Return To The Scene – A Christmas Story

Return to the Scene

“I won’t feel safe around here until they put that son-of-a-bitch back behind bars.”

“Gordon, don’t swear at the table,” my mother said.  “And in front of the kids.  Come on.  Can’t we just eat in peace?”

“No Marcy,” my dad said, getting angrier by the second.  “There isn’t any peace.  That man killed his son in cold blood, and I don’t care how many years ago it was.  They never even found the body.”

“Gordon!”  My mother exclaimed, looking down the table at us kids – wide eyed in curious terror.  We’d never heard anything about anybody getting killed before.  “Now Tommy,” she said, trying to change the subject, “if you even think about sneaking off to go fishing again, there’ll be big trouble.”

“Whippin’ trouble,” my dad added.  “It’s too cold for that nonsense.  From now on,” and he pointed at me and my sister, “I want both of you inside the house.  You stay where your mother can see you.”

That night, we could hear my parents arguing when we were supposed to be asleep.

“You can’t keep them in the house all Christmas, Gordon, they’re kids.”

“I don’t care, Marcy.  Until they catch Mac Royal, they’re staying put, and so are you.”

“But it’s been years.  Why would he come back here now?”

“How should I know?” my father said, quickly.  “Don’t look at me like that.”

“But you were friends, Gord.  Best friends.”

“No we weren’t.  God dammit woman, don’t even talk like that.  What he did… no man ever had a friend who did something like that.”

“You used to say you didn’t believe it.”

“No, I didn’t.  But that was before he confessed it to my face.  ‘It’s my fault, Gordo,” he said to me.  ‘He’s dead and it was all my doing.’  God, Mary, you don’t ever want to look into a man’s eyes and hear him talk like that.”

My mother was quiet.  We kids slunk back to our beds.

It was winter of 1968, just before Christmas.  We lived in the small village of Riverloft.  There were only two things to do there in winter time, as far as I was concerned.  The first was playing hockey on the pond behind the meat packers.  The run-off water from the place created the perfect rink and we skated there every day.  The second thing to do was a new thing as of that fall, for the river that gave our village its name had recently been dredged and the dam fitted with a new fish-ladder.

I loved to fish, even more than I loved playing hockey. Even with the weather below zero, I’d stand for hours fishing along that dam, catching trout, bass and, once last spring, a massive salmon.  My dad reckoned it was close to fifteen pounds.  I’d had to climb right into the river up to my chest to land him.  It had been the happiest moment of my twelve year lifespan.

And now I was faced with Christmas holidays shut up in a stuffy old house with my kid sister.

I couldn’t sleep that night.  The wind knocked the long branches of the weeping willow against the window pane.   The radiator pipes made a knocking noise that was even louder than usual.  All I could think about was something my dad had said, just after I’d landed that salmon and lugged it home.

“You’ll never get another like that one, son.  That’s a once-in-a-lifetime fish, right there!”

Once in a lifetime?  I sure hoped not.

I fell asleep for a little while, but the knocking of the branches on the window grew more insistent and I woke with a start in middle of the night.  The only thought in my head was about that fifteen pound fish, and how there might not be another one like it.

I climbed out of bed and crept over to my dresser.  I opened my little box of fishing tackle and pulled out an old Altoids tin.  In it was my secret weapon – a set of glow-in-the-dark sinkers.  I didn’t know how they worked, but old Mr. Wilson at the pharmacy had given them to me last month – some kind of chemical reaction, he said.  He said not to tell anyone about it, and that only real fishermen would ever understand.  All you had to do was drop them in water and they would glow bright as could be.  Fish couldn’t resist them.

I had to try them.  I pulled on a heavy sweater and jeans and two pair of socks.  I snuck downstairs and into the back porch where all the coats and boots were kept.  The noise of the wind helped to cover the sound of the lures tinkling around in the little tackle-box in my pocket.

Once outside, I pulled my cap down low over my ears and took off at a sprint for the dam.  The moon was high in the sky and it didn’t even feel cold to me.  I could practically see myself reeling in a big whopper and landing it on the riverside.  Only a real fisherman would understand.

I stood there fishing until my euphoria started to wear off.  They weren’t biting and the glow-in-the-dark light sparkling under the water had failed to attract any bites.  My eyes began to wander.

gravesI noticed a flicker of light up on the hill, in the church yard.  It was snowing softly and I blinked the cold flakes off my eyelashes, shaking my head.  The light flickered again and I heard a sound carried down to me by the wind.  It sounded like a little flute playing, far away.  I reeled in my line, set my rod down, and, drawn by the strange music, climbed up the hill towards the church.

