IN THE DIM lighting of the room, I can see the colors bounce along the walls, flickering off and on again, like dancing stars in the distant sky. There are vague shadows, both the monstrous and the whimsical, silhouettes appearing again and again, then fading again into the darkness.
Off in the corner a man stands, leaning on his staff, below him a woman is kneeling, she’s staring down, her hooded head bowed slightly, eyes casting a benevolent gaze downward. Around them three more come, one is holding an animal on his shoulder, the others carry staves, they look as if they have traveled a long way.
I sit in my chair, surveying the scene, knowing that they will not move, the only movement in the room is from the dancing lights on the large tree that sits to my left.
Well, I guess large would be an overstatement, it was a good size tree, I’ll tell you that much. The lights had taken forever to string onto it, and still, deep inside I was wondering why I had taken all of the time to string lights that only I would see.
The somewhat to scale Nativity set was on a table that I never used over in the corner. Well, okay, I sometimes throw my keys onto it, but aside from that it never gets used. I wasn’t the one who had picked it out in the first place…but that’s a different story.
“Collin?” It was Connie speaking, my sister who was on the phone I was holding to my ear.
“Yeah, I’m here.” I answer.
Yes, my parents named us Collin and Connie Doyle. I guess they thought it was cute or something, truth is I never really asked them. I really wish I had when I still could, I couldn’t get an answer anymore.
“Okay, just checking, you get awful quiet sometimes.” She chuckled a little, but I knew that she didn’t really think it was funny. I think she knew what I was thinking about. “Just so you know, Amy is kind of sad you couldn’t come visit us this year—she really has a thing for you, uncle.”
I smiled. I had to. “Amy is also five years old, of course she loves visitors.”
“Especially the kind that will play with her for hours on end, including things that you know I don’t like.”
There was that. I didn’t see what was the matter with swinging her around by her arms, slinging her over my shoulder and endless piggyback rides, but Connie didn’t’ approve of such things in the house.
“Well…I guess so.” I can hear Amy in the background over the phone, she’s talking to her Dad about something, and I can hear Frank responding to her. I try to put the picture in my mind, I think Connie is sitting at the kitchen table, behind her is the kitchen, and off to the side is the living room. Connie, almost my twin, with her light brown hair pulled back into a careless ponytail, and her thumb and index finger rubbing her brow right above her crystal sea blue eyes. I like to think that she’s in her Christmas robe, the one she wears when she doesn’t care who’s around, the one with snowmen and snowflakes scattered randomly across the soft fabric. In front of her is the ceremonial evening hot chocolate, a dollop of melted whipped cream plopped on top of it, gradually sinking into the warm beverage. Her cell phone, an iPhone or a Droid—I can’t remember which one she got. She told me about it when she had purchased it.
“You doing okay, Collin?”
Ah, the question. The one I was waiting for ever since she called.
“Better than the last couple of years. Okay, I guess.” I respond. I really didn’t feel like getting into this again—I was about as over it as I was going to get, but I still didn’t see the need in dredging it up again. I know how they say that he best therapy you can get is talking to other people about what happened, and that kind of releases everything. It does help, I won’t lie—but that doesn’t mean that it still won’t hurt.
“You want to talk about it?”
I rub the back of my neck, “Nah, not right now. If I’m not mistaken, it’s well past Amy’s bed time.”
To tell you the truth I can’t always remember the exact time difference between Tennessee where I live, and Wisconsin, where she lives. All I know is that I need a good excuse. I just hope she doesn’t see it for what it is.
She sighs, and I can picture her looking at the large clock that hangs in the kitchen, one of those cat clocks that seem to be a horror movie fixture, the kind where the eyes move back and forth and the tail swings like a pendulum. Freaky thing, I know, but that’s Connie’s sense of humor. She’s probably the only person who finds stuff like that amusing.
“Yeah, but that’s fine. It’s almost Christmas, I’m not quite as strict this time of year.” He heard he take a sip of a something; what he imagined was hot chocolate.
“What? The bedtime Nazi is letting up?”
“Yes. She also sleeps a lot longer in the day when I let her exhaust herself. She still has a bedtime, don’t worry about that, but I occasionally allow her to indulge. I’ll blame it on Frank, if nothing else.”
“Sounds good to me.” I smile. Connie had loosened up since the previous years, she used to be a real “rules and regulations or die” kind of person. I had always teased her about it, but hadn’t done it in a long time. I think she was really starting to let go in a lot of areas. “But what would Dad ever say?”
“That I shouldn’t be so loose.” She chuckled again, “He would probably say: ‘rules are very important! It’s all about the rules.’ Something like that.”
I nod, he would. That he would.
“You miss them?” I ask.
A pause. “Yeah. A lot.”
