Nick and Charles Danvier show up a few minutes before three o’clock. I’ve got the conference room cleaned, and Ryan has set up the presentation on the laptop, which will project to a screen at the front of the room. And the cookies are prominently displayed in the middle of the table.
Now it’s show time.
As always, Nick holds onto my hand several beats too long when he greets me hello. He’s in his forties with a full head of dark blonde hair and a cleft chin. He’s handsome, but not nearly as handsome as he thinks he is. Of course, with the sort of money his family has, he doesn’t have to be. He flashes his full mouth of startlingly white teeth at me. “Elizabeth. It’s great to see you.”
“Great to see you too,” I say, trying to disentangle my hand from his without it seeming rude.
Charles Danvier is wearing a tweed suit that looks like it was most fashionable in a decade long ago. Much like his son, he has a full head of hair, but his is all white and no attempt has been made to comb it out. When I hold out my hand to him, instead of shaking it, he pulls it to his lips and kisses it. Nick rolls his eyes and laughs.
“You must be the Elizabeth I’ve heard so much about,” Charles Danvier says with a toothy grin. “We’re expecting good things here today!”
“Yes…” I try to push away the uneasy feeling in my stomach. “Mr. Danvier, I think you’ll be very happy with—”
“Cookies!” Charles cries out before I can finish my sentence.
Charles makes his way over to the plate of cookies Roberta baked. I fix a smile on my face. “Yes, that’s a batch of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies using the chocolate samples you sent to us.”
“Very good,” Nick says without enthusiasm, although Charles reaches for a cookie immediately. Bless his heart.
Nick glances at Michelle, who has arisen from her feet at the conference table to greet him. His face falls. “Where is the blonde who was here last time—Courtney, was it?”
My heart skips in my chest. Stupid coffee. I shouldn’t be surprised by Nick’s reaction. Michelle is attractive, but not as pretty as Courtney. Courtney has the shorter skirts and bigger boobs. But we can get this account without short skirts or big boobs.
“She might be joining us later,” I say vaguely. Over my dead body. “In the meantime, Michelle will be here.”
Great. We haven’t even started yet, and Nick is already disappointed. But on the plus side, Charles is eating his second cookie.
The first time I ever did one of these presentations, I was so nervous, I couldn’t stop shaking. Marley was in the room with me then, smiling and nodding, which is the only thing that got me through it. Now it’s almost like second nature. I flip through my carefully prepared slides, outlining the crux of our campaign. I watch Nick’s face, gauging his reaction. He’s nodding, although it’s hard to tell if he’s just being polite. The old man eats about four cookies during this time.
While I’m speaking, I imagine Marley is in the room with me. Smiling and nodding.
“Now I’d like to show you the ad we made for you.” I pause on the slide with the video we prepared about the land of chocolate. “I think you’re going to love it. Obviously, it’s very rough, so we would love to hear your ideas about what you’d like to change.”
I click on the video, expecting the screen to disappear into the land of chocolate. But instead, I see something completely different.
It’s a shot of two little girls playing in the snow. They look like they’re in their backyard. One is rolling a huge ball of snow, and the other is rolling a smaller ball. We watch as one of the girls picks up the smaller ball and places it on the larger ball. They’re making a snowman.
What the hell is this?
The camera zooms in closer. A little girl with a red hat that has a little white puff at the end is looking for rocks on the ground. When she finds a few of them, she puts them on the snowman’s face to form his eyes. The other, smaller girl pulls the pink hat off her own head and places it on top of the snowman.
“What are you doing?” the older girl cries.
“I’m making him come to life!”
“No! You’re going to give yourself a cold!”
The older girl rips the hat off the snowman and places it back securely on the other girl’s head. The younger girl giggles. “My hat is all covered with snow now!”
And I mouth the words along with her. Because, of course, I knew exactly what she was going to say. Because I know who these two little girls are.
The younger girl is my sister, Polly.
And the older girl is me.
I don’t know how this is happening. How did this snippet of my childhood end up inside my presentation to my most important client? I click on the screen, furiously trying to pause the video, but it won’t stop.
“What are we going to do about a nose?” the younger version of myself asks on the screen.
