Several years ago I wrote a short story for an anthology. It was for a winter's themed publication titled Flights of Fantasy. The book was put together to help a fellow author, Ben Cassidy, who was and is still fighting a long battle with cancer. I have never published a full story on this blog before, but as they say, there is a first for everything. I would urge anyone who is settling in for the long winter's season to give this anthology a read. Here is my offering and an early Christmas present to those who follow this blog.
The heat of the fire enveloped the room, saturating the large leather furniture with warmth. He lifted the glass to his lips, the smell of the bourbon tickling his nose. He could almost taste its fragrance, mixed sparingly with the caramel scent of Coke. His eyes found the etched bottom of the glass through the shallow, brown fluid. He hesitated, wanting to drain the last precious drops in one swallow, or should he let it slip slowly down his throat so he could savor each drop?
Chapman stared at the fire roaring behind the open grate of the chimney as he rolled the glass in his fingers, the flickering light dancing upon its rim. Everything had been so perfect; so perfect. And now this. He tossed the sweet flavor down his throat and let the glass fall from his hand to the floor. The lone clerk behind the counter gave it little thought. Just another spot to clean from the rug.
It had begun so innocently, all those years ago. The memory pulled at him; slapped him across his face like it was yesterday, a yesterday he has relived every year for forty-three years. His head rolled back and lay across the worn fold on the seatback, an obvious sign of use in this lodge. He came here every year. Was it to relive the memory in hopes that it would change, or was it to punish himself for a decision he’d made all those years ago? A decision, he could not change.
He looked up at the glistening tree displayed prominently in the center of the hall, all twenty feet of it, wrapped in sparkling tinsel, lights and shiny glass bulbs. Each year the tree was slightly different, but the tradition continued. This year’s addition was red poinsettias inserted generously throughout. His eyes skimmed its features; a nice touch, he thought, as was the cotton-snow pulled meticulously through its branches. Even inside, it gave the impression of being outside in the dead of winter. Dead of winter, he thought. Much like he felt again.
He could still remember seeing his first tree, sitting there all those years ago, the same place, the same size. Only the decorations were different, a measure of a different time, a different era. A simpler time? He often wondered. Not really. We tend to look at our past with a ‘rose-colored’ memory. We see the good while glossing over the bad. Those years were full of strife, but as a little boy, he hadn’t known the hardships of others. He only knew his own little world, a world of bikes and cowboys and cops and robbers. And Jenny.
Jenny. She slowly became all that mattered to him; the little girl who moved in down the lane. He was the first one she’d met, and she clung to his side those first few weeks, a stranger in a strange land. But what did he know? He was just a little boy who wanted to play, and school was still several weeks away. But as time and proximity coalesced, they were soon inseparable and the heart of a little boy began to turn.
She was all he thought about when they weren’t together. It wasn’t until one particular day in school that it all came to a head. She was pressed up against the wall by that boy, Willie. Her books were in her arms, her auburn hair hanging in front of her eyes as she tried to look away from him. He was pushy, a bully. He pressed his chest against her shoulder driving her into the wall. It was in that moment that a primal sense of protection unleashed his heart upon the world.
The next thing Willie knew, he was looking up at Chapman from the wooden floor, the blood from his nose smeared across Chapman’s fist. Without another word, Chapman turned and pulled her towards him as her head fell into his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her and walked her away, and the bond between them was forever sealed.
That was so long ago that had it not been Jenny, the memory would have been lost in a world of lifetimes. But it was her doing that brought him here, brought him to this place, this time. Yet here he was, in the same place he had come to every year for forty-three years, a lodge in the mountains, alone at Christmas. Though it had passed through several hands over the years, the traditions continued, and he was a part of it. The owners, one after another tacked the single stocking up by the hearth where the fire burned bright, a single red stocking on a simple cut nail buried deep into the mantle.
The empty glass had rolled in a small circle across the carpet before coming to rest against the brown, leather ottoman, as his eyes slid quietly shut. The dream that had become his nightmare again filled his world of sleep, a silent torture in the dead of winter.
