(not quite) a literary journal


Yule Tidal, by Quentin Paquette

“Nicholas! Is that you? You’re home just in time.”
He steps into the dining room. Dinner is on the table, candles lit, bottle open and breathing. Chairs wait close together at the corner of a table set for two. The smell of their favorite meal inspires a deep inhale through his nose. He pauses for a moment to think about the evening that could have been. It all seems so perfect. Surrendering a deep sigh, he follows her voice into the kitchen.
“Yes, Nona, I’m here. Everything looks so good…” the pitch of his voice rises as it trails off to a whisper.
“Oh no! What is it Nicholas?”
“The reindeer, I hear they haven’t been eating anything today. I need to go check on them, tend to them. I can’t have them getting sick at this time of year.”
“You worry too much, maybe it’ll be nothing. I’ll keep dinner warm… it’s Date Night after all, we’ll make it work.” She she leans into him, forehead to forehead, rubs the underside of his belly, gives him a quick smacking kiss.
“You keep everything warm here, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

It’s hours later that he gets back. She sent dinner over to him in foil. He gets back to find the candles, and the passion, guttered and extinguished. He slips into bed beside her, and she shifts back reflexively for him to spoon her.
“Tomorrow night, my Nona,” he whispers. He kisses her neck just behind the ear then pulls his head back enough to keep his beard from tickling her.

The next morning he comes back from the workshop after sunrise for a second breakfast, hoping to surprise her. She’s just getting out of the shower and drying off. He puts his hat down on the piano and his coat on the bench, pulls his suspenders off his shoulders and tiptoes into the hallway outside the bathroom. She’s stepping out tying the belt of her robe, startles momentarily, then giggles.
“Oh Nick, I was just thinking about you. Are you here for me?”
“You know I am.”
She pulls him in by tugging on his suspenders, and they hug closely and kiss, her thigh sliding out of the robe and along the inseam of his pants.
“What’s this?” Did you bring me the North Pole?”
“No, just happy to see you.”
Just then, the front door is thrown open. The two of them hurry to disentangle as three elves rush in.
“Santa, we have a problem,” says the elf in red with green trim.
“I’m sure the three of you can deal with it. I’ll be along to check on the work a bit later. Yes?”
“Everything okay here?” asks the elf in green with red trim.
Nicholas turns to face him directly, lips pursing and eyes narrowing. “What is it that’s so critical you couldn’t spare a moment to knock?”
“We’ve been trying to work out the shifts for our teams,” says the elf in green with gold trim, avoiding eye contact as his ears turn red.
“Well, that’s why I appointed you, to take care of these negotiations. I’m sure you can work it out without asking me.”
“Sure, if ‘working it out’ means beating him over the head with a hammer.”
“And where is gold-green leader?”
“He just walked out of the work meeting as if gold-green team was the most important, when we all know it’s green-red.”
She turns towards him and laughs to see his eyes roll, and gives him one more peck on the dimple of each cheek. They both shake their heads slowly. He pulls his suspenders back up as she hands him his coat and hat.
“Let’s go, you three. We’ll go find your fourth, and I’ll tell you all how it’s going to work. You do all realize we have a hard deadline coming up?” He turns back to her and grins.
”Go on, get out of here with that grin. I’ve got deadlines of my own to worry about today. I’ll see you later.”
He turns with a jerk and walks past the elves to the door. The three of them look up at her and tip their caps, intoning in unison, “Good Afternoon, Mrs. Claus.”
“Don’t you ‘Good Afternoon’ me. That man is a saint to you, couldn’t you find a way to make December less stressful for him?”
They all look down at the points of their shoes and hurry out to catch up with him.