“We can use a rock?” Polly suggests.
“Don’t be silly! It’s got to be a carrot!”
Polly plants her hands on her hips. “Well, I don’t got a carrot! Do you?”
I anxiously look over at Nick Danvier, and he’s frowning. He crosses and uncrosses his legs, then clears his throat. “Elizabeth, this seems a bit long…”
“Of course,” I say quickly. “I’m so sorry. Just having some technical difficulties here…” I crook my finger at Michelle. “Could you help…?”
I glance back up at the screen. Polly and I have started a snowball fight. My sister gathers snow into her little gloved hand and hurls it with all her might. It hits my puffy purple jacket, and I squeal with delight. I remember that jacket. I thought it was the most beautiful jacket in the world, but now it just looks cheap. But in this movie, I couldn’t have cared less.
Was I ever really that happy?
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Michelle hisses at me. She is clicking everywhere she can with the mouse. “The video won’t stop. It’s frozen. I think we need to reboot the computer.”
“Girls! What are you doing out there?”
Oh my God, it’s my mother’s voice.
“Let’s reboot,” I say. I can’t watch anymore of this video. I press my thumb against the power button on the laptop, desperate to shut this down.
But the video keeps on playing.
The two little girls run into the house. And there is my mother. My mother, who has now been dead for over a decade. She looks somehow different than I remember her. Shorter. Skinnier. Younger. She isn’t any older than I am right now. Her hair is frizzy the way mine would be if I didn’t get keratin treatments. And when she smiles at the two little girls, her eyes crinkle in a painfully familiar way. She loves those girls. More than anything. You could see it all over her face.
“Oh, Ebbie, you’re all wet!” My mother strips off my puffy purple coat. When she’s freed me from it, she wraps her arms around me. I can almost feel her hugging me. I remember how safe I used to feel when I was with my mother. “We’ve got to warm you up.”
“Can we have hot chocolate, mama?” Polly asks.
“Hot chocolate!” I cry happily.
“Two cups of hot chocolate coming right up!” my mother says.
“With marshmallows?” I add.
“With marshmallows,” she agrees.
Just when I am ready to hurl the laptop out the window to get this stupid movie to stop showing, the screen goes dark. It’s over. Thank God it’s over.
But then I look at Nick and realize the damage is already done.
“I think this is all we have time for,” he says in a clipped voice. “Thank you for your time, Elizabeth.”
“But that wasn’t the right video,” I say weakly.
Nick offers me a thin smile. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll be in touch.”
No, he won’t. I just blew the biggest account of my career.
Nick and Charles exit the conference room, with barely a goodbye, although Charles takes a stack of cookies with him when he goes. Michelle and I are left alone, casting glances at the laptop.
“What the hell happened?” I say.
“I don’t know!” Michelle cries. “Where did that video even come from?”
That’s a great question. Where did it come from? Who has access to a video for my childhood?
Michelle casts an anxious glance in my direction. She’s worried I’m going to blame it all on her. “What should I do?”
“Go back to your desk.”
She doesn’t have to be told twice. She scurries out of the conference room with a pile of her notes. I can’t believe this just happened. I was so sure we were going to get this account. Nick had all but told me.
I sink into one of the chairs in the conference room and bury my face in my hands. What am I going to do now? There’s no way I’ll get the CEO job after this performance. I really blew it. There’s no way to come back from this.
That’s when I hear a noise. Like footsteps.
I look up and see that the video has started playing again. Even though the laptop is off. It’s off, for Christ’s sake. What in hell is going on here?
There’s a school bus on the screen. But not the kind of school bus I took to school. It’s a shorter school bus, the kind for kids with disabilities, and it’s lingering at one house for a long time. I slide to the edge of my seat, trying to identify the house. But it doesn’t look familiar.
And then the bus drives away, leaving behind a little boy standing with the aid of two forearm crutches.
The boy is very cute. He has a face full of freckles, and his green hat is lopsided on his head. His blue eyes are clear and determined.
It’s snowing out and the ground is obviously slippery. The little boy is walking very slowly to make sure he doesn’t fall when his crutches leave the ground. He takes careful steps on the sidewalk. But then out of nowhere, a snowball hits him square in the chest.
