**Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate. Here’s a little story for you. Enjoy!**
When you were raised like I was you ended up one of two ways. Either you got sucked into the chaos and continued to make bad decisions or you got yourself out and created your own stability. I’d done the latter. It had taken a lot of work, a lot of help, a lot of years, and ultimately going completely no contact before I’d managed it. But I was long separated from the boy I’d been.
A side effect of that, though, was my need for routine. For traditions of my own making. And when those things were challenged, it sent my world into a tailspin. It didn’t matter that logically I knew everything would be okay. That it would all work out and it didn’t matter if I didn’t have the right thing. I could make do and survive and it would all be fine. Anxiety didn’t care about logic. Panic disorder didn’t either.
After years of hard work and therapy, I’d very carefully cultivated my life. The people in it were my family, even if we weren’t related by blood. There wasn’t a lot of them, though the circle was growing as they found significant others and some of them started families. They all loved me just as much as I loved them, and they knew that I needed certain things to be a certain way in order to feel safe and happy.
The holidays were my thing. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, I was the one in charge. The rest of the year, I was fine to sit back and enjoy my friends. Let them do what they wanted. But the end of the year was mine. Those six weeks were my time to plan and celebrate. I didn’t have any sort of holiday growing up, and now I did everything possible to make it as picture perfect as possible.
Thanksgiving had been a smashing success, just as it always was, all my friends crammed into my tiny home, laughing and eating. I always planned my meal for noon so that those who had other families to visit had the time to do so. Everyone had been able to make it this year, so my heart had been filled. And it had set the tone for the season. The day after, I’d spent hours transforming my house into something that would make a Hallmark Christmas Movie proud.
My Christmas celebration was always on the Eve, a sort of open house party that lasted from five in the evening till the wee hours. Some of my friends had other obligations, but they stopped in for a bit at least to make merry. I’d been meticulously planning and preparing, because that one day brought me more joy alone then the rest of the year combined.
I’d been out doing some last minute grocery shopping. I needed to get the pies made tonight and get started on the cookies. Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, there would be more baking, and a pot of mulled cider on the stove, and all sorts of hor d’oeuvres made, so that people could snack and drink and enjoy themselves before we opened the White Elephant gifts, which were always nice and never a joke because I couldn’t handle embarrassment.
I put away the groceries, leaving out the cinnamon, flour, and Crisco and hand just pulled my apron over my head when my phone rang. Glad I wasn’t elbow deep in dough yet, I smiled as I answered my friend Jeremy’s call.
“Hey. What’s up?” I put it on speaker so I could get started and still talk to him. “If you’re calling to make sure I’m making the—”
“Anna’s in the hospital,” he interrupted and the bottom dropped out of my world. He was quick to continue. “She’s okay, but its her appendix, and she’s already out of surgery and doing fine but they aren’t going to release her till the morning and we won’t make it tomorrow.”
For a split second, I was disappointed that they wouldn’t be here, but it was so much more important that Anna was okay. “Of course, Jer. I’m so glad Anna’s okay. But she needs to rest and you need to take care of your wife.”
Jeremy blew out a breath. “Yes. Thank you. But I know how important—”
It was my turn to cut him off. “It is, but Anna is more important. I’ll make sure to pack up goodies, especially some of the apple pie for you, and someone will run them by your house tomorrow night. So you don’t miss out on the festivities and can just rest and relax and Anna can get better.”
“You’re the best.” Jer had sounded shaken when he first started talking but was better now, more calm. He took a deep breath.
“Don’t worry about a thing. And if you need anything else, you let me know okay? Give Anna a squeeze for me.”
“Will do. On both accounts. Talk to you later.”
The line went dead and I had to take a minute and just breathe. I was so glad that Anna was fine, but they’d never missed one of my parties. Not since I’d known them, having worked with Jeremy ten years ago and finding a kindred spirit. Even after we both moved on to different careers, we’d stayed in touch. So missing them tomorrow had put me off kilter, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Anna would make a full recovery and it would all be fine.
