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Christmas Lights

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Kylie Morgan peered up at the attic door outlined in the popcorn ceiling. Cracked cream molding separated the off-white plank that hid a long, spindly staircase underneath. How was it that all those stairs fit so neatly on the plank, she once wondered? Her daddy had grabbed hold of the string to pull down the door and suddenly the staircase appeared, ready for him to climb. Blue eyes twinkling, he would grin at her and clamber up the stairs like a leopard scaling an ebony tree. Kylie remembered being too small to even reach the string to pull down the door and she would wait impatiently for her daddy to come back from the dark space above. She had never gone up into the attic while he was able and well.

Her mother would make lists of things for him to take up and bring back down when the seasons changed. Spring sent sizes too small winter coats, boots, and long johns up in plastic bins in exchange for swimwear, blue and green lounge chairs to put around the pool, and electric fans to cool down the large, stuffy rooms downstairs. Winter chased down sleds, extra hats and scarves, and Christmas decorations. Young Kylie jumped for joy when she saw her daddy carefully treading down the staircase with enormous brown boxes, all marked, FRAGILE: Christmas Lights. He would shoo her off the bottom step and gently line the boxes along the long hallway. Throwing open bent flaps of the boxes, she would marvel at the twisted jumble of green wires and multi-colored mini light bulbs nearly spilling over the rim of the box. After all the boxes had been brought down, she became a traffic controller, directing her daddy as he heaved the boxes to the garage from the upstairs, shouting, “watch out for the stairs!” and “careful, there’s a corner coming.”

Her mother would watch with an amused expression as Kylie walked backwards through their kitchen, waving the box-laden decorator to the garage door and down the steps.

“Are you really going to put up all those lights, Kyle?” her mother always asked. From behind the boxes, Daddy would wink at Kylie and yell back, “Of course! It wouldn’t be Christmas without our lights.”

Kylie, upon making sure her daddy made it down the garage stairs, would dash to the mudroom and throw on her winter coat and boots, eager to help unravel the lights from the boxes. Her mother would insist upon making sure Kylie had her warm wool hat pulled down over her ears and mittens snug around her hands.

“It’s really cold outside. I just don’t want you to come back inside as a popsicle,” she used to say as she helped her daughter tie the stiff laces on her boots. Those boots had been a vibrant neon pink when her daddy had brought them home last winter. His deep, rumbling laughter echoed all around the house as she gleefully ran into every room she could access with the boots clutched in her tiny hands. They gradually obtained mud and water stains, weathering until the fabric faded to a dull salmon color. But she loved those boots more than anything and refused to let her mother buy her another pair.

Her daddy would be digging into the boxes when she made it into the garage, strands of glittering Christmas lights wound around his broad forearms. With his red plaid flannel shirt, worn jeans, and big black boots, he reminded young Kylie of a lumberjack. He even had the bushy brown beard and thick curly hair to complete the appearance.

“You’re just in time!” he would say before handing her a twisted string of lights to unwind. Then he became the traffic controller, telling her to back straight up, stretching out the green strand as far as it would go. Stiff coils would magically pop lose and the string would be balanced again. Mini light bulbs caught in the path of the sun’s rays, sparkled like the shiny icicles hanging from the garage roof. Kylie’s boots crunched through fresh snow, sometimes powdery, sometimes hard and mixed with ice as she grasped the light strands with her scarlet mittens.

Once her daddy had checked the strand for any loose bulbs or busted circuits, he would lead her to the round, stumpy bushes by the driveway and start winding the strand around the first bush.