* * *
He looked up, a smile on his face as Jenny grabbed his hand. They ran out into the field, fresh from new-fallen snow, leaving the lodge behind. It was an innocent romp as they swirled about in knee-deep powder as soft as a cloud. They paid no attention to where they were headed and the lodge was quickly lost from view, receding into the glare of the morning sun as it broke into the highlands.
“I’m getting cold.” Jenny plopped herself down on an exposed rock and slumped forward. She ran her hands up and down her arms to try and get warm. They had been outside for more than two hours.
“We’ll just go back. I’m getting cold too.”
“Chappy? Which way do we go?” Jenny looked around trying to remember where they came from.
“We just follow the tracks back.” Chapman turned to point the way, and stopped, silent.
“What tracks?” Jenny looked up, shivering.
They stood there in the middle of a field, immersed in a blanket of snow as pristine as when the world was new. Not so much as a rabbit’s footprint disturbed its surface. They were alone, and cold.
“Chappy, I’m scared.”
“We’ll be fine, Jenny.” The look in his eyes betrayed his words as he sat down next to her and put his arm around her shoulders. “I think we came from over there.” He pointed to an area between two shallow hills. “Let’s go that way.”
She nodded and slid from the rock, her feet landing squarely. They locked arms and started off, a smile planted on Chapman’s lips. He was getting cold too, but he didn’t want to scare her. He was the man, after all. They’d find the way back. Besides, they hadn’t been gone that long. The sun began to fail as it slipped behind the gathering clouds, the gray skies stealing away what little warmth it provided.
“Chappy, I’m cold.” She leaned in close trying to steal the warmth of his body.
“Me too. We should find someplace to sit down.”
“Just keep going. We’ll find someplace.”
When at last they found a small hole cut into a low hill, they plopped down, exhausted, but it was free from the snow that clung to every part of them. The sun had long since disappeared and dusk embraced the darkening shadows of the valley. They huddled together trying to stay warm. He felt the mist of her breath on his face as she lay against him, the only warmth he could feel as her body slumped. His tears rolled slowly down his cheeks as he drifted off to sleep, alone in a world blanketed in silence.
He stirred as he felt his face bathed in warmth, his cheeks flushed red. A soft twinkling tickled his ears as the jingling sound of bells mixed with laughter began to rouse him from his sleep. Chapman opened his eyes to a ceiling arched above him, the wood dark, the beams thick and sturdy and decorated with garlands and bright red flowers. He was wrapped head to toe in the warmest blankets he had ever felt. He smiled before a single thought echoed through his mind; ‘Jenny!’ He sat up immediately, throwing the blankets away.
“Now where do you think you’re going?”
“Where’s Jenny?” He was nearly in a panic. He turned toward the voice from behind, squinting as the light surrounded him.
“That sweet little girl?” A comforting smile was returned, a gentle wisp like his grandmother’s. “She’s doing fine. Such a nice young lady.”
“Where is she?”
“Oh, she’s about. I don’t know where though.” The short little woman clad in a white apron atop her red blouse, stood next to him with a comforting smile as she laid her hands on his shoulders. “Now, now. You need to lie back down for a while. You’ve been asleep for quite some time.”
“Then I have all the sleep I need.”
“It doesn’t work just that way, Chappy,” she chuckled. “Now lie down.”
“How do you know my name?” he said, as he slid back into the softest pillow he had ever felt.
“Oh, we know a lot here in Christmas Town.”
“Oh my yes. This is where we live. It was fortunate they found you when they did. You shouldn’t be scampering about in this weather. It’s not good for young children.”
“Who found me?”
“Why, the helpers, of course.” She turned back to what she had been doing as she began to hum.
“Well now, that’s a good sign, Chappy. After you rest a bit more, I’ll have the helpers bring you something to eat.” She reached over and patted him on the head. “Sleep now child. Sleep now.”
He could do nothing but obey the lilting sound of her voice. He was powerless within its grasp. The last thing he remembered before he fell asleep was her voice humming gently behind him.
“What time is it?”
“It’s time for you to wake up, lad.”
“Where’s the lady?” Chapman sat up and rubbed his eyes with his fists, working hard to get the sleep out. “She’s pretty.” He stared at the little man working at the table, his back towards him. He was like nothing he had ever seen, small but stocky, his hair long and gray, bushy actually, but combed beneath a woven cap. He heard a low chuckle as the man turned to face him, and Chapman’s eyes went wide.
