Alone For Christmasbysack©
Ah, look at all the lonely people...where do they all come from?
Ah, look at all the lonely people...where do they all belong?
---The Beatles, from Eleanor Rigby
Only the distant waves pounding against polished rocks reminded him the end was near. He'd been walking for days, or so it seemed, and every bone in his body had pleaded, protested, and eventually given out. Now only on his knees, he agonizingly negotiated the seaweed strewn beach to reach the object of his desire.
In the distance, framed by a murky orange sunset was a cottage, a musty-dusty period piece, crumbling to oblivion to the irregular beat of his failing heart. Yet, it had been home for the last ten years, and for one blissful hour a year, did a very good job. According to his calculations, it was Christmas eve, and as the fading light revealed subtle pinks and grays in the lonely sky a chilly wind came up over the water, biting through his bones like the sharp teeth of a hungry rat.
He crawled as fast as he could considering he had nothing left to give. Only the thought of warm candles sustained his thought and mind. Somehow, the owners of the cottage knew of his impending visit each year and were conveniently out of town. He had managed to get in by using an old credit card that had expired for years. At first, the old man had actually considered using gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, then laughed the whole thing off as being impossibly ludicrous. Sure, let the police arrest him for breaking and entering! Jail might be an improvement over his wayfaring life anyway, at least there would always be food to eat.
Just as he thought he would not be able to put one hand over the other again, the harsh lines of a simple square building came into sharp focus. He paused, panting on the front steps before grappling for the trusty credit card in his frayed front pocket. It took only a few attempts to unhinge the flimsy portal and he was safely ensconsed in the relatively warm interior, dimly lit by the fading light over Bighton Bay. A strong musty smell immediately overtook him, like the mixture of rotting flesh and curdled milk, but he ignored it. Every year he hid two candles, ornate candlesticks, a flashlight and some matches in the same place, and every year they were there. He hastily put the candles in their respective holders on an enormous table in the living room, and lit a match.
The sudden burst of light gave him renewed energy as he moved the candles to each end of the table. His guests would be arriving soon, and there was so much work to be done in so little time. Fortunately, the owners of the cottage left their cooking items in the kitchen cabinets over the winter, so by using the flashlight the man was easiliy able to assemble an assortment of dishes and silverware. He walked slowly out of the kitchen with a makeshift box of table settings for seven people, and upon reentering the living area, was slightly surprised to see all his guests had seated themselves in his absence. The man was so preoccupied with setting the table only a few pleasantries were exchanged. Nevermind, there would be plenty of time for good conversation over delicious clam chowder and turkey with stuffing, along with pumpkin pie for dessert.
When all the serving dishes were finally in place, the man gave a toast to everyone's health and requested another year for them to all to be together. He felt a little twinge in his soul as he was doing this, as if the dishonest devil inside him was taking the reins. Yes, it was a fib, but only a little one, and he knew everyone at the table approved of it. Otherwise, why would they continue to come, year after year?
After a hearty round of drinks everyone was feeling a little better, and the man turned his attention to his brother, Gene. They looked a little bit alike, Gene being two years his senior. His flowing white beard always gave him great comfort, along with a friendly wide smile. Yet, his most striking feature were eyes of cobalt blue, so intense even the most stalwart of men needed to avert his glance after making fleeting eye contact.
They talked of things they always had, Gene's love of fishing, his crabby roommate Jeb, and the trials and tribulations of his vegetable garden. Perhaps it was his imagination, but the man thought Gene looked more tired and gaunt than he had ever seen him. In particular, his color was a pale washed out yellow, like the cheap wallpaper clinging to life throughout the threadbare house. The man thought he really must move on, Gene's constant cool stare was giving him goosebumps.
In the next few chairs sat his identical twin sisters, Meg and Carmen. It was with some feeling of relief that the man embraced them with a huge grin on his face. But that soon turned to concern when they failed to hug him back, looking mildly intrigued instead through oversized glasses. The man knew the twins shared a secret language, and listened intently as mysterious gestures were made, distorted on the far wall by intense moonlight. He tried to talk a few times, but was cut off like an answering machine click. It was as if they were children again, when his sisters had always done all the talking. But what had happened recently, in the last year? He was about to pose this question when he looked over their shoulders and saw his mother smiling at him.
She looked so prim and proper in her long flowing gown... hadn't he seen her dressed like that somewhere before? He racked his brain for the answer, but nothing would come. The last months had stolen much of his mind, but he still responded to his mother's gaze. He attempted to walk over to her chair, but the closer he got, the more she seemed to recede. Hey, wait a minute, wasn't she....No, no, he must be mistaken, they needed to be all together every Christmas.