“Always remember to hide the cord the best you can,” he told her, carefully tucking the little colored bulbs in between the strategic holes in the jade green bush. Kylie liked to look for the magenta and orange bulbs while he strung the lights through the bushes, as their glass globes shone the brightest in the sun. Daddy would send her back to the garage for another string of lights when the first one ran out. They would repeat this process until all the boxes were bare and everywhere she looked, the bushes, the sapling pine trees, and even the railings leading to the front door bore tightly wound strands of glistening Christmas lights. That first night after they had put up all the lights always took Kylie’s breath away. She would stand by her daddy’s side and stare at all the glowing bulbs, creating a sea of color in the blackness of the cold winter night. The reds, blues, greens, oranges, purples, and pinks seemed to be their own manmade stars, glittering in the dark yard as though it was the nighttime sky.

“Well, they look good, if I do say so myself,” Daddy said, putting an arm around Kylie. He would smell of pine, freshly cut logs, and chimney smoke as she leaned into his side. Even in the darkness, she could still see his titanium blue irises dancing with excitement. He was always warm; wrapping his big arm around her was like draping a downy blanket over her icy shoulders. She would try not to let her teeth chatter from the cold, as he would make her go inside to get warm. Kylie never wanted to go in. She wanted to be standing at her daddy’s side, just looking at their Christmas lights illuminating up their lawn, and wishing she could rewind the day to remember each thing Daddy had said.

Putting up the Christmas lights had been Kylie’s favorite holiday tradition, the one whole day event that she looked forward to, even more so than ripping into the pile of presents under their big tree on Christmas Day. Over the years, more and more neighbors would pause to compliment Kyle on the decor and admire his patience for stringing so many lights throughout the yard. He would smile, then pat Kylie on the shoulder and remind their neighbors that he had a little helper to assist him with the decorating. The neighbors would smile and proclaim that Kylie was his mini-me and that she must be just as patient and creative as her daddy. She felt proud to stand next to her tall, broad-shouldered father as he told stories of past adventures putting up Christmas lights.

They had put up the lights together for fourteen consecutive years, taking an entire weekend in early December to string the bushes and trees in the Morgan’s yard. Some years it rained; other years, snow swirled in chaotic ribbons around their heads as they tucked the fragile strands in rigid bushes. When the sun would disappear from the horizon and Kylie and her father were still finishing the last few bushes, she would fight the chilly air and the numbness that settled over her toes and fingers to keep stringing lights until she was certain that her decorated bush would garner Kyle’s approval. He would smile and pull her into a bear hug, even when she’d grown tall enough to nearly bump his chin.

“I love putting up the Christmas lights,” he said. “My father and I put them out, and now I get to put them out with you.”







**

Staring up at the attic door that had not been opened in over two years, Kylie swallowed hard and tried to chase away those memories of her father. She fought back the tears, thinking of the boxes of Christmas lights that sat up in the darkness, untouched but certainly not forgotten. Each year that brought Kylie closer to her twenties brought joint stiffness and pain to her father. He began to grunt when he climbed the stairs and his gait took on a painful hobble as he struggled to carry the boxes to the garage. The below freezing evenings made his sufferings even worse: his hands shook as he strung the light strands and soon his entire body tremored whenever he stood for any length of time. His voice developed a rasp that scratched away all his laughter. His strong bulky form waned as if he was a fragile ice cube melting away, and he was no more the towering giant that Kylie knew from childhood.

Her mother gradually began coaxing Kyle away from hanging up all of their Christmas lights, insisting that he was too stricken to do the work he once had. Those few years had been the worst. Kylie saw her father sink into a vat of depression that his illness only accentuated. He would try to get Kylie to bring down all the boxes and hobble around the yard as she strung the lights via his instructions. But he would blow up in anger when a bush looked too lopsided or a connection was faulty somewhere, and though Kylie tried, she couldn’t do her father’s decorating how he wanted it. He was the master, and when he could not hold a string of lights anymore, he gave up.

