Available: One writer. Slightly used.

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Available: One writer. Slightly used. Warranty still good. Greying but no significant exterior dings, scratches, dents, or cracks. Mercurial movie lover and unabashed nerd (genuine, not a faux Lisa Loeb glasses-wearing cool-because-it’s-trendy poseur) with science fiction and creature feature tendencies. Proficient in DaVinci Resolve, Final Draft, and Affinity Photo. Comes equipped with a subversive and wicked sense of humor. Able to subsist solely on NutriBullet smoothies, grilled chicken, rice and beans, and ginger tea. Will perform stupid human tricks for bacon double cheeseburgers and Guinness. Optional accessories include three rotating personalities (one of whom is rumored–but not yet confirmed–to have defeated a Dalek in hand-to-hand combat and thereby is in line to become the Fourteenth Doctor). If writers are your thing, you’ll like the cut of this one’s jib.

Rise of the Fallen 722nd

Writing prompts are not my cup of tea.

Not that I have a snobbish attitude toward them, anything that gets the creative juices flowing and entices a person to write is okay in my book. Hell, I’ve even participated in a few hashtag games on Twitter, but none of the suggested prompt words, sentences, paragraphs, or pictures ever truly inspired me.

Until I stumbled upon the Noriyoshi Orai artwork shown above.

Blindsided by an idea, I began scribbling notes of an alien invasion futuristic war that keeps pushing its way further and further into Earth’s past with the intention of creating a zugzwang (a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one’s turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage) story using a fairy tale twist.

Why a fairy tale?

Because the old ones are replete with heavy messages, drenched in the misfortunes of the world, and yet faith, perseverance, and sometimes sheer luck, can turn the tide in overcoming life’s trials. I wanted to present it as an old story, told in archaic language, laced with a subtle message still relevant to the modern world.

If you ever want to hear your muse laugh, tell her your lofty goals for a story before you’ve actually written it.

“Rise of the Fallen 722nd” began life as a story examining patriotism, loyalty, ingenuity, and the enduring human spirit in the face of the ultimate no-win scenario. The outline wasn’t difficult to put on paper. The story itself? That’s a different matter altogether. This little darling of mine went through the draft mill forty-nine times, each revision drastically different from the one before. Only one patch of dialogue survived from the original piece.

Futuristic war? Check. Progressing forward into the past? Check. Zugzwang? Double check. Fairy tale twist? Not so much. The fairy tale elements weakened the integrity of the overall structure and sadly had to be put down like Old Yeller. Still, it’s been fun (and frustrating) to write. And I’m not done with it. They say the fiftieth time’s the charm, right?

Wish me luck.

Tiny Stories: There is a Letter…

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

In my sock drawer, there is a hiding space behind a row of what my father calls grave socks as in one foot in the grave because they either do not have a match, are riddled with holes, threadbare at the toes and heels, or the ankle elastic has given up their hold on life. In that hiding space, there is a letter written carefully in a mixture of cursive and print. In that letter, are words, feelings, emotions, and admissions that a boy would never say directly to a girl’s face, not even on a double-dog dare.

On a bicycle, there is a shy paperboy who, even though I have not responded to his first letter yet, would write me another letter, I am sure of it, reminding me of our time in the park. In that park, there is a rum cherry tree under which I made a promise to the shy paperboy of seven minutes in heaven.

In my closet, on an afternoon when no one is home, I make good on my promise with the shy paperboy. In the dark, my mind is filled with a sort of scary, sort of awkward fireworks that I can see but cannot hear because my heart is pounding so fast and loud that I swear the shy paperboy can hear it.

In that kiss, there is something I do not have words for, something that drops my guard completely, makes me feel truly comfortable with the shy paperboy and I am desperate to let him see me in my entirety.

In that feeling, I am crying harder than I ever have before, harder than I even knew I could, crying past the point when I run out of tears. In the tearless sobs, my breath is hitching and I realize that this is most likely the happiest and most terrified I will ever feel in my life.

In the silence, after the kiss and the tears, the overwhelming and slightly painful joy is replaced by the sound of a key sliding into a lock, the tumbling of a bolt, and the jangling of a woman’s metal bracelets.

In the house, there is a mother who will tan not only my hide but the shy paperboy’s as well, if she ever finds out I have company without permission and especially if my room door is closed and that company is a boy who is in my room.

In the window, there is a scared paperboy climbing out and mumbling a prayer that he does not hurt himself or make a sound when he drops a story to the ground below.

In my mother’s eyes, there is suspicion when she opens the door and enters my room, catching me rushing to shut the window, cutting off the cool breeze even though I am dripping with sweat.

In my mind, there is a list of excuses that I cannot find in the clutter of thoughts so I just stare at my mother as innocently as I can manage, as she walks past me and opens the window, about to stick her head out to inspect the backyard.

In my mouth, there is a fib, “A wasp!” I say just a bit too forcefully and I build on it by telling her there was a wasp in the room so I closed the door to stop it from getting into the rest of the house and I managed to chase it out and shut the window behind it.

In the moments that tick by too slowly, my mother glances at the window again, then at my face before turning to leave but as she reaches the door, she stops and says, “You should probably find a better hiding place. Your father’s been talking about throwing out your grave socks and you wouldn’t want him finding that letter, would you? And the no company without permission rule stands no matter how sweet a boy’s words are or how much your heart aches for him, understood?”

In the end, I realize I am not as clever as I think I am, nor is my mother that foolish or unreasonable and I discover a newfound respect for her as I answer, “Yes, ma’am.”

Tiny Stories: Naiara And The Missing Piece

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

Naiara was a precocious child and at the age of 10 her intelligence quotient tested at 443, far above that of her mother, who was the smartest woman Amador had ever known, and he himself lagged behind them both, for on his brightest day he was merely averagely smart at best.

That hadn’t stopped him from trying to stimulate her voracious appetite for knowledge with books, magazines, and family-friendly websites. Amador encouraged questioning and anything that stumped him was turned into an adventure of learning the answers together.

They visited museums, attended concerts and live events to help to expand Naiara’s knowledge and ignite curiosity and excitement about a variety of areas of potential interest. Amador also made sure his daughter got an ample amount of playtime with children her own age to help her develop proper social skills.

