Originally published in Vigilantes of Love
Twilight Tales Books, 2003
“Christmas, The Hard Way” is a light fantasy tale that I originally printed as a short run holiday chapbook for family and friends. It was bought subsequently by a couple of magazines which folded without ever putting the story out, and ultimately, it first saw wide distribution in my 2nd fiction collection, Vigilantes of Love.
One by one the candles lit, flames flickering into existence without the aid of a spark. Will smiled and counted: 25. Perfect. He glanced down the hall to make sure nobody was coming and then smiled a devious grin. Why do it the hard way?
The strand of lights rose like a thin green knobby snake from the bag; a cobra of wire. Will pointed to the crowning branch of the blue spruce in the corner and the strand obeyed. It stretched across the room, its end still hidden in the storage bag, and began twining around the tree. On the third loop the plug sailed out of the bag and slapped the wall as it marked the wire’s last circle about the tree.
Will smiled in appreciation.
Yes. No point in getting stuck with pine needles and singed by matches. This was the way to set up Christmas. Flushed with ego, he didn’t note the shadow of his father against the wall until his second strand of lights was sailing around the evergreen. And then the tree began to turn – without his help. Slowly at first, matching the spiral of his snaking lights and preventing them from resting on the branches. Then faster, dislodging bulbs already placed. The tree’s motion was matched by a whirlwind that blew Will’s long blonde hair into his eyes, and his candle flames into oblivion. Seconds later, the wind and the tree were still, and Will’s work undone. Lights lay in tangled heaps on the floor, and the complicated network of candles hidden throughout the nooks and crannies of the great room were smoking in dark silence.
“Do it right, now,” a familiar voice grated. “Your aunt Ertie will be here soon.” His father’s heavy steps echoed cruelly through the ruined room as Will stared at the mess.
“Darn, darn, darn!” he hissed, stamping his foot in frustration. Why did they insist on doing things the hard way at Christmas? Wouldn’t it be more enjoyable to just get it done? And why did Ertie have to materialize every year? She was so damn annoying. Chatter, chatter, chatter – as if she had a clue what living in today’s world was like. If you called somebody gay, she still thought it meant they had a good sense of humor.
Will shook his head and picked up the nearest plug, shaking the stubborn lights apart one by one to detangle the strand. He’d be here for hours!
At last he found the end of the strand and dragged it to the tree. Stretching on his toes, he tossed it up over the highest branch of the Christmas tree. A needle poked him in the eye and he jerked back, dropping the lights which promptly slid off to the ground.
“Darnit!” he snapped aloud.
“It’s Christmas, boy, don’t swear.”
Will turned to the hallway. It framed a tiny ghost of a woman, all pale and white-haired. Her glasses perched high on a squat mug of a nose, and hands the color of foggy French vanilla ice cream clung to her barreled hips. Will bit his tongue and dutifully held his arms out for a chilly hug. He was careful not to clap his arms right through her; she got irritated when he did that.
“Hi Aunt Ertie, when did you get here?”
“When did you start swearing at Christmas?”
He laughed and she flitted away from the perfunctory embrace.
“What are you standing around for? Shouldn’t those lights be on the tree instead of the floor? Why aren’t the candles lit? You kids today. Lazy and slow.”
She winked at him and swooshed back down the hall. Sighing heavily, he turned and started putting up the Christmas decorations . . . for the third time.
He’d lit the candles – only burning his thumb once – and nearly finished the tree when Janice poked her head into the room.
“Still at it, poky? I finished the dining room a half hour ago!”
Without thinking, Will flicked his hand and across the room an ornament leapt from the decoration box to strike the wall behind his younger sister’s head.
She laughed and shook her head at the challenge.
“Uh uh. It’s Christmas. And I’m telling dad you used your power.”
“Darnit!” he yelled after her. “Who cares?”
Will bent over and plugged the last strand in, then flicked the wall switch to turn the tree on. Hundreds of colored lights – 500 in fact, he’d used five strands – blinked on. They shone red and blue and magenta and green and gold against the rich ocean hue of the tree. But the subdued beauty of their twinkling was lost on Will.
“Could be brighter,” he grumbled.
“Sure,” he murmured. “Could be brighter!”
He pulled the plug from the wall and touched two fingers to the copper prongs. “Light,” he said, and instead got noise.
The first strand of Christmas lights exploded from the excessive rush of power he’d unleashed in the wire, showering Will and the room in a mist of colored glass. He felt the bite of tiny barbs on his face and realized his error just as a yell swooped into the room.
