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Authors: Cecelia Ahern

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance

The Gift

BOOK: The Gift
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Cecelia Ahern
The Gift

A Novel

Rocco and Jay

The greatest gifts
,
Both, at the same time

Contents

1.
An Army of Secrets

2.
A Morning of Half Smiles

3.
The Turkey Boy

4.
The Shoe Watcher

5.
The Thirteenth Floor

6.
A Deal Sealed

7.
On Reflection

8.
The Quiet Life

9.
The Turkey Boy 2

10.
The Morning After

11.
The Juggler

12.
Home Sweet Home

14.
The Wake-Up Call

15.
Bump in the Night

16.
Granted

17.
Lou Meets Lou

18.
The Turkey Boy 3

19.
Man of the Moment

20.
’Tis the Season…

21.
Surprise!

22.
The Soul Catches Up

23.
The Best Day

24.
The Turkey Boy 4

25.
It All Started with a Mouse

26.
Christmas Eve

27.
For Old Times’ Sake

28.
The Turkey Boy 5

C
HAPTER
1
An Army of Secrets

I
F YOU WERE TO STROLL
down the candy-cane facade of a surburban neighborhood early on Christmas morning, you couldn’t help but observe how the houses in all their decorated, tinseled glory are akin to the presents that lie beneath the Christmas trees within. For each holds its secrets inside. Peeping through a crack in the curtains to get a glimpse of a family in Christmas-morning action is to poke and prod at the present’s wrapping; it’s a captured moment that’s kept away from all prying eyes. In the calming yet eerie silence that exists only on this morning every year, these homes stand shoulder to shoulder like painted toy soldiers: chests pushed out, stomachs tucked in, proud and protective of all within, like an Army of Secrets.

And houses on Christmas morning are indeed treasure chests of hidden truths. A wreath on a door like a finger upon a lip; blinds down like closed eyelids. Then, at some unspecified time, a warm glow will appear beyond the drawn curtains, the smallest hint of something
happening inside. Like stars in the night sky gradually appearing to the naked eye, lights go on behind the blinds and curtains in the half-light of dawn. One at a time, like tiny pieces of gold being revealed as they’re sieved from a stream, room by room, house by house, the street begins to awaken.

The Christmas-morning calm makes it seem as though a strange happening in the world has caused everybody to scutter to their hiding places. The emptiness on the streets doesn’t instill fear, though; in fact, it has the opposite effect. It presents a picture postcard of safety, and, despite the seasonal chill, there’s warmth. And while outside is somber, inside each household is a world of bright frenzied color, a hysteria of ripping wrapping paper and flying colored ribbons. Christmas music and gastric delights fill the air with fragrances of cinnamon and spice and all things nice. Exclamations of glee, of hugs and thanks, explode like party streamers. These Christmas days are indoor days, not even a sinner lingering outside. Only those in transit from one home to another dot the streets. Cars pull up and presents are unloaded. Sounds of greetings and invitation from open doorways, which waft out to the cold air, are only teasers as to the festivities occurring inside. Then, just as you’re soaking it up and sharing the invitation—ready to stroll over the threshold a common stranger but feeling a welcomed guest—the front door closes and traps everything back inside, as a reminder that it’s not your moment to take.

In this particular neighborhood of toy houses, one soul wanders the streets. This soul doesn’t quite see the beauty in the secretive calm. This soul is intent on a war, wants to unravel the bow and rip open the paper to reveal what’s inside door number twenty-four.

It is not of any importance to us what the occupants of door number twenty-four are doing, though, if you must know, a ten-month-old, captivated by the large green flashing prickly object in the corner of the room, is beginning to reach for the shiny red bauble that reflects a pudgy hand and gummy mouth. This, while a two-year-old nearby rolls around in wrapping paper, bathing herself in glitter like a hippo in muck. Beside them,
He
wraps a new necklace of diamonds around
Her
neck as she gasps, hand flying to her chest, and shakes her head in disbelief, just as she’s seen women in the black-and-white movies do.

None of this is important to
our
story, though it means a great deal to the soul who stands in the front garden of house number twenty-four, trying to look through the living room’s drawn curtains. Fourteen years old and with a dagger through his heart, he can’t see what’s going on, but his imagination has been well nurtured by his mother’s bedtime stories and now by her daytime weeping, and so he can guess.

