By David Niall Wilson
Brandt filled his glass nearly to the brim with eggnog, the thick, sticky-sweet liquid coating the glass and running down the insides in opaque rivulets of milky white, glowing blue from the Christmas lights in the window. He turned to glance into the next room.
The tree glittered brilliantly, tin-foil-and-coat-hanger monument to his parent’s long dead world, somehow found and resurrected by Synthia and the Church of New Light Thrift Store. Brandt tipped the glass, letting the smooth, cold rum and milk slide down his throat. All of the bulbs on the tree were silver, a matched set, and whirring in the corner like an alien scanning device, the color wheel painted the tinsel, and the walls, the egg-nog, and Brandt himself, shades of red, and gold, green, and blue.
Brandt topped off his glass again, put the pitcher back in the refrigerator, and stepped into the living room, enjoying the silence. The holidays had changed subtly The dates were the same, the eggnog just as strong – even the fucking tree was a ghost from his far-removed and well-forgotten past, but there was light in the small home. Though the eggnog was strong, there was no huge press of memories to wash away.
Against the wall in the corner, his guitar case rested like a forgotten soldier. Brandt sipped and smiled. For the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, he didn’t feel like he had to have his fingers wrapped around the instrument’s neck in a death grip. The music flickered through the back of his mind, but for once, Brandt listened. Another surprise – another difference. It had been a long time since Brandt had enjoyed music from the other side of the notes.
It was nearly dark. He moved to the window and stared out over the street. Synthia wouldn’t be back for a couple of hours. She’d gone to the mall for a last minute shopping spree – precursor to their first happy holiday in Brandt’s memory. Shaver and Susan were due at 9:00, and Dexter would roll in eventually. The band was more a family than most of them had ever known.
As he stared out over the streets, Brandt’s mind wandered. He thought of old Wally, wondered where the man had gone. In and out among the notes of the song that was never really silent in the back of his mind, Brandt could hear the notes of Wally’s harmonica, cutting through the seams and re-arranging the notes. As he thought about that song, the streets grew darker, more shadowed.
The temperature in the room was dropping. Brandt glanced at the thermostat, then realized it was pointless. The temperature in the room hadn’t changed, it was his own. He took a quick sip of eggnog, then shrugged and downed the entire glass in a warm, silky flood. Two hours until Synthia would be back, and already his buzz was fuzzing the light into a rainbowesque halo glow that lined everything.
Brandt felt the dull thud of his heartbeat blending with a darker pulse, thundering deep in his chest. Images flickered in and out of his thoughts, like a television obscured by storms. He saw firelight, flickering from the mouth of an alley. He heard the music rise and fall, sharing his breath. His fingers itched.
“Damn,” he said softly.
Moving to the wall, he leaned in and grabbed his guitar case, wrapping his fingers tightly in the handle and gripping so that his knuckles went white.The color wheel slid through yellow to red, hesitating to pain the room a bright orange before slipping down. The tinsel glittered like rivulets of blood, and Brandt shook his head slowly, closing his eyes. The images hovered, just below the surface, sending tendrils of pain up to snag in his temples and dragging him down. When he opened his eyes, the room was a deep, glittering blue.
Without a word, Brandt turned to the door, grabbed his coat, and headed out into the night. As he stepped through the door, he turned, glancing at the warm, inviting room a final time.
“I’ll be home soon,” he whispered, willing the words to hang in the air and slip into Syn’s ear as she entered.
Brandt turned, closing the door behind him, and headed out onto the street.
* * *
The alley was just as Brandt remembered it. He’d half expected to see the old woman leaning against the wall at the entrance, her faded Tarot deck spread before her like a gypsies skirt. There was no one in sight, but there was a soft glow of light from the alley’s mouth. The fires, always burning – always surrounded by those with such a darkness in their eyes the light could never touch it. Brandt stood, his toes and his fingers numbing slowly, stinging as the ice on the sidewalk ate slowly through the flimsy warmth of his boots and socks.
