A Nice Christmas for Once

The dog shuffled under the blankets, warming her legs. Despite the flannel pjs and six blankets Rosie was still cold, freezing in her house. An inability to pay your heating bill would do that, and she suffered from a strong case of what she called “brokeitis”, so like most people she was on the allotment plan. The winter months were the worst, but it was still easier to combat than the lack of heat of the summer, which just felt wrong. Besides, it was always winter these days.

She had never known anything else. The world had been growing colder for nearly thirty years now, and she had grown up in it. Her parents had waxed poetic about the good old days, the heat they experienced in  summer as they played baseball or skipped rope, whatever they did back then. Rosie, however, had only known heat from a fire. She had spent over two decades watching all the trees die, which was fortunate given the need for things to burn. The woman lived to burn, and to draw others to the fire.

Yellow jacket and pants hung from pegs in the wall over a thick pair of rubber boots. Once the garb of a hero, a savior, it was now ideal for those looking to avoid the heat and to warm others, lighting the fires with dead wood and paper, old furniture, anything that would burn. Rosie spent her days participating in this new career, those raised above by their willingness to do what needed to be done. Those hippies and degenerates, those bleeding hearts had been outraged at first but it was a new era. Electricity and cold, these were the only things anyone knew now. Rosie brought the light, the new world, to people who lived in the perpetual grey outside.

Bing-bong.”

The doorbell rang and the tiny dog under the covers began to freak out. She gripped it by the collar, holding it still. ‘Hush,” she said. “Be quiet Beauregard,” she said. Cold air hit her feet despite the wooden stove. She shuddered at it, the sudden drop in temperature and the thought of having to get up making her brain ache. Her allotment of energy was up for the day and meant frigid temperatures throughout the apartment.

Hefting some of the blankets, she stayed wrapped in them. She held them together around her, the little dog cupped in the crook of one arm as she carried him. Animals were kept for extra body head now, but Beauregard had become something of a wonderful novelty to her these days. Three pairs of socks carried her over the hardwood floors with the creature, sliding each foot forward rather than lift it for a true step. They glided like ghosts over the floor, the living memories of heat and life rather than existing as long as they could, only to freeze and haunt the house permanently as statuettes. Gloved hands on the doorknob, she fumbled a bit in an attempt to grip the metal. Beauregard looked up at her, seemingly amused with her antics. She finally got the doorknob to catch on the cotton and twisted, opening the door.

A young woman stood on her porch, no older than eighteen at the most. She only had one a couple of layers of clothing and she was shuddering in the snowy conditions. Peeking out from the zipper of her coat, however, was a small puppy of her own. The tiny greyhound puppy’s ears shot up and Beauregard’s attention was piqued. He began to whine, to shake with excitement at the thought of play, but feared the cold too much to actually leave the blankets. “Aw, hewwo,” the young girl said. “Is it me you’re lookin’ for?”

“What can I do for you?” Rosie asked, pulling her dog closer to her chest. A slightly warmer feeling spread through it.

“I’m swapping companionship for heat,” the girl said directly. “Way to make a living.”

“I’m…uh…not really into that.”

“What do you mean? I get to sit inside for a few hours, hopefully while your power is on for your allotment, and in exchange there’s a fun afternoon.”

Rosie cringed at this. “Honey, you don’t need to do that for heat.”

“Companionship? Oh come on, that’s not bad.”

“Nasty old men pawing at you, women desperately using you for both a heat source and a good time, that’s not that bad?”

The girl twisted up her face in confusion, then began laughing. She held her side,  the corner of her bag sweeping into the pile of snow on the porch. “No, genius, not company for people. I take Peeky here from house to house to let other dogs have some companionship in exchange for heat!”

Understanding dawned on Rosie, then confusion sank back in. “They’re just dogs,” she said. “People really willing to swap heat just so their dog can have a good time?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” the girl giggled. “They feel bad for the things. I’ve seen the weirdest stuff, Peeky here cuddling with a cat in front of a fireplace while the old guy burned clothes and his old war-trunk to stay warm. People are getting desperate but they still love doing ridiculously nice things for their pets.”

Rosie looked her up and down, looked at the hiking pack on her back and the bag held in her left hand. The girl was shaking in the snow, the wet dusting shaking off of her as soon as it hit her. Peeky, the aforementioned puppy, was nuzzling down into her coat further. His ears stuck up from the partially open zipper at the throat, as did his face up to the eyes. He was looking directly at Beauregard, who was peeking out of the nest of blankets to look at the other dog. Rosie felt an odd movement in the blankets and discovered that he was attempting to wag his little tail, excitement shivering through his whole body. The dog began to whine in his throat.

“Ok, ok, I guess,” she said.

The girl squealed and came in the door. She did not remove her boots or outer layers as the heat was still off but she glanced over and saw that Rosie did indeed have a fireplace. “What do you use in there?” she asked. “Oh,” she continued, sticking out her free hand, “I’m Karen. Nice to meet you.”

Rosie took the offered hand and shook it. “Hi Karen. I mostly burn books these days, occasionally old furniture,” Rosie replied. “I have an old bookshelf that I think will do just fine in there if we chop it up. Then we can let the dogs play a bit when the fire warms up.”

