The backdoor screen slammed shut as Shelly descended the stairs. She was quietly crying. Icy snow and slush slowed her way through the yard and the weight of winter emptied the afternoon of its sounds into a whispering December hush. She got to the gate and the cold metal handle stubbornly budged under her gloves but finally clacked open. She pushed and it scraped against the ground giving just enough space for her to squeeze out to the alley behind. It was deserted outside : Christmas Eve and the world was abandoned for the interior glow of television holdiay specials.
Shelly went down the alley and came out on the street alone. She trudged along the block and around the corner as the arctic air dried the tears on her cheeks and she felt ice form in her eyes. How she hated her family. Every holiday was the same : her father dead on the couch, watching football for hours. Her mother instead comatose in an endless series of soaps and sitcoms on the bedroom TV. When they talked, they fought.
On the last day of school she hated to come home. Two long winter weeks of forced familial contact was too much. Though she spent entire nights barricaded behind books in her bedroom, vacation still meant an unbearable amount of consecutive diurnal hours in close contact with her family. She never felt lonely until she was in their company. This year was no different. The traditional lunch of Christmas Eve – frozen turkey slices, canned corn, lumpy potatoes and unidentified gravy – had ended in a broken remote, a hole in the wall and a severe scolding for having spoke out of turn. Her father spewed corn and saliva as he shouted.
Shelly strolled a few blocks to Main Street but found it abandoned as well. The small shop that served hot chocolate was closed. The blinding cold made standing still for too long impossible so she decided to walk. The park wasn’t far away and there might be some ducks to keep her company, she hoped.
Tree trunks tore at the park’s pristine canvas, ripping dark wounds in winter’s clothes. Shelly stood for a moment at the edge of an untouched field of snow hearing only her hot breath and a sniffle. The last afternoon light melted into the grey fog in bleak shades of blue and grey blurring. She exhaled and started across toward the pond that slept just below the indistinct horizon.
Each step drudged and sank under her heavy boots, the snow grumbling underfoot. After crossing the field, she turned down a short ramped path behind a line of pines to the water’s edge. A cement bench nestled in the stubby stone wall shied from the frozen water. Shelly shoved off two armfuls of snow and sat down. Peering out over the pond’s scratched surface, she saw a family of ducks resting on the other side. They were huddled around a hole of broken ice under the little waterfall where the water fed in. She called to them but they didn’t seem to notice.
She wished she had some cigarettes, if only to have something to do. 7-Eleven was open but Shelly still had a few months before she turned eighteen. Finding some kind Christmas soul to buy her a pack tonight might be more trouble that it was worth, she thought, so she decided not to even try. She sat in silence with no other company than the distant ducks on the other side.
The stupor of the cold set into her bones and she sank into the grey void of twilight. A few thoughts lingered or passed but dissipated in the clouds of her lonely breath. A fuzzy cassette of white noise turned in her head, occasionally interrupted by her big boots kicking gravel or a quiet quack of duck. No one knows how much time passed before she heard a cough and a stumble to her left.
Startled back to the world, she leaned forward and saw a dark hat hobbling down the path. The head underneath was bent low over a pea coat whose sleeves were tucked into the pockets. Of the man inside she could only see a fountain of white beard pouring from two raised collars. Shelly thought she heard him mumble something but stayed still hoping not to be noticed. He came in her direction and not until he was upon her did he abruptly stop, astonished to find a wallflower perched pink in the snow.
– Oh, little girrl, what arre you doing herre ? His Rs rolled hard. His pale face blurred with his red cheeks, his blue eyes wide with surprise. Shelly looked up and caught whiff of dry alcohol in his warm presence.
– I, uh… her voice trailed off unable to utter a phrase from her frozen dream.
– Do you mind if I sit down ? There was something Slavic in his vowels. Shelly scooted over a bit, exposing some of her bench. The old man brushed off more loose snow with his gloved hand and sat down.
– Ah, dat’s much betterr… I have been on my feet all de day. He exhaled and rubbed his hands briskly over his thighs. Shelly didn’t respond. After a minute he turned his head and looked at her. She glanced up shyly from between her low hat and high scarf. His face was round and his exposed brow shone proud before his wool cap that he had pulled back too far.
– Arre you not cold sitting herre alone ? He spoke with two rows of broken brown teeth, uneven and misaligned. But his eyes were kind and a gentle concern coated his foreign voice.
– A little, I guess. She kicked the gravel again.
– Arre you not supposed to be home ? A young girrl like you must have a family. He searched for an answer in her eyes. – And what is dis ? You have been crrying ? Shelly sat up and wiped her cold hands across her numb cheeks.
– No, its nothing. It’s just cold.
The old man rocked back and reached in between his buttoned lapels. When his hand resurfaced, he nimbly spun the top off a silver flask and threw back a short swig.
