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Christmas in Brooklyn

Part one: Canada

Helga Pataki-Kramer sat in front of the small hotel mirror, nervously brushing her hair. Tommorow she would have to sell the biggest presentation of her career, and she had the jitters for the first time in awhile. Usually her business skills were flawless; she was a ruthless and cunning salesperson, much like her father had been. But something about this trip to Canada to close the Turner Broadcasting deal had been making her a nervous wreck all week. Throughout the week’s meetings and business lunches she’d been picking at her professional manicure and tearing up napkins… she had a bad feeling about the whole thing.

Helga put down her brush and picked up the phone to call her husband, Dirk Kramer. He was a shewrd business person as well; a former apprentince of her father’s, he had migrated into the cell-phone business. He sold "cheap" pay-by-minute rip off deals to cell phone users around the country. Dirk and Helga were rarely together, both of their jobs required a lot of travel. Sometimes Helga felt she was losing all human contact with her husband of only five years; she did her best to keep in touch through long distance phone calls, but sometimes even their phone conversations felt forced.

" Hello?" a woman’s voice answered the phone when she called their home in Vermont. Strange, Helga thought, pausing. Did I dial the wrong number?

" Hel-LO?" the woman said again, annoyed with the puzzled silence of the other line. Helga cleared her throat.

" Ah, yes, this is Mrs. Kramer," she said, leaving off the hyphen in her last name on this occasion, " Is Dirk there, please?"

Helga heard a tiny gasp in the woman’s throat.

" Who IS this, by the way?" Helga asked, making her tone a bit harsh. " Is this the Kramer residance?" She was pretty sure she knew her own phone number—she called home more often than she spent her nights there. But her finger could have slipped…

CLICK. The woman on the other end hung up. Helga’s hand shook a bit as she replaced the receiver. I could call again… she thought, but her hands were trembling and she was tired. No, she decided, I’ll just go to bed. Better not to think too much about this before the meeting tommrow…

With that she slid into an old t-shirt and some lounge pants, and climbed under the fluffy hotel covers. Her company always made sure she had the best accommadations when travelling. I really do lead a charmed life, Helga thought, don’t I? I’m a woman of power and influence, I make more money than my father ever did, and I’m certainly more satisfied with myself than my mother was.

She tried not to think about Dirk as she drifted off to sleep. She tried especially to avoid the nagging idea that she wouldn’t even care if he WAS cheatin g on her. My marriage is not a joke, Helga reassured herself mentally. Everything is going the way I planned….

It was night, and she was back in New York. Snow fell softly from the blanketed sky, making the city quieter somehow. But then, there had always been a strange quiet that fell over her old neighborhood—a safe, reassuring barrier of soundlessness. Only a few sirens from distant police cars echoed off the empty streets.

It was late, and Helga was walking alone. But she wasn’t scared—she had a bizzare feeling that someone was watching out for her.

Suddenly someone behind her kicked a can, sending it flying out in front of her. Helga gasped, and whirled around. She was surprised to see her childhood friend " Curly" Adams, standing and observing her with a knowing stare.

" Curly?" Helga’s voice was sharp against the silent night. Curly smiled slowly.

" He waits for you," he said, shyly kicking at the ground. Helga suddenly realized that she was the same age as Curly—they both were young children again, no more than ten or elevan.

" Who—what?" she asked, pulling at her geeky pink dress. She hadn’t worn such an ugly, gigantic bow in her hair since her days as an elementary school bully.

" He waits," Curly said again, turning to go. Helga started to walk after him, when suddenly a manhole cover flew open under her feet. Helga screamed, and went flying through the air. Out of the sewers poured a thick, black smoke. She screamed again, and turned to run, but the smoke had her. She was choking, gasping for air.

" Arnold!" she sobbed in frustration.

Helga woke up panting for air. The light in her hotel room was bright, and her alarm was going off. That dream… Arnold? Her childhood crush? Why dream about him, and the old neighborhood, now? She hadn’t been back there in years… but the dream seemed to have awakened an ache in her that she’d been pushing aside for just as long… she suddenly didn’t care that she was late for her meeting.