Naiara inherited a love for a good yarn from her mother, Viviana, so Amador made a habit of spinning fantastical tales in order to keep her mind occupied, which sometimes backfired as she would poke holes in his story logic, and sometimes worked like a charm when she joined in on the worldbuilding of the fable.

Then there were times when her boredom was such that no story would assuage her desire for the acquisition of knowledge, so he began providing her with challenges. The latest one was designed to keep her occupied for a while.

“There are a number of global challenges that exist today: food insecurity, refugees who often lose their lives during dangerous journeys in the hope of finding a place to live that offers safety and stability, climate change, gender discrimination, and child abuse,” Amador paused, caught his daughter’s eyes and asked, “Do you know what I mean by child abuse?” He knew she understood but the father in him had to make certain.

“Yes, Papi,” Naiara nodded. “Child marriage, child labor, and trafficking.”

“And you understand what these things are?”

Her expression saddened, “Yes, Papi.”

 “Then your assignment is to find solutions for these problems.”

“Written or oral?”

“Your discretion.”

“All right then,” she said, her brow knotted as she walked away, the telltale sign that Naiara’s mind was already on the case.

And for the following eight days, apart from mealtime, Amador scarcely saw his daughter as she confined herself to her room and devoted herself to the project at hand.

On the ninth day, Amador and Viviana were called into the living room, where Naiara decided to deliver her presentation. She was proud of the solution she came up with, he could tell by the flush of her cheeks and how tightly she gripped the index cards in her little hands.

Naiara cleared her throat and began, “The Universe is not infinite. It expanded just wide enough to allow worlds to form. And those worlds were meant to spawn beings. And those beings were meant to learn the ways of the Apparatus Universi in order to keep the universe running, for The Universe is not a living thing, as most intelligent people have postulated.

“The Universe is a machine constructed by the Vetus Mundi Tinkerers, a race of cosmic free-thinkers and craftsbeings who, though long-lived, are not immortal, and eventually succumbed to the end fate that awaits us all, while waiting for their successors to arrive to remove the heavy burden from their weary shoulders and carry on in their stead.

“But the changing of the guard never occurred. Somewhere down the line, the sacred knowledge meant to be handed down the generations until the various races sufficiently evolved to the point when they were ready to transition into tinkerers, had been mistold, mangled, and eventually forgotten.

“Now The Universe is winding down, beginning to fail because a piece is missing. Some small, yet vital part has somehow come loose during millennia of daily operation and is set adrift on the spaceways, with no one to find it, no one who even knows what to look for. This has caused an imbalance in the way of things and the ripple effects are responsible for the illogic that led to our global challenges.”

What on Earth was she talking about? When Amador presented these challenges, he had no clue what solutions his daughter would come up with but this was certainly not the response he was expecting. It sounded more along the lines of one of the stories he invented to distract her. Did his daughter not understand the assignment?

As if sensing his confusion, Naiara said, “I know you have questions and comments but I ask that you please reserve them for the end of the presentation. And now, if you would please join me on the roof for the conclusion.”

 Amador was about to protest but Viviana squeezed his arm and whispered, “Let’s hear her out, I’m sure this is leading somewhere.”

They made their way onto the rooftop patio, where a pale crescent moon shone like a silvery claw amidst the blanket of stars that stretched to infinity, and the occasional barking of faraway dogs broke the silence of the night. Naiara stood dangerously close to the roof’s edge.

“Be careful, mi Amor,” Viviana warned.

“I’m fine, Mami.” Naiara smiled, but something about her demeanor had changed now that they were out in the open air. Before her parents could question it, the young girl continued her presentation.

“The answer was here all along, hidden in plain sight amongst the stars, and all it took was the proper mathematical equation to tumble the locks set in place at the beginning of time to limit human perception and knowledge. Now it has made itself visible to my mortal eyes, making me gravid with omniscience and I know what I must do.”

“Madre mía,” Viviana exclaimed as, before their very eyes, the stars in the sky began to shift and move but it wasn’t the stars themselves, it was a cloud of stardust that twisted in upon itself like a murmuration of starlings until it formed a circular platform that lowered itself to the level of the roof near Naiara’s feet.

Viviana was about to protest but this time it was Amador’s turn to squeeze her arm. He whispered, “I understand all this less than you, but this is something she was meant to do. I know you feel it, too.”

Naiara’s impressive vocabulary consisted of over 95,000 words, yet Amador could tell by the way their daughter’s mouth opened and closed in silence that she found none of them suitable for the occasion.

Finally, she settled on, “Thank you, Papi, for setting me on my path, and Mami, I promise you I will return and together we will go about setting things on the planet right.”

The young girl motioned for her parents to come to her as she extended her arms to cuddle them both. Amador had been hugged by his daughter before but never like this. Her embrace was stronger than anything he had ever known, as if a lifetime of hugs had been compressed into one single act…and he knew what it meant. This was goodbye. So, he snuggled in and squeezed a fraction tighter pulling his precious angel and his wife closer together, trying to merge them into a single being.

Though time looked the other way to allow the hug to be indefinite, after all the tears had been shed and everything that needed to be voiced had been said, Naiara slipped from her parents’ arms and kissed them both on the cheek.

“I love you both so much,” Naiara said as she stepped off the roof and onto the platform. The stardust swirled around her petite frame, enveloping her like a cocoon and she was lifted up past the troposphere, stratosphere, and mesosphere, past the thermosphere, ionosphere, exosphere, and finally into space, where the tiny particles that made up solar wind swarmed around her stardust cocoon.

Although air and breathing were no longer a necessity, she sighed a young lifetime of relief and drifted peacefully amidst the cogs and gears of The Universe.

Naturally, Amador and Viviana were concerned for their daughter’s safety in the face of the universal unknown, but Naiara’s parting gift to them was expanding their minds with just enough understanding to allay their more serious fears and causing their already loving hearts to open like a cosmic flower so that she could establish a tether with them. Now, they would forever remain connected to her as she went in search of the missing piece.

Not The End.

