Short Story — “The Christmas Figurines”

As I mentioned last week, I will gradually post a few of my short stories on The Eye-Dancers website, and since it’s the holiday season, I thought I’d post one today that fits right in with the time of year.  I wrote “The Christmas Figurines” several years ago, and that is evident in the scene where the protagonist, Chad, goes to the video store and rents a VHS tape.  Ah, yes–the “old” days!  I could have gone in and updated that scene, made it more suitable for 2012.  But I’ve decided to leave as is.  After all, it’s not video-transfer technology that is at the heart of this story!

In The Eye-Dancers, the four main characters all have to deal with a sense of isolation–and not just due to their other-worldly surroundings as the story unfolds.  Even in their “normal” lives, Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc all struggle to “fit in.”  This fitting in, or not fitting in, is a major theme in “The Christmas Figurines.”

I hope you enjoy it . . .

“The Christmas Figurines”

Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison

****************

The first thought that popped into Chad’s head when he saw Mr. Coomtromb was, This guy doesn’t have any teeth.  But then the old man started to talk so much, it was hard to think at all.  Chad had been standing in the kitchen, munching on a handful of stale potato chips and staring at the boxes he still needed to unpack when there came a sharp knock on his door.

“Great,” he muttered under his breath, and a few chip remnants fell from his mouth to the tiled floor.  “Just what I need.”  He walked through the maze of boxes and furniture, while the knocking persisted.  “Hold on!”  he shouted.  “I’m coming, okay?”

By the time he opened the door, he was in a foul mood.  Why the intrusion, now of all times?  He had so much to do.  He—

“Hi there,” a tall man wearing a stained white shirt and faded corduroy pants said.  He was old—at least seventy, Chad estimated at first glance—and his cheeks were covered with a gray five o’clock shadow.  “I’m John Coomtromb, but all my friends just call me Coom.  I live right across the hall, young man.  So, seeing that we’re new neighbors, I took the liberty of coming over here and saying hi.”

For a long moment, Chad was at a loss for words.  Then:  “Uh, well, I’m really sort of busy unpacking, and—”

“Nonsense,” the man interrupted, holding up a hand.  “I won’t mind at all.  Besides, what are neighbors for?  I’ll help you.”  Without an invitation, Mr. Coomtromb brushed past Chad, into the apartment.

“Wait a second,” Chad said, closing the door.  “Look, I—”

“Say,” the old man broke in, “you aren’t from around here, are you?”

Chad shook his head.  Was it that obvious?  “No.  I just moved up here from Georgia.  But, really, I’m still unpacking my stuff.  I’ve got a lot left to do.”

Mr. Coomtromb appeared not to hear any of this.  He opened a box and pulled out a bottle of wine.  “Very nice,” he said, smiling toothlessly.  “Maybe I’ll join you for a toast to celebrate your arrival to this fine city.”

Chad couldn’t believe this guy.  Was he drunk?  He stepped closer to Coomtromb, and sniffed.  Nothing, except maybe the hint of fried onions on his breath.  Was he high, then?  He must have been something.  How else to explain it?

Before Chad could stop him, Coomtromb opened another box.

“Goodness, this is beautiful,” the old man said.  “Where did you get it?”  He pulled out two porcelain figurines, a winged female angel in a flowing, ankle-length dress and a young boy looking up at her with wonder-filled eyes.  The two figures stood on a white base powdered with artificial snow that glittered in the light of the room.

Chad considered taking the guy by the arm and flinging him out into the hall.  Maybe he would, too, if Coomtromb didn’t quit bothering him.  Surprising himself, not quite understanding his patience, his tolerance, Chad merely answered the question.

“It’s my mom’s,” he said.  “She got it as a gift when she was a little girl.  Thought I’d want it now that I’m so far from home.  You know how it is.”

Coomtromb nodded.  He stared at the figurines, as if bewitched.  “Yes.  I suppose I do.  Does it play?”  He looked at Chad, and for a moment, he seemed like a little child fascinated with a new toy.

“Yeah,” Chad said.  “It plays ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’  You wind up the crank at the base.”

“You don’t say,” Coomtromb said.  “Can I . . . can I play it?  Please?”

Chad felt a sense of unreality wash over him.  This whole scenario was just plain weird.  Coomtromb was weird.  But maybe if he let the old man play the song, he would leave, and let Chad get back to work.  This made Chad bristle.  Why didn’t he just kick the guy out of his apartment?  That’s what most people would do.  And it’s not like it would be rude or mean.  He was busy.  He didn’t need this.  Somehow, though, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Sighing, he said, “Sure.  Knock yourself out.  But I got a lot of stuff to finish.”  Chad picked up a heavy box, placed it on a faded-brown sofa, and began sorting through the contents.  Here was a photograph of his father, looking impossibly young.  And one of his mother on her wedding day.  How pretty she looked.  Had she always been so beautiful?  He’d never really noticed, or if he had, he had taken it for granted.  Perhaps it took moving away to appreciate it.  Perhaps that’s how—

Suddenly, the angel figurine was singing.  The melody of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” filled the room, and Chad looked back over his shoulder.  The angel was twirling around the little boy, and he turned in concert with her, his eyes never leaving hers.  They were doing their choreographed routine, a routine Chad had seen hundreds of times through the years.  But he didn’t mind.  He liked the song, and the quality of the sound was first-rate.

Then he glanced at Mr. Coomtromb.

The old man was staring at the figurines, unblinking, mouth agape.  Tears formed in his eyes and rolled slowly down his cheeks.  When the performance ended, he bowed his head, as if in the presence of something holy.  Chad had no idea what to make of it.  He figured he should just ignore the old man and continue with the task at hand.

He emptied the box of its contents, and placed the photos and other paraphernalia on the kitchen counter.  He’d hang them later, when a certain odd old man was gone, safely across the hall.  He opened another box, and began to rummage through it, wishing he were more organized.  There seemed no rhyme or reason to the packing method he had used.  His mom had helped him, but she wasn’t so good at packing, either.  She hadn’t had much practice.  His parents had never moved from the house they bought the year they were married.

“That was . . . breathtaking,” Chad heard Coomtromb say.  The old man was sniffling, but the tears had run their course.  “Just breathtaking.  Thank you.”

Chad shrugged.  It was just an old music box.  Sure, it had been in the family for a while, and it meant a lot to his mother, but still, what was the big deal?  Coomtromb, of course, was more than ready to shed some light on the mystery.

“Do you know what that song means to me, young man?  Do you know?”  He wouldn’t take his eyes off the angel.  He still seemed in a state of rapture.

Chad didn’t reply.  He just waited for the man to continue.  Showing a moment of interest, he set the box aside and planted himself on the sofa.

“When I was young, I adored the movies,” Coomtromb said.  “I know, I know, many children do.  But I loved them.”  His gaze finally left the angel figurine, and locked itself onto Chad.  “They offered . . . I don’t know, an escape, I suppose, a place I could get lost in.  You see, my folks, they died when I was just four—car crash.  Can you imagine?  A fatal crash in 1937?  But we had them back then, too, you know.  My grandparents took me in.  They were old and didn’t understand me terribly well, but they cared for me.  And they knew how much I loved the movies, so they took me as often as they could.  And this one day, back during the war, they took me to see Meet Me in St. Louis.  They had wanted to see it, and asked if I desired to come along.  Me, turn away a movie?  Of course I went along!  And, oh, little did they know, little did I know, how that scene, that wonderful scene, would move me.  Do you know which one I mean?”