Standing before him was everything he ever thought Christmas was. The little man was dressed in a green vest over top of dark, farmer’s overalls, but there was no mistaking who he was. His long hair flowed into a silver-white beard the color of frost on a window pane. His blue eyes sparkled beneath his glasses, just like the stories his mother told him. Chapman could hardly breath, much less speak.
“My wife is fetching you some breakfast. She’ll be ‘round shortly.” The little man stepped to the end of the bed and leaned in close. “Now, tell me Chappy, what were you doing out there all alone in the cold?”
“I wasn’t alone, sir.” Chapman was terrified. He sat wide-eyed, trembling.
“Oh my yes, yes. Your little girl friend too. Jenny. Such a sweet child.” He looked over top of his glasses as he stroked his beard. “You like her, don’t you Chappy?” He said with a smile and a wink.
“I ... I.”
“I understand. I sort of have that effect on people the first time they meet me.” He straightened and cleared his throat, the twinkle in his eye apparent as his hands rested on the curved footboard of the brass bed. “Now, when Mrs. Claus says you can get up, you can get up, and not before.”
Chapman nodded and the little man, the man he knew only from the tales of the Christmas season, slipped quickly from the room. All he could do was slide down beneath the fluffy white covers, and try to hide.
After a light breakfast, Mrs. Claus guided him from the room onto a balcony overlooking a vast hall. It was mesmerizing; the hustle and bustle, the commotion almost more than he could take in. His broad smile said more than words could ever tell. The sounds rolling up from below was almost deafening and he quickly covered his ears with his palms. All around him were the sounds of Christmas piled on top of a busy workshop. It was even more than his imagination could ever have conjured up.
Elves of all shapes and sizes scurried about doing their chores. Some pounded with mallets while others painted wooden toys, and singing seemed to be the order of the day. It was an unending chorus of Elven working songs mixed with the melodies of Christmas. All he could do was smile from ear to ear. He felt a gentle hand land on his shoulder and he looked up to Mrs. Claus. Her smile was infectious, and he felt at home. How could he feel any other way? There was only one thing that would make this perfect.
Just then, above the din, he heard his name from below and his eyes immediately found her. Jenny. He didn’t think he could smile any wider, but he did. He began to bounce up and down as he grabbed the railing. There she was, right smack in the middle of the workshop helping a tall elf paint a wooden train. She waved furiously. Chapman shrugged his shoulders and held up his hands.
“Over that way, dear. There’s a staircase down to the main floor.” Mrs. Claus pointed over his head as Chapman turned and grabbed her about the waist, squeezing hard. “Go now. You’ve someone waiting.”
He could hear the warming smile within her voice and he was at the head of the stairs within seconds. A quick look back, a hesitation, then he was down to the main floor. He sprinted across the floor dodging the elves as they went dutifully about their business. He stopped just inches away from her. Even in the midst of what every child dreams of, all he could see was her face; all he could smell was her fragrance. She was perfect. She turned, smearing red paint across his cheek as she grabbed him tightly.
“Isn’t this just wonderful?”
It was, but all he could think about was her. The sound of her voice touched his heart and he leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. She blushed, and flicked the red paint brush across his nose. All he could do was laugh.
The rest of the day was spent exploring. Guided by a ‘helper’ named Simon, they toured the workshop and surrounding grounds. They played with toys from the workshop, ate swirled candy canes and rode the Christmas train all around the town. As dusk began to take hold, Simon had the train take them down the last street of Christmas Town. He simply directed the engineer where to go, because in Christmas Town, the Christmas train didn’t need train tracks.
Simon hopped out, followed quickly by Chapman, who turned and helped Jenny down into the snow. Simon raised his finger to his lips.
“We must be quiet. The reindeer might be sleeping. They’ll need all their strength in the coming days.” He smiled up at them with a knowing nod. “You know why of course.”
Their eyes lit as their mouths dropped in surprise. Santa’s reindeer! They looked up, staring at an old wooden barn, its wide planks decorated in all its Christmas finest. It was hardly like any barn they had ever seen; not that they had seen many in their short lives. But even they knew, this was a special place. Simon waved them forward. It was almost as if they were sneaking up on the reindeer. They crept to the open window, looked over the sill and peered inside.