Helga appathetically got dressed and gathered her materials for the meeting. Arnold. That… bastard. He’d never paid her a second glance in a romatic light, dating only pure hearted and virginal girls in their high school years. Meanwhile, Helga was going through intensive therapy, and problems with alcohol. She had come to hate him and all his easy goodness as much as she’d loved it as a child. I was never good enough for Arnold, she thought sourly. Leave him to bubble-headed goody-two-shoes like Lila or Ruth… Helga couldn’t believe all of this was coming back to her. It was more than ten years ago that she’d graduated…

He’d caught up to her after the ceremony…

" I wanted to wish you well, Helga," he’d said, naively, looking at her with a mixture of fear and pity that she detested.

" What the hell do you care?" she’d asked him with a trademarked glare, puffing on her eighth cigarette of the day.

Arnold shook his head sadly, and Helga almost wanted to believe his sorrowful act. But he was just being haughty… trying to hold his perfection and idealism over her head like always.

" We used to be friends," he said cautiously, " I’m sorry the way things turned out. I hope you have a good life, Helga."

Far better than yours, I’m sure, she thought bitterly, walking out of the hotel room. Arnold was probably still living in the slums, doing some lousy thing like teaching preschool or reading to blind kids… hmph. People like him just didn’t know what real life was all about.

Helga felt a pang in her stomach as she thought that. She rushed downstairs and outside to catch a taxi. It wasn’t really true that Arnold hadn’t had his share of hardships… both parents dead before he learned to speak… his grandparents had died when he was fifteen, leaving him alone in the world. He’d moved in with his friend Gerald for awhile to finish high school, and afterward gotten a scholarship to study in Nova Scotia. But to be completely orphaned as he was… Of course Helga knew how that felt. She hadn’t spoken to her parents in years. She and her father had openly hated each other since she’d reached adolesance, and her mother was a mere shell of shallowness and self-loathing… the only thing the two were good for was worshiping her older sister Olga. Olga was living in Switzerland with her French husband Kenyun; both were doctors, and they had three perfect children, blond-haired little girls with pigtails and bows. Olga, the well-meaning fool, still sent Helga pictures of her family at Christmas. It was all she could do not to throw them away; although she knew it wasn’t Olga’s fault, Helga felt so cheated by her older sister.

By the time Helga got to the Turner affiliate in downtown Quebec, she was in a rotten mood. Her charts and graphs shoved haphazardly under her arm, she climbed into the elevator and hit the button for the 61st floor. Why did that lame dream have to show up now and ruin her day with bad memories of her past? And what was with that smoke at the end? Why did she scream Arnold’s name? Why not… Dirk’s?

As if Dirk would save me in a crisis, Helga thought. He’d be too busy closing the deal on some cell phone suckers… Of course Arnold had actually saved her life once, during a flood at school. She’d cried out his name then, too, as the water was carrying her away… and he’d caught her.

" Its almost Christmas," said a voice behind her, and Helga whirled around with a gasp. She hadn’t realized there was an old woman riding the elevator with her. The old lady was leaning comfortably into the corner, hands folded neatly over her stomach, her velvety purple dress hanging gracefully around her ankles.

" Um, yes," Helga said, " I suppose it is." December 5, that was the date of the meeting, which was today. Only twenty days until Christmas. She and Dirk usually used their holiday vacation time to go to Aruba. They never celebrated.

" Have you been good this year?" the old woman asked with a strange smile. Helga frowned. What was she implying? She yanked down on her black skirt so it wouldn’t look so short—the control top on her sheer tights was showing.

" Well, of course I have," Helga snapped, flipping her hair out of her eyes.

" Good to yourself, even?" the woman asked.

" Hey, look," Helga said, tapping her foot and wishing the elevator would hurray up and reach the 61st floor. " I’m the most emotionally healthy person I know. Alright lady?"

The woman cast an abstract glance up at the elevator’s ceiling.

" Which of us knows what we trully need?" she asked quietly. " Even what we trully want?"

" Huh?"

" If you could have one thing for Christmas," the old lady said, looking back at Helga, " What would it be?"

" None of your business!" Helga cried. What was with the random interegation? One thing I want for Christmas? She was tempted to say: For you to shut your fat trap, lady!

I want a chance to show all those bums in New York what a diva I’ve become, Helga thought with a snicker. To really kick the mud in their pathetic faces.

As the elevator approached the top of the building, Helga began to hear a clicking sound. She yanked on her collar a bit as it got louder.

