By John Haymaker
Christmas morning held no real surprise for twelve-year-old Xavier. He knew what his elder brother Drake wanted and knew how he’d get it. He wanted a Christmas tree – a real one, not the ball of tumbleweed their step-father Fred suspended from the ceiling like a chandelier each year. Painted white and trimmed with blinking pastel lights and pink balls, the tumbleweed had seemed vogue once – worthy of an artsy magazine layout; but storage in the attic between holidays left paint chipped and twigs bent, giving it a cheap look. Sixteen and irascible, Drake was fed up.
The living room door swung open; pine branches brushed rhythmically across the threshold. Drake had his tree! Before anyone even asked, Drake volunteered, “It was the last one on the lot and kind of scrawny. The man there said I could have it.” Fred lit another cigarette and continued reading on the sofa, ignoring the elephant in the room, but admonished Drake to close the door and not get needles on the carpet.
Drake had been in trouble before for stealing. At age eight, he gave their mother diamond earrings and a teak-handled penknife. Just four then, Xavier regarded these gifts with awe as she opened them; she cocked her head to examine the rare value these might hold. Of course, Drake got his hide tanned for it – but as he confided to Xavier later, he was sick of seeing Fred give Mother cheap stuff. Their real father had given her a diamond necklace one Christmas.
But now no one asked, “What man? What lot?” It was just a pine tree, after all, not diamonds or teak. Devil-may-care, Drake trotted to the garage for trimmers and lobbed off a few lower branches so the tree fit snug into a corner of the living room. Mother made popcorn and taught them to string garlands, which they spiraled around the tree. Drake and Xavier also made a yellow papier-mâché tree topper – a yellow star, which sagged and crinkled while it dried. Mother fastened the star to the tree with ribbon, and all agreed, the crinkles seemed to make the star twinkle. Nobody pressed Drake further on where the tree really came from.
Christmas morning the family sat under the tree and drank cocoa. Mother served freshly baked cinnamon rolls and remarked at the pine scent and the homemade decorations. “The pink balls and the pastel lights wouldn’t really work on this tree,” she said.
“Not bold enough for it,” Fred said with an air of authority, waving his cigarette with one hand.
When they opened presents, Mother gave out white elephant gag gifts first – for Xavier a tin can concealing all but the excitement of Mexican jumping beans and for Drake, a hexagonal box disguising a snow globe. Pulling it out of the box, Drake gave it a devilish shake, thrilled to watch snowy particles settle through liquid onto an elfin village. Each boy gave the parents things they’d made at school. Xavier had fashioned a pine cone wreath from wire and Styrofoam, and Drake gave them an acrylic candy dish shaped like a curling autumn leaf; the acrylic was so crystal pure and the edges so neatly trimmed, Xavier presumed Drake raided a senior classmate’s portfolio – if not a department store. Their mother gave Fred a calendar watch, and he gave her a silky zebra print blouse with the sales tag still attached, an orange sticker showing 50% off.
When they had opened all their gifts and begun sorting ribbons and bows to re-use next year, Drake shuffled some paper behind him and exclaimed, “Oh, I lost count. There’s still another gift – for Mother!” Her head cocked just as Xavier remembered her doing years earlier. “Here,” Drake said, proffering a tissue-sized box, superbly wrapped: paper folded crisply around corners and tied with a pretty pink ribbon, curling and bouncing like Shirley Temple’s hair.
Mother pulled at the curls, pealed tape from paper, hesitated, and then opened the box. It was the snow globe!
She held it to the light as if seeing it for the first time, amazed to see the globe re-gifted so soon, and remarked at Drake’s sleight of hand, re-wrapping the globe right in front of them – yet no one had noticed! She gave the snow globe shake after shake and all laughed and smiled to watch the snow fall upon the toy town and trees. Their tree, their gifts, their home, seemed so like the pretend ones in the globe that morning.
They finished piling all the gift boxes, wrapping paper, ribbons and bows beneath the tree where they remained through New Year’s. The snow globe sat on a corner table under a lamp where everyone gave it a shake now and then and watched the giddy particles resettle.
New Year’s Eve real snow fell; colored lights twinkled from rooftops up and down the block and trees blazed through living room windows. Near midnight, neighbors edged past curtains or huddled on porches to watch as police lights flickered in front of their houses. Xavier watched from a kitchen window: Drake sat in the back seat of a police car as an officer knocked at his parents’ front door. Fred answered but called for Mother before walking into the kitchen to shoo Xavier out of the window. He tamped out his cigarette in the sink and leaned against the refrigerator, listening.
“Your son is under arrest for stealing a woman’s purse this evening,” the policeman said. “She was hit by a car chasing after him and hospitalized.” Covering her mouth with one hand, Mother stepped back, shaking frightfully.
Drake spent a year in reformatory. Upon his release, a string of offenses – ever more serious – followed, and he spent the rest of his Christmases locked up in maximum-security. Holidays at home came and went. No one ever again thought to bring home a tree, string popcorn or make a papier-mâché star. The tumbleweed hung from rafters in the attic, and the snow globe sat on a shelf nearby behind ribbons and bows, its miniature world undisturbed.
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Bio: John Haymaker’s recent stories, LGBTQIA+ nonfiction and Chinese translations appear in various online journals, including Hawaii Pacific Review, Bewildering Stories. He also has “Riders on the Storm“, ” Izzy’s Demise” and an interview here at The Yard: Crime Blog. He writes and contemplates crime from the SF Bay Area but feels at home in Chicago, Houston, Denver and the PRC.
He can be found at his website—https://johnhaymaker.com/