Saint Nicholas [Trigun]
I murbled slightly. Ever have one of those mornings when you don't even know your own name? This was one of those.
"Father Nicholas, please, wake up."
I couldn't open my eyes. The sand had glued my eyelids to one another. While I had been riding the bike at night. It was all coming back to me. What was I saying? It wasn't coming back to me at all.
"Father Nicholas, wake up. I don't think I can keep the children out any longer."
I must've made some sort of noise that sounded like assent -- or agreement, or invitation, or what the hell ever -- becuase the next thing I knew I was being pinned to the bed by ten tons of squirming, wiggling kid, laughing and calling my name, screaming at me like it was Christmas morning--
I love kids. I love kids when their feet are digging into my calves and their knees are in my gut and their elbows are crushing my solar plexus. It's a good thing, or I might have killed them all right then and there, which would have been bad. Well, I might have killed them in theory, since after four hours of sleep, when I say 'kill!' my body tends to laugh at me. I managed to get my eyes open. It was still dark outside. Make that three hours, top.
My bike was probably still warm. I had driven it nearly two days straight trying to get back. And I was only two months later than I had said I would be. Blame it all on a woman in Carson City who called herself Calypso and thought it was funny and I couldn't figure out why. Yeah, and the piano has been drinking, not me.
Two days hard riding over the sands. Somebody tell me how I missed looking at a calendar? Or how the end of December managed to register? Anybody?
"Merry Christmas, Brother Nico!" Oh, right, the kids. I'd almost forgotten about them. It's easy to lose track of three hundred vertical pounds you've suddenly gained.
"You're back! Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas, Father Nico!"
"Brother Nico, where's the tree?"
I couldn't have heard them right; I thought one of them said something about a tree. I tried to talk, but ended up spitting grit.
"That's right!" One of the bigger girls, sitting at my feet, smiled as she remembered. "Father Nico, where's our tree?"
"What's a tree?" asked one of the small boys.
A very good question, young man, and one I was not qualified to answer since, contrary to what seemed to be popular belief, I was tree-less. "It's, um ... a big tall stick. With lots of arms. And leaves." I could hear the voices from all around me. That one was resting on my forehead.
"Oh." The boy seemed to be satisfied by this momentarily. Then his eyebrows got all worked up. "What's it got to do with Christmas?"
"Don' be siwwy," answered the weight that was making it kind of hard to breathe. "Evwybody knows we gotta have a twee for Cwistmas." She turned her big blue eyes on me. Dawn, that's right. Her name. Sadly, not the time of day yet. She put her two little hands on either side of my face. "We just gotta."
I cleared my throat. I've heard prettier sounds from the muffler of my bike. "Why ... what's this about a tree?" I tried to sit up, an attempt that mostly failed.
"Sista Mawy said so," Dawn informed me, having become the spokesperson for all those under four feet high in the room. "She said we were gonna have a twee, and she said you were gonna bwing it."
"Oh, she did, did she?" My eyes made their way over to where Sister Ruth stood smiling in the doorway. Her smile was pure candy-coated malice. Somehow, she and the others must had found out about my ... unexpected delay. Nuns. They're like wives, only worse. Wives don't necessarily have God on their sides.
Dawn nodded, her dirty blonde pigtails bouncing. "We gotta," she told me again, quite earnestly, as though somehow this Christmas wouldn't happen otherwise. "We just gotta have a twee." And here I was, pinned to the bed by twice my own weight in expectant kid, feeling like the world's biggest dickhead for having to tell them that there was no twee. Tree. Dammit.
From the doorway, Sister Ruth clapped her hands. "Come along, children," she beamed, all radiant and loving and sunshine on a cloudy day. "Let's go eat breakfast, and maybe give Father Nicholas time to wake up."
The magic word. When given the choice between me and a plate of food, it was food every time, and for once I was grateful. They scampered away, Dawn last because she stopped to kiss my mouth once with her grubby little lips. And then she too was gone, and only Sister Ruth lingered in the doorway.
"Ruth?" I called after her, sitting up. "I wasn't, like, supposed to get presents or anything, was I?"
She shook her head. "No, we have those."
"So it was just the tree?"
"Just the tree."
I blinked a few times. "You're all mad at me, aren't you?"
She beamed. "Oh, yes." And then she was gone in a flurry of denim and large flannel shirt. I didn't even have time to protest that that was my shirt. Or, at least, it had been. I got the feeling I wasn't going to see it again.
By the time I had washed most of the grime from my face and scraped away half a week's growth of beard, the sun was threatening to peek over the far horizon and I felt a little more human. I took off my suit -- which I had slept in -- and hung it over the end of the bed in the hopes that it would be mended. Then I remembered the twee -- tree -- and kicked the suit back onto the floor. I'd have to do it myself. The overalls I put on smelled of paint thinner and I couldn't remember why for the life of me, but they were soft and comfortable, and I could wear them without a shirt and still be decent. Gotta keep these things in mind.
