It felt like every year before this one, the last few months leading up to Christmas went by quicker, the days growing shorter and shorter, eventually just blending together. My birthday always got lost in all of the Christmas festivities because it was on Christmas Eve, but I liked it that way. I didn’t want to make a whole day about me. I never really got that excited about Christmas anyway, but this one was different because I actually had something to look forward to. Maeve. I knew I wasn’t supposed to feel this way. I was told to watch her. To make sure she didn’t stumble into anything she wasn’t supposed to... but then I stumbled into her. I didn’t even mean to be in her life. I didn’t mean for any of this shit to happen, but it did and the only thing I could do was be there for her and even then I felt guilty about it. I knew more than I should and I constantly felt like I was lying to her... and I guess in a way I was.
Five years ago, I had just graduated from uni with my friends. When I told Maeve I was interested in the stars and planets, it was a bit of an understatement. I majored in it. I was probably the least intelligent of all my friends though. They were geniuses. There was Lilah, who majored in astrophysics and shrooms, Cal who majored in calculous and video games, Ellis who majored in chemistry and sex, and Violet who majored in computer science and tattoos. We called ourselves a silly little name: AETERNUM, which means eternity in Latin. I don’t remember how or why we ended up with that name- I guess because we were always talking about the concept of infinity and forever- but it stuck with us through college. When we all got together, we would get drunk and talk about nerdy shit like black holes and time travel until one day, we got into something we shouldn’t have. And I mean we literally got into it. I thought it was crazy and absolutely refused to believe it until I saw it with my own eyes, but Lilah, a huge believer in parallel universes, had found a pathway to another reality. I thought it was impossible. I thought it was just a bad trip she’d had, but it was so much more than that. I was thoughtful and pragmatic and of course I saw the facts behind how it could work, but it’s something a human brain can’t quite wrap all the way around.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Lilah waltzed into the room carrying a stack of papers, maps and books and announced her plan- we were all going to go. All five of us. If we wanted to of course- and why wouldn’t we? No one actually believed it would work... until it did. We packed up everything and went for a drive, all split up into two different cars. It was the way we followed the road that got us there and we had to follow it exactly as Lilah planned. She had it down to a science. Somehow, there was a hole in reality that just barely let us through. The only problem was not all of us got out. When you’re in there, you feel yourself change. The world sucks you in and only spits you back out if you’re lucky. And only three of us were. Me, Ellis and Violet were the ones that made it back and we lived every day regretting it. We weren’t the only people that had tried jumping realities only to fail though. We had sourced a whole group of people that had somehow made it out and swore to make sure no one else made the same mistake.
The problem was, we realized our other two friends weren’t as stuck as we thought they were. When it comes to realities, there are an infinite amount them, but no matter what, the universe wants you to stay in one. It’s not natural to be in more that one at the same time, but something in the universe Lilah chose was hungry, wanting to capture more and more people inside. It’s almost like it was being fed. That’s what we figured out when we kept hearing about disappearances and deaths around the city that just didn’t make any sense. We thought it was only happening in London... and then we found Lilah in America. Briar Creek to be exact. She hadn’t exactly been sneaky about it either. I’d known Harvey’s name before Maeve even spoke it. I wanted to tell her everything, but I had to know that it would only hurt her more. She wasn’t stupid. She was far from it actually. She would either think that I had lost it or want to go in... and I couldn’t let her do that. It was way too dangerous. If anything happened to her, I would never forgive myself.
Like I said, since she moved to London, I was supposed to be keeping a distant eye on her, but I had miserably failed at the “distant” part since she puked on the sidewalk that fateful night. And now here I was, hurriedly cleaning up my apartment and pulling an ugly Christmas sweater over my head as Irving Berlin played from the record player in the living room. A soft knock at the door startled me and my heart leaped involuntarily realizing it was her. I almost slipped on a stray sock on my way to the door, picking it up and shoving it in the back pocket of my jeans.
“Merry Christmas Eve!” Maeve shouted when I opened the door.
She wore a Christmas sweater decorated with an actual light up tree, balancing a wrapped present in one hand and a plastic container full of cookies in the other.
“Merry Christmas Eve, Maeve,” I smiled at her, taking the cookies and stepping aside to let her in.
