Being–A Christmas Story

He made his usual walk, starting down at the very end of the manmade path.  On most nights, the walk ended for him beneath the bridge that crossed the river at the other end of the Riverwalk.  It was there, beneath that bridge, where Kross would find shelter from rain and sometimes the cold, by crawling up the embankment and bedding down where concrete met dirt at its highest point, and far enough off the path that no one would notice him.  Especially not one of the retired city cops that had the job as security along the six miles or so of the path.

It was dark and cool—but not cold, thankfully.  His light coat wasn’t quite warm enough for a cold night, but he hoped to get a different one, maybe trade in the one he wore for a heavier version at the Salvation Army or even the Goodwill, if they allowed it.  On normal nights he walked that concrete sidewalk alone, occasionally passing another walker, or jogger, usually someone with a dog.  There were bikers and boarders as well, especially in the warmer months when the daylight hours lasted well into the eight o’clock hour.  But this wasn’t a warmer month.  It was definitely a cooler one and the days were shorter, giving way to evening around the same time most folks left their office jobs.

Kross tucked his hands into his pockets, lowered his head and wondered where breakfast would come from in the morning.  Supper had been a stale, hard bagel that he had to wipe something—what, he didn’t know—off of it.  It was chewy, but it was food, and bagels tended to stay on the stomach far longer than most foods he ate these days.  Though it was bland and he would have liked some water to wash it down with, it was better than nothing, for sure.

A jogger passed going in the opposite direction, her head up, a blond ponytail bobbing from side to side.  She seemed oblivious to the homeless man walking the same path.  He gave a shrug at this, but didn’t turn to watch her go, like most men probably would have.  Kross, knowing someone like that would be revolted if he even said, ‘hello,’ saw no reason to look, to follow her with his eyes and dream of something that could never happen.  He was, after all, invisible to those with lives, with clean clothes, three meals a day (with snacks in between or a coffee from Starbucks), and a roof over their heads.  Yeah, he was invisible to everyone, except the police or the owners of restaurants who throw out their leftovers in the dumpsters behind the buildings, only to get mad at him when they catch him digging around for food.

He wound his way along the sidewalk, passing under the occasional light, passing by the occasional EMERGENCY HELP boxes—one press of the button and the retired cop comes a running, or at least in his shiny golf cart with the red lights on—passing by benches to either side, none of which held young couples or even solo folks sitting on.

Kross looked up, stopped in his tracks.  Off in the distance he saw lights, but they were dim and on the ground and there were two rows of them, one on each side of the sidewalk.  He took a few steps forward and heard something he didn’t normally hear, something he hadn’t really heard in a long time, not that he paid much attention to holidays or even the seasons.  To Kross, the seasons were warm, hot, cool, cold, and right then it was cool, not cold, so why the music?  Why the singing?  Why the…Christmas carols?

He walked toward the lights, noticed they were in bags.  Just beyond the bagged lights were people standing around.  Off to the edge of the sidewalk beyond the crowd was a small band of women playing instruments, a violin, banjo, upright base, acoustic guitar, and was that a tambourine?  Yes, yes it was.  He moved closer, stopped about fifteen feet from the gathering of people.  The women singing had a country, bluegrass sound, right out of the backwoods, Kross thought.  As he stood there, they sang The First Noel and Silent Night, and the violinist stood out among them.  Kross couldn’t tell if she were really young and just very good, or really old and just very short, and still very good.  After finishing Silent Night, he clapped, like everyone else, and walked by them.  He glanced at the violinist and still couldn’t tell if she were young or old or maybe somewhere in between.

No one spoke to him, but moved aside as he passed, as if pushed by a force field.

Invisible, he thought, and hunched his shoulders.

A little further down a man stood off to the side of the path, another crowd had gathered around him.  He played a saxophone—Hark the Herald Angel was the tune of choice.  Kross tapped his toe and folded his arms over his chest as he listened.  Again, when the song was done, he made his way through the crowds, unnoticed, or maybe noticed and ignored.  He thought it was a little bit of both.

