Researcher Conwell sat alone at his desk. The sound of his typing filled the silence that otherwise engulfed the lab. With a large yawn, he took the opportunity to check the clock. It was 7:48 PM, December 24th, 2011.
The door to the lab then opened, the sound of Christmas music flooding the room as an old bearded man with a walnut cane, a Santa hat, and what might possibly have been the world’s tackiest Christmas sweater stormed in. This man was the well-respected senior researcher Dr. Zachary Johnson.
“Ho ho ho,” Johnson said with a sheepish grin. He placed a small mp3 player that was blasting Christmas tunes on one of the lab benches.
“They let you visit Dr. Collins dressed like that?” Conwell asked. He rubbed his right temple as he chuckled.
“Got to keep poor Gregg’s spirits up somehow,” Johnson jovially replied, “Besides, if I don’t reach the point where the higher ups are worried that I’ve become infected with some anomalous Christmas virus, I’m just not spirited enough.”
“You certainly would have fooled me,” Conwell said with a small smile. He then turned back to his work, stopping his typing only when his superior cleared his throat.
“Jacob,” he said as he checked his watch, “it is now 7:50 PM on Christmas Eve. You have been working on those documents since before I left here to visit Harold, three hours ago. I think it’s time for you to join me in the break room for a coffee.”
Conwell shrugged and pointed to his work. Johnson would have none of it.
“Son,” Johnson said as he tapped his cane on the ground, “if you turn me down I will hit you with this cane until you leave my lab. Humor an old soul and join me for a Christmas coffee break.”
Conwell immediately held up his hands in surrender. Without another word he closed his laptop and began to make his way towards the door. Johnson gave a nod of approval as he watched his assistant step into the hall. He then grabbed his mp3 player and shut off the lights. The two men made their way towards the cafeteria in relative silence, save the Christmas songs coming from Johnson’s person.
“So Jacob,” Johnson began, “why are you here tonight. You got last Christmas Eve off. Surely a young man like you has somewhere else to be on Christmas.”
“My folks and I fell out of touch after I started with the Foundation,” Conwell replied. “They think I’m working on a research ship for Stuart, Cameron, and Pauling Labs, so they don’t really expect me home for the holidays.”
“I see,” Johnson nodded, “so what changed last year?”
Conwell sighed and shook his head. This caused Johnson to stop and smirk.
“Girlfriend?” he asked.
“It’s more of an on-again-off-again kind of thing, but yeah,” Conwell said with a half-hearted chuckle. “She was busy tonight, so I felt I’d be more productive here.”
“Such is life,” Johnson shrugged. The two men continued their walk.
Before long, they found themselves within the break room. What was normally drab and sterile had been recently done up in a more seasonal flair. Johnson quietly offered Conwell a seat and began to prepare a fresh pot of coffee.
“If you don’t mind me asking, Dr. Johnson,” Conwell began, “what about you? Is there a Mrs. Johnson missing you tonight?”
“I’m afraid not,” Johnson said as he finished setting up the coffee machine. He then moved on to rummaging through the fridge. “Shelly passed away almost twenty years ago. I usually spend the holiday with my daughter, Jessica, and the grandkids. This year, however, they are going to visit the son-in-law’s family. I guess you and I are two peas in a pod after all.”
Johnson emerged from the fridge with several Tupperware containers. Before Conwell had a chance to ask questions, his superior was already preparing two plates. The containers were filled with most of the fixings of a rudimentary Christmas dinner.
“Jessica prepared this spread for me earlier,” Johnson said as he placed the plates in the microwave. “As you can see, it’s far more than enough for me to consume alone. Even if I could eat it all, I’d rather not.”
Conwell opened his mouth to protest, but remained silent when Johnson held out his hand for him to stop. After a few minutes, Johnson removed the plates from the microwave and placed them on the table with a warm smile. Conwell returned with a small smile of his own and gratefully accepted the plate.
The two men then ate in silence. Conwell nodding as he relished the taste of the makeshift Christmas meal. Johnson’s daughter was apparently a very, very skilled cook. After they had both finished Johnson set about disposing of the paper plates.
“So, Jacob,” Johnson began, “you’d agree with me if I told you no one should be alone on Christmas, would you not?”
“I suppose I’d be a hypocrite at this point if I said no,” Conwell said with a chuckle, “why?”
“Do you think you’d be up for one more task?” Johnson asked with a small smile.
“What did you have in mind?”
“And so… and so I said… I said, Karlyle, if that was true we wouldn’t need to send in an MTF, I could just have my wife handle the job!” Johnson said as he tried to contain himself. Ultimately he failed, resulting in him and the other occupants of the room broke out into a fit of laughter.
Conwell was now standing in the corner of a Site-19 humanoid containment cell. Dr. Johnson sat at the nearby desk, facing the room’s occupant, a middle aged man known as Dr. Harold Thompson. Conwell had never met him before, but to his understanding he was a former colleague of Dr. Johnson’s who had the great misfortune of acquiring the ability to turn all living organic matter he touched into solid marble. Johnson had pulled a few strings and managed to get a “psychological health visit” scheduled for that evening. The last two hours had been spent with the three of them joking as Dr. Johnson and Dr. Thompson matched wits over a game of chess. Unfortunately, Dr. Johnson had recently made the winning move, signaling that their time together was drawing to a close.
“Check mate, old friend,” Johnson said with a sad smile.
“You got me again, Zach,” Harold replied.
The two men then began placing the pieces back in the box.
“Before you go, I have a small gift for you in the top drawer of my desk. I’d get it myself, but as I’m sure you know, I have to remain on the bed when I have visitors…” Harold added as he put away the last of the pieces. “I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t have a chance to have it properly wrapped…”
Johnson gave a nod of acknowledgement, and slowly opened the drawer. His mouth hung open in awe as he slowly removed what appeared to be a small marble sculpture of a bird.
“That’s one of the products of Dr. Freemont's last round of testing. She said I could keep it. I thought you might like it,” Harold said with a sad smile. He then gave Conwell an apologetic glance, “I’m afraid I didn’t have chance to prepare something for you, I didn’t know we’d have this opportunity to meet…”
“Oh, don’t mind that Harold,” Johnson said with a hearty chuckle, “Jacob’s just here for the ride. This is very beautiful, though. Thank you very much.”
“Guess I have some use after all…” Harold mumbled under his breath, his eyes glancing at his gloved hands, then back to his friend.
“I have something for you as well,” Johnson said as he slowly got to his feet. Without a sound he silently placed his mp3 player on the table, and pressed play. “Your son sent it to me this morning.”
“Hey, Dr. Johnson” said the voice in the recording. It sounded like a man roughly Conwell's age. “Here are some of the people from the neighborhood. Have a very merry Christmas!”
Several more voices then joined the first as they began to sing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Conwell watched as Harold sat straight up, his eyes unblinking as he kept his gaze firmly on the mp3 player. Johnson then quietly signaled for the two of them to leave. Before they exited the cell, both Conwell and Johnson looked back at their friend. A small trail of tears ran down his face as he remained motionless, taking in the sound of the music.
“No one should be alone on Christmas, Jacob,” Johnson said quietly as the two of them stepped into the adjoining observation room. “Don’t you agree?”
Conwell gave a nod in agreement.
“Merry Christmas, Jacob,” the elderly researcher said as he slowly began to walk away, “You have yourself a nice evening.”
“Merry Christmas, Dr. Johnson,” Conwell replied with a smile of admiration, “You too.”