It was just barely noon when her boyfriend called. After a week of silence, and he called her asking “Maria, can we talk?” like that wasn’t what she’d been asking last week when they got into the biggest fight of their relationship two weeks prior to this day. But it was Frederick. Freddie. Her boyfriend. Her favorite person. So she agreed, bundled up, and hopped into her car that didn’t have an a/c or heater, and prayed that his small apartment was warm.
The buildings looked run down and in need of a paint job when she pulled up, and when she went up the stairs, the whole staircase wobbled. Whenever they called for help the landlord was always conveniently “out” for one reason or another. The units themselves were small—with one bedroom, one bathroom, and a living room/kitchen split, but they were clean enough. Frederick’s neighbors were nice from what she knew, but most importantly, it was his own space for the first time ever.
When she got to that space—his apartment—she stopped at the door. Technically, she had a key and he’d said she could come whenever, but it felt weird after everything she’d said. She hesitated.
One neighbor’s doorframe was decked out in Christmas lights. Some people had plants or scratchy welcome mats outside. Frederick had a wreath the two of them had made together two years ago hanging on the front of the door.
Maria decided on knocking instead of just walking in.
He opened the door with wide eyes beneath messy, unbrushed hair. “Did you lose your key?” he asked in lieu of a greeting.
“No,” she answered, peering into the dark room. His curtains were closed, and he was backlit by the single light on in the kitchen. The breeze blew, whistling as it whipped snow through the corridor of the building.
“Sorry.” He stepped aside, gesturing for her to come in. Maria was instantly hit with the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg. “It’s cold. You should have come in. Did you get here okay?”
“Yeah, it was fine. The snow is picking up,” she answered. Maria pulled off her coat and scarf, hanging them where she always did when she came over to his place. Before she plopped down on the sofa, she went to the window and pulled the curtains open, letting light into the room. “Why are you living in here like a gremlin?”
He grimaced at the light like a vampire. “Trying to save on heating,” he mumbled as he wandered back into the kitchen.
Instead of sitting on the couch like she’d originally planned, Maria crossed the threshold onto tiled floor into the kitchen area. “What are you doing?”
Frederick hummed. “Testing out hot drink recipes. My parents demanded I bring something for the Christmas party this year.”
She pulled a face. She knew his cooking levels weren’t quite… good yet. He was okay at drinks (most of the time).
“I haven’t added alcohol to the eggnog yet, but the mulled wine is okay.” He shrugged, eyes running over the crockpot and thermoses on his counter. “Go sit down, I’ll bring you something to drink.”
“Coffee,” he clarified. “I’ll bring you coffee.”
Maria rolled her eyes widely enough that she knew Frederick could see as she went back to drape herself over the living room sofa. It had gotten a bit colder in here since she opened up the curtains, but at least they could see the apartment now. She heard him humming something, but it was soon drowned out by the gurgling of the coffee maker.
He’d said he wanted to talk. Finally. After years of non-communication, Maria had gotten her hopes up. But Frederick was in the other room making her coffee—like that was a replacement for saying “I love you.” He was always like this. Always avoiding the tough conversations until she made them talk about things and then he got upset and she was the bad guy.
Two weeks ago was their anniversary dinner and almost the end of their relationship. It was a stupid fight. They always were. He didn’t want to say where he wanted to go, he said he had “no opinion” when it came to what they did to celebrate. Like he didn’t care. When she’d asked if it even mattered at all, he’d said “not really.”
It hadn’t gotten better when they finally picked a restaurant. Maria was stewing in her anger, and everything that Frederick did was pissing her off because every time she tried to explain why she was mad, he just sat there with a frown on his face. He ordered dessert and they had to stay longer. He kept trying to hold her hand when she was obviously upset.
When she’d asked for space, he gave it. He didn’t ask why. She sat, silent, on the drive back to his apartment and thought that maybe she didn’t need someone who didn’t understand her. So, she told him that.
And he’d said okay. He gave her the space she wanted and didn’t contact her again until today.
Until now, when he almost tripped over the low table in his living room.
“Frederick…” she sighed out.
He smiled up at her and put the mug on the table in front of her. “Three sugars and cream, just like you like,” he said. “Wait here.”
And then he was gone again.
Before she could even sit up to drink her coffee, he was coming out of the bedroom with a few blankets. He laid her favorite blue microfiber blanket over her. “Comfy?”
“Yes, Freddie, but…”
Then, tentatively, “Did you mean it… when you said we should break up?”
For once in their relationship, Maria didn’t say anything.
