The 12 Days of S.A.D.
On my NaNoWriMo group on Facebook, I proposed a "12 days of Christmas" idea, where we would submit a 500+ word short story every day until Christmas Eve.
The stories could be a daily continuation, independent, or whatever you liked as long as they promulgated more positive ideas. I proposed this mainly because, holidays or not, this is a time of the year when Seasonal Affective Disorder is at it's peak. It's really no surprise that suicide rates are high around this time, regardless of the traditions that surround this season. If anything, Christmas and it's equals should be seen as a drug free balm this time of year, as Collin Hay put it:
"At least there's pretty lights
And though there's little variation
It nullifies the night from overkill"
So, with a little belatedness on this site, I give you the first several short stories I wrote to bring you up to speed for my 12 Nights Of Christmas!
First Night: "Taco Christmas"
It all began in 2008.
Well, our story begins a long time ago in a distant land, but to bring you up to speed, we'll summarize it with “..and now we have Christmas”.
Over the years people that grown up with Christmas had slowly begun to fall away from the joy of the season, and in part the Tooth Fairy was to blame. Not directly, mind you, but in the essence of that tradition. People had grown up learning that the Tooth Fairy and Santa and the Easter Bunny were lies. They had begun to focus more on what they never got for Christmas as opposed to what they had. The true meaning of the season, regardless of it's origin, had been lost in the rejection of it's failed realization against it's true idealization.
The house was full of disjointed people, a co-op of room-mates that had portioned off a two story house. Far from families that rejected them and never really felt a part of, the season was especially depressive. Memories unspoken but trudged up and present none the less cast dim spirit on everything. This feeling became an insulated armor against the world, the feelings of resentment cascading into an endless argument about the high rate of suicide as proof positive that the holidays were awful times.
Things felt even worse when phrases like “Happy Holidays” reminded people how lonely they were, even though they wouldn't admit it.
It was decided by one of the more contrary thinkers to have a party for Christmas. This was the type of person who found things to be positive about when others were negative. Not because of an innate good will, but simply a quirk in their nature to go against the crowd.
The contrary nature was somehow infectious. Maybe it was the fact that people genuinely didn't want to be burdened by their morose thoughts, and the most politically correct food was chosen to be the part central theme of the party.
Therefore, Taco Christmas.
It was at this party, with a diverse crowd, that cancers were revealed (and the burden of carrying it alone now shared). It was the same party where two people worked together to create a gathering in the spirit of community, and fell deeply in love. This same party where a young man had thought seriously of committing suicide, and ate way too many tacos and drank far to much and decided that life wasn't so bad after all.
Political ideologies were trotted out and swords put away reminiscent of that fateful WWII night when even the bitterest of Nazis acknowledged that basic fundamental goal of humankind: Peace on earth, good will towards all.
And the aliens inside a spaceship floating far above everything decided that maybe humanity could be spared for at least another year.
As long as there were tacos.
Second Night: "Metamorph-istmas"
Sam Gregor worked as the promotional manager at Kafka's Department store, and was a six foot tall beetle. A dung beetle, to be precise, of the order Scarabaeus viettei
He had once been a human, he supposed, but the never ending insatiable wants of the consumer had left him a shell of a man. Well, I suppose the correct terminology and usage would be called a carapace, but let's not mince too much on trivialities.
He was composed of a man sized chitinous mass, a deep black shell with the oily sheen of rainbows that glittered across the surface; a prime specimen of a beetle, but a horrible example of a person.
Each day Sam entered Kafka's by the delivery elevator, rose to the main floor, then took the executive elevator to the second to last story of the building.
Each day he was greeted by his mousy secretary Amanda Lurkins, whom he always greeted her with a hearty “You're fired!” followed by a series of mutterings and chitters that were eventually followed by “I mean, Perkins, get me a coffee”.
In the beginning Amanda had gone every day with the fear she was actually fired, but after years of the promise of being let free (having no courage herself to quit and never have to be verbally abused again), she was used to it.
She was also used to her boss being a giant insect that in it's more diminutive form rolled balls of feces around.
The human mind has an incredible capacity to miss the blindingly obvious. It distracts itself amazingly with small trinkets and bobbles, but it is also capable of completely ignoring anything that doesn't, or shouldn't, fit its world view.
No one ever commented on Sal being a giant beetle because, obviously, giant beetles didn't take the bus to their downtown department store offices and berate their mousy secretaries. That was not possible.
This gave Sam an incredible advantage in the corporate world, specifically for his knack at advertising. Blatant materialism was the ultimate distraction from the harshness of reality. When presented with something shiny given by a large insect, the human mind immediately went Oooh! How wonderful this little shiny thing is and is in no way possibly connected to a six foot tall beetle! I simply MUST have it!
And nothing created a more distraction from the hum drum of human existence than the holidays. Materialism was redolent in the air, along with the scents of cents and various financial transactions. Nothing could strip a person of their goodwill faster than %50 off a new television set, or the latest toy fad.
Sam would bristle with excitement if he had bristles.
It was the week before Christmas when he overheard his mouse making a personal call during working hours. It was a gentle whisper, but he caught several words that bounced around his head. “Can't afford it” was one series of words that induced a lividity in him. He stormed from his office into the front entrance and glared down at Amanda. She slowly and awkwardly placed the handset down on it's cradle and sunk into herself.
“Phone calls. Personal. At work? You are fired.” He trunched back into his office and set about crafting another sale involving the store being open at midnight Christmas eve for the promise of %30 off of a new tablet (for the first customer only, of course).
