This is one of the first short stories I sold way back in 2010. I was very proud of it at the time because I love Tasmaniac Publications and I had words alongside some awesome writers like Tom Piccirilli, Paul Kane, Tim Curran, and Kealan Patrick Burke. Good company to be in. Merry Christmas!
A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky
Ben hid behind his bedroom door, peering through the crack, studying the hallway. Any minute now his mother would step from her room, her shoulders slumped beneath the weight of the bags she would carry. He loved the Christmas presents his parents bought him. Most of the kids in Junior High didn’t hide their jealousy—because his dad flew for American Airlines and raked in the dough and spent it on Ben in effort to make up for his absence, while their fathers were home but bought them little because they worked as auto mechanics, and construction workers, and some of them not at all.
They thought it meant his dad loved him more, buying him everything from new games for his Playstation 3, to the go-cart he’d gotten last year, hidden beneath all of the other presents. But he’d trade them, all of the gifts, for one Christmas morning with his father.
His mother opened her bedroom door and walked out in her pajamas, struggling with the fabric bags full of presents as they banged the walls and tripped her up. She cursed softly. In the dim light spilling from her bedroom, her eyes looked shiny, as if she’d been crying. Ben didn’t think anyone should have to cry on Christmas Eve. He wanted to open the door and run to her and take one of the bags so that she didn’t have to carry them both, but he couldn’t because she’d put him in bed three hours ago and he was supposed to be sleeping.
Wind battered the windows, and snow swirled, brushing and falling away from the panes. Restless, wanting it all to be over, be the 26th when his father would come home, he walked across the room to the glass and tried to peer through the white haze, praying, wishing, Please God. Bring my dad back. Cancel the flight. Bring him down from the sky so Mom won’t have to cry anymore and he can see me open all the things he bought me.
The storm built. It was a bad night for anyone to be out, and he thought his dad had to be pretty brave to fly in stuff like that. A little pride swelled in his chest, even though he missed him, and told himself that he hated his dad for putting other people’s needs before their own. His mom always joked that he did it for the young girls who helped the passengers, but Ben thought she was probably just jealous that she didn’t have an exciting job too.
He shifted his feet. Slowly, a noise filled his ears. He concentrated, focusing with all his might until he realized what it was—a bell ringing dully in the empty sky—and it was getting louder. He swallowed and his forehead stitched up so tight it hurt. The wind threw snow against the glass in an angry rush, as if God were sick of people always asking things of Him. A bell rang again and the wind stilled but the snow fell faster, heavier, coating everything. The ringing faded. Ben’s heart hammered and his ribcage hurt. Across the house, his mother dropped the bags and cried out.
He thought, Dad? And ran to the door and down the hall, unable to wipe the smile from his face, thinking, It worked! God listened! Though he wasn’t sure God did it, or if he’d just wanted it so much—mind over matter or something—and he made it happen all on his own. Either way, he didn’t care. It was the result that mattered. He rushed into the dining room and stared in toward the tree. Its dancing lights painted his mother in pulsing colors. She stood there, gaze locked on the Lazy Boy, the presents spilled around her feet, one bag’s handle still looped around her fingers.
From where he stood next to the kitchen table, he saw the top of a knee, a hand gripping the chair’s arm, the gold buttons on the cuff of his dad’s jacket reflecting the blinking lights on the tree. He walked in by his mom and stared at his dad, taking in a quick breath at the sight of his dad’s hair swirled like a corkscrew pointing at the ceiling, his cheeks hollow and too white. His mother raised her hand toward him but stopped herself, unable to touch him. Ben cleared his throat and his mother looked up and opened her mouth, her hands clinging to the bottom edge of her pajama top. She made several weird clicking sounds before she found her voice. Her face went from confused, to angry, back to confused again. She looked younger when she was trying to mull things over, like the little sister that Ben had always wished he’d had; someone to play with and protect.
She blinked twice, and met his gaze. “I thought he was working. He told me he wouldn’t be here.” She looked back to her husband. “I never even heard him come in.”
Ben stammered, “Maybe the flight was cancelled because of the snow, or maybe he let someone else take his place so he could be home with us.”
“No.” She shook her head. “He would have told me he’d be home.”
“Who cares?” Ben said, inching his way into the living room. “He’s here, that’s all that matters.”
