I pulled the cord on the little wall hanging music box just inside Haley's door and it began to tinkle out "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head".
"I told you never to do that."
"I hate that song."
"But I brought you something."
"I don't care."
"It's something you like. It's chocolate."
"What is-- is that-- that's MINE you fucker."
It was true. Haley had a box full of king sized candy bars she had to sell for, well, something. I didn't really listen to that part once I discovered what they were. She kept the box in a leather carry on at the end of her bed with a couple pair of socks, underwear, earrings, a V.C. Andrews paperback and her birth control. I went through the whole thing looking for more of those gummi bears she brought home last time, but found nothing else of interest. I took two figuring they wouldn't be missed and hid them under my pillow for later.
"But it's your favorite."
"I have to SELL THOSE. How many did you take?"
A tricky question.
"YOU TOOK MORE THAN ONE?"
I dropped the rejected offering and scrambled for my room, running through a mental inventory of my misdeed and hoping I hadn't left any more clues. I had a habit of stuffing wrappers and other scraps between the mattress and frame in my bed where I was certain no one would find them. It was my secret trash can, where bad things-- or evidence-- could be forgotten. I heard Haley's door slam, cursing, unintelligible noises. I tried to decide how long it would be before she forgave me, even talk to me again.
Two days. Tops.
Our rooms were right next to each other and I could hear her through the shared heating duct.
"Yeah, hey-- I'm-- oof, so pissed right now."
I shut my door and sat down next to the air vent, legs crossed.
"My little shit of a brother-- ugh-- he took some candy-- yes, those."
She was talking about me.
"Yeah-- I dunno-- he wouldn't tell me-- I guess."
I hoped Haley wasn't in trouble and decided if I could throw the candy back up whole and unmolested, I'd do it. She might even decide to let me keep one for being so adult about it.
"Just-- yeah-- I can't wait to get out of here, you know?"
But coming home to see us was all she talked about. Well, that one time.
"I just have to remind myself it will be over soon-- not soon enough, believe me."
I thought she missed us.
"I'll call Tuesday-- from the station-- ha, yeah-- I miss it too."
"Okay-- yeah, okay-- bye."
She hung up the phone and I got up quick, trying to make myself look busy. Moments later she opened my door, arm extended and palm up. Her face was a stone.
"I bought three tickets to see Santa. Bet you're excited, huh?"
I grinned like a fool; Dad always knew how to get me to do that. Things were better now with Rita gone. She took a plane to see her family for the holidays, but not before keeping me up all night making animal noises with Dad in their bedroom. She yelled a lot in Spanish, but none of the words I recognized from class. All this I filed away to process later, more concerned with seeing Haley and then Santa. I had to come up with something new to ask for Christmas since my first wish was already coming true. It was something I'd have to really think about, but could wait until after breakfast at Denny's. Pigs in a blanket took up all my concentration.
"I don't think I want to, now."
Mom and Dad and Haley stood with me in line behind a large woman and her equally large son with a rainbow ski hat. Every time he moved his head, the pom-pom bounced like a hand puppet and only made my apprehension worse. This was the first time I wasn't sure I wanted to tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas, but I guess there's a first time for everything. I was close enough to Haley she felt something weird too, but she was miles away, which left me on my own.
"Well, that's just tough. We've been in line for over an hour so you're going."
Mom was in no mood to suffer my acting the child. Lines weren't really her thing, especially with people crowded in close enough to share personal smells. The big kid in front of me smelled like Life Savers and butt, like he never wiped. Looking at him I wondered if he could even reach.
"Santa looks-- scary."
Dad gave my arm a reassuring squeeze.
"It's okay, son. He's probably just a little under the weather."
This was news to me.
"Santa gets sick?"
"When he's away from Mrs. Claus for too long, sure."
Dad winked and that's how I knew things would be okay. Mom made one of her unhappy sounds.
"Or a bottle."
"I think we should get soft pretzels afterwards."
Haley always knew how to appeal to the need for distraction. I was partial to the assortment of roasted nuts and chocolates at Woolworth's, but pretzels were a sensible alternative. Dad grunted his assent.
"Sounds good to me. You want a pretzel, Mom?"
Mom's eyes rolled over him like he sprouted a second head, but after a moment, something softened.
