Short Story — “Myron”

In The Eye-Dancers, when Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in the variant town of Colbyville, they experience profound feelings of homesickness.  They are, quite literally, a universe away.  Amid the obvious differences they encounter in this strange and foreign place, they take some small comfort in the familiarities they find.  Which of course is a normal thing to do.  Certainly when I’m somewhere unfamiliar, and feeling especially out of sorts, I tend to gravitate toward those things that remind me of places I know well.

I wrote the very short story “Myron” a few years ago.  It explores just this theme–familiarity, permanence, trying to cope with the onslaught of time and change, even in the face of real or potential tragedy.  The narrator of this story, in his own way, feels very similar emotions to those experienced by the four protagonists of The Eye-Dancers.

 

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I hope you enjoy the story . . .

“Myron”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

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Myron wasn’t on the bus that day, and I wondered where he was, if he was okay, and if what I had sensed yesterday had been real or imaginary.

But I didn’t want to think about that.  I just looked around at the familiar surroundings of the bus.  Across the aisle from me was the old man in the turtleneck.  He always lugged an oversized black briefcase with him, and once in a while, he’d be on the receiving end of a seatmate’s complaint.  But that did not deter him.  If anything, it seemed to motivate him to continue bringing the gigantic briefcase onboard.

Then there was the young businesswoman.  She always came on five stops after mine, and she always sat at the back of the bus.  The regulars never took her seat.  If someone was in her seat, it was a newcomer, someone who didn’t know the rules yet.  She would glare at the person, and the next day that seat would be hers again.  When she passed by my seat, I usually had to rub my eyes because they watered from the perfume she wore.  I don’t know what perfume it was, only that she wore far too much of it.

And of course, there were the Stack brothers—Tony and Drew.  They worked at a LoDo software firm, and they always sat together and talked loudly.  They generally talked about sports (especially the Broncos), the stock market, and dating.  Most of the time, they annoyed me and I’m sure many of the other passengers as well.  But no one told them to be quiet.  They always got off long before I did, anyway.

There were a few other regulars, too, but most of the passengers were in a state of flux or a period of transition.  They rode the bus for a few days, maybe a few weeks, and then they were gone.  When Myron first got on the bus, over two years ago, I had no reason to think he would become a regular.  But as the weeks passed and he kept appearing, it was apparent he was there to stay.

Myron rarely talked to anyone, and he always looked the same:  short slicked-back hair, neatly combed; gold-rimmed glasses that made him look scholarly, bookish; small brown briefcase that was always crisp and shiny; unwrinkled dress pants; beige two-button blazer; black tie.  I never actually learned his name.  I just started thinking of him as Myron.  Not sure why, really.  He just seemed like a Myron, that’s all.  He looked like an accountant or a banker.  Everything always ordered, always in place.

Myron was constant.  He never took a vacation day.  Every morning, he would quietly board our number 57 bus at the corner of Speer and Downing, quickly show the driver his bus pass, nod a curt hello, and take his seat.  He generally sat on the driver’s side toward the middle of the bus.  But mostly, he seemed to want a seat to himself.  If his usual seat was not empty, he’d find another that was.  If no seat was empty, he’d stiffly (and reluctantly) sit beside someone.  I would look at him, not being too obvious, of course, and marvel at his sense of detachment, his calm, almost robotic exterior.  When he got off, I would think, So long, Myron.  See you tomorrow, old pal.

Only that day, he hadn’t been on the bus.

I recalled the previous morning, there was something a little different about Myron.  He was quiet and stoic, as always, but there was something . . . I couldn’t put a finger on it.  He sat by himself and silently looked out the window as the bus made its familiar rounds.  But just before he got off, just before he left his seat, I saw a teardrop escape from under his glasses. It slowly meandered down his cheek, and he wiped it away, still with that air of detachment.  Then he left the bus.

I watched him merge with the people on the sidewalk, and then the bus pulled away from the curb, and Myron was gone.  I couldn’t grasp that he had been crying.  He was Myron.  He was steady, as reliable as an expert clockmaker’s masterpiece.  He didn’t cry.  I was sure the next day, everything would be back to normal.

But it wasn’t.  Nor the next day.  Nor the day after that.  An entire week passed and still no Myron.  This was unheard of.  Had something terrible happened?  Had his mother died in a sudden accident?  Had he lost his job?  Was his wife ill?  He didn’t wear a wedding band, but not all married men do, so I couldn’t rule the possibility out.  I just knew I missed him, his calm, unchanging presence.  I felt like things were too fragile without him.

The other regulars seemed not to notice his absence.  Tony and Drew Stack continued their high-volume conversations, arguing daily about the Broncos and their chances for the playoffs.  The old man in the turtleneck continued to drag his huge black briefcase onto the bus with him, and he even took the seat Myron favored much of that week.  Where’s your loyalty? I wanted to ask him.  He was a regular.  He should’ve known better than that.  Show some respect.  And the young businesswoman continued to horde her seat at the back of the bus.

One morning, when the bus was absolutely packed, I sat across from her.  Feeling talkative, edgy in Myron’s strange, prolonged absence, I cleared my throat, and said, “Been busy on the bus lately, hasn’t it?”

At first, she ignored me, perhaps not realizing I was talking to her.  But when I repeated the question, she turned in my direction.  It was the first time I had really looked at her, closely.  She appeared to be a little older than I had always thought—mid thirties, maybe; about five years older than I was.  She wore a lot of makeup, and her lips were so red I couldn’t help but stare.

“Sure,” she said.  “It’s always busy on this bus.”  She seemed unfriendly, like she didn’t want to talk to me.

“It helps that you always get the same seat, though,” I said, not sure why I was pursuing this with her.

She nodded.  “I like this seat.  It’s away from things.  And it’s familiar.”  With that, she faced front again, effectively ending the conversation.

Familiar.  Yes.  That made sense.

When I was three, my last surviving grandparent died of a heart attack.  I don’t remember it.  No one else close to me has died.  My parents had me when they were in their late thirties, but they are in excellent health still.  My two older sisters and three older brothers are all fine, and their spouses and children are fine, too.  I haven’t married yet.

I remember a conversation I had with my mother when I was six.  Somehow, my grandfather came up—the one who had died of a heart attack when I was three.