It was the same one that we went to every Sunday, where we sat in pews and were made to sit still until the music stopped.  It was an hour-long punishment where even the windows were frosted over to ensure I couldn’t look down the hill at the river.  The flickering light had stopped by the time I got to the graveyard beside the building.  We used to play hide-and-seek there after school sometimes, but it was a much different place at night.  Not scary, really, but certainly different.

The moonlight cast long shadows from the gravestones across the white snow.  The wind made a whistling noise through the skeleton-like trees overhead.  A shiver ran down my spine and goosebumps crept up my neck.

I looked down in the snow at my feet.  A little gravestone had been recently scraped clean, and a little recorder flute had been set down on it.  Not thinking, I picked it up, and as I bent down, I noticed the name on the stone.

Miles Royal – 1952-1964

With the recorder still in my hand, I stood up straight with a start.  I was well and truly spooked now.  I heard a noise behind me, over by the church, the sound of a door slamming shut.  The wind?  I didn’t know.  I didn’t want to look.  I dropped the recorder to the ground and it broke into two pieces against the stone marker.

I ran as quickly as I could back down to the dam to retrieve my rod, cursing myself for having left it there.  I snatched it up from the snow-covered cement, intending to run straight home with it, but I had forgotten about my tackle box which I had left beside it with the little Altoids tin lying open beside it with the sinkers in it.  I kicked it with my foot and it fell into the water, the sinkers in it shining brightly all the way to the bottom.  I tried to grab it but I slipped.  I lost my balance, flinging my arms in the air.

My fishing rod flew through the air, landing with a splash a split second before I did.

The water was too cold to feel.  I was too terrified to realize that I was going to die.  The current grabbed hold of my wet clothes and swept me over the dam.  I reached instinctively with my fingers for any hand-holds, but there was nothing, nothing, nothing, only wet slippery rocks.  And then, suddenly, just before I was about to drop thirty feet to be smashed on the rocks down below, my right hand caught on the lip of the fish ladder.  I clung there for a second, dangling by one arm, twisting painfully.

I tried so hard to hang on, but it was slippery, and I was too weak, my clothes too heavy.

The FallsI let go.

I began to fall.

But I did not crash to the rocks down in the swirling darkness below.  A hand grabbed my wrist with an iron grip and I felt my shoulder pop out of joint, the pain jolting me out of the stupor of coldness.  The hand pulled me over the side of the fish ladder and I felt myself thrown heavily over a broad set of shoulders.  I tried to stay awake, but the world had gone black.

I heard a voice in my ear before I lost all senses.  It was barely a whisper, but it was full of despair and pain.

“It’s alright, son.  I’ve got you this time.”

*

I awoke slowly to the sound of what sounded like the radiator pipes banging.  My vision was blurry and my shoulder hurt like the devil.  I tried to say something, but it came out like a whimper, like a cry.

“…ishy odd…”

The sound stopped.  It couldn’t have been radiator pipes, because they banged all night long.  I turned my head to look, my vision beginning to clear.  My whole body was prickling with pain as the numbness started to give way to the warmth from whatever I was lying beside.

“What did you say, Tom?”  A man’s voice asked.

I looked up with a start.  He was standing over the pot-bellied stove with an armload of wood, and the sound of him shoving wood into the firebox was just the same as the banging of radiator pipes.  His face was thrown into stark relief by the flames. Moonlight shone almost horizontally through the window.

It was Mac Royal.  I recognized him instantly, though he looked tougher and paler than the last time I’d seen him.  We used to call him Uncle Mac.  His son Miles had been like an older brother to me.  I could remember him teaching me to ride his bike with no hands.  They said Uncle Mac had killed his son and buried the body where nobody could ever find it.

“My fishing rod,” was all I could say.

stoveMac Royal the murderer smiled.  It was the warmest, friendliest and saddest smile I had seen in my life up to that point and ever since.  He smiled with his whole face, not just his lips.  His eyes twinkled and reflected the moonlight and the fire in the stove seemed brighter because, just for a moment, he glowed like a saint.

“I got it, Tom.  Don’t you worry about that,” and he pointed over to a corner where I could see my rod and tackle box in the shadows.

It was then that I realized where we were.  This was the garden shed behind the church, which used to be a coach house in the olden days, but had long since been relegated to a tool shed where shovels, rakes and mowers were stored.  I hadn’t even known there was a stove in there.

“Thanks.”  I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

We were both quiet for a bit while he finished with the fire.

