Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays Writers and Readers!
Thanks to everyone who sent us stories written on the theme, “Away from Home for the Holidays.” We loved reading all of the intriguing and moving entries.
The winner of our Holiday Story contest is: Kris D. Keith, with a story entitled, The Stranger. It is published below for your enjoyment! Her other writing can be read here and Gotham Writers recently selected Krystal’s twitter story for their cover art for their winter class schedule, view that here.
THE STRANGER, by Kris D. Keith
“I’ll be home for Christmas” played in the background, mixing with the grumbles of the other passengers, filling the train with a melodious chaos.
It isn’t fair, Christina thought. I haven’t been home in over a year. I missed last Christmas, thanks to Babette. The baby girl, born last Thanksgiving, was a constant reminder of all Christina’s mistakes. Alone and almost homeless, the pair survived day by day in their tiny apartment, complete with ants, silver fish, and the occasional spider.
Babette wiggled then whimpered in her sleep. “Sshhh,” Christina whispered as she bounced the tot on her legs, still clutching her to her chest.
Aaron, Babette’s father, left not long before she was born. Claimed he had a job out of state. Apparently that state was named Betrayal.
A man, finally tired of pacing the train car complaining of the delay, slumped next to Christina. Babette wiggled some more, from the jolt, but settled back down into Christina’s warmth. The man offered Christina an apologetic smile. She returned it with a weak smile of her own and turned away.
Christina’s crippling social anxiety was the other problem. She didn’t use to be that way. Once she was homecoming queen. Once she danced all night at the underage clubs downtown. But then she enlisted. Went off to war. Saw the world in a way a girl like Christina never should. Even a simple hello, like to the man next to her, made her stomach churn. Which is why she had trouble holding a job. Which is why, when Aaron left, she and Babette moved into that dark and dank apartment and prayed for the best.
“You heading home for Christmas?” A man’s voice broke through Christina’s ruminations.
A good thing, she thought, I was heading for a downward spiral. Over the top of Babette’s head she spied the man who so brusquely sat down next to them. He looked right at Christina with a smile that showed off his crooked front teeth. And yet now I have to try to vomit out some form of a conversation, she also thought as her stomach filled with those annoying butterflies.
But before she spoke, the man carried on. “Of course you are. Why wouldn’t you be? It’s Christmas Eve.”
He appeared as if only half speaking to her. Christina let out a lame attempt at a laugh, then slowly started to turn her body away from the man again.
“Sorry,” he said. “I…I’ve just been stuck on this train all day. Wanted to get home, see my wife. My son.” He gestured to Babette. “She seems like a good traveler.”
“Oh…yeah.” Christina glanced down at Babette to find the girl now stared with her big hazel eyes, fully awake and her attention taken by this strange man. “She…uh…we’ve never been on a train before.” She added, pulling the blankets used to swaddle Babette down, a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. The girl looked at her mother before looking back, enraptured, by this man. “My mom bought the tickets. Part of my gift I guess. Going home…on a train.”
Her lack of enthusiasm must have been obvious, for the man leaned forward and gentle tapped on Babette’s little nose. “No no, an adventure! That’s what grandma gifted you, huh?”
Babette twitched her nose, but never lost eye contact with the man. She neither smiled nor laughed. “She’s always like this,” Christina added. “Just a solemn sort of kid.” It never bothered her until then, until the man appeared from nowhere to infiltrate their solitude. Babette rarely fussed, she rarely smiled. Even when she did smile it was slow, lips closed, a slight twinkle in her eye, that was it.
“Nothing wrong with that,” the man said. “The world needs laughter, sure. Those that like to crack a joke. But it also needs the serious folk.” He nodded knowingly to Babette. “To help balance out the mischief.” He winked. A smile snuck across Babette’s lips before it disappeared.
Just then the loud speaker spoke. “Sorry folks. They’re finally getting the freight train sorted out. Should be hooked up and hauled out of the way soon.” The voice crackled away, leaving the passengers angrier still. Some complained aloud, a pair even getting into an argument with each other. More just mumbled to themselves or their traveling companion.
“Well, little miss,” the man sighed to Babette, his hand disappearing into his coat pocket, “it looks like we will have to find a way to entertain ourselves.” He withdrew his hand, only to have nothing in it. “Hmm.” He mumbled, “I could have sworn I put it in there. Let me see.” He reached into his other pocket, only to once again pull out nothing.