And we were one big, happy family again. Butt Kid went ahead and took his turn with Santa who, judging from the way he leaned to the side-- no doubt searching for fresh air-- smelled it too. His mother hovered nearby, trying to snap a picture with her Instamatic. This made no sense to me; she already paid for a picture from the elves. It’s how Santa could afford all the brussels sprouts to feed the reindeer. Didn’t she know anything?
In my consternation, I failed to realize it was my turn until Haley smacked my elbow and nodded toward Santa.
“You’re up, Fanato.”
I never did like that nickname.
“I don’t want to.”
I could tell Mom was on the verge of pissed, but that was nothing compared to the people behind us. They looked positively ready for murder. Haley was comforting in her own special way.
“C'mon, you're too big to eat.”
But this was Santa. He could do anything.
Like the snoopy dog.
I took a couple of steps before one of the elves, a short girl with brown hair and a mouth like a typewriter, intercepted and took my arm, guiding me. I tripped, but managed at the last second not to fall down. Then I was in front of Santa with his arms open wide, huge eyebrows and bright red Rudolph nose. His glasses looked like Grandpa’s.
“Ho ho ho.”
I wasn’t ready for this. Not then, not ever. Even so, I was resourceful, and in that moment of indecision, something came over me and I knew what I had to do. My mouth curled down, jaw slack, and I began to bawl my eyes out.
“Get that fucking kid outta there.”
It was one of the murderous line waiters, one of the angry mob. Dad looked ready to leave, Mom’s face a pickle. Only Haley seemed at ease; smiling, even.
“I’m on it.”
Haley moved with purpose and nudged me out of the way before sitting on Santa's knee, hands on her own, looking me square.
"C'mon. Tell Santa what you want so we can get outta here."
Feeling a little better, I took a seat opposite my sister and studied the pained face Santa made. He smelled funny, like the medicine cabinet; a cross between rubbing alcohol and band aids. The closer I got to him the stronger it was and I perched myself as far away as possible while still technically being on his knee. It was one of the requirements of getting what you wanted for Christmas, sitting there. Santa let out a sigh.
"What would either of you like for Christmas?"
Haley went first.
"A new pair of skis, a big tin full of gummi bears-- just the red ones-- and dinner with Madonna."
She seemed pretty proud of herself judging from her smile. She looked like Mom, except happy. Santa flashed one of his own: a brief, crooked thing. From being so close, I could see how dirty his glasses were.
"Uh huh. And what about you, little boy?"
I swallowed. It was the moment I'd been waiting for, secretly, an appeal to a higher power I could both see and feel. Santa could do magic; he was one of the good guys. Haley tugged my sleeve, speaking through tight lips.
"Just say it already."
I looked Santa in the eye and saw how bloodshot they were. Something lived in there, something not very Santa.
He grunted, bouncing his knee a couple of times and Haley started to get up, an apology. It was right there on the tip of my tongue, but the words kept slipping away, sliding back down my throat. Haley put her arms out, eyes somewhere else.
"I'll take him."
Santa let out a long sigh and nodded toward Haley, ready to turn me over to the proper authorities. I could hear Mom from where she waited in the wings with Dad.
"What's going on?"
That was it.
I grabbed Santa's collar, refusing to let go. Haley looked worried, but with her hand on sleeve, it was only a matter of time. Santa, on the other hand, looked like I was getting ready to bite, genuine fear in his eyes, sputtering obscenities through his frosty white beard.
"Just tell me what you want."
"NO. MORE. SNOOP--"
My head snapped back as Haley yanked me away, my demand cut short, and Santa looked relieved if a little worse for wear. He waved at Mom and Dad.
"Better keep a leash on that kid."
That got him the pickle face and Mom corralled me to her side, leaving Dad and Haley to retrieve the picture. When they brought it over, I saw Haley's big smile, showing all her teeth, and my eyes locked on Santa with a face like I was mid poop. I took the picture from Dad and studied it closer. I realized I wasn't looking at Santa, but something on his collar, a pin of some sort. It was small and white and partially obscured by his beard, but I knew what it was and why I didn't want to go up there. Dad tugged on my earlobe the way he did when he wanted my attention. It barely registered.
"Did you have fun with Santa?"
I looked first to Haley, her smile saying everything's fine, eyes telling me to keep quiet; then to Dad, who looked concerned. I held out the picture.
"Snoopy got him."
