Short Fiction by Darryl Mason
"Is he okay?"
He waited for her to answer.
He couldn't tell her what happened while she was away...
"He's not getting better, if that's what you mean."
How could he tell her, right now? She had more than enough on her mind already.
"I know your dad's not getting better. I meant...does he understand what you say to him? Can you talk to him?"
Down the hall, he could hear his son's sobbing quickly winding down as something in his bedroom grabbed his attention. When his mother had told their son she had to stay in Brisbane tonight, Christmas eve, he'd let out a little shriek, then a plume of tears. He didn't blame his son for crying, he knew he'd have burst into tears as well if he'd been told, at four years of age, that his mother wasn't going to be there when he woke up on Christmas Day.
"I talk to him," she said of her father, "but...he's off somewhere else. Most of the time, his face is just blank. Nobody home."
He struggled to catch all of what his wife was saying. Her old non-i mobile phone sounded like it was being shoved out of clear, crisp reception by 3-G, or 4G-3D, phones, or whatever the hell they were up to now. It was like he was trying to talk to her across a room, when there was a titanic hailstorm attacking the tin roof above. The static made it seem like wife was even further away than she was, where she sat next to her father, drifting out his last days in a nursing home that hummed steady silence and drifted with the tangy smells of death and shit. He knew she hated that place, and that she wanted to be home with him and her son on Christmas eve, wrapping presents.
But there were no presents to wrap.
"Are you still there?" she said, her voice grating with frustration. "Hello?"
"I'm here, the...line is shithouse, or the reception or whatever," he went to swallow, and couldn't it. His tongue, his mouth, throat, were dry, he needed water. Or bourbon. A decade ago, when he was 24, he would have dealt with the misery of the ruined day he had endured, and what would follow tonight, with three double Wild Turkeys and Coke, and then the rest of it straight from the bottle. But he didn't Do That Anymore. Even if he wanted to obliterate himself with bourbon tonight, he'd have to get in the car to go and get some. But the car went two weeks ago. The walk to the booze shop would take him fifteen minutes each way, through the sea of houses. If it was even open.
"I know where I'd rather be tonight..." she said, and he could feel her smile.
"I wish you were here, too."
"We've never been apart at Christmas, have we?"
"I don't think so...."
He could delay the inevitable confrontation with his wife until tomorrow afternoon, maybe even early evening, it would take her most of the day to drive back down the coast.
Or he could tell her now. Be honest, and tell her that he left everything to the last moment and that he had well and truly fucked up, that he'd been so absolutely sure there was another couple of hundred left on their final active credit card, but he'd been wrong.
He could tell her how it felt to stand there at the cashier's with a video game for his son in his hand and have his credit card rejected, twice, and to have someone there in the line behind him whisper, with disgust, "fucking loser," and to know that it was ultimately nobody's fault but his own.
He could tell her all that, but it would make her night even more miserable, worrying then not only about her father, and whether he would live to the New Year, but also about her son, who was now going to wake up in less than seven or eight hours to discover that Santa had left him no presents.
The ramataming splatter of static faded from their phones.
"No, we've never spent Christmas apart," she said, and he could see the memory movies he knew she was thinking about. "We even saw each other on a few Christmas days before we started going out. When you were still seeing...Sonja."
"You know I only went to all those parties with Sonja because I knew you were going to be there, looking wicked," he said. These were old lines, they both knew the routine and enjoyed it, when, once a year or so, they tossed these lines back at each other.
But it worked. His wife laughed, a real laugh, deep and loud. "How do you come up with such bullshit?"
"That's why you love me," he said. She'd needed to laugh, to get that release, and he'd done it. He'd made her feel better.
"It's not the only reason I love you, but it's in the top three."
How could he tell his wife that when their son woke up he was going to believe that Santa was a liar? And that he'd probably be waving the letter she'd written a month before, on Santa's Workshop letterhead, from the desk of Santa Claus himself, that promised the boy, if he behaved himself, the one present he most absolutely desired, as he'd told his father, "in this whole wide, world wide world."
