We invite each other to write a Christmas story every year. Here is mine from 2016.
John did not like his new home very much. He thought he should like his aunt and uncle, but he didn’t. And he was quite sure his mother’s sister and her husband did not like him very much either. And it was almost Christmas. And mom used to like Christmas before she disappeared after Dad apparently died.
He still did not quite understand what happened. There was talk about bad heroin and angry phone calls about being a terrible mother. He stood in his aunt’s kitchen one time and listened while she walked up and down the hall yelling. She stopped and looked at him blankly when she came around the corner. He walked silently out the back door.
That cold afternoon, he began to build his fortress of solitude.
He had seen one in an old Superman movie and wanted to fly into the ice and hide there. He was already someplace in the wilderness, still not used to the noiseless nights in the mountains after growing up with sirens and voices in the dark.
They had not told him there was a property line, so he assumed the forest spreading out behind him was a safe playground for a ten-year-old. He stepped around prickly bushes and over fallen trees until he came to a gully and a log that was just right to sit on. Without too much thinking, he began to make a fortress out of fallen branches right there.
After a couple of hours he had a roof and space enough to feel like he had a little house. He discovered he was not out of earshot when his aunt finally called him to find his way back to the house in the dusk.
Everyone in the house was always mad or crying — and irritated with his silence. They called it sulking. He called it nothing, as he sat at dinner eating little and closing in further — like his fortress in the woods.
Soon it had walls through which he could barely see. He took some trash bags from the closet and made it so rain did not get in so much. He put more branches over them so it looked to him like a big bush and he was a bushman, far off in the desert where no one could find him.
But someone did find him.
He went into his fortress one afternoon and turned on his flashlight to decide where to put a piece of foam he had found in the neighbor’s trash. On one of the flat rocks he had brought in for a table there was a cookie and a note. “You better wear orange or you are going to get shot.”
He panicked. Someone knew about his hideout! Someone had been in his fortress. Someone was going to shoot him. There were other people in this forest and one of them could fit through his doorway.
Maybe someone was spying on him right now! He carefully drew back the towel he found in the rag box that served as his door, peeked his head over the edge of the gully and looked around. He wasn’t sure who to be afraid of more: whoever was going to shoot him or whoever was watching him – maybe they were the same person.
He saw no one in the quickly-darkening December light. The forest was smoky and wet, and suddenly he felt very cold and alone. He went into his hut and wondered whether to tear it all down and give up. He ate the cookie.
The next day school was even more annoying than ever. He had been in his class just a short time. Being the new kid was bad enough. But the teacher would not leave him alone. The fact that she felt sorry for him made him feel things and he did not want to feel.
Then his classmates became emboldened and started questioning him. When he answered with one word or angrily told them to go away, one boy mocked him with a loud voice. “Oh, so we have a baby in our class. It’s the fourth grade, baby.” He was glad it was the last day before the break.
That day, when he went to his fortress, he did not know what to expect. He wore an orange vest that was too big for him that he found in the shed with the fishing poles. He drew back his towel and shined his flashlight around the shelter, finding his rock table. Nothing. He lay down on his foam bed and went cold. The darkness seemed to wrap around him like some damp, new skin. He closed his eyes and let it take him.
The next day he did not wear his vest. He did not care if he got shot. When he got to his fortress, he almost kicked it. He wanted to take a big rock and throw it through the roof. He wanted to hurt something or someone. But he didn’t. He just crawled in with a grunt of irritation and slumped down on his foam and looked at the dim light seeping through the spaces between his branches, filtering under the trash bags.
Before long, his eyes were acclimated enough to see the contours of his wooden cave. On his rock table was a sparkle. He turned his flashlight on it and saw a small angel ornament made of thin gold metal. There was another note on top of the first one: same paper, same writing. “This place needs a little Christmas. Hang me up.”
He was not sure whether to be terrified or elated. Someone was waiting for him to leave before they invaded his space. They knew about him but he did not know about them. They liked him.
That night he ate a piece of chicken. His aunt cried. She suddenly got up and left the table with her napkin on her nose. He silently looked at his uncle. His uncle gave him another piece.
It was almost Christmas and dad was still dead and mom was still gone somewhere no one would say. At his new house no one played Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer over and over. No one ever came home and acted silly and danced with him until they fell on the couch laughing and then sleeping. No one came home with little presents that never got wrapped saying, “I could not wait until Christmas when I saw this in the store.”
Instead, there was a very neat Christmas tree with white lights and ornaments that were all red. The packages were all wrapped with the same paper. He avoided that room and usually went to bed after dinner unless they made him watch TV in the den.
Mostly he went to his fortress of solitude.
There were no further angels, just the one hanging at the very top of the ceiling from a twig. He would shine his flashlight on it and watch the reflections. He knew very little about real angels or even if there were real angels. But he began to believe in this one. He even talked to it sometimes. One time he whispered, “I hate everyone and they hate me.” The angel was silent. He shouted it, “I hate them and it doesn’t even matter!” The angel did not reply. But he did not get the feeling it did not care.
The next day was Christmas Eve, mom’s favorite day of the year. People were coming to his uncle’s house. He had to take a bath and wear special clothes his aunt bought. He had to be introduced to a bunch of people he did not know, to whom he did not speak or even smile. His uncle told him he had to do it before they got there and he was too afraid to resist. But inside he wanted to scream, “Do not touch me!”
Before long they drank enough wine to be loud and unaware, so he quietly slipped out the back door and headed into the deep dark of the forest. He took a blanket and wrapped himself against the cold.
His flashlight made a beam that caught the eyes of a deer off in the distance. He did not care if an animal got him. Just as he arrived at his fortress he heard a crack nearby. He froze with fear. Then the sound of hooves and running — he wildly threw his light toward the noise. He thought he saw a flash of orange, but he could not be sure. By then the sound was far away.
He climbed into his dark, dark house and shut the door. He lay on his foam and shivered under his blanket. Dad. Mom. Mom. Mom. Alone. Alone. Cold. Crying.
He had not cried at his father’s graveside memorial. It was chaotic and felt embarrassing. And people kept shuffling him from here to there. He could barely remember what happened. The tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes. He could feel the cold streambeds on his cheeks. No sobbing. No release, just an overflow of sadness in his isolated hut, surrounded by fearsome, unknown things.
He lay there a long time listening to his breathing settle down until he could feel himself exhale warm clouds that were already cold by the time they settled on his nose.
He wondered if he had really seen orange in the woods and looked at his stone table. There was a piece of candy. At least he thought it was candy. He had never seen anything like it. A third note was on top of the others, “Jesus will be born tonight. God sees us. Have a sweet.”
He lay back down and set the sweet on his chest. He wanted to eat it but he didn’t. He felt like he would spoil his appetite for anger if he ate that candy. He felt like he would betray his dead father and his lost mother if he sat in his solitude, free of them, eating sweets. And he knew they would like to share his sweet. So he fell asleep that way.
He awoke with a start and sat up, disoriented. People were shouting his name. He could see light beams crossing his walls. He realized he had fallen asleep in his fortress, which was about to be discovered. He lunged for the door, ready to meet them before they got too close.
Before he could leave he remembered the candy. It had been on his chest. He frantically shined his flashlight on the floor, threw the blanket on the table, stirred leaves. He was desperate.
Finally, he spotted it, just a little brown thing that looked much like the other brown things in his fortress of solitude. He sat on his heals for a few seconds, kneeling in the dirt, breathing hard, candy cupped in his hands, head bowed.
He stuffed it in his mouth and bolted through his towel.