It got so I started to enjoy the time went spent together after everyone else was asleep, Uncle Meldrick and I. He always had the bottle with him, but he’d pour me a glass of milk so I didn’t feel left out. I even had the idea to get some cookies, which he obliged, and what was left of the bag sat on the table nearby. I was plenty hungry seeing as I failed to consume very much of my rather expensive dinner earlier in the evening.
It seemed Dad and Uncle Meldrick had a common interest in trying new and exotic places to eat. Mel suggested a Japanese steakhouse at the other end of town called Hibachi Tokyo. My only familiarity with Tokyo was through Saturday afternoon Godzilla movies, and the only Asian cuisine I’d tried was Chinese, but everyone thought it sounded good, even Rita, and the prospect of hidden adventure got the best of me. Mel sat in the back seat with me and he and Dad sang songs, some that Mel wrote, others from back when they played in the same band. They weren’t ones I knew so I just sat and listened while Rita make contented sounds.
We arrived just as it started to get dark, the parking lot about half full. Dad sounded cheerful when he pulled into a space.
“Looks like we picked the right time.”
We shuffled into the long hall ahead of the waiting area, replete with decoration ranging from jade statuettes to rice paper wall scrolls. It felt like a shrine it was so quiet, and for a moment I thought maybe we had the wrong place. The path at the end of the walkway split into two directions; one toward the bathrooms, the other where a hostess waited to seat us. She was a small woman, Asian, impeccably dressed. Her smile made me think of kewpie dolls.
There weren’t any open tables so we sat at the bar. After our drinks, they brought little wooden bowls of soup with things in them I didn’t recognize. There were soft chunks of something white and little curly green things I decided were snake tails. Whatever they were, everyone agreed they were tasty and I ate mine with such abandon I decided I had to hold the bowl to get a better angle with my spoon.
With incredible finesse, I managed to spill the entire bowl all over the bar. No one seemed upset by this, the waitress even laughed as she sopped it with a rag, but the damage was done and I was ready to put the evening behind me the only way I knew how: by burying my face in my arms and refusing to budge until everyone was done and ready to leave.
To my credit, I didn’t cry, but my embarrassment was such it wouldn’t have helped. I blocked out everything around me and waited, through the rest of the appetizer, more drinks, dinner and dessert. Dad came over and put his hand on my back to let me know it was time. I didn’t raise my face, watching the floor the entire way out and to the car. Even though we were leaving, I felt marginally better. It was an evening I wanted to remember for the fun we had in each other’s company, not my inability to keep from making a mess. Uncle Melrick was quiet when he climbed in the back seat next to me, a brown paper bag in his hand. Once we were on our way, I decided I was somewhat safe and gave Mel’s bag the eye. It was on the seat between us, and smelled fantastic. I nudged it with my elbow.
Uncle Meldrick leaned over, losing his customary half grin.
“That’s your din din.”
Sitting with him at the table, both stomachs sated on cookies and milk, it was like the Hibachi Tokyo fiasco never happened, a bad dream. As far as Uncle Meldrick was concerned, it was a non-issue. He was glad to have Dad and me and even Rita with him and that’s all that mattered. In some ways, he reminded me of me, and there were things in him I wanted to see in myself when I got to be his age. If I even did.
“We’ll go somewhere tomorrow and get you a burger.”
I nodded several times as Mel poured another drink. The bottle was almost empty, but I knew where he kept the others in the cupboard near the sink. He wouldn’t run out anytime soon.
“Why do you drink so much?”
It was an honest question, if lacking in manners. Uncle Meldrick didn’t seem upset, his eyebrows drifting high above the rims of his glasses, nudging the glass away from him with the back of his hand. His voice was scratchy.
“After your Aunt Jean left, I had a lot of time to myself. Some of it good, most of it not.”
I put my elbows on the table, cradling my chin in my palms.
“I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t like about myself. Jeannie saw them too, but they weren’t what made her have to go.”
He paused and I waited for him to continue, watching as his eyes lost focus and took on a far away quality. His lip sagged enough I could see his bottom teeth. Then his eyes found me and I saw something I felt I wasn’t meant to.
“Said I loved this bottle more than her. Maybe more’n myself.”
His eye quivered as he reached for the glass.
“Only ever been good for one woman.”
He tilted the glass toward me before knocking it back with one gulp.
“And she’s still here.”
