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Stories for the fireside

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There's something about the winter that seems to inspire a tall tale.

Maybe it's the long, chilly nights that motivate us to hunker around a warm fire, eggnog in hand. Or maybe being around friends and family inspires the kind of stories that only the ones we love most would truly appreciate.

Whatever the case, Pique wants to facilitate your Yuletide tale-telling with a selection of short stories and poems that will warm the heart, tickle the funny bone, and carry you into the new year with a hefty dose of festive cheer.

Happy Holidays from all of us to all of you

 

The great Christmas chimney mishap

By G.D. Maxwell

Georgie-Porgie was fit to be tied. Fact is, he'd been depressed since the first Halloween displays had appeared in the middle of September. Of course, he didn't know what it meant to be depressed, being only six years old. But he was in a funk.

Looking forward to Halloween had helped stave off the feelings of foreboding as only an eagerly anticipated sugar splurge can when you're six and your parents worship at the alter of Natural Food. He and his besties — Butch from across the street and the Hill Boy, as his parents called Bill Hill — started reconning the neighbourhood early, preparing their Take-No-Crappy-Candy strategy.

They pooled their faded memories of last year's Halloween haul and prioritized the houses they knew gave out the best stuff. More importantly, they ID'd the places to avoid. There was the crazy, tie-dyed yoga teacher who gave out something they suspected was tofu, the cheap weirdo who musta had a lifetime supply of dried-out peanut-butter toffee kisses, the well-meaning granny who gave them popcorn balls with so many unpopped kernels Butch had broken a tooth eating one, the dentist who gave out toothbrushes — and got her windows justifiably soaped — the neighbourhood vegan who'd apparently never heard of the deadly stuff people put in apples at Halloween and gave them out anyway. The list goes on. Losers, all of 'em.

Offsetting the loser list was the righteous few who gave out full-sized candy bars or multiple minis. For them, the trio had a surefire plan to hit their houses more than once, utilizing the tried and true technique of costume swapping and a couple of cheap fright wigs and stick-on moustaches they'd bugged their moms for at the dollar store.

Other than that, they'd plotted their course with what they imagined was military precision. Their reward was sacks of candy so heavy they feared they'd burst open and spill their bounty on the sidewalk. Cleverly, they stashed most of their loot in the Hill Boy's garage, behind a bunch of boxes he said no one ever moved. They knew if they went home with bulging sacks, their parents would make them either give some of it away to their brothers and sisters or, worse, confiscate it and dole it out over such a long period of time they'd be eating stale candy in January. No, deceit was the only course to follow here.

But the candy was gone by mid-November. Thanksgiving was over and there were finally no turkey leftovers. It was solidly December and Georgie-Porgie was beside himself. Two things were making his life miserable. One was so bad it gave him recurring nightmares. The nightmares weren't horrible, not like the ones where monsters chased him, but they were bad enough to wake him up and, once awake, lie tortured by the neighbour who piped Christmas carols over his backyard speakers until late at night.

The thing making his life miserable that wasn't as bad was he wasn't going to get what he really wanted for Christmas. What he really wanted was a cat. Butch's sister had one and Georgie-Porgie thought it was about the coolest pet he knew, except maybe for the kid at school who said he had a pet monkey. No one believed him and Georgie would never know for sure since the kid was so weird Georgie wasn't about to endure his weirdness just to find out if he really had a monkey.

Butch's sister's cat was cool because it did tricks. Really. And that was cool because, well, it was just cool to watch the cat do tricks but it was especially cool because cats aren't supposed to do tricks. None of the other cats he'd ever known did tricks. His aunt's cats certainly didn't do tricks unless you considered pooping outside their litter box a trick. They did that all the time.

But Butch's sister's cat did tricks. It fetched things, mostly wadded up balls of paper and bottle tops. And it rolled over on command, mostly. It also climbed the brick wall in their living room where the fireplace was and would hang out on the little shelf way beyond reach. Butch's sister said sometimes the cat would pounce on someone who was standing by the fireplace. Butch said that was bull, something his sister just said to make her cat sound cooler. But it did follow his sister around, like a dog, even outside and that was a pretty cool trick.