He stood over her, hands nervously hovering without touching. “I just wanted to talk about it.”
“Yeah,” she said flatly. “Me too.”
“I…” He stood up. Went back to the kitchen. “What’s that tone?”
Maria rolled her eyes as she sat up. “You never talk. I always do. I always call first until today and—”
The lights flickered, then turned off completely, followed by the total deafening silence of the entire complex powering down. He looked across the apartment at her, wide-eyed. “Hold on,” he said.
Frederick grabbed a fluffy green blanket as he went to the door, wrapping it around himself as he opened it and stuck his head out to see if the whole building had lost power, or if it was just him. All the lights were out, and Frederick caught sight of another couple arguing outside an apartment down the hall.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Did you and your boyfriend lose power too? Is it the whole building?”
His neighbor looked at her boyfriend and started to yell. Frederick grimaced and decided maybe it wasn’t the best time to ask if they knew what was going on. The boy—Nick—said something about rolling blackouts.
Frederick leaned back into the apartment, rubbing his arms to ease away the cold. “Maria, can you check the news?”
She wanted to be mad. She really did. He was somehow still getting out of talking to her about this, but she grabbed her phone out of her pocket and opened up the weather.
Back out in the hall, a few more neighbors were looking for answers. The couple was still shouting. Frederick watched them and sighed. He was about to shut the door when he saw a little girl running back across the icy corridor.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Be careful or you’ll slip!”
She screeched something about ruining Christmas, and Maria heard Frederick sigh about it, but he still watched and made sure she got back to her apartment before closing his own door. As he went back to the kitchen, he tripped over his table again.
Maria caught his arm, but he resigned to smashing his face into the surface of the table anyway. “Why do you even have that thing?” she shouted at him.
“My parents gave it to me when I moved out,” he sighed into the wood. “What else am I supposed to do with it?”
He laughed. “I dunno where, though. Maybe you’re right. But then you wouldn’t be there to catch my arm anymore,” he said.
She dropped her grip on his arm, and he laughed as he made his way to the kitchen again. He made himself a cup of coffee.
“The snow is a lot higher than it was when I came over,” Maria mumbled over her mug.
He hummed as he came back to the room. “You should stay.”
She rose a brow. “The power might be on at my place,” she countered.
But he shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. Even if you’re mad at me, it’s safer if you stay here.”
“Freddie…” she started. “I’m not mad at you.”
“You said you were.”
“I just… want you to talk to me.” She took the last gulp of her coffee, setting the mug down on the table between them. “You know, I used to like how reserved you were. But now you—”
“Used to like?”
“You don’t like me anymore?” he asked, his eyes shining.
“I love you,” she answered. “I just want to hear that you love me, too.”
“I do,” he said. His eyes and his shoulders fell. When he saw that Maria’s mug was empty, he switched it with his own still warm coffee. “I do love you.”
“You’ll get cold if you don’t finish the coffee,” she said. It was meant to be lighthearted, but it couldn’t stand up to the heavy atmosphere around them.
He hummed. “It’s okay.”
He smiled wide and got up. He started lighting candles.
“Frederick, those are just decorative, they aren’t going to…” She sighed as he moved around the room without listening to her. When he almost tripped, she caught him again.
Once there was enough light, he went to his bedroom and pulled more blankets out of the closet. When he came back, he dumped them next to Maria and shut the curtain. He lit all the other candles he could find—it gave them enough light to see where they were going—enough light to see each other’s faces.
He covered himself under another couple blankets and made himself comfortable next to her. When he looked over, he saw her smiling. He put his head on her shoulder. “See?” he asked. “Nice and cozy.”
Her eyes traced what little of him she could see in the darkness. “I thought you said you were gonna throw that blanket away.”
He laughed. “It was the first present you ever gave me,” he said. “How could I?”
“It’s so ratty now!” she shouted. “And you have so many others. Where did you even get these?”
She felt him shrug against her. “Work parties,” he mumbled. “White elephant. My parents. Around, y’know.”
“Around,” she mocked.
“I’m pretty sure that one is mine.” She pointed to a fleece-y teal polka dot blanket. Maria had no idea when she left it here, or how long ago she might have even brought it over, but she recognized it vaguely as having been hers at one point.
“No, I’m taking it back with me once this ice melts and you deem it safe enough for me to leave.”
He grew quiet at her side, and she glanced over at him again.
