That afternoon, Terry took the subway to the hospital to visit his sister. She was asleep when he entered the semi-private room. The TV mounted on the wall was on and tuned to some game show, thankfully muted.
He sat in one of the chairs by the wall and was making himself comfortable to catch a few winks himself until she awoke, when a nurse came into the room to check on her. The activity awoke her, and she blinked sleepily at him.
“Hi. How long have you been there?”
“About thirty seconds. How are you feeling?”
“Tired.” Perri never hid anything from him. Not even on her worst days.
He eyed the gauntness. The dark circles under her eyes. “Any pain?”
“Not at the moment.”
The nurse marked her stats on the small portable computer she’d wheeled in on a stand. Without missing a beat, she refilled his sister’s water jug and set it on the bedside table, then exited the room to let them have some privacy.
Terry pointed to the empty bed beside her. “What happened to your roommate?”
“He got to go home.” There was an unmistakable quiver in her voice, which Terry understood. She wished she could go home, as well, but it was not going to be. They both knew that, unless a suitable donor could be found, Perri would spend the rest of her days here inside this hospital. The last thing he wanted was for this visit to be tinged with sadness. There was enough of that already.
“Hey, you are not going to believe what happened to me yesterday.”
“I got to work an extra shift at Shelsby’s this morning. And when I got home, I discovered a Christmas tree sitting in my living room.”
Perri’s eyes widened. “A Christmas tree? You bought a Christmas tree?”
“No, no. I didn’t buy it. Someone else did, and had it delivered to the apartment.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s the thing. There was this envelope sitting on the branches, with my name written on the outside. Inside was a note. Or rather, it was the first line of a Christmas song.”
“The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Perri adjusted the pillow behind her head. “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree. Except, in this case, it was a Christmas tree.”
Terry laughed. “It has a partridge, or what I think is supposed to be a partridge, sitting on the top of it.”
“And there was no name on the card? Nothing to let you know who gave it to you?”
“To us, Sis. Not just to me. To us,” he emphasized.
The young woman rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. Like I’ve got a ‘true love’ who’s going to give me a tree for Christmas. Come on, Ter. ‘Fess up. Have you got a girlfriend on the side you’re not telling me about?”
This playful banter felt good. It was almost as if time and her illness hadn’t stripped away that relationship between them. Again, Terry laughed. “Geez, Per. When do I have the time?”
“Hey, I don’t have any way of keeping tabs on you once you leave here.” A puzzled expression crossed her face. “You know, that’s so odd.”
“Tell me about it.”
“No. I mean, the Twelve Days of Christmas, according to custom, is supposed to start on the day after Christmas, the twenty-sixth, and end on January sixth, the Epiphany. The day the three wise men arrived at the manger to give Jesus their gifts.” He saw her counting on her fingers. “Hmm.”
“Today’s the fourteenth, right?”
“If you count today as Day One, the twelfth day falls on Christmas Day. Odd.” Perri took a sip of her water. “I wonder what your true love will bring tomorrow? What’s the second day? Two turtle doves? Gee, what if you get home and find two pigeons from the park shitting all over the place?”
Her wry comment made them both laugh aloud. It was a rare moment Terry knew he’d cherish forever. He was about to remark on her comment when the nurse re-entered the room.
“I hate to interrupt, but I need to wheel Miss Janssen downstairs for her treatment.”
Terry stood and went over to give his sister a quick kiss. “Have fun, Per.”
“Oh, yeah. Loads. Thanks for coming by. Let me know what your true love gives you tomorrow.”
“I will.” Smiling, he raised a hand in farewell and left the room.
As he strode the two blocks from the hospital to the entrance to the subway, he realized he hadn’t felt this lighthearted in a very long time. He almost skipped down the cement steps, rounding a corner to head for the turnstiles. The place was noisy and crowded with shoppers. Twice he had to do a little jig to avoid colliding with someone.
Swiping his card, he exited onto the platform and started to head over to the next platform where he’d catch his train, when his arm connected with another. He heard a soft Oh!, and something clattered on the floor.
“I’m sorry.” He reached down to retrieve what was a tablet. Picking it up, he held it out, and found himself staring face-to-face with the girl from the toy store. “It’s you!”
The woman blinked at him, giving him that glorious smile once more. “It’s you, too! Terry, right?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, but I never caught your name.”
He felt a goofy grin come over his face, but he couldn’t help it. “Nicolette. Nice. I’ve never met anyone named Nicolette before.” He remembered he was holding her tablet and handed it over. “Here. I’m sorry I bumped into you. I hope it’s not broken.”
She laughed, a gentle, pleasing sound. “A train would have to run over it before that happened. This thing is durable like you wouldn’t believe.”
They both glanced down the tunnel where a loud rumbling announced an incoming train. She turned back to him. “I’m sorry, but I need to catch this one.”
“The E? I do, too,” he told her, taking her by the elbow. “Come on. We can make it.”
They hurried to get aboard. Luck was with them, and they were also able to claim two seats side by side.
“So, where are you headed?” she asked him.
“I’m getting off at the Dimmit Street station.”
She gave him a surprised look. “So am I.”
“That’s cool. Do you live in that area?” He pointed to the tablet in her hands. “Or are you going to another toy store?”
“Actually, I’m on my way to MacNally’s.”
“What do you do, exactly? I mean, I don’t want to sound like I’m prying, but…”
She blessed him with another one of those glowing smiles. “I’m doing stock inventory on certain hot items this Christmas.”
“Like Mollie Dollies?”
“Especially Mollie Dollies. Those things are practically impossible to come by, from what I’ve gathered. How about you? Are you on your way to work?”
“I worked this morning. I’m off the rest of the day. I was visiting my sister. She’s over in Saint Joseph’s Hospital.”
“Oh?” A concerned look crossed the woman’s face. An honest concern. Seeing it, Terry realized he couldn’t let this woman out of his sight. Not now. Now yet, anyway. He wanted to know more about her, not regale her with his sad stories that could turn her away from spending more time with him.
He got a sudden inspiration. “Look, do you like hot chocolate?”
“Who doesn’t this time of year?”
“Great! There’s a Danby’s right past MacNally’s. Are you on a specific time table? Or can you spare a few minutes and let me treat you to a cup?”
Her smile warmed him down to the tips of his toes. “I’d love some hot chocolate. Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” he automatically responded, and realized he meant it.