In Santa’s Shadow
By Trent P. McDonald
Voices where emerging from the kitchen. Loud voices. Chet knew that Mom and Ty were arguing. Again. He couldn’t make out anything more than single words here and there, little blasts of clarity through the heated rumble. His stomach turned over and twisted into knots. Why did they have to do this on Christmas Eve?
The kitchen door flung open, expelling Ty into the hall. He grabbed his grubby jacket, the same one he had worn pretty much every day since he received it last Christmas. It was far to thin for the weather.
“Hey, wait,” Chet said. “I want to come too.” He pulled himself up, trying to look tall for his 13 years.
“No you don’t.” His 16 year old brother frowned at him. “I don’t need no loser kid following me. You stay here and eat that second-hand crap that Mom picked out of the garbage.”
He slammed his way out of the house.
Chet’s heart sank. He so much wanted to hang out with Ty the way they used to. Back when Dad was still around. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
Chet slid into the kitchen, trying to be small and quiet. The argument still hung almost visibly in the air so he dared not disturb Mom.
He sniffed. It smelt great. Turkey!
Mom was puttering around, getting dinner together. She was mashing potatoes, making gravy and stirring some vegetables on the stove. All seemed normal until he looked into her face. There were tears in his mother’s eyes.
He must have made a noise, because she noticed him. She wiped the tears away and smiled. “Hey kiddo, how goes it?”
“OK, I guess. It smells good, Mom. Where did it all come from?”
Her smile vanished and her face turned slightly red. “What did your brother say?” He shook his head. She half collapsed on herself. “Some of it came from the pantry, OK? Like most of our meals do. There isn’t anything wrong with anything from the pantry. Some things may have been past the expiration date, but it is still good, OK? Its’ good. Really. They gave us a turkey this year. Damn fine turkey too. Better than the ham we got from them last year. Not that that was bad. It’s all stuff that didn’t sell, but it ain’t spoiled or anything. OK?”
Chet smiled. “It smells delicious, Mom. I can’t wait! What time do we eat?”
She stepped over to him and kissed his forehead. “Thank you, sweetheart. It’ll be ready in about 30 minutes. Come back in in about 20 and help me set up. And make sure your sister is ready. She’s been impossible ever since she returned from Amee’s house.”
Chet sat down in the living room and watched the tree. The tree was older than him. Older even than Ty. It was one of the few things from the old house. From before they left. Before the ambulance took Mom to the hospital and the police took Dad to jail. Chet still smelt cigar smoke in his imagination when he saw the tree, it reminded him so much of Dad. Bristly hugs and whiskey breath. And warmth.
There were only a handful of presents under the tree, but he knew there’d be more in the morning. There always were. Not a lot of presents, but some. His grandparents always gave him a few things. There were also things from “Santa”, but Ty told him they were from a local charity.
As he watched the tree, he thought of his classmates. Did any of them get presents from a charity? Surely not Em Bradford. She was rich. Chet wondered if she were still in the country. He thought he saw her mom earlier in the day, but Justin told him she was going to Fiji between Christmas and the New Year.
He blushed a little, thinking of Em. He was always tongue tied around her. Felt stupid. She was friendly, at least when she did talk to him, which she did. Occasionally. She always smiled, but acted like she was shy or something. How could a popular girl like Emily be shy?
Chet smiled. Em had smiled at him and wished him a merry Christmas as they left school before break. None of the other popular kids did. Truthfully, her friends were sometimes mean, but she never was.
Most of the kids at school could be a little mean at times. They teased him about his clothes and such, but he didn’t care. Justin was also teased a bit because he was so odd. He was super smart and all, but talked about space, Monty Python’s and physics more than sports. He spoke funny. He was also super shy and would turn bright red and stuttered even more when teased. Of course that made some of the other kids make fun of him all the more. Chet figured that was why they got along so well. They were both different. They were both teased. They were also, scholastically, at the top of their class. Chet liked Justin. He was a genius. Chet studied hard because he wanted to be smart like him. So Justin would continue to like him.
Chet picked up a gift for him from his grandmother. He shook it, though he knew it was socks or, perhaps, underwear.
He had told Justin he would like to spend New Year’s Eve with Em. That’s when Justin laughed and said, “Em-em-emily Bradford? Hah! It’s not like her mo-mother is a top executive at-a at a huge company or anything. Hell, I think her pi-pi-picture was on the cover of F-f-forbes last month. Maybe not, b-but it shouldhave been. Anyway, it’s not, it’s not that she’ll be here anyway. I hear they’re going to Fiji this year. Like last year.”
Cheryl entered the room. She frowned at the tree.
“I hate this stupid tree. It’s ugly. Why can’t we have a good tree? Amee’s family has a huge real spruce.” She waved her arms to show the size.
“It’s fine.” To Chet the little fake tree was a connection back to better times.
