"December 22nd"

Notice: Everything written here, from the characters to the plot, is original content. Anything similar is pure coincidence.

"December 22nd" I whispered to myself.

It was already that time of year again, my son and his family were coming for Christmas. It was time to deal with my son. He always bothers me about my feelings. I walked away from the calendar towards the fireplace. Tossing a piece of wood into the crackling flames I sat in my rocking chair. I wanted to be alone. That's why I moved into this isolated house in the middle of a dense forest. The paint was peeling off the walls outside revealing the muscles of the house. It was an old house. There was a time when I had to have the roof double inverted to keep it from freezing over. I've been living here for a while now. Eight years to be exact. Winter brought with it harsh, cold winds this year. As they washed against the side of the house the walls ached like my heart.

"It's already been eight years since then," I thought to myself.

The aroma of the burning wood in the fireplace was making me drowsy. I closed my eyes and let the sand man do his job.

Suddenly the phone rang causing me to jump in my chair.

"Damn phone!" I picked it up and roughly answered, "Who the hell is it!"

My son's voice leaked through the phone.

"It's me, Mike. Are you alright?" I apologized and said I was fine.

He called to tell me they would be arriving tomorrow.

"Alright, what time should I expect you guys?"

"We should be there by two."

I made a note of it and we said our goodbyes. I looked up at my quartz clock. 7:30. I looked outside and could see it was getting dark. It was too late to walk in the forest (something I did regularly) and too early to turn in. Damn, I really want to go to sleep, I grumbled. I rocked back and forth in my chair and decided to take a nap. Napping isn't the same as sleeping right? Slowly closing my eyes, I took in the warmth of the fireplace.

Crying. I could hear someone crying. I knew it was hers but pretended not to know. Her face then appeared in front of me. I was in a hospital room next to a bed. She was in the bed looking at me with disappointed eyes. An ear piercing ring entered the room. I covered my ears but it didn't help at all. It started to become unbearable.

As if emerging from water, I flung from my chair gasping. My chest was heaving and a tear escaped my left eye and went down my cheek. I looked to the clock. 11:00. It was dark outside. That nightmare keeps coming back. There was no way I was going to sleep easily the way I was. It was time to break out the scotch. Not even bothering to get a cup I went straight to the cabinet and took the big bottle of scotch with me to the rocking chair. I sat in the welcoming glow of the fireplace in the dark. Removing the top I drank some of the scotch. It burned all the way down.

" A feisty drink." I chuckled to myself.

Another wave of scotch made me a bit dizzy. I didn't drink all that much, only when I needed to drown some inner demons. With each drink I felt myself relax until everything went dark.

I wake up to the sounds of a lot of quaking. It was the damn lake ducks. They took refuge on the side of my house because the lake froze over. Leaning up in my bed my head began to ache. This was no doubt the results of my drinking last night. I slowly got out of bed and walked to the bathroom. Turning on the sink I cupped my hands and threw cold water onto my face. Needless to say I woke up right away. Now wide awake I go to the living room to look at the clock. 12:20. Man slept in today. I went to the kitchen and made some eggs for breakfast. The sizzling of the eggs in the pan with the morning sun creeping in through the shades gave a harmonious feeling. A knock at the door interrupted the silence of the house. I got up and peered through the shades of the window. I saw Mike's white 2004 Chevrolet Astro parked in the driveway. He was early. Too early. Opening the door I saw Mike standing there with his curly dark brown hair and green eyes. He gave a weak smile as he hugged me tightly. I didn't like touchy feeling encounters so I awkwardly gave one back. After the embrace I saw his wife Amy coming up the pathway with a bag in one hand and Ally, their daughter holding onto her other. Amy had long brown hair that curved around her face. Her light brown eyes were accompanied with arched eyebrows that made it seem like she was asking a question. I kind of liked her. As for Ally she was a small kid with black hair down to her waist. Her eyes were a dark brown that anyone could get lost in. She was always quiet and would hide when anyone other than her mother talked to her. She was a strange child.

"Hello Jorge!" exclaimed Amy extending her arm to me.

I raised my hand to shake hers but she wrapped her arm around me in a sudden hug.

"Hi" I blurted out hoping she would let go of me.

Thankfully she did and bent down next to Ally.

"Say hello to Grandpa Ally." She said in a sing song kind of way. Ally just buried her face in her mother's arm.

"She's just really shy." Amy said standing up.

"Where do we put our things?"

Pointing to the hall behind me I answered, "First door on your left."

She smiled at me and took Ally to the room. It was just me and Mike at the door now. My body tensed. Every time we were left alone Mike would start talking to me about my personal life which I hated. "How have things been dad? You don't look too good."

I must be psychic because I saw this coming.

"I'm fine I just went to sleep late last night." Mike gave me a sympathetic look and walked to the car to get the rest of the luggage.

