With the last bits of shredded wrapping paper stuffed into a black plastic trash bag, I turned my attention to the ornaments on the Christmas tree. I wanted it all down, every light and every silver thread of tinsel. Tara told me to leave the tree alone. She knew what the holiday meant to us, but maybe she wanted us to pretend we could forget about it. I thought, to hell with her, and to hell with my dad for not standing his ground. Staring her in the eye, I dropped the glass ball I took from the tree. It popped on the ground into tinkling silver shards.
Tara shook her head at me and clucked her tongue. She gave Dad that stupid exasperated expression she put on any time she had to interact with me.
“Richard, clean it up and be more careful. We will take the tree down next week,” he told me. He poured another half-cup of coffee, then filled the other half with whiskey.
Tara looked ready to have a fit. I saw it creep over her thin shoulders, up her skinny neck, but then to her credit, she bit her lips and held it back. She didn’t want a fight on Christmas. Hell, she just wanted a special day as a family. She wanted that Christmas promise of smiles, thank-you hugs, sledding, and then cocoas until dinner is ready. Dad was her first marriage and it was her first Christmas with a family of her own – second-hand as it was. Whatever Christmas meant to her, to Dad and me, it was a eulogy we had to suffer every year for a month. That’s why Dad drank until the tree and wreaths and lights and holly all blurred together, and kept on until they faded completely as he passed out.
Four years ago, I used to love Christmas. I’d nest in the wrapping paper before Dad had a chance to throw it away. When I gave Mom her thank-you-hugs she smelled like peppermint cocoa. She served breakfast on the big, round coffee table in the family room, so we didn’t have to leave our presents. With everyone still in their pajamas, we ate waffles soaked to the plate in butter and warm syrup and had tall glasses of pulpy orange juice to wash it down. After we dumped our dishes in the sink, we’d head to the living room, grab a blanket, then find a comfortable place on the sofa or floor to curl up and watch a holiday movie while our food digested. I’d fall asleep twenty minutes in, warm, full, and content.
When I woke up, all the wrapping paper was gone and my presents would be waiting for me, stacked up on my bed. Jackson, my little brother, and I would play with our new toys until Mom hollered at us to make ourselves presentable for guests. Family was coming for dinner. When all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents arrived, the house would swell with laughter and excitement. Jackson and I would compare our presents with our cousins to see who had won that year. Then we would run around the house, sometimes playing games, but mostly I think we were trying to burn off the delirium and joy.
The air of the house would grow thick with the smell of food. Jackson and I would sit with the cousins, squirming at the kids’ table. Our plates would fill up with turkey and mashed potatoes all covered in gravy. Even vegetables somehow tasted good on Christmas. Then there was pie and eggnog, crammed on top of our fit-to-burst stomachs. The pile of dirty dishes everyone took turns washing never took as long as I thought it would. Everyone hugged their goodbyes. The younger cousins were carried out asleep, like rag-dolls in their parents’ arms. Dad would carry Jackson to his bed. Mom would kiss me good night. I would take one last proud look over my presents before crawling underneath my covers. The post-Christmas blues would set in as I drifted to sleep, but I’d still be smiling.
All that was gone now. All that family was on my Mom’s side. Dad didn’t invite them over anymore and never took them up on their invitations. With Mom and Jackson gone, everything felt uneven and the remnants of our family collapsed in on itself. We had buried Christmas at their funeral. December became just a cold month spent eating take-out and watching action movies. Then Tara came along and dug it back up, but it was a lifeless, zombie of a Christmas now.
His two-hour Christmas vacation over, Dad was back to work on his laptop. Tara began sucking down mimosas, trying to drown the regret of joining our broken family. Things were back to normal. It was just Wednesday again.
I swept up the broken ornament. Some of the glass got under the tree. Bending low to get at it, I noticed a red ribbon that wound itself around a gold wrapped box. It was about the same size as clothing box, but heavier than clothes. There was no tag saying who it was from and who it was for.
“There’s one more present under the tree,” I called out.
Dad grunted. He’d already given all the attention he could spare for one day. Tara leaned back in her chair to look through the kitchen doorway. She gave me a lazy smile, waving her hand in the air to say she didn’t care, and then went back to pouring champagne into her orange juice.
