Our Best Worst Christmas Ever
Last Christmas morning, something woke me up at 4 a.m.
I was under no illusions that it was Santa's reindeer. Even when I was a kid, my parents had never tried to convince me those were real. And since Dad had lost his job thanks to another round of budget cuts at his company, I wasn't expecting that much in the way of presents.
But what I definitely didn't expect was Mom opening the window, letting in an icy blast of wind.
"What?!" I sat bolt upright.
"Carbon monoxide," she said. "Didn't you hear the alarm?"
"We need to air the house. Put on something warm."
I stumbled out of bed, pulled a sweater on over my pajama top, and grabbed the first pair of jeans and socks I could find. Then I packed up my laptop and stuffed it into my backpack, following an instinct I had developed in my university days. My student residence back then had been notorious for its false fire alarms, usually caused by a freshman trying to cook.
Yes, I graduated from university. And yes, I still live at home.
The house looked uncanny in the dark. Dad moved from room to room with his flashlight, the cold white beam slicing through the air as he opened every door and window he could find. When Mom switched on the lights, they only came on at half power, flickering like candles. We moved slowly and spoke neutrally, as if that would make anything less frightening.
I felt dizzy. My heart was pounding. Was it adrenaline – or something else?
"We can't stay here," said Mom. "It'll be too cold with the windows open."
"Is there a Tim Hortons nearby?" asked Dad. "Or something else that stays open 24 hours?"
Even in this emergency situation, I caught myself looking forward to the idea of a coffee shop. We never ate in restaurants anymore.
"I'm too old for this shit," said Mom, bending down to pull on her boots.
Is there ever a right age? I wondered.
This is going to sound all kinds of wrong, but I've always found fast food chains to be comforting places. Not only does the food taste the same, but it always looks the same too: the plain brown walls, the plastic chairs, the flatscreen in the corner showing ads, the tins of coffee and cocoa for sale, the images of steaming cups and glossy pastries. Nothing changes except the seasonal specials. Besides, hey, it's warm.
The three of us huddled around the table farthest from the door, holding toasted bagels and coffee cups. Besides us, the only customer was a man in a bright orange safety vest, probably just coming off the night shift of whatever job he had.
Dad was reading the online dictionary for carbon monoxide, in the same detached, slightly ironic tone he always uses to read to us from the newspapers.
""Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas which can be fatal when inhaled. Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, shortness of breath and difficulty thinking; advanced symptoms include convulsions, coma and death … " One of the characters on House of Cards committed murder that way, you know. He locked the guy in a car and stoppered the exhaust pipe. Made it look like suicide."
Unemployment has revealed some interesting facts about my father. For one thing, it taught me how much he and I have in common. With so much time on his hands, he had turned into as passionate and committed a fanboy as any twenty-year-old. What Star Trek is to me, political drama is to him.
"Can you stop?" Now that we were out of danger, Mom's presence of mind was unraveling. "I did not need to know that."
"How did this happen, anyway?" He lowered my cell phone – which he had borrowed because it was the only one we had left, his BlackBerry having been company property – and stared at Mom from beneath his peaked Vulcan eyebrows, which always had a disapproving look whether he meant it or not. "Didn't you have the furnace checked this year?"
"Of course I did. Are you saying it's my fault?"
"No. It's just that you're always the one to arrange these things, since you're the one who stays home - "
"So do you, now."
I don't know if the sharp edge in her tone was deliberate, but he drew back as if she'd pulled a knife on him.
"That's not my fault," he said tightly. "I told you, with the new centralization policy - "
"For God's sake, does it matter?" She tossed back her coffee, grimacing because it was too hot, and pushed her silver curls out of her face. "Just tell me what that article says about how to get rid of the poison."
"Well, whatever we do, first we need to get that furnace fixed."
Mom took a deep breath. I could imagine how she was feeling. Dad's unflappable logic can be irritating sometimes. Right now, though, I found it reassuring.