Once they got settled in Mike put the television on for Ally to watch. I sat on the sofa looking at the newspaper I got a few days ago. Some store owners products were destroyed by a fire. There was foul played involved and now they are looking for the delinquents who did it. Poor sap. Amy was in the kitchen making some hot chocolate for Ally. The chocolate scent crept into the room and danced around me. I secretly hoped she would bring me some. Mike sat on the other end of the couch one seat away from me. I tried to seem entirely focused on the newspaper to avoid any conversation.

"So dad, what have you been up to these days?" Mike asked.

"Well, you can usually find me complaining about the good old days when things were cheaper. I also like to sleep a lot and watch the grass grow. Heck I even like making things out of wood. You know the things that old men are supposed to do."

Mike chuckled at this. Amy came into the room and gave Ally the steaming cup of hot chocolate. The aroma was intoxicating. Amy sat on the couch between us and laid her head on Mikes shoulder. She had a nurturing mist about her. The way she talked to Mike and the way she babied Ally. She seemed like a good mother. Just like Valerie. Before the tormentors could sneak into my mind I snapped my tired gaze away from Amy and looked at Ally. She was easily entertained with the cartoons. I liked her innocence and unknowing of the world. It was a lot better than knowing the grim reality of life.

We didn't really do much today because Mike and his family were tired from the trip here. We just lounged around the house. Night snuck up on the forest as the light fled from the growing shadows of the trees. I walked into the kitchen to see Amy making something. She turned around and looked at me then smiled.

"Hot tea?" She asked raising the pot.

"Yea, sure." I answered.

I didn't really want any but she caught me off guard with the question. I sat at the table and looked out the window at the now dawning sun. The clouds tried to cover up the last of the sun as the moon took its shift. She put a cup of steaming tea in front of me and sat across from me at the table.

"Mike is playing with Ally in our room." She told me.

"Ah, I see."

I took a sip of the tea. It tasted awful. It tasted like leaves and dirt thrown into water. It was very bitter. We sat there drinking tea for a few minutes before she left to the room. I went to the sink and dumped the rest of the tea. Reclaiming the seat in front of the television I flipped through the channels until I came to the news. Another crime committed another animal saved the usual boring crap. I heard footsteps coming from the hall and saw Mike.

"Dad I'm going to the store to get a few things want to come with me?" Mike asked putting on a thick brown coat.

"No thanks, I'm comfortable here." I answered.

"Ok then be back in a bit." I heard the door close.

The television was on but I wasn't really watching it. Her face flashed in my mind. My chest began to hurt. Her crying made its way to my ears. I tried to block it out but it was impossible.

"Jorge" Someone was calling me.

"Jorge." Amy said louder.

I snapped my head in her direction and saw her with Ally.

"Can you watch Ally real quick I have to change."

I looked at Ally then back at her. "Sure."

Ally plopped herself on the couch. It's not that I'm bad with children, it's just that Ally is a little strange and that made me uneasy.

"So Ally do you want anything to eat?" She shook her head no.

"Are you tired?" Another shake from her head. Damn I hoped she would be tired and just take a nap to make this all easier. A few minutes of silence passed.

"How about I tell you a small story?" She nodded in acceptance. Thank god. Now what do I tell her. I sat there for a moment then began.

"I used to travel the world. I have been to many place like Germany, France even Japan. Ever heard of Japan?" She nodded.

"Well I was traveling around Japan when I came across a poor village. They were farming crops of fruits and vegetables and I wanted some. So I went up to one of the farmers and flashed some money and asked for some fruit." Ally appeared to be listening so I continued.

"With the little Japanese I knew, I heard him say that they don't take money. This was strange to me. Why would they not take money? So I asked and you know what he wanted?" I paused for dramatic effect.

" He wanted shit." Ally seemed surprised to hear this and covered her mouth.

"Oh I mean crap. They wanted crap." Ally giggled.

"They used it to grow their own food. They were following the ways of old japan. So word of the wise, don't but food from Japan, it's made of crap."

Ally smiled at this. I felt a ping in my chest. I swear this was the first time I have ever seen her smile. Heck it was the first time I even talked directly to her.

"Did you like the story Ally?" Ally shook her head.

"No?" I barked when I noticed a figure at the corner of my eye.

I turned to see Amy in the hallway leaning against the wall with her usual smile.

"Thanks for watching her Jorge." She said.

With that she called Ally back to the room for bed. I was alone again. That warmth that I felt in my chest was now gone. What the hell was that? I then refocused on the television.

By the time Mike returned it was 10'o clock and we all decided it was time to go to bed. We said our goodnights and went to our rooms. I wasn't really tired so I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. This got boring after an hour so I decided to go relax at the fireplace. I slowly creaked open my door and snuck to the living room. Once I got there I kindled a small fire and sat in my rocking chair. Not too long after sitting I heard footsteps down the hall.

