This is my first Christmas alone.
Normally, Christmas is my favorite time of year. I love the colours, the lights, the music, the snow, the trees, the shops, the food. I love all of it.
But this year, I'm spending Christmas by myself for the first time in life. And somehow, it doesn't feel much like Christmas at all.
Eleven months out of the year, I love my job. Truly, I do. I have my own lab, I'm working on research that I'm passionate about and getting paid quite handsomely to do it. I can't complain. I have so much and there are so very many people who have so little by comparison. I'm very lucky, and I feel a bit ashamed for feeling sorry for myself during the holidays whilst some people--some children, even--won't have a warm place to sleep or presents to open. There are too many kids who already know that Santa isn't real and are probably beginning to believe that hope isn't very real either.
Christmas is a difficult time, and the fact that I have to spend it alone doesn't even register as a minor blip on the radar of misfortune and holiday tragedy. And really, that's why I did what I did.
You see, we're in the midst of a major breakthrough at the lab and honestly, I can't leave the research for two and half weeks to join my parents for Christmas in the UK.
They're going down to Cornwall to spend the holidays with my nan, as they do every year. And usually, I would be right there with them, taking some much needed time off from a job that is as stressful as it is rewarding.
This year, though, I can't leave. There's too much to do at the lab and I'm working on finishing a grant proposal that's due the first week of January. Leaving the country would only be a distraction and my team really needs the equipment that the money from this grant could purchase.
So, instead, I donated the money I'd set aside for a plane ticket to the nearest women and children's shelter.
Before I had a chance to change my mind, I gave the money away and used my Christmas bonus to book a little rental cottage about eighty miles from the city, in the mountains. From what I could tell from the website, the cottage is secluded and quiet; nothing around but trees and rocks for miles and miles. It's the perfect place to unwind, knock out a killer grant proposal, and enjoy a quiet holiday.
After struggling a bit with the lockbox to liberate the key to the cottage, I unlock the front door and drop my duffel, box of relevant lab documents, and three bags of groceries unceremoniously on the floor inside the door.
I'm glad I didn't arrive any later; the light snowfall has given way to big, wet, heavy flakes that are quickly coating the trees and the road and my windshield.
Relieved to be inside and out of the cold, I shrug off my coat, and get to work unloading the groceries into the cupboards and the fridge in the small kitchen.
The cottage is nearly perfect. While it's certainly not luxe, it's homey and charming: there's a fireplace in the far corner of the main room, the couch is clean but well-loved and equipped with several knit blankets and what looks like a handmade quilt, and the bedroom contains the most divine-looking queen-sized bed I've ever seen.
Best of all, when I stand still, it's completely silent.
Or at least, it was the first time I did it.
I frown as I hear the sound of snow crunching beneath tires and the dull purr of an engine outside.
There isn't another house around for miles. No one should have any reasons to come up the long driveway from the main road.
And yet, as I look out the window by the door, there's a large, blue, dented van pulling up behind my aging station wagon.
My confusion turns to fear as I remember exactly where I am: eighty miles form the nearest police station or hospital and certainly out of earshot of any neighbors. Without a second thought, I wrench open a drawer near the sink and root around hurriedly before pulling out the largest piece of cutlery: a hunting knife with an eight-and-a-half inch blade.
Immediately, I feel a little ridiculous. I've never really wielded a weapon in my entire life. If push came to shove, I'm not even sure I could use it if I need to.
I can feel my palm beginning to sweat around the hilt of the blade as I watch the van, waiting it's driver to figure out that he's come to the wrong place and leave.
After what feels like an hour, the driver-side door opens and closes with a clumsy metallic 'clank'. I can't see anyone from my vantage point, but a moment later, a figure emerges from behind the van.
Wearing large snow boots, tattered jeans, and a much too-large black coat is a girl, probably about my age. Her head's covered with a worn wool cap and she blows warm air into her gloveless hands as she makes her way towards the cottage with a smallish hiking pack on her back.
