John bounded over a mossy boulder, sending florescent green dragonflies scattering into the reeds at the creek’s edge. The chorus of gold-speckled frogs mating among orchids and irises quieted for only a moment and then returned to the trills and croaks of their courting songs. Softer rumbles echoed through the low-hanging branches of yellow blossoms as a troop of blue tree kangaroos passed overhead.
John paused to watch a bright blue joey stuff its nose into a cluster of scarlet blossoms and then yelp as the flowers burst apart in a flurry of annoyed hummingbirds.
Very rarely did John remember, much less miss, his old digital camera, but just now he would have loved to take a picture to share with Kyle. The wide-eyed expression of amazement on that fuzzy blue face cracked him up. An instant later, the young kangaroo skittered back into its mother’s pouch. John resettled the weight of his pack and continued down toward the camp.
Minutes later, he reached the circle of tents that overlooked the beach where their ship lay anchored. Most of the crew had come ashore to restock their fresh water as well as take in the astounding bounty of these lush tropical islands. A few of the crew stood guard, with their rifles at the ready, though so far the largest predators discovered were sleek olive green weasels. None weighed more than twenty pounds, but they hunted in aggressive packs and were fearless about raiding food from unattended supply tents.
Today, however, the local weasel pack napped under a stand of tree ferns looking fat and sated from their previous night’s hunt. Two of the more boisterous juveniles wrestled in the dappled sunlight, tossing up tufts of curly moss, while the adults stretched and snored. Their ears pricked up as John passed, but they’d already grown comfortable enough to largely ignore his presence.
He left his pack and its treasure of soil samples and seeds in his tent. Then he picked up the cleanest of his shirts and made a quick run to a small waterfall that trickled down from a steep cliff into the clear blue waters of the bay. He stripped, rinsing the dirt and sweat from his body. The fresh water felt chilly after so many hours in the sun, but John took a delight in absurd shock.
Neither hungry bones nor prowling sharks had shaken him, and yet here he stood, shivering, in a stream of merely cool water. Ludicrous.
Still, he made quick work of the wash and then clambered up onto the sun-baked surface of a limestone outcropping to dry and warm himself. He closed his eyes and stretched, feeling nearly as lazy and relaxed as the sated green weasels.
The cool whisper of the Gray Space opening didn’t alarm him. Though, he did casually pull his discarded trousers over his naked crotch—just on the off chance that it was Pesha and not Kyle stepping out onto the stone beside him.
“Such modesty on my account,” Kyle remarked with a laugh. “Or are you defending your virtue?”
John looked up at Kyle’s striking figure. The long, tightly tailored coats and trousers now fashionable in Nurjima displayed his lean body handsomely. The scarf wrapped around his neck looked nearly as white as the snow that sprinkled his dark hair and scarlet coat.
“It’s snowing in Nurjima already?” John asked.
Kyle nodded and knelt down beside him.
“It’s the twenty-fifth day of the Snow Month.” Kyle set down a heavy leather satchel and then tossed aside his scarf, coat, and brocade vest. “Not that anyone would believe it here in the tropics.”
They did tend to lose track of days while exploring the islands. There was just so much to see—not just wilderness but ruins as well—and the shift of equatorial seasons seemed so subtle compared to the hot summers and cold winters of the north.
“Did you even notice how long I was gone?” Kyle asked.
“Ten days. You know for a fact that I was counting every one of them.” John sat up and caught Kyle’s hands.
He stripped Kyle’s leather gloves off—the sight of the bare bone of his ring finger still arrested John but no longer shocked him—and he laid Kyle’s chilled palms across his own hot chest. “Tell me you don’t have to go back.”
Kyle caressed John but then drew away to pull his padded glove back on over his left hand. There were too many people wandering the beach and cliffs for Kyle to feel comfortable being so exposed. John understood that and so let it go. It was enough that Kyle knew that he wasn’t repulsed.
“Saimura’s decided to go ahead and share some of Ji’s spells with the Domu’lam, so I don’t think they’ll need me back for negotiations. Oh, and Hann’yu invited us both to attend the wedding of his youngest daughter this coming fall. Nothing more pressing than that, so it seems that I’ll get to sail back with you.”
“You look tired.”
Kyle shrugged and then pushed his battered satchel up against John’s naked thigh. The chill of the Gray Space still clung to the leather and the silver clasps felt almost frozen as John worked them open.
John lifted out an ancient tome and recognized it as the book he’d asked Kyle to translate for him what seemed like ages ago. A red ribbon bound it up like a gift, and as John turned it over, he noticed a piece of thick paper folded like a card and slipped under the ribbon.
“I know it took me long enough, but it’s done at last,” Kyle said.
John took the card and opened it. He recognized Kyle’s handwriting at once, though he almost never saw Nayeshi script anymore.