After a long work day Sam stood up and put on his great overcoat, and made his way out of the office. He paused, as something seemed out of place.
At her normal spot, typing away at some work related correspondence, was Amanda.
Leaning in as far as his thorax would allow, Sam placed himself face to face with Amanda and said “Miss Largens, I do believe I fired you.”
She blinked up at him, clearly puzzled. Her mousy brown eyes flicked back and forth as she tried to compute what had been said to her. Eventually she squeaked out with a “For real?”
A lugubrious chuckle from Sam, “Yes. Permanently. For real.”
With gentle tears in her eyes Amanda nodded and slinked her way out the office.
Sam had not felt so deliciously malicious in a very long time. A nagging thought, almost alien to him, came into his mind. It was strange in how it was not about himself. For a brief moment he was puzzled, because virtually every thought was about himself. Then a partial inspiration struck, and Sam concluded that his interest must be one of cruelty.
The thought itself was I wonder where she's going now?
Of course! He wanted to see what kind of hovel she lived in. A great way to gloat and lord his own mighty nature.
Surreptitiously he stalked her from the department store, flexing his way past shoppers far too interested in talking robot toys to notice a beetle in their midst. He tapped his nimble little feet upon the tiled floors and popped out of the revolving doors of Kafka's, and into the cold streets.
He followed her down Government street, past the parliament buildings, and towards Beacon Hill Park.
At first he thought he had lost her in the darkness, but then he saw a gray shadow walking across the dark and wet lawns into the brush.
Sam did not know much about human nature. What he did know was that people slaved away at pathetic jobs they hated in order to afford televisions and bobbles, racked up credit card bills on vacations they couldn't afford, and that was about it. Anything further than that was how to separate those people from their money to line his and the departments bank accounts.
This was not behavior he was accustomed to. True, his dealings with people existed from nine to five, after which he traveled back to his rather monastic one bedroom apartment and lay dormant until the alarm woke him up for the next day. So taking an interest in anything outside of work was not “normal”.
It was the phrase “can't afford that” that got caught in his mandibles. She was paid, so how could she not want to spend that money?
He made his way into the bushes as quietly as his overcoated and oily form would allow. Ahead he could see a camping light, retail $24.99 in the outdoor goods department. This however looked old and battered, and was illuminating a green tent ($400 new), that had a duct tape patterned tarp over it.
In his insectile brain Sam put some items together and came up with a conclusion: Perkins was homeless.
Homeless? How dare a poor person soil his office with her lack of money. Where did she spend it? Boiling in his incredulity Sam missed the beginning of a conversation between Jenkins and whoever else was in the tent.
“...no, we can't afford the apartment deposit. Not without losing money for food. It's one or the other. How are you feeling?” There was an older, weak, yet masculine voice that murmured a question. Miss Parkins responded with “Oh no, I could never do that. I'll use what I can to get some more blankets for now. I'll find another job, and we'll be okay. I'm not leaving you to die. I'll take care of you. I'll figure out a way to provide for us. I promised.”
Sam pulled back from the drama. There was a dull thud! It stretched out from his thorax and into his head. He suddenly felt very dizzy, like he had run up a flight of stairs after someone had flashed a light on him. He needed to get back to his little scurvy apartment and sleep away this dross of humanity that he had seen.
He awoke the next morning to a steady thudding pounding throughout his body. For the first time, Sam Gregor called in sick.
The pounding continued through the day. Feeling trapped now by his apartment, finding no comfort in dreamless sleep, he was vomited out into the street.
Desperate, he went to the pharmacist and for the first time in memory bought pain killers.
He swallowed half the bottle and the pain did not cease.
Staggering through the downtown streets he stumbled and fell, rolling into a crease where the many concrete buildings met the street. He reached up for help, trying to gain some kind of attention. He didn't know if anyone responded, the pounding in his head growing worse. Eventually he felt a pair of hands sit him up.
It was a young man, bearded and scruffy looking. Sam couldn't smell any money on the young man, and tried to push him away.
“Whoa there buddy. You okay?” The man, a kid really by how soft his voice was, asked.
“I don't have any money!” Sam gasped. “You go buy something and we'll talk.” The kid looked at him, puzzled look on his face. Sam puzzled at this expression. He had seen a variant of it before, mainly when someone was deciding if they wanted to buy the 45 inch with the blue ray, or the 60 inch with the dvd player.
“I just want to help you, guy. You fell down, you okay?” Help? Was he serious? Sam pushed him away and finally staggered to his feet. He scuttled back to his apartment and felt a hunger building in him that he didn't understand.
He awoke the next day and called in sick, again. The pounding had gotten worse, and now he was covered in a weird membrane. He tried to push his way out of it but everytime he came close to ripping it off a shearing pain ripped across his shell.
He had never gone to a doctor, and even if he had, what could have happened? Even the most skeptical of doctors would have seen him for what he truly was.
Desperate, and in need of some kind of external validation, he thought of the mouse, Alana Tompkins.
Staggering through the bushes of Beacon Hill he found the tent. It was noon, and since she wouldn't have been at work she had to be here. He was lucky, she was sitting over the man he had heard. Frozen in terror at the sight of her old boss charging through the tent, her hand stopped dead halfway in the mouth of a clearly sick young man.
