We’re almost out of 2014; whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to you. But the end is coming. And as we waste our hours until tomorrow night looking at articles like “2014’s Top Ten Pictures of Koalas wearing Funny Hats” (someone please write that for me), I’d like to divert your attention to something with a little more meat. Something that I can’t believe I haven’t done yet this year.
I started out as a fiction writer. In third grade, I wrote a short story about puppies. I can’t remember the plot for the life of me, but I do remember that they were attacked by an out-of-control model airplane and that one of them was named Spyro (I was an awesome eight-year-old). My first book came in fifth grade: a forty-page thing about a pilot with a talking dog that fought giant chipmunks and befriended super-intelligent toddlers.
It’s fun to write fiction, but it doesn’t take a lot to know that it’s hard to pay the bills as a fiction writer. So I don’t think it’s my calling. But it’s fun, and as it’s Christmastime I’m going to have fun.
I wrote this little half-thing after a scary experience on Christmas Eve night, when we were graced with an unexpected visitor. I present to you, for your possible pleasure, The Bird and the Christmas Tree:
The ornaments weren’t shiny enough.
Mom and Dad had gone to pick Dad’s parents up from the airport for an after-Christmas get-together. Mom told me to pick up the house while they were gone, but until I was looking at the mess I had no idea what I was getting into. We’d kind of ignored all chores on Christmas day, so the place was more of a mess than usual.
Plus, Dad’s ornaments weren’t shiny enough. He ran a small business that made glass-blown ornaments, and his tree—not our tree, his tree—was the most important thing in his life. Aside from the boxes of after-Christmas orders that were downstairs, waiting to be shipped, we had our own collection of ornaments that we used. Dad prided himself on their beauty. And if they were ever out of their prime, he blamed me.
I wasn’t the oldest, technically; my twin, Jack, was seven minutes older. But Dad had this thing for “turning me into a man”. So the responsibility usually went to me.
Dishes needed to be done, the floor needed to be vacuumed, the dog needed fed, twelve boxes of orders had to be moved to the shed, and every single one of the ornaments needed to be shined. And somehow, out of three people, I was the only one working?
I went downstairs to the basement. Kyle, my three-year-old brother-spawn, was in his room with the door ajar, watching a Christmas cartoon at a volume that could wake the dead. I plugged my ears against the noise and went into the room I shared with Jack.
Jack was on the floor, in his boxers, eating Captain Crunch. And even after he’d realized that I was looking at him, he didn’t look at all ashamed of himself. “You look pissed,” he said simply.
“I am. Mom and Dad are gonna be back soon.”
“And have you looked upstairs?”
“No. And I’m quite happy down here. Please leave a message after the beep.”
“Dude,” I said, ready to get on my knees and beg. Even though I knew I was looking right at Jack, the only thing I could see was the purple face of Dad when he saw the house in such shape. “Man up.”
“No man is as concerned about chores as you are, little girl.”
Did he seriously not see the problem? He was sixteen years old. He’d seen this show before. “Dad’s gonna blow a gasket.”
“If he didn’t kill you for getting a D in Goetz’s class, he definitely won’t care about this.”
“Lick my butt,” I said, grabbing the cereal box out of his surprisingly weak grasp. “Come help me.”
“Ask Kyle. Tell him Santa is coming back or something.”
“He’ll just crap on the floor and laugh at it.”
“Don’t pretend you wouldn’t laugh too.”
I would. But that wasn’t the point. I was wasting precious time as it was. I could practically hear Grandma screeching about the laziness of our generation.
“You realize, idiot, that if we impress Pop and Grandma, we’re gonna make bank.”
Jack’s eyes went wide and he sat up so fast that I blinked and missed the action. “You really think?”
“Pop once gave me ten dollars because I said ‘bless you’ when he sneezed. And that was before they won that talent show money. They’ve got a lot of extra cash this Christmas. And what if their two grandsons had tirelessly worked all weekend long just to make their Christmas worry-free?”
