Fiction: Walter

Hope you're in the mood for a little magical realism, because that's what I've got today. For those of you who haven't been following along, every day from December 1st through the 25th I'm providing a new piece of short genre fiction about Christmas Eve.

By: Erin L. Snyder

The weeks leading up to the last day I ever saw Walter were bizarre to begin with. Come to think of it, the decade leading up to that Christmas Eve was pretty bizarre. Walter has always been... odd. Hell, I started hanging out with him because I felt sorry for the guy. That was... eighth grade, I guess. I mean, I was never what you’d call ‘one of the cool kids,’ but people seemed to like me. I had friends back then, groups I belonged to; hell, even a girlfriend. Walter didn’t really have any of that. I mean, there were people he ate with at lunch, people he hung out with and all that, but he never really seemed to care about any of them. There wasn’t a lot he did care about. Certainly not school. He could have aced those classes if he’d tried, but none of it really seemed to click with him. He never went out for sports or anything. He always seemed like the kind of guy who should be hanging with the nerds, but he just didn’t care. When he got into high school, most people assumed he was a stoner, but he never touched any of that stuff.

Honestly, I was just about the only person he talked to. What made me so special? Far as I can tell, it’s because I gave him a Christmas present once in ninth grade. No, seriously. See, it turns out there was one thing Walter did love, and that was Christmas.

I mean, most people think they love Christmas. Who doesn’t like Christmas, right? But with Walter... shit. I think it was almost romantic love or something. Not in some perverted sense or anything; it’s just that there was something there. A spark or something. I never really got it. For me, the best part of Christmas was a week out of school and a few new video games. I hadn’t believed in Santa since I was six and Jesus since I was seven: as far as I was concerned, it was the granddaddy of all hyperinflated toy commercials.

Other than Christmas, there was only one other thing I’ve ever seen Walter love. Well, maybe two, but I’m jumping ahead of myself here. See, in his senior year, his father decided Walter needed a car, so he bought him a 1994 Chevy Corsica. This thing had a hundred and fifty thousand miles on it when Walter got it; it had seen better days. But for whatever reason, Walter fell in love.

I really don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone take better care of anything than Walter did that car. Like I said, the guy was smart, and he started reading up on automotive repair. Then on design. Engineering. Within a year, he’d read through the library’s entire car section and most of what they had on physics. He started tinkering.

I was glad to see him take an interest in something. I was in college by this time. Alright, community college: never said I was some kind of genius, but I knew I’d be better off with a degree than without one. Not surprisingly, Walter didn’t care about his future. But apparently he did care about car repair. And for a while it looked like that might pay off. He took a job at Henry’s Garage, and damn if he wasn’t great. He could run circles around Henry, fix anything anyone could tow in front of him.

Henry, for his part, kept trying to convince Walter to go to school, get a degree in this stuff. “Ford’ll pay you six fig’s,” I hear him say. “Sky’s the limit, kid.”

But Walter... he just smiled and shook his head. “I don’t care about any of that stuff. I’m happy here.” Thing is, he wasn’t. I might have been the only one who could tell, but Walter was never happy, not really.

Henry didn’t know that. All he knew was wasted talent. You ever seen a sixty-five year old grizzled vet break down into tears and tell an eighteen year-old he was an artist and it was breaking his heart seeing that talent squandered? It’s a hell of a thing.

Walter didn’t care. He just kept at it. He kept that Chevy running, and he kept learning more and more. Every time I saw him, he rolled up in that old thing, and every time I expected to see it fall apart around him. I think he must have rebuilt half that car. But there’s a limit to what you can do, and eventually it just stopped running.

I asked Walter what had done it, and he said something about fuel injection and how he thought he’d be able to get around the problem. But within a few weeks he’d bought a used Dodge. I cracked a line about Old Yeller (which Walter didn’t think was funny) and assumed the matter, along with the Chevy, was done with, even if he’d entombed the Chevy in his garage and relegated his pickup to the curb. All this was in the spring; I wouldn’t realize how wrong I was for nine months. Not until that Christmas Eve.

Like I said before, the weeks leading up to that day were weird. Walter’s life had started unraveling, not that you’d know it to see him. Harry decided it was time to retire and shut the shop, and Walter seemed pretty content. Mark, his landlord, started calling me - I still don’t know how he got my number - trying to track down Walter, seeing as how he was two months overdue on his rent. When I asked Walter about it, he shrugged and asked if I wanted to hit the bar.

