Ed Montgomery was smiling gently as he shut his computer off. It was Christmas Eve and better still, it was quitting time. His fellow workers in the accounting department at Geniusware were doing the same, and the smiles were broad, laughter was palpable. Ed couldn’t help but steal a glance at Lisa, who was like Ed on the accounts payable team. Ed was the senior on the team and Lisa technically reported to him but in reality the structure was such that Gloria, the manager, was in charge of everybody and Gloria didn’t particularly like Ed.
But Ed liked Lisa, very much so in fact. She was always sweet to him to his face but all of his awkward overtures had ended with gentle but definite refusals. She was always very kind about it and never cruel – which was much more than he could say for a lot of other women he’d felt similarly about – but in the end the results were the same; she just wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship with him.
Ed could scarcely blame her though. Although he pretended not to, he’d heard the whispers ever since he was a boy and the nickname “Fish Head Ed.” While those who knew him would say he had a sweet nature and he was in general well-liked, he was not a handsome man. His eyes bulged a bit and the glasses he wore made them look even more distended. His cheeks were puffy and his jowls hung over his chin like jelly spilling over a jelly jar. He wasn’t fat really, but he was soft and had a pair of man-boobs. He had difficulty exercising because of a back injury he’d suffered in a car accident when he was a boy. Few knew that Ed spent nearly every day in some discomfort but he’d learned to live with it.
The cubicles were emptying out and a few of his co-workers stopped to say “Merry Christmas” to him. Ed responded with similar sentiments and only vague responses when anyone asked if he had plans for the holidays until Ed’s best friend, Rob Pincus, stopped by his desk just as Ed was putting on his overcoat. “Finally. I thought five o’clock would never come. Ready to leave dude?” Ed smiled. Robert was known around the office as Captain Oblivious. Normally he would have said something sarcastic in response but after all, it was Christmas Eve. “Yeah. It’s going to be freezing tonight. Didn’t you bring an overcoat?” Rob hung his head and shook his head no. “It’s been so warm out lately I didn’t bring one.” Ed sighed. His friend would have known if he read a newspaper or watched the television news that snow had been expected for that evening. A cold front was headed straight out of Canada with a brief stop in Winnipeg where every cold front winds up as if drawn by a magnet.
He took off his overcoat and handed it to his friend. Rob started to protest but Ed said “It’s okay dude. I have a sweater in the car and I’m parked 30 feet from the door. You have three busses to take and I don’t want you sitting in the snow in shirtsleeves. You’ll get pneumonia and who the hell wants to be sick on Christmas?” Rob shook his head sheepishly and put the coat on. “You’re amazing buddy. Thanks. So what are you doing on Christmas?” Ed’s smile faltered a little but he said simply “Ohhh, the usual I think.” Rob waggled a finger at him. “The Christmas Story marathon on TBS and take-out Chinese? Come on, buddy why won’t you come up to my place and celebrate for real? You know Jill and the kids would love to see you.” Jill was Rob’s wife and quite frankly, Ed had lived on hope for several years that if awkward Rob could find a woman to love him, maybe Ed could too. Ed shook his head no. “Actually, Mrs. Goldstein in 3A invited me to dinner and a movie with her family and I think I’ll take her up on it. Besides, this is Abby’s first Christmas and that’s special.” Abby was Rob’s new daughter, born just last June. Just mentioning Abby could bring a spectacular smile to Rob’s face and even though he wasn’t much to look at either, when he smiled that way he actually looked pretty handsome.
Rob nodded and shrugged. “Okay if you say so dude. The offer’s open if you change your mind. We’ve got plenty of room and more food than even you can eat.” The two chuckled. Ed’s ability to pack down gargantuan amounts of food was legendary. Rob had often said half-seriously that Ed could make a fortune on the competition eating circuit.
The two went to the elevator and rode down together, talking about inconsequential things. At last they reached the front door of the office. The snowfall was light but the sky was threatening and it was obvious even to Rob that they were in for a lot of snow that night. Rob stopped and shook his friend’s hand. “Thanks again for the overcoat dude. Next year, I’ll have a car for certain – unless Jill gets pregnant again.” Ed snorted. Rob had been talking about getting a car for ages but every time he’d saved enough for a down payment, Jill would get pregnant. They had four kids and Rob took the bus to work. He didn’t seem to mind though.
