Now that I have put the unpleasantness of Black Friday behind me, I can start focusing on the Christmas season in general. This yule will be particularly tough considering that this was my mom’s favorite time of the year. She was a Santa Claus fanatic and one of the most painful things about her passing was going through her collection of Saint Nick memorabilia. Each item had its own story, its own tale of where it came from and how it came to be hers.

So, in keeping with my mother’s passion, my three new Christmas short stories all focus on that merry old Kris Kringle, in a wide variety of forms. In one, Santa faces off against a member of the undead. In another, Santa finds out just how serious our ecological issues are. Finally, Santa gets a little help from the people in a small Kentucky town.

But to kick off the season, I begin by posting my short story from last year, “The Present”. This was the only survivor of my initial plan for a dozen stories and, as the first in this hopefully annual series, I’m rather fond of it. There are a few things in the writing I changed a bit, but I still love the overall story and the message it delivers, even if Santa is nowhere to be found.

If you are new here, I hope you enjoy it. If you read it last year, I hope you enjoy it again.

THE PRESENT

by Lee Smiley

All was in place. Thomas scanned the few objects lying on the table before him, checking that he hadn’t forgotten anything. The pen, the paper, the loaded gun—that’s all he would need, really. He thought about adding a cigarette or the bottle of Maker’s Mark in the cabinet downstairs, but he had quit smoking before he turned twenty and the bourbon now seemed unnecessary. No, he thought, these things would do.

He could hear the sounds of Christmas carols from across the street. “O, Christmas Tree” drifted like snow through the thin window glass. The Bakers were having their usual family Christmas, complete with drunken caroling that often lasted until the wee hours of the morning. The house itself stood as a testament to seasonal marketing—not an inch of building or lawn, was left undecorated by lights, holly, or inflatable figures. A fleet of cars and trucks stood parked in the snow outside the house, dark beneath the street lamps. The sight of them, setting aside their familial differences, their past offenses, for one night of good cheer and peace, made Thomas envy them.

There are some offenses, he knew, that could never be set aside.

As “O, Christmas Tree” ended in a wave of raucous laughter, the music for “Silent Night” started, oxymoronic at such volume. Thomas turned away from the window, afraid that anger and longing would distract him from his plans. He closed the curtains, blocking out enough of the music so that only a warbled melody penetrated his room.

Sitting down at the table, he took up the pen. He had been thinking of what to write for some time, had completed mental draft after mental draft, each one evolving from the previous one into what he hoped would be a perfect suicide note. Even during the summer, right after Carla had left him and he decided to take his own life, he was scripting his final words in his head. At work, during showers, during his meals alone, usually frozen dinners or take out, he would drift into a trance-like state of composition, his expression blank as he called forth the words that would be his lasting legacy, the only one he had to replace the one he had destroyed.

Now that the time had come to conjure the words to paper, however, they would not come. As though suspended in the ether, unwilling or unable to take physical form, they floated loose in his head, rejecting his desire to put them in some practical order. He held the pen over the paper, commanding the language to pour out, but the pen and the hand holding it remained still. In frustration, he threw the pen down on the table and, seizing the paper, sent it airborne with a flick of his wrist. He watched as the pieces fluttered and settled in various points around the room, scattered as his life had been scattered for the past year.

He sat still for only a moment, looking out the frosted window, before he rose and started to gather the loose paper. Once he had it all in one pile again, neatly arranged and lying next to the pen on the table, he sat back down. He stared at the paper as though willing the words he wanted to say to appear on the blank pages, even if he was not sure what those words would be. Only when his eyes began to water did he even blink.

After nearly a half hour, he picked up the pen again. He resigned himself to knowing that anything he wrote down would not be a sufficient explanation. Then again, he reasoned, there really wasn’t anyone who needed an explanation. Carla was gone, Brady was gone. Soon, he would be gone, too.

He picked up the pen again and pulled one sheet of paper from the top of the stack. Before he had time to change his mind or second guess himself, he wrote. His hasty scrawl was barely legible, but anyone finding his body would be able to decipher the words and that was all he cared about.

I’m sorry, the note said.

It wasn’t much, but Thomas knew it was enough. It was all he had to say.