I had barely got my head back in the game when I heard an ominous creaking sound. I carefully set the mixer on the counter, then turned to look, trying to find where it was coming from. Another creak had me rounding the counter and heading into the living room. Everything looked fine. Just as I turned to head back, a loud snap and then I screamed as a limb from the oak in my backyard crashed through my bay window and toppled my Christmas tree.
My heart pounding, my breathing fast, I took in the damage. The obliterated window, the snow swirling inside, and the beautiful tree I’d spent two hours decorating lying in shambles on the hardwood. My vision went dark at the edges, and I couldn’t move air through my lungs. Somewhere in my hindbrain screamed panic attack but knowing what was happening didn’t help. I couldn’t breathe. Christmas was ruined. First Anna getting sick and now this and everything I had worked so hard…
The front door banged open but I couldn’t even move, paralyzed and panicking.
“Are you hurt?” I dimly recognized Bray’s voice. My next door neighbor, who usually had my complete attention whenever I saw him, had burst through. Normally, I hung on his every word. But now I couldn’t tear my eyes from the damage, and couldn’t move air through my lungs.
“Max!” Bray’s shout sounded panic, and then his big hands grabbed me and turned me. “Are. You. Hurt?”
I managed a shake of my head. “N-n-no. I was far enough…my house…Christmas…”
“Breathe, baby.” He pulled me in, squeezing me hard, so tight I almost couldn’t expand my chest to do was he instructed. But the deep tissue pressure was exactly what I needed to start regulating myself. “That’s it. Nice breaths. You’re okay. I got you.”
It took a while and then I was shivering. I didn’t know if it was from shock or from the cold air billowing in, but at least I was breathing. And though the panic was still hovering under the surface, it was no longer taking over.
“I heard it come down and when I looked, I saw what happened. But you’re okay, and we’re going to fix this. I’m not going to let your Christmas party get ruined. I know how important it is.” Bray’s voice was deep and soothing, and he smelled woodsy and clean, and his body was big and strong, surrounding me, keeping me safe.
“I can’t…I don’t…” I made myself take another breath, hold it, then let it out slowly. “Sometimes I…”
“I know. I know you better than you think I do. But we’ll fix this. You’re going to let me clean this up while you go back to baking, and get plywood up on the window, and I’ll get your tree put to rights. It’s going to be okay. You hear me?”
“Yeah. Thank you for coming to my rescue.”
“Always.” Bray gave me another squeeze and then slowly pulled back, making sure I was okay to stand on my own before he let me go completely. “I’m going to run back over to my place and get the plywood and my tools.”
“Then I’ll clean up the tree, get it standing again, and we can assess the damage and figure out what needs to be replaced.”
“Okay.” It was weird that I appreciated how much he was repeating himself. It reassured me that we had a plan.
“Do we have a plan?”
I managed a smile at that, considering it was exactly what I just thought. “Yes.”
Bray gave me one more assessing look, then sprinted out the door. He was back five minutes later, plywood and drill in hand, and it was only then that I realized something.
“Uh. Bray? You called me baby.”
He went still for a split second, but then continued on. “I did, yes.”
“There a reason for that?” Because we were friendly, and always talked when we saw each other. Even flirted a bit. But I was under the impression, from the few women I’d seen walking out of his house in the early hours, that he was straight. So I’d always thought it was harmless fun, even though I’d have jumped his bones in a second if he’d given me any real indication.
“There is, yes.”
Huh. Not what I expected. I’d thought he’d say it just slipped out in a the heat of the moment or something. Or say it was an accident. But that was not the case.
“And that reason is?”
“I need to fix your window and get your decorations put back together.” He took a breath. “But after that, maybe I can help you bake and we can talk about how I’m bisexual though I’ve never been with a man, and I have an adorable neighbor who makes my heart speed and my stomach flutter and really loves Christmas.”
I smiled then. “Yeah, we can do that.”
Bray grunted and got to work, and I left him to it so I could make pie crust. I was no longer on the verge of panic, because Bray was here to fix it and keep me from flying off into the ether. Maybe Christmas wasn’t ruined after all.