Curious but no longer feeling threatened, I tug on my own boots and quickly step outside. I squint against the bright white of the falling snow and pull my sweater tighter around me.
"Um, hey there," the girl says, shoving her hands into the pockets of her coat as she continues in my direction. "You're not Neal by any chance, are you?" she asks doubtfully.
"No," I shake my head. "He's not around. He went to Panama for the holidays," I explain, repeating what Neal had sent to me in the e-mail in which he confirmed my stay here. "Can I help you with something?"
The girl looks puzzled. "Right. I remember him saying something about that." She reaches into her back pocket and withdraws a piece of folded paper. "I have a reservation at the cottage. Are you a friend of Neal's?"
"Um, no. Not exactly. I've, er, also got a reservation here. For the week."
The girl stops short at that. "Really? This is number 4, isn't it?"
"Well," she nods, "Fuck."
"Indeed," I agree with a nervous laugh. "Why don't you, um, come inside? It's freezing out here. We can figure it out where it's warm."
She nods again and follows me inside the cottage.
"Here, let me take your bag," I offer once we're inside.
Though she looks a little hesitant at first, she shrugs off the bag and hands it to me. "Thanks," she says as she slips out of the boots and coat and hat. She runs a hand through her hair, trying to fix the places where it's been flattened by her cap.
When she turns to look at me, it's relatively easy to tell that even with the flattened hair and the slightly suspicious gaze and the tattered jeans, she's gorgeous.
I was going to offer he tea or coffee or something warm, but the words die in my throat as she stoops to untie her boots and her hair--still covered in a few snowflakes--forms a curtain around her face.
Once free from her winter gear, she takes a few steps into the cottage and offers her hand.
I take her hand and respond, "Jemma Simmons."
Skye nods, but doesn't supply a last name. She does, however notice the knife that I'd forgotten I was carrying.
"Is this about to get very Deliverance?" She nods towards the knife.
"Yeah. The movie. Deliverance. Haven't you seen it?"
I shake my head, "Can't say that I have."
"Probably for the best." She looks around the main room. "Nice place, isn't it?"
"Very," I agree. I'm not totally sure what else to say.
"Nice as it is," Skye begins, saving me the trouble of thinking of something to fill up the silence, "it appears that we've been double-booked, Jemma Simmons." Skye pulls the folded paper out of her pocket once more and hands it to me.
I open it and take a look. It's her booking confirmation from Neal: 12/22-1/2, Cottage #4. Same as mine.
"It appears we have indeed," I nod, handing the paper back to her and reaching for my cell phone. "I'll just give Neal a call. I'm sure he can sort this out."
As soon as I've dialed the number, though, I remember that he's in Panama.
Neal still has a flip phone, so even if he could swap the SIM card or switch to a roaming network, I'm confident that he wouldn't bother.
Sure enough, it goes straight to voicemail.
"Or…not," I sigh and hang up.
"It's no problem," Skye says quickly. "I'll call Neal when he gets back and shake him down for an extra few nights another time. If I can trouble you for a cup of the coffee that I know Neal keeps around for the ride back down, I'll be out of your way so you enjoy the holidays."
I'm a little taken aback by the offer--truthfully, I hadn't expected her to give up her claim to the cottage so easily. Even if she was just planning to spend the holidays by herself in a cottage, I've no doubt ruined those plans now. And so, without much thought at all, I hear myself saying:
"No, absolutely not."
Maybe it's because the spirit of Christmas has jumped out and grabbed hold of me or maybe (more likely) it's because I really don't want to spend Christmas alone, but I'm not about to let her get back in that van and drive back down the mountain.
"The weather's turning to shit," I explain, "and besides which, your reservation's just as valid as mine. Who's to say I shouldn't be the one to leave?"
"You were here first."
"Only by five minutes."
"Do you want to leave?"
"Well, then it's settled," Skye begins tugging on her boots, "I'll leave you to it. I don't mind. Really."
I debate for a moment whether or not to stop her once more. Surely I don't want to make her uncomfortable by insisting that she stay. She's a stranger, after all. It would probably be weird.
