I wrote a short story for my parents for Christmas. I started it with the idea that I’d write it around our family and the silly traditions I love so well. And though some of that stuff made it in there, it mostly turned into some kind of queer YA Hallmark Christmas movie. With supernatural text messages. And so I give it to you, the internet, to make of it what you will.
Another Christmas Carol
By MJ Beasi
Stave one: Emmie’s text
“What now?” I snapped as my phone buzzed for approximately the zillionth time this morning. This was followed by an immediate stab of guilt when I saw my sister’s name topping the notification on my lock screen.
Just got home, it read. Mom’s already put out the orange peel.
“Home” was a generous word for the place Emmie was texting from, and I found myself typing before I could think better of it.
Don’t call it that.
I knew I was being petty, but the townhouse our parents had moved into over the summer was not home and it never would be as far as I was concerned, no matter how many of my favorite holiday treats mom stuffed it with.
I dreaded the long, scolding response that Emmie was definitely typing into her phone, but when the blinking ellipsis finally gave way to text, all it said was I wish you were here.
The fact that I was not coming “home” for Christmas this year had been the subject of many tense conversations already, and none of those were conversations I felt like having again, so I tossed my phone into the backpack at my feet so that I wouldn’t be tempted to respond. When even the backpack started to feel too handy, I decided that this was a good time to see if Alex was up yet.
The door to Alex’s room was ajar, revealing the mid-morning light that pooled at the far end of his bed, just barely touching the thinnest tendrils of his thick, dark curls as they lay, strewn chaotically over the blue plaid pillowcase and into the golden brown of Alex’s forehead—the only part of his face that wasn’t hidden in the shadow of his deep blue comforter.
Just a few months ago, I would have thought nothing of pushing the door open the rest of the way and letting myself in. Alex and I had been roommates since the beginning of freshman year, almost a half a year before he came out as trans, and two years before we’d rented this off-campus apartment together—our first venture into something that felt a little like adulthood. And if there was one thing that had remained consistent the entire time we’d known each other, it was that anywhere Alex was, I was welcome. Of this, there had never been a question, not since the day we’d both arrived at this school, friendless, terrified, and miles from everything we knew.
I couldn’t count the times I’d found him sleeping exactly like this. Sometimes, when I didn’t have a class to get to or some other pressing commitment, I’d tiptoe in and crawl under the covers, curling up with him until he finally awoke. Then, sometimes, we’d stay there, chatting sleepily about our friends, our classes, our various triumphs and heartbreaks, until one of us absolutely had to be somewhere in five minutes. A few times, we’d lounged there together all day, watching the light rise and fall behind the thin curtains, caving only when hunger finally drove us to the kitchen or the nearest university cafeteria.
But that was before my twenty-first birthday. That was before I’d ruined everything.
“Luce?” Alex’s voice scraped low against the deep quiet of a building whose heavy student population had largely fled the premises two days ago. “Is that you?”
A normal Lucy would have taken that as the invitation it unquestionably was. She would have opened the door and pounced on the bed and the best friend she’d ever had, laughing as she tackled him. But I was not that Lucy anymore, apparently, so instead I found myself retreating, at a run almost, back into my own room, trying and failing to shut the door without making a sound—to erase my existence from the hallway, even if we both knew it was an obvious lie.
“Lucy?” My name echoed down the hall, and for a moment I thought maybe Alex would follow after it—that he’d knock on the door or maybe just burst right in, the way he would have just two weeks ago. But Alex didn’t knock, he didn’t burst in, and by the time I had worked up the nerve to emerge again, the sound of our ancient front door creaking into its frame told me that I was too late.
Stave two: The first message
I could hear my phone buzzing from the depths of my backpack, and some part of me must have thought it could be Alex, because my pulse throbbed deafeningly in my right ear as I raced over to dig it out of there. I expected disappointment. What I got was confusion.
Sitting at the top of my notifications, above who knows how many unread texts from my sister, was a message from an unknown number. It contained no text at all, just a photo, which wasn’t all that unusual, to be honest. You’d be surprised how many random dickpics made their way into girls’ messages on this campus. I was happy to note the absence of unsolicited weiner, but as I looked more closely, I realized that the truth of it was probably ten times more creepy. The photo depicted two sleeping little girls, one with her head of light curls nestled into the crook of the other’s shoulder. It was pretty adorable; it could have been a Christmas card. But though it wasn’t an image I recognized from any of my mother’s meticulously kept photo albums, there was absolutely no question that the sleeping little girls were Emmie and me.
Who is this? My fingers fumbled clumsily over the keyboard.
No response. I tried again.