“Now you’re speaking my language, Joshy.”
“Are you proud of how you live your life?” I asked, throwing him a shirt—his or mine, I couldn’t tell. “Honestly.”
“Pride is for pansies like you. I’m all in this for the win. In a few years, when I’m picking your broke ass up in a Jaguar, you’ll realize I was right all along.”
Though I was perfectly capable of doing everything, Jack told me that he’d do the manly jobs and leave the dishes and ornaments to me. At first I was insulted, but I let it slide because I didn’t want his sticky fingers touching the ornaments.
I worked from the bottom to the top, gently wiping each glass bulb with a special cloth saved for just this job. As short as I was, I started to run into problems about halfway up the tree. I had to get a chair and balance myself on it as I rubbed each ornament until I could see every pore of my nose in it.
Kyle thought it would be funny to stick his finger in my butt and scream “I’M TOUCHING YOUR POOPER” while I was reaching around to the back of the tree. I was so focused on shining an emerald-green ball that I didn’t see him; his finger poking my buttcheeks came totally by surprise, and it made me teeter forward, almost crashing into the tree and turning our house into the holiday home of Hell.
I hopped off of the chair once I recovered my balance and picked Kyle up. I looked right into his eyes and said, in my very best impersonation of a tough-guy, “Kyle, don’t do that. I’m working.”
“I touched your pooper,” he giggled.
Glad to see I had two brothers that cared so very much about our mission.
The sound of an opening door down on the mezzanine floor made my heart stop. But it stayed open, and I heard the grunts of a wounded animal from below. “Jack, what are you doing?”
“Moving the orders.”
“Close the door. It’s like ten degrees outside.”
“No way, mom. These things are heavy.”
“Is mommy home?” Kyle asked.
I ignored him. “Deal with it, dude.”
“I’m not opening the goddamned door every time, asshole!”
“You’re an asshole! You’re an asshole!” Kyle said, skipping around and repeating the swear.
I considered going downstairs to open the door every time all on my own, but I only had a few ornaments left. I’d lost this one. I worked without complaint and listened to the dog snore and Kyle sing his new favorite word.
I finished the last ornament and woke Mars up with some new food, basking in the glory of a job well done. The images of Dad’s rage were going away. We were all going to be okay. Everything looked good, and nobody would find any reason to mock me or criticize me. I’d done it. I’d done—
I ran down to the mezzanine floor. “Will you stop teaching our three-year-old brother new words?”
“There’s a bird!”
I followed his finger to a little brown bird, unremarkable by almost all standards, flitter around in the corner.
At first, I just laughed. The stupid little creature darted around, comically running into walls and doing a midair dance of stupidity. But I wasn’t in the mood for a long show. “Kyle, go close the basement door so he doesn’t go down there. Jack, let’s open these doors and make him fly out.”
That was a solid plan for all of two seconds.
The little brown bird avoided the doors like they were black holes, flying everywhere that wasn’t a way out. He was too high for us to shoo with our hands; Jack found a few brooms, but even with those we couldn’t push the bird away.
Then Mars came down to get a piece of the action. And when he saw the bird, he turned into a deadly, feather-seeking beast.
He was launching himself into everything—tables, walls, the closed basement door, the TV—trying to chase the bird. We started to yell at him, but he wouldn’t stop. The bird got angry too and started to fly with more of a purpose.
And he flew straight upstairs, where there was no exit point.
“Kyle, go downstairs,” I said. Jack tackled Mars and wrestled him to the ground.
“I wanna see the birdy!”
“Let him stay, Josh.”
“Shut up, Jack. Kyle, do what I tell you!”
Kyle started to cry about the bird; Jack was swearing at the dog; my mind as following the bird upstairs, where it would basically have to be killed.
I took Mars from Jack and threw him out into the yard until we could get the bird. I almost did the same thing to Kyle, but he finally submitted and got out of our way.
