Christmas is only a few days away. New Year's Eve, with all its terminal finality, would, thankfully, bring an end to Daniel Sherman's traumatic, pain-filled, empty year. Its seem like an appropriate time to bring everything in his world to a close. Spirit broken, Daniel's plan is to enjoy maybe his last holiday in the icy cold of his beloved wilderness. It would be a comfort to end his days wrapped in the peace and solitude of the mountain -- If only he didn't feel like he was being watched, a feeling he'd had since his accident. Maybe adventure wasn't out of his life yet.
The house was chilly and dark. One by one, Daniel wandered around the room, turning on the Christmas lights he had hung at the windows on a sudden whim last week. They cast a soft glow in the room.
In the corner of the living room a six-foot blue spruce sat in all its decorated glory. The boughs glistened with glass garland, tinsel, colored lights and ornaments of varying shapes and sizes, most of them gathered from every part of the world Daniel had visited during his travels. All but one.
Nestled in the middle of the tree, was the old elf decoration that had been handed down from generation to generation in his family. When he pressed his mother for the elf's name when he was five, she showed him the tag sewn into the seam that announced his name was Neilman, a very old world family name. His mother insisted the elf had been delivered one Christmas Eve by Santa because no relative or friend would admit to having given it to them. He just appeared one Christmas morning in the tree with a tag with his name on it. As a child, Daniel had felt the ornament was a sign the coming year would be a good one. It was his lucky charm of sorts. He cherished it. It held all the good memories from his life.
Neilman sat on a living room shelf most of the year, but with the coming holiday, he took his rightful place of honor on the tree. His smiling face and cheerful eyes always brought a smile to Daniel's face, even now, when he least felt like it. The elf had been his friend when he was younger, a silent companion he could talk with when life was unsettled. Somehow he could talk to the toy and bare his soul with guilt. The elf knew how to keep a secret and how to listen. Neilman had been better at that than any human man Daniel had ever dated.
Daniel gingerly knelt by the stone hearth, ignoring the ragged pain that erupted in his hip. He worked at getting a fire going with the wood already arranged in the grate with a practiced ease. A stock of firewood was usually kept in the breezeway between the barn and the house so he always had a dry supply, but this was the last of it. A delivery of cut wood had shown up a few days ago, but he had been down the mountain keeping therapist and doctor appointments. He'd have to get out there and restock the breezeway before darkness and the falling snow made it a larger chore, at least enough to get through the next few days. He'd had to pace himself with physical activity these days.
The cabin warmed up steady. It was one open room with only a breakfast bar dividing the efficient, modern kitchen from the cozy, rustic living room. One and only bedroom was on an elevated platform at the far end of the living room; the king-sized bed was piled with fur blankets, and handmade quilts, all designed to ward off the chilly air of the mountain. Oil lamps dotted the large, combined area, for the times when the power was lost, a frequent occurrence, especially with the winter storms. Daniel didn't mind the occasional primitive state of living here. He liked what others called isolation. To him, it was just an extension of being out on the mountain climbing -- peaceful, challenging, and comfortable. There was no stress, no pressure, he could be at peace in the snow country and wilderness he loved so much.
Daniel put away his groceries, then made a cold meal of a sandwich and fruit. Taking his plate to the front picture window, he made himself comfortable at a small table and chair set next to it. He like to eat there and watch the sky. He had a perfect view of the mountainside in the daylight, with its wandering herds of elk and the infrequent wolf or two. At night, the sky filled with twinkling stars by the tens of thousands. This evening he couldn't see anything but billowing dark clouds and falling snow. It fit his mood.
He munched his sandwich, idly playing with a mound of wooden blocks he had left on the table when he had decorated the tree last week. They were faded and worn smooth by generations of little hands. He was pretty sure the small grooves on the 'D' were teeth marks, maybe his own.
The alphabet blocks were red and green, with capital letters on one side and lower case letters on the other. The other four side sides were painted with numbers and animals, all chipped and somewhat faded, but still charming in their 1900's style. They were mismatched sizes, obviously gathered from a couple different antique toy sets, but when arranged just right they spelled out Daniel's first and last name. His father had told him how his mother had insisted they visit every antique shop in three states to find all the right letters. The last six blocks had come from a magical Christmas shop in a Santa Village they had never been able to find a second time. All the blocks had holly berries painted on them as well as the letters and animals, despite being found in different shops. Once they were all collected, his mother had proudly displayed them in his nursery from the day Daniel had come home from the hospital.
