It was Ryan and Annie's first Christmas as a couple. They had agreed to table marriage and instead lived together the last couple of months. It was the first Christmas he spent with someone since Kelly died. His relationship with Annie was still pretty nascent as they were still feeling each other out. There was a politeness that surrounded daily motions but each was slowly growing more comfortable with the other. Annie was excited for Christmas and as soon as Thanksgiving was over, she wanted to decorate the house. At times she still felt like a guest in the large home. It was one of many homes Ryan owned, but where he spent most of his time and where she moved her belongings from the industrial one bedroom she kept at the edge of Chinatown.
Christmas was always eagerly anticipated by her nieces and Annie always enjoyed being part of the traditions Danielle carried on from their childhood. It was always her big sister who made Christmas special for her not her parents who gave up on the Santa charade much earlier than she would have hoped. Danielle sewed her stocking and initiated making ornaments and decorations with whatever she could find around the house. When Danielle had her own kids, she made Christmas special every year starting at Advent. They did something special every night whether it was as simple as hot cocoa with candy canes as stir sticks or volunteering at a homeless shelter, everyday was marked with some way to remember the reason behind the season.
Annie had arrived home early that first Friday in December and started a fire to warm up the house. She sat in the living room enjoying a cup of tea while waiting for the stew she threw together to cook. She remembered seeing some boxes marked "Christmas" in the basement storage room so she went down there and brought up all the boxes. She put up the wreaths on the front door and the garland across the mantle. She came across an older looking cardboard box, it wasn't a clear plastic tub like the others. It looked like it hadn't been opened in years, the had tape dried and yellowed and no longer stuck in some spots. Annie thought nothing of it and opened it up.
Inside the box she found photo frame ornaments with a very young and slightly thinner looking Ryan. His face was less weathered and wrinkled, but it was him. Next to him in all the photos was a beautiful blond girl full of smiles. There were five of them marking the five years they had been married and in each they both looked genuinely happy. There were also other ornaments that she saw, Our First Christmas, Our First Home, Zion National Park, Yosemite, Mt. Rainier, and a collection of others from National Parks. She figured they must have collected them together. She also found stockings labeled Ryan and Kelly inside the box and a ceramic Santa cookie plate and mug set that looked hand painted. She turned the plate over and saw the notation, "Ryan and Kelly~2000"
When Ryan arrived home. Annie was in the middle of looking through the weathered box.
"I see you got a head start on decorating," he bellowed. But then he saw that she had found the Christmas decorations from his marriage with Kelly. It took him a moment to register what it was he was looking at sprawled out on the rug before the fire.
He stopped talking when he realized what it was he was looking at. It was a box he kept but hadn't opened in some time. Suddenly he became upset and reacted with annoyance that she had opened it and taken out its contents.
"Those don't come out, you shouldn't have opened the box!" he said quickly collecting the contents spread out on the rug before Annie. He couldn't, he didn't spend time looking at the photos of himself and his dead wife. He swiftly collected them all and placed them back in the box. She tried to help him, but he said, "I got it." He raised his voice, "I said I got it," a second time when she insisted on helping him. It was as if he didn't want her to touch any of it, she felt as if she tainted his memories of Kelly. She apologized profusely, explaining how she didn't know the box was not meant to be opened, the box was with all the decorations so she took them out. "I can see that you two were very happy," said Annie.
"What?" he barked.
"In the photos," said Annie.
"That was a long time ago," snapped Ryan.
"It's okay to put them up Ryan, I'm not here to replace her," said Annie softly and she meant it. She had her own past.
"No, absolutely not," he said gruffly.
"I'm just saying she was part of your life and I understand. . ."
"These are mine and this is my house, no, no, no, these haven't been out since she died and. . . " his voice cracked a bit. ". . . they won't come out again."
Annie felt horrible and he was right, this was his house. His words stung a bit and it took a lot these days to hurt Annie.
"You're right, this is your house, I'm sorry for getting into your things and . . . "
"I didn't mean it that way, Annie, I'm,"
"No, it's fine, I understand, I'll give you some space," said Annie as she retreated. She wasn't ever good at conflict in relationships.