The Christmas lights twinkle in my tree, reminding me more of a lake at sunset, shimmering orange and blue and red and purple—such a beautiful mix. How long ago had it been I sat on a dock and watched a sunset over a lake? How long had it been since I sat there with somebody beside me, watching it in awe, captivated, and ecstatic to paint it sometime.
For a moment, I can still see her, but then the thought vanishes, like an echo falling into blackness.
“What do you think they would do?” I ask. “Would they want me to still decorate and everything, or would they tell me not to worry about it?”
Connie shifted the phone, I can hear it, “What do you mean?”
“I decorated again this year. Nothing fancy, just a tree and a Nativity scene—you know, the one that we always used to put up.”
“Yes,” she replies.
“I put it up because of them…and because of Lisa. Even though I really don’t feel like it.”
“What do you mean?”
I sigh. “It really just doesn’t feel like Christmas, you know? I see the lights on houses—speaking of which, you should see the elaborate job that the folks across the street did—and I hear the Christmas music in the store. Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Andy Williams, couple other people I could care less about—but it’s just not connecting.”
She sighs, but in understanding.
“I’m not even listening to Christmas music. I just don’t feel like it. I haven’t watched a Christmas movie all season—but I still have the tree and the lights up. Call me a Grinch, I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem to be that time of year yet. It hasn’t for a while.”
“You think it’s because of Lisa?”
I see blood on my hands, and concrete below me, a white hand with blackened fingertips lying deathly still on the dark stain that runs across the painted line. Then it’s gone.
“I don’t know.” I say. I think she’s right but I don’t say. I look at the Christmas lights dancing on the wall, their shine bouncing back and forth, and I think of that dock again, the earthy smell around me, and the faint whisper of fruit, shampoo washed hair.
“You sure you don’t want to talk about it?” She asks now, with more concern in her voice. That was Connie though; she knew exactly what I was thinking. She always did.
“Yeah, I’m sure. I will say that I could use some prayer, y’know? It…uh…it still hurts a lot. Might be the tree, might be the wreath for all I know—it all brings it back. Some of it anyway.”
“I will.” She says. “We will, Frank and I.”
“How’s he doing anyway?” I ask, not just to change the subject—which believe me I want to do—but because I am interested, and I’m tired of focusing on my problems. Heaven knows I got plenty of them.
“He’s doing good, the new church is really liking him, he’s only been here a year but they have really taken to his style of preaching. I think they know that he really cares, too. He’s just started going through the Gospel of Mark.”
I knew he would do well, Frank was a good expositor, he knew how to break down the Bible into sections and feed it to the people, and he had a style that made everything interesting. I was happy for them when they took their new church, and I’m glad they are doing well. I just wish I could make it up there to see them.
“That’s good. I’m glad for you guys.” I say, and I mean it.
I look out the window that stares into the street from my living room. I see the house across the street—of course it’s hard not to—decked out with all manner of lights. They have lights going on the walls and the roof, which I can honestly say I haven’t seen anywhere except for television. Their front yard houses a herd of deer and a menagerie of snowmen inflatable decorations, all lead by a huge plastic rendition of the classic Frosty the Snowman, the bane of all Scrooges. On their roof was a Santa that could stand to lose a few, with four emaciated reindeer pulling a wooden sleigh that they had somehow mounted. How long it took to put up the grand display was beyond me, and I dare not ask what the electric bill is for it.
“Well, I gotta go. I think it’s almost bedtime for me.” I say.
I hear Connie begin to laugh into a sip of hot chocolate (or whatever it is) and quickly gulp it back down. “I guess so. Remember, if you want to talk, just gimme a call.”
“Of course.” I tell her. “Give my love to Amy and tell Frank to keep going. He needs to put more sermons on the Internet.”
“Will do. Love you, and merry Christmas, Collin.”
“Love you too, sis. Have a good week.”
We hang up and I set the phone down on my coffee table, inhabited by a cup of the good old black stuff, and a bottle of ibuprofen sits off to the side, closed up tight. Something about this time of year always gives me some off the wall headaches.
Her hair cascades around her head, like she’s floating in water, a speck of red dots her eye; those beautiful eyes stare up at me, not exactly blank, but so very unrecognizing, so very vague. It fades out.
I pick up the cup of coffee, held by a battered old mug with none other than Donald Duck staring back at me. He looks somewhat exasperated, and I try to remember where in the wide world I picked up this cup. I have no idea.
I sip from it, tasting the cold bitterness of the brew sluice down my near-parched throat. It’s not the best pot I’ve ever made, that much is for sure.
“Merry Christmas, Lisa.” I say to the tree, with the lights twinkling like the sunset. “Merry Christmas, dear.”
End of Part 1