Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fiction: Sleigh, by: Erin L. Snyder



It’s not like we were looking for it. But I’m not going to lie, try to make it sound like we were out on a roof at 1:00 AM on December 24th and weren’t up to no good. Look, we were kids, punks. That’s just how it is. We weren’t thinking of our futures, our families, our girlfriends: none of that, none of what was on the line if we got caught, or worse. We were out to make some mischief, grab some cash, and score some revenge.

See, Mr. Colmoore, he’s our bio teacher, was going away for Christmas break, down to the Bahamas. How’s a high school science teacher afford a trip to the tropics? His wife’s a scientist, too, but while he spends his days making our lives hell, she spends hers raking in the dough at some research firm or something.

Colmoore’s got it in for us. I don’t know, he’s a scientist, so he’s a nerd, so he probably got his share of swirlies back in the day. So now he’s got to take it out on all jocks. I’m just guessing, but there’s not a guy on the team getting better than a C in his class, not even Paulman, and he’s actually smart.

So four of us got together and got to thinking. Colmoore was going out of town, and he had some cash, thanks to that wife of his. It’s not that hard to find out where a teacher lives, not if you’re serious. And it turns out Colmoore was living in an apartment building in Brooklyn. We figured it wouldn’t be that hard to break into an apartment, as long as we could reach the fire escape.

The hardest part was getting out on Christmas Eve. Jason somehow convinced his folks he was going caroling. At midnight. Jason’s folks aren’t too bright.

Paul had it easy: he’s Jewish, and his parents could care less what he was doing Christmas Eve. Kevin and I, we just snuck out when our folks were asleep. So long as everything went as planned, we should have been back long before they were up.

We met up in the alley behind the apartment complex, boosted ourselves up to the fire escape, then started up towards the fifth floor, making as little noise as possible. Paul, Kev, and Jason were on the fifth story, all crammed in together, while I waited on the ladder.

Kevin had brought a crow bar, and was trying to figure a way to open the window without smashing it and waking everyone in the neighborhood. Jason was trying to direct, but it was pretty obvious he didn’t know the first thing about breaking and entering, no matter how much bragging he’d done the past week. Paul was just trying his damnedest not to fall over the rail, since he was behind the other two.

Me, I was started to get scared, starting to feel the weight of it all. So I was looking around to make sure no one had noticed us. I got that feeling, like I was being watched, so I checked the alleyway below. There’s no one there, not even a bum. The windows on the facing building, a duplex, were dark. I was about even with the roof across the way, so it was hard to get a look into the windows beneath us. I peered down as well as I could. No one was looking back; no one I could see, anyway.

Absently, I glanced up at the roof and almost jumped. There were two sets of eyes looking back. I relaxed for a moment, as I realized they weren’t human: just some reindeer decorations.

Then the decorations moved.

“Jesus!” I shouted, slipping backward and grabbing onto the rail. Three voices shushed me in unison.

“Fuck sake, Mark. You’ll wake someone,” Jason hissed.

I just pointed up at the deer, and the others turned around and tilted their heads. “What?” Kevin mouthed. He looked to the others and to me, as if trying to get an explanation.

Paul stared, straight into one of the animal’s eyes. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out besides his breath and a barely audible gasp.

“Are they fake? Got to be fake,” Jason whispered. One of the deer snorted, sneezed, then looked away. Its breath was as white in the winter air as ours.

Kevin regained his senses. Either that, or he lost them entirely and said, “Hey. I think… I think if we go up another level, we’ll have a better view.”

I wanted to say we shouldn’t, wanted to say it was all too weird, and that we should just go home. That’s probably what we all wanted to say, and it’s certainly what each of us should have said. But the one of us who said that; he’d have been a pussy. So we all kept quite and started up to the fifth level.

“There are… onetwothree—“ Paul started.

“Eight,” Kevin interrupted, not needing to count. We knew, deep down, all knew there’d be eight. Even Paul knew, never mind that he’d never celebrated Christmas, that this shouldn’t even have been fantasy to him, shouldn’t even have been on his radar.

“Eight reindeer,” Jason said, “One sleigh. So. Where’s the jolly fat guy?”

Paul chuckled quickly. “Inside, right?”

“That’s right,” Jason said. “Look at those sacks.”

“But… this can’t be real,” I said. “I mean, it can’t be what it looks like.”

