A Simple Christmas Story
© Matthew Templar
The following is a revised version of a story told on another website. It is a gift to those who have shown their appreciation to the works of the authors of this site. Still, I would appreciate you asking me if you want to copy or, in some other way, duplicate or distribute this story in any way. Beyond that, please sit back with your favorite warm drink and enjoy.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Looking at the landscape, it reminded you of a forest of silver trees, shining from the sun, almost enough to make you squint. Tall forms of steel and glass grew amidst the thousands of people that made up the metropolis. People of all types and descriptions hurried through the streets to get to their dens; there to relax and let the day's work fall off of their shoulders, enjoying the contentment of the safe, warm, comfortable space they called home.
The stubble of that forest, almost forgotten amongst the tall invaders of the land that the smaller buildings used to claim, were broken old shells of a city from long past, ignored by those reckless enough to pass in front of them.
No one ever actually saw the reason for their fear as they hurried past those filthy walls which held no interest to almost all of the apartment people, making their ways to their shiny silver trees.
No one saw the men and women that left the missions and food lines to return to the corner of their broken building to spend yet another dark, cold night, thankful for the crumbling walls that protected their bodies from the freezing wind that seemed to rise up at night.
No one saw the children, either, that had taken to the outcast structures, having become outcasts of their own, from families and ex-friends that wouldn't tolerate the vile and sinful thoughts and acts of most of these kids. They were probably made homeless because of their depravities, their sick natures that would never change, as judged by a harsh world. But their little hearts only wanted to be accepted, loved.
And there were those kids that couldn't stay put. Orphaned or abandoned, all they had to do was what they were told, eat what was on their plate and wait until someone wanted them. But they never liked the obey part, at least, not the way it was forced on them; consequently, they never liked the beatings to get them to obey either. So, they ran away; and good riddance to bad rubbish.
None of the apartment people knew where the man on the corner, with the cardboard sign, went when he was finished for the day. He had but thirty-four dollars to take to his place for his wife and two kids to share for their food that week. It was all he could do to keep them fed, with no time left to look for work so he could provide his loved ones with a box in one of the shiny trees under which he begged.
No one cared where the lady lived that rang the bell while standing by the red bucket at this time of year. She kept her grocery cart hidden until her shift was over and she could spend her allotment for that day. Maybe by the next day, she could afford another pair of warm socks, she thought as more apartment people skirted around her to get to their warm places.
No one saw the three pre-teens jump out of the dumpster behind the Italian restaurant on Third Street, either. They looked at each other, those three, made disgusting remarks about their smell, then ran off with their moldy treasures when the cook looked out to see what was making the noise out there.
As night began to rob the great metal forest of what color there was left, the boys walked back to their cement mansion, walking over the oily threshold and up the staircase of mangled steel. They walked up four flights, to their corner of the palace, knelt down on the ashen floor and shared their feast of stale bread and day old ravioli. They had certainly lucked out that night. It'd only taken three hours to find such a meal and would last them until their empty stomachs forced them to wake up early the next morning.
Offices spilled out their slaves at five o'clock sharp. Thousands of people fought their way through the streets to get to their metal and glass nests, a take home meal in their hands that the apartment people would eat that night. On their list of comforts, their meal was among the top few, competing only with their safety and warmth.
The voices were loud and, more often than not, cross at those that kept them from their desires. To stand in a crowd at a time like this was cruel punishment after a day of plastered on smiles and half-hearted service to their unknown neighbors, likely in the same tall metal tree in which they lived.
This was almost the case for the man leaving his work place. His girth didn't make it any easier to get around, though he was making headway on his diet. His lack of motivation at the thought of being stuck inside all night again made his feet move slower than the people shoving their way past him. Still, he would slow, at times, to see into store windows or detour from his straight path to take him by the huge toy store three blocks from his metal tree. It always seemed odd to him that such a store was inside the forest where children never seemed to come. It was adults that rushed in and out, having purchased some item on a list that meant nothing to anyone except the child that had insisted on that particular something that would do marvelous things until their next need demanded a return to the store.
The man sighed as he walked past, seeing nothing that captured his eye in the windows of the colorful toy store.
Soon he was squeezing his way to the back of the elevator, trying to hold his breath against the smoke-filled clothes of his neighbors. He was squeezed out onto the sixth floor, almost shunned by the apartment people whose roosts were floors higher than his lowly box on one of the economy floors.