When he told his mom he wanted a cat for Christmas, she said, "No way, José." She said his sister was allergic to cats and so was she. She said he wouldn't take care of a cat. He said he would... but he knew he'd try to get out of cleaning the litter box. She said the cat would shred her sheer curtains she'd badgered Georgie's dad into buying even though he thought they were kind of dorky. She said cats were the Devil's familiars and did evil things, like suck the breath from new babies and kill them. Georgie asked if she was going to have another baby. She told him not to be sassy.

She said if he really wanted a pet, he could have a hamster... as long as it lived in a cage in his bedroom and he kept it clean and never, ever let it loose in the house. He thought she was out of her mind. A hamster? What fun was that? Hamsters didn't fetch things and if they did follow you on walks they wouldn't get far before some cat ate them, which he had to admit would be kinda cool.

He said forget it. He wasn't interested in a hamster. He'd figure out something else he wanted for Christmas.

But he knew it didn't matter. He knew he wasn't getting anything at all for Christmas. It was all his parents' fault. And the worst part about it was they didn't even care.

When it was so cold for so long last winter — something they called a polar vortex because it was so cold grownups couldn't just call it cold — his father was really freaked out about the heating bills. He made everyone wear two sweaters around the house and kept the heat off in rooms they weren't in. But it didn't seem to matter; the heating bills were so expensive he ranted and raved about them all the time. Georgie didn't exactly understand, but he did learn some cool new cuss words because of it.

Then, that summer, his father and a couple of his friends bricked up the fireplace in their living room and had some guy install a wood-burning stove in its place, hooked up to a tiny stainless-steel chimney too small around for even a kid to fit through!

And that's what made his life really miserable.

"THEY TOOK OUT THE FIREPLACE AND CHIMNEY!!!" Georgie cried to Butch. "How the f#&k do they expect Santa to get into our house now!" he added, using one of the new polar vortex words he picked up from his dad, though not being entirely certain he was using it correctly, if one can be said to use cuss words correctly at six.

Try as they might, neither of them could imagine how even a skinny Santa could slide down that shiny little chimney, let alone drag a bag full of toys through it.

Georgie's mom had noticed the funk he'd been in. She thought he was still disappointed over not getting a cat. Finally, she asked if he'd thought of something else he might want for Christmas instead. She said it was time to write to Santa if he wanted something special.

She was shocked when he said he didn't want anything.

"I'm sorry you can't have a cat," she said. "But you know how allergic your sister is to cats. It wouldn't be fair to her."

"I know," he mumbled. "It doesn't matter anyway."

"What do you mean it doesn't matter? Aren't you looking forward to Christmas?"

Tears began to make his eyes glassy. He wiped them quickly with his sleeve, turned away and ran towards his room, shouting, "Santa's not coming. There won't be any Christmas!"

She followed him to his room where he was sprawled, face down on his bed, crying. "What do you mean Santa's not coming? Of course he's coming, just like every year.""No, he isn't," he sobbed. "There's no chimney. He can't get in. He'll just pass over our house and there won't be nothing for us. No Christmas. I hate dad. I hate the polar vortex."

Stunned, she wasn't sure what to say. But at least now she knew what was going on. After a few moments, she rubbed his back and said, "I think we'd better have a family meeting about this, honey. I'm sure we can come up with a solution. Maybe Santa can just come through the door."

"But it says right in the poem you read every year, Santa comes down the chimney! We don't have a chimney big enough anymore!"

It took a big helping of mom-strength to keep from snickering, but moms have a lot of that. "We'll see," was all she said, leaving the room.

"You're kidding," was all dad could say when she told him.

"He's not kidding," she said. "You suppose it's time for The Talk?"

"Sweet Jesus, he's only six!" said Georgie's father. "Let's tell him we'll leave the door unlocked...."

