Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Part I : http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com/2010/08/tall-tale-tuesday-ill-be-home-for.html
Bristol did not proceed to the principal’s office. She did not return to the classroom. Instead, she walked out of the bathroom, down the hall, and through the creaky double doors into the schoolyard, alighting upon an icy metal bench near the playground. The sky was a deep shade of slate gray, the sort of color that takes Winter captive and doesn’t relent until Spring’s raised a healthy ransom.
“ ‘Find Jack, he knows what to do. Find Jack Frost?’ What on Earth does Holly mean?” Bristol spoke to the whispering wind. “And who is Him?” Her mind was fluttered with ideas and questions as she grappled with the reality of what had transpired minutes ago. She found herself stroking the golden locket absentmindedly, just as Holly had only hours earlier in the lunchroom.
It was when her teeth were chattering she became aware of the cold and regretted not returning to the Mr. Lawler’s room for her winter coat. A warm, numbing sensation flushed through her face, now bright red, and she felt the cool sting of the breeze slicing at places of exposed skin. She cupped her hands to her mouth, breathing heavy to warm her nose. And that’s when it struck her. It seemed so simple, almost too easy to be right. She sang the refrain every Christmas at least a dozen times.
“Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” she sang softly. She closed her eyes. Bristol clenched her jaw, waiting for her nose to tingle once more. “Jack.” She curled the corner of her mouth to let the name slip out in a soft intonation. “Jack. Please find me.”
“Oi, what are you going on about?” The voice was harsh and low and accented. Bristol raised open one eye, then the next. Sitting next to her on the bench was a small boy bundled appropriately for the weather with his legs dangling back and forth above the ground. His chubby face jutted out from under his scarf and hat, his skin like golden brown clay. “What’s that you’re whispering?”
“Nothing. Just talking to myself while I wait for a friend.”
“I’m no friend of yours, not yet leastways, but her I am all the same. So, what’s your trouble?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s any of your business. You really ought to head back into the school before you get into trouble.”
The little boy laughed. “Dearie, don’t go on scolding me for absconding from school. I’ve more education than anyone in the last two centuries. Now, I can tell you’re a touch thick, so I’ll lay it out nice and plain-like, yeah? I’m him. I’m the chap you was calling to while you sat there trembling with a fit of the chills. Given name Jack, surname Frost; first and only of that lineage. I’m very much obliged to make your acquaintance, Miss, er-“
Bristol told him her name and they shook hands. “Here, take this. Innit much, but should do the trick,” and Jack took the yellow scarf from his neck and handed it her.
“Thanks,” said Bristol, taking the scarf.
What happened next was most surprising. As she draped the scarf around her neck, Bristol felt the chill slip from her body, like sweat dropping from one’s brow. It fell first from her chest before extending out to the tips of fingers, nose, and toes. But it went beyond that. Soon it felt as though she was sitting in warm sunlight, washed by the rays of a springtime Sun. Even the whipping winter wind was transmuted into something like the golden gusts of a May breeze, cool and refreshing. Bristol stretched languorously and yawned before continuing. “You caught me by surprise. You aren’t exactly what I expected,” she said.
“Best not to delve into expectations, love. That way you’re never surprised,” said Jack, producing a copper coin from his pocket and turning it over his knuckles. A tall pine tree adorned the face of the coin, but the image was marred by deep nicks and scratches. “So, what’s the bother?” and Bristol told him the unabridged truth of the day’s events.
Jack gave a low whistle. “That’s a mess of difficulty and no mistake. There’s not a great deal to be done, I’m afraid. Frightful for my sister, though, ole – what’s her name again?”
“Holly,” said Bristol indignantly, “She’s your sister. How do you not know her name?”
“Well, I’m the eldest and I have a lot of siblings. It’s a bit troublesome keeping all their names straight.”
“If I had brothers and sisters, I’d have no trouble remembering their names.”
“Even if there were three hundred or so?”
“Of cou-,” Bristol balked, “three hundred? How is that possible? How old are you, Jack?”
“Old. Old enough to sometimes forget I had a family, an honest to goodness family before Father took me in.” He paused. “Father is a bit of a collector.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is what I says. Our father, that is, mine and Holly’s and the rest of the litter’s, he looks for discarded children, either ignored or orphaned, sometimes both, and brings them with him to cloister away in that clandestine ice mine he calls home. That’s why Holly was here, I’d wager; away from the compound doing some reconnaissance. Remember that bit you told me about Holly saying you are ‘untapped potential’?”