“I’m not keeping you here,” he said softly. “I do just want you to be safe. And warm. You said a couple weeks ago that your heater hasn’t been working in your car…”
When Maria thought back on it, she could only remember mentioning it once, offhand, instead of a greeting when they were meeting up downtown for one of his work things. She set the mug she was holding down on the table, and he laced his fingers between hers.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Me too.” Frederick sunk into the sofa next to her, their sides separated by several layers of clothes and blankets.
“I love you.”
He kissed the back of her hand. And she knew.
Maria was half asleep the first time Freddie left her side to answer knocking at the door. He heard a familiar voice—Carly—the one they usually ended up actually talking to instead of the landlord when they needed help around the apartment. He’d barely settled down again when there was a second round of more incessant knocking.
The gingerbread men had taken over Holly’s apartment. Rows of them lined the countertops, freshly baked and cooling, filling the whole room with the scent of molasses and cinnamon and gingery goodness.
Holly hummed along to the carols playing from her speakers, her voice light and offkey as she pressed the cookie cutter in her hands down into the chilled dough of her final batch. Once they were all laid out on a baking sheet, she popped them in the oven, set a timer, and headed to the sink to wash the excess flour from her fingers.
The Christmas tree in the living room area twinkled at her as she toweled off her hands, and she smiled at the colorful lights and perfectly placed bulbs. Absolutely darling! her mother had replied when Holly sent her a picture. And that was just this tree. Holly had a second tree in her bedroom she thought looked just as cute. Not to mention the wreaths she’d made and the lights she’d hung in her front window. She glanced up, and there they were, still going strong, although a little less brightly now that the sun was rising.
She supposed it was probably time to turn them off and was just about to flip the switch when the lights blinked out on their own.
All the lights.
Her apartment plunged into darkness, the Christmas tree now just a shadowy figure in the corner.
Holly knew exactly who was to blame.
The neighbor who lived across from her was the exact opposite of charming. In fact, Holly was pretty sure the man had it out for her.
Nick—though she rarely called him by his name when there were much more suitable options, like goblin and monster and killjoy—Nick complained about absolutely everything. Once he’d complained that her plant had leaked water onto his welcome mat. Water. Holly had never seen him “welcome” anyone in the entirety of the time she’d lived in the complex.
Well, he definitely wasn’t going to be welcoming in a moment. She stormed out of her apartment, marched up to his door, and knocked politely even though what she really wanted to do was—
Nick opened the door and stepped into the morning air without even asking who was there, which really just confirmed her theory that they were the only two people who used his welcome mat.
“Wow,” Holly said sweetly. “A gray hoodie today. Someone’s feeling festive.”
His eyes dragged over the reindeer onesie she was wearing, and she could practically feel the exasperation pouring out of them. “I’m busy,” he said.
“Me, too, actually,” she replied. “So, it’d be great if you turned my lights back on.”
“You’re not gonna believe this,” Nick said, crossing his arms, “but I don’t control the weather.”
“Of course not. If you did, the forecast would be nothing but darkness so you could vampire about in peace. Now, how’d you do it? Did you pull a plug? Mess with a breaker?”
“You know what?” he asked, glancing over her head, probably taking in his dark handywork. “This is actually perfect. Now I don’t have to deal with your obnoxious light show.”
Holly gasped. She had a tasteful amount of decorations up—respectable even. She’d honestly held herself back.
“If I wanted the sun coming through my window at all hours of the night,” he continued, “I’d move to Alaska.”
“I wish you would move to Alaska,” Holly said right as a different, better neighbor who never complained about her poked his head out of an apartment down the hall.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Did you and your boyfriend lose power, too? Is it the whole building?”
She took back every nice thing she’d ever thought about him.
Holly looked back at Nick to see if he was equally horrified and found his cheeks to be bright red.
“Oh my goodness!” she said, realizing he must be embarrassed. “Did you cut power to the whole floor?”
“What? No!” Nick glared at her in shock. “The power plant couldn’t handle the weather. We’re going to have rolling black outs. Don’t you watch the news?”
“Why would I do something that depressing before Christmas? No wonder you’re so grumpy.”
“Um,” a small voice said. “Holly?”
Holly instantly recognized the adorable little girl from next door. “Lily! I’m glad you’re here. Is this not the grumpiest looking man you’ve ever seen in your life?”
But Lily was already dashing back down the hall. Holly smiled. Kids had so much energy. Hopefully Lena wouldn’t kill her for dropping off cookies later. It looked like the girl had already had a ton of sugar.
Speaking of sugar, Holly needed to go get started on the icing—and check the news from the sound of things.