Chad shook his head.  He had never watched the film.

“At one point,” Coomtromb said, “when it seems the family in the movie will have to move away, and everyone is all sad and despairing, Judy Garland sings a song to Margaret O’Brien, who plays her baby sister.  Magnificent!  There wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre after she got done with that song.  I cried and cried, and tried to turn my face away, but, oh, who cared, even Granddad was crying!  Don’t you see?  She sang ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’  I can remember it like it was yesterday.  It was at the old Palace Theater that used to be over on Lower Elm Street.  I went home that night and just wrapped myself in my blankets and I wished, I wished I had a big sister like Judy Garland.  I wished she would be there to comfort me and sing to me, and just be my friend.  I wished I could share my Christmases with a sister like that.  My, how I wished.  I guess . . . I suppose, in a way, I still do.  Do you have any sisters, young man?  Or brothers?”

“Yeah.  Two of each,” Chad said, but he didn’t really want to think about them right now.  Looking at the photos of his parents a moment ago, and now this.  Was Coomtromb trying to make him feel more homesick than he already was?

“You’re a very fortunate fellow, my young friend,” Coomtromb said.  “I was an only child.  I could watch Judy Garland, and I could dream of a big sister—or a big brother.  But that’s all it ever was—a dream.  Just a dream.  But here now, do you mind if I play the song again?”

“No, go ahead,” Chad said.

The old man left a few minutes later, after playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” six more times.  “I’ll be back soon, young man, don’t you worry,” Coomtromb had said.

“I won’t,” Chad responded, wondering if the intended sarcasm was apparent.  “Take it easy, Mr. Coomtromb.”

“Coom!” the man said.  “Coom to my friends!”

“Okay, Mr. . . . Coom.  See you around.”  But not too much, I hope.

After Chad closed the door behind Coomtomb, he went into the kitchen and grabbed another handful of potato chips.  Something about his unannounced guest grabbed hold of him and wouldn’t let go.

“Weird guy,” he said to the bare white walls, the fingerprint-smeared windows, and the smiling faces in the old family photographs.

Throughout the next week, Chad got situated and began to explore his new neighborhood.  He’d take long walks, despite the cold, taking advantage of his free time.  He’d moved in on the first, and he wouldn’t need to begin work until the day after the New Year, so he had ample opportunity to get acquainted with the sprawling city.  He would leave in the morning and stroll through the streets for hours, stopping every now and then at a café for coffee and a pastry.

He walked through the entire apartment complex several times, as well, attempting to see into the building’s past.  Perched alongside the cold, gray river, two stories high and half a football field in length, the structure had once been a paper mill.  In fact, the locals still called it “The Mill.”  It struck Chad as quintessentially New England.  He liked the antique feel of the hallways, the odd angles in the corners, the unfinished wooden stairway at the heart of the building.  When he tried hard, he could almost smell the sweat pouring off the workers a century ago, he could almost hear the clanging of the building’s old machinery and the piercing shriek of the five-o’clock whistle.  But he also felt out of place here.  It struck him as the sort of residence only natives should live in, not transplanted Southerners.  But the price had been right.

He’d run into Coomtromb on several occasions since that first day.  The old man had knocked on Chad’s door and invited himself in a handful of times, and intercepted him in the hall more than once.  It was always the same.  Coomtromb wanted to talk, to prattle without pausing for breath.  Chad would nod and say an occasional “uh-huh,” and then he would tell the old man he needed to get on with some task or other.  He didn’t want to seem abrupt, but Coomtromb would talk all day if he didn’t put a stop to it.  Sometimes he let Coomtromb wind up the angel figurine, and listen to the song again.  That always sent him away happy.

One thing he’d noticed.  No one else spoke, or even looked, at the old man.  Whenever Chad saw someone pass Coomtromb in the hall, they just kept walking, as though the man didn’t even exist.  Guess people just aren’t as friendly up North, Chad thought, and left it at that.

“Oh, excuse me, I didn’t mean to bump into you,” the voice said as Chad was knocked into from behind.  He was in The Mill’s foyer, taking off his gloves and scarf following another brisk morning walk.

“That’s okay,” Chad said.  “No harm done.  It . . .”  He paused when the person who’d bumped him came into view.  She was a young woman, probably around his age, with long brown hair and large, silver wire-frame glasses that gave her the look of a reference librarian.

“Hey,” she said.  “I’ve seen you around.  You’re the new guy on the second floor, right?  I live down the other end from you.  Name’s Nan.  Nan Butler.  Pleased to meet you.”  She smiled, and offered a red-mittened hand.

Chad shook it, feeling awkward.  He’d never been comfortable around women his own age, and he sensed the blood rushing to his cheeks.  He introduced himself and told her he was pleased to meet her, too.

“Hmm,” she said, cocking her head to the side, “you’re not from around here, are you?”

Smiling, he told her he was from a small town in southern Georgia.  Then he said, “I can’t believe how cold it is here.  Do you ever get used it?”

“Not really,” she said, as someone else rushed past them on the way outside. “I’ve been here all my life, and when winter comes, it still feels cold as ever.  Maybe colder.”

“Great,” he said.

She smiled.  “Let’s go upstairs.”

On the way up, she said, “Hey, I’ve seen that old creep Coomtromb talking with you.  Is he buggin’ you?  You can report him.  Lots of people have.  I almost did, too.  He’s been here, like, forever.  Whenever someone new comes along, he strikes like a vulture.  New people are the only ones who give ‘im the time of day, ‘cause no one who knows him will talk to him.”

They reached the top of the stairs.  The long, narrow hallway was empty in both directions.

“But why?” Chad said.  “I mean, he comes on strong, but what’s so bad about him?  Seems pretty harmless to me.”

She snorted.  “You’ll learn.  He steals, you know, so you better watch out.  No one’s proven anything, but anyone who’s been here knows he does.  Like, a couple years ago, I had a friend who lived in the room right next to his.  Her second day here, he went in and just . . . took some of her family photos.  He tried to, anyway.  Lucky for her, she saw him do it.  He said he just wanted to look at them, that he’d planned on giving them back.  He was, like, ‘Oh, I just wanted to talk with you.  If I borrowed these, I knew you’d come back for them.’  I mean, can you believe this guy?

“And he’s . . . I don’t know . . . weird.  Like, sometimes in summer, he’ll go to the park and just . . . sit there.  Some of my friends have seen him there, sitting on a bench and watching people.  For hours.  I’ve seen him there myself.  Mostly, though, he just stays in his room all day, doing God knows what—at least until someone new comes to live here, anyway.  So take my advice, and tell ‘im to quit pestering you.  That’s the only way to set him straight.”  She started walking toward her door.  Though his room was in the opposite direction, Chad found himself following her.

“But how does he live here, then?” Chad asked.  “I mean, if he stays in his room most of the time.  Doesn’t he have a job?”

“Who’d hire him?” Nan said.  “No, he’s retired, I guess.  Must have a great pension, ‘cause, like I said, he’s been here for years.  I wish he’d go to a retirement home or something.  But at least I’m way down the hall from him.  You’re right across.”  She stopped at her door.  “Hey, I’ll be seeing you around, Chad.  Maybe we can go for coffee or something.”