Christmas was coming up, and Walter was out of a job and - unless things changed drastically - about to be out of a home. And for a guy who’d spent the previous entirety of his life in a depressed daze, he seemed to be doing pretty well for himself.

It all came to a head on Christmas Eve morning. I got a call from Walter at six in the goddamn morning. “Hey, Kyle. Merry Christmas.”

“The hell’s wrong with you? Do you know what time it is?”

“Huh? Oh, right. Sorry, man. Listen, I might be going on a trip soon, and... it’s a long story. But I wanted to know if you want my 360? Games, too.”

“What?”

“My X-Box. I’m not taking it. I’m not taking much of anything, and I’ve got a feeling what I don’t give away is just going to get sold by Mark. Thought I’d give you first dibs.”

“Wait. What? Where are... I’m coming over.”

“Cool. Make it fast, though. I’ve got a lot to do today.”

I threw on my clothes, grabbed a chocolate bar from the counter, and ran out the door to try and talk a friend out of killing himself. But when I actually reached his house and found him in his garage with the door open, he looked about as animated and energetic as Walter got.

“Hey, Kyle. Glad you came by. Want to take a look at those games?”

“What? Walter - forget the games. What the hell’s going on?” I don’t know why I even asked. I could see damn well what was going on: the Chevy’s hood was wide open, and it was obvious Kyle had been tinkering. In fact, from the look of things, he’d been tinkering for quite some time. I’ll be frank - I don’t know shit about cars and less about how they’re supposed to look under the hood. But I know how things aren’t supposed to look, and that’s exactly what I was looking at. There was... too much there if that makes sense. Way too much.

“Oh, you mean mean the Corsica? Yeah, I’ve been doing a little work in my spare time. You know, it all kind of turned into a hobby.”

“Right. Does it... I mean... does it work?”

“She’ll start up,” Walter said, grinning. “She’ll work. Today at least.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Didn’t you say the fuel thing was busted?”

“Fuel injection,” Walter said. “Yeah, that was part of the problem. Honestly, just about everything from the transmission to the suspension was shot. I’d started replacing it all, but at some point it just started feeling pointless. I mean, think about it. A car’s engine is what’s destroying it. Putting it back the way it is, it just doesn’t make any sense. If I poured gas on you and lit a match, it wouldn’t really count as warming you up, right?”

“Right,” I said, because it sounded better than telling him he was nuts.

“I figured there had to be another way, a better way of doing it. I mean, why’s a car have to run on gas, anyway?”

“You mean, like, vegetable oil?”

“No. I looked into that, but you’d run into the same problem. No explosions. No motor. None of that. I rebuilt the engine to run on magic. Well, Christmas magic, anyway. You know, good will and holiday cheer. Because that stuff’s just around. You can just pull it right out of the air.”

I stared at him, not sure whether he was messing with me or if he’d completely gone over the edge. Walter stared back for a minute, shrugged, then went back to work, adjusting wires and tightening a few bolts. I stayed there, just watching him for about five minutes. Froze my ass off, too, but I couldn’t think of a single thing to say or do. Then, abruptly, Walter slammed the hood of his car shut, gathered up the tools he was working on, and turned back to me.

“Want to go for a ride?”

To this day, I’m not sure why I got in that car. Maybe I just wanted to be there to comfort him when nothing happened. Or maybe I still thought this was some kind of messed up joke I just hadn’t figured out yet. Whatever the reason, I climbed into the passenger seat, and Walter inserted a key.

At first I thought the radio came on and I was hearing Christmas music or something. Mostly, it was like bells or something. I honestly don’t know whether I’ve ever heard sleigh bells in my life, but I’d bet money that was what I was listening to. Only, in the distance, I’d almost swear I was hearing laughter, like I was hearing kids open presents on Christmas morning.

I felt warm. Hot almost, and I started to open my coat.

“Sorry about that,” Walter said. “Christmas magic’s strong stuff. I’ll turn it down.” He adjusted a dial on the dashboard, one of many which shouldn’t have been there. It was around this time I noticed a few things. I noticed the controls were about three times as complicated as they should have been, I noticed things like the radio and heater were no longer present, and I noticed for the first time that we were moving.