“Well, it seems I was wrong about the power,” Holly said, and were it anyone other than the person that murdered her plant by moving it into direct sunlight after the water fiasco, she would have even apologized. Instead, she said, “I’ll be going, then,” and turned back to her own door.
Which was locked.
Holly let out a long sigh. She was going to have to call the landlord.
“What?” Nick asked. “Did one of your trees topple over under the weight of all those bulbs and barricade the door?”
“Would you mind if I borrowed your phone?” she asked, ignoring his sarcasm in favor of getting back inside as quickly as possible. She released her box braids from the large bun she’d had them in so she could pull up the hood of her onesie.
“Sure you don’t wanna borrow one from someone less grumpy?”
“Well, I was going to call the landlord to use the master key, but since I’m stuck out here, maybe I’ll go caroling instead. Do you know ‘Deck the Halls’? Or maybe ‘Joy to the World’—no, you wouldn’t know that one.”
“Please don’t,” he said, holding open his door for her. “My eardrums are still recovering from that time you sang happy birthday to the neighbor’s kid.”
“Lily is Lena’s little sister,” Holly corrected. He wasn’t wrong about her singing skills, so she let that part slide.
Nick’s apartment was pretty standard: couch, coffee table, TV, kitchen toward the back. Something felt off to her, though. And then she realized, there wasn’t a single decoration up.
“Do you not celebrate Christmas?” she asked, horrified with herself. It was one thing if he was just a sucky neighbor, but what if she’d been disrespectful or brought up some childhood trauma of his or something?
“It’s a scam to get people to spend money on stuff they don’t need,” he said, eyeing her strangely. Her worried tone must have weirded him out. The two of them didn’t really do feelings outside of rage. “But I don’t really mind it other than that.”
“Oh, good,” she said in relief. “Just a grinch, then. Ebenezer Scrooge,” she said as she casually scanned the knickknacks on his bookshelf. “Scrooge McDuck. Kazran Sardick.” She stopped next to a framed photo of Nick, his arm around a grinning girl in a cap and gown.
She didn’t know he was capable of smiling like that.
Nick tapped the nose on the hood of her onesie with his phone. “Make your call, Rudolph.”
The landlord was saved in Nick’s phone as Satan, which she would have thought was a pot calling the kettle black situation, except the call went straight to a voicemail that said the landlord was out of town for the holidays.
“What’s wrong?” Nick asked from the couch.
“He’s on vacation,” Holly said in disbelief. “For the next week.”
“What a piece of work.” He paused before asking, “Are you gonna be alright?”
“Why?” Holly teased. “Do you want me to stay here?”
He laughed. “We’d probably kill each other.”
“Probably,” she agreed, although today’s interaction had her feeling a little less murderous toward him and maybe a little more curious about if she could make him laugh again. “I’ll see if Lena is going to stick around or something.” Hopefully Lena and Lily weren’t still planning to visit their grandmother. “Mind if I call my mom real quick?”
“Thanks. It’ll just take a sec. She probably won’t answer.” She dialed the number and waited as it rang.
“Hello?” her mother’s voice sing-songed.
“Hey, mama,” Holly said in surprise. “It’s me. I—”
“Holly, sweetheart, is that you? Hold on, dear.” Holly could hear the clattering of her mother’s jewelry against the phone as her mother likely lowered it to her chest. “Alicia, could you add a smidge more glitter to my eyes? Yes, that’s perfect! Honey, are you still there? What phone number is this?”
“It’s my neighbor’s number. I’m locked out of my apartment, but I’m okay,” she added hurriedly. “I just wanted to let you know so you don’t worry.”
“Oh, honey. I knew you should have spent Christmas with us. Herald, our baby’s locked out of her apartment. Herald! He’s on the phone, dear, but he says he loves you.”
Holly could picture her dad pacing her mother’s dressing room in full manager mode, getting everything in order for the concert tomorrow. She almost missed the familiar rehearsal preparations: her mom’s vocal warmups, the dancers stretching while Holly ate way too many sugar cookies from catering.
But the infamous Christmas Day with Christine Day Concert was a household tradition, broadcast live for people across the country, and at some point, Holly realized she only saw as much of her parents on Christmas as people did on TV.
She wasn’t mad. In fact, she was really, really proud of her family. She just didn’t want to spend another Christmas feeling alone in a dressing room. “Tell Dad I love him, too. And you. I’ll message you when I get my phone back.”
“I love you, my little sugar plum,” her mother trilled. “Merry Christmas!” she added and ended the call.
