Episode Five: Merry Christmas
This page was last updated: September 20, 2007
Episode Five of 'Steven's Story' an original story
Melissa J. Vivigatz

~ * ~
“Merry Christmas”

  “I’m on vacation!” David squealed as the car pulled out, and swear, if it was not twenty degrees F out there his head would be sticking out the window even if he wasn’t a dog.
  “Christ, kid, let me get completely out of the garage before you rupture my freaking eardrum, why don’t you?” I snorted; spun the wheel and pulled the beamer like a small Titanic out into a world of fog and icebergs. Only in the heart of the big city, the ‘fog’ was mix of steam from various grates and the trapped exhaust of dump-trucks; the burgs frozen slush covered trashcans and tipped over newspaper dispensers.
  And if you went ‘down town’ there might even be a body or two of the homeless as well to complete the merry scene.
  Man, I hate the city in winter.
  Early risers the both of us, it was seven in the morning, December nineteenth. First day of fucking ‘vacation’. Yeah-f’in’-whoo.
  “Sorry,” David said; caught my glance and, “Steven, I’m sorry—oops! Sor—” and he slapped both hands across his mouth trappingly.
  “So much for that agreement.” The kid just kept both hands over his mouth.
  Paused at a blinking light, I flipped my lighter and got the old pipe going; shifted gears and spoke around the stem, “Look, maybe we set the bar too high. Instead of not using that word for the next two weeks, lets go hour by hour, alright?” He nodded. “Great.”
  I cracked the window to let out the smoke of fine Virginia, the beamer’s heater going full, heated leather seats making up for the rest. Man, this car was groovy.
  “Yeah, kid?”
  “I’m sorry.” I whipped my eyes over in fury to give him what for and he gave me his elfin grin complete with wrinkled nose and I burst out laughing so hard I had to scrabble for my dropped pipe, smoldering tobacco flying everywhere.
  “Sorry!” he cried in meaning this time as tiny coals were hastily whipped away by both before my pants burst into flame.
  “Oh for Christ’s sake, cut it out!” I shook, still laughing as I used foot to smother the last bit of glowing cinders on the mat by the pedals.
  “Okay, I’ll try,” he said instead and we resumed the Titanic’s voyage, the Hindenburg’s fate avoided. Not bad considering we had only left the apartment five minutes ago.
  “It’s just, well, I have never been on vacation before.”
  “Mm-hmm.” Barely escaping with his life at age fourteen from an abusive home, doing what he had to to survive on the streets; libraries and his astounding mind only sanctuary. GED and the rest of it all on his own till he’d managed to graduate with honors from law school, and now currently worked as an intern at the same firm as myself, so, no, I could well imagine there had never been a moment’s ‘vacation’ for Little Davey.
  Well, at least I was able to take care of that for him as well, I thought in satisfaction.
  “What are you supposed to do on vacation?”
  “Any damn thing you want to.”
  “Yup. Except no cross country skiing this time for you. Doc said not to over-stress that hip joint for another half-month.”
  That one had me so furious I had to whip the car to the sidewalk so I could turn to him, “David, you were hit by a psychopath in fucking car! Can you get that through your damn, cracked head? You have nothing to be sorry about, got it?”
  “Yes. S-s...uh. Hum.” He glanced up from his blushing cringe in rueful helplessness.
  I tossed mental hands up and returned to the wheel, “Oh for crying out loud, why don’t I just get out and shoot myself in the head right now and get it over with?”
  “Steven, you made an agreement as well.”
  “So you shoot me then! Just make it look right or you’ll loose your inheritance. I’m good, kid, but not that good. Ha!”
  David flipped back his wayward lock of sandy-blond hair, anger in his blue eyes now, “I hate it when you say stuff like that. I really do. Steven, you have to stop.”
  Back into early morning winter traffic, “Not that superstitious crap again.”
  “It is not superstitious, it just makes sense. You keep saying stuff over and over and then the universe takes notice and it happens.”
  “Man, then I am fucked good already.” Sighs, if only. “Shit, maybe you should drive before a meteor beams me or something like in that movie last night. Would hate to be driving and take you with me my mistake. Hey,” I grinned, “you did make out your will last night, right? I mean, you are the one who insisted on coming long with me for vacation.”
  “You are really starting to piss me off, Steven.”
  “Well at least I still got that.” I glanced over, “So we going to start over and try again?”
  “Yes. I will stop apologizing for everything and you stop connecting everything with death.”
  “This is going to be a toughie,” I huffed wryly.
  He reached for the dash and Miles Davis rose from the speakers.
  “Groovy.” The kid cracked a grin, that one always...killed him. Shit.
  “Just let me know when you want more coffee.”
  “Will do, Co-Pilot Davey. Good to go for now though, thanks.”
  “Vacation,” he started again. “I still can’t believe you got me all that time off.” Permanently hired, yet still technically a work intern, David had been with the law firm under a year. New employees did not get two weeks off, no way and no how. Especially not several days early before Christmas.
  “Just be glad the old Doc is a returned-to-the-fold pipester. Notes of leave for the both of us. You did get hit by a car, kid, not to mention the rest of it. Only, he made sure to say if someone gets funny and tries to pull something later, come to him first no matter he is close to retirement. Used some jargon to make it sound good, delayed reactions and crap, but you know how it goes.”
  “I don’t want to get him in trouble,” he frowned worriedly.
  “You won’t. That salt can take care of himself,” I assured. After all, they didn’t call the grouchy ex-Navy man Doc ‘Ouch’ Samlin for nothing.
  “Steven, how are you feeling?”
  “Are you sure?”
  “Yep, I’m sure.” Migraines do to stress. Lots of stress, work and personal. I could have gotten a ticket of leave for long as I wanted, but there was David to consider. He would be catching some slack, yet he was a trooper and more, far too good at the job to ever risk loosing to another firm. At least in the eyes of most of the ones whom counted. No, we would be coming back together so I could protect him from the worst of it. Barring any road accidents or anything, of course. It was winter after all. All that ice and snow, why, even someone going for a walk alone in the woods might slip and break a leg or something, be unable to get back. Hell, no one could blame a guy for having an accident like that, right?
  Cut it out, Steven.
  “I hate to say it, yet I’ve the feeling it is going to be the Parkinson Files when we get back.” I lifted a hand to rub my temple, just the thought of those seemingly endless hours staring at the screen had my eyes cringe with idea of crawling up into my head and screaming.
  “I though you weren’t supposed to think about work when you were on vacation?”
  “Yeah. Well, takes a while for stuff to be put down. Besides, you are the one who brought it up first.”
  “Sorry. Oops!”
  “Ha! I win!” Liar.
  Of course I am a liar, I’m a god damn lawyer. Shoo...sue me. Shit!
  “This is going to be so cool,” David was saying in that carefree voice of his. (Oh, yes, there were many layers to Mr. David Markus Tyler. Sometimes he acted like a real kid, speech and emotions free, then other times it was the professional, well mannered young man who was destined to rise, listened more than spoke, yet when he did open his mouth it was direct, insightful and educated. Though more and more of late this looser side of him was coming to the fore. I think it was because he was relaxing, quite possibly for the first time in his life. Wary, oh yes, yet less need to be constantly on the edge twenty-four/seven just to literally survive. Maybe I was just blowing smoke rings, yet a small part of me said I had done well, was enabling him to catch up on some of the childhood which had been denied him. In his early twenties, yet David had one of those faces that would get him carded at a bar till he was my age at least.) “I am going to take a lot of pictures to show Kimber. I like the screenshots you can get on the web, but these are going to be mine. Trees and everything.” I nodded. “Did you mean that, Steven? About getting a real tree to decorate?”
  “Sure, kid, whatever you want. There’s a place on the property where we used to cut them. Must be overgrown as hell despite the people hired for upkeep, still, we should be able to cut off a top or something. Tell you truth, I am looking forwards to that. All of Aunt Lillian’s stuff is in the attic. Some fine memories there for me.”
  “How come you never brought them with you?”
  “Different styles. Didn’t fit in the apartment.”
  “I bet they would now.”
  I smiled around me relit pipe, thinking some of them might do at that. Only a couple of weeks since the kid had moved into the guest rooms, but even the little changes made throughout the main living areas were real fine. Becoming more a home instead of just a rest stop you slept at between work shifts.
  Yup, the updated Odd Couple, that’s us, kid. Except I think even Felix was too tight-assed to give the old grouch on the couch a hummer now and then. Man, I am so sick.
  Instead, because I had promised to try, “Hey, that is something we can do over vacation, hit some antique stores and stuff. Of course most of it will be junk, yet sometimes you get lucky.”
  “You could use some nice plant stands.”
  “We could use some nice plants stands, Felix. That thing Kimberly gave you is a monster.”
  “Yup. Too bad she gave it cooties.” A word learned from me. Apparently it now applied to everything from bimbo secretaries messing up computers lines with resulting glitches on down. The plant the girl had given him for a house warming present had had scales or something. No problem, David had taken care of it with dish soap. “Where do they keep them by the way? Girls and cooties I mean? Since they aren’t crabs. Even I know about them.”
  “I don’t know. Like I told you, kiddies get them from kissing each other. Kiddies and cooties rhyme, so maybe the gals keep them in their titties!”
  “No wonder Casey is huge. She’s like a black Dolly Pardon or something!”
  “Yup.” Sighs. Talk about a literal, fucking shame. Twenty-six and with pillows any man would be happy to be smothered by. Chocolate mound-joys a’plenty. A real cock-tease though was that pearly-grinned, Miss Casey. Words to bouncing body language right in your face. (Right and left of it. Oof.) “David, seriously, it is all an act? Not the black-stick she plays up, but the rest?”
  “Yup. She must have kissed a lot of girls.” He made a ‘heart shape’ with both his arms, elbows extended out and fingers of his hands meeting his sternum and moved from side to side within the confines of the seat belts. “You should see her go swimming. Looks like those duck-wing floats the kids use at the Y, only they are in the front. She once said she could sleep without fear of drowning and I believe it!”
  “Then Kimber said if she ever needed to sneak out of the house she knew right where to hide, only, her mother might accuse Casey of stealing the silverware if they popped out of her shirt any higher. The whole set could go down there!”
  “Jesus, David, stop it. I’m trying to drive straight here, not make a right turn signal!”
  “That’s funny!” he fell forwards with laughter, but quickly stopped, hand held to side of face. “Ouch.”