"Tried it. Didn't work." She thought a minute. "But what if...."

Two days later, the Saturday before Christmas, Georgie's dad dragged him away from his cartoons. "Get dressed," he said. "We've got a job to do."

In his excitement, Georgie momentarily forgot about Christmas. He grew even more excited when he saw his father get out his tool belt and the big ladder from the garage. "Help me with this," his father said, even though he could handle the ladder by himself.

They set up the ladder by the front porch and Georgie's mom came out to hold it. "I'll go up first," his father said. "You follow."

"Up the ladder?" Georgie said. He'd never, ever been allowed on the ladder before.

"Right behind me," his father said.

He watched his father climb the ladder. When he'd stepped up onto the roof, he laid flat and reached a hand down as far as he could. "OK, one step at a time," he said.

Slowly, one rung at a time, Georgie climbed. His mother kept a hand on him until he was out of reach. Two more steps and his father had his arm, hoisting him up.

There was snow on the roof and Georgie could see everything, the whole neighbourhood. "OK," his father said, "take this pad and write a note to Santa. Tell him we're sorry the chimney's so small, but we've left the door unlocked for him and milk and cookies on the table... and a little something for the reindeer. We'll attach it to the chimney so he'll see it."

"You think that'll work?" Georgie said.

"I know it will," his father replied.

"How do you know?"

"Your mom and I asked everyone we know who doesn't have a chimney what they do. You know, not everyone has a fireplace. They all said they just leave a note and Santa comes through the door. He even says it's a lot easier and cleaner than sliding down chimneys. You know the Robertses? They don't have a chimney and you know their daughter got a new bike last Christmas because she let you ride it once. How do you think she got that if Santa didn't bring it through their door?"

Georgie thought hard.

And so, they left a note and climbed carefully down the ladder. Georgie got busy writing his letter to Santa... and putting an extra stamp on it since it was so late.

Of course, Christmas morning finally came and there wasn't a cat under the tree. Or, thankfully, a hamster. But there was a puppy... and a bike! And really, what more does a guy need than a dog and a bike to make Christmas perfect? At least until he's old enough to need a gir — you know.

(Editor's note — If there was truly a happy ending in this Christmas story, Georgie would have got a cat and backcountry touring skis!)

 

'Twas the night before deadline

By Eric Thompson

'Twas the night before deadline,
and boy was I stuck!
I've committed to a rhyming format,
even though they quite suck.

This Christmas story assignment,
is a bar any fool could clear.
If you don't believe my boastful claim,
know that even Braden Dupuis wrote one last year.

"Tell a tale for the holidays,
filled with heart and gay cheer."
As if there's more to the 25th
than drinking dad's beer.

Christmas isn't a time for miracles,
Boxing Day's awful as well.
I've never been invited to a Hannukah feast,
So they can all go to hell.

(To clarify that last stanza,
I meant all holidays, not Jews.
I don't want legal action taken,
so best to explain my views.)

There's no good holiday stories to tell,
Christmas never ends in glee.
Old Saint Nick may very well exist,
but that bastard's been skipping me.

With no inspiration striking out of the blue,
and few better ideas on tap.
I dealt with my problem like any millennial,
And took a long winter's nap.

Yet in my dreams I was visited,
by a ghostly apparition.
It wasn't the most relaxing sleep,
But it beats a nocturnal emission.

The spirit planned on showing me
such Scrooge-ness left me a joker.
If I'm willing to open my heart,
Christmas can be mediocre.

The ghost rolled a montage of holidays past,
Like Rocky training to enter the ring.
But instead of me punching or running,
I wasn't doing a damn thing.

My family lounges on couches and rugs,
what to watch is all we discuss.
If neighbours and friends want to give well wishes,
they goddamn better come to us.

Right now, irrelevant bowl games,
dominate the TV.
A mid-major getting blown out by Texas,
for some reason, played in Hawaii.

