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Gifts Of Time And Love

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Just before midnight, Eve reached the end of the last roll of wrapping paper.

Adam had fallen asleep on the couch an hour or so earlier, a half-empty glass of red wine on the coffee table beside him. He'd missed the bit of It's a Wonderful Life where George Bailey is proclaimed the richest man in town, his favorite moment in the entire movie, but Eve hadn't awakened him for it; there would be several more chances to see it again before the old year yielded to the new. The strings of tiny lights outlining the tree and the front windows winked slowly on and off in time with Adam's deep, even breaths, as though he were blowing them out with each exhale and they kept stubbornly coming back to life.

Only one square of paper remained, and it was too small. "Damn," Eve murmured below her breath, trying in vain to make it stretch around the bulk of the photo album. She'd just seen wrapping paper on sale at Walgreens that afternoon, but thought she'd had enough and passed it by. She huffed impatiently, blowing the hair out of her eyes. She could run out now and find some, perhaps. Someone, somewhere that sold the stuff had to be open 24 hours. This was Los Angeles, after all.

A quick glance at Adam and she changed her mind. If he should wake up to find her gone, he would be frantic with worry. "Damn," she said again, a bit more forcefully this time. Calvin and Helen were expecting to meet them in church early the next morning and there would be no time to stop beforehand, assuming they could even find a place open on Christmas Day. Well, there was nothing to be done about it. She'd just have to slap some ribbon around it and present it to Helen unwrapped. She was pretty sure once Helen saw the contents of the album, she would forgive and forget.

The idea for the album had been born at Thanksgiving. Adam and Eve had taken a trip to San Francisco at the beginning of November, and brought the pictures along to Thanksgiving dinner. Helen flipped through them several times, asking detailed questions about each one.

"It's been so long since I've seen any photographs," she said wistfully. "All of our family photos were lost in the blast. And of course, we have no pictures of Adam when he was a child." She looked up at her son, her eyes bright with tears. "That's always bothered me."

She was so taken with the pictures, Adam and Eve left them with her and had another set printed for themselves. Waiting in line to pick up the prints a few days later, Eve spied a large red album with the word "Photographs" scrawled across the front in fancy script and knew immediately that once filled with pictures, it would be the perfect gift for Adam's mother.

She opened the cover and flipped through the pages slowly, checking for the hundredth time to ensure all of the pictures were properly aligned. She wanted everything to be just right, she told herself, but the truth was she loved every picture in the album and wanted to enjoy them in private one last time.

The first few pages of the album were devoted to pictures chronicling the construction of Helen and Calvin's new house. Two years earlier the house had been built by a crew of nearly fifty, but if this album were the only knowledge one had about the project, it would be easy to think Adam had built most of it single-handedly.

There was a picture of Adam in a hard hat, discussing a set of blueprints with the architect. He hadn't needed the hard hat at that point, as the discussion had taken place in Eve's kitchen, but he looked so cute in it she insisted he wear it as often as he could. Another showed Adam standing in the shell of the master bathroom, pointing something out to the plumber. A third was of Adam hammering a nail while a carpenter with his jeans riding too low squatted to examine something at the base of the wall. Eve snapped so many pictures of Adam during the construction the crew began to grumble every time she appeared with the camera, knowing the flash would eventually interfere with their work.

Once the framework of the house was in place, Adam had set to the task of decorating it in earnest. Eve brought him bunches of catalogues from the chicest home decorating stores in LA, but he just shook his head.

"I want them to be as comfortable as possible," Adam said, "and they wouldn't be comfortable with all that new-fangled stuff. This house is going to look as close to the fallout shelter as I can get it."

"But your parents must be sick of that same old crap by now," Eve insisted. "Thirty-five plus years of living in the exact same environment? They're probably dying for something different."

Adam just smiled at her and went back to poring over his books of vintage wallpaper and carpet swatches, searching out the familiar colors, patterns, and textures he'd known since childhood. Troy tried to help, spending hours scouring the internet for vintage furniture, appliances, and accessories, but much of what Adam wanted was impossible to find and eventually had to be custom made at great expense.

As the trucks rolled in, Adam stood in the middle of each room and directed the placement of every stick of furniture, politely asking the delivery men to shift the beds half an inch to the right and the couches just a touch more to the left for an entire afternoon, until everything was in the exact right spot. The only concessions he had been willing to make were in the kitchen, in the form of the microwave and food processor, and these only to make life easier on his mother. But even these minor changes had turned out to be largely unnecessary.

Eve flipped to the next page in the album, smiling at the next set of pictures revealed. More construction photos, this time in the backyard.

