It’s that time of year again. Christmas is once again upon us and this year, as with each of the past couple of years, I am posting my previous holiday short stories in an effort to seem a little less lazy about blogging. I still hope to have three new stories for this year, although I am, as of this posting, still writing them.
So, in keeping with what I hope will be a long-standing tradition, I present the first of my series of Christmas short stories–“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.
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.
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.
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.