Last year, the Morgan’s yard was dark during Christmastime. Kylie couldn’t bring herself to bring down the boxes of lights, knowing that she would have to walk by her father’s makeshift bedroom in what had been their living room. She would have to walk by his rollaway hospital bed that he was involuntarily confined to. His pale face would flush with anger and melancholy that he couldn’t take part in his favorite activity. Kylie and her mother had done their best to make his makeshift room cheery and Christmassy. They had put their tree near his bed and strung ornaments, ribbons, and streamers from the tree to his bed. Kylie watched as her mother helped Kyle open his gifts on Christmas morning, feigning surprise and delight over the sweaters she had gotten him, the spy novels Kylie had found at a used bookstore, and an assortment of wool-woven accessories that Kylie’s grandmother had sent. Her father feigned nothing. His blue eyes were listless, and there was never a hint of a smile upon his cracked lips. Kylie and her mother had a silent Christmas dinner, hardly touching their food or attempting to make conversation that would always just end up on the subject of the missing person at the table. That winter it was gray, bleak, and bone-chilling cold. Kyle wasted away during those long months, and though the initial burst of spring in early April brought life back into his eyes, it vanished within a few weeks time.

Kylie had been preparing for the end most of the summer, knowing that one morning when she went to say hello to her father he would not respond. Preparing herself to see her father’s casket lowered into the ground, knowing that no matter how hard she wished, she could not rewind time and get him back. She prepared herself through the fall and then December came, bringing cold winds rattling the windows on the house and a stubborn desolation that refused to leave no matter how many Christmas decorations Kylie’s mother hung throughout the house. Confetti, streamers, ribbons, cutout ornaments, cards, nativity scenes, and china doll choir singers seemed to overtake every square foot of space that was not already occupied by photographs, books, and other knickknacks.

The Christmas tree was back in the living room/bedroom with all its glass balls and antique ornaments glittering against the dark blue walls. Streamers and decorations were everywhere, but somehow her mother had made them look proper and organized. Fake snow had settled on top of tabletops as though a true blizzard had blown through the room. Presents bedecked with satin ribbons, sparkly bows, and red and green wrapping paper were piled around Kyle’s hospital bed. There had been a time when just looking at all the fancy wrapped boxes made Kylie impatient for Christmas morning to come. She wasn’t even tempted by them now.

Kylie paused by the stairs to the second floor and glanced over at her father’s still, silent form in the bed. Thick blankets were pulled up to his chest and his knarrled, spindly hands lay folded on top of the fleecy fabric. His face was blank and weathered beyond his years; pale lips emitted raspy breaths, their very sound surely symbolic of the battle Kyle was waging and losing against his own body. Kylie was tearfully relieved that she couldn’t see his languid blue eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. Bruised eyelids concealed that flat stare for now.

Kylie ran up the stairs, trying not to think of her father just lying in that hospital bed, a prisoner of the disease that was cruelly draining him of his last drops of willpower. She kept moving until she stood directly below the attic door, the string pulley tickling the side of her cheek as she stared up at the dark ceiling.

Its my job now, she thought. With a determined yank, she pulled down the stairs and looked up into the dark attic. The wooden stairs seemed more rickety and looming than they had before. Was she honestly more scared to climb up now than when she was six years old?

She grabbed hold of the railing and gingerly hoisted herself up onto the first step, feeling the wooden plank sway with her weight. Get a grip, the stairs aren’t going to buckle, a determined voice chided, as her knuckles strained against the railing. Kylie took one last look at the carpeted floor and then sucked in her breath as she began the ascent up the stairs. Don’t think, just climb, she told herself putting one foot on a plank and then pulling herself up to the next. The cold metal railing dug into her palm as she kept sliding her hands across it. The dark space above her inched closer and closer until she found herself immersed in the dank, dusty air and almost impenetrable blackness of the attic.