Annie wasn't sure where in the house to go. They shared a room, the Master Bedroom and they bought another desk for the office for her, but she didn't have a space to herself. She went into the kitchen and turned the burner off. Her purse and coat hung on the back of a chair. She grabbed them and left through the garage.
Annie drove for a bit trying to decompress and process what happened. After a while her stomach growled. Looking through the ornaments made her miss her own family. She found herself at a fast food drive through lane where she bought a burger, fries, and shake combo. Then she drove to her storage facility in McClean, VA.
Ryan looked around and found a new box realizing the old one was too battered to hold the contents another 15 years. He carefully packed up the Christmas memories he shared with his wife. At first he avoided looking at the photo ornaments closely. He didn't expect to be confronted with memories of his wife when he came home, he was completely caught off guard. Something in him said to look at the precious ornaments so he reluctantly looked at the frame of their first Christmas together. They were fresh faced and looked like teenagers. Only 22 and 23 at the time, he had just completed his SEAL training earlier that year. He made it back home on a three day leave for Christmas. She had eagerly decorated the place, they lived on base and the heat sometimes gave out in their apartment, but they were happy. He smiled remembering how he spent a few precious hours of his leave trying to fix the heater. Finally he gave up and they went out and bought a space heater to keep warm. He also recalled how they went to a pottery painting place to make the Santa plate set. It was her thing, crafty stuff like that and he did it to make her happy.
God how he missed her over the years, and time did lessen his pain, guilt and regret. He looked at her photo and spoke to her, he told her about Annie. Kelly's smile in the photos he worked himself up to look at warmed his heart and he knew that she was the kind of woman who would want him to find love again. She said it herself before she died. She knew him well and knew that he would need to hear it from her. She wanted him to have her blessing to move on, but for many years he never let himself grow emotionally close to anyone, punishing himself for not being there during the darkest and hardest moments of her chemotherapy treatments. In her dying breaths she told him over and over to let her go and that she was happy to have spent five years with him. He put away the ornaments and emerged from the basement to look for Annie. He needed to apologize to her.
After looking in their bedroom, the two spare bedrooms, the media room, the office, dining room, living room, and kitchen and great room, he realized the house was empty except for him and his ghosts. He opened the door into the garage and saw that Annie's Range Rover was gone.
He felt bad for snapping at Annie and making her feel like there were things that were off limits to her, it was their home now and everything in it was hers. He dialed her phone, but was brought straight to voicemail. He tried again. The same. He texted her:
I'm sorry I lost it, please come home.
He wondered what he could do to make it up to her and an idea came to him. She deserved her own room in the sprawling house. He would take one of the spare bedrooms and make it hers, her retreat. He took out his laptop and got online and looked at furniture websites that were her style. He found just the right chair and ottoman and shelves for books and whatever she wanted to place on them. He found a vintage secretary desk on the website of an antique store he and Annie had visited one weekend in Williamsburg. He also ordered some vintage books and prints from the same store. When he was done he was confident that he chose things she would love. It would be a nice Christmas surprise for the woman he had fallen in love with.
Annie's storage unit had not seen a visitor in some time. Dust covered a lot of her furnishings and boxes. She went inside with her burger and shake and sat in her Corvette to eat her dinner. Cell reception was poor inside the unit and she didn't see the calls or text from Ryan. When she finished eating she went hunting for her own Christmas decorations. She found a box and similar to Ryan, it held treasures and memories of a life that seemed so far away. There were ornaments made for her by her nieces. School pictures and Santa pictures placed in ornament frames. She also found her stocking, the one Danielle made when they were girls. Looking through all the years of ornaments and ordering them across the backseat of the Corvette made her long for her family. She understood why Ryan wanted to keep his box closed. It was a pain and longing that caused a pit in her stomach. Annie looked through the last box she placed in the unit. I contained the key Simon had given his sister, which she in turn gave Annie. It was the only thing beside the postcard he gave her that she had left of him. She didn't count the file with photos of him. It was cold and full of the awful things he had done. It didn't define him in her eyes. They both lost people. He didn't know about Simon and perhaps it was time to tell him so that he could see that she understood some of what he felt.
Annie dozed off in her Corvette while thinking about Simon and her family. She awakened a couple of hours later. It was freezing, there was no heat in the storage facility. She looked at the time on her watch and realized how late it was. She took the box of ornaments and what she had left of Simon and her trash with her. She lifted the door to the unit, then turned off the light, locked up and returned to the front desk where she paid in advance for another year before leaving the storage facility.