It was crazy. He should be home. Synthia would be getting back any moment, arms loaded with bags he wasn’t allowed to peek into and eyes alight with the spirit of the holidays. The spirit Brandt hadn’t experienced in so long he felt like a bit player in the billionth showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Where the hell is Charlie?” he whispered, images from that movie strobing with the firelight. The bridge. The café. Brandt glanced down at his guitar case, gripped in fingers that barely felt alive, and he shook his head.
Turning slowly, he entered the alley, and the world slipped behind a curtain of shadow. Two worlds, inside and outside. Real, surreal, and blending. Brandt stopped, blinking. He hadn’t really studied the alley before. He’d seen it from the street, and that one night, so far in the past that it had blurred and reformed, he had the one drunken memory. Very suddenly the time dispersed, and he wondered if he’d ever really left. The only dead giveaway was that there was no Cuervo bottle, and his head was clear.
What that had stopped him in his tracks was the center of the alley. One thing he should have seen, or sensed. The alleys stretched to his right, and to his left, and directly ahead, beyond the orange-tongued flames, a third disappeared into the shadows.
A voice floated from the shadows, chillingly familiar, making Brandt jump nervously. At the same time, it warmed his heart.
“Welcome back to the crossroads, boy. Tol’ you more’n once. Crossroads don’t get you, the cross hairs will. Good to see you still makin’ the right choice.”
“No choice involved,” Brandt replied, stepping forward and holding out one numb hand. “Didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Just came to hang out with your friends, boy?” Old Wally smiled, and the world shifted. Brandt turned toward the trash can a few yards away.
“Got to warm my fingers if I’m going to play,” he said softly.
“Guess you do at that,” Wally said, grinning.
The two walked across the dirty alley to where flames danced brightly in an old trash barrel. Brandt would have sworn the barrel had been surrounded by thin figures draped in shadow, but now there wasn’t a soul in sight. The wind had picked up, whipping down the alley and ignoring Brandt’s coat on the way to his skin. He set the guitar case down and brought his hands up closer to the fire.
“Why did you come back here Wally?” Brandt asked.
“Come, go, stay, all the same to ol’ Wally, Brandt boy. The music takes me where it wants me. Always been that way, longer’n I can remember. Hoped you’d come tonight.”
“Because it’s almost Christmas?” Brandt asked.
“Nope,” Wally answered, shaking his head and letting his gaze wander along the cracks on the dirty floor of the alley. “Hoped you’d come cuz fer once, I didn’t have to be here, or anywhere. Got some time on my hands, and thought maybe I could tell you a story – if you’re of a mind?”
Brandt rubbed the palms of his hands together – feeling the pain-prickle of sensation returning. “A Christmas story?” he asked softly.
“Might say so,” Wally nodded. “Might say it’s the whole damn story, far as I’m concerned. Started on Christmas though, so it’s as much a Christmas story as anything.”
The old man turned away for a moment, and the firelight glistened off his deep, chocolate brown skin.
“Got the first harp for Christmas, boy, so long ago you weren’t even a dream in your grandad’s childhood. Things was different then. Everything was clearer, the edges were harder, my Pa used to say. Men fought and drank, took care of their families. Kids went to school and studied and either went on, or came home to work. Not so many others sticking their fingers in the batter.
“Christmas wasn’t the same then as now. Folks was deeper into it. Trees took days to cut and drag home and trim. My family gathered fifty deep for Gram’s turkey and pie, every year. Every year I knew what I’d get for Christmas if I knew what my brother was getting, because I’d get his old one. Not a lot of money then. No K-mart or Internet. Didn’t matter. I’d been watchin’ that harp two years straight. I guess what makes this story special is the surprise. That Christmas I was s’posed to get my first bike.
“It sat on my brother Daniel’s dresser, right next to a short stack of faded, crimp-cover comic magazines and a picture of Pa from the war. It had been there since about two days after he got it, packed careful in a box and wrapped up in tissue. The harp, and the picture, they were about the only thing of Pa’s Daniel had. I had a silver pocket watch that didn’t work. Ma said we’d get it fixed one day, but I knew better. That cost money, and to spend food money on telling the time was a waste we weren’t likely to condone. Didn’t matter. Had Pa’s fingerprints on it, still. I kept that wrapped in tissue too, tucked in under my mattress, near to where my heart would rest on the bed.
