Today’s short story comes from the Author of The Delmar Shark Chronicles, which I reviewed in June 2013. If you’ve not yet read any of these books they are worth the time.
Our Own Little Christmas
By Heidi Peltier
Terra woke up alone again this morning, just like she did on Valentine’s Day, and on her birthday, and on our fourth wedding anniversary a few months ago. Either I had left early in the morning, or I had never come home at all the night before. The further into my college education I got, the busier and more preoccupied I became. The first few semesters, I made the three-hour journey to and from the university in Palermo, Sicily, every day. Each night, I would return home to our tiny island home of Isola di Squalo, the island of which Terra was Queen. I would be exhausted from a full day of study and travel, but I would happily fall into bed each night knowing she was right beside me, snuggled in my arms. That alone made it all worth it.
But as my classes grew more challenging and my workload mounted, it became impossible to make the trek home every night. I refused to get housing on campus. I refused to accept that I couldn’t go home to her every day. So, for a long time, I would stay in a hotel or crash on a friend’s couch for the night in order to make a late night study session and an early morning class. Finally, Terra convinced me that my best option would be to lease a flat near campus. I adamantly denied needing it, but she could see the exhaustion on my face. She knew I couldn’t keep up the rigorous pace much longer. I swore to her I would come home every weekend, and I did…until once again, the work mounted up, and I was forced to stay one weekend, then two, then three.
She’s busy too, I told myself. She has a country to run. She probably doesn’t even notice I’m not there most of the time. It was a lie, and I knew it. She noticed. I could see it in her eyes when I would return. And I dreaded seeing the pain on her face when it was time for me to leave again. She never cried though, never complained. I think she knew it would only make it that much harder for me. And we both knew I couldn’t give up. She established the Delmar Shark Institute for me. It was an unbelievable gift, one that went against every natural instinct she had. But she did it for me because she knew how much it meant to me, so I was going to earn it. I just never knew the price I would have to pay, the sacrifices both of us would have to make.
I’m almost done, I told myself. It’s almost over. With the college courses I’d taken in high school and being able to go to school full time, I’d completed my undergraduate studies in just two and a half years. I gave up competitive swimming to devote my full attention to getting my degree. I immediately started working on my master’s degree and only had a little further to go to finish it. Once I started on my PhD, I could spend a whole lot more time at home working at the shark institute. No more going back and forth every day. No more nights away from home. No more saying goodbye to Terra. I just had a little bit more to go, but she had no idea. She knew I’d been pushing myself, but I hadn’t really been keeping her up to date on my progress, mostly because I didn’t want to disappoint her if I failed. So, I set my goal and kept it to myself.
At the end of November, we had a long weekend break, and even though there was work to do at school, I went home. I had to. I hadn’t seen Terra in three weeks at that point and refused to go another week. I arrived at the palace unannounced in the early afternoon. I peeked into her office and found her slumped over her desk, her head in her hands, crying. I couldn’t bear it. I burst into the room, ran to her, and took her in my arms. She gasped and immediately started wiping her eyes. She plastered a smile on her face and tried to compose herself.
“Dylan,” she said in surprise, “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“I wanted to surprise you,” I murmured, my joy at finally seeing her being trampled by the sadness in her eyes. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long.”
“No need to be sorry,” she insisted. “I know you’re busy.”
“I never meant to hurt you this much, Terra, really.”
“I’m fine, Dylan.”
“You were crying,” I pointed out. “You’re not fine.”
That’s when I spotted the note on her desk. It was a message from her brother, Fed. The note told Terra that he would not be coming home for Christmas this year because he’d be spending it with his girlfriend Ana’s family in Portugal. Terra’s sister, Delphine, had already told us she wouldn’t be coming for Christmas either since she was studying at an art institute half way around the world in Canada. Terra’s parents were both dead, which meant Terra had been sitting here thinking about having no one at Christmas. Surely, she didn’t assume I wouldn’t be here. Or perhaps she did. With her brother and sister both studying out of the country and me gone almost all the time now, she must have been feeling very lonely. And suddenly, my heart was breaking for her. I should have realized. I should have been paying closer attention.
I pulled her closer to me and tucked her head under my chin. As I stood there holding her, a plan started to form in my head. I would be home for two full days after this, and then I would probably be gone until the semester ended the third week of December. I was going to make the most of my time on the island and put my plan in motion.
Terra had a meeting that afternoon which I knew she couldn’t cancel just because I’d graced her with my presence unexpectedly. So, in those two hours, I held my own secret meeting with Ilario, Terra’s head of security. He and I arranged everything, and by the time Terra was free, my plan had come together. But she had no idea.
For the next two days, Terra and I were inseparable. We spent hours walking through the gardens and by the lagoon. We went into town but didn’t stay long. The friendly people of the island were wonderful and loving, but I hadn’t come home to see them. I wanted to be selfish and have my wife all to myself. I took her for a picnic at Faro di Merrick, the lighthouse hill overlooking the sea where we always went to escape life for a little while. We talked about our future together once I was finished with school. I hadn’t realized until that day just how badly she wanted to start a family. With a baby to take care of, I thought hesitantly, she won’t be alone. I held her in my arms, and we danced to the music of the sea until the sun set.