Madd’s Fictional Year In Review 2021

As we put the second COVID year to bed, everyone and their mother is doing a “Year In Review” so I figured why not be a literary lemming and follow suit? Submitted for your perusal are some of my blog posts from 2021 that might not have gotten the most views or “Likes” or inspired the most reader interaction, but they’re the stories I most enjoyed penning and sharing. Without further ado, here are

MY TOP TEN FAVORITE POSTS OF 2021

10. Tales From The Set: “Call My Ex, Please?” (a true story)

In which I revisit my days of being a background actor on the set of Grey’s Anatomy, where I encountered a perplexing being known to me as Okra Sex Smell Girl.

9. How I Spent My Summer Vacation

In which young Joanie Hayden recounts the events that occurred during her school break.

8. Challenge Accepted

In which a lesson is learned in the heeding of pick-up warning signs.

7. The Pier

In which a young man discovers that sometimes help doesn’t always come when you ask for it, but when you need it most.

6. Can You Meet My Conditions?

In which a potential suitor learns that some relationships require more effort than others.

5. The Strange Case of Wilhelmina Soames

In which we walk a mile in the shoes of the Mad Mother of Main Street.

4. Braiding Tales: We Built a World, Row by Row (a true story)

In which we find out that sometimes hair, tales, and friendships are woven at the same time.

3. The Widowmaker

In which I relay the story that came to me during my hospital stay after a heart attack.

2. First Saturdays

In which I reveal my not-so-secret addiction.

1. A Kiss Is Just A Kiss

In which the question is asked: What price would you pay, or be paid, to get a fresh start?

***

In closing, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every person who visited this blog, my little corner of the universe, in the past year, the lurkers, “Likers,” and commenters alike. Your participation helped me through a less than stellar year, so please join me in raising a glass to toast a bright New Year and a fond farewell to the old; here’s to the things that are yet to come, and to the memories that we hold.


HAPPY NEW YEAR, ONE AND ALL!

I Walk Alone (a true story)

Regular followers of this blog know that I suffered a heart attack in the middle of this year and am now the owner of two stents in my left anterior descending artery. I also happen to be hypertensive. Aside from fried food, savory snacks and sugary treats, the thing I miss the most post heart attack is walking.

For as long as I can remember, my mind has been a hornet’s nest of thoughts, worries, stories, alternative timelines in which I live the dream and face the consequences for daring to do so. It gets to be maddening every once in a while. To calm the hornets to a dull buzz, I used to take long brisk walks, but a few weeks before I was hospitalized and a few months afterward I was unable to do this without experiencing chest pressure and shortness of breath. Recovery has been slow but I’m finally at a stage where I can walk again with no ill effects.

Now, every morning I take a three-hour walk along the same crooked path through residential neighborhoods so I can set my body on autopilot while I lose myself either in my thoughts or in other worlds provided by audiobooks or radio plays. The only time that I am mentally present in the act of walking is when I encounter one of my pet peeves:

  • I cannot have anyone walking directly in front of me (within arm’s distance); and
  • I cannot have anyone pacing me (where they exist in my peripheral view).

This may seem strange to you but when I walk, my personal space area expands to provide me with the illusion that I am isolated from the rest of humanity. It’s also why I walk early in the morning when the streets are less crowded.

The reason I’m mentioning this is because on Christmas Eve while out on my morning constitutional, I became aware of a young lady in my side vision. I’m not sure how long she had been there before I noticed her but when I did, it bothered me. To be clear, she wasn’t within my expanded personal space, I was on the sidewalk and she was in the street but she was definitely pacing me.

Oh, I forgot to mention, at my normal pace, I can cover the route I walk in two hours flat. The problem is that I’m no longer a spring chicken, so at that speed, two-thirds of the way in, my legs feel like they’re transmuting into lead. I was forced to adopt a moderate pace, thereby adding an hour to my journey, and the woman keeping time with me was on rollerblades, which meant something was definitely off here.

When I looked over at her, the first thing I noticed was that she was maskless. Since March of 2020, the lower half of my face has been covered whenever I leave the house, even when I’m in an open space and no one is around. Reports have said it’s not a matter of if you’ll contract the COVID Omicron variant but when, and if that’s the case, I’d like to prolong that inevitability as much as possible.

Anyway, back to Roller Girl, who was smiling and waving at me. Now, I’m a native New Yorker and it’s been my experience that the only time people smile at you is if they’re:

  • From out of town
  • Pulling some sort of grift
  • Prepared to hand you a sob story to part you from your money, or
  • Trying to lure you into a van, Buffalo Bill-style, in order to turn you into a skinsuit

Deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down I’m a friendly person in the right social setting, just not on the city streets, so I returned neither the smile nor the wave and continued on my merry way. But Roller Girl maintained that spot in the corner of my vision, which disturbed my reverie enough for me to remove my noise-canceling earbuds.

“Can I help you with something?” I asked.

Roller Girl waved again and hit me with a smile packed to the rafters with pearly whites in what my mother used to call a gator-mouth. One of my many failings is that I have always been a horrible guesser of age, but if I was forced at gunpoint, I’d put her somewhere between late teens and early twenties. She had a young Rae Dawn Chong quality to her features. Dark wavy hair spilled from under a crocheted hat that matched her tan calf-length coat with fur collar. Jeans and a scarf reminiscent of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who completed her ensemble, and of course, the white rollerblades.

“Hi!” she said, enthusiastically, and stated who she was, something that began with a K but as I am the infamous forgetter of names, I’ll simply refer to her as Kendal.

This time I responded, “Hi,” apprehensively.

“I didn’t mean to bother you, it’s just that I see you walking this way at the same time every morning like clockwork, and since we’re headed the same way I decided to say hello.”

“Um, okay…hello?”

“On your way to work?”

“No.”

“To an appointment?”

“No.” I loved curt answers because they always let the listener know, I’m not interested in small talk so either quit while you’re behind or get to your blasted point.

“Okay,” Kendal said. “Then let me ask you a question: When you walk, do you walk alone, or do you walk with God?”

Oh, now I get it. Honestly, I should have caught on sooner because there were two types of people I tended to attract, the absolutely mental and proselytizers. Even with my hat and face mask covering two-thirds of my face, something about me must have screamed, This sad bastard needs Jesus in his life!