Again, he blushed.  “Sure,” he said.

“Can I ask you something?” she said then.  “Sorry, but I’m kinda nosey.”

He chuckled.  “Ask away.”

“Why’d you move here?  I mean, why did you come up North?  Do you have family up here?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I graduated this past spring, and couldn’t find a job in my hometown.  I started searching online, and a place up here hired me right over the phone.  Can you believe that?  I start in January.”

“What will you be doing?” she asked.

“I got hired on as a technical writer.”  When she looked perplexed, he explained that he’d be writing how-to manuals for computer software.

“Wow,” she said.  “But, why’d you come way up here, though?  Couldn’t you have found a job in Atlanta or Charlotte?  Someplace closer to home?”  She smiled and looked away.  “Hey, I’m sorry.  Like I said, I’m nosey.  You don’t need to answer if you don’t want.”

Down the hall, a door opened and shut with a resounding, echoing snap.  A tall man in a frayed brown coat emerged, walking briskly toward the stairs, then down them, out of sight.

“No, that’s okay,” he said, trying hard to fight the rising heat in his cheeks.  It was easier when Nan was doing most of the talking.  “I . . . I guess I wanted to get out on my own.  I’ve always lived at home.  I wanted to go somewhere different, while I’m still young.  I’d never been anywhere but the South.  I didn’t think I’d miss home as much as I do, either.  Mom was pretty shook up, too, especially with me being away for Christmas this year.  But she’ll be okay.”

“At least you were home for Thanksgiving,” Nan said.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I guess.”

As Christmas neared, the weather turned even colder, and Chad had serious doubts about his relocation.  How could he live in such a climate?  Yet, there was no snow.  Only wind and gray clouds and raw, cutting rain and dying grass and bare, skeletal trees that seemed poised to reach down and strike.  He had heard of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but had never experienced it . . . until now.  He had called home yesterday, and it was sunny and seventy-four degrees.  “See?” his mom had scolded.  “You should come home.”

He had met several of The Mill’s residents now, and the ones who lived on his end of the hall often warned him about Mr. Coomtromb.  “Stay away,” they said.  “Old nutcase,” they said.  “Ignore him, and he’ll get the message,” they said.  And Chad had to admit, he was getting close to the point of no return, the point where he would tell Coomtromb to get lost.  If Coomtromb could only show a little restraint, it wouldn’t be so bad, but the old man was almost always there, ready to pounce.

As much as he wanted to tell Coomtromb to leave him alone, Chad knew it would be hard to do.  Coomtromb didn’t mean any harm, Chad was sure of that.  But his reluctance to tell Coomtromb off ran deeper.  He did not really understand it, and could scarcely believe it, but he knew, on a level beyond logic and common sense, that there was something he shared with the old man, some odd form of kinship.  On the surface, such a notion seemed beyond laughable.  What could the two of them possibly share?  But he felt it.  It was real, and as sharp as the cold crack of dawn in that hour just before the sun rises above the horizon.

It was morning on Christmas Eve, and Chad had made it downstairs undetected by Coomtromb.  He was going to take a walk—a nice, long walk in the snow.  Three inches had fallen already, and no let-up was in sight.  He felt like a schoolboy let loose in the playground.  He’d never seen so much snow in his life.

“Hey there,” he heard someone say behind him.  “Where ya going?”

It was Nan, and he was glad to see her.  They hadn’t talked much since that first encounter—only a handful of times—but he enjoyed her company.  He wasn’t the type to go out on the town at night looking for a match.  If he were ever going to meet someone, this would be the way:  gradual, unforced, a natural progression of daily events.

He told her he was going for a walk in the snow, and she said she wanted to come along.  They walked around The Mill, then down the side streets to the west of it, him looking up at the flakes as they fell, like white magic, from the clouds; her pointing at stately colonials that brooded in the distance like old poets contemplating the meaning of life.  “That’s the old Bartlett place,” she said as they strolled past a mansion-sized house.  “They say it’s haunted.”  She proceeded to tell him the stories, the legends, not only of the Bartlett house but several others.  He listened, and asked questions when he needed to, and he laughed with her often.  More than anything, he found himself wishing the moment could linger.  He felt a connection—with her and the neighborhood.  Maybe it was the snow, the time of season, the holiday wreaths hanging from the front porches and doors.  But for once he felt like he belonged here, like he was a part of a whole, a vital link in a moving, living chain.

Then she brought up Mr. Coomtromb.

“When are you gonna give him the boot, Chad?” she said.  “A few people are starting to lump you two together, you know.  You don’t want that.  Trust me.”

“Well, after New Year’s, I’ll be starting my job, and it’ll probably blow over,” he said.

She stopped, suddenly, and put her hands on her hips.  “What is it with you?  Do you, like, like him or something?”

“No,” he said, “not really.  It’s just . . . he needs someone to talk to, that’s all.  He seems lonely.”

“Pss,” she said, and started walking again.  Snow landed on her hat, then melted.  “Big deal.  Everyone is lonely.  Haven’t you ever noticed?”

Chad looked away.  Not until I moved up here, he thought, but he said nothing.

Two hours later, they got back to The Mill, dusted with snowflakes.

“Thanks for the walk,” Nan said as they pushed their way into the foyer.  “That was nice.”  She took off her glasses and wiped them with the end of her scarf.

“Any time,” Chad said.

When they had climbed the stairs, Chad, taking an uncharacteristic chance, invited Nan to his room for coffee and a snack.

“Sure,” she said.  “I’d like that.”  They walked slowly down the hall, and Chad mused that they probably looked like a couple.  “Hey,” she said then, “your door’s open!  Someone’s in your room, Chad!”

At first, he figured it must be some optical illusion, some trick of the light.  But no—his door was definitely open.  “Stay out here,” he told her.  “I’ll go in an check.”

“Be careful,” she said.

He tiptoed into the room, wary, on guard.  He had never learned how to fight, and he didn’t know how he would fare if someone picked one with him now.  Maybe the—

Then he saw him, and he knew there would be no need for a fight.

Mr. Coomtromb was seated on a chair, next to Chad’s coffee table.  He was caressing the angel figurine, staring at it with that same rapture Chad had observed before.  But how did he get in?  Had he picked the lock?

“Mr. Coomtromb?” Chad said.  “What are you doing here?”

A gasp escaped the old man, and he quickly put the figurines back on the tabletop.  “I . . . your door was open, it wasn’t locked!” he said.  “Oh, believe me, my young friend, I knocked and knocked, I surely did, but you wouldn’t answer, and I just had to see it, to hear the song, you understand, and I didn’t want to wait, oh, it seemed so cruel to wait.  But I didn’t break in!  I just tried the knob, you see, just in case, and it opened!  I wasn’t going to do anything bad to your place, young man.  I was just going to take—to borrow—your lovely angel for today and tomorrow—for Christmas, you see—and return it after.  I promise, I would.  I will!  You believe me, don’t you?”

“Tell him to get out of here.”  It was Nan.  She had entered the apartment.  “He was trying to rob you, can’t you see that?  I told you!  He’s an old crook!  You better check your drawers, ‘cause I bet he took some stuff and snuck it in his room by now.”

