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Christmas Homecoming - A Short Story by Kenneth T. Zemsky

On the first day of my Christmas gift to you…

Brett remembered with total clarity the moment the world came to an end. It was when that damn government man visited his house. Ironically, Brett was not even there at the time. Not so ironically, as it turned out, was the fact that Brett’s wife never called him with the news.

Actually, Brett did not learn of his world’s demise until about eight hours after the fact. He had just walked in the door of their center hall colonial in Northern Virginia after a typically long day at the office. The long hours had the twin merit of pushing Brett farther up the corporate ladder, and rush hour being long in the past. On that particular fateful day when Brett finally got home, his wife was nowhere to be seen.

Brett knew she had not gone out with “the girls”, an odd euphemism for well-past-their-prime suburbanite mothers. Her car was in the three-car garage. But she wasn’t in the family room, glued to that latest vapid reality show.

He made a quick reconnaissance of the kitchen. Nothing. Nothing at all. Brett dimly remembered the time when Rachel regularly whipped up culinary treasures. Even while mothering full time and working at her own computer consulting business, she had been quite the cook. Moreover, she always held dinner for when Brett arrived home from work, much earlier in those days. Yet if today’s rush hour was in the past, Rachel’s culinary days would have to be classified as part of the Mesozoic Era.

Leaving the kitchen was when Brett had the first indication that something was seriously amiss. His ear detected a strange sound coming from the upstairs—where their bedroom was. Brett inclined his ear the better to hear. He could make out the muffled sound of whimpering. Sobs.

“Oh, Christ!” he groaned. “Probably more ‘bad’ news from her stupid sister. Brett made mental quote marks when he uttered the word “bad.” Rachel’s sister was a walking soap opera. If it wasn’t some catastrophe involving her Down’s syndrome child, it was her husband, Brett’s brother-in-law’s recently diagnosed heart disorder. “Deal with it!” Brett muttered. He had no desire to get sucked into his in-laws’ feeble problems. Or was it more accurate to say his feeble in-laws’ problems. Brett grinned at his witticism. Of late he had steadfastly avoided wasting any psychic energy on the pathetic in-laws.

He would gladly have rummaged for something of filling, if not nutritional, value in the pantry and left Rachel to her woes. However he was dog tired and in sore need to shed his suit and tie. So he quietly trekked up the stairs to the master bedroom.

As he gently opened the door, sure enough Rachel was sprawled face down on the bed, weeping. She turned at his sound. Brett had seen her grieve for her dysfunctional sister. But even he was surprised to see how red-rimmed Rachel’s eyes were. How her features contorted with sorrow.

Rachel rose slowly, as if in a trance, and new tears flowing lamented, “Oh Brett! It’s just so horrible!” And she collapsed into his arms, practically a dead weight he had to support.

“It’s…it’s Brian,” she sobbed. “He’s gone!”

Brett’s knees suddenly buckled. It felt like his heart had stopped. He held Rachel at arm’s length, looking at her intently, and more than a little fearfully.

“Gone? What do you mean gone? Where is he?”

Wiping at her nose with a well-used tissue, Rachel explained, “A man, a lieutenant from the army came this afternoon. He said he was here on behalf of the Secretary of the Army. Said he had bad news. That Brian was killed in action in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. On behalf of the Secretary of the Army and the entire country, he was sorry for our loss…Oh, God. Brett, what are we going to do!”

Brett heard the words but his brain was having trouble processing the meaning. “Brian? Killed? Kandahar province?”

He stepped back involuntarily and sank into the chair. Rachel sat back down on the bed, facing him. Brian, his only child, the apple of his eye, the one person whose life meant more than his own…dead? No, it couldn’t be!

Brett mumbled something about how maybe it was all a mistake. The government bureaucrats got things wrong all the time. Maybe Brian was just missing in action or something.

Rachel shook her head. “No. I feel this. This emptiness inside. He’s gone, Brett!”

Brett did not want to believe it, but deep inside he was beginning to face the worst nightmare any parent could ever have.

