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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Seven)

"Welcome home, Dad," Kim said, as she pulled into the driveway. It was the evening of December twenty-third, and as Tony had promised, her father was coming home. Tiny white lights glimmered from the branches of the trees.

"Who helped you put the outdoor lights up?"

"No one. I did it myself."

"You climbed up on a ladder?"

"Yes," Kim said. "Wait until you see the back. I've strung lights all around the ice rink."

"How do you like that," her father said, smiling proudly.

Kim stopped the car and hurried around, helping her father inside the house.

"A Christmas tree," her father said happily, glancing inside the living room. "I don't think there's been a tree in this house since… well, since you were here last."

Harold sat down on the couch as Kim turned on the tree lights. He smiled. "Beautiful."

"Do you want dinner, Dad?"

He shook his head. "Actually, I'm feeling a little tired. And I want to be well rested for tomorrow." He pushed himself up and Kim hurried to assist him. "That's okay, Kim," he said. As he stepped into the hall he glanced in the den, his eye catching sight of her easel. "What's that?"

"Oh," Kim said. "I've been working in your den. I hope you don't mind."

"Of course not," he said, stepping inside and turning on the light. "What are you painting?"

"Well, actually, it's your Christmas present."

He smiled. "Can I see it?"

"You don't want to wait until Christmas?"

He shook his head. "I've never seen your work before."

She led him around the easel. He nodded his head slowly, a proud smile creeping up his lips. "It's beautiful. Absolutely beautiful."

"You really like it?" she asked, analyzing his expression. She had feared he might not like it; after all, not everyone enjoyed abstract art.

"I love it," he said with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.

He touched the stiff canvas of the painting, and it fell forward slightly, revealing another finished painting underneath. "What's this?"

"Oh, just something that I did for fun."

Her father gently held his painting as he looked at the canvas behind it. In a magnificent, almost blinding display of colors, little lines shot out from a large red heart.

"I like this. It looks like fireworks."

Kim laughed uncomfortably. "I started painting that one for Tony. It was going to be his Christmas present. I don't know why, but I finished it anyway." She shrugged. "I guess I thought it might help to exorcise him from my system."

"And did it?" he asked, looking at her intently.

She smiled sadly as she stepped away. "Come on, Dad," she said. "I'll help you upstairs."

"Can I get you anything, Dad? Are you comfortable?"

Kim's father looked at her as he flashed her a kind smile.

Since he had arrived home the day before, Kim had been scurrying around the house, making him breakfast and lunch, making sure his pillows were fluffed and his ice cubes solid. As much as he loved her, he didn't like having her fuss over him so. "I'm fine," he said. "Look, you don't have to stick around here with me all day. Go on out… get some fresh air. It'll be good for you." He paused. "Do your own thing, isn't that what they say?"

"Maybe twenty years ago," Kim said with a laugh.

"Well, go. I don't want you sitting at home all day, taking care of me."

"Well," she said, thinking. "I was going to run to the grocery store…"

"Then go."

Kim checked her watch. It was four o'clock. "Maybe I'll just run to the corner store…"

"Go," her father said. "And enjoy yourself."

"I'll do my best," Kim promised. Although she could think of more enjoyable things than running to the grocery store on Christmas Eve. Her instincts told her it was going to be packed. Still, she was making a traditional Christmas dinner tomorrow night, and she had realized a few minutes before that she had forgotten cranberry sauce,

"I'll be back in a flash," Kim said, grabbing her coat.

"Take your time," her father commanded.

"Aye, aye," Kim said, saluting him as she stepped outside.

Her father just laughed.

Kim walked down the crowded aisle, two bags of fresh cranberries stuffed under her arm. She let out a silent moan when she saw the long line wrapped around the single open register. She was standing at the end of the line, shifting her weight back and forth impatiently, when she saw someone she recognized. Someone she was not anxious to see. It was Jenny, the same woman who had been with Tony the morning after the hospital Christmas party. She had a cart full of groceries and a baby strapped into the child seat

As Jenny pushed her cart behind Kim, Kim grabbed a trashy magazine and pretended to immerse herself in an article.

After a few minutes Jenny said politely, "Excuse me. You're Dr. Risson's daughter, aren't you?"

Kim glanced up at her. "Oh, hi," she said, pretending that she had just this moment noticed her. "Yes. I'm Kim. And you're…" She paused, as if searching for her name.

"Jenny. Jenny Treeby. And this is Kirby. My son."

"Your son?" Kim inquired. He didn't look to be more than a year old.

Jenny nodded.

So she was a single mother. Kim gave her credit. She knew that couldn't be easy. "He's adorable," Kim said politely.

"Thank you. So, do you live around here?" Jenny in-, quired, making friendly chitchat as the line moved slowly forward.

"My dad does. I live in Florida, but I'm staying with him until he gets back on his feet. Although I'm considering moving here myself," Kim replied.

"Oh, there are a lot of nice neighborhoods around here. I live on Michigan Avenue. Off of State Circle."

Tony's neighborhood, Kim thought. How convenient for them both.

Jenny continued, "When my husband and I bought our house–"

Kim tilted her head. Husband? "You're married?" she interrupted.

Jenny nodded. "Yes."

"But… I thought, I thought you and Tony were…" Her voice drifted off.

Jenny just looked at her blankly.

"Seeing each other," Kim continued weakly.

"Tony Hoffman?" Jenny asked, repeating his name slowly. "You thought… ?" The woman squinted as though the idea had never occurred to her. She burst into laughter so loud that her child started to cry. "Oh my God, no. Although I guess I could see how you would think that. We come to the party together. We leave together. We show up for work the next morning."

Feeling like an idiot, Kim flashed her a half smile.

