She wanted everything to be just so. Stan had been so depressed since Thanksgiving. It had been right after that—the most happy time she could remember that they'd had—that he'd gotten the diagnosis, and he had spun down into a depression. He hadn't been out of the house since; he'd just sat there in his La-Z-Boy in front of the TV and dozed, the TV on but him not paying a damn bit of attention to it.
She'd put the tree up early, right there beside the fireplace, so he could see the tree and the fire she laid every night and the TV all at the same time.
Sylvia was as much panicked because of the time of the year as anything else. Everyone said that sick people in depression, especially the old—not that Stan, at fifty-eight was old; but he was twenty-three years older than she was—died at Christmas. Everywhere she'd gone in the past week, trying to get special foods and little seasonal doodads to lift Stan's spirits, she'd heard how grandma this and uncle that had popped off between Christmas and New Year's, or right after New Year's, as if they were just holding on to one milestone or the other before giving up.
Stan, though, had seemed to have given up already.
The sex had really been good in their lives—right up to Thanksgiving. She knew how to pick them for that. Other than the sex, she'd had a couple of duds, but only one regret before her first husband. Since then Stan had been the only one who was both good in bed and good to her in the other aspects of life. She'd made mistakes in her life—plenty of them—and most of them concerning men. But Stan wasn't one of the mistakes.
She'd asked the doctor. He said he didn't know why they shouldn't. It was cancer, not anything to do with the heart. Then he'd hedged and said that anyone could go at any time, which Sylvia hadn't found particularly helpful.
So, this was the night. If sex couldn't lift Stan out of his depression, nothing could.
Sylvia set everything up just right. There was a Christmas music special on TV. This was better mood background than zombie shows for her. Stan didn't seem to care what was on the set anymore, as long as something was going on to combat the silence in the room and that damned ticking clock on the mantle, the one he'd zeroed in on as ticking the seconds of his terminal life away. He'd been in such a depression, though, that he hadn't noticed that Sylvia had removed the clock after the first time he had remarked what its ticking meant to him.
The tree was lit, and was quite festive, if she said so herself. She had brought in a live one this year, the first time a live one had been in the house. Stan had always wanted a live one, and she'd always complained about having needles everywhere for months afterward. Now even she only wanted live things around them.
The fire was going and she'd made homemade eggnog, well laced with brandy. The doctor had said to go easy on the liquor, but it was Christmas—at least it was four days before Christmas—and this was a last-ditch effort to lift Stan up and over the season. Their anniversary was in March. Maybe he'd see that as a new goal to reach if they could get through Christmas. Then, maybe there'd be another one after that the two of them could strive toward.
The two of them. Sylvia hadn't thought about anyone but Stan like that. Well, no, that wasn't true. There had been one other time she'd thought like that. But she was young then and her father had put a stop to that. He ran the boy out of town and got her married off to that widowed farmer right quick. Paul's dad. Or who everyone thought was Paul's dad. She guessed she was lucky the old coot had taken her in, knowing the baby wasn't his. But he'd wanted a housekeeper and someone to help him on the farm more than he'd wanted a lover or a wife. And she was still pining all through that short marriage for the one who got away.
The thought of it being only four days to Christmas hit her as she tried to hand Stan a mug of eggnog and had to put it down on the table beside him because he just looked up at her teary eyed.
"You sure you don't need me to go do anything for you out in the town before Christmas, honey?" she asked. He was always good with presents. He had always delighted in shopping for others at Christmas. It was his Christmas joy. He usually had his Christmas presents in August for later pickup. She liked getting gifts as much as the next woman, but it was the joy in his eyes when he was trying to surprise her with a gift that gave her some of her own Christmas spirit.
"No, thanks, I'm good," he answered.
She was wearing a negligee. There'd never been a secret what was in store for him when she did that around the house. She stood there, in front of him, giving him a coquettish look.
"That'd be nice," he murmured. "But I don't know if I can . . . if we should . . ."
"I think we can and should, Stan. It's been a while. I want what you can give me. Don't you want what I can give you anymore?"
"Sure, sugar . . . but . . . where's Paul?"
"He's at his friend, Andy's, for the night. Andy's family is taking them down to see the lighting of the tree on the pedestrian mall. Too bad we couldn't be down there too. We've rarely missed it."
"Yeah, that would be nice. I'm glad Paul gets to go. This has been rough for him."
"Only because he worships you. He wants you to be happy. It's Christmas, Stan, and I want you to be happy too—for us to be happy."
"Sylvia," he said, not giving any idea what he wanted Sylvia to do.
But she didn't ask him. She was kneeling on the floor between his knees, unzipping him, and fishing his cock out.
"Sylvia," he repeated. This time with a gravelly voice from deep in his throat.
"Just enjoy it, sweetheart," Sylvia said as she started to give him head. He moaned and placed his hands on her head to help guide her. He got hard soon enough, to Sylvia's relief. Yes, he could, she thought.
She straddled him in the chair and guided his cock inside her and his lips to her breast, encircling his head with his arms. He was murmuring his pleasure as she started to rise and fall on his cock.