When it was time for me to leave, I told her it was OK to cry because I was crying too. She buried her face in my chest, and I held her until I couldn’t stay another second without being late. I boarded the ferryboat that took me back to Sicily and watched her until I couldn’t see her anymore. Then, I sank into my seat and cried, not caring that the driver and my bodyguard could see.
Three excruciating weeks passed as slowly as molasses on a cold day, as my grandma used to say. I worked my tail off and fell into bed exhausted every night. Every morning, I ticked another day off the calendar, counting down the days until I saw my girl again. I finished my work and met with my professors and advisors. I made my request, and they granted it. All that was left now was to pack up my belongings from the flat and get home.
I made a call to Ilario, and he got things rolling at the palace. Terra’s personal attendant, Maria, had been tasked to pack Terra’s bag for her in secret. That bag was now stowed in a closet, ready to be thrown into the car as soon as I arrived.
I swept into the castle, and Terra was there waiting for me. I pulled her to me and pressed my lips to hers. When I finally let her come up for air, she said, “I’m so happy you’re home.”
“Not for long,” I said conspiratorially.
“What do you mean?” she asked, but before I had a chance to answer, Maria crept up behind her and threw on her coat. Ilario grabbed the suitcase from the closet and put it in the car that was still waiting outside.
“What’s going on?” she asked, confused but smiling.
“Your chariot awaits, my lady,” I said, offering her my arm.
I led her to the car, and Ilario drove us back to the docks while I spent the time kissing my very curious wife. I kissed her on the ferryboat, and I kissed her in the car on the way to the airport. Royal decorum dictated that I was not allowed to kiss her in the airport or on the airplane, but I snuck a few in here and there. She asked over and over again where we were going only to be answered with another kiss. I think she eventually caught on to the game and asked anyway knowing she’d never get an answer. I resumed showering her with kisses in the car when we arrived in Switzerland.
And now, here we stand, outside one of the most remote ski resorts in the Alps. The sun has set, and thousands of twinkling white lights illuminate the scene. On the eaves of the buildings, they sparkle inside the icicles that hang there too. An enormous Christmas tree stands just inside the two story high lobby windows, inviting us to come inside. I look at Terra and am mesmerized by the reflection of the lights in her eyes, sparkling like the sunset on the ocean. I can’t help it – I have to touch her. I run my finger gently down her jaw line, and she turns her glittery eyes to me.
“I knew,” I say, leaning in to kiss her neck, “that you didn’t want to be in that big, empty palace for Christmas. So, I decided we’d have our own little Christmas away.”
She stays quiet, but she doesn’t have to say anything. The look in her eyes is enough.
“And we don’t have to ski at all, if you don’t want to,” I whisper in her ear.
She blushes and giggles, and we walk inside.
On Christmas morning, Terra doesn’t wake up alone, and if I have my way, she never will again. She begins to stir, but I wrap my arm tighter around her to hold her in place. I kiss the back of her head and nuzzle into her hair.
When we finally emerge from the bedroom, breakfast is already laid out for us on the table. She refuses to let me bring her breakfast in bed, so we sit together to eat. Suddenly, a look of panic crosses her face.
“Dylan,” she gasps. “I didn’t bring your Christmas gifts. I didn’t know…”
“I don’t need any,” I tell her. “This Christmas isn’t about me. It’s about you. It seems like everything has been about me for the last few years, and I’m tired of that. Come on.” I extend my hand to her and pull her to the living room sofa. “Let me get your gifts for you.”
“Oh, Dylan, this trip is enough…”
“Hush,” I whisper as I disappear into the bedroom. When I return, I have two packages in my hands. I give her the smaller one first.
It’s a necklace and earring set – heart shaped aquamarine stones surrounded by diamonds. I had them specially made to match the ring I gave her four years ago. The blue of the stone almost matches her ocean blue Delmar eyes.
“They’re beautiful,” she whispers, a slight catch in her voice.
“Not as beautiful as this,” I say, handing her the larger package.
She lays the rectangular shape in her lap and begins to tear off the paper. Inside is a black leather folder. Inside that is my master’s diploma.
“The University of Palermo,” she mutters, skipping lines, “have conferred upon Dylan Austin Murphy the degree of Master of Science, Marine Biology…”
She looks up at me, confusion etched on her face. “What…?”
“I wanted to surprise you,” I say, taking her hand in mine. “I graduated…four days ago.”
“But Dylan,” she argues, “we were here. We missed it. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t miss anything,” I tell her. “I did what I went there to do, and now I have my degree and I have you. That’s all that matters.”
“You’re finished?” Disbelief exudes from her. “Already? But how…?”
“When it’s something you love,” I explain, “you just do it.”
She nods and looks back down at the diploma.
“I’m talking about you,” I say, pressing my lips to her fingers. “I did this so I could come back home to you. I couldn’t stand being away from you so much, so I pushed myself to finish quickly. I’m sorry for all the time I’ve been gone, but from now on, most of what I’ll need to do can be done at home, at the shark institute. I’m done, baby. I’m not leaving you ever again.”
Finally, she lets herself cry, and she throws her arms around me. I wrap mine around her, and I never, ever intend to let go.
©Squalo Books 2014
For Christmas Heidi is offering the above short story as a free download for your kindle, head over and pick it up for future reading.