“Hey, retard!” an older boy’s voice rings out. “Watch out for the snow!”
There are two older boys, both at least a head taller than the boy on crutches. They start laughing hysterically. And then the second boy forms another snowball with his fists.
As I watch, I get an ache in my chest. Who would attack a little kid? Especially one on crutches.
But the little boy has more spunk than I thought. Even as the snowballs smash into him, he doesn’t cry. Instead, when the camera zooms in on him, there’s a determined look in his eyes. And at that moment, I realize who I’m looking at.
It’s Tim. A tiny version of Tim, at least.
He drops his right crutch down onto a snowdrift, then scoops up some snow with his right hand. He has to let go of his left handle to form the snowball, and even I realize how precarious this is. As the boys laugh at him, he draws back his right hand and fires that snowball at the boys. It hits the taller one right in the face. “Take that, asshole!” he yells.
Wow, Tim had a lot of spunk when he was a kid.
It wasn’t a wise move on his part, because both boys scoop up more snow and pummel him with four snowballs right in a row. He holds his own for the first three, but the fourth throws him off balance, and he falls in the snow, right on his butt.
The door to his house swings open at that moment and a woman emerges. The dark hair throws me off, which is why it takes me a few moments to recognize Roberta. She quickly takes in the situation with keen eyes and screams at the boys, “What do you hooligans think you’re doing? You should be ashamed of yourselves! Get out of here before I call the police!”
Well, it looks like Roberta had some spunk too.
She rushes over to Tim, who isn’t having much luck getting back on his feet in the slippery snow. But to his credit, he’s trying his best.
“Timmy!” she cries. “Are you okay, honey?”
“Do you want me to carry you into the house?”
Even though he’s just a little boy, Tim looks properly horrified. “Mom. No.”
But he does let her help him to his feet. And she stands guard as he carefully steps through the snow to get to the front door of their home.
And then the screen goes black again.
What is going on here? Where did these videos come from? The first or second could maybe be explained as a home movie, although they honestly didn’t look like any home movie I’ve ever seen. But that video of Tim was really weird. Where did that come from?
I’ve got to talk to Tim. I’ve got to figure out if that scene in the snow really happened. Because otherwise, I’m scared that I could be losing my mind.
Or worse, I’m being haunted.
I stare at the screen, waiting for it to display another horrible memory of Christmas past. But it doesn’t. It stays dark.
I’ve got to get out of here. Before I totally lose it.
Nobody says anything when I rush out of work early. Word has already undoubtedly spread about the disaster presentation I gave. About the fact that I screwed up my shot at being CEO. They all think that’s why I’m leaving. They have no idea.
When I get out onto the street, a few snowflakes are falling from the sky. Christmas snow. I remember when there used to be nothing more wonderful. I remember holding out my tongue to catch those first few flakes falling from the sky. I remember the snowball fights with Polly. That snowman we built together. Snow was just about the funnest thing there was.
These days, all I can think about is what the snow is going to do to my shoes and my coat. But right now, all of that is the last thing on my mind.
I reach into my purse and pull out my phone. I look at my recent calls and select Tim’s number. I’ve got to talk to him about that video I saw. He’s going to think I’m nuts, but there’s no one else I could tell.
“Ebbie?” He sounds really surprised to hear from me. I don’t blame him. I thought when we hung up earlier, it would be the last time we’d talk for the rest of our lives. “What’s going on?”
“I need to talk to you. Please.”
“Okay. What about?”
I start to explain about the video, but when I hear the words in my head, it sounds ridiculous. This is not going to be a quick story. “Can I meet you somewhere?”
He’s quiet for a moment. “What’s going on?”
“Please. It’s important.”
He must hear the urgency in my voice, because he finally says, “All right. How about if I meet you at your place in an hour?”
I make a run for the subway.
The snow is coming down much harder by the time I get to my building. Part of me wants to call Tim and tell him not to bother going out. I feel bad making him drive out in the snow. But on the other hand, if he didn’t want to come, he could have called me and told me that himself. He’s a big boy.
I know it’s selfish, but I want him here.
No, I need him here.