"Oh, sweetness. Thank you, thank you, thank you," he kept murmuring as she slowly pumped on his cock . . . to his ejaculation.
"There, I love you, and it's me who thanks you," Sylvia murmured after he had come.
But he didn't answer. And he had gone limp. As Sylvia pushed away from him, still straddling him, his now-flaccid cock still inside her, she saw that he, in fact, was gone.
She stayed there, embracing him for several minutes, crying for him, for her, for them, for their time that had floated away. After a bit, though, she rose from him, and still crying, softly walked over to the phone to call 911.
* * * *
Steve Patterson of Patterson's jewelry store on the pedestrian mall paused abruptly at the front of his shop, his eyes going to the teenager going into Barbery's gift shop across the mall. He was at the window because he'd walked a customer to the door, trying to show her he could be polite after having been abrupt with her when she wanted to look at watches. The evil eye he had gotten from his wife, Angela, had stopped him in his tracks. He'd come out of the back irritated because he'd been busy engraving an order and Angela hadn't been able to answer a question.
Angela had really been on him about his attitude, especially at Christmas, saying he was crotchety and self-centered. She'd challenged him to do one selfless thing this Christmas season—that she'd settle for just that as a Christmas present. She'd harped at him the whole season about this without ever expressing satisfaction with his behavior. And here, not ten minutes after her last diatribe on his attitude—which he couldn't deny and couldn't see a reason to deny—he'd been short with a potential customer.
She just didn't know. Angela didn't know how difficult Christmases were for him. His whole life had crumbled after that Christmas years ago. Since then he'd always looked after himself first, because no one else was cutting him any slack. Besides, Christmas was over. It was January 2nd. They'd be starting to take down all of the trappings of Christmas in a day or two. It couldn't be quick enough for him.
But what had stopped him at the front window? The boy. He knew that boy. And he just didn't care about Angela harping at him now. She meant well. It had been a good marriage overall—as good as something could be on the rebound with a limited amount of affection. A very good business partnership, though. He had to admit she was right about treating customers well. That was just good business. But the bitterness of Christmas wasn't going away for him—and that was not being helped by seeing that boy across the pedestrian mall.
But the boy wasn't across the mall any longer. He'd come out of Barbery's and was headed this way. Steve beat a hasty retreat into his cubicle beyond the curtain at the back of the shop. His hidey hole, where he could protect himself from the world and forget just how bitter his life had been.
He heard the dinging over the door and knew that the boy had entered the store. He picked up the bracelet, a diamond bracelet with a gold tag on it. He'd already engraved the "Into Eternity" on the tag and was just about to start on the T for Ted. It was an order for local millionaire Theodore Craven, more likely for a mistress than for his wife. But it was worth enough in commission to carry the store for a couple of weeks. A special order. He'd had to laugh at the "Into Eternity" the guy had specified, though. "Into Eternity" with Theodore Craven and a woman seemed to be about three months long, if the tabloids were to be believed.
He heard voices. Angela and the boy. How could Angela not hear his own voice in that of the boy's? It was, of course, because she wasn't listening for it. He'd never whispered a word of it to Angela.
"Steve, can you come out here, please?" Angela called from the other room.
He ignored her, with a shudder. He picked up the engraving tool and the bracelet.
"Steve. I need you out here. This young man is asking about an order of some sort. It's complicated." She was standing at the doorway, pulling the curtain aside, giving him her "What's wrong with you? Get your butt out here" stare.
With a sigh, he put the engraving tool and the bracelet down and slowly entered the other room.
How could Angela not see it? The boy was a spitting image of him at that age. But of course Angela hadn't known him at that age—and wasn't looking for it.
"Yes?" he asked, his voice hard.
Angela gave him a piercing look.
"Yes, son, can I help you?" he asked in a more conciliatory tone. He didn't want to be hard with the boy. What he wanted was to sweep him into his arms, ask him if he wanted to go fishing or bowling—or anything they could do together. But of course he couldn't do that.
"My name is Paul Smyth," the boy started, searching for the words, although Steve fairly quickly realized that this was a question that the boy had been asking all the way up and down the business district—his heart being wrenched each time he had to ask and each time he had to be turned away. "My dad is . . . was . . . Stan Smyth."
"Yes?" The mention of the name hardened Steve's heart again, even though he knew he had no right to feel that way, but he fought not to show it. "How can we help you?"
"Well, uh, you see, my dad died just before Christmas and . . . I'm checking around to see if . . . if maybe he ordered anything from here . . . for my mom. For Christmas. He shopped at the mall a lot, and mostly ordered things months ahead. I just thought . . ."
"Here? A Stan Smith shopping here? I don't think so." It came out sharper than he intended, and Angela, who was already snuffling a bit laid a hand on his forearm.
"Oh, OK, thanks. I'm sorry to bother you," the boy said, and turned to flee—giving every indication that it was a relief that a rejection was coming this easily.
"Wait," Angela said. She looked at Steve but was surprised to see that Steve already was moving from behind the counter and toward the boy.