His laugh sounded more like a hiccup and I extended my arm across the table, palm open. Uncle Mel gave it a glance before he looked me in the eye, a resigned smile, and placed his hand over mine. It was warm.
Mel shook his head, gritting his teeth, biting back laughter or tears I couldn’t tell. For some reason I knew I was the only person he ever told. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but I didn’t feel bad or scared so I figured it was okay. Uncle Meldrick squeezed my hand.
“It’s fine. Even big people have to learn.”
I nodded. It made sense. More than what happened next.
“I have something I wish would leave.”
Mel let out a laugh that wheezed and sputtered like boiled over pasta. I pulled my hand away before I realized he wasn’t choking.
“Rita’s not that bad.”
I shook my head.
“Uh uh. Worse.”
And I told him things. Things that made me scared, that made me lose sleep. Things I wanted, things that were taken away. Even the letter from Mrs Greer; parts of it, anyway. When I was done I was shaking and Uncle Meldrick got a flannel shirt from a hook near the door which he wrapped around my arms.
“That’s a, uhh-- quite a story.”
I looked at the floor.
“You don’t believe me.”
“I don’t have to. I see it in your face.”
“What do I do?”
Uncle Mel sat back down, pouring himself another drink.
“Tell an adult.”
“But what about--”
“If someone is hurting you, you need to tell your mom and dad, your teacher, a police man, even--”
He took a long drink, refusing to look me in the eye, bottom lip on the glass.
Hot Sam’s kept the pretzels warm so they stayed extra soft. Dad got his with mustard, Haley’s with fake cheddar cheese. Mom and I ate ours with just salt. It was Haley’s idea to share a pop.
“One large Dr, Pepper.”
There was a little too much syrup, the drink so sweet it made my teeth ache. But Haley asked for an extra cupful of ice and poured some in that one for me. It helped, and I smiled my thanks.
Dad decided we’d put the picture on the fridge when we got home, right under the advent calendar that counted down the days until Christmas. Today’s was a partridge in a pear tree, yesterday’s a toy train with a red bow on it. Neither left me excited. Dad seemed suddenly dissatisfied.
“What we should have done was get one of those family portraits done, like the ones from--”
I felt my ear pop, a steady whine fading in and out like those old sci fi movies. I tried to find the source, but everywhere I looked were people and kids and shopping bags overflowing. I rattled my finger around in there, even flexed my jaw, but nothing helped. I turned to Haley, about to ask if she heard it too when I saw him.
He was taller somehow, hair blonde as corn silk, with a bright blue winter jacket. There was a man with him: rangy, balding, on the verge of famine, with squirrely facial hair. His glasses were tinted, not like sunglasses, just darker than normal ones. I could see his eyes, like a pair of eight balls.
Damon walked straight toward me, the man just behind and to the left. His eyes were on mine, but I somehow knew he didn’t see me. He raised his arm, brushing loose hair from his face, and I noticed something strange about his hand. I looked closer, trying to figure it out, when it dawned on me.
It only had two fingers and a thumb. Even part of the palm was missing, which made it look like a cross between a hook and a flipper. Scar tissue formed a web of red and pink.
Gawking, I grabbing Haley's hand. The slender man turned his head, saying something I couldn’t hear, and as Damon passed, he looked right at me, smiling a toothless pit of rusty wire barbs, the leftover fingers of his ruined hand twitching the way frogs jumped.
Haley punched me in the arm and I spun around, mouth gaping.
“Not so hard you little turd.”
I turned to point at Damon and the weird tall man, to give them the first glimpse of my waking nightmare, but it was only more shopping bags in a sea of people and kids.
My teeth still ached.
"You're doing it wrong."
Haley took my end of the red, fuzzy garland and wove it into the branches of the Christmas tree, adding the illusion of depth and movement. I thought you just draped it over the ones that stuck out the furthest. Haley knew about things like beauty and design whereas my expertise centered on cartoons and junk food. She would make the tree pretty in spite of my help.
We had a lot in the way of decorations: strings of lights, tinsel, candy canes and ginger bread men and all kinds of ornaments; even an angel for on top of the tree. There was a pine branch garland that went across the mantle where we hung the stockings, red and green felt with our names on them. Dad strung the outside lights over the bushes in front earlier that week. Mom said they would be red and white only, but the ones on the tree inside could be every color we had.
"Can I hang the candy canes?"
I found a good spot for one, right in front, trying to visualize its majesty as I guided it into position, but Haley smacked my hand away.