Within a week of moving in, Helen declared she never wanted to eat a meal indoors again if the weather was accommodating, and asked Adam and Calvin for a covered patio. They designed and installed it themselves, an enormous patio complete with a large barbecue grill, wet bar, and a half dozen recliners upholstered with sturdy outdoor fabric. Several of the pictures featured Helen lounging on the completed patio: she sipped iced tea in one, a Rob Roy in another, and had an unread book lying face down in her lap in a third. She was smiling in all of them as she contemplated the view, dark sunglasses protecting her still-sensitive eyes.

In a few of these pictures, the earliest ones, it was still possible to make out the the large square area just beyond the brick work that Calvin had marked off with stakes of wood and thin strips of ribbon. Helen never mentioned Calvin's plans for that piece of land, nor did she ever once look in that direction, but it was clear those yellow ribbons unnerved her.

There were lots of photos of Calvin out there, as well. In the ones of him standing over the grill, an oversized pair of tongs clutched in his fist, Eve could almost hear him whistling "When The Saints Go Marching In," could almost see the plumes of fragrant smoke billowing into his face to force the whistle into a cough. He and Adam had worked for months to perfect their own honey barbecue sauce, and the four of them ate so much barbecue in the process Eve was certain they qualified as honorary citizens of Texas.

She and Adam had made a game out of buying Calvin barbecue aprons with silly sayings on them, and there were several shots of him mugging for the camera in aprons reading "We were marinade for each other" or "Stick around, I may need someone to blame." His favorite featured a graphic of Darth Vader's helmet and a caption reading "May the forks be with you," which Adam and Eve had purchased for him a few days after he saw Star Wars for the first time. He'd laughed until he cried when he opened the package, and it quickly became the one he reached for first.

There are also bunches of photos of Calvin inside the house, mostly in the room that had been the classroom when the family lived in the fallout shelter, but which now functioned as Calvin's office. A few months after they moved in, Troy supervised the purchase and installation of a Blue & White Power Macintosh G3, complete with OS 8.5, 128 MB of RAM, and a 12 GB hard drive. He had also set Calvin up with his own AOL account (username: professorfalloutshelter), and nowadays when Calvin wasn't out back by the grill, he could be found hunched over the keyboard. The screech of the dial-up modem became a familiar sound in the house at all hours of the day and night as Calvin worked to catch up on thirty-five years of scientific and technological advances, or chatted on AIM with Troy, sprinkling the thumbs up chat emoticon liberally through each conversation. The little voice proclaiming "You've got mail!" never failed to make him chuckle with glee, and he always left at least one unread message in his inbox so he'd be sure to hear it on every login.

A large picture window overlooking the backyard had replaced the blackboard that had been in the shelter's classroom. Calvin sat with his back to the window when facing the monitor, and so he could claim with a straight face that he hadn't noticed when a blast of Santa Ana wind knocked down a few of his backyard stakes and sent the torn yellow ribbons flapping in the breeze, even though several of the pictures taken in the office showed the ribbons lying on the grass behind him in messy streaks. He'd muttered for a while about setting them right again but never actually did anything about it, and Adam eventually gathered up the stakes and ribbons and dragged the trash can out to the street. Helen sent him home that night with an enormous pot roast and a grateful hug.

Then there were the pictures of Adam and Eve together, each with its own set of memories. In one taken before construction on the house had been completed, they both leaned against the door of the convertible with a smiling Adam holding up his new driver's license. He'd had to take the test twice, and even then it had been a close thing; he still tended to use both feet to work the pedals, and driving with him often left Eve feeling queasy.

She'd spent many hours driving around with him in preparation for the second test, teaching him the finer points of handling the big vehicle, but she didn't mind a bit. The lessons often ended with a stop at the beach, where they would sit together in the back seat of the car with the top down, gazing at the stars or into each other's eyes while the ocean breeze filled their heads with the scent of the water.

She ached with the want of being so close to him on these occasions, pressing her thighs together tightly to achieve some pathetic kind of friction where she needed it most. Eventually she would climb into his lap, whispering his name against his lips as she kissed him, desperately whispering, "Please," and "I need you," and "I love you so much" while they dry-humped like teenagers. She knew it was unfair to press him like that when his beliefs about pre-marital sex were set in stone, but it was impossible to know that only a few thin layers of fabric separated them and not try everything in her power to get those few thin layers of fabric out of the damn way.