“Well, let’s just say there’s a high likelihood of our relationship becoming familial.” His words gave her alarm. The air around them was silent save for the sound of Jack’s coin scraping across his fingers.
“But I have a mother, Jack. I’m not an orphan.”
“And she’s always attentive to you, yeah? Never off working a second job or with friends or pawning you off to a neighbor for a few hours?”
“Well, she’s busy. It’s complicated.”
“Right. Well, regardless of the intricacies and dynamics of your relationship, you are a prime candidate for Father.”
“Who is Father, Jack?” Bristol danced around asking this question for awhile, but could not hold back any longer.
Jack inclined his head away from the coin and looked into Bristol’s eyes. “Father Christmas,” he said. “Saint Nicholas, Papa Noel, Sinter Klaas, Santa Claus.”
“I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” Bristol knew it was a foolish thing to say as the words left her mouth.
“How does belief measure into this?” said Jack, returning his attention to his coin tricks. “People are hurt and abused everyday by the very things they don’t believe in. It doesn’t make a lick of difference to a predator if their prey acknowledges them. It might take the sport from the hunt, but at the end they are still the game all the same.”
Bristol’s breath grew steep and stunted. “But what does he want with me or any other kid? He’s supposed to bring presents and candies and joy to us, not snatch up children.”
The coin stopped. Jack cocked his head to the side. “What he wants with kids is easy enough: Life. Immortality. All that rot about bringing confections and toys and bliss to little ones is part of his mythology and like most myths, it’s founded in bits of truth. He was a good and proper man once, long ago. But he’s no longer a man, just as I’m not a child. Smoke and Mirrors, you see.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s like this: Father was at the end of his life and afraid to die, like so many men. Only he didn’t slip into that next great adventure. He found a way to skirt Death.”
“It’s simple enough, really. He takes a touch of what he needs from a host in exchange for small baubles and trinkets; presents on Christmas day. A doll for a pinch of athleticism, a bicycle for a sprig of cunning, a puppy for a dash of soul. That’s from all children in the world, mind you, and he steals in amounts too infinitesimal to notice.
“But he gets his mind bent on the imaginative sort of children, like you; the ones with little more than their minds to occupy their time. Those are the children he collects and sets to work in his factory, using that whimsy to establish new products, more sleek and appealing toys. No holidays, either. He practically invented child labor.
“He’s an old mystic, laboring through life by dint of rigorous dark magic, expending the youth of others. Whatever you do, don’t accept any gift from him. It’s how he gets his hooks into you. Payment for receipt of goods and services,” said Jack, holding up his coin between finger and thumb, then reaching out and touching Holly’s locket. “You’re marked, no doubt.”
A chill so deep that not even Jack’s scarf could parry stole down Bristol’s spine. The world beyond the bench was a doleful, unyielding white, bereft of gaiety and hope. Then a thought flitted into her mind. “Hang on. If Santa is so unbeatable then how did you get free, Jack?”
He shook his head. “You haven’t been listening properly. He uses us until he’s milked all imagination from our minds. I didn’t escape. He cut me loose. My mind is all dried up.”
Bristol gasped. She considered what a day without fanciful thoughts and daydreams would be like. It wasn’t a pleasant imagining at all. Her eyes swelled with tears, hot and salty.
“Cheer up, love. It’s not all bad. In some ways, I’m better primed for certain vocations, like finance and insurance. I’ve made quite the living at it over the last couple of centuries,” Jack forced a chuckle, but there was no mirth in his voice or in his eyes. From the vacant glaze in his eyes, Bristol understood Jack to be in a moment of deep introspection.
“Jack, I’m sorry. I really am. Please help me. Please help Holly. Let’s find a way to make it end. There must be a way to undo it all?”
He laughed again, this time with true amusement. “He takes what he wants and doesn’t think twice. I hate painting a grim picture, but no one’s ever overcome him. It’s impossible to avoid.”
“I try to believe impossible things everyday,” said Bristol, half remembering something she once read.
“Suit yourself,” said Jack, shrugging. “but take this.” He pulled from his jacket a small snow globe. Within it was a small cottage amid a snowy wood with wispy tendrils of smoke creeping from the chimney. “The snow flakes will flutter of their own volition and the orb glows green whenever Father is approaching. This way, you’ll at least be given some sort of warning to enact whatever scheme you hatch.”
