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The Present

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Maria ran the rag over the counter top one last time. Turning, she rested her hip against the counter. She was tired. She and Liz were working the Christmas Eve shift so everyone else could be with their families. For Liz working meant being with her family, her parents owned the diner, but for Maria, Christmas didn't have the same meaning as everyone else. Her mom, Amy, didn't believe in all the "hogwash" of Christ's birth as she called it. Just another reason for all the greedy people to get more she said.

As far back as Maria could remember, they hadn't had a Christmas tree, or presents under it. Christmas was just another day for them. She remembered all the little presents she had bought herself so that when Liz and Alex asked her what she got she had something to show them. She couldn't even tell her best friends that Santa Claus didn't come to her house.

She looked around the diner at all the tinsel and decorations that she and Liz had hung. It looked sorta garish in here with all the tinsel mixed in with all the alien paraphernalia, but it did in its own way look Christmas-y in here.

Her eyes came to rest on the few remaining patrons, old Bill Weston was heading towards the door. Everyone knew that Bill didn't have anyone to spend Christmas with. Every year when he came in on Christmas Eve, Liz's mom made him a special little package to take home with him. Socks, or maybe a pair of gloves. It didn't matter what it was, he always ended up crying like a baby and everyone hugged him and wished him a Merry Christmas.

The bell rang as the door shut behind him. The diner was cleaned and ready for closing time. Jose was finishing up the cleaning in the kitchen. As soon as they could clear the last table they were all going to be heading out.

Her eyes came to rest on the other occupants of the place, four young people sitting in their favorite booth. This was the first time that the three of them had been in the diner on this holiday. Ever since Liz had told Maria about Max, Isabel, and Michael, they had spent most of their time together. When Liz had been forced to tell Alex a few months ago, he had joined their little crowd.

The six of them were drawn into a silent conspiracy, keeping the other three's secret. Max and Isabel Evans and their jerky friend Michael Guerin were aliens, not of the illegal variety but the "not from around here" kind. Keeping their secret had led the six of them down a very interesting path in life.

Maria jumped as Jose rang the bell behind her. "Time to go home, sweet cheeks, were you dreaming about my hot body again?"

"Bite me, Jose." Maria told him as she picked up the wet rag and walked over to the booth. Gathering the cups that were scattered over the Formica coated table, she caught the last of the conversation.

"It's a family tradition. Laugh all you want, Isabel, but I like having a Christmas stocking." Alex was saying.

"Do you have little red Christmas jammies to go with it?" Isabelle teased him.

Maria couldn't believe these two. Isabel used to make all kinds of mean cracks about the flirting that Michael and Maria had done, but lately that's all these two did. No matter how she tried, she couldn't picture them even remotely being a couple, but from the intense flirting that had been going back and forth between them, it came through loud and clear that Isabel liked Alex.

Liz Parker, Maria's best friend, came over and leaned against the booth. "Well, we only have a few more hours left, Alex, and you get to peek inside of your stocking. I can't wait. I'm still hoping that Mom and Dad have been paying attention to my Christmas wish hints."

Maria smiled. "Come on, Liz. How many sixteen year old girls do you know that start out every conversation with 'and do you know that a Henderson V Microscope only costs...'"

"I overdid it a bit, didn't I?" Liz giggled.

"Just a bit I'd say," Maria said.

"Well, Mom knows how much I want those boots in Carson's window. They've even marked them down. So I'm pretty sure I'm getting them," Isabel said as she went on to tease her brother, "What do you think's in that big box under the tree, Max, you know, the one with your name on it?"

"Unlike you, Iz, I don't worry about things like that, whatever I get I'll be happy with," Max said.

"You mean, there's not one special thing you want?" Isabel questioned him.

"Nope, nothing that I can think of," Max replied as he shyly smiled up into Liz's face. They had started dating a few weeks ago and no matter what Isabel thought, Max had everything he could wish for.

"Oh God, they're at it again," Michael said as he dropped his head to the table top.

"Do what I do, Michael, just ignore it," Isabel said.

"You're one to talk. If you smile at Alex one more time I'm gonna lose my hot dog," Michael said as he pushed against Max to let his friend know he wanted up. "I've had enough of all the googlie eyes and mushy stuff going on here. I'm out of here folks. Have a nice Christmas and all that crap." Michael zipped up his leather jacket and headed towards the door.

"What was that all about?" Alex asked.

Isabel looked at Max. Without looking at Alex she replied, "Michael's dad doesn't exactly make Christmas a priority on his list, if you know what I mean."

Maria watched him stand on the sidewalk outside the diner. She turned towards the door. "Liz, I'll be right back, okay?"

As she pushed the door open, the chilly night air hit her arms, causing goosebumps to pop up on her skin. What the hell are you doing, Maria?, she thought to herself. Are you really this stupid?

