The Christmas tree was beautiful, perched in the corner of the living room. Brightly colored baubles were placed with loving care at seemingly random intervals, each shining in complement to the lights strung along slightly sagging branches. Beneath the tree sat the usual assortment of carefully wrapped gifts. Small images of Santa, reindeer, and holly stared out from the vibrantly colored gift wrap.
The rest of the room paled in comparison to this carefully crafted masterpiece. A long couch, largely submerged beneath a dusty off-white blanket, sat beside the tree. A similarly draped couch sat directly across from the first, small patches of brown leather peeking through the myriad of small holes and perforations in the cover. A tattered blanket lay across the floor between these, orange and purple stains littering its graying surface. An equally tattered dog lay on the blanket, peacefully snoring away in the warmth of a crackling fire. His feet rested on the legs of a table standing by the last wall.
Voices came down the stairs, and Buster raised his head interestedly. From around a corner by the black couch came Alicia, a young woman with a smattering of freckles across her face and auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. An old man clung to her arm, his body shaking with each step. Neither seemed particularly phased by his weakness, and they slowly worked their way step by step over to the far wall. Buster lay his head back down as they passed, sparing himself the energy of moving, instead following them with just his eyes.
“I’m sure he’ll show up,” Alicia reassured Bryce, as she lowered him into the couch by the tree. “Christmas is a time to be with family.”
“Aye,” grunted Bryce in return. “But I can’t see him showing up, not now.”
“Oh, he’s fine, I’m sure.” Her voice failed to live up to her words, quavering slightly. “It’s not like him to hold a grudge.”
“Oh no, he’s never hold a grudge. But they were close, him and his brother.”
“Of course they were, and I understand he’s upset.”
“You could never understand what he’s feeling,” shot Bryce somewhat irritably. Alicia withdrew to the dog for comfort. She sat on the floor beside him, and began running her hand gently through his fur.
“We were close too, you know,” she whispered, eyes fixed intently on Buster, avoiding Bryce. “Jake and I were close.”
Bryce softened a little. “I know you were. Your very presence here is a testament to that. You’re family now.”
“Not officially.” Buster shifted his head from the floor and laid it on her lap as he rolled over.
“No, not officially. But whoever cared about technicalities? Not Jake, that’s for damn sure.” Alicia continued staring down at the dog as she petted him. Bryce turned to look at the tree. A soft silence fell, neither of them wanting to once more broach the topic that filled the air. After a few minutes they heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Alicia quickly stood up and went back around the corner.
“Here, Nana, let me take that.”
“Oh, go on then, dear,” responded a soothing voice.
Alicia returned a moment later carrying a silver tray piled with plates and cups. She set the tray down on the table which she dragged closer to where Bryce sat. Buster stood up to avoid the moving table, then lay back down in the same place, his eyes now fixed intently on the tray. An elderly woman followed Alicia into the room, and sat down beside Bryce, while Alicia resumed her position on the floor beside the dog.
“Thank you, dear,” said Nana, “it gets harder every year to carry that blasted tray.”
“You’re getting old, Nana,” said Bryce. “Old and tired, wasting away before my very eyes.”
Nana jabbed him lightly in the side. “Look who’s talking! Skin and bones you are. Skin and bones and dust.”
Alicia smiled as she pulled a plate from the table. She began munching upon a sandwich while watching the old couple. A small crumb fell from her sandwich. Buster’s head twitched, his tongue lapped out, and he snatched up the crumb. Alicia grinned and petted him. They ate in silence, occasionally interrupted by a soft slurping sound as Buster caught sight of another stray crumb. As they finished their meal they set their plates and cups back on the tray.
“I do hope he comes,” said Nana comfortably, unaware of the tenseness surrounding this subject. “I would like to see my little boy again.”
“Last I saw he wasn’t so little,” responded Bryce.
“Oh you know what I mean.”
“Quite tall, actually,” he continued.
“Maybe taller than this here tree.” They sat quietly for a few moments. A chiming interrupted their peace, the doorbell cracking through the air.
“That’ll be him now!” said Nana excitedly. “Oh, my boy’s come home!” She demonstrated surprisingly agility as she leapt from the couch and strode across the room, quickly vanishing around the corner. Alicia looked nervously up at Bryce.
“This’ll be interesting, that’s for sure,” he said, with a slight attempt at a smile.
“Shall we go say ‘hi’?” Alicia asked tentatively.
“Alright. Help an old man up.” She hoisted him up, and together they made their way across the room. Buster rose up and slinked slowly after them.
Jake stood just inside the doorway, leaning against the door, his head just below its small window. He was talking quietly with his grandmother. He glanced over as Alicia and Bryce approached, and then returned his gaze to his grandmother, barely acknowledging the approaching figures. Nana spoke softly, too quiet for the others to hear what was said. As Alicia finally entered the front room, Bryce leaning heavily on her arm, Jake nodded and turned to her. “Alicia,” he said in a dry voice.
“How are you Jake?” she responded.
“I’m okay. I’m glad you’re here.”
“Yes, well, it’s,” he paused. “Difficult.”
Bryce cut in, taking his arms off of Alicia and slowly stepping towards Jake, “My boy, it’s good to see you.” They embraced, Jake tentatively wrapping his arms around his grandfather before quickly pulling away.
“Pop, you’re well I hope?”
“Aye, well enough. Older every day. I expect to catch Methuselah any day now.”
Jake gave a quick, pained grin. “You have a way to go yet, Pop.”
“Bryce, I think we ought to give the kids a moment,” said Nana, looking pointedly at her husband.
“Oh, yes, yes, of course,” he replied. “It’s good to see you again Jake. I hope you’ll stay a while.” Bryce shifted his frail grasp to Nana, and they slowly meandered out of the room, Buster trailing after them. An awkward silence fell as Alicia kept glancing at Jake, hoping he would say something, but too afraid to say anything herself.
The silence slowly grew to be unbearable, and she forced herself to speak. “Jake, look—“
He cut her off, “I know it wasn’t your fault. I know you couldn’t do anything about it.” The words tumbled out quickly, as if the dam that held them had shattered in a single instant. “I know it’s not fair of me to hold it against you like this, it was unfair of me to break it off with you because of it, it’s unfair of me to stay angry. But I am. I don’t know what you might have done differently, I don’t know what I would have done differently if I had been there, but I can’t accept it how it is. He shouldn’t have died.”
He stopped and started straight at her. She looked back, tears welling in her eyes. “No, he shouldn’t have. But I don’t know what you want from me. I did everything I could, I tried to save him, I did my best.”
He just started at her. “It’s not fair,” she said.
“How can you blame me? I loved Erik like a brother! He should have been my brother. Everything could have gone so well. Why did you break it off?”
“I don’t blame you,” he murmured. “I just… associate you.” He paused for a moment. “You were where I should have been. You were with him when he needed me. You got to see him go. You got to say goodbye. I never got that. My little brother… I don’t blame you. I envy you. I wish I had been where you were, even if I couldn’t have saved him any better than you. I missed the most important moment of his life, and you didn’t. I can’t live with that, I can’t accept that you knew my brother better than me, that you, not I, got that most exclusive, most intimate moment.”
She stared at him. “Jake,” she began.
“I miss him,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “It’s not fair.”
“I know,” she said. “I miss him too. But Jake, we have to move on some time.”
“No,” he said forcefully. “We don’t.”
“Jake, he’s gone, I loved him too but he’s gone. We can’t change that. We can just live with it. We carry our loved ones with us, but not like this, not as burdens. He would want you to be happy.”
They stared at each other. Time drudged on, snowflakes drifting down beyond the small window. Alicia whispered, “He wanted you to be happy. He was more excited than anyone that we were getting married.” Jake grimaced and stepped away from her. “I can’t, I’m sorry. Maybe someday I’ll be ready to move on, but it hurts too much now. I can’t be with you, I can’t be here, I’m sorry. I was a mistake to come.” He pulled his coat off of a rack near the door, slipped it on, and swung out of the door. Alicia went after him, wincing as she walked barefoot across the snow.
“Jake, wait!” she called. He kept moving, got into his truck, and drove off down the snowy lane. “Jake!”
Nana came bustling back into the front room and saw Alicia standing barefoot in the snow. “Alicia, come back in here! Your feet dear, what are you thinking?”
Alicia stepped back in; her eyes red as tears rolled down her face. “He’s gone, Nana. I’m so sorry.”
The elderly woman wrapped her arms around Alicia and hugged her. “It’s okay, dear, it’s okay. Let’s sit you down.” She deftly led Alicia downstairs and sat her on the couch beside the tree. “Now,” she said, stepping back, “I’m going to get you some peppermint tea, and we’re going to have a nice, peaceful Christmas. Does that sound good?”
Alicia nodded faintly. Nana walked back to the stairs and up to the kitchen. Alicia listened to her footsteps as she traipsed away. Then new footsteps, the soft clicking sound of nails on uncarpeted floors. Buster rounded the corner and trotted over to Alicia. He leapt up onto the couch beside her and lay down, his head in her lap.
“Hi boy,” she said, smiling through her tears. “Merry Christmas.”