There's nothing better than curling up with something good to read after a long day of having fun on the mountains. In annual Pique tradition, we present three Christmas short stories from local writers, including one of Pique's own, guaranteed to warm the spirit.
Happy holidays from all of us to all of you.
A Hop-Headed Christmas
By Stephen Vogler
The train ride to Portland, just a month after the funeral, had oddly given Shelly a sense of stability. It's true that every bushy-bearded hipster hoisting an IPA reminded her of Will, but the train ride itself, rocking back and forth between the rails, had given her a sense of renewed strength, direction, even security.
Driving into these mountains was a different ball game. Her all-season radials did as much slipping as biting, and the highway threw endless curve balls as though trying to put her out of the game completely. So different from those trusty steel rails.
"Come up to the cabin," Will's sister Debbie had pressed. "We'll sit around the fire, hunt for a Christmas tree, drink hot chocolate––spiked, of course. We want you to feel at home with the family." It was easier to agree than to come up with a different plan for the holidays.
As she crested the last big hill before entering the mountain town, Shelly pulled over to give the straining engine a rest. She pried her fingers from the steering wheel, sure she'd left permanent indentations, put it into park and admitted that it was her not the car that needed a break.
She opened the door and a cold rush of air enticed her outside. A skiff of snow carpeted the pullout and twinkled under the overhanging safety light. The air was so thin up here, she felt as though she could keep inhaling it until she became part of it. Is that how Will had felt near the end?
She pictured his family all snuggled into the old family ski cabin at the other end of the valley, expecting her at any moment. They'd pulled together after the accident, the original meetings over funeral arrangements evolving throughout the fall into weekly family dinners for which she'd found endless reasons why she couldn't attend. They were all so goddamned nice — that's what really got to her. And the way they refused to acknowledge that Will's death could have been anything other than an accident.
They didn't know about his sudden interest in mystical phenomena. A guy like Will, with such a level head, all of a sudden getting fuzzy around the edges, spending time at Banyan Books, researching the paranormal online. His new bizarre notions about smart phones taking over our consciousness, and the weirdness with his sudden bruises, supposedly brought on by mysterious karate chops to the shoulder.
Shelly didn't buy into all that mystical razzmatazz, though at times like these she wished she did. It would give her something to hold on to. Instead, she was left feeling that she was somehow to blame. That she hadn't kept him grounded, hadn't given enough to their relationship. The bus driver and the witnesses had all said that he'd walked "very deliberately," and "without hesitation" in front of the bus. That does not sound like an accident. Yet Will was not the kind of person to throw anyone, least of all himself, under the bus, so to speak. The thoughts went in circles. Shelly got back in the car, threw it into drive and skittered back onto the highway.
A rush of heat swept over her as Debbie opened the front door of the cabin. "Yay, I'm so glad you're here!" She hugged her hard, briefly rested her head against Shelly's chest, then led her into the heat chamber. Will's dad, unabashed in his well-fitted long john tops and bottoms, put down the fire poker, gave her a loose embrace and told her to make herself at home.
The place looked almost exactly as Shelly remembered it, except the shag rug had been replaced by a shorter pile of the same cream colour, and an insert had been set into the stone fireplace. The cabin didn't have a sauna; it was a sauna. They always kept the fire roaring so that the heat jumped off the cedar panel walls putting everyone into an instant heat-induced coma.
Will's mom emerged from the kitchen, wiped her hands on her apron and gave Shelly a warm hug. "Thank you for coming," she whispered in her ear. "It means a lot to me." Debbie's partner, Jay, held the snowshoe he'd been repairing out to one side, took in Shelly's long curves as he always did, and put an outstretched hand on her shoulder as though to keep himself at a safe distance. "So good to see you."
Great, Shelly thought, me and the two couples. But as she picked up her bags so Debbie could show her to the upstairs room, she noticed Will's grandma perched in the corner of the living room, staring out a black window. Was that where Will got his esoteric leanings?
They gave her the little room upstairs under the peaked roof where all the heat gathered. It had a door out to a tiny balcony with a beautiful view of the mountains. She opened it as soon as Debbie disappeared and let the heat rush out as though through a drier vent. The mountains sparkled under a half moon, and Shelly watched a light, probably from a grooming machine, travel slowly up one of the ski runs.