“And it is so empty under it. Almost no presents.” Cheryl was nine and so was only four when they moved out. She had few memories of the time before, no real connections. “Amee had dozens of presents under the tree just for her already, and she said there would be more come Christmas morning.” She had spent the previous night at one of her friends’ house. Amee’s family lived in a big, new house. And they owned it. The whole thing. They didn’t just rent a few rooms. Chet could only guess what Cheryl saw.
“There will be more presents tomorrow.”
“Nothing good, I’m sure. The Lady’s Club did another tree-picky thing, like always. They chose our names and then just get us junk so they can feel good about themselves. That’s what Ty said. He saw Mrs. Bradford drop off boxes earlier. She runs it. Only old people do those things and they get us clothes that don’t fit and make us look like clowns. Just ask Ty. He knows. He said he was going out tonight to give Mrs. Bradford a piece of his mind.”
“It’ll be fine. And clean, new clothes are better than nothing. Or ancient hand-me-downs.”
Cheryl folded her arms and pouted at the tree.
Chet reached over and ruffled her hair. “Come on kid, give me a smile. It’s Christmas! Anyway, we need to wash up and get ready to eat. The turkey is almost ready. You want Christmas turkey, don’t you?”
Chet stopped in his tracks as he entered the living room first thing on Christmas morning.
There were presents under the tree. Heaps of presents. More than he had ever seen before.
Ty and Cheryl followed him in. Cheryl stopped just inside of the door. She stood like stone and rubbed her eyes as if she thought there was something in them making her see thing. Ty didn’t saw a word, just sat down on the couch and yawned. He hadn’t gotten home until well after Chet had gone to bed. Chet woke at 2:30 when he heard a noise and figured it was Ty just getting home.
“Merry Cristm… what’s this? Where did all of this come from?”
Mom walked around the tree staring.
“They dropped off more packages than usual,” she said, “but not this many. Damn. Sorry, I mean ‘darn’. This is just so…”
“What should we do?” Chet asked.
“Open them, idiot,” Ty answered. “What did you think? Throw them out the door?”
Mom nodded, “Yes, we’ll open them. They’re all tagged so we need to sort them, and… wait, these here are for me…” She picked up a box and looked at it.
“Just when you stopped believing in Santa, huh?” Chet said to Cheryl.
“Hey! I’m not a baby! I haven’t believed in him since I was a kid! It’s been years!”
“Your loss. Looks like he was here and only believers can open gifts.”
“Shut up, Chet! That’s not true!’
“Hush, hush kids,” Mom said. “Let’s just take a minute to give thanks and then open the gifts. OK?”
It was still mostly clothes, though some books and educational toys were included. The difference from most years, besides the amount, was that the clothes were all very in style and it all fitted. There were warm coats for all and hats and gloves. Importantly, there was a variety. Chet recognized some of the name brands. Not just nice and stylish, but expensive. And so many things. He realized he wouldn’t be wearing one of his three pair of pants and five shirts every day. He could change it up and mix and match. He didn’t have to wear Ty’s old stuff every other day. It would be clean.
Maybe Em would notice.
Even Mom received new clothes. Usually the charity only sent stuff for the kids, perhaps giving a grocery card to Mom. But now she had some nice things, several outfits, both semi-formal, business clothes and casual everyday things.
The entire family seemed transformed. Cheryl smiled more than Chet had seen in years. She insisted on trying everything on and modeling them for the family. Chet didn’t mind.
In the evening they all dressed in warm, new clothes and headed to the community center for a Community Christmas dinner. It was a tradition and attracted many different people from throughout the town, though in the end, most were either people who didn’t celebrate Christmas, people who had no family or some of the poorer families in town. Like Chet and his family.
Chet was surprised to see the Bradfords. They had never been to one of the community holiday celebrations. Em was looking at the desserts when Chet dropped off his mother’s apple pie.
“Oh, that looks good,” she said.
“Thanks, my mom’s a good cook,” he said. “Hey, I thought you were in Bali or something.”
“Fiji,” she said. “Yeah, my mom made a mistake booking the reservations and we had to cancel at the last second. Thank goodness.” She rolled her eyes. “I hate traveling over Christmas. It’s awful. And there is no such thing as a white Christmas in the South Pacific!”
“Not that it’s all that white here. Cold yes.”
“You know what I mean. Truthfully, I think my mom just hates being here during the holidays. You know, since my dad left. It just seems that she’s lonely, is all, and she wants to get away so it doesn’t remind her. But I want to stay. Oh, I used to love it so much! It used to be such a family thing and all, and… well, sorry, I’m blabbing, aren’t I? Yeah, and T-M-I, right? Sorry. If only Mom would… Hey! Do you know where your family is sitting? Can you sit by us? I’d like one of my friends there instead of those boring people Mom calls friends…”
Chet got a lump in his throat. He wondered if he were turning red, like Justin. She called him a friend! She invited him to sit by her!