  “Your tooth or the cheek?” Both were well enough along in the healing process, but I always got worried fast when ever he complained about anything; felt rage whenever I thought of something bad happening to him. Poor David had had a lot of bad in his life, and when something was wrong like hurting, emotional or physical, he hid it. So a small utterance meant a lot...or at least that was the excuse I gave myself for the level of concern I felt.
  “Neither. I bit my tongue.”
  “Serves you right, teasing an old man like that,” I grunted in relief. At least the relief of ‘some’ things.
  “You’re not old,” he scoffed his usual and pushed his hair back. “But I have a better one. Something I read in one of Kimberly’s books about girls and cures for headaches. Even migraines.”
  “Dare I even ask?”
  “I don’t know if you can handle it.”
  “All right, lay it on me. Then I’ll have some coffee. One crotch scorching is enough for the morning.”
  “Okay, but I warned you. See this lady wrote a book, or more like a bunch of them. She’s like, really well known and popular, writes a lot about woman dealing with their own problems and alternative to drugs.”
  “Enough with the damn buildup already.”
  “All right, the lady said—and I really did read this—that if you feel a headache is coming on to plug in your vibrator and go for a happy joy ride!”
  “Jesus Christ! You’re kidding me?”
  “Nope. Has to do with muscles relaxing and increased blood flow around the temples. Nips the headache right in the bud.”
  “No wonder she’s popular.”
  “She sells a lot of books,” he agreed.
  “Huh,” I muttered a minute later.
  “What are you thinking?”
  “That you have a secret which may well put your life in danger if other women realized you read their book.”
  “How come?”
  “Because, David, it is a well know fact that headaches are the number one excuse that a woman gives to her guy for not having sex.”
  “Oh. Huh.” He thought about it. “So they are lying?”
  “Yes, David, they are lying.” My fingers gripped the steering wheel tighter, “And they don’t even make a show of it; will look you right in the eye and lie to your face.”
  “And you don’t say anything to them?”
  “No, just sort of get used to it I guess, and after a while there just isn’t any point. Maybe deep down you realize as well it is better not to know their real reason.”
  And then there was something far worse, like when they did great you eagerly after work, everything in life fine with no hint that there was something seriously wrong such as two year’s worth of constant, near daily betrayal...and they smiled right into your face when their body wrapped around yours.
  My left eye started to squint so I reached a hand into my coat and pulled out a one of the several little plastic bottles kept there and popped the lid with practiced thumb for a couple of aspirin. “Hey, pour me some coffee there, will you?”
  “I think you are only supposed to take six in a twenty-four hour period. People die from taking too many aspirin every year, you know.”
  “They do?” I asked as I crunched four of them down. “Groovy.”
  “Leave me alone or the flask will come out and you’ll be the one driving. The roads are a little icy and even I know better than that.”
  “I thought you left that home?” he frowned as the spill-resistant thermos cup was passed over.
  “Nope.” Sip. Damn, he might not drink it, but David sure made a hell of a good brew. “Come on, kid, leave me something, because I did leave a worse item at home.”
  “You did?” he said, face relaxing in relief. He had not said anything, but it was clear he thought I had brought The DVD with me.
  The one my wife—ex-wife—had left me with on purpose. Explicit proof of infidelity made during several sessions in different areas of our home, the lying whore.
  Talk about confident. She left that in the DVD player while going through a divorce with a lawyer! (Yeah, confident alright. She knew you would never show it to anyone else, you pathetic wimp.)
  “Yup. Swear on my soul.” Softer, “David, I am going to try.”
  “I know, Steven. And I just want to thank you again for letting me come on vacation with you. It is the best present I ever received.” (Because he knew I had not been planning to come back. Me and my damn mouth.) “Well, that and my pipe. I wish I had it with me.” His turn for face to go tight with memory.
  “Don’t worry about that either. Guy said he’d have it fixed by mid-January the latest. Till then you’ll just have to settle for being Strider.”
  “Can do,” he said with a smile and pulled out his long-stem.
  “Man, I better watch the road carefully. Get hit with an airbag and you’d probably swallow it.”
  “Then I’m glad more than ever that you are the one driving. I don’t think I can handle that on top of the eggshells.”
  “Hey, lay off my cooking,” I winced ruefully. “Besides, the extra calcium is good for broken bones.”
  “My cheek is fine, it’s my teeth I’m worried about. —I am just joking, Steven, I don’t think there was a single piece of shell in the omelet.”
  “Really truly.”
  “It was a coffee bean.”
  “Shit,” I flushed. “How the hell did a coffee bean get in there?”
  “I don’t want to know. But if that was an subconscious attempt to get me to learn to like the stuff it didn’t work at all.”
  “Sorry, David. The bag in the fridge must have had a hole it in. I just dumped in the leftover chicken from making the sandwiches without looking. Hey, was that a cool bean?” He laughed and I grinned. His expression, one we were both at a loss to discover the origin of.
  Not bad enough I turn eggs into shrapnel, now I’ve got to watch our for coffee beans as well.
  Ah well, what can you do, right?

  Reached the edge of the city, god be praised, and David was turned around and clicking the shutter of his new digital camera; the one we called ‘mine’ though I had no interest in it.
  “I thought you wanted trees?”
  “This is the start of the trip. Sort of like proof of leaving. I won’t be taking any as we come back, because I don’t think I will like looking at them as much, even if the angle is better.”
  As usual, that made sense to me.
  “Not that I don’t want to come home,” he added quickly, “Only, I want to be able to remember this trip really well.”
  “Got plenty of memory cards so let her rip. Think you can take a couple of the house for me? Be great to have that on my screen.”
  “Sure! I really can’t wait to see the place you grew up in.”
  “Me either. Fifteen years, man, I still can’t believe it has been that long... David, I am not prying or anything, yet it is not that much farther to Vermont from where we’re headed...?”
  “No,” he said with adult finality.
  “Works for me.” Not that I had any idea the kid was looking to be reunited with his father, yet as old Doc Samlin had said, those statue of limitations were a bitch. What the x-rays had revealed had had the old codger wishing he was years younger so he could visit the beating son of a bitch himself. From the description of things, even if I was in ballpark age with the asshole I imagined I could do a fairly decent job of payback. (Racquetball did keep you fit.) Not that I had ever been a violent man in any sense, was a pathetic wimp, actually. Still, people change, and after the year I had had, things bottled up, I had feeling if there were ever a need to help the kid, I’d manage really well.
  “What are you smiling about?”
  I was ‘smiling’ about a psychopath with a David-dented car and ‘buddies’ last seen being tossed in a grimy-iced dumpster with rats, yet I wasn’t about to bring that topic up. Kid still had nightmares after all. I knew, I had heard.
  Had held his bandaged hand when he was still drugged to the nines after the emergency room in this very car, the young man trying to get the imaginary, hungry rats off of him while he still had hands left to do it with.
  No more worries, kid, I’m on the case now. Just leave it all to me, you’re going to be just fine.
  And if that asshole had managed to be discovered in the dumpster before the crunching dump truck came along without learning his lesson about leaving the kid alone, then I knew a certain street gorilla who’d grinningly give him another. And another, for as long as it took. Cheap, too. Sarge Brick figured every job he got was only worth a twenty.
  I had a lot of twenties.
  “Oh, just random stuff. Unlike the sleet and crap we’ve been getting back there, they had some snow a few days ago where we’re aimed for. Going to be sunny for a couple of days, but the weather guy was saying we might get a good foot or two in a few. We timed this perfectly. Hey, did I mention there was a fireplace? A working one?”
  “There is? Wow.”
  “Mm-hmm. More trouble then they are worth, but you forget all about drafts and chasing squirrels and bats out when you see that stack of logs burn as the snow comes down outside the windows. The house is old, but back when it was built they did things right. Of course baseboard heating was put in, electric stove and all that, yet even when the power didn’t go out Aunt Lillian put some things on now and then. Mulled cider over a real fire, David, nothing else like it in the world.”
  “I’ve never made that before.”
  “Me either. Ah well.”
  “I can’t see as it could be all that hard though.”
  “Maybe not, think it’s a matter of tossing in cinnamon and some other things, only the way she made it, man. Not store bought, one of the neighbors had an orchard and every fall we would stop by his farm and pick up the cider direct from the source. She added fresh apples as well, made large batches. Between that always simmering and the smell of a fresh cut balsam, it’s no wonder that was my favorite time of year.
  “Wish you could have met her, David. I really do.”
  “So do I. Every time you talk about her...well, she seemed really special.”
  “That she was, kid. Again, I should have known.”
  “About what?”
  “Sheila didn’t like her at all. As for Aunt Lillian, she never said a thing; was of a mind that people should be allowed to make their own choices in life. Ah, David, I was such a fool.”
  “I think your Aunt is still taking care of you.”
  “She’s been dead for fifteen years, David. Don’t try telling me you believe in ghosts, too?” I scoffed.
  “No, what I mean is just by thinking of her you were able to say that aloud without your head starting to hurt.”
  “You also told me that no matter the bitch wanted you to sell your house you kept it, even when it was hard to do so. And now it is there waiting for you when you need it most. That’s why I say your aunt is still taking care of you, and that maybe you aren’t as much of a fool as you think.”
  “How old are you again?” I asked, hardly the first time since I’d met him.
  “Not too old to ask if we can get some marshmallows when we go to the store to buy spices? For the fireplace I mean?”
  “It’s a deal.”
  “Great! I’m going to take pictures of that as well. Kimber is going to get real jealous then. She kicked me last time.”
  “What? Oh, kid, what did you say to the girl this time?”
  “Nothing much, only that if she didn’t stop hogging the gravy she was going to have to wear a one-piece on her vacation or else people would mistake her for a roasted turkey on the beach.”
  “And you call me suicidal? Damn, kid!”
  “It was her fault, she needed a soup bowl instead of a plate the way she was going at it.”
  Even if it was really bad news, part of me asked hopefully, “David, you two kids were just meditating together in your room that time, right?”
  “I told you we were. Geesh, Steven, come on,” he snorted in disgust.
  Ah well, so much for that little blond button ‘straightening’ the kid out. What a shame, they’d make a fine looking family. Blond and blond with laughing children to match. A relationship with foundation of friendship and mutual support, they would last the course.
  Ah well.
  “Just saying.”
  “Well speak for yourself. I told you she was friends with Casey.”
  “No fucking way! Little Kimberly?”
  “Yup,” he nodded firmly.
  “Man, no wonder she gives her mother fits all the time.” And here I thought it was because Casey was black! (Apparently the girl’s mother was a real, nose-high, ‘upper’-class, snob.)
