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The Night Before Christmas - by M1KE HUNT
T'was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a single other thing about the familiar poem was true, he thought wryly as he shuffled about in the attic. Several creatures were stirring, namely the three cats who called 143 Piermont St. home, and that alone made it unlikely there would be a mouse anywhere within several hundred yards of the place.
They were her cats, actually, for they had come to the trash out back in search of a meal and she had discovered, befriended, and finally adopted them, each in their turn. He didn't care, and had come to love them because he loved her and she loved them. He even took over the daily cat box chore, one distasteful concession to the efficient running of the household.
This was another. The attic. She rarely ventured there, but occasionally directed him to fetch or store something up in that dreary place. Then it was his task to carry the bulky boxes up and down the rickety pine ladder that not too gracefully descended from the ceiling above. It was an irregular sort of job except around this time of year, when the Christmas decorations had to come down and the empty boxes had to go back up, and then again when the empty boxes had to reappear, be repacked and carried back up to sit amid the dust for another 11 months.
And while he hated most of his duties, this one he relished. Christmas decorations. The holiday always meant so much to him, ever since he could remember coming downstairs on Christmas morning, wide-eyed at the pile of presents that Santa brought. His family was Christian, which meant he was too, but he wasn't really. He'd given up religion just a few years after he found out there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy, and he never went inside a church again unless a friend or relative was getting married.
She wasn't Christian either; she was Jewish, except she wasn't. Her family was, but like him, she'd given up religion early, going to Hebrew school just to mollify her parents, attending religious camp in the summers because it was an escape. Their conflict in religion was no conflict at all, really, except in late December.
The first Christmas together was awkward, but only because both sets of parents insisted that the freshly married couple come to visit *them* for the holidays. In the end, the newlyweds stayed at home and had a private celebration all to themselves. And that was when and where they started their own Christmas Eve tradition.
It was Christmas Eve morning, a funny sort of contradiction, he thought as he punched in at work and surreptitiously slipped out the back. The presents were already purchased, but he'd decided the night before (Christmas Eve Eve he figured it would be called) to put together one last surprise for her, and he ran to the corner lot where they were selling trees and picked out a nice blue spruce from what was left, then stopped at the local discount store to buy some decorations and lights. The rest of the day he spent alone, setting up the little fir, stringing the flickering lights, hanging the glass balls, delicately placing the tinsel strand by strand over the erect needles on the small tree's outstretched branches.
When she came home, he watched as her ruddy cheeks flushed with surprise and her pupils widened with awe, and he grinned as he saw her blue eyes flash and moisten in emotional response.
"You like?" he asked rhetorically.
"Ummm," she mumbled, her gaze darting from the tree to the garland on the mantel and back. "Christmas..."
"I never had Christmas. All my friends had Christmas, and I always wanted Christmas, but we were the only Jewish family on the block. And, of course, I was like, six years old or something, so I didn't understand, but I asked my Mother why Santa Claus went to everyone else's house but not to our house."
A tear fell.
"And she tried to explain it, but she couldn't, and anyway...." her voice trailed off.
"So you had Hanukkah."
"Not the same. Not to a six year old. I mean, yeah, sure, we had Hanukkah. I even have a Menorah someplace."
"What, the Menorah?"
And she did, and they made a place on the mantel for it, and even though Hanukkah had come and gone a week earlier, they lit the candles and she sang aloud as the hint of burning wax mingled with the evergreen tinted air:
"Baruch ata adonoy, elohanu melech ha olam.."
"What does it mean?" he asked.
"I don't really remember," she answered quickly. "I think it's ' bless you Lord as we light these candles', or something..."
And they were in love, and she leaned against him on the couch and tried to teach him the song, and he held her as she gazed at the tree, and it was a most remarkable Christmas Eve. When at last he turned out the lights and they went upstairs to the bedroom, they made love, a gentle Christmas Eve mating, and they held each other softly as they enjoyed each other.