Christina watched the man, wondering all the while what he could find so entertaining in entertaining a one year old. Her eyes shifted to Babette as the girl’s eyes moved incrementally, following the man’s every move. The corner of the girl’s mouth twitched when the man, still attempting to find whatever he was looking for, couldn’t find it in the pockets hidden within his coat.
Christina felt a tear at the corner of her eye, for what reason she couldn’t define. Sitting on that stupid train, tired and hungry and hot, with her daughter watching some stranger attempt some magic trick? It didn’t seem like the time to cry. But Babette’s eyes filled with a fascination and delight that Christina rarely saw.
She felt the girl’s weight shift as Babette leaned forward and pointed to the man’s hat. “Oh in here?” he asked, tipping his hat off with his hand. He was bald beneath, his black hair fading to grey as it neared his temples. The bald spot was sweaty, shiny, but nothing else of interest was beneath the hat.
Babette sat back on her mother’s lap. She caught Christina’s eye before looking back at the man. She shrugged, not knowing how else to assist the man in finding his missing object. This caused the man to laugh aloud, startling Babette and Christina both.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the man said between giggles. “Forgive me. She’s just so,” but he never finished his sentence. He didn’t need to, Christina knew what he meant. Probably didn’t want to either. What word would one use to describe a child such as Babette? Odd. Weird.
The man leaned forward, his hand reaching out to Babette’s face, but stopped short. “May I?” he asked, looking at Christina.
They both looked at her, the man and Babette. Watching and waiting for her to give her consent. The girl’s hair had tumbled out from beneath her winter hat. A few dark curls sat starkly against her pink cheek. Christina assumed he wanted to fix it for her, so she nodded. Instead the man reached behind her ear, only to pull out a quarter.
Babette smiled then. Closed lips, yet again, but Christina could see the amusement in her eyes. The man then placed the quarter in one hand and cupped it with the other. He brought his hands to his mouth, eyes never leaving Babette’s, as he blew hard. Then presto! He opened his hands to reveal three quarters. Same smile, but this time Babette kicked one leg with delight.
“She liked that one,” Christina said. Babette snuggled back down into her mother’s chest, ever eyeing the man.
“My son likes that one too. Or, he did, until he got a little too old for it.” The man shoved the quarters back into his coat pocket. “He’s twelve now. More interested in other things, besides magic tricks. But it still works for the ones who want to believe.” He winked at Babette.
Christina nodded politely. Is he done now, she thought. She knew she could already be playing board games with her parents and brother right now, they’re crazy about board games, if it weren’t for the delay. Or reading a book. God, why had it been so long since she read a book? Instead, she sat, knowing Babette would grow hungry soon, knowing she ran out of food for her a few hours ago, all while attempting to avoid making conversation with that strange man.
Babette whimpered, looking up at Christina, as if she read her mind. Christina patted her leg and shushed her. “We’ll be at grandma’s soon.”
“I think another magic trick is in order,” the man said. He looked around the train car, spying a boy with a balloon. “Ah, I think I may know just the thing.”
Christina’s phone rang then. She dug it out from within her winter coat, shifting Babette around like a sack of flour. The girl didn’t mind, she simple went where her mother put her.
“Yes?” Christina said as she answered the phone. Babette settled back on her lap, watching the man as he disappeared down the train car. Christina was thankful for the call, happy for the break from socializing with strangers.
It was Christina’s mother, calling to check in. “They think the train will be moving soon.” Christina answered her endless questions about when they’d arrive. “Uh huh, yep. Yes mom, she’s fine. Yes we’ll be hungry.”
Babette wiggled in her lap. She started to whine. “Eat,” she said. “Eat.” She pawed at her mother’s hand holding the phone.
“No.” Christina fought her off. “No Babette. I don’t have food. Grandma was just asking,” but the girl wouldn’t stop. Her mother’s words reminded her of the emptiness in her stomach, Christina’s fear come to life. Her mother’s voice prattling on through the phone didn’t help matters either. “What? Yes mom I brought food with us, but we got delayed and we ate it all.” Her mother carried on, Babette’s whimpers escalating. “Mom. Mom! Stop, I know I know. I’m doing the best I can. I’m coming home aren’t I?”