The next few days were a fog, as if Brett and Rachel were having an out-of-body experience. They went through the motions, but only later did the enormity of what they had endured sink in. There was the greeting of the military transport at Andrews Air Force Base, bearing the casket with Cpl. Brian Carter’s remains. The numbing procession along the receiving line at the funeral home. So many “We’re so sorrys”; “If there is anything at all we can do’s”; “We’ll keep you in our prayers”; “You should be so proud of your son.” Brett and Rachel bore it stoically, tight lipped murmurs of acknowledgment at the well-wishers. Then the funeral at St. James Church, which Brett had last seen the prior Christmas. He used to be a regular churchgoer, but somehow life got in the way. And perhaps his belief system had become a bit unhinged.

Well after the interment husband and wife spent hours together in the empty house. Together that is, yet far apart. Brett prodded the military for details and after a fashion they did arrive. Turned out Brian had been fatally struck by a truck bearing supplies and munitions. A completely meaningless death.

Over the week, Brett’s stupor turned into something much more raw. Hatred. Not of anything or anyone in particular, but of all things. Sleep became impossible so Brett took to drink to force his brain to shut down. The drinking became more frequent and grew in volume.

After a few days of fitful, alcohol-induced sleep, Brett figured the only way to function through the haze of rage was to immerse himself in work. So he dutifully returned to the office. There he found it almost impossible to focus. A few nips from bottles stowed in his desk were needed to get through the day. Despite his fitful progress, he heaped on still more hours.

In the few waking hours he was at home, he rarely spoke to Rachel. There was an upcoming conference he was slated to attend the coming February, at the Disney World complex in Orlando. Rachel had always loved Disney, especially when they had young Brian along. Brett, in one of his infrequent thoughts of his wife, had his secretary schedule Rachel for the trip as well and to so notify her. He figured it would do her good to get away, and amuse herself while he was at the conference.

As autumn wore on in the Northern Virginia countryside, Brett watched the leaves fall, ever mindful that he was surrounded everywhere by death. What a prelude to the holidays.

Rachel had already let it be known she was in no mood to celebrate Christmas this year. Gaily decorating the house, trimming the tree, joyful music playing incessantly in the background, prettily wrapped presents…she did not feel like celebrating at all. That was more than fine with Brett. He raised his glass of gin to her in agreement that it was best to skip Christmas this year.

There was a side benefit. Rachel’s sister and her needy family habitually all trooped in for Christmas week. It was all Brett could do the last few years to shut them out. Fortunately he had been able to plead pressing business at the office, and sheltered himself in the gray corporate offices that had become home. This year however, he need conduct no such charade, since there would be no festivities in their home.

Brett drove himself still harder at the firm. And was drinking a bit more. He realized he was still having trouble focusing. Figured in time he would snap back. Also that the powers-that-be would be tolerant, given his personal tragedy. So he plowed on, in a stupid rage.

The firm had shut down for Thanksgiving, so Brett could not use the office as an excuse to hide out. Since he knew he was losing weight from the way his expertly tailored bespoke suits hung on his frame, he figured a little turkey and the fixin’s would surely help.

Problem was come Thanksgiving Day, the house being preternaturally quiet, Brett noticed that there was also no aroma emanating from the kitchen. In years past the holiday had been one of his favorites. Pleasing assaults on the senses and emotions as turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie spice wafted through the large house. Ah, but that was years ago. Truth be told, Brett had not really enjoyed Thanksgiving in years. Oh, when Brian was there, visiting from college or on leave from the service, then Brett was all aglow. But now there was no Brian. Never would be again. Brett did not think he would ever recover that glow. Still, he had counted on the holiday to fill his thin frame.

Which is why he was surprised and mightily disappointed to realize nothing was coming out of the kitchen this year.

In a little while Rachel quietly came in, took out a can of Chunky soup. A toneless voice announced, “This is more than enough nourishment for us.” She proceeded to heat the soup in a saucepan. Then doled out portions to each. The couple ate in silence.

Afterward, Rachel retired to her room to read. She had taken up poetry of late, finding some solace for her penetrating sorrow. Brett took to the sofa where he settled on the wall-to-wall football coverage. A fifth kept him company. So much so that the results of the games barely registered. He fell asleep on the couch; Rachel in their bedroom.

On the second day of my Christmas gift to you…

Next day the Christmas season was in full swing. Brett silently cursed the non-stop displays of cheer, whether it was the advertisements extolling “Have a Merry!” or the downtown DC seasonal tourists exuding good will toward men. “Goodwill my ass!” Brett grumbled as he sullenly made his way to the office.