It was a video game, for PC (a new Xbox was one third of a monthly mortgage payment they could never afford to miss), that put the player in command of the stars and moons of our galaxy. Before work finished for the year eight weeks ago, he'd watched a couple of previews of the game his son wanted from Santa on YouTube. The game had caught his imagination as well. One of the main gigs of the game was to move moons into the orbits of watery worlds to pull life out of the oceans, or to position a star into a rumble of asteroids and dead planets to make a new solar system, where life would eventually flourish if you could protect the planets from massive asteroid and comet strikes He wanted to play the game, too. And earlier today, when he'd been walking to the cashier's at the W, he'd imagined an afternoon of real joy and connection with his son as they played the game together on Christmas Day.
"Are you still there?"
"Yeah. Are you staying at the nursing home tonight?"
"I have to. The storm's gone crazy and the trains are out. I'm going to drag in a more comfortable chair from the day room when everyone's gone to bed. I think it's only me and nurses in this place who know it's actually Christmas Eve..."
"That's really sad. They don't even know it's Christmas.."
"I know. Anyway, I'm going to go."
"Okay. Do you want to talk him again? He's still awake, I can hear him ripping up paper in his room."
"Why's he still doing that? No, I'll call him in the morning. Make sure he's up by seven."
"He'll be up by five, waking me up."
A long pause. He knew that she knew, in the way she always knew.
"So," she said, with a sigh. "Did you get everything?"
He had to end this conversation now. It was time to bail.
"It's all taken care of," he said, quickly. "Everything's cool. I love you. Kiss your dad for me. Merry Christmas. I'll talk to you in the morning."
He hung up, snapping the phone shut. He tossed it on the bed like it had scorched his hand.
He stood there for a moment, waiting to see if it would ring again, then headed for the bathroom and drank water from the tap. Being a deceptive bastard was thirsty work.
"Jamie? What are you doing?" he shouted through the house, from the bathroom.
"Nothing dad!" his son shouted back, from his bedroom. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going downstairs to see what's on TV! You hungry?"
"Okay! I'll be back up to tuck you in!"
He had to get this done, before his son went to sleep. He had to go and tell him the bad news about Santa. And he'd do it, he told himself, in a few minutes, knowing food and TV were just ways to delay the inevitable.
He walked down the stairs, the rest of the house sat below, dark, quiet, still. The only noise in the whole house was the steady sound of his son slowly tearing long strips of paper.
It wasn't completely dark in the lounge room. Pink, yellow, blue and green lights glowed across the street, spilling through the curtains, dashing them with colours. It was the neon-drenched Christmas display that covered most of his neighbour's house. A remarkably detailed Christmas display that had drawn a steady stream of family-packed cars every night for two weeks. Most had stopped to admire his handiwork for a few minutes, but there were many who'd parked their cars and walked into his yard to explore his Christmas creation, to wander amongst those lights, to see what all the little mechanized figures of snowmen and elves and reindeer were going to do.
He knew his neighbour wouldn't be able to pay the astonishing electricity bill for this year's festival of Christmas lights, when it thudded into his mailbox in February, because he knew his neighbour wouldn't be there to get it. His neighbour had already packed up the larger pieces of furniture and valuables and moved them elsewhere, so when the bailiffs turned up and let themselves in some time next week to tally up the assets, they'd find nothing of any real value, all of it long gone.
There'd be no Christmas miracles for his neighbour, and his family, he knew that. There was no government bailout for them. They only owed hundreds of thousands, instead of billions.
And so, he thought, another family will leave the street, another set of familiar faces, some friends, who'd lived and shopped and taken their kids to the park and daycare centre in this neighbourhood for six or seven years, would be gone. Another abandoned house would join the twenty or more he'd already found within a few minutes walk. Some were occupied by squatting students who couldn't afford to live in the city in the more, others by the suddenly homeless who had fled other suburbs, in other states.
His son didn't seem much bothered by the disappearance of his friends from down or up the street.
He didn't understand this at all. When he was five, his best friend's family had packed up and left the street where he'd spent his childhood, and the experience had traumatized him for months.
His son just shrugged when he asked him if he missed the kids he used to play with. At only four years old, his son had said goodbye to nine of the kids who were born to families in the street the same year he and his wife had been blessed with him. They were all gone, moved on, leaving behind abandoned mortgages and abandoned homes that nobody wanted to buy.