They walked outside. The bus stop was on the other side of the parking lot and at this time of day, there would be a bus every ten minutes. But at least the stop was covered. They stopped at Rob’s car and Rob said “You’re a life-saver dude, literally. I’ll bring the coat back on the fourth when work starts up again, okay?” Ed nodded. Rob might remember to bring it back on the fifteenth or the thirtieth or not at all unless Ed reminded him. It wasn’t that Rob meant to keep things; he just mislaid them or forgot he had borrowed them altogether. If Ed bitched about it, he’d bring it back with enough apologies to make Hugh Grant blush.
Rob spontaneously gave Ed a hug, which surprised Ed a little bit. Rob was normally more of a “dude” and less of a hugger, but the longer he’d been married to Jill the more he was changing in that direction. “Merry Christmas, dude” said Rob with a smile. “See you next year.” Ed pulled out his keys and unlocked his car, a Corolla. “Merry Christmas Rob. Have a safe trip home.” Rob gave him a lopsided grin and a thumbs up, then walked away to the bus stop.
Ed slid into the Corolla and closed the door. He watched his friend walk away in the snowy twilight, most of the cars already gone from the parking lot. He swallowed and whispered “Goodbye.”
Traffic was much lighter than Ed had expected; most companies had let their employees go early or had even given them the day off but Geniusware was not known for their generosity in that regard – or any regard for that matter. Still, the paycheck was good so Ed had remained there despite the fact that he should have been manager years ago and was woefully underpaid for his skill level. It never occurred to him to stand up for himself.
Ed’s apartment was empty when he got home, as it was every night when he got home. He was chilled to the bone, but oddly that brought a sense of clarity and focus to him. He had other plans for Christmas other than the ones he’d told his friend about.
He debated about fixing himself some dinner and then decided he was hungry, so he heated up some leftover pizza from a few days ago. It was probably stale but he didn’t really think about it too much, he just chewed automatically while watching a medical drama on television. He much preferred cop shows, but there was never a cop show around when you needed one. When he finished eating, he turned on the show he was only half-watching anyway and went to the sink to wash his dish. He put the plate away in the dish rack and wiped the countertop clean.
The apartment was just a one bedroom and not cluttered with a lot of furniture. Ed was a neat sort by inclination anyway and he had spent the night before cleaning his apartment until it was immaculate (which didn’t take long – it was only 700 square feet) and then that morning had finished getting some correspondence written. He mentally went over his checklist, satisfied that he had done everything he needed to do. Then he went to the window.
The apartment was on the tenth floor of a high-rise. It had a decent enough view that he could see the snow falling harder now and the streets were covered. The lights of the city were diffused by the falling snow, given a softness that was beautiful and serene. Ed felt a great sadness fall over him. He wished he could share the view with someone.
Even though the apartment was a little cold, he opened the window. There had used to be a screen over the window but it had gotten damaged during a bad storm a few years ago and had never been replaced. The bitter cold felt invigorating and Ed enjoyed the feeling on his arms. His back was aching quite a bit but that didn’t matter. Not anymore.
Ed nodded to himself. It was time. No sense in putting it off. There was nobody who would really miss him, not really. Rob, maybe. Rob would probably feel bad but there was no-one else. Ed’s parents had died in the same car crash that had ruined his back. He had no brothers or sisters, no girlfriend. In fact, Ed had never had a girlfriend. After all, who would want to be with Fish Head Ed? Unwanted, tears began to come. Ed shook his head savagely. This wasn’t the time for tears. This was the time to put all the pain, all the heartache to bed. One step out the window, a ten story drop headfirst and it would all be over. No more pain. No more humiliation. No more loneliness.
There was a knock at the door. Ed froze in mid-step. Maybe if he didn’t move, whoever was at the door would think he wasn’t home and would go away. The knocking returned, more insistent this time. “Please. You have to be there” said a voice that Ed recognized. He realized it was Christine from down the hall. He’d seen her a few times in the hallway. She was pretty in a girl next door kind of way. She wore glasses and worked in a library, short brown hair, nice figure. Ed had spoken to her a few times but like so many other women, she seemed to look through him. She had a boyfriend in any case, or so Ed had been informed by Mrs. Goldstein who knew everything about everybody in the high-rise.