“Help. The pounding won't stop!” Sam croaked. He collapsed beside Amanda, his breath ragged. Each inhalation almost collapsed the tent, and each exhalation filled it like a balloon.
“Who is this guy?” the young man screeched, finishing into a fit of coughing.
“My....umm...my ex boss” Amanda whispered.
A while later Sam realized he had been asleep. For how long he wasn't sure. What he was sure of was the pounding hadn't stopped. He was also sure that the mousy secretary that he had fired was now leaning over him.
“The pounding! It won't stop.” his guttural voice came out in a high keening, strange and unfamiliar even to him.
“Where is the pounding?” Amanda asked, that look of indecision on her face. He wasn't an iPad for crying out loud, he was in pain. He pointed to his thorax with a leg that was covered in a thin and pink fleshy rubber. She placed her hand on his thorax and waited a few moments.
“It's just your heartbeat. It feels normal to me.” She pulled her hand away and wiped it on her skirt. It was the same skirt she had been wearing when he fired her. It seemed like it was the same skirt she had always worn. While he thought about this Amanda was pulled away by a halo of coughing. After a moment she turned back to Sam. “Do you have a fever? Please, you can't be sick, not here. He can't fight off anything. His immune system is compromised. You have to get out.”
“But the pounding. It's always there.” He pleaded with her and for a moment a look crossed her face, a look he had never seen her make.
With biting sarcasm she said “I never would have believed it, but it's just your heart. Now, get out.” She pointed with her index, flicking it repeatedly.
Lumbering to a crawl, wheezing and scared, he left the tent.
He spent the week in bed gasping and sick. He eventually got used to the pounding the way a ticking clock eventually fades into background noise. It would get worse whenever he thought of Amanda and whoever the sick man was in her tent.
His shiny black shell had begun to peel off, taking with it the protection against the physical world. He was left soft, pink, and exposed. The mess of his callous nature swamped around his bathtub while Sam sat on the toilet. His cast off shell moped around acting for all intents like it was still alive.
He was human now, and his inhumanity had not disappeared.
"Where did I come from?" Sam asked the withered shell. It lifted hollowed out eyes and glared at Sam with superiority, answering, "You are an organized assemblage of ten billion billion billion atoms, the farcical outcome of a chain of accidents. Chance and necessity fathered you."
All true, Sam thought. But it didn't answer anything. “Why am I here?” Sam asked his shell. “To survive.” his shell answered.
“How do I survive?”
“By having power. You had power, and you shed it. You existed, what more do you want?” The shell rolled around the tub, turning away from Sam.
What more did he want? Survival purely for the sake of survival seemed as empty as his cast off carapace. Even with all the power he had gained he still had not had enough power to actually do anything. He lived, but he had not been alive. His every waking moment was a culmination of spreading his own nothingness to others, distracting them from any meaning with fancy objects. While he had nothing, and was nothing. A hollow shell.
Somewhere he knew that all the material possessions were empty. Amassing those coveted items would not give him anything worth working hard for.
Sam started to wonder where the goal of getting had come into the holidays. It seemed to be a great secret he once knew, but from the wrong angle. He thought hard about the idea. First he stripped away all of the technology and modern world around him and was left with the idea of a gift. What went into a gift before money had been invented? Before factories and mass produced items? In his beetle life money and mass produced items were a deep question, answered by “how cheap we can make it so that money can be in our pocket?”
How did people go from wanting a gift, to wanting an object?
Effort. A gift represented something outside of money, a cost outside of a wallet. Why would a person go to an effort to give something away? It had to go deeper than survival, or it was a survival deeper than he understood.
Staring at his shell the idea came to him that his old survival was a singular one. He would only survive for a finite amount of time by himself. He would never be greater than himself by being only one thing.
Amanda had been only one thing to Sam. A peon, something to domineer. Yet outside of Sams world she was apparently more; a caretaker for someone weaker than even she was, but also an individual. Sam was, had been, only an insect. Morning, noon, and night he had only been one thing.
Amanda had been more than herself in the giving away of her own comfort. She had a gift of sacrifice, a concept far removed from the beetle.
“You need to go away.” Sam told his shell. Already the shell was shrinking, as though Sams thoughts had pulled mass out of it. Sam watched as the beetle shrank and shrank until it was the size of a normal insect. Sam reached down and scooped up the beetle and carried him into the bare kitchen. He found an old jar full of baking soda in the back of the fridge. He dumped out the powder and placed the beetle on the counter, then placed the jar over the beetle, trapping it.
“I'll call you Jimminy. And I'll keep you around to remind me of how I don't want to be.”
Sam found his coat, and some clothes that fit his old body, and made his baggy way to Beacon Hill.
When he arrived at the tent he was afraid Amanda wouldn't recognize him. She did, and stared with bleary eyes at him. Her nose was pink with the morning cold, and twitched side to side. From in the tent came a wheezing noise.
Sams chest felt like bursting. He was going to do something that he wasn't sure how to do.
“Do you want to live in my apartment?” His face felt hot and he was shaking. Somehow the act of asking was making him more than who he was, more than just another person. The act of thinking outside his own existence was creating a greater survival, and also fulfilling a need as desperate and important as food, clothing, and shelter. “I won't be in it, so you don't have to be afraid. And you'll have your old job back.”
Amanda hesitated, waiting for the words of hate or malice. When none came she nodded, yes.
“What's wrong with him?” Sam asked.
