(It's funny, but for most fictional tales I write I don't give figs; people can die, monsters can exist. But this one is too realistic for me not to put a disclaimer in front of it. Not a content or age warning...but a butt-covering of royal proportions. For the record, and in case my family ever stumbles across this, this story is not a direct transcript in any way. It's not based on any select family members. But it is based on things that have happened in my family life, and lessons I hope I have learned this Christmas. I am not Brady, sadly enough. It also sadly has no ghosts or lasers. Enjoy it anyway.)
Somewhere between the buttery potatoes and unfortunately dry turkey, Brady began to seriously ponder the true meaning of Christmas. He was at the butt-end of the traditional overlong table, next to the radiator, wedged between a china cabinet and an inflexible wall.
Also Uncle Louis and second-cousin Jerry, who were vehemently arguing over the merits and curses of the two-party political system. Right there in front of the Christmas tree and everybody. Heaven help him; that wasn't the beginning of a hyperbolic phrase, but a genuine plea. Similar wars were being waged from stem to stern of a table that was growing longer by the second.
The nearby window was growing increasingly realistic as an escape route. Never mind the fact that it was a good dozen feet to hard concrete and a backyard frequently ill-used by his Grandfathers dog. A broken body did not seem such a high price to pay for escape.
Brady loved his family. He really did. Both the liberal and the conservative halves (and the libertarian splinter faction that was really a mix of conservatives and liberals that didn't want to carry the label). He just didn't love them getting together under one roof. Nor did he love the constant bickering, sniping, and under-the-table issues that would be gifted back and forth this most merriest of holidays. And, not for the first time, he wondered why they bothered getting together in the first place.
He didn't remember the Wise men getting into a fist fight over the current president (though Aunt Sally swore she was aiming for a pat on the cheek, and accidentally over-exerted) nor the angel Gabriel prognosticating the end of the world because of signs coming to pass. Or one of the Shepard's refusing to come if his cousin was showing up at the manger.
Brady sighed. On this most joyous of occasion's, he could surely accept and love his family. Right?
Uncle Randy slammed a meaty fist into the table. “Joe, that's just not logical. Your arguments are as pointless and ill-thought out as I have come to expect from the democratic platform over the years, so at least thanks for proving me right.”
Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. There were no potatoes buttery enough on heaven or earth to make this Christmas dinner worth it. He braced his hands against the table, summoning all his determination to push away and move to the living room, bedim the family stink it would raise.
His cousin John stood to his feet. “Whatever guys. I didn't know he,” he aimed a thumb at a cousin Brady could not see, “Was going to be here. So peace out. Merry Christmas. I'll grab my gift on the way out.” He slumped his way out of the room, an air about him that was decidedly not Christmas-y.
The table went absolutely silent for 3.75 glorious seconds. Blessed seconds. If John hadn't been such an idiot, Brady would have run after the man and kissed his feet. Then the table broke into a loud roar, half talking about John's behavior—with snide looks at his parents, the unfortunate recipients of a large dose of humiliation—the other half pretending nothing had happened.
Well poop; Brady relinquished his grip and slid back into his seat. He didn't want to be that kind of person. He was stuck, for yet another Christmas. He'd just have to put up with—wait a minute. He recalled his earlier thoughts. Under the table issues? Under the table?
Well, why not? His conversational partners were frothing at the mouth against each other, and no one seemed to really notice him. Could be fun, if no one caught him.
He pushed his seat away from the table, coughing a little to cover the chair scraping. Putting as innocent of a look on his face as he could manage, and taking as much inspiration as possible from the classic animated tale 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas', Brady leaned backwards in his chair—and kept leaning. Melting underneath the table with all the grinchy grace he could muster.
His rump was on something lumpy, and he'd bumped his head a little on the edge...but he was under the table. Immediately, the conversation dropped to a muted roar, with sporadic staccato's as someone illustrated a point in a loud voice.
Aside from the distinct smell of shoe leather—and the misbegotten tang from the business end of his grandfather's dog—under the table was incredibly pleasant. Warm, quiet. Peaceful. Between knee's and ankles he could even see the distant Christmas tree lights shining. Now for a short wait—shorter than supper, at any rate—and everyone would retire to the dining room for gifts and naps. Brady would find a soft seat in an out of the way locale—or at least on a side of the room where the people agreed with each other—and have himself a merry little Christmas.