Before dinner, she looked over the framed family photos tacked on the wooden wall, a chronicle of the Standall clan's decades of weekends and holidays in the mountains. The heat helped to relax her nerves, numb the pain of seeing Will at various ages skiing, skating, building a snowman with his sister, tobogganing, hiking.
"So, who's up for a Christmas tree hunt first thing in the morning?" Will's dad had put a buttoned shirt over his long john tops to look respectable at the table.
"Wouldn't miss it," said Jay. "We'll bring the toboggans."
"Of course," chimed in Debbie. "Maybe go for a skate on the lake after."
"Count me in," said her mom. Even grandma was game. "I better go. Could be my last."
"Sure." Shelly nodded. Maybe if she engaged in all of those physical activities Will had grown up doing, she'd unlock some kind of secret about him.
Before bed she went out to the car and snuck her case of assorted west coast IPA's up to her little balcony. Another way to commune with the departed Will over the holiday. He'd gotten her into the India Pale Ales on their many trips down the coast. Her first few tastings had left her with only bitterness. But at some point the hops had gotten their hooks into her. It became a tonic she couldn't live without. Their samplings went from strong to stronger: the Apocalypse IPA, the 10 per cent imperials, Garage's chili-infused double, Simtra's Knee Deep triple. Soon she'd left Will behind in her quest for bitter. She wanted her beers to hold up a spoon, to be more solid than liquid, to talk back in a feisty, cussing brogue when spoken to.
Shelly crawled into bed, turned out the light, and watched two lights moving like distant satellites up the ski runs.
Little white clouds of breath puffed in front of Shelly's face as she tried to keep up with the others on her snowshoes. The transmission lines crackled overhead and the little evergreens seemed to buzz with electricity, some having turned a golden shade of toast from the constant electro-bombardment. Will's dad settled on a stately fir and proceeded to chop it down while the Standalls sang Oh Christmas Tree. They tied it to a toboggan and slid it out to the car where grandma sat staring out the window.
Then Jay led them back up the bumpy access road for what seemed like endless toboggan runs. Down at the lakeshore, Shelly slurped back hot chicken soup from a thermos cup while simultaneously tying her skates lest her feet freeze. Gliding on the lake was the best yet. It was cradled by snow-capped mountains, and no matter how sore she might be at the end of this day, Shelly felt that she'd accessed the kind of exhilaration that Will must have grown up with. She held one long leg behind her with Nancy Kerrigan grace, then hit a divot in the ice and landed flat on her chest. She skidded to a stop and chuckled. The physicality felt good.
Sauna-home was rejuvenating after a day of hucking their bodies around in the crisp, cold mountain air. Shelly was sore but relaxed. Debbie cracked open a mickey of peppermint schnapps and poured a shot into each of their hot chocolates as Will's dad stoked up the blaze in the airtight. They exchanged pleasant conversation over the roast beef dinner, carefully avoiding any mention of Will. After dessert, they all collapsed back into the living room, maintaining that they would still go to midnight mass after a brief rest.
Shelly carefully extracted herself from the living room and snuck quietly upstairs. Out on the balcony she cracked a bottle of Stone IPA and tilted back its bitter nectar. The cool air woke her up and the hoppy elixir coursed through her sore body like a tonic. She caught sight of the moving lights on the mountain as she launched into a bottle of Russian River Blind Pig.
There were three lights moving all in a row, single file, toward the peaks. By the time the Blind Pig was gone, her aching muscles had transformed into happily numbed and enthusiastic adventurers. Her eyes were glued to the lights. Was this the state Will had been in when he headed out to Stanley Park that fateful morning? Those lights were calling her.
She put a half litre bottle of Fort George Vortex IPA in one coat pocket, one of Hop Valley Alphadelic in the other and snuck downstairs. It was 11:30 and the Standalls looked like they'd drunk the Kool-Aid at Jonestown. Not a stir.
Shelley slipped into somebody's winter boots - Debbie's, Jays, Mr. Standall's - she didn't know or care. She set out walking down the Valley Trail, the road, the highway, whatever kept her moving in the direction of those lights. "I thought it was three wise men following one light," she blurted and laughed into the cold night air. "Not one drunk woman following three."
At the bottom of the ski run, Shelly stood and waited. The lights appeared as she knew they would, cresting the last knoll and glowing in the evening mist as they rolled toward her. She took a few confident steps up the slope, and the lights parted and stopped on either side of her. A door opened. "I've got the first round," one of the drivers called to his buddies.