“What did Granddad die of?” I had asked.

“Granddaddy had a heart attack, Mark,” Mom had said.

“Did it hurt?” I asked.

“No, dear.  I don’t think so.  He died in his sleep.”

I thought about that for a second.  Then I said, “Is that how I’m gonna die, Mom?”

She narrowed her eyes and took me in her arms.  “Mark, that’s not anything you should be thinking of.  You’re a little boy.  You have a long time to live.”

“What about you, Mom?” I had said.  “And what about Dad?  You aren’t gonna die, are you?”

“Not any time soon, Mark,” she said, but she had hesitated.  “Your father and I are fine.  So stop thinking about such things, okay?”

I nodded, feeling so safe with my face buried against her shoulder.  I never wanted her to die.

“You promise you won’t die, Mom?” I asked.

I felt her arms tighten around me.  But she didn’t answer.

“Mom!  Promise!”

“Ssh,” she said.  “You just calm yourself down, okay?  Just don’t you worry.”

I stayed that way, in her arms, for a long time.  When I went to sleep that night, I dreamt that she had died in a car crash.  I woke up screaming.  She came into my room and after listening to my hysterics, she calmly explained that there had been no car accident, that she was perfectly okay.  She invited me to sleep with her and Dad that night.  So I did.  The next morning, my brothers mocked me and called me a baby, but I didn’t care.  Mom could never die.  Never.  I couldn’t let that happen.

And it hasn’t.  I wonder how much I’ve changed, grown up, since that day almost twenty-five years ago.  I still can’t imagine my life without Mom and Dad, without my brothers and sisters.  My parents live far away now, in Florida, but just knowing they’re there, knowing they’re doing well, makes me feel the same now as it did when I was six.  The particulars may change.  Hair may thin and gray.  Wrinkles may crease the forehead and smile lines may carve living testimonials onto faces, but the essentials remain unchanged.  The permanence endures.

On a snowy November Monday morning, two weeks after his disappearance, Myron came back.  He climbed the bus steps, showed the driver his bus pass, and nodded hello.  He took his familiar seat toward the middle of the bus, on the driver’s side.  He looked out the window as the bus pulled away from the curb, watching the fat snowflakes accumulate on the sidewalk and brush against the ice-caked pane.  It seemed as though nothing had changed.  The routine clicked right back into place.

But something felt different about him.  His behavior, his appearance, these were the same as before.  But there was a change.  It wasn’t the sort of thing you could see or put your finger on.  It was something you felt, beneath the rational refuge of logic or the concrete reality of  your perceptions.  And I knew that someone he loved had died or was incurably ill.

Even though I never asked Myron about this, I knew.  I had never been more sure of anything in my life.  There was a mark on Myron that said, “Look at me.  I’ve just stared tragedy in the face, and it sucked my spirit dry.  Look at me!  Look at me, because soon, you’ll be in my place, too.”  Maybe other people would not notice it, that mark that had not been there before, but I did.  Heaven help me, I did.

But as the days passed and Myron’s routine stayed constant, I found it was easier to overlook that mark and pretend that Myron had never left, that nothing terrible had happened to him, that everything was the same as it had always been.  The alternative seemed too terrifying, too much like acknowledging that life is transitory and that everything you love will pass away.

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Thanks so much, as always, for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Falling . . .”

The Eye-Dancers deals with both dreams and parallel worlds, and in fact, brings the two together in very concrete ways.  It also takes on the concept of what we term “reality,” and openly challenges it.  Or at least it challenges the linear, narrow construct of it.  I have often been a believer that reality is much more layered, much more complex, than we often think.  And The Eye-Dancers is not the only story I’ve written that explores this idea.

I wrote the short story “Falling . . .” just last year, shortly after finishing The Eye-Dancers.  Clearly, parallel worlds were still on my mind!  As were dreams.

This story may hit just a little too close to home for Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski, after dealing with their own “otherworldly” adventure.  But I hope the rest of you will read “Falling . . .” and I also hope you’ll enjoy it. . . .

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“Falling . . . ”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

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Alex Tanner fell through the night.  Below him, the city street grew nearer, nearer, the moment of impact mere seconds away.

A car horn honked.  At him?  At another motorist?  The wind slammed into him, his shirt ruffling and billowing like a sail adrift at sea.  He closed his eyes, but then opened them, morbidly needing to look.  The neon letters of the pizza parlor across the street flashed in the window.  People were eating in there, calmly, unwinding after a long, tiring day.  They were just sitting there, oblivious, while he fell.

“No!” he shouted.  “This can’t be happening.”  The sound of his words rose, drifted, before dissolving into the warm, humid night air.

An absurd thought came to him.  Why was the pizza parlor even there?  It wasn’t supposed to be.  It should have been something else . . .

He looked behind him.  The high-rise where he lived was right there, almost close enough to touch.  There had been noise—way too much noise.  But why was he falling?  Had he jumped, or tripped, or . . .?  If he could just torque his body, twist in midflight, grab hold of a window ledge.

It was no use.  He didn’t have the coordination, the skill, to pull off such a stunt.  And he was out of time . . .

A second before impact, he closed his eyes again, tensed his muscles.  He heard someone shout, more horns honked.  And then he screamed, until the moment he collided with the hard, unyielding asphalt.

“Alex, Alex, please, wake up!”

He felt something shaking him, jarring him.  But how could that be?  He had fallen so far and so fast.  His body was a twisted, bloody ruin.  He was dead.

He screamed again.

A light slap to the face, hands grabbing his wrists . . . and then, slowly, the image of a face materialized before him.

“Alex?” she said.  “Are you awake?”

He blinked several times, and the face came into focus.  It was a beautiful face—his wife’s face.

He was breathing rapidly, too rapidly, as though he might hyperventilate.  Sweat beaded his forehead, drenched his shirt and the bedsheets.

I’m dead, was the only thing he could think.  I’m dead.  I hit.  I could feel it.

His wife stopped shaking him, exhaled.  She brushed a few rogue bangs away from her eyes.

“Alex, this is getting scary,” she said.  “You’re freaking me out.  I mean, three nights in a row?”

He swallowed, said nothing.