Still, it was his box, with his things, tidily stored into each cubby-hole, until he remembered where he'd put this picture album or that stack of letters from previous years. He still enjoyed his tea, and would, until cold weather demanded that he give up his diet and succumb to the call of the chocolate mix for his hot drink during winter's cold months. But that was some weeks away yet.
As he settled before his television in his glassed in living room, his fork dropped to the plush carpeted floor. He moved his plate to the end table and sauntered over to the window to pick up the utensil.
Movement below caught his eye. Three boys left the sidewalk to hurry to the opening of the broken down building below him. He thought they must be very brave to even consider playing in such a run down place as the old county building, deserted many years before the man had taken up residence two years before. The boys seemed to be bundled up enough, but he worried, just the same. Their clothes looked gray and wet in spots, as though they'd been playing elsewhere already. This was the first time he had seen movement below his window. He watched until they'd disappeared into the mass of wreckage that was the building next door.
He returned to his chair and lifted the plate of fresh ravioli onto his lap, chuckling that the sight of the boys had made his food cold. Hadn't it only been a minute that he'd looked at them treading their way through the debris until they disappeared into the old place? Then he let out a real laugh, looking around, self-consciously, to see who might have heard his outbreak. He giggled gently all the way to the kitchen counter to retrieve his glass of milk.
On his return he looked down on the old building and watched two more boys enter, much the same as the previous three, though, even from six floors up, they looked smaller, perhaps younger. He shook his head that he hadn't seen them before; anyone, for that matter. Then he realized that he'd never really looked out and down, just out at the landscape, between the dozens of other steel and glass trees in the city's dense forest.
* * * * * * * * *
The two brothers made their way to the third floor of the building and quickly moved to their corner. They gasped when they saw their blanket and bags containing their belongings piled next to the three men that had taken over the two boys' space. They quietly backed away, not wanting to risk harm by igniting the men's fury as so often happened in these places.
The boys walked to the stairway and looked up and then down. They opted for the stairs up and made their way up one fight to see if luck would allow them to start over in another corner of the forsaken building that had been their home for two weeks.
The older boy, twelve, heard a sniffling from his eight-year-old brother and slapped him on the shoulder to quiet him. Even at eight, the younger boy knew what could happen if someone sensed their vulnerability. They dared not risk being the target of someone's impatience again, remembering the beatings they received at the hand of their step-father and step-brother, especially the last one, just three weeks ago that Friday. The staff at the mission where the family had been staying never heard the cries from the bathroom that night. They never heard the shouts from an unloving man that told the two little ones to never come back, or the cold, heartless giggling from their older step-brother. The staff there may have been glad that they could feed two more people the next morning, barely wondering how the two places had become vacant overnight.
* * * * * * * * *
Two pairs of eyes were putting pressure on the boy that knelt over his meal. He sensed someone spying on him and threw up his head to catch the someone's looking back. But the rooms beyond shielded any onlookers in their darkness, protecting them from discovery, at least until they felt their arms being tugged.
"Caught us two brats. S'pose we can find a fire and get a meal each outta them?"
"Prob'ly. Seems a shame to waste good heat for two or three bites of tough butt meat, though, done it?" The other two boys laughed at their friend's joking as he hauled the scared kids into the lighter room.
"Whaddya doin spyin' on us, ya little nose pickers? An' if ya say yer jus hungry and need a place to lay yer widdow head, fergit it! We ain't gotta 'nuff for us, let alone you little pissers."
The eight-year-old was starting to sniffle again. He was so tired of this game. It wasn't like when he remembered playing with kids in his neighborhood. Why couldn't he just go back there and start all over again? Maybe if he had been a better little boy his mommy wouldn't have died. He looked up at his brother with pleading eyes, too scared to make eye contact with the three boys, especially the one that had grabbed them. He seemed especially mean.
His older brother was tired of the games he had to play, too. He knew they were in for more than just talk. It seemed to always happen like that. First they bullied 'em, then they threatened 'em until their legs shook under 'em, then they laid into them, well, him mostly. Thankfully, they never really hurt Jacob much, and they only slapped or pushed Jeremy, him, around some. Still, it wasn't any fun. It would be just easier for him to look for another window with its glass busted out, that he could step out of. Jacob could get help then. Someone would want one boy, just not two brothers; he heard others talking that way. So, if he wasn't around . . . .
