I got this notebook from Taylor, and besides being made of 100% post-consumer content - and raising funds to protect endangered species - it has black wolves on the cover. She’s been helping around the house since Mom has started to ail (good word, isn’t it?) and I think she’s figured some things out. I never can find the right moment to ask.
Anyway, it’s a nice notebook and lots of psychologists say keeping a diary is good for you, no matter how half-hearted. So I’m going to start with a description of this Christmas, the first Christmas with Nat living at our house.
On the last day of school before the vacation Matthew gave me a pair of shark mittens, and when I say this I mean that the mittens convert your hands into sharks: the thumbs are the lower jaws, your palms are lined with teeth and gaping red maw, and there is a fin on the back of each hand. I kissed him immediately and enthusiastically for that. Apparently his cousin in Michigan sells crazy-awesome knitted things and he commissioned the pair for $20. “Now you can pretend your hand is biting my hand when we hold hands.” When he unwrapped his (used but only mildly frayed) copy of American Gods I had stood in line for three hours at a book fair to get signed, he whooped and spun me around.
On the day itself Dad and Nat promised to stay up until 7 AM so Mom and I could join them for unwrapping. We woke to the buttery aromas of popcorn, peppermint hot chocolate, and Pillsbury rolls with jam; ultimately selfless acts of cookery from a pair of vampires.
“Why popcorn?” I asked as Mom – who has lost 10 pounds without meaning to in the past three months – carefully made her way down the stairs and kissed Dad.
Nat, who was for some reason wearing outrageously plaid red flannel pajamas and a sombrero, stuck the bowl in my hand with a gesture not to be refused. Dad explained, “I thought we should stick to easy and nearly-foolproof foods. Besides, popcorn feels festive, and it smells good even to us.”
“Why the sombrero?” Mom asked Nat.
“There’s no point in being cool if you can’t wear a sombrero, as a noted philosopher once said. Besides, it’s getting kind of sunny in here.”
Dad looked kind of sleepy but he smiled in the gentle way he doesn’t do enough. He put in an instrumental Christmas album and we ate/slurped blood/opened gifts. Since we were trying to save money the rule was each person got one present from each other person, and no one was to exceed $25 per gift. So this was my haul:
Dad gave me a subscription for Popular Science magazine, which came with a free glow-in-the-dark alarm clock. I’m going to share my issues with Matthew. From Mom I received gilded branch-and-leaves bobby pins so that my hair doesn’t always look like a neglected Pekinese, along with a pack of bison jerky that tastes good in either form. Nat handed me a red envelope with $25 cash.
“What? I hate shopping, teens like money.” He gave Mom a Barnes & Noble gift card and Dad an Amazon.com gift card. All for $25 exactly.
He was really testy this morning. Mom and Dad were talking about their Christmas traditions when they were young. I asked Nat what his family did, interested in hearing a first-person account from way back when, and he didn’t seem to hear me. I asked him again and he said he didn’t remember.
It occurred to all of us that we barely knew anything of Nat’s past.
“How old are you?”
“Does it matter?”
“Where were you born?”
At this point Mom mumbled, “Leave him alone, Andy.”
“How many siblings did you have?”
“They’re dead by now, so I don’t see the point.”
Mom said, “Dianne, don’t…” (He was shaking.)
“What’s your favorite Christmas carol?” I asked in what I hoped was a joking, soothing tone, but he jumped up. He spoke with a strain we had never heard in him before.
“Okay. I’m sorry if I’m ruining your celebration, but I need to make an exit. Now. Have fun.” And he stalked to his room.
We let him calm down as Mom and I finished our food and all three of us soberly threw away and recycled the wrapping paper. Dad went to sleep. Mom got on the phone with various members of her family, along with some old friends. I wrote Thank You cards to Uncle Ben, Aunt Cassi, and Grandparents Davidson for their savings bonds I could cash in when I entered college – not the most entertaining of presents, but ones I very much needed.
Some time after lunch I heard the song “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” by The Offspring through the wall. Then it played again. And again. And again. And again. Nat’s room is next to mine. I knocked on the door.
“I’ll stop the music,” he said quickly.
I opened it. “That’s not what I’m worried about.”
He was still in the pajamas. His blinds were down. The sombrero rested atop his coffin, nearly lost among the clothes and books. He was huddled around an ancient CD player. It was dark enough in there that he didn’t need sunglasses. Not only were his irises red; the whites were marred with meandering arteries. “I’m sorry for the snit. You guys doing okay?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry for the pestering. Are you okay?” I shut the door behind me and sat against the wall.
The right side of his mouth tugged itself upward in something I would not call a smile, but not a grimace either. “I’m not good at Christmas. I haven’t been good at it since I was human. I haven’t even celebrated it since…” he obviously had to calculate, “before U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam.”
“Did, um, did you get turned on Christmas?”
He laughed. “Oh, no. That would be way too Lifetime-movie. If Lifetime made movies about obnoxious vampires who go to medical school over and over under assumed identities so they feel like they’re doing something with the decades.”
“I would watch that.”
He sighed and was silent for a while. I waited. Eventually, staring into space, he said, “I feel like you three are a candle in the darkness, and I’m a damp tissue trying to get warm without putting you out.”
“As poetic as that is, I would like to point out that you are the most cheerful person here, and possibly the entire neighborhood, and we’d be pretty much sunk without your help. And, you know what? I’m sure you’ve done some bad things. You’re old enough to have made lots of mistakes. We want to know about you not because we want you to prove something…we want you to feel like we care.” I paused. “All right, maybe we’re a little curious too.”
“I…I…” he swallowed. “I do have a favorite Christmas carol. I actually heard it after I stopped celebrating Christmas. On the stereo of someone who was…they were good to me.”
“What is it?”
He smoothed out his hair and stood, crossing his arms behind his back, shutting his eyes, and facing the wall. I had not heard him sing before. His singing voice is deeper than Dad’s, which is kind of funny because Dad’s several inches taller than him.
I found the song on iTunes later. It’s called “Star of Wonder”. When he finished, I only said, “I can see why you like it.”
We hugged. He yawned and said he should get ready for coffin. I found a $10 bill slipped under my door in the morning.
I did not include the lyrics of this song in the body of the story, since I may like to publish it someday and obtaining the rights could be necessary and difficult. But since this is currently a free promotional piece, here are the words as Nat sang them, which I do not own:
Star of wonder in the heavens
Wonder what you want of me?
Should I follow you tonight?
Star of wonder,
Star of wonder,
I am just a lonely shepherd
Watching from a distant hill,
Why do you appear to me?
Star of wonder,
If you will.
In the morning they’ll come looking
For the shepherd on the hill
What would make him leave his flock,
For surely he must love them still?
Star of wonder in the heavens,
Are you just a shining star,
Or should I follow you tonight?
Star of wonder,
Star of wonder,
In the version I am familiar with the narrator is female, however Nat changed the pronouns to fit him.
P.S. Bonus points if you know what “noted philosopher” Nat was referring to. Correct answerers get to name a character in my current novel, which is unrelated to the Laconia-verse.