The kids were inhaling breakfast when I got down to the kitchen, all of them in their little pajamas that had seen better days than I had, stuffing down whatever they could get their hands on. Sister Naomi came by with a plate of bacon, and I took a slice. She smiled at me, and there was no anger with it. Okay, so they weren't all mad at me. At least one of the seven still thought I was an okay guy.
Then she stepped on my foot. Never underestimate a nun.
"We can't open pwesents yet," Dawn was explaining emphatically, between sips of milk. She had a milk moustache that was working its way towards a goatee. "Not 'till we haf a twee. S'what Sista Mawy said."
An older boy got in on the action. "Yeah. We put our presents under the tree, and then we all open them, and that's the way it works!"
"'Scuse me," I called over, snatching a piece of toast from a pile. I ran my hand through my hair to make sure it wasn't all standing on end. "Have any of you kids, uh, ever seen a Christmas tree before?"
Fifty or so heads shook in unison.
"I see." I could feel the little wheels in my head turning. There was sand stuck in the gears there, too. "So ... why can't you have Christmas without a Christmas tree if you've never had a Christmas tree before, but you've had Christmases before?"
Dawn blinked at me as though the answer should be obvious. "'Cause that's the way it's s'posed to happen."
No arguing with that, I guess. I stole a couple more pieces of toast, told Sister Lorraine to stall for me for about half an hour, and went about the business of tree-finding.
Now, I've seen trees before, here and there. Mostly I've seen their corpses -- the ones that make the houses and saloons and shops that make the cities livable -- but I've seen a few, growing in the green places, happy as they can be. And I knew there wasn't a tree within a day's ride of this place, much less an hour's.
And that's what the nuns wanted, I know. They wanted me to have to sit the kids down and tell them that I had failed them, that I had forgotten their tree, that I wasn't superhuman at all, but instead the world's biggest idiot asshole. And they'd forget about it, sure, in a few weeks, but for those weeks I'd be Father Nicholas, the Man Who Didn't Get Us A Christmas Twee. It would be the best nun-sent vengeance imaginable.
It wasn't gonna happen.
I stomped out into the toolshed, back where I keep my bike, and the first thing I saw was the Punisher. I knew how desperate I was getting when I looked at it and saw a possible solution. I thought that I could pull it out, you know, just this once, keep it wrapped, stand it up, throw so much stuff on it you couldn't know which was was up or what it was, the kids would never know--
I shook my head. Kids don't see that thing. Ever. No matter what they think it is. Time to see what else was in the shed.
The answer was: not a whole hell of a lot. Nothing on a string, anyway, though there were a few wrenches that hadn't gone to rust and dirt, a few that still shone. Sorta. I stuck them in my pockets. There was a hubcap, too. I put that under my arm. Might come in handy. Spark plugs? Why not. An oily rag.... Well, some things it's best just to leave alone.
Back into the church, then. The church proper, I mean, the chapel. Not much in there -- well, much I could have justified using, anyway. My priest's vestiments had long ago mostly gone to thread -- which was kind of sad, considering I'd gotten them about five years ago, but I'm a hard-workin' priest, sorta -- but I still had a stole. I threw that around my neck; by now, it looked like it had been made of old socks. I decided that was okay and moved on.
A Bible with most of the pages missing? Nah. A candle and a half? I'd better save those for when I needed them. An empty bottle of whiskey? ....No. The more I looked at things, the more I began to realize that my life was absolute crap-filled. On a very physical level. Everything was broken down, torn to shreds, missing half of itself, leaky, rusted, gunked up, or whatever. It was all a heap of junk. And I had to make it into a tree to save myself from becoming the Asshole Who Spoiled Christmas.
Oh, God, give me strength and craft ideas, Your humble servant, amen.
The only place left to look, really, was my own closet, and there wasn't a whole lot of anything in there -- nothing that could be used for a tree, anyway. I was just fresh out of large Punisher-shaped objects that weren't, you know, stuffed with guns and rocket launchers. But I did have ties.
Boy, did I have ties. There was a time in my life not so long ago when I wore ties. Four of them, to be precise. In different colours. But not all at once. I looked like an absolute idiot in ties, but now was not the time to worry about things like that. I felt like the patient you should be glad lives long enough to get an infection from the dirty medical procedure you're doing to save his life. Except I was cutting my own throat here.
I spread out my spoils on the bed. And all in all, it wasn't much. Maybe if I tied the ties together ... I could do something with that. Or if I tied one to each side of the hubcap.... Okay, I was getting somewhere. I didn't know where that somewhere was, but it was better than it had been a few seconds ago. I had about five minutes. It was time to work.
