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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter One)

Kim leaned back in her chair and studded the abstract oil painting in front of her. Strong bold red lines accented a deep green background. She picked up her paintbrush and hesitated. She tilted her head, as though trying to get a different perspective. She had been working on this painting for months, but she just couldn't finish it. The painting needed something. Unfortunately, she was having trouble determining what it was lacking.

Frustrated, she set her brush back down and glanced out the window. The house she rented was small and old, but the location had made her fall in love with it immediately. It was perched on a small grassy hill overlooking a large stretch of beach in Hudson, Florida. She walked over to the window and opened it, allowing a warm breeze to flow through the room. It was November twenty-seventh, the day before Thanksgiving, but the temperature gave no indication that winter was right around the corner.

"Deck the halls with balls of holly, fa la la, la la…" Barbara, Kim's friend, burst through the door singing her own rendition of a Christmas carol.

"Hey!" Kim yelled out.

Barbara set down her bag of groceries. "What's the matter? Do you have a headache?"

"No. I just don't feel like hearing Christmas carols. I'd like to get through Thanksgiving first. And besides. It's boughs, not balls." "Balls, boughs, big dif. You get the gist. And Thanksgiving is tomorrow. As everyone knows, Thanksgiving is the official beginning of the Christmas season." She looked at Kim accusingly as she put her hands on her hips. "Are you always such a scrooge?"

"Most of the time," Kim admitted. Christmas was one of those holidays that reminded her of everything she didn't have. "What did you bring?" Kim asked, motioning toward the bag.

"Stuff for tomorrow."

Barbara and Kim had volunteered to make Thanksgiving dinner for several of their friends who had decided to forgo having turkey with their families. "But I've already got everything," Kim said.

"Nope. Not hors d'oeuvres."

"Hors d'oeuvres?"

"Yeah. I went all out. I was missing my family so I needed some comfort food." Barbara began pulling the groceries out of the bag. "Cheez Doodles. Chips. Dip. Salsa. Bugles… God, I love Bugles. Assorted nuts. Cheez Whiz for inside the celery sticks, which I… forgot. Oh, shoot," she said, slapping her forehead.

Kim looked at the snacks in front of her and smiled as she shook her head. "Don't worry," she joked. "We'll just dip the Bugles in the Cheez Whiz."

Barbara's eyes opened wide and she nodded. "Excellent idea!" She opened the refrigerator, admiring the feast Kim had already purchased. "Everything looks beautiful. Cranberry salad. A giant turkey. And this?" she said, opening up a casserole dish and peering inside.

"Green bean casserole."

"God! You're so organized," she said, slamming the refrigerator door. She opened up the bag of Bugles and tramped toward Kim's painting. "I like it," she said, nodding as she popped a Bugle into her mouth. "It's very Christmassy."

"Christmassy?" Kim asked, walking over beside her as she opened up the jar of Cheez Whiz. She took a Bugle from Barbara and dipped it inside. "How do you figure?"

"Green and red. Looks kind of like a big, weird wreath," Barbara said, following Kim's lead and dipping the Bugle in the Cheez Whiz. "Don't you think?"

Kim tilted her head and looked at it again. "I don't know. Right now it doesn't look like much of anything to me." She shrugged. "I'm sorry. I woke up in a lousy mood. I think it's the holiday." She nodded toward the jar of Cheez Whiz. "We better put that stuff away. It's addictive."

"No!" Barbara said adamantly. "This is all part of the holidays. You start eating, and you don't stop until January. It's an eatathon. Anything and everything you can stuff in your mouth."

"I think I'll pass," Kim said. "But you go right ahead. I'll leave this out for you."

"So why are you so crabby? Getting nervous about your show?" Barbara asked, referring to the second major show of Kim's career. Her first show had been six months earlier at a local gallery in town. A buyer from a prestigious Miami gallery had seen her work there and had offered Kim a showing at his gallery, one frequented by wealthy clients. It was an important break for Kim. Her career had demanded long hours and hard work, with little financial reward.

"No. I don't think so. I mean I'm nervous, but I don't think that has much to do with my mood."

"Are you missing Ed?" Ed was Kim's most reeent boyfriend, a fellow artist who had recently decided to move to L.A. and become an actor.

"Ed? No." Kim had been relieved when Ed had decided to move. It was an easy, almost painless way to end a relationship that had been going nowhere fast. "I'd have to be a masochist to miss him. I mean, I guess I miss having a date every now and then, but I don't miss always paying for his dinner, watching him flirt with other women in front of me, and being told I could benefit from hiring a personal trainer–as he's squeezing my rear end…"

"Yeah, right! As if he was Mister Studly!"