“Pa went to defend the country from people so distant and different the whole thing might as well have been an invasion of aliens from space, far as Daniel and I could tell. Ma and her friends, my aunts and uncles, even the mail man when he stopped for cold lemonade each day, they talked about it as if they knew it. They traded words and stories, opinions garnered from close reading of the news and long hours with their ears cocked beside the radio.
“That war filled their lives, and it was as real to them as the road between my home and the general store. To me it was another story, like the ones Daniel had read to me over and over again from those comic magazines. Captain America. He fought in that same war – most kids wouldn’t know that now. Lot to be learned by the words in those pages, but mostly we thought about Pa, waited for his letters and news about his unit. Ma had a scrapbook so thick with clippings and notes and letters that if you weren’t careful it would all pour out on the table, or the couch, and she’d sit for hours, smiling and trying not to cry, putting it back the way she’d had it. Sometimes I think she poured them out on purpose, just so she could touch the words he’d written, knowing Pa had touched the paper as well.
“Anyway, that isn’t the story. Your hands warm yet, Brandt boy?”
Brandt was surprised to find that they were.
“”Bout time you started playin’,” Wally said softly. “Ain’t meant to be told like this, you know? Meant to be lived. Lived it so many times already, one more shouldn’t hurt.”
“But it will,” Brandt whispered. He bent to his guitar case, unfastened the snaps, and lifted the lid.
Moments later, he leaned against the nearest wall, tuning the guitar slowly. Though he’d moved further from the fire, the cold still kept its distance. Wally stood his ground, gaze focused on some point far in the distance.
The guitar rested easily against Brandt’s hip. He tuned quickly, no more than a couple of quick tweaks, and the notes rang ture and clear.. Without waiting for more from Wally, Brandt reached deep inside, tugged at the block that stemmed the flow of inner pain. He felt it easing free, heard the soft whispered voices rising through his senses. Images coalesced and dispersed, only to reform each time. Brandt ignored them. He focused his gaze on Wally, and, after a few moments, the old man began to speak again.
“Ma had a friend to Christmas dinner that year. First time ever there’d been anyone but family. Daniel, he didn’t like it. I can still see his face as Mama told him, explained he wouldn’t be sitting in Pa’s seat. That Phil Dresden would be joining us – that it was rude to ask a man to take second seat to a boy – even if that boy belonged.”
Brandt’s fingers strummed quietly, letting the words ripple through him and slip through his fingertips.Wally’s voice drew the notes from him slowly, first a trickle, then a slow, smooth flow of notes and chords – minor chords dripping sticky and bittersweet from Brandt’s fingers. Brandt could still hear Wally’s voice, but the words had blurred to a dull roar, filtered by the rush of other voices, other stories.
Brandt played through it. His mind drifted, and the world shifted. The alley faded slowly to black, then back to gray – and then white. Wally and the trash can disappeared, replaced by morning sunlight, bright, white snow, and a soft breeze. The wall at Brandt’s back, now the trunk of a tree, coated in a frosted sprinkle of ice and blown snow.
Down a crooked lane, lined with trees, a low-slung house stood, new snow drifted against the walls. Nothing moved, at first, but whirling gusts of snow. Dangling above the railing on the porch, a wind-chime danced in slow circles, its chiming voice mournful in the early morning silence.
There was a single wreath hanging on the front door, just visible from where Brandt stood. A red bow adorned the wreath’s center, and that red glittered too brightly across that long, brilliant-white expanse of snow. It looked as if the house were bleeding.
Brandt’s fingers moved easily. He felt none of the cold, though icicles dangled behind his head and the rising sun shone through them to dance prismatically on the snow at his feet. The notes were slow – so slow it took a while for the melody to seep through Brandt’s concentration. Nothing he could put his finger on – melodies joined and drawing tendrils of memory up from the sea of voices chanting in his mind. There was a sense of Christmas in it all, but not the happy, commercialized Christmas Brandt was familiar with – more a drop back to days he barely remembered – very young children gathered in front of a television and watching “The Nutcracker” on a fuzzy old color television with more red than green in the picture and strange music – stranger characters – playing out a fantasy holiday that never was.
