** Dedicated to KC. Sorry your Christmas present is late! **
It was a Christmas cold with contempt and dreary. If you pressed your cheek to the asphalt it would go numb in an instant. There was a chill in the breath you’d exchange — puffs of fog here and there — in and out, in and out.
The town in this story is called Tremont. The state could be anywhere. It hardly matters. All you need to know is the town is small and content, ill-sorted for any unusual matter or phenomena. The police officers are proud of their job and make sure their leather belts are securely wrapped around widening bellies. The bellies get wider in Tremont as the cold gets colder.
A teenager coughs and sputters and gets sicker, but nobody notices. He hides it behind a congenial smile. His name is Max.
Max is the newest resident to the small town square. He waits on a street corner beside an electronic shoppe, the lights flickering hopelessly. Here and there a visitor enters the shop — in and out, in and out. Not one notices his hands stretched out, the bandages wrapped around them where the blood has soaked, red and wanting. But he extends them out until he is tired and starts to process things.
I should really get a box, he thinks. As in a box to put all this boundless currency in, some sort of container to relieve his trembling appendages.
Max is new to this stint, so it is only now that he considers the box. He’s only been on the streets for a day. He doesn’t want to remember why he left, except that from now on the incident will be a haze. He has chosen to make it hazy. Not the pleasant, numbing kind. But a haze where violent shapes and figures consort behind the Gaussian curtain, and you just want to look away.
The sun is just about to set behind the local pharmacy as a stalk of hot air emanates from the chimney. The sky cannot make up its mind what it wants to be. In a last-ditch effort to be loved and recognized it throws all kinds of colors Max’s way. Crimson and pink and a navy blue so rich Max finds it difficult to keep his attention. He traverses the two blocks where he knows there is a dumpster in an alley, where he can find a box. And lo and behold, he finds a suitable shoe box after rummaging for about five minutes. The bandages have dirtied now.
As if out of nowhere, he notices an old man in the alley coughing furiously. Max jumps. There is something strange about this man’s aura.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he croaks, putting a hand to his chest to calm the turbulent movements.
Max recovers quickly, but still watches his words carefully. He is not just speaking to anybody…
“I’m Max,” — he walks forward to shake the man’s hands — “We’re in the same boat gramps.”
The old man extends a hand covered in black coal, and their hands meet. Gramps’ hands are surprisingly warm.
“Well. This is going to sound strange, but I don’t know my name,” he says.
Somehow Max is unsurprised. There is an air of anomaly about this person.
“That’s okay,” Max says. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, though I can surely use a cuppa,” Gramps chuckles. He looks at a stranger passing by the alley. A young man with perfect blonde hair is holding a styrofoam cup of something steamy. As he passes Max thinks how he’d like a cup of coffee too.
“I’m sorry gramps. I don’t have much myself.”
Gramps smiles warmly revealing a line of perfectly white teeth. It is in stark contrast to the rest of his muddied and dirty outfit. Max takes a moment to realize they are just dentures.
“I appreciate the company nonetheless. There’s a stray cat that comes and visits me, but he hasn’t shown up for days.”
“How have you been living out here?”
“Slowly and patiently,” Gramps replies. “I would like to know my name though.”
For awhile Max doesn’t say much. The crazy young sky has matured into a dark black. The air is still, and Max suddenly realizes just how quiet it is. He cannot hear the cars or the buzzing of the electric generator in the town square. Silent night.
In the distance he notices a bank ATM by the tech shoppe glowing slightly…
“Can I trust you with a secret?” Gramps croaks, suddenly disturbing the night’s solace. Max jumps. It’s almost as surprising as his initial encounter with the old man. “Can I be your friend? I don’t have many friends here. But I do have this –”
The old man puts his hands up and blue sparks start to form at his fingertips. They’re subtle. The crackle they make is like a small fire’s.
“I — err… guess so,” Max says. Max remembers what it was like to put his hands out and ask for money, and recollects himself. “No, I’d love to be your friend.”
“Friends tell each other secrets. What’s yours?”
Max is taken aback. He thinks for a second, then decides to trust the old man. It’s a moment that requires a small amount of radical courage. The tiny discomfort he feels towards the man goes away: from meeting him suddenly to finding out about his secret powers.
The haze in Max’s head slowly lifts, if only momentarily. The curtain draws back to reveal a memory –
“My uncle’s a drinker. He kicked me out of the house a few days ago, and bloodied my hands.”
“I’m sorry,” Gramps says. “That doesn’t sound right. There’s not a lot I understand about human nature, ” - the old man looks at his hands — “but then again I’m not from around here.”
“I know,” Max says instinctively. Max knew the moment he met the man.
“What do you need, my friend?”
“How do you get food around these parts?”
The bank ATM in the background glows ominously. Max eyes it. It’s as if Gramps can read his eyes and feel Max’s stomach grumbling too –
“I can get you money.”
Max and the old man exchange a look of recognition. The old man smiles warmly, and Max can feel a different energy coming from Gramps’ hands. It is deliberate, compassionate.
That cup of coffee surely looks good right now…
He lifts Gramps slowly and they make their way to the bank. The alley is like a vacuum in space and time, and the minute they leave the stillness in the air disappears. Max notices sound returning to the small town square, filling it with what little life Tremont has.
It is 7 PM. One stout police officer leaves for home. While the sky is a dark black, street lamps illuminate the sidewalk in an amber glow. Leaves fall and the wind picks them up, carrying them to distant locations.
Max and Gramps are almost there.
A man and his daughter are walking towards the bank ATM. She is at that point where she’s big enough to keep up but still struggling to match her father’s wide pace. The pair arrive at the ATM. He takes a check out of his wallet and deposits it after a few minutes exploring the menu on the screen. The check goes in; a bank statement goes out. The little girl is holding a barbie doll.
“I can make it rain. I think that’s the expression, right?” Gramps laughs. This is the first time Max hears him laugh. It is hearty, like Santa Claus. The old man does not seem to notice the father and daughter leaving. She is jumping for joy about something. The Subaru they approach in the parking lot has a fresh Christmas tree strapped on top.
Gramps’ sparks emanate from his fingers. “That’s where you get money, right?”
Max is hesitant. “Yes, it is.” The car leaves for the suburbs of Tremont, a collection of Christmas lights and novelty mailboxes Max has just left. “But we can’t get it here Gramps.”
“Human nature is very strange.”
The ATM glows. Max wonders if he should take back his words, then the feeling goes away. He looks at the old man and the cafe at the town square. A young woman emerges with a styrofoam cup of something steamy. Max is filled with newfound determination.
“There are better ways,” Max smiles. “People leave their money there too. That’s a problem.”
The alien thinks for a split-second, then nods in agreement. “You’re a lot is a lot kinder then I thought. Nobody has looked at me once.”