Pilgrim’s Progress

Posted: November 26, 2011 in Single-run ("One off") Stories
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A few days late on my holiday tale, but here it is and featuring (of course) Doctor Holiday…

Pilgrim’s Progress

Beautiful and brown, plump and glistening, fragrant and juicy—the turkey sat steaming on the dingy table that dominated what little open space the kitchen of the apartment offered. Two adults and five children were tightly arrayed around it, each with their plates, half of them cracked or chipped. Each with their utensils, few of which matched. Each with their concerns at the man looming over their table with a two-tined fork and a dull butcher knife at the ready—a wanderer with a reputation as terrible as it was heroic.

A man whose face hid behind brown cloth bandages but whose chest declared his identity all too well, with the electronic screen he wore over his torso, with images of turkeys and Pilgrims and Native Americans and dancing letters that spelled out “Happy Thanksgiving” over and over again.

He’d insisted they all gather together at the table, even though any other Thanksgiving Day—or most meals they shared, for that matter—would have had some of them seated in the living room eating at the coffee table just to allow for more comfort. They were, after all, a family of seven in a two-bedroom apartment. But Doctor Holiday had said, with firm insistence, that family was important, and togetherness was the key to making it through.

The matriarch of this tightly knit clan, Rosie, couldn’t shake the feeling that they were gathered for a convenient slaughter, though so far all the transhuman had done was come bearing an uncooked turkey and an electric roasting pan, and then began preparing it, urging her to put away the deli-style turkey breast she had planned to heat up and offering her occasional advice about the sweet potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese and gravy that she was cooking—once the turkey was well enough along for the rest of the preparations to commence.

Her husband, Marty, had already devised in his head twice a dozen ways to attempt—and likely fail—to subdue or kill Doctor Holiday, or at least give his children and wife time to flee. And yet the most threatening thing the man had done thus far was pick up an old butcher knife that was going to be hard-pressed to cut the delicious-looking turkey and was more likely to simply yank off hunks of it.

The children ranged from blasé to nervous, though most of them had, after hours of Doctor Holiday telling stories, singing and joking with them, become used to him, like some years-unseen uncle come to visit. Blanca had already drawn the transhuman two pictures—one of a turkey in a field and one of Pilgrims and Natives cooking together—and Can had showed off his small but treasured collection of action figures at least three times. Only 14-year-old Gracie still maintained a mostly wary demeanor—and seemed to have her eyes on the door to their abode as often as she did the drawer where the steak knives lay.

Doctor Holiday began to cut the meat, and the knife slid through it with scalpel-like precision, thin and perfect slices falling into a quickly growing pile. Rosie wondered if the transhuman were using some kind of telekinesis, and couldn’t help but worry for a moment what such a power might look like flaying her children in front of her eyes. Marty considered the possibility that Doctor Holiday might have some metal-manipulation powers that had sharpened the knife, and his fears for their children’s flesh were much the same as his wife’s—fleeting but vivid.

But no blood was shed by this frightening man who had made an unannounced pilgrimage to their tiny home. Just the juices of the turkey dripping into the platter on which it sat. Doctor Holiday made a plate for each of them, and finally one for himself—the smallest helping of all—and sat cross-legged on the floor. It was a wholly ludicrous sight for a man of such imposing physique and dangerous reputation to be holding a small plate in his lap and sitting like a Kindergartner next to their table, but it largely broke the remaining tension. Only for Marty did the imagery make him a bit more anxious, fearing that it was some trick or that it would be the innocent harbinger to Doctor Holiday losing his shit and slaughtering them.

Still, he thought, it made things nicer to see his family finally at ease. Someone had to keep watch, though.

After several minutes, Doctor Holiday cleared his throat, and began to speak solemnly.

“You know, Thanksgiving has gotten a bad rap in recent years,” he said. “So many people focus on the bloodshed and destruction of the Indians, and make people feel guilty for celebrating this day, but that wasn’t how it started. It’s not what Thanksgiving is really about.”

He paused to put a spoonful of sugary, buttery sweet potato in his mouth and chewed contemplatively. For a moment, Gracie considered correcting him about his use of the term “Indian” but shut her mouth almost as soon as it had opened, thinking better of it.

“The native people weren’t persecuted at first,” he continued. “Oh, I’m not saying the Pilgrims were saints or that they didn’t do some bad things probably, but they were a small group fleeing to a new land. There was plenty of room for them. It’s when others followed and land needed to be stolen from the Native Americans who had occupied it for so long that the true evil came out.”

“We shouldn’t white-wash the past, but I think we should all remember not to make demons of all the white people and angels of all the red-skinned ones,” Doctor Holiday said. “The brown and tan ones shouldn’t be pigeonholed, either. We all have evil and good in us. Sometimes at the same time.”