Among the many things I simply cannot abide, proselytizing ranks pretty high on the list. It always carries an air of condescension, despite the best intentions of the Born-Again speaker. Once you’ve asked and I tell you I’m not interested, your following action should be to move along to the next hopeful convert. This almost never happens. But Kendal carried an air of politeness about her, so I let her recite her spiel, occasionally answering:

  • “Yes, I’ve read the Bible, many years ago, but I can’t quote chapter and verse.”
  • “No, I haven’t accepted the Lord into my heart, just as I don’t take in any of the other belief systems I don’t embrace.”
  • “Yes, I’ve heard the saying, the greatest trick Lucifer ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

And when she noticed the standard approach wasn’t working, Kendal switched gears and attempted to relate to a wretch like me.

“I was raised in a religious household but I fell from the path of righteousness,” she said. “I lost my way and my faith in The Almighty, because I thought I was smarter than He was. What did I need Him for? I knew how I looked and how boys looked at me and I knew how to get them to do whatever I wanted. I filled my life with parties, alcohol, drugs and fornication, but the time came when I reached rot bottom [I didn’t have the heart to correct her by saying the phrase was rock bottom] and my soul was empty and nothing I tried could fill it. Then one day, a man approached me just like I did you. Supposably [again I didn’t correct her with supposedly] he was directed by God to save one particular soul, mine. Just like God sent me for you.”

When my path led me out of the residential neighborhoods and onto a commerce boulevard, I was forced to stop at certain corners to give way to traffic. Not once, but thrice did Kendal try to get me to pray with her at these stops in order to receive an instant release of all the burdens in my life. And like Peter, I denied her three times.

When we passed a Matrix Resurrection movie poster at a bus stop, I saw the wheels turning in her mind and she shifted her pitch, offering me the red pill/blue pill option, before trying to twist my melon with the Inception angle of this life being Man’s dream within Satan’s dream within God’s dream, before going off on a Jacob’s Ladder tangent that she couldn’t quite bring around to make her point. To her credit the one thing Kendal didn’t challenge me with was that time-honored favorite, “You don’t believe in God because you can’t see Him, but you believe in air and you can’t see that, right?”

But eventually, she did ask, “Well, if you don’t have faith in God, what do you believe in?”

“I believe I’m not smart enough,” I answered, as I always did whenever anyone bothered to ask. But it’s a poorly constructed answer that required clarification. I should change it, but it had become an almost automatic response at this point. That, and I’m just too damned lazy to do so.

Off her confused expression, I said:

“I, myself, am a non-spiritual entity who believes that when it comes to the origin of things—the universe, life, etc.—that I am simply not smart enough to know the truth. And when I say I, taking the full weight of ignorance upon myself, I actually mean we as in mankind or peoplekind or whatever passes for politically correct phrasing nowadays. This does not, however, mean that I do not applaud anyone’s attempt to gain answers, I’m just not satisfied with any of the options presented to date.

“And that’s not just with religion. Creationism versus evolution? I’ve got no dog in that fight. I proudly ride the ignorance fence when it comes to our humble beginnings because, in my opinion, religion and science both offer up a series of theories yet to be proven as fact.

“You believe differently? Good on you. I sincerely hope that works out for you, sincerely hope you’re right, and sincerely hope you receive your reward for being righteous.

“I’m not in the habit of knocking people’s spiritual beliefs. It’s none of my concern what system you choose to embrace, and with all due respect, I couldn’t care less who or what you worship. Totally your business and I’m cool with it all, especially if it gives your life some sort of balance and leads you to do no harm.

“This isn’t to say that I don’t find the Bible a fascinating read, but I view it as—again, no offense intended—mythology. Same as with Greek, Celtic, Aztec, African, etc. writings that deal with the human experience in relation to the worshiping of gods. I also enjoy apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts, all of which eventually find their way into my work.”

Kendal didn’t agree with a lick of this blasphemous nonsense and after a good forty-five minutes of loggerhead debate, she gave the “stop and pray with me” one last-ditch effort.

“You know,” I said. “I will…if you can do me a favor. For the sake of argument, I will accept that God sent you for me, and God being omniscient, knows that I’m cynical, so what I’d like you to do is to ask Him to give you the words that will open my mind and heart to Him. Remember, He knows me and knows that a Bible verse won’t do the trick. So, can you please take a moment and ask Him, out loud or silently to yourself, I’m not sure how that’s done, and if what He directs you to say offers me even the slightest doubt that my belief system is wrong, I promise you that I will stop and pray with you.”

In all the times I presented this request, no one ever stepped up to the challenge. The response I usually received was that God didn’t have to prove Himself to me. The onus was on me to open my heart and let Him shine His light into areas I was attempting to hide in the shadows.

But Kendal actually remained silent for a moment and when she spoke, she said, “I see you, thou art beautiful, and I love you.”

That, I was not expecting. Kudos to her. It was said sweetly enough and damn-near convincingly but alas and alack, not enough to sway me. And I told her as much.

We ran into another traffic light and this time Kendal attempted to hand me a pamphlet, which probably contained pieces of the rhetoric she spouted off to me, along with a Bible verse or two and the location of whatever church she was affiliated with.

I told her she should keep it because if I took the pamphlet, it was only going to wind up in the first trash can I came across.

Then Kendal turned the pamphlet around and said, “My number’s on the back,” and sure enough there was a phone number handwritten in pen at the bottom of the brochure.

I couldn’t avoid chuckling. “That’s the first bad move I’ve seen you make in this entire exchange,” I said, shaking my head. “At the bare minimum I’m twice your age, probably even three times, so it’s safe to say that I’ve been around the block once or twice, and game recognizes game. Now, if I was your age, that number gimmick just might have worked on me, but I’m not, so you’re wasting your time.”

For the first time during our exchange, Kendal took in the measure of me. The thing I didn’t mention in all this was that when she wasn’t keeping her eyes peeled for obstacles in her path, Kendal maintained direct eye contact, which made me feel like I had her undivided attention. A rare experience nowadays, especially from a younger person. Finally, she nodded, shrugged, and said, “Can’t blame me for trying.”

She skated back the way we came and as she passed, said, “I still see you, thou art beautiful, and I love you.” To which I had no reply.

It’s been two days since that encounter and each time I’m in the vicinity of where I first met Kendal, my head is on a swivel trying to locate which hidey-hole she’ll emerge from, but since I do not walk with God, I continue to walk alone.