“No,” Coomtromb said.  “I did no such thing.  I just wanted to borrow this angel, and the door—”

“I cannot believe this guy,” Nan interrupted, and Coomtromb shook his head, back and forth, back and forth.  His toothless mouth was set firm.  He looked to Chad like a gradeschooler denying the accusations of a teacher.

“Look, just calm down, everyone,” Chad said.  “Just chill.  No harm’s been done.  I guess it’s just as much my fault as anybody’s.  If I left the door unlocked . . .”

Nan’s mouth dropped open.  “Are you really that stupid?” she said.  “You actually believe this guy?”  The sigh that escaped her lips then had a finality to it, a hard crack of firm, unalterable judgment.  “Look, I need to get back to my room, okay?  Thanks again for the walk.”

“Nan, wait . . .”

But she was already gone.  He could hear her rapid, stiletto footsteps on the hallway floor, receding into the distance.

“I am sorry about that,” Coomtromb said.  “She’s a pretty girl.”

“Yeah,” Chad said.

“But, my young man, I promise you, I did not break in.  When your door was unlocked, I—”

Chad gestured for Coomtromb to stop.  “Don’t worry about it.  And go ahead.  You can borrow the music box, I don’t care.  Just be careful with it.  It’s kinda special to my mom, and she’d be ticked if something happened to it.”

Coomtromb began to speak, but Chad again halted him.  “Look,” he said.  “I really just wanna be left alone, okay, Mr. Coomtromb?”

“Coom to my friends,” Coomtromb said.  “And, yes, I will leave now.  I know all about being alone, you see.  Intimately.  Especially over the holidays.  Have you ever been to a party or a get-together, my young friend, and just felt . . . separated, apart, as though a wall, a barrier, existed between you and the others?  So many people talking and laughing and dancing all around you, but you . . . you’re alone.  Have you ever?  That’s the way it is right here, too, right here in The Mill, right here in the city.  So many people all around, and yet. . . .  But I thank you for your kindness, young man, and do not worry—these beautiful figurines are in good hands.  I will treat them with the utmost care and delicacy.  And I promise, I will return them on the twenty-sixth.”

Chad sat in his apartment that afternoon, trying to feel festive.  It was Christmastime, after all.  But he didn’t.  Nan’s words stung him.  He told himself it didn’t matter, that she didn’t matter—how could she be so quick to accuse Coomtromb, anyway?  She wouldn’t even hear the guy out.  He tried telling himself that she wasn’t his type, that she wasn’t the sort of person he’d hoped she was, that it was no great loss.  But it was a loss, and not all the philosophizing in the world could deny it.

He also thought of Mr. Coomtromb.  He wasn’t sure if he believed the old man’s assertion that Chad’s door had been unlocked, but it didn’t really matter.  What mattered were Coomtromb’s words.  He thought about being at a party, being here at The Mill, surrounded by people, by strangers who didn’t know him and didn’t care.

The snow had not let up.  If anything, it was coming down harder now—a white Christmas was assured.  A white Christmas.  Such a concept was to him, until this moment, a fairy tale.  And that’s how the world outside his window seemed, too.  The snow fell from a bruised-gray sky, covering everything under a veil of silence.  Car tires rotated through city streets without a noise.  Pedestrians, flaked with white powder, walked quietly along the sidewalk, their steps muted, the sound absorbed by the snow cover.  And in the gray-white distance, Chad could barely make out the river as it flowed along like a stream of liquid lead.

He felt an ache to be in Georgia, to be with Mom and Dad, and his brothers and sisters.  They would be laughing now, probably, and drinking eggnog, and sitting in front of the hearth.  “Chilly outside,” Mom would say, though “chilly” to her would mean fifty-three degrees with a slight breeze.  And Dad would throw another log in the fire, then take Mom onto his lap and hold her close.

But all Chad could do here and now was look out at the snow, look down upon the streets and sidewalks and storefronts adorned with holiday wreaths and lights in the windows.  Just sitting there.  Or, was there something else he could do?

He left his room, and locked the door.  Before he walked away, he tested the lock twice.

The video store was down at the corner, just a half mile away.  But it seemed like hours to get there.  The wind had turned harsh, and the afternoon was fading like a dim memory.  It was nearly dark when Chad went out, though it was just barely past four o’clock.

When he entered the shop, he was covered with snow, and very eager to get out of the elements.  The first thing he noticed was the shopkeeper, a balding fat man with a thick, bulbous nose, standing behind the checkout counter.  There were no other customers.

He went over to a shelf labeled “Classics.”  The shopkeeper immediately came up to him.  “Can I help you find something in particular?” he asked.  “I’m about ready to close.  Most weeknights, I’m open till seven, but not Christmas Eve I ain’t.”  The man’s accent was so thick, Chad thought he could hear the chowder coating each word.

Chad asked him if he had Meet Me in St. Louis.

The shopkeeper looked hard at him, as if noticing something about him for the first time, and not liking it.  “Ain’t from around here, are ya?” he said.

Chad shrugged.  “Georgia.”

The man grunted.  Fingering through the movies on the shelf, he pulled one out and handed it to Chad.  “Well, here you are,” he said.  “Lotsa years, this is rented out for Christmas.  You got lucky.”  They went to the checkout counter, and Chad filled out the necessary paperwork to become a card-carrying member of the store.  All the while, the shopkeeper fidgeted and stared at the pen as Chad wrote, as if willing it to move faster.

When Chad released the pen and slid the papers back across the counter, the shopkeeper processed the order at warp speed and handed over the cassette.

“You got it for five days,” he said.  “Live it up.”

Chad nodded, and walked out.  As soon as the door had shut behind him, he saw the shopkeeper flip over the “Open” sign.  “Sorry, Closed,” it now read.  Then a stiff gust of wind came up, and he started back for The Mill.

Knocking on Mr. Coomtromb’s door, Chad was strangely nervous.  It seemed backwards.  Coomtromb was the one who was supposed to knock on his door.  When there was no answer, he knocked again.

“Mr. Coomtromb . . . Coom . . . open up,” he said.  “I rented a movie for us to watch tonight.”

The door swung open.

“A movie?”  Coomtromb was in his night clothes already.  “Which one?”

Chad showed him the case.  For a moment, he worried that the old man was going to drop over from a heart attack.  His hands flew to his chest, and his mouth gaped open.

“My great goodness,”  Coomtromb said.  “Words fail me, young man.  It has been years, years, since I last saw that wonderful movie, that wonderful, wonderful scene!  But . . . but I don’t have a VCR.  Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to operate it to save my life!  Oh, no!”

“That’s okay,” Chad said.  “I have one, and I even know how to use it.  We can watch in my room.”

“Oh, yes, that would be fine, fine!” Coomtromb said.  “But first, I must pop some popcorn—I have a microwave, you know, and dentures, too, have you ever seen me wear them? I usually don’t like to, but for popcorn, well . . . And I must pour some beverages, and open some snacks, and . . . Come in, come in!  You can help me prepare!”

Chad went in.  The first thing he noticed were the Christmas figurines standing atop a cluttered desk.  He was about to approach them, but Coomtromb had other ideas.

“Come along with me, my young friend,” Coomtromb said.  “I am so looking forward to the show, and we need to get ready.  Let us not delay!  My microwave is extremely temperamental, you know!”

