This is for our #FreeWriteChallenge sub-challenge, the#12DaysOfChristmas. We threw the rules out of the window so there is no guarantee that each post will actually do more than touch on the idea of the holidays. Today is the first day, so the prompt is “partridge in a pear tree”. Please enjoy.
“Tell me your favorite, hated memory, please.”
“Excuse me?” John Carrington adjusted the crease in his dress pants, and looked to his young niece with a raised eyebrow.
“You know,” the young girl replied, “a memory you hate but it’s always the one you think of?”
They were celebrating her thirteenth birthday with a house full of adults talking, and children racing around. Josie wasn’t like her siblings and cousins, however. She liked to hang out with her great-uncle John, and especially listen to his stories.
An old soul, John always said of her, and Josie’s parents would nod with looks of resignation. “It’s hard to raise an eighty year old woman,” they’d say in reply.
John looked out the window, and considered her request. A snowstorm had blown in overnight and snow had been accumulating on the windowsill all day. John had been enjoying watching it and, yes, he’d been lost in thoughts of the past. Some memories lingered, and well they should.
He cleared his throat. “You realize you’re asking for a not happy memory?”
Josie nodded. She sat on a footstool near his side and leaned her elbow onto his armrest. “Not all stories have a happy ever after ending, do they?”
Old soul indeed.
“True, true. Very well then.”
The mailbox was overflowing again. Flyers had been jammed in on top of overdue bills that often came in a rainbow of threatening colors. Red, orange, an odd green that reminded John of vomit. He wasn’t sure it was worth hoofing it a half mile to the mailbox when the snow was up around his knees, but it had to be done.
One could only avoid bad news for so long.
The most egregious late notice was from the power company. They had been threatening to shut off the power for two months, and it had only been through begging and pleading and promises that they had left the power on through Christmas Eve day.
John didn’t know how much patience the company had left, but would they really shut the power off on people in the middle of winter? Right before Christmas? Apparently, according to the notices he’d been receiving. John was sure they’d called, but the phone had been shut off months ago.
When the company did shut the power off, John could use their flyers to light fires and keep the family warm. So that was something, at least. Unintentionally helpful bad news? It did not make John better to think about it that way.
It was Christmas. Well, it would be tomorrow. John and his wife Mandy were stressed the hell out. They didn’t have money for a regular dinner, much less a holiday feast. And presents for their child Joslyn? Pipe dream.
John had been laid off from the mill three months ago. Mandy had lost several of her house cleaning jobs, and their current income was sketchy at best. They hadn’t been rolling in money before, and now it was a hundred times worse. They’d been trying to make ends meet through assorted side jobs, like cutting firewood and sewing, but they hadn’t been able to make ends come close to meeting.
John wedged the mail under his arm, and made his way back to the shack they called home. It was on three acres located deep in the woods of upper Michigan, and paid off, except for the property taxes. The tax collectors would come calling soon, too, John knew.
He hated that they might lose their home, one that had been in his family for three generations officially. Yes, it was no bigger than a double-wide trailer, but at least it wasn’t a trailer. And it was theirs.
Joslyn was receiving free lunches at school. That stuck in John’s craw, but they simply didn’t have the money to prepare one at home, and especially not to buy one of the hot lunches. She was a waif of a child, and John blamed himself. If he could afford better food – or any food, really – that might not have been the case.
She’d been sick lately, his sweet Joslyn, with a cough and cold she just couldn’t seem to shake. Mandy was doing the best she could, but she and John both knew Joslyn needed a doctor, probably antibiotics. The free clinic was open one day a month, and that day was coming, Joslyn just had to make it through until then.
John kicked the snow from his boots in the mudroom before laying the mail down on a side table. It joined a stack of overdue bills that John and Mandy had willfully been ignoring. In this instance, John decided, ignorance is not bliss. No, it just added to the misery.
“John? Sweetie? Is that you?” Mandy called from the kitchen. The rooms were small, narrow, and dark. If he had his druthers, John would have been ripping out walls and making the space larger. Goals for another time, he supposed.
“Yeah, baby, I just got the mail. Nothing.” Their code for no good news in the mail. Not that they had been expecting any, but surprises often came at odd times.
Mandy came from the kitchen, drying her hands on a dish towel. She smiled in greeting, but it was a smile filled with strain. “How was your day?” she asked.
“Same as usual. Ricky is having some problems with the roof on his garage. He offered me a few bucks to help him fix it.”
“That’s great! When?”
“Not until after the New Year.” Mandy’s face fell, as had John’s when he’d heard the timing. Christmas presents, hell Christmas dinner, had felt even farther away than before.
