Darcy was sitting on the floor in front of the oven when she heard the front door open. By now, she could recognize all the noise Steve made when he came home from work. She heard him loosen the laces on his work boots and kick them off, hang his coat on the rack and drop his keys in the dish by the door. It was only another minute before he walked past the kitchen and stopped. He backed up and popped his head around the doorway. “Darcy?”
She looked up from her place on the floor and smiled. “Hi.”
He looked amused. “What are you doing?”
“Making sure my cookies don’t burn.”
Steve nodded. “You’re making cookies?”
“Uh huh,” she returned her attention to the globs of oatmeal raisin dough that were slowly flattening into cookies. “This oven is like, part-refrigerator, part-kiln, so if I don’t sit here and watch them the entire time, they might burn.” She squinted at the corner of the pan, wondering if rotating them halfway through their bake time might make them more even. “Are you hungry?”
She glanced up with another smile. “Once these are done—y’know, assuming I don’t blink and burn them to a crisp—I made macaroni and cheese. The good kind. With the crunchy-munchy breadcrumbs on top.” She lifted her eyebrows. “Sound like something you’d be into?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, looking surprised. “That sounds good.”
“Cool,” she nodded and turned back to the oven. “You should take a shower,” she said. “You smell like…chemicals.”
He laughed. “Thanks, Darcy.”
“I’m just being a friend,” she reminded. “A friend who made cookies and macaroni and cheese.”
Her cookies did not burn and by the time Steve had taken a shower and washed the smell of Freon out of his hair, the macaroni was bubbling and made the whole apartment smell like garlic and butter and cheese.
He came back into the kitchen just as she was wedging her spatula under a corner piece. He eyed the lumpy rectangle-shaped package wrapped in newspaper on the table. It was tied with a red bow and had a small tag with his name. “What’s this?” he asked cautiously.
Darcy glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “For you.” She returned to her macaroni excavation and left him to pick it up. He slid a nail beneath the taped seam and moved back the paper to reveal a hand-knit navy blue scarf.
“What—um—” he looked up, confused, as she turned from the counter and set two plates of steaming pasta on the table.
“Merry Christmas, Steve,” she said as she sat down and began eating without preamble.
She glanced up and watched him look at the calendar and then back down to the scarf in his hands. “I…didn’t realize it was Christmas Eve,” he admitted, looking flustered. “I don’t…I don’t have anything for you.”
Her shoulder moved in a shrug and she smiled again. “That’s okay. I had a feeling you weren’t keeping track of holidays.” She watched him struggle with this realization for another long moment before she rolled her eyes. “It’s just a scarf, Steve,” she reminded. “It only cost me about a dollar to make.”
“I know,” he said, “but I still feel bad—”
“Oh, stop,” she waved his guilt away. “But please sit and eat this mac and cheese because frankly, I’ve outdone myself.”
A familiar half-smile twitched at the corner of his lips and he sat down across from her. He set his gift carefully to one side, out of the way of the food. After a few bites, he looked up again and swallowed. “You really have,” he agreed. “It’s great.”
“Right?” she grinned.
They each ate two more helpings before Darcy declared herself too full and piled the oatmeal raisin cookies on another plate which she brought out to the living room while Steve put the leftovers away and washed the dishes. She’d opened the paper to the programming guide. “So, there’s good news and bad news,” she said as he dropped into the arm chair across from her. “Which do you want first?”
He frowned in consideration. “Bad news?”
“You’re so predictable,” she said, shaking her head. “So, the bad news is that we’re still in 1970 and not 1945 or 2013 like either of us want to be.”
Steve nodded. “But there’s good news?”
“Yes!” she declared and got to her feet. “We have really good oatmeal raisin cookies—you’re welcome, by the way,” she added, motioning for him to help himself to the plate she’d built. “And the Peanuts Christmas special was made five years ago so we can watch it tonight in about five minutes and things might suck a little less.”