There was something in her voice though that raised alarm bells. Something was wrong. He thought he heard a sob from the other side of the door. He looked out the window one last time and then decided that what he wanted to do could wait until tomorrow. He closed the window and said “Coming” before walking to the door and opening it.
She burst through the door and into his arms, sobbing. With alarm, he noticed that she was bruised and bleeding, her clothes disheveled. Somebody had beaten her up. “Christine? Do you want to come in?” he asked, unsure of what to do. She nodded, sniffling. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here. You probably have someplace to go; it’s Christmas Eve after all.” Ed shook his head. “No, I really don’t have anywhere to go. I was just going to watch TV and go to bed. Please, come in.” She came in and he shut the door. She gave him a look and he said “Would you prefer I leave the door open? I can do that.” He started to open it up again and she put her hand on his wrist. He felt a thrill go up his spine. He hadn’t had a woman touch him on the wrist since…well, ever. “No, I’d rather you shut the door. Please.” He nodded and shut the door.
She went and sat down on the couch and started crying again. Ed pulled his one chair over from the kitchen and sat down next to her. He let her cry for a few minutes then said in a gentle voice “Do you want to tell me what happened?” She cried a few minutes, and Ed wondered if she was going to bolt. Finally she stopped crying long enough to say “My boyfriend…he…he…” before she broke down again.
It took about an hour for him to get the story out of her, but evidently Terry, her boyfriend, had gotten off work at noon and instead of going home had gone out drinking with his buddies. He had supposed to have been going with her to his parents place but instead had chosen to hang out with his friends. She had been fighting a lot with him lately and when he showed up with three drunken guys it had touched off another fight but this time it had gotten physical. This time his buddies got involved. This time she had been raped.
Once she told him all of that it was like the tears had dried up. She couldn’t cry anymore. Ed went into his bathroom and got his first aid kit out. He cleaned her up and put anti-bacterial ointment on her cuts and bandaged her. She looked up at him when he was done with an expression of gratitude on her face like a puppy that has been given a pat by a little boy. “Can I ask you another favor? Could I stay here tonight on your couch? I couldn’t go back to that apartment…and I don’t want to face my mom and dad. I can’t.” Ed felt awkward but his response was instant “Of course you can. I’ll get you some blankets and a couple of pillows.”
Ed didn’t have a lot of guests in his apartment; well, he’d never had any. He did have a spare set of blankets for his own bed that he used in rotation with the ones currently on his bed. He took a pillow off his own bed and brought them into the living room. He also gave her a terrycloth bathrobe – he had a lot of bathrobes, he had always been fond of them. She was already starting to drift off into sleep. As he turned off the lights and started to walk into his bedroom, he had a thought. He stopped and turned back to her and asked “Just one more question. Why did you come to my apartment? I’m glad you did, but you hardly know me.” At that she smiled for the first time and Ed was struck by how pretty she was when she smiled. “Don’t be silly. Everyone knows you’re the nicest guy in the building. Besides, I’ve always had a little crush on you.” Ed could only nod. Inside, everything was churning. Nobody had ever had a crush on him before and he didn’t know what to say.
He didn’t get much sleep that night. It wasn’t his back pain this time, although there was some of that. All he could think about was the girl sleeping on his couch. She had seemed so frail, so alone, so hurt. All he wanted to do was hold her. All he wanted to do was protect her.
But Ed was afraid. He had been hurt so many times in his life he couldn’t remember a time where his hopes for love had ended with anything other than pain and rejection. He couldn’t bear it again, he just couldn’t. The next morning, he would drive her to the police station to press charges against the bastard of a boyfriend who had done that to her. Then he would persuade her to call her parents. They would come get her. They would take care of her. They would be grateful, sure, but one look at his face and they would scoop her up and drive her off. He’d never see her again. That would be so much easier than hoping that she would like him until he heard those dreaded words “I don’t think about you in that way.” He’d be alone as always. No, this would be better. He would make sure she was going to be okay and then he’d come home and complete his plans. Christmas day was as good as any day to die.
The next morning he rose and got dressed. He went out into the living room and found the sofa empty, the blankets neatly folded on top of the pillow. Despite his intentions, tears began to fall. It just wasn’t fair. He was even denied that small little victory.
