“Oh, those cookies are as delightful to eat as they are to look at!” Brenda cooed over a cookie she was sampling in the trendy pop-up bakery. It had a little scene painted on it in icing, of a family around a Christmas tree, the smiling children holding yet-to-be-unwrapped gifts. “I’ll take three—no, a dozen. Rhea, can you hold this bag while I get my wallet?”
Rhea tried to smile cheerfully as she took a bulky shopping bag from her friend. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was banging out of a speaker on the counter near her head, and she tried to shut out the insipid noise. She glanced at the dark-haired man behind the counter, wondering if he could adjust the sound, but he was occupied with the transaction. So she stood there, looking around the store, trying not to exude impatience. Her friend was the picture of holiday cheer, smiling and jiggling her head to highlight her earrings of sparkly little red and green bells. That racket coming out of the sound system was probably her favorite Christmas song.
That was why Rhea could never bring herself to tell Brenda how downright painful it was for her to participate in these holiday festivities. She knew that depression was common in the Christmas season, but she didn’t think her annual funk was simply biological. It was triggered by elements of Christmas culture, deeply ingrained in everything people did this time of year. When darkness of winter sets in, why not embrace it? Why not pull inward, like the animals do? Why cover every vertical surface with lights, why the forced gaiety and the endless repetition of commercially packaged pop songs with their relentless cheerfulness?
You’d think people had something to hide. Were they afraid of the dark? Or of their own inner darkness?
No, Rhea would never be good at this holiday thing.
But Brenda had insisted on dragging Rhea out shopping with her. She truly only wanted to share her joy with her friend. Perhaps her buoyant spirits would lift Rhea’s too. And Rhea tried to let it happen. Tried to appreciate the sweaters and fine glassware in the department stores, tried to enjoy the bustling city, tried not to think about the orangutans made homeless by the destruction of their jungle for plantations that supplied the palm oil in these lovely, hand-crafted cookies. Normal people didn’t think about those things. Just be like a normal person, she told herself. Be happy.
As they left the store, Brenda tossed a fiver in the bucket outside the shop, and a man in a Santa suit paused in his bell ringing to smile and thank her. Then she grinned and reached into the bakery bag and pulled out one of those shockingly expensive cookies. “And here’s something for you. Merry Christmas.” He grinned back and raised the cookie to her like a glass of champagne.
Turning down the street, Brenda handed Rhea a cookie too. “You need something to cheer you up. You’re supposed to be happy in the holidays.”
“If I could afford stuff like this, I’d be happier,” lied Rhea, taking the cookie.
“Aw, come on, just think of your favorite holiday song.” She really wanted Rhea to be happy.
“‘In the Bleak Midwinter?'”
Brenda laughed. “I love you, you keep me grounded.”
Rhea examined the cookie. It was really quite well done. The fine details of the little picture were stunning, the colors vibrant.
“You should pay attention, though,” Brenda added. “That guy in the bakery was checking you out. A smile goes a long way, you know.”
“He was?” It seemed unlikely. Brenda was usually the one who got noticed, of the two of them.
“Oh yeah. I’m surprised you didn’t notice. He looked like just your type.”
“What’s my type?”
“Oh, dark, kind of skinny, unshaven. Intense eyes.”
Rhea chuckled. “That totally sounds like my type. Though I might not call him skinny, so much as . . . lean.”
After a moment, she added, “But maybe he wouldn’t care if I smiled or not. He might like a surly woman like me.”
She took a bite of the cookie. It was perfectly crunchy and melted in her mouth. She looked at it again. “Hey, who’s that looking in the window?” It looked sort of like a face, but gray-blue, peeking through a window behind the Christmas tree.
They stopped walking to examine the cookie. “That’s Krampus,” Brenda said. “Funny, I don’t think he’s on the other cookies I bought.”
“Are those horns sticking out of his head?”
“Yeah, it’s a new thing they’re doing in Germany or someplace, he’s like anti-Santa, he kidnaps the bad children and throws them in a bag and eats them.”
Surely Brenda hadn’t heard the story right. Who would tell such a story at Christmas time? But Rhea did find something somehow satisfying in it. Maybe some people were finally acknowledging the dark side of winter.
She took another bite.
Will Rhea find help with her seasonal depression? Why is that blue dude on her cookie? Was the bakery guy really checking her out? And what about the orangutans? You can buy the whole story on Amazon now. Watch for free days starting next week. Free every day if you have Kindle Unlimited.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends!