Nothing Will Compare: A Monster Christmas Story

The early morning light filtered pale through the kitchen window as Eva poured steaming coffee into two mugs. Snowflakes drifted down past the glass and outside, everywhere was covered in silent, frigid white.

“She is awake and excited.” The elderly man shuffled into the kitchen, his feet clad in red and green argyle socks. “Oh, for the condition that is youth, where awakening at seven o’clock in the morning seems like a reasonable idea.”

“She’s three years old,” Eva said, smiling. “Christmas means presents.”

“Verily.” Pocky rubbed his sparse, curly hair and removed the teabag from his china cup. “Thank you for pouring.”

“For you, anything. Where is she?”

“June? Sitting beneath the tree. I think she may be trying to communicate with the gifts telepathically in the hopes they will reveal themselves.”

Eva laughed quietly, knowing her husband was asleep just up the stairs and waking him too early would spoil June’s surprise. “Tell her to get Mir’s present and then we’re ready to go up, okay?”

The professor stirred cream into his tea and placed the carton back in the refrigerator. “While I have the thought, Merry Christmas, duckie.”

“Merry Christmas yourself.” She lifted the cups of coffee and followed him into the living room. “June, honey, do you have daddy’s present?”

The small black-haired girl clambered to her feet with difficulty, her socks sliding on the wooden floor. “This one?” She held up a plain brown bag, the right size for a gift card or something of equal size. It was overflowing with red and white tissue paper.

Eva nodded. “That’s the one.”

“I don’t suppose you will renege and let me in on the big secret?” Pocky sipped his tea, watching her with wide eyes as she motioned carefully with one encumbered hand for June to get up and follow her toward the stairs.

“Not a chance. Mir gets to be the second to know.”

“After all that I have done for you.”

Eva kept a straight face in spite of the professor’s false irritation at being left out. “I got you your own present, and I can still take it back.”

“You wouldn’t!” He pretended to look affronted. June hurried past him, climbing up the stairs as quickly as she could.

Eva whispered, “Hold on to the railing, sweetie.”

June dutifully held the rail with one hand and the bag with the other. The adults followed her, willing to move slowly for the sake of letting the toddler reach the top first. “Okay,” said Eva, looking through the doorway at the sleeping body of her husband, obscured by the duvet and the extra quilt she had draped over him half an hour earlier. “Now remember, don’t jump on daddy, okay? You can jump next to him.”

“Okay.” June’s whisper was loud and earnest. “Now?”

Eva nodded. “Now!”

June squealed and, with a boost from Pocky, made her way onto the bed. Jumping up and down, she shouted, “Merry Christmas, daddy! Wake up! Wake up! It’s Christmas! Daddy!”

Mir rolled over with something between a groan and a yawn. Eva walked around to his side of the bed and, setting his cup of coffee down on the night stand, kissed his forehead. “Merry Christmas.”

His sapphire eyes blinked sleepily back at her, but he was awake enough to tease June. “It isn’t Christmas yet,” he said, with a full yawn. “Wake me up when it is.”

June stopped jumping, her mouth open. “No, it is Christmas!”

“Mm-mmh.” He shook his head.

“Daddy!” June fell to her knees. “It’s Christmas! It – the tree is downstairs and we have presents!”

He pushed the blankets down and Eva reached an arm around him to help him sit up. The last two years had seen his body fade. There were dark hollows beneath his eyes and his strength was slowly giving way to the cancer eating him from his bones, but it seemed to Eva that the weaker his body grew, the stronger his spirit shone through; light through a thinning veil.

“Are you sure it’s Christmas?” Mir eyed June doubtfully. “Really sure?”

“Yes!” She nodded so hard that her pigtails whipped across her cheek and she clapped her hand to her face. “Ouch.”

“Okay, then.” Mir’s smile became a grin. “Hugs before presents, sunshine.”

June crawled over the pillow and wrapped her arms around his neck. “One!” She squeezed again, and one more time. “Two! Three!”

Mir laughed as the girl then held out the present. “Now open it!”

“Who taught you to be so bossy? You sound like your mommy.”

“Good for her, I say.” Eva hugged herself, excitement warming between her ribs. “Not everyone can be as sweet as her father.”

“Hear, hear,” said Pocky, lifting his teacup. “Now, if it isn’t too much trouble, I’ve been kept in the dark as much as you have” – this remark was directed at Mir – “and I would very much like to know what this gift is.”

“Open it!” June encouraged.

“Who is it from?” Mir asked, taking the offered bag.

Eva smiled. “Partially, me.”

“Partially?”

“Just open it. You’ll see what I mean.”

Mir made a show of pulling the tissue paper out sheet by sheet until June could no longer contain her mounting excitement and yanked the rest of it free. Eva took a deep breath as Mir reached into the bag and withdrew the gift inside.

He stared at the card, his lips parted, bright eyes unblinking.

“Well?” Pocky demanded, his eyebrows rising. “Are we never to know?”

Mir looked up at Eva, and she saw that the brightness in his eyes was half tear-sheen. “Is it – are you? Really?”

The grin that Eva had been suppressing for seven days broke out across her face and she covered her mouth with her hands, nodding.

“What is it? What did you get?” June asked, peering over her father’s arm at the card.

Pocky added his voice. “I second June!”

“They’re pregnancy test results.” Eva lowered her hands and turned a shining face to Pocky. “I’m pregnant. The baby is due in August.”

Pocky took a hasty sip of his tea and set the cup down. “My word. My word.”

“I’m going to have a brother?” June looked back and forth between the faces of her parents, then back at Pocky. “Why are mommy and daddy crying?”