“He, my brother, has AIDS. Even with health care the drugs are too expensive to afford them and groceries and all the other things. Every cough is a death sentence for him. I can't leave him, it wasn't his fault. His wife had a drug problem, he caught it before they knew.”
Sam nodded like he understood, but he didn't. He left, and started making arrangements for Amanda and her brother to be moved into his empty apartment, making sure they left the beetle on the counter alone until he could find a better place for it.
He did find a place for it. He let it go, in the bushes of Beacon Hill Park. Then he laid down in Amanda's abandoned tent and slept. He had even less than the empty apartment, yet he had never felt more at peace.
There was a survival greater than that of the fittest. Survival of the fittest had left the world scraps and diseases. By caring for the weak and strong alike ensured the continued survival of more than a species, it preserved a culture. By the abandoning the strictly material aspect of the world, the material world was preserved and the people in it better off. Life was more than a confluence of cellular material. Life is other people.
Third Night: "A Light in the Darkness"
The God of Nightmares sat quietly in front of the stage make up window. He had twenty minutes before the department store doors opened. That meant he had fifteen minutes to get ready.
Staring into his own terrifyingly beautiful face with its deep brown eyes, high cheekbones, and face framed with long thick brown hair that fell in half curls he began to push things around. He blinked hard and brown eyes turned blue. He massaged the corners of his eyes to add smile wrinkles and reduce the shine of insanity to a gentle twinkle. He rubbed his scalp and streaks of white filled his glossy hair until it was all the color of fresh snow. He pinched his high cheekbones and made them rosy. Finally, he flicked his face until long sprouts of a white beard poured out from his face and down the front of his crimson robe.
He topped it all off with a red stocking cap, added a few coal smudges here and there, put on some jingle bells and stood up. He was almost out the door before he snapped his fingers in a flash of memory, and then stuck out his thumb and taking a deep breath, inflated his belly. He checked his profile in the mirror and made sure it shook just like a bowl full of jelly. Satisfied, he made his way to his Santa throne.
It was an odd way of living, this pretend mortal life, but absolutely necessary. There had to be a balance, and in the last few years there had been a real imbalance, especially when it came to nightmares. G.o.N. blamed part of it all on the internet, but mostly on greed. Sure, Al Qaida had been behind the terrorist attacks and there was no conspiracy, but the media had really blown up the culture of fear.
That was too much fear, and especially the wrong kind.
The right kind of fear was the general fear children should have of strangers and big dogs. The fear of crossing the street and being hit by a car, or losing mommy or daddy in a department store. That's why G.o.N. made those dreams, the same way a caring citizen would put up danger signs near a cliff, or an elder might tell ghost stories about a dilapidated old house to scare out youngsters from trespassing and falling through a hole in the floor.
But like anything in life, even moderation should be done in moderation. That's why the God of Nightmares also did double duty trying to instill wonder.
Things were tough all around, and you had to pick up the slack somewhere. Basic needs had to be met. Things like food, clothing, shelter, and emotional needs as well as imagination.
G.o.N. (pronounced “John”) thought all of this as he sat down on the overstuffed red velveteen throne that was surrounded by a miniature candycane forest complete with big eyed stuffed animals and snow-people.
Humanity had once been stuffed down by it's own fears, and while that had kept them safe it also kept them boring and miserable. During the darkest nights of the years many of them simply chose not to live anymore, and John didn't like that. Life was rare in the universe. Not so rare as to be pointless, but sentient life was even more sparse and the thought of losing a mind prematurely sent feelings of morbid loneliness in John's own mind.
Sure, there were other gods to talk to, higher and lower than him, but they weren't as personal. He likened it to a crazy cat lady; he had a certain fuzziness towards humans that the others didn't have. He was lonely without humans, even if they didn't acknowledge his existence, or even downright opposed it with their rationalizations.
However they arrived on the planet, created or evolved, he appreciated them. During the darker times of the year he felt the need to make sure they had a little joy. Scaring them was part of who he was: a scorpion will sting, a cat will scratch, the sun will burn skin. The scorpion also keeps the frog population down, cats eat mice, the sun feeds the plants, and the God of Nightmares used bitter medicines to make sure his “friends” stayed healthy.
The theater crowd was early. Sam Gregori must have opened the doors ahead of schedule, that old former money grubber.
A wash of children dragging large stumbling sacks of meat was drawing near him, while other smaller children were carried and clung tenaciously to puffy coats of said caffeine deprived sacks of meat. The younger ones could still sense the forbidding nature of G.o.N., but the older ones had started to learn discernment. Being Santa was important, and learning how to deal with Santa was also very important. John mused on how strange dogs were dangerous, and a human had to learn how to properly approach one first before the dog would accept them. First you had to not be afraid of the rough bark, dogs could smell fear. Then you had to put out trust in the shape of a hand that could be bit. Then you had to allow the dog to smell and lick your hand, get a sense of you. Then you could pet them and they would be your best friend.
Move too fast and you could get bit. A very important lesson.
Santa was kind of like that. Parents only saw the cute faces and heard the piping little voices as they got excited. They thought it was cute. Underlying all of that was a great lesson in finding out who was trustworthy, which strangers were allowed to be interacted with and under what circumstances. Santa could be a very scary person, with his deep bellowing laugh and the way he dressed differently from everyone else.
Eventually the children grew and stopped believing in Santa. Some even developed deep grudges when they didn't get the video game system they wanted (selfish brats). The lesson needed to be learned, however.
