There are many ways to spot Christmas's arrival in Mineral Town. First mistletoe would start to detonate in doorways making the housewives to giggle an octave higher. Then popular paths became carved in shoeprints and hot cocoa moved to the top of Doug's menu. There was this pleasant absence of the color purple…
Personally, Rick could check off all these things as contributors but to him the most potent arrival was the smell of pine. Crisp, sweet and rough against his nose each breath he took stirred a holiday memory within him. He thought of this now as he lugged a fresh fir home its rough branches prickling his face, nettles embedding themselves into his jacket. Harvesting the tree had been a different experience for Rick this year.
For one thing he'd woken up at four in the morning. (It's an impossible time no one should ever be awake for.) But it wasn't just the early hour which made things different, it was the silence. This year Rick had purposely avoided his sister's aid. Ever since their father left them Popuri had decided to make the father-son tradition a sister-brother one. She meant well, Rick knew that. But for Rick it just wasn't the same, bringing her along made everything stressful.
She'd run through the forest shoving her hands out in a square shape –mimicking their living room wall- one eye closed to size up each tree one by one. Each tree would be distinctly different and wrong in its own special way. One would be too sparse at the top, the other too thick around the middle or heeding the severest of curves. Yet no matter how horribly labeled all Rick saw was a tree the same as the last.
However he would bite his tongue and suggest another identical tree. But however hard he tried Rick did not have the patience's for every one -or even half- of the islands tree population. Each candidate would drag his patience a little farther, and each denial shove it until finally, it spilled over.
They are all identical! We don't have to pick the perfect one Popuri! In fact I'd think it shouldn't be the perfect one. Its service as our Christmas tree will kill such a fine rarity before it can breed a new prodigy for slaughter. It's particulars like yours that have put perfection into extinction!
I just wanted to make this Christmas perf- special!
Well stop it!
She'd look at him a long while then announce she thought she'd seen a tree back a few yards. She world call him if it was formable. It always was and he'd always have to pretend he couldn't see that she'd been crying. No matter how previously frigid the air had been it would be several degrees lower on the journey back.
Rick felt that this year especially that fall out needed to be avoided. Two summers ago a man had opened a beach shack in Mineral Town. For him Rick used the term man loosely. Opposed to attesting his maturity Rick used it to exaggerate the four years that made him Popuri's senior. The problem was that this past summer Popuri had taken a liking to the Crab. His sister's stupidity could have been over looked (she's only sixteen) but when the Crab had pinched back looking the other way became impossible.
Ever since the firework festival his little sister hadn't met his eyes. And as long as she could help it she didn't acknowledge him in any other way either. It'd gotten to the point that sometimes Rick would purposely watch the TV a few minutes into her time just so she would ask him to move. How, Rick asked himself, could he risk adding reasons to her hit marker by letting her join him? Besides by the way she's been treating him he was sure he'd done her a favor. Now she wouldn't have to give an excuse to Mom.
"You're up early," his mother said when he arrived home.
He shrugged unlacing his snow covered boots, "I figured I get the tree early this year. I won't have to delay the chicken's meal time now." Today was one of his mother's better days. A little color had come to her cheeks and when she looked at him she held his eyes. That was good; perhaps this new treatment was actually doing its job.
Sock footed he stepped into the living room moving to give his mother a hug, when her eyes moved to his torso. She traced the labyrinth of nettles in his jacket. He pulled back a retort sitting at the tip of his tongue when his attention drew to the early footsteps pattering upstairs. His stomach clenched a bit as he looked at the VCR's clock: six o'clock sharp. His sister never rose a minute before nine.
"Mom do you know how cold it is outside?" Popuri's voice floated down. She stomped down the stairs in heavily padded boots tucked over her jeans. Her pink hair was pulled back into a scarcely seen elaborate braid leaving only flyaway's to graze her sweater. In her arms she carried two coats. Her regular red one and an old down feather one several sizes too big. "Do you think I'll need Dad's coat?"
"You should ask Rick he's just got back in," his mother said. Her tone held an accusation Rick knew was meant for him but Popuri caught it for herself. When her brown eyes meet Rick's they were apologetic.
A large lump started to grow in this throat. "Well… that depends what exactly are you planning on doing?" he asked.
"It's December third," Popuri said as if he was silly. "We're picking out the tree today."
He swallowed hard. "Popuri, I'm sorry I hadn't realized…" He trailed off watching the gears churn in her head, and her eyes claw at the evidence scattered over him.
"It's tradition that we go together."
Rick couldn't respond.
She let out a breath nodding slowly, yet no longer looking at him. "Where is it?"
He gestured out front and she slipped on their father's coat leaving to examine it.