When it's not holiday sports,
it's yet another Christmastime flick.
I've seen Rudolph enough times,
to know Yukon Cornelius is a dick.

But eventually we'd all set down the remote,
and unleash our inner glutton.
A week of just napping and eating.
I truly don't mind the life of a shut-in.

Extended family makes visits.
Bringing well wishes or pie.
There may be a racist comment thrown in,
but they're old, so we turn a blind eye.

Turkey makes an encore appearance
after its starring role in Thanksgiving.
Our sides have enough starch to dry clean with,
How are we all still living?

If we survive the caloric bloodbath,
then our gifts we'll begin to unbox.
Thanks to this day, for the rest of the year
I'll never have to buy socks.

In none of these bits am I bothered or stressed,
no assignments that need more time.
From my dream I awoke a wiser man,
with an hour to pump out this rhyme.

Shopping and travel and cooking and stress,
can sour the cheeriest spirit.
Since ghosts don't go public with holiday meaning,
from me, you will hear it.

Take time to remember this lesson,
while stressing out at the mall.
The holidays provide a few days off work.
In the end, that's the greatest gift of all.

The decorators of Yarwood Street

By Cathryn Atkinson

Like many Christmas traditions, the annual Decorating of Yarwood Street would begin moments after Halloween ended and be well underway by Remembrance Day.

Early forays into the pop-up decoration departments at Walmart and Costco would be made to see what was new, with side reconnaissance to November Christmas craft sales for "original pieces by local artisans."

Particularly tricky were the online buys, especially after the year Candace Small and Jim Comfort discovered they had each purchased the same nine-foot snowman. Smug smiles faded as they stood across the street from each other, watching air fill their new inflatables, proving they'd been made at the same factory.

The Yeo family benefitted that year, with Simon and Sherry opting for a Scandinavian theme of deer and hearts, augmented by light projections of interesting cable-knit patterns and snowflakes.

By then, Yarwood Street was becoming the place to visit in December, and a slow parade of cars filled with bundled children would tour the area each night after sundown. Along with the Smalls, the Comforts, and the Yeos as the leading families of seasonal cheer, there were no fewer than 12 other households involved.

Not Ruby Bentall, though. The old woman never took part. And this was seen as an inconvenience and slight by everyone else.

Chloe Amberson lived to the left of Ruby's small bungalow, and the Yeos were on the other side. At night, the dark space between their glowing homes screamed out like an angry exclamation point. They were mortified, and it didn't matter that Ruby had been there longer than anyone else, long before the annual Decorating competition started.

Urged on by the neighbours, Chloe broached the subject after asking Ruby over for coffee.

"But you really must take part! The neighbourhood is so beautiful night now, and your house looks totally bereft!" Chloe said.

"Does it?" asked Ruby. "I have a tree."

"But that's inside. When I am walking Snuggles in the dark, it doesn't even look like a house is there," Chloe replied. "Not even a single string of lights! People are talking."

"Are they?"

"You've seen the visitors, Ruby. Haven't you? It has become a thing."

"A thing?"

Chloe rose.

"They come from all over town now to see our show. Don't you think you should do something, too? For them? For the children?"

Looking thoughtful, Ruby promised swift action.

The next day, a large, open plastic tub was placed on the front lawn of Ruby's modest bungalow.

The sign next to it read: "Like our lights? Donations to the food bank are welcome here." Cheap spotlights illuminated the sign and box when the sun disappeared behind the mountains.

The next morning, coffee time in Chloe's kitchen had many more people than usual and no Ruby, though she was the only topic of conversation.

"You have to admit it is a clever move. A good idea, even," said Simon Yeo.

"Nonsense. She's showing us up!" Chloe responded.

"Not really. I don't know why we never did it before. It's positive branding," Simon replied.

Jim shrugged: "I guess we'll get in the papers."

Chloe stuttered, "But we already have!"

Melody Comfort pointed out that she'd just seen Ruby loading the first night's worth of donations into her car and driving away with it.