"Exactly," Kim said, shoving another Bugle into her mouth. The mere thought of a hard-core workout was enough to make her stomach rumble.

"Anyway, you're a toothpick. He's crazy!" Barbara said enthusiastically.

Kim shrugged. "According to him, my body is not toned."

"I should be so unlucky," Barbara said wistfully, staring at her pretty and thin friend as she ate a spoonful of Cheez Whiz. "You know what you need?"

"To lay off the Cheez Whiz?"

Barbara stuck the spoon back inside the glass jar and said, "You need to relax a little. Get out there and date, instead of always working."

"I'm busy. And I'm happy with my life. My time is important to me–and I'm not going to waste it dating just to… date."

"Mr. Right could be out there waiting for you, and you'd never know it. You'll never meet him holed up in here all day and night."

"I'll never meet Mr. Right because he doesn't exist."

"Tell me what you're looking for. Maybe I can fix you up with someone."

"No thanks."

"Cmon. What kind of guy are you looking for?"

"Someone who puts family above… well,, his career."

"Better look for a guy over sixty-five. If you want to come before his career, stick with retirees."

Kim laughed as she took a hair band out of her pocket and skillfully pulled her long brown hair back in a ponytail. "Whatever happened to old-fashioned romance?"

"Old-fashioned? Forget sixty-five, maybe you better try a guy over seventy."

"You know what I mean. The "Hey, it's cold out here, let me give you my coat" type of love. The kind of guy that brings flowers…"

"I've got just the guy. My grandpa–Grandpa Willie. You'll love him. Want to see a picture?"

"Does he have gorgeous eyes, nice hair…" Kim replied, playing along.

"I think he has a nice hair. How many do you want?"

Kim smiled at her friend. "Grandpa Willie, huh?"

Barbara nodded. "He is cute." She laughed. "Let's say you can choose three things about your Mr. Right. What are they?"

"Things?"

"Characteristics. Qualities."

"The coat thing, that's a definite."

"Okay, we've got the guy giving you his coat… very chivalrous," Barbara said, drawing a number one in the air.

"And the flowers."

"Okay, we've got a guy giving away his coat and bringing flowers," she said, drawing a big number two in the air. "One more."

"And he must like my rear end."

"Just your rear end?" Barbara asked. "Why not go for the whole package? Don't you want a guy that thinks you're perfect? This is Mr. Right, after all."

"Exactly," Kim said good-naturedly, pretending to slam her fist down as she played along with her friend. "He must like my whole package!"

"Excellent!" Barbara said, laughing and clapping her hands together. "He must think you're perfect." As their laughter died down, Kim shook her head. "Listen to me. Rambling on about my dream man. Good thing you're not taking me seriously."

Barbara nodded knowingly. "So that's why you're so cranky. Depressed about your love life."

Kim shrugged. "Usually I don't mind being single," she said, "but the holidays can be tough when you're alone. I always get this kind of vague, uncomfortable feeling that I'm missing something." She sighed. "I don't know. It's like New Year's Eve. I'm always convinced everyone is having a really good time except me."

Barbara's lips curled up into a dreamy smile. "I had a great time last New Year's. I was dating Frank, remember? I had been dating him for… well, we'd been on five dates, and he hadn't even tried to kiss me. He waited until the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve. It was so romantic," she said dreamily. She shook her head as her mood suddenly changed for the worse. "Of course, I had to go and dump him for Rick." Then she added quickly, "The doctor," as if to distinguish him from any other Rick she might have dated. Barbara had dated Rick for about five months. When he left town for a new residency program, their relationship had ended.

"Don't fed bad about Rick," Kim said. "I know you were impressed by the whole doctor thing, but believe me, being the wife of a doctor stinks. They work all the time. You'd never see him."

Barbara shrugged. "I can think of worse things."

"They're a strange breed. Especially… what was Rick… a surgeon or something?"

"A thoracic surgeon," Barbara said. "Just like your dad."

Kim's father was the chief of thoracic surgery at St Mary's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan–at least, that was his job fifteen years ago, when Kim had last spoken with him.

Kim rolled her eyes. 'Take it from me, you made the right decision," Kim said, "dropping him."

"I didn't drop him, he dropped me."

