There was an unholy shriek as metal tore, and glass shattered. The world spun, with up and down becoming momentarily meaningless. Colors became red of flame, and red of blood. Then... cold. A face, framed in white, dressed in red. "Alena Raisel Fournier, you have died, and you will not like what your life has earned." A scent of sulfur. <Terror, pleading, desperation.> "However, I have been granted a chance to reverse that." <Hope, pleading, supplication.> "This chance is *not* for your sake. There is one whom I would reward, but desires only one thing. My power does not allow it normally, but with your consent, it is possible." <Supplication, acquiescence.> "Know also that he has almost given up on kindness. *You* must not allow that to happen." <Acknowledgement, comprehension.> "There will be a cost. This gift is for_ him, _not you. In the life you had, you earned your reward by over-valuing the latter. This will not be allowed again." <Acceptance, desperation, eagerness to please.> "Then go, and remember: While you may reverse your reckoning, this chance is not about you."
Alena woke, to the sight of a disbelieving face. Something inside her melted, and then he reached over and removed something from her mouth. “Hi.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say, despite — or perhaps because of — the giddy feeling inside her. She did feel a smile form on her face in reﬂection though.
“Hi. Um. What’s going on here? Are you trying to play some sort of prank? And how did you get into my house, anyway?”
Alena shifted, trying to sit up, and found that impossible. Looking down at herself, she saw little but red ribbon. This was somehow correct and acceptable. As for the questions that he had asked: “I’m… not sure. The last thing I remember, I was driving, and there was a truck, and then… things get confused. I think there was ice, and a cliﬀ, and a man in red…” She drifted oﬀ for a moment, then was brought back by a need to move her arm. “Um, would you mind unwrapping me? My arm is going numb.”
“Oh, of course. No problem.” He set to work. “Um, what’s your name by the way?”
“Alena Fournier. Sorry, I probably should have mentioned it.”
“That’s ok. I’m William, William Knepp. Um. Do you realize you are naked under these?”
“I am? Oh. I guess I am.” She shrugged. “Nevermind, I still need these ribbons oﬀ.” He’d gotten to the point where she could pull her hands out. “Ah, thanks.” She rubbed blood back into her ﬁngers, where she had been lying on one arm.
William had stepped back, leaving her still wrapped from approximately the waist down. Alena decided to ﬁnish what he had started. “Um, do you want me to look away, or get you some clothes or something?”
Alena’s ﬁrst reaction was ‘Don’t be silly, it’s just you’. But she was starting to notice that she wasn’t acting normally. Still: “I’m ﬁne, it’s plenty warm in here.”
William’s eyes were coming out of his head. He started to walk backwards, towards a door. “I’ll, um, just get you something.”
She watched him go with an unaccustomed feeling of regret and fondness, then ﬁnished getting out of the ribbon and looked around herself. She had been lying on the one couch in the room, there was a Christmas tree in the nearby corner. On the other end of the room was a small kitchen, with a table barely big enough for two. There were a couple of bookshelves, and an old TV shoved to the side, hidden under piles of magazines. It wasn’t neat, but it felt comfortable, and lived-in, if a bit small.
“Here you go, I found a couple of old sweatpants…” He skidded to a stop in front of her, then blushed and looked away.
An old part of Alena’s mind said ‘Well, at least he isn’t staring, though he’d probably peek given the chance.’ Alena shoved that thought away; somehow, she knew, it was a dangerous thought. And besides, she didn’t care if he peeked. She was more worried about him blushing. “Thank you, but you really didn’t have to.” The words were true, but if he wanted her dressed she would dress.
He turned around again once he thought she was done. “So, um, back to the question of how you got here…”
She shrugged. “I really don’t know. I told you the last thing I remember.” Something caught the corner of her eye: an envelope, near where she’d been laying. She picked it up, and handed it to the person who’s name was on the front. “Maybe this will say something.”
