THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS PRESENTS

by AND

 

Catherine could feel the sigh coming all the way up from Vincent's toes. She leaned against him and asked, "What is it?"

"Nothing."

"Mmm-hmm. Want to try that line with a little more conviction?"

Vincent snorted in sudden amusement, then sighed again. "That," he said, pointing through Catherine's window to the Christmas catalogs scattered across her bed. "I see the shop windows dressed for the season, I see the catalogs, and the people rushing about with their parcels, and I just wish that I could lay the world at your feet. It is only at this time of the year, when I want to give you so much, that I realize how little my world has to give."

"Oh, Vincent..."

"I know." He turned away. "I know. All you want is my love. Anything I give you will be wonderful." He looked over his shoulder, his eye only a hint of blue behind the tangled mane. "I know all this, and yet I still wish that I had a fortune, so I could shower you with glorious things." He snorted once more. "And instead, I will find you yet another book."

"You have excellent taste in books, Vincent. I've learned a great deal from the ones you've found me, and you know how much I enjoy your reading to me."

He turned to face her. "How many Christmases has it been? How many books?"

Catherine stopped and thought, counting to herself. "Five."

"Five years." He leaned against the glass of the window, looking in as wistful as a child. "I wish I could give you something more. Something different. Something from those catalogs."

"I don't know why, most of it's pretty awful," Catherine blurted. "It's just that Jen really likes one of them, and I thought maybe something for Edie..."

"Something for me?"

The words were out before she really thought about them. "No, I was going to get you a book." Catherine slapped her hand over her mouth, half at what she'd said, and half at how bored she realized she had sounded. "Vincent! We're in a rut!"

"Yes, I believe we are." He held out his hand, his eyes sparkling with humor. "Counselor, let us make a verbal contract to give each other no books for one year."

"Done!" They shook with great formality, smiled at each other - and then blurted in unison, "So, what DO you want?"

Catherine burst into laughter, but a dark thought crossed her mind. It wasn't as if she could tear a page out of the Coldwater Creek catalog and say "Order me that jacket" or drop hints about jewelry sales. "Hey," she said out loud. "While we're making conditions, I want to make another one. Whatever we give to each other has to be hand made. By us, for us, no getting someone else to make something and pass it off as ours."

"But..."

"But me no buts, Vincent. I don't want our holidays tainted with ideas of what you can afford vs. what I can afford. Whatever we give each other will come from our hearts and our hands, not our piggy banks." She stuck her hand back out. "Deal?"

This time he was slower to accept, but he still shook her hand. "Deal."

***

Knowing that she had only gotten herself into the situation didn't make it any better. Catherine stared at the lumpy, uneven quilt in despair. Who had she been trying to fool, thinking she could sew? This was a disaster, not a Christmas present! She'd be embarrassed to use it as a bed for Arthur the raccoon.

"Chandler, you had better stick to little pouches and leave the fancy sewing to the experts," she grumbled out loud, ripping the pathetic thing into cleaning rags. The destruction made her feel better for a few short minutes, but when it was over, she was still left with the big question.

"NOW what will I make him?" Cookies? Too grade-school, and besides, she didn't cook all that well. A scrapbook? Too girly, and she could never make up her mind if. it was kind or cruel to show Vincent pictures of places he'd never travel. Thoughts of romantic evenings skittered through her mind but, while wonderful, candlelight, poetry and a little nookie were something they did with enough regularity to make it not seem gift-worthy.

Catherine sat back with an exasperated sigh. Well, at least she'd made it easier for Vincent. Everything was handmade down there; he probably had a thousand ideas.

***

Vincent threw the blotted poem across the room with a snarl. Had he been out of his mind? Keats was a poet. Shakespeare was a poet. Vincent was... a poetry reader. Catherine deserved better than bad "moon/June" couplets. Besides, a handwritten collection of poetry was too book-like. He wanted to give her something original, but also something worthy. Something that wouldn't be out of place in her glittering world Above.

And he had no ideas at all.

"What am I to do?" he growled at the air. "I can't do anything."

"You certainly can't write poetry."

Vincent whirled. Kristopher Gentian, eternally eager and paint-stained, was sitting on his bed, making a face as he read the crumpled paper. Ordinarily, Vincent was charmed by the incorrigible ghost, but today he was too upset to want company.

"Go haunt someone else," he snarled.

The spectral artist was unfazed. "Hey, aren't ghosts supposed to walk on Christmas Eve, aiding those still living in the world? I seem to remember reading something about that in Dickens."

"Then come back in two weeks, you're early."

"Mmm-mmm." Kristopher turned and twisted the page. "You've got a nice strong sense of line here. The poetry's bad, but your penwork is pretty good."

"Give that back!" Vincent swiped for it, careless of his claws, and Kristopher vanished, the paper fluttering down to the bed.

"I know what you can give Caaaaaatherine," a disembodied voice sang.

Vincent moodily clawed the paper. "I can't give her anything. Nothing I do is good enough. I would ask you to paint for me, but I promised to make her gift all by myself."

"ALL by yourself?" the voice asked. "Every little bit? Do you have to make all the parts too? Will you conjure up what you need out of thin air, like a magician?" Suddenly Kristopher was back again, this time sitting on the edge of Vincent's chair, leaning forward like an eager child. "Do the coin out of the ear trick, I love that one!"

