This story was shared with readers of crime and horror by guiltyconscience.
The first week after Thomas left for his trek to India we didn’t really expect to hear from him. At least that’s what our mother would say to our friends when they asked. She never told them he left after another fight with our father.
After two weeks she started wringing her hands. “Maybe something happened to him.”
“Tell you what happened to him,” my father said. “He’s having the time of his life playing banjo and smoking joints.” With two fingers to his lips he mocked a smoker, then his mouth twitched down. “He forgot about you, you forget about him. He ain’t our son no more.”
My mother knew better than to argue. My sister looked out the window. I felt shrunk.
After three weeks we were having breakfast in heavy silence when my mother said, “We should call the police.”
My father put his palms on either side of his plate. His jaws bulged from grinding his teeth. He pushed his chair away, hunching over the table, and answered, “Don’t you think we got enough trouble?”
My mother took a short breath as if she were about to speak. No sound came out. She shut her mouth and dabbed her eyes.
My father stood, cleared his throat, took three steps to the sink, and expelled a ball of phlegm.
Days later it was Christmas. “Decorations ain’t gonna hang themselves,” my father barked. “Son, you and your sister get the boxes out.”
Getting the boxes had always been my father’s self-appointed Christmas task. None of the children ever did that. And he didn’t do anything else about Christmas.
For some reason I still haven’t figured out, the Christmas decorations were stored in a shed at the far end of the garden. That meant the holiday ritual started with a shoveling of the snow in front of the shed door. My sister and I took a flashlight and shovels and got to work. Anything to get out of the house.
“He promised he’d be back for Christmas,” I said when we had cleared the door.
“He said we’d hear from him by Christmas. He’ll call, or we’ll get an e-card.” She sighed. “I wish I’d do that. Get out of here. Spend Christmas on the beach.”
“You think he’s on the beach?” The idea was fantastic. Thomas would have an idea like that. “They have beaches in India?” I had no clue where India was, and I suspected neither did my sister.
“My math teacher went once and she came back with a tan,” she said.
That settled it. I felt better for Thomas. The huge weight of guilt over not waiting for him had suddenly lifted. If it hadn’t been Thomas, I would have been jealous. Because it was him, I was happy. Happy for him.
Maybe I’ll go to India too, one day.
In the meantime, I have to deal with the night and the cold. I have to deal with our father. The Christmas decorations are in the back. There’s a bunch of plastic furniture piled high. I hand chairs to my sister. She sets them in the snow. I hand a table top to my sister. She leans it against the chairs. I grab the tent with both hands. It’s not in its bag and we struggle to keep the bundle together. We lean it against the table top. I should be able to get to the boxes now. I take a step. I trip on something. I direct the light beam to the floor. It’s the tent bag, stretched full and heavy. Then the beam of the flashlight catches an open box of pills and an empty bottle of booze and the strap of the backpack Thomas grabbed when he left for India, three weeks ago.