‘Tis the Season

Posted: December 26, 2010 in Single-run ("One off") Stories
Tags: , ,

The man walked down Chesterson Road, mere inches from the narrow, dusty two-lane roadway itself, with a steady pace and unwavering steps through the short, dry grass covered here and there in a thin dusting of snow.

It was a pair of kids who first took note of the six-foot-four traveler—his shoulders hunched just a bit and his face unreadable behind a full-head “mask” of Ace bandages. The long strips of material were wrapped around almost every part of his head so that only his eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears showed through.

That wouldn’t have been enough to identify him—several costumed transhumans wore similar attire on their heads, inspired by DC Comics’ Unknown Soldier and Negative Man—but there was also the large-character digital display device affixed to his torso, on a body which was clad in otherwise unremarkable and standard-issue clothing, albeit wrinkled and stained.

It read, simply: 2 days, 6 hours and 31 minutes ’til Christmas

When it clicked down to 2 days, 6 hours and 30 minutes, the two pre-teens, who were very well-versed in trivia about the most notable transhumans in the nation, broke and ran to tell their parents.

Doctor Holiday was headed toward their town.

* * *

Word spread quickly through the town of Travis, and by the time the transhuman pedestrian had made it to Main Street, there was a group six adults and one junior from the nearby high school who competed in football and wrestling who were shadowing him.

None of them carried anything that remotely looked like a weapon. At least two of the adults had heard the warning in the news—that no one should ever make a provocative move. It was only on a holiday that this transhuman would use his powers.

Unless he felt threatened.

When that happened, God help the person who had made the provocative move.

* * *

Within 20 minutes, the group of people shadowing Doctor Holiday had grown to a dozen people. They followed at what they thought was likely a safe distance, and kept up with him. They were tense at first, but at a certain point, when they all realized they were well past the middle of town, they actually became less anxiety-ridden the longer he walked.

Because now he seemed to be headed out of town.

They would be spared the risks of him choosing to stay here. The risks of “hosting” a transhuman who had more personalities than anyone had yet been able to keep track of and whose demeanor could shift from heroic to villainous and back again within a span of minutes some days.

Mostly on the holidays, though.

When he reached the edge of town and continued walking down the narrow highway, there were audible sighs of relief from many in the small crowd of followers.

A few of them, though, raced back to town at a dead run to make some phone calls.

To warn the residents of the town of Marcy that Doctor Holiday was headed their way.

* * *

The people of Marcy waited anxiously for hours. When Doctor Holiday didn’t show up for six hours—and it was clearly no more than a couple hour’s walk from Travis even if he slowed up a lot or took a long break to rest—they began to feel hope.

When they went to bed with no sign of him, everyone was calm again.

But the next afternoon, Ralph Stanley and a couple of guys he played poker with every Friday night saw an unfamiliar car drive into town, and park in front of Dolly’s store, the Pharm & Shop. A tall man got out, his face swaddled in brown bandage strips and the display on his chest still ticking down the minutes until Christmas.

It read: 1 day, 9 hours and 13 minutes ’til Christmas.

Doctor Holiday ignored the three men completely. He stopped to look up at the lampposts and to peer at the store fronts, his gaze most intent on the Christmas decorations. Then he walked slowly away from the car, four storefronts away, and sat down in front of the door of Walt Smith’s old accounting and insurance office—closed up now since his heart attack almost a year earlier.

The town’s unwelcome visitor settled his chin against his chest, closed his eyes and dozed.

Ralph spread the word quickly, and everyone steered well clear of that portion of sidewalk, but many gathered in little knots of humanity here and there to watch while two sheriff’s deputies carefully looked over the car Doctor Holiday had inexplicably driven to their town in after being spotted walking out of Travis before.

One of those deputies kept an eye on the seemingly napping transhuman, in case their efforts might seem to anger him. He showed no response to their presence and presented no complaint.

They ran the vehicle identification number through their office, as there were no license plates on the car and no registration inside it.

The vehicle had no current owner, and had last been registered in the next county over some five years earlier to a woman who hadn’t lived in the state for the last two years.

By the time all this was figured out, and the news had filtered to the gathered onlookers for them to pass along to family, friends and neighbors later,  the display on Doctor Holiday’s chest told them all that it was 1 day, 5 hours and 49 minutes until Christmas.