William tore it open, then pulled out the card, read it, then ﬂipped it around a few times, looking it over. He looked up, and handed it to Alena. Inside was only the words ‘To: William Knepp, Merry Christmas. From: S. C.’ “Ok, this was fun, but this joke’s getting a bit creepy at this point. Who put you up to this?”
“I…” Alena ﬂashed memories of the scent of sulfur, and a man in red. “A man in red? I don’t know. I already told you what I remember. Sorry.” Somehow, it was important to her that he not be upset.
“Yeah, you said… Actually, that sounds like you might have been in an accident. Are you feeling ok? Any cuts, or bruises?”
“Not that I noticed… Unless you saw something. I am acting a bit odd, and I’m a bit giddy and spacy yet, but…”
“Ok, you know what? Let’s get you to a hospital, and see if they can ﬁnd anything.”
William looked over at his passenger on the way to the nearest emergency room. He’d actually had to look up where it was. She was… Well, the sweatpants and t-shirt she was wearing didn’t quite ﬁt, and the curves he knew they hid were still hinted at. She hadn’t been shy with him, that was sure, and from what he’d seen, she was… Well, something out of one of his better dreams. Even with her black hair unkempt and no makeup on, she was stunning.
When he’d ﬁrst seen her as he left his room this morning, he’d wondered if he was still asleep. For that matter, he wondered that now. This whole morning was dream-like for him. Just absolutely surreal: He’d woken with a naked woman as near as could be to under his tree, on Christmas, of all things.
However she’d gotten there, she hadn’t done it alone. She hadn’t been able to move in those ribbons. And when he’d checked, the doors had all been locked. Maybe they’d been able to lock the door behind them? It didn’t make any sense. Why him? What was the point of this?
At least there wasn’t any traﬃc on a Christmas morning. Nor was there anyone in the emergency room but the nurse. “Hi, I found this lady this morning; I believe she’s been in an accident.”
Alena decided to talk for herself. “Nothing visible, but I’m feeling a bit spacey, and I’ll admit to acting a bit out of character.”
“Any headaches? Do you remember what happened?”
“No, and I remember bits… Driving, and a truck. Nothing clear though.”
“Where did you ﬁnd her?” This was to William.
“Um… On my couch, actually. I’m not sure how she got there.”
The nurse nodded, and turned back to Alena. “Any problems focusing? You said you were feeling ‘spacey’, how so?”
“No problems focusing, that I’ve noticed. As for spacey: I just feel a bit disconnected from things, and things don’t feel like they matter to much.”
She held out her hands, with a pen in one and a pencil in the other, then turned them over. “What’s in my right hand?”
“And the left?”
“Can you stand on one foot for me?”
“Sure.” Alena did so, balancing easily.
“Thanks. The feeling of being spacey, has it been getting worse? Better? Staying the same?”
“Getting better; it’s fading away. I still feel it a bit though.”
Another nod. “Ok then. Sounds like you might have a very mild concussion, nothing more. I can make an appointment for you tomorrow or the next day, if you want, but it will probably go away with some rest. If you start getting more spacey, or if you start getting a headache, or dizzy, or nauseous, or if anything happens with your vision or anything, come back in immediately and we’ll run some tests, but it sounds like you should be ﬁne.”
“You don’t want to call a doctor, or give her an x-ray or something?”
The lady behind the desk smiled. “If she were having any serious symptoms, or if it was getting worse, I’d run some scans, yes. That’s why I said to come back if it gets worse. As for a doctor…” She tapped her name tag, which clearly read ‘Dr. Cohen’. “I gave the nurses the morning oﬀ. Christmas morning is usually fairly slow; it’s the afternoon we have to worry about.”
William blushed, and apologized, but the doctor waved it oﬀ. “Don’t worry about it. And most days you’d be right: this is a nurse’s station.” She looked the couple over. “I understand your concern, but she should be ﬁne. A little short-term memory loss is common in situations like this; she probably headed for the nearest place she thought was safe. Take her home, let her rest for a few days. Enjoy the holiday.”
“Thanks. And merry Christmas.”