And there they were; ten reindeer silently resting in the stillness of winter’s night. They were awestruck! The mists from their breathing hovered like clouds within the barn. They were asleep. Simon looked to Chapman and smiled. Then, with a wave of a hand, they were headed back to the train. They climbed on board, plopping themselves down into the plush, red seats.
“You’re very lucky,” Simon said. “Santa doesn’t let just anyone see his reindeer. You must be very special.”
“I wanna go touch one,” Jenny exclaimed. She was giddy with excitement. “Can we ride them?”
“No Jenny. It is forbidden to ride them. They have only one purpose, to pull the sleigh.”
“But we’re just normal kids,” Chapman said. He looked at Jenny and back to Simon.
“Ahhh, but you’re children,” Simon smiled in reply. “That in itself is the heart of Santa.”
“Is that his real name?” Jenny asked.
“No, but it will do. He is known by many names throughout the world. But his great joy is children. You, and they, are the only reason Christmas Town exists.” Simon turned and motioned to the engineer. “It’s time we get back. It’s almost sleep time.” His words were apropos as just then, Chapman and Jenny struggled to stifle a yawn, and Simon again smiled.
The next morning, Chapman and Jenny rose to greet the morning from the upper rooms of the main hall. Chapman ran to the balcony and looked below. The workshop was still in the grasp of morning’s twilight, that time of day when dawn has not yet graced the world, but its influence begins to stir those who walk in its embrace. The work would not begin in earnest for a few more hours. Chapman heard his name and he looked up to see Jenny waving from her own balcony across the opening. Just then, Simon was standing next to Chapman. It was as if he came out of nowhere.
“Good morning.” Simon was dressed in the same finery he had been the day before. His clothing seemed a little brighter, a little more fancy than the other ‘helpers’ he had seen. “It’s time for breakfast, and then you’ll be off.”
“Off? Off where?”
“It’s time for you to go home, Chappy. And Jenny too.”
They joined the others in the dining hall, which seemed to be yet another joyous festival. It seemed everything here was a festival, and the dining hall was decorated just like every other room. It was filled with fresh pine garlands, shiny glass bulbs, while poinsettias of every color covered the walls. Helpers were everywhere, singing and dancing as the meal went on. Santa and Mrs. Claus were seated at the head of the main table with Chapman and Jenny right at their side.
“Why so sad, Jenny?” Mrs. Claus said as she looked down and patted Jenny’s hand.
“Simon said we have to leave today.” Jenny was nearly in tears.
“Now, now, child. Christmas Town is not for children, or adults for that matter.”
“Then who’s it for?”
“It’s only for those who carry the spirit of Christmas in their hearts from childhood to adulthood. Sadly, there are very few of those in the world. So, we get by with the helpers and we do our work to keep the spirit alive.” She pulled her hand back and smiled. “It’s time for you to go after breakfast.”
“How do we get back?” Chapman asked. “I don’t know where we are.”
The laugh that Santa boomed made them all smile. His cheeks became rosy and his eyes sparkled.
“Now Chapman, we wouldn’t send you back out into the cold. Simon will be there to guide you.”
They finished their meal in near silence, both Chapman and Jenny trying to keep a brave face. But neither succeeded. They left the hall, their bodies slumped from the devastating news. Jenny was nearly crying, but she held her tears back. All Chapman could do was stare down at the ground, nearly heartbroken.
The next hour passed quickly as Chapman and Jenny sat quietly, holding hands, staring out into the workshop from the balcony. They both knew it was the last time they would ever see it. As dawn broke, one by one the helpers began to fill the shop and begin their work for the day, and soon, it was a bustling beehive of activity. For this moment, holding hands with Jenny, Chapman felt complete. He could give up Christmas Town, as long has he had her.
“I’ll be back.” Jenny smiled at him as she dropped his hand.
“Where you going?”
She didn’t reply, she just leaned in and kissed his forehead, then she smiled that smile that meant so much to him before scampering down the stairs into the workshop. He watched her disappear before returning his blank stare to the workshop. He lost all track of time as his mind began to wander, lost in the cacophony below.
