Short Fiction

On the fourth day of Fic-mas, we look to the new year, and find something not quite new to fear …

Out With The Old

“Mikey, I said no more cookies,” Mary Davies called out to her son, who was in the kitchen, ostensibly to get the wine glasses for the table.

“Um … Sorry!” drifted back through the swinging door.

“Were those sleigh bells I heard in there,” her husband Clark asked with a smile, as her finished setting out the silverware.

His wife grinned. “I may have hot glued some to the inside of the cookie jar lid. You know, for enhanced security purposes.”

He chuckled. “That is positively diabolical and makes me glad that I’m on your side,” Clark said, leaning in for a kiss.

“Ew, get a room you guys,” Mikey groaned as he came back from his assigned task, bereft of cookies. He began setting the glasses around the table. “Also, very funny, Mom. Like haha. I didn’t know you worked for the cookie CIA or something.”

She smirked, her eyes glittering with mischievous good humor. “I’m more the private security type, but my methods are, nonetheless, highly effective.”

Mikey rolled his eyes, and leaned against the table, his last pointless task for the evening completed. “Why are we doing this whole thing?”

“It’s all you this round, babe,” Mary said as she headed into the kitchen. “Maybe he’ll get it if you explain it to him.”

She tossed a reproving look at her son and exchanged a sympathetic glance with her husband. The tween years had been rough, and now Mickey was going from an only child, an only child who would be thirteen come May 4th, to a big brother. As signs of the impending arrival of the youngest member of the Davies clan compounded, Mikey got exponentially surlier with his parents.

His father took a deep breath and tried again. “It’s Christmas Eve, son. And when I became a deacon of the church, well, I agreed to observe their traditions.”

Mickey tried unsuccessfully to conceal a roll of his eyes. His father went on smoothly, pretending he hadn’t noticed.

“One of those traditions is hosting an elder of the flock, who for whatever reason is alone this time of year. Mr. Morrow hasn’t been here for very long and has no one to share the holiday with … So, I offered for him to come here.”

This time Mikey rolled his eyes openly. “Lame.”

His father puffed a frustrated breath through his nose. “You know what, Michael? I’m done with your attitude. When our guest arrives, you will be polite, cordial, friendly, and not the sullen spoiled brat you keep showing your mother and I lately! Do I make myself clear?” he asked.

Michael thought one thing was very clear. He’d pushed a little too much today. Better to just suck it up, get this dinner over with, and head up to his room. He could turn the light off, pretend he was sleeping, and just go online. “Yes, sir,” he said, only sounding about half as sullen as he felt.

A chime sounded from the living room. “There’s the doorbell, now,” Clark said. “Why don’t you go let our guest in, Michael?”

He gave his son a hard look. His father was sticking to his full name, a good indication that he better play nice or the Wi-Fi password would get changed.

Mickey opened the door, and took an instinctive step toward the man on the welcome mat, almost reaching out a hand to steady the old fellow’s elbow, hardly recognizing him from church, where they’d met last week.

“Are you okay, Mr. Morrow?” Mikey asked, skipping over the normal ‘good evening’.

Before him stood, or more accurately stooped over a cane, what could best be described as a memory of a man. Wispy and frayed around the edges. A wheezy laugh escaped Mr. Morrow on a zephyr’s breath.

“That bad, huh, kid?” he asked with amusement.

With surprising agility and grace, the old man slipped around Michael and into the house.

“C … c …. Can I take your coat?” Mickey squeaked, caught entirely by surprise.

“Why, thank you, young man,” Mr. Morrow croaked.

If Mickey had thought the man appeared frail while wearing his coat, without it, their ancient dinner companion seemed like he might just blow away. He looked about as substantial as a paper snowflake.

A shiver rippled up and down Mickey’s back as Mr. Morrow’s eyes pierced him. Mikey thought a smirk might have passed over the old man’s face, but he was so wrinkled and dusty looking it was hard to tell. Mickey shivered again, this one shaking his whole body a little.

“Never seen a walking cadaver before, have you, boy. Hehehe,” he chuckled, then the strange hollow laugh turned into a body-wracking cough. His ribs were visible through his threadbare dress shirt. Mikey offered an arm to help steady his guest, feeling a strange mix of pity and revulsion when Mr. Morrow gratefully accepted.

“Mr. Morrow, are you alright?” Clark asked, coming into the foyer, having been alerted to the difficulty by the noise.

Wiping his mouth with a faded handkerchief, he showed his hosts a toothless grin. “Well, I thought I was, but I guess I’m in the minority. No matter. I’ve caught my breath now. I would like a seat though.”

