I was fifteen when I saw my best friend die. Although, if I think about it, I was fourteen when I saw him die the first time. Time had a way of confusing me that year. Ever since I’ve looked at past and present with a jaundiced eye. What is now and what is then? The one thing I’m certain about is that the worst year of my life started on December 16th, even though the bad stuff didn’t happen until the next year. I’m certain of the date, because that’s when I discovered the window.
On a normal year, our house would have been decorated from the basement to the roof, inside and out, by the end of Thanksgiving weekend. My mom lives for Christmas. She has special decorations for each room, festive lights for every window, and the whole house smells of pine, peppermint, and chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven. Christmas music plays from morning until well after the outside lights have been illuminated. Her favorite songs are the religious ones or the classics like Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, but she will sing along with anything with a hint of a Christmas connection.
But this isn’t a normal year. It’s already halfway through December and we still haven’t bought a tree. Not a single decoration is up. Stockings aren’t hung by the chimney with care, and I’m worried. I’m well past the age of believing in Santa Claus, but without a tree and without stockings, where are the presents supposed to go?
So, I’m overjoyed when she asks me to bring down the decorations.
“Brian, can you do me a favor and bring down the Christmas stuff from the attic?”
I drop my Xbox controller without even bothering to pause my game. My character will be dead before I even make it out of the living room, but I don’t care. Christmas is finally coming!
“What do you need?” I yell, already climbing the stairs to the second floor of the house.
“Oh, anything you can find will be fine,” she says. Her heart isn’t in it, but I am confident the first couple of boxes of decorations will put her in the mood.
I jump, but I’m not quite able to reach the short rope that’s used to pull the attic steps down from the ceiling. I give it one more shot for good measure, but I’m a few inches shy of the mark.
I’ll be able to grab it by next year.
In the meantime, the chair from my desk gives me all the height I need to tug the ladder down. I scamper up the flimsy steps and poke my head into the attic.
I’ll be honest. The attic used to scare the crap out of me when I was younger, and “younger” was last year when my mom asked me to help bring down the decorations. I had been afraid to go into the dark, dusty room full of nooks and crannies formed by the roofline. It was nothing short of terrifying to tiptoe over the creaking floorboards while blindly reaching for the string to turn on the single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Even the light didn’t help much. The dim light turned stacks of boxes into fearsome shapes that shifted in the moving shadows created by the swaying bulb.
Today, though, the room feels a lot less frightening. At first, I think it’s because I’m a year older, but that isn’t it. The difference is the attic isn’t dark. Even without pulling the string for the dusty lightbulb, the room is full of light. In the comforting glow, there are no monsters hiding in the nooks, just stacks of boxes, forgotten toys, and old pieces of furniture. In one corner is my old nightstand, with its blue, chipped Formica top and the small drawer missing its handle. I climb into the attic and seek out the source of light. I have to push a few stacks of boxes to one side and wrestle an old cupboard out of the way before I finally see it—a window.
It’s octagonal, lined with beautiful woodwork that in no way matches the unfinished look of the attic with its plywood walls, but the window looks as though it belongs. A thin layer of dust covers everything in the room, but the woodwork surrounding the window gleams as if it has recently been buffed. I inhale deeply, half-expecting to smell the lemony scent of furniture polish lingering in the air.
Seeing a window that I swear wasn’t there on my last trip to the attic is surprising enough, but it’s what I see through the window that takes my breath away. The front yard is covered in snow! And not one of those dustings we get sometimes, where you can see the grass poking through the white and you know it will melt in the afternoon heat. No, this is real snow, at least six inches deep. It covers the street and hangs heavily from the trees, transforming the yard into a picture of white. The street hasn’t been plowed yet, and there are no signs of people. The only blemish in the perfect coating of white is a set of tiny animal tracks leading from the evergreen to the base of the big elm tree in our yard—a squirrel, likely. The snow clinging to the tree branches cause the boughs to sag under the weight. Heavy snow is the best, not great for sledding but perfect for building a snowman with my sister or a snow fort for protection against a barrage of snowballs from the Allen twins next door.
The sky is a brilliant cobalt blue, that color no one can capture in a painting or photograph. It’s the kind of winter day where everything is in complete focus. Every snow-covered twig stands out in stark detail. The wind pushes a piece of colorful wrapping paper up against the Slow—Children sign that marks the property line between our yard and Mr. Crowley’s. The sign is an ongoing joke between JK, my best friend, and me. When he first saw it, he asked me if it meant drivers should slow down because there are children or if the neighborhood was populated with children who are “slow.” Politically incorrect jokes about me riding the short bus invariably followed.
My focus is so clear I can tell it’s Santa Claus wrapping paper pushed up against the sign, with the old fat guy in red smiling broadly in front of his sleigh and smoke rising from a pipe gripped firmly in one hand. The paper has a rip down one side, as if it had been torn quickly to get to the present lying beneath the colorful veneer. A piece of transparent tape hangs off one side, flapping in the breeze.
“You coming down, Brian?” my mom calls up from downstairs.
“Yeah, I’ll be down in a minute.”
I tear myself away from the window and gather up a handful of boxes labeled “Christmas decorations.” I make sure to check that the box holding the stockings—plain ones for my parents and the cross-stitch ones my mom had made for my sister and me when we were born—are at the top of the stack. Before making my way to the stairs, I steal one last look out the window.
The snow is gone.
I press my nose to the window and stare out at the brown winter grass, no longer hidden under a blanket of white. The brilliant azure sky is now a dark smear of gray. I rapidly open and close my eyes, somehow trying to blink the snow back into existence. I want to think I had imagined the whole thing, but the vision had been so clear there was no way I created it in my mind.
I make at least a dozen trips up and down the attic steps over the next two hours—I was right that my mom got more into the Christmas spirit with each box of decorations I brought down—but the view out of the window doesn’t change. The grass remains yellow-brown, the sky ash gray. There isn’t a trace of snow anywhere. I check the window on each visit to the attic, but I don’t see the snow again.
I put the strange vision out of my head as I release the attic stairs to ascend back into the ceiling. I smile as my mom sings off-key but enthusiastically to a Kelly Clarkson Christmas CD. I take a sniff, hoping to smell chocolate chip cookies baking. Not yet, but it won’t be long.
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