Annie headed back to the home she shared with Ryan. It was about a thirty minute drive from McClean. Ryan was waiting in the kitchen, worried. As soon as he heard the garage door lift, relief settled in. He quickly sprang from the counter stool, opened the door from the kitchen into the garage and said, "Where have you been? Don't take off like that again, no matter what I say or do!"
"Sorry, I just lost track of time," said Annie as she exited her car.
"Didn't you see my calls and texts?" asked Ryan.
Annie took her phone out of her purse, she saw that she had missed several calls and she read the flurry of texts, she read them quickly in order from the last received.
Where are you? Putting out an APB if you don't call or come home in the next hour.
Getting worried here.
I'm not going to bed until we talk things out.
Really really sorry. Come back to your home.
I'm sorry. This place is as much yours as it is mine.
I'm sorry I lost it, please come home.
"I wasn't looking at my phone, there wasn't any service where I was. Sorry you were worried, but you know I can take care of myself."
"I never doubted that, I just wasn't sure if you'd come back after how I treated you and the things I said. . ."
"Oh, I just wanted to give you some space and I needed some too," said Annie looking up at him.
"One thing we're not lacking here is space, I'm so very sorry, I shouldn't have said the things I said," said Ryan.
"It's okay, I shouldn't have gotten into your stuff. It was thoughtless and I probably would have reacted the same way if the tables were turned."
"No, this house is yours, I want you to feel like it's yours."
"I was thinking maybe we took things too fast and we need to. . . "
Oh, crap thought Ryan to himself looking at the box Annie had taken out of her trunk as they talked. The thought of her moving out scared him.
"Are you saying you want to move out?" he asked looking at the box.
"No, nothing like that, I just think it's time you saw my box of ghosts, it's only fair since I saw yours," smiled Annie.
She handed him the box.
"I'm freezing, let's go in." Her comment caused him to wonder where she had been.
"I'll make us some tea and start the fire again."
"How about something stronger instead?" Annie felt she needed some liquid courage for her show and tell of what was inside the box.
Ryan smiled thinking she really was his kind of girl.
"Okay, a hot toddy instead."
Ryan was relieved and glad she came home. He really did think for some of those hours she was gone that she wouldn't come back to him. He knew just a little about her history. It was also not an uncommon feeling that people in new relationships often felt. Tentative. Unsure. Still learning about the other person and how they would react in times of conflict. They did move fast. He proposed after knowing her for only a few weeks. It was rash to an outsider, but Ryan was never rash, he was always a fast processer and he knew she was the one for him despite all her baggage.
Once inside, he put the box down on the table and said, "Come here,"
She looked at him and said, "I'm sorry I. . ."
He took her in his arms and said, "Stop, I'm the one who is sorry, I was afraid you weren't coming back."
"The thought crossed my mind, this isn't something I'm good at, but I want to make things work between us, I want to try at least. . . "
"Nothing would make me happier," said Ryan.
He leaned down and his lips met hers, he kissed her, she kissed him back.
"How about that hot toddy?"
"Coming right up. Go get warmed up by the fire," he said as he stroked her rosy cheeks with his warm fingers.
Annie took off her coat and hung it up in the closet while doing so a feeling came over her, the feeling that this was good, this was the right place for her to be in that moment. She took the box from the table and went into the living room where she saw that Ryan had hung up stockings and put out more decorations while she was gone. Annie tossed a pillow to the floor from the couch and sat in front of the fire.
Ryan came into the living room with a tray of hot tea with bourbon and some Scottish shortbread, "I figured we could get a tree tomorrow and our own ornaments?"
"I'd like that," smiled Annie. She had her box open in front of her.
"Where did you go get that?" asked Ryan as he placed the tray on the cocktail table.
"A girl has to have some secrets, you said something like that to me once."
He smiled and could see she wasn't ready to give up everything. He sat down on the rug across from her.
Annie took a deep breath and said, "I know you lost someone you loved a lot, I know that loss too, maybe not the same kind as yours, I've never been married."
He nodded understanding what she was trying to say.