"Just a minute," he said. "Did you mean 'Smith' with an i or 'Smyth' with a y?"
"With a y," the boy answered, turning back, a bit of hope in his eyes now.
"Yes, Stan Smyth was a customer here. A common name but an unusual spelling for here; took me a minute to sort it out. A fine man, as I recall. Isn't he . . . wasn't he . . . married to a woman named Sylvia, who used to be Sylvia Moore? You her son?"
"Yes, that's us," Paul said. "He shopped here? Do you know if . . . I'm sorry, but my mom is beside herself—not so much because there was no gift from him this Christmas that we've found, but because he always did have one for her—for every occasion. He loved shopping for her. It's just . . . just that she's so afraid that she'll find it in the house someday when she isn't on her guard, and . . . she doesn't think she could take that, having it all come up again sometime when she has finally adjusted to his passing. So, I thought . . ."
"So, you thought you'd ask around," Angela said, a catch in her voice.
"Yes, Ma'am. But if there's nothing on order here—"
"That's such a wonderful thing for a son to do," Angela said. "So much in the Christmas spirit. I'll bet she doesn't even know you're doing this, does she?"
"No, Ma'am. She thinks I'm at basketball practice. And if there's nothing on order here, that's where I should be going, I guess."
"That's really something for you to be doing for your mother," Angela said. "Isn't that something, Steve?"
But Steve was already at the curtain to the back room.
Angela gave him an angry look. He was just escaping from anything like this again, she assumed. So much like him, she thought.
"You jogged my memory," Steve said, looking at Paul. "Now that I think of it, your dad did put something on order here. Didn't pick it up, and I wondered why. Didn't know he had passed. I'm really sorry about that. Give me a couple of minutes and I'm sure I can find it."
He had trouble—trouble he'd never had before—keeping his hand steady to inscribe an S and a period behind the "Into Eternity." The S very well could stand for "Stan." Only he would know that it equally could stand for "Steve." After he'd finished, he started to get up, but then, as an afterthought, he rummaged through his drawers. He'd remembered something he'd engraved when he first opened this shop. Something he thought he'd do something with someday—but never had had the opportunity.
He stopped at the curtain momentarily, his attention riveted by the tableau of Angela, an arm around the boy's shoulder, both of them leaning over and looking down into a glass case, where Angela was pointing out antique coins. The son they'd never had. The child he'd never given Angela.
"Yes, yes," he said as he continued on out of the back and into the showroom. "Found it—or them. And all prepaid too. There wasn't just one job on order. I found there were two. And now I remember that. Here, son, I think this might be what you were looking for." He'd tried to keep his voice businesslike. But Angela was giving him a peculiar look. She knew who that diamond bracelet was really for.
"See, it's engraved. 'Into Eternity, S.' That would be Stan. Obviously for your mother."
"Wow, neat," Paul exclaimed, his eyes going wide. "She'll love that."
"And she deserves every happiness she can get," Steve said, meaning in. Suddenly realizing that, indeed, he meant it. A long-held burden lifting from his back. It had never been Sylvia's fault that her father had run him out of town way back then or that she'd had to find someone to marry quickly. For Paul's sake. For his son's sake.
"And there is this, too. I'm sure your father meant it for you to have." There wasn't a bit of a lie in that. Steve had made it years ago—for his son, should he ever be able to work up the courage to meet him and give him the gift. "It's a medallion to be worn on a chain. I don't know if you go in for necklaces for men, but it's what your father wanted you to have from him, apparently. See, it says 'Love Ya Always' on one side and 'Dad' on the other. You two must have had a special relationship."
"Yes, yes we did. He was my stepfather, but more like a dad to me than any of the rest," Paul said, his eyes even wider than before and a tear rolling down his cheek. Steve felt yet another strand of tension inside him snap. There was no way he could ever resent Stan Smyth from now on. And he realized that he'd be all the better for letting that go. Letting all of those men Sylvia had been with after him go. Whatever was going on in Sylvia's life, his son was growing up to be quite a man. And it had been because of Sylvia and Stan and who knows who else, who had been there for Paul when he couldn't be. Suddenly he was OK with that. No, better than OK with it. He wanted to bounce off the walls for joy.
So this was what Christmas joy was all about, he thought.
The boy continued, unaware in any way of the changes going on inside Steve. "Thanks. Thanks a lot. Super. Wait till my mom sees these."
And then he was gone, literally running out of the store and down the pedestrian mall.
Steve turned his face to Angela, whose arm was through his and whose eyes were looking at him with a sense of awe.
"That bracelet . . ."
"I can make another one in time," Steve said. "I have a feeling this one has gone to a more deserving home."
"Me too," Angela agreed. "And, Steve . . . thanks for the belated Christmas gift for me too. I remember what I asked of you, and you've delivered beautifully."
And me too, Steve thought. You can have no idea what a magnificent Christmas gift I've received—seeing, talking to my son. Seeing what a fine, caring young man he's become. It will change my life—our lives.