Christmas morning crashed over Rick like a tidal wave, all blurry lights and cacophonous noise. He snorted and coughed, lurched up to a seated position where he’d fallen asleep on the couch. Jack and Jaime were running laps around the living room, screaming their little heads off about Santa and presents and “Oh my God can you believe it?”
He shook his head in a futile attempt to clear the hangover and took a moment to assess. His mother was seated in the recliner across from him, looking ridiculously put together for this hour of the morning. What the hell time was is it anyway?
“Good morning, Richard.” She smiled at him archly. She always called him Richard, said that if she wanted a Rick she would have named him that. But this time there was acid in it. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” he said. The words sort of hung on his dry lips, coming out rough and slurry. “Where’s Dena?”
“Your sister is in the shower. Not feeling too well by the sound of it. But I guess its not her children up and excited about Christmas is it? How are you feeling this fine Christmas morning?”
He clutched at his rolling stomach and did not say that he felt like nothing so much as a man drowning. “Fine,” he said, “Feeling fine. Just need some coffee.”
He stumbled into the kitchen and rubbed at his bleary eyes before stabbing his glasses onto his face. He heard his mom telling the kids with weighted words to wait just a minute because Daddy was very tired this morning.
As he poured the coffee, barely sloshing at all thank you, he noted the empty fifth of bourbon. Had that really been a good idea? Despite the headache and the nausea he thought that it probably had. Didn’t he deserve a little Christmas cheer? Holiday spirits? Christmas on ice?
They had started with eggnog and healthy splashes of the brown stuff. But then the nog ran out, so Dena and he had just started drinking the damn stuff straight. It was better that way anyway. At some point they had snuck out to her car to sneak smokes from an old, pack she had in the glove compartment. Whispering and giggling as they puffed at the stale cigarettes in the cold.
It had been a rough year after all. The divorce had been hard on everyone, not just the kids. He didn’t get a lot of opportunities to unwind, and he almost never saw Dena anymore. Speaking of, it really did sound like she was dry heaving in the shower.
He settled back down on the couch and held the mug of coffee to his face, letting the steam fog up his glasses and cast the tree and stockings in a ghostly light.
“Daddy, daddy, can we start? Can we start?” His eldest yanked on his arm, almost spilling the coffee.
Rick glanced over to his mom who nodded. And they were off.
As the kids began divvying up gifts into piles, Rick was struck by the massive heaps of presents. He knew he’d gone a little crazy this year. He couldn’t help it. After all the misery of the splitting up and dividing time and getting used to life as a single dad, he just felt like Christmas was a breath of fresh air. An opportunity to break out of the shit of the last year and recapture some of the joy of fatherhood. He was just so glad that Christmas didn’t conflict with Hannukah this year; he was not ready for that fight.
His mom had gone crazy too. She and his dad had always been a bit nuts for the holidays, spending money they didn’t have to create a magical day for Rick and Dena, but since Dad was gone she just doted on her grandkids. The piles were starting to look ridiculous, like architectural marvels teetering over the heads of both the kids.
“Okay, is that all?” Said his mom.
“Yes, yes, yes!” They both shouted back from the pillars and stacks on the floor.
“Well, go ahead and open them up,” said Rick, trying to stay involved as he gulped his coffee.
And they began. And it was madness. Paper flew and began to pile up in drifts around them. It first covered the carpet along with any small presents discarded in the frenzy.
“Now keep track of those, kids,” said Rick. “Don’t lose anything in this mess.”
The kids for their part screamed in reckless abandon and continued ripping and tearing. Toys, board games, puzzles, video games, clothing—all piled up and then disappeared under waves of wrapping paper. Clashing reds, greens, and golds crashed over each other. Elves and snowflakes mixed with Santas and reindeer in the chaos.