The car was going pretty fast, barrelling down Tavern Street. But it wasn’t making noise. I mean, I couldn’t hear anything coming from the car itself. Not the engine, not the road under us, not the radiator: nothing but the wind.

“This is incredible,” I gasped.

“I don’t know,” Walter said. “Suspension feels a little off.”

“No way,” I said. “This is the smoothest ride I’ve ever been in.”

“No, look. Walter dug around in his shirt pocket and pulled out a marble. He set it on the dashboard, and it rolled slowly toward my side of the car. “See?”

“See what? The road’s curved, that’s all.”

“Huh? Oh, no. We’re not touching the road,” Walter said.

“What?” I rolled down the window and looked out. I had to undo my seatbelt and practically lean out the car, but I finally got a good enough angle. Sure enough, we were about six inches off the ground. When I took my seat again, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. I was as pale as a ghost.

“Yeah. I’m going to head out of town. I need a good stretch of road, so I can get her up to speed. You have anywhere you need to be, Kyle?”

“What? Uh... no. I’m okay,” I said, still completely disoriented.

“You okay?”

“A little nauseous,” I admitted.

“Oh. Okay. I’ll turn up the magic,” he said, twisting a dial. The sounds of bells, children laughing, and ice cracking in moonlight filled my ears, and my stomach calmed down. Part of me felt better than I ever had before; another part felt all the more terrified.

The streets were pretty empty, which I suppose I should be thankful for. For the most part, the handful of people we did pass didn’t seem to notice us. The few that did were doing double takes or staring at us dumbfounded. It must have looked like an optical illusion or something.

When we hit the country, there was no one around. Just long, open stretches of road. That’s when Walter’s tests could begin in earnest.

“Jesus! How fast are we going?” I must have been yelling, despite the fact he could hear me fine. There still wasn’t a sound coming out of that car other than those distant echoes of holiday cheer.

“About one-ninety,” Walter said, calmly. “Yeah. See that. The car’s really starting to tilt. That’s a problem.”

Then there was a popping sound, the car banked, and I started screaming. We veered away from the road and pulled over a field. Walter braced the wheel, and the car tilted up. After that, I’m not entirely sure what happened, because my eyes were shut, and I was sure I was about to die.

“Easy,” I heard Walter say. He sounded amused, like he was stifling laughter. “Take it easy, Kyle. We’re stopped.”

I slowly opened my eyes and verified nothing was rushing by the car anymore.

“Sorry,” Walter said. “I really should have warned you that was a possibility. For what it’s worth, we were never in any danger.”

“The car... went... up,” I said.

“Yeah, but I brought us back down. Look. Fair warning this time: there might be a small jolt when we land.” He flipped a switch beneath the steering wheel, and the car dropped a few feet and landed on the ground. It was jarring, but not too bad.

Shaking, I pulled open the door and stepped out. I was breathing heavy when I heard Kyle get out as well. Before he shut the door, he popped the hood.

“You okay?” he asked.

I sat down. We were in a field, a good hundred yards from the road. “I’m okay, Walter,” I assured him, wondering whether or not that was true. Part of me was freaking out, but another part... I mean, that’s a hell of a thing. It was an adventure, and my mind was reeling at the possibilities.

Walter was just leaning under the hood, making adjustments and that sort of thing. “Yeah. The psychic aligner’s out of whack. I don’t think it’s transferring the residual energy from the Universal Unconsciousness right. Could you maybe hand me the screwdriver. No, no. It’s too... Uh. Know what? There’s a box of candy canes in the back seat. Could you grab me one? I think that’ll do the trick.”

“You can... you can get... magic out of it?”

“What?” Walter asked, looking around the hood at me. “Dude. It’s sugar and food coloring. What do you think?” He laughed.

“Well, what the hell do I know? I mean, I don’t know how the hell any of this shit is supposed to work!”

“Well, in this case, the candy cane is small enough to fit in the intake valve, so I can scoop out some of this astral discharge then correct the mechanism that prevents what we just went through.” I practically threw the candy cane at him, and he just chuckled. “Magic candy canes,” he muttered.