He folded the note into thirds and held it down flat with his hand on the table. He was afraid to put it into an envelope, afraid that it might be cast aside as a meaningless piece of mail by whoever came to investigate the sound of a gunshot or, he grimaced, the stench. He spent a long moment wondering how his body would look after a few weeks of decay. The house stayed cold in the winter, but he doubted it would be cold enough to prevent at least some of his tissues from breaking down. Looking up, he regarded his image in the mirror across the room. He had lost a significant amount of weight over the past year–somehow food didn’t seem as appealing after what he did to Brady–and the face staring back at him, pale and haunted, was not his own. That face, the one he saw now, was the face of his son’s murderer.

Thomas took up the pen again and thought for a moment who to address the note to. Finally, he settled again on the basics, scribbling “Whoever” on the upturned third of the paper and pushing it to the center. He lay the pen carefully next to it, lined up at a perfect angle to both paper and the edge of the table. Somehow, he figured if the only thing left untidy when he was done was himself, the situation would look better for him.

He glanced back up at the mirror again. The murderer’s face was smiling at him as if to mock his grief, his loss.

Anger welled up inside Thomas, entwining with his grief to a thread of steel that gave his hand strength to take up the gun. The feel of the Ruger in his hand, the evil metal against his skin, made him almost lose his nerve. He knew that what he was about to do was cowardice, a luxury he did not deserve after what he had done to his son, yet cowardice was a mild thing compared to that monstrous act. The events played through his mind again, as they had thousands of times over the past year. He fought against the memories, but they came on anyway, forcing him to relive them again one more time before he made his last, desperate attempt at escape.

“What was that?” Carla asks him, he voice accompanied in the dark by her hand on his shoulder.

Thomas hears the noise and is up at once. He does not bother getting dressed, afraid of the noise even the pajama pants at the foot of his bed might cause. He imagines himself pulling on one leg, then tripping as he tried to pull on the other one.

Instead, he pulls the Ruger from the drawer in the bedside table. Flipping the safety, he pads to the bedroom door. The door is shut, but the house is new and the doors still open on quiet, well-oiled hinges. He eases it open, feeling the breeze attacking his privates, and steps into the hall.

The only light he can see is the flickering glow from the Christmas tree downstairs, radiating up the stairwell like a neon aurora. He looks to the other end of the hall and sees Brady’s door is still closed. The boy could sleep through just about anything, he knew, and he is now very glad of the fact.

Ruger in hand, he comes to the corner of the stairwell and peaks around, looking down the long, walnut bannister. At once, he sees the shadow amidst the blues and greens and reds dancing across the living room. He had seen on the news only a few days ago how burglary rose sharply in the days leading up to Christmas, thieves looking to take advantage of well-lit loot, packaged for the taking. He considers going back to the bedroom to call the police, but the Ruger makes him bold and he starts down the stairs.

He takes the first step down in absolute silence. He can hear the rustling of the wrapped presents down stairs and wonders if he is in time to save them all or if the thief has already managed to get some outside. He takes two more steps down before the idea of an accomplice, someone who might be waiting just around the corner at the bottom of the stairs, comes into his head. Distracted, he slips off one step, his foot landing hard on the step below and nearly causing him to lose his balance.

The shuffling downstairs stops. The shadow grows longer as the figure comes to the bottom of the stairs.

The gun goes off as the shadow materializes into a dark mass below him. He does not remember, even later, pulling the trigger, but he knows he must have. The dark shape crumples to the floor.

Thomas all but leaps down the remaining stairs in one stride. Only when he reaches the bottom does he realize what a terrible, terrible mistake he has made.

Brady, the front of his Spiderman pajama shirt stained dark in the thin light by blood, looks up at him. Thomas looks back, seeing not pain or shock or confusion.

Looking in his dying son’s eyes, he sees remorse.

“Just wanted . . . to shake . . . a few . . . .” Then, he is gone.

Tears streamed unchecked down Thomas’s cheeks as he brought the gun up. He had contemplated many times over the previous months whether to go through the roof of the mouth or through the temple, but now that the moment is upon him, the choice was made almost automatically. He stuck the barrel of the bloodthirsty Ruger into his mouth, his teeth chattering against the metal from his uncontrolled sobbing. He closed his eyes.

“Daddy?”

At first, Thomas thought the voice was a continuation of the memory, or some other memory seeking to plague him in his moment of ultimate weakness. His eyes flashed open a moment, then closed again. His finger brushed the trigger.

“Daddy?”

He was sure he heard it this time, physically heard it, the sound originating from somewhere outside his head. His eyes opened and, gun still in his mouth, he looked at the door.