“Uhm, uhm, yeah, I-I’ll see, uhm, yeah, sure, I-I-I’ll sit with you even if they don’t…” He was even stuttering like Justin. He knew he was turning red.
Em’s smile grew. “Great!”
“Us single mom’s need to stick together.”
Mom looked uncomfortable, but Mrs. Bradford didn’t seem to notice, she just beamed at the other woman.
Chet was sitting with Cheryl on one side and Em on the other. Emily’s mother, Mrs. Bradford, was sitting across from her. Chet’s mom was next to Mrs. Bradford, across from him, and Ty was next, across from Cheryl. Chet wondered how Mom had pulled that last one off, getting Ty to sit with the family instead of his friends. Maybe it was punishment for being out all night on Christmas Eve.
“Not everyone knows it, but I came from a broken home,” Mrs. Bradford said. “As Mom used to say, we put the ‘Pee’ in ‘Poor’.” She lowered her voice to a mock whisper to Chet’s mom, “As in we were ‘Piss Poor’.” She half smiled, something that looked more sad than happy. “There were five of us kids. I had two older brothers and there were Christmases when all I got were retailored hand-me-downs from the boys.” Chet’s mom nodded. She glanced at him. He spent most of his life in hand-me-downs. And they often found their way down to Cheryl. “Despite the work Mom put into it, everyone knew they were boy’s clothes and teased me. I didn’t win any popularity contests back then, that’s for sure. If I…”
“Mom, please,” Em said. She glanced at Chet, then turned away. Chet thought she was blushing.
“I’m sorry, Emily.” She turned to Chet’s mom. “How old are they when we begin to be an embarrassment?”
“It’s just beginning with this one,” Mom indicated Cheryl. “She’s nine going on nineteen.”
The two women giggled, half huddled together, conspirators. Mom looked young and pretty, not ancient and bedraggled.
Chet couldn’t help but to smile. Mrs. Bradford smiled back. He liked her. She wasn’t as scary as Justin made her out to be. She was friendly. And somehow, she knew all about Chet and his family. She did a lot of work with different local groups. That must be it.
The evening continued with small talk. But some of it turned serious. Mrs. Bradford told Mom to come by after the holidays and put in a resume. There was an opening that she was sure would be perfect. Even Ty could work part time, if he kept his grades up.
As they were getting ready to leave, Ty and Mrs. Bradford exchanged glances. Mom was with Cheryl talking to one of her friends and Em was gathering stuff to bring home. Chet figured they thought everyone else was otherwise occupied.
“You didn’t let on, did you?” The woman asked his brother.
“Me? Nope. They never guessed. They…” Ty stopped. Mom and Cheryl were approaching and it seemed that Ty just noticed Chet. He raised his voice a little louder. “They look like they’re about ready. Have a merry Christmas, Mrs. Bradford! It was nice talking to you. Thanks for the job offer.”
“No problem, but you have to keep up your end of the bargain and get good grades, OK?”
For a minute Chet felt as if it could have been Mom talking.
Mrs. Bradford glanced at Em, who had just arrived with the empty dishes from the roast beef they had brought, then turned to Chet. “And you, young man, have a merry Christmas. I know I don’t have to tell you to study and get good grades. You seem to take care of that on your own.” She winked. “And, my, you do look so handsome in that new sweater. Isn’t he handsome, Emily? Handsome and smart.”
“Mother!” Emily, turned away.
But Chet saw the shy smile and the twinkle in her eye.
Chet was walking on cloud nine as they returned home. He had asked Em if she wanted to see a movie with him sometime over break. She had said yes!
He was still thinking of her and almost didn’t hear Mom whisper to Ty, “It was her, wasn’t it?”
“What? And herwho? I have no idea what you are talking about.” Chet watched them as Mom glared at Ty. “Right. I don’t know what you are insinuating. I stayed out all night last night, sulking, and didn’t see or talk to anyone. Nope. Hey, Chet-miester, I’ll race you home! Winner gets to pick the game we play tonight!”
Chet shoved the empty pie plate into Cheryl’s hands. Mom shook her head, but was smiling. She joined in by giving the count down. “On your mark. Get set. Go!”
Chet ran as fast as he could go, but he ran to feel the freedom, not to beat Ty. It didn’t matter if he won or lost, any more than it mattered to him where the presents came from. He ran and laughed as he was running, ignoring the tears in his eyes. He ran to leave that old Chet behind and enter into a new world.
It was the best Christmas ever. One he knew he’d never forget.
Trent P. McDonald is a self-published writer and a blogger. His past contributions in the Advent Calendar have made it into his books. In two days from today, on the 4th of December, his second collection of short stories Embers will be published.
Visit Trent on his blog Trent’s World.
Here are his past contributions to the Advent Calendar: The Christmas Storm, The Longest Day, Christmas, 24x7x365, The Truck Stop
Come back over the month for more stories, poems, memories related to the Holiday Season, Christmas and winter. If you are interested in being part of this year’s calendar, there still is space.