Several days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve passed, marked by the absence of Emma’s neighbor. Emilia was called to work two full days in the bakery because one of the other workers got sick, and she accepted it, knowing it will bring her extra money she could put aside for future expenses. Although the job in the bakery put her in contact with many people, who wished her happy holidays and sometimes left a tip, Emma still felt her solitude slowly gnawing at her.
From time to time, she would glance at the corner table and would remember how Mr. Lorenz would sit there and read the newspaper, waiting for her to finish so that he could take her home. She was not in any way mad at him for having no time for her lately. But, she realized, she missed him, way too much. She had become used to him, to his attention, and a few messages from him on her phone, wishing her Merry Christmas or excusing himself from the training, were not enough. And yet, it was clear to her that it was crazy to expect anything more.
On the morning of the last day of the year, Emma got up, not allowing herself to listen to the silence in her house or dwell on the memories of her mother. She ate her breakfast, put on her jacket and boots, and decided to ride her bike to the shop and get supplies that would bring her through the next couple of days. She went to the shed and pushed out the bike, stopping when she spotted Mr. Lorenz getting out of his house. He had noticed her too.
“Emma,” he said, crossing the road, “I’m so sorry I didn’t get the chance to talk to you. It’s been crazy these past few days. How have you been doing?”
“Fine,” she replied because what else was she supposed to say?
“Going anywhere tonight with your friends?” he asked.
“No. Didn’t feel like it. You?”
“I still have to work, but in the evening, I’ll meet some people in a club my friend owns.”
“Sounds like fun,” she said.
“It will probably take me a couple of days to recover from it,” he frowned.
“Maybe you should then rather stay home,” said Emma hesitantly. “From behind Mrs. Schneider’s house, one can get the perfect view of the fireworks.”
“Yes. People around here tend to fire enough rockets at midnight to start the next world war. And win it, probably.”
“Well, sounds like you’ll be having fun too,” he said.
She nodded. “I better be going,” she pointed at her bike, “before they close the shops.”
“I’ll see you then,” he replied.
“Yes. Next year.”
As she came to the gate, he had already opened it with the remote and she pushed out her bike, standing on the side until he drove out. She lifted her hand to wave him goodbye but did not know if he had noticed it.
The day dragged on, as she warmed up a frozen meal and made a salad, unpacking a small cake to defrost in time for her to eat it before midnight. She went through some of the preparatory material for the exams, but put it aside after a while, not being focused enough. Someone from their class posted a photo of a party they were attending in a group chat. Others soon followed. Emma looked around, aware there was nothing she could take a photo of. How do you photograph silence? Or loneliness? And why would anyone want to look at such photos, even if you could?
Wrapped in a blanket, Emma huddled on the sofa together with the cat, looking at the TV shows on different channels, from different countries. So many people, sparkly outfits, loud music, entertainers, comedians, and fireworks from the countries that have already crossed into the next year. Emma turned it off. It was better that way. Slowly, she got up and dressed to go out. The cat opened one eye and closed it, deciding to continue sleeping.
Outside, there was no moon and as soon as she left the light of her front door behind, Emma was engulfed by darkness. Mrs. Schneider’s outside lights were turned off, she realized as she passed her house. Behind it, there was the oak tree Emma refused to look at, and further on, at the edge of the slope, the spot from where she knew she would be able to see the fireworks well.
Standing there, in the gloom, all alone, waiting for the last minutes of the old year to pass, Emma asked herself what on earth she was doing. It was cold. There was no one around, to turn to, to congratulate. It was anyway just an arbitrary date that had no meaning and was offering false hope. In the lives of the people like her, nothing was going to change, no matter what the calendar said. There would always be a struggle, and there was no guarantee that she would win, no matter how hard she tried. The most important fight in her life she had already lost.
She turned and looked at the tree behind her. She could almost see her mother sitting next to it, drawing frantically, trying to fight off her demons. If there was a place in this world where her mother’s ghost would linger, it was that tree. But there was no ghost, there was just darkness and Emma’s memories.
She diverted her gaze back to the sky above the edge of the hill, which was slightly brighter, illuminated by the village lights. It was all blurred before her eyes, she did not know why, maybe she was crying, or maybe it was the cold. What was she doing? Waiting for the fireworks? She did not care for the stupid fireworks, not anymore. But she could not go back. She did not want to go back. She wanted to be a part of it, of other people’s celebration, of humanity, if only as an observer. Just a few minutes more.
“Emma!” A voice came from behind her. She turned, startled by the sound.
It was Mr. Lorenz. He was running but slowed down as he came closer.
“I haven’t missed it, have I?”
“What?” asked Emma, trying to understand what was happening. Why was he here?
“The fireworks,” he said and smiled. His hair was disheveled, his coat unbuttoned, and he looked so handsome that all Emma could do was stare, mesmerized by his presence.
“No,” she said.
At that moment, the bells on the village church started to ring. Emma counted under her breath, looking at Mr. Lorenz, who was looking at her and was counting as well. The ringing of the bells ceased, and the fireworks began. The sky burst into thousands of sparkles, the waterfalls of silver, red, and gold, but Emma was not watching, and neither was Mr. Lorenz.
“Happy New Year, Emma,” said Mr. Lorenz.
“Happy New Year, Mr. Lorenz,” she said, her voice shaking.
“I think it’s about time you call me Samuel,” he smiled.
“Happy New Year, Samuel,” she repeated.
They hesitated for a moment, but then he came closer and hugged her. Emma slowly put her arms around him, burying her face in his coat. It was supposed to be just a short hug, but she did not want to let go of him, and he showed no sign of wanting to let go of her, either. She was so grateful that he was there, so relieved, still so incredulous, and suddenly, everything became too much for her to handle. Tears filled her eyes and all the sobs she was so good at hiding throughout her life became impossible to suppress any longer.
“Oh, Emma, don’t cry,” Samuel whispered and held her tighter.
“I…was…so alone,” she sobbed.
“I know,” he said. “I’m here now.”
“I miss her so much,” said Emma, trying unsuccessfully to hold back the flood of tears that was drowning her and to articulate the essence of her sadness.
“I know,” Samuel repeated.
“Will it ever stop?” Emma lifted her face to look at him.
His eyes were sad and there was a line on his forehead Emma had not noticed before. With one hand, he wiped the tears from her cheeks and gently removed the strands of hair that were sticking to her face.
“No,” he said. “But it will get better, I promise. Eventually, you’ll put the pain in a drawer, which you will learn not to open too often.”
“I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to do that,” she admitted.
“You will,” he assured her, kissing her so lightly on the forehead that Emma could not be certain that it really had happened.
The last of the rockets were sizzling over the night sky, attracting their attention finally. The brilliant sparkles showered over their heads once, twice, and then everything grew silent. Only a cloud of smoke remained hanging above the village. Emma moved away from Samuel, breathing in deeply to try to calm down.
“Why did you come back?” she asked. It was dark again and she could not see his face.
“I know how it is when everyone around you celebrates and you have no one to celebrate with. So, I left the party to keep you company. I guess I’ll have some explaining to do, later.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lorenz,” she said.
“Samuel,” he reminded her.
“Samuel,” she repeated and smiled.
She liked saying his name.