In honor of the noble, and slightly questionable, efforts of Kendal, I urge you all to go forth this holiday season and be true to your own belief systems (and should you wish to add this sinner to your prayers, I surely won’t stop you).

12 Plays of Christmas: The Christmas Heart

‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas when a stranger entered a prewar building that in its heyday used to be a ballroom for the hoi polloi, a place where the common folk who couldn’t afford the ritzier establishments came to dance their cares away. The section of the city in which it was built was in a constant state of flux, so the ballroom eventually transformed into a department store warehouse, then a community center, and when funding and interest ran out and the neighborhood became a place police wouldn’t go after dark for fear of their safety, the abandoned and condemned property served as a makeshift shelter for homeless children.

Inside, it reeked of the stench of hopelessness and was packed to capacity with children covered in the grime of neglect, their young, despondent faces smudged with the soot of abandonment.

The stranger was a portly, bespectacled man wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, red hat with white fur, and black leather belt and boots. His nose and cheeks were red as roses and his white beard was full and seemed to roll in upon itself like a fluffy cloud. Despite his size, he maneuvered through the sea of children as quiet as the hush of evening.

Children who were up at the late hour woke those who were asleep but such was the aura of the man that none of them were alarmed or threatened by his sudden presence, and the sensations of starvation and being chilled to the bone were temporarily replaced with a sense of awe. It was akin to coming face to face with a real live unicorn or some other mythical creature.

Regardless of their ages, the children all gathered around and whispered his name, Santa! Kris Kringle! Papa Noël! Father Christmas! because it was apparent who the man was. Not an imposter from a mall or a bell-ringer from the street, this was the genuine article.

“Are you real?” asked a bedraggled boy in the middle of the crowd.

“Why, yes, Jude Herbert, I am as real as you are,” the one and only Claus answered to the boy’s delighted surprise.

“You know my name?”

“Of course, I know all your names,” the Keeper of the List nodded and began pointing to and naming every child in the room. “Alisha Moss, Finley Hopkins, Sienna Simmons,” and so forth and so on.

“Where’s your bag?”

“My what?”

“In all the pictures I’ve seen you always carry a bag full of presents,” said Dinesh Mehta. “That’s what you do, right? Give presents to kids?”

“The gift I have for you wouldn’t fit inside a sack.”

“He ain’t gonna give us no presents,” said Gabriel Ford. “When has he ever? I ain’t never got nothing from Santa Claus, have you?”

Glad and hopeful expressions dropped from the surrounding faces in rapid succession.

“It is true,” the Christmas Man, admitted. “I haven’t been able to get to all of you before today, but not because you are unloved or undeserving. I know this is a poor excuse but my resources are limited and I sincerely apologize for not making an appearance before today.”

“So, you’re gonna give us presents?” Hope Allison asked. “Really and truly?”

“Indeed I am, but first I want to ask you all a question: Where does all my magic come from?”

A multitude of hands shot into the air to a chorus of Ooo! Ooo! I know! I know! And those too impatient to wait to be called on, yelled, Magic food! Magic bell! Your magic hat! Pixie dust! Nicholas the Saint delighted in seeing them forget their worries for a moment and just be children.

He waited patiently until all the guessing had been exhausted before he cupped his red-mittened hands together and held them out.

“All good guesses but here is where all the magic stems from,” he said and opened his hands. Floating in midair just above his palms was the image of a heart, not a biological one but the type that people drew in pictures, but this heart was made of golden shimmering light.

“What’s that?” asked a young blond-haired girl.

“This, Shelina van der Schaaf, is a Christmas heart.”

“I want one!” exclaimed a small boy.

“You have one, Vasyl Vavera,” Sinterklaas said.

“I do?”

“Everyone has a Christmas heart.”

“I don’t have one,” young Yobanna Chukwumoge said, pulling all his filthy pockets inside out. “I don’t have anything, see?”

“That’s because you’re not looking in the right place,” Grandfather Frost said. From a pouch tucked in his belt, he produced a handful of dust and blew it into the air above the crowd. Instead of settling like normal dust, the shimmering particles hung in the air around the children. “What you need to do is open your hand, palm side up and place it in front of your chest. Now say to yourself, Show me my Christmas heart.”

The children all followed Pelznickel’s instructions and just above their palms shimmering hearts appeared. Some glowed brighter than others but they were all beautiful.

“This is the power source that keeps my workshops running, that helps my reindeers fly, that allows me to visit all the houses of children in the entire world in a single night, which is the problem. There are so many people in the world, new ones being born every second and the demand keeps getting bigger and bigger and it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep up, so I came to ask for your help.”

“But you’re Santa Claus and we’re just poor kids,” Kisanet Eyob pointed out. “How can we help you?”

“You may not be aware of this but all of you share the same wish. You all want a home, you want to be a part of a family, you want to be loved, and I have come here to give you that, with no strings attached.”

“But you also need our Christmas hearts, don’t you?” asked Zygfryd Zawadzki.

“I would like to borrow some of that energy, yes, and there are so many of you, I would only need a tiny bit from each heart. And you are free to say no, that will not affect my Christmas gift to you, you are all welcomed to share my home with me, and Mrs. Claus has hot baths and meals waiting for all of you.”

“Will it hurt?” asked Erick Santos Gomes. “When you take our hearts?”

“I’ll only be borrowing the smallest bit of energy. Your heart will be fine, Erick, you won’t feel a thing.”

The children began agreeing because they somehow knew Santa was telling the truth, but over the din of the excited children, Santa noticed the absence of one voice.

“Is something troubling you, Ruby Kirby?” Santa asked.

The children quieted down and stared at Father Christmas in befuddlement. They looked around to see whom he was talking to.

Over the heads of the throng he said, “If you said something, I couldn’t make it out. I’m far older than I look and my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Can you please come a bit closer?”

The crowd of children parted like the Red Sea and an emaciated little girl with dead eyes that held a thousand-yard stare, timidly made her way to the Christmas-Bringer.

“What seems to be the problem, my dear?” he asked.

“You need magic,” Ruby’s voice was as soft as pity. “I don’t have any.”

“Of course you do.”

“No, I don’t,” Ruby placed her open palm in front of her chest and said, “Show me my Christmas heart.”

