Prompt: write a bad holiday story

First, the strings of lights, both still and sparkling. The tinsel, red and gold, criss-crossing, and balanced with silver bells on red ribbon. Pine cones and poinsettias to fill gaps in evergreen. Then, the ornaments are unpacked from their containers, unwrapped, and one by one strategically placed on branches.

The simple ones are hung first: the matte red spheres with silver glitter, and the silver spheres with red, all with different patterning, and made by one of four sets of hands some years prior. The glitter on maybe half wears slight smudges where a tiny, impatient finger tried to gently test if glue, still white, had dried

Then the fun begins: the reminiscing. There is the crystal rocking horse with the blue cursive words “Baby’s First Christmas ‘91,” and a porcelain cherub, sleeping soundly, wearing a Santa hat with the same message, but in pink and for a different year. There is the ceramic wreath decorated with a ceramic bow and ceramic boughs of holly. There is the felt Santa face, slightly chewed, and missing pink from his left cheek. There is the snow person family – mom, dad, and children now – each with a different color scarf.

I pick up my favorite and give it a shake: a snow globe like a locket with a picture from when we went ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Our first time in New York City as a family. Their first time on ice skates, knees probably already bruised by the time the image was snapped. I give the globe a second shake, and tiny flecks of white come down in front of our unknowing smiles. I place it on a strong branch toward the front.

There are the Russian dolls, each hand-painted with one name, in a line, rather than concentric. There is the tissue paper and pipe-cleaner reindeer made in Girl Scouts whose stubby legs make the animal look more like an antlered dachshund than a reindeer. There is the nutcracker (with working jaw), who is tattooed underfoot with the words, ‘Do not use to prepare food. Paint toxic,’ and there is the memory of how we laughed at that.

I take the angel out of her box last, always last to take her place: a tradition to signal significance in the decorating of a tree. But this Christmas is different: minus one. The older is watching TV, almost present, but with attention fading in and out. The younger asks if dad will be home to bake cookies. I lie he is helping Santa get presents ready, and she knows it is a very important job. He lost his eight months ago, and still the holidays crept up day by day.

Last Christmas we stayed up listening for boots and hooves and ho ho hos on the rooftop until we fell asleep. This year we hear boots on the front porch, and a fumble with keys. Daddy’s home! He stumbles in. I make eye contact, and then he makes eye contact back, eyes with more a glaze than a twinkle. Late again. But in the nick of time! He takes the angel from my hands, reaches up.

Time slowed or froze, and so did I, and then the crash and the crunch of ornaments like dry, dead leaves beneath a heavy gait. There was nothing save the smell of pine or gin as he tried to stand back up, our angel still in hand, but being crushed to the ground for a final defeat as he rose, pine needles, shards of red, green, silver, gold, and glitter sticking to skin and clothing.

Time passed. I picked up their pieces, and threw them all away. They were beautiful, but it was hollow. We had new traditions now, or at least some things had changed.

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