"Those go on last. Before the angel."
I frowned and put it back with the others.
"Who wants hot chocolate?"
Dad just came from the kitchen through the swinging door, where Mom no doubt was hard at work baking thirteen kinds of cookies.
"The tree looks nice."
Haley took it personally since she did all the important work.
"Why don't you come help so your sister can finish."
"But I'm helping."
"Then you can help me. C'mon."
Haley stuck her tongue out at me; she was letting me know who's boss. I watched her butt the whole way into the kitchen, thinking about how much I'd like to kick it.
It was a couple of weeks since last I spent any time with Marcia. Being near her again made me realize what separation anxiety really felt like and I made sure to hold her hand while we walked across the parking lot. I had the feeling this was a pretty big deal since Mom was with us, too, though I wasn't sure why. I didn't really even know what we were doing, except that we were involved and it was happening tonight.
She and Mom talked for quite a while on the phone last night and I overheard just bits and pieces of the conversation since I was too busy playing in the bedroom. Whatever it was, Mom didn't seem too sure about it to hear her tone, but agreed. She drove since Marcia’s car seated just two.
The drive felt like forever, down twisty two lane roads overgrown with weeds and droopy trees. It was after dark when we arrived, the only lights from inside the building. Mom parked next to a station wagon with faux wood paneling. It made me think of the Vacation movie.
The room just inside the door was filled with coats and hats and gloves and boots of all sizes and colors. There was a narrow stairwell leading up and a short one down to a door with a sign stating it was for employees only. It had a small window that was blacked over, but I could see the light was on from one of the corners. Marcia placed her hand on my shoulder.
"Leave your shoes here."
We walked in our socks through a heavy metal door with no window down a short hallway into a large room filled with people. There was a small stage with a podium, a piano like the one at school off to one side. I saw men and women, old and young, fat and thin, kids my age and older and a couple that were just barely toddlers. The older woman at the piano reminded me of a bird with her oversized glasses and spindly features. Her smile was artificial.
"Welcome, everyone, welcome. So wonderful to see you here tonight."
Everyone stopped talking and turned to face the man on the stage. He was short, with a large stomach and matchstick legs. He was bald except for a strip of dark hair that started behind his ears and wrapped around the back of his head, tips curled up like pork rinds and just as greasy. His thin, wire-rimmed glasses gave him a Benjamin Franklin quality.
“I see we have some old faces and some new.”
His gaze fell on the little girl in a flower print dress a few feet from me. She was there with a man I assumed to be her father, his hands resting on her shoulders. She wore her hair in loose pigtails that hung down past her shoulders. She was probably half my age, with chubby cheeks and big eyes. She was still a baby.
I stood closer to Marcia than Mom, who was near the back of the congregation.
"So, let me ask everyone here tonight--"
The Fat Man spread his arms open wide, a smile spreading over his face like spilled soda. His head dipped forward, perspiration at his temples, and pinched his eyes shut tight as they could. His arms began to shake, then his big belly, followed by his shoulders and his head, shaking, shuddering, grinning teeth and gums and sweaty little glasses, greasy curls bobbing.
"-- who wants JESUS to COME INTO YOUR LIFE."
The piano exploded with something between George Strait and the Jeffersons theme, the Bird Lady banging away like a soul possessed.
"Who wants JESUS to be in your HEART."
Several people shouted "AMEN" and I felt myself backing away, bumping into Marcia, and she ruffled my hair, bending down to give me a kiss on the cheek. I looked for Mom, but there were too many people, all shouting and dancing and humming words to a tune I'd never heard. The Fat Man swayed back and forth, arms wide, face glistening.
"Who wants JESUS to LIFT UP YOUR SOUL."
Several people up front fell to their knees, wind up toys tottering toward the podium. There were several couples dancing together, the men behind the women, and while the women shook, the men raised their arms and lowered them and moved their hands over the women's legs and bellies and chests and they all cried out for Jesus and other things of that nature. It looked a lot like the couples on HBO who ended up having sex to me, but what did I know. Marcia was there, right with me, and Mom somewhere close. I was, by all accounts, safe.
So why didn't it feel that way?
Everyone began to sing some song about Jesus and the Divine Light. Bird Lady played for all she was worth, grinning like an idiot, while people danced by themselves or with each other, some with their eyes closed, some clapping, a couple of the moms and even an older sister holding the ones too little to dance on their own while they moved their hips back and forth. When the song was over, Marcia squeezed my shoulders, whispering in my ear.