“You getting’ warm yet?” He asked eventually.

I started to nod, but it sent a fresh stab of pain through my shoulder and I winced, crying out.

“Damn it,” he said.  “I must have dislocated your shoulder when I caught you.  Sit still for a second.”

He reached down and put the fingers of his left hand on my injured shoulder, feeling around gently.  “Breathe deeply on three,” he said firmly.  “One – two – three!”

I breathed in.  I breathed out.  Snap!  He tugged hard on my arm with his right hand whilst gripping with his left.  The pain in my shoulder multiplied a thousand times and then, miraculously disappeared almost entirely.  Only a dull throbbing remained.

“Good lad,” Mac said.  “Old Gordy would be proud of you.  Speaking of which,” he continued, pulling me easily to my feet.  “You should be getting back to him.  If he catches you out of bed…”

“Whippin’ trouble,” I said, smirking, imitating my dad.

Mac Royal laughed, throwing his head back, his teeth spread wide in a grin for an instant before the sadness found a way back to it, clawing back into the skin around his eyes.  A tear welled up in one of them.

“Yea,” he said, blinking.  “Well, we don’t want any of that.  Come on.”

I took a step towards the corner where my rod and tackle box were sitting before turning back to him.  “I’m sorry about the recorder flute,” I said.  “I dropped it and it broke.”

He was standing in the doorway with it half-way open.  The snow was swirly around him like a ghostly mist.  His face looked white and pale in the moonlight.

“What did you say?” he asked, his voice tight and pinched.

“The recorder,” I repeated.  “I dropped it on the gravestone.  I’m sorry.”

“Gravestone?” he asked, breathless now.  He sounded like he was about to choke.  “Where?”

I pointed over to far side of the church where I had seen the flickering light earlier.  I didn’t understand.  “Wasn’t that you…” I began to say, but Mac was already running into the night, staggering like a drunken man, or one about to collapse.

I followed as quickly as I could, my body still tingling as blood worked its way back into my limbs.

recorderI found him by the grave, a shaft of the setting moon’s light illuminating his face for a long moment before it disappeared into the clouds.  He was on his knees, sobbing, with the two pieces of the recorder in his hands.

He turned to me then, his eyes so full of pain and anguish that I couldn’t bear to meet them.  “Where?” he said, shaking the pieces at me like an accusation.  “Where did you find it?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.  “Didn’t you…”

But he wasn’t really listening.  “I never knew he was up here,” he whispered.  “I never thought…  stupid.”

“You mean you never…” I started to say, but found that I could not finish the question.  “You never left it here?”

He carefully laid the pieces of the recorder down onto the stone, just below the inscribed name of his son.

“He used to play it beautifully.  It belonged to his mother, and I told him it reminded me of her, even though she’d never known how to play.  But he never knew that.”

I struggled to reply, but said nothing.  It was quiet except for the wind.

“Come on,” he said, rising to his feet after a few moments.  “Let’s get you home.”

The house was cold when I opened the door.  It was still and quiet away from the blowing wind.  I peeked inside the kitchen to check that the coast was clear and then went back to the porch.  The door had blown back open and I moved to close it, looking outside for Mac, but he was already gone.

My bed took a long time to warm up, but despite that and the knocking of the radiator and the dull throb in my shoulder, I fell into a deep sleep with no problem.

*

Next morning at breakfast my parents were cheery and bubbly.  It seemed they were trying to make up for last night, trying to restore some Christmas spirit to the house.

“Well, Tom,” my father said.  “It looks like you’ll be playing hockey outside after all.  They found Mac Royal last night.”

I looked up in shock.  “What do you mean, they found him?” I asked.  “When?  How’d they catch him?”

“Well, it must have been early last night, because it’s on today’s front page.”  He pointed to the folded newspaper on the table.  “I guess he washed up down the river someplace.  Must have slipped in.  Can’t say I’m sorry to hear it.  Say, son, what’s the matter?”

“Oh, Gordon,” my mother said.  “You shouldn’t say such things in front of the children!”

I turned and ran out into the porch, hauling on my coat and boots and flying out the door.   I high-tailed it as fast as my legs would take me, all the way along the river and up the hill to the church yard.  It looked different during the day.  I followed my tracks up from the night before and over to the little gravestone.  I knelt down in the place where I had seen Mac Royal kneel down crying the night before, and I felt my own tears start to run.

There on the gravestone, where I had expected to see the broken pieces of a recorder, sat my little Altoids tin.  I opened it hastily with trembling fingers.

It was empty.

altoids-empty

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Joel

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