By John Kenyon
I dragged the tree across the yard and up the steps, careful not to slip in the darkness. As I shouldered the door open and pulled it inside, I vowed that Tommy was going to have a good Christmas.
Now mind you, the bar is pretty low. The kid is seven, and Christmas has been more about the cycle of anticipation and disappointment than comfort and joy. Last year we were living in a rusted out 25-year-old LTD; the year before that it was a shelter. So this year, with our Section 8 finally approved, we were in a shotgun shack between the tracks and the river. It was nothing special, but at least he finally had a home for Santa to visit. Problem was, Tommy wasn't there to come running in to see presents under the tree.
It was warm earlier this week, so when Tommy was getting in my hair after I got home from work, I told him to go out and play. Sure, it was dark, but he's a good kid – knows not to disobey his mama, knows to stay in the yard. Thing is, the neighbor's cat doesn't, and Tommy loves to chase that thing. Thinks he's gonna catch it, and the cat, I swear, it taunts him, slowing down just enough to hook his interest, then bolts through the hedges or across the street.
I heard the screech of tires and the tiny thump at the same moment, and I ran out in my bare feet and into the street to see my boy in a heap in front of the grill of an SUV. As I dropped to my knees to take a look, a man got out of the truck with a cell phone in his hand already calling an ambulance.
Concussion, broken arm, three broken ribs and a sprained ankle. He's been in the hospital for five days. They called tonight to say he had recovered enough from the concussion to come home. Translation: You don't have insurance, and our good will toward men is all used up. I kicked up a fuss and they gave him one more night.
I was sitting in my chair by the window, wondering how we were gonna cover the bills, let alone have the Christmas I'd never gotten around to planning. With my shifts at the restaurant and visits to the hospital, the day itself passed without my really having noticed. That's when I saw the tree. Our neighbor two houses down already had theirs out at the curb, tinsel still wrapped around it in silver and gold loops. It was Dec. 26. To them Christmas was over. For Tommy, it hadn't started yet.
I waited until the lights in the neighborhood went out, then threw on my boots and coat and went out to get the tree. Once I had it inside, I propped it in the corner by the front window, and then went around the house looking for things to use to decorate it. I wrapped some boxes and put them under the tree so it would look festive. There weren't any presents inside, but Tommy would understand.
Without realizing it, I had spent all night getting everything just right. The hospital told me I had to pick Tommy up by eight, so I had to leave soon. Ten minutes there, ten minutes back, probably fifteen for the checkout process. That should be just enough time for that candle to burn down, hit that paper and spread to the tree. If we stop for pancakes on the way home, the firemen will probably have things under control by the time we get here, and the Red Cross will be on site, ready to give us a hot meal, a warm place to sleep, and a bunch of presents to replace the one's surely lost in the fire.
Merry Christmas, Tommy.
John Kenyon is a newspaper editor in Iowa. He has had stories published in Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, ThugLit, among others.
His story "Cut" appeared in the ThugLit anthology Blood, Guts and Whiskey, and "A Wild and Crazy Night" was a 2009 Spinetingler award nominee. He keeps the blog Things I'd Rather Be Doing (www.tirbd.com) where he writes about books, music and pop culture, with an emphasis on crime fiction.