* * *

Doctor Holiday got up once that evening after his arrival to walk into the diner nearby. He ordered a ham and cheese sandwich and a bottle of Pepsi in a voice that sounded like it hadn’t been used in weeks. The teen-aged girl at the register got him the sandwich, but was afraid to ring him up or ask for money.

When she handed him the sandwich and drink, he didn’t leave. After several tense seconds, his eyes moved toward the cash register and then back to her face.

Fingers shaking, she punched the buttons and said in a tremulous voice, “That’s $3.75.”

Doctor Holiday slowly reached into a pocket, took out a five-dollar bill, and set it down on the counter.

He walked out without waiting for change, ate his sandwich and drank his beverage while standing and admiring the Christmas decorations all around, and then sat down for another nap.

A single deputy stood across the street, watching.

His orders were to do nothing unless he absolutely had to.

He hoped desperately that nothing would happen, because he wasn’t sure what extreme Doctor Holiday would have to go to that would give him the courage to reach for his gun.

* * *

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Doctor Holiday ordered an omelet and a coffee at the diner with a voice that sounded less haggard and scratchy, and left another five without getting change. He ate while standing at the counter. Everyone who could see it looked at his digital display, which told them that only a little more than 15 hours remained until midnight came and Christmas would officially begin.

When he had cleaned his plate and emptied his cup, he returned to the empty storefront that had become his home here in town.

Several men in town had already agreed to stand vigil tonight with the deputy on duty to see what would happen, and they were already bringing folding chairs, blankets and space heaters to set up in their appointed spot.

In the afternoon, Doctor Holiday ordered an egg salad sandwich and a pastrami on rye with swiss cheese from the diner, asking for a to-go bag and a two-liter of pink lemonade to wash it down. He left a ten-dollar bill. This time, he waited for change, and left a couple dollars on the counter after he got it.

His display read: 10 hours and 16 minutes ’til Christmas.

Some of the men who would stand watch with Deputy Mitchell tonight began to arrive with coolers. One came with a large satchel loaded with rifles and shotguns, and the hope that they wouldn’t need to be brandished, much less used.

None of the men had any more desire than the deputy to draw weapons, and each doubted he could unless someone he loved was being threatened by the man.

10 hours and 8 minutes remained.

* * *

Midnight approached, and what Christmas Eve lacked for snow this year it more than made up for in cold. The men watched, fascinated and fearful, as the digital display read: 1 minute ’til Christmas. Then not only were the days and hours gone but also the minutes, as time ticked down from 59 seconds.

When it read :00 seconds ’til Christmas, and then the display suddenly flared with festive red, green and white letters and graphics that declared it to be Christmas, there was no alarm from the device. No sound at all.

Nothing but the soft scratch of Doctor Holiday’s boots on the sidewalk as his eyes opened from his latest nap and he stood slowly, then stretched and then turned toward the empty store before which he had squatted for most of his time in town.

He opened the door, which to everyone’s knowledge had been locked, and stepped inside. In the darkness, the onlookers could see vague movement, but the dim illumination of his chest display gave them little help, as he removed it and set it display-side-down on the floor. After several minutes, he exited the store with the display back on his chest, but now he was wearing a Santa Claus suit, complete with shiny black boots and black gloves, a large sack slung over his shoulder, a Santa hat on his Ace-bandaged head and a long, fake white beard.

He said “Ho, ho, ho!” in a strong, bellowing voice, and sat down again.

One of the men muttered, “Where the hell did he get the costume?”

Someone else shushed him, as if fearful that even talking about Doctor Holiday’s actions or speculating about him might incur his wrath.

No one said “Merry Christmas.” No one said much of anything.

They watched and waited.

* * *

Dawn broke, and 40 minutes after it did, Doctor Holiday stood up and began to walk.

In his full Santa attire, he strode quickly down the main street of the town, which was called Elm Avenue. He turned right at Ulster Street and walked a half-mile to Bacon Avenue, where he turned left. Then another several blocks and another left, this time at Wallace Street.

He strode up to 9 Wallace Street, a modest single-family home, and stopped at the end of the front walk.

“Merry Christmas to all,” bellowed Doctor Holiday, “except to Daniel Gavin James! Gambler! Thief! Liar! Adulterer! Wife beater! Child molester! Rapist of his own kin!”