The table being higher than normal—or himself being short—the cavernous dark was pretty comfortable. There was something soft underfoot, and Brady wiggled his rump to try and dislodge it. Between his uncle's knees and the ever-present radiator, his arms wouldn't quite reach to move it.
“That's rather uncomfortable, Brady. Both from a pain standpoint and a personal space bubble. Those are my legs, after all.”
Brady sucked in a sharp breath and rocketed skyward, slamming his head on the table. The legs beneath him moved, and Brady heard a forced laugh from one of his aunts above. “You don't have to slam the table like that Arnold. We all know you're a body builder for a career, OK?”
That started another round of arguments that Brady, happily, never heard. “Uh...heh. Who uh...”
A chuckle. “David.”
Crazy cousin David? Perfect. The man always showed up to family functions dressed in a weird costume. Claimed he was a time traveler, and never had time to change from his trips. Brady liked him OK, though. He was harmless and friendly, if...crazy. Ah well, thought Brady; it's Christmas. Not like he wasn't hiding under the table too.
“Good to...see you?” All Brady could see was a knee, actually. David appeared to be laying on his back, wedged between table legs and real ones. He remembered him being dressed as a knight earlier, though. “What are you doing down here?”
“Same as you, I imagine. Aunt Tandy nearly speared my eye, gesturing with a croissant, and cousin Gerty launched into a rather heated lecture when I suggested a college degree was not necessarily needed to live a happy life. I decided it was safer down here, given all the knives at her disposal. Tim's here too, though I think he was just bored.”
Just over David's knee, in the faint glow of the screen of a game console, Brady saw a hand wave.
“Oh. Hi Tim. Anyone else down here?”
David's knee shook. “Not that I know of. It's a big table though.”
Brady sighed heavily, from his very soul. He wasn't the only one who decided hiding under the table was a better option than enduring dinner. “Man I hate this. Why do we even bother getting together?”
David made a hmm'ing noise. “Because we're family, and we love and need each other.”
Uncle Morten chose that moment to launch into a passionate discourse on the impending fall of the stock market and the subsequent end of civilization. Several snorts and coughs followed.
“You can really feel the love, can't you? Salud!” Brady sighed with a very false salute, falling back against his chair legs.
Tim's eye's glinted in the dark. “Oh, that's a fun word. Salud!” He then went on to repeat it half a dozen times.
David's knee shook agaub, though Brady couldn't read the cause. “Maybe not. But it's hard to blame a man for being afraid and sharing his fears. I think he takes a certain amount of comfort when people shoot him down, as it means his prognostications won't come to pass like he thinks.”
Brady rolled his eyes, thankful the dark gave him a mask. “You should be a dressed as a monk, not a knight.” The words held no venom, but Brady was mildly afraid to hurt his cousins feelings. Tim repeated Salud several times, punctuating a button press in his game. Brady wouldn't mind hurting his feelings.
“Crusader, actually. There's a difference, though the line becomes blurred at certain points in history.” David cleared his throat.
“Did someone say Crusade? Desi, you aren't still going on about those murderous rampages being a defensive war, are you?” His aunts voice cut through the wooden table. Cacophony met it.
“Salud,” Tim whispered in the dark.
“Oops.” David laughed softly. “Man, if we wanted to be jerks we could have a lot of fun down here.”
“Ahhhhh.” Brady growled. “They're being jerks up there and having a grand time. Why shouldn't we be?” Well, now there was a touch of venom in his voice.
“Somehow, watching A Muppets Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present never came across as vindictive.” David whispered.
“Salud,” Tim said agreeably. Giggling broke out at one end of the table, and Brady could all but feel the pointed glances being lasered towards the other end. It was the very rude straw that broke the already angry camels back. Especially since that camel was being kneed in the ear by an uncle.
“That's it. I'm done. These...people, are going to have to grow up some time, and I'm tired of the sniping taking out innocent victims—you and me, David, and Tim too—it's time someone stood up and did something.”
“Salud,” Tim said.