“It’s something to look forward to,” Mandy said with optimism. It wasn’t forced, John knew his wife, and knew she meant that in the best possible way. That didn’t help the crushed feeling in his stomach. She kissed his cheek, patted his butt, and moved back toward the kitchen. “It’s time for Joslyn to have more children’s Tylenol. I think it’s bringing the fever down.”
“That’s good!” John wondered how much of the medication they could have left. He wondered how he would replace it. He wondered what the reparations would be if he shoplifted a bottle from the pharmacy.
“I stopped by the food bank on the way home,” Mandy told him as she emerged from the kitchen with a sippy cup and two pills in her hand. “We won’t starve tomorrow.”
“I don’t suppose there was a turkey or a ham in the bag?”
Mandy shook her head ruefully. “I’m afraid not. Side dishes only, and a lot of it’s canned. But it’s holiday cheer, and that’s something I’ve been looking forward to. As long as the three of us are together, we’ll be fine.”
“Yeah,” John muttered, “fine.” He removed his heavy coat, hung it on a hook along with his scarf. The gloves went on to the radiator to dry out. “I’ll take her meds in,” he offered. “I haven’t seen her today.”
Joslyn’s cough was sounding better. That wasn’t John’s imagination. He was thankful for the resiliency of children, and especially their immune systems. Every cough, every gag, had had him clenching his gut in fear, and now that fear was beginning to ease. John knew it would never go away, that fear for her health and safety, but it was beginning to lighten.
“Hey there, Spider,” John greeted Joslyn with his pet name for her. As a baby her hands had managed to be everywhere. He couldn’t imagine calling his child Octopus, so Spider it had been.
“Daddy!” Joslyn called, and scrambled to sit up in bed. “How was work?”
“It was perfect. Like you!” John booped her nose, and settled on the edge of the bed. “How you doing, sweetheart?”
“I’m okay. Did you know it’s Christmas tomorrow?”
“I heard a rumor about that. I wasn’t sure if it was true or not. Glad you told me.”
“Daddy!” Joslyn protested. “Christmas is the same time every year! You’re silly.”
“Yes, yes I am.” There were circles under her eyes, and Joslyn’s cheeks looked gaunt to him. The fever kept a flush to her cheeks, one that could trick a new parent into thinking it was a sign of health.
John knew better.
“What would you like for dinner tomorrow, little girl?” he asked.
Joslyn squinted her eyes shut, and thought about the question, really hard. “Can we have steak?” she asked hesitantly, “and chicken?”
“That’s a big request from a skinny girl,” John told her, “but I think I can make that happen.” How he didn’t know, but for his baby, he would find a way. “Steak, chicken, potatoes, we’re going to have it all tomorrow!”
John leaned in and nuzzled Joslyn’s neck. He took a deep breath of the baby smell that managed to cling to his child’s skin. He wouldn’t have many more years of the talcum powder scent, and he wanted to enjoy it while he could.
“I think if we’re going to eat like kings, I had better grab old Steelie and start looking.”
“It’s in the closet,” Joslyn informed him. “Momma said guns shouldn’t be where I can reach them.”
“And she’s right about that. You’re too young yet, but soon I’ll be able to take you out with me. Do you want to go hunting?”
“Someday,” Joslyn replied with a far away tone. “Can I nap while you go?”
“Of course you can.” John kissed her forehead and eased out of the room.
Mandy sat on the couch, clipping coupons from the flyers John had brought in earlier.
“She’s so perfect,” he said, and sat down next to his wife. He reached an arm over her shoulder and held her in a sideways hug. “She’d have to be, she’s ours.”
“Yes, she is. Growing up this way will make her stronger.”
“I hope so. I sure don’t feel strong right now.”
“Baby, you are the strongest man I’ve ever known. I love you. I’m thrilled we got married right out of high school, that ten years of nights have been spent in your arms. I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything.”
“I don’t know how you do it, but you always manage to make me feel better about things.”
“It’s a talent.”
“I’d say. Joslyn asked for steak and chicken for dinner tomorrow.”
Mandy’s brow creased. She reached for a pile of clipped coupons. “I think Snyder’s is having a deal on chicken breasts. I’m not sure what to do about the steak request.”
“I think I’ve got that covered. Old Steelie and I are about to hit the woods.”
“Do we have ammo?” Mandy asked hesitantly. “I seem to remember you saying we were low a while back.”
“I’ve got a few shots left. It only takes one.”
“Hopefully.” Mandy smiled. “My John, big bad hunter.”
“Don’t say ‘bad’ and hunting together, please. You’ll curse me.”
“Sorry,” Mandy giggled. “I’ll put some soup on in a couple of hours.”
“Sounds good. I love you.”
“I love you.”
The woods were frigid. The easterly wind kept finding its way into John’s collar, and he was shivering on and off. He was as bundled as he could be, wearing his hunting gear. Unfortunately he didn’t have winter whites so his camouflage actually worked against him.