"Didn't that feel good?"
Fat Man put his hands on the podium. Solemn. Overcome.
"And we are gathered here tonight on this seventeenth day of December nineteen and eighty- three exactly one WEEK before the birth of our Lord Jesus CHRIST."
People nodding, children looking bored.
"Christ the SAVIOR."
A few peppered amens.
"Christ the King."
Fat Man's chin dropped to his chest.
"Let us pray."
I closed one eye and used the other one to watch. I'd seen funerals on tv, and this was one of them. Fat Man was grinning when he finished.
"Show me the children of Christ our LORD."
The toddlers went first, then some older kids; the girl with the one too little to dance. A couple cried. Then Marcia nudged me forward and legs not my own, I began to approached the line formed in front of the stage. I stood between the big sister and the flower print girl, who gave me a tv star smile.
"Jesus loves me."
Mouth hemmed, I nodded. Why wouldn't he?
"Just as these young ones are gifts unto you, so are they gifts unto the Lord."
Fat Man's voice was but a whisper.
"The children, you see, I believe they are the future."
I looked for Mom in the crowd.
"We need to teach them well and-- let them lead the way."
I still couldn't find her. But Marcia was right there in front, riveted.
"We need to show them-- all the beauty they possess inside."
I felt someone's hand on my shoulder, something big and soft against my back.
"We need to-- give them a sense of pride."
Everyone was nodding, words on their lips; words I couldn't make out. Fat Man's belly rubbed against me and I felt bad inside. I wanted to run, but knew I'd never get far in socks on the waxed floor.
"Can you feel it? Can you feel the love?"
I looked at Big Sister. There was something weird about her: the way she stood, the clothes she wore, the way she was thin all over except for her stomach. The little boy she held looked just like her.
"Let us show the young ones here tonight what it is to know of love and divinity and Jesus son of the FATHER AMEN."
Marcia's statue smile was little comfort as I prayed it would be over soon.
Haley stroked my hair the way she used to, on the couch with my head in her lap. This time I was on the floor at her feet while she sat on the bed. There wasn't much left since Mom moved her things to the attic, and even though the floor was bare and most of the things that made it Haley's room gone, it felt pretty much the same.
The raindrops music box still hung on the wall by the door.
"Remember when I used to pull the string just to see you mad?"
Haley's hand stopped.
"Remember when you promised me you'd get rid of it?"
"I never promised to get rid of the--"
"Don't give me that."
"Well, I did."
I shrugged and scooted away from the bed, wrapping my arms around my knees.
"You did what you wanted."
"YOU never told me what would happen."
"I told you what wouldn't happen."
"It's not the same thing."
"Don't get smart with me."
I let out a sigh.
"Do we have to argue?"
"Only if you keep it up."
"But they're gone."
"Why do you care?"
I turned to look at her, face pale underneath all the hair.
"Marcia loved me."
"The only thing she loved is between your legs."
"I can do it again, you know."
"Screw it up, you mean?"
"NO. Fix it. Make it work. So I can have you back."
Haley's face wasn't convinced. I can’t say I was either.
Uncle Meldrick was just three shots into a new bottle when he brought out the playing cards. These weren’t brand new like the ones I was used to playing with, but old, worn, broken in. He shuffled them with skill and for a long time, splitting the deck several ways. I liked the way the cards sounded slapping together all fast. I used to make the same sound flipping through the unabridged dictionary at home, which usually got me yelled at.
Once he finished, Uncle Meldrick dealt all the cards between us and proceeded to arrange his cards in a stack face down. I mimicked him and once I was done, he took another drink.
“Ever play War?”
I made my why kind of question is that face. There wasn’t a kid my age who didn’t know how; Dad taught me once he got tired of playing Go Fish. While I didn’t play all that many games of cards, when it came to War, I could hold my own.
“Sure. Bunch of times.”
He slapped the first card down -- a ten of clubs. Mine was a two of hearts, and since he won, Uncle Meldrick took the cards and added them to his pile. He won the next two rounds without blinking.
“War isn’t just a game of chance.”
I slapped down a jack of diamonds. His was a seven.
“One of luck.”
Uncle Mel shook his head as he laid out another card. A king.