A motion near the rear of the house caught Brandt’s eye. A flash of bright blue, and a young man appeared, moving quickly, hunched low to the ground. Brandt blinked, wanting to shield his eyes against the snow-blindness. His fingers remained caught in a surreal holiday dance of chords and notes. With an effort, Brandt pushed off from the tree, meaning to follow the boy away from the house.
He needn’t have bothered. The blue-coated figure turned straight at him, making surprisingly good time through the snow. Brandt played, and watched, and within moments a young black man was puffing through the snow, ignoring Brandt, intent on some point far in the distance. Behind him, the young man pulled a battered red sled. His breath puffed white, tiny clouds drifting from his lips and dispersing.
Brandt shifted the music subtly, matching the boy’s progress with the notes. There was no melt to the snow, though the sun was rising swiftly. The air was clean and crisp with frost. Brandt felt none of it. His fingers danced, his gaze tracked the boy across the snow. Moments later, Brandt could make out features. Bright eyes, dark hair pulled back under a hat. The jacket looked worn, but warm.
Brandt could hear a muffled voice – singing. The boy was singing, pulling the sled off into the woods in the snow. Brandt smiled. He let the music twist to the moment, drawing the Christmas tones from his guitar easily – notes he’d not played in years, melodies trapped too long in tinny muzak prisons in shopping malls. Music with feeling, and heart.
As the sled drew abreast of him, he saw the boy’s face. Familiar, and not. Very much of Wally in those features, but chiseled of different stone. Again, Brandt smiled. Easy to drop into the music, to let it flow and to forget why he was there, why he was always there. The morning was beautiful, a world where Brandt had never walked – no cities, no buildings lined up to block the sun, no horns or screeching tires. Trees. Trees and snow, as far as he could see.
Pressing off from the tree, Brandt followed. The boy was moving at a good clip, gliding between the trees easily. Brandt lost sight, just for a second, and as he stepped forward in pursuit, the world shifted. His fingers ground nearly to a halt, notes sustaining impossibly until that sound rose, reverberating from the mountains in the distance and echoing through the trees.
Brandt stood at the top of a sloping open field. The field was littered with pine trees. They were scattered, not even as those in the forest had been, nor as healthy. Brandt could just make out the nose of the sled around one of the larger trees. It poked beyond the lower branches, and through the patchy limbs, he could just make out the boy.
The solid THUNK of steel biting wood rang up the slope. An axe, something Brandt hadn’t noticed in the boy’s passing, swung up and back, glittering as it dove at the base of the tree, again – and again. The branches rattled, dropping snow in a slow crystalline rain that somehow wove itself into the music. Slow motion holiday video to Brandt’s background of Christmas blended to pain.
Something else caught Brandt’s eye. He turned, shifting his gaze to the side and down. Shadowy figures. One – a second, then a third. Moving parallel, one to the other, all working their way toward that tree – and that sled. One red cap, two black. All moving stealthily forward.
Brandt stepped onto the snowy slope. The boy was a short walk down – too far to see clearly, but close enough to hear. Stumbling, slipping, fighting for purchase on the slippery surface of the hill, Brandt started down. He gripped the neck of the guitar grimly, his fingers snatching the notes from the imbalance of the moment, making the odd, staggering steps work for and with him.
The other boys on the slope were moving quickly. More quickly than Brandt, and with surer feet. They had split wide, a three-pronged approach. Brandt caught a glimpse of a crooked grin, bright – glittering eyes that were too blue to be real – ice chips glinting from a pale face. Brandt tripped again, spinning forward. He cried out, his voice blending and sustaining and shifting. He could see the ground coming up fast, knew he had to stop, to reach out and stop that fall, to protect the guitar, but he couldn’t .
If he stopped, it ended, and he would never know. If he let the moment slip away, he would lose it. Crossed roads only meet once.
Brandt closed his eyes, and he played. He gritted his teeth, preparing for an impact that never came and soft/cold snow sifted over his face and back and he fell and fell and fell and played, slowly, spinning – then standing. He nearly fell again, the sensation of firm ground was so sudden and intense.