“Who cares?” His mother looked at the mess around her slippers. “If I’d known I would have waited to bring everything down. He could have done it with me.” She bit her lip, tears reflecting the light from the tree as they gathered on her eyelashes. Her features hardened. She stood straighter and kicked a blue-foiled box aside. “He probably never even went to work. He was probably at some filthy motel with some trashy stewardess.” Trembling, she wiped at her nose, doing her best to regain her composure. Ben waited, directing his gaze to the floor but having a hard time because he wanted to look at his dad and make sure he hadn’t vanished, make sure he was still breathing.
His mother said in a thick voice, “Help me pick these up and set them under the tree.”
“I thought you wanted Dad to help you.”
“He’s too tired to care and I’m too upset to wake him.”
Ben wanted to say: Don’t you think you’re overreacting? Dad wouldn’t cheat on you. He hasn’t been at a motel with someone. I brought him home. Be happy. We’re all together for Christmas now. But he said nothing because he knew her attitude would change for the better when his dad woke and everyone could have some laughs and cocoa. He helped her place the gifts under the tree, thinking, They really outdid themselves this year. No wonder all the kids at school either want to be my best friend and play with all my stuff, or hate my guts.
His mother kept glancing over her shoulder as they knelt next to the tree, the smell of pine strong this close to the branches; Ben a little worried now too, but for a different reason. When he’d wished his father home, he thought he’d show up awake and happy, come running to his room and pick him up in those strong arms and spin him around, crying, “Merry X-mas” because he knew that Ben hated people calling it that, but doing it anyway, just to tease him so they could laugh about it later. He wondered how long it would be before the sleeping ended and the fun began. Hopefully before winter passed and the trees budded and the birds built new nests and another year passed them by, everyone living but none of them living together.
They finished piling the presents and stood, his mother trembling again, running her hands down the front of her pajamas. “He never sleeps this soundly. The slightest noises always wake him up. Maybe he’s sick, maybe that’s why he’s home. Do you think I should call a doctor? Should we take him to the hospital? I don’t know if we can carry him to the car.” She looked out the picture window at the falling snow. “We’ll never be able to drive in that.”
“He can’t be sick,” Ben said. “He just can’t.” Saying it because he knew if something had happened to his dad, it was his fault. “He’s fine.”
“No, he’s not fine.” She moved over to the chair and leaned forward, her fingers brushing his cheek. “Kev? Honey?”
Ben waited, wishing his dad would open his eyes, a thought occurring to him for the first time—that he loved his father more than he ever could his mother, despite how much more time he had with her than he did with his father. He shook his head, ashamed of himself, wishing he could love them equally.
“Can you hear me? Wake up.” She shook his shoulders. “Wake up!”
Ben moved over to her side and pried his father’s hand free of the Lazy Boy’s arm. “Dad, wake up!” He pinched the skin near his father’s wrist, surprised by the weight and size of his closed fist. He pinched harder, as hard as he could. His father sucked in a quick breath, and his eyelids sprang open, his mouth wide and howling along with the wind pressing against the eaves. His head turned left and right, back and forth between them. The wind threw snow across the window. Ben let go and stepped back as his dad jumped from the chair, his eyes white as winter, as if being brought here through the sky and storm had presented a chance for the elements to work their way beneath his flesh.
Blood colored his face, and he almost looked alive. He clenched his hands, opened them, trying to breathe and move and only able to stand there. “How did I get here? What happened?” He hit his knee on the coffee table as he stumbled forward like someone had shoved him from behind. “What the hell is this? Huh? A bad dream? Tell me!” The thick vein on his neck looked like a cable beneath his skin. Ben took another step back, thinking, It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You’re supposed to be happy that you’re home.
Ben’s mom said, “What the hell is the matter with you? You come home without telling me? You fall asleep in your chair and wake up screaming? At us?”
“I’m dreaming,” he said, pacing, his fingers digging into his forehead like he was trying to get them into his brain and operate until he fixed whatever was wrong as he paled again.
Ben said, “You’re not dreaming. None of us are. We’re really together. On Christmas.”
His dad’s head snapped up. “I can’t be here. I was flying the plane and…” His face went stupid, confused. “And…”
The mad look in his eyes frightened Ben.
Ben’s mother said, “You’re out of your mind. I need a drink.”
His father laughed sickly and looked at the tree and presents. “This just can’t be.” He marched into the dining room and grabbed the cordless, holding it out like a foreign object, or something that might bite him. He stared at the keypad like he’d forgotten who he wanted to call. Ben thought, It’ll get better once the shock wears off.
