`I'm not so bad,
I just hate to see a good time had
by everyone but me
on this lonely Christmas Eve.
They're making noise,
noise, noise, noise;
How I hate their happy noise.'
Lonely Christmas Eve (Ben Folds)
Bobby knelt on the floor untangling the lines of colored lights, pulling at knots and trying to not break the bulbs that bloomed throughout, bursting through the green wire like willow blossoms. The house was almost silent, soft and bland Christmas music played on the stereo in the living room where he sat with the naked, artificial pine tree. His directions were clear: decorate. His father hadn't come out of his study all day; his mother had gone to the mall. His sister wasn't coming `home' this year, she had her own family now, her own home.
Bobby was alone with the Christmas Spirit.
Bing Crosby's White Christmas came on the speakers and Bobby groaned to himself. Not again. Presents, unquestionably practical, selected from catalogs, wrapped in blue and silver, red and gold by distant shop girls and delivered by FedEx, sat festive and impersonal under the tree. He pushed another section of lights through and had another line free, laying it alongside the others on the floor, waiting to be strung along the man-made boughs frosted with fake snow.
Bobby could remember childhood Christmases spent when his sister lived at home. The images glistened golden in his memory, moments shining with happy faces and perfect joy. He was small then, still trusting the fat man in a red suit to make his dreams come true, and it was a wonderful life. Family was something he'd taken for granted then and he couldn't quite place when it had disappeared. Somehow, it had. His sister had grown up and gone off to university, his parents had grown distant, though never more so than this year. It was as if he was expected to celebrate Christmas alone. And what if he didn't want to, what if he didn't feel like celebrating anything, let alone the birth of something he didn't believe in? He could believe in Santa's bag of tricks more easily than the goddam birth of Christ, he told himself.
`Bah, humbug' was about right. Christmas was for suckers and retail stores. Bobby tossed the last tangle down and went to his room to look for cigarettes. If they wanted the fucking tree decorated, they can fucking do it themselves.
Unable to find smokes, Bobby curled up on his bed. The Lord&Taylor beige damask bedspread was rumpled and the stuffed cat lay upside down on the pillow. Cat looked a little sad like that, Bobby thought, with its tail above its ribboned head. It had been a gift from Jaye and Angel last Easter; appearing on his doorstep nestled like the Christ child in a basket filled with colored candy. Marshmallow yellow chicks, bright tart sugar eggs and jellybeans in the strangest flavors. Bobby smiled, remembering how Jaye had later joked about Harry Potter's fondness for wizard jellybeans even though they came in realistic, and often disgusting, flavors. Vomit or even possibly, it was rumored at Hogwarts, the taste of boogers.
Bobby snickered. I wonder what poor wizard gets stuck doing taste tests for those?
Something about Rowling's world of wizards and witches drew Bobby. That secret underground culture of people misunderstood and hated by the majority Muggles, wizards meeting in bars but acting unmagical in public to avoid harassment. Confusion and shame when Harry finds out he is one, then rejection from his biological family.
Now what in the world does that remind me of?
Bobby looked up at the small Sony television on the elaborate oak chest of drawers, watching the virtual people move across the screen with assurance, almost as if their world were real. Did they feel real? Did they laugh and cry beyond the borders of the television screen, did they ever fall in love? Did they ever want to simply…turn themselves off, for real, for good, for ever?
Bobby wrapped his arms around the stuffed cat and hugged it to his body, closing his brown eyes. The pain in his chest felt like something heavy was lodged just below his throat, something hard and unyielding. Something cold. Something sad.
I fucking hate Christmas.
Why do we have to have Christmas, he wondered, why do we have to have a time where everyone else gets to rub your face in how happy they are, reminding you just how much your life sucks? All these songs, all these movies, all these shows filled with laughing families and barking dogs and happy endings. Just when he thought he could hold his head up above water, along come a bunch of fictional elves to screw things up, a bunch of people insisting that everyone be happy. Or else fake it. And the faking it was what made him feel so tired, so blank, so nothing. As if someone had pointed a remote at him and…just…clicked. Off.
He tucked the cat under his chin and went softly and slowly down into the darkness of sleep.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
Bobby heard the music before he was fully awake, Christmas songs that ran under the edge of his memory, unrecognized yet somehow known, the lyrics old, the melodies sweet. He heard voices, laughter and chatter that wove a counterpoint in through the music, grounding it in the here and the now. Was that his sister's silver laughter, his father's velvet voice?
