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The following story was published in the Letters to the Editor section of The Record International in the year 2056 in response to the prompt, “What is your most powerful holiday memory?” The author remains anonymous.
Trina, my six-year old sister, and I lounged on the sheepskin rug under the Christmas tree playing with plastic animals. The branches of the tree formed a dense forest for the miniature creatures to frolic. I was nine and Trina was six (names have been changed). My father taught English at a high school nearby. My mother worked at a daycare, so Trina and I usually walked home from school by ourselves.
We were a fairly normal family except my parents had a secret. There was a hidden door in our kitchen closet leading to the basement. This room was filled with computers and printers from the early 2030s, and cabinets with notes jotted down on coffee shop napkins and torn yellow pad pages. My parents were journalists. This was before Trina was born — before reporting anything negative about our administration was banned and thousands of supposed truth-tellers were sent to jail.
I’ve seen the photos of my mother at her old TV news job. Trina and I found them in a flax-colored envelope in my father’s desk drawer. Her shoulder-length hair curled perfectly at the ends and her blue eyes were bright in the studio lights. Our mother was beautiful. She would have been when we were young too, but she was very tired those days. My father used to write stories for a prominent paper. We knew this only because our mother told us one evening while he was working late in the basement. Though no copies of his stories remained, she wanted us to know what he did before everything changed.
I was two and a half years old when our president was elected for a third term, the first time this had occurred since FDR. I was too young to remember, but I knew from stories told around the dinner table that either the results of the election were debatable or the tactics used to win were. It was shortly after this win when the first journalist was jailed for writing slanderous material. His imprisonment wasn’t on the news, but word circulated among my parents’ colleagues. When another writer reported on this event, she too was found to have committed crimes against the administration. I pictured the imprisonments happening under the cover of night. Before long, thousands of writers had been jailed, lost their jobs, or simply disappeared. My parents realized the danger and left their New York apartment to move to the Midwest suburbs. I will not disclose the city so as to avoid exposing those neighbors and friends who may still reside there.
Each month my parents, along with about a dozen other ex-writers and reporters, gathered in the basement of our home to share notes, stories, and snippets of information they had collected about the administration’s latest deeds. It seemed to me that there should have been nothing wrong with recording these events. My understanding now is that the administration reserved the right to depict events in the light that best suited its goals, and so any other renderings of what had transpired must be illegal.
As a child, I loved the monthly gatherings that occurred in our basement. My mother would bake almond cookies that she said were Italian and serve them warm on big silver trays with a steaming pot of coffee. Trina and I would sometimes be allowed to come down and watch the proceedings if we were quiet. We’d huddle in the reading chair surrounded by our stuffed animals and pretend to host our own secret gatherings of creatures. Giraffe knew about a plot by the humans to turn the remaining savannah into an amusement park, while Seal had witnessed people stealing ice from the North Pole to sell to fancy cocktail bars in American cities. People were always up to something nefarious and so it was paramount for each animal to report on the rogue Homo sapiens’ doings.
The previous year was so warm that Trina and I wore our summer dresses for Christmas Eve dinner. This year, was the opposite. Great white walls of snow flanked the front doors of the house, and Trina and I wore our felt pajamas as we watched the flames of the fire dance like the angels across the shiny Christmas tree ornaments. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen clinking glasses of port and communicating in the whispered language of adults. We were happy because they were happy.
Shortly before midnight our first guest arrived. We knew him as Uncle Gary, but he wasn’t a relative, just a good friend of Dad’s. Another glass of port was poured, and Gary joined Trina and me on the floor under the tree. He handed us gifts wrapped in cherry-red paper. He said we had to wait until morning to open them, so we placed them under the tree and the boxes became part of the rocky landscape of presents for our plastic animals to roam.
Next, Linda and Walter arrived, our neighbors from down the street. Linda always wore a canvas backpack that seemed to hold everything a person might need in the event of a catastrophe: a canteen of water, notebook, pens, and a little tin of chocolates. She gave Trina and me each a piece of salted caramel chocolate before retiring to the kitchen.