“You believe your eyes or not?” Jason asked. “Look. Those sacks, they got to be worth a fortune, right. Games, electronics, and all that.  It’s not far. We can make it, grab a few bags, then be gone. But we have to do it before San… before he comes back. We got to move.”

“What about Colmoore,” Paul asked.

“Forget Colmoore,” Jason replied. “Colmoore’s small time. This is once in a lifetime. Never going to get another shot like this.”

“All right,” Kevin said. “But we got to be quick. And… just the sack, right?” That question lingered for a minute, and I didn’t understand what he meant at the time.

“Yeah,” Jason replied, smiling. “Of course. What else is there to take?” He didn’t give Kevin a chance to answer. “Come on. Let’s go.”

He went first, in part to show it was safe and in part to show off. He grabbed hold of the rail, stepped over, then leapt. He seemed to hang in the air for a moment, arms circling to his sides, before he landed on the roof. Paul was next, and he went with a look of determination, maybe even anger. Now that we were the last two on the fire escape, Kevin cupped a hand over my shoulder and whispered, “I don’t like this. Last summer….”

“Hey,” Jason hissed, waving frantically for us to follow. “Let’s go, ladies.”

“It’ll be okay,” I said, and Kevin just rolled his eyes. We went at the same time. I hit hard, and almost went off the edge before catching myself. No one seemed to notice, and I was more relieved at not losing face than my life. Hell, when you’re seventeen, right?

There we were, on a roof in Brooklyn at one on Christmas morning, staring at something that couldn’t be real. The deer had stepped back a bit as we jumped, but other than that they didn’t seem concerned. One leaned over to chew some snow; another relieved himself.

Paul laughed, unable to believe any of it. He wasn’t being quiet, either. Jason hit him in the arm. “Come on. Keep it down for Christ’s sake.” But Paul just laughed again.

Kevin kept an eye on Jason. “Let’s get what we’re here for and go, all right?”

“You scared, Kev?” Jason asked, smirking.

“No. But I don’t want to get caught up here.”

“Then let’s do this,” Jason said, clapping his hands together.

Paul was already heading towards the sleigh. He was moving slowly, savoring every step over the snow-covered roof. He was like… I don’t know… one of those kids in Christmas specials. He had one of those grins on his face, one of those impossibly wide smiles you think can only exist in cartoons. Yeah, well, he was actually smiling like that as he climbed into the back and started rummaging through one of the bags.

The sleigh was red, not bright red but more a deep burgundy. The runners were silver, as was most of the trim. The reins and harness were leather – we could smell it before we ever got near it. The whole thing looked like an antique, but you could tell it’d been kept up. I remember thinking how sturdy it looked, even at a glance.

Jason hurried to join Paul in the sleigh, while Kevin and I hung back a bit. “Hey,” Kevin said, seeing that Paul was hesitating. “Hey, we can go through it later, right? Just grab one and let’s go!”

But Paul and Jason weren’t paying much attention. Paul had his head almost immersed in one of the bags, and Jason asked, “What’s in there?”

Paul looked up. His eyes were wide open in almost a reverent stare. “Everything,” he said.

Jason looked back over his shoulder at us and motioned for us to follow. Then he jumped into the front seat.

“No,” Kevin said, starting over towards the sleigh. “Get out, Jay,” he said.

“What is it?” I asked Kevin.

“He lied to us,” Kevin said. “Last October, we jacked a car. He does it sometimes. Joyrides around the Bronx.”

“What, you’re my mother?” Jason asked. “So I like to drive, what’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is you crashed, could have gotten us killed.”

“We didn’t get caught. No one got hurt.”

“In a car, no.”

“This isn’t the time for this,” I said. “We got to get the bag and get down.”

“How do you think Jay’s planning on getting us down?” Kevin asked. It came together for me then: the stolen car, the smirk on Jason’s face, and the sudden realization this house didn’t have a fire escape. Jumping over was one thing: getting back wouldn’t be so easy.

I stared at Jason, who just shrugged. “Guess we’ll have to borrow the sleigh,” he said, matter-of-factly, as if that was the plan all along. Paul just laughed from inside the bag.

“Like hell I’m riding in that thing,” Kevin replied.

“Way I see it, you guys don’t got much choice,” Jason said. “In a few seconds, something’s coming up from that chimney. I’m thinking you don’t want to be here when he does, especially not with the sleigh missing.”