Something strange happened a few days later. Brett got home exceedingly late, as usual. There was little sign of life in the house, also as usual. Some cold stew left on the stove for him. And there, sitting in the family room, was Rachel.

After Brett supped he joined her, out of curiosity.

“We need to talk,” she said. “Now what?” Brett wondered.

Rachel fumbled with an imaginary piece of lint on her sweater. She cleared her throat. Still looking down she announced, “My sister has invited me over for Christmas. I’m going to go.”

Brett was surprised. His sister-in-law had never extended herself. Having said that, he did not want to spend the holidays, or any days of the year, with the in-laws. He started to shift in his seat.

Rachel saved him from any discomfort. “Relax. It will just be me going.” Now her eyes met his. They were moist.

“So…so we will be apart this Christmas,” he concluded.

“Oh, Brett, we’ve been apart for so long it seems. In many ways Brian was the glue that held us together. But now…”

“This is about more than Christmas.” He spoke softly.

Rachel nodded. “Think of it as a trial separation.”

“You realize,” he commented, “that trial separations generally wind up in Divorce Court.”

Rachel nodded.

“Should we try counseling?” he offered.

Rachel released a deep breath. “I’ve thought long and hard about this, Brett. Counseling can’t do any good in this case.” She paused before adding, “I’m surprised you are even committed to trying to work things out.”

Her soon-to-be ex shrugged. “You know how I hate to admit defeat.”

Brett was startled by her fist slamming onto the coffee table. “This is not about winning and losing!”

“Then what is it about, Rachel? I think I at least deserve an explanation.”

“Oh, we have only been married in name for a while. The passion went out of this marriage a long time ago.”

“Passion? That’s for starry-eyed kids. You can’t realistically expect us to stay immature forever.”

Rachel was shaking her head in disagreement. “No. It is not only for starry eyed kids. It is for those who cleave to each other and whose hearts are pure.”

“Did you read that nonsense in one of your poems?”

“No. It is something I have always deeply felt…Look, I don’t want to argue. And I don’t want a lot by way of a divorce settlement. There’s no reason this should not be amicable.”

Brett threw up his arms. “Fine. If that is what you want. At least no one can say the blame lies with me.”

Rachel looked up sharply, surprise registered all over her face.

“What?” Brett caught her accusatory look and now was practically shouting. “You’re blaming me?”

His wife tried to compose herself. “You’re right. Maybe it’s me. It’s all inside me. There is just so much anger within me. I can’t keep living like this, Brett.”

“You know, I’m pretty angry too. At the government, the army, the enemy, the idiots who drove that truck. It’s a long list.”

“Yes, you can keep adding to it,” she agreed.

“Who else is on your list?” he wondered, since he thought he had enumerated pretty much all the targets of their ire.

Rachel tried to wave him off. “It is not important.”

“Not important! Our marriage is breaking up over this! In what conceivable galaxy could it possibly be considered unimportant? Tell me!”

“I really don’t think we should go into this.”

“Tell me!” Brett exploded.

As did Rachel, who blurted out, “I blame you!”

“Me! Are you crazy!”

Now Rachel stood, screaming as she towered over Brett in his chair. “Maybe I am crazy! But we both know how Brian idolized you! Wanted to be just like his dad! You, the big war hero, always telling him stories of your glory days in the military! So what happened when he came of age? Naturally he followed in your footsteps and enlisted! Except unlike you, he didn’t return! So yes Brett, I blame you and I hate you for that! I’m sorry but I can’t help how I feel! I loved Brian just as much as you did and…and in my heart, it’s your fault he died!”

Brett had grown ashen under Rachel’s withering assault. All he said, in a very tiny voice was, “We could have talked all night and you did not have to say that.”

Rachel left the room to start packing.

Brett remained motionless, his mind numb. Unfortunately, what Rachel said had already intermittently coursed through Brett’s mind. Now blame filled the synapses to an alarming degree. Sleep—or any mental peace—was impossible. In the days ahead, Brett drank and drove himself more.

He quite consciously absented himself from the house the day Rachel moved out. “Damn her!” he spat one night after a heavy bout of drinking. “After all I’ve done to give her a good home!” In more sober moments Brett believed that as with other families, the loss of a child created an emotional gulf too wide to bridge, and marital dissolution was inevitable. Inwardly he figured he would come to accept this. Now however, his emotion of choice was rage. So he drove out the more sober rationalizations and vented fury at his estranged wife. He also increasingly blamed himself, the seed Rachel had planted sadly germinating.