The man talked to his mother about anything and everything, trying to encapsulate his stretched out existence into bite size pieces. But she appeared not to hear, or possibly had heard it all already? The man started to get the chills, partially from the unheated home, and partially from a nagging feeling he could not get rid of. He turned from his mother suddenly, and knocked over a chair with a prone figure in it. Swearing with rage, the man quickly scooped up the wizened old man that was his father. The ravages of Alzheimers had stolen his heart and mind years ago, but the man always looked forward to their talks each year. He gradually calmed down and told the blank eyes how he had actually walked 20 miles in one day so they all could be together. And yes, he had really crawled the final mile with callouses on his hands to make it in time for Christmas.
His father's eyes fluttered, on the verge of understanding yet as far away as ever. The man sighed, shaking his mentor's hands and looking toward the final guest of honor with trembling skin and a quaking heart.
There was nothing to be afraid of, naturally. After all, they had been together for some 50 odd years. It was just the poignancy of the situation that never failed to move him to tears. He got close, as close as he dared, and in the pale light of the stars shared tales only lovers can know, beginning with their first kiss and ending with the Bogeyman, the Bogeyman that wouldn't go away. She looked vaguely sympathetic, which was more than he expected; some years were better than others. And their final kiss made time stand still, so much so he was not even aware one candle had completely flickered out.
In the poor light of the lonely room, the man was surprised to see all of his guests had disappeared, leaving empty dishes that reflected the large moon just over the horizon. The Christmas party had been far too short yet he was contentedly satisfied. Even finding the last item he had hidden wasn't as difficult as he had envisioned. In a matter of minutes, the encroaching smell of lighter fluid assailed his senses as he sprinkled it everywhere, being sure each room was thoroughly covered with its piquant glory. Then, he removed a pile of documents from a closet that was apparently never used and set the heavy papers on the floor. Striking the last match, he threw it on his sole remaining possessions, then walked out the door as the house quickly became one screaming conflagration, the fire spreading to every nook and cranny in a matter of seconds. Walking defiantly towards the water, the man didn't look back until he thought he heard his wife calling him.
Every bone in his body protested, but the man reluctantly paused to look at the dying house. In the bright light of the flames, he was dumbfounded to see all of his guests staring at him, nodding and smiling in perfect sympathy. Beyond them, he was even more startled to see row after row of perfect strangers, arms outstretched as if to hug him in perfect synchronicity.
Or were they strangers? As he looked more closely, there was Mrs. Aberdeen, his third grade teacher. And beside her was his college roommate, Blake Patterson. One after one, old friends and acquaintances revealed themselves to him until his entire life was represented from beginning to end. No one seemed mad, they were just waiting for a sign.
The man nodded and smiled, then waved to the mass of people. They waved back, continuing to nod and smile as he slowly waded into the icy cold water. Although his legs were soon numb, he barely noticed, continuing to wave until his arms were swallowed up by the swirling foam. Just as he was about to go under, he looked up and saw the image of his wife gesturing to him with open arms. He was able to grab onto her at the last minute, and the two souls became one, under the pale light of stars.
As the slanted early morning sun illuminated the smouldering pile of debris, a faded newspaper obituary managed to flutter in the gentle breeze. Although ten years had passed, the print was still readable, and a lone sandpiper waddled up to the lonely message, moving its head back and forth in perfect understanding:
Theresa Cartmance Jolly, 96
In the village of New Gage on December 25th, 1996, Theresa Cartmance Jolly departed life after a long illness. She was predeceased by her husband, George Jolly, son Gene Jolly, twin daughters Meg Cintar and Carmen Bellagrande, and one daughter in law, Janice Jolly. She is survived by her son, Jeff Jolly as well as several nieces and nephews. Theresa Cartmance Jolly was the president of...
The sandpiper abruptly walked away, as the rest of the newspaper was burned as black as coal. At the same time, a large crab came along and dragged the surviving clipping along the sharp debris. It soon flaked into hundreds of small wisps of print that blew away in the crisp morning breeze. In the distance, a small object sparkled in the early morning light, miraculously untouched by the hot flames.
It was a faded picture of Jeff and Janice Jolly...
If you know of someone who is alone for the holidays this year, won't you please call them now and spread good cheer? After all, you never know if it will be their last Christmas. And I hope that you all have a safe, loving holiday season!