I pass the alley on the way to my building. The cats all recognize me now. I hear them meowing—no matter how much it’s snowing or how cold it is, I can’t skip out on feeding them. They’re counting on me. Fortunately, I have a few cans in my bag, as I always do. No, I am not a crazy cat lady just because I have cat food in my purse.
The cats all gather around while I open the cans. They’re so excited by the food. It sort of reminds me of how I was in those old videos. I had nothing, but I was so happy. I was happy just playing in the snow. Drinking some hot chocolate. Opening a few cheap presents.
Alexander rubs his body against my leg, like he always does. The other cats are gobbling up the food, but he wants to be close to me. He wants to cuddle more than he wants food. I stroke my hand against his soft black fur. Yes, he’s a black cat. But I’m not worried—I’ve had enough bad luck for one day.
“Hey, buddy.” He rolls onto his back, presenting his belly to me to rub. Cats only do that when they trust you. “Are you cold?”
Of course he’s cold. What kind of stupid question is that? But I guess any question is sort of stupid when you ask a cat.
And that’s when I do something really stupid.
Five minutes later, I am unlocking the door to my apartment with Alexander’s warm body bundled under my coat. I can feel him purring against me. My building doesn’t allow cats. I have no room in my life for a cat. There’s a chance I could be allergic. Yet for some reason, I am smuggling a cat into my apartment.
I may have really lost it this time.
I’m not at all equipped for a cat either. I don’t have any cat food bowls. No litter box either, which is especially troubling. Maybe I can train Alexander to use the toilet? Don’t some cats do that? I think I’ve seen it on YouTube.
The good news is, at least I have plenty of cat food. I empty a can of beef for him into one of my salad bowls. Then I fill a mug with water for him. He laps at the food happily, overjoyed with these simple gifts, while I stand in the middle of my living room, contemplating what I have just done.
I just took a cat off the street and brought him into my home. Where cats are not allowed.
I’ll just have to return him tomorrow. It’s as simple as that.
I’m in the middle of googling how to make a litter box out of things in your apartment when the doorbell rings. Alexander lets out a loud meow and dives under my sofa. God, he’s such a fraidy-cat.
I race over to the door as fast as I can in my blistered feet (stupid stylish but uncomfortable Christian Louboutin pumps). I throw it open, and Tim is standing there, wearing a black hat that is damp from the snow and a coat that looks a hell of a lot warmer than mine. He adjusts his grip on his crutches. “I came as fast as I could.”
“No umbrella?” I ask.
He stares at me like I’ve got two heads. “How do you think I would hold it?”
I take a step back so he can come inside. His sneakers are slick with moisture, and they darken my plush white carpet. “Usually I have people take their shoes off…”
He raises an eyebrow. “Really, Ebbie? That’s the first thing you say to me when I come in?”
I lower my eyes. “Sorry.”
“I can’t take my shoes off.” He averts his own gaze. “Not unless you’d like me to crawl across the living room.”
“Sorry,” I say again. “Why don’t you… come on in?”
He limps into the apartment. He’s totally staining my carpet with his shoes, but I don’t even care that much. I’m just glad he’s here. Anyway, I’m sure the cat will have wrecked my carpet by the end of the day.
He’s almost at the sofa when Alexander emerges from his hiding place. Tim blinks a few times then looks up at me. “Did you have a cat yesterday?”
“Um, no. He’s new.”
“Where’s his collar?”
“I don’t have one yet. Like I said, he’s new.”
“Didn’t you say your building didn’t allow cats?” His eyes widen. “Ebbie, is that one of the cats from outside?”
Oh my God, why is he giving me the third degree about the cat? The cat is the least of my problems. “Look, I need to talk to you.”
Tim completes his journey to the sofa and collapses into the same cushion where he was sitting this very morning. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a guy in my apartment three times in two days. I always thought if I did, it would be under different circumstances. Oh well.
“You don’t look so good.” He shrugs off his coat. “What’s going on?”
I sink down beside him on the couch. As soon as my butt touches the cushions, I feel a little better. I’ve been standing for a long time. Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe that’s all this is. Maybe if I get one good night’s sleep, everything will be better.
