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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

"His Final Gift (or, The Only Time He Gave Her Diamonds)"

[What follows is my submission to the Buffalo News's recent short-story contest. This story didn't win, obviously, because you're reading it here. Apropos of nothing, I agree with Matt -- the opening paragraphs supplied by the News are lousy. But such were the rules.]

In the end, Chris decided, it had all been about the snow.

If Chris had not trusted the weatherman - or had managed to pack up and leave before Lee showed up with that package - everything would be different now.

But there was the snow…both inches of it. Not nearly enough.

Chris had put the skis on her car the night before, and had packed her bag with the things she'd need at Festival Vale resort. She still hadn't been sure if she'd even ski, or simply drive by the resort. It would be hard enough going back to Festival Vale, because of the memories she'd made there with Eric. Memories of snow. All of Eric's memories had involved snow.

She considered driving down to Bernersville anyway, maybe to walk around the quaint resort town, but she finally elected to stay home. Maybe I'm just being a coward, she thought, more than once. Maybe I'm using the weather as an excuse to chicken out. I keep saying that I have to reclaim my life, and that skiing is a good place to start, and that I can't let Eric take the best parts of me…but still, I'm staying right here. I'm letting him have the snow.

Chris was in the middle of vacuuming or something when the doorbell rang. She shoved her way through the coats hanging on the back of the door - too many coats for one person - and looked through the peephole.

It was Lee. Eric's sister. Once one of Chris's closest friends, who might have been Maid of Honor if Eric hadn't turned out to be so…so…so Eric. In her arms Lee held a cardboard box.

Chris sighed. She hadn't seen Lee in six months, either. Since summer. No snow, then. She opened the door.

"Hi, Chris," Lee said with that half-shrug of hers. "Can I come in? I won't be long."

Chris opened her mouth, closed it again without saying anything. She could see a bit of red puffiness around Lee's eyes. She'd been crying. "Come in," Chris said. "Uhhh…tea?"

"No thank you," Lee replied as she came in, put the box down, took off her coat, and picked the box back up again. "I'm only here to give you this."

Chris looked askance at the box - brown cardboard, and a label from Eric's company.

"I got all my stuff when I left," she said.

"Eric wanted you to have this," Lee replied.

Chris laughed the kind of laugh you laugh when something isn't funny at all. She held up a hand and moved toward the door. "I can't do this again, Lee," she said. "Tell Eric I'm sorry, but I can't do all this again." I have to get the snow back again.

Lee's expression changed, and she shifted the box to one arm while she used her fingers of her freed hand to hastily wipe her eyes. "Chris, please," she said. "Eric wanted you to have this."

Chris stopped then and stared, hard, at her onetime friend who she supposed wasn't really her enemy either, just someone caught in the middle of a relationship gone horribly wrong when Eric's moody mysticism had given way to full-blown depression. She folded her arms over her chest, as she always did when she became frightened. She'd never realized she did that - until Eric had pointed the habit out to her. "Eric did it, didn't he." It was not a question, really. Eric had liked to joke, toward the end, about taking lots of pills or maybe swimming out too far into Lake Huron.

Lee's composure cracked, and she put the box down on the coffee table so she could have both hands free to wipe her eyes. "No. Drunk driver. He was out walking."

"No," Chris breathed. "No." No no no no no.

But even so. Chris was more surprised to learn that Eric hadn't killed himself than to learn that he was dead. Chris had been with him in spite of his pain, and in the end had left him because of it. On some level she'd always hoped that Eric would find a way out of his darkness. Someone had found it for him.

"Lee," Chris said. "Lee, I'm so sorry." The same thing that everybody said, which never worked at all. "When - when did he…." How did I not hear about it until now?

"A week ago," Lee replied. She helped herself to a Kleenex from the box Chris offered.
For the next ten minutes, Chris stood there - in that one spot, not moving - as Lee told her about the accident. And how, in going through his things, Lee had found a note from Eric: "If anything happens, give the jars to Chris."

And there it was, Chris realized: Eric had always intended to give her the jars.

Chris leaned over and lifted the flap of the box. There they were: ten simple glass jars, the kind you'd use when making jelly, but Chris well knew that these jars didn't contain jelly. She pulled one of the jars out and turned it in her hand until the label showed. There was Eric's familiar, tiny handwriting, in the same fine-line blue pen he'd always used. "January 19, 1998. Met Chris's parents." Chris smiled in spite of herself as the tears rolled free. Her parents had liked Eric immensely, even though both had noticed how moody he'd been. Chris looked in the jar. A bit of water, and am irregular chunk of translucent ice. Eric had gone out that night, then. He'd gone out and taken one of his jars to gather a bit of snow.

That had been his weirdest habit, and strangely his most endearing. Eric had collected snow. He would take one of his jars and, on a winter day that he wanted to remember, would go outside and grab some snow to keep in his freezer. Some people have entire shelves of chicken in their freezers. Eric had snow. Sometimes the snow would melt, and he'd refreeze it, still in the jar. It made no difference to him. "The water remembers that it was snow," he said.

"There are only ten jars here," Chris said. When she'd left him after that last big fight, the one she'd always wondered if it wouldn't have happened if the subject of marriage hadn't come up in August, the freezer stash had been up to thirty-six little jars of snow, although most of them didn't look like snow after long enough in the freezer.

"Those are the only ones that were left," Lee said.

Chris nodded as she pulled them out, one by one, wondering why he'd discarded the others. She scanned Eric's labels: their first date, on a Wednesday in early April (how lucky there'd been snow that day). The day they'd moved in together, in October (ditto). The day they'd picked out Otto, their pet goldfish; the day they'd given Otto his bathroom funeral.

And one jar, simply labeled "First Christmas without her". Last Christmas. Eric's final Christmas.

"Only these," Chris said. "I guess these are the memories he wanted me to share."

"I don't know," Lee said. "He had that mystical way about him, you know." She rose from the couch. "Snow heals everything, he always said…Look, Chris, I always liked you and thought you'd make a great sister. I wish…I wish a lot of things. I don't expect you to keep this stuff in your freezer - I'd pour it all down the drain, myself - but he wanted you to have them, if only to see them one last time."

Lee moved toward the door. "Goodbye, Chris. And good luck to you."

"Good luck to you too, Lee," Chris said. "I really am sorry."

And with that Lee was gone. Another part of the chapter, closed. Chris gathered up the jars and carried them to her kitchen. She thought she had room in the freezer.

But then she had another thought. One that might appeal to Eric's more mystical side.

So she went up on the roof of her building, with all ten jars. She held the first over the edge of the building and opened it, intending to pour out the water over the city as much as she could, but she never got that far: as soon as the lid was removed, the water and ice inside turned to snow, fresh snow: pure, crystal diamonds that fluttered and danced and sparkled in the rising moonlight, rising from the jar as if riding a breeze meant just for them and disappearing into the night. And so it was with all the jars. Ten jars of snow, turned to snow again. The water had remembered.

Then she went to bed, and awoke the next morning to six inches of fresh snow outside, covering everything. Chris smiled. It was Eric's last gift.

He had, in the end, given her back the snow.

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