"He did you a favor. My mother was one of the loneliest people I knew. She gave up everything for my dad, and he never even noticed." Kim hesitated as she remembered her mother. She had died last year and Kim missed her terribly. She remembered the anguish her mother had suffered, loving a man whose obsession with his career rendered him incapable of returning her feelings. "My dad's patients and his career always came first–before my mother, before me. If you had kids, you'd have to raise them yourself. He'd be on call all the time, and when he wasn't…" "He'd be with me in our eight-bedroom house on the water…"

"He'd be trying to arrange a way to sneak out with one of the nurses he had his eye on."

"Oh! That snake!" she said, smiling as she raised her fist up in the air. "I'll throw the book at him. I'll take him for every cent he has." She smiled. "That's a pleasant thought. Do I get to keep the house?"

"If you're looking to live in a huge house on the water, can I give you a suggestion?"

"Marry a dentist?"

"No, something even more novel. How about getting that law degree you keep talking about?"

"So I can defend myself in my divorce settlement with my doctor? Excellent idea," Barbara joked. "Think of all the money I'll save." Barbara's smile faded and she hesitated.

Kim rarely spoke of her past, and Barbara thought she might try to take advantage of the direction the conversation had taken. "Kim," she said finally. "What happened between you and your father? What made you stop speaking with each other? Did you have a fight?"

Kim shook her head. "Nothing so dramatic. After the divorce, when my mother and I moved to Florida, he just seemed to lose interest in me. He sent child support payments, but never included a note. He never even called."

"Did you call him?"

Kim nodded. "Quite a few times. But he wasn't home and I never called him at work. I wrote him every now and then, but as I got older, I stopped trying."

"Aren't you tempted to call him now?"

Kim smiled sadly as she shook her head. "I don't know what good would come of it. I'd probably just end up opening old wounds."

Barbara could tell by her expression that her friend was beginning to get upset. She decided to change the subject. She pulled a container of salsa out of the refrigerator and opened it up. "Maybe we should move on to a happier subject… like New Year's Eve. I can't remember what you did last year," she said, swirling a Bugle in the salsa and offering it to Kim.

"Hmm," Kim said, thinking as she shook her head, declining the unusual snack. "I'm not so sure it's a happier subject At least, not the New Year's Eves I usually have. Last year I went on a blind date with that nutcracker guy. The one that kept cracking those nuts in his teeth. Remember? He kept telling me that wasn't the only way he could crack a nut."

"Oh yeah," Barbara said. "Actually it was one of my better New Year's. In terms of entertainment value."

"You deserve a really great man to show you how to enjoy the holidays."

Kim laughed. "I have a man. Grandpa Willie."

"You just need to meet a good guy," Barbara continued. "Christmas can be so romantic. The soft holiday music, the sparkling gold lights…"

Kim rolled her eyes and nodded toward the salsa. "I thought you said it was an eatathon. Doesn't sound too romantic to me."

Barbara shook her head, as if giving up. "You're hopeless. Go ahead and be a scrooge. I, however, happen to love the holidays."

"A lot of people do," Kim said, feeling a little guilty about not sharing Barbara's enthusiasm. "My mother always said that Christmas was a wondrous, magical time."

Barbara laughed. "Magical, huh?"

"That's what she said. Every Christmas she'd tell me to think about what I wanted most and make a wish. She promised it would come true."

"And did it?"

Kim shook her head. "I never took her seriously. I don't believe in magic, especially at Christmas. Christmas is… well, it's just like any other time of year. Only people are more irritable."

"I think your mother was right," Barbara said enthusiastically. "Like last year, I stayed here, remember? The whole time I kept thinking about how much I wished I was with my family. And this year, my whole family is meeting back in Maine. My sister is flying in from L.A., my brother from Baltimore… what else but magic could get us all together? And what else but magic could keep us all from killing each other?"

Kim glanced away. Barbara was lucky. She had a brother and a sister, parents that loved her and each other. Kim could understand Barbara's looking forward to Christmas–she would, too, in her place.

"Hey, I have an idea," Barbara said excitedly. "Why don't you make a wish? If it comes true, then you'll know your mother was right; if it doesn't, well…" She stopped speaking.

Kim was shaking her head.

"Cmon, Kim," Barbara said. "Humor me. You've got one wish. What's it going to be? Are you going to sell all your paintings next month?"

Kim knew what she would wish for. And it had nothing to do with her career. She wanted what Barbara had: a family. Barbara paused, noticing the wave of sadness that had crossed Kim's face. "What's the matter? Thinking about your wish?"

Kim forced herself to laugh. "Yes. I wish for a better date on New Year's."

"That's it?"

"Uh-huh," Kim said, turning away so that Barbara couldn't read her expression.