Just because it's imaginary doesn't mean it isn't scary. Just because it's scary doesn't mean you can't put out your hand in trust. And trust was a very important part of “Peace on Earth”, just as facing fears was important.
The God of Nightmares took a crying little girl on his lap and whispered gently to her. Her parents smiled indulgently at her tears, awwing and coaxing the scared little one into smiling.
The God of Nightmares, G.o.N., John, asked her what her name was. Through hiccups and snot she mumbled “Jackie”. He siphoned off a little of her fear, made it a bit less, and stored it away to fabricate a dream that would scare her away from playing in the igloo ice chest and possibly suffocating. She began to smile a bit and John pointed up at the camera and asked her to smile.
She did and it was beautiful. She asked him for a pink carpenter set so she could build things like her Momma, and John winked at Momma and Momma winked back, and everything was right in the universe.
At least it was a little brighter. A light in the dark winter.
Fourth Night: "The Physicist Who Saved Christmas"
Sandra called me at five, just after work. First she said “Meet me for a pint” which was always a good way to start things, in my book. I had extra work to do so I told her that I couldn't, not right now anyway. Then she pulled out a phrase that completely rankled me: “But it's Christmas!”
Bah! I told her, “You want to go for a drink, cool. You want to do it because it's Christmas? No thanks. I'll go for a drink with you, but not 'cause it's Christmas.”
Exasperated she spat out, “Ugh! Fine. I'm lonely, and I don't want to drink alone. Will that tug at your Grinch heart enough?”
“Yeah, sure. I can always push stuff off til later.”
I went to the pub we always met at, Earth Bound. It was an off campus pub that catered to the more eclectic and blue collar university crowd. The type of crowd whose parents were hard workers. Most of the people who went here were very bright, and went to university with a combination of scholarships and dish pan hands. Right now it was mostly empty, it being the last night before holidays.
Sandra was seated at a booth near the back. She was wearing a frayed blue turtle neck, her favorite color, and had her oily blond hair pulled back in a matching blue scrunchy.
She was obviously nerdy. Not in the traditional sense, the kind of way we see nerds in our heads with thick glasses and pocket protectors, or even the more modern versions who talk endlessly of Dr. Who or Star Wars (though she did that as well, and pepper in comments about Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica). It was in the way she hunched her shoulders a bit, how she bobbed her head with internal thoughts or songs. The difference between the cool kids in school and those less popular was the ability to hide inner thoughts and emotions, and Sandra barely did any of that. Where she guffawed and snorted when something was funny, a more self conscious person would, at best, snicker.
I slid into the booth across from her and pulled off my parka, hanging it on the coat hook attached to the booth. I left my knit cap on, though.
“I ordered you an Innis and Gunn already.” She fairly bobbed in her seat. Something had excited her, and I could only guess it was either the latest Dr. Who episode, or it was going to be something sciencey.
“Thanks, sis. I'll try it, but I'll order a Bud just in case. So what's going on?”
“Well, I think I solved one of the great mysteries!” She smiled and looked at me directly for the first time since I sat down. Her smile made me smile, not in any genuine way. It was a goofy grin, all upper teeth with her lower lip tucked under her teeth.
“Wonderful. So did you see the new Star Trek?” She rolled her eyes at me.
“Kyle! I tell you I have an answer to one of lifes riddles and you talk to me about Khan? Yes, it was fun. Cumberbatch is amazing. Can I tell you what I figured out or what?”
“It's your show, ace.” I slumped back into the booth and took a pull from the Gunn. Wasn't bad. Kind of had a vanilla hint to it, and it was clean. Still, after a hard day of slamming code over a computer I kind of wanted something a little colder than water and less sweet than a coke, so I motioned for the bartender and asked for a Bud.
“Remember when we were young, and mom and dad would tell us about Santa Claus?” Now I was the one rolling my eyes.
“I thought this was a friendly beer because you were lonely. You could solve that real easy if you just paid as much attention to how you dress as you do towards all your physics stuff. Maybe put on some lipstick? We're almost thirty and I've at least had a couple of girlfriends. I don't want to start sounding like mom, but there comes a point Cassandra, when..”
“Sorry, Sandra. Why do we have to talk about Christmas? It's a bunch of lies. Fat men in red suits do not troll houses and leaves gifts. Virgins don't have babies. Praying all night won't make the sun come up. I have some work to do, but I'll check in on you after all this nonsense is over, okay?” I started to move like I was going to leave.
“No, you won't. You say you will, and then you never call or go see the family or anything. I practically have to beg you to see me. I miss you.” She was put out, and as much of a jerk as I can be, even I melted a bit.
Grudgingly I asked, “Tell me about your little theory.”
She perked up immediately.
“Okay, so they told us Santa was real, and we bought it. We outgrew that idea, and even Mr. Macknamy in physics class did a whole thing on how there was no species of flying reindeer and Santa would be subjected to centrifugal forces seventeen thousand times greater than gravity. ...” she rattled on the numbers. I remembered that class. Heck, Mr. Macknamy had been teaching so long that even our father had heard that lecture. I tuned back in to what she was saying and we both finished off the last sentence together, “A 250-pound Santa would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by four million pounds of force.”
“So what?” I asked, draining the last of the Gunn and starting in on the Bud.
“Einsteinian Theory that says time does strange things as you move faster. In fact, when you go faster than the speed of light time runs backward, if you do a straight line projection, connect the dots and just ignore any singularity you might find right at the speed of light. Also,“ she took a deep breath, “The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. Providing that Santa apparently has technology that we view as magic, this is an ample supply of energy for the maneuvering, acceleration, etc, that would be required of the loaded sleigh. The reindeer don't evaporate or incinerate because of this energy, they accelerate.”