Kevin grinded his teeth, but he realized Jason had us. As soon as we leapt, our fates were sealed.

“Right,” I said, grabbing a hold of the side and pulling myself up into the back of the sleigh beside Paul. I offered a hand to Kevin, who took it after shooting me a look. It was as if I made him do this, as if I’d put him in this situation. I helped pull him onto the side, then he vaulted over, so he was in front with Jason.

“Don’t look so down,” Jason said. “We’re getting a hell of a lot more than we bargained for. Just hold on and enjoy the ride.” He grabbed the reins, whipped them as hard as he could, and screamed, “Mush!” like they were sled dogs.

The deer looked up in unison, eyes pointed straight forward. “Getyup!” Jason added, swinging the reins again. This time, they bolted to the right, pulling the sleigh towards the edge. They leapt off the roof, and over they went, two-by-two, with us right behind.

We were screaming now, even Jason, who was pulling at the reins. Only Paul was still laughing.

It was like we were falling and running at once. The deer were flying, I think, or maybe they were charging through the air, but they were heading downwards at an angle, skimming the building we’d ascended just minutes before. The deer in front skidded against the corner as we swung by, and the wall took a chunk out of the sleigh, as well.  Jason seemed to figure out some of what he was doing, because he got them to turn up. We began gaining altitude.

But that one deer was limping now, and even over the wind we could hear his forced breathing. Jason whipped the reins again and called, “Mush!” again. A hundred bells along their harnesses rung out as we went. We were moving quickly, but not steadily. The sleigh shook as the deer bound on, as if we were riding over stones. As we lurched up and down, we’d rise a few inches into the air then crash back down back onto the seat. I gripped the side to try and keep my balance.

“We gotta land!” I screamed over the whipping wind. I looked down at the streetlights and uncommonly quiet streets below.

“Screw that!” Paul yelled. “Let’s see what this thing can do!”

Jason cheered the reindeer on, driving them harder. I looked down and realized we were leaving Brooklyn, heading over the river towards Manhattan. The lights were replaced by a black expanse.

It had been an unseasonably warm night, but I’d never been that cold in my life. I don’t know how high we were, but between the wind and elevation it was freezing. I didn’t even dare pull my coat closed for fear of falling out.

“Where the hell are you taking us?” Kevin yelled at Jason.

“I got no idea!” Jason yelled back. “Hell, I don’t even know how to steer this thing!”

From beside me in back, Kevin grabbed Jason’s arm to make sure he had his full attention. Kevin was glaring at him and looked like he might hit him. “This isn’t funny!” he yelled, despite the laughter emanating from Paul.

“You want to drive?” he asked, thrusting the reins into Kevin’s hands. “Be my guest!”

“Jesus!” Kevin screamed, as the sleigh entered into a spiral. “Take them back!”

“I want to drive!” Paul yelled, trying to climb into the front before the sleigh’s momentum pushed him back. I grabbed a hold of him to keep him from falling out. He just looked annoyed.

“Fine,” Jason said. “Then quit your whining.” He managed to get the sleigh straightened out again, and we were on our way into Manhattan. We sailed by City Hall before gliding over some of the smaller buildings and finally winding up over Broadway. After that, Jason just followed it north until he veered onto Fifth. He picked up altitude, then started circling in, closer and closer to the Empire State Building. He had the sleigh in control by that time, and the ride was no longer so shaky. The red and green lit tower was incredible as we swung around it, again and again. It was beautiful. I forgot about the cold, and even Kevin gasped and seemed content.

Just as we flew over the tip of the radio tower, it all went wrong. The deer at the front-left of the team – the one who grazed the building earlier - stumbled, and tripped. I don’t know how a flying reindeer tripped, but then again I don’t know how a flying deer flies. It was like he just stumbled and dropped. But he was in the lead, so half the deer tried to follow him, while the other half just kept going. The sleigh entered a corkscrew, spiraling through the air.

I don’t know what kept the sacks in place – magic, maybe – but whatever it was didn’t seem to have a hold of us. I clung to the side; Kevin and Jason managed to keep a hold of a bar in front.

But Paul… I remember looking over at him, no longer laughing, but not screaming like the rest of us, either. He was just still, silent like he was in a daze. He didn’t move to catch himself or react at all. He just… went limp. And, like a fleck in a snow globe, he drifted away, out of his seat and into the air. And he was gone, skimming down towards the streets below.