  But little Kimberly? That month-shy of twenty year old, chipper little button who was always giggling and stomping her tiny foot in anger when she wasn’t kicking David for his mouth? My god, what the hell was going on with this world? Seemed like every time I turned around someone was jumping out of a closet, for Christ’s sake.
  Then again, my best (only) friend was David.
  God help me.
  “Hey, is that why they call them cooters?”
  “Bite your tongue again,” I laughed. “And it is hooters.”
  “I know, I was just joking. Why though?”
  “Probably because when a babe like Casey juggles by a guy’s eyes go wide as an owl’s. Some are even known to go ‘woo-hoo’!” Or in my case, Yowza, mama!
  So there, I am not a queer. Only, Casey was a lesbian...god, the tragedy of it all.
  “Well, that makes sense at least. Better than ‘cool beans’.”
  “Try ‘wavy gravy’.”
  “No thanks. Means they added too much flour. I hate lumpy gravy.”
  “Speaking of, what do you want for the holiday dinner?” Amongst other things, the kid was a chef; said he learned it while living above, as well as working in a restaurant for a couple of years.
  “Christmas dinner, you mean?” He nodded. “Haven’t thought about it.”
  “What did your aunt make?”
  “Goose, of course.”
  “Well that’s what we’ll have. Again, I’ve never cooked one, but I can try.”
  “I note you didn’t say ‘we’ there.”
  “There were eggshells. Crap, I am hopeless.”
  “Not that time, Steven. Just the bean.”
  “I think I’m cursed.”
  “Not while I’m on the case.”
  “What do you mean? Brought some weeds with you?”
  A shrug, “Just some white sage. I won’t burn any in the house though, just outside.”
  “Nah, do what you want, kid. It wasn’t that bad, just different.”
  He was blushing a bit, “I brought a couple of other things as well. Some of the frankincense and stuff you gave me.”
  “Just in time for Christmas. I never figured out how they use it though. In church, I mean.”
  “You burn it on charcoal. It is a sort of dried sap which melts for the smell.”
  “Too bad. I don’t think you are going to find briquettes at the grocery store this time of year.”
  “Geesh, Steven, you have a lot to learn.”
  “Old dogs and new tricks, kid. So, you going to come to mass with me?”
  “If you want me to,” he said, but his smile didn’t look too convincing.
  “It’s more than just some guy yakking at you up on ‘stage’, David.”
  “I said I’d go. Fair is fair, you let me burn my weeds in the apartment and in your house after all.”
  “David, I swear there are times I do not understand you at all.”
  “I know, but you’re young yet,” the half-my-age scamp said and wrinkled his nose with a grin. What a the little elf.

  Not quite a foot of snow had fallen in the area, but the service had plowed the long driveway so the beamer made it fine, David leaning forwards on the dash looking in excitement as we pulled up stopped before the house.
  “Wow. Steven, it is...it is just so great!”
  “Yup.” Over seven hours to get here due to some of the road conditions and fact I had to study maps. Fifteen years was a long time, memory only granting so much even without all the ‘progress’ changes that had happened during the interim.
  I was not the first out of the car (not that old, my aching ass) and it was a lot of stretching and yawns, shakes of legs, before I left side of the clicking car and went up the walk with keys jingling.
  Saying as I worked the lock, “The main part of the house should be all set, had the service come in and get things ready. Probably have to do some dusting in the side rooms, pulls sheets off of stuff, but at least it won’t be too bad.”
  “I don’t care. Come on, already!”
  “Hang on, the thing is cold.” Click. “I got it,” and swung opened the door to memory. Man, I was home. “Just let me turn the thermostat up and then I’ll start bringing stuff in. Have fun exploring, just don’t get eaten by a ravenous dust bunny.”
  “Steven, my leg is fine, really.”
  “The way you’re bouncing about I can tell. Still, you don’t want to risk a fall so soon.”
  “It was just a bad bruise and that was weeks ago. My hip is fine, my leg is fine and the rest of me is fine, too.”
  “Suit yourself. I’ll show you where the kitchen is and you can start bringing in the groceries. I’ll get the clothes and stuff and bring them into the living room. You have your pick of four different bedrooms.”
  “Cool beans.”
  “Maybe that is what it means, because it is going to take a while for the other rooms to heat up. Thought why a pair of frozen ones is used to convey something you like...man, I just don’t want to know!”
  So we unpacked the car (we’d have to do more grocery shopping later, these were just the basic staples) brought in clothes and new sheets in case any mice had gotten into the storage boxes.
  The folks who kept watch of the place had done a good job of cleaning the front rooms, thing they came in to do every two years anyway, and the rest weren’t too horrible either. David just picked the first room we walked into and started pulling off tarps while I checked that the washer and dryers had been plugged in and the hoses weren’t rotted away. They were fine; minor maintenances like this and keeping the chimneys clear were in the contract, same as repainting shutters and a new roof put on five years back.
  All right, a few things had received a little nibbling, yet the quilts had been well sealed, storage bags compressed in plastic tubs and nothing came loose in the washing. Handmade by family members who expected these things to be around for generations to come. Too bad I was the end of the line.
  Awe, Shell, why? What was wrong with me that I wasn’t good enough for you? Told me you did not want children, ever...and then had called me on my forty-first birthday, demanding the trust funds I had set aside in case she ever did changed her mind, because her and the guy she had left me for were expecting.
  Of course I had said no.
  “That’s your problem, Steven, you don’t do anything—for anybody! Not in any way!”
  “Leave me alone, Shell,” I whispered uselessly. No, it was no use, even knowing the truth, I just could not let her go.
  Worse, when it came time to unwrap my old room (thing I wanted to do alone) there was a framed photo on the dresser that I had forgotten all about till seeing it. The two of us before we had gotten married.
  I sat on the bed, a four-poster, with it in held my hands. “My god, we were just kids. Hell, I’m younger than David in this thing...” I muttered as I ran a thumb across the glass. Smiling away, the both of us, arms about the other. Green eyes matching due to a little Irish in both our lines down the way. Wave to both our hair except mine was black and only curled when wet. Same height, (her long legs were to die for,) same first letter names...we were a match made from day one and had known it.
  What happened to these people? When did the jokes I was always cracking stop making this girl burst out in giggles and punch my arm to stop? When did her eyes change? Loose that innocent spirit and go hard with cold calculation?
  When had I started to bore her?
  Oh, Shell, honey, what did I do wrong? “I tried, Shell, I really did. You wanted something and I saw you had it. Yes, I had to work long hours and you complained sometimes, but never about the shopping you loved to do; dinners out every night, parties you catered in the apartment which was mostly yours.” I was New England country and she had been from Boston. Not an affluent family or anything, yet she loved trendy modern and fashionable chic over antiques made with purposeful thought and skill to last the ages.
  I should take one of the guest rooms myself. Yes, this is my place completely here, but... Only one I had ever had in this bed was her. This one in the photo, the smiling girl who could have been a model gracing any of the top magazines...if it hadn’t been more work than glamour.
  What a body...more, just look at that hair. (Only thing that had not changed no matter the years and life lived between was her hair. Long, amber with flowing curls to bury your face in.) God, how my fingers ached to touch it; feel that silk wrap around them...
  Don’t do it, Steven.
  “Shut up,” I snarled and turned the frame over; the small plastic bag’s tape coming off dry and brittle where it had held one of those locks in wait. I should wait, I really should. But I didn’t, and opening the bag took it out to touch.
  Brought it up to my nose and inhaled, hoping...nothing. No more smell of sunlight and delicate spring flowers, nothing left at all except color and meaningless texture.
  Everything inside is gone, Shell. Shells. Yes, Sheila, that is what we both are now, only you aren’t a hollow one left on the shore, the living thing inside dead and gone; an hard exterior, gutted and empty.
  Shit, my head hurts...
  This was going to be one of the bad ones, I could tell. No aspirin for this baby, nope, it was out with the prescription, dry swallowed and then lie back on the stripped bed, arm over my eyes and teeth gritted to wait it out for a couple hours.
  At least I had managed to shove the picture under the mattress before the kid came looking, calling down the hallway if I needed any help or wanted some coffee or anything.
  Pretend I am asleep and he’ll just go away.
  “Hey, Ste...oh,” I heard him finish softly.
  That’s right, kid, the old man is catching a few Z’s after the long drive. Just go away and play.
  Except the little shit didn’t do that, oh no, not David. Tiptoed in and started taking off my shoes, placing them on the side of the bed. Left and came back quiet as he could with one of the quilts fresh from the dryer to cover me up, only when he was leaning over to get the heavy thing across the other side things jarred and a whimper of pain escaped despite myself.
  “Steven? Are you awake?” he asked the question very, very, quietly while cymbals crashed in my ears and blood sloshed.
  Yup, I’m snoring away here, kid. Just riding along with the old sandman, the jackhammers just about finishing their way through the skull before they start looking for oil in my spine.
  David, please, for the love of God, just go away.
  Hateful, pathetic moue when fingers brushed top of my head, then it was tears for mixed reasons when he sat down and, carefully as he could, lifted my head so it would be on his lap and the massage began, the only thing which ever stopped the agony.
  Only thing that Shell had ever helped with. Just simple stress headaches from work back then, not these plaguing curses that had you begging for a bullet...or cursing the fact you couldn’t see to work the phone and promise her anything—everything—if she would just come over to help you.
  It was half gratitude and half hatred that I still felt for David, for that time he had refused to make the call for me.
  Only, something special happened that time, you know it did, Steven. Something special for you both. Something comforting.
  Yes, I do know...and I hate myself all the more for it. Never again though. Could not allow it. No, I would not fall into that awaiting trap created by my own psychological fucked-uppedness.
  You are poison, Steven Joseph Hanscom. Everything you touch turns to shit. Something you did—did not do—for that girl in the photo. Failed somewhere, could not give Shell what she really wanted. You loved her and you still failed. Person like you deserve everything you get, Steven, so be a man and suck it up. This pain is your punishment, your penance. You are evil and sick and  nothing is hidden from the One watching above.
  You almost destroyed this young man once, Steven. Do not make it worse. Let him have his vacation, and then have your accident. Do something right for someone else for once, not something wrong.
  Stop this before you make things worse.
  Tried to get up, at least lift my head—hissed as bolt of agony returned sharp and sudden...failure again as body itself betrayed me; jaws clenching and prayed something would give, crack and let my brains leak out, just get it over with...just anything else except this helpless giving in as head was eased back into place.