"Michael," she said. He turned and looked at her. They really hadn't spent much time together, not since the night at the old soap factory when Michael had told her she was getting "too intense" for him. They had been civil to each other when they had to talk, but other than that they hadn't really spoken. You're just asking for another heartache.

"Yeah?" she heard him mutter.

"I was wondering if I could ask a favor of you?" Maria said. She didn't understand what she was about to do, but she couldn't have stopped herself if she tried.

"What favor?" Michael asked her quietly. He kept his eyes on the street. He was afraid that if he looked at her, she'd be able to see something in his eyes.

He didn't want to be alone with her. He had went out of his way to make sure he was never alone with her. It was too damn hard, not being able to hold her, or touch her. He had spent every waking moment since the night at the party trying to tell himself it was best if they weren't together. No connections, nothing to hold him to this place.

"Could you come to my house in about an hour?" Maria said to him.

She didn't like talking to his back, but she knew she wouldn't be able to ask him if she had to look at his face, see the cold uncaring look in his eyes. God, she was so stupid, he would never agree to what she was asking him.

She waited to hear him say no. "Why?" Michael said.

"There's something I want to ask you," Maria said. stupid, stupid, stupid!

Michael still wouldn't turn around. "Ask me now."

"Not here. Just be at my house in one hour, okay?"

Maria turned around and went through the doors quickly. She knew if she stood there another minute, he would end up telling her no. She figured he wouldn't show up anyway, but this way she didn't have to hear him say it.

Michael stood at the edge of the curb and told himself, There is no way I'm going to her house, no way

-******-

She stood at the kitchen table, stirring the sugar into her tea. Her mom wasn't home. She had called earlier and said she was going to be staying in Deep Springs tonight. Some guy named Joe who she had met at a convention on aromatherapy a few weeks ago had ask her to his house for Christmas.

Maria laughed to herself. Yeah, Mom, you can't spend Christmas with your daughter but some guy asks you to spend it with him and off you go.

The laugh slowly turned into a sob. No, I will not cry. I should be used to this by now.

Wiping the tear away before it could slide down her cheek, she picked up her cup and walked towards the sofa. The radio was playing a soft and dreamy Christmas song. She slowly hummed along with the music as she sat down on the couch. Leaning over, she placed her cup on the coffee table that her mom had picked up at some yard sale.

She looked at the small, brightly wrapped present that rested beside the cup. Reaching out, she straightened the red bow that she had placed around it. The tears welled up in her eyes again. Why did she buy that thing? What in the world had made her even think that he would want it?

She had found it at the mall that Isabel had forced her and Liz to go to last week. Claiming that the two hour ride was nothing compared to the great things they would find there. Things you couldn't find in Roswell.

She leaned back and laid her arm across the back of the sofa. She wouldn't look at the clock, she wouldn't. But telling herself not to didn't work. Raising her eyes, she saw that it was now one hour and forty minutes since she had spoken to Michael. She knew he wouldn't come, but it still hurt.

Laying her head down in the curve of her arm, she let the tears fall.

Michael watched her through the window. It tore him apart inside to watch her cry. She was alone. Where the hell was her mother? It was Christmas Eve for Christ's sake. How could she leave her alone tonight? How could Hank be stinking drunk?

But it was different for him. Hank wasn't his real father. The only reason Hank kept him was for the welfare check they sent him. Maria's mother should be here with her. He knew that Max and Isabelle were with their parents. Hell, so were Liz and Alex. Why wasn't Maria?

He looked around the small room. No tree, no decorations. Dammit, what was he doing here? Why was he doing this to himself? Turning to leave, he walked across the parking lot and knew it was better if he just left.

Maria didn't hear the small knock at first. It barely registered over the soft music coming from the radio. But the second one she did hear. Sitting up, she wiped the tears from her face and wondered if Liz had decided to stop by. It would be just like her friend to do something like that, although she had never done it before.

Making sure the tears were erased from her cheeks, she opened the door. "Michael," Maria said in shock.

"You asked me to stop by. If you changed your mind I can go," he told her.

"No, no, come in," Maria said, opening the door wider.

He stepped into the room, knowing he should not have turned around. But at the same time he couldn't have walked away from her, not after seeing her crying.

"Ah, well, what did you want?" Michael asked. He stood just inside the door, afraid to walk any further into the room.

Maria pushed the door closed and walked back to the couch. Well, now you've done it. Just give it to him, don't think about it. Just do it.

"I wanted to give you this," Maria said as she picked up the small box. She thrust it at him.

He stood there, just staring at it for a few moments. "What is it?" he asked.

"It's a Christmas present dummy," she said.

"But..." Michael stammered.

"Just take it, okay? It's not anything special, just something I saw and it made me think of you," she told him.

Michael couldn't believe it. He couldn't remember ever getting a Christmas present. At the orphanage or the foster homes he was in he usually got the little care packages they made up for the children. And they were never wrapped. He slowly reached out and took the box out of her hands.

