18 Dec Christmas, 1996
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"Christmas, 1996"Written by Jesse Rosenfeld
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Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
“Someone has taken their love of fear one step too far.”
Don LaFontaine’s iconic voice emitted from the television set. I ran over to the TV cabinet, nearly knocking over the Christmas tree that Ryan was decorating.
“Hey! Easy tiger,” he said as he adjusted his Santa hat. “We’re gonna see it in a couple hours, and if you fuck this tree up, I’ll kill you.”
“Don’t answer the answer the phone,” the narration continued. “Don’t open the door. Don’t try to hide. Scream. Now playing.”
“I’m sorry, but I just love this trailer. You know they were gonna film it at our school until the fucking school board found out it was a horror movie?”
“You’ve only told me 50 times.”
“Well, I guess it’s 51 now.”
He continued with the decorations and flashed me a wide-mouthed grin. I loved that smile. His short brown hair peeked out from beneath his hat, and his eyes were a piercing blue. He looked like Jake Ryan from “Sixteen Candles”, a bit of a compliment to my sandy blond wavy locks and brown eyes. But we were both around six feet tall, so when stood close, our eyes lined up perfectly. It was the first day of our winter vacation, and five days until Christmas. Although Ryan was Jewish, he always somehow got roped into helping with the tree. Probably because I always asked him.
“Hey, my parents are gonna be back soon. Why don’t you come here for a minute?”
“I’d love to Brandon, but these ornaments aren’t gonna hang themselves. And aren’t you supposed to be helping me? Isn’t this your house?”
“I just like your artistic flare. I can’t make the tree look all pretty-like the way that you can.”
“You know flattery will get you everywhere.”
He set the box of glass bulbs down. They glittered as they reflected the lights from the tree. He floated over to me, took his hat off and put it on my head before sitting beside me. He smelled so good. The scent of his clean cotton polo shirt and a waft of his cologne mixed into a scent that was so uniquely him, it just took me over. He kissed me. I knew that 17 was still pretty young in many people’s eyes to say I was in love, but it wasn’t like we had been dating for a few weeks. Ryan and I met in second grade. Because of a washing mishap, all of my socks were dyed bright pink, and some kids thought a boy with pink socks on merited hitting said kid in the mouth with a wooden swing. Ryan came over, punched the aggressor in the mouth, socked the accomplice in the gut, and told me that he liked pink. He was the new kid in school, and his save-the-cat act cemented our friendship. We remained friends over the years and throughout middle school, and then one day when we were 14, he liberated a flask of Maker’s Mark from his parents’ diverse collection. We drank too much too fast, and after a long and profound discussion that neither of us could remember the next day, we were full-on hands-running-through-each-other’s-hair kissing, before he turned and threw up all over his Super Nintendo. Now, were both seniors in high school, getting excited about graduation and all that life would have in store for us after.
“I love you, Brandon.”
“I love you.”
I heard the garage door open.
“Shit!” I yelled as I jumped up, unwillingly pulled out of my forbidden utopia. We both hurried over to the Christmas tree and Ryan put the Santa hat back on. The sound of that garage door opening was the dividing line between my freedom of expression, and the constraints my parents had forced on me. My mother and father, unfortunately, entered with paper bags in their hands. Mom wore a floral front-buttoning dress with her Mariah Carey curls bouncing as she glided through.
“Honey, would you mind helping with… Oh, hi, Ryan! How are you?”
My mother loved Ryan.
“Hey, Mrs. S.”
My mother ran over to give him a hug, then flipped the pompom of his hat over to the other side.
“Oh, how cute. And please, I’ve known you almost as long as my son, call my Kathy.”
She was always telling him to call her Kathy, but Ryan was the polite type so he’d resist calling adults by first name.
“Sure thing. Mrs. —”
My father set down the bags in the kitchen and came over to us. He was a tall, burly guy with a hearty laugh, and a love of the Lord that was so strong it catapulted me into atheism. The kind of guy you’d think was a giant teddy bear. He was a successful surgeon and he did well enough in the practice that mom was able to stay at home. “Hey, there, Ryan.” He put out his hand to shake Ryan’s hand. I never understood this fascination with men needing to shake hands. I feel like it had to do with one showing the other up with how firm his grip was. My father was very adamant about a firm handshake being an indication of manliness.
“Hey, there, Mr. —”
“Doug. Let me help Brandon with the groceries.”
“Sure thing, kiddo. We got some ice cream. You can both help yourselves to as a treat after.”