Bobby rubbed his eyes and stood up slowly, pushing Cat back onto the mussed bedcovers and pulling his half-untucked shirt all the way out of the waistband of his jeans. He ran fingers through his wavy hair, listening to what was surely his mother's voice rising in laughter against the undercurrent of his father's playful tones. Are we having a party and no one told me?
Bobby felt confused, a little dazed from sleep, and strangely relaxed. Just how long had he slept? Damn, he'd needed sleep more than he'd realized. He couldn't remember the last time he felt so rested, so calm, so centered. His room looked soft with browns and beiges, warm like a nest. Comforting. He smiled secretly, shyly, and went to the open door.
The living room was brightly lit, the tree reaching the ceiling and topped with a gleaming golden star, presents piled haphazard, one upon another, loosened ribbons trailing through the colorful holiday clutter beneath the ornamented tree. Golden balls, silver angels with gossamer wings, red santas and green elves, tiny wooden sleighs, fleet little brown reindeer galloped up the boughs, iridescent tinsel wound throughout. And half way up was a paper-mache bird he had made himself in first grade and painted red, he thought his mother had said it was broken years ago. But there it was, flying against the greenery and glitter, suspended on a string; a lopsided cardinal with long lashed black eyes. Bobby couldn't help smiling.
A touch on his arm startled him, he turned to see his sister standing beside him, wearing a Christmas sweater spangled with sequin stars; a sleeping toddler in her arms. His father sat on the sofa, arm around Bobby's mother, laughing and trying to light a cigar with his one free hand. His mother looked so young, her hair unbound and down her shoulders. Had she colored it, where was the gray?
Jeannie held a gift on her lap; shiny silver paper wrapped neatly over the square box and tied up with glossy white ribbon and bow. She looked up at Bobby and raised her hand, gesturing him closer. Her eyes were warm, dark and familiar; the eyes that had watched him grow from infancy to manhood. Looking into them, Bobby felt safe. He walked towards her and she pulled him down beside her on the cushions. His father looked over at him, across Jeannie, and chuckled.
“Son, your hair's a mess. Lost your comb?” his father asked playfully. Jeannie swatted his knee.
“Hush, Bob, he's fine.” She told her husband.
Howard spoke up from the recliner.
“Laura, hand him here, I'll hold him awhile.”
Bobby's sister took the sleeping boy to his father, handing him down like fragile cargo, careful not to wake him. Howard wrapped his arms around the boy and buried his face in the blond curls, smiling that distracted, devoted parental smile. Laura, freed of her burden, went to the bar and poured herself a glass of wine and stretched out on the floor beside the tree. Bobby watched as she looked up into the tangle of light and color, lights blinking through the profusion of decorations, and then reached up one manicured hand to touch a delicate porcelain angel.
She almost looked like an angel herself, her hair a halo of gold around her perfect features. Her physical beauty had always been the least of it, thought Bobby; her greatest charm was what lay inside. From birth, he had been devoted to his sister, following her everywhere and mimicking her every move. They had thought he couldn't talk for years because, when questioned, he would just turn to her, mutely asking her to speak on his behalf. She was his everything then, the standard by which he judged the world, the filter through which he saw it all; his loved and loving older sister, his angel, his Laura.
With everyone around him, Bobby felt warm and happy. The fireplace was filled with a dancing fire, flames colored from the special logs and lapping up against the top of their brick crèche. The warmth from the fire, the warmth from his family, the smiles, the little touches, the cheery tree, all made Bobby relax against the pillows, slouching down into the sofa beside his mother. She patted his leg absently, talking to his father on her other side. Their speaking tones were light, just audible above the Christmas music on the stereo, carols and bells in the background. He could smell something cooking, was it turkey? His mouth watered; he felt his mind drifting as he stared into the fireplace.
Howard looked over at him.
“What do you see, Bobby?”
Bobby blinked. Where had he heard that voice, that question, before? He looked up at his brother in law, puzzled, his brow creasing in concentration. Howard smiled.
“What is it that you see, Bobby?”
Somehow Howard sounded a lot like Angel, how had he never noticed that before? Bobby frowned. There was something he couldn't quite remember, what was it?