"What's in it?" Michael asked as he passed the box between his hands. He was afraid to open it. He didn't want to mess it up. It looked so perfect, gold wrapping with a small red felt ribbon.

"Open and see. Presents are made to be opened, Michael. That's half the surprise." Maria smiled at him. She had never seen him like this, so lost for words.

He couldn't believe she had done this, after everything he had done. After hurting her like he had. She had bought him a present. Taking two fingers, he gently pulled on the red ribbon. It unraveled and he gripped it in fingers. Using one finger, he slid it along the edge of the paper.

"Oh," Maria said.

Michael stopped and looked at her. "What?"

"Nothing. I just would have thought you were more of the rip and shred kinda guy. How do you usually open your presents?" Maria asked him.

"I've... I've never had a present before," Michael told her.

Maria looked into his eyes. She felt herself tearing up again.

"Don't," Michael said. He couldn't keep the anger out of his voice. Not anger at her, but anger at himself for making her cry again. "Don't cry."

He reached out and pulled her into his arms. Everything he had told himself about being better off without went flying out the window. All he could feel was how fucking good it felt to hold her, to feel her in his arms again. It's what he dreamed about in bed each night, thought about every time he saw her. He realized that being apart from her was not going to just go away. Even if he had to leave one day, he would still always dream about her. "Please don't cry, Maria. I can't take it when you cry."

"I know what it feels like," she said.

"What do you mean, what feels like?" Michael questioned her.

"Not to get any presents," Maria whispered into his chest.

He pulled her back a bit and looked into her face. What was she talking about? She had a home, a mother who loved her. How could she have never gotten a present?

"I've gotten little ones from Liz and Alex on my birthday, but my Mom, She... Uh... She doesn't believe in Christmas and she usually forgets my birthday," Maria said in small breathless voice.

She rested her forehead on his chest for a moment, for just a small moment. She suddenly raised her head and stepped back from him, wiping away the tears. "Just forgot that part okay? Just open the present... please."

Michael wanted to take her back into his arms. He had forgotten about the small box in his hands. He slid his finger back under the paper and gave a tug. A small white box was revealed underneath. He pulled the lid off and looked down at the small object laying against the white cotton.

"It's a...star," he said as he drew the small silver key chain out of the box. Dangling off the chain was a small crystal star. As it turned you could see colors shimmering in the center of the crystal.

"You're always talking about going home. Somewhere out there is the star that your people came from," Maria told him shyly. She felt so dorky. He didn't get it. "I'm sorry, I just thought of you when I saw it."

"It's..." Michael didn't know what to say.

Maria reached up to snatch it out of his hands. "It was stupid, I know, I'm sorry."

"No," Michael said as he pulled it back out of her reach. "It's not stupid." He laid it across the palm of his hand and stared at it for a few seconds. Raising his head, he saw that she was staring at the floor. "I think it's wonderful. Thank you, Maria."

Drawing her lips into her mouth over her teeth, she glanced up at his face again. She watched as he took his empty hand and reached into his jacket pocket. She was confused when he pulled his hand out and inside lay a crumpled wrapped package. It looked like it had been in his pocket for weeks.

"I bought this for you, but I never thought I would give it to you. I told myself over and over again that we couldn't be together, that I had to be alone. But I still bought this. I still thought about you every day. No matter how much I told myself I couldn't be with you I couldn't stop myself from thinking about you." Michael held the wrinkled, bent box out to her.

There was no ribbon and the paper was plain red with no decorations on it, but it was the most beautiful Christmas present that Maria had ever seen. He had bought her a gift. Michael Guerin, who didn't do anything he didn't want to do, had bought her a present. She suddenly threw herself at him, holding him with everything she had, her body, her heart, her soul.

Michael wrapped his hands around her and smiled into her hair. Her sweet smelling hair. He rubbed his nose back and forth across the golden strands. He caught a slight whiff of Cyprus oil. He had bought a small bottle and kept it under his pillow, and at night he would take it out and breath in her scent. He realized he was crushing the little box even more. Pulling back, he tried to smooth it out again, but it was hopeless.

"It's sorta a mess," he said as he held it out to her.

"It's beautiful, the most beautiful thing in the world," she told him.

"Open it," Michael said.

With a huge smile on her face, Maria ripped the paper off the package as fast as she could. Michael grinned. "Why am I not surprised."

Opening the lid, Maria saw a thin gold chain. It wasn't real gold, but that never even entered her head. Maria pulled the chain out of the box. Hanging at the bottom was a small crystal star. Like Michael's star, it shimmered in the light.

"You're my star, you're my home," Michael whispered to her. "I love you Maria. You're the best gift I've ever been given."

Maria gently placed her arms around his neck and placed her lips against his.

"Merry Christmas Michael."

"Merry Christmas Maria."

 

THE END