Around her, children ran around screaming and laughing, chasing each other in a frenzy of excitement and extreme sugar rush. They had finished licking the spoons that scraped the cake batter into round pans of varying sizes – they were full of energy. She simply stood there, unmoving and silent as her memories crowded, their constant dull hum freed now, their pitch rising into a roar.
Years before, she held a different sort of treasure in her hands; beautiful, but completely different from the pinecones. Along the way, she had lost those items, but in her mind, they remained as fresh and as amazing as the first time she used them.
Their first Christmas took place in a tiny apartment in one of the poorest parts of town. When it rained, the water ran black, smelled incredibly rank, and filtered everywhere. Mosquitoes buzzed and feasted on the dwellers of the building, most of whom had lost sensitivity to the blood suckers. Sand mixed with mud for days, creating a slush that was slippery, and only seemed deceptively sturdy. Children ran through the puddles, slipping and sliding every which way, and eventually, it was part of their routine.
She minced her way through the patches of mud and water, every day to and from work. She tried to make sure everything she needed was in her hands both times, taking out her bags of garbage out on her way to work, and bringing in fast food and drinks when she headed home. The walls in the room were paper thin. So many times she had heard the couple next door to her, alternating between screaming fights or sex. She learned early on to invest in some headphones – drowning out the life that went on all around her. She slept alone most nights, but when he came into her life, she had a companion most nights.
He lived in the house down the street from her dinky apartment, but young love (or was it the sex, readily available) that made him put up with her daily chaos. They were young. Oh, were they ever so young! She never thought they would make it past the initial attraction. She had found out after many, many failed attempts that she became quickly bored with her companions. She often had to leave a snarling, angry man behind, running or walking quickly away, to avoid complicating things with the words “Let’s stay friends.” That never worked. She never really wanted to spend any more time with them, yet they took that as a sign that at the end of the night, perhaps they would get lucky.
It was different somehow with this one. He was not clingy, but he put more effort into his time spent with her. He also knew exactly what it was with her. He too, saw the rats scrabbling across the floor and delving into her tiny plastic wastebasket. He knew that she hated sharing the one lumpy pillow that came with the room. He knew she had nothing, came from nothing, but wanted to make something of herself.
And so, the hot so-called summer months passed, and still, he visited. Soon he was spending more time in her room than in his. On the first night of cold front, while the wind whipped and screamed through the creaky floorboards and cracks in the wall, he left his home in the middle of the night, bringing with him his pillow and a blanket. She got up from the bed where she lay shivering from the cold, hardly covered in the threadbare sheet. The sight of him, and his pillow and blanket, signaled something different was afoot. There was never a confirmation or conversation that cemented his decision to stay, but things certainly started looking up. Her landlady certainly thought so too, for two people in one room meant a few more dollars in rent.
The weeks before Christmas meant watching other homes light up, decorations going up, tinsel and ornaments and items far beyond her reach, filling out others’ homes. It was a time when walks on the beach were aplenty. They held hands, letting the warm sea breeze blow on their faces. When it grew cold, the hugged each other for warmth, snuggling and walking almost as one, but still they walked the beach. Shells lay on the shore, few and far in between, along with broken coral and the occasional sea fan. After a few walks amongst the treasures, they began to collect them. Rinsed of sand in the sea, the shells became endless decoration possibilities. Glitter was cheap, glue and ribbon hardly made a dent in their pockets. His mother gave them her tiny plastic tree, along with a few yards of red and blue tinsel.
From work, she searched for ideas, learning from the screen how to form bows and how to best glue ribbon to the backs of shells. She used clear polish to coat the shells and give them some sheen. They hung their treasures on the sagging branches of their first tree. He took care of the tinsel, draping it like he remembered his mother doing, and at the top, a sea fan splayed out like the wings of the typical angel topper. They were so pleased. They didn’t notice the excess glue strings that had hardened and now trailed haphazardly, or the cracks in some of the shells. They didn’t notice the slight scent of fish in the room. They just saw their first project together…
Now she was older, a bit wiser perhaps, holding pinecones in her hand. It was all she could do to hold back the tears as she wished for those first ornaments they created. Where she stood, where she now lived, no-one knew what she had lived, and what she longed for still. Memories, they were all she had…
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