He reached another group, a Baptist men’s choir.  They sang a song he didn’t know, harmonizing the best they could, but still managing to sound like a group of cats on a hot tin roof.  He went on by, not waiting for their song to end.  Still, no one paid him any attention.  He thought for a moment that the little girl with the glasses and light-up shoes noticed him, but did she really?  Nah, his mind told him.

As he passed the men’s choir and left the crowd behind, he noticed a sign with their name on it.  Beneath their name were the words, SPREADING THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT WITH EVERYONE.

Christmas spirit, he wondered.  Yeah, sure, they have the Christmas spirit. Bah Humbug. 

There were two other bands and in between them stood a hot chocolate stand set up, complete with snacks and apple cider as well.  As he approached the stand hoping for a fresh drink for a change and something to wash down that nasty bagel taste, several people cut in front of him.

As if I weren’t here. 

Kross sighed heavily.  His shoulders slouched further down, his head lowered.   He walked a little slower now, not paying attention to anyone else there, any of those folks who have encroached on his nightly walk to his nightly bed beneath the bridge.  His stomach hurt, maybe from the stale bagel, but quite possibly from the lack of being.  It was Christmas, after all, the season for giving, the season to be jolly, to be happy, to show love to your fellow human…being.

Further down, he came to a group of adults playing hand bells.  Unlike the other times, he stayed in the shadows, just off the path and away from the largest of the crowds so far.  They played beautifully, like a well-tuned machine, not missing a note.  When they finished, the crowd clapped loud.  Several folks headed away, looking for another group to perform for them.

Kross stayed in the shadows.  There were eight of them, seven women, mostly older, and one man, probably the youngest of the group.  There was one woman, near the center of the group, who seemed to be one of the main ringers.  She was younger, her brown hair pulled out of her face with a ribbon, her motions fluid and smooth.  She was smiling, and it never left her face.

The tinkles of the bells held his attention, mesmerized him.  He didn’t know how long he stood there—until the last of the carols had been rung by the hand bellers—but for a short while, he felt the Christmas spirit spill through him.  When the show ended, he stood a while longer in the shadows as the crowd dispersed, some speaking of how good the music was, how amazing the bell ringers were.

Kross ducked his head and stepped beyond the last of the lit up paper bags.  The brief Christmas spirit fled him with the last of the rung bells.  He was well into the darkness along the path when he heard someone calling from behind.

“Excuse me.”  It was a female voice and it was soft and sweet.

He walked on.  Surely, no one was speaking to him.

“Excuse me, sir.”

Kross stopped and looked back.

The young woman from the hand bells stood in front of him.  She was still smiling.  In her hands she held a Styrofoam cup.

“Are you talking to me?” Kross asked, expecting her to recoil from his raspy voice.

“Yes,” she said and held the cup out to him.  “I thought you might like a cup of cocoa.”

“Cocoa?”

“Yes.  Unless you would like some apple cider.”

“No.  No.  Cocoa is fine, thank you.  I haven’t had cocoa in years.”  He took the cup from her and put it to his lips.  He could feel the warmth rising from the cup.  The first sip was hot and burned his tongue, but he didn’t care.  It tasted great and made him think of Christmases as a kid at his Grandma’s house.

“Thank you,” he said and smiled, something he rarely ever did.

“Have a merry Christmas, sir.”

Sir? 

“You too.”

The girl turned and left.  This time he watched her go, but not because he thought there would ever be a chance of anything.  No, he watched her go because he was no longer invisible, at least not to someone.  To someone, he was still a person, still a being…

Kross took another sip of the hot cocoa, relished the warmth.  Tonight maybe the bridge wouldn’t be so cold.  As he walked away he hummed, a song about Christmas…

O Christmas Tree–Free Seasonal Fiction

It’s the time of year where folks are supposed to be joyous and merry and cheerful and… yeah, whatever. Christmas is not what Christmas used to be. There’s really no need to pretend. Most folks just don’t get into the Christmas spirit and plenty of them have forgotten the reason Christmas is even celebrated.