The lights went on in the house, and curtains in two windows were pulled slightly aside, furtively.

The men who had stood vigil and followed the transhuman here watched Doctor Holiday, as did that one reluctant sheriff’s deputy named Dennis Mitchell.

No one responded from the house. Doctor Holiday set down his Santa sack at the edge of the street and walked up to the porch. He place one hand on each railing on either side of the steps leading up the front porch, and gripped hard.

The men watching from outside, along with the curious and slowly gathering neighbors, weren’t sure what to expect. Doctor Holiday rarely displayed the same set of powers on any holiday any more than he displayed the same personality. Inside the house, a family watched and listened, one of them more fearful than the rest, and angry too—while the others felt a mix of hope, dread and pity.

Danny James, husband and father of three, had been named and marked.

No one was certain if this was common with Doctor Holiday, but neither did they doubt any accusation that the transhuman had hurled. Few liked Danny, and most would freely admit he was a drunk and a lout, even if they wouldn’t have guessed at half of the crimes of which he had just been accused.

After several minutes of Doctor Holiday standing there, gripping the railings, a few people spied smoke. The wood of the porch began to blacken, then catch fire. Within moments, the porch was engulfed in flame, though nothing touched Doctor Holiday. The fire spread with swift ferocity to the walls and nearly the entire house was burning in less than two minutes. Someone nudged the deputy hard, and gave him a questioning look. He seemed dazed at first, then took out his gun.

“Doctor Holiday, I am Deputy Mitchell and I ask you to stand aside so that I can take Mr. James into custody!” He pointedly and purposely left out any mention of arson or endangering innocents.

Doctor Holiday didn’t turn or in any other way acknowledge the deputy. And when the lawman raised his pistol, he dropped it just as fast with a sharp cry, his hand blistered and the gun falling into the snow to send up a burst of steam as it melted the scant bit of white on the lawn.

The house was a conflagration, and then the family inside began to flee it. Some went out windows while most went out the back door.

Danny James no sooner had left the house then he began to run toward Bacon Avenue.

He came to a sudden halt and fell as if yanked to the ground. Something unseen seemed to drag him back toward his burning home. Every so often, he would win his freedom from the invisible whatever that had taken hold of him, only to be snared again and dragged ever closer. When he was within reach of Doctor Holiday, one Santa-attired arm reached down and picked Danny up by the collar of his pajama shirt.

Doctor Holiday looked into the man’s eyes as he thrashed and cursed, hit and kicked, screeched and cried. None of which availed him against the tall and burly transhuman.

“Guilty,” Doctor Holiday said. “As charged.”

With as much emotion in his eyes as a man putting a bag of trash into a garbage can, Doctor Holiday hurled Daniel James into the inferno that had been his home.

The James family watched aghast, and cringed at the screams inside. They cried for their family member even though they had hated him most days more than anything else.

Doctor Holiday went to his bag, reached in, and began tossing out clothes, boots and coats that no onlooker doubted was sized appropriately to each surviving family member. As they pulled warm clothing over their pajamas, shivering and terrified, Doctor Holiday said, “I’m glad none of you are hurt or dead. I would say I’m sorry about the hamster, but I despise rodents. For the same reason, I don’t mourn your husband and father.”

Then Doctor Holiday looked at the thick photo album in the arms of the former Mrs. James, and plucked it away, throwing it into the house.

“This is no place for sentiment, Sally,” he told her. “The man in them isn’t worth remembering, and the children of those years aren’t to be remembered either—only repaired and raised right from now on as healthy versions of the tortured shadows they once were.”

He reached into the bag one more time, and pulled out stack after stack of plastic-wrapped currency. Some of it U.S. currency, some Canadian, some Mexican, some Italian and one small parcel that was Chinese.

“I apologize for the need to do some currency exchange,” he said. “But I think you can buy a new house, furniture and necessities.”

He turned away, muttered “Merry Christmas” and headed for the edge of town.

No one followed him.

* * *

Doctor Holiday was spotted by tourists in a car some days later, who thought it odd to see a man in a three-piece suit with his head wrapped in bandages and a digital display on his chest walking by the edge of a major highway.

Before they sped by in their travels down the interstate, they noted what the display said.

4 days, 9 hours and 2 minutes ’til New Year’s Day.

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