“Brady, that's a terrible—“ David began. Brady didn't bother to listen. He kicked against the table legs, pushing himself straight and into a standing position. He surveyed the table, looking from person to person, disgusted by what he saw.
“I have something to say, and you're going to hush for a second to listen.” Brady quaffed the rest of his watery cola in one gulp, slamming the plastic cup back down to the table with an incredibly unsatisfying clunk. Where was a pewter stein when you needed it?
“Every Christmas, it's the exact same thing. Exact. Grandma and Grandpa fight, scrabble, and plead to get all of you chuckle heads under one roof in the name of familial love and Christmas joy. When you finally do get together with each other, you do nothing but bite, scratch, gnaw, and fart in each others face. No, aunt Tabitha, the farts are NOT literal, but metaphysical, and I will not be ashamed for saying fart. You all have done nothing but snipe and complain at or about each other all evening.”
“There's no love here. There's no Christmas spirit. There's anger a plenty, frustration in spades. Fear, ignorance, and bad attitudes out the wazoo. Several wazoo's, actually. And I, for one, am tired of it. Sick to the point of almost literal sickness. I could vomit right now. I really could.” Brady inhaled deeply, ready to launch another salvo.
“I don't know why you people wait until Christmas to air your aspersions, your fears, and your complaints against one another. Heaven forbid you actually talk to people *when* they offend you. No, it's better to just let it fester in your heart and spit it out in tiny little rage bullets at the next family gathering. Heaven forbid you stuff your political belief's—which you absolutely KNOW no one wants to hear, and that they'll cause outrage for the polar half—into a proverbial sock for the sake of Christmas and that entirely unknown thing called brotherly love.”
“No. Spit 'em out. Ruin the party for everyone including yourself. Because that's the intelligent, Christian thing to do.”
“Frankly, I'm done. You've ruined yet another Christmas party, so I'm just going to wait it out in the living room until we can leave, and go home, and actually enjoy the rest of the holiday.”
It was at this moment, when his righteous indignation was starting to simmer down, that Brady realized he actually couldn't leave his seat and storm heroically into the living room. This was not a pleasant discovery; it was more akin to rotting jello in your socks.
Stuck there, behind wall's of people and furniture, Brady wasn't really sure what to do. The burning indignation was slowly being replaced by embarrassment. Not the peace he had been expecting. Some of the family looked smartly at him; eyebrow raised, an expression of disdain on their features. A few, like his grandmother, looked shocked and hurt.
His parents...Brady couldn't meet their eyes. Nor they his, which is perhaps what started the shame ball in his innards rolling into a tight, painful, bundle of guilt.
“Right.” His voice cracked after several minutes. “I'll just, uh...wait down here.” He slowly sank beneath the table, lamenting the gentle darkness that was not a hole in the ground.
“Oh Brady,” David's knee said sorrowfully.
“Salud,” Tim agreed. Slowly, haltingly, stilted conversation began from above. It was almost murmured, and to his surprise, he didn't hear his name at all. When the talking above crescendoed into a gentle buzz, Brady spoke.
“Not like I didn't tell the truth.” He grumbled. “It's idiotic to treat people the way they were.”
“Maybe. Maybe so.” David said quietly. He wasn't paying attention. This didn't anger Brady so much as scare him.
“It is.” He said forcefully. “If someone hurts your feelings, you talk to them immediately. Resolve the problem before it builds up. If you know your thoughts about political commentary are going to enrage someone else, you keep them to yourself out of kindness and respect for the occasion.” He paused. “Dangit, I hate everything.”
David's knee bobbed up and down slowly. “Truth is a sword, Brady. Not only double edged, but pointy on both ends. If you wield it improperly, you'll only end up stabbing yourself. Not that the turkey wasn't a little dry, but I imagine that's the true source of your inward pain.”
“Salud,” Tim said forcefully.
“So you're saying I was wrong?” Brady challenged.
David's knee shrugged. “No, I'm saying your approach was wrong. Your motivation and your deliverance. Large scale truth bombs, dropped on a crowd instead of in private, inherently ignore our own flaws. Case in point? You're hiding under a table, ranting with people you like—I hope—about people you are annoyed with who are currently five feet away.”