Tim pulls off his glasses and wipes the moisture off with his shirt. His eyes look so blue with his glasses off. I remember that freckle-faced kid in the video. I wonder when his freckles faded. I don’t see any right now.
“Did you have freckles when you were a kid?” I blurt out.
He blinks at me. “Is that what you brought me here to ask me?”
“No, I…” I squeeze my hands into fists. “I was just… wondering.”
He narrows his eyes. “Ebbie, what’s going on here?”
I let out a long breath. “Something else… happened.”
“Something… really odd.”
He cocks his head to the side. “Did you get another fake call from Marley Jacobs?”
I wish that’s what had happened. “No. I was at my presentation today when this movie started playing. I mean, the movie was supposed to play, but it wasn’t the movie I wanted. It was something different.”
“It was a video from a long time ago. From back when I was a kid. Except it wasn’t a home movie or anything like that. It was like I was watching my past from afar. Like, stuff that happened to me when I was a kid.”
Tim is just staring at me. “Okay…”
“When Marley was talking to me, she said I would be visited by the spirit of the past. Do you think that…?”
He shifts on the sofa. “You mean, you think this is part of the prank?”
“Yes, but… the thing is… if this is a prank, I don’t see how they’re doing it. I mean, how could they get a movie of me when I was a kid? It doesn’t make sense. Also…”
Tim frowns. “What?”
“There was a video of you too.”
“That’s right. From back when you were a kid. You were coming home from school or something and some older boys were throwing snowballs at you.”
He snorts. “Well, that could happen to any kid, right?”
“Right.” I grab at my knees with my fingers. “But the kid in the video had…” I nod in the direction of his crutches, laid out across the ground. “And he looked like you too... or at least a younger version. Except you had freckles. And then Roberta came out after you fell—”
“Hold on.” Tim raises his hand. “Are you seriously telling me you think you saw video of me when I was a kid?”
He studies my face a moment. “What’s your game here?”
“What are you talking about? This isn’t a game.”
“Yeah, but you don’t honestly believe those videos are real.” He narrows his eyes at me. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do right now, but I really don’t appreciate it.”
“I’m not trying to do anything! I just want to know what’s going on!”
“So there are only two explanations for the things you’re describing.” He cracks his knuckles. “You know that, right?”
I swallow. “Tim…”
“The first is that you’re making the whole thing up.” He pauses and looks me straight in the eyes. “And the second is that you’re out of your mind.”
“What kind of person would make something like this up?”
“I don’t know. The same kind of person who would fire my mom right before Christmas?”
He’s reaching for his crutches on the ground. He’s going to leave. He thinks I’m either a liar or out of my mind. And the scary part is, he might be right.
“Please don’t go,” I say. “Please. I don’t want to be alone right now.”
He looks up at me, shaking his head. “I should never have come in the first place.”
“So why did you?”
He lowers his eyes. “You know very well why I came.”
I get a warm feeling through my body. “No. Tell me.”
“Tell me the truth about what’s going on.”
“The truth is…” The truth is, I can’t tell him the truth. I realize that as I stare into his blue eyes. If I do, he won’t believe me, and then he’ll leave. I have to lie. “The truth is, I’ve had a horrible day. The worst. I just blew the biggest account of my career. I still can’t believe it happened.” I swallow hard. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am imagining things.” Alexander rubs against my leg and I reach out to stroke his fur. “Now it’s your turn.”
“Fine, you want the truth?” He leans back against the sofa, his head dropping against the cushions. “I don’t know what it is about you, Ebbie. I’m furious at you for what you did to my mother. But for some reason, the whole goddamn day, I kept looking at my phone and hoping you’d call me again. And then when you did, I raced out here in the snow, even though I’m probably going to fall and break my leg when I leave here.” He rakes a hand through his still damp hair. “So in summary, I’m an idiot.”
“At least you’re not the one imagining things.”
He snorts. “Don’t be so sure.”
“No. You’re definitely not.”
He hesitates for a moment, then reaches out and gently runs his fingers along the length of my arm. I shiver, and my whole body starts to tingle. “I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?” he says.
“It doesn’t matter.”
And then he leans forward to kiss me.
To be continued...