For the past three years, the street had seemed like the perfect place to raise a child, surrounded by other young families, people like him and his wife, working families, other kids like his son. Everything here had felt familiar, everything had felt right. It had been a safe place, safe enough for the kids to get together in the park after school to kick around a ball, without a fleet of parents watching over them.
But the kids hadn't gone to the park much at all, at least, not as much as he and his friends would have, and did, when they were the same age.
His son, and his friends, were more interested in video games, and teaching their grandparents how to use a computer and get socially networked, than slamming each other into pebble-studded fields of mud in mad pursuit of a ball.
He stood at the bay window, and noticed for the first time, of the many nights he'd stood there, beyond midnight, staring at the lights, just how much the softly-blinding illumination lit up the surrounding houses, his own house, his front lawn. It was something of rare beauty, and he wished he'd spent more time enjoying it, rather than resenting it, because his own home Christmas decoration attempts seemed so futile in comparison.
The thousands of dollars of lights and waving, smiling dioramas and glowing reindeer had cleaned out his neighbour's credit cards over three afternoons of madness in late October. Making something beautiful, if only for a few weeks, had become an obsession for him, as his family came to grips with their financial ruin, as they poised on the brink of fleeing the neighbourhood.
It was only now, tonight, that he realized his neighbour hadn't gone mad. He'd lost everything anyway, but in a final tribute to the neighbourhood, he had given the people of this devastated street something beautiful, a flood of light, a place to stand and be awed in the night by dazzling colours, it was a gift to the friends and neighbours that remained, and something free and wonderful for families to come and see, experience, share.
When other fathers who visited asked how much it cost, his neighbour had always grinned and declared, "Nothing!"
His neighbour had nothing left, so he had nothing left to lose.
He wondered, briefly, how long it would be before his family joined the exodus from the neighbourhood. Another month or two, maybe less.
From upstairs, the sound of ripping paper ceased. His son would soon be asleep.
From down the street, from one of the abandoned houses now occupied by homeless youth, who had in turn exodused the city, drifted familiar singing. "And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?" A John Lennon song, he remembered some of the words, a choir singing 'War is over, if you want it." The stereo the kids were blasting it from was up loud enough for him to sing along, but he got stuck on the words, "and what have you done?" The words repeated, a broken, taunting record in his mind.
What have you done?He wasn't hungry anymore. He didn't care what was on TV. He had to get this over with. He walked to the stairs, and started climbing. He had to tell his son the truth.
"Are you awake?'
"Yes. I can't sleep."
"I know. When I was your age, I couldn't sleep either. I kept thinking I could hear Santa coming."
You idiot, why did you say that?
His son nodded slowly, then looked at his father.
"I don't think Santa's coming...."
"How did you know?" The words jumped out of his mouth before he could stop them. His son sat bolt upright in bed, and even in the low illumination thrown off by a Snoopy nightlight, the same Snoopy nightlight that had kept the monsters of the dark at bay when he was a child, he could see his son was already close to exploding into tears again.
"Santa's not coming? Why isn't Santa coming?"
His son had almost shrieked those last words. It was too much for him, he could see that. His mother away for Christmas Day, and now, no Santa.
"Santa's not coming because...." he paused. His son was already dealing with the fact that there would be no Santa, he wasn't coming, he already understood that. Now he had to explain to his son why.
Was it too early to beat his son's friends at school to the belief-rattling truth that Santa doesn't really exist? That the Santa his son already knew so much about, and dearly loved, was mostly dreamed up by Coca-Cola and cigarette advertising executives back in the first few decades of the last century?
It would blow his child's mind. He had to do this delicately.
I need to keep lying, he told himself, just for tonight, I can destroy the reality of Santa Claus for the boy in the New Year.
"Santa's not coming because...." he took a long, deep breath. There was nothing, his mind was blank. But then it wasn't. He had the story.
"Well, all over the world, in really poor places, poor families, you see, they can't afford any presents at all this year, none, and so Santa has to do a lot of extra...running around...flying around, in his sleigh, he has to fly a lot more trips to make sure the really poor kids get at least something this Christmas....outside of what he was going to give them anyway...before he found out their parents had...couldn't afford to get other presents....as well."
