Solomon hesitated as he reached the door. He didn't want to go in. Not now, not when Mom would have prettied up the room, trying to achieve holiday cheer, desperate to pretend things were normal, that there wasn't another empty chair at the table. He was about ready to just turn around, to take his gifts back to the car and leave, go to a bar, and drink soda after soda, until he got on too much of a high and had to head out in his car, driving till the carbohydrate high was out of his system.
And then show up next morning, tell Mom, sorry, I couldn't make it. And face the disappointment in her eyes once and for all. To for once not have her be strong, and firm, and still standing.
Because that was the worst of it, that she refused to show she was just as hurt as he was; the pretense that everything was fine with her. That Nile... that Nile being gone hadn't broken her, like it had him.
He was about to lower his arm, to turn around, as the door opened, and Mom was standing there, reading his mind, as she had always done. She didn't say anything, he didn't expect her to, just opened the door and let him in. Smiling as he put his gifts under the Christmas tree.
Margery and Jonas, the next door neighbors were already sitting at the table, Margery helping her husband with his soup. They were both in their eighties and still married. Their children and grandchildren couldn't make it this year. Not with the virus, and as usual, Mom hadn't wanted them to be on their own. Solomon knew he'd be expected to help them out with Skype later on. He wouldn't say no.
The two white boys sitting at the corner were new. College students, who'd rented a room across the street, unable to go back home to their parents. Studying wasn't cheap.
And then there were the Williams kids, Suzie would be late, as always, working hard to keep a roof over her children's heads. Queenie was making sure Jamal and Donnie were helping out Mom, and being good guests. But Sol could see the energy burning behind their eyes.
He took of his coat and took them off their sister's hands, and out of Mom's way, getting them playing on his and Nile's old X-box, cheering them on until Mom said food was done.
And all that time he didn't look at the fireplace even once.
Not at the picture of Dad in his dress blues, with the black ribbon. And definitely not at the picture of Nile. God, Nile. He didn't want to think of how she should be here. How she'd complain about helping Mom with cooking, while Sol got to sit on his ass and do nothing. But would then chide him and order him back to the living room if he even considered trying to take over for her.
They all knew he could make water burn without even trying.
Nile's chair stayed empty at the table, just as Dad's had for years. The plating was set, Nile's favorite glass right above the plate. They didn't use fancy glassware, not even during Christmas, just used whatever Mom had in her closets.
The room was full of people, full of life. But to Sol, it felt empty, and he hated it. He hated it, he wanted to yell and scream at Mom, and he couldn't bring himself to do it. Mom came up to him, and put her hand on his shoulder. He didn't want to lean into it, but he couldn't help himself.
When the night was over, he let Mom send him to his old room, and he stared at the ceiling, at the stars Nile had drawn there for him. That's when he cried. At fucking silver stars that didn't look quite right, because a thirteen year old had barely managed to stay up on the ladder right to stick them there for him. But his sister had put them there, so to him, they'd been perfect.
He didn't think of the gifts under the tree, not of the ones for him, and not of the one with Nile's name on them, that would never be opened. That would go in the cupboard, along with Dad's. Tears fell down his face.
When he got the news of the internship earlier that week, he'd almost automatically called his sister's number. But of course, she didn't respond. He knew her phone had gone missing, stolen, some asshole taking one last bit of Nile away with them, as if they hadn’t lost enough already. Sol didn't even know why he'd paid the bill for it. Mostly just so he could call her phone, and talk into the answering device, and tell his big sister about his day, his week.
Having it cut off right away, with her voice telling him to leave a message, felt almost... like part of her was still there.
He rang the number.
"Merry Christmas River girl. I miss you."
It would never be enough.
Booker sat alone, staring at a picture of his family, already down one bottle. He wanted to knock himself out, to keep from dreaming. He didn’t even deserve to drown tonight, not after what he’d done.
The neighbors were knocking on the walls again, screaming at each other in quick French, shouting at one another over ruining Christmas.
He more fell down on the couch, than sat on it. The thing was covered in stains; vomit, booze, it didn’t matter. He lay his head down, and was in the water mere seconds later. Screaming again.
“I’m sorry, Quynh.” He whispered at her in his dreams, wishing he had better images to give her than his own misery, as if her own wasn’t bad enough as it were.
She reached out to him, her mind showing him a fish, swimming in front of her, a light in the dark, right before she died.
A few more bubbles and gone.
He woke up with a hangover. He drank a few more shots to get over it.
It was almost insulting how full of Christmas cheer the streets were even now. People huddled in warm winter coats, desperate keeping distance as they did their final Christmas shopping. The streets should be packed, but they weren’t.
It felt almost fitting.
He saw a store selling baklava, he wondered if Andy would recognize it. It had been only four months, ninety-nine years and eight more months to go. The reality of it all was too heavy to consider. He needed something to drink.
He hated Christmas, hated the false cheer that only made it clear just how alone he really was.
By the time he ended up in church, it was almost midnight, the priest and parishioners were long gone. It had been far too easy to pick the locks.
He sat in the confession booth, screaming at a deaf God, begging him why. Why him? Why couldn’t he die? Why God, why?
He finally woke up when the cleaning woman screamed as she found him in the morning. He just shoved her some money to keep her silence and left.
He hated Christmas. He’d loved it when his children were young, but then, they were long gone, and what use was any of it now? Not like it would last, as if anyone would remember days like these in a century, two, three…
He missed Nicky’s food, he missed Joe’s bawdy poems, he missed sharing a bottle with Andy.
He dreamed of Quynh. She was reaching for the light.
He’d never dreamt that before.