She took out the ornaments of her nieces, "After my nieces were born, Danielle made one for me each year with photos of the girls," She laid them out in order and Ryan saw the progression of one niece and then two over the years.
"Even the few times I wasn't able to be with them on Christmas, she'd send the ornaments to me no matter where I was and I'd have it with me. I've missed two years worth now, I know they're older now. I'd give anything to see what those two years of photos look like." Her voice cracked and he moved closer to her and rubbed her back.
"They are adorable, this one looks a bit like you," said Ryan. Annie smiled as if she knew. "That's Chloe."
"Do you want to contact them?"
She shook her head. "They don't deserve my drama, they didn't choose this life. And they're just kids, they're too young to understand and I know my sister. Danielle is too protective of them to let me anywhere near them."
"You could contact Danielle at least, so she knows you're alive," Annie shook her head. "I'm not ready to do that."
Ryan nodded, he understood where she was coming from. Her life, her job was dangerous and the stakes were always high.
"So you see, you're not the only one with a box of sadness tucked away."
Ryan looked inside the box and saw some more items. He took them out. He placed on the rug between them a postcard from Cuba and a small jewelry box containing a key that had been lopped onto a necklace.
"Those are from a man I once loved very much."
"Was he Cuban?"
Annie shook his head, "British citizen, Russian by birth," replied Annie.
Ryan's eyebrows raised, "Where is he now?"
Annie looked up, trying to keep the tears in. "You've asked about the scars on my chest…"
Ryan nodded. He had asked a couple of times, never had she answered him or shared any information. She always deflected by kissing him on some part of his body that he couldn't resist or asked him a question about one of his scars or quipped that it was a fencing injury.
"If he didn't push me out of the way, the bullets would have hit my heart dead on and I wouldn't be here. He died saving my life." She wiped away a stray tear.
"Wherever he is now I thank him for saving you for me," said Ryan to the air above.
"There's more that I need you to know," said Annie.
"You don't have to do this because of how I acted earlier," said Ryan.
"No, I need to, it's time you learned more about my past before we get any deeper."
"There's nothing you could say or do that would change how I feel about you," whispered Ryan while holding Annie's face with his two hands. Ryan nodded at her as if to ask, do you understand?
He then took Annie's hands and kissed them. It gave her some courage knowing and believing that he loved her.
"Like you, I've spent at lot of energy and time burying the past and reminders of it. I do what I do in part because I'm good at it, but also because I discovered that while I'm working a case and knee deep in it, I don't have the time or energy to let my thoughts wander, I don't have time to examine myself and my life."
He understood her better than she knew, he buried himself in work and missions when Kelly died. They were similar in many ways.
"His name was Simon Fisher, he was an assassin and operative for the FSB. He was my target, in the midst of cultivating him as such we fell in love. Our story would make a best-seller list in no time. Things ended tragically and as much as it still hurts to lose him, I have no regrets. I loved him very much, but it was these girls, actually a picture of them that kept me from disappearing with him. They were my anchor."
"I understand, no regrets, that's how I try to live my life and that's how we can live together. We can be each other's anchors."
"There have been times I hate myself because of what happened." Tears flowed down her face.
"I am familiar with self-loathing," said Ryan.
"Kelly didn't want me to worry about her, it was before the time of video chats, so I never saw what was happening to her the months we were apart. She kept her diagnosis from me. I had no idea how quickly the cancer ravaged her body. Finally she agreed to let her family tell me. My CO had me flown on the first transport back and I couldn't believe what I saw, she was thin and had lost all her hair from the chemotherapy. . . the doctors said her cancer was particularly aggressive. They had done all they could, but it had metastasized to her bones, lungs, and there was little to be done. I brought her home to die. It turns out that she carried a gene for breast and ovarian cancer. Her mother died from breast cancer, but we never thought. . . " his voice trailed off.
"I'm so sorry,"
"It took me a long time to climb out of the hole. Time does lessen the weight of it all, but there are certain times when the sorrow just shows up and today was one of those for me. I'll be better about letting you now when that sadness creeps in if you do the same."
She nodded. "This is all new to me."
"Me too," replied Ryan.
He pulled her close and held her. He touched her face and brought it to his, he kissed her and said, "I love you Annie Walker."
"I love you too."