“And it’s getting worse,” she went on.  “Each time, it’s harder to wake you up.  It’s like you’re not really here or something.”  She shook her head.  “Like I can’t reach you.”

That’s because I died.

He wanted to say something reassuring, for her, for himself.  But there were no words.

“Was it the same thing tonight?” she said.  “Falling again?”

He nodded.  Except for the pizza parlor.  Something about the pizza parlor . . .  “Did I . . . kick again?” he asked.

“Yeah.  You kicked, all right.  You were jerking like a wild man.  Look where the bed is.”

He swore under his breath.  He’d managed to force the bed a good two feet to the left.  What was the matter with him?  Other than the fact that I keep falling to my death every night in my sleep, you mean?  Was he sick?

He had just gone for his physical last month—he hadn’t been examined in several years, so he figured he needed to get checked out, make sure everything was still in proper working order.  The doctor told him he looked great.  “If all my patients were as fit as you, I’d be looking for another job,” he’d said, and laughed.  That had been reassuring, but maybe the doctor had missed something.  Maybe . . .

Stop.  Just quit it.  Besides, even if there was some pernicious disease silently lurking, how would that explain the last three nights?  How would anything?

“I’m almost afraid to try to get back to sleep,” he said.  “This is crazy.”

She leaned in to hold him, and the smell of her, the closeness of her, soothed his frayed nerves.  He buried his head against her shoulder, trying to get lost in the softness of her long, black hair.

“If I didn’t know better,” she said, “I’d think you were running around with someone else behind my back, and maybe your guilt is coming out in your sleep.”  She pulled away, looked at him. Smiled.

He smiled back.  She did know better.  That was why they could smile about it.

“You really need to try to relax, honey,” she said.  “If you don’t, you’ll be shot at work tomorrow.”

He couldn’t argue with that.  But he knew he wouldn’t be able to relax.  He’d probably spend the rest of the night just lying there, staring up at the ceiling.  Something was wrong.  He tried to reason it out, think it through, tell himself it was nothing to concern himself with.  So he’d had a nightmare, plummeting to his death—three nights in a row.  So what.  That happened to people sometimes, didn’t it?  A string of nightmares, for no good reason.  Harmless.  The dreams would pass.

Perhaps.  But he couldn’t shake the feeling he had.  The sense of loss, as if he really had died—tonight, and last night, and the night before that.  He’d had bad dreams before.  But they had never been like this.

“Hey, Alex?”

“Hmm?”

She gave a half-smile.  She looked nervous, uneasy.  He hated seeing that.  He had made her feel that way—him and his kicking and his screaming and his dreams of death and falling.

She asked him if he would help her push the bed back in place.  Once that was accomplished, she went to flick off the light.

“Wait,” he said.

“Why?”

“I . . .”  But what could he say?  That he wanted to look at her, at the swarthy, olive complexion of her skin that he’d always admired?  Hoping her beauty could distract him enough, and help him to forget?

“Nothing,” he said.

“Go to sleep, Alex.  I’m sure there won’t be any more dreams.”

Yeah, he thought.

Sure.

“So, what’s up?” Eckert wanted to know.

Alex sat across from him.  They were in a small diner downtown, away from the office, and, hopefully, from interruptions.  Eckert wasn’t a close friend—just someone Alex got together with on occasion.  But considering his fascination with dreams, the paranormal, and the “multiple layers of reality,” as he put it, Eckert was the only person he could think of who might have some answers to what was going on.  He’d sent Eckert an email as soon as he arrived at the office—“Doing anything for lunch later?  Need to talk about something.”  Eckert had responded immediately, suggesting the diner.

But now, sitting at a corner table, looking out the window at the congestion of downtown traffic, Alex wasn’t sure where to begin.  He’d done some research online.  The most interesting item he discovered was something called Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, a condition some people suffered while sleeping, characterized by violent kicking and thrashing episodes.  But he didn’t think that really fit.  He didn’t have a limb disorder.  He fell to his death while he slept.  What did they call that?  Other than insane.

Eckert prodded again, urging him to speak up, while at the same time ogling the redheaded waitress who rushed about from table to table like a waterbug.

Alex took a deep breath, and told him about his dreams, or his memories, or whatever they were.

“Well, it’s good you sent me that email,” Eckert said, just as the waitress arrived at their table.  Eckert had ordered two egg salad sandwiches and a side order of fries.  Alex just wanted a garden salad—his stomach wasn’t up for anything hearty.

Once the waitress left, and Eckert eyed her retreating figure, he said, “I’m just the guy to help you out.”  He took a huge bite of his sandwich, then spoke with his mouth full.  “You said this happened three nights in a row, right?”

Alex nodded.  “My brother used to say you can’t die in your dreams.  If you did, you’d really die.  You’d never wake up.  Guess he was wrong about that.”

But I did die.  I did.

“But you did die.”

“Huh?”

“Who said you didn’t die?  You said it yourself.  Your dreams didn’t feel like dreams.  They felt real.  Correct?”

In his mind’s eye, he could see the street as he fell, ready to collide, and then he felt nauseous when he recalled the moment of impact, his body slamming into the asphalt.

He nodded.  “Nothing in my life ever felt more real.”

Eckert nodded back, stuffed three fries in his mouth.

“But what’s it mean?  I mean, yeah, it feels like I died.  But I couldn’t have.  I’m still here.  And three nights in a row?”  He laughed.  “What am I, a cat?  Do I get nine lives or something?”

“Nine?  Try a thousand.  A million.  A hundred million.  There’s no end.”

Alex just stared back at him, not comprehending.

Eckert finished the first of his sandwiches.  On the sidewalk outside, someone yelled, then laughed.  That’s what Alex felt like doing.

“Maybe the last three nights have been more specific for you,” Eckert said.  “But c’mon, man, think about it.  Haven’t you ever had feelings like this before?  Say you’re taking a walk, and you just feel a chill for no reason.  Maybe you’re sitting at your desk and you get a sense that something just happened—maybe a feeling of déjà vu, or maybe just an awareness that something is different than it was a second ago—for no reason you can see.  An unexplained feeling of dread, a bout of panic when there’s nothing to be afraid of.  Haven’t any of those things ever happened to you?”

Well, of course they had.  Didn’t they happen to everyone, at one time or another?  “I don’t see what that has to do with my dreams,” Alex said.