The secular holiday season merged with Advent, now well underway, though all of it meant nothing to Brett. Days and nights became a blur. He ate still less and less and had not restocked the pantry. An occasional Burger King or McDonald’s sufficed to meet his nutritional needs. Once blessed with an abundance of energy, he grew easily fatigued. He also began to have frequent headaches. Bills piled up and were left unpaid. His formerly vigilant eye failed to detect the latest drop in the stock market and in a matter of weeks he lost a hundred thousand of savings.

“God,” he mused late one night, “I’ve lost my only son, my marriage, my health, my fortune…am I becoming a latter day Job? What next?” That shoe would soon drop.

Just two days before Christmas, the chairman of Brett’s firm summoned him to his office.

“Sit down,” the grim-faced and portly executive ordered Brett. Shaking his head he told Brett, “We’ve been extremely patient with you, after your loss. However the time comes when you have to get past these setbacks. Unfortunately you seem to have been unable to do so.”

Brett started to speak, but a wave of the chairman’s hand silenced him. The chairman continued.

“Yesterday, your second largest account notified us that you had missed a deadline they had established well in advance, costing them millions in forfeit revenue. I had to go hat in hand to beg them not to leave our firm. Do you realize how that compromises my position? Fortunately, they agreed not to terminate our relationship. However we had to grant them a steep pricing discount that will impact our earnings most adversely. They also had one unalterable condition: that you be replaced on the account. We reassigned Jim Stevens to take your place.

“The news grows much worse however. That was your second largest client. Your first, which also happens to be the most lucrative one in the entire firm, said you had provided erroneous advice, also costing them untold monies. Sadly, they could not be assuaged and have departed. You…” he levelled his finger at Brett…“have placed our Company in quite a hole.

“I’m sympathetic up to a point, Brett, but you have to understand our position. Major shareholders are screaming at me to take action. So you have given me no alternative. We are terminating you, effective immediately. HR will be in touch to review your severance package.”

Brett looked up, eyes wide. “F…fired. But…”

“This action is not appealable. Now you should go home. Treat this as a learning experience.”

When Brett left the office, he was in a daze. Co-workers avoided his eye. Security had already packed his desk, and two guards stood by to escort him off the premises. As they left him outside the building Brett, seeing that the calendar in the reception atrium was marked “December 23”, muttered a sarcastic “Merry Christmas” to the guards, who wordlessly left him on the sidewalk.

For a person who defined his worth by reference to his job, this was an especially bitter, and unexpected, blow.

Brett made his way home, though he could not recall driving there. He was in quite a state as he slumped onto the family room sofa, clutching the bottle in his right hand. He knew he would never, ever be able to sleep, no matter how much beverage he consumed. He felt like his life was over.

Brett never felt lower than the hours he spent motionless in the empty family room. At last he stirred. He just could not take the house any longer. Thought he’d go crazy if he stayed another minute. So he donned a jacket and decided on a short walk. This may not have been the best of ideas, for most of the homes were decked out, alight with Christmas lights, wreaths, Nativity scenes on front lawns. You could even see the Christmas trees inside through the picture windows. Little effort was required to imagine all the festive families, waiting in joyful exultation for Christmas morn. “No herald angels hearkening in my house,” Brett groused. As he walked he came to the realization he had nothing left to live for.

His house was just off West Street, and his short melancholy walk turned into a long melancholy walk. Brett stumbled occasionally. After about two miles and nearly an hour in the cold, he happened on St. James, his parish church infrequently attended as of late. It seemed late since it was dark outside. But in fact because Brett had been sent away so early, it was still late afternoon. Dark because it was winter now and the days were shorter. Deciding to get out of the cold for a while and figuring he had nothing to lose by visiting God’s house, Brett shuffled inside. He walked shakily down the main aisle. Then sat in the second pew, close to the altar. After a long while, Brett did something he had not done in years. He began to pray. “Lord, they say Jewish guilt is bad, but it’s nothing compared to Christian guilt. If the nuns had not drummed it into my head that suicide would lead to eternal damnation, I’d end it all now. It hurts too much to go on like this! I just can’t bear it anymore! Please, Lord, PLEASE, take me home. I’m ready to go.” Here Brett broke down and wept fiercely. “Please! Just take me home!”