Brady, whole and alive and unhurt, stood in the hallway. Instead of remorse on his round face, though, Thomas saw confusion and fear in his son’s expression. The boy rubbed his eyes in a childish, innocent way, but the concern did not fade when his hands dropped again to his side.

Thomas pulled the gun from his mouth. The tears streaming harder now, he reached up to wipe them away, more afraid of what he was seeing than of a violent, sudden death. His hand lowered the gun to the table and, by the time it reached the wooden surface, he was too weak to hold it any longer.

“Brady?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

The boy turned away from him and disappeared down the hall.

Thomas was on his feet and at the door in less than a second. He plunged through into the hall and looked around, his fear growing.

He spotted Brady descending the stairs. The boy gave him a quick glance and raised a small hand, beckoning him to follow.

Four long strides brought Thomas to the top of the stairs. He looked down the steps for his son, but did not see him. Instead, he saw the familiar flickering light in a myriad of colors. The memory of the previous year crashed upon him like rough waves, but he railed against it, the fresh image of his son, alive and there, a talisman against his grief and guilt. He moved down the stairs at nearly a run and tumbled down the last few steps, landing painfully on his knees.

The living room was exactly as it had been the day his son had died. Three stockings, their white cuffs now rimmed at the top with a brown layer of dust, hung over the mantle above the gas fireplace. Stacks of presents rested beneath the artificial tree, all collecting their own version of neglect.

The tree itself, though, was the most striking thing in the room to Thomas. For a year, since Carla had unplugged it as the police investigators questioned him about Brady’s death, the tree had been dark, standing sentinel over all the gifts the boy would never open. Now, the tree’s lights twinkled with renewed life, awakened after their long time of mourning. The lights cut into Thomas, making him wince and shield his eyes.

After several long moments, Thomas adjusted to the light and looked at the tree. It was beautiful–Carla had done an excellent job of decorating it so that every bulb, every ornament, seemed in the exact place it was meant to be. What had served for so long as a reflection of his own inner darkness now filled him up with a feeling so long forgotten that he barely recognized it.

The feeling grew stronger when he saw Brady standing next to the tree. The boy remained silent, but looked at his father with absolute love. Then, he turned and looked down at the presents before his bare feet, arranged just as they had been the previous Christmas. He looked back at his father, smiled, then pointed down behind a box that, Thomas knew, contained a new bicycle his son would never ride.

Brady smiled again, wider this time, then vanished.

“Brady?” Thomas whispered. “Brady, come back.” When his son did not comply, he whispered again.

“Brady?”

Thomas knew his son was gone again and he leaned forward on the floor and wept, his tears soaking into the carpet. He lay sobbing for a long, long time, feeling his year-old wound reopened and bleeding. When he could no longer bend at the waste on his knees, he rolled on his side and cried until he could cry no more.

At last, he sat up. The silence around him was complete. He guessed the party across the street, now miles and years away in his own mind, was over, the guests either gone home or passed out drunk.

In his renewed loss, he almost forgot what the image of Brady, now he knew that it was only an image, was doing before he disappeared. He pulled himself across the floor, his legs still too weak to support him, waded through the presents, and moved the wrapped bicycle out of his way.

A small box, crudely wrapped in yellowed Sunday comics, lay tucked behind the larger package. It looked as though half a roll of tape had been used to seal the paper and a label bearing four laboriously printed words stuck to the top.

To Daddy. From Brady.

Thomas took the package in his hands, regarding it as the greatest find in the history of mankind. He cradled it against his chest, feeling with his fingertips the extreme care his son had taken in wrapping the gift so completely. Part of him did not want to unwrap it, afraid of undoing his son’s work, but he knew that Brady would not have pointed it out had his intention been other than for his father to open it.

Thomas worked on the gift for several minutes, removing intact as much of the wrapping as possible. Regardless of what lay within, the wrapping itself, the love that seemed to radiate from it, meant more to him than anything else he owned. The paper slid off, retaining most of its shape save for the open end, revealing a small, unmarked shoe box, also sealed with too much tape. He went around the lid, pulling up each piece of tape individually, then lifted off the lid.

At first, he could not tell what it was. He unwrapped the tissue paper surrounding it and saw a picture frame, constructed of popsicle sticks, glue, and tape, spill into his open hand. The picture inside was of him and Brady, father and son, at Disney World, the shiny sphere of Epcot in the background behind their matching Mickey Mouse caps. Colorful foam letters at the top spelled out “World’s Greatest” while more letters at the bottom finished with “Dad”.