His dad took a deep breath. “If I call them they’re going to ask how the hell I was on the 737 one minute and how I’m here the next. I should be over Los Angeles by now.” He shook his head again and dropped the phone by his thigh. When he looked up he met his wife’s eyes and Ben shifted his feet wishing he could read minds, wishing his dad’s color would return because he thought he might be dead and not even know it. “How am I supposed to explain this? I don’t even know what this is. Christ. I might be losing my mind.”
Ben laughed, not meaning to, hoping it was just the awkwardness of the situation as he pictured an insane pilot with a plane full of unsuspecting passengers. He wished, even if his dad was dead, or they were all crazy, that his old man could be happy, so they could all share it, be a family.
His dad glanced at his watch. “I have to land the jet in three minutes.”
Ben said, “Your co-pilot can land it.” His dad shook his head so violently that his face disintegrated—the flesh cracked and broke like an hourglass, skin and bone and brain all powder as it poured over his chest. Ben wiped his eyes and wished it away until his father was normal again, all of them so tired, the Christmas tree lights blinking, the world all white and windy.
His dad said, “He’s never landed in the snow, much less a blizzard. He’s going to be a nervous wreck.”
Ben’s mother crossed her arms over her chest and grunted. “Are you saying that you were flying five minutes ago? This is the dumbest excuse you ever gave for fucking those little skanks.” She had tears in her eyes again, like she’d had when she’d carried the presents out of their bedroom. His dad nodded dumbly, the look on his face saying—You’d believe that.
“You’re a sonofabitch.”
“Believe what you want. I was flying and then I was here. There is no one else, this isn’t some stupid story to cover up infidelity.” But Ben saw the guilt on his face, that it wasn’t all in his mom’s mind, some low self-esteem bullshit, but he’d done it to her, to them, taken his time and love and given his gifts, the real ones that you couldn’t buy, and handed them over to someone else. Some stranger. Ben curled his fingers into his palms, the back of his neck hot, waiting to hear a bell ringing in the sky.
His mom said, “You had to get here somehow.”
“No shit? You think I need you to tell me that?”
Ben said, “Can we go with you?”
His dad turned his head, brow all crinkled up like old paper. “Where?” He looked at Ben’s mom. “What is this, a joke? Mass suggestion? Where am I really?”
Ben wished he could read his father’s thoughts, because the look on his face, those eyes darting about, unable to settle on anything for more than a second, made Ben believe that his dad wanted nothing more than to be on the job, or with one of his lovers at some sleazy motel room, sharing their filth in some bed with dirty sheets. And he thought that was the way life probably went, because adults didn’t believe anymore—not in themselves, and not in each other. Everyone was selfish. Ben could see it, even inside himself. And he thought it was pretty horrible, what he’d done, bringing his father home when other people needed him, his dad not wanting to be at home anyway.
Ben said, “I’ll fix it. We’ll all go.”
He bowed his head and clenched his eyelids shut.
He prayed, Please God. Put us on the plane. Let me watch him land it and all of us can ride home together then, and everything will be okay.
His father grabbed his shoulder, and Ben’s eyelids sprang open as he tried to jerk away, but his dad’s fingers felt like meat hooks breaking his flesh. They both screamed as Ben’s mother shimmered, paled, and faded, her hands running over her pajamas. A gust of hot air slammed their house. The snow melted beneath the heat and drizzled down the glass like rain, or blood, and Ben thought, The sky is bleeding. My wishes made it bleed. But his heart hammered so hard and his dad was hurting him as his mother’s form evaporated.
The wind stilled like a soft kiss against the place they called home despite the good times, in the face of the bad, and a bell rang in the empty sky. Ben looked up, until he felt something jerk him from inside, as if pulling his soul from his body, rending it, tearing it through the ceiling and into the clouds, a cold overpowering him and chilling his core, eyes watering, but his parents right there beside him, both upside down like they were dead and floating soundlessly in a vast body of black water. The wind roared in his ears and something popped inside his head. He saw his father with his head bowed to his left and his mother on the floor of the plane to his right, her eyes open but blank, and he heard people screaming inside their cramped seats, and saw them ripping at each other through the open cockpit door as if they could hold onto the lives they once had if they only tightened their grip enough. The co-pilot slumped behind the steering gear, metal digging into his forehead.
Ben shivered, feeling weaker than he’d ever imagined possible. He took his parents’ hands and squeezed, wanting them to wake up, wishing they could all forgive each other and love like they should. He prayed, “Please God, please,” faster and faster, waiting for the bell to ring, as the sky rushed against the windshield, and they plummeted through an endless white expanse.