I'll be home for Christmas
By Tom Balding
I breathe deeply as I step out of the bank into the humid night air. Three months and I still can’t settle into this job. Every customer puts me on edge. I know with certainty that one of them, one day, will try something, it’s just a matter of time in this city. I just have to be on the alert, every single day. Leaving at the end of the day takes a great weight off of my mind, and I can finally begin to relax. I close my eyes and take another breath.
Suddenly a firm hand claps my shoulder, and a wave of terror comes over me as I go to grab for my gun and pull away from them. Thankfully it only takes a second for me to realize that it’s my partner Joseph, who was locking up behind me.
“Jesus you’re jumpy, I thought you tuskers were supposed to be all stoic and tough.” He said with a laugh. “We gotta take the edge off of ya man. Let’s go grab a drink, my treat.”
He nevers fails to offend. But the promise of a free drink is enough to make up for it. “I think you and I have different views on what it means to be stoic.”
He chuckles with satisfaction as we begin our walk to the bar. I’ve worked with Joseph every day for these past few months, and he seems completely at ease, not only with our work, but with life in general in Muye. I don’t particularly like him, but I can’t help envying him. Though I could do without the constant boasting and exaggerated storytelling, which he has already started up with on our walk to the bar.
I’m about to ask for a reprieve, but suddenly he falls silent and stops in his tracks. I stop with him, my guard goes up naturally, unsure of what is wrong. I turn to him and see that he’s staring into the open doors of the building we are standing in front of. In my attempt to tune Joseph out I failed to notice that there was singing coming from the building. I look up and see the square over the door. It’s a church of the followers of Tempus.
I look back to Joseph. He looks entranced at the sound of the music. It’s being sung in his language, many of Tempus’ followers are Earth humans, and it dawns on me that today is an important holiday for his people.
I step forward to be next to him, and for a moment he breaks from the trance to speak.
“It’s so damn warm here, I forgot what day it was. I almost missed Christmas.” There is a soft sadness and longing in his voice. “Do… do you mind if we go inside for a second?” He asks, turning to face me.
I almost say no outright, as just standing here in the doorway is more than enough for me. But the look on his face and the pleading tone of his question sways me, if for no other reason than that I’m curious. This is a new side of Joseph. I nod my consent and his face lights up. We begin to go inside, and before we even cross the threshold Joseph has joined the chorus of joyful voices. A few of them turn to see the new arrival, but their eyes glance off of Joseph almost instantly and land on me. Most of them turn away quickly at the sight of me and choose to ignore my presence, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
The room is dimly lit with only a handful of lanterns and candles casting a soft glow across the room. The room looks like it was a waiting room or a lobby for an office before the war. The ceiling is so low I could reach out and touch it with ease. It’s coated in what looks like soot and ash, and the whole room smells of smoke. I feel almost choked by the atmosphere.
We quietly take seats on a small bench in the back of the room. There are maybe a dozen others in the congregation, and a few officials up on the makeshift platform at the back of the room leading the singing. There are no pews; only a few cobbled together rows of single chairs and benches, and even a couple empty crates. On each one is placed a loose pamphlet. I examine the one next to me, and it appears to be a handwritten choir program, so that the parishioners can sing along.
I shift in my seat as I scan the room. The singing had been more jovial when we walked in, but that song is ending and a new one is rising up. The room is quieter now, but the singing is growing in intensity. The mood has changed, and I feel that I’m intruding upon a ritual that was never meant for me. The new song is different from the others; it’s soft, almost sad.
I turn to Joseph to signal to him that I’m going to leave. I turn around and realize that he’s no longer singing along. He’s bent over, his head buried in his hands. I can’t tell but he may be crying. I’ve never seen him like this. I don’t know quite what to do, but I touch his shoulder to get his attention. He startles slightly as he feels my hand, and turns his head to meet my eyes, tears falling from his.
I recognize in his eyes a pain that I’ve seen those of my fellow Aunko countless times before; the loss of our home. For the first time I stop to think about how the Earthlings and us have gone through similar hardships. Joseph and I are both here because our worlds were taken from us, our other choices were slavery or death.
I think almost daily of how life on Aunko used to be, and everything that I miss that I can never have again. But Joseph and I aren’t the same. My people and I cannot go back, our world is dead. We have to move on, we have to make a new home anywhere we can, and for now that is Muye. But Earth isn’t dead, it’s only been stolen. Joseph’s home is being held captive by the Tedu’awvn war machine, but it is there. How can he ever truly move on?
As these thoughts race through my mind, I focus back on the song, and the words carry a new meaning. They aren’t merely conveying sadness and longing. They convey hope as well. Joseph has buried his face again, and I can’t find the words to say to let him know I understand. But an idea enters my mind that feels appropriate.
I reach down beside me and pick up the music sheet. I struggle to make out the handwritten scrawl in the dim candlelight, but I manage to find what looks to be the right song. English is a fairly straightforward language, if not a little inefficient. Where my reading fails my ears can fill in the gaps. With as much elegance as I can muster I begin singing along with the congregation. I draw several looks as my accent undoubtedly grates on their ears.
Joseph tenses up and looks up at me again, the pain in his eyes mixing with a new look of surprise and confusion. I do my best to let him see that I’m being earnest and not trying to mock him. Thankfully after a brief moment a smile spreads across his face, and he nods his understanding to me as he goes to wipe away his tears. He sits up in his chair, eyes closed, and takes a deep breath. He raises his voice in chorus with the rest of us, but with so much force and feeling that he drowns me out, as well as sounding above every other voice in the room.
The song is nearing its conclusion.
“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…”