  “Relax, Steven,” David whispered as hands worked around the base where top of spine was met. After a while eased my trembling arm down so he could get the sinuses and temples. Air; able to breathe again without iron spikes following every breath.
  Heaven...and hell.
  Yes, relaxed completely as the pain faded, whole body grateful with shoulders loosing last bit of tension as two hands’ worth of fingers continued working on top of my head.
  “Why didn’t you call me?” he chastised softly.
  “As someone I know is so fond of saying: I can take care of myself.”
  “Uh-huh. Too bad you aren’t a girl.”
  “No, David, it is too bad you aren’t.”
  The hands stopped and I closed my eyes again. Shit.
  “Steven...you mean that?”
  He deserved the truth, “Yes. I’m sorry, kid. I wish things were different, but they’re not.”
  “I am sorry, too...because being what I am I can not help you with what you really need, which is not to be alone all the time. I hate that over everything else, Steven, that look in your eyes that says even when there are people all around you, you are alone.” Hitched intake of breath, “You told me you don’t want me in your life and I understand, I really do, only, this is the first time I ever wished I had been born a woman, because you need someone, even briefly, to help you heal...but I wasn’t and I can’t. I’m sorry, Steven.”
  “David, don’t say that.” Oh god, David, you insightful little angel, please, just shut up.
  “But it’s true! It wasn’t my fault, Steven. I didn’t mean to be born wrong and I’m sorry.”
  “David, for god’s sake, stop it. You were not born wrong.”
  “You don’t believe that. I know you don’t.”
  “Then here’s where you are wrong, kid, because no matter the rest—meaning the stuff that I, the Christian, son of a bitch, bigot, can’t deal with—you were born exactly as you were meant to be and there is nothing wrong and nothing to be sorry about. You are a damn fine human being, David Tyler, and I wish to god there were a lot more like you around because this world would be a much better place if there were.”
  “Thank you, Steven.”
  “No, thank you, David. Thank you, and please forgive me because I am the one who is so god damn sorry.” There, I had said it. Said all of it...and still felt like shit. Upset, angry, disgusted and in turmoil because I was so screwed up that I truly meant every word. Fact that this young man was the only thing I cared about, the only human being who mitigated anything, the loneliness, the lack of companionship, and had given me a task, an purpose, a reason to hang onto this thing called life for even this long.
  Only, David, it is not enough. I’ll try as long as I can, only brought you with me because if I hadn’t you would have lost yourself. Had said with all truth that when I went out the door so would he, just walk away with nothing but the clothes on his back; lesson well learned from the old man that life was shit, there was no reason to fight to hold onto anything so why bother to struggle anymore? Why laugh or smile or wish to achieve anything? There was no point, knowing only that no matter what you did or tried to hold onto, everything you had, anything cared about, would be taken away from you and there was nothing you could do about it.
  So I will try, David, only do not give up hope when an accident does happen. It won’t be your fault kid, not your failure, only a ‘natural’ fact of life.
  David, my friend, please forgive me, there is nothing left to heal. Please, kid, let me go.
  “I guess the Tara is working.”
  “Huh?” I asked, blinking up at him as he sniffled away the last of his tears.
  Oh, David. God damn me over and over because I am so, fucking, sorry!
  “The Tara, the green one. I mean because you said that, fact that no matter what you were taught and feel, you still also feel that I am not wrong because of who I am. That’s really, really, rare, Steven.”
  “You lost me, kid. I bought that little statue for the mini herb garden in the kitchen, which I still haven’t started. Green for plants, right?”
  “Nope. Green Tara brings enlightenment of the spirit.”
  “That too, eh? She’s a pretty busy lady, that topless gal.”
  “Maybe she just focuses on those who help themselves?”
  “Don’t push it, kid,” I snorted as he grinned. Then more seriously, “David, you really do not want to go to church with me, do you?”
  “No, but I will because you want me too.”
  “It only means anything if you are the one who wants to go, David. But I am not going to be upset if you choose not to, I give you my word.
  “You know, sometimes I get the feeling you are laughing at me a little, because I choose to go to that ‘building’ as you call it instead of connect with things inside wherever I am.” Because David had said since God made everything, including us, it was a stupid concept that people thought they could only go to a building for such communion. That they thought they needed someone else, someone ‘better’ than them to speak, and listen, to God.
  He shook his head, just as serious, “Not at all, Steven. I think you should keep going and find whatever you can there. I really mean it, because that is who you are.”
  “Even if it makes me a bigot,” I snorted.
  “Actually, I don’t think that is what it is about. I am not an expert, yet I think being a Christian has a lot more to do with other things than that. Lots of really fine stuff, only the guys up on stage forgot something important.”
  “Like what?” I asked, fascinated.
  “That there is more to God than one book that’s been re-written over and over by people who weren’t even there. That opinions where made by those same people, and not all of them were the type to be listened to, yet they were and believed.”
  “Tell me, kid, how did you get to be so smart?”
  He just smiled, “I read a lot of books...and then I thought about it and looked inside.”
  “Said it before and I’ll say it again. If you are the Second Coming I am so messed up.”
  “Don’t worry, I’m not. I’m just me.” He looked down, question in his blue with green fleck eyes, “Steven?”
  “No, David. Thank you, though, I am fine. I am, I mean it. Besides, we still have a lot to do around the house today, not to mention head into town for more groceries and stuff.”
  “Okay. Just remember what I told you, Steven, because I meant it as well.”
  “I know you did, David. Thank you. Now, I think I would like to catch a quick nap. Just an hour or so. Leave the door open so the dust doesn’t asphyxiate me though, thanks.” So there, proof I am not going to jack-off when you go. Wasn’t that so thoughtful of me? Christ.
  He nodded and left, and surprisingly, I drifted right off to peaceful dreams instead of nightmares.

  First order of business was to get some real food beyond tea and coffee for the homestead. No more little grocers downtown, (though there was a bakery) just one of those mega places where you could find everything from plant fertilizer to seafood. (Scallops tonight. Yum.)
  A quick drive on the way here had brought painful discovery that the old smoke shop was gone. Little hope that it had just moved, yet I was going to check the directory later, just in case.
  Still, no matter the latest current, asinine trend of society, the place still had a token for some items, and David had picked up a ‘drug-store’ brand for his pipe. Of course he could use my stash, yet he was new and still experimenting. Not to mention a stubborn little bastard when it came to presents. Well, Christmas would take care of that. I win!
  In the grocery line, David putting away his ID, “It seems kind of dumb to me. You know, fact that you can drive a car—a huge responsibility because if you were in an accident you could kill someone, meaning you need a lot of accountability; can vote for President, and even join the army and risk dying years before you can buy anything tobacco? I mean, what does that say about people? Fact that they can do all that other stuff, while at same time saying they aren’t competent enough to make a personal choice like that?”
  “You got me there, kid. Then again, we are just lawyers. We don’t make the laws, just sort of serve them.”
  “That’s the wrong way to think, Steven,” he said firmly, that touch of steel in eyes and voice. “Another reason that I am going into defense, because sometimes laws are wrong, made to serve some agenda or something, and people need protection from them.”
  Handing my plastic to the cashier, “Wish you luck, kid, and you better not turn down that inheritance, because I have the feeling with the kind of clients you are going to take on, there won’t be many goose dinners in your future.”
  “I’ve never had one before and did just fine.”
  “Well if the cooking of this bastard was left to me, you probably would be spared the problem.”
  “Not worried about that either. Just keep your coffee beans on the lower shelf.”
  “And myself in the living room. Got’ch ya.”
  “Nope, you are going to help.”
  I took up an armload of bags, “See, you do have a death wish.”
  “Nope, just determination. You are going to make the cranberry sauce.”
  “Fine. Wait right here and I’ll go grab some cans. I’ll pop the lids on those suckers so fast your head will spin.”
  “Come on, David. These things are supposed to go on trees, not the table,” I jerked my chin at one of the plastic baggies of hard red berries on top of my bundle.
  “Only one bag with the popcorn, the rest go on the stove.”
  “I suppose I wouldn’t get out of this even if one of my fingers ended up on the garland, would I?”
  “Good thing there’s plenty of Band-Aids. That’s Chinese, right? Death of a thousand cuts?”
  “This is where I remind you that I haven’t apologized for anything in an hour.”
  “Ouch, ya got me.” And even though I was holding groceries, I thought I did a pretty good imitation of a cowboy who’d just been drilled in the heart as I staggered back. Double points, because I did not slip on any ice and really go down to break my neck.
  “Stop it.”
  “I’m sorry.”
  “Good, you should be.”
  “Ouch! Someone on the rag today or what?”
  “Geesh, Steven, come on. And don’t touch my sherry, either. That is for the cherries.”
  “No problem-o,” I said as things were put into the trunk, telling bottle glass clinking. “I’m all set in that department.”
  “You should go back to beer.”
  “This is for eggnog, I shall have you know.”
  “Mind your own business, David. You are the one who wanted to come along with me, remember.”
  “Got ya!” I aimed a finger and ‘banged’.
  “Hey!” I laughed as he flushed upset. “No fair!”
  “That’s life, kid. get used to it.”
  “I am. I just don’t like it much.”
  “Ah, David,” I said and reached out to rub his hatted head, close to tousling as possible, yet he still grinned and ducked it. “All right then, this stuff should keep in the trunk for a bit. What shall it be, back for more dusting or you want to go walk around town for a bit?”
  “Well, the vegetables should be fine in the back seat, so if it is okay, I would like to go window shopping at the antique place we passed before it closes. They really decorated the front nice.”
  “I know. Glad to see that some things haven’t changed.” We got into the beamer and pulled out of the grocery complex’s parking lot and I headed us back to town. “If you see one of those tree places let me know. We’ll grab a couple of wreaths and stuff.”
  “Why? We’re going to cut down our own tree, right? In the woods?”
  “Told you so.”
  “Then there will be plenty of branches to make our own. These ones are probably all dried up by now and won’t smell as nice.”
  “It’s your call, kid.”
  So we found a place to park and walked around the sidewalks a bit, peeking in here and there at other places on way to the antique shop. It was one of those where different people rented small sections and tossed in all sorts of junk with the occasional treasure thrown in. That ‘window shopping’ had been mentioned on purpose and I did my best to hold to it, keeping watch from corner of my eye for anything he paid more attention to even when we broke up in different directions for a brief while.
  One particular booth he kept going back to, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure it our. Lots of oddments, things like age-frosted glass doorknobs and hinges that had been pried off doors or cabinets, some still having the odd bent nail or two in them; couple of old window frames with the poured glass panes; some fireplace junk like grills and pokers.