The heart that floated above her hand looked more like the biological kind and it was not made of light but of rough metal with uneven edges, with scars all over it, and in places there were replacement pieces that didn’t fit perfectly, where it had been broken and improperly mended. There were also deep gouges where some pieces were missing.

The Christmas Kringle took a knee so that he was eye level with Ruby and said, “You may see a mess of scars, but I see a heart that has been battle-tested, a heart that has known love and loss, a heart resourceful enough to pick up the pieces of shattered affection and patch itself back together. And do you know how I know your heart is perfect?”

“How?” asked Ruby.

“Because that’s the exact same way my Christmas heart used to look. You may not know it to look at me now, but when I was your age I was a loner. Even in a crowded room, I was alone but it was mostly of my own doing because I did not seek out interactions with other people, in fact, I actively avoided it.”

“Why?”

“I guess because everyone in my life up to that point had let me down and abandoned me, so I made up my mind that I didn’t need anybody. But that wasn’t my destiny, you see. I met a couple who showed me that kindness towards others was such a fragile thing and it was never more than one generation away from extinction. Because it isn’t ingrained in our nature, it’s something that has to be taught and reinforced constantly by each generation, for once it dies, it is gone for good. Those who have known kindness have the propensity to show it to others, but where kindness was never known, only cruelty lurks.”

“So, you changed? But how did you do it?”

“By doing the hardest thing I ever had to do. I ignored all the negative voices in my head and I went out and made a friend, and that friend introduced me to his friends and before I knew it, I wasn’t by myself anymore.”

“But how did you do it?” Ruby asked again, not quite understanding his solution.

“You’re standing in a room full of people holding their hearts in their hands, what do you think you should do?”

Ruby hung her head, squeezed her eyes shut to stem the flow of tears, yet some sneaked past her eyelid defenses and rolled down her cheeks. She held her Christmas heart out in front of her and asked, “Will someone please be my friend and help me fix my Christmas heart?”

One by one the children took turns stepping up and touching their hearts to Ruby’s heart. With all that attention, she expected it to change but it remained metal and different from all the rest.

“It didn’t work,” a crestfallen Ruby said with tears welling once again.

“Didn’t it? Take a closer look,” the Holiday Sleigher suggested.

Ruby brought the heart up to her eye, “All I see is rusty metal.”

“But what about in the cracks? In the bits that are missing?”

And sure enough, Ruby detected a glow pulsing inside a metal cranny, keeping time with her own heartbeat. “Is that…?”

“It’s the birth of your new Christmas heart. Just like you, it requires time to grow but you need to take care of it, nurture and share it for it to reach its maximum potential. Can you do that?”

“I promise,” the little girl nodded and this time her tears were happy ones. “So, when are you taking us to your home?” she asked.

“Why, we’re already here,” said the jolly old saint. “If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself.”

The children raced to the front doors and flung them open wide, and sure enough, the entire building had somehow crossed the magical Arctic Circle and was now sitting in the winter wonderland village in Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland, the official hometown of Santa Claus.

“But how?” Ruby asked

“The magic of the Christmas hearts brought us here, even yours, Ruby.”

Ruby Kirby tucked her Christmas heart away and smiled ear to ear as Santa Claus lifted her in his arms and carried her across the field of soft powder snow to her new home.

And that just about does it for the 12 Plays of Christmas series. I want to thank all of you who followed me on this experimental journey. I know I run this phrase into the ground but, it’s very much appreciated. Oh, and…

MERRY CHRISTMAS! Wishing you all a happy holiday season (whether you celebrate or not) and may you receive the best gift of all: a wonderful life full of happiness, love, joy, laughter, tranquility and prosperity!

12 Plays of Christmas: A Treehouse on the Moon

How could Nathaniel Buchanan ever forget that book? The infamous leather-bound Do Not Touch book with the cracked spine that sat on the mantle above the fireplace of his childhood home. The only person allowed to touch it was his mother, which she did every night to read him the bedtime story adventures of The Christmas Treehouse on The Moon.

It was a collection of short stories, oddly enough without any pictures like most storybooks, involving the first mother and son astronaut team to travel to the moon. A problem with the ship’s engine forced them to land inside the deepest crater on the dark side of the moon and there they discovered a mysterious treehouse.

But this was no ordinary treehouse because the inside was big enough to hold an entire world, and the air was breathable, so they didn’t need their spacesuits, and every day was Christmas.

His mother never read the same story twice and the book contained so many adventures that Nathaniel never went to bed without listening to the exploits of Sarah and little Sammy Centauri as they explored strange lands, met different aliens, and celebrated new customs inside the fantastical, weird and sometimes dangerous lunar Christmas treehouse.

When Nathaniel finally became old enough to read for himself, the leather book mysteriously disappeared. It wasn’t until years later when nostalgia made him want to locate the book, which couldn’t be found in the public library, any rare bookstore, or even online, that he made two discoveries:

  1. The book didn’t exist; and
  2. His mother was illiterate.

To his mother’s credit, she managed to keep it a closely guarded secret, finding creative ways to hide the fact that she was unable to read. There was always some kind soul willing to help her read something because she had “forgotten her glasses” or a server suggesting recommendations when her eyes were too tired to read the menu.

And while Nathaniel wished she had told him the truth because he would have gladly helped her learn how to read, he appreciated the fact that she took the time to invent a new story every night, which unbeknownst to her, fueled his desire to become an astronaut.

Sadly, she passed away before he joined NASA and made the terraforming moon mission. On her deathbed, she whispered, “I’ll be waiting for you in the treehouse.”

The astronauts were allowed to bring a personal item with them on the mission, and while the others brought things like a musical instrument, favorite book, or family photos, Nathaniel brought a pine cone.

After all, you had to grow a Christmas tree before you could build a house on it.

12 Plays of Christmas: Home For The Holidays

Alan Mann was a family man. He came from a big family, all his brothers and sisters had big families and he was fortunate enough to marry a lovely woman, Mamie, who was an only child who always dreamed of starting a big family of her own. And when it came to the holidays, nobody celebrated Christmas like the Tribe of Mann.

Which was why it was such a disappointment that Alan’s job needed his help in closing a massive deal on Christmas Day on the opposite coast. Ordinarily, he would have refused but the fact of the matter was, his family needed the cash injection his commission from the deal would have provided. Mamie wasn’t thrilled about spending Christmas without her husband, but she backed his play.