* * * * *
ill slumped on the couch and stared at the squalling infant on his lap. He imagined a honey-coated pacifier and absently popped it into the child’s mouth when it appeared. “Why me?” he asked for the hundredth time today. He hated Christmas. Every year it was the same thing. The family sat down to dinner on the 19th of December and after dessert, his mother would place both palms on the table and say, “It’s time. Call your last wishes and then put away your powers. It’s Christmas week.”
“Couldn’t we wait until after the dishes are done?” he’d asked this year, and got a warning swat on the shoulder from dad.
“That would be missing the point!” his mother replied.
“Well, what is the point?” he’d responded, face turned in a petulant sneer.
“Christmas is a good time for everyone else, but we have to be miserable? Christmas weak – with an A?”
Dad had opened his mouth to speak and then, looking much like a gasping goldfish, closed it again.
Mom looked serious. “You think about the point, Will. You think about it while you’re doing the dishes. By hand.”
* * * * *
he nipple popped out of his baby brother’s mouth and Chris began to cry. “Damnit!” Will snorted. He stood, rocking Chris in his arms until the child quieted again. As much as he wished for the kid to shut up, there was no safe way to magic a baby into easing up on the volume. You had to stand up and walk and sing and rock. What a royal pain, he thought, and looked down at the drool-covered chin of his brother. The pink lips bubbled and then opened to let out a piercing, ascending cry.
“What do you want?” Will begged. “I can’t understand bellering. Why can’t you just tell me? Why do you gotta cry all the time?”
He was still pacing the room with the fidgeting baby when his family returned from their shopping foray into town.
“Gotcha some eggnog,” Janice chirped, dashing through the room and into the kitchen. Chris began to wail louder.
“You’ve got to learn to be gentler with him if you want him to settle,” mom said, dropping a brown bag to the floor and then taking the baby from his stiff arms. “You rock him slower, like this.”
Will saw how the child folded easily into her arms, how her body swayed easily, different from his bouncing, impatient movement. Why couldn’t he do that?
“And it’s no wonder he’s crying, Will. He’s wet!”
Mom went to change Chris and Will dropped defeatedly back to the couch. Snow was swirling past the living room window, a shadowy rain in the grey winter evening. Great, he thought dismally. I’ll spend Christmas morning shoveling the driveway. Why couldn’t it wait until after Christmas when he could clear the drive with a wish and a wink?
“Wouldn’t be right,” rasped a wheezy voice from the couch right beside him. Ertie had the annoying habit of simply being there at all the wrong moments. Will guessed she’d been quite the busybody in real life.
“Huh?” he asked, turning to find the piercing gaze of his ghostly aunt upon him.
“Wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t give up somethin'” she said. “You think Christ wanted to leave heaven? You think anybody wants to make a sacrifice? I tell you, when I was a girl, my sister Glennie was always puffing and strutting and getting all the boys. But do you think she got them on her own? Oh no. She tweaked herself with magic, ya know. Made ’em think they were licking a gorgeous girl’s ear. Meanwhile, I couldn’t get a guy for nothing. But did I fake it? Well, once or twice maybe…”
She winked at him, crow’s feet gripping and relaxing in a tide of ripples. “But I knew then what I’m telling you now. Wouldn’t be right to get what I wanted that way. Had to sacrifice and get my man on my own call. Because eventually, the glamour won’t hide who you are. The magic isn’t enough, is what I’m telling you, Will. Ask your aunt Glennie. Ask her why she was never married.”
The tiny woman eased herself upright. “I married twice, you know.”
“Twice,” she said again, as she faded from the room.
* * * * *
he church was already nearly full when they walked into the vestibule at 11:30. Midnight mass was another Christmas family tradition which Will had grown to hate. The main floor was abuzz with greetings and conversation. A dozen Christmas trees were scattered about the altar, interspersed with the green and red blossoms of poinsettias in gold-foiled pots. Pale blue lights wove a fairy dance amid pine boughs on the granite columns lining the main walkway. The muted strains of “Joy To The World” drifted from the organ at the front of the church to add to the chaotic hum.
A balding usher in a lime suit and red santa tie guided them to the balcony. “Main floor’s already packed, folks,” he apologized. Will was considering making the garish tie constrict of its own accord when he was swept away by the mob heading upstairs.
