For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
The Ghost Of Christmas Past
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The forced-air furnace whistled through the ceiling vents and threatened to dry out Scott’s sinuses to the point of burning. Other than the heating sound, it was dead-quiet down in Betti’s basement office. It was very dark, save for the blue and green power lights of the computer, printer, phone, and modem. When Scott squinted, laying on his back with his head turned away from the wall, they blurred to the point of him imagining them as Christmas lights. Kind of cheery, even.
But he was beyond beat up and on the verge of sleep that he had figured was inevitable, seeing as how he was halfway buried into the very same chocolate overstuffed couch he had coveted in his sessions back in Fairview. He had always wanted to know what what it would be like to drift off to dreamland on it and there he was - he was finally about to experience the fulfillment of that desire. But his mind was not yet ready to shut down. He would have jumped onto his phone to surf a bit but it was across the room plugged into the charger. He thought about getting up and going to get it but his body was at odds with his brain and would not budge from the cocoon of the sofa and heavy comforter weighing him down.
This trip. Betti. Beach life back home. His promise. The fact that he had already made contact with the alien life forms and had actually shown up in person to fulfill his offer to this family. It gave him really no option to back out. He wanted to pretend that he had just made a short foray out from Los Angeles to take the Jeep for a spin and do a little sightseeing but he could not sustain that line of thinking very far.
He was moved by their kindness, positive energy, and overt appreciation of what he was about to do. He liked them very much. And after all, he believed he could do a descent job of it. How hard could it be? Ten days is what she had said before he left. Piece of cake, right? And besides, it was Christmas time. Isn’t this what it was supposed to be about? Good Will Toward Men and single mothers and their young daughters?
He squinted at the lights again. In his mind, he took in the decorations and the anticipation of the Holidays in the house, then went roaming outside the house and in a drone-like pan to above the roofline, backed off to see the colored lights outlining the structure, the blended colored glow washing onto the snow in the yard and the glow of the darkened neighborhood houses and streetlights casting rings of light in a pattern in contrast to the random stars that speckled the black sky.
The next thing Scott knew, he was searching the basement rooms until he found their storage room. By the light of his phone, he raised his arm above his head to get a more general illumination, the screen brightness set to high as he negotiated his way among old bicycles, dollhouses, sleds, a folded-up inflatable swimming pool and boxes numbered and stacked, summer equipment piled on top.
Way toward the back, he saw what he was looking for. He had to move a walker and several pieces of what he thought of as convalescent medical items in order to get to the back and he wondered who had been sick or hospitalized. When he reached the red-cheeked and white-bearded Santa peeking out from behind a large cardboard wardrobe box, he took hold and tried to slide it out of it’s place.
Apparently it was hinged onto several other pieces of the paint-faded plywood cutout and Scott had to set his phone down on top of the box in order to grab on to Santa’s arm that was raised in a wave, the other arm holding onto reins which led to the folded section behind. It slid out from behind the box an inch or two. Scott repositioned himself to pull it all the way out and it slid smoothly against the polished concrete floor until it caught on something mid-pull and Scott heard the crack and ripping of the plywood. He stopped, freaked out that he probably broke something.
Reaching back between the box and the Santa display, he felt for what was doubled over unnaturally and found a long thin piece dangling and gingerly pulled it out. It was a candy cane with most of its red and white glitter fallen off and broken at the base. He didn’t know what he was going to do with it or how he would be able to fix it. What would Betti and her girls say? He put the piece down with his phone so he could pull the whole display out, sliding it out from behind the box and along the floor and wall toward the door of the storage room.
Once he had it into the basement hallway, he unfolded the pieces and leaned the homemade Santa scene against the wall. In the light of the phone was a depiction of Santa, his sleigh loaded down with a full, large brown bag and drawn by three reindeer.
The artistry was not professional, but was good enough to be considered quaint. Santa was well-rounded and appeared authentically and perennially jolly. The reindeer were frozen in an ebullient prance, each with one leg lifted high to the knees, their faces painted in smiles with round, aware eyes turned outward toward the viewer. In the lead, Rudolph’s nose had been a bright red ball once upon a time but now was pink and scratched.
Scott frowned when he saw the broken stem of the candy cane that was supposed to have risen prominently from the the bag opening. Suddenly, headlight beams swung across and through the basement window well at the end of the hallway and Scott was gripped by an intense feeling of fear. His dad was home.
Holding the broken candy cane in his hand, Scott quickly looked to his father. Art looked sideways at him and then shook his head. The wind was bitter up on the roof, just that much closer to the gray winter clouds of northern Indiana. While Scott was bundled up in his stocking cap, parka, thermal underwear, two pairs of socks and gorilla gloves, his dad wore only his same Standard Oil jacket. Scott could never figure out how his dad could get away with wearing only the jacket to protect him from the biting cold. Was he warmed by the lit cigarette that was a fixture in his hand, arthritic thumbs crooked around the filter?
“What. Are you some brainless idiot?” Art asked.