Who the HELL is this?
Still no answer.
Emmie, is this you?
I didn’t know why my sister would be texting me from some rando’s phone, but who else could it possibly be?
Emmie, this isn’t funny.
Even though I didn’t recognize the photo, I knew exactly when and where it had been taken. I’d slept on those old patterned pillowcases for eighteen years, in the big four-poster bed handed down from my grandparents that had followed me, house-to-house, through every one of my family’s moves—every one but the last one, when my parents’ downsizing finally extended to their college-aged daughters’ bedrooms. The bed was old and battered. Every one of its four posters had been scratched and nicked beyond repair, and one of the bottom slats that held up the mattress and box spring had been mysteriously lost years ago and replaced by a piece of crumbling particle board. But that bed was my history—my family’s history—and I wasn’t about to let it rot in a landfill, so I’d made them help me load it into a U-haul and transport it here, to my first marginally adult bedroom in the almost-adult apartment I shared with my suddenly-too-adult best friend-slash-roommate-slash-unexpected complication, Alex.
I looked over at it, just five feet away. The old pillowcases were long gone, but its rumpled bedding was otherwise indistinguishable from the photo that glared up at me from my phone. It was a bed that I’d spent more nights in over the course of my life than any other, and one that, until now, my sister had shared with me exactly one night every year: Christmas Eve.
For one night a year, for as long as I could remember, no matter what else was going on in the sisterly drama of Emmie and me, we put aside any petty rivalries or long-held grudges and tumbled into this bed to wait out the night together. We’d whisper and giggle and pretend to be asleep when we heard mom tiptoe in to fill the stockings that hung from the bedposts at our feet. The real agony began then, as we waited out the final hours.
At 6:00 AM we were allowed to open our stockings. At 7:00, we could finally emerge, pounce on our parents and drag them into the living room for the main event of the morning—at least as far as everyone else was concerned. I loved my family with my whole heart, but it was that first hour that I treasured most, just Emmie and me in my big four-poster bed, suspended in anticipation through those endless minutes together. It was the one thing that endured—the yearly reassurance that no matter what else happened, even through our ugliest teenaged tantrums, Emmie and I shared an unbreakable sisterly bond. And if I was being honest, this was the real grudge I held against my parents’ empty nest condo.
I knew I was being unreasonable. I couldn’t expect them to hold their own lives hostage to preserve the childhood of their twenty-one-year-old daughter. But I couldn’t quite forgive them either. My grief was bigger than I could handle. That hour was my Never-Never Land, and it was gone forever.
“You’ll make your own holiday traditions now,” mom had sing-songed cheerfully, as though replacing my lifelong attachments was as easy as rearranging the furniture. Dad had hugged me, and I knew he understood—he always understood, but I also knew that it was his restlessness and depression mom was working so hard to accommodate, so that just made me feel more guilty. And Emmie, practical Emmie, wasn’t bothered at all, of course.
“It’s ridiculous for them to heat such a big house,” she said, with no trace of my selfish sentimentality. “They need to be planning for their retirement.”
She was right, obviously. She was always right about things like this. Emmie never let her own desires trample over everyone else’s. Emmie never slammed her door or pouted in her room. Emmie never took out her frustrations on the people who cared for her. Like I had with my parents.
Like I had with Alex.
When mom urged me to make my own holiday traditions, it probably didn’t occur to her that I’d make a mess of those, too. It started out well. Alex never went home for Christmas, so when we’d made our plans to spend it together for the first time ever in our own grownup apartment, away from his awful family and my parents’ midlife crisis, it had felt honestly liberating. We’d shopped for decorations. We’d planned out all our meals. But that was months ago, before I’d celebrated my birthday by trashing our friendship.
Now being in our apartment was only slightly less awful than being at my parents’, so I’d stuck it out, which was sort of fine for a while. End of the semester chaos made it easy to pretend that nothing had changed as we threw ourselves into juries and finals. But finals ended three days ago, and Alex and I had spoken maybe two words to each other since. A few more, I guess, if you counted him calling after me as I ran into my room to hide from my best friend in the whole world. If I even had a best friend anymore.
Whoever was on the other end of that unknown number still hadn’t answered, and I was honestly not capable of caring as a pang of homesickness for a home that no longer existed tore through my abdomen like a bolt of lightning hurled by some incredibly smug god. That pang turned into a sob that started in my belly and moved up through my chest until it finally burst past my larynx with a strangled, retching cry that I’d been holding in for the past two weeks. One sob multiplied into hundreds, each tumbling over the last, carrying with it the weight of the hideous reality I’d built for myself with one moment of drunken stupidity.