Brady felt like he'd been slapped. And he absolutely despised the dawning realization that was creeping over him like electrified slime. David...he couldn't be right. Because that would mean--
“Salud,” Tim said sadly, not lifting his eyes from his game.
“Tim, I will slap you if you say that again.” Brady jabbed a finger like a knife.
Tim looked him square in the eye, grinned saucily. “Saluuuuud, mon frere.”
“TIM—“ Brady's voice was as loud a whisper as he could manage, “If there weren't fifteen knees in my way—“
David sighed. “You can't slap Tim, Brady.”
Brady was not in the mood. His righteous anger was returning. “Why the heck not? Christmas seems to be about arguing and being a butt head, why not escalate that into slapping? It'd save time.”
“For one, it's wrong to slap people, especially children. Even aggravating ones.” David said.
“Salud,” Tim agreed.
“For another, being as he is ten and you are in your twenties, I'm pretty sure you'd get arrested. Also, again, it's wrong.”
“Salud,” Tim said.
“On the other hand,” David said cheerfully, “I happen to know my sister said not to bring that game into the house with you, Tim. As that's her knee right there, a continuation of bugging Brady might just merit I thump it and blame you. How's Christmas without your new Pokemon sound?”
“I'm sorry Brady. I don't even know what it means, so I would never say it.” Tim said quickly.
“Thanks Tim. Incidentally, don't take that to church next week either. You'll thank me later. Now.” David sat up, his shaggy hair brushing the table bottom, straddling the table's center leg brace. “As for you...frankly, you only want to belt Tim because you're angry at yourself. You know you've screwed up, and instead of facing that you're trying to put attention some place else. Sound familiar?”
Horror snuffed Brady's anger like a candle in a hurricane. “Dear sweet monkey fudge. I'm just like...like my family.” He brought a hand to his mouth; not an easy feat given he almost had to remove his arm from its socket to reach it around his uncle's knee. He sat silently, almost sucking his thumb, for several minutes.
“On the positive side,” David said gently, “Wounds caused by truth often bleed humility, not life force.” He grinned. “Hey, that was good. I'ma write it down.”
“I'm glad we all learned something from my terribly bad, hurtful, life ruining decision.” Brady was hoping David would dispense some more wisdom when he disagreed. Give him some hope.
Instead, he nodded. “True enough. I've traced a few branches of the future and your blunder causes several family divides. Deep hurts that end up taking decades to heal. Lives missed and starved because of it. It's just not an acceptable way to treat people, I'm afraid.”
Brady sighed. Here came the crazy. But playing along with crazy was better than reality right now. “How about if I apologize?”
David shook his head ruefully, banging it on the wooden brace. “No. Unfortunately, we tend to hold onto things as a family, much as you did, nursing it for years until it festers. You done goofed big time, Brady. There won't even be a family gathering next year.”
Brady thunked his head into his hand and elbow, the only combination he could pretzel himself into. “I'm sorry...”
“I know. And, fortunately, there's another option. It's kind of my job to fix things in history, after all.” David grinned.
“Ri-ght.” Brady mechanically, wondering how he was going to face anyone later. He'd have to apologize, of course. But he knew David was right, at least about the holding onto things part. He desperately hoped the first part was wrong. He dreaded supper ending, and everyone leaving the table; he wondered if he could just stay here for a couple of hours until everyone left, then creep out the window.
David's soft laugh broke into his thoughts. “Nice. You're not listening to me Brady.”
“No no, I'm, listening.” Brady said quickly.
David smiled again. “You're listening to Crazy Dave though, am I right? Here, take my hand.”
“Uh...” Brady wasn't sure about that. For one thing, it would require putting his elbow into his left nostril, and bending his knee in a way it just wasn't meant to bend. For another...Crazy Dave. Crazy Dave was a legitimate reason, especially under the dark table.
“Just trust me, Brady.” A hand appeared around the beam, almost brushing whichever knee was sitting to his right.
The worst that could happen was holding hands with a guy in the dark, right? A guy named Crazy Dave, who was dressed as a crusader, hiding under a table...Before Brady could really think about even more reasons to politely decline, he took the proffered hand. It was Christmas, after all.