He followed the old man into the kitchen, where they made popcorn—Coomtromb burned it on the first try—opened a bag of pretzels, and grabbed some orange sodas from the refrigerator.  Then, fully stocked, they went to Chad’s apartment, where Chad contributed eggnog and even a little sparkling cider to the mix.

They sat on the sofa, the popcorn bowl and pretzels between them, the drinks on the coffee table, and watched the movie.  Coomtromb stared at the television screen, rapt.  Several times, his eyes widened to the size of silver dollars, and once he laughed so loud it was hard to make out the movie’s dialogue.  He asked Chad to rewind the tape so they could watch the scene again.  “And I promise,” he said, “this time I will not laugh, and we’ll be able to hear.”  But he did laugh, and they didn’t hear.

Chad enjoyed the movie more than he thought he would, but he kept waiting for the pivotal scene.  The scene Coomtromb had talked about so often.  And when it came, the old man cried like a little girl.  “I’m sorry,” he said when it was over.  “I can’t help it.  I’ve never been able to help it when Judy Garland sings that lovely, lovely song.”

An hour later, standing in the doorway, Coomtromb thanked Chad.  “That was the best Christmas present I’ve had in a long time,” he said.  “You have no idea, my friend.  And, whatever you do, don’t concern yourself with the figurines.  I’ll bring them back, day after tomorrow, you’ll see.”

Christmas came and went, and Mr. Coomtromb failed to deliver the figurines.  Whenever he talked to Chad, the topic of the figurines did not come up.

He talked to Chad less and less as time pushed on.  Chad started his job at the beginning of January, and usually worked late.  Additionally, a couple of new residents had moved in, which distracted Coomtromb.  But sometimes, on a Saturday, the old man would knock on Chad’s door and come in; sometimes, early on a weekday morning, Coomtromb would stop him in the hall and ramble on about the past, about the old Palace Movie Theater, about wishes and dreams.

Regarding the figurines, though, Coomtromb was silent, and by the time spring at last beckoned, Chad knew he would never see them again unless he requested their return.  And he planned to.  His parents had called and told him they wanted to visit in the fall, to see the New England foliage at its peak of color.  That wasn’t the holiday season—but it was close enough.  He knew his mother would inquire about the figurines, and probably would want to see them, or even ask for them back.

The evening after his parents’ phone call, he stepped into the empty hallway and approached Coomtromb’s door.  He raised his hand, ready to knock.  That’s when he heard it.

Coomtromb was in there, playing the song.  Through the solid wood of the door, Chad could hear “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and he could picture the old man, his eyes as wonderstruck as a little boy’s, staring at the singing porcelain angel.

“After all this time,” Chad said softly.  “After all these months.”

The song stopped.  A moment of silence.  Then the song began to play again.

Chad let his hand drop to his side.  “Sorry, Mom,” he said, “I just can’t.”

He turned around, walked slowly back across the hall, and went into his room.

******************************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Marc Kuslanski, “Know-It-Alls,” and the Sixth-Grade Spelling Bee

Marc Kuslanski is a know-it-all, plain and simple.  From the time we first meet him in The Eye-Dancers, in chapter four, it’s all too evident that he loves the sound of his own voice, and rarely doubts that his theories or explanations are accurate.  Marc’s the kind of person who, when asked a question about anything, will be quick to offer his opinion.  Even if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he acts like he does.

I have to admit, I used to be a little bit like Marc myself.  I like to think I’ve matured a bit over the years, and no longer go around trying to prove my point or picking arguments about inconsequential pieces of trivia (though some of my friends may disagree!).  But when I was right around Marc’s age in The Eye-Dancers, I was all too quick to try to prove how much I knew.  Geography?  I memorized the state capitals of all fifty U.S. states, not to mention numerous nations around the world.  Presidents?  I made it a point to recite all the U.S. presidents, in a row, in under twenty-five seconds.  When my parents had guests, I’d go over to them and say, “You wanna hear something?”  And then:  “WashingtonAdamaJeffersonMadisonMonroeQuincy-AdamsJacksonVan BurenHarrisonTylerPolkTaylorFillmore . . .”  I don’t think I ever stopped for a breath.  And when I ended with Reagan (this was the ’80s, after all), I checked my watch.  My record was eighteen seconds.

Looking back, I shake my head.  I needed a humbling experience in the worst way, and in the sixth grade, I got one. . . .

The Spelling Bee.  I had done well enough in the preliminaries to make it to the final bee–in the school auditorium on a cold, snowy western New York winter day.  The auditorium was full of parents, teachers, students.  Was I nervous?  Who, me?  I would win the bee, no problem!  I didn’t have a doubt.  I looked to my left and right–sizing up my competition.  A dozen students sat in a line, on metal folding chairs.  Onstage, we looked out over the auditorium.  I saw my mom and dad four rows back.  They caught me looking and waved.  Let’s get this show going, I thought.  Time to win.

Mrs. T. asked the questions.  She had been my third-grade teacher and was once again my teacher for sixth grade.  She approached the mic, and asked the first word to be spelled.  The boy next to me, Tom, from my homeroom, misspelled it.

“I’m sorry, Tom,” Mrs. T. said somberly, her curly red hair a shade too light under the harsh, bright stage lights.  She held the mic with her left hand, the multiple bracelets she always wore jangling on her wrist.

Tom, defeated, bowed his head and walked off the stage.  I saw him slink in beside his parents in the audience, forced to watch the rest of the competition from the crowd.  Beside me, his empty gray chair seemed lonely and forlorn without its occupant.

“Michael,” she said, smiling at me.  I stood up.  And then she asked me the same word that Tom had just misspelled.  Honestly, I can’t remember what the word was.  But I spelled it right, and sat back down.

By the time the next word came my way, three other students had been sent to sit with their parents in the crowd.  There were eight of us left.

“Okay, Michael,” Mrs. T. said, the sound of her jangling bracelets competing with her voice.  I stood up, ready.  “The next word is ‘boundary.'”  And then she used it in a sentence, the way she always did when introducing a new word.  “The boundary between the two nations was well defined.”  Thinking about it later, I realized, she had pronounced the word in a very clear manner–stressing the “a” between the “d” and the “r.”

And yet, at the time, standing there under the lights, looking out at the audience, I somehow overlooked it.  And I didn’t think through the spelling.  I just whipped off a fast response.  After all, it was simple, right?

“Boundary,” I repeated after Mrs. T.  “‘B-o-u-n-d-r-y.’  Boundary.”  I prepared to sit back down in my metal folding chair, without a doubt in the world.

But then Mrs. T.’s voice cut through like an ice pick.  “I’m sorry, Michael.  That is incorrect.”

For a moment, I thought I’d heard her wrong.  Incorrect?  But how could that be?  How could I get such an easy word wrong?  I stood there, frozen for a second, and the clinking of Mrs. T.’s bracelets seemed like giant metal boulders clashing into each other, creating a cacophony of sound.  I glanced at my parents, and they looked at me as if to say, “It’s okay.  No big deal.”

But it was a big deal.  It felt like one, anyway, at the time.  I walked off the stage, looking down at the floor the entire while, and quickly joined my parents in the fourth row, eager to merge with the crowd, turn invisible.