My dad was great at putting on a front. He was calm, cool and collected in front of company, but Ryan and I knew damn well that he’d kill us if he found out we were together. It’s funny, in a horrifying way, that people like us died just because of who we loved.
When we got back inside, mom and dad were in the living room checking out the tree.
“Oh, boys, this looks fabulous!” Mom boasted. “I love looking at all the ornaments and remembering the stories from when we got them.”
“Really nice work guys,” my dad chimed in. “I’m sorry that I was so late to get the tree this year. I’ve been so tied up at the hospital lately, I couldn’t find the time as of late.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I can’t take all the credit though, Ryan did most of the work.”
“Your son does do a great job of providing moral support though, and finding good a good Christmas movie to put on though. ‘Prancer’ was on earlier.”
“Never saw it,” my dad informed.
“Oh, honey, yes we did. We took Brandon to see it when it came out in theaters.”
Mom was always helping dad remember things. I hoped that one day she would realize that it wasn’t that he was forgetful, he just didn’t care.
“Ryan, would you like to have Christmas dinner with us this year?” Mom asked. “I know Hanukah ended last Friday, so I’m sure your parents wouldn’t mind.”
“Sure, that would be lovely. Thank you very much for your hospitality.”
“Wonderful,” my father replied.
* * * * * *
It was just shy of midnight when the movie let out, and we hurried to the car to escape the biting cold. The theater and all the city of Santa Rosa were adorned with Christmas lights. It was beautiful. People say that this is a time of joy and giving and all that fluff, but honestly I just liked the lights. I loved seeing how it looked like a bunch of fireflies sitting still on nearly every surface and floating through the air. We got into my car, and I cranked the heat up. He took out the Foreigner cassette tape from my center console and popped it in the tape player. “Waiting for a Girl Like You” came on, our favorite song. He reached for my hand.
“You’re not scared, are you?” I whispered in my best Dewy voice.
“Naw, I just like you.”
“I totally knew it was Billy. He made that so obvious.”
“Oh, yeah. Me too.”
“You did not! You totally whispered to me the whole time that you thought the father did it.”
“Okay, you got me. But you gotta admit that nobody could have guessed they would’ve cloned his phone. I mean come on, that’s totally cheating.”
“Billy’s cellphone also slipped out of his pocket right after he called Sidney under the guise of the killer. I mean come on, who even has a cellphone unless you’re like 40?”
“My dad has one, and he’s 39. But I get it, I’m a little dense. You’re the Forensic Files junkie. Us common folk, we don’t always pick up on the tiny details.”
Ryan began to sing along with the final chorus. In most instances, this would be incredibly annoying, but he sang so well I relished it. Ryan was just one of those people that could do anything he tried; singing, painting, track, theatre. He was always busy with some sort of endeavor, but made sure to make time to me.
* * * * * *
We went through all our normal motions that night of setting up a sleeping bag on the floor by my bed, and making it easy to access, just in case. I plugged the strands of lights in that I had recently strung up around the ceiling. We laid in bed together entangled in each other, rehashing some of the funny things we went through in the years before, and chucking as old memories came back to life. After minutes or hours passed, I turned on the TV, and clapped my hands together when I found a repeat of 90210 on. It was that U4EA episode where Emily Valentine slipped Brandon a drug mimicking the effects of ecstasy, and the rest of the gang were using an egg to get to a secret club.
“Oh, I love this one!” Ryan was just as much a teen soap opera geek as I was. “Brandon is so fucking cute.”
He used to joke that he dated me because I had the same name as him.
“For real. That hair and those eyebrows”
Ryan wrapped me up in his arms and I pressed my cheek to his, as his warmth nearly made me forget the show I was so engrossed in moments before. “He’s not nearly as cute as you, though,” he whispered. The texture of his whiskers against mine gave me chills. He kissed me on the cheek and I was just in the motion of turning to kiss him back when a scraping sound on my window made me jump.
“Did you just hear that?” I asked.
“What the fuck was that?”
I peeked over at my window and noticed there was a small area where my curtains were parted, just far enough that one could look through. I couldn’t remember if I had left my window open before because sometimes the heat did get a bit overwhelming, and I hoped that my eyes deceived me when I saw the slightest movement ease away.
“Shit, you see that?”
I hoped that Ryan had been looking, either to validate me or ease my worry.
Apparently he hadn’t.
“I swear I saw something out there, Ry.”
“Maybe it was a raccoon or something? We’re on the second floor, it’s not like someone could be peaking in.”
“If you stood on the roof in the right position you could.”