I felt ridiculous stomping downstairs with my finished product, but there was no time for that. I could hear the kids behind the doors, laughing and giggling, talking impatiently, waiting for their twee so they could start Christmas. Well, here went nothing. I took a deep breath, stretched out my arms -- clanking as I did so -- and pushed open the doors.
The looks on their faces were worth it. I sighed and stretched my arms even further, even though the weight of half a dozen tools on each was no small matter, and I smiled a very tired smile. "Okay, okay, kids," I sighed. "I'm a tree, I'm a tree."
The sound of fifty-something kids and seven nuns laughing in unison is one of those sounds you keep with you for the rest of your life, you know? Something you just can't forget because it's too important. One of those things you remember when you're in the blackest parts, that valley of the shadow of death the people who know God better than I do talk about, those parts when the sun is too strong and the booze isn't strong enough and everything's made of sand and rusted and you're just so fucking tired.
Something to hold on to to remind you that it used to be better than this.
And so I was a tree, sorta. With the hubcap tied to my head like a big flat helmet and every tool I could find clinking from the ends of the ties tied to my arms and the stole around my neck, I was a tree. From the smiles I was getting, though, you'd think I was a saint. And maybe I was. Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of lost causes. Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sorry-ass trees.
I'm certain the weight I felt at my feet was every present in the house, each one wrapped in rags and twine or not wrapped at all sometimes, being dumbed there. I couldn't look down. Older kids got the real stuff -- shirts and shoes and sometimes even a little money if they were just about to leave us. The little ones got whatever they got. Dawn got a loaf of bread and a toothbrush. Her eyes were wide as dinner plates. Doesn't matter what you get them, so long as you get them something.
Kinda like the tree, I guess. Didn't matter how good of a tree it was, so long as it was a tree. And it was their tree that someone'd gone to great lengths to get. When you're seven years old and all the world's ever done is shit on you and take from you, sometimes you need to get something back. Anything at all, so long as it's given to you.
I stood with my arms like that for two hours. It became a game -- every time the tree started to slump, all the kids would laugh at it and tell it to shape up, to be a better tree. And so I'd bring up my arms to shoulder level again and try to ignore the pain, all the while grinning like the maniac I knew I was.
When they'd finally all gone away to play with their Christmas presents, I let my arms drop, and all my trimmings fell to the floor with a big clank. I was too tired to care. I staggered a few steps backward and leaned against the wall, trying to see if I could get some feeling back into my fingertips. So far, no luck.
Sister Ruth walked over, graceful as ever, and put her hand on my shoulder. "That was wonderful," she smiled, fluttering her long dark eyelashes.
I think I managed my most charming grin. "So I'm forgiven?"
"No," she answered matter-of-factly. "But we're not angry anymore."
Which was good. If they had started making up stories about the days after Christmas, I don't know where the hell I would have pulled three wise men from.
By all rights, I should have been sound asleep when Dawn came in. I was dead. But I'd reached the point where I was too tired even to sleep, so I was just lying there with my eyes shut when the door creaked open and a little pair of feet skittered in. "Bwother Nico?"
I cracked one eye open. "Yes?"
This was apparently some code for 'why don't you come sleep in my bed tonight?' that I didn't understand. She curled in, tucking her little pajamed feet next to my body -- they only reached my waist -- and resting her head in the crook of my arm. "That was a vewy funny twee," she told me.
I grinned a little. "You think so?"
She nodded earnestly. "I've seen bigger twees, but not better ones."
"Is that a fact?" I ruffled her hair a little.
"Yup." She kicked her feet a little, right into my gut. This didn't seem to bother her in the slightest. "Bwother Nico, what do twees haf to do wif Cwistmas?"
I shrugged. Time for a little well-placed storytelling. "See ... Christmas celebrates Jesus' birthday. And Jesus likes trees. So for his birthday ... we put the presents under the trees because Jesus liked to put his presents under trees. Good shade, you know. Keeps the birds from attacking."
She lifted her head to look at me. "You don' know, do you?"
I shook my head. "Not a clue."
This answer seemed to satisfy her, though, and she settled back down. I petted her hair, separating out the tangles. She didn't complain, not once. "Bwother Nico?" she asked finally, in a very sleepy voice.
"Yes?" Her yawn was contageous.
"Did anyone get you a pwesent?"
"Sure," I told her. "They got me all y'all."
She giggled. "Tha's not much of a pwesent."
"Oh," I grinned, cuddling her a little closer, "I think it is."
In response, she just yawned and fell sound asleep, drooling a little on my arm -- which had, mercifully, regained some range of sensation. I was expecting the rest back by tomorrow. After a good night's sleep, which was shaping up to be another really good present if I could just unwind enough to get there. But Dawn's little kid snores were catching, and pretty soon even this hardworking Christmas tree was sawing logs. In a manner of speaking.
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