  “See anything?” I finally asked and he flushed and shook his head. “David, come on. What?”
  “I’ll come back later, it’s cool.”
  “Ah, Christmas shopping. Got’ch ya.”
  “No, I’ve already got your present,” he said proudly. “It’s a really good one, too.”
  “Awe, you didn’t have to do anything like that, kid.”
  “Of course I do. And even if I didn’t, that’s the fun of it, right?”
  “Mm-hmm. So, what is it here that you like? David, if you want a loan for anything just say so.”
  “Nope. And don’t worry, Steven, I am keeping track.”
  “Track of what?” I frowned.
  “Groceries and stuff, of course. Utilities at the apartment, everything.”
  I tried not to grit my teeth, “Ah, forget it, kid. You’re the one that does the cooking after all.”
  He didn’t brush his hair back, just looked up at me calmly, “No. I take care of myself and pay my own way.”
  “David, yes. Believe me, if anyone is in the black it is you. Just a couple of weeks, yet you’ve done wonders at the place. Also, I am dead serious about you redecorating the kitchen for me.” A little softer, yet quickly before he could speak, “My friend, I owe you. Call me a pathetic wimp because that is what I am, only you can do the things I can’t. Everything you change, no matter how small is a real help. Kid, that place is coming alive, don’t you get that?” He blushed happily and ducked his head. “I mean it. So forget about the rest of that stuff, even if it is only because you do all the cooking,” I finished on a lighter note.
  “Sorry,” the stubborn little shit shook his head and pushed back the lock, “that doesn’t matter because you are learning to cook as well. The kitchen is fine, too, only needs to be used more. As for this, well, it’s not like it’s expensive or anything. Only...”
  “Well, it’s just to burn some of my incense and things in. I hate borrowing Kimberly’s, only I sort of lost mine.” Either stolen from his old one-room dive or ‘lost’ when his ex threw him out. Something destroyed like his computer by the psycho with the knife who had taken his place.
  “I still don’t follow. Something like that abalone shell, right? What’s so bad about that?”
  “Okay, you’re right,” he said and waded carefully into the junk pile and picked up something near the fireplace oddments. I recognized it, one of those three-legged, pot-bellied cast iron ash-pots with rusted brass lid and weighted crusher. You dropped stuff in to crush coals and large burnt chunk down to powder. Extinguish things as well as get stuff smaller before dumping the lot into the flowerbeds and like places.
  “There’s one of those back at the house you can use.”
  “I know, but that belongs there, and I sort of wanted to take it back with me.”
  Nod, “Makes sense to me. Anything else around here you need?”
  “Nope, I’m good for now.”
  Teeth flashed in his elfin grin and he carried it up to the front counter, the teenage girl working there (funny to see a nose-pierced punker working in an antique store) put down her magazine and nodded.
  “That’s a good one,” she said as she rang up his five dollar purchase. “I would have got it, but this guy brought in a two quart thing with curved handle. Took me a while to scour out the rust spots but it was worth it. What Trad are you?”
  “Uh, eclectic,” he said a little nervously.
  “Yes, though sometimes a friend studies with me. She’s just learning. Her mom’s pretty upset about it.”
  “That’s a bitch. I like Celtic, myself, with Norse mixed in. Like my Tat?” she asked and son of a wasted bitch if the girl didn’t yank down her shirt and give almost full view of her teen-age boob to show David her tattoo; a dragon twisted up in a knot.
  “Hey, that’s cool!”
  “Yeah,” she said as she tucked back in. “Talk about pissing off my dad. Mom’s cool though, said it looked great. She even picked up one of my Ravenwolf’s last week. She’s reading it, too.”
  “You’re really lucky,” he sighed.
  “I know. There was this guy at school and his parents totally freaked when they found his stuff. They burned everything and are threatening to send him to boot camp or something. Talk about a pair of nuts. The guidance councilor tried to chill them out, now they are going on about getting her fired.
  “So, hey, are you in the area or just visiting? Some of us are getting together at the Unitarian for a party this Solstice. It’s open, so if you want to come it’s cool.”
  “I’m just here on vacation, sorry.”
  The girl flicked her eyes at me then back to him, “Oh, man, I’m sorry.”
  Shrug of one of his shoulders, “It’s okay. Each to his own path, right?”
  “As long as they don’t send you to boot camp. I’m Amethyst by the way. Because of Amy, right?”
  “And the purple hair. That’s great with the name. I’m just David.”
  “Well, have a Happy Solstice, David, and if you’re in town again stop by. It gets boring around here because everyone is at the mall.”
  “I will, thanks. Happy Solstice.”
  “Blessed Be,” she added in parting as we left.
  “Well,” I said when we were outside, “I sure feel like an alien.”
  “David, I swear to god.”
  “Okay, I’ll start my hour right now. She was just talking about some philosophy stuff she is into.”
  Because of an ash-pot? “You understood it pretty well.”
  “Yeah, well, like I said, I read a lot.”
  “I take it you have more than just something to burn your incense in though, right?”
  “I am going to burn incense in it. A lot better than the shell I use for my sage, because this can take the charcoals without cracking. Other than that, I use it during my meditations.”
  “A fireplace ash-pot.”
  “No, just the pot. I don’t need the rest.”
  Back to the car and his old ash-pot wrapped in a re-cycled paper shopping bag went into the trunk.
  “I still don’t get it.”
  “It is just sort of representational.”
  “It’s really not that important, Steven.”
  “All right, I won’t pry. Just wondering if I carried Aunt Lillian’s into a bar if some legal aged broad will pop her ‘tat’ out for me. Now that is what I call a lucky charm!” He grinned and shook his head. “What? No help even with that, eh? Ah well.”
  “You don’t need it. What about that lady who kept flashing her legs at you? You did get her phone number, right? I mean, despite the Strider pipe we bet on?”
  “Yeah, she gave me her number.”
  My turn to shrug, “Just wasn’t the right timing.”
  “David,” I shot back. Then, “Look, I would have, alright? It was the lady’s call. Turned out she was a divorcee. A recent one and realized she wasn’t ready yet.”
  “But you still have her number, right?”
  “Why not?”
  I started rubbing my temple, “Because the old gal was looking for something I couldn’t give her. Just don’t have anything...well, whatever.”
  “The bitch was wrong, Steven. You do a lot of things for a lot of people.”
  “Sure, kid.”
  “You do!”
  “Uh-huh.” Check of the mirrors, the road empty in both directions so I pulled over and hit the blinkers. “All right, kid, your turn at the wheel.”
  He was nervous already, “No way. Steven, I don’t want to scratch your car!”
  “You won’t,” I said and got out; hurried around the other side and opened the passenger’s door. “Come on, get your ass out already.”
  I pulled out my flask and shook it, “Because it’s this or more aspirin. Your call, kid. Either way it works for me. And besides,” I said as he finally moved, waited till he was around the car and behind the wheel, “even if she really is a kid and not your type, there’s no reason for you to stay cooped up in the house with the old grouch the entire vacation. Not to mention the fact that you were invited to a party.” Sip, and hey, hey, no coughing. Yup, practice did make perfect!
  Leaning back, shoulders relaxing, “David, I don’t care about the damn car. You drive just fine, and I see no reason for you not to use it and go out and have fun when you want.”
  “Okay, but I would really rather stay at the house.”
  I took a bigger swallow, feeling the anger start to rise, “I do not need to be watched, kid.”
  “I didn’t say that.”
  “You didn’t have to,” I snorted. “Thanks for the opinion of me though, thinking I would do something like that to you. Oh yeah, leave you with some fine memories of your fucking vacation then, right? Give you something to take pictures of?”
  “My father got angry when he drank, too.”
  “You little son of a bitch,” I swore, shaking as I lowered it, unsipped.
  “I think he thought that was my name—Steven?!” Jerk as the car stopped.
  “I’m fine,” I managed through my gritted teeth, fingers stabbing the spot between me scrunched eyes.
  “Steven, I didn’t mean it!”
  “It’s okay, David. My problem, not yours—no, I am fine, I mean that.” I pulled my head away from his hand, opened my eyes, feeling tired as I looked over into that concerned, almost scared looking face. That face was meant for smiles, not worries. Sure as hell not for me.
  Did my best to try and smile myself, “Sorry, kid, I just don’t know what to do here.”
  “I had no right to say anything like that.”
  “You have every right to speak your mind. It’s me who is the asshole for bringing up bad memories for you. New promise, I’ll just keep it to my room, all right? I know that’s a shitty deal, but please don’t ask more of me. It’s aspirin or this or the big gun drugs.”
  “There’s something else as well. The couch in the living room, or the room I am using if that is wrong. Or the car, because I do not want to make you upset in your aunt’s house.”
  “David, I refuse to keep using you.” He started the car moving again.
  “I keep telling you that I am not being used, Steven.”
  “How can you even think that?”
  This time there was a small smile when he looked quickly at me then back to the road, “Because I know the difference.”
  “Oh, David.”
  “Please let me help you, Steven.”
  Was it that look or the sound in his voice? No, it was just that I was so screwed up.
  I am so god damn weak, “On the couch.”
  This time when he glanced at me he was beaming.

  December twentieth started with a tromp into the woods for a tree. David took a lot of pictures even though there wasn’t much to look at. (Though we did startle a deer, and with touch of smugness, showed me that he had managed to capture more than the ass of the thing bounding away, though part of the head was blurred due to its sudden lifting as it came aware of us.) He even took a couple snaps of me, pipe trailing smoke as I pulled the old sled along till leg or no leg I asked if he was shirking his turn. (Not that I couldn’t manage, hardly that, yet I wanted him to have one now because once the tree was loaded it would be ‘no way, buster’ to quote his friend Kimberly.)
  Both of us were puffing away on Christmas Cheer, and when we came to the stump of a blow-down (there had been a bad storm a couple of years back and several trees hadn’t made it through) he set it up on timer and got a couple of them with the both of us in it, striking grinning poses around our pipe stems like cavalier idiots.
  Then he was walking a little ways back, looking through the viewer and talking to himself, “This is what the sled looks like before we found our tree.” Then he lifted his head and it ahead, “And those are the trees right there. Wow, Steven, they are huge!” he finished as he lowered it.
  “Hey, I want to get that too!” he focused the thing on me.
  “I’ll save it till after we get the bastard home. If I have any breath left.”
  “Save that and start looking before we freeze our asses off.”