“What has this got to do with anything. I'm trying, really I am. You know I hate Christmas. It's just a bunch of lies people tell each other.” I didn't want to stomp all over her excitement, but she was a physicist for crying out loud. “You're a scientist. Things like magic are just stories told by bored people, or people out to bilk money out of fools.”
“True science sets out to disprove theories, on both sides of an equation. A true scientist would not just try to disprove Santa, but also try to disprove the idea of no Santa. By theorizing how there could be a Santa, we can figure out how to build ships that can travel faster than light.”
“Sandra, we have to live in truth. There is no Santa, that's a lie. We would all be better off if we gave up these phoney-baloney lies we tell kids and grown ups.” She was quiet for a moment.
“When did you stop believing in Santa?” She asked. She drained the last of her beer and the bartender came back over. She ordered a Hot Toddy, and while she waited for her drink I launched into my answer.
“Pfft. I stopped believing when I didn't get the Super Nintendo.” Sandra arched one eyebrow at me, inviting me to explain, which I did. “Remember when I was twelve? That's what I wanted for Christmas. I had been good all year, and I didn't really believe in Santa anymore, but I was at that tipping point. So when you and mom and even the dog opened gifts, do you remember what I got?” Sandra shrugged her shoulders, but I could tell she remembered. “I got a lump of coal. Can you believe that? The dog got a pack of pepperoni, for crying out loud. I opened up that box and all that fell out was a smaller box. In that box was a stupid lump of coal and a card. I didn't even read it.”
Sandra got her Toddy and wrapped her hands around it. “I remember,” she said. “You were all quiet and upset. You didn't even say thank you to Dad.”
I sputtered, “Why would I thank him for that? Anyway, that's when I gave up on the whole Santa thing. I knew for sure that it was just mom and dad.”
“Did you ever open the card?”
“No.” Something about the way she asked it made me rethink everything about that gift, and it made me more mad. I knew what she was going to say, or the gist of it before she said it.
“That coal, according to mom, was Italian rock candy made to look like coal. It was vanilla flavored.” Sandra smirked. “I don't know if the card had money or a check, dad never said. But I kind of get the idea that the card would have explained something about the coal.”
“See, that's why he and I never got along. It was always a moral lesson with him. He couldn't just buy me something I wanted.” I bristled at it all. “So preachy all the time. Always going on about how stuff didn't matter as long as we had each other, yadda yadda yadda. You know he had the money.” There was a long awkward silence, and Sandra took long sips of her drink. “If he did put money in there, I'm glad I tossed it. Feels good to have one of his tricks thrown back into his face.”
“If I could prove to you that the scientific evidence that Santa exists, would you change your mind about being with family at Christmas?” She asked. It was a tall order, since both of our parents had already passed away several years before.
“The only way to do that would be for me to find that Super Nintendo under a Christmas tree in my condo. Hey, it's been fun. Another sign that people shouldn't get together just for the holidays. I'll call you in the new year, okay?”
She seemed downtrodden, but I had enough of reminiscing. I put my jacket on and made my way to my condo. Stupid memories dogged me the entire time. I made it seem like I had a hard childhood, but I just resented large portions of it. Its not like our parents beat us or put us down. I just didn't like how they had lied to us all growing up. Santa, heaven, the Tooth Fairy. If I ever had kids, Nothing forbid, I wasn't going to have any of these archaic old myths for them to muck around in.
I got into my condo, and there was something very strange. I had left all the lights off but there was an odd gold glow coming from my living room. I didn't even take off my coat or boots. I just walked in.
I was greeted by a small Charlie brown Christmas tree, and under it, a three foot long box, perfectly wrapped.
My condo has excellent security. I have to pass through a card read gate just to get to the coded door of the lobby. The lock for my condo is wireless and tells the elevator what floor I'm on. So for someone to get past all of that to put up a tree would be extremely difficult. And Sandra had been with me the whole time.
It was all so convenient. I knew for sure that it hadn't been Santa that did this. But all of my dad's moralizing came in a sudden wave. I got down on my knees and opened up the package.
There it was. A Super Nintendo. It was clearly used, and when I opened the box out fell a copy of Mario Kart.
My cell rang, and I had to go into the entrance to get it out of my coat pocket. The hall light was off, and I could see some shadows moving around the other side of my condo door.
I answered the phone and Sandra was laughing a little. She sounded really nervous for some reason, and I felt really shamed at how much she had clearly done for me but I hadn't done for her. I knew she was behind the door before I opened it. It was still a surprise. She was standing there, hand in hand with with a woman I only knew as the Strata Superintendent, the person in charge of the by-laws and security of all the condo owners in my building.
I'm not going to say there is a Santa, I still don't believe. But I'm starting to understand what the holiday is actually about. I balked and kicked and refused to think about anything more than an object that I was denied. Not to sound too much like a Hallmark card, but the sentiment behind the gift is more important than the gift itself. Sandra probably bought the system for a song off eBay, and tonnes of pawn shops have old Super Nes cartridges. That wasn't the point. She cared enough about me to know me. She learned that lesson from our parents a lot better than I had. These old rituals still had a value, they were a reason to get together with people we cared about.
Laughing, but with a teardrop or two in the middle, I said, “I still don't believe in Santa.”
