Winter Animals: Stories to benefit PROTECT

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I've got a thing for holiday-themed fiction. I blame Joe R. Lansdale and his top notch noir tale, "Santa at the Cafe." Needless to say, I'm stoked to be involved with such a cool project as WINTER ANIMALS, especially with three others who are not only great friends, but excellent writers as well.

Bracken MacLeod, Errick Nunnally and KL Pereira are a wonderfully diverse group of writers and I'm very proud to be a part of our little 'Mad Dog' collective. I've learned a lot about myself and my writing over the past couple of years and I owe much of my progress to them.

Which brings us to WINTER ANIMALS. Each Monday in December will feature a new festive short story from the group, hosted on the respective author's blog. On December 30th, the stories will be published together in a collection entitled, Winter Animals: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, with foreword by Thomas Pluck, cover by Joe DellaGatta and produced by Ron Earl Phillips. All proceeds from the e-book are going to benefit PROTECT, a pro-child, anti-crime lobby whose sole focus is making the protection of children a top political and policy priority.

We hope you enjoy the short stories, and if so, support the e-book and PROTECT. Without further ado...

 

Nor’easter

by Christopher Irvin

Randy felt the squelch of his tennis shoes as he stepped around the slush-drowned sidewalk in front of Doyle’s Tavern. The depression near the entrance flooded with the least bit of rain, and in the winter, as soon as the salt trucks made their first run. It had been that way for decades and always would be, giving the locals something to bitch about while Tom poured their first round.

Randy clutched his hat to his chest as the wind picked up, ruffling his long white beard. The falling temperatures stung his cherry-red cheeks and nose, near matching the color of his suit.

Just one drink. Just one drink to warm up.

Forecasters had repeated their call for a Nor’easter throughout the day, promising a white Christmas after several snowless years of drab browns and roads slick with ice. It was the constant talk of mothers waiting in line at the mall. Nostalgic excitement dashed with frayed nerves at even the mention of travel plans. They kept their young ones in tow, plying them with treats to keep them occupied until a brief moment on Randy’s lap. Smile, FLASH, and it was over. Off with memories in hand and onto the next one. He missed years past when he could spend a moment or two with a child, get a glimpse of the innocent wonder in their eyes. Nowadays parents were too busy to wait for a conversation with Santa, too worried about what Santa might say or worse, do. And so was Corporate. One complaint and you were kicked to the curb, replaced by a fill-in forty-something-year-old administrator with a fake beard.

Randy wiped his shoes against the stone steps, slick from early customers. The broken bell above the door clanked once when he entered.

“Well look what the reindeer dragged in.” Tom grabbed a remote off the bar and turned down the volume on the hockey game. Like his father before him, Tom knew every face that walked through the entrance. “Merry Christmas Eve, Randy.”

“Yeah, yeah. Ho, ho, ho.” Randy nodded toward the small television wedged in the corner near the ceiling. “How we doing?”

“Replay from last night. A wicked mess, but the B’s pulled it out.”

Though Randy loved all Boston sports, football was his game. But the Pats were having a rare difficult season and a series of losing Sundays had left him depressed and dreading the playoffs.

“Doug moving my stool again?” The stool three in from the right wobbled when he pulled it away from the bar.

“I’ll tell him to knock it off.”

“Tell him to fix it,” Randy said, replacing the broken stool with the one on its left. His stool, the one on which he’d scrawled his name in black marker underneath the seat. “He’s the one who knocked it over and gave it the limp.”

“Well it’s the holidays, right? Maybe I’ll wake up in the morning to a brand new set.”

“And Brady will run for a touchdown.” The men shook hands. Randy leaned his backpack on the stool beside him and laid his cap on top. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Keg just kicked. I’ll be right back.”

“You know, Tom?” Randy sucked on his front teeth, scratched the roof of his mouth with his tongue. “Hold that thought. Gimme’ a coffee instead.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Figure maybe it’s a sign.”

“You got it. Just brewed a fresh pot for myself.”

Tom selected a dull ceramic mug from a mix of drying glassware, filled it to the brim and set it in front of Randy. A bit of the dark liquid sloshed over the side, slowly dripping until it paused near the bottom, lacking the weight to finish the trip. Randy wiped away the bead and licked his finger.

“Cream?”

“All set, thanks. I’ve had more than my fair share of sweets today.” He patted his belly for good measure. “No longer a requirement for the job.”

“What, Santa’s Union been hit hard by that diabeetus? There goes your excuse. I’m going to remind you of that, you know.”

Randy chuckled. “Baby steps. I’ll make it my New Year’s resolution.”

Tom pulled a damp towel from his belt and wiped down a section of the bar that he’d already cleaned. It was a habit when talking to customers and not pouring drinks. The man couldn’t sit still.

“Plans tonight for ol’ Santa? Last minute deliveries in that bag of yours?”

“Just my boots.” He patted the backpack. “Gotta keep ‘em in top shape for next year.”

Tom tilted his head and raised an eyebrow as if to say, is that all?

“What’s that face for? I’m one of your best customers.” He lowered his face to the mug, careful not to spill. The hot liquid seared a cracked molar on the left side of his mouth. It was past saving and should have been pulled weeks ago, but the holiday season was Randy’s busiest time of year.

“You should be giving me a gift.” He grimaced as he set the mug down.

Tom leaned over the bar and flicked a bit of pink ribbon that stuck out of Randy’s backpack, exposed between the two zipper pulls.

“Taken a liking to pink then, are you?”