  So we hunted up our tree. There were some blow-downs here as well and both of us agreed that the ones behind the tangle were safe from us this year. There were some ‘younger’ trees, and thankfully there was a thirty-footer that was accessible. No chain-saws for me, things gave me the willies, so it was the trusty saw to do the trick, only before I made the first cut David had me wait because we had to ‘thank’ the thing.
  “How come?” I asked after he had stood there a moment with head bowed and then started scattering some nuts and other items around the base.
  “Because we are killing most of it, and we want to let it know that it is going to bring a lot of happiness so it only brings its good energies into the house.”
  “And the nuts?”
  He blushed, “Sort of like a present. As well as animals will come to eat them, so there will still be life here. Not to mention it will help them get through the winter.”
  “Why not? More fertilizer for everybody else. All done now?”
  “Good. Now, I haven’t done this in a long time, so you just stand back and take your video until I call you to help push it if needed. Just don’t stand there taking pictures if you see it coming your way, alright?”
  “Got’ch ya.”
  “I got that one!”
  “Jesus Christ,” I laughed while he grinned smugly behind his camera. “Okay, get ready to haul after that deer because here we go!”
  Not a bad job of it, and there was a high call of “Timber!” from behind after I gave my last push and jumped back in case the thing rolled and kicked back up at me.
  “Not done yet,” I said and went to pace the thing off. Rolled my eyes a bit because I had to wait for him to find place to set up the camera before he could help with holding back the branches as I cut of the section we wanted.
  “We’re just leaving the rest?”
  “Unless you feel like carrying it. Don’t worry, it won’t go to waste. Place for your animals now, and then next year maybe we’ll come back and cut it for firewood. Nothing’s wasted in the woods, kid.”
  “Good, I feel better now.”
  Not very heavy, probably between the two of us and a lot of puffing of a different nature we could have just carried it back, but it was easier in the snow with the sled so we rolled it on and tied the bottom to the front, the kid gathering up several trimmed branches to make his wreath.
  Did I say it wasn’t very heavy? Well, it was a good thing that the kid had caught his ‘groovy’ earlier, because it was more like ‘fuck me,’ by time we got back to the house.
  “When do we decorate?”
  “Right after my heart attack. Jesus, kid, just calm down for a couple, alright?”
  “Sorry—I mean okay.”
  “Okay then.”
  “I could have helped.”
  “Then who would have recorded the event? Oof, my back.” I placed hand on the low of it and stretched. “All right then, lets get something to warm up then I’ll go up in the attic for the stand. Sorry, kid, the tree has to dry off for a bit before decorating. Hey, want to light the fire to help it along? I know it’s daylight still, but—”
  “Yes! Can we try making the cider too? Or is it the wrong time?”
  “It is the perfect time. Before even that I need to warm up my hands. Was thinking about cocoa, because that is traditional as well after a hike through the snow.”
  “I know.” So we went and sat around the hefty table in the kitchen drinking cocoa, me talking about a few memories of the place and David showing off the ones just made on the camera’s tiny screen. Just the beginning, he planned to do the whole deal, soup to nuts, edit together on his computer later when finished.
  Bottom of the mugs reached, it was David to go shake off what snow he could from our haul and me up into the attic, swearing softly because I had forgotten about the warped step and barked my shin...then it was louder because again, as always happened, while concentrating on the first injury, I bumped top of my noggin a good one on the beam which seemed to be put there just for that reason when the house was made.
  “God damn son of a bitch! Swear to god, one day it is going to come down to you or me, buddy. I mean, Jesus, if you are going to do it just do it already. Shit.”
  Method to the madness? I did not know, but two strikes had you recall that you had to step wide over the next section, keeping your head low to avoid the other beams as you tried to find what you were looking for. Then upon finding it, forgot to watch your head as you naturally tried to stand up.
  Voice calling up from below, “Steven, what’s wrong?”
  Crouched down in protection with hands over head, “I’m being attacked! The fucking house is trying to beat me to death!”
  “I know, watch your—”
  “—Head.” Ah well. “Don’t move!” I shouted to stop him before something really bad happened.
  “I won’t. It’s like Amityville or something!” he grimaced as he tried to rub his head and shin simultaneously.
  “No shit. Look, just stay there and I’ll pass you some stuff. One trip up here is enough.” So I pushed over the stand and then some dusty boxes no matter they’d been tarped, David calling warnings as I duck-walked about, thus avoiding need for stitches.
  “Good job, Co-Pilot Davey,” I said when we were at ground floor with our loot. “Mission accomplished.”
  “Yeah, we deserve a medal or something. Place was made for hobbits.”
  “Wouldn’t surprise me a bit to find there’s still some up there with hammers in the rafters in wait. Ugh, thought my back was bad before. Whew!”
  “Need a massage?”
  “Nah, I’m fine. Think after I get the fire going I’m going to just sit on the couch a bit and watch you string up those cranberries, though. After we get the tree set and I change these grimy clothes. Man, what a morning.”
  “We can wait till later?”
  “No, best to get it done in one shot and over with. If you want to help though, you can vacuum off these boxes at some point.”
  “Will do, Captain,” he said as he stood straight, saluting like our favorite street bum was want to do.
  Recalling others were going to see this, a “The first fire,” said softly from behind, I kept watch of my language as I finally got the logs to start.
  “Yup,” I said, standing and brushing off my hands. “And it’s going to be a good one.”
  “Okay then, set that thing up on its stand in the corner so it doesn’t get creamed. Time for us to dance with a tree, kid.”
  “All right!”
  Now this was the way to do it, maneuvering a fresh cut tree into a room without taking out and lamps or windows, just a couple guys getting covered in sap as, catching the odd whap in the face from a branch, they swore and cursed to get the thing not only in the stand, but balanced straight so there was no second “Timber!” and crash of glass in the night while you were sleeping. Yes, I’d take this any time instead of coming home to see that some hired, faceless others had done it and the decorating for you.
  A couple of paces backs for observation, discussions of best angle to ‘face forwards’ and three adjustments till it was mutually agreed that was as straight as things were going to be. One of the furniture tarps was spread out beneath to catch what ice remained as well as the drips and we were done; both of us taking a moment to just stand there, breathing in deeply as the scent of Winter, a cold tree melting and smell of fresh sap rising.
  “That’s really, really good,” David said with a smile as he inhaled again.
  “Mm-hmm. Just wait till the cider starts heating though and then you’ll really have something to experience. After we scour this crap off at least.”
  “I’ll start cutting things up in the kitchen while you shower first.”
  “No arguments from me. Don’t worry, I’ll save some hot water.” Big house but a small heater. I’d have to do something about that one of these days.
  “Works for me. And don’t worry, I won’t get any needles in it.”
  “Mm-hmm. Back in a few.”
  Kept my word and made it quick despite fact I would have loved to just stand there under the spray for my back.
  “Not that old, my ass,” I snorted. Ah well.
  Still, between getting goop out of my hair and scraping my hands off, I was in their long enough for things not only getting chopped, but a good batch of popcorn made up as well in preparation.
  “Don’t eat it all,” David warned as he left for his turn.
  “Not until the butter is melted,” I promised as I headed towards the stove.
  Second batch made and with bowl on my lap it was my turn to figure the gizmo out and catch a few video minutes of the kid sitting on the carpet stringing things up. A lot better than I ever was at that and I let him know it.
  “You are supposed to break them, kid. How else are you going to get anything to eat that way? No wonder you’re so short.” He just snorted and shook his head as he continued to work diligently.
  This is how it is supposed to be, I mused sadly. Sitting on the couch when you’re old watching a kid string up popcorn and cranberries for the tree. Except someone was supposed to be sitting beside you, arms around each other’s shoulders as you did so. Again, not that I thought of David as my son, not in any sense because he was my friend, only, it did have you sigh inside.
  Sound of thing different than popcorn crunching had him look up.
  I put the little plastic bottle of aspirin away, “Only two,” I promised. “Been a long time since I sawed anything. Racquetball only gets you so far.”
  “If you need help with your back just say so.”
  “No, but if you could get up to stir the cider I’d appreciate it.”
  He did so, the smell divine.
  “Man, now this is heaven,” I murmured as I sat back, eyes closing and smiled in remembrance. Drifted off to sleep a bit, body relaxing...then came up blinking when he spoke.
  “I think it’s ready.”
  “This cider. It is simmering just like I read it is supposed to. Sorry, did I wake you?”
  “Nope, just relaxing here.”
  “Good. Ready to try it?”
  “Lay it on me, brother,” I said and with elfin grin he went to the kitchen for some mugs and returned to ladle us up a round.
  He waited, watching as I took the first sip, “Is it all right?”
  “Want the truth?” He nodded. “David, it is perfect.”
  “Great!” His turn with resulting, “Mm!”
  “Yup.” Patted the couch, “Come on, sit down with the old grouch. Feeling too good to bite.”
  “Thanks, Steven.”
  “For what? No, kid, it is me who has got to thank you. Day two and already this is the best vacation I’ve had in years. I mean it, kid, couldn’t have done it without you.” He just blushed happily and we simple sat there a while, watching our tree drip, smelling that, the cider and good logs burning, only music the sound of flames crackling cheerily.

  Of course the light strands were shot, which was a shame because there was no way we were going to be able to find ones like these at this late of a date. No, it would be the modern little ‘twinklers’ instead of the large, multi-colored bulbs glowing in the night, so after lunch we headed back towards town, driving slower as we passed some deer walking alongside the road.
  “They are just so pretty,” David sighed as we stopped so he could take a few photos.
  “We’ll pick up some more popcorn and you can leave it on the front yard for them. Aunt Lillian would be banging on the windows and yell all summer to get the bastards out of the flower beds, but that didn’t stop her from feeding them in the winter. Cut-up apples as well.” Should get him a real video camera.

  Support the ‘little guy’ so we picked up the lights at the local hardware store downtown. A month earlier and we could have gotten the large bulbs, but not now, because the owner told us he only ordered a couple sets for the traditionalist as well as replacement bulbs. Ah well. White lights instead of multies. David said they would look like stars, and as usual, that worked for me.
  An off-chance inquiry brought some good news, the tobacconist wasn’t out of business after all, had only moved the shop to an addition built on the family property next to their house. Directions given and we were on our way, if only for old time’s sake.
  Talk about doing things right! Place was part museum, a collection of things found from across the country and outside of it as other places were forced to give up the ghost.
  An addition? Hell, the place was as large as the house, and if it had been warmer, the open porch outside with its wall of old signs would have been sporting guys on rocking chairs playing chess or simply watching the grass grow as they sat gabbing and puffing away.