That was a terrible explanation. He knew it. This was going to be a long night. The kid wasn't going to go to sleep again, for hours. He could almost hear that sharp little brain churning through The Explanation for why Santa would not be visiting this year, dissecting it, comparing it to reality as he'd briefly come to know it.
He sat down on his son's bed, and waited for the boy to speak. His expression already showed that heavy doubt was tearing apart The Explanation. Some more foundation work for the lie was needed, but he had nothing else.
"That's why...Santa can't come here this year, you see? He's extra busy with the really poor kids."
His son nodded slowly.
"Are we really poor, dad?"
"No...I mean....we're not, really poor."
"Are we just poor?"
"No...well, maybe a little."
"If Santa doesn't give me presents, will poor kids in other places get my presents?"
"I don't know how it all works," he said. "Ease up on the questions for a minute."
So his son did, but he had nothing to say. They sat in silence, the night sky above the back yard glowing and filling the window, alive with stars and flashing satellites and the faint dust of the Milky Way galaxy.
He had an idea. He knew from his own childhood that on a clear night, you can see a couple or more shooting stars every half hour, if you stood outside with you head craned back, and paid attention. When he'd had a minor obsession with basic astronomy, before high school and girls and rock music pulled his eyes away from the heavens, he'd spent plenty of clear summer nights out in the yard with his telescope sweeping across the sky, and he'd seen plenty of shooting stars.
Had he told his boy much at all about the night sky yet? Not really. Not outside of basic explanations for what The Moon was, and why some stars seemed to twinkle, and others pulsed red, or blue.
His son, like himself at four, was showing a keen interest in science fiction TV shows, and, in particular, science fiction video games, but while he loved to blast through deep space on his father's laptop annihilating enemy transports and their escorts to micro-dust, the boy had never spent an evening in the back yard examining the endless light show in the sky.
The idea, the new lie, that popped into his head to further delay the day when his son learned that Santa Claus was only myth, a triumph of marketing, surprised him in its cunning, and potential for drama.
"Listen," he said to the boy, "there won't be any presents, but Santa has promised that every kid who misses out this year will get something extra special, instead of toys or...games."
That perked up his son's ears, widened his eyes.
"Something special? What is it?"
"We have to go downstairs, and out into the yard," he said and stood up. "So grab your shoes and put them on."
"Why do we have to go outside?"
He pointed out the window, to the sprawl of stars, fighting to shine their light against the orange glow of the city in the distance, bleeding neon up from the horizon, diluting their brilliance.
"You won't be able to see it properly from inside," he said, and held out his hand. His son was out of and then off the bed, rustling underneath it for a pair of shoes. He found them, quickly slipped them on.
"Is the something special from Santa something that flies?"
"No more questions," he said.
"But I want to know now," the boy tried to cry, but he had forgotten he was supposed to be upset and couldn't find the immediate tears.
He picked up his son and carried him from the bedroom.
"Don't cry, okay? Okay, what Santa did was...Santa made a promise to every kid that misses out on presents that he will send them their own special shooting star. That's why we have to get downstairs now. The shooting star Santa sent for you should be flying overhead any minute."
The boy liked this news. His legs started moving like he was running. "Hurry up! We have to go and see it!"
He felt a little guilty at how easy the basic lie, and the story he conjured up around it, was to create and explain. Now his son wasn't expecting a video game he couldn't afford. He was waiting for a shooting star, which he didn't know would be a meteorite or maybe even a chunk of old satellite, hitting the atmosphere, breaking up, burning up, flaring out.
I promised my son a shooting star, he thought as he carried the happily struggling boy down the stairs. What happens if we don't see one?
This seems so familiar....
It was a beautiful night. He'd kept his son busy counting stars for a minute or so, but he was already getting bored. The counting was punctuated by sighs that grew louder, as the promised shooting star from Santa failed to appear.
"Thirty two, thirty three, thirty four....when's it coming?"
"Soon. Very soon."
"Thirty five, thirty six, thirty seven..."