I glance out the window once more and see that there's a full-tilt snowstorm on now. The flakes are so dense that I can hardly see the cars in the drive, which is only sixty or so feet from the window. To make matters worse, night is falling and it's bound to be dark within the hour.
"Stay," I repeat, though I know she heard me clearly the first time.
"Jemma, honestly, I don't mind at all. You're all set up here. It's no problem."
"It's snowing. It's not going to stop anytime soon, and it's getting dark. You're not about to drive down that road. The plows won't come this far up the highway until morning at the earliest. Just stay tonight. Until the weather clears up."
Skye turns to look out the window for herself, as though she thinks perhaps I made up the snow.
Upon seeing that I did no such thing, she blows out a sigh.
"You're right. The tires on the van are shot to hell as it is. I've been putting off getting new ones. Stupid."
My shoulders relax as I let go of a bit of tension that I hadn't realised I was holding.
"Excellent. Now how about that coffee?"
"This coffee is garbage."
I look up from my cup to see Skye swirling the coffee in her mug with an expression that's equal parts disgust and amusement. She's not wrong, certainly. When I took a sip of the coffee just moments before, I'd thought the same. But, given that I almost never drink coffee, I thought that perhaps it was just me.
"I'm sorry," I apologize quickly. "I don't make coffee much. More of a tea person, I guess."
Skye looks up at me and smirks. "How very stereotypical of you, Jemma Simmons."
I can feel my cheeks warming when as she says my full name.
"And it's definitely not your fault. It's Neal's. The coffee's old. And beyond that, it's Maxwell House. We were doomed from the start, I'd say."
I chuckle and nod, but truthfully I'm not exactly sure what Maxwell House is.
"So, Simmons, what brings you up to a cottage in the middle of nowhere for the holidays? Why aren't you with family?"
Taking a sip of coffee that I really don't want, I consider my answer. When I think about the actual reason, it seems a little pathetic. Like it's not something I want to admit out loud.
But, unfortunately, I've never been any good at lying, so the truth will have to do.
"I came up here to work," I answer quietly, a little embarrassed. "I have a grant proposal that's due the first week of January. It's a huge grant and my team needs it. I thought a little peace and quiet might help whilst everyone's away for the holidays. Give me a chance to focus, you know?"
Skye nods, but narrows her eyes slightly like she's looking for something.
"Right. Now the real reason."
"What's the real reason?"
"That is the real reason."
"Maybe. I don't think so, though. Who are you avoiding?"
"Sure. So you don't have anyone who'll be missing you this Christmas? No one who asked you to spend the holidays with them?"
My parents did ask. Several times. They offered plane tickets. They offered to come here. I'd even had a few invitations from work. And then there was Fitz. But none of it felt quite right. I just wanted to be alone. I couldn't say exactly why.
When I don't have an immediate answer, Skye pushes a little more.
"No one? No…boyfriend?"
I snort and shake my head firmly, "Not bloody likely."
"I see. Friends? Family?"
"They asked, I suppose. But leaving the country for Christmas with my family wasn't exactly in the cards this year. There's a lot going on at work. And I don't think they'd much enjoy a Christmas here, in my tiny apartment in the city. A few friends asked, but they're not really the kind of friends you say yes to. They were just asking to be polite, I think."
I shut up after that, feeling uncomfortable having talked about myself far more than I'm accustomed to.
"What about you? No family Christmas for you?"
"Don't think I didn't notice that you didn't answer the question, Simmons. I'll let it slide, but don't think I won't ask again," she smirks at me. "As for me, no family to spend Christmas with. I finished a job in town, collected my check and decided to treat myself to a cozy Christmas for one."
"Not that I know of. Foster kid."
I try to hide my surprise and suddenly feel quite badly for asking. "Sorry, I didn't mean to--"
"Don't be. Not at all, Jemma Simmons. It's who I am. I stopped feeling badly about it a long time ago."
