t wait to see them."
"Okay, but I have to warn you—Andy’s been going through this phase where he chases anyone he doesn’t know around with a kitchen knife. He won’t catch you, of course—well, that is, unless you run too slow or trip on something. But I’m sure you won’t—you were on the track team, right?" Big grin.
"Yeah, I’ll be sure to watch for that. And your dad wielding the Uzi in the kitchen. Right."
"You’ll regret it when he kills you."
"I’m sure I will."
They were interrupted by Sarah’s mother, who’d come down the porch steps and was making her way over to the car.
"And here’s your mother, no doubt armed with tear gas." He grinned at Sarah, and before she could reply, opened the door and called, "Mrs. Campbell! How lovely to see you!"
Sarah rolled her eyes.
Kate Campbell was a beautiful woman who looked no more than forty and acted as if she were twenty. Chris always said that Sarah had been lucky to have been raised by her (and her father, Tom), which always made her a little more grateful for what she had—Chris’s parents had barely noticed him as a kid; he’d have given everything for a family like hers.
"You know better, Chris. Call me Kate," Sarah heard her mother say as the two hugged and Sarah came around the front of the car. She’d been home for a few days and enjoyed watching her friend get reacquainted with her family.
Chris pulled away, smiling, his arresting blue eyes lit up with happiness.
"Come on inside. Tom and Andy are building a fire."
"You mean attempting to build a fire, Mom," Sarah said, catching up to them. "Remind me again, have they ever been successful?"
"That’s not the point. The point is that they try and we applaud them."
"Like good little women."
Kate smiled. "If it makes their feeble efforts a little easier to bear, I don’t see the harm."
Chris laughed. "In that case, I might like to get in on th—ISHOO! Excuse me." He paused from climbing the steps, turned away from both of them, and sneezed again, fist pressed to his mouth. "IIISSHHOO!"
"Bless you," Kate said, surprise evident in her voice. She looked at her daughter. "Is he okay?"
"ISHUM! ISHUM! I’m perfectly fine, Kate." He began to move up the steps again, and they followed.
"Rather, he claims that he’s fine and yet manages to sneeze approximately every twenty seconds."
"Chris, that doesn’t sound good. We can have—"
"Yes, yes, Sarah threatened me about the doctor, too. I assure you, if I go into critical condition, I’ll let you know."
Sarah dropped behind him and mouthed, "Touchy," to her mother, and both grinned at each other in the special way that only women can.
"I saw that," Chris said, glancing back with his own smile as he went through the open front door.
"Chriiiiiiiiiiis!" Andy raced into the foyer, a fuzzy ball of electricity. He rammed into Chris, who, caught completely off-guard, made a sound like "oomph!" and stepped back to brace himself.
"Andy!" he said once he’d recovered himself. "I missed you, bud. Where’s the kitchen knife?" He glanced at Sarah, grinning.
"Come see our fire," he said, pulling Chris into the livingroom. Sarah and Kate followed.
Sure enough, they’d managed to start a nice little blaze. Tom crouched by the fireplace, testing the blazing log with an iron poker and occasionally sending a shower of molten sparks bursting in a little cloud of heat.
"Dad, don’t mess with it or you’ll put it out," Andy chided. "Look who’s here!"
Tom turned and saw Chris, smiled, and got up to go over to him. Kate noticed, however, that they most likely would not be able to shake hands—Chris was subtly fighting off a sneeze. He managed to allow himself to smile, but it was tempered in a way, as if any relaxation on his part would cause him to totally lose control. As Tom walked over, Chris’s eyes filled, reddened, and his nostrils flared as his left hand curled. He brought it up to torso level and then left it there, uncertain and tentative, as Tom neared him.
Sarah felt horrible for her friend, struggling as he was, and would have stepped in if there’d been any way to do so. Unfortunately there wasn’t, and so she watched helplessly.
Her father reached Chris as her friend simultaneously held up a finger and brought his fist to his mouth, sweetly turning as far away as he could. He inhaled deeply, eyes squeezing shut, and sneezed powerfully—"Hih-ISSHHOO! Huh…ISHOO! ISHOO! ISHOO!"