"Dad what are you doing up?"

"You stalking me now?" I asked.

"No dad just heard your loud footsteps. " He said playfully sitting on the couch.

We both sat in the orange glow of the fireplace, watching the embers float up into the air and disappear.

"Amy told me that you told Ally a story." Mike said cutting the silence.

"Yeah. What of it?"

Well dad the fact that Ally responded to you is a miracle. She usually won't react around anyone."

"Hah. I don't know how to tell stories like your mother did."

I just mentioned her and a sharp pain pierced my heart. Mike could probably see the pain in my face and said," I really miss her too dad."

Hearing him say that made me really angry.

"Do you really?" I sneered at him.

"You didn't give a damn about her when she needed you most."

Before Mike could respond I got up and went to my room. I closed my door and sat on my bed. My face felt really hot and seemed to be emitting heat of its own. He didn't care at all. I know the lord said don't go to sleep angry but I couldn't help it. The pillow and mattress wrestled me all night. The pillow wouldn't stay fluffed; the mattress would thrust springs into my back. It was as if my anger was absorbed by these inanimate objects and thrown back at me. This was to be a restless night.

An aroma of bacon filled the house waking me up. It was a nice way to wake up in the morning. I was still tired from last night's battle with my mattress but motivated enough to get out of bed for breakfast. Walking into the kitchen was like walking into an Ihop. Ally was at the table eating pancakes, Amy was pouring glasses of milk and Mike was cooking some bacon on the stove. The sizzling of the bacon was a symphony to my ears. Amy saw me enter the kitchen and cheerfully greeted me,

"Good morning Jorge! You woke up just in time. Breakfast is about to be served."

I took a seat at the table across from Ally. She wasn't as barbaric as other 6 year olds her age. She neatly cut the pancakes with her fork and slowly chewed her food. When our eyes met she quickly looked back down to her food. Mike came over and put a plate full of bacon and pancakes in front of me. The steam slowly rose from the plains of the pancakes and the bacon sizzled lightly being fresh off the stove.

"Here you go dad." He said in a soft voice.

"Thank you, Mike." I responded. I could feel the heavy tension between us.

To ease it a bit I said," This looks great."

I took a bite of the pancakes with some bacon on it. It tasted good, really good.

"Jorge I was wondering if we could all take a walk through the forest today. Were me and Mike live we don't get to appreciate nature like this. "She looked at me with hoping eyes.

"That sounds alright to me. I could use some fresh air." I lied not really wanting to leave my cozy warm home.

After breakfast we all got ready for the small hike into the woods. Stepping outside was like stepping into a beautiful painting. The trees were sprinkled with snow; the sun peaked through the clouds in the sky. The forest and I have become good friends over the years. She listened to my thoughts and mended my pain with her beauty. Amy seemed over excited about this hike. It was as if this was her first time seeing the outside world. We didn't see much other than a few squirrels scurrying up trees. We saw a bird here and a bird there. Ally and Amy kept running ahead leaving me and Mike alone. I didn't like it.

After a few hours we stopped and rested. I was tired. Man I really am getting old.

"I think we should head back to the house." Amy said seeing the exhaustion in my face.

Mike agreed.

"Alright give me a minute and we can start heading back."

That minute turned into an hour of rest. When we did start heading back I noticed that Amy and Ally were ahead of me and Mike again. Was this on purpose? Mike slowed his pace till he came to a complete stop and I walked ahead of him.

"Dad I really do miss her." I stopped in place.

"Don't start this again." I growled at him. Ally and Amy continued walking until they were out of site.

"I know I messed up but I really am sorry about it!" Mike yelled back.

I could hear the strain in his voice.

"She was there for two months mike. Two fucking months!" The anger built up inside me was now escaping though my words.

"I know. I was caught up in-"Cutting him off I walked to him and said in a cold tone," All she wanted was for you to visit. Just one damn visit! You couldn't even give her that."

The sound of silence that followed ringed in my ears.

"I thought I would have more time." I could hear the quivering in his voice.

"She was in a hospital Mike! How damn long did you think you had?"

I was about to turn around and walk away when he said," I regret not going to see her. I hate myself for it. I'm sorry about that, but you weren't the only one that loved her dad." With that he walked past me and left down the trail.

I was walking in the forest alone. My heart was heavy with emotions. Hate, sorrow, yearning all flowed through me. I have no idea what I should do. Valerie? What should I do? When I reached the house I saw Mike and Amy through the kitchen window. When I got inside I went straight to my chair in front of the fireplace. No fire was lit. Ally was on the floor playing around with some Barbie doll. She must have felt my eyes looking at her because she turned around and stared at me.

"You like that doll?" She nodded.