“It’s about knowing where your men are even when you can’t see them.”
I looked at my pile of cards, perhaps half the size of Uncle Mel’s. In all the times I’d played, I’d never really put that much thought into it. I really only paid enough attention to make sure I knew who won each round. Most of the time it took forever and I ended up bored; a few I even gave up before finishing.
“Think of the king as your general.”
I gave him a funny look.
“But that’s not the highest card. The ace is.”
“Aha. And it’s the ace’s job to protect the king.”
“It’s the only card that can beat him.”
I nodded to myself; it sort of made sense.
“If you want to win, you need to not only have all the aces, but know where they are.”
“But what if we each put down an ace and have to fight for it?”
He gave me a little smirk.
“Make sure you bring the right backup.”
Uncle Meldrick won that game in record time; the next two even faster. I quickly grew bored with losing and after the fourth game, I decided it was time to throw in the towel.
“I give up.”
Uncle Mel rubbed the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger.
“You give up you’re dead.”
“Life is a lot like War, Whisker. Sometimes you win, others you don’t. But you can do things that make sure you win more than you lose. Giving up doesn’t even enter into it. Giving up means you stop living.”
I considered this, looking Uncle Mel square.
“I haven’t given up.”
Uncle Meldrick screwed the cap back on the bottle and put it on the floor under the table.
“Neither have I.”
I sat by myself on Christmas Eve, alone in the bedroom, wanting desperately for it to be tomorrow morning and doing none of the things I had every one before. No building a fire in the fireplace nor sneaking just frosted cookies from the kitchen. I didn't beg to open just one present early as become tradition. There were no fights over what to watch with Mom, groans when Dad brought out his guitar to sing John Denver or any of my usual grade school antics. Instead, I waited, hoping what little magic was left in such a hallowed day would bring that which I most desired, make the impossible possible.
What was supposed to happen three days ago.
For some reason I didn't dare ask Mom why it hadn't happened. There was something about the way she moved around the house the past few days, the way she cleaned, the things she said, not to me, but just in general that gave me an impression it wasn't a subject she'd take easy. I even saw her crying in the bedroom with the door open but a crack, but I never asked what's wrong. That was Dad's job. When he was home.
So caught up was I in my reverie, I didn't see Mom in the doorway until she cleared her throat. It was a thing she did when she wanted someone's-- anyone's-- attention for as long as it took to look her way and wonder what's wrong. After that brief moment, it was gone; replaced with indifference. It was a game she played, so much and for so long it was akin to reflex; her way of saying she's here, should anyone still care. It was the most a sad woman could ask for help in a world where there was none to give; one tailored for a specific condition of misery, built of stuff stronger than brick or steel. It's a world I saw on an everyday basis, but the walls were still far enough away they blended in with the hills and the trees to the point they looked like they belonged. I'd spent half my life doing the same thing. I wondered how long it was for Mom.
"There's still some cookies out there."
She sat next to me on the bed, rubbing my back through my shirt. For once it wasn't perfunctory.
Second stomach lodged its protest with a gurgle.
"Well, they'll be there if you change your mind."
I nodded. It wouldn't be me changing it.
"She's not coming, is she?"
Mom inhaled long and slow, a drawn out, ominous thing I equated to that of dragons; the ones that preceded a face full of fire. Mom's words were small.
"Not this year."
Nor any other.
"What about Santa? Can't he bring her?"
"I don't think there's enough room in his sleigh."
"She could ride one of the reindeer."
A choked-up laugh from Mom quickly strangled.
We sat there quiet with the wind blowing outside for company. It gave me a chill.
"What about Dad?"
Mom's body tensed.
"He'll be here."
With that, she rose and headed out purposeful. A moment later she paused in the doorway, clearing her throat. Once I'd summoned up the guts, my voice cracked.
"I miss her."
Mom wouldn't look at me; looking at me meant it was true. She left without a word.
Haley's breath was the wind outside in my ear. Slender fingers through my hair left rivulets of ice down the back of my neck. It was how she showed me she still loved me, such a calculated despair. Bit by bit, piece by piece, the important parts inside me withered black, kissed their goodbyes, and I crawled inside the space they left behind where she draped me with a shroud of my skin. I felt her shushes shrivel my tears to stones, heard the windchime tinkle as they fell. I shuddered, from cold or grief I could not tell.
My words were sand.
Haley's came out pulverized.
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