I must be honest, I’m not a big fan of this season, but not because Christmas isn’t a joyous time of year, but because of all of the commercialism that Christmas has become. It wasn’t like this when I was a kid—or at least, I didn’t notice it being this way.

Since there are only 16 days left until Christmas, I’m polishing off the Christmas stories and writing a couple of new ones to post in the next two plus weeks. Hopefully, you will enjoy them. Please, feel free to comment or share with others. And try and have a wonderful Christmas season.

O Christmas Tree
By A.J. Brown

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” Cory sang as he climbed down from the attic. In one hand was a small white box. The other held tight to the railing. He folded the ladder, locked it in place and closed the drop door to the attic. “With the kids jingle belling, and everyone yelling—”

He paused, his song not sounding quite right. Ad the lyrics ran through his head, he tried to recall how the song really went.

“It’s not ‘yelling’ you dense fool,” he said to himself and began singing again. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year. With the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer.’ It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Nodding in satisfaction, Cory walked into his living room and set the box down on the coffee table. He looked around at the other boxes that held lights, ornaments, tinsel and other little knick-knacks. There was a Santa Claus doll and a train, complete with tracks and a smokestack that blew out real smoke, thanks to a sliver of dry ice and a dab of water. There were several houses in little red boxes, a town he liked to put together around the tree, places for the train to pass by as it went along its merry way.

“I love this time of year,” he said and clasped his hands together. “Don’t you, Charles?”

Charles looked up at him from his mat on the floor, his muddy brown eyes holding that forlorn look that all basset hounds seemed to have. His tail lifted off the floor and flopped back down—his best attempt at a wag.

“I knew you did,” Cory said and opened the box labeled LIGHTS. He pulled out several groups of green-chorded bulbs, bundled together and tied neatly with twine. Setting each strand aside, he thought of what he wanted on his tree this year. White lights? Multi-colored lights? The big ones or little ones? Bubble lights or maybe the little twinkly ones? Cory’s eyes lit up when he saw the blue lights. “I haven’t used these in years.”

As he untied the twine around the chord, Cory began singing again.

“Have a holly, jolly Christmas.
It’s the best time of the year.
I don’t know if there’ll be snow, but have a cup of cheer.”

Cory plugged the lights in and smiled when they came to life. “Blue it is this year.”

Carefully, he began to string the lights onto his tree. Though it held only two branches and was bare of leaves and that wonderful pine smell, it would still serve its purpose, even if it was unconventional. Cory shrugged at the unconventional thought. Most new-agers weren’t into all the Christmas tradition, but Cory was, so not having his normal lush green pine tugged at his heart a little.

With only the two branches near the top, Cory had to put hooks all along its trunk. Occasionally a little fluid seeped out where the hooks were, but Cory didn’t seem to mind. Charles always cleaned it up. For some reason, the old dog liked the way it tasted.

As he strung the lights, he sang again, changing a couple of words to reflect his own tree.

“I’ll have a blue Christmas without you.
I’ll be so blue thinking about you.
Decorations of blue on a white Christmas tree,
Won’t mean a thing if you’re not here with me.”

After the lights, he pulled out a long strand of garish yellow garland. He strung it a little more haphazardly, but tried to make sure it didn’t clash with the lights.

“I’m loving it,” Cory said to himself and opened a box of ornaments.

He was searching through them, trying to find the right ones when he heard a soft moan. Cory’s head jerked up and he turned around. A smile creased his face. “Awake so soon, my dear?”

The lady in the corner said nothing, but her eyes spoke volumes.

“Oh, don’t be afraid,” Cory said. “They’re only Christmas decorations.”

Another moan escaped the blonde’s throat, this one coming out much louder than the first one.