Everything was going to plan in Los Angeles and Alan prepared for the deal to wrap early as he planned to make it home at least by Christmas evening. He had already shipped a load of gifts to his family and the backup plan, in case things went south, was to celebrate Christmas with them over webcam, but on Christmas Eve he received a call from his wife.

“Alan, you need to come home,” Mamie said.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your mother’s in the hospital and…it doesn’t look good.”

Alan booked a plane ticket online while Mamie explained his mother’s condition. The cheapest immediate flight he could find was severely overpriced, and on his way to the airport, he left messages on his business partners’ voicemails apprising them of the situation. His mother instilled in him the preference of asking forgiveness rather than permission when it came to family matters.

There was a layover at Detroit Metropolitan Airport that set Alan back five hours. He pleaded his case at the airport, tried to get them to bump a passenger off an earlier flight, which he would have gladly paid for, but it couldn’t be helped, weather conditions in New York caused the unavoidable delay.

When he finally landed at LaGuardia Airport, he jumped the cue at the taxi stand and called his wife to let her know he would be there soon. But when he arrived at the hospital, it was too late. His mother had passed.

“I shouldn’t have taken this stupid assignment in the first place,” Alan said as he paced the hospital corridor.

“You did it for the family, Alan, we needed the money. Who could have foreseen something like this happening?”

“I should have rented a car in Detroit and driven here instead of being stuck at that goddamned airport!”

“Detroit to New York? That’s what, a nine-hour drive at best? It wouldn’t have made a difference, honey.”

“But I should have been here!”

“You were, through us,” Mamie stood directly in his path and stopped him in his tracks. She gently held his face and made her husband look her in the eye. “Every time you called, me and your sisters and brothers kept your mother updated whenever she regained consciousness. We made sure she knew you were on your way, that you were doing your best like you always do. And I know you feel guilty about it, but you have to remember, she wasn’t alone. We were all here with her.”

Alan was taken to see his mother’s body where he unburdened his soul and begged for forgiveness, and after all the tears had been shed and it was time to leave, he coordinated with his siblings, divvying up responsibilities for the funeral arrangements.

On the way to the elevator, Alan heard a woman crying. There was an elderly woman lying on a gurney in the hallway, with no attendants or staff around so he wasn’t sure if she was waiting for a bed or being taken to a department for tests or treatment, but her cries tugged at his already tender heartstrings.

The woman’s eyes were watery, her stare distant, but she was aware of Alan’s presence and in a weak voice said, “I’m scared.”

Alan took her frail hand and said, “It’s okay to feel scared, but you’re not alone, I’m here with you. I love you and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of you. I can’t tell you how much better my life is for having you in it.”

The woman slipped into unconsciousness and Alan’s sisters located a male staffer and made him aware of the situation, berating the man in the process for leaving the old woman unattended. Such was the way of the Mann women.

“That was beautiful, Alan,” Mamie put her arm around her husband’s shoulder.

“I wish I could have said all those things to my mother.”

“Those were things your mother already knew, but you said them to a woman who might not have had an Alan in her life to hear it from. It was sweet and what your mother raised you to do.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Mom had that arranged,” said Doris, Alan’s oldest sister.

“You think Mom parked an old woman in the hallway for me to comfort?”

“Excuse me, have you ever met our mother? Tell me that isn’t something she would have done.”

It was farfetched and designed to lighten the mood a little, which it did, but Alan couldn’t totally discount the notion that his mother exerted the last of her energy setting those wheels in motion.

This was going to be a solemn Christmas with an empty place setting at the table but at least the family was all together.

12 Plays of Christmas: A Letter to Santa

Maurice Weichert never appreciated gifts given to him by strangers as most of them were usually old tat, but once at an office party many moons ago, a forgotten-named someone, as a Secret Santa, heard that he liked to write so she gave him a stationery set which he thought to be quite impressive. It went unused, of course, because he lived in an era where handwritten letters had gone the way of the dinosaur. And how fitting it was that a dinosaur was now on the hunt to retrieve it.

He exhumed the set from the bottom of a box shoved in the back of the bedroom closet, and to his surprise, it was still in pristine condition. Clearing a spot on the dining table, he paired the parchment with two other gifts from long-ago holidays, a Montblanc pen and a glass of Gonzalez Byass Apóstoles Sherry.

Maurice wasn’t much of a drinker, which explained why the sherry remained untouched all these years but he required a bit of liquid courage so he downed the glass in one, poured himself another, uncapped his pen and commenced to write his letter. Having not written for quite a long while, his penmanship wasn’t as crisp as it once was and added to that fact was the tremor in his hand brought on by age and nervousness.

Dear Santa,

It has been ages since I last wrote to you and I realize that I am far too old to start doing it again but I am not requesting anything from you, besides the loan of a moment of your time. As the winner of the unluckiest lottery, meaning that I have somehow managed to outlive my parents, siblings, wife and all my friends, I could not think of another living soul who would care to read this besides yourself.

I am a lonely man.

You have no idea how this desolation of companionship feels, having no one to inquire about what is going on in your life or inside your head, no one to challenge your philosophies in a deep conversation, no one to hold you during the silent hours of the night when the mind buzzes with nihilistic inevitabilities, no one to protect thereby giving your life a sense of purpose, no one to hand control over to on the days when you are not quite strong enough, no one to occupy the dead spots and the void inside of you that books, music, television and movies are not capable of filling.

And then there are the visitations from memory ghosts of loved ones and special people and people who could have been special if only you had not gotten in your own way and run them off, ghosts of better times and better days that you would gladly give anything, even your immortal soul, to step back into and relive just one more time, ghosts of conversations when you said the wrong things to people who did not deserve it and were too stubborn to apologize for.

You have no idea how much it hurts to be isolated from the world at large, to know that you still have love to give but not a single solitary soul to offer it to, still have jokes to tell but no one to laugh at them, experiences to share and knowledge to impart that no one cares to hear.