There was no doubt, no discussion that the next year they would have a tree and Christmas and Hanukkah. But he vowed to surprise her, and he thought to set up the tree in the bedroom instead of the dining room so when she came home she would find that there was *no* tree, and then there *was* a tree after all.
Again he stayed home from work and spent the day setting up the wintry scene, and it *was* a surprise and she was delighted and he beamed. Even though later they both agreed that the tree belonged downstairs rather than hidden up in the bedroom. But it did cast a soft light on the couple as they made love on a second Christmas Eve, the act reflected a hundred times in a the dozens of colored glass balls. And they fell asleep, locked in each others' arms on another holiday night.
And every year after he would stay home and turn the house into a winter magicland, each time more resplendent with more lights, more decorations, more tinsel. And every year she pretended to be surprised and he loved her for it. He learned the Hanukkah song, she sang Christmas carols, and they made love.
Fourteen years makes for a nice tradition, he thought as he busied himself untangling the strings of colored lights and opening the boxes of ornaments to see if any had broken during their long stay upstairs in the darkness. Fourteen years! He reminisced about that one time, was it 5 or 6 years ago? when he'd snuck out of work several days before Christmas Eve and set everything up. And she *had* been surprised, since the surprise was always "supposed" to be on Christmas Eve, but his feelings were a little hurt when she said it was more fun when the "surprise" happened on Christmas Eve, even if it wasn't really a surprise anymore. She was right, of course, and they had Christmas Eve on Christmas Eve each year after that.
For the next few hours he set up the tree, unwound the lights, hung the ornaments, and hummed quietly to himself. "Hurry, hurry" he thought. "It's almost 6:00." He didn't think about the previous Christmas when he'd also been running late. That year - last year - he hadn't finished everything until almost 7:30, and she should have been home a half-hour before that.
But finish he did, and he turned out all the lights and sat in his comfortable chair in the living room to await her arrival. He heard the car turn into the driveway, crunching through the gravel as if to announce its entrance, and he barely noticed the odd blue twinkle as he turned on the tree lights in the darkness of the room.
It took her longer than usual to come up the steps, and as he walked across the room to greet her, he saw that the light outside wasn't twinkling, it was flashing, and it didn't register. And then the doorbell rang, and he opened it, and he saw the two men standing uncomfortably in their blue uniforms.
All he could remember was the pulsing blue light on their car and a few bits and pieces of what they said: ..."accident" ... "truck" ... "brakes" ... "fire" ... and it didn't register. It couldn't. This was Christmas Eve, and she was coming home any minute.
She never did, of course, and the days and weeks that followed were a blur. The house was quiet, even though his friends visited frequently and were as helpful as could be, and his phone rang more often as both sets of parents grew closer to him and called, and his boss was terrific and told him to take his time coming back if he wanted and everybody tried as hard as they could.
Much too slowly the first days became a week and a little faster the weeks turned into a month and then more rapidly the months became seasons and it was already Christmas Eve again.
"Hurry, hurry," he thought. "It's getting late." He hung the final ball and adjusted the last hanging ornament, and it was done.
The first thing he noticed as he entered the garage was the dirt and dust on the car. It'd been washed just a few days ago, but he hadn't been careful earlier that morning; it hadn't seemed important. Now his eyes focused on the bent and twisted aluminum ducts that just hours before had carried warm air to the bedroom above. His first chore on this Christmas Eve had been to pull the gray metal boxes from their hangers and rip the grates from the floor overhead, and now there were large holes where the tarnished brass registers belonged. He craned his neck as he gazed through the openings into the darkened bedroom that sat directly atop the garage.
Satisfied with his work, he leaned into the vehicle and twisted the key that sat in the ignition and listened as the engine roared to life. "A full tank," he noted, enough to keep it idling for hours and hours, maybe all the way through Christmas day.
The door clicked firmly as he pulled it closed behind him, leaving the garage. He strode purposefully through the kitchen, down the carpeted hallway, up the stairs and into the bedroom. He closed that door, too; and then he curled up in the bed, thinking of her, and he went to sleep.