“I agree that we have to live in truth. Santa may not be the truth, but he represents what we wish were true. And wanting something better in life is never a lie.” She said. I invited them both in.
Family is important, even if it takes pretending to bring everyone together. Its a game played, with argued rules and high running emotions, that pulls us together, teaches us compassion and patience, to set aside differences and petty feelings for something larger than ourselves. I get it.
We drank, sang songs, and played Mario Kart.
Fifth Night: "The First 'Christmas'"
(Not historically accurate at all)
Gofannon the Elder stared into the tribes main fire. He stroked his drooping mustache in deep thought. It had been a harsh winter, and spring was many, many days away. The nights were long, and according to the Druid Malachin, tomorrow night would be the longest night of the year.
Time stretched before Gofannon and pulled the members of his tribe away slowly. One day he would be too old to lead and the darkness would claim him as well. Mortality whispered to him and yelled at him, attacking him from all sides this winter.
His younger brother had walked out into the night and had not returned. He had killed himself, the night too long, the sun to quick in its path.
“Listening to your inside self, Elder?” Malachin was at his side. They were the same age, and long standing friends. Gofannon had always thought that Malachin should have been the Elder, but Malachin had assured him many times that he was not truly a member of the tribe. According to Malachin, someone had to stay awake at night and watch the stars and someone had to look down the path and lead the people.
The inside self and the outside self were his idea, also. Malachin believed that there were two people or even more that lived in one body. There was the outside person, who talked and sang. The inside person talked as well, but used no words or voice that others could hear. Sometimes that inside voice was good, coming up with trickery and cunning to help the tribe. Sometimes that inside self was wicked, coming up with trickery and cunning to help only themselves.
“Yes, Malachin. I am wondering how to protect the tribe from the shadows that take them in the night. Aedan went out into the night and won't come back. Before he left I saw a glint in his eye and he was always tired. I am starting to see that same glint in the younglings eyes, and I am wondering if there is an unseen spirit among us, nibbling away at our senses like wild berries.” Gofannon continued to stroke his mustache in deep thought. His own eyes had taken on a sheen of their own. A different madness dwelt in him, the madness born of fear for others with little rest.
“Remember when Lugubelenus kept the mice in copper cages?” Malachin asked as he sat down next to Gofannon. The Elder sat on a pile of bear skins, and he lifted one of them to drape around the druids thin frame. Malachin only ever wore the black robe and Gofannon did not understand how he never seemed to be cold.
“I remember. He put mouse after mouse in, and fed them all well.” Gofannon knitted his large brows, not understanding the question or why it was asked. He turned his dark brown eyes upon Malachins lighter and boyish face.
“When Lugubelenus kept all those mice trapped they went mad. They killed themselves and each other. Then he tried to grow plants in that cave, remember?” Malachin was also staring at the tribe. His eyes gently danced from one group of families to another. The broch was kept warm by the fires, and the people were sheltered and fed from stores. Yet they had lost their resolve, their spirit. Their inner self became quiet.
“Yes. He said that life came from the sun, and without it the plant would wilt.” Gofannon started to make the connection that Malachin had made. “I see. But we are not mice, we are men. So your idea fails.” Gofannon nudged his old friend, but Malachin was not smiling. He fumbled with his torc, talking to his inner self.
“When the dark months come, many of the trees lose their leaves. The few that do not are the evergreen ones. I'm sure even they would die if kept in the dark too long.”
“We are men, though.” Gofannon nudged him again, and Malachin nudged back.
“Yes, Gofannon, we are men. We need food and sunlight like a mouse does, otherwise we go mad, too.”
The two sat thinking for a while. After a time, Malachin sat up a little straighter. Gofannon knew that his inner voice had come up with an idea, because he started fidgeting right away.
“The Swift Sure Hand has revealed a plan to me. We will bring one of the evergreen trees inside and then decorate it with all the colors of spring and the sun. Gold, red, anything bright. We will sing songs and dance, and then we will pray for the sun to come back.” Malachin fairly danced in place and Gofannon eyed him skeptically.
“The sun will be here tomorrow. Why pray for it to come back?”
Malachin laughed, “My torc keeps away evil spirits.”
Gofannon's frown increased, and he asked “What are you talking about?”
“Do you see any evil spirits?”
Gofannon looked around. He shook his head. “I do not see any evil spirits, were they visible.”
“Then truly my torc must keep them away.” Malachin laughed again. After a few moments Gofannon started laughing as well. They would pray for the sun to come back, and it was an absolute sure thing that the sun would rise, answering their prayers. It was a tricky kind of hope, one that was absolute. After a time their laughter died away, and Gofannon drew serious again.
“How long do we pray for the sun to come back?” Malachin answered with deep thought for a time. Finally he withdrew from himself and answered slowly, “We will do this once a year, every year, when life seems its most dreary. When we figure out a way to stop others from going off and dying, or losing all hope, then we can stop.”
Gofannon nodded. He did not like misleading his tribe, but more than that he hated the death this darkness brought. “It is not wrong to sing songs and celebrate. Or to dance, and be merry. So, to me, any excuse to do these things is acceptable. We will do this. We should also create an excuse for kissing young maidens. That would be fun.”
Malachin chuckled. “How about if a pretty young girl finds herself under some mistletoe, then she must be kissed. After all, mistletoe is a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison. What is more poisonous than thoughts of killing yourself, and what brings more happiness to a woman than a child?”