" What the hell is that?" she muttered. She turned to look at the old woman—her eyes were shut. She looks so peaceful, Helga thought. What a clod.

Suddenly the lights in the elevator went out. A glaring red emergency light snapped on above them, and the elevator halted to an awkward stop. Helga was thrown backward against the right wall.

" Damn!" she shouted, as her papers for the meeting cascaded to the floor. She started to bend down to pick them up when she heard a noise from above:

SNAP. Snap-snap-snap! A quick succession of cracking sounds, and the elevator’s control panel began to spark. Helga heard a creaking, and felt the elevator begin to move… downward. Slowly at first and then faster…

" Oh, hell!" she screamed, looking at the old woman, who still remained calm.

" What is this?" she cried as they plumeted to their doom.

" Hold on," the woman said softly, and Helga frantically clawed at the floor of the elevator, finding nothing to hold on to. They were picking up speed now…

" Arnold!" she screamed without meaning to before the crash that silenced her.

It was cold in New York. Helga was alone on the streets, searching for a sign. Everything seemed to be closed down, and the old neighborhood looked like a ghost town. She came to a stop in front of her father’s old store: Big Bob’s Beeper Emporium. The windows had bars on them; some vandals had broken them in places nevertheless. There was a long stream of hot pink graffiti across the front doors.

CLOSED, read a sign in one of the windows, Building For Sale.

Helga stood before her father’s old workplace for a long time, watching the shadows and jagged edges of broken glass, faded memories. Finally she picked up a rock, and brought her arm back to pitch it through the glass on the front door. She was about to throw it when a small child ran out in front of her, giggling.

" Phebe?" Helga exclaimed in disbelief when she recognized who the girl was. Her childhood best friend hadn’t aged since she last saw her, a troubled and awkward visit to Phebe’s Ivy League college. Helga looked down at herself, and sure enough, she was wearing the clothing and shoes of her youth.

" Follow me!" Phebe beckoned, running behind the Beeper Emporium, down an unlit alleyway. Helga trotted curiously after her, her heart beating faster.

" Pheebs, wait!" she called, trying to keep up. Phebe stopped up ahead, and pointed into a dark doorway that branched off of the alley on the opposite side of the Beeper Emporium. Helga came to a stop beside her, pausing a moment to catch her breath.

" What is this place?" Helga asked, peeking into the creepy doorway.

" Look," Phebe said with a learned glance in the direction of the door. Helga reached out and cautiously turned the knob.

The inside of the building she entered smelled of dust and molded interior. Helga walked carefully inside, and when she turned to look behind her, there was only darkness, no door and no Phebe. Her breath caught, but she continued ahead.

Inside she saw the glow of a fire. Sitting around it were two figures, hunched and wrapped in dirty blankets. One of them lifted her face to Helga, and behind her smudged glasses, Helga recognized the homeless woman.

" Mirium!" she exclaimed, falling to her knees as she watched her mother, huddled and shivering in the abandoned building. She looked, terrified, to the figure that sat across from her, a larger mass crouched on the floor near the warmth of the fire.

" Helga," her father called out, his angry brow furrowing. " You left us! You left us to this!"

" Oh, Helga," Mirium whined, " We’re so cold… can’t you spare just a little warmth?" They started to draw near to her, flithy, hungry phantoms of the parents she’d known.

" No!… No!" Helga shouted, backing away into darkness. Suddenly there was a wall behind her, and she was trapped. " Get back!" she screamed, covering her face with her arms,

" I have nothing to give you!"

Suddenly she heard Phebe’s voice again, a beckon in the darkness.

" Helga?" she asked, sounding different, inquisitive. " Helga, can you hear me?"

Helga’s eyes snapped open, and she was staring up at the face of her long lost friend. Phebe, in all her former and present glory, looking down at her. A shrink-wrapped hospital ID was hanging from her neck, brushing Helga in the face.

" Helga, oh my goodness," Phebe said, standing back and retriving a chart from the end of the bed. " You’re a real live miracle."

" Phebe?" Helga asked in disbelief. " What is this?"

" This is intensive care," Phebe explained flatly, " And I was just as surprised as you. Welcome back to the land of the living."

" What…" Helga stuttered, slowly remembering the elevator crash. " Where am I?"