Eckert wolfed down a handful of fries, took a long drink of his water.  “It has everything to do with your dreams.  Because what we label as dreams are often anything but.  Just like ‘random’ feelings of panic aren’t random.”

“Then what are they?”

“How is everything?” the waitress said.  She had zipped over to their table so fast, Alex hadn’t even noticed.

“Delicious!” Eckert said, and winked.  The waitress smiled, but rolled her eyes, and walked away.

“Anyway, like I said, there’s no end to the number of lives you have,” Eckert said.  “Nine?  That’s nothing.  And forget about just one.  That’s archaic.  Quantum physics is the way, man, not the old Newtonian stuff.  Reality isn’t as cut-and-dried as we like to think.  You think you’re the only Alex Tanner?  There’s an Alex Tanner in every universe in existence.  And there’s no end to the number of those.”

He’d already known Eckert was a believer in parallel worlds.  But he didn’t see the connection.

“The connection?”  Eckert finished his second sandwich.  “The connection is elementary, my dear Watson.  If you live in an endless string of worlds, it makes sense that you die in some of them, right?  When you get that feeling of unexplained dread, it’s because something must have happened to you in another world.  You don’t know exactly what, but since it’s you, or another version of you, you feel it.  Now, with the nightmares you’ve been having, I believe they’re more specific for a reason.”

“Look,” Alex said.  This had gone far enough.  “Maybe we should just get out of here, huh?  We should get back to the office.”

Eckert held up a hand.  “Alex.  Those weren’t just dreams you had.  That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.  They were portals.  You didn’t just dream that you fell to your death.  You did.  In another universe.  In your sleep here, you were able to tap into that other reality, and you witnessed your own death.”

He shook his head.  “But why me?  I mean, you just said there are countless versions of myself, right?  Well, if one of those versions died somewhere else, going splat on the pavement, why should I be the one to dream about it?  Why not some other versions of me, in other worlds?”

“They probably did, too,” Eckert said.  “Well, at least the ones who . . .”

“The ones who what?”

Eckert took another drink of water.  “Since we each have an infinity of selves, there’s bound to be some overlap.  Your life here may be identical to your life somewhere else—except for maybe one detail.  Maybe you live in a different apartment, or on a different floor.  Maybe you have a different wife—a blonde, or a redhead.”  He eyed the waitress again.  “But in other universes, your life would be very different.  And the dreams you just had here wouldn’t necessarily be relevant.”

Relevant?  What was that supposed to mean?

“The dream might be a warning,” Eckert said.  “In a world similar to this one, you fell to your death.  That might mean . . .”

“What?  That I’m gonna go skydiving here, too?  C’mon, Eckert, get real.”  But then, wasn’t his heart beating a little faster now?  Wasn’t that fear he felt?

“Look, it’s just a theory.  But watch your step, Alex.  Be careful.  There’s a reason you’re seeing these things.  It’s suggestive.”

“I can’t believe this.  What do you want me to do?  Never climb the stairs?  Never use an elevator?  Always stay on ground floors?  That’s gonna be hard.  I live in a high-rise, remember?”

Eckert shrugged.  “I’m just saying . . .”

“And another thing.  Why should I dream this three nights in a row?  If I died somewhere else, wouldn’t one night be enough to watch my own funeral?”

“You’re still not thinking of it in the right way,” Eckert said.  “Each night you had your dream, you were seeing your death somewhere else, in some other layer of reality.  There were no reruns.  Each time was different, each fall, each death, was different.  Think about it.  In the dreams you had, were the details always identical, in every way?  I bet they weren’t.”

That’s when it occurred to him.  The pizza parlor—that was why it felt out of place.  The night before, it had been a Chinese restaurant, the night before that a barbershop.  But the conclusions Eckert were drawing—that he had seen himself die in three separate universes, on three consecutive nights—couldn’t be true.  He didn’t even really believe in this parallel worlds gibberish to begin with.

“Just be careful,” Eckert said again as they got up, ready to leave.  “Don’t just brush it off, Alex.”

He couldn’t eat that evening.  He just pushed his food around the plate.

“Alex, this has got to stop,” his wife said.  “You’re a nervous wreck.”

He considered telling her what Eckert had said that afternoon at the diner, but thought the better of it.  It was all a bunch of nonsense.

Then why can’t you stop thinking about it?

“Sorry, honey, I guess I’m just not hungry,” he said.

She frowned, her black hair matching the dark shadows and concern in her eyes.

“I hope you sleep well tonight, Alex,” she said.  “You look so tired.”  She smiled.  “And if you kick and thrash around again, I may have to exile you to the couch.”

He smiled back.  It was good to smile, even if he didn’t mean it.

The noise was intolerable.  How was anyone supposed to sleep?

He sat up in bed.  Beside him, his wife stirred.

“Alex?”

“What are they doing down there?”  No doubt the people who lived directly below them.  They sometimes hosted loud, wild parties.  But never like this.  The yells and laughter, the music and conversation sounded much too close—they must have been outside, on the balcony.

He stormed to his feet.  He wasn’t going to put up with it.

“Alex, where are you going?”

He didn’t answer.  He just headed for their own balcony.  All of the stress and strain of the last few days boiled over, heating his blood, scalding his nerves.

When he opened the French doors, the doors his wife had fallen in love with when they had first seen this place four years earlier, he stepped outside.  The noise rising up from the balcony below was cacophonous, an erupting volcano in his ears.  He rushed headlong for the railing, eager to tell the people to shut up, go inside the apartment at least, didn’t they have any consideration?

That was when he tripped over something—what?  He didn’t have a chance to look.  He lost his balance, falling toward the railing, over the railing . . .

It happened so fast.  One second he was on solid ground, the next, the force of his momentum had thrust him out into the night.  He heard a scream above him.  His wife, no doubt.  Below him car horns honked, the city lights flickered, the dark surface of the street grew closer, closer.

He thought of Eckert’s warning.  Why didn’t I listen?  Why wasn’t I more careful?

“No!” he screamed into the night.  “This can’t be happening.”

“Alex!  Alex, wake up, please!”

He felt hands shaking him, and then a face appeared before him.  A beautiful face—his wife’s face.