Scott never knew if he was supposed to give an answer to this question. “These gloves!”, he shouted out.
“Put it back on,” his dad ordered.
Scott turned back to the Santa display and placed the broken cane above the break. He could not get it matched without a good degree of manual dexterity so Scott took his bulky black and orange gloves off and placed them on the roof at his feet. He looked back at his dad who was still smoking, eyes squinted from the smoke blowing into his eyes.
“Get with it! Gonna snow soon.”
The wind picked up as Scott bent toward Santa’s bag and he tried to match the splintered wood ends between the two pieces of plywood. After one failed attempt, Scott was able to shove the wood shards of the two pieces into each other and he let go with one hand. Feeling confident, he let go of the candy cane with his other hand and it held. A gust made the the cane piece waver and it to the roof. The slope threatened to let it slide down toward the gutters.
Scott quickly bent to grab it before it slid away, almost losing balance himself. After another look toward his father to the same result, he tried again, exerting as much force as he could to make the wood pieces meld together. His hands were becoming very cold. They were red and drying out in the freezing weather. The candy cane stayed. Then another blast of wind shook the whole Santa display and got a hold of the candy cane, swept it up into the air and then down as Scott attempted to catch it, missing it, and it flew up over the roof peak and over the other side of the roof out of sight.
His father just shook his head in disgust and angrily spoke above the wind, “I’ll fix it! Get down off the roof!”
Scott’s blood pounded in his ears beneath the stocking cap. He turned to go down the roof slope toward the ladder.
“Don’t forget your goddamn gloves!” His dad yelled pointing to them near the feet of the prancing reindeer.
Scott turned around, remembering them. As he reached for them, the wind blew across the roof again and the gloves started to slide and tumble down the asphalt shingles.
“No!” Scott yelled. He chased them all the way down toward the gutter and he caught one of them. Reaching out even further, he had the thought, “I could just pick them up from the ground...” His momentum, the wind, the slope downward, and knowing his dad was already mad at him, allowed him to stop his struggling and just go along with the inertia and physics and wind to be launched into the air over the gutter.
On his way, Scott saw his father turned halfway toward him, taking a strong drag from his Camel and squinting to keep his eyes on Scott as he drifted away on the wind. Scott saw Santa waving to him, the reindeers looking at him with confidence and pride, Rudolph leading the way to go - demonstrating the proper way to exit a rooftop.
The wind was cold. Scott felt like he had nothing at all on, it was so cold. The one gorilla glove was still clutched in his hand and his other hand was outstretched backward, reaching for the roof gutter. He looked back at his father again. He had already moved over to Santa and Scott saw that the candy cane was fixed - just like that. Scott kicked his legs like flapping wings but the air was too slippery to get purchase. His fear turned to anger as he dropped out of the sky toward the ground. Why didn’t his dad at least try to save him? It was the last thought before he hit the ground.
Scott’s whole body shuddered and bucked and he woke up. The comforter was on the floor next to him and the heat was gone - turned off, the sound of the forced air absent. In only his tighty-whiteys, he shivered.
In a flood of missing-memory, pulling the comforter loosely back over his goosebump-covered body, he watched as a montage of pieces of the evening after his arrival quickly streamed across the screen of his mind.
There was the going-to-bed business with the girls in top form, practicing their female rituals that Scott did not want to even think about. When they were busy with their thing, Betti took great care in prepping Scott for getting through the night in the basement office. She showed him where to get drinking water, where the basement bathroom was, where to plug his phone in and made sure he was clear that she and the girls were available any time in the morning with getting breakfast and prepping for his journey onward. She would fill him in on the situation in Los Alamos in the morning - no need to get into it that night.
Then she had said that prayer over him and mentioning the birth of Jesus and the Christmas season. He supposed that was okay and after all, he was used to her invoking the Jesus thing. She never castigated him or tried to herd him into that corral of her religion, thank God - or whomever, he thought.
For a fleeting moment, Scott considered looking around the basement for the storage room that he visited during the night. That was just silly. Besides, the Santa display was a memory that he’d rather walk away from. He was angry about that, though. It should have been a fond memory. Instead, it was emblematic of his unresolved troubles with his father and while he often chewed on it to stimulate the taste of resentment toward his father, he was getting a bit tired of that dance.
Hearing footsteps above in the house and the voices of girls, Scott figured he should probably get up and going. But it was chilly, so he pulled on his jeans and t-shirt, grabbed his kit bag from his backpack and ran into the basement bathroom.
After washing his face in ice cold water because, apparently, the gas hot water heater had shut down along with the furnace, he thought he should shave, being as how he was in a house full of women and all. Definitely different from a bunch of gross men together. He laughed at the remembrance of some of the ‘events’ he had participated in his short time with the men’s group.
With a face covered in white shaving cream, Scott stared into the dark, sunken eyes that looked back at him in the mirror. Wow, I look pretty rough, he thought. It was too cold to dwell on his physical appearance, though, and so he finished up in the bathroom and packed up his stuff.