"I see. I have a story about a doll. Would you like to hear it?" Another nod from Ally.

"Okay. It starts with me walking through the busy streets of Egypt. You know, where Moses was."

She seemed to know what I was talking about so I continued.

"So there are people bargaining with each other, store owners shouting their products names and on top of all the chaos in the streets the sun was beating down on the city without mercy. I didn't like the place very much but I wanted to bring something home to remember this uncomfortable trip. There were a lot of different things being sold but I didn't know what any of it was. There were lotions, special rugs and weird balls of wheat. I wasn't sure what they were for. Eventually I came across a stall that was selling doll looking things. They were made of straw and tied together with horse hair."

Ally put on a confused face.

"Straw and horse hair, you could only imagine how ugly these things were. They couldn't hold a candle to one of your Barbie's." A smile came from Ally.

"Even though they were hideous they were the only things I could recognize. Everything else was foreign to me. So I bargained with the merchant and in the end it cost me my watch. My watch! Just for a straw doll that probably took five minutes to make." Ally didn't seem to understand.

"Okay think of it this way. I take your doll and give you a rock." I could see she didn't like the idea as she held on tighter to her doll.

"Yeah, that's how I felt." I laughed a bit when Amy came in to the room and announced that dinner was ready. My smile quickly faded. I know the tension is going to be present because of the fight today. We all sat around the small round table and began to eat. Amy whipped up some strange salad with noodles and chunks of sausage. Oh god. With my trusty glass of water I will try to down this crime against all that is holy. It tasted as good as it smelt. Horrible. I have no idea how poor Ally put this stuff down. She must be use to this stuff.

"Jorge, thank you for taking us out today. It was so much fun; Ally and I had a great time. The trees were so beautiful…" Amy kept on talking but I couldn't focus on what she was saying. Mike and my eyes met which only added to the tension that was already there. There isn't much else that happened at dinner. Just silence as we ate.

The rest of the day was uneventful. Ally was sent to bed early because it was Christmas eve. Mike and Amy were going to wake up early in the morning to place Ally's presents for Ally under a tree outside. It was an interesting idea but they better hope no wolves come by and tear them up. While Mike and Amy cuddled at the fireplace I snuck into the kitchen and grabbed some pepto bismol from the kitchen closet. My stomach was messed up. That damn dinner. I spent the rest of the night in my room to prevent any confrontation between me and Mike. I stared out my window and noticed the ducks huddling on the side of the house. The lake was still frozen.

I woke up in the middle of the night with stomach pains. I shuffled to the bathroom and crapped my insides out. I vowed to never eat Amy's cooking again. Exiting the bathroom was like exiting a sauna. I noticed the kitchen light on.

"They forgot to turn off the light." I grumbled.

When I got to the kitchen I saw Mike at the table with my bottle of scotch. He looked up at me then back down to his scotch.

"What are you doing up?" He asked me. "Umm your wife's cooking. I would advise you steer clear of the bathroom." This didn't get anything out of Mike.

"Are you alright Mike?" I asked him.

A minute of silence passed when he said," Do you hate me dad?"

"I don't hate you Mike." I said in a soft tone.

"I meant what I said today. I said it from the bottom of my heart."

He lifted his now watering eyes to me.

"I hate myself for not seeing her. I hurt her and I hurt you."

My chest began to ache with emotion. My breathing became shallow.

"Dad I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

My hands began to tremble.

"I know you are son." I bent forward to embrace his now shaking frame.

Mike cried quietly to himself and grasped my arm tightly in his hand. For the first time in eight years tears trickled down my worn face.

"I'm sorry too."

We held each other for a long time. I didn't want it to end.

Morning came and I felt as if it was the first day of my life. I felt fresh and new. Having established a connection with my son after so long, it felt as if a huge void in my life had been filled. I went out into the living room and saw Amy Mike and Ally on the couch.

"Ah you're finally up." Amy said.

Ally looked a little eager to get things started.

"Come on dad let's not keep Ally waiting. " Mike said with a smile.

We opened the front door and right outside the walkway a tree covered treasures for Ally to discover. Like any child would at the site of presents she ran as fast as her little legs could take her. The rest of us walked behind her. Ally ravaged the presents one by one, more excited by what she found inside them. It was nice to see her act like a child for once.

"Oh this one must be from grandpa." I said while pulling out a present from behind me. Ally came up to me and I handed her the small box. She opened it and found a rigged looking straw doll in it. When Mike saw it his eyes widened.

"That use to be moms!" Mike exclaimed.

"Yes I thought it would be great to give Ally." I responded.

"Are you sure dad? You have had that doll for a long time."

I looked at him and smiled a heartfelt smile.

"I'm sure."

Ally seemed confused as she inspected the doll. I looked to the lake. A small portion of the lake had melted and the ducks were now swimming in it.