"Are you even listenin' to me? Get your scrawny ass's outta our sight. If ya need a place ta stay, don't look in here. Go out thatta way and see what you can find. Shit. Git!"
"Hey, but Lar, ain't we gonna skin 'em like the last two?" Devon giggled at his words. So did the youngest of the three, almost choking on a mouthful of dried up pasta. "You ain't gettin' soft on us, are ya?" But before he could look at the other boy to start their giggling again, Lar slapped the side of his head. "Ouch! Hey! What'd I say? You're the one that's . . . ." He looked into the face in front of him and decided to not say what he was about to.
"I'm tired a killin' kids today, guys. Two's enough. Let 'em go and let's be rid of 'em."
"Sure. Sounds good ta me, huh?" The young one was sitting a bit straighter, his jaw hanging open, waiting for the fight that should've come. He was amazed that the other boy didn't have a fat lip or somethin', at such an embarrassing mistake. Even at his twelve years he knew not to piss off Larry. He'da thought Devon would know that by now. After all, he was a year older than Larry was. Fourteen and dumb enough to get slapped by a thirteen? Whew!
The two boys moved a step toward the doorway and then scurried through into a bigger space that was totally empty. They almost sighed as one when they thought they had made it to a safe place again, maybe; for the night anyway.
"Any noise over there and we'll come in while yer sleepin' and stomp your brains out. Now shut up and don't make no slurpin' noises, suckin' yer, yer thumbs all night." That got a loud laugh from the other two boys. But Jacob looked up at his older brother and curled up his nose, not understanding why they'd be 'suckin' their thumbs at all.
"Never mind, Jacob," Jeremy whispered. "Let's go to that end and see if we can find a dry place."
* * * * * * * * *
He'd been looking down there, off and on, for over an hour. It was completely dark now and there must have been a chill that was over-powering any warmth left in the shattered old building. Surely they would have been on their way to their homes by now. There were no lights to be seen.
Then he saw movement, a shadow in front of the building cast by the lone street light almost a block away. It had to be an older man, taking the same route as the boys had. The raggedy man must have heard something behind him, because he turned to look, and then waved at someone to 'come on'.
The man in his sixth story box shuddered when he thought what might happen if the kids met those two men in there. He ignored the pain in his chest, well, sadness in his heart, really. He moved away from the window and walked into his bathroom to do something about his growing beard. Maybe he should have it colored. He felt too young to have it turn this gray, almost silver, so quickly. His thoughts didn't help the nagging feelings he had; the ones that kept him awake for an hour longer than usual that night.
* * * * * * * * *
Several weeks had passed before the man's fork forced him to look out of his glass box again. It wasn't really a fork this time, unless someone had asked him why he bothered to look. Of course, no one would ask him. Why would they? They just wanted to go to their boxes, then to work, then to their boxes in their metal tree, to choose something from their 'comforting' list and then, to look out at the forest beyond.
This time the two boys were going inside the building. The shorter, probably younger, one was reluctant this time, unlike before. He kept looking all around as his companion kept turning to tell him something. Oh. He swung his arm and pointed to the doorway to get the other to get in there. That was it. The littler boy finally succumbed to his shyness and entered, but very warily.
* * * * * * * * *
'I don't really blame him,' thought his brother, Jeremy. 'I get just as scared every time we meet those other three boys or the men that live in the building.' He wouldn't mention it to his little brother though. 'What would that get us? Just scare Jacob all the more.'
"But why do we have ta stay here anymore, Jer? I doe like it anymore. I wanna go somewhere else, where it isn't scary anymore. Can we?" His sniffling was constant now, not because of crying.
'He'd been doing it since it started to really get cold. His sleeve was always sopping from his snot,' his brother thought to himself. 'If he gets really sick, I don't know what to do.'
"Ya know we can't go anywhere else, Jacob. This is as safe as any and safer than most. I don't think those older guys wanna hurt us; just scare the pee outta us mosta the time."
"Yeah. Well, mosta the time it works. That one kid is mean sometimes."
"Lar? Naw! He's all talk."
"Then why are you sayin' it so soft he won't hear you? Could be 'cause if he heard you even say his name, he'd clobber ya, huh?"
"Aw, he isn't that bad. I think he likes you, really. I'd be scared o' the other two if I was you. I don't think they like Lar treatin' us so nice anymore."
"You're even startin' to sound like them, Jer. I doe wanna be here anymore and I'm hungry."