"Did she get a lot?" asked Chloe.

"The box was overflowing," Melody replied. "Ruby told me that several people went to the store to pick up donations and came back to put them in the box."

There was a moment of silence.

"She's looking good off the back of our investment of time and money," said Jim.

That caused a small explosion of chatter, with arguments from every angle and language that was saltier than one of Jim's brined turkeys.

"Nobody's saying that what Ruby is doing is terrible," said Sherry Yeo, at last, "but her unwillingness to play our way is a problem here."

The neighbours resolved to speak to Ruby — kindly, carefully, they said — but before they could, word came that she had been taken to hospital after collapsing at the food bank.

Ruby's daughter Estelle flew in from Toronto. While her mother remained in hospital recovering from a minor stroke, Estelle stayed at her place, setting out the box each night, to the continuing consternation of the Decorators of Yarwood Street.

After a few days, a deputation headed by Chloe took over a get-well bouquet.

"Why don't you drop in later and give the flowers to Mom yourselves? I'm bringing her home this afternoon," Estelle said.

Chloe explained their problem.

"My mother helps out at the food bank; did you not know?" Estelle said.

The deputation had not.

"It means a lot to her that you suggested she put out the box," Estelle said to Chloe.

 "After my father died, she wasn't able to cope with much, and he left less than expected, but she didn't tell me for the longest time. She went to the food bank instead."

Then her eyes filled with tears.

"When I finally found out, I asked her why she didn't say anything and she told me it was fine, because her neighbours had looked out for her. I am truly grateful to you all, I can't repay you for such kindness. But she can't afford Christmas lights and all that other stuff, let alone pay for the electricity."

With that, the deputation left, silently.

After Estelle left for the hospital, Jim Comfort brought over extra extension cords, running them from outlets at the Ambersons' and the Yeos' houses into Ruby's front yard. The box and sign were moved forward to accommodate everything else — Santa, Rudolph and elves, candy canes, lights for the trees and windows, and capped with the two nine-foot snowmen on either side. By the time the light was fading, everything was ready.

When the car pulled up, it was hard to imagine any bundled-up little girl with brighter eyes than the 70-year-old seated next to Estelle. As they stood in front of the Christmas tableau built by her neighbours, Ruby reached over and took her daughter's hand. She pointed to the food bank box, which they both saw was already filled, even though the carloads of children hadn't started coming yet.

Warm Fluids

By Katherine Fawcett

This year: The winter air is nasty and bright, like the lights snapped on at the pub at closing time. Paul finds himself in the lake, among bobbing chunks of ice and snow, gasping for breath.

Last year: He orders his fourth or fifth double-spiced Captain Morgan's rum and coke at The Spread Eagle. The place is packed. It's better than drinking alone on New Year's Eve.

This year: His teeth are clenched so hard they feel like they're moving up into his jawbone. His vision is blurry. The winter water bites him, gnaws on him. His testicles, in a panic, have shriveled up and retreated into his body.

Last year: Paul finishes the rum. A glass of champagne appears in his hand, then another, and a woman's arms are around his neck. She smells like cigarettes and coconut shampoo. She pulls him onto the dance floor. Sara? Clara? Samantha? Are they dancing? Does he know her? The Spread Eagle is dark and crowded and hot.

This year: In the lake, an icy dagger twists itself into the back of Paul's brain. There is a sound coming from his heart, like a shunting train. This is not the dull, pounding headache of a hangover he knows so well. This is a different kind of wrong.

Last year: "You know what you should do?" says Sara-Clara-Samantha, her words sliding together like they're on skates. "To prove you're a man? To start the year manfully? You should do the Polar Bear Swim tomorrow morning. They're gonna smash a hole in the lake with a backhoe!" She taps him on the nose. He makes a face. He doesn't quite know what she's talking about, but he likes listening. "My Japanese home-stay student is doing it. What are you, chicken?"