Not knowing what else to say, I nod lamely and clumsily steer away from that particular topic of conversation.
"So, um, you said you finished a job in town. What do you do?"
Skye shrugs, "Computer stuff, mostly. You? You said work's crazy right now--what's 'work' for you?"
I shrug, mirroring Skye's response. "Science stuff, mostly."
She laughs at that. "I see. Like chemistry stuff or Manhattan Project-y stuff."
"Neither," I chuckle, "I work in medical research. Specifically, I'm working on highly experimental and theoretical research for the treatment of MS. Multiple Sclerosis."
I would elaborate, but I've learned that anything I say after the 'short explanation' is usually difficult for anyone not in the medical research community to follow.
Skye nods and takes another sip of coffee, almost grimacing. Her eyes are focused out the window and a little distant.
"What?" Skye asks, turning back to me, her expression one of confusion.
"The coffee. You look miserable. If you'd rather, I've got plenty of tea."
"Oh, uh, no, that's okay," she waves my offer away. "You hungry? I'm just going to go get some stuff from the van. I'll be right back."
And before I can say another word, Skye's got her boots and coat on and is out the door, trudging toward the van in the snow.
"So, we've got two bags of rice, three boxes of spaghetti, a dozen peppers, nine potatoes, twelve tomatoes, four onions, three pounds of chicken, 2 heads of garlic, a bottle of olive oil, 450 grams of butter, fourteen bananas, a quart of yoghurt, two boxes of granola, two loaves of bread, one jar of blueberry jam and you're…stunning contribution: twelve frozen pizzas."
"Right-o. One for each day and an extra for luck," Skye winks.
"Fascinating. May I just ask how on earth are you still alive, eating like this?"
"I don't, usually," Skye shrugs, "I eat take out most of the time. Not real big on cooking."
"I see. Well, I think we've got plenty of food."
"Uh, yeah, I think so. You're pretty prepared."
I nod, "Big on worst-case scenarios, me."
"As evidenced by the fact that you also brought bear spray, an axe, a case of road flares, and roughly fourteen--what do you call them? Jumpers?"
"Hey, you never know what might come in handy," I defend. "Besides which, that's just the stuff that's inside. You should see the stuff that's still in the station wagon."
I open the cupboard by the cooker and take out the fry pan and a sauce pan and set to work.
"Can't wait," she smirks. "Tell me what I can do to help. I'm useless at cooking, but I can chop things with relative competence."
"Oh, that would be brilliant. If you could julienne one of the peppers, I think we'll be in business."
I run the water to boil for the pasta, but when I turn back around, Skye is looking at me like I've told her to sacrifice a goat.
"Julienne?" she asks. "Sorry, Simmons. I'm a long way from Top Chef."
I try to hide my smirk, but fail miserably. "No, no. My fault. That was a bit obtuse. Here," I take the knife from her gently and demonstrate with a few slices. "Just strips, see?" I hand her back the knife.
"You learn something new everyday," she chuckles, then goes to work finishing the pepper.
As the water's coming to a boil, Skye speaks up again.
"I don't suppose in all of your survivalist training you looked up how to start a fire on the Internet? It's getting a bit dark in here."
I looked up and sure enough, she was right. In a matter of minutes, it had darkened considerably outside and the cottage, for all its rustic charm, was equipped with candles and fireplaces instead of electric lights.
"Of course I did. Shall we light the fireplace?"
"I certainly wouldn't be opposed. It's getting a little chilly. You wouldn't happen to have any flint or magnesium or whatever on hand, would you?"
"Well, yes. But for the purposes of lighting a fireplace indoors, I recommend the tried-and-true matches method."
Skye laughs, suddenly embarrassed for not coming to the obvious conclusion in the first place. "Right. Matches. What would I do without you, Jemma Simmons?"
"Freeze to death in the dark, it would seem."
The fire's roaring, the food's ready, and the cottage is steadily warming up.
"Simmons, this is amazing."
Skye sits on the couch next to the armchair where I'm seated and closes her eyes dramatically as she chews.