I can’t tell you who won the bee that day, or what any of the other words were.  But “boundary” stays with me, even to this day.  I laugh over the memory now.  It was a lesson I needed at the time.

Marc Kuslanski needs the same lesson.  And over the course of The Eye-Dancers, he does in fact learn it, however reluctantly.  In the end, he has no choice.

So, here’s to you, Marc.  Here’s to the know-it-all in each of us . . .

“Boundary,” huh?  No problem.  Piece of cake.  “B-o-u-n-d-r-y.”

Next question, please . . .

–Mike

Blog of the Year~2012

Hello on a snow-less early December day in the rolling green hills of Vermont.  And yes, that is right–green in December.  There has been no snow to speak of yet in the Green Mountain State.  Surely that will change soon. . . .

I want to thank The Other Side of Ugly for nominating The Eye-Dancers for the “Blog of the Year~2012” award.  If you haven’t been to Sheri’s website, please pay it a visit.  It is full of enriching and insightful posts that make you stop and think and appreciate.  It is especially nice being nominated for this award from such a great blogger.  Thanks, Sheri!

It’s very surprising being nominated at all, in part because I am brand-new to blogging.  I began The Eye-Dancers site a few months ago as a platform to talk about my novel, The Eye-Dancers.  Since then, thanks to the wonderful interaction with fellow bloggers, the site has gradually grown to include more diverse topics.

Thanks to everyone who has read these ramblings of mine.  I like to think this is just the beginning.  There’s a lot still to talk about!

The ‘rules’ for the 2012 Blog Award are simple:

  1. Select another blog or other blogs who deserve the ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award
  2. Write a blog post and tell us about the blog(s) you have chosen – there’s no minimum or maximum number of blogs required – and ‘present’ them with their award
  3. Include a link back to this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award at the The Eye-Dancersand provide these ‘rules’ in your post (please don’t alter the rules or the badges!)
  4. Let the blog(s) you have chosen know that you have given them this award and share the ‘rules’ with them
  5. You can now also join our Facebook group – click ‘like’ on this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award Facebook group and then you can share your blog with an even wider audience
  6. As a winner of the award – please add a link back to the blog that presented you with the award – and then proudly display the award on your blog and sidebar … and start collecting stars…

When you begin you will receive the 1 star award, and every time you are given the award by another blog, you can add another star! So until now I have only 1 star!!

Blog of the Year Award banner 600

There are total of 6 stars to collect.

You can check out your favorite blogs, and even if they have already been given the award by someone else, you can still award them again and help them to reach the maximum 6 stars!

For more information check FAQ on The Thought Palette

I would like to nominate the following blogs for the Blog of the Year~2012 award.  They are all wonderful places to pull up a virtual chair and settle in for a spell, and I hope you pay them a visit . . .

kelihasablog

The Other Side of Ugly

Crusades and Crusaders

Deanna’s Writing

renxkyoko

Thanks again to everyone.

–Mike

Short Story–“Reading the Story”

In addition to The Eye-Dancers, I’ve written many short stories over the years.  I would like to share a few of them on here in the days ahead.  This first one is called “Reading the Story,” which I wrote several years ago and then revised a couple of times.  Hopefully the revisions have helped!

Like Mitchell Brant (and me), Peter, the protagonist of “Reading the Story,” is a devoted comic book collector.  And old, beat-up comics play an integral part in the story . . .

“Reading the Story”

Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison

*****************

Peter had always loved the musty smell.  It made him think of old things, buried treasures, mysterious secrets waiting to be discovered.  But now as he sniffed the comic book in his hands, that smell bothered him.  It reminded him too much of decay and brokenness—and of Tanya.

He leaned back against his pillow, and looked absently at the comic book—a worn, brittle copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 28.  The cover was lined with numerous creases, the edges were frayed, and even the staples were loose, barely holding the issue together.  But he loved it just the same; he loved all of his old comics, even with their multitude of imperfections.  And the smell.  That old-comic smell.  He’d always savored that.  But not today.

There was a knock on his door.

“Peter?”  It was his mother.

“Yeah, Mom,” he said, bagging the comic in its protective Mylar sleeve and setting it aside.  “I’m on my bed.”

The door opened.  His mother looked tired and sad.  “Peter,” she began, and he knew where this was going.  He didn’t want to deal with it, but he knew he had to.  “Why don’t you go in and see your sister?  She’s in her room.”

“Do you really think that’s such a good idea, Mom?  I mean . . .”

His mother closed the door and walked over to him.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “It’s not easy knowing what to do, or what to say.  But I really think you should.  Avoiding her isn’t the answer, Peter.  That won’t help at all.”

No, it wouldn’t, Peter knew.  But then, if what had happened to Tanya, to her face, had happened to him, he wasn’t sure he’d wish to see anyone.  He might just hide away in a corner and let the world pass on by.  But he didn’t want that for Tanya.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ll go.  But I won’t stay if she doesn’t want me around.”

His mother smiled.  It seemed to Peter that stubborn rusty hinges were being forced open in her face.  But they gave way, however reluctantly.  Then the smile vanished so fast, he wasn’t sure he’d even seen it.  Maybe he hadn’t.  His mother rarely smiled these days.  Why should she, after what had happened to Tanya?

“Would you like me to come in with you?” his mother asked.

“No.  Thanks, Mom, but no.  I think it would be easier if I went alone.”

She nodded and left.  Peter picked up his comic again (he didn’t know why; it just felt like a friend, a comfort somehow) and walked into the hallway.  His sister’s room was just across from his.  He took a deep breath.  He wasn’t sure if he could handle this.  He wasn’t sure if he could stand to look at Tanya’s face.

The weight of that thought, the strangeness of it, rammed into him with the force of a pile driver.  Tanya had always been beautiful, so much so that Peter had often taken her beauty for granted.  It was constant, something you counted on, like the sun rising every morning or the teacher calling on you in class when you weren’t paying attention.  Tanya was voted Most Attractive in her senior yearbook, and she had no trouble making a new boyfriend once she went to the local university.  This would have been her sophomore year in college, but she wasn’t attending this fall.  There was hope she might resume her courses again in January.  But who knew?  Who knew if Tanya wanted to do much of anything anymore?

Last summer, she had gone on a camping trip with some girlfriends.  They spent four days in the Adirondacks.  On their last night there, a stray mongrel dog came up to them as they roasted marshmallows over a low fire.  The dog did not seem threatening at first, had in fact wagged its tail when Tanya gave it a marshmallow.  But when she turned her head, the dog suddenly ripped into the right side of Tanya’s face.  The girls she was camping with later said there had been no warning, no provocation.  One minute the dog seemed friendly, the next minute it simply attacked.  Brutally attacked.  The only reason it hadn’t killed Tanya was that the other girls threw themselves on top of the dog and pulled it away from her.  They beat it and kicked it and punched it, and finally it ran back into the woods.  When a search party later looked for the dog, it wasn’t found.  It probably belonged to some backwoods hermit who didn’t keep it chained, they said after returning from their search empty-handed.

Tanya’s friends were lauded as heroes, and their bravery made the local news.  But they said they didn’t feel brave.  They just did what came naturally.  Maybe that was true, but they had saved Tanya’s life.  Too bad they couldn’t save her face.

Peter knocked on the door.  No answer.  He knocked again.

“Go away,” Tanya said from behind the door.

