I awoke to the sounds of Christmas carols: “Here comes Santa Claus,” to be specific. My wife, Tabitha, knew the words all the way through to the third verse while my six-year-old son and three-year-old daughter started mumbling after the first. They kept singing anyway, yelling and laughing to make up for not knowing. “He’s got a bag that’s filled with toys for boys and girls again.” My wife’s voice fought to be heard over them as I could hear my mother breaking into fits of laughter.
The guest room was cold and I realized I’d slept on the floor, probably so the other three could share the full-sized bed. And hey, with young kids, you’d take sleep anywhere you could get it. This was true even though I could feel my back protesting before I tried to get up. I stared at the ceiling of my old room. I was always flooded with memories when we’d come home for the holidays. I could swear I could still see the holes my pencils had made when I flung them into the shitty popcorn-ceilings instead of finishing my homework. There was a hole in the wall just next to the closet where my friend Tommy and I had been practicing our wrestling moves, and his heel came whipping around a little too fast after I performed a body-slam on him.
I felt cold air pouring in from the window just above my head. I’d have to talk to Dad about caulking it for him while we were in town. I never told my wife, but she wasn’t the first girl I’d snuck in that window back in the day. It was on the far side of the house so you could walk right up to it in the middle of the night without Dad or Mom noticing. As long as you could keep them from giggling that is. I always found jokes were a good way to loosen the mood, jokes and a bottle of whatever I could sneak away from Dad’s stash after dinner.
Tabitha was different though. She seemed to like me without the assistance of alcohol, which was good because by the time I snuck her in, Dad was onto my antics and had locked up his stash. Tabitha and I made it about one drink into the bottle of cooking sherry I’d managed to procure that night before spitting it out and capping it. Our eyes were watering and we were laughing when we shared our first kiss. She tasted like apples and vomit and I’m sure I did the same. We laughed about that too. She always said that if we could make it through that, we could make it through anything. She was right. Tabitha had had some hard pregnancies. They pushed her body to the limit and our marriage as well. We came out on the other side somehow stronger.
When Mom was diagnosed with dementia, my sister, Cindy, and I tried to support Dad the best we could. Some days Mom was herself for most of her waking hours, as Dad would put it. Others…not so much. It was last year when we’d gotten into town that it was clear to all of us that she was getting worse. Even the kids were picking up on it. It scared Tabitha. She didn’t trust Mom around them anymore, the way she’d lose herself and yell at them. Tabitha didn’t want to take the trip again. I reminded her that Dad needed us and we may not have many Christmases left with her.
That’s why it felt so good to hear them singing together that morning, Mom laughing, Dad chopping up something in the kitchen. It was worth the trip. I’d remind Tabitha of that after I got up and found something warm to wear. I was freezing at that point. The window might need more than caulk. I pulled on a coat as they broke into another verse. “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus right down Santa Claus Lane…”
I walked towards the bedroom door. Maybe I’d break Tabitha in easy with the cooking sherry story first. She loved to make fun of me for that one.
That was when I smelled smoke. It was faint at first, but then I felt it in my throat. I looked down to see it pouring under the door. I coughed and waved my hands. I tried to scream through the door that there was a fire somewhere, that they needed to get out of the house, but all I managed was a choked wheeze. All the fire safety training I’d ever been to told me not to touch the handle, but I could still hear them singing. It was as if they were oblivious to the raging fire just on the other side of the door. I tucked my hand in my coat sleeve and tugged at the handle. It wouldn’t turn. It was like it was locked from the other side, but that wasn’t possible. Had one of the kids done it? Playing a prank on Daddy? It didn’t matter. I managed a scream between coughs this time and sent my heel into the door. It shook in the frame so I gave it a few more blows. I heard a solid crack on my last kick. Now I could hear my sister, Cindy, calling my name. She and my brother-in-law weren’t supposed to arrive until later in the afternoon but it was clearly her. She sounded concerned, like they finally spotted the fire, only…when I paused for my last kick, I could still hear the rest of them singing: Tabitha, my kids, Mom laughing, Dad in the kitchen. I covered my mouth with my coat, took a deep breath, and kicked as hard as I could. The door exploded into dust.
“Eric, Eric!” I heard Cindy’s voice as I stood in a pile of charred wood. I was shivering harder now, still standing in my old bedroom, only, it was nothing but burnt framework.
Cindy came up and hugged me as I stood in a daze.
“Cindy…when did you…the fire!”
She pulled back and gave me a concerned look. “The neighbors called. They said they saw you in Mom and Dad’s old house again. Come on, let’s get out of the cold.”
She linked arms with me and led me to the street of the quiet neighborhood. Her husband Hector sat in the driver’s seat with raised eyebrows.
“You alright there, Eric?” he said.
“Just,” said Cindy and she gave him a sharp look.
She helped me into the backseat as I looked back at the charred remains of my parents’ old house. The singing finally stopped.
About The Author
Scott Boss is an Author, Musician, and Computer EMR teacher in Western North Carolina. He began writing around age seven with his “Hammer Head Worm” comic series, that, thankfully, has been spared from public consumption. His short stories have been published around the web and his debut novel “Interstellar Islands” is schedule to be released through Rogue Phoenix Press, August 8 2020.
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