“Bobby?” Jeannie's voice distracted him and he turned to her.
His mother handed him the silver present she'd been holding. He drew it to him and looked at her, a question in his eyes. She smiled, the light reaching her eyes.
“Go ahead, sweetheart, open it.” She said.
Bobby hesitated. He touched the white ribbon, the satin fabric moving easily between his long fingers. He looked up at her again. She nodded.
“Go ahead, honey. It's what you've wanted more than anything.”
Bobby raised his eyebrows and looked around at his family.
They were all watching him now, his sister's eyes steady, Howard attentive, his father's expression unreadable, his mother's face warmed by a smile.
Bobby looked down at the silver box on his lap.
“It's what I wanted more than anything?” Bobby asked, wonder in his voice.
She nodded again, smiling into his eyes.
“Yes, so why don't you open it?” Laura suggested.
Their father stood up.
“Wait, let me get the camera.” Bob said.
Laura and Bobby grinned at each other, rolling their eyes. Jeannie laughed merrily at the old family joke.
Their father squatted in front of Bobby, sighting, poised to shoot, the Nikon in his hand; it's long-lensed beetle eye trained on Bobby. The room felt suddenly small and a little hot. Bobby touched his fingers to the ribbon again, hesitating.
“Well?” someone asked.
Bobby pulled the ribbon, freeing the paper to spread open and away, leaving the box bare and vulnerable.
`What I wanted more than anything'? What was it? What DO I want more than anything, after all?
Bobby swallowed and lifted off the top of the heavy cardboard box. He paused; first looking around at the expectant faces of his family and the glassy Nikon eye, and then looked down into the open box.
Bobby caught his breath.
There, snuggled down in a nest of silver tissue paper was a glossy red heart of glass, the size of his fist, beautifully wrought, perfectly formed. The light caught in it and shimmered, sending out rays of crimson that lit up the tissue paper as the heart began to glow inside the box.
Mesmerized, Bobby reached in to touch it, to wrap his hand around the heart, the light inside it calling to him, pulling him in.
As he touched his heart, the red glass cold on his fingertips, the silver paper jerked back, revealing rows of sharp steel teeth just beneath the tissue, a hungry metal mouth gaping wide open. Jesus Christ!
Bobby saw but not fast enough and, before he could react, the hinged jaws snapped shut. He screamed as razor teeth bit deep into his flesh, trapping his hand inside the box, the heart against his palm.
He was breathing hard, pain shrieking up from his hand, dark blood dripping red onto the heart of glass. Unwilling, wounded, he held the bleeding heart in his hand, unable to release it, unable to pull free.
Bobby looked up, frantic, his brown eyes wild.
He was alone. The room was empty, the house silent, the fireplace cold, the tree undecorated.
The pain was sharp, a tang of copper in his mouth.
Bobby woke up crying, squeezing Cat against his chest; his face wet with hot tears, the bedcovers a tangle beneath him. The television was still on, the silvered faces and bodies moving silent inside the screen, voices mute.
The knock on the closed door sounded loud against the walls of the quiet bedroom.
Bobby jerked up, wiping his eyes.
“What? I mean, come in, Mom.” Bobby said, his voice thick with tears. The door opened and Bobby looked up from his bed.
Gene Kuo stood framed by the doorway, wearing tight faded jeans, a crooked smile and a red Santa hat, the floppy, fuzzy tip falling down over one eye. His white tee shirt had `Master Debaters Go Maverick' in black letters. Gene's grin grew wider as Bobby got up from the bed and ran his fingers through his mussed curls, smiling shyly. Bobby drew close to Gene, fighting back sleep's hold. He yawned. Gene laughed.
“Looks like I woke you.” Gene said.
In the debater's slender hands was a box wrapped in shiny silver paper and tied with a white satin ribbon. Bobby stared down at it, then back up into Gene's twinkling black eyes. Gene slid his arm around Bobby's waist and pulled him into a hug.
“Mele Kalikimaka.” Gene whispered into Bobby's ear.
Bobby's eyes widened and he pulled back fractionally to look at Gene.
“What? What's that?”
Gene chuckled and pulled Bobby back into the circle of his arms.
“It's Hawaiian for Merry Christmas.” Gene told him.
Bobby laughed, suddenly feeling pretty damn merry. Maybe the Grinch didn't steal Christmas, after all.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"