World’s Greatest Dad, Thomas thought.

He thought he had finished crying, but the frail, handmade object proved him wrong. He cried until he could no longer breath, lying curled up beneath the flickering lights of the tree, finally falling asleep, the popsicle frame still clutched to his chest.

When he woke, daylight streamed in from outside. Christmas Day had dawned and outside he could hear the renewed revelry from the Baker residence. The tree above him still blinked and the popsicle frame still rested in his hand.

He stood up, his muscles sore from his wracking sobs, and made his way to the stairs, the frame still clutched to his chest. His feet ascended the steps, driven by sheer will, and took him into the bedroom. Taking the note, he crumbled it with his free hand and dropped it into the waste bin. He picked the gun up by the barrel as though afraid it might seek of its own free will to end what he had begun the night before. He carried it back downstairs, keeping it far from the popsicle stick frame, and took it outside. The dusting of snow bit into his bare feet, but he barely noticed. Making his way around the corner of the house, he opened the trash can with the hand holding the Ruger, then dropped the gun in.

Back inside, he sat in the living room, holding the frame, almost afraid to look at it in case it turned out to not be real.

He picked up the phone and dialed. Carla answered on the second ring.

“Merry Christmas,” she said, not sounding merry at all.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for everything.”

There was a long pause. “I know.”

“Can you come by later? I . . . I want to talk.”

Another long pause. “Yeah. I guess I can do that.”

“That’d be great.”

They hung up and Thomas set the phone down, feeling for the first time since killing his son, that, maybe, all was not lost. Maybe, he thought, sometimes all you needed was love and hope.

And lots of tape.

Even though I haven’t mentioned it in a while, I am still writing. Considering how bad my year has gone thus far, I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to escape from this life once in a while and go somewhere else.

Here’s what I’ve been working on:

–Christmas short stories. Last year, I set out to write a dozen Christmas short stories to post on LJ on the twelve days leading up to Christmas. Unfortunately, I spent most of my fall finishing Gifts of the Hirakee and was only able to finish one story, which I posted last year. This year, I have set my sights a bit lower and will post three new stories along with a repost of the one from last year. I have finished two of the tales already, with the third in progress. The final one ran a bit long, so I may post it in two parts. It’s not a dozen, but considering that I’m working on these when I should be working on more marketable items, it’ll have to do.

–The aforementioned Gifts of the Hirakee. I feel like I’ve given this story the shaft this year. Over the summer, when I had planned to do most of my agent submissions, I had my cancer surgery and the passing of my mother to contend with, so I put this manuscript on hold until I was ready to focus on it. I really like the story and think I did a decent job telling it, so I want to be able to do it justice. I do, however, have it out on submission to one place where I hope it, and I, find a happy home. If not, I’ll probably start submitting again after the first of the year.

–Other shorts. I’ve written a couple of other shorts that I’m in the beginning stages of finding a home for and I’m still waiting to hear back from a few submissions I sent in the spring. Publishing, alas, moves at glacial speeds. I also recently submitted a short to a big-time anthology and am hoping beyond hope that it gets accepted.

–Works in Progress. I’ve put Wielder of the Soul on hold for the time being to work on another project that has more fully captured my attention. I have about 23,000 words done on this one, versus about 33,000 on Wielder. I also have another story waiting in the wings after I finish the other two.

–Harry Potter. About a year ago, I submitted a silly little story on the Mugglenet.com fan fiction site. It was fun to write, but after I submitted it and the reviews stopped, I didn’t think much more about it. A couple of weeks ago, I got an email telling me that the story had won their annual QuickSilver Quill Award for Best Humor Story. I was quite tickled and shocked. Furthermore, I received another email a few days ago from a young lady who wants to translate my story on a Polish Harry Potter fan site. All of it has been a lot of fun and, hopefully, will be the start of good things going forward.

So, that’s it for now. I will repost my Christmas story from last year sometime next week and will do another one each week after that leading up to the big day.

Also, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out there.

I have made a few references to this on my Facebook and Twitter, but I have been asked to explain in a little more detail. At the risk of sounding like I’m complaining, which I suppose I am a bit, I will attempt to do just that.