Eva felt Mir’s hand cover hers, his thumb against the pulse on her wrist as he pulled her down to him. She pressed her face into his neck and felt her hot, happy tears from her lashes brush against his skin.

She lifted her face and kissed his jaw, his cheek, his mouth. “Merry Christmas, my love.”

He pressed his forehead to hers. His eyes were closed, but his mouth could not smile any wider, and it was still the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

“Well,” said Pocky, removing his glasses from his nose and blinking away his own tears. “I suppose now I shall have to return the presents I got for you all. Now nothing will compare.”

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Second Star to the Right: A Short Story

secondstartotheright

I honestly don’t know where this came from; I think it was because I was listening to James Newton-Howard yesterday. I wanted to keep the story below 1,000 words, which didn’t quite work out. I hope you like it anyway.

Her first letter began, Dear Peter. I say first letter, because there were many over the years. Life passed, measured in those letters; tucked away in a box over the fireplace, measured in the unlocked windows. And there were always the happy thoughts. When she was thirteen, before she auditioned for her first play, she inhaled the smell of fear and excitement and thought of happy things. Stardust on my fingers. When she was seventeen and vying for a scholarship to the Oxford School of Drama, remembering to think those thoughts kept her going. Her parents cheered, John and Michael supported her as only brothers can, but even as she accepted the scholarship with sunshine on her face, she couldn’t help but notice the face that wasn’t there. John told her, You’ve got to move on, Wendy. Peter isn’t real. He never was. What about Howard? He’s a nice guy. Michael said, He’s not coming back, Wendy. You know that, don’t you?  Her friends said, It’s time you grow up.

So, on the day she left for college, Wendy closed and locked her window. She lifted the acorn from around her neck and tucked it in the box with the letters. Her suitcase packed, she left the small room she had known all her life, and the dreams of Neverland and the boy who refused to grow up. She was pretty and friendly and she made friends quickly; she was practical and punctual and the professors loved her. Taking John’s advice, she went on a date with Harold, and it turned into several dates until she couldn’t remember whether when they had started seeing each other, or why they still were.

It was Autumn; the air was crisp and each gust of wind carried the smells of apples and cinnamon, and Wendy was home again for two weeks. It was comforting to be back in a place she knew, but even the sight of the cold stars winking in the sky seemed to tug a chord inside her. The rush of traffic outside her window whispered Neverland, and no matter how hard she tried, she still mistook the flutter of wings on a rooftop for a familiar shadow. Besides, there was no point to wishing – Peter had stayed in Neverland. He was still a child while here she was, twenty years old, on her way to a successful stage career. She tried not to think about it at night, as she stared at the ceiling, still painted a soft, baby blue.

“You’ve got to take your mind off whatever’s bothering you,” said Michael, who was still in junior high and therefore always around. “Find a hobby or something.”

She took to jogging. Every morning, when the sun rose pale and white, she would be moving down the sidewalk with music in her ears, headed toward the Dapper Decaf. She pulled open the door and stepped inside, taking the ear buds from her ears and letting them dangle over her shoulder. The air was infused with the smell of coffee and the vanilla candles along the shelves. She ordered a hazelnut latte and sat near the window. When she got back to school, they would start production of Richard III. Howard would play Richard, she was cast to play Lady Margaret. It was the longest play they had ever attempted, aside from Hamlet.

Her thoughts wrapped her up so tightly she didn’t hear the barista call out, “One hazelnut latte for Wendy?” until the third shout. She picked up the cup and sat back down, the warmth seeping into her palms. The bell above the door rang as it swung open, letting in a blast of chilly air quickly swallowed by the heat inside. Trying to focus on something other than her future plans and her own melancholy, Wendy watched the newcomer walk up to the counter and place an order. She didn’t catch what it was.

He leaned against the counter to wait. She expected him to pull out a smartphone or something else to occupy his time, but he didn’t. He let his eyes wander around the room, taking in the display of mugs, the backwards lettering on the inside of the front window. It gave Wendy plenty of time to stare at him. She was not usually one for staring, but there was something undeniably attractive about him. He wore his denim sleeves rolled up; he had strong hands. His curly red-brown hair offset his eyes, so startlingly green-blue that she had to look away for fear they had the power to hypnotize her. Her eyes drifted down to the chain around his neck, and her heart stuttered. Skipped one beat, then another. A small silver charm rested against his chest. It was a thimble.

“Vanilla latte for Peter,” said the barista, sliding the drink out.

Time slows down. Wendy can’t breathe. Peter takes his drink, crosses the room, and sits down across the table from her. In a voice so shockingly familiar, full of fierce mischief and gentle violence, octaves deeper than she remembered, he says, “Hey, Darling.”

Medication. She needs some kind of medication. This is getting serious. This is too serious. “You can’t be real,” she whispers in fragments. “You’re in Neverland. You’re like ten years old.”

He laughs; a sound fond and mocking and childish and solemn all at once. She knows that laugh. She loves it. “I left,” he says, as simple as that.

“You can’t,” she manages, barely, to breathe. “You’re terrified of getting old. I’m old, I’m what you thought was old.”

He nods. No words. Wendy still can’t breathe. Her ribs are caving in. With the open frankness of the boy he used to be, he says, “It wasn’t old age I was afraid of.” In the background, the coffee machine hisses. Something boils over. Another customer walks in. “It was getting there without someone. So, I left.”

“Why?”

He touches her hand, talking quickly, earnestly; like he’s afraid of losing another second of time. “Because I didn’t want to lose the one person I wanted to grow old with,” he says in a rush. “I love you, Wendy Darling. I always did.”

And Wendy leans across the table and gives him a thimble.