“I kind of have another surprise for you,” Karen said, setting the bags down on the floor. The only bit of furniture left in the room was the large rug in front of the fireplace, and she knelt on it, unzipping her oversized duffel bag. “Most people don’t check their calendar anymore, what with the days all being the same anymore. They forget what’s coming and what’s important, but I try to keep an accurate record in my notebook and I’m pretty sure today is kind of a special day.”

“A special day? What kind of special day?”

Karen looked up, a sly smile on her face as she unzipped the large duffel. When she had opened it all the way she whipped the top open. Inside were green, plastic strings of wire covered in bulbs. The little lights were all different colors, blues and reds and greens and yellows. A little evergreen, plastic and patchy in its needles, also rested in the bag. Little figurines and ceramic balls on strings sat inside as well. “I’m pretty sure,” Karen said, “that if I’ve been keeping my calendar right then it’s Christmas Eve.”

Rosie’s eyes widened, bugging out. “Are you sure?” she asked. “I haven’t tried to keep a calendar in ages, I have no idea what month it even is.

“I’m pretty sure,” Karen said. “I’ve been really careful about keeping the calendar. At the worst I’m a day off and it’s actually Christmas.”

Rosie stood for a moment, frozen still. “Hang on,” she mumbled, “I have to go get something.” Her gliding foot-slides took off down the hall.

Karen began unpacking the bag, setting the tree on the floor to the left of the fireplace, far enough to the side that she hoped no accidents would happen. She began to hang the little figurines from it. A G.I. Joe on string, a Darth Vader, a small pink-and-purple pony, and several others. She covered the tree in decorations, some of them Christmas-related but most of them just things she had found over the years. She pulled out the lights and plugged them into the wall. They did not light up, but she draped them over the fireplace mantle anyway. They hung nicely, small nails still there from previous years when decorations and stockings had hung from the wood.

A scraping sound from the hallway. “Help a sister out here,” came Rosie’s voice. Karen got up and looked down the hall. Her companion was dragging a large plastic tub down the hallway in spurts.

“Oh damn,” she said. Karen got up and shuffled over to help. She gripped one corner and together the girls dragged it all the way down the hall to rest next to the fireplace. “What’s in this thing?” Rosie smiled at her and popped the lid off.

It was full of books. Paperbacks, hardcovers, all of them piled in the box. Rosie began pulling them out and tossing them into the fireplace. From within her robe of blankets she produced two chair legs, the wood for their fire. She set these on the fireplace and continued pulling out books, throwing them into the stone hearth. Picoult, Sparks, King, Patterson, even Bradbury went in. The girls loaded a small pile in the steel, claw-shaped andiron. They put the chair legs on top and Rosie pulled out a long, click-lighter and began to burn the books. They caught fire and soon the girls had a blaze going before them. They huddled down next to each other. Peeky stuck his head up, looking for Beauregard.

“Why call him Peeky?” Rosie asked.

“Because he’s always peeking out of my jacket,” Karen said.

“Ha!” barked Rosie. “Fair enough. Listen, I have a couple of surprises of my own in the bucket. Help me dig for them.” Karen nodded and the girls pulled more books out of the tub, stacking them next to the fireplace.

Deep in the bottom of the container were a bottle of wine, two college sports team shot glasses, and nearly a dozen cans of food. “No wonder the thing was so heavy,” Karen said in awe. “You were hiding a gold mine in the bottom.”

Rosie chuckled at this and pulled out the wine and shot glasses as well as a corkscrew hidden in the bottom of the tub with the rest. She opened the bottle up and poured them each a shot. They clinked glasses, whispering “Merry Christmas” to one another, and tossed the alcohol back. The puppies began to emerge and sniff each other, but in moments they were galavanting around before the blazing books and yelping, wrestling, and rolling around together.

The girls ate the cans of chili together and slept in front of the blaze. Late at night, as Rosie woke up with the drunken need to pee, she saw the place lit up. Her power allotment had come through in the middle of the night and while the house was slightly warmer the real wonder was the Christmas lights above her hearth, he colors dancing beautifully in the night. She smiled and ran to pee. When she lay back down next to Karen, she stared at the lights till she fell back into a tipsy sleep.

Karen awoke early the next morning and rose. Fully dressed, still wrapped in her layers, she picked Peeky out of Rosie’s blankets and placed him in her coats. The dog stayed quiet the entire time, familiar with the routine. Karen silently packed the Christmas gear, placing it all in the duffel bag. Then she opened her hiking pack and took most of the cans of food out of the plastic tub, stacking them neatly and packing them with books from the tub as well. She rose silently from the floor in front of the fireplace, a phantom heat still seeping up through her knees from her memory though there was no warmth remaining. She walked outside, tears in her eyes and guilt on her mind.

After going about a block she picked a new house, looking up at it. Glancing at her digital watch, she checked the time and the date. The numbers read 09:48 a.m., 08/15. She sighed, hung her head in shame. Then, closing her eyes, she thought about the night before. She thought about Peeky cavorting around on the floor with Beauregard, enjoying himself for the first time in ages. She thought about the wine and the taste of chili, the special feeling she had gotten from actually enjoying herself with someone for once. The lie was a small price to pay for a nice time, to bring a little joy to people’s lives and to get herself nights in warmer conditions, even if every day had to be Christmas. No one could tell, not with the world freezing over, and so few kept calendars anymore. It all worked out fine.

She sighed, plastered a smile on her face, and walked to the door of this new house.

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