Last Friday, my wife, Amy, and I rode with three of our friends to a popular restaurant for lunch. We rode in said friends’ vehicle, the make and model of which I will not disclose. I rode in the back driver’s side seat, Amy rode in the middle, and Emily, the teenage sister of the driver, sat in the back passenger seat. The ride to the restaurant, about a twenty-minute drive from McKenzie, went well, as did the lunch. The food and service were both excellent and abundant, and so we started for home quite content.

Now, the model of vehicle we were in has a belt attached to the ceiling which can be drawn across the upper torso of the person in the back middle seat to serve as a shoulder belt for an added measure of security. This belt does not clip into an enclosed apparatus as a regular seat belt does, but instead simply clips with a metal hook into a keyhole-type opening on the main belt and is held in place by an elastic cord attached to the belt. My wife inserted the hook per the operating instructions and the trap was set.

I, sitting next to my wife and digesting my burger, lay my head back against the seat and closed my eyes, unaware of the danger that lay inches away.

As I dozed, my wife leaned forward to adjust the backseat vents and the belt, formerly hooked securely into the appropriate slot, came unhooked. The elastic band attached to the belt, stretched further by my wife’s leaning forward, whipped the metal piece on the belt through the air–so fast it whistled–and into my exposed throat. The clasp bounced off the top of my Adam’s apple and bit hard into my windpipe before I knew what hit me.

Several things happened right then. First, I grabbed my throat and wheezed (I couldn’t really do much else) in pain. I looked to my right, trying to figure out why Emily, as meek a girl as you will ever meet, would give me the Miss Piggy judo chop for no apparent reason. My wife, realizing what had happened, paused just long enough to make sure I was not, as I thought, dying and burst into gales of laughter. Our two friends in the front seat both turned and tried to sort out why I was holding my throat.

In the end, I was relatively unharmed, although the impact knocked my voice out until late that evening, an unfortunate thing as I agreed to work concessions at the local high school football game that same night.

Anyway, that’s the story. It’s far better than having cancer, but at least my wife didn’t laugh at me when they told me about that.

My mother passed away on September 6th. I haven’t really talked about it on here yet because, well, I didn’t really know what to say. Even at this point, nearly three months on, I am having a hard time encapsulating in mere words what this loss means to me. Still, I’ll give it a go. My mother was never, ever at a loss for words, and even though most of those words were often inappropriate, tactless, and always humorous, they were there. Now, we find ourselves in the same place, uncommon ground for both of us. A place of no words.

Still, in keeping with her spirit, I’ll attempt to say a little something about her. God knows she talked about me enough.

My mother, for those of you who didn’t know her, was a force of nature. Despite a life filled with bouts of sickness and extended medical care, she was one of the most vibrant people I have ever known. She never fell into the trap that claims so many adults who believe change, of who and what you are, is for younger people. My mother constantly reinvented herself, constantly seeking to be a person we and, more importantly she, could be proud of. We watched her transform herself again and again until, at last, she seemed to finally be comfortable with who she was. For the first time in her life, she lived the life she wanted to, one of friends and family and God. My mother, in the last few years of her life, found a contentment she had never known.

To me, my mother was like gravity. I don’t see her in a lot of memories of my childhood–I was a rather independent kid–but, like that invisible gravity, she was there, exerting her force wherever I went. She was there at the awards ceremonies. She was there at the sporting events. She was there all the time to give that little push or that big shove to get me going. More importantly, she, like gravity, kept me grounded. Whenever my head got too big from the straight A’s or the diving catch at shortstop, she was right there to tell me I wasn’t as great as I thought I was, but never to say I wasn’t as great as she thought I was.

Ironically, my mother was partly to credit/blame for my wanting to become a writer. When I was younger, I found a memo pad in their closet (rummaging through there was like archeology without the dirt) and opened it up to find the beginnings, rough though they were, of a romance story. Just eight or nine pages. My mother was a HUGE romance fan and, she told me, always harbored aspirations of writing her own novel. As all parents hope their children’s accomplishments eclipse their own, I believe my mother was very proud of me for completing, if not publishing, the three novels I’ve written so far. Moreover, when I finally break into the ranks of the published, I will not be surprised if her hand is somehow cosmically involved.

So, Mom, wherever you are, I hope there are unlimited margaritas and buff, shirtless men in cowboy hats to serve them to you. Thank you for everything you did, for everything you said, and even for that little memo pad in your closet. It’s okay that you didn’t finish the novel. Sometimes, as I have learned, the story is just too hard to tell to the end.