“Merry Christmas,” Holly said to herself. She smiled and passed the phone back to Nick. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem,” he said, slipping the cell into his hoodie pocket.
She should have probably headed for the door, but instead she found herself pointing to the picture on the shelf. “Is this your girlfriend?”
He glanced at where she gestured. “My stepsister.”
“You guys seem close. You’re not spending the holidays together?”
He shrugged. “You’re not with your family either, Miss Christmas Spirit.”
He pushed his black hair from his forehead. “You can stay. If you need to. I probably won’t actually kill you.”
Holly was positive he was a grinch, but for some reason, she felt like it was her own heart growing two sizes. All this niceness was getting confusing. Almost as confusing as the fluttering her stomach did when Nick said he was single.
There was a knock at the door, and Nick raised a brow at her.
Holly lifted her arms in innocence.
“It’s Carly,” their neighbor replied when Nick asked who was there.
He opened the door, and Holly poked her head out from behind him to wave.
Carly squinted at her. Which was understandable given the number of times Holly had complained to Carly about the man she was currently standing next to. In his apartment. In her pajamas.
But to be fair, this was her Christmas Eve uniform.
“She’s locked out,” Nick explained, nodding toward her door.
“Uh-huh,” Carly said.
Holly caught Carly smirking at her and ducked behind Nick’s arm. “Weren’t you at your fam’s place?”
“I came back to drip my faucets and remind everyone about theirs, so we don’t have any pipes burst.”
“Thanks,” Nick said. “I’ll get on that.”
“I also have the master key,” Carly added, “if you need it.”
“Oh… yeah,” Holly said, forcing herself not to look at Nick. “That would be great.” She focused her eyes somewhere over his shoulder as she stepped outside, the thought of him looking happy to see her go keeping her from meeting his gaze. “Thanks again,” she said, “for, you know…”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Merry Christmas, Scrooge,” Holly said.
“Happy holidays, Rudy.”
She laughed despite herself and went to follow Carly to her door, a funny feeling in her chest as she heard his door click shut behind her.
“You okay?” Carly asked as she opened the apartment.
“Yeah, for sure,” Holly said, going inside. “I’ll let you go check on the other neighbors. We don’t wanna have no power and no water.”
“Okay,” Carly said like she didn’t quite believe her. “If you—is something burning?”
“My cookies!” Holly exclaimed. “I’ll talk to you later.”
She rushed to save her gingerbread men from the oven as Carly let herself out. Since the power had turned off, the cookies weren’t too burned. Maybe a smidge more gingersnap than gingerbread texture-wise. She could probably scrape away the burned bits with a knife, and she still had plenty of better ones to give to the neighbors.
She went to drip her faucets first, the whole place silent aside from the dripping now that she couldn’t play music, and she was just about to message her mom when she heard someone knocking.
“The cookies are safe,” Holly said as she opened the door. Except it wasn’t Carly. It was Nick.
“Carly said your place might be on fire?” The way his shoulders rose and fell made her think he’d rushed over.
Holly shook her head. “I just had some cookies in the oven. Nothing major.”
He nodded. “I had a feeling you’d burn the complex down someday.”
“I did not,” she said moving so he could come in. “See for yourself.”
She closed the door behind them and stopped next to him by the Christmas tree.
“It’s pretty,” he said. “I can see why you were so freaked out at my place.”
“Your place was nice, too. With you.” She caught him blushing again and grinned. “Want to help me decorate the horde?” She bobbed her head toward the cookies on the counter and watched his eyes widen at the number of them.
“I should have expected this,” he said.
“You should have.”
He sighed, but the curl of his mouth told her everything as he pushed up the sleeves of his hoodie and headed toward the sink.
Holly skipped over to join him.
It looked like neither of them would be lonely this Christmas.
Lily sat on the floor, slouching as she tried to hide her face from the top of the bed. Her plush animals were lined against the wall like a firing squad, eyeing her with all-knowing stares. Outside the window, she saw snow falling so densely it resembled a white curtain.
It was all her fault.
She knew it was the truth, but hearing it made her shiver. She grabbed her sister’s oversized cardigan and threw it on, taking a deep breath of the lingering vanilla sugar perfume. She always thought the cardigan looked like a fluffy, blue wizard’s robe on her, and it usually made her feel all-powerful. The magic wasn’t working today, though. The plushies still glared at her. Lily had to leave.
She creaked open the door and peeked out. Lena was slouched on the couch, staring out the window with a melancholy expression. She had the phone to her ear, and she was nodding slowly.
