The Gift:

A Short Holiday Romance


I see him walking sometimes. I like to sit on the porch and watch the birds when the weather is nice. There's a peach tree out front, the birds seem drawn to it, and I am drawn to them.

I see him walking sometimes, maybe four or five times a week—usually going, satchel hanging low off his left shoulder, occasionally coming, feet dragging with exhaustion.

He moved in on a hot day in August. The sun was already beginning to heat the sidewalks to rubber melting levels when the moving truck pulled up. I was sitting at the dining table, looking at a copy of the gossip magazine Ms. Delia (the elderly woman whose apartment I reside in) left out when I heard the rumble from the engine. I made my way over to the street window to see what the commotion was and that's when I saw him. He hopped out of the driver's seat, ran his hand through his tousled, auburn hair, peered around, then looked up. He saw me, sitting up in my fourth floor window, smiled, waved, then turned to open up the back of the truck. In that moment I became fascinated with him. Maybe it was because his smile was so enchanting. Maybe it was because he seemed to notice me when I passed by unnoticed by all others.

It's a snowy day in late December when I find myself at the café I like to frequent. I set up at my usual corner table next to the window so I can watch the birds dance in the Ginkgo trees out front. The birds have long since left to make their journey south, so instead I sit and stare longingly out the window at the barren trees, heavy with snow and strung with Christmas lights. If I concentrate hard enough, I can still see their lively silhouettes hopping from branch to branch.

The café isn't very busy, which isn't much of a surprise considering Christmas is only a few days away. The only other people present are a couple sitting a few tables to my left and an older man reading the newspaper in the far corner of the room. As I examine him, he harumphs at something in the paper, twitches his thick, white mustache, and takes a long swig of his coffee. The young couple are busy tittering and giggling with heads leaning together and hands cupped around their drinks. Outside it begins to snow.

The café is warm and heavy with the smell of fresh coffee, and the gentle jazz tune playing over the speakers has just ended when the café's door pushes open and he walks in, right on time, cheeks flushed from the cold.

I immediately busy myself by staring down at the newspaper some prior occupant left open on the table.

I barely begin my tenth read through of the page in front of me when the solid thud of a coffee mug being set down on my table startles me. I look up to find him sitting across from me, a gentle smile upon his lips.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but I couldn't help but notice that you haven't turned the page of that newspaper in over an hour. Would you like me to get that for you?"

I stare wide eyed at him, then look back to the paper sitting in front of me.

"Uh—." My voice cracks and I clear my throat to try again, "I— Um, sure."

He smiles, then reaches forward, takes a corner of the page and turns it so I can finish the article.

"Thanks," I say.

"No Problem."

Not really sure what else to say, I look back to the paper, but he speaks again before I began to read.

"I see you across the street sometimes, but I don't think we've ever actually spoken to each other. I'm Ryland." His eyes are gentle and inviting. "What's your name?"

"G-Grace," I say, only barely managing to stutter my name out. "I'm Grace."

"It's nice to meet you, Grace." He holds out his hand to me, and I sneak a peek at the rest of the room.

The older man is still engrossed in his paper, but the younger couple has definitely noticed our exchange and is giving Ryland questioning looks. I figure the sooner I shake his hand the less likely they are to keep staring, so I quickly reach forward and slip my hand into his.

It's warm.

I can't remember the last time I was able to feel anything, and suddenly I don't want to let go. My expression must have given away my thoughts because he laughs softly under his breath, and instead of pulling away, lowers his arm to the table so that I can continue to hold his hand. He lets me sit there for a while, clutching his palm between mine, the heavy aroma of coffee wafting from the steaming mug between us as it slowly cools.

"Grace," he says finally, drawing my attention from our hands. "How long have you been dead?"

The question takes me by surprise. "N-New Year's Eve . . . ." I take a deep breath and force myself to say it. "Thirty years on New Year's Eve. . . . How did—."

"Actually, I didn't. At least not until last week." His laugh is light and airy.

I look at him quizzically, and he drops his gaze to the ground next to the table. He runs his left hand through his hair and I'm suddenly reminded of that first time I saw him five months ago. It leaves his hair mussed, and I smile despite myself, at how boyish he looks with his flushed cheeks and ruffled waves.

"I, uh- I ran into the nice elderly woman you live with—what's her name?"

"Ms. Delia."

"Yes, I ran into Ms. Delia on Dell the other day and I asked her about you. I've seen you. In the window, on the porch. You like to watch the birds." At this his blush darkens and he shifts in his seat. "Anyway, I asked her about you."