–Ah, dat is gud. You drrink ? he held out the open flask, offering inquisitively. Shelly thought twice but then reached for it.
– Dis, he said thumping dully on its side, – is frrom moderr Rrussia.
Shelly held the flask in front of her face for a moment, undecided whether or not to drink.
– Go on, it make you feel betterr.
Shelly put the round lip between hers and lifted the butt. A burning rush of Soviet fire-ants crossed her tongue and rappelled down the sides of her throat.
– Ehe, she coughed. The old man laughed.
– De firrst drrink is always de most hard. Drrink again. Shelly resisted the idea of gobbling a handful of snow and threw back another swig, closing her watery eyes. The second drink in fact washed away the rash of the first, leaving a warm wake of numb in her mouth and an extending pool of warmth in her gut. She handed back the flask.
– Ваше здоровье ! He took another sip and twirled the top closed. Shelly stared.
– I’m sorry, I have not prroperrly intrroduced myself. My name is Nikolai Vladimir Ilyich Zyuzin. You can call me Nik. May I have de pleasurre of yourr name, Miss… ?
It is nice to meet you, Miss Shelly. Now, why arre you out herre alone in de cold parrk, Miss Shelly ? And on Chrristmas Eve too !
– I hate Christmas.
– Aw, now, why do you say dat my dearr ?
– My dad’s an asshole and my mom’s a bitch, okay ?
– Such angrry words frrom such a prretty girl ! Herre, take some morre of dis. He handed her the flask again. Shelly fumbled with the top and took another healthy drink. The smooth liquid now tasted like mercury and ice, she could feel the veins in her face carry metallic heat to her head. She noticed her nostrils were clear and inhaled a clean dose of winter air, sighing.
– So, why are you out here, Nik ? The liquid courage spoke before she could stop it.
– I am taking a small brreak beforre I must begin worrk tonight.
– What do you do ?
– I am, let us say, in humanitarrian aid.
– Like an N.G.O. ?
– Yes, you could say dat.
– And they make you work on Christmas Eve ? What bastards.
Nik chuckled, – It is not dat bad. I trravel much but I am at home most of de year. Shelly pondered Nik’s answers while he nursed the liquor again.
– Are you from Russia ? You have a strange accent…
– Да, I am frrom a verry rremote village in de norrt of Siberria.
– Siberia ? Isn’t it cold there ?
– Yes, he hunched his shoulders, – but it is peaceful.
– Isn’t it, like, deserted there ? Don’t you get bored ?
– No, I keep myself occupied with de office worrk and I have Mrs. Nikolai to keep me company.
– I wish somebody in my family was good company… Shelly instinctively reached for the flask. – My dad is always angry and my mom just watches TV all day. Shelly drank.
– Families can be verry difficult. But you must rremember dey love you. Maybe dey do not know how to show you, but dey do.
– Oh yeah ? And how would you know ? Shelly spat out spitefully.
– Derr arre two tings dat we cannot chose in life : ourr parrents and ourr childrren. We must only learrn to love dem forr what dey arre. And you must teach dem how to love you.
– Shouldn’t parents be the ones teaching their children ?
Nik drank and looked at Shelly tenderly.
– You have an old soul my dearr Shelly, but still a young body. You must help dem orr dey will neverr know how to love you in rreturn.
After a moment Shelly responded, – I just want to go away. Next year I’ll finish high-school and get the hell out of this stupid town.
– Gud. You will den travel de world and yourr youth will grow into dat old soul of yourrs.
Shelly shrugged and took another drink.
They sat for a long time in silence, passing the flask between them. Again, Shelly lost her sense of time, suspended in a warm dreamworld of a numbing liquor winter haze. At a certain point, the family of ducks came around the pond waddling in line. Nik pulled a half-crumpled packet of Saltines from his coat pocket and distributed the crumbs over the snow. Bursts of muffled quacks rose from a muddle of moving tail feathers as they ate.
When the ducks finished pecking the path clean, they hesitated a moment quack-asking if there was any more. Nik shook the empty wrapper displaying his other empty palm and the ducks waddled off, contented.
– Well, my dearr, I must go. It is verry nearrly nightfall and yourr parents will be worried. Shelly stirred but felt her head heavy with sharp alcohol.
– I think I’m gonna stay here a little longer… but then I’ll go home.
– Okay, Miss Shelly. It was verry nice speaking with you. Rrememberr, dey do love you. He took her hand, kissed it, and patted it between his own. Then he stood and started back up the path.
Just before he reached the top, Shelly was jolted awake by the returning solitude.
– Hey Nik, she called from behind. He turned and looked back at the young girl still sitting in the snow alone.
– Thank you, Nik.
He smiled warmly.
– Merry Chrristmas, my dearr Shelly, Merry Chrristmas. And he disappeared into the night mist of Christmas Eve.
Dedicated with affection to S.F.