Recently, Writer’s Digest published the Show Us Your Shorts Collection, which features the top 25 winning stories from the 15th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. It came to our attention that Patricia Lee’s “A Holy Night,” which came in 14th place, had the last sentence missing from its page. The entirety of her story can be read here.
A Holy Night
by Patricia Lee
Dusk settled, quiet, solemn, bringing bittersweet memories in the fading light. Her hand shook, but arthritic fingers gnarled with times’ passage held fast to the record player’s plastic arm. The needle jumped, skittered over worn grooves, landing too far into the vinyl recording. She tried again, one hand cradling another, until the prelude’s rewarding skip and crackle indicated the correct mark. Strains of music filtered from mismatched speakers.
She straightened her aged shoulders, aching and stooped from years of manual labor, and shuffled to the window. The routine, as ingrained as brushing her teeth, happened only once a year. Tradition. A puff of warm air dissipated intricate frost patterns on the window, the sweater’s threadbare woolen sleeve removed a circle of winter’s breath from the pane to reveal a snow-blanketed countryside and pine branches decorated like globs of icing. A full moon radiated amid sparkling stars, basking the view in surreal luminescence. Her rheumy eyes scanned the yard, into the tree line beyond, searching, hoping, praying this would be the year he returned. Phosphorus raked against the matchbox side, fire flared, quieted to light the single candle anchored into a holder on the sill. A guide.
She turned, eyes traveling the room, taking in the assortment of antique decorations, their valiant effort for cheer lying buried beneath layers of dust. Pine cone wreath, its faded tartan ribbon arranged to cover gaping holes of missing strobili; wooden St. Nicholas and sleigh, his painted rosy cheeks chipped and mottled; Meagan’s Star of David made from popsicle sticks and garland, the gold filaments crumpled and unraveled. She brought the child’s craft to her lips, lovingly kissed the tip, wove the dangling metallic strand back into place. Meagan. Her little girl, who lived among the stars, shining just as brightly as her creation.
In the corner, knotted, kinked tinsel dripped from ends of the imitation Christmas tree’s pine branches. Once, the tang of fresh pine had filled the small house with forest scent, but that was long ago. This symbolic seasonal trimming had been a gift from a friend, a neighbor, who’d taken pity when she’d lost the strength to chop down her own tree. She didn’t have the heart to refuse the act of kindness but in her opinion, if it wasn’t real, what was the point.
As a show of neighborly civility, the tree went up and later dismantled, year after year until she couldn’t be bothered to put it away anymore. Now it held permanent residence, all allure and magic of the holiday trademark gone – just like the people whose souls were woven into the fabric of her life.
A pause between songs gave her a moment to prepare. The first chord was always the hardest. She held her breath. Notes rang out, announcing the song that transported her to a time when life was rich with promises and dreams. Her arms floated into position by their own will, held in the empty embrace of a ghostly lover.
She hummed along with the tune. O Holy Night. And it had been. Christmas Eve, nineteen forty-one. Daniel shipped out in two days, so every moment had to be preserved in her memory. They’d danced, sang, loved. Then he was gone. He promised to return and he did, every December twenty-fourth. In her mind. She’d patiently wait, set the scene, light the candles, play the music. He never disappointed her. But with each passing year, the sensation of being in his arms grew less and less distinct.
Small, swaying steps took her by the window again. She glanced into the blue-black night and stuttered. Hand resting against chilly glass she stared, blinked, but her eyes do not deceive. A full moon cast the man’s figure in ethereal halo. He raised a gloved hand, grinned, the mischievous dimpled smile that had always stopped her heart. Dressed in an olive green uniform, he held out his arms in pose, began to dance, twirling in the frosted white carpet beneath his feet. Her raspy phlegm-filled laugh transformed to a soft feminine giggle. Her tatty nightgown morphed into a dress of emerald green. When she lifted the hem, looked down, stocking feet became dainty shoes. Bony, veined hands encased in black evening gloves opened the door. Biting winter wind turned summer warm, lifting thin, grey hair, spinning the strands to silken wheat. Icy pellets transitioned to warm raindrops, fusing with joyful tears. She ran to him, leapt into his arms. He spun her around, around until they were both dizzy.
She gazed into blue eyes shining with love. “You’re back.”
He tapped her heart, rested his hand there. “I never left.”
And she danced with an unseen partner, while dots of snow fell like a million stars, and the notes of Oh Holy Night drifted towards heaven.