Shelly stood at the foot of their tracks, the ridges of corduroy rolling up the mountain before her. What did they offer? Some direction, a pattern, the ability to start fresh? A Christmas miracle?
She lifted the bottle of Vortex IPA from her pocket, re-opened the ceramic stopper and took one last big pull of feisty, angry, happy, screaming Christmas ale.
Stephen Vogler is the author of Only in Whistler: Tales of a Mountain Town.
The prequel story to A Hop-Headed Christmas, Into the Blue, was published in the October 30, 2014 edition of Pique.
By Cathryn Atkinson
Agnes took out an empty Folgers coffee container — all seasonal with a red Christmassy plastic and black lid. She half filled it with water and placed it in the freezer.
Early the following morning, she opened it again. She took the container out and placed it on the counter. Pulling her four credit cards from her purse, Agnes paused for a moment, tapping them lightly with her finger and sucking in her upper lip. She looked at the scissors on the table for a nanosecond; she found her resolve and placed the cards in a Ziploc bag, squeezed the air out of it tightly until the package looked vacuum-sealed, folded it to credit-card size and wrapped it in duct tape.
Agnes dropped the bundled credit cards on top of the now-frozen water in the coffee container, filled it with ice cubes and topped the whole thing off with more water. Returning the container to the freezer, she sighed and made herself coffee with Baileys. It was too early, but what the hell.
The last act of her mission was to walk over to the computer and clear her browser's shopping data and saved forms. That made Internet purchases impossible — she could think the word "Amazon" and focus on a river flowing through a faraway jungle and not books flowing into her Kindle.
Now she was ready.
It was to be a $250 Christmas, including roast lamb and trimmings, four presents for three small nieces and a tinier nephew, and a bottle of decent wine to collapse into over holiday Netflix, the one thing that remained on Visa, courtesy of automatic debits. Jennifer Jones was being rationed out for the season.
Agnes felt less miserable than she'd expected, considering.
Her father, a retired electrician named Simon, had dropped by for a visit. "It's important to learn restraint," he proclaimed as he poured his fourth bourbon from a bottle he brought and took home with him. It was the most rational thing he said.
He waited to go on the attack, employing the technique of control he usually did, ensuring his position was unassailable and his empathy unavailable — she owed $27,000 to the credit gods. Her finances were an effed up mess. A train wreck doused in gasoline, filled with match-wielding orphans with a flesh-eating disease. A dangerous mess.
It wasn't that she'd willingly shared the intelligence of her debts with him; he'd driven over with Carol to show off his latest bargain — an old Mustang he'd picked up from a new widow who was selling her dead husband's things. Simon had spotted Agnes' unpaid bill pile on the table and rifled through the pages when she'd gone outside to admire the car.
She saw the bills in his hand when she came back inside. Simon proceeded to drop the snide from on high and Carol said little, her solicitous smile did not rise above her nostrils into her eyes. Agnes knew from experience that if she exploded into the rage she was feeling it would only get worse, so she sucked in her top lip and waited; it was only time after all.
Their visit would be the last until after New Year. They were heading to a vacation complex near Acapulco for Christmas. She kissed them when they left, her relief trembling on the tip of her lips as they touched her father and step-mother's cold, unyielding cheeks.
The Baileys became her final Visa purchase. After Simon's visit, Agnes changed all her bills so that she'd receive them "online" rather than on paper. She'd considered cutting her cards up and said so, but he'd shouted: "Aw, what's the matter with you? That would just screw up your credit rating!"
When she opened the freezer to get ice for her Baileys she got the idea for freezing her cards. "I hope he has a great time in Mexico," she said to the Folgers container when she went to the faucet.
The weeks galloped on relentlessly, taking everything and everyone toward December 25. Agnes kept busy; she went to work and came home, stayed sober during the Christmas party and drove drunk colleagues to their places afterwards. Her boss promised her a raise that he'd been hinting at all year and, more importantly, his wife told Agnes she would ensure that he delivered on his promise.
"Christmas promises are sacred," she said, hugging Agnes. Agnes hugged her back and didn't mention the sacredness of promises made from January to November.