Trina and I gathered our army of animals in preparation for a big battle between the animals and the unseen, dark spirits of the underworld. Ringing laughter from the kitchen alerted us to the arrival of another friend of the family, Joey. Trina and I left our plastic animals beneath the pine needle canopy to greet him. Just nineteen years old, Joey had been a student of my Dad’s. He had dark brown eyes that looked scarlet in candlelight and a big laugh that put people at ease. To my nine-year old self, he was perfect.
I threw my arms around his neck and he swung me around the kitchen. My parents smiled, the corners of their eyes crinkling with approval. If I was to aspire to be with any sort of man someday, Joey would have been their dream for me. He pulled two balls of crumpled brown paper from his jacket pocket and handed them to me and Trina. I eagerly tore open the paper to find a silver bracelet nestled inside. Trina’s package contained another of the same sort. “They’re charm bracelets,” he told us.
“But where are the charms?” asked Trina. Joey kneeled in front of us. The candles were burning on the kitchen counter, so I could see the crimson in his eyes.
“Those are for you to add. When you learn or experience something new, or there’s something you never want to forget,” he said. I nodded with as much seriousness as I could muster and hoped he knew I understood. Trina and I had to keep growing even if the world made it difficult. It was a small thing, but the bracelets were Joey’s way of conveying the importance of that to us.
I stuck my wrist out, and Joey fastened the silver chain around. I liked the way the slinky metal felt on my skin. It was something sophisticated, grown-up. I thought of watching my mother applying perfume to the insides of her wrists. Joey’s giving Trina and me these bracelets was a demonstration of trust, and you had to be trusted before you could enter the world of adults. It was a realm fraught with subtext and blinked messages that had to be decoded and interpreted. The bracelet was an indication that I was on the cusp of entering that sphere. It didn’t matter that Trina, who was three years younger, received one too. There was knowledge to be learned and experiences to be had, and Joey thought I could handle it.
My mother took a tray of her almond cookies out of the oven while the coffee pot spluttered, indicating the brew was complete. It was almost time to foray into the basement where the real secrets were shared. Uncle Gary took a cookie off the tray while they were still hot and popped it into his mouth. Some of the white powder left a residue on his lips. I watched Joey shake my father’s hand jovially – his sinewy hand inside my father’s big paw. Their eyes twinkled in the way of kindred spirits. Linda poured herself and Walter second glasses of port, their faces ruddy from the alcohol. Trina pulled on my pajama sleeve. “When does the battle start?” I glanced into the living room where our plastic animals were stationed ready for a great war.
I took Trina’s hand and led her toward the Christmas tree. We would direct the battle between animals and spirits of the underworld while our parents brought their friends into the basement for the final gathering of the year. One day, when we grew up, we would join them in their secret meetings and share untold truths witnessed by our own eyes.
As we settled onto the sheepskin rug, we heard my dad yell from the kitchen, “Get down!” His voice was drowned out by a loud bang. A cloud of yellowish dust billowed into the living room. The voices of strangers filled the room.
“On the ground. Hands where we can see them. You move, we shoot.” Still clutching hands, Trina and I were frozen by the uncertainty of what was happening.
My father’s voice, “Joey, don’t–” followed by the terrible sound of a gunshot. I knew that sound from the occasional raid near the school. Between the storm-colored trousers of two strange men, I could see Joey sprawled across the hardwood floor, his long fingers reaching toward us. A stain spread across his shirt – crimson. His eyes locked with mine. Call it intuition or instinct, or something else, but I knew this was the moment I had to grow up. That’s what Joey was trying to tell me.
I unfroze my feet from the sheepskin rug and pulled Trina past the Christmas tree and our plastic animals, and ran. We escaped out the back door that led through the garden into the wintry suburban neighborhood in our pajamas.
Nikki Brown is a writer and filmmaker who grew up in Grand Rapids, MI and who now resides in Memphis, TN. In addition to her fiction work, Nikki is a journalist who explores the impacts of emerging technologies on culture and society. She has been published in such publications as LOCALE Magazine, Lateral Magazine, Format Magazine, and Model View Culture. Nikki also co-wrote and produced the indie feature film, Up on the Glass, and earned her MFA in Writing for Screen and Television from the University of Southern California and BA in Biology from Dartmouth College.