He worked for another fifteen minutes, shut the hood, and wiped off his hands. “Well, Kyle. I think she’s ready for another test drive.” I nodded, and Walter looked at me. “Look. If you’re not up for it, I can go alone.”

“I’m okay,” I said again. “Look, this is... it’s a lot. I mean, it’s a hell of a lot to take. But it’s also incredible.”

“Thanks,” Kyle said, as if I’d just told him I liked his shirt. “If you’re sure. It’s just... you’re not going to....”

“Going to what?”

“You know. Throw up. In the car.”

I punched him in the shoulder. “I’m not going to hurl,” I told him.

We got back into the car, and Walter started it up, again without any sounds beyond those of Christmas. Then he started driving over the field, not that we were really on the field. He sped up, adjusted some levers, and pretty soon we were really moving.

“How fast?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” Walter replied. “We’re off the speedometer. I only upgraded it to two-fifty.”

Then, without warning, we were off the ground, too. Technically, we hadn’t been on the ground at all, but we weren’t just a few feet off anymore. Now we were ten, twenty, thirty feet up and climbing. And this time I just leaned back and cheered.

I was a little sad when Kyle brought the car back down. “What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “She works. She works just like I’d hoped.”

“Then why are you... you know?”

“Why am I what?”

“Like, well, you. Look, Walter, I’ve known you a long time. I know when you’re upset, mostly because you’re pretty much always upset. And right now, there’s something gnawing at you. So, what’s going on?”

Walter sighed. “It’s just... you have to understand I can’t stick around. I don’t know what I’d do if I did. The car’s only got one more day in her here. This thing’s going on Christmas magic, and that doesn’t last all year. I’d have to wait it out, right?”

“So? What are you going to do?”

“I’m leaving,” Walter said.

“Leaving? Leaving for where? That town in Michigan that thinks it’s always Christmas?”

“God no,” Walter said. “I doubt it would ever work there. I need to go... north. I’ve got a feeling they’ll have work for me there, you know?”

“North?”

“North,” Walter said again. “And don’t say you don’t know what I’m talking about, because you do. And don’t say there’s no such thing, because if you do that, this car will short out.” I must have looked terrified, because Walter laughed and said, “I’m sorry. Kidding about that last part. But not the rest. I’m leaving this afternoon. I just need to pick up a few things at my old place.”

“Look, Walter. This thing you’ve done, I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve got something here. Something amazing. You show this to... I don’t know, the government or GE or someone, you could be set for life. You could be famous.”

Walter just looked at me sheepishly. He didn’t say it out loud; he didn’t have to. It just hung in the air. I don’t care about any of that.

The ride back was pretty uneventful. He took it slow and the car stayed low to the ground. We’d barely said a word to each other by the time we pulled into his driveway. We got out of the car, and I helped him gather up some clothes and food. He hardly brought anything else. I even saw him pull his cell phone out of his coat pocket and set it on the bookcase.

Once he was packed, he handed me the keys to his apartment. “You know where the 360 is,” he said. “Far as I’m concerned, anything in there, just take it and leave the keys on the kitchen counter. When Mark comes looking for me, just tell him I was acting weird, and you haven’t seen me. What’s he going to do, right?”

“I guess,” I said. “You’re really sure about this?”

“I am. I know it seems crazy, but....”

“Damn right it does,” I said, and we both laughed.

Then he kissed me. Once, quickly, on the cheek. And he stepped back to look at me. “I love you, Kyle,” he said.

I didn’t know until then. I think if any other man had said that to me, I’d have freaked out. But it wasn’t any other man: it was Walter. I wish I could have told him I loved him. And the thing is, I did love him, but not the same way. Not the right way. “I’ll miss you, man,” I said.

He left first, and I watched his Chevy drift away. I’d half expected to see some kind of magic powder coming out of the exhaust pipe or something, but there was nothing like that. It just looked like a car driving down the road. Only, if you looked closely, you could see the wheels never quite met the road.

So what happened next? Did I start getting new, unexplained X-Box 360 games every Christmas morning or hear echoes of bells on the roof? Afraid not. But no one ever came knocking on my door to say they’d found Walter dead in a car crash on a glacier, either, so it’s not like it’s all bad. I don’t know what happened to him or whether he found anything. But I kind of believe he did. If you asked me whether I believe in Santa Claus, I’d probably laugh at you. But I do believe in my friend.

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