You would know, wouldn’t you? Marty thought, and then wondered if he should pity, hate or fear the man in his small home. Perhaps all three.

“Look at your parents,” Doctor Holiday said, pointing to each in turn with his fork, one of its tines bent. “There are some who would call them leeches. Or make them out to be the bad guys because they’re on public assistance. It doesn’t matter that they both want jobs and are willing to work. They are seen as the enemy. There are liberals, too, who would call your dad evil for taking a hand or a belt to some of your asses, even though we all know you’ve deserved most of those whacks—though, I’m sure,  there are times his frustrations in life made him go too far.”

Marty swallowed hard, and wasn’t certain if it was a little bit of shame for those times he’d been a bit rough or if it was fear that Doctor Holiday was here to exact some overblown punishment on a father who sometimes spanked his children or smacked them on the back of their skulls with the heel of his palm.

“And you’ve all done bad things, haven’t you?” Doctor Holiday said. “But you’re mostly good people. I wish I could say the same of myself. I wish I could say the same of a lot of people I visit on the holidays.”

The transhuman cleared his plate and brought it to the sink, he rinsed it off, set it aside, and reached into a pocket, pulling out a huge roll of money. He placed it into Rosie’s hand.

“You have bills to pay, and Christmas is coming,” he said. “I think you know which comes first, but this will cover both for a while. Be thankful for your family, and be hopeful for work to carry you forward when that roll is long gone. Thanks for having me as your guest. But I have to go now. You can keep the roasting pan. I won’t need it. I doubt I’ll be having a personality suited for cooking when I’m wandering into someone’s life for Hanukkah or Christmas or whatever.”

He paused, and looked around as his hand hovered above their doorknob. “You know, I’ve punished people in houses that two dozen or more of these apartments would fit in who didn’t deserve to live in such splendor, much less own something so big,” his voice taking a sharp edge. “I’ve helped people with less than you have who deserve the sun and the moon.”

Rosie shivered and Marty tensed, but no attack came.

“Just be thankful and remember that you love each other. You won’t always be together. You won’t always all be alive. Enjoy and appreciate family, as it grows and when it doesn’t.”

He left them then, and Rosie looked at the roll of money for a long time, wondering where it had come from, before she handed it to Marty and gently urged the kids to eat before the food got cold.

* * *

Doctor Holiday opened the door of a larger apartment  in a neighboring building to check on the person he had visited earlier in the day—what had been the third stop on his pilgrimage.

The man was still dead, but that was to be expected. Entirely too much blood was pooled on the floor and splattering the walls, and Doctor Holiday sighed with regret.

The man was a dealer of death—meth, crack, heroin and skeez—but had he entered that business out of a callous disregard for human life and dignity or had it been what he thought was his only choice? Did he have children or parents he was helping to support, or was he a greedy bastard with no desire to do something positive with his life?

Too late to know now. Doctor Holiday would only retain his awareness for a little over another five hours, and he had no interest in wasting time finding out what he likely couldn’t learn even if he had five days. The man was dead, and there was nothing to be done about it. At least his money had gone to a good place.

Still, I was too harsh when I killed him. I should have made it quick with a snapped neck. No need to rip out his tongue and tear off a few body parts and let him bleed out.

After that, he slipped into a local department store—closed for the holiday—that had supplied him with the roasting pan, and he left some money and a note in the manager’s office to make up for that theft. He did the same at the grocery store where he had illicitly acquired the turkey.

He looked around at the neighborhood—one of the poorer and more desperate ones in New Judah—and sighed heavily, rubbing at his rumbling belly. He really hadn’t eaten much, but he hadn’t wanted to sour the rest of the holiday for Rosie and Marty and their kids with his lingering presence.

So he wandered, certain that another opportunity for him to be thankful would arise.

Perhaps I’ll even run into someone like Query or Mad Dash or Solstice and have the dinner companionship of some transhuman peers.

He walked for an hour or more, until he emerged into a better neighborhood and saw the Caped Cuisiner restaurant across the street. It was open today, as it was every day of the year, 24 hours a day, with its mix of plainly clad patrons and costumed ones.

How many of those in costume were actually transhuman? he wondered, and then spied no less than three Doctor Holidays inside, two of them eating together and the other one at the counter.

Thankful indeed. I know which of us is the real one, but it will still be nice to have some turkey and gravy and fixings with people I can blend in with, even if two of them are several inches too short to pass for me and one of them is potbellied.

He stepped inside to enjoy Thanksgiving with three of himself, and to have, for once, the conversations with himself outside his own head.


Image of Doctor Holiday adapted from a drawing of the Unknown Soldier; character copyright DC Comics.

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