“This way, sir,” Mikey said, leading his guest into the dining room and helping him into a chair as quickly as the old man’s labored movements would allow. Mikey had a strong, inexplicable urge to no longer be touching him.

“There’s a good lad,” Mr. Morrow said with genuine admiration, though for what, Mickey couldn’t know. The man patted his hand and made momentary eye contact, his expression grateful.

Mikey suppressed a shudder when those blue eyes met his brown ones. There was something off about the man’s gaze. His eyes just weren’t right. It was like they didn’t fit his face, like they didn’t get that they were old, or something.

Mary came into the room and offered, “Dinner isn’t quite ready, Mr. Morrow. If you’d like we could move into the other room to wait where the furniture is a little more comfortable.

He looked at her with something like understanding. “No, thank you kindly, all the same though. But you look like getting up and down from these low chairs is about as much fun for you as it is for me.”

He nodded at her very obvious baby bump. She smiled at his thoughtfulness. That had been almost exactly what she’d been thinking.

Mr. Morrow suggested, “Why don’t we stay right here? I’d prefer it, if it’s all the same to you. I like sitting around a nice table. It’s more personal, intimate. You can talk and really look people in the eye.”

When he said the words, he gave Michael another look and a nod. The boy tried not to fidget, but he felt himself squirm under Mr. Morrow’s scrutiny.

Mr. Morrow smiled his strange old wrinkly smile with nothing of it to sparkle but shiny pink gums and offered, “How about a story to pass the time? I know some good ones.”

“Sounds like fun,” Clark answered for the group.

The evening passed pleasantly. Mr. Morrow did know some truly wonderful stories. Mary was an excellent cook, and Clark a terrific baker, but dinner a dessert played a definite second fiddle to Mr. Morrow’s tales. Both the real historical accounts and what sounded like outrageous swashbuckling fiction enthralled the family.

It was like Mr. Morrow had been born with many lifetimes worth of firsthand knowledge, and that he was somehow passing it off into this room, into this gathering we nothing more than the gift of shared time and a few words.

Mr. Morrow was just concluding a harrowing tale of near death and shocking bravery from the French and Indian War, when he paused to look at the clock as it began to chime softly.

“Well, look at the time. Merry Christmas, one and all.”

Mikey let out a soft sigh of relief. That meant Mr. Morrow would be leaving soon, no doubt. And good stories or not, the guy just gave him the creeps something awful.

“Don’t look so disappointed, son,” he father said. “I’m sure we’ll do this again.”

Good old Clark, Mikey thought. Missing the general mood as usual.

“No,” the old man said, with an almost sad shake of his head, his silver hair looking too much like spider webs in the sun for Mikey’s liking. “Most likely not,” he continued. “I’ve much to do and prepare between now the new year.”

“Maybe after the holidays, then?” Clark asked. “I mean, really, Mr. Morrow, I truly enjoyed this evening.”

“As did I, Clark; as did I.”

The old man paused and looked around the table, eyes grazing Mikey again, asking him something, it seemed. The boy had an inexplicable urge to either be sick or to shout at his father to put the old man out on the mat, now. To not say what he was going to say next. But his silent scream didn’t stop his father’s words.

“Well, I invite you to join our family, any time.”

Mikey actual had to swallow to keep his dinner from coming right back up onto the table at the little flash in Mr. Morrow’s eyes just then. Then the old man spoke again, and the boy felt strangely faint.

“Thank you kindly, Clark. In that case … I do believe we’ll be seeing each other again. Very soon.”

“I … um … I’m not feeling very well,” Mikey blurted. “May I please be excused?”

He looked everywhere but at Mr. Morrow as his mother rose and came over to where he was sitting, laying her bare wrist against his forehead. “I don’t think you have a fever … But this is awfully late for you. Why don’t you go get some rest?”

“Thanks, Mom!” he practically yelled.

Then he said quick perfunctory good nights all around and disappeared upstairs, climbing into his bed and pulling the covers over his head, and dozing into strange dark dreams before the adults had even pushed away from the table.

After an after-dinner drink, in no particular hurry for the evening to be over, the Davies showed Mr. Morrow to the foyer.

“Thank you for coming,” Mary said as she opened the door while Clark helped the old man with his coat.

Mr. Morrow stopped at the door, turning to face Mary. “You, dear lady, are a wonderful host.” She was going to thank him for the kind remark, but he reached out and put his gnarled, blue-tinged hand against her swollen belly.

A cold chill raced through her body, that her sleeping son, who was now moaning softly with a terrible dream above their heads, would have recognized.