In the next picture, she sat with her hands covering her mouth, eyes shining with tears and huge with surprise. Adam knelt on one knee in the foreground, offering her a small black box. The camera's flash caught the ring at just the right angle to throw a sparkling halo of light back into the lens. She said yes in the moment after Troy snapped the picture, and Adam slipped the ring on her finger before grabbing her up in a huge hug. They smiled through the kiss that truly sealed the deal, and when the kiss was over they both reached out to thumb a tear from the corner of the other's eye.

Eve studied the ring now, turning it to and fro so it reflected the multi-colored glow of the Christmas lights, then shifted her gaze to Adam's sleeping form. She'd been sure she would never again be as happy as she had been that night, but Adam had worked tirelessly every day since to make sure she was.

She turned the page once more to the last set of pictures in the album. These were her favorites, especially the one of a smiling Adam with best man Troy standing beside him, both looking magnificent in their tuxedos. This picture had almost brought Eve to tears the first time she'd seen it, not just because they were the two most important men in her life, but because Adam's smile was the smile of a proud, confident man. There was no trace of the innocent boy she'd first met in his expression, and the thought of it was bittersweet.

The wedding had been a small one: just Helen and Calvin, Eve's divorced brothers and divorced mom and dad, each with a new spouse or significant other in tow, a few nieces and nephews, and a handful of Eve's friends. Archbishop Melker managed to tear himself away from the nightclub long enough to attend, as well. He'd originally volunteered to conduct the ceremony, but Adam's parents put the kibosh on that idea when they learned he was not actually an ordained minister. Then he volunteered to let them hold the reception in the club, and Adam and Eve were seriously considering the idea until Helen adamantly refused to ever set foot inside the shelter again. They ended up renting a small mom and pop restaurant in Pasadena for the night, instead.

They had already given Adam's parents a large, framed print of their formal wedding portrait, so Eve decided to fill the album with photos of the more casual moments that had made the day so special. This picture of Adam holding Eve's six-year-old niece Allison, for example. Allison fell in love with Adam from the very first moment she saw him, an inclination which Eve found completely understandable. At the reception, Allison visited all of the tables in the restaurant in turn to sneak one flower from each centerpiece. At the end of the evening she presented Adam with her ill-gotten bouquet, and he hoisted her up into his arms and planted a big kiss on her forehead. She beamed and waved goodbye over her father's shoulder as he carried her out of the party.

Another picture of Troy and Adam on the dance floor made Eve snort with laughter. After dinner had been served and eaten, the guests tapped their wineglasses until Adam and Eve rose to dance, holding each other close and whispering in each other's ears while everyone looked on in smiling approval. When the song was almost over, Troy tapped Adam on the shoulder and said, "May I cut in?"

"You certainly may," Adam replied politely, taking a step back and offering Troy Eve's hand.

But Troy rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I was talking to her," he said archly, bumping Eve out of the way with his hip. He grabbed Adam's hand and pressed up close, and the entire wedding party laughed and applauded as the two of them danced through the last few bars of the song.

There was only one more picture in the album after the wedding pictures, and it was one that had just been taken the day before. It was the only black and white picture in the entire book, and the details of the image were difficult to make out. At first glance, it looked like nothing more than a blurry grey triangle with a black blob in the middle, and inside of that a small, bean-shaped speck of white. This one would definitely require some explanation, and Adam and Eve had been rehearsing what they would say to his parents from the moment they left the doctor's office.

Eve closed the album and set it down on the table. The rest of it was empty, waiting for the pictures that would complete it. Helen might not have any pictures of Adam growing up, but she would have plenty of her grandchild.

She rummaged in the pile of wrapping paper scraps until she found a large blue bow, which she pressed into place on the cover. It would do. Then she gathered up the album and the wrapped box containing Calvin's present – an apron emblazoned with "The Grillfather" in honor of the Marlon Brando movie marathon they'd watched on AMC the week before – and set them by the front door where they wouldn't be forgotten when they rushed out to church.

By the time she had placed all of the other presents under the tree and cleared away the debris of the wrapping, it was late enough that most of the lights were off in the neighbors' houses. She knelt beside the couch and gazed at Adam's sleeping face. The first time she'd found him had been a stroke of pure luck; the second time she'd found him had been a miracle. She intended never to let him get far enough away that he'd need finding again.

"Hey you," she whispered, giving his shoulder a gentle nudge. "Wake up. It's time for bed."

He snorted himself awake and turned his face toward her, sluggishly blinking away the sleep. She smiled and watched as his eyes worked to focus on her face; she knew when this was accomplished because he lazily smiled back.

"Santa, I never knew you were so beautiful," he said, and she laughed softly with the delight of him as she leaned in for a kiss.

***

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