“It’s me,” he said.  “Peter.  Can I come in?”

There was silence.  It seemed to drag on forever.  Then, in a small voice, Tanya said, “Okay.”

He opened the door, cringing at what he might see and hating himself for it.

“Close it,” she said as soon as he stepped inside her room.

He closed the door.  Looking around, things seemed normal, as though nothing had changed.  Same flowery wallpaper.  Same bookshelf complete with the classics Tanya liked to read—Shakespeare, Dickens, Bronte.  She was an English Lit major at the college.  But looking closer, Peter realized not everything in the room was the same.  The mirror that had hung on the wall no longer was there.  The fashion magazines that Tanya used to have strewn on her dresser top were gone.  And something else was gone, too, wasn’t it?  He couldn’t put a finger on it, but he could feel it.  It was as essential as it was intangible.  Was it innocence?  Girlhood dreams?  Optimism?  He wasn’t sure.  But he sensed its absence, whatever it was.

Tanya was lying on her bed, the scarred part of her face against the pillow.  Late-afternoon sunshine, mellow and lazy, streamed through the window.

“Leaves are turning color,” Peter said, not sure why.  “They’re real nice.”

“I know,” Tanya said.  She kept the ruined side of her face against the pillow as she spoke.  She wasn’t looking at Peter.  Peter couldn’t tell if she was looking at anything.  “I saw them the other day when I left the hospital.”

He cringed.  He’d hated that place, hated the aura of sickness that always hung in the air as he and his parents rushed through narrow corridors on their way to Tanya’s room.  And he hated seeing Tanya have to go through so much there.  She’d stayed in the hospital for weeks, and she underwent five separate surgeries on her face.  When they’d visit her, the right side of her face was always bandaged, and they couldn’t see the damage.  Then, just three days ago, they all saw it for the first time.  After five surgeries, they had hoped it wouldn’t be that bad.  The doctors warned them not to expect a miracle, but they hoped anyway.  How terrible could it be?  How—

“Look,” Tanya said from her pillow, “you don’t need to do this, okay?  I know you don’t want to be in here with me.  So you can go, okay?”

He almost did.  He wanted to, that was sure.  But it didn’t seem like the right thing to do.  Instead, he went over and sat on the foot of her bed.

“What’d you do that for?” she said, sounding hostile.

“I don’t know.”

Silence.  Penetrating silence.  Peter wished he could think of something to say, but he couldn’t.

“What’s that?” Tanya said.

Peter turned to look at her.  Her voice nipped into him like a gust of wind.  He hadn’t expected her to say anything.  “Huh?” he said clumsily.

“What are you holding?”

“Oh,” he said.  “It’s a comic.  Spider-Man number twenty-eight.  Classic issue.  First appearance of The Molten Man.”

Peter saw Tanya’s good eye roll.

“Why don’t you just rent the movie, you dork?” she said, and he thought he heard a faint echo of her old playfulness.  But then, maybe that was just wishful thinking.

“The movie’s not the same,” he said.  “Besides, The Molten Man isn’t in it.”

“Lemme see that for a second,” Tanya said.

He handed her the comic.

“Boy, this is beat.  Why would you want a rag like this?”  She was still hiding the right side of her face from him.

“Well,” he said, “the main reason is it’s affordable.  But I like it like that, too.  I mean, smell it.”

She put the comic to her nose and sniffed.

“Whaddaya think?” he said.  “Pretty awesome, huh?”

“Smells like dust and mouse turds,” she said.  “Why don’t you just get the new ones?”

“I do,” he said.  “But they aren’t nearly as good.  You just can’t beat a classic old Spider-Man or Fantastic Four.  And you know what?  I like that it’s beat up.  Some guys will only buy a comic if it’s in mint condition—one little scratch, and they won’t even look at it.  It’s gotta be perfect, y’know?  And they won’t read it, either.  They’ll just store it away somewhere, or maybe sell it to somebody else.”

“But you’re not like that.”  He wasn’t sure if she was complimenting him or insulting him.

“No way,” he said.  “I mean, I couldn’t be, even if I wanted to.  Like that Spidey there—” he pointed to the issue in his sister’s hands—“it’s over forty years old.  If that was in nice shape, it would cost four, five hundred bucks, easy.  I’d never be able to buy it.  But that’s not even the biggest thing.  I know it sounds weird, but I like it to be rough, I like the creases and the scuff marks.  They make it more mine, y’know?  More special.”

“More special?” she said.  “You’re right, Peter, that does sound weird.  Even for you.”

He smiled.  “I don’t really know how to explain it,” he said.  “I just love the stories, that’s all.  You don’t get the comics I do for the way they look.  You get ‘em to read the stories.  And the stories in those old comics are the best.  They’re like magic.”

She put the comic on the nightstand beside her bed.  “Look,” she said, “thanks for coming in here, Peter, but I really do want to be alone, okay?”

“Okay.”  He stood up.  “You’ll be going back to college in January, won’t you?” he said, surprising himself.  He had intended just to walk out without saying anything else.

“I don’t know,” Tanya said.  “I want to.  I mean, I really like it, y’know?  I like my classes and stuff, but . . . I just, I . . . don’t know.”

“I hope you do,” he said.  “They’ll be missing a lot if you don’t go back.”

“Will they?  I didn’t know they missed seeing freaks every day.”

“Tanya—”

“Oh, I can see it now.  First day back to classes, and as I walk in, everyone just stares.  Maybe even a few run away screaming.  Oh, yeah, I’ll be missed all right!  Sure!”

“No, Tanya, you’ve got it all wrong.  You—”

“Look at my face!” she shrieked, and she finally exposed the right side of her face to him.  It wasn’t a surprise—he had just seen it yesterday when Tanya was in the kitchen pouring herself a bowl of cereal.  But it still shocked him.  He wondered if it always would.  She wore a white patch over her right eye.  The dog had bitten into it, destroying it and robbing it of any usefulness.  Two scars snaked angrily down from the patch.  One of them cut across to her ear.  The other twisted down to the right side of her mouth, forcing her lip into a contorted, clownish sneer.  More scars lined the ruined flesh of her cheek.  She looked like the survivor of a terrible knife fight.  What must her face have looked like before? Peter thought, and shuddered.  Before the five surgeries, before even the first surgery?  What did it look like on that night, when the dog ripped into it?  What did it look like then?

Peter turned away from his sister’s face.

“See?” she said.  She was crying now.  “Even you can’t look at me.  My own brother!  What do you think the people in my classes will do?”

He forced himself to look at her.  A fat teardrop seeped out from under her eye patch, slowly working its way over her scars.  She wiped it away.

“I used to be pretty,” she said.  “Well, maybe not pretty, but normal at least!”  No, Peter thought.  No, Tanya.  You were pretty.  You were beautiful.  “Now what am I?  I’m a monster!  A freakshow!  I hate my face!  I can’t even look in the mirror anymore, and it hurts.  It hurts so bad all the time.  It hurts even to talk and to chew.  My God, it hurts!”

That was all she could say.  She just cried then, burying her face in the pillow.  Peter stood there a moment longer, wishing he could help but knowing he couldn’t.  He left.  As he closed the door on his way out, he noticed his comic on her nightstand.  He had forgotten to take it.