“Chappy?” He turned at the sound of his name. “There’s a storm coming in, a bad one. We’ll have to wait it out before I take you back. “Where’s Jenny?”
He shrugged. He was almost ready to leave. Might as well get it over with, he thought. Besides, his parents were probably getting worried. They had been gone a full day now.
“I don’t know.” He turned and looked up to Simon. “She’ll be back.”
“When she does, I’ll find you. The storm shouldn’t last too long.”
He sat there alone until his stomach told him it was time to eat. His hand went straight to his belly as he began to look around for Jenny. She was nowhere in sight. He decided to make his way to the dining hall to see if there was lunch. The hall was beginning to fill when he spied Santa at the end of the long table. He made his way over and sat down.
“Where’s your little friend, Chappy?”
“Well, as soon as this storm passes, you’ll be on your way.”
“I didn’t hear a storm.”
“Sometimes, the ones you don’t hear are the worst ones.” Santa stood and walked to the side wall, and grabbing a large wooden handle, pulled the wall open. Chapman sat there, stunned. He just moved an entire wall!
“You see?” Santa stood before the opening, staring outside into the darkness. “Not a very good day to travel.”
Outside, the world was a very different place. The sky was nearly black and was punctuated with swirling blasts of winter’s white, piled high against the buildings. And it was still coming down.
Chapman began to worry. He hadn’t seen Jenny in several hours. He needed to find her, and find her quickly. He ran from the room leaving his plate untouched. Something was wrong, he was sure of it.
He ran blindly out into the storm, the snow falling furiously. The wind whipped around the buildings, slapping at his bare skin. He pushed on, struggling to remember where everything was. The train! He would follow the route they took on the train.
He ran from building to building before realizing there was likely only one place Jenny would try to go. What was she doing? Where was she going? Was she trying to escape? No, she would have wanted to stay in Christmas Town. But how would she do that? No, she was trying to run away and she said goodbye the only way she knew how; she kissed him goodbye.
A sharp, swirling gust blew down through the street and knocked him to the ground. He felt the sting of the cold snow on his bare arms. He scraped the snow from his face, his brows now frozen white. He began to feel the cold entrap his body. It was only his adrenaline that had kept him warm to this point. He had only one thought; to the barn.
He pushed himself off the ground and ran forward. The barn was just outside the main street, tucked back out of the way. He pushed himself with all the strength he could muster. She was there, he knew it. She was trying to run away.
He turned the last corner and the rustic barn came into view. The front door was slid to the side, partially open. The light within was nothing more than a dull glow, not enough for him to see inside. He needed to get closer. Then with a flash, a shape rocketed out of the opening, up into the sky and was quickly lost in the haze of white. Chapman just stood there looking up into the darkness. She was gone.
It had been hours. He was tired and cold, colder than any time he could remember. At home, all he had to do was go inside and warm up. His mother would always treat him to a hot cup of cocoa. He needed one now. He had long since passed the last building of Christmas Town and was again lost in the darkness. He was fortunate at least that the storm had passed, but now, daylight was waning and night was beginning to take hold. He needed to find somewhere to rest and get out of the cold.
As the last light began to fail and the heavenly stars began to make themselves known, the light of the full moon revealed his salvation. Ahead, a small cluster of pines laden with snow were pressed up against the hills. It wasn’t much, but it was shelter. At least he would be out of the open and he was within their confines minutes later.
“Who’s out there?”
“Jenny?” The voice caught him by surprise, but there was no mistake.
“Chappy?” Jenny was quickly out the opening to a small cave seconds later. She wrapped him in a giant bear-hug and began to cry. “Oh Chappy, what have I done?”
“It’ll be okay, Jenny. We’ll just go back to Christmas Town.” He was whole again. He stood there beneath the towering pines and just held on. It was all he wanted to do. They would find the way back to Christmas Town. He just needed to rest.
A low-pitched ‘neigh’ brought him out of his trance. He’d forgotten about the reindeer. They turned toward the opening just as it walked out into the open, its breath floating on the still air. Another ‘neigh’ echoed within the clearing.
