Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tall Tale Tuesday :: I'll Be Home For Christmas (Part 2 of 3)

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’?”

Bristol nodded.

“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.”

“Got it.”

“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.