We sat in silence, finishing our very early breakfast. I stared at the Christmas greeting printed in red letters on the cardboard sleeve of my cup.
Our presents were still under the tree at home. Three small packages for three people, spaced as far apart as possible so it wouldn't be obvious how few they were. We're not supposed to care about this kind of thing, but I found it a sad picture.
The carbon monoxide only made it worse. For the first time in my life, I was afraid of my own home.
The power was still low when we got back, and the heating was down. We shuffled around with our coats open, Mom wearing fuzzy hand-knitted socks, me still in my boots. It's strange, how much difference the light can make, or the lack of it. Everything else was the same: the Christmas tree with its slightly uneven tinsel (you can always tell my side apart from Mom's; she's the only one who knows how to apply it neatly), Dad's Turner seascape copies on the walls, his military and history textbooks on the shelves next to her romance novels and handmade pottery. But without the lightbulbs at full strength as they should have been, it might as well have been a stranger's house.
I tried not to breathe too deeply, or to assign sinister meanings to anything I smelled. The stuff was supposed to be odorless anyway. We'd never sense it coming.
"We are presently on vacation," said the automated voicemail message from the phone Dad was holding to his ear. "In an emergency, dial 1 and an agent will be with you shortly."
Dad hit 1. Automated music began to play.
"Some service," he muttered. "What if we were dying?"
"Not funny," I said, clutching my coat with its faux-fur lining as if it were a live animal.
"We have to get out of here." Mom hovered in the doorway, her bulging purse slung over one shoulder. I wondered what she had in there, and if it was the same squirrel-like instinct that had driven me to pack my laptop.
"I'm on hold with the oil company," said Dad. "I don't know when I'll reach them, or how long until the technician shows up. You two can wait at the pottery studio in the meantime. Stay warm, make some tea."
"And what, you stay here?" Mom's voice was almost normal, but her blue eyes were very wide in her winter-pale face. "If you collapse, it won't make a difference whether the phone rings or not."
"The alarm switched off, didn't it?" He sat with one arm draped over the back of his chair, composed as always. "That means the gas should have dissipated by now."
"Should have isn't good enough. Just because the alarm's not working, that doesn't mean the gas is gone. Can't you just wait in the car?"
That was an understatement. It was at least minus twenty degrees outside, cold enough to freeze the snot inside my nose. I was still shivering from the walk to and from the Tim Horton's parking lot.
"If you feel dizzy," said Mom, "Go outside. Immediately."
"And why are you still wearing a hat?"
She lifted the brim of the black fedora he'd forgotten to remove and kissed him on the forehead.
For a moment, I thought of doing something similar. We are not an overtly emotional family, as you might have guessed already. We only hug on birthdays, major holidays and at the airport. Still, if ever there was a time to make an exception, this was it.
I thought of Spock saluting Captain Kirk through the window before dying of radiation poisoning in The Wrath of Khan. Then I told myself not to be ridiculous. This was absolutely nothing like that. No reason to make a scene.
I looked at him sitting there in his old college sweater, his hair parted so that it lay across his bald spot. Just a few days ago, he had trudged off to the library through the falling snow in order to print out another stack of resumes. He had daydreamed out loud about moving to British Columbia – "There are some good prospects there. Wouldn't you like to live by the ocean?" – even before the application was in the mail.
When I graduated from university and couldn't find a job, my English degree proving every bit as useless as the stereotype implies, I dealt with it by hiding in my room and writing fan fiction. But my Dad never gave up hope.
He's going to be okay, I told myself.
He has to.
The Whiteside Taylor Community Center was still unlit when Mom and I drove past it, except for a string of Christmas lights around the big tree by the entrance.
"Let's drive around for a bit until the daycare opens," said Mom. "I don't want to be alone in there."
"Why, what could happen?" I asked, realizing how much I sounded like Dad. "Two accidents in one day would be just too statistically unlikely."
"I know I have issues, all right?" she snapped, and I decided not to say anything more.