Bristol took the snow globe from Jack. It was no larger than a goose egg and felt weightless in here palm. She shook it hard and stared into the glassy forest, but the scene remained unchanged.
The bell in the schoolhouse bonged, marking the end of the school day. Only moments later, the loud murmur of elated voices reached their ears as an explosion of children fresh on holiday spilled into the playground and parking lot.
“Thank you, Jack,” she said. “I need to go now or I’ll miss my bus.”
“Right. Well, remember, he’ll show up in the wee hours of Christmas morning, so you have a week. There is something about the newness of the day that makes the magic more potent.”
“Also, you summoned me once by another’s power. I don’t come twice in the same way.” He rubbed his dark hands together. It sounded like sandpaper against wood. “I’m rooting for you. Good luck.” He flicked his coin high into the air. Bristol followed its arc as it tumbled and turned. When it fell even with the bench, Jack was gone. In the snow at her feet was an indentation the size of a coin, but the coin disappeared with Jack.
With the schoolyard now near empty and the buses full, the girl in the yellow scarf called Bristol hoisted herself from the frozen bench and marched toward her bus, the number 28, thinking about Holly, thinking about Christmas, and thinking about what to do next.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Bristol was an extraordinary nine year-old. Perceptive, bright, and astute, Bristol possessed a special cache of brilliance. It was not that she could recite her times tables or list the capitals of all the African countries that gave her a reputation for cleverness (although she could do these things), but rather her ability to communicate with adults and interpret their not so subtle nuances and tendencies. For instance, by five years old Bristol was able to discern that when a grown-up retorted one of her questions with “We’ll see” or “maybe later,” it actually meant “shove off, I’m too busy or uninterested or both to bother.”
The nine inches of snow that fell on Storrs during the previous night was a harsh harbinger of the cruelty of mid-Decembers in the Northeast. Perhaps even crueler was the adamant fervor with which the superintendent refused to cancel the last day of classes before the winter holiday. The allotment of days in session mandatory for the school district was one shy of the quota. The instructors grumbled copiously, but it was imperceptible to the children. Only Bristol noticed.
The day slipped past uneventfully, not taking into account when a boy called Rupert tripped on a loose arm strap of an improperly stowed backpack and smashed into the classroom Christmas tree, sending the ornaments crashing to the ground, tinkling as they exploded into iridescent shards of ceramic red and green. While the snow failed to cancel the school day, it did provide ample delight at recess. A school yard of snowball fights, sledding, and snow angels dominated the hour before lunchtime. Runny noses and sniffles filled the corridors of the school as the children made their way to the cafeteria, which served doubly as the gymnasium during the last period of the day. Under the basketball hoop farthest from the entrance, Bristol sat silently, enjoying the lima beans and observing the spread of the cafeteria, raucous with laughter and festive delight.
“C-can I sit with you?” said a meek voice over Bristol’s shoulder. The voice belonged to a girl with curly blonde hair and two oversized front teeth.
“Of course,” answered Bristol.
“Thank you. I’m Holly, by the way.”
“Bristol Longshore. That is a very pretty locket.”
“Oh, thank you.” said Holly, fingering the locket tentatively. It was a pretty thing of silver and gold crafted into the shape of a Christmas tree, “It was a gift from my father. I’ve had it since before I can remember.” Her gaze remained purposefully off to the side, taking great caution not to meet Bristol's eyes.
“Are you a new student?”” asked Bristol, changing the subject.
“Where are you from, Holly?”
“From the North.”
“What? Like Canada?”
“Nope. Just North.” said Holly, her gaze now fixed upon Bristol.
“Well north is more like a direction than a location.”
“When did your family move to Storrs?”
Bristol laughed. “You’re sitting here with me, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I don’t live here.” Her fingers were running across the locket’s smooth face at a quickened pace. Bristol did not draw attention to it.
“Well, where is your dad? What about your mom?”
“Mum passed a long time ago,” said Holly.
“I’m sorry. My dad is gone, too.” Bristol said this because it was true. He abandoned her mother and Bristol in her infancy.
“But I have Father. He’s in town on business and we’re looking at houses. Thinking about moving. He wanted me to see if I liked the school.”
Slightly baffled by the aloof girl sitting across from her, Bristol offered another question, “What do you want for Christmas? I think I’m getting some clothes and books and other boring stuff, but what I want most is a telescope.”
