Unwrapped

By

A blanket of night covers the canvass of the sky as the downy wings of snow spiralled down the cold, unassuming earth. Silence whispers across the landscape of the playground. I could see a multitude of stars speckled across the darkness, as if strewn delicately from someone’s hand. One star shines particularly brightly, like a beacon for the morning.

It is Christmas Day. I wish I could say that fact with some enthusiasm, some semblance of excitement, but I can’t muster it. I don’t remember ever being excited for it – not even as a kid. The years may slip by, but Christmas was the one thing that I can count on for being the same. My mother huffily preparing the pre-bought Tesco Christmas meal, my father silent and recalcitrant as he watches “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the tangible absence of my sister as she runs off to Millie’s or Joan’s or wherever – so long as it’s not home. Uncle Stanley and family were closeted at the tiny dining room, asking polite questions about my piano lessons while their eyes speared me with pitied, knowing glances.

I spear the night sky with a tightly-packed snowball. It lands on the grey snow-ground with a pathetic thud. I wonder where he is. I could hear voices shouting in the distance… but I know it’s not him. He said he’d be coming, but it’s two minutes past eight and already it feels like forever.

To distract me from my thoughts, I start building a snowman. It’s odd but although Emmanuel came into this small city only a few months ago, it felt like he’s known me all my life. At first, we just connected over things like Neil Gaiman novels and basketball, but the thing about Em is that he’s great at asking the hard, personal questions. The kinds that you don’t ask till you’ve fulfilled some sort of friendship criteria first. You’d think I wouldn’t answer him, that I would pack up my lunch and leave the conversation. But to my surprise, I found myself answering them. I don’t think I even fully understood all my answers, but he seemed to.

The sound of a broken twig alerts me to someone’s arrival. I whirl around and there he is.

“Hey, Jordan,” Em says.

“You’re five minutes late,” I grumble, though secretly relieved that he came.

He looks amused. “What are you talking about? I arrived exactly when I’m meant to.”

I walk over to the merry-go-round. Somehow – I really don’t know how – he knows that my sour mood isn’t because of his tardiness.

“What’s up?”

I see the star above flash out against the endless black.  I taste the flash of angry words that tumbled from my lips, hurled towards my parents. I feel the sting on my cheek that bit worse than the icy air now. I hear the coats, and scarves, and gloves I put on, rustling more loudly than the playground-leaves. I feel my blurred vision as I made the solitary trek towards the playground.

Another silence settles.

“Is it home?” I turn away from his questioning stare. “Tell me about it?”

“Just angry words spoken. Mum got back from the store and got mad because Dad didn’t set the dinner out. She was just yelling. And he was yelling back. It was like a symphony, really. And Uncle Joe was looking at me. I stood up and I said…”

I just let the silence stretch on as the minutes drip by. The merry-go-round shudders on in a continuous circular motion. On and on.

“Do you think it’ll ever stop?” I ask him.

He looks at me. “Yeah, of course,” he says. He launches himself off the merry-go-round, arms wide apart against the dark sky. He lands on a deep bank of snow before resurfacing a few seconds later.

I laugh. “Thanks,” I tell him, “for being there.” And to stop the moment from being too sentimental, I add with an eye-roll, “You’re a great counsellor.”

He chuckles. He gets up, and brushing the snow off the jacket, he walks over to the merry-go-round before stopping it with his gloved hand.

“I’ve got a present for you,” he says, pulling an unwrapped gift from his jacket.  But I see it – the gift – right in front of me.

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