Christmas Return

by

J.M. Strother

Just as I remember it. The bonfire on the creek bank, kids playing out on the ice. The ones with skates gliding upstream and downstream almost without effort. Those without skates working up a head of steam, then planting their feet for an extended slide. It’s like a scene from a greeting card.

Christmas carols drift down the wooded bank behind me, from the speakers out in old man Matthews’ yard. I know there is a fat mechanical Santa belting them out, waving his hand, and periodically putting a finger to his nose (though he never disappears up a chimney). Between songs he belts out a loud HO HO HO! But down here, by some trick of the terrain, I can’t hear the ho-ho-ho’s, though I can still catch bits of the songs. I hum along with the ones I like.

A small cheer draws my attention downstream. Just past Howard’s Rock a hockey game is underway, short-handed as always. Each team with one forward, one defenseman and a goalie. And of course, no referee. There’s no such thing as penalties in pickup hockey.

I stand in the shadows, out of the glimmer of the fire, unseen by all. I’m good at being unseen. It’s a skill snipers learn to hone. Those that stay alive.

The older folks, those in their late teens and early twenties, huddle near the fire to keep warm. There are a couple of bottles being passed around, just as I remember. There’s TT, Tommy Turner, with what would have to be a bottle Wild Turkey. He started stealing Wild Turkey from his old man back when we were in 10th grade. I smile. His old man never did catch on.

Eileen Alexander and Fred Sanchez are tightly entwined. That’s new. When I shipped out Eileen was going with Walt Robinson, and it was looking pretty serious. I wonder what happened? Walt probably did something stupid again. Maybe this time he ended up in real trouble, jail even. Luck does eventually run out. Well, the way I figure it, Eileen’s better off without him.

I can’t tell who some of the folks in the shadows are. No night vision goggles now. Funny, I don’t miss ’em. But I do see Karen. She’s sitting on a log near the fire with Lucy Turner, Tommy’s kid sister. I repeat that line in my head, and smile. She’s sitting on a log with Lucy. No guy hanging all over her. I choke back a sob of relief.

Now my hand begins to sweat, and I feel prickly heat creeping up my back. I begin to swelter under my heavy suede coat, burning up as if I were back in the desert. I stand up to unzip my coat in order to cool down. Just as I do, Karen stands up too, and looks my way. I suppress the urge to dive for cover, freezing instead. Did she see me?

No. I can begin to breathe again.

Now, she’s pulling Lucy to her feet. Gathering others around. Behind me Santa is singing The Twelve Days of Christmas, the monotonous refrain, “and a partridge in a pear tree” grates just as it did in my youth. A single round would soon take care of that stupid partridge. I grin. Dumb sniper humor.

Evidently my old gang cannot hear Mister Matthews’ singing Santa from across the ice. They start in on another Christmas carol, Silent Night. They are lead by Karen’s sweet soprano.

For some reason there are tears in my eyes as I slowly ease myself back into a crouch onto a log, to steady myself. Making no sudden moves, I pull the laces tight with the skate key. Satisfied, I stand and slip the key in my pocket while at the same time withdrawing the little box. Once again I flip it open, just to make sure. Tiny fires reflect back up at me. I close the box and grip it tightly in my left hand, the good hand, take a deep breath, and glide effortlessly out onto the ice.

I could not ask her before I left. I could not bear the thought of leaving her a widow. But now…

Karen has her back to me. Some of the carolers see me coming, and fall silent. Others notice, and their voices also still. Karen, sensing something’s up, quits singing. Just as she starts to turn, I slide to a stop beside her and manage to mutter a quiet, “Merry Christmas, Karen.”

She jumps away, startled, and then when she recognizes me, screams in disbelief.

Suddenly she is on me, wrapped around me, hugging me so desperately it actually hurts. She’s crying. I’m crying. A crowd is gathering around.

Even before I ask the question I can see the answer in her eyes.

I know, at last, I’m home.

BIO:  J. M. Strother works for the Government by day and writes in his spare time. He dabbles in poetry, but his passion is fiction – in any form. He has written innumerable pieces of flash fiction, many short stories, six novellas, and three novels. He is the founder of the #fridayflash phenomena, an experiment in crowd-sourcing fiction via social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. You can follow him on his blog, Mad Utopia (link), and via Twitter (link). He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife, two children, and dog . He likes to read, garden, and cycle when not writing.

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20 Comments »

  1. 1

    Bravo Jon – the slow burn on this is brilliant. I wasn’t sure in the beginning if he was casing a job and was intending to shoot someone. And the nice touch of the mention of the ‘bad hand.’ Fantastic detailed descriptions of the singing santa in the yard and the humour of the finger which never disappears up the chimney (that was is going to stick – given I have a five year old son).

    Congratulations on a wonderful Christmas piece.

  2. 2

    I love it, Jon. The suspense was tingling. I, like Jodi, thought something awful was going to happen and I felt a rush of relief at the beautiful ending. Bravo!

  3. 3

    Great story, great to read, well written… loved it!

  4. 4

    This was fabulous! Vivid description throughout. And the direction of the writing in the first paragraphs did leave me thinking that protagonist was going to shoot someone!

    Until the line where he says that he could not ask her out because he did not want her to be a widow.

    Description of the ring as “tiny fires” was inspired.

    You’ve started the Christmas stories with a bang. Well done and congrats!

  5. 5
    Laura Eno Says:

    Nice suspense, Jon. You took me from sniper to romantic proposal. Deft touch with his history. Love the description of the ring!

  6. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wisneski: RT @JodiCleghorn: Christmas Return by @jmstro – Day on of the 12 Days of Christmas project by @wisneski http://bit.ly/7KSPBN #12days…

  7. 7

    Interesting turn of events in such a small space. A heartwarming ending. Great story Jon.

  8. 8
    Kathleen Gilbert Says:

    Jon,

    Loved it. Very well written. I thought the sniper was going to shoot someone. I love to be surprised like that.

  9. 9

    I thought the same as everyone else. What a turn of events. The suspense building in this piece in incredible – fantastic ending. Did you and Cindy plan this? The stories compliment each other perfectly!

    This is a fantastic kick off story as well. Well done.

  10. i liked it. Hockey game was like pick up games i played on my backyard pond growing up in MN.

  11. 11
    Samantha Wisneski Says:

    Jon-
    Great story! Very sweet for this time of year 🙂 I’m sure every woman who has a significant other overseas wishes for a return like this! Great way to start off the 12 days of Christmas!

  12. 12
    jimcast Says:

    Jon –

    First, thanks for writing for this project! Second, thanks for posting the interview about this project! And third, what a great story! I love – LOVE LOVE LOVE – the descriptions. . . I could see everything.

    Jim

  13. 13

    Well I hope you’re happy Jon, making a grown man tear up. This was beautiful.

  14. 14
    PJ Kaiser Says:

    Jon – This is a terrific story. I love the turning of the tables from thinking a sinister plot is brewing to a proposal! Very sweet and poignant – well done!

  15. 15

    Great story, Jon – very moving.

  16. 16

    Wow, cool story Jon. It could have gone in so many directions with each paragraph. Good form.

  17. 17

    Thank you all for the kind comments. I’ll a bit pressed right now with personal issues and so have not been able to keep up as I should. I hope things settle down soon and I can catch up.
    ~jon

  18. 18

    In the beginning, I thought it was a father coming to visit a child he had never known, for some reason. Then the perspective changed to the ghost of a husband who had died too soon. But in the end, everything is alright and happy. Lovely story.

    I hope things are going better with you, and wish you the best for the festive season.

    ~Nishida


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