“Yeah, I know,” Lena said with a sigh. “There’s too much snow, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t even find the car in this weather, let alone drive all the way to Grandma’s… Yeah, no, we were supposed to leave this morning, so I didn’t get any food or anything… There’s like nothing in the fridge… I don’t know.”
Lena’s voice turned to frustration. It was rare that Lily heard it, and it was never directed at her. Of course, that would change as soon as Lena realized it was all Lily’s fault.
A sigh escaped Lily’s mouth, and Lena immediately looked over. Her eyes widened slightly, and then she covered her face with a cheery smile.
“Lemme call you back,” she said quickly, and hung up the phone. “Hey, Lil, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Lily said immediately.
“Are you hungry?” Lena asked, getting off the couch. “We… um… well, Amber’s coming over later with some food, but if you’re hungry now, we can ask some of the neighbors to share. Oh! Holly’s probably got enough Christmas cookies to feed an army. Why don’t we go talk to her?”
Lena didn’t know this, but she was an accidental genius. If anyone knew how to fix Lily’s mistake, it’d be Holly, she realized. She was an expert on all things Christmas.
“I’ll go by myself!” she said quickly.
Lena raised a brow, her Mom side showing.
“I promise not to get kidnapped stepping into the hall by myself,” Lily added, raising her hand like she was making a vow. “C’mon, Lena, I’m eight. I can go outside without a babysitter.”
The lights flickered and shut off. Lily screamed.
He found me, she thought, falling to the floor.
“It’s ok, Lily,” Lena said, kneeling next to her. “The power probably just went out.” She placed a hand on Lily. “You’re shaking.”
“It’s Santa,” Lily whispered with a wide-eyed stare at the ceiling. “He’s coming.”
“He doesn’t come until nighttime,” Lena replied with a chuckle. “When everyone is asleep.”
So he’s waiting until Lena can’t protect me, Lily thought.
Things were more serious than she initially thought. She had to talk to Holly and fast. She jumped up and ran to the door before Lena used the power outage to keep her inside.
“Take a flashlight at least!” Lena called after, but Lily ignored her.
The only light she needed was the sun. She slammed the door behind her and looked down the hallway. Holly was standing outside, hands on hips and glaring. For a moment, Lily panicked. If Holly really was a Christmas expert, maybe Santa had contacted her and told her what Lily did. Maybe that’s why she looked so angry.
But Holly wasn’t glaring in Lily’s direction.
Lily slowly walked up to Holly and cleared her throat.
“Um,” she began in a squeak. “Holly?”
It seemed like a bad time. Holly wasn’t looking very Christmas-y, except for her giant onesie. Maybe she was feeling sick, Lily thought.
Another thought struck her. Maybe she had lost the Christmas spirit because of her. Lily took a faltering step back. She had made Holly lose her Christmas.
She turned and ran back to her apartment.
“Hey! Be careful, or you’ll slip!” a voice called.
Lily glanced back. She couldn’t remember that neighbor’s name, but he also looked like he lost his Christmas spirit. And his comb. Lily had caused the whole building to un-Christmas.
“I’m so sorry!” she called. “I promise, I’ll never ruin Christmas again!”
She ran back to her apartment, leaving him bewildered, and slammed the door.
Lily locked the door to the apartment and moved one of the dining room chairs in front of the door.
“We need to lock the windows,” Lily said. “And block the chimney.”
“We don’t have a chimney.”
Lily looked around the room. They had one window out here, and one in the bedroom. Maybe they could duct tape it over, so Santa couldn’t come in. But he was Santa. She had a sinking feeling he could find her no matter what.
“Lily, what’s wrong?” Lena asked, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You’re pale. Are you getting sick?”
“Maybe she’s too cold?” another voice suggested.
Lily looked up. She didn’t even realize Lena’s friend was over.
“When’d you get here?” she mumbled.
“Just now,” Lena replied. “Amber brought some food.”
Amber held up a giant tub of chocolate fudge ice cream with a grin.
“The one thing guaranteed to not spoil in the snowstorm,” she said triumphantly. “Oh, and more people are heading over with actual food, so don’t worry.”
“Why are they coming?” Lily asked.
She had a sudden vision of the whole city showing up with pitchforks and punishing her for ruining everything.
“To celebrate Christmas, of course,” Amber replied. “We can’t have our favorite girls alone on Christmas Eve.”
Lily felt her eyes well up with tears. She let out a wail and fell into her sister’s side, wrapping her arms around her. Lena was too good for her, she thought with a sob. Here she was ruining Christmas, and Lena was calling over nice people with food to help the person who ruined Christmas.