For financial reasons, Agnes turned down nights out with friends, apart from two things — she gathered everyone she'd said "no" to in order to see The Force Awakens. A good film, apart from that one bit. You know the scene...
The following day she held a potluck with the same friends and one hit on her heavily — a separated guy who reminded her of Han Solo with a mid-life crisis. She patted him on his shoulder and thought about his estranged, vicious Princess Leia. Agnes's cards might be in the freezer, but her heart wasn't. What he offered was far too expensive. Agnes thought of what he'd brought to the potluck. Pop-Tarts. Seriously.
Later, Agnes again played taxi and drove people home. Not that guy though.
On her way back, Agnes saw some flashing lights off the highway in the dark. She pulled over and could see a car in the ditch. No one else was about. She got out.
It was a Mustang. The Mustang. Simon was already out of the car, standing on the edge of the road.
"Holy shit," she said.
Her father was quiet.
"Dad? Are you hurt?" Agnes asked.
"This isn't Acapulco."
"No. Screw her, anyway."
As they wait for the tow truck and emergency services, Simon explained that Carol kicked him out. There was another man. "He runs the swim-to bar at the condo!" He started to cry.
"So you're drunk now," Agnes said.
"No! No! What am I going to do? What can I do?" he sobbed.
Simon passed the eventual breathalyzer and the officer turned him over to her. Simon said Randy Bachman played Carol's favourite Pink Floyd song on Vinyl Tap. Boom. Wah loudly and skidded into a ditch.
As the tow truck pulled the Mustang out and revealed the front-end damage, Simon told Agnes he didn't have enough money to pay for it. His cards were at home. Agnes removed from her purse the $150 the tow truck driver needed and drove her father home.
As he repaid her he said: "I can give you a thousand dollars. For the bills." Agnes' eyes flickered across his exhausted face.
"Thank you, Dad, but I have enough debt," she said.
When she got home, Agnes looked in the freezer at the container. She turned on the kettle and then turned it off again. There was still a satisfyingly large amount of Baileys left in the fridge. She poured all of it into a tumbler and turned on Netflix. Before long, Miss Jones was kicking ass with all her messed up superhero might.
Agnes wrapped a blanket around her, took a sip and felt quite wealthy.
A Very Creekside Christmas
By Steve Andrews
We had built up an impressive collection of random decorations over the past five Christmases: Skiing elves, cheap tinsel, grade-school style paper snowflakes, and a random collection of ornaments from the Re-Use-It Centre. The feeling of putting them up alone was enough for me to break down crying. Through the tears I looked outside to see that it had begun snowing, and snowing hard. Whether it was mere coincidence or Ullr was waiting for my spirits to change was beside the point. Ok, it was a bit odd that I noticed the first snowflakes falling outside my window at the exact moment I felt the first tear hit my cheek; even the most skeptical of Scrooges couldn't ignore that kind of synchronicity. The fact that it was Christmas day certainly acted a catalyst for the inevitable breakdown. If it was any other time of year I probably would have shrugged it off for a few weeks before any feelings of sadness truly kicked in.
Leah and I had officially been broken up for less than a week, but in reality our lives had diverged long before. Six years together, engagement and all. But now it was definitely over. We tried to make it work but there was something fundamentally flawed in our interaction from the get-go — we just let time and circumstance lead the way instead of intuition.
Looking backwards I could only shake my head at some of the follies that could only be chalked up as love. Sacrificing deep powder days to initiate her to real snowboarding, I winced through hour-long runs while hearing the elated screams of everyone else. Every relationship has its ups and downs, but we had more downs than ups for too long and the passion was gone. If we weren't such good friends, we probably would have cut ties sooner, but a good friendship can only go so far. She cried when I told her that I was over trying to make it work, pleading to give it another shot. Celebrating Christmas together would have just been for show.
It was a good and necessary cry. A heavy weight was gone and what remained was nothing but forgiveness and love. Finally I felt ready to drive down to Vancouver for festivities with my family. Had that emotional release never happened I don't think I would've really felt myself around everyone. I wouldn't be able to leave it much later since the snow was coming down pretty hard by this point. My housemates were having people over and were busy prepping so we bid one another "Merry Christmas" and I set out for my truck... only to find that it wasn't there.
It wasn't the first time they've towed one of the residents from our lot. A quick call confirmed it... I now had to pick it up on the other side of town.