  Trend these days was cigars, yet the guy behind the counter said they did a decent internet business with estates and stuff, and it was ‘ooo-ing and ahh-ing’ as glass cases were peered into. Sample jars available, and David wondered aloud if he should just clip his ID to his shirt, seeing how often he had to bring it out these days. On his own he picked up a ‘basket pipe’ you know, things ranging from twelve to twenty bucks, (he got himself a straight,) and I snagged us some cobs, both the clerk and myself explaining how they were the best way to try out and discover the nuances of new blends.
  Speaking of blends, they still had all of the house ones, as well as newer additions, and again for old time’s sake I picked up a couple ounces of things remembered. Wry smile as I told the clerk which ones my aunt had smoked. Surprised because he wasn’t surprised, his grandfather still told him stories about the ‘ladies club’ that would meet ever Sunday on the town green after church.
  Yes, I was related to that ‘Miss Lillian’, chief spinster, and the guy asked me if I remembered his grandfather, Mr. Gratleman? Of course I did, who wouldn’t? So with a wink he cocked his finger and around the counter we went, the grand codger himself enthroned in a back room on a leather behemoth which he still filled rather well no matter he was in his nineties. Blind as a bat, yet that didn’t stop him savoring his favorite (possibly only remaining) pastime, and a pipe could be filled in one shot, rounded perfectly with his thumb, all by feel, and David got to see the pinnacle of the art when a pipe was smoked down to fine ash on one lighting.
  Some really great stories listened to, enjoying the feel of being a ‘kid’ again myself. Mr. Gratleman’s voice may not have been what it used to, but his mind was all there (though of course much focused in the past) and David got to hear more stories about my aunt and her gang, a couple about myself which caused a rueful blush (well, I had been a kid after all,) and then things about people neither of us had know, yet still lived on same as they always had, being born, growing up, returning from war or not, the lucky ones getting married, having adventures and children over and over again within the mind of this wizened, ancient record keeper.
  Almost three hours worth of tales, (coffee or cocoa depending on the drinker) and promises were made, and meant, to return again soon for more of the same.
  On the porch, just taking a moment, David commented how he had just met the real Gandalf. “Someone should write a book or something.”
  “Yes. Not many like Mr. Gratleman left in the world, then again, I think his sort were always rare. I hope they’ve already done it, his family, I mean, yet we can ask next time about bringing a video camera. I know he won’t mind repeating some of the stories about Aunt Lillian, yet there is just so much more there that should not be lost.”
  “I liked hearing about the sleds with horses. That must really have been something.”
  “Think I saw something in the paper like that. Ad or article or such about a Christmas day tour around what used to be the old orchard I mentioned. Have some sort of health food store or restaurant or maybe it was both. Just sort of skimmed it, yet they mentioned that they decorated the place, barn and some trees. Will give a call, see if there are any spaces left if you like?”
  “I would. Steven, thank you.”
  “Hmm? For what, kid?”
  “For that back there, for all of this. For everything. I am going to remember this vacation forever.”
  I could have been sarcastic, asked if I was going to have to get him a handkerchief or something, but I didn’t, simply, “You’re welcome, David.” Yet before we headed back to tackle the tree I stopped us off at the small electronics store and picked up a real video camera for ‘myself’. To record stories of my aunt from Mr. Gratleman, right?

  What had it been, seven or eight years since I actually decorated a tree? Something like that, but after a bit of convincing that no, he was not going to break the glass star that went on top, David went up on the stool and had the honors. One I reserved for myself though, a traditional thing. Lights were put on the tree and tested before the ornaments were added, then shut off till the thing was finished. Camera on tripod preserving the entire event, I asked if he was ready as I knelt down to plug them back in. Did so and smiled as the “Wow,” came from behind and for a brief moment, the record player churning out the traditional music in the background, everything was right with the world.
  Stood up and joined him, “Now that, David my boy, is what I call fucking groovy.”
  Fire going, dinner, sitting about congratulating ourselves on our prowess with the tree while the CD player alternated between jazz, Enya, and seasonal classical music, that night I fell asleep, realizing I hadn’t had a single migraine the entire day.

  December twenty-first was a cookie bake! I had slept late, (almost till ten! My god, when was the last time that had happened?) and woke up to a house that truly smelled like heaven, plates of this and that on the counters in wait. Only how could he say they were not ready, I mean, just look at them!
  “They need to be decorated. That’s your job.”
  “Fine,” I said and pulled up a chair (full coffee cup at the ready) and eyed the bowls of colored frosting while he put another batch into the small oven.
  “Just testing the flavor,” I said quickly as I took a gulp of coffee to wash the first two down. “Colors have to match, right?”
  “All right, but I warn you, I am worse at this than stringing popcorn.”
  Moment later and, “Hey!”
  “What?” I shrugged, “it broke, see?” and opened my mouth to expose the half-chewed mess.
  “That’s disgusting.”
  “No,” I said after sip and swallow, “that is destroying evidence of a crime. I snapped the little bastard’s head off.”
  “Just put the frosting on with the side of the knife.”
  “Okay, okay, don’t get bitchy,” I snorted as he turned around again.
  Munch, munch, munch.
  “Well what was I supposed to do, glue it back together? Jesus, give me a break already. You know I’m helpless in the kitchen. Is it my fault you made them so thin?”
  “Fine. Leave them alone and you can work on these,” he said and with that the little shit took away the fragrant plates and brought over a tray of fatter things that did not look like they had been baked yet.
  “Are these ready?”
  “Yup. Use food coloring though. There is a brush right next to the bottles.”
  “Uh-huh. All right, just leave everything to me.” He nodded and I puttered around till he got busy with something else again, clearly knowing the worst I could do was stab them a little.
  Semi hard, yet he said they were read so what the hell?
  “What the fuck?!” I yelled and gagged as I spat the shit out, worse because I’d crammed the whole thing in my mouth. David just smirking with arms crossed as I guzzled the rest of my coffee to no avail; hurriedly got up for a refill and downed that. “Jesus Christ, what the hell are those things?”
  “Salt dough ornaments. You hang them on the wreath. Even a kid knows that.”
  “Don’t toss your cookies in here, buster.”
  I dry swallowed a couple times for good measure as he continued to enjoy the show. Then, “Is something burning?”
  “Oh no!”
  “See? I told you I was cursed,” though I felt really bad in spite of my grinning grimace as he yanked the tray out and started waving a mitt about.
  “They’re not that bad. I just forgot to turn the tray at the right time. There is a hot spot in here. Only a couple got scorched.”
  “Biscotti works for me.” Hell, after all that salt ashes would be a blessing.
  “Nope, I’ll just put these out for the deer or something. They’re not that bad, and besides, it’s the perfect day for it.”
  “How’s that?” I asked as he worked at prying them off with a spatula.
  “Because it’s Solstice of course and...uh, well, what I meant is why not? It’s supposed to snow later, right? At least that’s what they said on the radio. The reported said we might get an inch or so this afternoon, but watch out for tomorrow.”
  “Ah, so I was eating up all the stuff you’re bringing to that party, right?”
  “No, I told you I don’t want to go. These are for...well, here.”
  “Something wrong, kid?”
  He still had his back to me, shook his head quickly, “Nope. And you can go ahead and eat them up, there’s plenty more where that came from. I was just being stupid, sorry. Was thinking about s-something else. I’ll be right back, going to toss these outside,” he finished in a rush, and burnt cookies in a paper towel left the kitchen.
  What the...? Oh. Oh, of course. I was not the only one who had been through the ringer this year in the relationship department, and even if David and his ‘partner’ had only been living together for three years, that break up had been a hell of a lot worse than mine. Like I said though, David was a one who really hid things that hurt while he was around others. Only one time I knew about when he’d almost lost it in my presence in regards to this, that first time he’d come by my place, cooked dinner in celebration of our promotions. David had gotten to talking and remembering things while he was at the stove, and no matter that he had been there when I had lost it over Sheila, way back before I had know his ‘El’ had been a man, I had not been able to repay his being there for me back in kind. No, because I was messed up and fucked up, and when a guy started crying you did not go up and hold him, especially in the ‘emotional’ state I had been in.
  Not this time, kid, I assured as I got up and followed.
  Yes, there he was as I figured he would be, just standing outside without even a coat, and hearing me behind, I watched as David quickly wiped arm across his eyes, concealing his own sort of evidence. No, I was not running away this time when he was suffering. No way in hell ever again.
  Put my arm around his shoulder, no mincing the issue, “So, today means something special and you had your own little tradition. With El, right?”
  “I was just being stupid. I didn’t mean anything. Sorry.”
  Bit of a squeeze instead of curse for that hated habit, “Don’t be, kid.” Nod, but he remained silent. “So, you going to give or do I have to kick you in the shin?”
  He huffed, possibly a laugh, “No. It wasn’t even important or anything, only he was an artist. That’s how I learned a lot of the stuff I can do. Every year Elly...Dellan would come up with something new when he decorated. So I woke up remembering, wondering too much what this year he might... Well, I just needed to be busy with something. I really wasn’t thinking much about anything, Steven. I’m sorry.”
  “Well, considering the crap Picasso got away with, I bet even I could some up with something. Only you better be prepared to call a lot of the gingerbread men Tiny Tim because I am not prepared to eat any glue. Not on top of the salt mine biscuits, no way and no how.” That had him laugh a little and apologize again.
  “No more of that, kid. Time for us both to go back inside or else it will be stuffed noses and no more cider smelling. And, David?” He glanced back up at me, smiling his small smile even with red eyes; tragic little elf, all the hurt locked back up on its shelf again. “There are other uses for couches. You want to sit and talk, or just give my shirt a good soaking again that’s fine. I’m here for you when you need it, kid. Do not forget that.”
  “Thank you, Steven. I’m okay though. At least for right now.”
  “For right now is right, because I just had this idea. What do you think about coffee beans for buttons?”
  “That we can use tea for hair.”
  “Well, I’m out of ideas.”
  “We could put them on the ornaments?”
  “With glue. Yeah, that’ll give those damn mice something to think twice about.” So back inside, fresh tea for him and more black brew for myself and we sat around having loads of fun making the damnedest, ugly ornaments you ever did see. After, and it was back to the cookies, and I knew he sliced off a head and star point now and then on purpose before gulping them down.
  “You’re learning, kid,” I snorted and he grinned, teeth full of colored sugar.

