It was Christmas Eve, their night. It’d been their night, ever since her Dad left and Mom spent the bulk of her holiday staring at the bottom of a wine glass while reruns of It’s A Wonderful Life played on television. She’d been six when she realized there would be no gifts or tree and Santa only visited houses where Moms made cookies and woke up before Noon on Christmas Day. She’d gone out to play in the snow, because it was better than being outside and no one in her house cared if she disappeared for hours.
She made the snowman first, and then added an elf or two. They didn’t really look like elves but that didn’t matter.
“Hey, you’re pretty good,” he’d said. She smiled. She didn’t get many compliments. The boy was tall, but still, a boy with brown freckles, curly hair and cheeks flushed crimson from the cold. He wore a green velvet suit with matching forest green sneakers that changed colors when he walked.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Can I help?” he asked and she let him. They made a whole village that first night and when they’d put the finishing touches on the penguin palace he walked her back into her sad Christmas cheerless house, past her mother and into her room where he recited The Christmas Story from memory. The next morning she woke up to find a large gift box next to her bed, filled with modeling clay, crayons, a sketchpad and paints. She hid them from her mother.
Every year she’d make the snowman and wait and every year he’d return, but this year would be different. She’d be leaving for art school soon. She’d be graduating from high school. She couldn’t make snowmen in college, she was too old, probably older than he was when he’d first come to her on that first Christmas Eve night. Her Dad had come back into her life and now with another side of the family, the nights weren’t as cold. It was awkward, but there was at least a little cheer. There’d been dinner, songs, her half-sister even put up a stocking on the fireplace with her name on it. She could hear them laughing inside the house as she made the finishing touches on her snowman.
“Need any help with that?” he asked.
She smiled. “I think I’ve gotten pretty good at this now.”
“You have. Truth be told, you didn’t need my help then.”
“Yes, I did.”
“You were always a talented artist.”
“Thanks.” She didn’t look at him. She thought she might cry if she did. Besides, she knew what he looked like. His image was burned into her brain. She’d sculpted him, drew him, painted him and filled a portfolio with his smiles. He was the reason she’d gotten a full scholarship. He was the reason she survived.
“I didn’t think you’d make any more of these.”
“I like making them, but…I guess I am getting a little old. I’m sure there are tons of little girls who need someone to play with on Christmas.”
His voice was smaller. He’d seen like such an authority figure when she was little, like a camp counselor she could tell her fears to and ask questions of. Now, she was as tall as he was, maybe even heavier and…she didn’t need him anymore.
Weak light spille out from the house onto the front lawn. “Kathy!” her cousin called from the porch “It’s cold out here. Come back inside. We’re about to play Win, Lose or Draw. You’re on my team.”
Kathy smiled. “Gimme a sec, okay.”
“One minute! Uncle June is talkin’ trash and I want to roast him.”
The door closed and she turned to face him. She learned that third year with him that no one could see him but her. It was fine, she didn’t want to share him, but she did have to let him go. She knew that and he didn’t say it, but she knew he knew it too.
It was time to say goodbye.
When he leaned in to kiss her on the cheek she turned and faced him and placed her warm lips on his. He didn’t even seem shocked. She felt his soft, cool fingers caress her cheek and when she pulled back she could taste sugar cookies and marshmallow on her tongue, but when she opened her eyes he was gone.