I hadn't actually been to the new tow yard since they moved. I heard it was right near the bus depot so that's where I got off the bus. I suppose it isn't far by Canadian standards but when you're trudging through 2 feet of slush, anything is far. When I finally got to the tow yard, nobody was there. At that moment my phone rang.
"Merry Christmas," I answered.
"Yeah, this is your tow truck driver, I'll be in the yard in 15 or so minutes, I just had to pull someone out of the ditch near Function." Of course he was passing Creekside, and of course it's right after finishing my slog through the powder-topped roadside slush.
The driver got there soon enough and opened the gate where my truck was waiting to take me down to the city. Luckily, it was still daylight and if I hurried I could make it to dinner on time. This greatly depended on the road conditions, which the driver said were not good.
"Ok, that will be $380", the driver said nonchalantly as he lit a cigarette. "Debit or credit?"
"Excuse me?" I replied, completely stunned by the extortion-level fee to tow my car.
"Yeah, 110 bucks for the tow and two days storage fee, plus tax."
I couldn't believe it. Not only did they tow my car under the wrong pretense, but it was done before it snowed enough to even warrant a tow. I didn't really drive much, opting for the bus and even skiing to the Village from Creekside whenever I could. I felt punished for trying to do my part to reduce emissions. I tried to hold back my anger since the truck was still not in my custody.
"Tell you what," the driver said, "I'll take a day off the storage charge".
It wasn't perfect, but I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere trying to haggle. The longer I stood there, the more snow I had to contend with. So I paid the fee, wished the driver Merry Christmas, and headed home to dry off before the drive down the highway.
Mother Nature, however, had much different plans. By this time the snow was coming down so that I could barely see the car in front of me. Traffic on the highway had slowed to a crawl; at this rate I would be lucky to make it to Vancouver by New Year's Eve. Not to mention it would be dark in less than an hour. I made the decision to pull the plug on Christmas with the family, much to my mother's dismay. Although I blamed the weather when talking to her, I couldn't help but thank Ullr for absolutely burying the entire valley. Tomorrow on the hill was going to be really good, and the same thing that prevented me from seeing my family also brought me back to my other family.
Before even entering my house I could hear it full and alive with Christmas cheer. The smell of fresh hemlock competed with multiple dishes in the oven to win over my senses. Only a week earlier the roommates, Leah, and myself searched for hours until we found the perfect tree, and another few hours navigating it through the tight stairwell. It's funny how a smell can teleport you in time and distance into a memory, perhaps the last happy memory that Leah and I shared before everything went south.
Run DMC and Will Ferrell set the mood with "Christmas in Hollis" filling the room with classic after classic while a muted Elf played on the TV. The table was full of the usual: rum and eggnog, red wine, and all the fixings for the turkey dinner. One roommate had his brother over and the other had his girlfriend visiting all the way from Quebec. He had just returned from there and while he was gone subletted his room to Jo, a young German visiting for the season with his friend. Two months in Whistler and the two still couldn't find a decent place and were posted up at the hostel in Cheakamus. The roommates adopted them for the day to experience a good old-fashioned Canadian Christmas dinner. And then I saw Leah, just standing there in the kitchen stirring a pot of something that smelled amazing. Just as I was about to say "hi," she looked over at me and smiled.
A flurry of emotions came up as I didn't expect to see her here, not today at least. But I was the unexpected visitor this time around, my roommates showing compassion by inviting her over when only a few days earlier this was also her home. And what did it matter whether I was there or I made it to the city? She deserved a seat at the table as much as I did.
There was about 10 seconds of self-inflicted awkwardness but that was soon broken when my roommate Fred walked up the stairs with a blood-stained Santa hat, the only Christmassy attire anyone was wearing.
"I was Zombie Santa for Halloween," Fred remarked as everyone gave him a curious stare. "I wasn't going to just throw this hat away!"
That was enough for everyone to let out a collective laugh, and from that point on we shared memories over wine, rum, and some rolled-up mistletoe. It was a family that only could have formulated at the base of the giant mountain that brought us all together, one that was receiving the biggest snowfall of the year. Our excitement was high for the next morning, which was sure to keep the Christmas cheer going with top-to-bottom powder laps for as long as our stamina would allow. For a motley crew of snow bums who counted their blessings in centimetres, there was certainly much to be thankful for this year.