That evening, he’s in the workshop, flicking chisel and sandpaper to notch the final detail into a toy. Finally finished, he holds it up to blow the sawdust off of it and puts it down beside the others. He removes his spectacles with one hand, and rubs the tension out of the bridge of his nose. The clock scolds him, he’s late for dinner again. There’s not enough time to get back to the house, but there’s the candy cane and cocoa he left in his office. A quick three-minute break should bring the magic back. 
He steps through the door of the office, and she’s there waiting, sitting on the front edge of his desk, wearing that short red dress with the white lace trim. Her legs are crossed, somehow still fully covered, but his head is filled with visions of sugarplums.
“Is it hot in here?” he stammers.
“It sure is.” She undoes her collar button, and the next button, the next. “You here for your snack?” She hands him his cocoa, but keeps the candy cane. She pulls the wrapper down with her teeth, and brings the tip back up to her mouth. Her tongue darts out to meet it before it reaches her lips, which pucker and accept it, the bright candy stripe melting into the red-candy sheen of her lip gloss.
He leans in, and she lets him taste the peppermint on her lips. She sniffs, and declares, “I love it when you smell like this.” Her palm on the center of his chest pushes him an arm’s length away, brushes the sawdust out of his beard. “You’re going to miss dinner again tonight, aren’t you? You won’t make it very long on hot chocolate and peppermint sticks.”
“Let me have just what’s left on your lips. That could keep me going all night.”
“Up all night making time? Or just making toys?”
“Toys tonight, my love. All the teams got behind with their little hissy fit today.”
“And you have to make up the difference yourself, right?”
“Not by myself, but if it’s going to happen, I’ll need to do my part.”
“I thought so. I want you to take the next minute for yourself though. Let me give you a taste of what’s been on my wish list for too long now.”
A few minutes later, they both step out of the office. Her lips have lost some of their shine, and it can be found on his lips and cheeks and ears. She takes a moment to straighten out the neck of his shop apron and take his hand. She starts to walk away, but he doesn’t let go. He pulls her back around and in for one more kiss and a hug that lifts her feet off the ground. They spin around together once, twice, before he puts her back down. She walks away confident in his attention, making sure to stretch her legs out long with each step, and to show how much her hips and pelvis can swivel. He watches her every move until she’s gone, then stands still for another few seconds, replaying it in his head. He puts his hand in his pocket to make a slight adjustment, and walks back to the workbench with the slightest limp. He chuckles at himself and shakes his head as he goes. “Bring the magic back? Check. That woman. What could I ever do?”

That night at work leads to another late homecoming and the house is dark and quiet as he pads in. He goes to shower first, letting the scent of machine oil and sweat go down the drain. He trims his nails and the calluses off the corners of each fingertip, rubs his hands with moisturizer to soften and warm his skin. He pulls on just his pajama pants and starts out to the kitchen. Everything’s been left right where it was used, the spills and stray ingredients show him dinner was made in a rush. The unrinsed plate in the sink tells him there wasn’t much time to eat. “And no one around to help out either,” he whispers at himself. Tidying up takes a few minutes; washing, drying, wiping the counter, then filling the kettle for the morning. A yawn overtakes him with his arms reaching out to the sides, shaking slightly as a stretch works its way throughout his body. He puts out the kitchen light and walks back toward the bedroom. Passing by the bathroom door again, he gets held up by an impression that is slow in becoming a thought. When he realizes what it was, he heads back to the cabinet to pick up the bottle of peppermint massage oil. 
He finds her in bed asleep, hugging her pillow with the bedside lamp on. A pile of pages are spread out across her desk. Some have fallen on the floor, and he picks them up and makes a tidy packet of them on the seat of her chair. He steps lightly to her side of the bed and turns off the light. He pulls the covers down below her shoulders, warms a few drops of the massage oil in the palm of each hand, and rubs the back of her neck and along her shoulder blades, wherever her skin is exposed. She begins to awaken, though still mostly asleep, and allows a purr to escape her throat. He steps away to stoke the fire and add another log, and when he returns to the bedside the room is full of a red-orange heat and glow. She’s still lying on her stomach, and he goes back to find each of the usual centers of tension in her shoulders and neck, releasing and relieving them. She’s breathing deeply now, and exhaling fully, with an occasional groanlet, responding to his touch by rising to meet it and then surrendering to it.
It’s just lazy light fingertip strokes now as his thoughts start to drift, and she turns over towards him and sits up next to him. They face each other for a moment, share a smile, and their shadows dance and merge together on the wall. As she lies back down, he climbs in on top of her, and she wraps her arms around him and holds him tightly, but kisses him with closed lips.
“Nick, it’s late, don’t let’s start. You need your sleep, and I’m tired from all the work around here when you’re gone.”
“I know, Nona, I’m sorry…”
“Shush. The main thing is I can’t have you falling asleep tomorrow night when you’re supposed to be flying. Especially after all those cookies and warm milk.”
“You’re right, I know you’re right. Still…”
“What about us? I know.”
He rolls over beside her, their bodies still merged together. They pull the covers up to trap their heat. Within minutes, the fire has dimmed again and the hiss of the logs is joined by deep syncopated breaths.