Just then there was a knock at the door. He opened it up and there was Christine with a shy smile on her face. She had a suitcase and several grocery bags and was wearing jeans and a Christmas sweater. “You didn’t have anything to eat in your refrigerator so I thought I’d go to the store so I could cook you breakfast. I saw the super on the way back up and he told me that Terry had gone off to his parents without me. He let me into the apartment and I got all my clothes and a few things. The couch and the chest of drawers the super is going to get a couple of guys to move into the basement while Terry is gone. I was hoping maybe I could impose upon you to stay a few days? Just until I’m ready to go face my parents.” Her smile was so beguiling that Ed couldn’t refuse her anything.
She made pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon. She put chocolate chips in the pancakes and covered them with sliced bananas and maple syrup. Ed was astonished. “How did you know my favorite breakfast is chocolate chip pancakes with sliced bananas?” Her smile was dazzling. “Because it’s my favorite breakfast too.” From that moment forward, Ed was in love.
They spent the afternoon talking and watching television. Ed had never felt so comfortable with a human being before in his life. It was like she belonged there. He sat on one end of the couch and she lay with her feet in his lap. He found himself absent mindedly rubbing them. She purred “You have very strong hands. You give a great foot rub. I like that in a man.” He was caught short. He was never much good at flirting with women but he didn’t feel like he was flirting with her. He was just being himself.
They went out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant and she insisted on paying. Ed felt awkward about it but finally gave in. They stopped at a video rental store down the street and got a couple of movies; one of them was A Christmas Carol. He had wanted the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, but she preferred the 1938 version with Reginald Owen so he gave in. He actually didn’t mind.
When the movies were done he got up to go to his room. She was looking up with him, her face lit up by that marvelous smile. “This was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had,” she said, “and it might have been the worst. It’s all because of you. Thank you, Ed.” She got up and opened her arms and Ed realized she meant to hug him. It had been the very best Christmas he had ever had by a mile. He smiled contentedly, eyes closed. “Merry Christmas, Christine” he whispered. “Merry Christmas Ed” she whispered back. Then she turned her head and brushed her lips against his. He felt this strange electric feeling, almost like a shock. He drew back and looked into her eyes. She looked into his. He felt drawn to her like a moth to a flame. He bent his head towards her and they kissed. Then, they kissed again. Good long kisses.
She didn’t spend the night on the couch.
They were inseparable after that. He had never felt love like that before in his life, had never felt loved. Not long afterwards, Rob and Jill had them over for dinner and Jill had whispered to Rob “My God! She really adores him!” Rob had beamed and flashed him the thumbs up sign.
At times the old fears would return. She was far, far prettier than he had a right to expect anyone to be who would love him. After all, he was still Fish Head Ed. As time went by, he finally broke down and told her about it, the years of pain and humiliation. She held him while he cried. They grew closer than ever.
When he proposed, it was almost an anti-climax. They got married on Christmas Eve, two years after that awful, wonderful night. Far from sweeping Christine away, her parents were overjoyed that she had found herself a good man. Ed got a new job as an Accounting Manager at Great Plains Software with a sizable salary increase, better benefits and a much better working environment. One of the first things he did was get his new employers to hire Rob for a job in marketing, also at a sizable salary increase.
Christmas would be a very special day for Ed and Christine. They celebrated it with friends and family, but always would spend at least part of the day alone, just the two of them. That would change when they had children, a boy and a girl. Ed didn’t think his life could be any better, but he felt a constant state of joy. Not every minute of course; nobody is joyful every minute of every day. There were times when money was tight, or there were crises in the family. Christine’s mother developed breast cancer and those were difficult days. Still, life was better than Ed ever knew it could be.
It was on their tenth wedding anniversary that Christine gave him the present. It was an envelope and he didn’t know what it was at first but then with a deep shock he realized it was his suicide note, the one that he had written all those years ago. “How….” he stammered. She held a finger to his lips. “That morning, I got up before you and I was tidying up when I found this. When I read it, I realized that I didn’t just go to your apartment by chance. I was sent. I was meant to be there. I needed to save you so you could save me, and you have, my darling. My life is wonderful, and it’s because of you.” Ed began to cry, remembering the pain. She held him then and what came after I will not say, because they deserve their privacy. It is Christmas, after all.