“Please, don’t fuss, sweetheart. It’s Christmas remember? The holidays?”

A third, louder moan that would have been a scream if she could have opened her mouth.

Cory shook his head in disappointment. “I knew you wouldn’t be in the holiday spirit,” he said. “Well, maybe when I’m done, you’ll change your mind.”

Turning away from her, Cory picked up two ornaments, both bright purple with white sequins forming a curly-queue pattern on them. He attached a metal loop on each one and then walked back over to his tree—to the lovely blond who had been less than vigorously ringing the bell outside the department store earlier in the evening. She hadn’t been too cheerful at all and she made it obvious when Cory dropped his change in the bucket. Cory thought it was because of the charity hour she had to donate to the cause of the homeless.

“Have a nice Christmas,” he had said and listened as the coins rattled in the bright red kettle.

“Yeah, right,” she murmured under her breath.

Cory didn’t think he was supposed to hear the comment but he had, and it bothered him. He stopped and looked at the woman, her green eyes underneath eyebrows that were furrowed down, making her look angry. She wasn’t the most appealing woman in the world but there was a certain prettiness even through her cold demeanor.

“Ma’am, would you like to have dinner with me?” he asked.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m serious. You seem like you’re not too much into the Christmas spirit and I would like to help change that.”

“No,” she said, flatly.

“Suit yourself,” Cory said and walked off.

By the time he reached his car, Cory was distraught over her reaction to him. “I must change her mind,” he said.

Patiently, he waited until her shift was over and she made her way to her car, a couple of parking spots down from his own. With her back to him she wasn’t able to see him until his reflection appeared in her window. Her eyes grew wide as she spun around to defend herself. Cory grabbed her face and smashed her head backwards into the driver’s side window. The window cracked into tiny outstretched lines, like a spider’s web, as a smear of blood rolled down it.

“You’re a mean one, Mrs. Grinch,” he sang as he lifted her to her feet and helped her to his car. “You really are a heel. You’re as cuddly as a cactus. You’re as charming as an eel, Mrs. Griiiiinnnnnch. You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peeeeeel.”

“Aren’t these lovely?” he said and held the ornaments in front of her. “I think they’ll look great on you.”

He went to hang the two ornaments on the hooks he hard carefully screwed into her flesh. She struggled to move her arms and legs, but the wooden cross she hung on held her arms out and her legs together, making it impossible for her to do anything but shiver and shake. He placed the ornaments, one at each elbow, and went back for more. Again he sung a song as he decorated her body with ornaments of all different shapes and sizes.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas everywhere you go. There’s a tree in the Grand Hotel, one in the park as well; the sturdy kind that doesn’t mind the snow. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, soon the bells will start. And the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing right within your heart.”

He looked up at the tears tracing down his blond tree’s face. Wiping them away, he frowned. “This isn’t working, is it?”

She screamed the best she could, but with her lips sewn shut with green thread it came out muffled.

“That’s okay,” Cory said and pulled the Santa Clause from its box. Lifting it up, he brushed off a year’s worth of dust that somehow got into the box and set it at her feet. It matched her red toenails.

The houses that normally went around the tree, went along the mantle above the fire place, set up in a precise manner that had the town’s small Christmas tree in the center. Santa Claus was on one roof, about to set foot in a chimney. All the while, Cory sang Christmas carols, sometimes stopping to put his hands in the air, dramatizing each movement and word he belted out.

“All that’s left is to plug in the lights,” Cory said, happily.

Carefully, he plugged all of the lights into surge protectors and turned off the overhead lamp. The lights came alive when he flipped a switch on the main power chord and the room became a glow of blues and yellows and whites. Santa Clause danced at the foot of the tree and Charles even sat up for a moment, his tail smacking hard on the floor a couple of times.

“Something is wrong, Charles,” Cory said as he stared hard at his beautiful tree. “What is missing?”

Charles only glanced up before lying back down on his mat, closing his eyes, as if to try and forget what his master was doing.