“Fine. I guess it’s mine,” I said to myself.
I put the present on my lap and tore the paper away from a clear, plastic box. Inside the box were nine balls, each of them was a different opaque color and about the size of a baseball. I thought they were more Christmas ornaments for Tara at first, but they were too heavy to be ornaments. I opened the box and took out the red, gooey ball. It felt sticky and squishy, like a ball of firm Jell-O, or more like the sticky, hand-shaped slapper things I used to get as a kid for two quarters out of toy machines. Fifteen was too old for toys, so I figured they were from Tara. She was clueless on everything teenager. They could’ve been some sort of game, but there were no instructions. I held the red goo-ball in my hand. An overwhelming urge to throw it against the wall came over me. It stuck with a very satisfying splat. I took out the purple goo-ball and threw it next to the red one on the wall. They both stayed stuck.
“Whatever you’re doing in there knock it off, or take it up to your room,” Dad bellowed.
“And don’t forget to take out that garbage,” Tara said.
I stood smiling off into nothing for few seconds after I pulled the goo-balls off the wall. When I tried to think of why I had started to smile, I couldn’t. It was like I had a good idea and then forgot it completely.
In my room, I dumped my presents on my bed. There was this building anticipation in my gut. There was all this energy in me. I licked my lips and took out the red ball again. I squeezed it in my hand, relishing the way it bulged between my fingers. I flung the ball against the wall with another satisfying splat and it stuck there quivering. I yanked out the other goo-balls out of the molded tray. First, I chucked Yellow and Blue against the wall, followed by Orange and Green, and then Teal and Purple, Amber, and finally Chartreuse. They stuck to the wall, wiggling a tad, but holding firm. I pulled them off one by one, and one by one, I threw them back against the wall. I kept at it until Tara came up to scream at me. She’d been calling me down to dinner. Eight hours had passed like a daydream. My shoulders ached and my arms shook with fatigue. My cheeks pinched with soreness. Apparently, I had been smiling the whole time.
Dad and Tara went to bed, and I was on my way to brush my teeth and do the same, but ended up out in the garage with the goo-balls. Hours passed. My tired eyes stung and deep yawns shook my whole body. Still, I didn’t want to stop. I only wanted to lose myself further in the peaceful repetition of throwing and pulling the goo-balls.
On one throw, the orange had stuck to the wall in a more oblong shape. Then the purple flattened against the wall in a rounded square. A thrill ran through me. Chartreuse stuck in a triangle. Amber, motionless in an octagon. Teal was a parallelogram. I went through every shape I could remember from geometry. When I couldn’t think of any more, Green hit the wall and spread into a smiley face. That gave me a cold rush of reality. I had somehow been controlling the goo-balls, deciding what shape they’d be when they hit the wall.
I threw Yellow on top of Teal, to see if it would stay there and, of course, it did. Then I threw Chartreuse followed by Red on top, and they stayed put too. I threw the rest of the balls and got them all to stick in a row straight off the wall. It was like having a dream where you realize you can fly. At first, you feel a little excited, but then it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
“Richard!” Tara shouted at the doorway with her hands pressed against her hips. “What the hell, man?”
The goo-balls fell onto the concrete floor.
“Wh-What?” I croaked, feeling disoriented like I had woken from a deep sleep.
“It’s 2 o’clock in the morning. Stop whatever the hell this is and go to bed.”
“I was, uh… trying out my presents,” I told her, picking up the balls and dropping them back into the tray.
“What are those things? Did your father get them for you?” Tara asked as she poked the teal goo-ball. “Are they toys?”
I shrugged, “Yeah, I guess. There wasn’t a tag or label or nothing.”
Tara’s eyebrows raised and she clucked her tongue. “Aren’t you a bit too old for toys?”
“Isn’t my dad too old for you?” I muttered.
“What did you say?” Tara said, grabbing my arm.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You know what?” She couldn’t finish. The fight went out of her and she dropped my arm. “Just go to bed.”
Back in my room, I flopped onto my bed and had the best night’s sleep in my life. The next morning I woke up with thick layers of sleep crusted in my eyes. My arms were heavy and warm. Something had changed in me; I could feel it. Something was better.