Alena was relieved that she didn’t appear to be injured. Not that she’d been concerned: Somehow she was certain she was uninjured, even before. However, given her situation, it was probably worth a check. A car crash sounded right, but somehow wasn’t enough… “So, what’s next, William?”
“We should probably ﬁnd out if there’s been any accidents, see if we can ﬁnd out what happened to you. I’m not sure if the police station will be open…”
“Can we have breakfast ﬁrst? I’m getting a bit hungry.” Actually, she was very hungry, but she didn’t want to say that.
“Oh, sorry. Of course. I should have thought of that.” He turned, and actually looked at her for a moment. “If you live nearby, we should get you some better clothes as well.”
The thought of her home cleared the fog in her head a bit more. “My apartment isn’t far, but unless you saw my purse someplace we can’t get in. The super is oﬀ today; they’ll be able to get me in tomorrow.” A stray thought came to her mind, and she voiced it before she thought. “My parent’s live on the other side of the city; not very far. They’ll have something I can wear. Actually, they are expecting me for lunch.” Somehow, the thought of lunch with them made her feel uneasy; she brushed it aside. Christmas was for family, after all.
“Ok then. We’ll go back to my place, have a quick breakfast, then I’ll drop you oﬀ at your parents.”
“Sure.” The plan was sound. But it worried her.
Alena had gotten a chance to even do her hair, a bit, before they headed to her parents. Breakfast had been nothing major, but it made her feel much more human.
She stopped at her parent’s door, and looked around. The Christmas wreath was missing. Odd. She pressed the doorbell, and waited for the door to open. “Merry Christmas!”
“Alena?!” Her parents, and sister, stared open-mouthed. Then she was in the middle of crushing group hug. “When the police showed us the crash…” “You’re alive!” “How did you survive?” Who said what was confused.
“What? I…” A ﬂash of rending steel. “I don’t remember. I don’t even remember the crash. You thought I was dead?”
“Your car went over a cliﬀ. You must have hit a patch of ice in the dark, the police said. They could barely read the license plate.”
“I…” She just shook her head, and decided to switch topics. “Mom, dad, Christa, this is William. We’re not sure how, but I ended up on his couch.”
They turned as one to examine the specimen on the porch. “Hi. Thank you very much for bringing our daughter back to us.”
“It was nothing, really. By the way, the doctor said if she gets dizzy, or nauseous, or if she has any trouble with her vision, to bring her back in. But they think she’ll be ﬁne, with a bit of rest.”
“You took her to a hospital?”
He shrugged. “She was acting a bit out of it, besides not knowing how she’d arrived on my couch. And she keeps remembering bits of the accident, just enough that I ﬁgured she was in one. But honestly, she’s ﬁne. Not a scratch on her.”
Maybe that hadn’t been the best thing to say, given the fact that Christa was looking over the old sweatpants and T-shirt that Alena was wearing. “What happened to your clothes?”
“I, um, I don’t know. I didn’t have any when I woke up. William loaned me these.”
“Very gentlemanly of him.” Her dad’s tone was ﬂat.
“It was.” Was the best challenge Alena could come up with.
“Well, thank you sir for looking after our daughter. We’ll make sure she gets your clothes back to you. Unless you’d like to stay for lunch?” The last came out as ‘I’ll be polite if I have to’ from her mother.
“Um, that’s ok. Honestly, she can keep them if she wants. And I’ve actually already got lunch plans.”
“It’s not lunch yet, surely you can stay a little while, can’t you?” Alena asked.
William didn’t get a chance to answer. “If he has plans, there’s no need to disrupt his Christmas any more than you already have, Alena.”
Alena found herself looking back and forth between her family and the man who’d come with her. It struck her how diﬀerently they were dressed; her family in pressed top-line winter fashions, which Alena knew were all brand new. William looked like he’d worn that coat for a decade. A part of her told her that mattered. That not just wealth, but the appearance of wealth mattered.
She refused to listen to that part. “I’m sure we won’t keep him long enough to disrupt… Where do you have to be, William?”