Jenny shook her head as she popped a pacifier into her son's mouth. "Tony lives next door to us. He and my husband are best friends. My husband didn't want to go to the party, and Tony's car was in the shop, so I took him. And I drove him to work the next day, too. But he just bought a new car, thank God. He's been going a little crazy lately, buying everything in sight."

"What do you mean?" Kim said, handing her cranberries to the cashier.

"He completely furnished his house. In about one hour. Can you imagine? What inspired him, I'll never know."

Kim paid for her cranberries. "It's been great talking to you, Jenny," she said, grabbing her brown bag. "Have a merry Christmas."

"Sure thing," Jenny called out. "Same to you."

"What's the matter," Kim's father asked, leaning forward slightly. "You've been distracted all evening."

"I know," Kim apologized. "I'm sorry. I just… well, have something on my mind."

"Something or someone?"

Kim smiled sadly. "Am I that obvious?"

"Want to talk about it?"

"Oh, it's nothing. I'm just… I don't know. Mad at myself."

"What? Why?"

"Just because I'm pigheaded. Opinionated. Stubborn…" She hesitated. "Feel free to argue with me," she joked.

"Pigheaded, opinionated, stubborn. Sounds like you're talking about me."

She laughed. "I guess we grow up to be our parents. That's what they say."

The smile drifted from his face. He thought for a moment. "What if your parent changes?"

She smiled. "I don't know. I'm pretty set in my ways. I think it's too late."

"If there's one thing I've learned over the past month, it is that it's never too late."

Kim nodded. "Speaking of which," she said, changing the subject as she glanced at her watch. It was eleven-thirty, a little late to be eating dinner. "Are you sure you want to wait until midnight to eat?"

Her father nodded enthusiastically. "Absolutely. And to exchange gifts…"

"Dad," Kim said. "I've already told you, I got what I wanted…"

He smiled at her. "I haven't seen you use that new ice rink yet."

"Maybe tomorrow," Kim said.

"How about right now? I can watch from the window," he said standing up and turning on the outside light.

Kim looked at him curiously. "Right now?"

"Why not? It is Christmas, after all."

Kim nodded. If she bundled up, she might be able to withstand the cold. After all, if she was going to move here, she'd better get used to it. "All right," she said, going off in search of her new skates.

Harold stood at the window, watching Kim wander onto the ice. She waved back at him as she skated cautiously toward the middle of the rink. He smiled proudly and watched her skate around the perimeter. He would have liked to stay there and watch her until she came back inside, but unfortunately he couldn't. He had some work to do. And he didn't have much time.

Tony used the windshield wipers to brush away the snow that had started falling a few minutes earlier. Christmas carols played on the radio as he pulled up in front of the Risson house. He was a bit curious as to why Risson had insisted he come out to his house as soon as he was finished at the hospital. After all, if Risson was having problems, he should have contacted Harkavey. He was his cardiologist, not Tony.

Tony parked the car and walked up the walk. The house was dark with the exception of the lights from the Christmas tree. Tony shook his head. Maybe Risson had wanted to speak with him and had waited until Kim had gone to bed before summoning him over. Tony walked up to the door and hesitated. There was an envelope taped to the door with his name on it. He pulled it off and opened it.

Dear Tony,

I'm afraid I've brought you out here under false pretenses. The pain I'm suffering right now is not from any mistake you have made… it is due to a serious error of my own. I've made many such errors in my life; however, the most recent was when I seriously misjudged you and your caring for my daughter.

I ask you both to forgive a silly, selfish old man. I not only approve of you for my daughter, I have spoken with the chairman of the hospital and have nominated you for my replacement as Chief of the Thoracic Unit when I retire next month.

Congratulations and Merry Christmas,

Harold

P.S. Be patient with Kim. Just remember–she loves you.

Kim was getting into it. Too bad I don't have any music, she thought, picking up her speed as she stretched out her arms. She twisted, intending to spin herself around. Instead, she lost her balance and fell flat on her rear. She started laughing as she slid backward on the ice. As she drifted to a stop she looked toward the window, taking a mock bow toward her father. But it was not her father that she saw. It was Tony, standing at the edge of the rink, watching her.

Kim sat on the ice, not even feeling the cold wetness as it seeped through her jeans. "Tony?" she asked softly, brushing a snowflake off her eyelash.

He smiled at her as he stepped onto the ice. He stopped in front of her and extended his hand in an offer to help her up.

She slowly accepted his hand and he lifted her to her feet. Still holding on to her, he showed her the note.

Kim read it slowly, her brown eyes filling with tears. She looked at Tony and smiled.

Tony was the first to speak. "Kim, I… well, I'm sorry if…"

"You have nothing to apologize for. I do. I'm sorry. I was worried about repeating the mistakes of the past, and in doing so, I almost made the most terrible mistake of my life."

He traced his finger underneath her eye, wiping away a tear. "You changed your mind about us? Were you visited by the ghost of Christmas past?"

She smiled and nodded. "As well as the ghost of Christmas present and future. I saw what my life would be like without you."

"And what were you doing… without me?"

"I was sad and lonely. I had been offered something more priceless than money or fame, and I was too frightened to accept it."

He hugged her close. "I love you, Kim. I can understand why you were concerned about me… or rather, about us… but I think as long as we make a conscious effort to balance love and work, we'll be okay. Even your dad could see that. Speaking of which…" he said, nodding toward the house. "I don't know how you did it, but you've even changed him. His letter… well, it's a miracle."

Kim grinned with happiness as she grabbed him, pulling him in closer. "It's no miracle," she said. "It's magic. Christmas magic."

And then, just as the distant church bells began to chime midnight, he kissed her.

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