“No gift?” He asked. He couldn’t help but feel disappointed as he realized that she ran out of the apartment empty handed. Christmas was one of the few times that she never failed to remember. Proof of her love for him. Or at least, that’s what he liked to tell himself. That’s what he told himself every single time she looked at him like he was some kind of stranger. That’s what he told himself every time she looked at him and only saw a beggar. The beggar that he used to be.
He let out a sigh as he watched her pull away from his chest. But, as she looked up, it wasn’t a look of embarrassment that greeted him. Though it was she who ran into him, there was an unmistakable look on her face. Was she crying? Suddenly, the lack of a gift became unimportant. The question of whether she recognized him became insignificant.
“Are you okay?” He asked, resisting the urge to touch her face. The urge to cup it in his hands and personally wipe away the wet streaks that stained it. He couldn’t predict how she might interpret the action. How she might take it. There were too many times that the lack of recognition and disapproval in her eyes pained him.
“I’m fine.” She answered, using her sleeve to wipe away the tears.
He thought that their conversation would end then. As it often did. No, as it usually did. At least, on days when she didn’t know him. But just as he began to turn away, he felt a hand on his.
“Can you stay with me for a moment?” She asked, still sniffling.
“Yeah.” He answered, before she threw herself at him, startling him as she pulled him into a hug.
So, she did remember him. He felt a familiar warmth bloom in his chest as he returned the embrace, wrapping an arm around her. Closing his eyes, he put his other hand onto the back of her head, gently pushing it to his shoulder. A motion that he knew she used to enjoy. A motion to comfort her.
They stood there for a moment, silently enjoying each other’s presence. Something that felt painfully absent, despite his daily visits. Despite his regular interaction with her. The feeling of her in his arms, the warmth of her body leaning into his chest, simply weren’t replacable by a mere glimpse or a simple morning greeting. It’s been so long. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it all. How much he’d missed her.
“What happened?” He finally asked, breaking the silence.
“I…” She struggled, letting go of him and putting her hands to her head. There were always moments like this whenever she could see him. “I…I don’t remember. Something to do with mother.”
“It’s okay.” He answered, pulling her back against his chest. His heart ached at the sight of pain on her face. A look that came whenever she tried to remember. “It doesn’t matter now. Is there somewhere you want to go? Something you want to do?”
“Yeah!” She shouted eagerly, freeing herself from his arms and interlocking her fingers around his. Then flashing him a smile, she ran outside, pulling him in tow. “Let’s go to the amusement park together!”
“Alright.” He answered, without hesitation. He’d do anything to keep that smile on her face. The same smile that first rekindled his hope three years ago. Three winters ago. Before she first started forgetting. Before her father learned about them. Before her relationship with him killed her father.
As much as it hurt, seeing her smile like this, totally unaware of their shared history, he was grateful for it. In a way, her forgetfulness was a blessing. At the very least, she no longer needed to live under the shadow of guilt. At the very least, she could be free of the burden that constantly weighed down her shoulders. At least this way, she could smile every day again, like she used to.
He felt a smile, a mixture of both happiness and sadness, spread across his own face, as he let her drag him to the parking garage. As long as it continued to take away her suffering. As long as it continued to take away her pain. As long as she didn’t forget him entirely. That was enough for him.
“Strange.” She suddenly said, bringing him back into reality. “I thought you always parked around here.”
“I did.” He said, pulling out his key and clicking the unlock button on the remote. “But I’ve changed my car.”
“When did that happen?” She asked, walking up to the chirping vehicle. “How could you go without me?”
“It happened recently, and you were busy at the time.” He replied, following her.
But, he did ask her. He could still remember the confusion written on her face and the way that she’d walked away in bewilderment from the request. But he couldn’t tell her that. Nor did he want to. She didn’t need to remember. She didn’t need that pain.
“You still should’ve invited me.” She answered, getting into the car.
“Yes. Yes.” He answered, taking the driver’s seat. “I definitely will next time I get a new vehicle.”
“With how cheap you are, that’ll probably be decades from now!” She laughed.
“You’re probably right.” He replied, a smile spreading across his lips. “But you never know… and at least, I’ll remember I’ve promised to take you next time.”
“You’d better remember!” She answered, playfully punching him on the arm. “Now let’s go! You know which one!”
Still smiling, he started the engine. That he did.
The trip had been fun, but like anything else good in life, it was not meant to last. The goodbye that night had been the last time that he had directly spoke to her for months now. The last time she’d been able to truly see him. But he had promised her that he’d be back. He’d promised her that he’d come ask her again, and that he’d take her this time.
Sucking in a breath, he pushed the doorbell, mentally preparing himself for the worst.
“Hello.” She said, as she opened the door. “You are?”
He looked up at her, letting out a quiet sigh. Even while expecting it, the disappointment was still there. A lingering sadness that he’d long since accepted. Taking a breath, he closed his eyes, seeking a brief respite as he turned away. He couldn’t face her while asking the second time. Not when he already knew the result.
“Wait!” She shouted.
His spirits lifted. Did she remember? There had been moments when she suddenly did. There had been instances when the memories instantaneously returned to her.
“You’re that beggar boy aren’t you?” She asked.
His shoulders sagged at the second disappointment. A disappointment that he should’ve been expecting.
“Yes.” He answered, after a brief pause, without turning around.
“I recognized you from the gloves.” She shared. A bit of knowledge that he didn’t need to know. She remembered an object more clearly than she did a person. More clearly than she remembered him. He let out another sigh, as he continued walking. He’d ask next time.
“Ben!” She shouted from behind. He froze. She remembered?
“Ben!” She shouted again, and he felt arms wrap around his waist. Tears fell from his eyes, as he put his hands over hers. But, he knew better than to expect anything. He’d been let down too many times. He didn’t think he’d be able to turn around, only to be let down again. Not after hearing his name like that. Not after hearing his name from her lips.
“Ben.” She repeated, behind him. “I remember now! You’re the beggar! You’re the one! You’ve been my boyfriend this entire time! To think, I’ve been believed you were fake. That this entire time, you were nothing but a product of my imagination.”
He waited for her to let go, to forget again. But she didn’t. Instead, he felt her head lean into his back.
“Ben, thank you for your patience.” She whispered. “You must’ve suffered.”
He looked toward the ceiling and closed his eyes. Uncontrolled tears spilled down his face. She was finally back. Back in whole. The girl that he’d forever wait for. The girl that he would remember even if she forgot him. The girl that he loved and will forever love. A gift worth more than all her previous gifts combined. A gift that was more than a gift.
This story was inspired by another story from the “Microcosm” Publication by Nicola MacCameron. This can be read as both a stand-alone story or as a continuation to the one written by Nicola MacCameron.