I hadn’t really expected to feel more adult when I turned twenty-one. I knew that milestones like that were just one of the relatively arbitrary measurements humans made up to keep our society humming along with some illusion of order and control. But the truth is, I really had become an adult that night—not because of some magical rotation of the earth, but because I’d finally gotten a taste of real, lasting regret. I finally understood the fragility of each moment and how little it took to destroy the things we loved most. And all it had taken to destroy the thing I loved most was five minutes kissing Alex.
I don’t really know when I moved to the bed, burying my tears and my shame in the patched-up feather tick handed down by my grandmother, but that’s where I was when I woke up hours later, bawled out and dehydrated with a headache the size of my entire college campus.
It was just a little after five o’clock, but the midwinter darkness made it feel much later as I crept out of my room in search of ibuprofen. Alex hadn’t come home, which I guess should have been a relief, but as I sat in the kitchen, downing painkillers and a big glass of water by the light of the streetlamp just outside the window, next to a box of holiday decorations we’d never bothered to open, I just felt lonely and numb.
Stave three: The second message
A buzz in my pocket told me that I must have shoved my phone into it at some point. Obviously it wasn’t going to be Alex, and if I’d had the energy, I definitely would have kicked myself for the hope I felt as my hand scrambled to retrieve it. Then, as it turned out, it was Alex, but not at all in the way I might have hoped.
The notification in my lock screen came from the same unknown number that had messaged me earlier, but this time the photo was of Alex, seated at the counter of the Ukrainian diner down the street. It was taken from behind, just a few feet away. The big, round clock behind the counter hung over a sign that advertised specials for Monday, December 24th. The time was 5:18. Whoever was texting me these photos was sitting just a table or two away from Alex, right now.
In that moment, every thought I’d had about the necessity of avoiding Alex was wiped away by the specter of some sicko stalking him at the diner. I barely even remember throwing on a pair of shoes and a coat before running out the door, down three rickety flights of stairs, and over the block and a half between our apartment and the diner, fear hammering against my ribs all the way.
The sidewalk in front of the diner hadn’t really been shoveled after the last storm, and I nearly slid past the entrance in my old, worn-out sneakers, which were now soaked in slush. The looks I got from a little old couple in the booth closest to the door told me what an alarming picture I must have made as I stormed the door with my tear-stained face in sopping wet shoes, panting for breath in the dry December air. I rushed past the counter to confront the handful of locals who had ventured out for pirogies on Christmas Eve, searching their faces for some trace of malice. The clientele was mostly elderly, with maybe one pair of students who had stayed behind like we had, but they were engrossed in conversation and didn’t appear to be planning anyone’s imminent death.
And then there was Alex.
“What are you doing?”
His icy tone and matching stare brought back all the reasons why I had been shut up in my room all day, and I really wished I could just go on pretending I didn’t exist, but obviously that ship had sailed. I pushed back the tear-dampened strands of hair that had fallen into my face, but I was pretty sure I looked like something that had just crawled out of its own grave.
“Was someone just here?” I asked, still breathless from my run through our ice-covered neighborhood.
“Someone like who?”
He was looking at me the way we both used to look at those girls at the end of the hall, who tried to get him kicked off of our floor after he came out freshman year. I felt tears pricking against my eyes again and pushed them back as hard as I could. I’d already humiliated myself enough for one night.
“Someone alone,” I said, “lurking around, maybe taking pictures. Somebody suspicious.” I scanned the dwindling inhabitants of the diner again. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, unless you counted the two old ladies with hot pink hair at the far end of the counter, and honestly that was pretty ordinary for this neighborhood.
“Like a stalker?”
The curl of his mouth told me exactly who he placed in that category.
“That’s not fair,” I said, gingerly approaching him so that I could lower my voice. “I’m serious. There’s something creepy going on.”
He laughed. “You’re the one who’s been treating me like a stranger for two weeks, and now you’re following me? What’s creepier than that, Lucy?”
I stood, speechless and paralyzed, like basically every other time I’d seen Alex since the night of my birthday.
He shook his head, turning his attention back to what was left of the potato pancakes in front of him. “If you’re ready to start talking to me again, then fine. Just talk to me. You don’t have to make up some wild drama to do it.”
“I’m not—” I wanted to protest. I’m not making it up. I’m not following you. I’m not the one you should be worried about. But I knew the last one was a gigantic lie, and I knew nobody but me could fix it, to whatever extent it could be fixed, so instead I just said, “I’m sorry.”
A smattering of tears broke through, but I pulled at the sleeve of my hoodie where it peeked out of the cuff of my coat and rubbed my eyes with it, a little rougher than necessary. It’s not like my face could really have gotten any more red and puffy at that point.