He struggled to get to his knees. But the fatigue, weakness, drink, sleeplessness and anguish all took their toll and Brett passed out. As he did, his head hit hard on the wooden backrest of the pew just before him. He slumped over onto the floor, sprawled lengthwise across the kneeler.

Many hours passed.

On the third day of my Christmas gift to you…

Sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows woke Brett up. He had a few kinks in his back. Sleeping on a narrow kneeler is not recommended for relieving back stress. Despite that, he felt remarkably good. It was the best rest he had had in over a month. Because he had been hidden under the pew, the sexton tasked with locking and then opening the Church did not notice the sleeping body.

Brett got up and walked to the back of the Church. He stopped abruptly. Something seemed off. As he looked around, Brett blinked and rubbed his eyes vigorously. He was not in St. James. However he knew exactly where he was.

Stunned, he sat in the last pew and pondered his surroundings.

Brett was now in St. Anthony’s in the tiny hamlet of Nanuet, in the heart of New York’s Hudson Valley, Rockland County specifically, where he had grown up. He looked and looked at the once familiar surroundings. There was no doubt. But how could this be? Was he dreaming? Hallucinating? Had he somehow traveled 270 miles in a drunken stupor?

Brett’s musings were stopped by the sound of the door opening. While he watched, about twenty parishioners entered the Church. All walked up to the front pews and took their seats. Some knelt and prayed. Some worked their rosary beads. Some thumbed through their missals. Brett did not recall seeing missals in quite some time. Well, it was an elderly crowd, and he knew old folks were set in their ways. He checked his watch. It was about 6:40. Obviously in the am. He remembered there used to be a 6:45 Mass. No doubt that was why the congregants had gathered. He knew this from the dim recesses of his memory, because as a youth he had been an altar boy. Living only a mile from St. Anthony’s, he frequently volunteered for the early daily Mass and happily rode his bike to the services.

Two things suddenly jumped out at Brett. For one, all those parishioners were dressed in their Sunday best. Suits and ties for the men (most also had dress hats they stuck on clips built into the front of the pews); dresses on the women. And all the women wore head coverings, either hats or lace doilies bobby pinned in place. Brett hadn’t been to Church often of late, but he didn’t think there was such a thing as a Sunday best anymore. Any old garb would do. True it was Christmas Eve morning, but that hardly seemed occasion to dress to the nines.

The other thing that struck Brett was the faces of the people. They looked so familiar! Just like worshippers from decades ago. “Wow!” he thought. “I understand DNA and heredity, but it’s amazing how the people I remember from altar serving back then have had sons and daughters who look so much like they did!”

He smiled at the congruence but then decided he ought to figure out what had happened—and get back to the DC area. So he quietly left the Church, just before the priest arrived to start the Mass.

Outside, Brett received the next of his surprises. The day before had been balmy during the daytime hours, for December that is. Global warming made the difference. When Brett was a child, before the Global Warming days, he remembered how much snowfall the Hudson Valley, and Rockland County in particular, received. It almost always seemed to be a white Christmas. Of course the Washington area was further south, so it never had much snow. Though Brett assumed the warm December weather pattern covered the entire Northeast, not just the DC metro area.

Yet as he stepped outside St. Anthony’s, what did his wondering eyes see but snow. The sidewalk and roads had been cleared, but the lawn was full of fresh fallen snow. “Wow!” he exhaled, enjoying the sight of his breath in the air, “just like when I was a kid! It’s so…peaceful and beautiful.”

Once he got past his reverie, Brett decided he had to assemble the missing pieces from the night before. Last thing he remembered was being in St. James in Virginia. How did he get here?

“I’ve got it!” He snapped his fingers. “There must be a record of my recent charges. So he pulled out his cell phone. He punched in some numbers. Frowned. Repeated. Shook the phone. Gazed at the screen. “Hmm. Nothing. But it’s 97% charged. This has to be a cell zone. I’m in New York, not Guam.” There was no disputing however. The phone was dead.

Brett hit on another avenue to pursue. “A lot of people carry their laptops with them and their IPad. I’ll ask one of the congregants inside the Church.”