We ordered Chinese take-out and turned on the TV to watch a Christmas movie marathon, sharing the tub of cookies between the two of us. She sat on one end of the couch, her legs falling lazily over my own and we laughed at Love, Actually playing on the screen. I caught myself looking over at her, my eyes wanting to stay longer than they should. Her light brown hair fell out of her ponytail just right and she pushed her glasses up on her nose. I couldn’t help but notice she’d never worn them before, but she looked nice. When I first met her, I thought she needed my help or that she would be vulnerable and need protection, but I was completely wrong. She was strong and had gone her whole life not really needing anyone. I just wanted to make sure she was okay and happy. I knew we couldn’t be anything other than what we were now because I wasn’t even supposed to be close to her in the first place, but I liked it this way- just being there for each other without the expectation of anything in return. I also knew she was still in love with Harvey. And I was the one who knew where he was. If she ever found that out, she’d hate me more than anything.
“You okay, Jo?” she asked quietly. The movie credits were rolling on the screen and she’d noticed I’d gotten lost in my thoughts again.
“Yeah, sorry. Just thinking,” I replied, not lying for once.
“Do you want to exchange gifts?”
“It’s not Christmas yet, Maeve,” I teased.
“But it’s your birthday,” she chirped. I froze.
“How did you know that?”
“Ah, I never tell my secrets. I should be mad at you for not telling me, you know. We have so much more to celebrate,” she beamed at me before jumping up to grab the package she’d been carrying earlier.
She handed it over with a proud grin and waited for me to open it. I untied the bow and pulled at the festive wrapping to reveal a book and a movie. The book was bright white with Flower Fields and Ghosts written in black ink across the front and by Maeve Peterson written in the corner. I looked up at her, so proud I felt like I was going to explode.
“Maeve, this is incredible. I can’t wait to read it.”
“You’ll be the first,” she clasped her hands together. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give it to you now or if that would seem narcissistic. It’s a collection of my poetry and I just really-”
“It’s perfect,” I stopped her, pulling the other book out of the package. It was a movie titled A Brief History of Time.
“It’s about Stephen Hawking and it really encapsulates that whole idea of being small in the expanding universe- you know, like what you said at the beach,” she explained.
“Me and Stephen Hawking have always had a very similar thought process,” I raised an eyebrow.
“Sure,” Maeve giggled. I stood up and quickly fetched her present out of my bedroom and started to feel nervous. I was scared she would think it was stupid or silly, but it meant a lot to me. I handed her my badly wrapped gift and watch her tentatively open it, revealing a book with planets and stars stretching across the cover.
“Let me explain,” I started, “My mum got me this when I was younger and I wouldn’t stop carrying it around with me for years. I still like reading it sometimes. It’s got a lot of cool pictures and information. I know it’s kind of stupid, but you said you didn’t know a lot about space and I thought you’d like it.”
“Jo, I absolutely love it,” she beamed at the book in her hands like she really meant it before looking back up at me and crashing into my arms. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” I whispered in her ear as her hair tickled my neck.
We stayed like that for a little longer than usual, both of us feeling relieved we had each other and didn’t have to spend this holiday alone. This was the first time someone had been with me for my birthday and Christmas in a while, but I hadn’t told her that.
“What are we watching next?” she reached for the remote, clicking through Netflix.
“You pick,” I smiled, popping another cookie in my mouth.
“Well, we haven’t watched my favorite yet,” she smirked, ”Nightmare Before Christmas?"
“Isn’t that a Halloween movie?”
“It encompasses both Halloween and Christmas,” she said, satisfied with herself.
“Okay,” I sat back on the pillow, watching her get overly excited about watching a Tim Burton movie and I found myself getting excited too.
Maeve didn’t even make it all the way through the movie, falling asleep just a little after midnight. I carefully took the bowl of cookies from under her arm and placed them on the side table before beginning to make my way to the bedroom. Just as I stepped in that direction, I felt her hand on my arm.
“Wait, Jovie,” she began in a raspy, half-awake voice. I looked down at her as she opened her brown eyes with a yawn. “Will you stay?”
“Stay in here?”
“Mmhmm,” she nodded, shutting her eyes again.
“Yeah... yeah, sure.”
I took two blankets from a basket in the living room, carefully draping one on top of her, making sure not to wake her, and pulling the other around myself as I got comfortable in the recliner. I began to drift off, murmuring a quiet “Merry Christmas” to Maeve before I melted into a peaceful sleep.