“Lily?” Lena’s voice sounded panicked. “Lily, what’s wrong?”
Lily couldn’t say anything, and she hiccuped over her own sobs. She held on to Lena tighter, just in case Lena tried to push her away when she eventually found out the truth. Lena’s arms wrapped around Lily.
“Oh, Lily, I’m so sorry,” Lena said with a choked voice. “I know this isn’t the Christmas you wanted.”
“It’s all my fault!” Lily cried, pulling away from Lena for air. “It’s—it’s—it’s—”
She couldn’t say anything else and just kept crying. She felt her sister pick her up and carry her to the room. Lily felt herself placed on the bed gently, and one by one Lena piled the plush animals around her. The plush animals seemed less angry at her, and she slowly began to stroke their fur, one at a time, making sure to pet everyone so nobody felt left out.
After a few minutes, Lily felt her breath return to normal. She sniffled and looked up at Lena, who looked like she had been crying too.
“I’m really sorry, Lily,” her sister said with a deep sigh. “I should’ve prepared a ‘just in case’ scenario. No one predicted this snow storm, but… I still should’ve been prepared. Now Christmas is ruined because of me.”
Lily shook her head. The one thing she couldn’t live with was her sister thinking it was all her fault.
“Because of me,” Lily said glumly. “It’s my fault we have a snowstorm. And no power. And Holly lost her Christmas spirit. And the other neighbors look like the Grinches.”
Lena gave a confused look, but she didn’t say anything as Lily pressed on.
“I have to tell you a horrible secret,” Lily said, lowering her voice in case Amber was spying on them. “I caused it all.”
“Oh, Lil, I don’t think—”
“No, really!” Lily’s voice raised before she caught herself. “Sandy Adams told me her brother told her that Santa wasn’t real and I told her to tell her brother that he was lying but she said that he wasn’t and Santa’s not real so when I saw Santa… I… I… I told him if he was really real then he should give us all a white Christmas. He told me I shouldn’t test Santa’s powers so then I doubled dared him and-and… now we have a snowstorm and Santa’s probably coming for me because I tested him after he told me I shouldn’t!”
She felt more tears fall down her cheeks and she glanced up at Lena, waiting for the anger. Lena had a blank expression on her face and blinked a couple times. Then, she smiled.
“Oh, Lily,” she said, and a chuckle escaped her. “Santa didn’t cause this. You didn’t cause this.”
“But I did!” Lily cried.
“You,” Lena began, and then bit her tongue. “Okay, I can’t really explain why I know this, but let’s just say I have a good feeling that the snowstorm wasn’t caused by Santa.”
Lily sighed and pulled the cardigan around her tighter. Of course, Lena couldn’t understand. She heard a knock on her door. Amber peeked her head in.
“Sorry to butt in,” Amber said slowly. “But I couldn’t help but overhear your problem.”
Amber was spying, Lily thought with a glare. She should’ve been polite enough to cover her ears.
“Have you tried… writing Santa an apology letter?” Amber asked, giving Lena a meaningful look.
“Huh?” Lily and Lena said at the same time.
“Well, he works on the average goodness level for children,” Amber continued with a serious expression. “If you were good for most of the year and apologized to Santa for testing him, I’m sure he’ll forgive you.”
Lily gasped. Why hadn’t she thought of this before?
“You have smart friends,” she told her sister and jumped off the bed.
“Thanks,” Lena replied dryly.
“I’ll need paper and the red pen with sparkly ink,” Lily ordered. “But… how do we send the letter? Is Santa still at the North Pole?”
Lena and Amber glanced at each other. It looked like they were having some sort of silent struggle. Maybe Lily was going to have to Google Santa’s departure time herself.
“Isn’t Santa… on your Twitter?” Lena asked Amber slowly. “Do you think you can take a picture of Lily’s letter and send it to him?”
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Amber replied quickly. “He always checks his Twitter.”
She winked at Lily.
“Just leave it to me,” she said.
Lily felt a weight leave her chest. She scrambled to find clean paper. Christmas was back on track.
There was a knock on the door as Lily signed the letter and handed it over to Amber. She raced to the door and swung it open.
“Carly’s here!” she called.
Lena appeared at her side.
“Hey, all, just reminding you to drip your faucets,” Carly said.
“Oh, thanks, Carly,” Lena said with a smile.
“I thought faucets weren’t supposed to drip,” Lily said with a confused look.
Lena pushed Lily from the door and shot her a look.
“Is the power out everywhere?” Lena asked. “Is your place too cold?”