“A-ha,” Cory shouted in elation. “There is no star on top of the tree.”

Cory knelt down and rummaged through several of the boxes. Standing up, he walked over to where the little box he had pulled down from the attic was. Opening it, he took out a silver star.

“I thought I cleaned this, last year,” he said and began to wipe the crusted red flakes from its sharp steel tip. Underneath the flakes was rust that had set in and wasn’t coming off easily. “Oh, well, I guess she’ll be the last one that gets to wear this star, Charles. It gets tossed out with the tree this year.”

Cory stood and walked back to the tree, singing.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, how steadfast are your branches!
Your boughs are green in summer’s clime
And through the snows of wintertime.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, how steadfast are your branches!”

“You’re going to be so beautiful,” Cory said and stepped onto a step stool.

Charles sat up, his tail wagging faster than it had in a long while.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, what happiness befalls me
When oft at joyous Christmas-time
Your form inspires my song and rhyme.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, what happiness befalls me.”

The woman let out a loud muffled scream that tore part of the green stitching away from her lips just before Cory drove the star into her skull. It cracked and then gave way under the tip’s pressure. Blood trickled from around the star and dripped down her face. Her body convulsed, violently at first, slowed and then ceased moving altogether.

Cory stepped back and wiped a speck of blood from his brow. “I almost toppled the tree this year, Charles,” he said. “That would have been a terrible thing, don’t you think?”

Charles stood and walked over to Cory, his eyes fixed on the small puddle of blood underneath the woman. He lowered his head and started lapping at the puddle.

Looking up at his work of art—the woman with no Christmas spirit—Cory began to sing once more as tears brimmed in his eyes.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, your boughs can teach a lesson
That constant faith and hope sublime,
Lend strength and comfort through all time.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, your boughs can teach a lesson.”

***

I hope you enjoyed O Christmas Tree, and for anyone who knows me, then you know I like telling folks where story ideas came from.

O Christmas Tree is a product of the blond-haired woman portrayed in the story. One evening in 2006 (when this story was written) I exited the local Wal-Mart with a bag in hand and in a bit of a festive mood. The woman stood outside the front doors, bundled up and barely ringing the little hand bell that comes with the hour long commitment to The Salvation Army charity that happens all along the country. This ‘commitment’ is voluntary—unless of course, a business sponsors it for a day or week, then the workers get ‘volunteered’ to do it, which I suspect is what happened in this case. None-the-less, if you are going ring the bell for an hour, the least you can do is appear that you want to be there. I generally give to those who are singing and saying Merry Christmas and are smiling and saying thank you and all that good stuff. It’s harder to give to those who just stand there like our Mrs. Grinch.

I placed a dollar in coins in the bucket, said ‘Merry Christmas,’ and proceeded to walk away.

‘Whatever,’ came mumbling from her lips. I honestly don’t believe I was supposed to hear the comment, but I did. I turned and looked at her. She glared back at me, as if daring me to say something. I smiled, though my head was shaking from side to side and my lips were somewhat tucked in against my teeth. ‘That’s sad,’ I said and walked off.

I would love to say I brushed this off and forgot about it, but I didn’t. I was disappointed in the attitude of the volunteer and just couldn’t let it go. I started to go back and say something when I noticed someone was standing beside her. She handed the bell to an older black man, and then walked away, her hands shoved into her pockets, her head down and a somewhat relieved, yet angry expression on her face.

There was no need to say anything to her. She struck me as an unhappy person who would just argue anything I—or anyone else, for that matter—would have to say. Instead, I walked off, reached my car and went to get in. That’s when I noticed her car was only a few spots away from mine. No, I didn’t go over to her and smash her head against the window, but right then the story came to me and I knew that one of my favorite character’s, a guy named Cory, would make another appearance in a short story. I went home that night and wrote O Christmas Tree.

I hope you enjoyed the read, and until we meet again, my friends…