Ready now, he raises his arms above his head, pulls back, and with all his strength pushes forward and releases the object in his hands. Then he stands back to watch with bitter joy as a fifteen-pound frozen turkey
smashes through the window of the living room of number twenty-four. The drawn curtains act once again as a barrier between him and them, slowing the bird’s flight through the air. And with no life left to stop itself now, it—and its giblets—descend rapidly to the timber floor inside, where it’s sent spinning and skidding along to its final resting place beneath the Christmas tree. His gift to them.

People, like houses, hold their secrets. Sometimes the secrets inhabit them, and sometimes people inhabit their secrets. They wrap their arms tight to hug them close, twist their lying tongues around the truth. But, like gravy left overnight, the truth is a thin layer of film that forms and covers the surface. The truth prevails, rises above all else. It squirms and wriggles inside, grows until the swollen tongue can’t wrap itself around the lie any longer, until the time comes when it needs to spit the words out and send truth flying through the air and crashing into the world like…well, like a frozen dead bird through a living room window. Truth and time always work alongside each other.

This story is about people, secrets, and time. About people who, not unlike wrapped parcels, cover themselves with layers and layers until they present themselves to the right ones who can unwrap them and see inside. Until that happens they lie under a tree, being poked and prodded by unwelcome hands. Sometimes you have to give yourself to somebody in order to see who you are.
Sometimes you have to let that person unravel things to get to the core.

This is a story about people who find out who they are. About people who are unraveled and whose cores are revealed to all who count. And those who count are finally revealed to them. Just in time.

C
HAPTER
2
A Morning of Half Smiles

P
OLICE SERGEANT
R
APHAEL
O’R
EILLY MOVED
slowly and methodically about the cramped staff kitchen of Howth Police Station, his mind going over and over the revelations of the morning. Known to others as Raphie, pronounced
Ray-fee
, he was fifty-nine years old and had one more year to go until his retirement. He’d never thought he’d be looking forward to that day until the events of this morning had grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him upside down like a snow globe, forcing him to watch all his preconceptions sprinkle away. With every step he took he heard the crackle of his once-airtight beliefs under his boots. Of all the events and moments he had experienced in his forty-year career, what a morning this one had been.

He spooned two heaps of instant coffee into his mug. The mug, shaped like an NYPD squad car, had been brought back from New York by one of the boys at the station as his Christmas gift this year. He pretended the sight of it offended him, but secretly he found it com
forting. Gripping it in his hands during the morning’s Kris Kringle reveal, he’d time-traveled back to a Christmas fifty years ago when he’d received a toy police car from his parents. It was a gift he’d cherished until he’d abandoned it outside overnight and the rain had done enough rust damage to force his toy men into early retirement. He held the mug in his hands now, almost tempted to run it along the countertop making siren noises before crashing it into the bag of sugar, which would, incidentally, cascade into his mug.

Instead, he checked around the kitchen to ensure he was alone and added half a teaspoon of sugar to his mug. Then, a little more confident, he coughed to disguise the crinkling sound of the sugar bag as he pushed his spoon down once again and quickly fired a heaping teaspoon into the mug. Having now gotten away with two spoons, he became cocky and reached into the bag one more time.

“Drop your weapon, sir,” a female voice from the doorway called with authority.

Startled by the sudden presence, Raphie jumped, the sugar from his spoon spilling all over the counter. It was a mug-on-sugar-bag pileup. Time to call for backup.

“Caught in the act, Raphie.” His colleague Jessica joined him at the counter and whipped the spoon from his hand.

She took a mug from the cupboard—a Jessica Rabbit novelty mug, another comical Christmas gift—and slid her namesake across the counter to him. Porcelain Jes
sica’s voluptuous breasts brushed against his car, and the boy in Raphie thought about how happy his men inside would be.

“I’ll have one, too.”

“Please,” Raphie corrected her.

“Please,” she imitated him, rolling her eyes.

Jessica was a new recruit. She’d joined the station just six months ago, and already Raphie had grown more than fond of her. He had a soft spot for the twenty-six-year-old, five-foot-four athletic blonde who always seemed willing and able, no matter what her task was. He also felt she brought a much-needed feminine energy to the all-male team at the station. Many of the other men agreed, but not quite for the same reasons as Raphie. He saw her as the daughter he’d never had. Or the daughter he’d had, but lost. He shook that thought out of his head as he watched Jessica cleaning the spilled sugar from the counter.

Despite her strong energy, her almond-shaped eyes—such a dark brown they were almost black—buried something below. As though a top layer of soil had been freshly added, and pretty soon the weeds or whatever was decaying beneath would begin to show through. Her eyes held a mystery that he didn’t much want to explore, but he knew that whatever it was, it drove her forward during those challenging times when most sensible people would go the opposite way.