“Thank God,” she said.  “You’re getting harder and harder to wake up.  This is so crazy!  What is going on, Alex?  Four nights in a row . . . ”

He felt his forehead.  It was soaked with sweat.  A dream, just a dream.  But it had felt so real.

“I know,” he said.  “I’m sorry.”

He looked at her, and she came to him, hugged him.  He nestled his head on her shoulder, porcelain-white—he’d always admired the fair complexion of her skin—wanting so much to lose himself in her softness, her fragrance, her nearness.

In the luxurious golden fall of her light-blonde hair.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Lucy”

There’s one scene in The Eye-Dancers where Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in Chase’s Department Store in the variant town of Colbyville.  They approach a mannequin, and Mitchell remarks that mannequins have always given him the creeps.  Marc, ever the logical one, asks him why on earth that would be.  Mannequins are merely lifeless shells, after all.  How can they give anyone the creeps?  Then Marc reaches out, touches the mannequin, and abruptly pulls his hand away.

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What did he feel?  What did he sense?  Was there something more?  Something beyond the fiber glass and lifeless, unblinking eyes?  I know that I, for one, share Mitchell’s view.  I know mannequins are not alive.  Of course I know that.  And yet . . .  And yet . . .

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With that in mind, a few years ago I wrote a short story called “Lucy,” which features as one of its main characters–you guessed it, a mannequin.

I hope you enjoy this short story . . .

“Lucy”

Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison

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Edward peered through the store window, wondering if he was out there.  Surely he would not come this morning.  It was raining too hard.  Besides, he wouldn’t keep coming indefinitely, would he?  He’d have to give it up at some point.

Unceasing, metronomic, the rain pelted the window glass.  Checking the sky, Edward saw that there was no sky.  Gray clouds, fat, swollen with water, hung over the street like malignant tumors.  Who knew when the sun might show itself again?

Confident that the old man wouldn’t come in this weather, Edward turned away from the window.  Is everything in order? he asked himself.  Colleen out, Jodie in, Matthew coming in late.  He scratched his chin, looking like a man contemplating the mystery of the ages.  And in a way, he was.  It was hard being a shop owner these days.  Two national chains had come to the area last year, and his customer base was slowly eroding.  He tried cutting prices, but he couldn’t compete with the big box stores.  The only things he had in his favor were the loyalty of longtime patrons and his commitment to providing top-notch and personalized customer service.  Too often, though, it felt like he was sliding down a muddy cliff, slowly, inexorably, searching for handholds that didn’t exist.

There was a knock on the shop door.  Edward looked and saw him—the old man.  He was not able to see him clearly in the gloomy October dawn, but it was him, all right.  He’d come after all.

Edward raced to the door and unlocked it.  He didn’t particularly want the old man to keep coming like this every morning, before the store opened, but he didn’t want to see him—or anyone—stand in that miserable chill and rain either.

“Hey, you don’t even have an umbrella!” Edward said when the man came inside.  “You walked all this way in the rain without an umbrella?”

The man nodded.  “Lucy’s worth it.”

Edward shut and relocked the door.  The shop would not open for another twenty-five minutes.  He noticed across the street that Mr. Henderson had arrived at his deli—“Henderson’s Old-Fashioned Deli” was written in large white letters on the window.  Mr. Henderson inserted a key in the door lock, turned it quickly, pushed open the door, then rushed inside, eager to get out of the rain.

“Hey, Mr. Mertinak, you want a cup of hot coffee?” Edward offered.  The old man was shivering.  “I just brewed a pot in my office.”

The man shook his head.  “No, thank you.  I just want to see Lucy.”

“You sure get here early, Mr. M.  If you’re not careful, you’ll beat me, and on a morning like this, that means you’ll be standing in the rain.  And it’s gettin’ cold, too, October and all.”

The old man—Mr. Mertinak—waved his hand dismissively.  “What is cold to a man like me?  I would walk to the Arctic to visit Lucy.  And the rain wouldn’t touch me if you had an awning.  When will you get one?”

Mr. Mertinak had asked that before, and Edward didn’t like it.  An awning would be nice, sure it would—the hardware store next door had one—but it cost money.  Not a fortune, but even a modest sum was beyond Edward’s means at the moment.

“Why do you look so, so despairing?” Mr. Mertinak asked.  “Lucy didn’t run away, did she?”

Edward sighed.  He had given up trying to reason with the old man weeks ago.  “No.  She’s right where you left her yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that.  But I, well, I—”

Mr. Mertinak’s eyebrows furrowed.  Suddenly, he looked like a principal about to dress down a student.  “You what?  Is Lucy okay?”

“Sure.  I mean, I changed her outfit and her hair.  The holiday season’s coming up, and I needed something different.”

“Her hair?”  Mr. Mertinak’s eyes were wide.  “I need to see her.”

“Follow me,” Edward said, and they went past racks of coats and ties, to the back of the store.  On the way, Edward thought of that first day, that first encounter.

It had been late in the afternoon on a September Monday, and every worker in the shop wanted the business day to end.  The weather was perfect, with clear skies, lazy late-summer sunshine, and a cool breeze coming in off the lake.  Even the customers, what few there were, seemed eager to leave the store.  That’s when Edward noticed an old man standing on the sidewalk, staring through the window.  The man’s face was pressed against the glass, mashing his nose and lips.  Edward thought, fleetingly, that the man looked like a Martian from an old science fiction movie he had seen when he was a kid.

When the man didn’t leave, when he just kept his face pressed against the window, Edward figured something was wrong.  Was the guy on drugs?  Was he drunk?  He didn’t want to know, but he needed to deal with the situation before it carried on any longer.

He walked outside.  The man continued to stare through the window, oblivious to his presence.

He cleared his throat.  When the man did not respond, Edward tapped his shoulder.  The man’s head snapped back as if he’d been struck, and he glared at Edward through bloodshot eyes.  So he had been drinking.

“Sir,” Edward began, “I’m sorry.  But you really shouldn’t stare through the window that way.  Some of my staff are getting nervous.”

The old man just looked at him.  His breath smelled of whiskey.  Grizzled stubble coated his cheeks.  A band of teenagers walked past them on the sidewalk, giggling.