"Seriously. Possibly some of the best food I've ever had."
"Skye, it's just pasta and some peppers and garlic."
I'm flattered, but more than anything, I feel a bit sad. I get the impression that Skye's never really had meal prepared for her. At least, not a meal that didn't come out of a box or a bag or frozen plastic tray.
"Doesn't matter. It's incredible."
"Thank you, Skye. That's very kind of you."
She grins at me, then continues to eat with the enthusiasm of someone coming off of a three day juice cleanse.
When she's finished, she sets her plate on the coffee table and settles contently into the couch cushions. I follow suit and sit back in the chair. I nearly start to nod off when Skye says my name.
"Thank you. For the food. And for letting me stay here tonight. It's really…Well, you didn't have to. I appreciate it."
When I open my eyes, I can't stop the smile that's tugging at the corners of my mouth. Skye is sprawled on the couch and yawning.
"Happy to have you, Skye. I'm glad you stayed. The weather really is quite bad."
We both look out the window, but see nothing. There are no lights around for miles. It's profoundly dark here.
I get up from the chair and move to open the door a crack to see if it's still snowing.
Immediately, cold air blows inside, but I can see that the snow's let up for the time being. Looking up, there's an apparent break in the clouds as well.
I shut the door again and kneel to open my duffel. When I find the jumper I'm looking for I toss it over the couch, where it lands on Skye's lap.
"Come on, Skye. There's something you need to see."
"Simmons, it is literally freezing out here."
"I know, Skye. That's what makes it snow and not rain."
"Not my fault you use 'literally' a bit liberally."
Before she can respond, Skye trips in the snow and falls silently, save for her very eloquent exclamation of "Fuck!"
I turn around and find her on her knees elbow-deep in fresh white powder.
With a few large steps I'm by her side, helping her up and brushing off her jacket.
"Are you alright?"
"Fine. Just clumsy. Very glad that you had those extra gloves, though."
"A-ha. A fan of the preparedness now, are we?"
"Oh, I've been a fan since the matches vs. flint incident."
"Right. Glad you're seeing the light."
"Was that a pun? Because it is, like, the freaky kind of dark out here."
"That's kind of the point." I zip my coat up a little higher. "Look up," I say, pointing.
She does and a moment later, I hear her breathe out a soft "whoa".
"This far from the city, the light pollution isn't quite so bad. And really, winter's the best time to see the really stars in the Northern Hemisphere. We're facing the outer arms of the Milky Way, so what we're seeing are some truly deep-space stars. Ones far beyond our galaxy. In the summer, we're facing the center of the Milky Way and, while there are more stars visible to the naked eye during that time, they're smaller. Not to mention the interference of galactic dust towards the center of our galaxy."
"Is that a constellation?"
Skye points vaguely in the direction of her 1 o'clock.
I look up in that direction.
"The sort of zig-zag line of brighter stars?"
"Huh. What's it supposed to be? A snake?"
I smile at that. It certainly looks like it should be a snake. "Believe it or not, it's Queen Cassiopeia sitting on her throne."
Skye looks at me in mild disbelief and amusement. "No shit?"
"I'll be damned. That's a cautionary tale for opium right there."
"It is indeed," I laugh.
"What about that one?" She points a little lower and to her left.
"Hmmm. Part of Taurus. See how the two bright stars at your 10 o'clock are relatively close together?"
"I think so."
"And there's a bright cluster in the middle?"
"Um…possibly? Oh wait, no. Yeah, I see them now."
"Then a line of stars below the cluster?"
"Er, no. Not at all."
I step closer to her to get a better look from her vantage point.
"Just there," I say, pointing over her shoulder and tracing the line with my gloved finger.
"Oh yeah. I think I see them. It kind of looks like a 'Y' with a tail."
"Exactly!" I say excitedly, possibly letting a little bit too much of my true nerd nature show.
"And that's Taurus? The bull?"
"I'm afraid so."
Skye looks at me and smiles. "The Greeks were fucking crazy."