This year: He wills his body to relax. THREETWOONESTOPSHIVERING. And it does stop, for about two seconds, then a frigid spasm shocks him from the base of his spinal cord, travelling through him like a dart, and his body begins quaking again. He is surrounded by others: men in Speedos or shorts, women in bikinis. All of them are leaping, shrieking, and splashing.

Last year: "The girl, Yukiko or Yumiko, I can never remember — isn't that bad? — she has, like, zero body fat." Then she grabs the love handle at Paul's waist and gives it a little jostle. "If she can do it..."

This year: Some dunk their heads, some barely go past their knees, then almost everyone runs to shore. Spouses and parents and lovers wait with towels, bathrobes. There is hot chocolate. There is a bonfire. The caring people call the wet people crazy. The crazy people call the dry people chicken.

He vaguely recognizes a woman on the shore who he feels he should know. She's holding a bathrobe for someone, but there is no wet, cold, crazy person for her to wrap.

Last year: Confetti flickers down. Streamers. The music blares: Daft Punk. People scream, arms punch the air, breasts heave. Ten! Nine! Eight!

With each number, the crowd jumps as one.

This year: Now there are only two of them, in the glacial mountain lake meant for hockey and ice fishing. Paul, and a sliver of a Japanese girl, her thin arms crossed over her bikini top. The girl stares straight ahead. Wisps of black hair that escaped from her high ponytail are frosty crisps of white at her temples.

She isn't shaking like he is. Her lips are dry and blue, but otherwise, she doesn't even look cold. She could be waiting for a bus, or listening for a bird to sing. Steam is spiraling off her head. She might even be smiling.

Last year: Seven! Six! Five!

He steps on someone's toe. Sweat, hair, hands, everywhere. Someone knocks a drink over. Ice cubes scatter and nobody cares. Sara-Clara-Samantha's blouse comes off her shoulder. He focuses on her bra strap.

This year: Every nerve tells him to leave the water, but they are the last two in the lake and the crowd is going crazy for them, so he disobeys his body. They are yelling and cheering. The whole town is there and they love him. He's nearly won. Just another few seconds. She'll run for the beach, and he'll be the champion.

"I take it back!" yells the woman on shore. "You're not a chicken!"

The girl looks at Paul and nods her head towards the shore. She's telling him to go. Go in. She wants him to give up. To start the new year a loser, a quitter. She doesn't know what it's like to be him. Work, drink, pass out, repeat. That's his life in this town.

But this cold, this pain, this crowd: finally, this is living! He can conquer this. He purses his lips together, flares his nostrils, tightens the grip of his arms around his chest and looks away from her. Ha!, he thinks. Not a chance.

Last year: Four! Three! Two! It's so loud he can't hear anything, just a roar, like an avalanche inside his skull. The room begins to spin. The walls come towards him.

This year: "Get out of the water, ya jerk!" "Who is that guy?" "Hey, big shot, what are you trying to prove?" "She's going to get pneumonia! Give it up!" The woman onshore waves her arms wildly at him. She looks frantic. Does she want him to quit too?

Then the girl reaches her hand towards him and he knows how this will end. They'll come out of the water together, hometown heroes, arms in the air, sharing the victory. He reaches towards her and suddenly everything turns black and grimy, the colour of a dance floor.

Last year: One! Happy —

This year: Paul lies under heated blankets in the back of the ambulance for nearly 30 minutes, warming up. A paramedic says if the girl next to him hadn't caught him so quickly when he collapsed and helped him out of the lake, things would have been much, much worse.

"Warm fluids for the rest of the day, and stay indoors," says the paramedic. "If I were you, I'd make a New Year's resolution to stick with a nice heated indoor pool next year. Oh! That reminds me." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a slip of paper. "Someone left you a phone number. I don't remember her name. She took the girl home and said they have a hot tub if you'd like to swing by later."

Paul feels a burst of warmth radiate from his heart, through his body. The feeling is returning to his toes and his head is clearing.

It's going to be a good year.

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