I don’t have many Christmas themed stories, but this is one of them. I hope you enjoy.
Fountain of Unclaimed Wishes
Owen Cassini stood before the small fountain in the hospital atrium staring at the engravings worked around the edge. Coins littered the bottom of the fountain, remnants of wishes long since unclaimed and forgotten, his among them. Overhead, the soft music playing in a familiar melody mixed with the soothing burbling of the water and he resisted the urge to hum The First Noel along with it. The air smelled stale and stagnant, though it always smelled that way to Owen, especially this time of the year. He did not know why he noticed it more strongly this time. Perhaps because he almost had not come this year.
I started to think you werent coming this year.
Lara stood in a doorway and his breath caught. Bright fluorescent lights seemed to create a soft glow around her, leaving her blond hair shining. Her thin mouth twisted into a partial frown. Owen couldnt tell if wrinkle lines formed in the corner of her mouth or not. Her dark dress as stylish today as the last time hed seen her.
You know I come every year.
Do I? she asked. She stepped toward him, her feet making no sound on the hard tile. As far as Owen knew, it had been ten years since her feet made any sound.
Owen turned back to the fountain and dipped his finger in the water up to his knuckle. The cool water tingled. He whispered a soft invocation; not quite a prayerhe wouldnt dare something so powerful in a place like this, especially not feeling the way he didand felt the water warm briefly. He made a cross on the back of his other hand and took a deep breath.
Is it time? Lara asked.
Though he wasnt certain he felt prepared, Owen nodded.
Can I help this year? she asked, leading him away from the atrium.
Owen didnt tell her she had helped last year. And the year before. Lara didnt need to know, not to do what she needed. Perhaps this would be the year she found peace. Perhaps this would be the year she remembered. Do you want to?
The question seemed to catch her by surprise. Shouldnt I?
Owen suppressed the pang of sadness that she didnt remember. Will you help with the dinner?
Something in her face changed and she smiled. The fluorescent light filtered through her then, almost enough for her to disappear. But then she stopped and the frown returned. I dont know if I can help.
Will you try?
Lara blinked. In spite of her lifeless eyes, he thought he saw something there. She tipped her head. I will try.
At the end of a long hall, the rooms running along either side old and in need of renovation, Owen stopped to peer into the chapel. Massive stained glass windows lined the far wall. Sconces along the other walls glowed with a soft orange light. Rows of chairs all angled toward the small wooden altar. Though no one stood at the altar, everyone sitting in the chairs stared toward it in rapt attention, as if waiting for someone who had not yet come. One particular woman, face flaccid and pale and grey hair twisted on her head in a soft bun, rocked side to side. A few others next to her did the same. Owen heard the distant sounds of music and thought he recognized the refrain of Angels We Have Heard On High.
Owen turned to look at Lara. The light here did not shine quite as brightly, leaving her shaded and somewhat diminished.
There are more, he said. Each year he came, there were more of the Lost, souls he had to help guide toward their next stop. This year seemed more than ever.
More or less. Who is to say?
Lara tipped her head and her shoulder shrugged slightly. Her hands gripped the edges of her dress but it didnt really move. He wondered if she realized.
You think the dinner will help usher them through? she asked.
Owen took a deep breath and blinked. This close to Lara, the air smelled particularly stale. His breaths came heavily, feeling tonight as they usually did as if someone sat on his chest. He nodded to a man in blue scrubs who moved quickly down the hall. The mana nurse, Owen suspected; doctors were likely all gone by this time of nightglanced at Owen briefly before hurrying past. He did not look at Lara. As likely as not, he did not see her.
I will do what I can, Owen answered. He did not tell her it was not the dinner that was important. Telling her did not work.
Her mouth tightened and she became more solid, as if the light bounced off her more easily. What you can? Is not your task to help usher them on to their next destination?
Strange that Lara would question him like this. He did not recall her speaking so freely last year, though each year she became less of who she was and more the specter she would be. That he had so far failed to prevent the change made coming back each year increasingly painful.
Instead of answering, he asked, Are we ready?
She glanced into the chapel. Some think you are like Santa.
Except I dont bring presents.
Lara almost smiled. You think not?
If I am Santa, then you must be one of my elves.
Her brow furrowed as if she struggled with what to say. Once, she would have laughed. Finally, she said, Thank you for letting me help with this. It feels like something I need to do.
I couldnt do this without you, Lara. These preparations were always difficult for me. I could never do them well. Never had to. He took a deep breath. Lara glanced at him, as if waiting for him to continue. I once knew a woman who loved to bake for the holidays. She spent days baking. Butter and cream cheese cookies, bon bons and spritz. Plates full of cookies.
Sounds like too much work.
Owen allowed himself a slight smile. She loved to bake, so to her, there was no work. Only gifts, given to friends and neighbors lucky enough to know her.
WellI cant bake.
Owen glanced at Lara, wishing he could brush the blond hair off her shoulders, let her feel somethinganythingbut he could not. That was the price of his gift. No? But you wanted to help.
She glanced into the chapel. I have helped. I gathered them together.