“Ah, that…”

Randy sighed, more ashamed than embarrassed, like he’d been caught with a stolen pack of gum and ordered to return it to the drugstore. He fiddled with the zipper, opening the bag just wide enough to pull out a small package wrapped in pink paper, its edges worn, discolored and creased. The ribbon, once curled with scissors, had since bent and flattened out in places. A corner of the package caught as he pulled it out, a small tear revealing a white box beneath. He pressed the torn wrapping paper closed as if staunching the blood from a fresh wound, and if he pressed hard enough, it would heal. His face bunched up like a child’s who’d fallen, more confused at the sensation than hurt.

He took a moment to himself, cradling the present in his hands before he spoke.

“Same thing every year. It’s for my granddaughter… just haven’t been able to give it to her.”

“What a minute now. You have a granddaughter?” Tom slapped the towel against the taps. “All these years and you never told me.”

“I’ve never met her. You know how it is… haven’t spoken with my daughter since the divorce.”

“That was close to a decade ago.”

“Yeah…”

Randy sat hunched, so low he could almost press his forehead against the bar. Tom played the bartender, trying to cheer him up, but Randy only listened to the muffled sounds of the television. He’d procrastinated enough, any longer and the depression would sink in. He’d switch to beer and inevitably miss the bus home. The stool rocked beside him as he slipped the present and hat into his pack.

“Well I better get going. Snow’s going to hit eventually.”

“Coffee’s on the house. Go deliver that package, Santa.”

Randy gave him a thankful nod. His shoe squeaked as he turned for the door.

 

The much anticipated snow storm finally began while Randy waited alone, shivering at the bus stop. The plexiglass housing blocked much of the wind but small white flurries still found their way in, dancing against his face and melting on his beard.

He cursed himself for telling Tom about his granddaughter. The man played Randy’s unofficial shrink, always lending an ear after a tough day. And perhaps after all these years he had a right to be upset at Randy for withholding such an important detail of his life. But some things you keep to yourself, let rattle around in your brain no matter how much it hurts.

What had it been, five years now since she was born? More? He’d never forget the day he ran into his ex-wife at the grocery store and she dropped the news like checking off an item on her to-do list. Randy had suffered through a lot in life, but nothing took his breath away like that moment. He still felt his chest tighten when he thought of it. His ex would tell him he didn’t deserve their attention, that he’d passed up every chance to earn his way back into their lives after all of his poor decisions. Deep down, a sliver of Randy knew this to be true and it hurt like hell.

By the time the 42 arrived, the ground was covered in white and the snow plows were out in force. The bus was empty except for a young couple at the front. They slumped together, each propped up by the other’s weight, staring out into the blizzard. The snow was so thick it resembled a fog, forcing the driver to slow to a crawl. Randy hugged his backpack against his chest for the duration of the trip, checking every few minutes to make sure the gift was still inside. What should have been a ten minute ride took close to half an hour as winter tightened her grip on the coast.

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d taken the bus out to see his family, but he knew the route by heart. Still he kept watch out the window, training his eyes for street signs and landmarks to make sure he didn’t miss his stop.

 

When he stepped off the bus the snow was up to his ankles. Close to three inches of powder on the ground and drifts twice as high against the houses. The quiet neighborhood looked like it had just received a fresh layer of frosting with glowing lights sprinkled underneath. How could it be that he was the only witness to such a scene, torn from a storybook? He took it all in, committing it to memory—the hint of pine in the air, the pale moon and its reflection upon the snow, the scent of wood fireplaces warming homes. Snowplows would arrive soon, taking it all away with sand and salt.

He threw his backpack over his shoulder and carved a path down the sidewalk toward his daughter’s home. The fresh snow was quiet underfoot, puffing up around his feet, not wet enough to pack. It was a short walk, only three blocks from the bus stop, two straight and a left. His heart fluttered with each step, the full weight of the evening finally coming to bear.

Three fan-blown snowmen danced in a yard next to a series of wooden reindeer complete with sleigh. Further down the street, two giant nutcrackers guarded a front door. He smiled at the cheesy holiday cheer that never got old, even after spending a dozen holiday seasons in the mall. He could never get enough.

He slowed his pace as he turned onto his daughter’s street, her house the second on the left with the large bay window. The streetlight near the driveway was out, making the house shine even brighter in the dark. The roof was rimmed with icicle lights, bushes along the front of the house wrapped with red and green strands. The blinds had been pulled aside, displaying a large, colorful Christmas tree.

His nerves got the best of him as he approached her driveway, and he grabbed hold of the base of the street light to steady his legs. Inside on the couch sat his daughter, her husband and his ex-wife. The television reflected on their glum faces. Randy slumped against the post. Had she gone to bed already?

Inside the house, the adults’ heads turned, full of excitement. Not one but two little girls crashed into their parents’ arms, the latter needing help onto the couch. Two girls? They each held a package in hand, faces beaming as they showed off their chosen gifts. Always allowed one present on Christmas Eve. A tradition he’d started with his daughter. They tore off the wrapping paper to reveal some kind of doll and tackled their grandmother with hugs and kisses. Their mother and father joined in, and soon they were in a bunch, laughing on the floor.

Randy wiped tears from his eyes. The joy inside the home crushed and melted his heart at the same time, the mix of emotions spilling down his face. This was the joy he’d been in search of, the joy he’d been missing all these years.

He couldn’t intrude and risk tarnishing that perfect moment.

The younger of the two girls pressed her face to the window as he crossed the driveway, retracing his steps to the bus stop. He winked and gave her a little wave as he passed. One day, if they thought of him, this was how he’d like it to be—just a jolly old man passing through the night.

After missing two buses, ‘out of service’ scrolling through their displays, Randy unpacked his boots and slipped them on. It would be a long walk home, but he had all the warmth he needed to get there.

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Stay tuned for "Recovery" by Errick Nunnally, dropping next week.