Daniel didn't recall that far back, but he knew the blocks had sat on a living room shelf, alongside the smiling elf, year after year, as he grew up, his own room taken over by sports equipment, climbing gear and books. These thirteen shabby, little blocks never failed to evoke cherished memories of his parents, their unending love and support for him. Neither cared their brawny, six-foot-two, loner athlete was gay. If anything, the 'loner' part gave them more pause than anything else. His parents had always told him he had a soulmate waiting for him who could share his life, someone willing to be a part of his Spartan, nature-loving lifestyle. That hadn't actually worked out.
Except in his dreams, since his accident.
A year ago, Christmas Eve, Daniel had suffered a nearly-fatal fall while climbing. Thirty feet up a mountainside, his main locking carabineer failed. He lost his rope as a shower of crumbling rock was loosened by the sudden jarring of his falling body weight. He was unconscious before he hit the ice covered ground. Kayla and Roger had been with him. He woke up briefly in the hospital emergency room, having missed a snow machine ride off the mountain, a helicopter flight to a landing strip, and a short ambulance ride to the snowed-in medical center.
He could still vaguely remember the face of one of the medical personnel that worked on him that day. A handsome young man, slight in build, with dark hair, a brilliant smile, and blue eyes so vibrant they reminded Daniel of captured starlight. He never got the man's name, nor could he remember what the guy had said to him, but he starred in every dream Daniel had since.
Every sensual, steamy, satisfying dream. A dream lover. Now that was practical. Or maybe, an angel waiting for him once this now claustrophobic existence ended. Cheery thought. At least some part of him might find a soulmate. His current lonely existence wasn't doing so well with that subject.
Brushing the crumbs from his fingers, Daniel took his empty plate to the sink. He lingered long enough to peel the skin from a tangerine and discard the skins before stoking the fire and adding a new log. The citrus aroma of the fruit filled the room and mingled with the slightly woodsy scent of the burning logs. The tree elf's smiling face drew Daniel's attention as he stood up, and for the first time, he recognized how much the elf and the hospital guy from his dreams looked alike.
"Must be why I like my dream guy so much. He reminds me of you, my friend." Daniel lifted the elf off the tree branch, rubbing his thumb gently over the red felt body and porcelain, rounded cheek. The paint had faded a bit but the eyes were still brilliant blue. "Just saw him that once, but I kind of wish he was sitting by the tree with us this year. I could use a friend that actually talked back when I rambled."
Slowly eating his fruit segments as he moved around the room, Daniel settle the elf back on his perch and went to his sound system. The gentle flow of nostalgic voices singing Christmas carols filled the silent corners of the room. "Ah, other people's voices," Daniel chided himself. "That's what they sound like!"
He settled down on the worn leather couch, the dull, constant ache in his hip throbbing with the cold, letting him know he had overdone it during therapy this morning. He had been hell bent on proving to himself he could overcome the injuries lingering disabilities, but only succeeded in making himself feel worse. The next few days would be plagued with muscle spasms and pain medications. That was if he actually decided to take any of them. He preferred a glass of wine over narcotics.
"Speaking of wine," Daniel pointed Neilman. "Let's the two of us indulge. Our first holiday toast of the season together."
Daniel poured a glass of wine from a bottle of Riesling he kept in the wine cooler in the kitchen, carrying it with him to the living room. He snagged Neilman off the tree again and propped him up on the coffee table opposite him. Daniel stiffly sat down on the warm leather couch and swung his legs up with painful effort. Sighing, he reclining into a mound of brightly colored pillows, his eyes closed and his lips compressed into a straight line to control the sudden stabbing pain in his left hip and leg.
After a moment, he blinked several times to push back the discomfort, opening his eyes to see straight into Neilman's smiling face. He couldn't help but smile back. Raising his glass, he nodded at the toy.
"Here's to new adventures, my friend, I don't think there are any left on this Earth for me, but maybe in the next world." He saluted the elf with his drink. "I really wish you could be there, Neilman."
Hesitating one briefly, Daniel drank down half his glass in one swallow. Setting the glass down on the table, he poured a prescription bottle of pain medications out, first one then two, then the entire bottle spilled across the coffee table like the rocks that has pelted him off the mountains side. He studied them for a moment then gave the elf in front of him a bleak smile. He downed the other half of the wine, adding, "Not the way good wine should be appreciated, but it's better than popping a handful of pills, right?"
Settling back in the pillows, Daniel let the soft music and the wine flow through him, dulling both his physical pains and the constant empty-ache in his chest. His gaze landed on the little elf patiently sitting on the table beside him. He snuggled down deeper into the pillows and cushions, eyes drifting shut, mumbling, "I must really be tired."
He'd have sworn, the elf just winked at him.