Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Have Yourself a Merry Little

(my entry to faith*in*fiction and Fuse Magazine's Christmas story contest)

I looked regretfully at the gingerbread man before biting his head off. Bliss. Switching the decapitated cookie to my left hand, I steered my Explorer into the cul-de-sac, then reached over to shove the edge of the Saran wrap back under the cookie tray.

I chewed on a leg as I hummed along with "Jingle Bell Rock." Twenty-four hour Christmas music had a knack for lightening my mood. I eyed the last bit of gingerbread. Too bad the season didn’t lighten anything else.

Shrugging, I shoved the rest in my mouth as another song came on the radio. The first few notes told me all I needed to know. I swallowed the suddenly dry cookie and switched the stations. A merry little Christmas, indeed.

My parents’ house sprawled gracefully at the end of the street, a ranch with wrap-around porch and white picket fence. The prison of my teenage years. The haven where I would lick my wounds now.

A ladder stood in the front yard. Someone was helping Dad string up Christmas lights. I parked under the basketball hoop and walked over.

Dad gripped the ladder as the other man stepped down, then he enveloped me in a bulky hug. "Jana. It’s good to have you home."

"Thanks." I turned to the stranger and held out my hand. "Hello, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Jana Tate."

The man moved his scarf away from his face and Dad chuckled. "Why, Jana, don’t you recognize him? Troy Pearson?"

My hand dropped and I stepped back, tasting crumbs of gingerbread and feeling every ounce of the few pounds I’d put on since the breakup. Troy Pearson. My brother’s childhood best friend. And my worst enemy.

My eyes flicked over his face. He hadn’t changed much in five years. Same narrow eyes, identical smirk. Only now his face was red with cold when before it had been bronzed to arrogant perfection.

I deliberately turned back to my father. "I need to unload the Explorer." He nodded, and I crunched back to my vehicle. My feet beat out Troy’s long-ago chant against the snow: Fatty, fatty.

The December wind made my eyes smart. I opened the front door and reached for the box of kleenex at the foot of the passenger seat.

"I can help you carry stuff in." The familiar voice behind me had deepened slightly since I’d last heard it.

I tossed the tissue and moved to the back of the vehicle without turning around. "I can manage," I muttered as I shoved open the hatch. Pity the smaller boxes were on top.

"I know." Troy grabbed the box under the one I’d lifted and hoisted it with a grunt. I hid a sudden grin. Books.

I turned away and walked into the house, letting the door slam behind me and saying hi to Mom. As I walked down the hall to the guest bedroom – now once again my own – I ignored the footsteps following me.

Two hours later I emerged from my partially unpacked room and headed for the kitchen, stepping around the two men wrestling with the tree. Mom scraped the last of the mashed potatoes into the bowl before greeting me with a smile. "Could you put these on the table, Jana?"

I carried the potatoes to the dining room. Four plates graced the table. The bowl dropped in place with a thud. Of course my parents would ask Troy to stay for dinner.

I helped Mom get the rest of the meal on the table while the men washed up. Troy took Adam’s seat across from me, and I glared at his wrists.

Five minutes of silence prevailed as the food circled the table. I served myself tiny portions and watched Troy cover half his plate with potatoes. I grinned as I thought of the paunch he’d have by fifty. That sight would almost make up for the insults and practical jokes of years gone by.

Mom sipped her iced tea. "Have you heard from Adam lately, Troy?"

Adam. I’d heard from my little brother twice since he had left faith and family six years ago to search for himself. He must have forgotten to ask for directions.

Troy cut off a bite of chicken and nodded. "Last week. He’s in Nebraska."

My fork clattered onto my plate. Last week? I hadn’t heard from Adam in four years. So much for blood ties being the strongest. I allowed my eyes to focus on Troy’s detestable face. "How often do you hear from my brother, Troy?"

He shrugged. "Maybe once a month."

Once a month? This, this, peon chatted with my brother every month while I’d waited years? I scooted my chair out and tossed my napkin onto the table. "Please excuse me." I ran back to my room. Knowing from experience that the walls did nothing to muffle sound, I grabbed my coat and keys to seek refuge in my Explorer.

Once I’d shut out the quiet neighborhood, my lungs finally let out the scream they’d been holding far too long. Since Troy’s statement at the table. Since the day I’d lost my job and my boyfriend decided the distance from the city to here was too inconvenient. Since my brother had walked out of my life without so much as a goodbye.

I tucked my forehead into my palm, ignoring the cold and the idea of turning the heater on. I wanted to feel miserable. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, and the shreds of my life weren’t enough to trim a tree.

The minutes ticked by, and I gave in and shoved the key in the ignition. The radio came back on. From now on our troubles will be out of sight . . .

I slammed it off. It wasn’t going to be a merry Christmas – it was the worst one of my life.

Someone tapped on my window, and I rolled it down, expecting to see Dad. Troy stood there with hands awkwardly shoved into coat pockets. I turned back to the windshield, not saying a word, my finger ready to send the window back up at the earliest sign of an insult. Let him be the first one to speak

"Are you okay, Jana?"

Sure, the sensitive, caring male trick. "Why should you care?"

He stepped closer. "Jana, I know I was mean to you in the past, but I’m different now. Can’t you at least give me a chance?"

"A chance?" I turned to skewer him with my eyes. "When you’ve stolen my brother and are shoving yourself into his place in my family? I don’t think so."

He looked off into the distance with a frown. "Anyhow, I’m sorry. For everything. But you should go back inside – your parents are decorating the tree. I’ll see you later." He walked away, pulling out his cell phone.

"Later?" I called out, but he didn’t reply.

I shrugged and went inside. Bing Crosby blared from the stereo and a plate of cookies sat on the coffee table. Dad strung the last of the lights as Mom methodically unpacked ornaments. Her face relaxed as she saw me, and she came over and gave me a hug. I blinked away the tears. This was supposed to be a season for rejoicing.

I brought out my box of ornaments and pulled the tissue paper away to reveal snowflakes and bells, glass balls and paper cutouts. Some I had purchased for my little apartment tree, others dated from babyhood. Many of them were identical to Adam’s and each year we’d have to pick different sides of the tree. This time the thought brought a smile.

The phone rang. Dad, having stepped back to admire his handiwork, answered it, then handed it over my way. "It’s for you."

I pressed the receiver to my ear. "Hi, this is Jana."

"Hi, sis."

Adam. The front door opened and Troy walked in, a satisfied smile on his face, erasing his arrogant smirks forever from my memory. I reached toward the cookie tray for a gingerbread man. "Merry Christmas, Adam."

I bit the head off and closed my eyes. A merry little Christmas, indeed.

By Katie Hart


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