The family filed into a pew near the edge of the balcony, first mom and Chris, then Janice, Ertie, Dad and finally, Will. What a stupid waste of time, he thought, tapping his foot against the kneeler impatiently. As the priest began the mass, Will stared at the lights wound throughout the trees and columns down near the altar. After awhile, he began to reach out with his power to the lights, stopping the current here and there, putting out whole strands and then letting them blink back on. He glanced sideways to see if anyone was watching.
He picked out a handful of lights above the altar and began doing the wave in lights. He’d shut off one light for a second, then let it back on while knocking out the following color in the strand, and then move on to the next. Anyone watching would see a moving wave of lights in the midst of a series of unblinking strands. A miracle, he smiled. He was a miracle worker!
Will was thoroughly enjoying his cleverness when a hand gripped the back of his neck. His dad’s voice growled in his ear. “Keep it up, and I’ll pick you up by this,” he warned.
Will settled back for the homily.
* * * * *
hat’s gotten into you, Will? dad asked on the ride home. “Why do you insist on using your power at Christmastime?”
“I just don’t see the point,” he answered. “Why is Christmas any different than any other time?”
Mom broke in. “It’s a symbol, Will. God could have just said hey, you’re all saved – but instead, he brought salvation the hard way and became man.”
“So how do we know he was God?” Will countered. “Just cuz he could turn water into wine – hell, I can do that!”
The car became deathly silent, and Will realized he’d gone too far. Janice gave him moon eyes from the other side of the backseat. Ertie looked up at him as if in shock, and then stared into her lap. She looked ashamed of him. As if he cared what a prunefaced old ghost thought of him.
But if he didn’t, why did the look on her face make his chest hurt?
* * * * *
erry Christmas, dad said, raising a glass of eggnog high in the air. “Merry Christmas!” replied mom, and Janice, raising their glasses in answer. Will raised his and mouthed the words as well, but they didn’t echo warm in his heart as they always had in the past. Nothing felt right this year. It all seemed a sham. He exaggerated a yawn (which wasn’t too hard since it was long after 1 a.m.) and excused himself for bed. He could feel the eyes of his family following him as he left the kitchen. He knew what they were thinking. “What’s his problem? Why is he trying to ruin Christmas for everyone?”
“I’m not,” he answered the imagined voices. “I just am trying to find it for myself.”
He had just pulled the cool blankets up over his chest when the frizzy white hair of Aunt Ertie materialized next to his bed.
“Can I talk to ya, Will?”
He grunted assent.
Her hair glowed as she moved through the dark room, dipping as she eased herself down on the edge of the bed. He saw the faint shine of her eyes staring down at him and his toes curled. Why couldn’t she mind her own business?
“Because I worry about you, that’s why!” she answered.
“Stop doing that!” he warned. “I thought the whole point of this Christmas stuff is that we’re not supposed to use our powers.”
“Hard not to hear you when you’re broadcasting gloom and gripe at top volume, boy. Now tell me what it’s about. Or snap out of it. You decide. Because I ain’t leaving until this is settled. I’m not having you wake up in a black cloud on Christmas morning.”
Buzz off you old bag, he thought before he could stop himself.
“I might remind you that I will use my power again after Christmas is over,” she whispered. “Would you like to know what a late old bag’s powers can do to an insolent, weak mortal boy?”
Her teeth gleamed as she grinned at the thought.
“No,” he said sullenly. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just can’t get into Christmas this year. It all just seems so stupid. I mean, why should I do everything the hard way right at the time when there’s so many things to do? Why shouldn’t I magic everyone their presents – I could get them stuff they’d want, then. And . . . I don’t know, I just wonder if all this is just over some guy who was just like us. Not God at all. Just someone with a little power.”
Ertie stroked his cheek with a cool hand. “I’ll let you in on a secret, boy. Nobody knows the answer to that last question. But you know what?” She leaned closer. “It doesn’t matter.”
She grinned again. “Nope, not a bit. Because the magic of Christmas is hidden in your first two questions. And I’ll ask you this: what’s the point of spell-ing a present for someone who could magic up the same thing without you? There’s a reason your mom and dad make you put away your power at Christmas. If it doesn’t come from you the hard way, you won’t feel nothing at all.”
“Well, I got everyone really nice things this year and I bought them myself, I didn’t magic them. So why don’t I feel good about it?”
“I think you know the answer, boy. Where did the money come from to buy the presents? Did you go to work and sweat for it?”
He didn’t answer.