“You just rode him here?” She nodded in reply to his question. “Well, we won’t both be able to ride him. We’ll have to walk him back; ourselves too.”
They waited a short time so Chappy could warm himself in the still confines of the cave. She held him tight, letting her own body help to warm him. And then, it was time to go; to go face their punishment.
“Maybe we can sneak him back in and no one will ever know.”
“Yeah! They’ll never know!” It was brilliant!
They spent the next few hours trudging back through deep snow, the stars shining brightly above, the moon long since having passed below the horizon. The reindeer seemed to know the way home, and just as they felt they couldn’t take another step, they saw the back of the wooden barn. They had come in from the back side of Christmas Town. Perhaps their plan would really work. No one would know.
The door slid open silently, and as they led the reindeer into his stall, they heard someone clearing their throat behind them. They froze.
“Well, the two of you have a lot of explaining to do.”
They slumped as they turned, their eyes downcast. All they could see was a pair of black boots, planted firmly in the loose straw. Santa stepped toward them and lifted their chins in his hands. Their eyes immediately met his, and tears began to run down Jenny’s cheeks.
“Honest, Santa. We didn’t mean any harm.”
Santa slipped by them and locked the gate to the stall. He patted the reindeer on its head and stroked its long face, caressing it with a gentle smile. He turned, again coming face to face with the frightened, wide-eyed children.
“Now, you’ll have to explain what happened here. Simon told me he wasn’t able to find you when the storm lifted. All of Christmas Town has been looking for you.”
“I ... I,” Jenny stammered out. But before she could utter another word, Chapman blurted out.
“It was me, sir. I took the reindeer. I just wanted to ride him.”
Santa folded his arms across his chest, bringing his hand up to his chin. He crinkled his brow and looked down at them over his glasses. Jenny didn’t utter a word. She just stood there holding back her tears. It was the end of the world.
“This has some very serious consequences, if that is true Chappy.”
“Oh, it’s true Santa. I swear. Every word of it.”
“Jenny? Do you have anything to say?” When she didn’t answer, there was only one thing he could do, and it broke his heart.
“Very well Chappy. I have no other choice. You will have to have the ultimate Christmas punishment.” He stopped, giving a passing glance to Jenny. He could do no other.
* * *
His eyes slid open as he awoke from his dream. He stared ahead at the single stocking hanging on the cut nail. It was different now, and he knew what that meant. He only hoped his fortunes had changed. He pushed himself off the leather chair and stood, facing the fire blazing in the hearth. His eyes skimmed the massive tree but were quickly returned to the stocking. He took a step forward before the sound of his name stopped him short.
It was a voice he had not heard in forty years, but he knew it instantly.
“Jenny.” He spoke her name without turning around.
“Chappy, I’m so sorry. All these years. I didn’t know it was still going on.”
“It’s never stopped.” He remained in place, staring at the red stocking.
“Come with me Chappy. It’s time to put an end to it.
“But will it ever end Jenny? Ever?”
“It will end because I love you Chappy. I always have.”
Those words were what he longed to hear, the only thing that could turn him from the hearth, could turn him away from forty-three years of wanting. He saw her with his memory, a little girl he loved so long ago. But he also saw her with his heart. She was the only girl that ever captured him, the only girl that was his past. None had ever measured up to her. And now, she stood before him, in the lodge where it all started, all those years ago. She extended her hand, holding it out for his touch.
He hesitated, his deep breath filling his lungs. For the first time, he could smell the scent of the tree and the aroma of garlands mixed with fresh cinnamon. The magic of Christmas began to fill him and lift his spirit. He no longer felt captured in the dead of winter. He felt refreshed, renewed as a spring rain in the highlands. They stepped toward each other and the forty years of loneliness melted away. It was as if he had touched her yesterday, and he was seven years old again.
As they passed out of the room, the clerk laid his pen down on the counter. He had been scribbling on a blank piece of paper, trying not to be noticed as the drama unfolded. He slipped from behind the counter and scampered over to the fire. He looked around, not wanting to be seen. He reached out and pulled the stocking from the nail. It was heavy, lumpy. He pushed up from the bottom and stepped back quickly as a black lump of coal landed squarely at his feet. He dropped the red stocking, aghast.