“So, if you don’t mind . . .” Edward pressed on, trying to word things just right.  You never could tell what an old guy like this might do.  “. . . please just be on your way.”  He was about to go back into the shop, but the man grabbed his arm.  Edward pulled it away, as if touched by a leper.

“Where’d you get her?” the man said.  The whiskey on his breath was very strong, but his words were not at all slurred.

“Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Edward observed two of his employees looking out the window.  They were whispering to each other.  He boiled.  They should have been attending to the customers, not watching this sideshow.

“Her!” the old man said, loud enough for a passerby to look at them.  “Where’d you get her?”  He pointed to a mannequin just inside the store window.  “That’s my wife.  That’s Lucy.  Let me go in and talk to her!”

Edward was starting to feel a little nervous.  He had been in the retail business for years and had seen a lot of strange things, but he had never encountered anything like this.  “Sir, that’s just a mannequin,” he said, talking slowly, as if to a backward child.  “If it looks like your wife, it’s only a coincidence.”

“Let me talk to her!  I don’t know how you found her or how you made her young again, but I need to go in and speak with her!”

Edward tried to talk sense into the man, but after a couple of wasted minutes, he understood nothing was going to work.  It was either argue with the old nutcase the rest of the afternoon, leave him outside to stare in his shop, or let him in.  He hoped if he let him in, he’d say a few things to the mannequin and leave.

“Okay,” he said.  “You win.  Let’s go in and you can talk to the mannequin if it makes you happy.  But please try not to disturb the peace, okay, sir?”

The man didn’t respond.  He only stared at the mannequin through the window.  “Lucy,” he whispered to himself.

Once inside, the old man went straight to the mannequin and took its hand in his.  “Lucy, dear, dear Lucy, how did you get here?” he said.  The mannequin stared out the window, at the sidewalk and Henderson’s deli, and the pedestrians who walked past.

Edward went to the cash register.  Colleen, his top clerk, was there.

“Old guy’s batty,” she said.

“You’re telling me.  I tried to get him to leave, but he wouldn’t budge.  I hope he doesn’t stay long.”  He saw the old man kiss the mannequin’s hand, then whisper something in its ear.  “He thinks the mannequin’s his wife.”

Colleen rolled her eyes.  A customer came to the register.  Colleen rang up the order and bagged the merchandise.  “Sorry about that,” she said, glancing at the man.

The customer, a middle-aged woman with a long, hook-like nose, said, “You know who that is?  That’s Mark Mertinak.  He lives up my way.  Used to go to our church.”

“You know that man?” Edward said.

“Sure.  His wife just died, a couple weeks ago.  It’s been rough on ‘im.  They were inseparable.  Well, I think it’ll blow over.  He’s a decent enough old guy—just lonely.  Thanks for the sweaters.  Can’t find a deal this good at those cookie-cutters up the road, huh?”  She smiled and left.

A half hour went by, but Mr. Mertinak still had not gone.  Other customers stared at him.  A few came up to Edward and asked him to get rid of the old man.  One young lady complained that she had her little girl with her and she didn’t appreciate having her daughter witness such a spectacle.  Then she left, without buying a thing.  Edward knew he needed to get rid of the man.  Inwardly groaning, he approached him.

“Look, mister,” he said, “we’re gonna close soon, so I’m afraid you’ll need to be leaving, okay?”  They weren’t closing for an hour still, but maybe the old man hadn’t read the hours posted on the door.  He had been so wrapped up in his imaginings, that seemed likely enough.

“It’s all wrong,” Mr. Mertinak said.  “The outfit.  Lucy didn’t wear clothes like this.  She was modest, a lady.”

Edward looked at the mannequin.  It wore short red shorts and a white tank top.  He had outfitted it with those just yesterday, hoping to draw attention to the last of the summer clothes he had in his inventory.  So far, only five pairs of shorts and six tank tops had sold.  The other mannequins were already wearing their fall attire.

“Well, this is very temporary,” Edward said.  “I’ll be changing the clothes on this mannequin by next week.”  Why in the world was he justifying himself to this insane old man?

“And her eyes, they were blue, not black, like this.  But everything else is perfect.  How did you find Lucy?  How did you make her young again?”

“Look, Mr.—Mertinak, is it?  This isn’t your wife.  I’m sorry you lost her, I really am, but this is only a mannequin.  It isn’t alive.”  Edward tapped on the mannequin’s forearm.  “Hear that?  That’s not the sound real skin makes.  Now, please, sir, if you’ll leave.  We need to close.”

Thankfully, Mr. Mertinak agreed.  Edward breathed a sigh of relief.  At the door, the old man said, “I never walk downtown.  Why did I today?  Because Lucy was here.  She directed me somehow, and now, that I know she’s here, I will come back.  I will be back tomorrow.”

Before Edward could protest, Mr. Mertinak had left.

He did come the next day, and the next, and he never stopped coming.  The dwindling customer base dwindled a little more. . . .

One day, after the old man had been haunting his shop for a week, Edward went to Henderson’s for lunch.  He went to the deli counter, where a sour-faced Mr. Henderson greeted him.

“Hey, Ed.  What’ll it be, the usual?”  Edward nodded.  Pastrami on whole wheat, topped with Swiss cheese.  You couldn’t beat it.  “Hey, you better watch it, bud,” Mr. Henderson said as he fixed Edward’s sandwich.  “I’m losin’ business on account a you.  That creep keeps talkin’ to the babe in your window, and I’ll tell ya, you’re clearin’ people outta here, man.  You’ll send us all packin’.”

Edward told him he would deal with the matter and that he was exaggerating.  People weren’t being scared away.

“Yeah they are,” Mr. Henderson said as he wrapped the sandwich in white deli paper, then secured it with a rubber band.  “Oh, sure, there’s sickos who like watchin’ other sickos, but I know of at least ten people who don’t wanna pass by your store no more.  Scares the kids, they say.  Hey, it scares me, too, Ed.  Old whacko talkin’ to a mannequin like it’s really his dead wife.  It’s sick.  Get rid of him.  I’ll see to it if you don’t.”

“I’m working on it,” Edward said, wishing he had bought his lunch elsewhere.