Everything ground to a halt; his breathing, his blinking. The conversation above. A dreadful silence and stillness like nothing he had ever known shrank around him like melting wax. This was...wrong.
Breath was sucked from his lungs; he felt the words he'd just spoken re-enter his mouth. He tasted the breath's he'd unknowingly taken before. His mental processes were running in reverse, and the conversation above was nonsensical syllables. He felt himself being pulled backwards, as if to stand up, but David's firm grasp held him in place.
David's hand. It was a warm, living reminder of what the world should feel like. A stony point amidst the crashing waves of a reality gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Like an engine rolling slowly to cessation, the world began to right itself. Brady felt himself coming to, like he'd just awoken from sleep. Nausea rolled up his throat like a wave of burning miasma; a titanically loud bang shocked his whole being.
“Did someone say Crusade? Desi, you aren't still going on about those murderous rampages being a defensive war, are you?” His aunts voice cut through the wooden table. Cacophony met it. “Salud,” Tim whispered in the dark.
“Hooooooooooooooly crinkle fries.” Brady wheezed. Tears streamed down his face. “What, what, what, what...”
“Here you go.” David's hand appeared, holding a cup filled with bubbling cola. “This'll help your throat. Takes a very long time to get used to.”
“What just, what just...” Brady was full-on crying, and he couldn't stop it.
“I'm not crazy. That's what happened.” David grinned.
With a gigantic effort, Brady mastered himself. He took several deep breaths, wiping away the tears that obstinately still came. “You really are a...time traveler?”
“Who knows?” Brady was shocked. Too shocked to question the validity of his experiences. It was too real to question.
David snickered. “Everyone. You knew, after all. As for who believes? Depends on the year. Right now I believe it's just my parents and Grandma. Grandpa too, but he refuses to acknowledge it.”
“ I don't...I don't. Why doesn't everyone believe? What do you mean?” Brady had nearly crushed the cup of cola, spilling most of it into his lap rather than his throat. It was not a pleasant sensation.
David shrugged. Or at least his legs did. “Time travel isn't like on TV. You can't just go in a straight line and come back again. You'll undo everything you did...wait a minute. I'm not going to discuss the time continuum with you right now. The important point is...you haven't screwed up yet. You can act differently this time around.”
Brady spat out a laugh, gasping at his raw throat. “Act differently? I'm not going to act at all. I'd rather have this,” he pointed at the table above and all the arguing, sniping voices, “than huge family divides. I'm not doing anything.”
David made a hmm'ing noise. “Well...it's your choice. But something *does* need to be done. This isn't very nice either, after all.”
“So you do it.” Brady was incredulous. “I remember you saying you could see branches of the future, or something right? Just go figure out the right thing to do and then come back and do it.”
David was silent for a long time. Then he sighed. “Sadly, it doesn't really work like that Brady. History is not my story, but God's. And he chooses the actors and scenes, and not just one man to play all the roles. I've tried what you're saying, and ended up breaking several time lines as well as bones. Time is a vastly complicated tree, and even the smallest branches are a forest.” He fell silent again. Then coughed. “My hands are tied. I literally cannot change some things. And this is one of them. I undid your oops, but I can't do more than encourage you, otherwise. Christmas is not meant for conflict and gnawing old pains like bones.”
“Pffffffffft.” Brady let out wind like a very tired balloon.
“Salud,” Tim said sadly. It didn't bother Brady as much this time.
“So what do I do?” Brady asked after several moments of thoughts, and eavesdropping on the rapid-fire salvo of arguments about the crusades going on above him.
David's leg, twitching in rhythm to the argument above, stilled. “Search your feelings, padawan. Use the—”
“I can slap you David. You're an adult.” Brady's ire was beginning to build again; though he wouldn't admit it, he suspected it was from fear. It was much harder to stand up and speak when you weren't being angry about it. And he *was* going to stand up and speak; he'd already made up his mind on that.
David snicker was beginning to be more annoying than Tim's constant 'salud'ing', “Sorry. I never miss a chance to say that. Unless I happen to be before 1978, for continuity reasons.” He sighed. “Look, much as that was a trite quote...I meant it. Your head is a bit lost, so use your heart. Think. Feel. Identify. Listen. Remember.”