"Bless you," they all said, almost as one.
Chris groaned almost inaudibly, blushed, and said, "Thank you. I’m very sorry." He extended his right hand—the one he had been careful not to sneeze into—to Tom, and as they shook, Tom said, "You look tired. Too long on the train, I bet."
Chris nodded. "Just a little tired." Sarah knew he was lying—he could have fallen asleep that moment if given the chance.
"Well, let’s hurry up with dinner so we can get you to bed."
Chris smiled, and Sarah knew that despite his discomfort from the cold, he couldn’t have been happier to be there.
Chris literally fell into bed as soon as he made it up the stairs from the dining room. He’d insisted that he sleep on the floor of Sarah’s old bedroom (now the guest room), but she would have none of it and all but literally pushed him into the bed herself.
He’d seemed better during dinner—sneezed only twice, and without arousing either Tom or Andy’s suspicions—but now, allowed to relax, he closed his eyes and sighed deeply, letting out a pained groan.
Sarah sat next to him and rubbed his back gently. "You were great during dinner," she said. "They absolutely loved you."
"Mm," he murmured. "I don’t know how I even managed to speak."
"You were hilarious. I couldn’t even tell that you felt so bad."
He rolled onto his side, gazing at her with one of those unbearably sweet expressions of his, the ones that always made her feel like looking away. "I feel better now," he said, smiling softly.
"I hope so. Do you want some cold medicine or sleeping pills to help you rest?"
"No, I’ll be fi…IIISSHHOO!" He was so close that she could feel his body press against hers as it convulsed; for a moment she was dizzy with excitement. "Sarah, I’m sorry, I—"
"Don’t apologize," she said softly, leaning against him. She could feel his chest pulse as he inhaled softly and then sneezed—"ISHOO! Huuh…IISSHHOO! IIISSHHoo! ISHUM! Huuh…huh…ISHOO! ESHOO! EEESSSHHOO! ‘Scuse m—ISHOO!"
"Bless you," Sarah said, rubbing his arm and trying to look stern as shudders of excitement passed through her.
"Thank you. Must be making up for that time during di…" His voice was slightly muffled as he spoke; he pressed his fist to his mouth as his eyes began to close again. "IIIIIISSHHoo! IIISSSHHHOO! ISHOO!" The last was followed by seven more sounding exactly the same way, one after another.
He looked up at Sarah almost apologetically after they stopped, eyes clouded by tears, breathing a bit faster to catch his breath.
She smiled at him and gently caught a tear that had rolled down his cheek. "I’m sorry you feel so bad."
He brushed the tears away like a boy, smiling back at her. "I’ll be fine. And if you wake up to hear me sneezing, don’t worry, okay?"
"I don’t know how that’s possible," she said.
He smiled. "And you say I’m the corny one."
Chris dropped off to sleep in a matter of minutes, and soon enough Sarah found herself drifting away as well, her mind sifting lazily through the day’s events until it all turned a warm gray and she found herself dreaming.
She was gently pulled awake by a far-off, almost rhythmic sound that at first she couldn’t quite place. She looked up at Chris’s bed and, seeing it empty, rumpled sheets thrown back, realized what had happened. Blinking to clear her blurry vision, she got up out of bed and stumbled to the door, then down the stairs where she heard Chris moving around.
He was in the kitchen, pacing, pounding the kitchen table softly every time he passed by it. His sockless feet slapped lightly as he walked, his fluttering shadow visible by the pale wash of the moon.
"Chris?" she said, stepping into the room. "Are you okay?"
He looked up, almost startled, and then a guilty smile slipped over his features. "Did I wake you?"
"No, I…well, probably. But I was sleeping lightly anyway."
He nodded. "I woke up about half an hour ago and started sneezing. Couldn’t stop. So I came down here."
She slipped into a chair. "Are you okay now?"
"A momentary reprieve, but yes," he said, sitting down across from her.
"It’s not your fault. Besides, I don’t mind it all that much, as long as there’s not a ton of people around." His voice had gotten deeper, hoarse, and she loved listening to it. "Anyway, I love being here. And Christmas Eve is tomorrow." There was excitement in his voice, like a kid.