The strange man was returning. He walked down the train aisle towards them, balloon in hand. Christina felt relieved, surprisingly, that he was coming back. “Mom, I have to go. Call you when we start moving.” And she hung up.
He sat down with a plop once again, his arrival immediately staying Babette’s cries. “Well,” he said, “I had to give the kid five dollars, but I got it!” He held the balloon up triumphantly for Babette’s approval. She nodded, her solemn pleasure noted.
“Five dollars?” Christina asked. She hadn’t meant to say it out loud. She’d learned over time to keep thoughts like that on the inside. It helped reduce conflict. But the delay was getting to her. She was forgetting all the rules she made up in her head about socializing with others.
“Well,” the man explained, “he was a tough negotiator. But I knew I couldn’t leave without it, for little miss’s sake.” He tipped his head towards Babette.
Christina smiled. The man’s kindness was overwhelming. “Babette.” She finally said. “Her name. You’ve been so nice, you should at least know.”
The man returned Christina’s smile. “Beautiful. Just as I suspected it would be.” He toyed with a pin on the lapel of his coat. An American flag, the gold and acrylic dull, suggested he’d worn it there for a long time.
He pulled the tied mouth of the balloon away, revealing the rubbery space just below the knot, a place he could puncture without the entire balloon popping. “Now,” he began as he held the balloon in his hands, “this trick is a little…tricky, Babette. I don’t want to pop the balloon but it might happen. Don’t be alarmed.”
Babette nodded her head slowly.
The man looked from Christina to Babette. “Ready?” He did not wait for a reply. He pulled the neck of the balloon, poked the tip of his flag pin through and immediately put his mouth over the hole. He inhaled deeply, and then again. When he brought the balloon away, sure to pinch the hole shut, he smiled and said “How’d I do?” His voice, manipulated by the helium, made him sound like a chipmunk.
Babette’s eyes were large, unblinking. She leaned closer to Christina, not quite sure how to proceed.
The man chuckled and inhaled once more. This time when he pulled away he sang a song. “Rudolph the red nose reindeer, had a very shiny nose. And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows!”
Giggles erupted from Babette as she clapped for the man. The man gave an approving nod and then smiled at Christina. “She’s a sweetheart, that one.” He said, but Christina couldn’t respond, as tears streamed down her face.
Babette, confused by her mother’s tears, attempted to wiggle away. Christina clamped down on the girl, not wanting her to fall off as she attempted to comport herself. “I’m sorry.” She finally got out. “It’s been a long day. She just never…I rarely hear her…”
But the man placed his hand on her arm and said “I understand.” Babette continued to squirm beneath Christina’s grasp. The man extended his arms to her. “Maybe I could hold her.” Babette made a jump for the man, but Christina held on, not sure how to proceed. “For a minute. If you want. Just to give you a break. You’ve been holding her this whole trip, delay and all.”
Christina slowly, reluctantly, let Babette go over to the man. She snuggled down in his lap, much like she had done with Christina. Her hazel eyes emanated, content, back at her mother before they slowly slid closed.
“And for my third trick,” the man said, suggesting to the now sleeping girl, and then he laughed. “Must’ve still been tired.”
Christina nodded, yawning, “She’s not the only one.” She let her head rest on the back of the seat, her eyes stared out at the growing darkness. She’s right there, she told herself, you can feel her leg resting against your arm. And the truth came out then, in her heart, that she could never live without the girl. Not in any normal sense of happy, anyway. Christina let her head loll to the side as she stared at her daughter, resting against a stranger’s chest, a stranger that smelled of aftershave and cedar and kindness.
Her eyes opened later to the slight shake and movement of the train car. Christina sat upright and looked out the window. The outside world slid by in an endless parade of dark greens and grays and to her surprise, white.
“It started snowing,” the man’s voice said from beside her.
She turned to see the man still sitting, still snuggling Babette. The girl slept soundly, so tired she snored. Pink filled her cheeks as the man’s warmth became her own and the corner of her lips turned downward. But she was beautiful.
“Merry Christmas,” the man said after glancing at his watch. “Just turned.”
“Merry Christmas,” Christina replied. And this time, she meant it.