Archer landed with such a thud the whole house shook to pieces and rebuilt itself before his first tears slipped down his cheek. He unwrapped his arms from the sheet around his body, and stared at the ceiling, containing his cries to soft sobs; whispering pain slowly faded to a numbness at his lower back. As he stared up at the bed, his sister’s face appeared, creeping over the edge, mouth formed into a perfect “O” that expressed her shock at what she’d done.
This was the third time tonight that Archer’s sister had kicked him off the bed, and it was just about the last straw. Archer didn’t want to bug his parents yet again over something so selfish. Not on this important night. But he still held out hope that tomorrow would present its’ own solution to the problem of sharing a bed with his younger sister.
“Are you okay, Archer?” Tracey stared down at him with eyes wide, her bottom lip quivering, on the verge of another crying fit. He knew that she didn’t know how to control her tears. As the older sibling, she had been the first to train the parents to come running at the first sound of alarm. He had not been so lucky. By the time Archer had been born, mom and dad had adapted to the sounds of the false alarm, the pity alarm, all of the classics from the “I want attention” sound library.
“I’m fine, Tracey.” Both still under nine, and so well-behaved. Mom liked to quietly gloat to her friends during the holiday parties. Other kids ran circles around their parents, supped on bowl-fulls of sugar, and passed out beside the fireplace most nights. Not Archer and Tracey. Together they both had formed a bond over an agreement, a game: whoever stayed quietest longest would be first to bed and have first dibs on the better sheets, the softer pillow, and the spot closest to the fireplace. Rarely did they argue over the “winner.” There wasn’t much to argue over, in any case.
Their pillows consisted of uncomfortable sacks filled with hay, and the blankets, all two of them, were three meager sweatshirts belonging to their dead grandparents. The fourth was surely going to appear soon, if Mom was right about Grandpoppy’s sickness. Of course, grandpoppy disappeared two weeks ago — right around the time Christmas decorations kicked into high gear down at school.
Archer imagined Grandpoppy secretly meeting with old St. Nick, bonding over their beards and a few cans of beer as they planned out the night’s routine: Three chimneys here, four chimneys there, and then a home without a chimney, without a doorbell or a lock, and with only a half-pane of glass to sift out the night air.
Tracey reached out her hand to pull Archer back into bed — her arm muscles would be good and strong very soon, no doubt — when a soft shuffling could be heard. Then a THUMP, louder than a young boy falling out of bed, and right above the kids’ heads. Tracey squeaked, looked up at the ceiling. “Archer — ”
But he’d leaped ten feet in the air if only an inch, and was huddled next to her in the bed. He hugged her tight, Tracey with a pillow in her own arms. They both looked up, at the dust flakes raining to the floor as footsteps, slow and steady, made their way to the edge of the roof.
Archer thought of calling for his parents, but knew they would only scream at him, like they always did, to shut up and go back to sleep. There really is nothing worse in the middle of the night to break the silence than the sound of angry parents, voices shrill in the night, waking the neighbors who would only express more anger. Well, maybe the sound of your sister screaming you both awake because of a silly nightmare could be worse. Or maybe the thunder of footsteps walking on the roof above you, pacing now, trembles of goosebumps quivering on the back of your neck. That was the sound that could really frighten you.
The pacing stopped, and for a moment, Tracey let out her soft breathe, warm and cool at the same time on Archer’s hand. And then there was a crash. Dust and dirt and wood and something huge landed on the floor, both Archer and Tracey speechless, eyes clenched shut. Archer’s hands were white as he held his sister tight.
The dust settled. Soundless, the cold snowflakes of a Winter’s night trickling in from the hole in the ceiling. Then, a soft whimper pervaded the air. The whimper quickened in pace, keeping a steady tempo, an inner beat, which Archer soon realized was the rhythm of his sister’s heartbeat. Her breathing was the only sound inside the room.
He forced his eyes open, and absorbed the site before him.
Santa Claus, or at least a poor man’s attempt at the holly fellow. Boots were dirty and covered in mud, but black underneath. Laces undone, pant legs frayed and dangling over the ankle of each boot. The pants were sweatpants, red and now caked in the sludgy mix of mud and snow. The black belt which held up the old man’s pants was thick and leathery, an accurate portrayal of the old photos of St. Nick. A dangling beard of stitched wool hung loose around Grandpoppy’s chin, his jaw broken in two places creating a horrific grin, laughter nonexistent from within the broken neck of the old man.
His red jacket with the local high school’s logo hung loose around his twisted torso. Luckily for Archer and his sister, Grandpoppy’s eyes, whether open or shut, were covered by the makeshift hat.
Grandpoppy’s dead, limp body rested on a bag full of rags, worn sweatshirts and two wrapped gifts. A broken bottle spilled whiskey over the floor.
Archer unwrapped himself from his crying sister, reached out for the wrapped gifts and two of the rags. He draped one over his sister and wrapped the other over his shivering legs.
He handed one gift to his sister (it was labeled in scrawling handwriting, “Tracey”) and kept the other, labeled “Archer”, for himself. The gifts were soft, obviously sweatshirts of some brand name. Archer lifted his gift to his nostrils, inhaled deeply. New, or like new. He hesitated, debated opening his gift. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Tracey lift the edge of the wrapping paper.
“No,” he decided. Tracey looked at him, and her eyes almost drifted towards Grandpoppy. She stopped herself, simply nodded.
“Tomorrow morning.” She clutched the gift to her chest like the Teddy Bear she never had, and lay down to sleep. Or at least, to pretend to sleep.
Archer stared at the hole in the ceiling. He looked at the doorway, but didn’t expect to see either of his passed out parents until morning. Their father would scream and holler at the mess, at the bills that would be due, the debt he would inherit from his “stupid father’s nuisance ways.” Their mother would sit in silence in a corner, crying probably in a world of uncertainty now that their home was ruined.
For now, Archer and Tracey would clutch their gifts, new and ready to be worn to school next week.
“Merry Christmas, Archer.” Tracey’s breathing soon fluttered into a dream world that caused her to smile, however slight, and Archer, in his mind, promised never to leave her alone. He was thrilled to share a bed with her, where they could comfort each other in peace, and hopefully not kick each other to the floor in the remaining night hours.
And then he fell asleep, and dreamed of riding a sleigh throughout the night.