Deer didn’t care.
John worked his way carefully to the back edge of the property. The family land butted up against Robert Bledsoe’s corn farm, and the man had used apple trees as property markers. Corn plus apples usually equalled lots of deer.
John wasn’t planning on being picky. He didn’t require a twelve point buck, or anything larger than small, really. Yes, he could make use of a whole deer, in fact it would be a godsend, but for today he was looking for back straps.
The best kind of steak known to man was a freshly killed and butchered deer, born, bred, and fed on Michigan corn and apples.
John used the small boards he’d hammered into the tall oak tree as a ladder to reach his tree stand. He checked the wind direction and adjusted accordingly. Fortunately the wind was blowing away from the farm, and that gave John slightly better odds.
The shells in his pocket were few, quite literally he had three shots to get this right. The pressure was on. He loaded them, and turned his eye to the field.
Far out he could see a herd, snacking on old shoots and drinking from a mostly frozen pond. They were barely out of range, but he took that as a sign that other deer would be near.
John settled in for a bit of a wait, and wished he hadn’t used the last of his pocket warmers the last time he’d come out to poach a deer.
Off to his left on a small rise he could see a new enclosure that Robert had built. It appeared to be a chicken coop. That was something John hadn’t considered. Building a coop and maintaining chickens was cheap compared to the cost of buying the butchered birds in the store. That might help them get through this rough patch. And the suckers laid eggs.
Movement by the coop caught his eye. It was a doe, fattened from the fall feedings. John quickly used the scope on his rifle to ensure no people were in the direction of the coop, only deer and birds, and breathed a sigh of relief.
He took very careful aim. John would prefer a shot to the heart and instant death for the majestic creature, but that didn’t always happen.
His nose began to tingle. A sneeze was coming. He tried to suppress it, but the damn thing came as a surprise. His entire face felt like it was sliding forward with the sneeze.
A finger twitched on the trigger, and a shot rang out.
The doe lifted her head, startled, took three steps, and dropped. There was a magnificent spray of blood behind her, and John realized he had probably hit her in the throat. Not a great shot, unless done on purpose. Every time he told this story, he promised himself, he had taken that shot on purpose. One had to believe the lie to make it true, after all.
The luck of getting a deer right after he’d reached the woods, and with his first shot, wasn’t lost on John. “At least something is going right,” he muttered as he made his way down the board ladder.
Tromping through the knee deep snow reminded John that now he’d have to drag the deer back to the shack. Last year he would have used the four wheeler, but he’d sold that last month to help keep the power company at bay.
When John reached the deer, he double-checked to ensure it was dead and not suffering. Clucks and fluttering feathers reached his ear, and John turned his attention to the coop. There was no reason for the birds to be acting this agitated this long after a shot.
His curiosity got the better of him, and he made his way to see what was what.
A bird lay dead in the enclosure. It wasn’t a chicken, John had been mistaken about that. The enclosure was filled with pheasants. One of the birds lay dead just beyond the fencing.
“Holy shit,” John whispered. “A deer and a pheasant in one shot? It’s a Christmas miracle.”
“I returned home as a conquering hero,” Great Uncle John told Josie. “We did indeed eat like kings the next day. I went and confessed to the neighbor what I had done, and offered any help he needed for the summer to make amends. He ended up offering me a job on the farm.”
“And that’s when you invented the thing, right?”
“Yes, that’s when I invented the thing. It’s a good thing I did, too. Now none of us have to worry about Christmas dinners ever again.”
Joslyn sat with a small smile playing on her lips. “That’s a good story, Uncle John. It’s sad, but happy.”
“Yeah, it really is, huh?”
“You forgot something,” Josie informed him.
“Oh, sweetie.” John’s eyes welled with tears. “She fought bravely, for another month, and succumbed to pneumonia that January. We buried her next to my mom, in the family cemetery.”
“I’m so sorry,” Josie’s eyes also teared up. “I wish I had met her.”
“I wish you had, too. You were named in her honor. But you know, we granted her final Christmas wish, and that comforts me at night when the memories come.”
“I love you, Uncle John.”
“I love you, Josie-ba-Gosie. I think it’s time we stopped talking about the sad, and maybe had some birthday cake, don’t you? Aunt Mandy has been baking in the kitchen all day.”
As Josie ran to the kitchen to beg treats from her Aunt Mandy, John Carrington looked out the window. The snow had stopped falling while he told Josie his story, and the woods looked peaceful.
John had rebuilt the shack years ago and, if he strained his eyes, he could just make out the property line of Robert Bledsoe’s old farm. He whispered a silent prayer for his old friend, and went to join Josie in the kitchen.