Mr. Morrow spoke softly, gazing into her face with an unwavering assurance. “A New Years’ baby, I should think. Much like our meeting …” He paused, and the Davies both thought he might have just lost the thread of his thought. But then he looked at them both very seriously. “Both a blessing, and a curse.” That hung in the air for a moment. “Good night.”

Mary and Clark both found themselves oddly unsettled. Mr. Morrow turned to them as he reached the end of the walk. “I’m sorry. I really am just so, so sorry.”

He walked off into the chilly dark, leaving them speechless.

***

Mickey wandered down the hall to the vending machine near the nurses’ station. His stupid little brother, who he hadn’t wanted and was not happy about was going to ruin a perfectly good holiday by selfishly being born on what every movie he’d ever seen, and most of his friends, told him was the best party night of the year.

He figured after he ate his sixth candy bar of the evening, he’d kill some time by trying to see how many trips he could take up and down in the elevator before he got kicked off. He was having a debate with himself about how pissed his parents would be if he got kicked off by security, and decided to maybe wait until the boredom got worse before he risked it.

He puffed out his cheeks and let out a long dramatic sigh. He thought his parents insistence that he join them at the hospital for this supposedly joyous occasion was about the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. He was already tired and grouchy. He hadn’t slept worth a damn since Christmas. It made being forced to be here pretending to be all supportive and excited that much worse. And no way was he going in to watch. Ugh.

But, he had to admit, he did like the idea of getting to meet his little brother before anyone else in the family. He figured if he made a big enough deal out of how exciting it was to become a big brother, his grandparents would probably be good for some decent presents over it.

Mikey’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out and thumbed it on. “It’s time.”

Right to the point. You could always count on his dad to be as lame as possible. And this was just Classic Clark. He grinned to himself, thinking that depending on how sharp the new kid was, in ten to twelve years they could have a lot of fun riffing on old Classic Clark. It might be cool to have someone around to share the burden, and the good parts, of having Clark and Mary for parents.

Mikey made his way back to the waiting room and sat down. He checked his phone. Several minutes passed and he checked it again. He was actually starting to get a little excited to meet this new Davies. He looked again, willing his dad to text him good news. 11:58 p.m. No word yet.

“Old year or new year, little fella, the choice is yours,” he said to no one in particular.

“It will be the New Year.”

Mikey jumped a little, getting to his feet, looking almost ready to run away. He hadn’t seen anyone come in, but sitting in the softly lit corner of the room was Mr. Morrow.

“Where’d you come from?” he asked, slowly back up toward the hallway.

“Well, I have to be close by. And I wanted to find you and apologize.” Mikey frowned, but stayed quiet. “You’re a nice family, and you deserve better.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked, realizing he sounded about five years younger than he was all of a sudden.

“Your brother,” Mr. Morrow said sadly. “He’s marked. I was invited, you see. So, he … He will stand in my stead, and continue to ensure the wheel of time turns on.”

Mikey was shaking, having a hard time keeping his feet. “You ..? What ..? What’s wrong with you? What are you even talking about? What’s that even mean?”

Mr. Morrow did answer for a moment. Then he looked up at the wall, staring at something that Mikey couldn’t see. “Oh, look at the time.”

“There’s no clock there! What are you talking about?” Mikey was pretty close to tears and he couldn’t even say why.

Mr. Morrow began speaking again, like Mikey wasn’t even there. “Ten, nine, eight, seven …”

Mr. Morrow counted down.

He locked eyes with Mikey one last time and whispered, “Happy New Year.”

He had no more than spoken the words and drew in one last shallow breath, when he slumped to the floor. Over the flurry of activity of nurses coming running, Mikey could hear, as he backed out of their way, the screams of new life from down the hall.

He took his buzzing phone out of his pocket and leaned up against the cool wall in the hallway. His brother had been born at the turn of the year. Almost exactly.

Once the hospital staff had finished trying to revive the old man who had appeared in the waiting room and then disappeared from the world in the space of a few minutes, they moved the body. One of the nurses came and led a silent, frowning Michael to the nurses’ station and made him drink a cup of water. She thought he was upset that he’d seen the old man die.

He didn’t know how to tell her that it wasn’t Mr. Morrow’s soul leaving his body that worried him. It was where it might have ended up. He just drank the water and let her fuss over him a little. That was easier.

Eventually his father came to get him and led him down the hall to the room where his mother was sitting up in bed, holding the baby.

Mikey stepped toward them and his mother smiled and smoothed the swaddling away from the baby’s face.

Mikey looked wordlessly into those familiar blue eyes, but now they looked far to old for one so young.

“Happy New Year,” he whispered.

– End –Baby new year

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