“You’re sorry for what, exactly?” He stabbed at a hunk of potato with his fork. “Be specific.”
Okay. “I’m sorry I’ve been avoiding you.” This wasn’t really getting to the heart of it, I knew, but it was a vastly less terrifying place to start.
“So stop doing it,” he said. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” I said. “Obviously yes. It’s just—” My mouth was so dry. “Can I have a little of your water?”
He sighed, pushing his glass in my direction. “You can finish it. I’m done anyway.” He grabbed his check from the counter and pulled some crumpled bills from his back pocket as he slid off the stool he was sitting on.
“Wait, Alex, please,” I said.
He turned his blank face towards me but didn’t sit back down. I needed to say something to change that face—to make it soften into something that resembled Alex, my Alex, the Alex whose fierce energy had lifted me out of my freshman year homesickness with the power of a steel crane, whose warm arms and soothing words had nursed me through my first college breakup, whose shining eyes and incredible mouth had—
“I’m sorry for kissing you.” My voice was shaking as I reeled from the horrifying strength of that memory, but I pressed on. I knew this was my last shot and I could not fail at this. “I was drunk and stupid, and I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have—” I shook my head rapidly and hard, as though a good shuffle might loosen up the right words and send them flying from my mouth. “I just—” Obviously the shaking didn’t work. I could feel the moment slipping away as his feet rocked backwards. I had to do better. I had to say something. Anything.
“Alex,” I said, pouring two weeks worth of heartache and longing into just that—just his name—and finally the tears burst through and all the words came tumbling out, pathetic and messy, but true. “Alex, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and I know I ruined everything. I understand that I can’t take it back, but will you please, please forgive me? I can’t stand knowing that you think of me this way. Even if I can’t have things back the way they used to be, even if you can’t stand me, can you just please forgive me? I know I don’t deserve it, but I’m so sorry. Sorrier than I’ve ever been about anything in my life. Please believe me, Alex. Please.”
Alex’s face shifted, and at first I thought maybe I’d actually done it—that I’d actually fixed some tiny bit of the enormous, wonderful, irreplaceable thing that I had broken, at least enough that Alex and I could coexist on the same planet, maybe at the same school—but then I realized it was shifting into a sadness so deep that even I had never seen it on him.
“Do you really think that’s what’s happened?” he asked. “That the friendship we have is so fragile, it could be ruined in a day?”
The words sounded kind of hopeful, but his face hadn’t gotten better at all, and his voice was empty and cracked like a patch of dry earth. I had no idea what to say. I reached a hand towards him, but it just hung there in the space between us until it finally had no other option but to drop limply back to my side. I was Draco Malfoy on the Hogwarts Express. I was the wrong sort by anyone’s standards, and even Alex could tell. Then something else shifted.
“For the record, I wasn’t sorry that we kissed,” Alex said, closing his arms around his chest in that way he always did when he talked about something painful. His words were soft, careful, and deliberate; it was a voice he usually reserved for people like his parents or doctors or housing administrators, and it cut deep to hear him using it with me. “I know you were drinking, and you didn’t mean to hurt me. That part’s mine to deal with, and I will,” he continued. “I just need some time.”
What was Alex saying? The diner was falling into pieces around me, like it was sinking in a pit of quicksand, and I could see a golden-brown hand stretching down to save me, but I couldn’t quite grab onto it. On the outside of the thickening sand, I could see that Alex was still talking, but it was a strain to make out the words.
“… So my brother’s coming to pick me up tomorrow morning,” he was saying. “It’ll be weird going home, but I think I should give us both some space.”
I knew I needed to be saying something important, but my earlier paralysis had returned times a hundred, and before I realized what was happening, Alex was paying his bill and heading out the door.
And that was that.
As the imaginary quicksand fell away, I clung to Alex’s words. I still had a friend, they told me. I still had a friend who wasn’t sorry that he’d kissed me. I still had a friend who wasn’t sorry that he kissed me, but he was leaving me anyway. I still had Alex. Alex wasn’t sorry that he kissed me. Alex was leaving.
Stave four: The third message
The stool I was sitting on started buzzing underneath me, which didn’t make a lot of sense until I realized I’d put my phone in my back pocket. This time I knew it wouldn’t be Alex or even Emmie, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the unknown number was back. But though I recognized the image it had sent me, it wasn’t anything or anyone from my own life. Not my present life, anyway. The message consisted of a relatively generic stock photo—one that had caught my eye a couple of years ago, when I was just coming into my own in my university’s small vocal performance program. I had saved it then to a private photo album on the phone I was looking at now, though I’d never shown it to anyone else. It was what I called my “dream album.”