He smiled as she made her way across the living room to turn on the small TV she’d rescued from someone’s donation pile a few weeks ago. “I’ve actually never seen that.”
Darcy stopped and turned back around. “I’m sorry, are you kidding?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
“Never?” she clarified. “Not even bits and pieces?”
“I know,” he held up his hands. “I haven’t lived,” he said, sounding as if he was awaiting judgement. “I’m so out of touch.”
“This is so exciting!” Darcy exclaimed before she turned on the black and white set. “You’re in for such a treat—it’s so delightful!” She settled back on the couch and tucked her feet beneath her, a cookie in hand. “When I was little, my sister and I used to try to find the saddest, Charlie-Browniest tree in the lot for Chrismukkah and turn it into something gaudy and glorious.”
His cautious smile was back. “Did you say Chrismukkah?”
She nodded. “It’s what we celebrated when Christmas and Hanukkah happened at the same time, like this year.” Before Steve could respond, she shushed him and pointed to the screen. “Prepare to be delighted.”
To her relief, Steve was, in fact, delighted by the Peanuts Christmas special. She kept glancing at him from the corner of her eye to make sure she hadn’t oversold it. Judging by the sentiment he was trying to hide, she had a feeling she hadn’t.
“Do I know my nostalgic cartoons or what?” she asked when the credits appeared.
He smiled into the hand on which he’d rested his chin. “No, you were right. That was…delightful.”
She reached for another cookie, pleased when he did the same. “So, what’s Christmas like in 1945?” she asked, settling back into her corner of the couch. “What are you going to do when you’re back?”
He opened his mouth to respond and closed it again. “Y’know…I’m not sure. I guess that depends on a lot of things.”
“Seems like it’d be a pretty raucous holiday season,” she mused. “All post-war and everything.”
“From what I’ve read,” he shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.” Before she could read into his hesitance to offer any detailed plans, he asked, “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“It was almost Chrismukkah season when we accidentally dragged you into this mess,” he reminded. “What’s the plan for when you get back?”
“Oh,” she nodded. “I had a plane ticket back to Philly for Thanksgiving, and then I was definitely going to let my mom talk me into coming home again for winter break.” She smiled. “I’m going to meet my nephew, Barrett, and squish his perfect, chubby cheeks,” she clapped her fingers like pincers. “And even though he’s too small and squishy to really enjoy it, I’m going to take him to the Parkway Central Library and let him smell all the books and soak up as much knowledge as he can. And then I’m going to make Jane come to spend the holiday with us so she’s not by herself at Culver—” she stopped herself. “It’s going to be good.”
He smiled softly. “Sounds like it.”
It wasn’t much later, but with a belly full of pasta and cookies that had Darcy feeling drowsier than usual, that she bid Steve a good night and patted his shoulder as she passed him on the way to her room. She stopped in the hallway and turned back around to hang in the doorway to the living room. “Hey,” she said, catching his attention from the pensive look he’d been aiming at the window. He looked up and she smiled. “All things considered,” she shrugged. “I’ve had worse Christmas Eves.”
“Yeah,” he smiled back. “Me too.”
“Good night, Steve.”
The next morning, Darcy awoke to a sheet of paper slipped beneath her door. She picked it up, confused and read the note printed neatly in all caps in the top corner. Happy Chrismukkah – Steve.
No less confused, she turned the paper over and felt her breath swept away for a moment. It was a pencil drawing of the Parkway Central Library in Philadelphia, exactly the way she remembered it. The grand arches and columns, the banners and giant windows she used to sit beneath and feel swallowed up by the books and building and the whole city at once. She held it carefully, not wanting to smudge any detail, no matter how small and set it on the edge of her bed. Blinking back the rush of nostalgia that seeing her favorite place had sent stinging behind her nose and eyes, Darcy opened her door.
She grinned at the undeniable smell of slightly burnt scrambled eggs. A sign that Steve was making breakfast.