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The shadowed streets were never as forlorn as during Christmas Eve, when blankets of snow piled up ankle high on the grass and the heavy winds ripped apart the surrounding air. Three blocks away the distant christmas lights glowed through the screens of falling snow. Faint music reached my ears from the echoes on the empty streets.
The big shopping plaza three blocks away were packed with people, probably laughing and taking pictures of themselves and singing Christmas jingles while shopping under the huge glowing billboards of Christmas promotions. The alleys that I was sitting in right now — those distant, dangerous, un-festive alleys made for people like me — were almost completely abandoned. After all, when given a choice, who would want to visit such a miserable site in such a festive holiday.
I couldn’t help but reminisce the times when I used to be able to fit among one of those people, the good old times before the army when life seemed so much more peaceful. How could we still pretend to be normal now? How could we find a job like a normal college graduate and struggle through everyday trying to push history to the back of the brain only to have them all crashing down every night? I know that I am one of the wasted remains of society, surviving off post-army pension and scrimping just enough to buy liquor and cigarettes. At least they make me forget.
Two searchlights glared right into my face when a car raced past this alley like a bullet, carrying the happy children inside towards the plaza and leaving behind nothing, nothing but a wall of dense smoke resembling those of artillery fires. I crouched with an unnecessary vigilance, my redundant instincts compelling my muscles to tense up and my adrenaline to pump.
The government could let you leave the war after a few years of service, but the therapists could never let the war leave you.
Back in the front, we celebrated christmas together. Our officer got us a tree in the base and actually managed to get a lot of decorations and lights to put on the tree. The dining hall was completely lit up. They had “food service specialists” to prepare big Christmas feasts for us, and afterwards we got to sit around the tables and crack jokes and told stories and drank and ate. Loud music played in the background, and some soldiers brought out guitars and knocked on tables as drums. Some began dancing in the center. Although everybody was wearing the same uniforms as a soldier, behind them were distinct people — dancers, singers, artists…
Josh, Stephen, Kristin, Hazel, and I, we were so close back then. Somehow we managed to stay happy under the stress of frontline. Perhaps back then, we expected life to be short, so we just enjoyed every moment we can. But now, life seemed endlessly long, and all that was reserved for me was despair.
We put the Santa Clause hat on Stephen’s chubby head and forced him to wear the Santa beard. Then Stephen began mimicking Santa as we all swallowed down beer mugs after mugs, laughing hilariously as our shaking hands took tens and hundreds of blurry selfies. We sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in our drunk, off-tone voices under the flashing colors of the christmas lights. It was as if we were living a normal college life.
Except that a college life wouldn’t entail deaths. Stephen died a few weeks later in a crossfire with the enemy. A stray bullet hit him on the side of his neck. When we pulled open his vest and suit to get his medical gauze, something fell out. It was his Santa hat made even more crimson when drenched in his blood.
A few months later, Kristin died. Her car was blown up by a rocket from a stray soldier’s RPG. Then a few weeks after, Hazel died after getting shot in the stomach multiple times.
“Hey Roy, look what I’ve got!” This was Josh’s voice breaking my thoughts. He was always so cheerful. He walked through the alley path unbalanced, the beer bottles in his hands shaking and rattling against each other and almost falling onto the ground a few times. He got his cripple that time he was trying to save me and got shot on the shin.
There was another man walking towards us. I squinted my eyes against the freezing winds and took a finer look. It was Homer. He was a guitarist with an extremely nice voice, and he lived in our neighborhood. Had he been playing in the plaza tonight, he would surely get his guitar bag filled with coins, but maybe he would rather stay with his friends tonight. After all, it was Christmas Eve.
“Hello, y’all!” He shouted. He fumbled around in the dark for a moment, and suddenly the space next to him was lighted up by a strand of brightening and dimming yellow. The christmas light illuminated the dark alleys, and its yellow luminescence warmed the cold night and our cold hearts. All three of us had our eyes fixed upon the christmas lights. I swore that we could have spent the whole night like that, just immersing ourselves into the atmosphere. It was all so calm, all so bright. It was as if every worry in life will just fade away.
Josh and I both unconsciously walked closer to Homer and sat down. Josh passed us a beer.
“Guys, we made it through one more year, the next year will be easier for us,” Josh gave the toast.
The beer entered my system, but this time, it wasn’t for numbing me, but rather, it was a pure sign of gratitude, of celebration, and of happiness. I looked around. The glowing christmas lights shined behind us, the flashing beams of the plaza spotlights shined in the near front. The three of us just stared at the plaza, stared beyond the plaza, into the above glittering stars and white moon. It was a frozen movie of time — although we were dotted with different weights in our hearts, we still felt so much more calm knowing that we still have each other despite whatever turbulences we might face in the coming days.
“Ten, nine, eight…” The sound of the countdown from the plaza reached our ears and echoed within our head, taking a final rest in what will soon be memory.
Seven, Six, five.
Homer took out his precious guitar, the same guitar that he had been using since his childhood, with the old scratch marks and fading colors but freshly strung and tuned. He strummed a chord lightly.
The guitar sent off a gentle vibration in the air, passing down the alley streets and bouncing softly against the walls.
The music and the light made such a tranquil image. The alley no longer resembled the poor abandoned neighborhood. It was more like… a shelter of peace.
The song “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” was playing in the plaza. Everybody was singing along. I turned my head slightly. Both Homer and Josh were mesmerized. What more could I ask for when I have my two dearest friends in my company and fate is guaranteeing that they will just stay as healthy and alive as today for all the days to come.
Like a ritual, Homer slowly took a deep breath. His hand plucked the guitar strings with the will of a thousand stories concealed in his tender motion. A firm, powerful, yet smooth baritone voice permeated circled the air around us.
We wish you a merry Christmas.
Josh and I raised our bottles and made a quiet toast at Homer. Nobody wished to to break the beautiful melody. We quietly hummed along. Had Homer’s voice been a great ship sailing through the waves of life, we would be the passengers, and by becoming part of the melody, we felt as if we could allow our souls to reside temporarily, to take a respite knowing that there is something bigger than us that will shield us from the coming uncertainty.
We wish you a merry Christmas.
We wish you a merry Christmas.
And a happy new year.
Among the myriad of glow from the Christmas light and the moonshine, I could see, for a moment, a watered reflection in Josh’s eyes. He quickly blinked and smiled. It was a genuine smile, like one of a child.
The three of us sat side by side. The plaza lights behind us, the Christmas lights around us, and the starlight in front of us.
“Roy, I have decided. Once working day starts, I’ll go apply for the jobs again,” Josh broke out earnestly. “I will find a way to make a living.”
I stared into the constellation of stars, “Yes, Josh. We will make it through. I know we will.”