Wednesday, February 19, 2014

New Traditions/My First Flash Contest Winner

    Paula hesitated, her hand hovering inches above the first worn box labeled “Christmas Decorations”. A bit of holly protruded from a crack in the box, and the last red berry snapped off and rolled out of sight as Paula reached for the yellowed tape beneath it. Attic dust, carrying the stale scent of last year's peppermint, escaped as she pulled the tape up, wondering how anything in the box could have ever made their home feel warm and festive or how anything could ever make it feel that way again now that her mother was gone.

    The day after Thanksgiving had, over the years, become like another holiday for Paula's family, reserved for putting up the tree and decorations to the beat of the first Christmas songs of the year. There had been no big Thanksgiving celebration the day before, so nothing felt special about this day. The house was silent, the music absent along with the faint scent of turkey and dressing that usually lingered from the previous day’s celebration. Paula jumped as her sister, Stacie, nearly fell into the front door, bringing a gust of cold wind with her. She grunted as she lowered another box onto the sofa and ripped it open immediately. Paula already knew what her sister was reaching for. It was always Stacie’s job to set up the little candle carousel and light the candles for the first time. As children, Paula fought for that right, but as the years went by, she wouldn’t have taken it even if offered. It wouldn’t seem like Christmas if she didn’t get to watch Stacie do it.

    Paula finally lifted the flap of her box and thought silently that something must be wrong with her. Why couldn't she be excited about this day like her sister? Was Stacie more capable of feeling happiness through the pain, or had she learned to wear her mask and play the part handed to her? Either way, Paula only knew how to feel what was the most raw. She didn’t know how to feel anything past it and hadn’t learned how to pretend that she had. She began grabbing items and making a pile on the floor beside her. Normally, she laid the ornaments out neatly, categorizing them by color or whatever system she chose that year. Now, every one of them made her sad. She decided that would be the category she would offer if Stacie questioned her. Stacie seemed too busy lighting the candles on the carousel to notice the single pile. Paula closed her eyes, refusing to look as the tiny horses began to spin in a circle, fueled by warmth she was sure she would never feel again. She didn’t notice when Stacie began spreading the ornaments out and placing them in separate piles.

    An hour later, what usually took all day to complete was nearly done. All that remained in the boxes were the lights for hanging outside. Stacie picked up one of the strands and held it out to Paula. When she didn't reach for it, Stacie lowered the lights until they rested on one of her legs and waited for a response.

“Daddy does those, so we are done,” Paula said sharply as she pushed the lights aside to get up.

“Why can’t we do it for him this year?”

Paula opened her mouth to insist that they let their Dad do it because that was how it was always done but then refused to mention tradition when, clearly, it no longer mattered.
“Sure, okay,” she responded instead, shrugging her shoulders as if it were no big deal.

    Though she vowed ahead of time not to enjoy the process of hanging those outside lights, she had to admit it felt good to be out of the house and doing something new, something that wasn’t weighed down with memories and feelings. By the time they started on the second strand, the two of them were teasing one another and laughing at their clumsiness with a task that was clearly too big for them. They weren’t willing to admit to failure at that point, so when they finished two hours later, neither one could feel her fingers or toes through the cold and barely made it through the front door before collapsing onto the sofa.

“A cup of hot chocolate would be great right about now, wouldn’t it?” shivered Stacie.

Paula rose slowly and walked over to the small stereo in the corner of the living room where it had remained since the day their dad brought it home as a gift for their mother years ago. She dug through a shoebox of cassette tapes until she found the right one then hit the “open” button on the cassette player. She slipped the tape in, closed the door, and pushed play. Christmas music filled the house as the girls made their way to the kitchen.

“That was fun, wasn’t it?" Paula asked later as she ran her sleeve over a thin line of chocolate on her upper lip.

“Yes, it was,” Stacie replied, smiling as she set her empty cup down on the bar.

“We should do it again next year, shouldn’t we?”

“Yes,” replied Paula, “we should do it every year from now on, and we have to have hot chocolate too so it will be exactly like today every year.”

No response was needed as they let the words hang in the silence between songs.

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