My house and surrounding area basically looked like Casey Becker’s, so the thought of someone prowling around outside, free to slip away into the darkness of surrounding fields at will, was quite unnerving. I got up from the bed and eased over to the window, shutting off the lights on my way over. Ryan got up too and stood close by me. The anticipation mounted as I inched closer, and I finally got up the courage and ripped the curtain open fully.
“No,” I said as I exhaled a breath I didn’t realize was stagnant within me. “I guess you were right, it was probably just a raccoon or something.”
“Good. That means you can come back to bed and keep me warm.”
I stuck my head out of the window, but couldn’t see anything outside. I breathed a sigh of relief as I closed the window and latched it. Ryan gently pulled on the belt loop of my jeans.
“Come on, tiger. No need to be squaring off with a raccoon now. He was probably just looking for some food for his family.”
“Yeah, Noodles is a good dad.”
“You named the raccoon?”
“Of course I did. He’s practically part of the family. Sometimes I give them apples. They appreciate it.”
Ryan laugh eased me. He sat back down on my bed and opened his arms, beckoning for me to come sit with him, and I did. I felt his breath on my neck as he stroked my hair. He was so warm. Before the show was over, our urge to sleep surpassed our will and we fell asleep.
* * * * * *
The smell of bacon woke me up. I relished in the moments of getting to sleep in, not having to wake up early and sleepily book it to school. Whoever decided that high school should start at 7:15 a.m. was a sadist. Ryan breathed in deeply and fluttered his eyes open.
“Hey, there. Sleep well?” he asked.
“The best. You?”
“I always sleep best next to you.”
He looked so fucking cute with his bed hair. The smell of bacon became stronger, and I knew that any second my mother would be coming in to offer me and, unbeknown to her, Ryan, breakfast.
“I hate to say this, but my mom is gonna come in here any second.”
He kissed me one more time, more slowly than the last, lingering for a second longer.
“I know the drill.”
He got off my bed and slid into the sleeping bag, and I pulled my covers over me. We just laid there in our separate spaces, looking at each other and smiling, until I heard the knock on my door. My mom opened the door and we both closed out eyes.
“Good morning, sunshine… Oh, hello Ryan. I didn’t know you spent the night.”
Ryan rolled over and yawned, feigning quite brilliantly that he’d just woken up from a deep sleep.
“Good morning. Yeah, we were out kinda late last night and closer to your house, so I suggested I just crash here. Brandon said it would be fine with you guys.”
“Oh of course it is. I just came in to tell Brandon that I made some eggs and bacon. Why don’t you both come and get yourself some while it’s still hot?”
She left the room and we got out of our clothes from the night before and I lent him a shirt and some pants. One great thing about dating another guy was being able to swap clothes. I smoothed his hair down before we headed out to get breakfast. After fixing out plates and sitting down, dad insisted on saying grace. It always irked me, but it was the only time I could ever hold Ryan’s hand in front of my parents, so in that sense, it was kind of nice.
After we finished, Ryan insisted on cleaning up and loading the dishwasher. He was good at making himself someone that my family always wanted around. That afternoon, I gave him a ride home so he could pick up some clothes and a toothbrush.
* * * * * *
On Christmas Eve, we drove to Blockbuster to each pick out one movie. I got “Home Alone” and he picked out “Halloween.” It was actually a tradition to rent Halloween movies this time of year, since that was actually our favorite holiday, and we both felt October came and went too quickly. As soon as we got home, I made some hot chocolate and a big bowl of popcorn. Ryan set the VCR up and turned the Christmas lights on in my room for me. I locked the door, and then we situated ourselves next to each other on my bed. Ryan pulled my arm up around his neck, and then eased his head up against my chest, and we watched Michael Myers up to his old shenanigans.
“Your parents really don’t mind me staying here through Christmas?”
“Of course not. You practically decorated the whole house yourself and have been doing all my chores since you got here. At this point, they would trade me in for you if they could.”
“I’ve always liked spending this time with you. We never got a Christmas tree, for obvious reasons, so it’s nice to get to experience all that. We’re all just born and forced into some religion by our parents, and then we carry on the tradition of what we’re told to believe. It’s kind of unfair when you really think about it.”
“Tell me about it. I would rather do anything else than go to church.”
“I hear you. Do you have any idea how much work goes into a Bar Mitzvah? When I was 12, I spent 10 months learning how to read the Torah.”
“Man, that’s rough. When I was 12, I spent 10 days memorizing Sharon Stone’s monologue from Basic Instinct so I could perform it for my cat.”
“Did she like it?”
“She meowed at me and walked away.”