“Stop being a...wait. Wait a minute, I think I get it.” He leaned his head forward against the post, listening to the arguing, the sniping, the chaos of his family. Uncle Morton was still passionately declaring the impending doom of civilization, and aunt Gerty was loudly declaring that college degrees were as needed as air.
Brady sometimes hung out with his cousin Jake, Gerty's son. He was failing high school because he just didn't want to study.
Uncle Randy, the fist slammer from an hour—make that five minutes—ago...Brady recalled his mom talking on the phone with Randy's wife. He worked at a very liberal company, and was constantly berated for his beliefs—both political and religious—on the job.
Cousin John, the dramatic stormer of out...Brady didn't know the whole affair, obviously. But he remembered it involved a great deal of much-needed money that was loaned out of love, and never returned in kind.
As Brady sat and thought, under the dark table, a light began to grow. He remembered the cousins that always felt out of place, being of a liberal mind set amidst a belligerently conservative family.
He remembered the uncle that struggled with depression.
He remembered his brother. His parents. His grandparents. His cousins. His whole family.
David began to gently whistle, 'It came upon a midnight clear.'
“I think...I think I understand now. And I know what I have to do.” Brady said slowly.
David knee shook again. “Figured. Go on; I'll be up in a minute. Have to figure out how to dislodge this foot from my spleen.”
Brady slowly, like a specter from the shadows, rose up from under the table. He reached his seat, and didn't stop until he was on his feet. He surveyed the table, looking from person to person. He didn't see blustery arguing and catty sniping. He saw people; fellow travelers to the grave, to quote Dickens. He saw loved ones, each with their own flaws and struggles, just like him. The burdens of a life lived in a fallen world that rode heavily, if invisibly, on each one's soul.
Struggles he barely knew. Struggles that worked themselves out in various ways that people probably weren't even conscious of.
And, for some reason he couldn't explain, some force outside of himself...he loved them all. The arguments had not stopped; the people had not changed. But Brady had. For this day, if not forever, the lenses of pride and frustration were removed from his eyes, and for this one, beautiful hour, he saw his family in a completely different way.
He cleared his throat loudly. Several times. “Excuse me.” He injected an authority to his voice that didn't belong there, and the table suddenly fell silent.
“I uh...well.” Brady noticed David had returned to his seat and wore a grin that was goofy enough to warrant a DMCA warning. He smiled back. The words came easily.
“I love you all.” He said softly. “It's Christmas. For whatever reason, we don't hang out in a huge group like this all the time, and that's unfortunate. But we're here now, and it's because of Christmas. A special day where we received an irreplaceable gift in the form of Jesus. Each of you is also completely irreplaceable in my life. And I wouldn't really know what to do without you.”
He raised his glass—the plastic one from his position at the table, not the broken one that was probably ruining the wooden floor as he spoke—and said simply. “Merry Christmas to you all!”
Around the table, as one, glasses raised in silence and murmured agreement clunked against each other.
Another throat cleared. A very sheepish looking cousin John was toeing the area rug in front of the door. “Hey uh, I don't want to interrupt Brady's speech but...someone slashed my tires—”
David coughed loudly, and stared hard at his plate.
“—and it's too cold outside to wait for the tow truck...” he paused. “I probably shouldn't have stormed out like a baby anyway. I'm sorry, you guys. Really. Especially you, Larry. It's Christmas, after all.”
Silence reigned over the table for far longer than 3.75 seconds. And in this silence, Brady was not ashamed in meeting everyone's eyes. In fact, he took pleasure in it. Startled gazes of happiness, or shock—or sneers, yes—he met them one and all, and returned them with a smile.
“Well, grab a cup John. I think we're toasting Christmas.” Brady's grandma fussed John into a chair, and a full glass of cola was thrust into his hands.
“Merry Christmas!” The chaotic voices rang out in a cheer, one and all. And from that point...the arguing did not stop. It ran onwards, in full force. But, Brady couldn't help but notice, it was no longer angry or snide. Just normal conversation.
The sniping ceased, replaced by gentle jabs from familiar people. And it was a merrier Christmas than Brady could remember in a long time.
Brady didn't know, the next day, whether the world had changed or he had. In the end...he supposed it didn't matter.