[Being the first installment of Robert J Wiersema's original holiday tale of the ghostly and the miraculous.]
Dustin rose up from the bed with a half-groan that he held deep in his chest. For a moment, the idea of packing, of checking out, of travelling, seemed too daunting. Almost impossible. It would be easier to just lay back down, nestle into his pillow and watch the world unfold through the television screen, flicking between the Christmas specials and the local news.
They were predicting snow, though. “The first white Christmas in over twenty years.” That would be worth seeing.
A white Christmas – he thought about it as he packed. It seemed to him that all of the Christmases he could remember from his childhood had been white – the snow had been part of the planning, as much as the turkey, or the decorating for the big dinner on Christmas night, or the tree.
He remembered the snow falling more than once as they had gone out to find a tree. He remembered driving the logging roads up in the hills around the lake, crammed into the cab of his father’s pick-up truck, straddling the gear-shift, pressed up against Graham, who was pressed up in turn against their mother, who made a point of locking the passenger door in case a combination of the over-packed cab and a sharp turn might burst to door open. It was always snowy in those memories, everyone sweating in snow-pants and heavy coats, the logging roads rutted and icy.
Even when they went to the Christmas tree farm in Chilliwack that one year it had been snowing, and the man had given them hot chocolate to drink while he cut the tree they had chosen and tied it to the top of the car.
With another sigh he threw his toothbrush and toothpaste into the front pocket of his backpack, crammed his clothes into the main compartment. There wasn’t much to pack – a few clothes, a few books, a handful of CDs. The portable stereo came with the room, so he’d be leaving that behind.
He tried to think of a Christmas from his childhood that hadn’t been white, but he couldn’t. Instead, he remembered more and more details: the crunching of snow under tires as people arrived for ‘the feast’, as his mother called it; the way they seemed to shake cold out of the folds of their coats as they came through the front door; sliding on the frozen pond in the back field on Christmas morning. There had always been snow.
And then, at a certain point, there was never snow. As if a switch had been thrown. From the time he was, what, eleven? Twelve? After that, there was never snow for Christmas, and he wondered if it was that way for everyone. Did the universe give everyone snowy Christmases as children, enough to make a lifetime of memories, only to withdraw them as you got older? Was everyone left with a yearning, a vague sense of loss every December 24th as they realized that, once again, it would be rainy, or cold and clear, or high overcast with a chance of flurries yet again this year?
It didn’t seem fair.
The last thing he packed was the folding leather photo frame that Stan had given him a couple of years before. It was about the size of a book, and it opened to show two photos, facing each other. The one on the left was a photo of he and Graham when they were teenagers, self-serious and faintly ridiculous after all this time. The other photo was of he and Stan, the night of his office Christmas party. Someone had snapped it when they weren’t paying attention: they were standing in the center of the room, talking, their heads leaning toward one another. It looked almost like they were about to kiss. Stan had been wearing his dark suit, a red scarf draped rakishly around his neck.
Dustin folded the frame closed and tucked it carefully along the inside of the backpack before zipping it up.
He hefted the bag onto his shoulder and glanced at the television. The pretty blonde anchor was muted, but there was a large snowflake graphic on a green background over her left shoulder that said enough.
A white Christmas this year.
And he was going home.
He stopped at the front desk in the lobby to let them know he was checking out. The young woman he spoke to seemed flustered, and she couldn’t seem to make her computer work the way she wanted it to.
“Are you sure?” she asked, glancing at the doors. “It’s late, and it’s Christmas eve…”
He nodded, his eyes trailing across the tree in the corner. It seemed dilapidated and out of place in the lobby. “I just talked to my mother. I’m going out to my parents’ place for Christmas. A bit of a last minute thing.”
She still seemed uncertain. “Can I call you a cab, or…”
“No,” he said. “Thank you, though.” He glanced at the doors as she had done and hitched his knapsack higher onto his shoulder. “And I should get going. It looks like it’s starting to snow.”
He waited until he was at the bus depot, until he was en route to call his brother.
He was surprised at how quiet it was. All day the news had been showing scenes from the airports and the ferry terminals, the border crossings. Everywhere it was lines of people and luggage, cars idling and spewing steam. People with microphones in their faces, looking exhausted and ragged but all smiling, telling the camera how happy they were to be going home, how excited they were about the holiday.
But the bus depot was practically deserted, and his footsteps seemed to echo in the ornate marble hall. There was a janitor mopping the floors, and two Japanese girls fast asleep on a bench, surrounded by their luggage, and him.
“It’s pretty quiet,” he said to the woman at the ticket window as she printed off his ticket.
“17.52,” she said.
He passed her a twenty dollar bill.
She sighed heavily, and took two pennies out of the “Take a penny, leave a penny” jar.
“I was expecting it to be busier,” he tried.
She didn’t even look at him. “Bay 6,” she said, pushing his ticket and his change across the counter to him. “It’ll be loading in about ten minutes.”
“Thank you,” he said, quietly, on the off-chance that she was listening, as he put his change into his pocket. All except for the couple of quarters.
He leaned in close to the payphone, dialling from the scrap of paper he kept tucked into his wallet.
“The wireless customer you are calling…”
He sighed. He had known Graham probably wouldn’t answer, but he was still disappointed.
“Graham, it’s Dustin. I haven’t seen you very much. I hope you’re okay. I’m…” He hesitated. “I’m at the bus depot. I’m catching a bus in a couple of minutes. I talked to Mom — I’m going out there for Christmas. She said…” Now the delicate part. “She said you might be coming out too.” He had no idea how to follow that, how to build on the idea. “Okay, I should go. I don’t want to miss the bus. You have a merry Christmas.”
He hung up the phone and drifted slowly toward the doors to the loading bays. He felt so empty, so alone.
As the doors swung automatically open, there was a rush of cold air, sharp and invigorating. In the bright blue-silver of the lights, the fine white of the snow seemed to dance.
The air smelled of magic, and exhaust.
At Bay Six, the driver held out his hand for Dustin’s ticket. “Where are you heading?” he asked.
“Henderson,” Dustin said, and he stepped onto the bus.
[Read the second part of "Just Like the Ones He Used to Know"]