Rick began to feel a bit alarmed at the excess. It smacked of hubris. What the hell had they done? What were they teaching the kids with this? Money was tight with the divorce. He was essentially supporting a household and a half now. How had he let himself do this? His breath quickened as the kids screamed and rolled on the floor, finding even more gifts hidden at the back of the tree.
“I hope you don’t mind, Richard. I just couldn’t help myself,” said his mother as the kids ripped open new tablets, the screens immediately lighting up under their touch.
“Say thank you to your grandmother,” said Rick as the kids howled with delight.
As they flailed around on the floor, a wave of wrapping paper lapped up to Rick’s thigh where he sat on the couch. He brushed it away, but his hand came away wet. Had he spilled his coffee?
His mother caught his eye with a quiet smile. He kept losing sight of the kids on the floor behind breakers of paper and debris, gift receipts making little whitecaps at their tips.
It was his parents of course. That’s where he’d learned this. This insanity.
They hadn’t been on welfare, but they’d been pretty damn poor growing up. Still his parents had scrimped and saved and borrowed and layawayed and made sure that Christmas was special every year. And not just special—magnificent, amazing, magical. They had to top each year before. Bigger, better, the American way. Meanwhile debt racked up, bills piled high, and the slow unwinding of his father had continued. Trying to chase the ideal of what a family should look like had ground the man down. He’d run himself into an early grave.
Rick took the last swallow of coffee and wished he had a little bourbon to Irish it up this morning. The waves of paper kept building. One crashed into his chest. It really did feel wet. He wiped at his chest and down his paunch, shaking his head in disbelief. Was the shower still running? It sounded like an ocean with the tide running high, big rollers pounding on a rocky beach.
“Rick, are you alright?” Said his mother.
No, how could I be alright?
Another wave crashed into him, this time cresting up to his neck. He couldn’t see the kids at all anymore, just a shallow ocean of paper surging with unseen forces. He could still hear them screaming but couldn’t tell if they excited or terrified. He leaned forward, craning to get a better look, and a wave washed over his face somehow crashing up his nose and making him cough and splutter. What the hell was going on?
“Rick, why don’t you lie down?”
He tried to answer her but couldn’t. Lie down? How the hell could he lie down in this? He’d drown in a minute. The next wave crashed over him and he felt himself buoyed up off of his perch on the couch. Terrified now, he kicked off the floor, treading water or wrapping paper or whatever.
As it rose around him, he dog-paddled to keep afloat. He couldn’t hear his mother or the kids now, just the rustling of paper, crashing waves. Could he be dreaming? Was this some sort of punishment from God?
Because that was the other thing wasn’t it? At least when he was a kid, and his old man was humping the American dream, Christmas had meant something besides a bunch of presents. They had gone to church, read the Christmas story. There had been some sort of significance to it all. At least a hint of reverence. Something more than just rank consumerism.
Now he didn’t remember the last time he’d darkened a church’s door. His kids probably never had. The ritual had become the thing itself, like an empty costume hanging lifeless or a t-shirt washed out with the tide. No substance.
Rick struggled to keep his head up as the waves pushed him higher. Panicking now. He was alone in the rolling tide, and he was losing.
He regretted opening his mouth immediately as a wave rushed in, making him cough again and struggle to breathe. The last thing he saw over the receipt whitecaps was the star atop the Christmas tree across the room. Then it too went under.
Rick’s head brushed the ceiling, and he scraped his knuckles on the popcorn texture there as he flailed to keep his head up. He breathed in the shrinking crack between paper waves and sheetrock. But eventually even that space was gone. Incredulous to the end he slipped beneath the waves into darkness.
Enoch Daniel is a surgeon who would usually rather be writing than cutting. His short fiction has been published in Teleport Magazine & Fiction on the Web. He also recently had an article published in Elephant Journal. He has a podcast and a blog where he explores how to be a better man. He lives in suburban Texas with his wife, 3 children, 1 dog, 1 cat, 1 hedgehog, and a rapidly shrinking flock of chickens.