I am beyond excited to announce that my short story, “December Silence” was awarded first place in Short Fiction at the Oklahoma Writer Federation Inc contest this past week!
I can’t thank my critique group enough for their encouragement and guidance. Nelda and Ed– you are rock stars!
Here it is!
The holiday pressed in on them like a coming storm. The waves of cheerful excitement were pushed daily closer to their small house by the anticipation, hope, and wonder of neighbors. One night a few weeks after Halloween, Jack stood at the front window watching his neighbor put Christmas lights on the eaves.
A heaviness settled low in his belly where a healthy band of muscle used to be his secret pride. His pants now hung loose on his hips, his belt tightened beyond its smallest setting. He knew there were shadows under his eyes. He saw them on his wife’s face, too. JoAnn was still lovely but thinner and haunted.
Seven months before, their only son had died. At fifteen, he had been lanky, tall, and good natured. They called him Jimmy but his proper name was Walter James, after his grandfather. He was always a healthy and active child. The illness that took his life came on suddenly. What started as a cold, turned into a stiff neck and headache. It was meningitis. When his fever shot up and he began to vomit and speak erratically, his parents took him to the hospital. Blood was drawn, a spinal tap and other mysterious tests were performed while their son lay pale and restless in the stark white sheets of the emergency room. Even before the test results could be obtained, antibiotics flowed into Jimmy through the veins in his strong young arm. It was taped to a stiff board to keep the elbow extended to protect access to his blood vessels. A few frantic hours later, he was in the ICU of their local hospital fighting the deadly swelling of the tissues around his brain. Not even a day later, his brain was dead. The infection had inflamed the thin tissue surrounding his brain cutting off the life-giving blood supply and strangling vital tissue. As their son’s body lay unusually still, Jack and JoAnn numbly signed papers to donate Jimmy’s organs.
Jack spoke to the doctor about the process while his wife quietly cried, and clutched his hand. He asked questions about the transplants. Could the disease be transmitted through the cornea, liver, lungs, kidneys, heart? The doctor explained the procedures and the tests to prevent transmission. He described the dozen or so lives that could be saved. The tired eyes of the doctor met Jack’s. A sturdy hand reached out to firmly clasp the father’s shaking shoulder. He thanked the shattered couple for the gifts they were giving.
Months later, Jack still could not meet his own eyes in the mirror when he shaved. That is where his memories lived. Countless times over the fifteen years of Jimmy’s life he had burst with pride when someone said, “Ah, he’s got your eyes, man.” Tears threatened. It had been many weeks since he had shed a tear. Standing at the window staring at the emerging lights, the heaviness in his belly became a burning anger. How is it that Christmas lights could have the power to bring him to weeping again, after all this time.
The evening newspaper lay unread on the coffee table. He smelled food but it was not a meal, merely something to fuel their bodies. JoAnn had given up her practice of bustling around the kitchen with music playing while whipping up delicious and creative meals. Neither of them had any interest. He sighed heavily and turned away from the horrible twinkling lights and pulled the drapes closed.
The two of them spent a quiet Thanksgiving at home. She went to some trouble to serve a small turkey breast and pre-made side dishes. It looked and smelled like Thanksgiving. The taste was flat, though. It may as well have been plastic food, but he smiled a small smile at his wife for her effort. They ate together at the dining room table with tall white taper candles glowing. As they cleared the main course dishes to make rom for coffee and pie, he noted with horror that a single place setting remained on the sideboard: one shiny plate, a set of silver flatware gleaming in the candle glow, a neatly folded dark green linen napkin, and a solitary goblet.
It was all he could do not to vomit. He looked at his wife horrified at the tangible reminder. Had it been intentional? But no, the look on her face told him that it had been a mistake. In her habitual holiday table setting, she had mistakenly taken out three of everything instead of two. Jack saw something else in those eyes, her need to share the rawness of her pain. He reached for her, tears streamed freely down both of their faces. They stood in the glow of white taper candles, holding onto one another floating on waves of gaping loss.
They ate none of the pretty bakery pie, but cleaned up together in silence. Football played on the television but the sound was off. The whole world seemed to be filled with an enormous silence. That night, most of the neighbors finished decorating for the holiday. The hush of winter’s darkness was pushed back little by little as holiday lights twinkled into life all around them. Their house remained quiet and dark, exhausted with grief.
Nights turned cold that week, so Jack built a fire in the fireplace. Every stick of this load of firewood had been stacked by Jimmy in the first warm days after winter. Jack didn’t want to let the thought form but it popped into being as he lit the long match. He lost his breath.
At the sound of his hitched breathing, JoAnn looked up from the book in her lap. She watched her husband’s hand stop inches away from the small pile of kindling. The shredded wood bark nestled with a wax covered pine cone waiting to burst into warm flames. After a moment, he looked over to her. His eyes glanced mutely at the neat stack of firewood in the basket by the low brick hearth.