The photo depicted the view from a stage of an opera house, its enormity and grandeur just barely visible around the edges of the bright stage lights in the foreground. I’d imagined it as my future—my freedom, I suppose—from the small town life I’d come from and the unassuming state school education that my family could afford. I imagined myself as the singer my professors believed I one day could be—expensively trained, cosmopolitan—leaving the girl I was behind and proving that I could be something different, something better.
It was a big dream, worth working hard for, and I knew that by the time I achieved it, this moment I was living now, this misery I felt watching a once-close friend walk out the door of a run-down Ukrainian diner on Christmas Eve during our junior year of college, would be an insignificant memory. I couldn’t keep this city, this school, this roommate, or even this first spark of real romantic love any more than I could hang on to the holiday traditions the rest of my family had long outgrown, and if there was any lesson for me in this disaster of a month, it was that. The past was long past, and the present would inevitably follow. This photo was my future, and I knew that as surely as I knew my own name.
I also knew that I was not ready for it. Not yet. Not soon. Definitely not right now.
“Want anything, honey?” the older woman behind the counter asked as she cleared away Alex’s dishes.
I really, really did.
“Yes,” I said, returning her warm smile, “thank you.”
I texted Emmie, I’m coming home.
Stave five: The end of it. Or maybe the beginning.
Then I ran. I ran out of the cloying heat of the diner, through the wet, slush-covered street, over the fading crosswalk, and onto the front steps of our apartment building, where Alex stood at the landing, fumbling for his key.
“Come home with me,” I sputtered as coherently as possible through the gasping breaths that told me without a doubt that I needed to spend more time in dance class.
Alex looked a little startled, but he was almost smiling as he held up the key in his hand and arched his eyebrows at it in an exaggerated fashion.
“Okay?” he said, feigning shock as he turned back towards the door again. “Wow, look at that, we’re home!”
“No,” I said, reaching for his hand that was holding the key and covering it with mine. He looked confused, but at least he didn’t immediately pull it away. “I mean, home home,” I continued, “my parents’ home. Come home with me for Christmas.”
Then he did pull away, but gently. “Luce… I told you—”
“Wait, please,” I interrupted, desperate to erase the hurt that was creeping back into his eyes, “I wasn’t clear before. I was sorry that I kissed you, that’s completely true, but I think you’ve misunderstood the reason, and I’d like a chance to explain.”
He hesitated, and for one horrible moment I thought maybe it was too late or that I’d screwed it up again, but then he finally nodded.
“Something’s been happening to me all day,” I began, “something I can’t explain. And I think it might be telling me that I have to accept the future, or choose a path, or let it go or whatever, but the truth is, I don’t want to. I don’t want to choose between my past and my future. I want the whole freaking timeline and everything in it.”
“My phone buzzed furiously in my pocket. I ignored it.
“I don’t care if I’m not supposed to. I don’t care if it makes me selfish and stubborn and all the things I’ve been my whole life. I want all of it together—my kind of broken family traditions and my maddeningly grownup baby sister and my adorable, freaking amazing roommate and my… everything. Even if it can’t be perfect or if things can’t always stay exactly the way I want them. Even if they scare the crap out of me.”
I took a deep breath. I needed to say this, and I needed to do it right.
“I was sorry I kissed you, Alex, because that kiss was made of feelings that I never intended for you to know about, and I was afraid I’d lose you if you ever did. I’ve been freaking out for the past two weeks, because I thought my greatest fear had come true, but I realize now just how unfair that was to you and to what we have between us. If there was one thing I should have trusted in, it’s the power of our history. We might be reckless and messy and maybe we can’t help things changing, but I should have trusted that we’d be okay no matter what. And of all the ways I’m feeling sorry right now, that’s the one I should apologize for the most.”
Alex had moved towards the edge of the landing so that he was standing right above where I was, just two steps below. I reached for his hands, and he let me take them. I was feeling breathless again, definitely not from running, but I had to finish this. Right here, right now, nothing was more important than what I had to say to Alex. I squeezed his hands.
“I don’t know if you want to be my boyfriend or my best friend, but I’m with you either way. I’m with you any way at all. And I’d really like to take you home for Christmas.”
He moved one step lower and pressed his forehead against mine.
“I’d like to be both,” he said. “For the record.”
That’s when I learned that all it took to save the thing I loved most was five minutes kissing Alex.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this story and you want to let me know, drop me a comment here or catch up with me on Twitter. – MJ Beasi
my sister & me.