The world focused. The sun was much higher overhead. Brandt stood between two snow-coated pines. Ahead, back to the tree he’d toppled, stood the boy Brandt knew must be Wally’s brother. The axe was held high, and the boys eyes were wide, so wide they shone like white glittering plates against the dark lines of his face.
“You g’wan and let me be,” the boy said shakily. Brandt played, falling into a Jim Croce-esque backbeat. You Don’ Mess Around with Slim dancing down darker notes.
“You know we ain’t gonna do that, boy,” a tow-headed youth spat back. “You done chopped one ‘a Poppa’s trees.”
“You don’t learn easy, do you boy?” a larger youth chimed in. This one was fat, so fat he was stretching the seams of his handed-down jacket obscenely. “Done tol’ you last year. This is our hill. These is our trees.”
“Ain’t your hill,” Daniel huffed. He gripped the axe tightly, not brandishing it, but not lowering it from his shoulder either. “My pa came here every year for our tree. Just a’cause a man dies don’ mean you own the hill.”
Daniel’s voice was slow and even. There was a strength behind it, but the boy’s eyes lowered somewhat as he spoke. Wars were fought behind those eyses. Brandt felt a pulse driving up from the ground beneath him, blood pounding too quickly. The rhythm was ragged, but steady for all that, and powerful.
“Give me that tree, boy,” the third stranger said. “You give me that tree,” he hesiated, “And that sled. You go on back to your mama, and you tell her you lost the sled – and the axe. You don’t come to this hill again. Ain’t no coloreds allowed on our proppity. You go, or I’m gonna have to tell the sheriff you was stealin’ our tree.”
“I ain’t stealing,” Daniel answered quietly. “I never stole a thing in my life. I aim to take this tree home to my momma.”
The fat boy laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. There was no mirth, no enjoyment in that sound. He took a step toward Daniel, then another.
“You ain’t taking nothin’ nowhere,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re gonna carry your black ass home. Matter of fact, I’m gonna whup it for you ‘fore you do.”
Daniel was trembling. Brandt felt the shift – felt the whirl – the song continued, beyond and behind him, but what he felt was solid. The axe in his hand and the too-wide set of stout legs. The muscles rippling through arms too short to be his own, and the fear churning with the anger deep in his mind.
“No,” he whispered.
Images fought for control. He saw his mother’s face, heard her voice. He saw the table, set for dinner, all the fine china and family silver laid out shined and polished. He saw that chair – his chair – his father’s chair. Empty.
Then he saw Phil Dresden’s face. He saw that expression, so close to hunger, the man laid on his mama every time he came around. The corner of the dining room was bare. As empty as it had been since Pa left and never came home. Since the last time they’d had a tree, or a real Christmas beyond the shell of emotion and pain that walled them off each year. No man. They had no man, and Daniel needed to fill that void. He needed to provide things he could not provide, to protect those he wasn’t old enough to protect. He needed to bring home the tree.
The fat boy was moving close – too close – leering, hate-washed face suddenly impossibly large, voice blending to the notes of the song and back. Incomprehensible, and unimportant. Washing over and through Daniel’s mind. Brandt’s mind.
“Stop.” Daniel said softly. “I don’t care for you, John Melville, but I’ll give a man fair warning. Don’t you touch that tree, or that sled. Don’t you try to touch me. My pa was a good man, and your pa let him be. It’s Christmas, and I aim to take this tree home.”
“You ain’t taking a thing home black boy,” John replied. “You be lucky if you take your hide.”
With a roar that filled Brandt’s ears, joining with the rush of adrenaline and blood and the smooth whoosh of steel slicing air, the song grew chaotic and powerful. He felt the ripple of muscle across shoulders and back, felt fingers gripping so tightly the wood seemed to compress. There were cries, anger and pain, and the solid THUNK as the axe bit deep. The fat boy had been charging, but that swing dropped him to his knees. The head of the axe was buried, the lower half unseen in a mass of blood-soaked cloth and flesh, head canted to the side, half torn from a body that knelt and trembled and shook. Blood gouted from John’s mouth, washing away his sins to the pure white snow.
Everything stopped in that single moment. Brandt saw it captured, heard it floating in a whole-note, freeze-frame clarity that shivered up and through him so swiftly he nearly passed to darkness, fighting for breath, and for strength, fingers drawn on by the notes, not vice-versa as the images assaulted him in a staccato panorama of horror.