“You’re getting it, I think,” said Holly in a quick whisper.
“Really,” replied Bristol, “how do you know?”
“Santa Claus, of course,” said Holly, rather composed, “You’re still useful. Untapped potential. Yes, he will bring you the telescope.”
“I don’t understand how anyone believes in him,” said Bristol, shaking her head. “Think about it. He is an enormous round, old man squeezing through a square opening in chimneys no larger than a shoe box? It isn’t logical, is it?”
“I promise you, Santa Claus is real.” replied Holly, leaning in over the table, “He knows everything you do, and hears everything you say. Yes, he is very real.”
Enduring the cryptic conversation with Holly was beginning to wear thin on Bristol, but minding her manners, she shifted the conversation away from personal details and towards school and classmates and other whims and fancies. Still, Holly remained distant during their banter, as though speaking while the television held her attention. The bell sounded, marking the end of lunch, and the squealing chorus of chair legs scraping the tile floor coupled with the swift patter of footsteps headed for the cafeteria’s exit drowned all other sound. As Holly gathered her tray and left the table, Bristol’s eyes alighted on Holly’s shoes. They were a peculiar shape, curled at the toes and bright green. Bristol shrugged. She placed the styrofoam lunch tray in the proper receptacle and walked to class.
Physcial Sciences was Bristol’s least favorite subject of the six her mother had selected at the commencement of the semester, but she doodled her way through most lessons in Mr. Lawler’s classroom and pined after the final lesson of the day, Literature. The class was finishing up their study of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a book Bristol regarded as most enchanting. All of her other subjects were practical and rather useful, but the imaginative nature of fiction often stymied Bristol’s cunning and ingenuity. She could not understand why the princess must await her true love’s kiss in the highest tower of the dark castle, or why the demented witch demanded that she be the fairest of all, or to what end one would even attempt to piece back together an impetuous, clumsy egg. It was this inability, this lack of understanding that fed Bristol’s eagerness to study literature. Mathematics and Geography were too empirical to be difficult, too utterly rational, and Bristol often lacked the concentration necessary to excel in these disciplines. In a story, however, anything could happen.
“Bristol!” Mr. Lawler was always keen in pulling her from her reverie. “What is the answer?”
“Caterpillars?” The class giggled with amusement.
“The question, Ms. Longshore, was asking for the circumference of the Earth.”
“I’m still going with Caterpillars.” The giggles pealed into high lilting laughter and snorts.
“Principle’s office, Miss,” said Mr. Lawler, pointing to the door. Only last week she was sent to Mrs. Haverty’s office for inattentiveness. When she explained that she only been considering if in Bristol there was a girl named Storrs daydreaming at the same time she was. The bent and grey old principle was unamused.
Humming quietly, Bristol made a slight detour into the bathroom before proceeding to her inevitable doom. The heavy metal bathroom door clanged shut behind her, and in an instant she knew she was only alone. In a stall she recognized the familiar crooked green shoes resting on the ground visible below the partition.
The shoes gave a startled skid on the cream-colored linoleum. Quick whispers came from behind the gray stall door. “Is everything alright, Holly?”The green shoes climbed out of sight and the toilet flushed. Above the din of the rushing water Bristol heard a distinct and unmistakable gurgle. The buzzing fluorescent light above the stall sputtered and flickered before going out entirely.
Approaching the door, Bristol found it unlatched. She pushed it open and what she saw sank her heart. The stall was empty. In the white bowl was a tight knot of blond tangles. Holly was nowhere to be found. Bristol’s eyes flicked and flitted over each corner of the stall, looking for a vent, a hole, an anything that might explain where a girl could escape to or hide. She found nothing. Nothing, save a locket, perched upon a roll of coarse toilet paper. Inset on the precious metal was H. Frost. It was Holly’s locket.
Her hand clutched it instinctively, grasping the chain and lifting it to examine. It was hot, not uncomfortably so, but warm to the touch, as though it had been kept beneath a lamp for many hours. Bristol opened the locket. The quick whisper from before filled her ears. It was too hurried and raspy a voice to be interpreted and she leaned closer in to better concentrate. It was Holly’s voice and this was the message it carried:
“Bristol, please save me from him. It has to end. Find my brother. He’ll know what to do. He’ll know how to end it. His name is Jack. Find Jack Frost.”