Owen peered into the chapel. Few of the faces were familiar, though that was how it went. Each year they accumulated, those souls unlucky enough to linger, to need an escort toward the next step. Each year he did what he could to guide them onward, to gather the courage to leave this place, but such courage had a cost. Could he help this many?
There are so many, he told Lara.
We had a rough year. Flu was bad last winter.
Owen blinked, remembering. Part of him had considered coming then, knowing the departed might need his services, but knowing too that he needed time for his influence to develop. Another part did not want to come, fearing his past failings.
He wondered how many of them he could help. How many would want his help? Some years, he felt as if he barely did anything. Other years, he went to sleep feeling as if he had accomplished much. But each year, there was always the one failing he wished he could correct, one of the Lost he wanted most to help but could not.
Do they know I am coming? he asked.
Most do, Lara answered.
Do they know why?
She shrugged. With the light, it seemed as if shadows flickered.
Owen smiled. Shall we begin?
Again, Lara nearly showed emotion. But then that faded.
The auditorium seemed well decorated for the holiday. Decorations covered a spindly tree in the corner. Candles flickered on tabletops. Music seemed louder. People mingled, talking softly, some dancing, and one by one they wandered toward a long table stacked with turkey and ham, potatoes and corn, breads and jams. Even cookies, plate after plate of different kinds, lined the table. Owen could smell none of it. As far as he knew, none of it was real.
But when someone smiled, when they felt the warmth of the holiday, a reminder of past happiness and love, he felt the overwhelming sense of something greater. That reminder was all they needed. Just enough to remember. In a flash he suspected only he could see, they disappeared, fading toward a different station, where they would be guided by another, perhaps someone with a greater understanding of what they experienced.
Owen moved through the party, speaking to as many of the Lost as he could, trying to find a way to remind them of who they were and help them prepare for the next step. The holiday party usually helped, something familiar to almost everyone.
Did I do well? Lara asked.
Owen turned. The black dress she wore seemed to have a little more collar than he remembered and hang even lower down on her leg, but her long blond hair still hung lifelessly around her shoulders. Compared to what? he asked.
She frowned and bit her bottom lip as she considered. Last year? she asked.
Owen only nodded. If she did not remember the last year, it was not for him to remind her. Instead, he nodded toward the old lady with the twisted bun, the one so enraptured by the music in the chapel. The song had shifted, now the sounds of Away in a Manger rang out, and she hummed along with it. Slowly a smile drifted onto her face. Light filtered through her skin, turning her translucent. As the light washed over her, she glanced at somethingperhaps the table or another guest at the party or something Owen could not seeand a wide smile spread across her face. The light that surrounded her was the same as every other, bright and blinding, filled with warmth Owen did not quite feel all the way through him.
There are more desserts this year, he commented.
She frowned. The light bouncing around the edge of her seemed in contrast to the elderly lady now fading from view, the bright light finally claiming her. Did you not request that?
Owen smiled and nodded. Perhaps I did. Do you know who made them?
Lara scanned the table. Made the desserts? She shook her head.
Owen said nothing, only wandered toward the table. Had he been able to smell the scents rising from the table he had no doubt that his mouth would be watering. As it was, just the sight of all the food laid out on the table left his stomach rumbling. The cookies appeared particularly impressive, some frosted, others dotted with sprinkles, and others simply left unadorned. They were different than the desserts from the year before. For a moment, he had a surge of hope. Perhaps this would be the year.
I once knew a woman who loved music, he said.
There is music here, Lara commented.
Owen nodded. And the hymn is beautiful, he agreed. So was her voice, so clear and powerful it seemed to pull others with her, welcoming them to sing along. So soft and melodic, I have not heard its like in many years.
Lara glanced at him. I prefer to listen, she said.
Too many get carried away, she told him. She watched one man, waving in place as he sung the hymn. The melody practically dragged him along, pulling him from side to side. His eyes closed and his face slowly changed. Light filtered through him, leaving him as bright and translucent as the elderly lady who had already disappeared.
You think music should not pull at ones soul? Owen asked.
Lara blinked. II dont know what I think of such music, she admitted.
Owen nodded his head. After so many years, she would not. You have done a wonderful job this year.
Thank you, she answered. I seem to remember doing something similar once.
You helped many today.
She shook her head and the frown on her face deepened. You can stop being condescending. Youre the who does the work.
Owen looked at Lara, feeling a pang of sorrow. And he had hoped this would be the year, but of course he hoped the same each year.
He felt drawn to the crying. The sound pierced through the hymns that rose and fell over the chatter of the remaining guests and he followed it to find a small child, barely more than three, crying near a doorway. Owens heart split as he saw the girl.
She had chubby cheeks dimpled even as she wailed. Brown hair in need of a wash and brushing pulled back away from her head. A loose band threatened to fall from her head. The dress she wore looked two sizes too big, though he suspected it had fit her once.
Hush, he said, kneeling before the child. That there could be one of the Lost so young nearly devastated him. That she looked so much like his own child nearly stole his resolve.