He couldn’t get to sleep that night, couldn’t stop thinking about Tanya.  He had never really been too close with her, and they often fought, but it wasn’t so bad.  They got along all right, when you really looked at it.  The thing was, he had often been a little jealous of her.  She was always so popular.  Ever since he could remember, boys had flipped over her.  Peter?  He was sixteen and hadn’t even been on a date yet.  He recalled one day, about three years ago, when Tanya had still been a junior in high school.  Four boys had come over, all at different times.  She sent them all away, but that wasn’t the point.  He wished he could have even one-tenth of her popularity.  But now, he wouldn’t trade places with her for all the money in the world.

He remembered when their Aunt Helen came to visit from across the country.  She had looked at Tanya, then a little girl, cupped her face in her hands, and said, “You are so pretty, Tanya, do you know that?  You have the face of an angel.  The boys are gonna be after you like flies on butter.”

Aunt Helen’s voice reverberated in Peter’s mind as he looked out his bedroom window into the cold October night.  You have the face of an angel.  Now what did she have?  Half of an angel’s face?  That was the worst thing.  The left side of Tanya’s face was just as smooth, just as flawless as ever.  It seemed to Peter that Tanya might have been better off if both sides of her face had been scarred.  The way it was now, it just seemed like a taunt—the good side laughing at the bad side.

He went to his dresser and pulled out another of his old comics.  He brought it to his nose and smelled the musty smell he had always loved.  But now it only made him think of fallen leaves rotting in stormdrains.

Tanya’s boyfriend came over the next day.  He had seen her at the hospital after the bandages had been removed, and he had looked pale.  Now, he went up to her room, was in there all of five minutes, and then he raced back downstairs.  He said good-bye quickly to Peter’s mother, and left.  Peter knew they’d never see him again.  He wasn’t sure if he hated Tanya’s boyfriend or sympathized with him.

For her part, Tanya rarely left her room.  Peter tried to get her to go outside with him before the weather turned too cold, but she always refused.  She wouldn’t eat with the family, either.  Mom usually brought a plate of something up to Tanya after the rest of them had eaten.

Peter tried to tell himself Tanya would pull through, that she’d be fine.  Then he’d see her lying on her bed, without any motivation, without any hope—and he couldn’t deal with that.  He tried telling her not to feel sorry for herself.  She threw her pillow at him and screamed for him to get out.  So he did.

Two weeks later, Peter stood by his sister’s bed.

“C’mon, Tanya,” he said.  “I’m not taking no for an answer this time.  Let’s take a walk.  It’s nice out—this will probably be the last nice day of the year.  Let’s go.”

“Go away.”

“Not this time.”  He reached for her hand and pulled her into a sitting position.

“Hey!  Watch it, Peter!”

“Let’s go,” he said.  He noticed the comic he had brought in with him that day a couple of weeks ago was on her dresser.  “You read that yet?” he asked.

She shook her head.  “Of course not,” she said.  “Why would I read one of your beat-up old comic books?  It would probably fall apart in my hands even if I did want to read it, which I don’t.”

“It’s great,” he said.  “It’s a great story.  And just be careful with it.  It won’t fall apart.  Just remember, it’s special.  Now, c’mon.”

She came.  He figured it was just to shut him up.  They walked around the block.  It was cool but nice, a sunny November Saturday afternoon that felt so clean it made Peter’s eyes water.  They walked in silence, but he could tell that Tanya was enjoying the air, the sun, the exercise.

At one point, a little boy on a bicycle crossed their path.  They didn’t recognize him, but he stopped anyway.

“Wow,” he said, staring at Tanya, “what happened to you?”

“A big dog bit me,” she said.

“Ow,” the boy said.  “That musta hurt.  I like your eye patch, though.  It’s neat.  See ya.”  And he rode off.

Tanya laughed.  It was the first time Peter had heard her laugh since she’d come home from the hospital.

“He didn’t think you’re a freak,” he said.

“That’s because he’s little,” she said.  But he thought he heard something in her voice that hadn’t been there.

Later, he sat on his bedroom floor, his door swung open, and he could hear Tanya crying in her room.  He didn’t know why she was crying.  He thought the walk had done her good.  Was he wrong?  He looked at his windowpane, watching it fog up.  Dusk was descending, and the faint warmth that the sun had brought was evaporating like steam rising from a lost river.

He drove to the comic shop after supper.  He liked going on cold Saturday evenings.  No one was ever there, and since the shop closed at nine, he had a lot of time to browse.  The old-comic smell was overpowering in the shop.  Every time he inhaled, it was there, and it was comforting, like a pleasant childhood memory, or the rock-solid assurances of a faithful friend.

He went to the checkout counter.

“I’ll take a look at that one,” he said to Granger, the shop’s owner.

Granger looked over his shoulder.  Various old comic books were taped to the wall.  “Which?  The FF?”  Peter nodded, and Granger gently took it down.  He took it out of its Mylar sleeve, and handed it to Peter.  This was a measure of trust that Peter had earned.  He knew Granger did not allow just anyone to flip through the merchandise.

“Whatcha think?” Granger said.  “Pretty hosed copy, ain’t it?  Seen better days.”

Peter finished flipping through it and gave it back to Granger.  “I’ll take it,” he said.

Granger nodded and put the comic back into its sleeve.  “Hey,” he said.  “It’s Fantastic Four number thirty-three.  They don’t exactly grow on trees.  And it’s a great read.  They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.  You could do a lot worse.”

Yes, you could.  The copy he was buying was tattered, it had a bad spine roll, and there was even a corner chewed off—probably by a mouse.  But the story was all there.  The wonder was all there.  The magic.

When he got home, he was surprised to see Tanya sitting on the sofa in the living room.

“Hey,” Peter said, “whatcha doin’?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Mom and Dad went out to a movie, and I just figured I’d come downstairs for a change.”

Her good side was toward him, and it was easy to pretend that everything was normal, that Tanya still was pretty, that no dog had ripped into her.  Then she turned to face him—and the pretending stopped.

“I thought I’d finally take a look at this,” she said.  She held up the Spider-Man comic that had been lying on top of her dresser.

Peter smiled.  “Yeah, sure,” he said.  “And remember, be careful with it.  I’m actually gonna go upstairs and read one I just bought.  Need anything while I’m down here?”

“No, I’m fine.  I have your dumb comic, don’t I?”

He smiled again and went upstairs.  He read his comic, loving every panel.  When he finished, he sniffed it and then put it back into its sleeve, carefully, making sure not to inflict any further damage to the fragile spine.  He looked out his window.  A full moon shone at him.  As he had done since he was little, he looked for the man in the moon, but he couldn’t find him.  He thought he’d seen him once, a long time ago, though it was probably just his imagination.  But he liked to think it was true.  His old comic books had that effect on him—they made the magic seem real.  You just needed to look past the deteriorated cover and discover the richness within.  That made him think of his sister.  Was she still reading the Spider-Man?

He went downstairs, quietly, and looked into the living room.  Tanya was still on the sofa, holding the comic in her lap.  Unaware of Peter’s presence, she let out a little giggle, then flipped the page, gingerly, tenderly, treating the comic like fine china.  A few moments went by, and she turned the page again.  She was completely rapt, completely absorbed in the comic book.

She was reading the story.

**********

Thanks so much for reading!  As always, any and all feedback is welcome.

–Mike

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