“Look at you! I might just stay home tonight.”
“Liar. You’re just saying that. Anyways, there’s no way I’d let you not go out.”
“I mean it though, you are the very vision of temptation.”
“You go on now. I’ll be here waiting for you when you get back. Be careful on those rooftops.”
“Rooftops. You have to mention rooftops?”
“I still think it’s funny that a man that does what you do is afraid of heights. Should I just say… stay warm?” She moves in and slides her hands inside his unbuttoned coat, maximizing the contact as she wraps her arms around him.
“Yes, I’ll stay real warm just thinking of getting back to more of this.” His eyes begin to twinkle.
She kisses him, eyes watering with a liquid desire to melt with him, to have him inhale her like another puff from that pipe. She says this to him with the movement of her lips, the play of her tongue, the clash of teeth and the pressure of advance. They share a flicker of a feeling that it couldn’t be worth it, whatever it is that he does when he leaves her. He blushes, his cheeks like roses, his nose like a cherry, his ears like red pepper slices.
“I’ll be back soon.”
“I’ll be here.”
Of course, it’s not the first time they’ve played this scene. They both know there’s an uncertainty. It’s the chance of disaster that they shrug off with the pretense that the day will be anything but long and arduous — for each of them in their own way. Still, the passion is real, the desire that each of them feel from every whorl and pore through to the deepest marrow.
Both of them have responsibilities to meet. To ignore them they would have to be some other people, and the whole spell would break. The magic of the two of them together is the source of what they work on the world. What they do apart only strengthens what they can do together. They keep an enduring bond that denies each parting, reserved and singular and continuously united. While he is gone, that connection sometimes rises in her thoughts, and her lips part in the release of a kiss. Just as many times in the day he feels it on his cheek and looks off in the distance.

Twenty-six hours later, the door latch slides deliberately as the knob laboriously turns. He creeps in and tugs his hat off his head. He loosens his gloves one finger at a time before working to slide them off. His reach falls short of the edge of the table, and hat and gloves fall to the floor. He looks at them for a moment, summoning the energy to bend over and pick them up.
She enters with, “Just leave those, I’ll get them,” and clasps his hands between hers, trying to absorb the cold from them. Then she goes to work on the buttons of his coat. He can only muster surrender and a smile at the sight of her. She finishes the buttons and runs her hands across his chest to his shoulders to push the coat off and slide it down his arms. She starts to kneel in front of him, but he catches her under the arms and pulls her back up, hugging her as he heel-steps his own boots off. She steps back and pulls the fronts of his suspenders, letting them lightly snap back before brushing them off his shoulders. His trousers need only the least suggestion to fall before they are at his ankles. She watches as he pulls his shirt and undershirt off over his head in one slow movement, then runs her fingertips through the veil of the night’s sweat on his torso.
She backs away lightly, leading him with the pull of her finger’s hooking movement through the air. He shuffles out of the cuffs of his pants and follows her to the bathroom where the tub is already filled and steaming. He leaves his socks and briefs on the floor and winces as he lifts each leg over, groans to lean down and put his weight through his arms on the edges. The muscles of his arms quiver with fatigue to lower himself, first to his waist, then sliding down to lie fully submerged. His eyes stay closed when he surfaces, and she takes a cloth and washes warm water over his forehead, his eyebrows, eyelids, bridge of nose, neck, chest. His eyes open, and she hands him the washcloth before rising and stepping out. When he feels thawed and clean, he lifts himself back out and towels off. Afterwards, he smells of evergreen again. He runs a comb through his hair and beard, and pulls on just his pajama pants. He arrives in the bedroom to find a fire crackling and bright, and his chair pulled up close to the fireplace. She enters wearing a flannel nightgown, bringing a beer and a bowl of pretzels and peanuts. “You’re need to replenish your energy.” He sits and stretches his toes out towards the hearth, and she hands him the bowl and drink and runs her fingers through his beard. “I’m just going to pour myself a glass of wine and I’ll be right back.” When she returns, she knows even before she’s looked around the back of the chair to see. His chin rests on top of his chest. The bottle is balanced on his belly rocking like a metronome marking the time of his breathing. She picks up the bottle and leads him by the hand in a sleepwalk to the bed. Then she sits in his chair to finish her wine. 

The next day is already ending before he wakes up. She hears him stirring and comes in the room to see him sitting on the edge of the bed, arms stretched overhead and leaning side to side. She sits beside him on the bed. 
“The door?” 
“Is locked.” 
“The phone?” 
“Turned off.” 
“The reindeer?” 
“If you’re seriously asking me about those damn reindeer…”
“Kidding! You hungry?”
“You know I’ve been hungry for days now. Are you hungry?”
“That’s good, ‘cause all I want to do is bake bread and cook together.”
She turns towards him and he pulls her with him as he falls back into the bed, both of them laughing.

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