The words cut through Jeremy like a knife, just like they did everyday. He felt like he was failing his little brother by not being able to provide for him. At night, it was that worry that kept him up, not about the boys who were making the moaning noises in the next room, but about what horrors the next day would bring Jacob and him.
* * * * * * * * *
"Gawd! This is great, Michael! You gonna loose your shirt."
Twelve year old Michael wasn't too happy. The cards weren't in his favor. He was laying on his stomach while Devon was sitting cross-legged on the other side of what was the pile. Devon kept laughing and shouting louder each time he grabbed the pile from the dirty floor where they were playing.
"Shut up, Devon. You'll wake the dead and in this place, there's prob'ly plenty of 'em."
Every once in a while, when they were really bored or had a really intense day, running from someone or hiding from another, they'd play cards with a deck of 51 cards and one ripped sheet of notebook paper with an '8' and a heart drawn in each corner.
Lars was out doing something so they played while they waited for him to come back, maybe with more food.
"Devon, I'm gettin' bored o' this game. Isn't there sumpin' else we can play?"
"Oops! Sorry, little buddy. Guess I just got all caught up in being the best card player ever." He grinned at Michael, who shook his head in disgust. He was just helping to pick up the cards when he heard a noise. He swung his head around and felt the burn of the hard slap.
His eyes watered so bad he had no idea who it had come from.
"You shitheads know how much noise ya make up here? I'm 'bout ready ta . . . ."
The man was as dirty and evil looking as they came. His clothes were on in thick layers from the cold weather. His fingers were scrawny and long, like his whole body, with filthy fingernails on the fingers that still had any. What hair he had was straggly and filthy gray. His teeth were either black or gone. It was even worse when he was smiling, and he was smiling right then.
"What you doin' lyin' down in the dirt there fer, boy? He leaned closer to Michael and grabbed his chin, pulling it toward him so he could see him better. Michael started to scramble to his feet, but the grizzly old man pushed Michael back so that he fell back on his elbows, staring up at the ugly man in total disbelief. He was scared.
"Yer a cute one, you are."
'Oh God, where oh where are you, Lar?' thought Devon, wishing Lar was there. Why wasn't he there, anyway? His mind raced to think of how they could escape this guy. He slowly turned his head to look for anything he could use for a weapon.
"Hey! Hold still, boy, or I'll whack ya again. Just set there. I ain't aimin' ta harm ya none. Hm-m-m. Well, not you, anyway. But you, you are a purty boy, ain't ya?" he said, turning his attention to young Michael again.
There were two gasps when the boys realized what the old man's intent seemed to be. But before they could react further, the man literally fell over Devon to grab and hold Michael.
Devon was kneed over and over as the man tried to regain himself standing and still hold onto a squirming, screaming boy.
"Boy, if you don't hold still, I'm whacking the hell outta ya from here ta Tuesday! Now, stop it!"
But this was life or death! Michael couldn't have been more scared. There was no doubt what this guy had in mind and he was pretty sure it wasn't no massage. He tried to get to his feet and run but the man had strength.
"I tole you, boy! You gotta larn ta listen or this could happen to ya." With that, he swung his open hand across the jaw of the frightened boy. It was hard and a direct hit. Michael screamed until he went limp in the man's clutches.
"What'd you do? Shit! You killed him! Oh gawd, you killed Michael!" Devon was literally screaming, that is, until he caught another of the man's swipes, right across his chest. He fell hard, the wind gone from his lungs. He felt his head hit the floor and then the lights went out.
* * * * * * * * *
The man could still see well enough to see one boy going into the hovel. He was too far away to notice any details. Children had always been important to him. These boys were beginning to grow on him, too. He'd realized several days before that what was happening there wasn't play. That was their home. He was hoping it was a large enough place that the boys wouldn't be bothered by the men he'd seen. Hope had always been a strong part of the man's life, but he was beginning to feel like it was losing out over the reality of what could be happening in there. He shivered and took a sip of his cocoa.
'I'll bet those boys would love some of this tonight. I can feel the cold through the glass. I can't imagine what it must be like out there,' the man thought to himself. Actually, cold was something he had known. It was one of the excuses he'd used to move to this place, this metal tree, this forest of metal trees.
* * * * * * * * *
"Shit! He's where? Tell me, Devon! Get up, dammit! Where's Michael!" He shook Devon as he yelled into his face.
Devon's crying wasn't helping the situation any.
"He's gone. He got took, and I don't know how long ago. I got knocked out and then you're here."