John, Happy Christmas.
And suddenly he remembered that he’d seen these exact words, in this exact script, once before but long, long ago.
At sixteen John already stood four inches taller than his father and could look both his older brothers directly in the eyes—not that he often did. He tended to keep his head down and his awkwardly knobby body slouched beneath shapeless layers of sweatshirts and coats.
But tonight he scratched at the tight, starched collar of the white dress shirt and scowled down at his black tie. Frost covered the surface of his window, but he continued to lean out into the cold December air. Snow blanketed the surrounding houses and drifted down from the dark sky. After a moment, he worked the tie off and considered throwing it out the second story window into the wild wind. His mother would be disappointed, he knew. He tossed the tie back onto his desk, then continued to gaze out at flakes of snow whirling haplessly on the twisting wind.
He’d done his best to look grateful when he’d unwrapped the gift box and seen that his mother had purchased yet another cheap shirt and tie set for his Christmas present. Between the poor fit of the shirt, his ugly buzz cut, and hand-me-down slacks, John felt certain he exuded all the sex appeal of a missionary with head lice.
Not that he wanted to be sexy, exactly, but it would have been nice if just once David Lewis—who had kissed him in third grade—even noticed him as they passed in the hall. Though, it would have been even nicer if Andrew Salazar didn’t notice him.
John had already been suspended for fighting with Andrew before the Christmas break. His black eye matched the tie his mother had given him, though, given time, the bruises would fade.
And John supposed he could take consolation in the fact that Andrew was probably having a worse holiday than him. After all, Andrew wasn’t going to get his teeth back.
John sighed. He was just feeling lonely and sorry for himself when really he knew he was lucky to have a family who gave him gifts—even if they didn’t suit him.
They meant well. Even now he remembered his pale, willowy mother’s hopeful expression.
“You’ll look so nice at Midnight Mass,” she’d assured him, though she’d frowned when her gaze had settled on his left eye. His father, seated in his favorite chair like a crew-cut Conan on his throne while the rest of them gathered around the tree, gave a derisive snort.
“Dress him up all you like, Anna, he still looks like a hoodlum with that face. Mark my word, Father Castello will be watching him like a hawk when the collection plate passes his way.”
“Thanks, Mom.” John ignored his father and then picked up his other present.
It bore a tag claiming that it came from his father, but John knew that their mother did most of the holiday shopping. He also knew that the box wasn’t going to contain either of the items on his wish list. He felt like a spoiled brat for the disappointment that filled him even before he tore into the candy cane wrapping paper. He opened the box and then just stared at the glossy black leather of the Mizuno Global Elite baseball glove inside.
“You didn’t actually buy him those stupid books, did you?” His sister Mary craned her head to peer at him from the other side of the flocked and blinking tree. She, like John and Luke, strongly resembled their father. Neither her pink lipstick, fuzzy sweater, nor her long blond curls quite softened the masculine quality of her big-boned frame and angular face.
“Don’t be silly,” their mother replied with a smile. She winked at John as if the botanical books he’d requested had been some kind of practical joke. “Father got you all something fun.”
“So what’d you get?” This time the question had come from his eldest brother, Luke, who was in his second year of college and just daring to wear his hair a little long. Their father had teased him about turning into a ‘damn hippie’, but John thought the look suited him. Paul, the baby of the family, now gazed thoughtfully at Luke’s hair while mouthing the caboose of his new toy train.
Mark, who was only two years older than John, simply grabbed the box from his hands.
“Holy—” Mark just caught himself before he’d uttered an obscenity in front of their parents. He pulled the baseball glove out and then craned his head back to their father. “What did John do to deserve something like this?”
“It’s just a baseball glove.” Mary and their mother had exchanged a dismayed glance.
“This is a Mizuno. It’s the glove Ichiro uses!” Mark announced. “They cost, like, three hundred bucks or more.”
The room went very quiet. From the radio in the kitchen, Bing Crosby assured them that they were walking in a winter wonderland.
“Three hundred dollars?” John’s mother stared at her husband as if he’d gone out of his mind and John shared her sentiment.
He played baseball, but not with any great talent or real enthusiasm. Unlike both of his older brothers, he wasn’t going to win any sports scholarships. His real passion lay in the sciences, botany in particular. Though his father didn’t seem quite able to remember that, no matter how often John, or his science instructors, mentioned it. It was almost as if his father couldn’t accept John loving something he didn’t understand.
John frowned down at his empty hands. If choosing botany over baseball was too much for the old man, John felt certain that he’d go apeshit if he ever discovered how far John had strayed in his other preferences.
“Keep your panties on, Anna. I didn’t pay three hundred bucks. I bought it off of Lester after he got back from duty in Japan.” John’s father turned his cold gaze onto Mark. “Give your brother his gift back.”