"That wasn't very nice Rick," his mother told him after the door had clicked.
"I'm making chocolate-chip pancakes," Rick announced as if he hadn't heard her. "Would you like some?"
"Yeah you're in the dog house," Karen said as if there was a doubt. They sat in her room. A renovated attic with a short slatted ceiling that forced Rick to duck whenever he stood. "You know how your sister is about tradition, how you ever thought getting the tree without her was a good idea is beyond me."
This wasn't her tradition to take. "How was I to know she'd pick now to stop treating me like a leper?" Guilt sharpened his words.
Karen sat curled in a bean bag chair her head cradled in her knees. "It's Christmas," she said as if it explained everything. "I doubt she'd want to spend it mad at you."
He looked up, "do you think that means she'll forgive me? I made her favorite breakfast this morning." He didn't mention how Popuri had hardly touched it, though Karen looked as if she knew that already.
"You're screwed. After what happened at the Fireworks Festival then this, you've just reopened a wound."
"That Crab had it coming," Rick said. He was lying on top of Karen's bed drawing with his finger on her mattress.
Karen smiled at him, "Kai" she corrected.
"Crab," he said looking up.
"How about Sea Urchin?"
"No, it's Crab."
"Yeah but whenever you call him a Crab I feel like your referencing something else."
"Maybe I am."
"Then I'd have to imply you found out from experience."
"That's it," Rick snorted grabbing one of Karen's throw pillows and beaming it at her. He was a bad shot, it slid past her knocking into the string lights along the wall.
"This is not a war you can win," she said grabbing the pillow. "Are you sure you wish to continue?"
Before he could answer a bell rang downstairs where Karen's family ran their shop. The supermarkets ceiling and Karen's floor were thin and the sound carried easily through. She liked to say it made for good security. Like a blood hound Karen froze, her back straightening as she held up her hand to Rick.
"'Morning Jeff," Won's voice carried up.
Karen let out a low growl of distaste, visibly tensing. "Speaking of bottom dwellers," she said tossing her pillow back on the bed. "I need to go help Dad."
Jeff –Karen's father- was a nice guy Rick never had a reason to dislike him. But Jeff was… timid and the villagers took advantage of that. If they were a few gold short of their bill they'd ask to pay him back later and he'd agree. But they never would; everyone knew Jeff was afraid of confrontation. Rick had personally witnessed arguments between Karen's parents because of it and though Karen never talked about specifics –just her frustration- Rick knew it was taking a toll on her family. The town was slowly nickel and diming them out of hundreds. It was expected from Won, he was a con-man the worst of the violators with no morals. But how could their neighbors be so heartless? Sasha and Karen's fine taste for style didn't mean they had any more money to spare than the rest of them.
Rick swung around on the bed, planting his feet on the ground. "Thanks for listening," he said.
"Any time," Karen said half her attention still trained on the men below. "That's what friends are for, right?"
"Right," he nodded watching her fly out the door. He waited a few moments before falling back on her bed, friends.
Rick knew better than to stomp on anymore traditions today so he made sure to get home several hours early to finish up work. Nothing would stop them from having a perfect tree decorating this evening. Done in the coops he then cleared the living room corner for the tree and struggled to mount it before washing up. So far so good; he'd even put on his good jeans.
Popuri had prepared ham for dinner and as far as Rick could tell it wasn't poisoned. He enjoyed it and as the girls cleaned up he went to the cellar and started to bring out the boxes. On his last trip Popuri went to help him. He wasn't sure what to expect.
"Here I can take that one," she said holding out her hands.
"Are you sure? It's heavy."
"I'm strong." He didn't argue. Instead he loaded the box on as instructed. Her eyes went wide and as she slumped several inches until he swooped forward and with a grunt and heaved it away. "Maybe," She said straightening, "I'll just take that other one."
"You don't have to," Rick said. "I don't mind doing it."
She glanced at him. "You don't have to go on acting so weird."
"I don't know what your-"
"Cut the act Rick you're never this helpful."
"Maybe I'll stop acting weird when you do," he retorted. "At least I'm sorry."
"About the tree," she stated.
"Of course about the tree, what else is there to apologize for?"
Her eyes tightened into a glare and she pushed him aside grappling with the next box. The one containing their mothers old holiday photo albums. Several pound heavier than the one he currently carried. "See you upstairs," he grunted.
"You know I hate that song Popuri," Rick said as he tore open a box. He'd ended up having to take her box upstairs. He hadn't let her struggle too long, though he'd wanted too. But eventually his worry that she'd hurt herself got the better of him.
Next to him his mother was stringing popcorn together and Popuri was setting up the music. Where a Bing Crosby had started singing 'I'll be Home for Christmas'.