Squinting through the dimness, she spied her prize, the crumbly brown boxes stacked up against some low-hanging rafters. Faint, black lettering read, FRAGILE: Christmas Lights. Dodging the bits of fuzzy pink insulation and scattered screws, Kylie just barely remembered to duck before she bent to grab the first box. The others seemed to beg her to take them too. And for a minute, she bit her lip and wondered if she should. Her project would only require one box, but why leave the others to sit alone and mold. Her father always said that there was no such thing as too many Christmas lights. In fact, he always said that if you only put out a few, your yard looked half done because there were dark holes where the bushes that lacked lights stood in contrast to the ones that glowed red, green, blue, purple, pink, and orange. Kyle Morgan never left any job half done. But Kylie, his blue-eyed, brown-haired double, was not the handyman he was.

With just one box tucked carefully under her arm, Kylie took one more sweep around the attic. She saw the plastic crates that held all the clothes she had outgrown, a metallic safe that she’d never known her parents had, their sleds and snow shovels, and all of her father’s old hobbies stacked neatly in the opposite side of the door opening. His tools, modeling kits, puzzle boxes; Kylie remembered him famously chucking a box and several puzzle pieces across the den when his quivering fingers refused to grip the tiny puzzle pieces. He loved to work on puzzles, trying to fit all the tight corners together while figuring out why the picture wasn’t looking like the one on the box. Putting puzzles together was like putting up Christmas lights, he said. You have one idea of how they should look, but often you end up with a completely different image when everything is said and done.

Unfazed by the skinny staircase this time, Kylie bolted down the steps until she reached the worn cream-colored carpet. She didn’t even bother to close up the attic door. The ladder wasn’t going anywhere; there would be time to close it later.

The second-floor staircase could have been an escalator as fast as Kylie descended down each step still balancing the box of Christmas lights under her arm. She could hear some of the light bulbs jingling and mashing against each other as the box bounced with her gait, but like any good decorator, she knew there were extra bulbs at the bottom of the box for just such occasions. Skidding to a halt, just as she reached the bottom of the stairs, the converted bedroom spun for a moment before the blue walls stopped swimming and the Christmas tree reverted back to a solid, unmoving creature. Kylie’s father had not moved during her trip to the attic. He was slumped in the bed, eyes closed, hands stationary on the bed covers, and only his faint wheezy breathing gave any indication that he was still clinging to life.

Kylie knelt beside the bed, cringing as scents of shabby sheets and blankets and wasting flesh invaded her nose. She gently set the box down and reached inside to grab a strand of lights. Cold light bulbs and knotted wire made her gasp as her fingers closed tightly around a strand, but she tried to make no other movement or sound once she had the string of lights safely on her lap.

With her free hand, she reached for her father. Had he sunken further into the sheets, she wondered, horrified that she might be too late. His gray skin was icy and bumpy, as though his veins had joined to form a mass system of roots beneath his arms. Spindly fingers lacked the muscle and calluses of all those years of hard work in the yard and in the woodshop. The memories of her father with a hammer or a wrench seemed strangely hazy. When was the last time she’d seen him working?

The thick black head of curls that Kylie’s mother had nicknamed Kyle’s mop had thinned into limp gray strands, streaked flat against his scalp. There were no more splashes of pink on his cheeks or dimples by his mouth: they had hollowed out and taken on a sickly pallor. Should his eyes open, Kylie was certain she would recoil at the lifelessness reflected back at her from those cold irises.

Leaning as close to his ear as she could, Kylie carefully pressed the string of Christmas lights into his unclenched hand, and whispered, “Merry Christmas Daddy. I got down the lights just for you.”

Choking back a sob, she tried to release her hand from the lights she had pressed into her father’s hand, but she found it covered and wrapped around the lights even tighter. A bigger hand was enclosed over hers, pulsating strength that seemed strange and miraculous at the same time. Kylie’s gaze shot up to her father’s face and she was stunned to see him looking at her. A smile had cracked the frozen, flat line on his lips and inert blue eyes had suddenly regained a fairytale twinkle. Kylie felt her throat close and tears began slipping down her cheeks as she clutched her father’s hand around the Christmas lights. Kyle’s lips wavered and then opened, and in a waspy, but steadfast voice he said, “You remembered.”




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