A Christmas Choir Girl
a Missing Stars Christmas story by Gloom
The Viennese Christmas Market was an ancient tradition of the city, and even in this day and age, it still had a way of making even its darkest seasons seem brighter. Alleyways dressed up like fairytales shone with candle lights, and the air hang thick with music and laughter and the smells of sweet foods.
Even the students from the nearby gymnasium for the gifted -- a varied and, some shall say, conflicted lot if there ever had been one, could not to the last of them hide small smiles of wonder and delight as they walked down the illuminated streets. As simple trip through the old capital in its most splendorous, for all but the most jaded and cynical, was an adventure unto itself - and not even being followed around by a procession of severe looking teachers and medical professionals could make it any less so. It was as fantastic a Christmas present, sure to warm the hearts of all and any -- those, that is, who could afford to have it.
"Can I come in, please?" echoed the words through the empty dorm corridor.
He’d knocked long enough, with no response. The verbal request, on the other hand, worked almost instantly.
"No. Go away."
Erik shifted his weight nervously from leg to leg and turned his head back to hallway, but didn't move.
A short moment later, the voice behind the door spoke again, slower this time.
"Are you all by yourself?"
There was another pause.
"You may come in, then. Close the door behind you."
Crossing the threshold felt more like stepping into a greenhouse than a bedroom, just as it always has been. Flowers of every shape and color -– roses, narcissuses, violets and chrysanthemums -– covered every surface of Katja's room not used for working or sleeping, each in their own pot or vase, neatly arranged and tended to. True or not, it wasn't hard to guess at the source of the rumors that Katja never had to put on perfume, since the smell has already stuck to her skin.
The girl herself, meanwhile, was sitting on her bed with her back resting against the wall, still dressed in the coat and scarf she'd planned to go out in. She wasn't crying anymore, but she didn't look particularly cheery, either
"I don't care what you're going to say. I'm not singing tomorrow, and that's final."
"I didn't come to convince you," he said. "I don't think even I'd be able to pull off that miracle, Christmas Eve or not."
"Why are you here, then?" she asked. "I thought you wanted to see the Christmas Market. You should have gone with them."
"I wanted to spend Christmas Eve with the people I care about." He closed the distance a few paces. "May I sit?"
"You may", she said, gesturing weakly with one hand.
He let himself sink a little into the pink sheets before continuing. "And my family's a few hundred kilometers away."
"How very sweet of you."
Erik shrugged. "I wanted to make sure you were okay, so it's sort of a two-birds, one-stone deal. I half expected to find you bawling all over yourself, stuffing your face with candy."
"Well, you shouldn't have bothered, then," she answered. "And you know that I don't eat any sweets before dinner."
"It's not before dinner anymore, though. You're the one who decided to skip the whole thing. Which was a real shame, by the way. They even had soups and everything, for the holiday."
"Did they? What kind?"
"I don't know. Something with carrots."
"I don't suppose you were so kind as to save me some?"
“Last I checked, polite society didn't exactly approve of ladling a bunch of soup for yourself and sneaking out the back door.”
Katja could give even a sigh a sort of musical charm, but it seemed she wasn't interested in making the effort at the moment. And for a while more, she didn't seem interested in continuing the conversation at all.
"They let everyone else go." She grumbled it into her scarf at last. "Everyone except me. Even the schizoids. Even Alfons."
"Oh, come on, now. It wasn't everyone. Besides, I wasn't here last year to see it, but I hear it didn't go well the last time they let you."
"Are you honestly siding with them?”
"...Something about a bottle of schnapps, if I recall correctly. Strawberry schnapps, was it?"
"I'm a woman of taste."
"Which you then threw up all over Mrs. Weissman? Classy."
"Fine!" She crossed her arms and huffed. "But I'm still within my right to be angry, and if I say that I'm angry and I don't want to sing tomorrow, you are definitely not going to be the one to change my mind. It's their fault for ruining my Christmas!"
"Don't say that. You know that you're hurting yourself more than anyone else. You've been practicing for weeks for this performance. You didn't stop talking about it."
"Then it's their fault if I feel bad now!"
"So you're going to feel bad to punish them for making you feel bad? That’ll show them."
Katja would've crossed her arms again, but since that wasn't anatomically possible, she settled for turning away to look out the window instead.
Snowflakes bumped gently against the glass before disappearing back into the darkness, like visitors changing their minds at the last moment.
"Save your logic for people who aren't certifiably crazy."
Erik didn't answer, and Katja didn't feel like going on. The silence threatened to set in even deeper than before.
"It's not like the whole performance would be ruined if I didn't take part in it," she muttered to the window.
"You're the last person I'd have imagined hearing that from. Am I really talking to Katja Böhm right now? The star, the prodigy, the girl who was on TV before anyone else in the choir knew a lirico from a, um... robusto?"
"For all of six and half minutes."
"How many of them can say that? Just being on that stage with them gives them confidence. They adore you."
"Not enough to stay behind with me, though."
"Would you have stayed behind instead if you were in their place?"