The best he could come up with was allowing Mr. Mertinak to come early, before the store opened.  Mertinak would have some time with the mannequin, then he’d need to leave no later than ten minutes before business hours began.  He told the old man that good customers were scarce enough.  He did not need them taking their business to the chains.  Mr. Mertinak was surprisingly agreeable, and Edward hoped the early routine would grow wearisome; then the old man might stay away for good.

This dogged Edward.  He could have simply barred Mr. Mertinak from his store.  He had that right.  And if Mertinak came and mashed his face against the front window again, he could get him arrested for trespassing or loitering.  That’s what Henderson would do, for sure.  But he didn’t want to be like Mr. Henderson.

As they walked to the rear of the store, Edward thought back a week, when he had moved the mannequin out of the display window.

“Why’d you take Lucy away?” Mr. Mertinak had wanted to know.  Edward could smell last night’s liquor on his breath.

“I didn’t,” Edward responded, hating that he had to explain his business methods to the old man.  “I just moved her to another section of the store.  I do that with all the mannequins from time to time.”

“Lucy deserves to be in the window always,” Mertinak said, but then he had dropped it.

This morning, Edward hoped the old man would be less disturbed by the new wig and outfit.

They reached the mannequin, surrounded by racks of ladies’ coats and scarves.

“Oh, what have you done to Lucy?” Mertinak said.  He reached up and gently touched the wig.  “You made her hair red.  She never had red hair.  It was brown!  Impossible.  Change it back!”

“Mr. M, I change all the wigs twice a year.  I never used to, but Colleen got me to do it.  She says the variety is good, that it makes everything look new and different, even the clothes.  So I tried it.  Can’t say it’s worked so good, though.”  He shook his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

Mertinak stared at the wig for at least a minute.  Then he said, “Hmm, now that I think of it, Lucy sometimes did say she’d like a different hair color.  She never said red specifically, but it does kind of suit her.  She could be spontaneous when the spirit moved her.  Yes, yes.  It looks fine!  Just fine.  Lucy could make green hair look beautiful, you know.”

Edward just smiled.  He knew by now that the best approach with the old man was to let him talk.  And while he never would have admitted it to anyone, Edward sort of liked Mertinak, after a fashion.  Sure, it was eccentric talking to a mannequin, but Mertinak said he’d been married to Lucy for fifty-three years.  It was no wonder, then, that he would be crushed by her passing, or that he might be tempted to grasp at straws and bend reality to suit his needs.

“Did I tell you how beautiful Lucy was?”  Mertinak asked, gently fingering the mannequin’s lips.  Vacant, empty eyes that stared at a nearby slacks rack greeted the touch with indifference.

Edward nodded.  But he knew the old man would continue anyway.  He checked his wristwatch.  They still had a few minutes.

“She could outshine the sun,” Mertinak said, closing his eyes.  His fingers still stroked the mannequin’s lips.  “I fell in love with her instantly.  She was so much more beautiful than anything I had ever seen.  And her spirit.  Pure as the first snow that comes falling down in November.”  A single tear snaked its way down the old man’s cheek, falling to the carpeted floor.  “Lucy,” he said.  “How I love you, Lucy.”  He reopened his eyes and stared at the mannequin.  “Red hair becomes you, darling.”

Edward cleared his throat.  This was a bit much, even by Mertinak’s standards.  “I’m afraid it’s about that time, Mr. M,” he said.  Better to cut things short before they got out of hand.  “Need to get the store ready.”

Edward half expected Mertinak to protest, but the widower just nodded, then kissed the mannequin on the lips.  “I shall see you tomorrow morning, love,” he said.  “And we can reminisce.  Remember our Thanksgivings, darling?  And our Christmases?  Christmas is coming up, you know—just a couple of months away.  But don’t worry.  I’ll buy you something special.  Just like the gold necklace I bought you in 1977.  My, didn’t you scold me for being frivolous!  But it was nothing, dearest.  I would buy you an entire nation if I could.  Just be patient.  Christmas is coming.”

The old man kissed the mannequin again, then turned away.  He smiled at Edward.  “Thank you,” he said.  “Same time tomorrow morning?”

Edward nodded.  “You sure you’ll be all right, walking back home in this rain?”

The old man shrugged his shoulders.  “What’s rain to a man like me?”

They reached the front door.  Through the glass, a scowling Mr. Henderson stood in the gloom, protected from the rain by a black umbrella.

Opening the door, Edward walked outside, followed by Mertinak.

“Mr. Henderson,” Edward said.  “Odd seeing you here.”

“I need to talk to this old creep,” Henderson said.  “Since you won’t.”

Edward took a step toward Henderson.  Rain slammed into him, making it hard to be brave.  “You leave this to me, Henderson.  It’s my store.”

With surprising speed, Henderson pushed Edward, forcefully enough that he slammed into the shop’s window.  “Get out of my way!  You ain’t man enough to do it, so I will!”  Henderson’s lips twisted into the snarl of a predator.  Then he turned on the old man.  “You!”  He planted his finger in Mertinak’s chest, hard.  Mertinak stumbled backwards, but didn’t fall.  “You get this straight, you miserable old scum.  Your wife is dead, do you hear me?  Dead!”

“That’s enough,” Edward interrupted.  He had been caught off guard by Henderson’s appearance and aggressiveness, but now he was ready.  “Leave, right now, or I call the cops.”

Henderson glared at him.  There was a challenge in that glare, and Edward did not wish to meet it.  “On what charges?  This ain’t your property.  It’s a sidewalk, open to everyone, and when they come walkin’ in front of your stupid store, what do they see?  A no-good old whacko who talks to a hunk of fiber glass and thinks it’s his dead wife.  Well, this is where it stops.”  He looked at Mertinak again.  The old man was soaking wet.  “You old sicko, your wife is dead, dontcha get it?  You’ve been talkin’ to a mannequin, a freakin’ mannequin!  An’ your scarin’ business away.  That’s why Ed here don’t let you come to the store no more while customers are around.  But I’m around, see, and I don’t wanna see you no more.  She’s dead, old man, dead!  Get it through your thick, drunk skull, and don’t ever come back here!  You ain’t wanted around here.  You got it?”

“You’re way out of line,” Edward said.  “You have no right to threaten him.”