“The food pantry. I’m helping hand out Christmas lunch.”
Her father was about to go into his ‘they should get a job’ speech. “And when do you need to be there?”
“There, see? I’m sure it won’t take more than a half-hour to get there, and that’s plenty of time for him to come in, at least for a little bit.” Alena turned back to her mother, and tried to hide the bit of panic she felt in her voice. If she got separated from William now… Something bad would happen. She was sure of it.
“Oh, all right. Please, come in William.”
“I don’t want to impose…” ‘He must be blind’ ran though Alena’s head, and she grabbed his hand, making sure he couldn’t escape without her.
“It’s no imposition. Please. Come in, talk to my family a moment.” Her parents would think she was making a fool of herself, she was sure, but this mattered.
“Ok, but I really have to get going soon.”
“No problem.” She ushered him into the living room, then grabbed her sister. “Christa, do you have any spare clothes I can borrow? And make-up?”
“Trying to impress the rescuer?” She grinned, a bit of a feral grin. “Or just trying to annoy mom and dad? Hmm? Don’t worry, I’ve got something in the car that should do.”
Alena ignored the edge in her sister’s voice. Seeing her family, and comparing them to herself in William’s cast-oﬀs, had made her want to look her best. William probably wouldn’t care, but he deserved her at her best.
“I was going to wear it to Church this evening…” She had grabbed a bag out of her car, and led them back to her old room. “Luckily we’re still the same size.”
‘It’ was a green and red pantsuit, that managed to look demure while still forming to every curve. “Thanks sis, you’re a lifesaver.” Alena was stripping oﬀ the loner clothes.
“I don’t think William had anything that would ﬁt me. You wouldn’t happen to have a spare set?”
“Sorry. That I didn’t think I’d need.”
Alena paused in the act of putting on the outﬁt. “Is it ok if I wear this without?”
“If you mean, will you show through, no, you’ll be ﬁne. As for the rest… Just make sure it’s dry cleaned before it gets back to me.”
“Of course.” The mirror and dresser hadn’t been moved since they were teenagers, and was a convenient place to do makeup.
“It is nice to have you alive, sis. When I saw the photos of the accident… I still can’t believe anyone could live through that. The police weren’t expecting to be able to ﬁnd a body, and here you are, without so much as a scratch on you.”
“Where was it, anyway? I can’t remember.”
“The pass; right in that section where there aren’t any shoulders. You went right over the side, and about a thousand feet down.”
“Oh, right, I was coming back from that skiing trip…” Alena stopped, and just looked at the mirror. “That’s the west side of town, isn’t it.”
“William’s house is on the East side of town. Add it together, and that’s ﬁfty miles, easy, from the accident to his house.”
“So, there’s no way I could have walked that far. If nothing else, I’d have frozen.”
“So someone gave you a lift.”
“To the house of a guy I’ve never met before, on the far side of town from my apartment or here, in the middle of the night. And then they slip me in, and lock William’s house up after them.”
“Maybe he picked you up himself. If he didn’t know who you were, he wouldn’t know where to take you.”
“A: He would know where to take me: A hospital. That’s the ﬁrst place he took me this morning. B: You didn’t see his face when he found me. No, this doesn’t make sense.” She stared at the mirror a moment. “And yet, I feel it makes sense.”
“What are you babbling about?”
“Christa, what are the chances that someone could get thrown from a car as it’s falling down a cliﬀ, land, lose their clothes, and make it to a nearby road without even getting their feet muddy? Much less getting a scratch?”
“Pretty miraculous, I’d say. You were lucky.”
“Yeah, luck… Christa, am I sounding crazy to you?”
“Not more than normal.”
“And if I had a really weird theory, you’d listen, right?”
“All your theories are weird, sis.”
“Christa, I think I did die.”
“Ok, that’s a crazy theory sis.”
“I remember bits of the crash; there was a truck and a patch of ice, and the sound of metal… And then, I remember something else. A guy in red and white.”
“Probably the guy who picked you up.”