"It's a lovely song," Popuri responded not touching it and for his mother's sake he held his tongue.
In the box he'd opened there were several throughout the year Christmas photo's to set up on the mantel. He fought the urge to glare at the photo that greeted him first. The stranger's face that had once been so familiar -the same face Rick had started to see resemblance of in the mirror- now smiled up at him. 'I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…'.
Rick let out a snort however tried to play it off as a cough. Thankfully there was a knock on the door at the same moment and Rick quickly went to answer it. At the door stood Karen's mother, Sasha. "Good evening Rick," she smiled. "Long time no see."
"Evening Sasha," Rick said stepping aside to let her in. "Are you here to see my mother?"
Sasha nodded glancing at the bundled bag in her arms. "I don't think you're allowed to see it though."
He laughed, "what? Come on now-"
"She's right Rick," his mother smiled from the couch, the humor in her eyes refreshing. "Hello Sasha."
"Come help me up we can look at those upstairs."
After the two women left Rick felt increasingly uncomfortable. He liked when Sasha visited his mother, she was one the few who did and he'd never want to shorten her company. But being alone with his sister wasn't pleasant, not after their trip to the cellar.
He went back to the stacks of photos and started to strategically place them atop the mantel. Without realizing it he started with the oldest photos to the back. Photo's containing their father being tilted back so his face was harder to discern. Even after seeing this he did nothing to change it.
"Put the decorations on the tree," Popuri demanded from across the room.
The unnatural authority in her voice made him paused. "Kind of doing something here sis," he said not looking at her.
"I noticed," she said coming and tugging the photo from his hand.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"What the hell are you doing Rick?"
"Don't say that word Popuri-"
"Quit telling me what I can and can't say! You aren't my father!"
"You're father left us. I have more purpose to tell you what to do than-"
"Our father left to find a cure for Mom, he didn't leave us! You're the one trying to delete him from our lives!" she gestured to the photos.
"Wake up Popuri, it's been five years and we have no clue where he is. We can't write him and all we know is from one way letters, short in words and long in delivery! He's moved on!"
"You may have given up on him," she glared. "But he hasn't given up on us. I won't believe it."
"Don't you think if he really cared about us, really cared about Mom, he'd be here? She's going to die and where will he be? Gone. He's lost what could be the last years of her life for what?"
"Stop it!" Popuri yelled her hands on her ears. He didn't remember her moving them. "Just. Stop. It." His adrenaline washed away as he stared at her, tears streaming down her face, eyes squeezed shut. The photo she'd been holding was shattered on the floor.
He knelt picking it up. He found a picture of Popuri ten years old smiling while mounted atop their fathers back. He closed his eyes for a long moment and passed her back the photo going to get the brush and pan.
As he dusted the glass pieces into the plastic casing he could hear Popuri calming herself, blowing her nose on a tissue. He wanted to apologize but how could he when he meant every word he'd said?
"I understand now," Popuri said the photo sitting beside her.
He looked up. Popuri sat on the couch, her hands rested on her knees a tissue clenched between them. Her eyes stared at something unseen. "Understand what?" Rick asked.
"Why you hate Kai so much," Popuri said. She looked up at him eyes still puffed and red. "I'm not going to leave you Rick."
His mouth opened then closed. "I-"
"Kai, his life is so amazing. You should hear about the places he's been, the things I can only dream of. I get why you'd think he'd take me away, but Rick even if I did leave it wouldn't be like Dad."
Rick had never put much thought into his hate for the Crab. He was protective of his sister. He had a right to be and that was that. But he knew -clearer now than it would've been before his outbreak- that she was right.
"That's what Dad said," he told her.
His sister slipped off the couch wrapping her hands around Rick's shoulders. "I'm not Dad," she said sounding like she'd choose her words carefully. She still didn't believe him about their father, but for the moment that was okay. Rick slid the pan full of glass away so he could hug his sister back unharmed.
"Kai's still too old for you," Rick mumbled into her hair a few moments later.
Popuri laughed as if to say 'we'll see'. "I love you Rick," she said the same moment his mother and Sasha appeared at the stairs.
"How sweet," Sasha breathed the same moment his mother asked, "Is someone hurt?"
"Love you too," Rick mouthed back quickly detaching himself from her. Louder he said, "Popuri dropped the picture" as way of explanation.
"Rick made me!"
Sasha shook her head still smiling. "I always wondered what it'd be like if Karen had had a sibling."
"No you don't," said Lillia.
Merry Christmas Winter Oak! I'm sorry that I wasn't familiar enough with your favorite games to be able to do them justice. I tried to write something set in the Valley but none of those ideas played out as well as this. I hope it wasn't completely disappointing for you, I had a lot of fun writing it.