"What are you trying to say, then? That people are just generally terrible? My mood's bad enough as it is."
"I'm not trying to say anything, really. Honestly, I'm pretty much going with whatever comes to mind."
She turned back to look at him, her voice sounding strangely choked. "I've been waiting for this for a long time. Longer than you think. I do every year."
In the matter of a few moments, she had made the subtle shift from immature and spiteful to genuinely pitiable. Erik tightened his fingers around her hand, the familiar feeling of rough gauze and soft skin brushing against the same fingers.
He didn't even remember grabbing it in the first place.
"Why don't we talk about it?"
Katja shook her head. "There isn't anything to talk about. Just forget I ever said anything."
"That might be difficult. You say a lot of things, you know."
Her shoulders dropped slightly down the wall, her feet pushing just slightly over the edge of the bed. "I was about... eight years old, I think. Maybe nine" she started with a tone not quite like her. "My parents were never home for Christmas back then. Dad was at work, or celebrating with his friends, and mom... well, she just did whatever she felt like doing on Christmas Eve, being wherever she felt like being, I guess. Much like any other evening, really."
Erik didn't say anything, for fear of interrupting her uncharacteristic openness.
"I knew they'd probably be home by morning, but it isn't the same, is it? I was lonely and –- and angry, to be honest. So I took my coat and hat and just went outside to the street. It wasn't snowing very hard, and I made sure to lock the door behind me," she added as if that'd been an important detail. "There was a community center nearby that children often visited after school. I'd go there all the time to sing."
"It was open?"
"More crowded than ever," she said with a nod. "Those places always fill up with people on the holiday. Most of them just adults I didn't know. The floor was dirty, and it smelled like cigarettes inside. Wherever you went, someone was hurrying somewhere and not noticing where they went. I thought I'd be trampled."
He waited a moment for the story to continue, and when it didn't, gave it a little nudge. "So? What did you do?"
"Climbed up to the roof."
The hairs on Erik's arms stood up against the fabric of his sleeves. Was that where this was going? One could never know with Katja, and the thought of it scared him. He wondered whether he should've asked about this at all. Telling her to stop now, though, would make things even worse.
"It was one of those mid-century buildings," she continued. "There was a fire escape outside, and if anyone was supposed to be watching it, they were too drunk to notice anything weird. Once you finished climbing it was just a matter of pulling yourself over an air-conditioning box."
"You don't strike me as the roof-climbing type," he said. His voice sounded hoarse as he listened to his own attempt at lightening the mood.
"I got up to the roof, and even though I could barely hear myself over the music from down below, I just started singing."
For a tiny, fleeting moment, Erik could have sworn he saw a smile spreading over her cheeks.
"I sang to myself -- the first song that came to mind. It was a Christmas song, of course -- you probably don't know it. I was angry and alone, so I sang, to take my mind off things. And you know what happened then?"
Erik stumbled over himself for a moment, off-balance from the turn in the story and disheartened by his own assumption regarding where it was headed in the first place. "The... police came?"
"Do you want me to tell you my story, or do you want to make jokes?"
"The first one. Sorry."
"Well, you ruined my train of thought. Are you happy now?"
"You haven't thrown me out yet. I'll take what I can get."
She squinted, a look that didn't work quite right with just one eye.
"Anyway, I must have fallen asleep at some point. It was pretty late at night, and I might have been crying. I woke up shivering, all covered in snow with my toes going numb", she stopped for a moment, as if considering whether she should go on. When she finally spoke, her voice sounded hollow, as if it'd been somebody else. "Mom was there. I don't know how she guessed that this of all places would be where I'd go, but she did. And how she came up there -- since you had to climb over an airconditioner -- that didn't even occur to me.I thought that she'd yell at me or tell me how irresponsibly I acted, or... well, something, but she didn't. Not then, anyway. She just said, ‘Good morning," and then she picked me up and hugged me."
"…And what happened then?"
The silence lingered for a while.
"Let's go out," she said eventually, still sounding like she wasn't in the same room as him.
"No, out. Out of this room. I don't feel like sitting here anymore." She pushed herself up from the bed, turning around to straighten and brush off the blankets. "And don't think that this means I've changed my mind about tomorrow."
With the vast majority of the students having fun out on the town, the dormitory corridor, usually bustling at this time of the day, stood glumly silent.
"Where do you want to go?" asked Erik as Katja finished locking the door.
Door after blank door passed by, differing only in the pattern of notes, scribbles, and the occasional Christmas decoration that covered each one. Erik knew that the cafeteria was already closed, and hoped that, even if they were both wearing coats, Katja would have more sense than to decide to pay a visit the snow-covered garden.
Whatever she was planning, if indeed she was planning anything at all, it was put on hold when a cry came as they passed the common room. Recoiling so suddenly at the voice, the back of Katja's head came close to bloodying Erik's nose.
"Hello, Katja! Hello, Erik!"