“Nah, I’ll be fine,” Carly replied. “I just wanted to remind everyone before we have to deal with a burst pipe too.”
Lena laughed and then flushed when she saw Lily’s raised brow.
“I have friends coming over with, like, a mountain of Chinese food,” Lena said. “You’re welcome to join.”
“Sounds nice,” Carly replied. “Let me finish making my rounds.”
Lily got bored of the conversation and walked back to the living room. Amber was taking a picture of her letter.
“And, sent,” Amber said triumphantly. “I expect Santa’s seen it and forgave you already.”
“Thanks, Amber,” Lily said. “Sorry for calling you a spy earlier.”
“… You didn’t.”
“I thought it, though,” Lily replied with a shrug. “Where’d you put the ice cream?”
More of Lena’s friends came with enough food to cover the table and half the kitchen counter. Lena dragged out all of the blankets and even her candle collection. She didn’t even make Lily give her back her sweater. Lily sat on the floor, watching Lena’s friends play Uno.
“Hey, Lil,” Lena said, sitting next to her and pulling her close. “Warm enough?”
“Your friends have enough body heat to cook a Hot Pocket,” Lily retorted.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t go see Grandma this year,” Lena said with a somber expression. “And that this Christmas was kinda a letdown.”
“Are you kidding?” Lily replied. “I found out Santa’s real, and I’m gonna rub it in Sandy Adam’s face for the rest of her life. And we have blanket forts and junk food? Grandma could never.”
Lena grinned and pulled Lily into a hug.
“Glad you’re happy,” she said.
The doorbell rang, and Lily made a face.
“My happiness will fade if it’s more of your smelly friends,” she warned.
It was Holly, looking like she was her normal self again, with her colorful Christmas onesie, a cheerful smile, and a plateful of cookies in hand. Nick was there too, looking absolutely opposite to his normal self. He had a light-up reindeer headband and what Lily guessed was supposed to be a polite smile on his usually grumpy face.
“Merry Christmas!” Holly exclaimed, handing over the cookies. “Hope you’re staying warm!”
“Thanks for the cookies!” Lily said, opening the door wider. “And I’m glad Santa gave you your Christmas spirit. Do you wanna come in? Amber says we’re playing Twister next.”
“We’d love to,” Holly replied brightly.
“No, thanks,” Nick replied at the same time.
The pair looked at each other, and Lily watched Holly’s face melt into a pout. Nick sighed and held up his hands in surrender.
“I’ll spin the board,” he said in resignation.
Lily realized she was going to have to ask Holly a lot of questions later, especially when she had started hanging out with the goblin. Maybe it was a Christmas miracle. As she moved to close the door, Lily glanced outside. She wondered if the other neighbor had found his comb. She looked around and then darted outside, knocking on his door quickly before Lena came to yell at her for not wearing shoes.
The door opened slowly, and a man wrapped in a grinch-colored blanket peeked his head out. His eyes widened at the sight of her.
“Hi, I’m Lily and I live next door to you,” she said quickly, glancing back at her door. “Well, not next, next door, but over there. We’re having a Christmas party if you and your blanket wanna come.”
He stared at her for a moment longer, and she wondered if he was sleepwalking.
“Where are your shoes?” he asked finally.
“I have shoes,” Lily said with a roll of her eyes. “At my house, of course. You wanna come?”
“Who’s there, Freddie?”
A woman appeared next to him and smiled at Lily.
“Oh, um,” he began, and Lily repeated her sentence again (since he obviously wasn’t listening the first time).
“Oh, that sounds.. fun,” the woman said slowly, giving the man a curious look.
Lily knew that was adult talk for “should we say yes or pretend we have an important meeting soon?”
“We also have, like, a ton of cookies,” she added. “And, we’re playing Twister soon.”
“Sounds… great,” the man said. “Should we bring anything? I have some drinks.”
“My sister likes drinks,” Lily replied with a nod. “Do you need help carrying anything?”
“No, thanks, we’ve got it,” the woman said. “You should run ahead and tell your family we’re on the way.”
Lily wasn’t sure how they guessed Lena didn’t know two more people were coming over, but she rushed back home. Her toes were starting to get pretty cold. She threw on Lena’s slippers while the two came inside and introduced themselves to everyone.
Lily looked around with pride. The whole living room was filled, and Lena looked like she was really smiling, not her usual fake smile. Lily grabbed a few cookies from Holly’s plate and wrapped it. Those would be left out for Santa, she decided. He deserved it after giving her the best Christmas ever.