“Will, you make something for your family with your own two hands — you give something of yourself — and you’ll have that Christmas feeling you’re missing.”
“I can’t make anything.”
“Quit arguing and bellyaching. I’m telling you what you need to do. Either work for it or forget about it. You work for it and I might forget about the ‘old bag’ crack. Might. Just remember, Will – there’s no easy way out at Christmastime.”
She started to fade.
“There’s never enough sleep either.”
* * * * *
ill lay in bed for a long time after Ertie left the room. Maybe the old apparition had a point. Maybe he had been too lazy this year. But what could he give anybody now? It was too late to build or paint anything – which was how he usually made his holiday offerings. Of course, he did have a new set of pencils he’d been wanting to sketch with. But it was the middle of the night! There were only hours left before they opened presents. What could he draw that he could give to the whole family – because he sure couldn’t draw everybody individual things. What did everybody like?
He was already pulling his sketchpad from the closet and searching for his pencils before he decided upon the subject of this sketch. He peeked out into the hallway, making sure everyone had gone to bed. The house was still, dark. He tiptoed down the stairs and worked in the living room for over an hour, lit only by the multicolored glow of the Christmas tree lights. Then he went back upstairs, passed his room and slid softly across the floor of the back bedroom.
He found the barf-cute clown lamp on the dresser and flicked it on, tilting the shade to minimize its brightness. Then he climbed up on the changing table, took a long look at his drooling, rosy-cheeked baby brother and began to draw, pencils shading black and grey in the quiet, dim light of Christmas morning.
* * * * *
ill was bleary-eyed as the family gathered around the tree in the morning. But he was smiling. Sometime during the night his frustration and ennui over the holiday had lifted.
“Who’s going first?” dad asked as he sank into the couch. “I will,” Janice called and crawled under the bottom boughs of the tree, catching her candycane nightgown in the branches to expose her flowered underwear.
“Ahhh!” she cried and backed out, shaking the tree and knocking off an ornament in her hurry.
“Here, Will.” She handed him a small box and patted her nightgown back down around her legs. He yanked at a loose edge and tore the paper from the box. It said Carson Pirie Scott, but he knew it couldn’t be something from the mall. Anyway, it was too heavy for clothes. Will slid a fingernail across the edge of the lid to slit the tape, and flipped off the cover. The scent of fresh cut wood rose immediately from the open box, and he pulled out a smooth deep-grained wooden frame.
“Dad helped me make it,” Janice smiled at his own grin. “Remember when we were at the store yesterday? We stopped at Mr. Isner’s and used his special saw to make the edges. But I found the wood from a dead tree in the forest. I cut it and stripped off the bark and everything.”
“Thanks Janice,” Will said, his chest warming suddenly. “I think I have just the thing to put in it.”
He reached behind the tree and pulled out another box. “Mom, dad, this is for everyone. I had other presents under here for you guys, but it was just store stuff. I made this for the family last night.”
Mom and dad looked at him quizzically a moment, and then pulled the paper off together, with Janice huddled up against their legs at the couch to see. Dad pulled the lid from the box and then stared inside.
“Oh Will,” mom said, lifting the picture out. “It’s…wonderful!”
“This is the best thing you’ve drawn,” dad declared.
“Why are my eyes closed?” Janice asked, unimpressed.
“Because you were sleeping at four o’clock this morning,” he answered.
“Look Ertie,” mom said, holding the picture for the matriarchal ghost. Ertie stared at the picture a moment and grinned.
“You figured if you put an old bag at the top she wouldn’t turn you into a tree come tomorrow, eh boy?”
Will laughed and handed over his new frame. “Put it in here. I think it will fit.”
Janice helped, and in a minute, held up the result for all to admire. The family Christmas tree filled the majority of the frame, but beneath its branches lay baby Chris, wrapped in a blanket, hands clenched in tiny fists. Scattered throughout the tree were four ornaments, but they weren’t just globes. Etched upon their round surfaces were the tranquil, sleeping faces of mom, dad, Janice and Will. The angel atop the tree’s crown bore an unmistakable resemblance to a certain hazy Aunt.
“Understand now?” Ertie asked quietly, so only he could hear.
Janice pulled down an old picture from the living room wall to hang his new one. Will stifled a yawn with his fist, and stared at the tree. A rainbow of colors glittered softly against the blue-green boughs while snow flew past the window outside.
After some consideration, Will decided the Christmas tree lights were bright enough, after all.