What is a man to do when his life no longer has direction, and his spark has been doused a decade ago? What happens when he can no longer compartmentalize all the sadness, anger, guilt, heartache, hopelessness, and worthlessness? How does he stop his mundane existence from draining and crippling his soul as it makes his world grow smaller by the day and it gets harder to breathe and he can’t clear the fog from his head—

The pen dropped from Maurice’s hand almost as if in protest. This wasn’t the letter he intended to write. The plan was to create a magnum opus, the letter to Santa to end all letters, a missive that succinctly encapsulated his existence, but this…this was soppy cringe-worthy drivel. He would have to start it all over again, perhaps creating an outline this time to better organize his thoughts.

Crumpling the letter into a ball, he tossed it absently in the direction of the wire mesh waste bin…when a hand snatched it out of the air.

Standing behind him in full regalia was Father Christmas himself, jolly old Saint Nicholas, who said, “I’ll take that. It was meant for me anyway, wasn’t it?”

“Santa?” Maurice felt like he was having a hypnagogic hallucination, the kind that occurred during the transition between REM sleep and wakefulness.

“In the flesh, Reese,” Santa said. “Do you mind if I call you Reese? I’ve watched you all your life and calling you Maurice just seems so formal. You can call me Nick if you like, or Kris. Either one is fine.”

 “What are you doing here?”

“You wrote me a letter.”

“And you personally visit everyone who writes to you?”

“Not usually, no, but I had a little downtime and thought, what the heck?”

“But how did you get here?”

“The usual way.”

“No, I mean how did you get here so fast? The letter isn’t even written yet.”

“The final version hasn’t been completed, but I know when someone is writing me a letter.”

“That’s impossible.”

Santa patted his belly and said, “I can fit this bulk through any chimney without getting stuck or catching fire, can levitate back up said chimney by touching my nose and nodding, I know the names of every person on the planet and if they’ve been naughty or nice, among other things…and my instantly knowing when someone writes a letter addressed to me is the thing you’re questioning?”

“I guess you’re right. Well, I think you wasted a trip because I wasn’t asking for anything, I just needed to air a few things out.”

Santa uncrumpled the letter and read it to himself. When he finished, he said, “Your feelings are valid and even though you think I don’t understand what you’re going through, believe me, I do. And you’re not alone in feeling this way, especially at this time of year. You’re also not dead yet, and what I mean by that is stop acting like you are. If you take good care of yourself, barring any accidents, you’ve got, at the bare minimum, twenty good years ahead of you. Years that you can make count for something instead of rotting away in a mausoleum of the past.”

Maurice was about to speak when Santa raised a hand to stop him. “Can we discuss what you didn’t get around to including in the letter, Reese? I’ve been at this a long time and have received millions of letters similar to this…”

There was a knock at the apartment door.

“I thought we’d have more time,” Santa said with a sigh. “You should get that, it’s for you.”

“Why did you sigh?” fear struck Maurice’s heart like a match. “I don’t like the way you said that. Who’s at the door?”

“Only one way to find out.”

Maurice approached his apartment door the way a hazardous devices technician approached a suspicious package. His hand hovered above the knob until he could muster the courage to open the door, and there he saw…

A frazzled woman, roughly his age, maybe a little younger, with shoulder-length silver hair, wearing a red and white Santa cap with the words Merry Christmas emblazoned on it.

“Hi, my name is Davina, and don’t worry, I’m not a crazy person, well, maybe a little, but fun-crazy not scary-crazy, I even wore the Santa hat to prove that I’m basically harmless, see?” Davina offered a toothy grin and pointed at the hat. “Anyway, I’m new to the building, your next-door neighbor, actually, and I hate to be a bother, especially so close to Christmas because you’re probably wrapping expensive presents or preparing some fantastic meal or binge-watching your favorite show on Netflix, or something important like that, but I really need to use your phone. It’s not a long-distance call or a phone scam to steal your identity or a call to some expensive sex chatline or anything weird like that, I just moved in today and I’ve got no electricity, gas or phone. It was all supposed to be on when I got here, but you know how these utility companies are, they get around to it when they get around to it because you’re always on their time and not vice-versa. So, would that be okay? Using your phone?”

Davina’s introduction was as rapid as machine-gun fire and Maurice stood in stunned silence for a long moment attempting to process it all. When his brain finally caught up, he said, “Um, sure. The phone’s just this way.”

He let her into the apartment and his brain began working overtime trying to invent a reason for Santa Claus to be sitting in his home, but when they entered the living room, Saint Nicholas was nowhere to be found.

“I’m so glad you’re home and you’re nice, you are nice, aren’t you? I think you’re nice and I’m usually a good judge of character, except when it comes to boyfriends, but why would you need to know that? I’m sorry, I tend to be a chatterbox when I’m nervous which is practically all the time, anyway, what was I saying, oh yeah, I’m so glad that you’re home and you’re letting me use your phone. I would have used my cell but the battery died while I was on hold with the electric company and I couldn’t recharge it because, you know, no electricity. Speaking of which, would it be okay if I charged my phone here?”

“Sure, the socket’s right by the phone.”

“You are a lifesaver, and I promise I’ll be out of your hair in no time.”

“It’s fine, take your time, no rush,” Maurice said still in a haze but he was present enough to remember his manners. “I’m not a coffee drinker but if you don’t mind tea, I can put the kettle on, or can I offer you a glass of water or juice, perhaps?”

“Oh, no, I don’t want to put you through any additional trouble.”

“If it was trouble, I wouldn’t have offered.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“Then tea would be lovely, but nothing with caffeine, please. You wouldn’t want to see me all jittery, trust me.”

He had absolutely no doubt about that. “The phone’s all yours, pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable.”

In the kitchen, Maurice found a note taped to the tea kettle, written in perfect cursive on his stationery, which read:

Much like yourself, Davina has always remained on my nice list, but she’s gone through a bit of a rough patch recently and could use a friend who specializes in kid glove treatment. I know it’s a huge imposition and I wouldn’t dream of asking if I had any other options available to me, but I was wondering if you could help me out on this one as I simply don’t have the time or resources to handle this matter in the manner which it deserves. I would owe you big time and you never know when calling in a Santa favor could come in handy.

Oh, her utilities will be turned on in two hours, which should give you plenty of time to make her acquaintance.

Thanks for the assist, Reese, and Merry Christmas!

Love,

– Santa

PS. If you decide to write me a letter next year, please put out some cookies and milk. The Missus has me on a strict diet and the only time I get to snack is when I’m out on business.