"Who took him? Where'd they go? Devon, tell me!"
He listened as Devon told him about the man that had slapped him then grabbed Michael. He told him how the man hit Michael and probably killed him or knocked him out. Then how the man had hit Devon, too. When Lar asked why, Devon told him they were just playin' cards and the man told 'em to shut up and how he liked Michael. Lar gasped at that.
"Oh, Gawd, Devon. We gotta find him. If we don't find him soon, . . . what is it?"
Devon looked like he'd seen a ghost as he stared over Larry's shoulder. Larry swung around to see. . .
He was leaning against the door jam. Most of his clothes were in his arms. His naked body only held the shreds of his underpants, and they were only sticking to him because of the blood that had run down his leg. His face was puffy and shiny, his arms and knees looked like they were scraped raw. His hair was wet as was most of his body. He smelled like a toilet. But the worst was when he breathed. It sounded like a wheezing, and it looked like he couldn't get enough air. His mouth turned up slowly at the edges, trying to smile through his pain.
"Hey. I'm back," he said in a painful whisper, then began to slump to the floor.
* * * * * * * * *
One last look before he went to bed. He stood against the huge plate of glass, looking into the abyss that was the broken building. There was only the light from a street lamp down the street to give any light into what must have been the porch of the building. But it was enough to see movement.
Two boys were coming out. At this hour? One was carrying something heavy and the other was scurrying around to help him move without tripping and dropping the . . . Oh My God! It was a boy! He looked practically naked in the bigger boy's arms. But what he could see was red enough to know he was hurt and hurt bad.
The man's mind clicked into a place that it hadn't been for quite some time. He was back into a decision making mode that he had set aside for the last two years. He grabbed his coat and hat, his scarf and made for the door. Something clicked again and he went to the closet again and fetched a coat, no, three heavy coats, one long enough to do the job, for sure.
The door slammed loud enough for his neighbors to look up and wonder, if only for a second. Then they went back to the next thing on their 'comforting' list.
* * * * * * * * *
The boys were crying and walking. Larry was barely able to hold his precious package, he was so heavy. When they got to the sidewalk, Lar looked both ways, not knowing which way to go.
"Oh, shit! I dunno where it is, Devon. I never been there before. Oh, shit. What are we gonna do?"
Devon tried to drape the putrefied clothes that used to be Michaels, over his limp body. 'He'll freeze to death before we get him anywhere,' he thought.
They turned to walk toward the center of the vast jungle, not knowing that their destination was on the edge of this forest, in the other direction. When they turned the next corner, a man stood before them, with a huge wad of clothes filling his arms.
"Give him to me," the man said calmly. He reached toward the small boy that Larry held so tightly to him.
"Huh? What the . . . ? We ain't givin' him ta anyone, mister. Butt outta here." Devon made fists as he told the man off, knowing Lar would be so proud of him, standing up to this guy.
"Listen to me, boys. The only place open at this hour is not walking distance for two youngsters. Hand him to me so you can put on these warm coats. But most important, so you can help me get this long one on your hurt friend here." His voice was so soothing that there really wasn't any choice.
"Help us, mister. He's fucked up, I mean, he's hurt real bad."
"But, Lar. He's a grownup. Whaddya doin'?" The rule was no adults, not never, not ever, no more, no way, no how! This was something different. He'd never seen Lar look like that. But he'd never been in this kinda mess before neither.
"We gotta trust him, Dev. He's our only hope or we're gonna lose Michael. He's badder 'en I've ever seen it, Dev. We gotta do it."
With some difficulty the man took Lar's package and told them to get the coats on. Then they helped him wrap one around Michael. It was a huge green coat with some kind of fur on all the edges. Michael'd shoot 'em if he found out he was wearin' that coat. It was really gross, but really warm. You could tell.
"Now, boys, let's get a cab."
It took some convincing before the cabbie would let the filthy boys in his cab, that is, until the man explained that they needed a hospital immediately. It might have been the two bills he pulled out and shoved into the cabbie's hand, too. The cabbie then realized that the man was carrying another boy, and off they went. Devon sat in front because of the man's size and because it was a small cab. Larry sat holding his friend's head in his lap, softly trying to untangle the matted hair.
Michael seemed to be sleeping deeply in the man's strong arms. His breathing was still ragged, but he seemed stronger somehow.
No one spoke. The cabbie tried but quickly took the hint that it wasn't welcome; not this trip.