Vincent snarled. "Stop teasing me!"

"I'm just pointing out that there's a difference between doing something all by yourself and doing most of it by yourself." Kristopher pointed at the crumpled poem. "You didn't make the paper. You didn't make the ink. And I bet you used a rhyming dictionary to come up with some of that crap."

"No, I didn't," Vincent said, as he surreptitiously kicked the rhyming dictionary under the bed.

"I saw that," the ghost pointed out. "Look, you're allowed to have help. I can help you. And
better - I know what Catherine was looking at in a window last night." He grinned irrepressibly. "It's something you can do - if you have my help."

***

Catherine slowly, carefully, squeezed the link shut, then experimentally shook the chain. The little charm of a carousel lion looked like it was on pretty securely. Smiling to herself, she picked up the next charm and looked for a good spot to hook it to.

"A bookmark. That's a really sweet idea," a voice suddenly said in her ear, and Catherine squeaked in surprise. Nimble, paint-stained fingers snitched it away. "This is really nice," Kristopher said, turning the bookmark up in the air. "I see how it goes. The big flat hook part goes in the book and the dangly bits dangle over the spine."

"Excuse me, are you supposed to be in this class?" the crafts teacher called.

Kristopher gave her a particularly ingratiating smile. "I was just on my way up to the oil painting class upstairs, and I couldn't resist saying hello to my friend Catherine here."

Unconvinced, the teacher continued to scowl at him, so Kristopher nodded to the door. "Anyway, gotta go, Cath. I'm sure he'll love it. It's not like the bookmarks the kids are making for him at all."

"What? Wait!" Catherine scrambled out the room after him. "What do you mean, not like the others? The children are making bookmarks for Vincent too?"

Kristopher shrugged. "Paper ones, with drawings. The ones with really good penmanship are putting poetry on theirs."

Deflated, Catherine looked at the brass bookmark in her hand. "Well, maybe Father will like this."

"They're making bookmarks for him, too." Kristopher pushed away from the wall he had been leaning against. "Tell you what you can do if you buy me a cappuccino!"

"Ghosts don't drink coffee."

"You don't think I'm really a ghost."

"I do think you're really annoying."

"You think I'm cute." His grin proved him right. "Besides, admit it - you want a new idea!"

***
"It's easy, Vincent. All you have to do is follow the lines."

"If I recall correctly, you were never fond of staying within the lines."

"Ah, but I'm not the one making this, am I?"

***

"Kristopher, are you sure about this?"

"I'm always sure about everything."

"But are you always right about everything?"

"I am this time!"

***

The moment of truth finally came in Vincent's chamber, away from the bustle of the rest of the community. It was hard to tell who was more nervous, Vincent or Catherine.

"I... I hope you like this," Vincent said shyly, handing over a flat package.

"Vincent," Catherine assured him, gently unwrapping the paper, "I'm sure I'll - Oh, it's BEAUTIFUL! Vincent!"

It was a work of art. Against an exquisitely detailed background, carefully inked in brilliant colors, was a poem, carefully calligraphed. "Oh, Vincent, how did you know? I always wanted something like this, but I never got around to getting it."

"Kristopher told me."

"That rat! He must have seen me looking in that shop window. I always stop and look, but I never go inside."

"Is it... is it as good as the shop?"

"Oh, Vincent, it's better! It must have taken you hours."

"Days. But it was worth it. Here's something you couldn't get Above." One claw tapped a portion of the background, and Catherine squinted at it in the candle light.

"Is that - it is! That's Father with a book, plain as day!"

"We are all there, your whole family from Below. Hiding. Waiting for you to find us in the background." Catherine stared at him, speechless, and Vincent shrugged. "In case you got bored of looking at the poem."

"I couldn't ever get bored of this! How did you think of it?"

"Well... Kristopher helped. A little."

Catherine laughed. "He helped me too. A little."

"Hmmmm..." Vincent untied the ribbon around his box, carefully teasing off the wrapping paper so it could be re-used later. Inside was a gigantic, 3-wicked candle, with fancy filigree scratched in gold on the surface..

"That is not an ordinary candle," Catherine told him. "It's a treasure candle. Inside are 12 things, one for each month of the year, and with something extra special for our anniversary."

"What are they?"

"I'm not going to tell you, that would be cheating! But I couldn't think of what I could do, what I could make, that would be good enough. I wanted to give you the perfect present. Kristopher suggested this - something practical and yet fanciful all at once." She smiled ruefully. "Something that wouldn't look like a three-year-old made it. Next time I promise someone handiwork, I'm going to learn a few skills first."

Vincent rolled the huge candle in his hands. "Catherine, this is perfect."

"Really? I wasn't sure..."

He pulled her into a hug. "Be sure. I will think of you every time I read by its light, I will think of you every time I find one of its treasures. This is a wonderful gift." He nuzzled her hair and confessed, "I wasn't sure either. But Kristopher insisted..."

Whatever Catherine might have replied was lost in the kiss.

Behind them in the shadows, a young man smiled. "Told you so," he whispered as he faded away.