He'd learned in his late teens how to delay the moment when the emotional impact of something terrible actually hit him, and consumed him. Delay The Inevitable had been his life matra for most of his 20s. When his father had died, he hadn't shed a single tear for four months, then everything had come at once, a wave of sadness, grief and regret that all but crippled him. Booze had helped, but then the booze had become the problem, instead of the fact that his father had died and he hadn't said goodbye, or even seen him in those last painful months of his life. He hadn't let himself learn to deal with it.
"Thirty seven, thirty eight, forty..."
"Thirty nine," he croaked, convinced that he was about to burst into a wracking attack of sobbing louder than anything his son had unleashed during what had been an altogether utterly shitty Christmas Eve.
"Thirty nine, forty, forty one..."
He remembered then, a Christmas long past, from his own childhood, the memories came rushing back, a wave of images soaked with emotion. He had to fight to stop himself from crying. He remembered now why this moment in the backyard with his son seemed so familiar. His father had done the same thing with him, on a Christmas eve when he was five years old, taken him into the backyard, promising shooting stars instead of presents, there were no presents, his father had drunk the money his mother was going to use to buy them. It had been his father's Christmas ritual.
His father had kept drinking as they stood in the back yard that night, the crumbling, neglected old house a tilting heap behind them. He'd waited and waited for his shooting stars, and as he waited, he'd felt himself pulled into the deep, black curtain of the night sky. He could leave this place behind by going up there, one day. His father had eventually sat down on the grass, then plopped back into a snoring pile. But he'd stayed right there, rooted to the ground, eyes sweeping across the great, immortal dome of stars.
He didn't see a shooting star that night, and the disappointment had been devastating. But he went back out there the night night, and the next night, and every night for weeks, staring into the sky, watching hundreds of shooting stars blaze across the sky, or simply flare out in a second or two. An elderly neighbour finally asked him what the hell he was doing in the back yard every night, and when he explained, the old man had given him a small telescope, on a tripod, from the ruin of junk and detritus in his garage. His love of astronomy, of knowing everything he could about the stars, the planets, the universe, then began, and consumed him. Until girls distracted him, and then rock music, and drinking.
"Dad? I'm bored. Can we go inside?"
He faked a sneeze so he could wipe the tears from his eyes, without his son seeing how upset he was.
"Two more minutes," he said. "Santa promised you a shooting star and he will deliver. Two more minutes, just count the seconds..."
A loud, long sigh preceded his son's new count. "One, two, three, four, five, six..."
He hated himself and hated his life. What a fuckup he'd become. Christmas Eve and not enough money in his pocket to buy his kid even the cheapest piece of shit toy. He corrected himself, in his mind. He hadn't become a fuckup, he'd always been a fuckup. In four weeks, no longer than eight weeks, his family would lose their home. He still didn't know if his boss was even going to reopen the doors of his offices in the New Year, let alone ask him to come back to work. Not that it mattered, he wouldn't earn enough to get his family out of their debt problems.
What's going to happen to us now?
"Twenty eight, twenty nine, thirty," his son sighed again. He knew he was only out here now to make him happy. He was doing this for his dad, no other reason. "Thirty one, thirty two, thirty four...."
"Thirty three," he whispered, as the suddenly familiar raw despair of old soaked through him, a despair that he'd once diminished with alcohol, but now had to work its way through his system, feeling like it was killing a little bit more of his soul every time it came to visit.
"Thirty three, thirty four, thirty five...it's not coming."
"It's coming," he said through gritted teeth, a darkness of anger clouding his words.
I need bourbon...
"Thirty six, thirty seven, thirty eight...."
Come on God, you bastard, just give me this one thing. Please. Please? I'm not asking for a miracle, I'm not praying for you to make us win the lottery. I'm not praying for you to save this house, or protect my family, I'll do both, I'll find a way to get through this, but you have to give me this one thing, tonight. Just one little shooting fucking star. Just one, right now, so my son can see it. Is that too much to ask for?
"Fifty one, fifty two, fifty three....can we go inside, please?"
"Fifty four, fifty five, fifty six...."
I did everything I was supposed to do to be a good man, a good father, didn't I? I stopped drinking, I worked every day in a job I hated because the money was good and it was close enough to work so I could pick my son up from day care, every day. I cleaned up my life, I got the job, I made a family, I brought a house, I paid my bills on time, I didn't sleep around on my wife, and I never hit her, or my son. What else do you want from me? What the fuck else do I have to do to get just this one single fucking break here?