" Downtown Mahatten," Phebe explained, looking somberly out the window at the city below. " You were rushed here from Quebec—trust me, you DON’T want to be treated for extensive cranial damage in a Canadian hospital."

" What? This doesn’t make any sense!" Helga tried to sit up, but the pain was terrible.

" Relax," Phebe said, " Its just a coincedance. Your husband is waiting downstairs."

" Oh, HIM," Helga groaned, feeling bold.

" Would you like me to explaing the extent of your injuries?" Phebe asked, " Or shall I go ahead and send Mr. Kramer up?"

" God, explain first," Helga moaned.

" Well," Phebe began, " First of all, you’ve been in a coma for over a week. But not to worry, miraculously there was no permadent brain damage. And your muscles have not atrophied, so physical therapy won’t be nessacary. However, there was extensive scarring and dihabilitation. Your left arm is broken, and both your ankles have fractured. As you can see we have already put you in casts."

" Good Lord," Helga muttered, examining her torn up body.

" You should thank your lucky stars that your neck wasn’t broken," Phebe said, taking a sip of a diet coke she was holding.

" You know that stuff will give you cancer," Helga said. Phebe shrugged. " Hey," said Helga, " What about the old woman?"

" What?"

" The old woman in the elevator," Helga said, " She was with me when we crashed."

" Well, if she lived, she wasn’t brought here for treatment," Phebe said, " But I’m not really sure. Don’t go getting survivors guilt or anything. It wouldn’t be your style."

" Hey, give me a break, Phebe!" Helga cried, " What’s with the cold attitude? How the hell have you been, anyway?"

" Not bad," Phebe said, " I just went through the divorce of a lifetime, almost lost my license to pratice medicine, and both my cats ran away. But, hey, at least I can walk."

" Smart ass!" Helga quipped. " Well, everything was going fine for me until this nightmare. Seriously, though, Phebes, what happened to you? You seem … I don’t know. Changed."

Phebe rolled her eyes, " Imagine that, after eight years." She started to walk out of the room. " I’ll send your husband in."

" Don’t bother," Helga mumbled, but Phebe didn’t hear her.

Well, this is a fine mess, Helga thought, trying not to cry. Once her ankles healed she’d be able to get her life together, but in the meantime she’d surely lose her job. Not to mention her youthful good looks—she was horrified with her reflection in the mirror across the room. A helpless looking criple, the girl in the mirror was a lumped mass under the hospital’s ugly blue blankets, her arm in a sling and her feet in bootie-like casts. Her cheeks were burnt and there were slashes across the brigde of her nose and her forehead. Her hair was shaved away in places so that the doctors could fix former wounds that were now healing under ugly bandages. Her eyebrows and lashes were singed from the elevator crash’s fire.

Dirk walked in wearing a stylish cracked-leather jacket that Helga had never seen before. His hair was slicked back in a new way, and he observed Helga from across the room like a bad car accident.

" Babe," he said, " Look at you."

" I know," Helga said, " Pathetic. Who would have guessed I was mortal?"

Dirk forced a laugh. He looked extremely uncomfortable. He pushed his light brown hair off his forehead and sat down next to her bed.

" Well," Helga said with a sigh. " What did I miss this past week? Did you bring me the Wall Street Journal?"

" Um, no," Dirk said, biting his lower lip, " Helga, I have something to confess."

" What?"

" Well," he began with a heavy, over-dramatic sigh, " When I heard about the accident in Quebec… I thought you were dead."

" My," was all Helga could say. She couldn’t read Dirk’s expressions at all.

" And," Dirk said, looking at the floor. " I was … relieved."

Helga stared at him. She tried to imagine Dirk in an elevator crash, what her reaction would be. Maybe not sorrow… but certainly not relief.

" You … what?" she asked, flabbergasted.

" Helga, I realize this comes at an unopertune time," he said, " But, I want a divorce."

Helga couldn’t believe what she was hearing. I wake up from a coma to THIS?

" You lousy son of a bitch!" she shouted, " Get out!"

Dirk stood up and straightened his jacket. " If that’s the way you want to play it old gal," he said pompously. " You’ll hear from my lawyers." With that he walked brisquely out of the room.

Helga laid in her bed, staring at the ceiling. What have I done? She wondered with tears in her eyes. What have I done to deserve this?

TO BE CONTINED…

In Part Two: Brooklyn