“Half a spoon is hardly going to kill me,” he added grumpily, after tasting his coffee, knowing that just one more spoonful would have made it perfect.

“Are you actually
trying
to give yourself another heart attack?”

Raphie reddened. “It was a heart
murmur
, Jessica, nothing more, and keep your voice down,” he hissed.

“You should be resting,” she said more quietly.

“The doctor said I was perfectly normal.”

“Then the doctor needs his head checked. You’ve never been perfectly normal.”

“You’ve only known me six months,” he grumbled.

“Longest six months of my life,” she scoffed. “Okay then, pass me your mug, you can have the brown,” she said, feeling guilty. She shoveled a spoon into the brown sugar bag and emptied a heaped spoonful into his coffee.

“Brown bread, brown rice, brown this, brown that. I remember a time when my life was in Technicolor.”

“I bet you can remember a time when you could see your feet when you looked down, too,” she said without a second’s thought.

In an effort to dissolve the sugar in his mug completely, she stirred the spoon so hard that a portal of spinning liquid appeared in the center. Raphie watched it and wondered: If he dived into that mug, where would it take him?

“If you die drinking this, don’t blame me,” she said, passing the coffee back to him.

“If I do, I’ll haunt you until the day you die.”

She smiled, but the light of it never reached her eyes, fading somewhere between her lips and the bridge of her nose.

He watched the portal in his mug begin to die down, his chance of leaping into another world disappearing fast along with the coffee’s steam. Yes, it had been one hell of a morning. Not much of a morning for smiles. Or maybe it was. A morning for half smiles, perhaps. He couldn’t decide.

Raphie handed Jessica her mug of steaming coffee—black with no sugar, just as she liked—and they both leaned against the countertop, facing each other, their lips blowing on their coffee, their feet touching the ground, their minds in the clouds.

He studied Jessica, her hands wrapped around the mug’s cartoon figure as she stared intently into her coffee as though it were a crystal ball. How he wished it was; how he wished they had the gift of foresight to stop so many of the things they witnessed every day. Her cheeks were pale, a light red rim around her eyes the only giveaway to the morning they’d had.

“Some morning, eh, kiddo?”

Those almond-shaped eyes glistened, but she stopped herself and hardened. She nodded and swallowed the coffee in response. He could tell by her attempt to hide the grimace that it burned, but she took another sip as if in defiance. Standing up even against the coffee.

“My first Christmas Day on duty, I played chess with the sergeant for the entire shift,” he said.

She finally spoke. “Lucky you.”

“Yeah.” He nodded, remembering. “Didn’t see it that
way at the time, though. Was hoping for plenty of action.”

Forty years later he’d gotten what he’d hoped for, and now he wanted to give it back. Return the gift. Get his time refunded.

“You win?”

He snapped out of his trance. “Win what?”

“The chess game.”

“No,” he chuckled. “Let the sergeant win.”

She ruffled her nose. “You wouldn’t see me letting you win.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it for a second.”

Guessing his coffee had now cooled to the right temperature, Raphie finally took a sip. He immediately clutched at his throat, coughing and sputtering, feigning death and knowing immediately that despite his best efforts to lift the mood, it was in poor taste.

Jessica merely raised an eyebrow and continued sipping.

He chuckled softly before the silence continued.

Then, “You’ll be okay,” he assured her.

She nodded again and responded curtly, as though she already knew. “Yep. You call Mary?”

He nodded. “Straight away. She’s with her sister.” A seasonal lie, a white lie for a white Christmas. “You call anyone?”

She nodded but averted her gaze, not offering more, never offering more. “Did you, em…did you tell her?”

“No. No.”

“Will you?”

He gazed into the distance. “I don’t know. Will you tell anyone?”

She shrugged, her look as unreadable as always. Then she nodded down the hall at the holding room. “The Turkey Boy is still waiting in there.”

Raphie sighed. “What a waste.” Of a life or of his own time, he didn’t make clear. “He’s one that could do with knowing.”

Jessica paused just before taking another sip, and fixed those near-black almond-shaped eyes on him from above the rim of the mug. Her voice was as solid as faith in a nunnery, so firm and devoid of all doubt that he didn’t have to question her certainty.

“Tell him,” she said firmly. “If we never tell anybody else in our lives, at least let’s tell him.”

BOOK: The Gift
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