“And the smell of sulfur. And… terror, and a chance, a way out.”
“And I’m not reacting quite right. I mean, at the doorway, when mom and dad tried to get William to leave… I was freaking out. Panicking. I couldn’t let that happen. Not…”
Alena pulled herself up, and looked her sister in the eye. “Not without me. I can’t aﬀord to let him out of my life.”
“So, what does all this add up to, in that weird brain of yours?”
“I think I died, and went to… Well, Hell, I guess. Only I got stopped before I got there, and given another chance — but not for myself. For William. I’m pretty sure I had to agree to it.”
“You’re sure this is the most logical explanation?”
“I’m surer of it every second. And, well, it explains how I was found.” At that, Alena blushed.
“Not that naked on a guy’s couch isn’t enough, but how were you found?”
“Wrapped head-to-toe in a ribbon. With a bow in my mouth. There was a card, too.”
“To William, from Santa, that type of thing?”
Alena just nodded.
“You think you were a Christmas present, from God, or Santa, or whomever, to this William guy.”
“And you think you agreed to this? Beforehand?”
A slow nod, this time.
“And how do you feel about this? Or about Wil?”
“As for the idea itself… I’m a bit weirded out, really. I’m not even sure I believe in Hell, and here I am, saying I made a bargain to avoid it. As for William…” Her face changed, both softening, and becoming more certain. “Love at ﬁrst sight. Before he even said anything, really. He’s got… A good soul.”
“Love at ﬁrst sight, because he’s got a good soul. Ok.” Christa looked her sister in the eyes. “You really believe this. That you died, and are… on your second life.”
“And that it’s not my life. It’s William’s.”
“You aren’t going to do anything crazy, are you?”
Alena managed to get an impish smile. “That depends. Does skipping Christmas lunch with family to go work in the food pantry count as crazy?”
“If he’s not staying for lunch, I’m not. I’ll steal your car if I have to.”
“I mean, you wouldn’t leave me alone with mom and dad.”
“I’m sure you’d be welcome to come along.”
“That really would throw them into ﬁts.” Christa paused, with her hands on her sister’s shoulders. “Ok, I’ll back you up, and I won’t say anything to mom or dad. But you call if anything comes up, ok? Or if there is any weird cult thing, or anything. Call. Keep in touch.”
“I’m your sister. When have I not talked to you about everything?”
“Last week. But you’ve got time yet.” She stepped back to get a good look at Alena. “You aren’t going to become his slave or anything weird like that are you?”
Alena actually stopped and thought about that for a moment. “Not unless he’s a lot more kinky than he appears.” She grinned. “How do I look?”
“Like you spent the afternoon at a salon.” Christa let Alena take another look at herself. “So, is the good sister ready to upset the parents?”
Alena winced. “Don’t call me that. I’m not good. I wasn’t good. ” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “And I think listening to our parent’s values was a part of that.”
Christa had obviously heard. She’d drawn back a bit. “Be careful not to go too crazy with this theory of yours.”
“Sorry. I’m just… My head’s still spinning a bit; If I think about it too much, I get scared that I’m turning my life upside down, but when I’m not thinking, that’s just not important… And If I’m right, I can’t let it be.”
Christa put a hand on her shoulder. “You’ve always followed your head too much. Go with your heart.”
“Thanks. Come on. Time to face the music.”
The outﬁt had the designer’s desired eﬀect, with William being the ﬁrst to see her as she entered the room. He didn’t announce her arrival.
She’d liked his face, and couldn’t resist the urge: “What do you think? Do my sister’s clothes ﬁt?” She did a turn so he could get a good look.
And hid a grin when he couldn’t answer immediately. “A lot better than my old sweatshirt.”
“Do you want it back? I obviously haven’t had time to wash it…”
“No, that’s ﬁne. I, um, just kept it around for emergencies.” He seemed to realize that didn’t sound as good as he would have wanted, and changed the topic: “So, um, I really should get going. They’ll want me to help set up ahead of time.”
“Sounds good, lead the way.”