“Sounds like a cat to me.”
We both laughed, and then simultaneously quieted ourselves as the good parts of the movie happened. After the film was over, I went out to make another round of hot chocolate, and found my parents’ door shut, which allowed me to relax a little. It was always a bit of a relief not to have to worry about them bargaining in on us and my life being completely ruined. When I got back to my room Ryan had already put the movie in, and fast-forwarded past the previews.
“You’re gonna make a really great husband someday,” I said.
“You proposing already?”
“Not yet. I want us to have that to look forward to for a few years. But one day, you’re gonna make a really great husband.”
“You will too. I sure don’t mind all the hot chocolate. And if you can cook breakfast like your mom, I certainly wouldn’t mind that either.”
* * * * * *
It was the first Christmas morning that Ryan and I had spent together. He wore his Santa hat and helped pass out presents from under the tree. It was nice to imagine what it would be like to spend the holidays together in the future, just the two of us. Whatever holiday it was that we, in fact, decided to celebrate, that is. We always joked about our first “Chrismakkah” together. The best gift my parents got me was a 35-millimeter Minolta SLR and some rolls of color and black and white film. My dad used to shoot when he was younger, and I played with his camera a few times, and always expressed an interest in photography. I instantly loaded the film into it and made sure the first picture I took was one of Ryan. My parents got Ryan a really nice black leather jacket. I was actually kind of jealous, but the second he put it on, I didn’t want him to take it off. I got a CD player too, which I was pretty amped over, and Portishead’s Dummy album.
When the gift-giving was over, I took Ryan back to my room and set my new boom box up. I popped in my new CD and we took turns taking pictures of each other. Ryan surprised me with a gift, a silver necklace, which was quite hilarious because I had gotten him nearly the same one. It was the best Christmas I had ever had, bar none. I already had everything I ever wanted, but having a few new gadgets to play around with was pretty nice. We spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon watching holiday films on TV and snacking on some chocolates I smuggled in from the kitchen.
* * * * * *
When the aroma of the cooking turkey had thoroughly filled the house and wafted into my room, I could tell that it was about time to eat. Ryan put a crisp white button-down shirt on and a green silk tie. I did the same, only with a red tie. Holiday dinners at my house were pretty serious. Again, like clockwork, my mom came up to fetch us to come and eat. We skipped down the stairs and headed to the kitchen and marveled at the feast in front of us. There in the kitchen, laden with lights and garland, was a perfectly cooked turkey, half of which was carved onto a serving dish. It was surrounded by stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, green bean casserole, and steamed asparagus. The table was beautifully set with a cotton sateen red tablecloth with checkered green and light green placemats. Simple white dinner plates with floral-embossed rims sat perfectly in the center of each placemat. It was truly exceptional.
“Wow, Mrs. S. You’ve really outdone yourself.”
“Ryan, for the last time, if you call me Mrs. S. again, I’m going to carve you right up with this turkey,” my mother laughed.
“Mom, this looks spectacular. Thank you so much.”
“Come on, boys, help yourselves,” my father instructed.
I let Ryan go first and followed close behind him, and soon we all had plates filled with food, and all of us save for my father were at the table. Dad walked in with two champagne flutes filled with Asti wine.
“Now, Ryan,” he began, “if you promise that your parents will be none the wiser, you and Brandon can have a glass of champagne with dinner.”
“That won’t be a problem, Doug.”
“Attaboy,” my father exclaimed as he set a glass down before Ryan and me.
After dad saying grace, we all dug in. The food was so good, and the champagne was excellent.
Before I had cleared my plate, I started to feel a bit tired. I figured since I’d never had Asti wine, that maybe it was a bit more sleep-inducing. Both Ryan and I had finished our drinks, and I was just about to say something to him when I heard a crash on the table. I turned to see Ryan’s face motionless on his plate.
“Oh my god, Ry—”
I began to stand, but my legs immediately gave out from beneath me, and I slipped back down to my chair.
“Don’t fight it, honey. You’ll be out soon,” my mother said warmly.
“Mom? Dad, what did you do?”
I looked back at my empty glass and noticed the tiniest bit of powder beneath the last remnants of the drink. My eyelids became too heavy to bear, and I passed out.
* * * * * *
I woke from my unwilling slumber to the sound of muddled voices becoming ever clear. I couldn’t understand what was going on. My tie was off and wrapped around my wrists, securing them behind my back to the chair. I turned to see Ryan’s eyes wide with fear. He was also bound, eyes fixed on my parents on the other side of me.