Upstairs was a lot trickier that the door level. It had no windows we could open and no doors blocking any room. Our only strategy was to use a broom and a blanket to chase the bird and smash it or smother it.
Unfortunately, as fast and athletic as Jack and I thought we were, we had nothing on this bird. It had certain perches it liked to go to—the top of the fireplace, the spice rack, the AC unit, and scariest of all, the Christmas tree. I took broom duty and prayed to God and Allah and all other deities that Jack wouldn’t go near the tree.
After chasing the thing around for ten minutes, I was starting to sweat. The broom slipped through my hands. Jack was never exactly where I needed him. But the bird showed no signs of giving up.
We finally got a break when he flew into the kitchen. There was only one opening to the tiny space, and Jack could make a sort of door by blocking the entrance with his blanket. It was ust me and the bird, mano-a-mano, in a Christmas cage match.
He tried to hide behind the dishes I’d washed not half an hour before, but I chased him away from there with a dishcloth. He almost got wacked by the head of my broom when he tried to sit on top of the fridge. I almost captured him in the oven, but he slipped out just in time, flying so close to my face that I could see the rage in his eyes. We were agitating this pathetic thing. And I suspected that the beak was for more than poking worms.
The bird flew in supersonic circles around the ceiling. I followed him with my eyes, lashing out with my broom whenever I thought I had the advantage. But after a few circles my eyes started to dance. I lost my balance and started to stumble like a drunk.
I threw my broom like a javelin. I heard a squawk, but I couldn’t see the bird anymore.
“Crap. He got through the bottom,” Jack said, taking the blanket down. “Sorry, man.”
I laid back on the floor, trying to get my balance back. “Why didn’t you just close the door?”
“I didn’t think it would lead to a real-life game of duck hunt. I’m sorry.”
“Damn right, you’re sorry.”
“I’ll give you half of whatever Grandma and Pop give me.”
“Why so generous?”
“You hit the bird,” he said, ignoring my question. “I saw some loose feathers right before it flew through.”
I smiled, even though I ached and felt like I needed to decorate the sink with vomit. “It’s hurt?”
“Yup. Let’s go kill it.” Jack helped me up and said “I see it by the tree.”
I held my broom like a bat, ready to slice the bird in half when it showed its cowardly self. I could see its reflection in Dad’s ornaments, shining so brightly in the light that it would half-blind me if I let it. He was in there, waiting my patience out.
I’d worked too damn hard for him to ruin this night for me.
“Josh, he’s right there!”
I swung without thinking. My broom didn’t connect with the bird, but with the dead center of the Christmas tree. It teetered to one side, then back to center, then teetered back again.
A little blur of brown moved in the corner of my eye. I swung at it and again only hit the tree.
But this time, the tree didn’t just teeter. It fell to the ground in horrific slow-motion.
My feet were glued to the floor. I couldn’t even breathe. Dad’s tree. I could save it. I could get under it and—
Something took my arm and pulled me back just out of the tree’s path. When it hit the ground, the sound of a million shattering bulbs filled my ears like a thousand desperate screams.
“Holy shit, are you okay?”
“I killed the Christmas tree,” I said. If I had been physically hurt, I never would’ve known. My body was numb. My soul was numb.
“You’re lucky it didn’t kill you.”
Oh, right. He’d pulled me away. “Thanks for saving my life.”
“Merry Christmas, pansy.”
My legs wouldn’t work. My hands couldn’t grip the broom.
I killed the Christmas tree.
In the vacuum that was the last few minutes of my existence, lots of sounds passed through my head, but none of them really registered.
Frosty the Snowman was playing in the basement at roughly a thousand decibels.
Kyle sang his new song, “the birdy is an asshole”.
Mars howled for no good reason.
A car rolled on the pavement and its ignition clicked off.
My own heart pounded like one of those big Japanese taiko drums.
And my brother carefully stepped through broken glass and said “hey! You killed the bird!”