Curious as to how he could have asked Ms. Delia about a woman she lives with whom does not exist, I respond with, "What did you say?"

"Well, I just asked her what your name was, what the name of her apartment mate was. She seemed genuinely surprised that I asked and looked at me—yeah, just like you're looking at me now, with her eyebrows way up on her forehead like that—well, she didn't know what I was talking about. So I described you, thinking that maybe she knew you from down the hall or something, but she told me that the residents of the building were all older and most were retired from their jobs."

I frowned. "So then . . . how did you come to the conclusion that I was . . . ." I swallow, "Dead?"

He lifts his gaze from the floor to meet mine. "I think Ms. Delia is smarter than you take her for." He laughs at the doubtful expression I give him. "She told me that all the residents were older, but that the building used to be a female dorm. Then, almost as an afterthought, she said that she sometimes feels like there's an angel watching over her, and then she winked at me and walked away. I didn't get it at first, but then I looked up to her window and I saw you standing there looking out at the world, something just clicked. I figured, what else could it be?"

He's looking at our joined hands and now I can see the fascination on his face. He is just as confused by all of this as I am. I had never met anyone who was able to see me for who I am. Most people might sense my presence—a sudden chill, an unexplained breeze, the feeling they're not alone—but no one had ever been able to actually see me, let alone touch me.

"You have a gift." I say, breathless in awe of the situation.

He lifts his eyes to mine again. That gentle smile finds its way to his lips once more and this time I smile back. "Then I guess it's good you were the first ghost I've met. I imagine I would have felt very different about my ability had I encountered the more vengeful spirit type first."

I can't help but laugh, and then I suddenly remember the young couple. They must think Ryland is crazy, sitting over here talking to himself. I look to my left, and am relieved to see that they have already left. The man is still in the corner though, harumphing at his paper and twitching his mustache. Ryland strokes his finger down the inside of my palm and I look back to him. He's fixated on our hands.

"I didn't think I'd be able to touch you."

I stare down at our hands too and watch as he draws lazy circles in my palm.

"What do I feel like?"

"Like tissue paper."

I look up at him and he laughs.

"Seriously. I'm afraid if I push too hard I'll go right through."

I frown. Who knows, perhaps he would. That's oddly disconcerting.

"How did it happen?"

"Hm?"

"Your death?"

". . . Car accident. I was walking back to my dorm after the fireworks show the city puts on. A drunk driver hit me. Next thing I knew, I was staring down at my mangled dead body."

I can see the pity in his eyes, so I shrug.

"I wasn't really very happy in my life. Didn't have any friends, didn't know what I wanted to do. Things didn't change much for me after I died."

"Well, why not change things now?"

"What do you mean?"

"You've never really had a friend before. I've never been friends with a spirit before. What do you say? Want to see how this friendship works?"

I smile. "Being friends with a spirit isn't going to be easy, you know. For one thing, people will think you're crazy if you're always talking to yourself."

He pauses a moment to think, then snaps his fingers as a thought comes to him. "I'll just wear my headphones. Then people will think I'm on the phone and my crazy will be explainable."

I laugh and shake my head. "The sad part is, that will actually work."

He laughs too, a light chuckle. "What people will think of me isn't what concerns me."

"Oh? Then what would concern you? That I might watch you while you sleep?"

"No—well, actually, I hadn't considered that yet. Is that a common hobby of yours?" He asks.

"No. Not really." I admit.

"Then I won't worry about that yet. The real problem, is that I have no idea what a ghost might want for Christmas."

I stare at him wide eyed. ". . . Oh. Wow. I haven't celebrated a Christmas since . . . ."

He squeezes my hand reassuringly and I feel my eyes start to burn with unshed tears.

"Um-"

He looks up at me, the sadness has returned to his eyes now too. "What is it?"

". . . I can't give you a Christmas present."

"That's alright. You don't have to."

"No . . . no . . . it's not that. Ryland, I can't pick things up. I can't give you a Christmas present."

We stare at each other, wide eyed and lost for words, tears pricking at the corners of my eyes and concern at the corners of his. Suddenly Ryland starts laughing—a big, round, full-bodied laugh that leaves you aching when you're done—and I can't help but laugh with him.

In the corner of the room the man looks over at Ryland—at us—and harumphs. Outside, the snow continues to fall in soft silent blankets, making everything beneath invisible, but here inside the café, Ryland's eyes shine with a mischievousness as they meet mine. For the first time in my life I feel alive.