“Oh, honey, you’re awake,” my mother said, feigning warmth. “I was worried your father may have given you too much.”
“Mom? Why are you doing this? What’s—”
“Quiet,” my father ordered.
He walked around to my spot at the table, which was now barren of any remnants of dinnerware, and set a small wrapped present down in front of me.
“Oh, Doug, honey, I don’t think he can open that himself. His hands are tied.”
My mother laughed at her ridiculously stupid humor, then came over to unwrap my “gift.” I stared down at it, as a framed picture slowly came into view. I couldn’t wrap my head around what it was at first, but slowly, the picture came into focus. It was a photograph of my room, taken from the perspective of my bedroom window. And there in the center, was Ryan kissing me from the other night. The night when we heard something at my window. Millions of needles pierced every inch of my skin.
“Oh my God,” was all I could get out.
“Oh, sweetheart, He’s not going to save you now,” my mother responded.
“Mom, Dad, please just let us go. Please. Please don’t do this, we can work this out. I won’t tell anyone, this can just be a big joke. Please, oh God, please, we can just—”
My father made his way over to me and backhanded me hard across the face. My tooth cut the inside of my cheek and blood dribbled down my mouth.
“Stop it!” Ryan shouted.
“It speaks,” my father muttered, as he slowly closed the distance between Ryan and him.
I could tell he was too terrified to utter a sound until that moment. The hardest part of any of this was being so close to someone I loved so much, and being completely powerless to help. A flurry of thoughts and emotions ran through my mind. Why did I have to have him over? Could I have known this would happen? This was all my fault. Then my thoughts were transmuted to the last time he kissed me, just before dinner. The last time he held me. The sweet smell of his cologne and clean laundry whenever I was near him. I had never felt any sense of fear like this before in my life, and now it was instilled by the people who called themselves my parents. I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. My skin was burning, and trickles of sweat dripped down my face. My father now stood behind Ryan, who kept his eyes fixed on me. I mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to him and he just mouthed back, “I love you.” Dad put his hands on Ryan’s shoulders.
“Now boys, we can’t allow the evil-spirited things going on between you two to continue to take place. Not in my house. Not on this earth. I am not going to have you bring shame upon this family. If this were the ‘50s, you would be lobotomized. Both of you. And if there were any sense of morale left in this country, you still would be today. So here we are.”
Ryan was crying now. Droplets of water poured from his eyes and streamed down his face. I wished at that point that I was dead. That I was gone, or never even existed. The amount of despair I felt within my entire being was exquisite and overtook me. My heart broke inside of me at that instant, and then I saw my father produce a serrated steak knife.
“No! No! Get away from him! No!”
I shook in violently in my chair as my desperate screams went unanswered. In that instant, time ceased. That moment went on forever and happened all at once. Ryan became aware of what was going to happen, and said, “I love you,” one last time.
“I love you too,” I sobbed.
My father placed his palm across Ryan’s forehead and pulled his head back to gain easier access to his throat, then my dad drove his knife across Ryan’s neck from ear to eat. Blood sputtered out from the gaping wound, and soaked his shirt with thick, crimson red. He gurgled and struggled to breathe as his heart, which I once felt beating beneath my palm when I’d hold him, slowly began to cease to work.
“No!” I cried. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Oh God, I’m so sorry.”
I must’ve said it a million times in those moments. Ryan’s head slowly sunk forward as he continued to struggle and slowly perished. My father crudely wiped each side of the blade off on the back of Ryan’s shirt. Ryan was still gently jerking his body. I couldn’t see my mother, but she did the same thing that she always did when my father went off the deep end; absolutely nothing.
“Fuck you both. Fuck you both for doing this. You were never my parents. You’re empty, heartless fucking people. Nothing you can say or do to me can change the fact that I loved somebody and he loved me. People like you can never feel that.”
My father sauntered over to me, clearly pleased with himself.
“You finished?” he inquired.
“Fuck you. Fuck you,” was all I could continue to say.
“Now, son, I’m sure you’re aware of the saying, ‘This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.’ Well, that’s certainly not the case here.”
He stepped behind me and afforded me the same torture he gave the love of my life moments before. I could feel the skin on my throat separate from the pressure of the blade as he pushed it slowly across my throat. I felt hot, oily blood flood from my neck and down my shirt. White-hot searing pain emanated from my wound and spread everywhere until I was completely enveloped in it. As I felt my consciousness slowly slipping away, somehow the pain began to lessen, and I had one final thought: If I was wrong about my lack of belief in anything and there was some kind of existence after death, then at least I would see Ryan again.
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