As he looked back at her, realization dawned in her eyes and he watched the grief spark in her, anew. She recalled the bright spring day as well as he did. The snow was barely gone and next winter’s supply of firewood had been delivered. It was Jimmy’s job to stack it before hanging out with his friends. As he had been taught, Jimmy neatly re-stacked the remaining wood nearer to the house. Its dry logs would catch quickly in the chill of autumn. The green wood was stacked just as neatly beyond the old wood. No logs would tumble during spring rains or summer storms. The young man had even swept the sidewalk and driveway clear. After work, the proud father observed his son’s work. He was pleased and told his son so at dinner. The boy glowed under his father’s praise.
The long match burned half way to Jack’s fingers before he breathed. He was surprised that he did not feel a stabbing pain in his lungs when he drew in much needed air. One more stiff inhalation and he remembered how to breathe. JoAnn’s slim fingers wrapped around Jack’s until, at last, the match touched the kindling and their son’s last wood pile began to burn to ash.
He lay awake one cold night after Thanksgiving, unable to sleep. Twinkling lights surrounded the house on every side. A glow of ethereal blue came from next door where his old friend and neighbor had wrapped the trunks and branches of every tree tightly in strings of tiny blue LED lights. Even the wood fence was topped with blue lights so the glow invaded the bedroom. One red light flashed on a plastic reindeer’s nose. He wondered moodily at the power consumed by the array of bulbs.
Nights like this were excruciating. Memories lapped through his mind with ceaseless regularity, and relentless force. Tonight, he recalled a long ago day. His last living relative, his mother, had died quietly in her sleep. She had been eighty-three years old. He recalled the hollow reality of knowing that he had no first degree relatives remaining alive. Both of his parents had been only children. Now, there was not a living soul who knew him as a baby. He felt deeply grateful for his mother’s attention to documenting his life in scrapbooks filled with black and white photos captioned in her careful handwriting. The whole of his life had been defined by the loving influence of his parents. Now, he was all that remained of their legacy.
Jimmy had been confused by the loss of his grandmother, his father’s tears, the strange people, and and the disruption to his life. Standing outside the church, Jack talked quietly to the boy who had a few moments before fled the sanctuary in a quiet rage of tears, unable to assimilate the experience of seeing his beloved grandmother’s lifeless body on display in a box.
“Funerals are an awkward business, son.” He felt the crisp fall wind on the back of his neck where his seldom worn suit and overcoat gaped. He bent low to talk to his six year old son. One large hand rested on Jimmy’s bony shoulder. “You see, Granny is in heaven, like we talked about. Her time here is over and this is our time to say goodbye.”
His son’s huge brown eyes looked up at him under a fringe of wind tossed nut brown hair. It was rare to see Jimmy stand so still with his mouth in a quiet frown. The boy sniffed bravely and nodded once at his father.
“That’s a good boy. Your granny would be so proud of you. Remember, what you see in the coffin is not her. She’s up in heaven with my dad, your Grandpa. And they are so happy to be together.”
“Doesn’t she miss me?” Jimmy demanded.
“Ah yes, her heart is broken for missing you, I know it. Do you know who else is up there? Her folks. And that puppy who died when she was a girl. What was his name? The boxer.”
“She told me his name was Bruce,” came the quick reply.
“That’s right, Bruce. Everyone dies, son. None of us knows when our life on earth will end. Just like the preacher says. And now, Grandma needs us to gather with her friends who are still living and say a proper good bye. Later, we will all be together at her house. The ladies will have made cakes and pies. And we will all tell stories of Granny. There will be some crying, but also laughing.” He squeezed his son’s shoulder once more. “Are you ready?”
The boy reached out for his father’s hand. He straightened his young slim shoulders, lifted his chin in a mirror image of the older man’s posture. They walked into the church down the long aisle to the playing of organ music.
In the dark of night, tears flowed freely down Jack’s face until, finally, sleep came.
The Christmas cards came in daily. A small neat pile grew on the hall table. They separated out the cards from regular mail. Neither of them had the strength to open the cheery greetings. One night, she quietly asked, “What will we do about Christmas cards?” They had sent them out each year of their nineteen year marriage. They looked at one another helplessly, wondering into the silence. How would they manage it? Who would want to hear from them this year? How would their Christmas letter read? It simply couldn’t be pondered.
“I say, we take this year off from Christmas cards.” He suggested on a tired sigh.
She let out a relieved breath. “I can live with that.” After a moment she went on, “And while we’re discussing it, what about decorations?”
Again the silence stretched between them.
He took a deep breath, looked at his wife and said, “Maybe just the nativity?” He referred to the delicate pale blue porcelain nativity they had received as a wedding gift.
She blinked at him with unshed tears. “That’s just the right thing. Can you help me with the boxes?”
Cold settled deep in the earth as November became a snowy December. One bright morning they awoke to find the better part of a foot of snow blanketing their neighborhood. He stood at the front window drinking hot coffee.
“It’s been a few years since I had to clear the walk. Do you think I remember how?” He asked his wife as she joined him at the window to look out at the snow.
She laid a hand firmly on his arm, “Oh, I am sure you will remember. Do you want me to help? I used to be good with a snow shovel.”