Mertinak held up a hand.  “It’s all right,” he said softly.  Edward didn’t like the look in the old man’s eyes.  It was as if someone had turned off a switch in his brain, shutting out the light.  “He’s right.  I am an old fool.”  He looked straight at Henderson.  “But I’m not as much a fool as you think, young man.  I know my Lucy is gone.  I know.  I didn’t need you to tell me.  I know it every day, first thing, when I wake up in bed alone.  I know it every night when I reach for her and she isn’t there.  But in this store, I could pretend I was with her again.  I could pretend so hard, it seemed she was really here.  And don’t you see?  That’s all there is anymore.  I’m very old.  I didn’t think an old man’s pretending would cause anyone harm.  But I see I was wrong.  I’ll be on my way.”  He took a few steps.

“Mr. M, wait!”  Edward caught up with him.  “It doesn’t have to end like this.  Henderson has no control over my store.  You can come back!”

“Don’t you try it!” Henderson snarled behind them.  Edward could hear the pitter-patter of rain hitting the deli owner’s umbrella.

“I’ll be on my way,” the old man said again, and he walked away, along the sidewalk.

Edward stared after him as he retreated, watching Mertinak’s figure slowly melt into the surrounding atmosphere, until man and rain, human and morning became indistinguishable.  It seemed that the gloom had swallowed him.

“You’ll thank me later,” Henderson said.  He was standing next to Edward now.  “Rotten old man.  Lush.  Better off without him.  He should just die and get it over with.”

Edward turned away from Henderson and, without a word, went back into the store.

The next morning, upon arriving at the store early, Edward wondered if Mr. M might turn up.  The old man seemed so defeated yesterday, but maybe a good night’s sleep had reenergized him.  He hoped so.  He didn’t want Henderson to have the final word on the matter.

But Mr. Mertinak didn’t come.

Edward still held out hope for the next morning, but Mertinak didn’t come then, either.  When a week elapsed, and Mertinak failed to show, Edward grudgingly acknowledged the truth.  Instinctively, he started to check the obituaries in the newspaper.  He didn’t have to for very long.  The first week of December, Mark Mertinak’s name appeared.  Aged eighty, it said, died of natural causes.

That whole day, Edward felt depressed, as if he had lost something important in his life.  This puzzled him.  Had the old man meant so much to him?  He didn’t think that was it, not exactly, anyway.  But something had meant a great deal to him, something that had been gradually eroding and withering for years, yet struggling to survive against the odds.  Whatever it was, it had died right along with old Mr. M.

The day after reading of Mr. Mertinak’s passing, the first heavy snow of the season fell on the holiday-bedecked downtown street.  In the predawn stillness, silence surrounding him like a soundproof glove, Edward smiled at the mannequin.

“Hey, Lucy,” he said.  “Ready for the prime spot again?”  He paused for a moment, as if expecting some response.  Then he carried it to the front display window and set it down.  It was dressed in a knee-length winter coat, a scarf, and boots.  He was about to walk away, but he took note of something.  The mannequin had a sad face.  Most of his other mannequins had perpetual smiles, or at the very least, pleasant expressions.  Come winter, spring, summer, or fall, regardless of what happened in the outside world, they would appear cheerful, ready to please.  But not this mannequin, not Lucy.  He’d looked at it countless times, but somehow the somber expression had never registered with him before.  Prior to this morning, familiarity with the mannequin must have blinded him to it.

He left the mannequin’s side, needing to attend to other matters before Colleen and Matthew came.  But he turned around, as if pulled by a magnet, and looked at the mannequin again.

Had that mannequin looked so sad before?  He shook his head.  Of course it had.  It must have.  Mannequins’ expressions don’t change.  But later that day, as he glanced at Lucy again, he wasn’t so sure.

Staring lifelessly out the window at the silent, falling snow, the mannequin almost appeared to be mourning.

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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

Imagine a Morning in Late November . . .

Now that’s an odd title for a post in, well, late November, isn’t it?  After all, it is late November.  We don’t need to imagine it!

Well, yes and no . . .

In an earlier post, I referred to a scene in The Eye-Dancers where Mitchell Brant–intuitive, imaginative, not bound by in-the-box thinking–asks Marc Kuslanski, he of the literal, scientific, logic-driven mind-set, if he’s ever just felt something to be true.  Not quantify it.  Not prove it.  Not measure it.  Just feel it.

I would take that sentiment and apply it to writing.  Good writing.  What is it?  Generally, we know it when we see it.  Good writing captures us, takes us by the hand, and doesn’t let go.  If it’s science fiction or fantasy, it opens up new worlds or ways of seeing the world we live in.  If it’s good fiction, of any genre, its characters come to life and move us, make us laugh and cry and care about them as if they were real people.  If it’s an essay or a history or any nonfiction piece, good writing will draw is into the narrative and make us want to read further.

Still, what is it, this “good” writing?  Can it be measured?  Can Marc Kuslanski’s rigorous testing policies apply to writing?  Again, yes and no.  All good writing shares certain characteristics.  There are certain fundamentals of the trade that need to be mastered before any piece can be called “good.”  This is indisputable.

But what qualities, beyond the basics, truly make something good?  Or great?  Writing is very subjective.  It’s not like calculus or trig, where algorithms or formulas dictate the day.  One person’s tastes won’t necessarily mesh with another’s.  Even so, most people will agree when something is well written, when it’s moving, when it exhibits a certain something, that intangible “it” factor that is so hard to define.

With that in mind, I’d like to quote the first paragraph from Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”  If you haven’t read this iconic holiday short story, please do!  It is one of the great short stories of the 20th century–a wonderful, semi-autobiographical character-driven piece.  Capote was a master of words, a craftsman of the highest order.

Here is the opening of “A Christmas Memory”:

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

“Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

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

The language is simple–no thesaurus needed here.  There is nothing, on the surface, entirely remarkable about it.  And yet–it is magical.  It resonates.  It welcomes us in.  In one short, simple paragraph, Capote takes us immediately into his world.  It’s personal.  Inviting.  And great.

Why is it any, or all, of these things?  I could dissect it and chop it up and tape it back together again and provide different reasons.  But the real answer is–it just is.  It has the “it” factor that all great writing has–impossible to fully define, but you know it when you see it.

So, with that in mind — Imagine a morning in late November . . .

–Mike

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