But she didn't turn quickly enough. One look at Kim's face told Barbara what Kim had wished. "Maybe you should break down and call him," Barbara said quietly.

"What? Who? Ed?"

"No. Your dad. Every now and then you get like this, and I know it's because you miss him."

"I don't miss him," Kim lied. "How can you miss someone you don't even know?"

Barbara sighed. "I don't blame you for being upset. You're a good person, Kim. You deserve better."

Kim opened the refrigerator, absentmindedly shoving the Cheez Doodles inside.

"The man's been a jerk from the get go," Barbara continued. "I mean, cutting off all communication just because you moved with your mother…"

"He did send me money…" "He can afford the money," Barbara said. "But no letters? No phone calls?" Barbara shook her head, disgusted.

"Okay, Barbara. Thanks. Next subject."

Barbara shrugged. She knew better than to push her luck. Kim had always been a very private person, and Barbara knew she had to respect that. "What time is everybody coming tomorrow?"

"Chris and Lisa are coming at three. Kate will be here at four. I told them that if it's a nice day, they should come early and bring their suits."

"Thanksgiving on the beach," Barbara said wistfully. "I mean, I miss my family, but I love the idea of a swim before turkey."

The phone began to ring, and Barbara snatched it up. "Hello? Sure. Just a minute." She held the phone out toward Kim. "It's for you. A man," she said devilishly, raising her eyebrows.

Kim frowned as she accepted the phone. "Hello?"

"Is this Kim Risson?" a deep, unfamiliar voice inquired stiffly.

Kim glanced up at Barbara. Probably a sales call. "This is Kim," she admitted.

"I'm Dr. Steve Harkavey. Your father's doctor." He hesitated. "His cardiologist." Kim slowly sat down in a chair. "Yes," she said, stunned.

"Your father… had a heart attack last night. He's in the intensive care unit here at St Mary's."

Kim was silent.

"The good news is that as head of the Thoracic Unit, he's getting the absolute best treatment possible. We've got a top-notch team working on him, but… ah, it looks like we're going to have to replace his mitral valve and do some bypass surgery. We're waiting for him to stabilize."

She paused, feeling everything and nothing at all. "Did he ask for me?" she managed.

"He hasn't been able to talk. Fortunately, I found your phone number in his address book."

My father has my phone number? "How serious is this?"

"Well, that depends on the damage to his heart. As you know, this isn't his first heart attack."

No, she thought. She did not know that. She knew nothing about the man this doctor was talking about.

She heard the doctor ask, "Are you planning on coming out here?"

Kim was silent.

"Kim," the doctor repeated. "We may need you to make some decisions."

Decisions. "Of course," she said automatically. "I… ah, I'll be there as soon as I can."

She put the phone back on the receiver.

"What's the matter?" Barbara asked, alarmed by the look on Kim's face.

Kim glanced up at her friend. "My father. He's had a heart attack. I guess they need to do surgery."

"How weird," Barbara said, her eyes opening wide. "It's like karma or something. You just make your wish, and then you get a call…" She hesitated as she saw Kim pick up the phone book. "What are you doing?"

"Calling the airlines. I'm going to try and fly there this afternoon."

"What?! This afternoon? The day before Thanksgiving? It's the busiest travel day of the year! It'll be a nightmare."

Kim scanned the airline numbers.

"Did he ask for you?"

Kim began to dial a number, not answering.

Barbara crossed her arms in front of her. "How do you even know he wants you there?"

Kim glanced at her. "You're the big believer in magic, or wishes, or whatever you call it. And now you're telling me not to go?"

Barbara shook her head. "I'm not telling you not to go. I just want you to be… careful I know you. I know how much you want to have him back in your life. I just… well, what if he wakes up and doesn't want you there? For all you know he could even have other kids, another family, by now. Just think about this, Kim. Think about what you're doing. And why."

"I don't know what his personal situation is. All I know is that the doctor called me and said I needed to make some decisions. So I'll stay and make decisions until he's either well enough to make decisions for himself or somebody else shows up to make them for him. And if he has other kids, great. A perfect opportunity to meet my new family." She glanced into the kitchen. "The turkey is ready to be put in the oven. Can you handle it without me?"

"Of course." Barbara hesitated. "What about your show?"

Kim glanced toward her painting, concerned. "Hopefully ' I won't have to stay in Michigan all that long."

Barbara shook her head. It was obvious she was not going to be able to talk her friend out of this. And she wasn't sure she should, anyway. "You're a good daughter, Kim." She shrugged her shoulders. "I just hope Santa's watching. It might make up for some of the naughty things you've done this past year."

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