"Dad? Is Santa really real?"
Great. Now this.
"Santa's not really real is he? He's made up, like cartoons..."
Please God, please, just one tiny shooting star. Let the kid believe in this, this little bit of fantasy, for a little bit longer.
"Santa can't make shooting stars, dad. He just makes toys and stuff."
He searched the skies, but the stars were all still. There wasn't even a blinking satellite to distract his son with.
So that's it, then. I prayed to you for help when I was a kid, and you did nothing. I prayed to you for help during all those years of violence at home and at school, and you did nothing. I've never asked you for riches, I've never asked you to kill somebody I hated, I've never asked you to do anything but make bad things into good. Make this bad night into a good one. Please.
"He just gives toys...he can't make shooting stars...."
His son turned and walked back to the house.
"Wait a second..." he said, searching the skies as frantically as he had that night so man years ago with his own father. "Wait..."
"I want to talk to mummy," his son said, almost at the back door. His voice quavered, quivered, the tears were not far away.
If you won't do this for me, if you won't give me this one thing, one little shooting star, then I'll do it, I'll make it happen.
His son stopped at the door, the big sigh came again.
"Dad. I want to talk to mummy!"
One tiny dot of light blinked, and then grew brighter, and began to streak across the sky.
"Look! Look!" His voice shrieked, and his son stopped pushing open the back door and looked into the sky, following his dad's pointing, trembling finger.
"Wow!" His son ran the few steps to get back to his side. He grabbed his hand, and squeezed with his little fingers. "Wow!"
The shooting star burned brightly, as it churned through the black, becoming the brightest object in the near moonless sky.
"Count it!" he shouted to his son. "Count it!"
"One! Two! Three! Four!"
The shooting star shuddered in its path, and burst into brighter light, almost blinding in its intensity. Chunks of it peeled away, dozens more tiny shooting stars. It left a fading trail of dancing, glowing dust in its path.
"Five! Six! Seven!"
His son's voice grew louder, more excited, with every number he shouted. He squeezed his father's hand tight. "Eight! Nine!"
The shooting star had arced across half the sky in its frenzied flight. In all his childhood years of staring into the sky through the telescope, he'd never seen a shooting star burn so bright for so long. He had no idea what it was. But his son was screaming with excitement.
As instantly as it had appeared, the shooting star finally burned away. For another couple of seconds, they watched as the light trail left behind faded, a glittering path through the heavens, already lost amongst those millions of stars, and the blinking red and blue lights of local planets.
"Wow!" his son said, trembling with excitement, "Wow! Wow!"
"Yeah," he said, "Wow."
It was an incredible coincidence, he knew that, it was nothing but coincidence. A massive and incredibly rare extra big chunk of old planet or asteroid had hit the atmosphere and burned up and they'd been fortunate enough to witness it. Shooting stars that big appeared once or twice a year, maybe less, and it was impossible to make plans to witness them. It's just a coincidence, he told himself, again, nothing more. Nothing more than that.
Well, he thought, maybe something more.
"Wow!" his son was still yelling. "Wow!"
For the first time since their talk in the boy's bedroom, they now looked at each other, and began to calm down.
"Was that shooting star for me, dad?"
"Yes. It was."
"Can I tell everyone that was my shooting star, dad?"
"Yes, of course you can."
"THAT WAS MY SHOOTING STAR!" his son suddenly yelled to the neighbourhood.
He thought his son meant he wanted to tell 'everyone', meaning the last few kids who lived in the street, his teacher, and his mother, when she returned home, but no, his son meant everyone. Everyone still left in the town, within hearing distance of his magnificent yell
"That Was My Shooting Star! Santa Sent That For Me!"
"Yes," he lied, agreeing with his son. "He did. That one was for you."
"Best Christmas ever."
"It's not Christmas yet."
"I know," he said, and stared into the stars. To his father, the boy's smile was as wide as the horizon, and he knew instantly that like him, his son too would become hooked on star-gazing.
"It's still the best Christmas ever."
"Yeah," he said. "You're right, it is."
And it was.