We weren’t that far behind. Even when the deer got upright, we weren’t in control. They were running like a herd, while the one who’d collapsed was dragged below, pulled along by the harnesses linking them. It was like a fish on a line being pulled by a motorboat, drifting and bobbing. It looked sort of funny, but none of us were laughing.

“Do something!” Kevin shouted.

“I’m trying,” Jason screamed back.

“Paul!”

“I’m… I’m sorry!” Kevin said. “I didn’t… Why didn’t he hang on?” Then, at me, “Why didn’t you grab him?”

I didn’t say anything; I just braced myself as the sleigh lurched back and forth. There was nothing we could do: the reins had dropped off the side and were dangling below the collapsed deer.

We saw them veering towards the building, and Jason actually yelled at the deer: “Look out!” as if they were listening.

The one being dragged touched down first, and the others tripped over it. The sleigh rolled, and we held on as best we could.

It was over so quickly. I couldn’t believe at the time they’d landed without going over the edge, but on hindsight they must have had a lot of practice. I remember trying to pull myself out from under the sleigh, only to discover my arm hurt too much to move. I’d seen enough injuries on the field to know what it meant.

My face was half pressed into the snow, but I could still see out. I saw what happened next.

There was a flash of dim light, then he was there, dressed in red. Just like the stories, right? All fat and red coat and white trim. But he didn’t seem happy.

I think I blacked out, because the next thing I remember the sleigh was upright. I was sitting, propped up against the ledge. Jason was limping, holding Kevin, who was completely still. He was moving towards the man in red.

Jason was rambling. “Come on, man. You got to help him. Listen to me. He’s hurt bad, but he breathing. He’s still alive, but we got to get him to a hospital, right? You got to take him.”

The figure in red cleared his throat. He stepped forward and started to raise a hand, as if to help. But then he stopped and stepped back. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them he seemed so sad. I’ve never seen anyone look that sad, not in my life. And he said, “I’m sorry. I want to help your friend, but I can’t. I’ve lost too much time already, and I have too much left to do. I really am sorry.”

With that, he turned away and climbed into his sleigh. Two of the deer were lying in back with the sacks. I’d like to think they were just asleep, but I don’t really believe that. He cracked the reins and said, “On Prancer,” and he was off in a flash.

They found us on the roof a few hours later. By then, it was just me and Jason: I don’t know if anyone could have saved Kevin if we’d gotten him to a hospital, but I wish he’d have had a chance.

Jason had it worse than I did. I got out with a fractured arm: he’d broken… Christ, two bones in his left leg, three fingers, two ribs, his nose… I think there were a few more, but I don’t remember what they were.

I guess we should have spent those hours on the roof agreeing on a story or something, some kind of explanation we could offer the authorities. But I don’t remember saying a single word to Jason the entire time we were up there. Not one word.

And you can damn bet they had questions for us after they’d patched us up. Who can blame them? Two injured teenagers where they shouldn’t be, a third dead beside them. And then Paul: Paul’s body wound up half a mile away, skidded over half a block of city street before embedding itself in the grill of a parked delivery truck.

I spoke to cops, lawyers, the FBI, and even Homeland Security. They said they’d charge us with treason, that terrorists must be involved, and so on. But none of that materialized. I didn’t tell them the truth, didn’t tell them anything, honestly. I just shrugged and kept saying I didn’t remember how I got up there, and I didn’t know how my arm was broken.

Lying to the cops was easy. Lying to Kevin and Paul’s parents… that was tough. They knew I wasn’t telling them everything, just like everyone knew. If there was something I could have said, truth or lie, that they’d have bought, I’d have said it. Hell, if I could have explained it by saying we were international jewel thieves, I’d have done it and gone to prison. Whatever.

But in the end, what could they charge us with? No one could come up with a plausible theory for what happened, so they had to let us go.

A few years later, Jason enlisted with the army, and they sent him to Afghanistan. I think I was the only one not surprised when they shipped him back with a medal. Awarded posthumously, of course. I guess it’s easy to get honored for courage when you’re looking to die.

Not me, though. Yeah, I know some of what happened was my fault, and yeah, every December I start thinking how I don’t deserve to be here. But I guess it’s just me now, and someone’s got to remember what happened.

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