"Yes," she said, smiling. "And we’re all so excited about that."
He made a face. "Grinch."
"Let’s go to bed, huh?"
"Can we wait a few minutes. I still feel like I have to sneeze."
"Sure." Sarah stood and held out her hand. "C’mon, let’s dance." I was one of their favorite pastimes.
"Fine, but if I accidentally sneeze on you, no getting offended."
She took his hand and pulled him close. "I promise."
He touched her forehead with his own, smiling. "What shall we dance to?"
"I’ve always been partial to ‘For Your Love’."
"As you wish." Chris began singing, soft and slow, "For your love/I would go anywhere/I would go anywhere/For your love."
Sarah took over—""For your kiss/I would do anything/I would do anything/For your kiss."
Chris began singing again, and Sarah leaned against him, letting everything melt away except the warmth of his body and the soft glow of the Christmas tree. Soon she was completely wrapped up in it, lost in a warm, soft haze of love and desire.
She was vaguely aware of Chris’s chest hitching before he pulled away, but it was only his movement that snapped her fully back into reality. The warmth of him faded away, and her bliss receded like a deflating balloon.
"ISHOO! EhISHOO! Hit-ISHOO! Hit-ICHOO!" At first he made at attempt at muffling them, but after the first few he gave in completely and let them take him.
Sarah sat down again, and he sat with her, given a momentary reprieve.
"I’m sorry, I didn’t me…" He inhaled shakily as he spoke, eyes closing as he turned away, and Sarah felt another shudder of excitement, warm and liquid, slide down her spine. "IISSHOO! IiiaaSHOO! Mean to break off the dance like that."
"Sweetie, it’s not your fault."
He tried to smile, but instead was forced to turn away and sneeze again. "ESHOO! HaMMSSSHHoo! ISHoo! Huh…iiiIIIISSSSHHHOO!"
"Bless you," she said, feeling the heat of a blush paint her cheeks.
"Thank you," he said, recovering. He let his head fall to the table, resting on his cheek so that he could look at her, and groaned softly. Suddenly a look of surprise tainted his features, and he lifted his head again. "You’re blushing."
This only made it worse—she blushed harder. "I am not."
"Yes you are!" He grinned. "Why are you blushing?"
It seemed like he actually had no idea, but that didn’t help much—she had no other plausible reason. "I’m not blushing!"
"You are! Don’t even think about denying it."
"I have to go to bed—"
He held her arm. "Please stay. I won’t mention it again."
She sighed, considered, and sat down again. "Fine, if you need me." He wasn’t acting like himself; he was never insensitive. But then, he hadn’t at first realized that he was intruding or that she’d been embarrassed about it.
"So?" she said, feigning perturbance.
"So I-ISHOO! Excuse me. I wanted to kiss you underneath the mistletoe."
She laughed. "There is no mistletoe."
"Nope. Mom and Dad have had too many complaints at their parties."
She sighed. "Okay, okay, it’s over the bathroom doorway."
He got up and led her out of the kitchen. "Whose bright idea was that?"
"Andy’s. He thought it would be funny for people in a hurry to get the other person out of the bathroom and themselves in to have to get stuck waiting even longer while they kissed."
"Has it worked?"
"So far, he’s had to kiss the rest of us nearly twenty times."
Chris laughed. "Backfired."
They were underneath it now, one foot on the cool linoleum, the other on the plush carpet.
"Hold on," Chris said, holding up a finger. His brow creased and his eyes slid shut, his expression filling with anticipation.
Suddenly Sarah couldn’t resist—she kissed him lightly on the mouth, startling him into kissing her back.
They looked at each other for a long moment, and then Chris kissed her again, ever so lightly, his skin soft and warm against hers, the heat of his body delicious and comforting.
"Merry Christmas, Sarah," he whispered, his lips brushing hers.
"Merry Christmas," she said, fighting the sudden urge to cry. The closeness of his body was maddening.
And then something turned over inside her and she was kissing him again, not tentatively this time but more urgent, passionate—a real kiss.
"I love you," she heard, and she couldn’t tell which of them had said it. It didn’t matter. "I love you."