The child stared at him, fat tears hanging from her lids, rivers of drool falling from the corners of her mouth and mingling with her hair as she cried. Owen reached toward her before catching himself. Even having given the blessing, he could not touch her, not without damaging her.
She is the youngest in many years.
Owen glanced back. Lara watched him. She showed no other emotion on her face.
Lara shook her head. A seizure. Her parents waited too long, thinking it something else. The brain can only tolerate so much, you know
Owen blinked. He didnt but did not say so. Can you do anything?
Laras brow furrowed as she glanced to the little girl. Tears continued to run down her face, dripping from her chin and disappearing before they reached the floor. Me? You only asked me to help prepare the dinner.
And one of our guests is displeased, Owen said.
Lara stiffened and backed away. I cannot help.
Then the child will suffer. I can only speak to her, not touch her. Touch is what she needs. He looked up at Lara and met her pale, lifeless eyes as he tried to speak over the crying. For the first time tonight, he saw real emotion. You know, I once knew a woman, a nurse from this very hospital, who calmed the sickest patients with just a touch. Children would melt before her, falling to her shoulder like she was their own mother. He watched her, ignoring the soft flickers behind Lara as more of the remaining Lost disappeared.
Laras face flickered with uncertainty. She sounds nice. What happened to her?
Owen swallowed before he answered. The same as happens to us all.
Lara nodded as if she understood.
He turned to the little girl. Her crying had eased to a sobbing whimper, each breath taken with a huge quivering heave of her chest. There, there. No need to cry. Can you tell me your name?
Owen took a breath of stale air. Well, Carly, do you know youre at a party?
She blinked. Another tear fell. Wh-what kind of party?
Owen forced a smile onto his face. A birthday party.
Is there cake?
Owen looked over to the table. I dont know about cake, but I see cookies. This nice lady can help you find one that you like.
He stood and motioned for Lara to take Carlys hand. Lara frowned but did, squeezing with a tenderness he thought shed forgotten. She led her to the table and when Carly couldnt see what the treats stacked there, Lara hesitantly leaned down and lifted her. Carly clung to her, and something in Lara changed. The stiffness in her back softened just a bit and Carly threw her head down onto Laras shoulder.
Then Lara did something that surprised Owen. She began to sing along with the hymn. Her voice carried, soft and sweet. Others who heard it stopped and listened.
Slowly light began to infuse around Carly. As she faded, the song reached a crescendo, as if lifting her away. And then she was gone.
Lara stood at the table for a moment, arms now wrapped around nothing but air and the remnants of Carlys shadow. Despite the emptiness in her arms, she continued to sing. Others took up the hymn, finally joining her, and for the first time in as long as he remembered, Lara wandered through the room, touching some, singing next to others, participating in a way that she hadnt before.
Standing next to the table, there wasnt anything for him to do this year. Perhaps that was for the best. The preparations had been made by Lara, and now she was offering the blessinga different kind of blessing than he could offer. The longer she sang, the quieter the party became.
Light infused the room in flashes as it did each year, though more than what was typical. Owen made his way through the room, whispering softly to the Lost, waiting on others, wanting nothing more than for those he spoke with to find peace.
By the time hed made it back to the tablenow with far fewer treats on itonly a few of the Lost remained, far fewer than he had expected. Perhaps he could help them next year, if he came.
Owen wished more than ever to touch her and locked his hands behind his back to fight the urge. You did well.
She turned to him. I did nothing, she said.
Before she could begin becoming more solid, he shook his head. No. I couldnt have done what you did, Lara. It was your party, your touch, even your song that helped her. Helped them all, really.
She blinked. Me?
I dont think I even did anything tonight.
The tightness to her mouth slipped and she smiled. Oh, Owen, you always did like it when I entertained.
She said it so fast he didnt think she realized what shed said. But in that instance, she had remembered. It took a flash, just the memory, and held his breath hoping
Light suffused around her. Laras eyes fell closed and she sighed, letting out a soft breath as if sunlight washed over her. Slowly she began to fade, lingering long enough to look upon him one more time. Until next year, she said.
Owen swallowed back the knot in his throat, feeling none of the warmth she felt. He said nothing, not wanting to change this moment, but not wanting to miss the last sight of her. After all these years, all this time with her stranded as one of the Lost, she finally moved on.
When she was gone, he sighed. Until the next, he said.
And then he turned and left. There were others of the Lost remaining but as much as he wanted, he could not help everyone.
In the atrium, he paused at the fountain, looking for the coin he once tossed in, the desperate wish she would find peace. And now, finally, she had. Too many coins lined the bottom of the fountain for him to find his own.
With a nod, he turned away, pushing doors open against the gusting wind. Once outside, his boots crunched against fresh snow. Cold air felt crisp and seemed a little less stale.
Owen paused, wondering what he would do next year, if he would return. Had he come to help all of the Lost or only Lara? Now that she had moved on, his wish finally granted, would he?
Then he remembered the old woman with the bun and little Carly, Lost who might never move on if he didnt come, might stay Lost forever as specters without his gift. As much of a burden as his gift could be, he could not just abandon them.
And with Lara finally moving on, there just wasnt anyplace else for him to go.