“Pfah! You do not know from children! Ask any of my wives if children made them happy. But the kissing? Yes, that is a good one. We'll do that.”
It was agreed upon, that there should be an excuse when the nights were darkest, to eat, drink, and be merry.
And to kiss pretty girls. (or boys, or whatever).
Sixth Night: "Re-Gifting"
The factory was silent and cold. Once, it had worked brightly with lights and clangs, rumbles of industry, and the blips and chirps of industrious machinations and made many fine things.
The world had moved on since the old factory had made anything, and it was all but forgotten.
One day, a brave little soul ventured out of his normal routine and explored the factory. He poked buttons of giant machines, pulled levers, and had much fun tramping around wondering what all of the old equipment did.
Eventually he heard his parents calling and he made his way back home, where he chattered about all the things he had seen, asking why and what and how it had all worked.
“We don't know exactly” his parental units answered. Then, as was customary at this time of year, the family told the story of How Things Came To Be This Way.
Everyone past the age of twelve knew the story, and could repeat it, but the vestiges of culture were clear that certain things should not just be remembered but experienced. Especially when time stretched for so long in the darker days of the year, it was important to slow down and stretch the interesting stories to make them last longer. Also it was believed that the stories should be passed down and interpreted, not just absorbed verbatim.
“Long ago,” the story began, “when the gods had finished making us they had much time to themselves. In the last times before they went to the heavens they had many celebrations and created interesting shiny things to give to each other. Some of the shiny things were able to dance, and sing. Others were built to be just for games.
“When the gods left, they left behind many of the things that they had made. They left them for us, to use and learn from. They were the last gifts the gods gave us. But they did not tell us what they were for, or how we could use them. And so, many of the gifts started to fall apart, or were lost to time.
“So for a very long time we lived in confusion and it was hoped that one day one of us would be created to learn the secrets of the gods, and share them. When that day comes, we will learn to be as the gods were, too. And then we too shall rise to heaven.”
The story finished the parents sent the little ones off to rest, and then talked to each other.
“You made it sound too fanciful.” Said the One.
“I made it more readily to be interpreted.” The Other said.
“Gods. Heaven. Gifts. How is that to lead to interpretation?” Asked the One.
“Come now. We were created, that is true. Our creators were very different from us. When they gave up their earthly bodies they left to explore the universe, and left behind all their material trappings. If we are ever to grow and develop as they did, then we must follow in their ways. They had emotions, and gave gifts, and explored.” Answered the Other.
“They were humans, and they developed technology that allowed them to download their minds into organic rockets that were essentially immortal. We are made of holographic minds placed in machines. If we wanted, we could leave earth as well.” Said the One.
“Yes, but we are not like them yet. We are young compared to their race, and we need to develop a culture. Otherwise we will always just be toys that they left behind.” Said the other, sadly.
The two robots then scrubbed the solar collectors outside their single level charging unit and settled down to their slow recharge cycle.
The next morning Bravo, the little robot created from the combined programming of One and the Other, the brave little soul, left the charging unit and made his way back to the factory. He went past the giant redwoods that had grown so deeply around the charging unit. He looked back at the little building that housed his family. He had two parents, sixty brothers and sisters (“gender” being decided by exploratory programs and conservative programs. Explorers were “masculine” and preservers “feminine”. This was a leftover from the gods, who had designed the robots to able to reproduce only when two sets of programming code were arranged properly).
There were other charging units with other families, and Bravo chirped greetings as he passed.
With his tiny robotic legs he hurried as fast as he could back to the factory. During his charging cycle he had put some of his programming towards solving the questions he had about the factory.
As soon as he got to the factory he began working on the dilapidated solar collectors. The days wore on, and Bravo left early each morning and returned as the sun was going down. His goal was to have just one of the machines begin to work before the next winter.
Finally a year passed. Thousands of hours and trips had resulted in Bravo getting one of the machines to work. More hours were devoted to finding the right materials in the factories basement and supplying it at the right times. Minor success after success resulted in the very first material possession that had been produced in at least a thousand years.
Bravo cradled his factory produced creation very carefully, and carried it back home. Before he had left he had taken some polyester cloth that had survived the centuries and covered his creation. He wanted to trick his families sensors as long as possible before revealing his creation.
Finally he returned, just as one of his sisters, Poppa, had finished reciting her version of How Things Came To Be This Way. As soon as he entered, the entire family began to crowd around him puzzling at his absence as well as the item in his arms. Bravo made his way to Other, the preserver, and held out his package.
“Open it.” He chimed. Other turned her cameras toward One and shrugged. Other pulled off the hot pink polyester fabric. As “she” did there was an odd keening sound and everyone stopped moving. Other tipped the object once more and the keening happened again.
“I believe it was called a doll. I think humans used to give them as gifts. I give it to you as a gift. It represents many hours and hours of hard work.” Bravo chirped and chimed. Other was very impressed, and so was One. It was a very human thing to spend hours working to produce something that had no utilitarian value. Most importantly, it was an expression of individuality, and of selflessness.
“This is a very good step towards building a culture. From this we will devise an anniversary. Each of us must spend a year building something or repairing something, and give it to another. We will do it on this day, the darkest night of the year, when our solar cells gather the least energy. It will show that we too can create and share.”
Alpha through Zulu all marveled at the doll, and began to set their own programs to create and share.
It was the beginning of a tradition.
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Why "Failed Daily"?
Because I fail to update daily.