“Yes, sir,” Mark replied automatically and then he hurled the glove. John caught it hard against his chest.
Great, now he and Mark had something new to fight over.
Fortunately, their father had picked up two Mizunos, and upon discovering his own, Mark’s resentment dissipated. The rest of the Christmas Eve gift exchange passed without incident. Luke graciously accepted his shirt and tie set as well as a pair of high-end cleats. Mary smiled grimly at the relationship book that their mother had picked out for her but seemed genuinely delighted when she saw that John had bought her the Natalie Grant album she’d recently added to her extensive Christian music wish list.
Though he wanted to kick himself when he realized that now they were all going to have to listen to it. Even their mother, who never missed a Sunday service, looked less than thrilled as yet another insipid song of faith filled the tidy living room. After the CD ended, their mother turned the radio back on, renewing the tinny soundtrack of Christmas classics.
Everyone but Paul and Father helped in the kitchen. It was Father’s prerogative to relax with a tumbler of scotch whiskey in the living room while Paul lay at his feet, shepherding his train between his father’s polished shoes. In the kitchen, Luke served as their mother’s human mixer, whipping and stirring anything handed to him, while Mary took full charge of recreating their great-grandmother’s traditional whiskey cake from the recipe that their mother had entrusted to her just this year.
“When you boys get married,” their mother said, “I’ll teach your wives my granny’s secret.”
“Bad luck, John,” Mark commented.
Luke reached out and offhandedly smacked the back of Mark’s head.
“What’d I do?” Mark demanded.
“I don’t know,” Luke replied. “Failed to evolve, maybe?”
John snickered over his heap of potato peels and Mark rolled his eyes.
“Nobody evolved,” Mary announced as she very carefully measured out cups of flour and raisins. “Evolution is a lie that atheists have used to weaken the faith.”
“Whoa, who failed biology?” Mark responded.
“Evolution is not a lie,” John stated.
At the same moment Luke asked, “Have you lost your mind, Mary?”
It was a rare occasion when Luke, Mark, and John all agreed, but their mother obviously didn’t appreciate that their consensus was against their sister.
“Don’t you boys bully Mary. She has every right to hold her own opinions.”
“But evolution isn’t a matter of mere opinion—” John began.
“John.” His mother eyed him sternly. “We’re not going to spend Christmas arguing. Leave your sister alone.”
Mary stuck her tongue out at John over their mother’s shoulder, but John let it go. He bowed his head and kept his mouth shut.
Once his uncles and aunts and cousins began pouring into the house, John went largely unnoticed. He became just one among the jumble of lanky blond boys and girls filling the seats at the dinner table and then later filling the church pew. After Midnight Mass, he slunk up to his attic bedroom and leaned out the small window to stare at the deadening uniformity of all the snow-cloaked houses surrounding theirs.
He wasn’t like the rest of them. And it wouldn’t have mattered so much, if he could have believed that his family could value his difference—or at least tolerate it. But where he’d gone ahead and bought his sister the album she’d wanted, despite the fact that he despised it, no one in his family seemed to even believe that John valued the books he’d requested. Instead, they’d chosen gifts that suited the boy they wanted him to be, not who he was.
John reached out and caught a drifting snowflake in his hand. It gleamed in glow of his bedroom light and then melted against his palm.
He felt suddenly petty for sulking about a few presents. He didn’t get what he wanted. It wasn’t the end of the world.
An icy chill seemed to whisper across John. His father would hit the roof if he knew John had the window open in the middle of December. John drew back from the sill and pulled the window closed.
Unbuttoning his dress shirt, he turned, and for the first time, noticed a tattered brown paper package laying on his desk beside his discarded black tie. The paper felt surprisingly cold as John picked it up and opened the folded card. It took him a moment to read the oddly angular script.
John, Happy Christmas.
He tore open the brown paper and found a battered copy of Botanical Morphology inside. He lifted the heavy volume to his chest, feeling suddenly overwhelmed. He had no idea who’d left the gift up in his room, but he felt utterly indebted and thankful. Not just for the book, but because someone—maybe a cousin, uncle, or aunt—valued his oddness enough to track the old book down and give it to him.
It had been very little and yet that one gift had inspired John with a kind of hope. Someday, somewhere, he would find people who would know him and value him.
Now, basking in the tropical sun of another world, John caught Kyle in his arms and pulled him into a deep kiss. Kyle’s cool hands stroked John’s sun-baked bare skin. He returned John’s kiss with hunger and smiled when they briefly broke apart.
“Thank you,” John said.
“If I’d known it would make you this happy, I would have finished translating the dreary thing sooner.” Kyle’s playful smile broadened into a grin.
“Not just for the book,” John told him. “For everything.”
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