‘Tis the season (I hate myself for saying that) of Christmas stories, and, like most people, I found myself sucked into the void of holly and tinsel and mutated little gremlins who disrespect the hallowed name of “elf”.
I entered a Christmas short story contest.
And ended up coming in first place.
So that’s a plus.
With Christmas right around the corner and for the sake of my raving fans (yes, that’s a joke — I’m not that narcissistic), I thought now would be a good time to share it. So here you go, people! Find a box of tissues and immerse yourself in what ended up being a lot more serious than I intended.
He would go in this time.
No more icicle fingers and soaking trousers as he knelt in the frigid snow, huddled as close as he dared to the window and the glow spilling from it like warm caramel. This time, he wouldn’t give in to cowardice. He would stand. He would walk to her door. And he would knock, as he’d always imagined himself knocking – tall, smiling, his mittened knuckles playing a drummer’s rhythm against the worn oak.
It was simple. Easy.
Still, a small flame of determination crackled inside his chest, so hot he almost – almost – gave in to it. His legs were already untangling from his long, ice-crusted trench-coat when a trickle of singing leaked through the frosty pane above his head. He ducked low again. Shivering, he pressed himself against the wall and stared out across the bleak, shadowy farmlands as the singing continued, like a solitary angel’s chorus separating his presence from the night.
Slowly, cautiously, he dared to lift his head again – dared to peer through the glass and into her pocket of warmth.
There she was. Sitting in their father’s chair, as she always had when snow draped the world in barren splendor: Arms wrapped around her legs, chin resting on knees, oversized sweater dribbling yarn across faded red socks. The crimson color tugged at his memory, unraveling the threads that wove their childhood together. What was it she’d once told him? All good things come in shades of red. Like cherries and valentines and Santa Claus.
He’d tried pointing out that swastikas and blood and Hell were red too, but she wouldn’t listen.
“Because of blood, swastikas were defeated,” she’d said with a thoughtful frown. “The same is true for Hell. I think that’s a wonderful thing for a color to symbolize, don’t you?”
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He ducked his head, as though his nostalgic happiness might radiate through the glass and turn her wistful eyes bitter. The dog-eared carol book lay open in her lap, but she didn’t sing anymore. She only fingered the pages as she stared at the tiny tree draped with tinsel and a string of colorful lights.
No presents decorated the threadbare strip of cloth beneath the evergreen trunk.
She sighed – such a tiny sound, but it slipped through the glass and lodged in his ears, rekindling his burning shame. The festive room, lit by the small fire in the hearth, was so empty. Where a mother ought to have been, there was only a dusty worktable and a half-knitted sock still waiting to be finished. (It would be waiting for infinity.) Where a father ought to be, there was only a shadow. A girl with thoughtful eyes now occupied his armchair.
And the brother? His presence had been replaced with a folded scrap of paper – a letter, still resting on the mantle where he’d carelessly left it all those years ago.
The girl shifted her legs, and the carol book closed with a soft rustling of pages. Hair swept over her shoulders – so long and straight, nothing like his own curly mop – and she went, as she did every year, to that place on the mantle where folded paper harbored promises of recklessness and frivolity.
He turned away before he could see her read it. Every year, it was the same. Every year, her trembling fingers unfolded that scrap of notebook paper, and every year, the tears fell as she read it. Every year, she dropped to her knees in the midst of this lonely Christmas paradise and said her prayers – prayers for the boy with the shy smile and mop of unruly hair, prayers for an orphan whose parents dwelt in a cold grave beyond the lonely farmhouse – prayers for a brother who’d left one day and never came home.
The fire blazed to life in his chest again, warming him from the inside out. He should stand. He should knock. He should go in, and put his present for her beneath the tree.
She shouldn’t be alone for Christmas.
And yet, as he dug into the deep pockets of his trench coat and fingered the gift he’d brought her – the strawberry-colored scarf purchased during an adventure in Egypt – his mind turned back to the years he’d spent alone, wandering the earth and giving in to boyish recklessness. A prodigal life, a life of sins and regrets and guilt. It wasn’t a life she would smile at, when he told her his story and the adventures that had kept him away all these years.
And when he stood, stepping away from her window on frigid feet, he didn’t go to the door. He draped the scarf across her windowsill, its scarlet folds like a pool of blood in the snow. It would look beautiful on her. Red – the color of all good things.
She was wrong.
He wished he could tell her so. Not all red was good; not the heathen idols of foreign lands, dripping in scarlet paint, or the diseased flush of a dying child’s face as she starved in an alley, or poisonous scorpions, or sunburn. The crimson fury of rebellion and a boy leaving home wasn’t good. Nor were the blotchy, puffy eyes of his sister, red-rimmed with tears.
“Blood overcame Hell,” she’d once said.
Maybe blood could overcome those things, too. He didn’t know.
The dark, snow-crusted fields beckoned him as he started back the way he had come, but even as he turned away, he caught one last glimpse of her through the frosty pane. She knelt in the middle of the floor, her eyes lifted to the small porcelain nativity scene on the mantle.
Prayed, as she did every year when he laid his crimson presents on her windowsill. And as his own glance moved to the mantle, he saw what he’d never taken the time to notice before:
The cross behind her nativity was painted crimson, too.
Before his quaking heart had time to rebel, he’d snatched his gift off the snowy sill and climbed the steps to her door. Snow gather in his coppery hair as he paused in the darkness. Mittened fingers trembled as they lifted toward the door. Lips twitched into the shy, earnest smile his sister had always loved as he breathed a prayer of mercy into the chilly Christmas sky.
Shame wouldn’t get the chance to stop him. Not this time.
Believe it or not, the original ending was a lot more tragic, but I figured Santa Claus would probably spit in my cereal if I kept it that way.
So yeah. Happy endings win the day.
Speaking of which, a dumptruck load of thanks and chocolate belong to Abby @When Words Fly for hosting her “Write Christmas” contest and choosing me as the speechless winner. I’m honored, love.
So talk to me, people! What do you think of the story? What’s your favorite part of Christmas? Has “Jingle Bells Rock” infected your brain yet? (I swear, if I hear that song playing in ONE. MORE. STORE. this week, you’re going to find a pile of charred elf flesh on my bedroom floor.)
On that pleasant note, I bid you farewell.