John’s body slumped, and that motion tore the axe from Daniel’s numb, unfeeling hands. The boy staggered back, nearly falling over his sled, and into the tree. He grabbed the rope, wrapping it over his shoulder. Desperately, he turned away, leaving the axe, the dead boy, and his screaming, crazed brothers without a second glance. Head lowered, Daniel started up the hill. Brandt heard the wailing cries, young bad-assed bullies melting to frightened children. He heard the soft shuffle of Daniel’s boots, and the scuff of the sled’s rails, gliding away.
Brandt stood once more alone, beside the trail. He played in numb horror, watching the trail of Daniel’s sled moving on up the hillside. He turned to where the two boys were trying to raise their fallen brother. The axe tilted at a crazy angle, and blood spattered the snow – Rorsach blotch on a White-Christmas backdrop.
Brandt closed his eyes. Too much. The notes had slipped from holiday to dirge, rough and deep. Voices joined in, deepening the sound, but Brandt ignored them. Now the playing was his, the pain washing up and through, out the tips of his fingers and down the strings. He could sense the play of light and shadow across his eyelids. Firelight, or candles. In the distance, the voice of a single harmonica sounded. Not clear, or clean, but deep, clawing its way into the music, parting the notes and insinuating itself with raw emotion and blinding pain.
Brandt shivered, back arching as he opened his eyes. He’d felt and lived the pain of a thousand souls, played their pain to a world that soaked it in and spit it out, but he’d never felt such a singluar stab of agony as the notes of that harp drew forth.
Brandt stood in an alcove, beside a fireplace. The door was open, cold wind and flurries of snowflakes wafting in through the dark opening. A woman stood, back to Brandt, and the fire, staring into the distance. Her shoulders shook, arms tight-gripping a shawl around her shoulders. Oblivious to the col, or the darkness, she stared. Behind her, to one side of the fire, a young boy sat. He held the old silver harmonica in a death grip. Tears streamed down his cheeks, but he played. No song Brandt had ever heard, just notes, long drawn out wails of sound that ripped from the tiny reeds and struck like daggers, shredding Brandt’s nerves.
He snapped his eyes shut, stilling his fingers with an effort. His frame shook, suddenly cold, so cold he could barely stand on numb feet. The frozen bricks at his back dug through his jacket with ice-talons that worked their way deeper with each passing second. A few feet away, the flames still licked over the rim of the barrel. Only a miracle saved his guitar as Brandt lurched away from the wall with a gasp and staggered closer to the fire.
Wally was nowhere to be seen. Cold wind whipped down the alleys from all directions, and a dusty, snowflake whirlwind danced in the very center of that dark crossroads. Brandt lowered his guitar into it’s case and flipped the lid closed with the toe of his boot. Ignoring the pain in his fingers, he flipped each of the clasps closed before standing and holding his hands out over the barrel.
“Fuck,” he muttered, shaking his head and instantly regretting that. Even his scalp was numb.
Brandt waited only long enough for the pain-prickle of sensation to invade his hands before leaning, gripping the guitar case tightly, and turning from the fire. He ignored the tiny whirlwind, but it’s soft, whistling voice followed him, sifting through his numbed mind.
“Found my own crossroads, boy. Made my choice. Long way from here to there. You go back, you find that girl and hol’ on tight. Come back and play some time.”
Brandt stumbled out of the alley and down the street, the image of old rheumy eyes and gnarled hands, fading to the too-young grip on a too-blue harmonica. Blood on a bright-white canvas. In the distance, a group carolers filled the night with song.
Sudden images of the tree, the color wheel and its red to yellow to blue comfort, Syn’s soft voice and softer skin, flooded Brandt’s mind, and he hurried his steps. He wondered if, in all the world, there was enough eggnog to dissolve the chill in his heart. “Merry Christmas, Wally,” he whispered.
The harp rose in answer, joining the carolers and dancing into the shadows, rimming them with silvery sound and the light of hope, draining away the pain. With tears wetting his cheeks and freezing to his skin, Brandt smiled.