He patted her hand and looked out at the stunningly bright, snow covered yards. “Thank you dear but I think I would like to do it on my own, just this once.”
A little while later, he was bundled up and opening the garage door from inside. He pulled on warm work gloves and reached for one of the snow shovels hanging neatly on the wall of the garage. He tried not to think, the last person to hang this shovel was Jimmy. The thought filled his mind and he blinked back tears. Firmly, he grasped the shovel and went to work on the wide driveway. It took him longer than he remembered to finish the pavement in front of his house. When he was done, he sprinkled some melting agent on the front steps and sidewalk. He stood on the front porch leaning on the shovel looking at his handiwork. He felt good, but tired. He relished the feeling of a job well done, and let the glow of solid work fill him for a moment.
Looking up and down the little street, he noted many of his neighbors doing similar work. A few teenagers worked quickly to finish the job. One or two elderly people were working carefully to clear what they could. Jimmy always helped out those who struggled.
A memory came to him clear as the frosty air. Jimmy, eight years old, had been helping his dad shovel the snow. They finished the driveway and walks, had put melting agent on the porch steps and Jimmy headed into the garage.
His father didn’t go with him. The boy asked, “Aren’t you coming inside, Dad?”
“Not yet, son. See, Mrs. Harrison is all on her own this year. We should help her out. She doesn’t have a strong boy yet to clear her snow.” Together they went two houses down and cleared away the snow for the young mother of two toddlers whose husband was deployed with the marines. As Jimmy grew and was given the chore to do on his own, he routinely helped out the neighbors.
Jimmy’s friends were devastated at the loss of their friend. At the funeral held a few days after Jimmy’s death, their little church was full of sad and confused teenagers and their parents. JoAnn remembered those days as a long string of hard hugs and hot tears. The boys were the hardest for her. She received their tear filled hugs, holding on to their bony teenage bodies as she began to realize she would not hold her son again, in this life. She would watch her son’s friends grow taller, begin to drive, to date, and graduate high school while her arms remained empty. There would be no awkward prom photos with a lovely girl or proud graduation photos with Jack and JoAnn holding on to their son. The scrapbook of Jimmy’s life was now finished.
There had been visits, of course. Friends and co-workers came by with a kind word, a plate of brownies, a basket of home grown tomatoes or green beans. Jack and JoAnn received each visit as a kindness. It was a relief because they didn’t talk about Jimmy together very often. Even after eight months the pain was too raw. Having a friend drop by to talk about their son filled the vast silence left by his death.
As the waves of holiday madness ebbed ever closer, the house became even quieter. And sadder. Two weeks before Christmas the doorbell rang. It was a group of young people singing carols. The night was dark and cold. The breaths of a dozen singers cheerily mingled in a mist of warmth. They began with a rousing rendition of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Jack and JoAnn stood awkwardly in their doorway. She had answered the bell but he joined her, one hand on her lower back and the other on the door frame. Both were meant to support. The group of bright-eyed singers did not stay long. As they departed down the sidewalk, Silent Night lingered in their wake for the long faced parents in their quiet little house.
The next evening, snow was falling heavily as they sat quietly pretending to read in the chairs by the fire. The doorbell broke the silence in the house, and they looked at each other. “I don’t know if I can take another set of carolers.” JoAnn sighed as Jack rose to answer the door.
Five boys stood awkwardly on the front step for a moment before one of them cleared his throat and bravely said, “We were thinking about Jimmy…” He paused and glanced at his friends. “Could we come in, and maybe just talk for awhile?”
Jack felt the pressure of tears in his throat as he noted new height and the shadow of a beard. He nodded and stepped back from the door. The boys filed into the little house. JoAnn looked at Jack for an explanation. “They want to talk, about Jimmy.”
“Well, of course you do.” She greeted each boy by name, and they all sat. She, also, noted that time had not stood still. The boys were taller and more confident. Nearly all had turned sixteen this past year.
“So, we were talking about last year when we all went sledding at the park by the elementary school. Jimmy was so happy that day,” one blond haired boy began.
Jack said, “That was in late January, wasn’t it? Just before the basketball playoffs.”
“Yeah, that’s right. We only got to the semi’s last year, but we will be better this year.”
The chatter flowed from the boys to the parents. She made hot chocolate and they drank it by
the fire. Jack asked questions about this year’s basketball team, school, and their families.
After an hour, the boys said goodbye with hugs for JoAnn, and firm handshakes for Jack. As
they filed out the door Jack asked, “Boys, would you mind coming by this Saturday to help me put up the Christmas lights? JoAnn will make sandwiches and cookies.”
They looked at each other and back at Jack, then agreed with eager smiles.
“See you at 10 on Saturday. And, boys, thank you.”
JoAnn and Jack stood on the porch in the frigid night watching the lanky young men pile into the car. Her arm was around his waist, his arm rested across her shoulders. Snow fell softly on neatly shoveled sidewalks in the twinkle of Christmas lights.
It was a start.