Sitting on one of the wide armchairs strewn about the room, holding in one outstretched hand a sewing needle and in the other a length of yellow string, sat a little brunette wearing too many sweaters with a smile on her face like she was asking for directions. A bundle of unfinished embroidery sat idly in her lap.
"Hello, Katja," she repeated. "Hello, Erik."
There it was -- she suddenly seemed to come back to life.
"Good evening," she said. "It is very nice to see you. Welcome. It is a lovely night." She stopped, biting her tongue for a moment as if trying to remember what line was supposed to come next. "Happy holiday. Merry Christmas. Best of wishes. Chag Sameach."
"What is it?" Katja asked, having finished a slow, thorough examination of the room.
"A needle," answered the little girl dutifully. "I am being very careful with it. It can be sharp. It is used for sewing."
The room was scarcely occupied aside from Eleanor. One student was lying on the couch, snoring, with a half-open book splayed on her stomach. Another two were sitting at a table and chatting in a language Erik couldn't understand, holding onto steaming cups and taking an occasional sip. Eleanor's head turned slowly to follow Erik's own gaze.
"They are drinking hot chocolate", she explained. "They will share it with you if you ask them nicely and say please. It is very tasty."
However reluctant she might have seemed a moment before, and despite her general rule against touching anything in the common room without covering it first, Katja moved to sit on the armrest of a nearby a chair before Eleanor could manage to drop her needle again. Ten minutes or so later -- and two and a half steaming cups of cocoa -- she finally spoke.
"Shouldn't you all be outside right now?" she asked, raising her lips from the rim of her cup.
Eleanor looked up from her sewing and smiled. "I do not celebrate Christmas, because I have the wrong family name. But it is okay. Father Maximillian says Jesus does not mind." Her face twisted in something that could be interpreted as annoyance, from a certain angle. "It is also very noisy outside, and the snow is wet, and everybody shouts very noisily. So I asked to remain inside and Father Maximillian said Jesus would not mind that either."
Katja took another long sip, finishing her drink without so much as a murmur. "Well, what was it that you'd wanted, then? Did you just want to talk?"
"I don't understand."
Katja sighed, then repeated her question, more slowly this time. "Is everything alright?"
Eleanor laid down the needle and thread, and spent the next few seconds twiddling her fingers and staring at the ceiling, which wasn't unlike her.
"Yes," she answered eventually. "Everything is alright. Thank you. It is warm and dry in here. I drank hot chocolate and it was very tasty. I am sewing, and it is a lot of fun, even if for some people it is boring, because I like to sew and everyone likes different things. Tomorrow will also be a good day, because we can wake up late and there would be a nice breakfast. And then there would be singing, and I also think singing is fun."
The look on Katja's face changed again, but from where Erik was standing, it was hard to make out exactly how. Something at the bottom of her cup seemed of particular interest to her at the moment, though.
"Are you trying to pull something, Erik?" she asked quietly.
"I'm as genuinely astounded as you are."
"Did he put you up to this?", she directed the question at Eleanor.
The little girl looked even more confused than usual. She fell back to her old standard. "I don’t understand."
"What do you mean?" A bit of amused disbelief tinged Erik’s laughter. "Have Eleanor waiting here just in case we happened to come by? It was your idea to go out, remember?"
Katja eyed him suspiciously.
"Hey, I’d love to take credit for it. Here you are sitting down in the coziest room in the entire dormitory, with two of your friends, drinking hot chocolate."
A sideways look, but she kept quiet.
"Still got a little on your lip there, by the way." He went on while she hastily dabbed at her mouth a handkerchief she always had handy. “Everyone around is having a good time," he said, glancing towards the one sleeping on the couch. "Except for her, maybe, unless she's high on pericyazine or something, in which case I bet she's also having a pretty good time."
"Is this going to be a lecture?"
"Depends on how far I get to roll before you stop me. All I'm saying is, look around you. Is it all really that bad? Sure, this isn't the Christmas Market and you didn't get to go out, but wasn't it fun, just sitting down and talking, and being together like this? Calling up memories, even painful ones? Or - or just ones that might have been. If there had been something painful about that story you told me that made you want to go outside, wasn't it nice? Waking up on that roof and seeing your mom and having her hug you?"
Eleanor, who seems to have completely lost interest in the two of them in the meantime, returned to her needlework.
Erik had found his way to where Katja sat, and his hand had found hers again. “I'm sorry you couldn't go, but if Christmas isn't about being together like this, warm and cozy, and having fun, I don't know what it is. I just wanted to spend the night with people I care about, and there's one right here, which is better than some could say. So yeah, I wish I could take credit for setting it all up, but chalk it up to a Christmas miracle, I guess."
"Is this the Swiss cheese I’ve heard so much about?"
"If it sounds any better, I also hear we're known to be pretty good with chocolate."
"I can have you kicked out, you know. This is the girls’ dormitory."
Erik only shrugged, and she pulled him closer, a warm, exasperated smile spreading on her face. "Merry Christmas, you hopeless idiot."
[23:08:40] Tony TwoFingers: Never put your dick down.
[23:08:44] Tony TwoFingers: Never surrender.