We drove along Lakeshore and up to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, where four empty city buses stood waiting for their drivers to start the day's rounds, even at this hour. The first commuters were leaving for work, driving to some office in the inner city like Dad used to. He always set his alarm at six-thirty every morning, even though he was an afternoon person by nature, like me. On the rare occasions we were both awake at this hour, he could barely speak in full sentences until after his first cup of coffee.
As a child, I couldn't really appreciate how cold and lonely that drive to work must have been.
On our second drive by the centre, we saw that the lights were finally on. Someone, either the librarians or the daycare workers, must have brought the place to life for the day. Mom, feeling safe now, parked the car.
"Oh, look!" she said, pointing at the windshield, sounding - for a moment – exactly like her usual self.
The sun was rising. The sky was layered with pink, yellow and light blue above the wide frozen river. I wished I had my phone so I could take a picture. I wished I could text Dad, just in case …
"It's beautiful," I said.
The pottery studio where Mom works is in the basement, right next to the bathroom and the shelf of discarded books. It's a plain, functional space with six pottery wheels, a long table, a kiln in the back, and shelves packed with all kinds of clay, glaze chemicals, tools and reference materials. The air is very dry, and a fine film of dust lies over everything.
Mom often complains about how inconsiderate her fellow guild members are, taking out magazines and forgetting to return them, or leaving a mess for her to clean up. But when she talks about the work itself, her eyes shine.
"It's called a salt rock," she said, handing me a shiny, green-glazed hemisphere to hold.
"You fill it up with salt and shake it, see?" She pointed to the hole in the bottom. "I've made several, just as an experiment. I don't know whether I'll be able to sell them, but they're pretty, right?"
"Yeah." I ran my fingers over the smooth, cool surface.
"I don't normally like to use white clay," she went on, picking up a still unglazed salt rock from a shelf and slowly etching a design onto it with a knife. "It's too unpredictable. The red clay's easier to work with. But these didn't turn out too bad."
I smiled at my laptop screen. She was making it impossible for me to concentrate on my fan fiction (or to worry about Dad), but I loved her for it. In her single-minded enthusiasm, she sounded just like me.
What a bunch of nerds the three of us are, I thought, not for the first time.
We waited down there for almost five hours. I wrote. Mom finished carving her salt rock and drifted around the room, picking up magazines, commenting on a famous ceramic artist who had died recently, and how strange it was that the magazine still ran an article he had written. We listened to the old ventilation system and its squeaky joints, whimpering like a lost puppy in the cold. We drank cup after cup of apricot tea and tried, with varying success, not to be afraid.
It was one of those times when being Vulcan would have come in very handy.
At 11:45, we heard a knock.
It was the tip of a man's boot hitting the window, which was small and very up, considering this was the basement. We jumped.
A moment later, someone called out from the hallway. "Hello?"
Mom never runs anywhere, but she walked out the door with all possible speed. She came back followed by a tall, broad-shouldered man in a black trenchcoat and fedora, a tartan scarf slung around his neck. His nose was red. His eyes sparkled.
"So the bad news is, it won't be fixed until this afternoon," he said, picking up the conversation just where he had left it. "But the good news is, we wouldn't have been at home anyway. I got us tickets to the Cirque du Soleil weeks ago."
"Can we afford that?" Mom frowned.
After all, this is the man who refuses to use the internet when his data plan runs out for the month rather than pay the extra fee, even though it causes him real suffering not to see the latest House of Cards episode on Netflix. This is the man who canceled two out of three of his beloved newspaper subscriptions, researched all day until he found me a cheaper cell phone plan, and claims to really enjoy shopping at Wal-Mart.
"So what?" he shrugged. "What's money for?"
I couldn't help it. I hugged him.
"Oof! Steady on," he said, half amused, half reproachful, since I had almost knocked him over.
But I thought it was only appropriate by our family traditions.
Christmas is, after all, a major holiday.