  Today was dedicated to relaxing and there was no need to go out beyond a little walk around the area while a light snow fell. The weatherman was giving plenty of warning about what would be woken up to tomorrow though, so more wood was brought in for the ready, then it was just kicking back, working diligently at the task of doing just plain nothing for the remainder of the day beyond getting fat on cookies.
  Getting on towards sunset, and David came into the living room with something in his hands, looking a bit shy.
  “Uh, Steven?”
  “Yeah, kid?”
  “I sort of made this for you. To put in the window I mean, if that is okay?”
  “Sure, what is it?”
  A shrug as he set it on the table, a gold taper candle in a small wreath made of things he’d gathered during our walks. Pinecones and stuff. “Nothing much.”
  “No way, that looks great.”
  “You really like it?”
  “Of course I do. Want to light it now?”
  He glanced out the window, “Yes.”
  “Philosophy thing?”
  He ducked his head, “Yes. Only it really doesn’t matter much.”
  “Well, if you don’t mind sharing I’d be interested in hearing about it. Unless you don’t think I would get it or anything?”
  “Oh, it’s easy,” he said and did not use a match, but a twig he stuck in the fire before putting it in one of the windows. “See, it’s Winter Solstice, right? Shortest day of the year?”
  “Mm-hmm. Farthest the earth gets from the sun, right?”
  He nodded and pushed back his lock, smiling because I knew even that, “Yes. We’ve been getting further and further away from the sun, and this is the longest night there is. So you light a candle to remind yourself that from this point the sun will be getting closer and closer so not to give up hope. It is like it went away for a while, but now it is reborn. Growing stronger and stronger, and as it gets close it brings life back with it. Spring and stuff.”
  “Odd way of putting it. Huh, sort of funny when you think about it though, just a couple more days till we celebrate the birth of Christ.”
  “Sun and Son, yup. Only the sun came first.”
  “No, think about it. God made everything, right? Including the sun? Well, this sun makes sure that there is life on earth, and the other one is like a promise that that life doesn’t end, even when we leave this one.”
  “Huh. You know, crazy as it is, that kinda makes sense.”
  “I told you,” he wrinkled his nose at me before returning to the fireplace and getting himself another stick. Only it kept going out, so he sighed and went to the mantle for some matches.
  “Yours has to stay in your room?”
  “No, but...well, it’s not that important.”
  “If it is to you, it is to me. For crying out loud, David, it’s not like I can send you to boot camp or anything.”
  “Well, it’s just that it is in my, uh, ash-pot. I figured it really didn’t belong with your tree or anything.”
  “Our tree, David. All right if I take a look?”
  Up from the couch and I followed him, hating the way he was sort of ducking, as if he was getting ready for a real shouting down or something. Looking in, I did not see what all the fuss was about, just a small table with a bright yellow cloth holding his ash-pot surrounded by some trimmings from the extra tree branches and a couple small dishes of nuts and some of the frankincense and like things. His candle was a small yellow votive at bottom of the pot.
  “That looks really nice, David, and I still can’t see what the problem is, or why you seem to think I am going to bite your head off over it.”
  “It’s just because I believe in things differently than you, Steven. It’s really not that big of a deal though.”
  “Fine. All I need to know is if it will screw things up if we move it into the living room?”
  “Not for me.”
  “Groovy. Grab your goodies and I’ll get the table.”
  He picked a spot next to the fireplace, tree on one side, his table on the other, got things back into place and with brand from the fire got things lit.
  “You can’t really see the candle though,” I said as we went to sit on the couch. “Only the glow.”
  “That’s okay. I think it means more like this.”
  “An ash-pot,” I nudged.
  “Representational. You really want to know?”
  “No, I just keep asking over and over for the hell of it out of sheer, freaking boredom. Come on, kid, give already.”
  “Okay. See, a black pot like that means the universe in a way. Sort of like, well, the Divine Mother. She is holding the sun waiting to be born.”
  He ducked his head, “I know it is silly, but I really didn’t like winter for a while. This sort of helped.”
  I could say that I imagined not, but then I had never been a child on the streets without a warm home to go to. Never had to ‘hit’ the back of a Chinese restaurant to get something to eat from the dumpster as he had suggested Sarge Brick do instead of roasting rats for dinner. That couple with the restaurant who had taken him in deserved sainthood in my book. Guess there were still a few decent people in this world made of shit after all.
  “Nothing wrong with anything that brings hope, kid,” I said as I reached up and clicked off the lamp. Tree lights, fire and candles the only lights for a while. “Happy Solstice, David.”
  “Happy Solstice, Steven. Thank you.”
  So, this was his ‘Christmas’. Too bad the goose was still frozen.
  Damn, I wish he would have told me. Could at least have gone out for dinner. “You supposed to exchange presents today?” That would be great, meant I could start pulling a few things out of the closet early. (Yes, part of me knew it was a bad habit left over from Sheila, only I could only feel good about myself when I gave him things, paid him back the only way I was able to. Had to be careful about it though, kid was a stubborn little shit, proven once again at the antique shop.
  Split the utilities? On what he made? No freaking way, kid. Nope, no way and no how. Told you once and told you again, it’s my turn to take care of you. Bad enough he still brought it up about the clothes I had bought that day he came to stay with me after the emergency room, now I was going to have to come up with a way to dance around that other crap as well.
  Smile inside of anticipation. Both Kimberly and Casey had helped me surf the net in secret for last minute Christmas presents. Stuff they found, some hand-crafted ‘organic’ wear, kid was going to look like a real Longbottom leaf smoking elf when he pulled out those shirts.)
  “Not really, at least for me. Just small stuff so you think about what the day means.”
  “Besides, you gave me mine early. All the frankincense and sandalwood chips.” Gesture at the little plates, “If I’m still awake at midnight I’ll put them in the fire if that is okay?”
  “Works for me.”
  He yawned, “Okay, thank you. Except I was up really early. Maybe tomorrow morning.” He yawned again.
  “Go ahead and catch a couple if you want. I’ll stay up and keep an eye on things.”
  “No, it’s okay, I’m fine.”
  “Suit yourself,” I said and he nodded.
  Then after some more absent talk and quiet, the kid was nodding for other reasons, and me, busy looking at the tree and remembering things past did not even start when the pressure was felt on my shoulder. Fast asleep and I let him stay there; glad for it when a half hour later one of his nightmares began. Just small sounds and some twitching, so I adjusted a little and put my arm over his shoulder carefully so not to awaken him.
  “It’s all right, David. I’m here,” I spoke softly. “Nothing is going to hurt you anymore.”
  Still asleep, a couple hitched sighs and I did not budge when one of his arms came across my stomach.
  “Elly...I’m sorry.”
  Whoa. “Hey, kid. David...” Shut up fast when I felt the dampness on my chest where his head rested.
  “Shhh, it’s okay, kid. Stay here and let it out. It’s all right, I got you.”
  “Thank you,” he whispered and soaked my shirt a good one as he cried.
  Later, small, tired voice asked, “How come they change, Steven?”
  Did not lift free hand to rub my temple. It wasn’t that bad; was not about to side-track anything. Not now.
  Simple patted his arm again, “I don’t know, kid. Whatever it was though, just remember it wasn’t your fault. Nothing you need to apologize for. For god damn certain not over that.”
  “I know.”
  Couple minutes in silence, yet I wanted to help more. Yes, a quiet presence could do much, yet it was time to prove to David that this bigot was serious about that offer to talk, and listen, as well.
  “You, uh, had something pretty good, didn’t you?”
  “Yes. Everything was just so right. I told you once that I thought he was the one forever.”
  “Mm-hmm, you did.” Then you thanked me for letting you know that you could feel, could care about someone again. Oh, David.
  More important for now though, he was still talking.
  “I can’t remember us ever getting into a single fight. Not a real one, I mean. Dellan never got mad at anyone, was so thoughtful and kind. He couldn’t even kill a fly or anything. It was funny, because he would open a window and try to get it out, only then others got in.”
  Sniffle and half chuckle, “He even felt bad when one landed on a canvas he was working on and got stuck in the paint. Scooped it off in a tea strainer and tried to wash it off. It didn’t work so well.”
  “Sounds like quite a person.”
  “He really was.”
  “David, I don’t meant to, well, pry or anything, but what if that bastard Frank takes off?” No, what if the crazy son of a bitch never made it out of the dumpster and was dead?
  What if... What if your Elly is sitting alone tonight thinking about you like this, David? What if he is trying to call? What if...you could be happy again, kid?
  And why does thinking about that hurt me so much?
  Oh, David, if only you had been born a woman. If only I had something to give you. If only I was good enough, was worthy enough, to give and be that person for you. But I’m not, David. Same as you are not a woman.
  Oh, David, God forgive me, If. Only.
  David pushed himself up and wiped off his eyes, shaking his head, “No, it’s over. I don’t even know him anymore.”
  My own pain sealed away deeply, “Everyone can make mistakes, kid. Someone you describe like that might be worth another chance?”
  “Why not?”
  He looked at me, face and steely eyes drawn with weariness, possessing too much knowledge and things seen, “Because I was part awake when they put me in the dumpster with the rats. Dellan was one of them.”
  Jesus Christ. “David, the cop on the phone told me that they found you because of a nine-one-one call. He thought maybe one of them was feeling guilty.” And like it or not, the cop also said if they had left you on the street you would have frozen to death.
  “It wasn’t Dellan.”
  “How can you be sure?”
  “Because I heard him laughing. I am going to go to bed now. I’m pretty tired. Good night.” He got up, went over to his pot and blew out the candle and then went to his room, door closed behind him.
  I got up, and after some fiddling managed to get a twig from the fire and relight the thing.
  Don’t lose hope, David. Kid, you are far too young for that. No, not like he was my age or anything. Still young with so much to offer, future open for him. Somewhere, somehow, the real ‘one’ was out there for him. Just needed a little more time...and hope.
  Just need to find someone who deserves you, David. Someone like you. So no, do not give up hope. Don’t be like me, David, because sure as hell that is something you do not deserve.
  Nursed drink in hand I stayed up until midnight, both candles almost out, the snow falling in silent sheet outside the window. Still enough coals going in the fire, and I probably didn’t do things properly, but it was easy enough to pour the small plates of stuff on the embers. Very nice smell as frankincense and balsam needles fizzed and sandalwood chips puffed up their combined smoke. Good way to end one day and start a new one as I put the grate in place; waited for the candles to finish their business naturally and then went to bed myself.


Merry Christmas: PART II
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The following story contains adult language and situations.
Sexual content. For mature readers only.
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