Authors: Elliott Kay
“You came to my rescue a hundred times after that,” said Michelle.
“Likewise,” said Leticia. Her eyes wandered back to Lorelei and Rachel. “You know what they say about women who don’t help each other. They get a special place in hell.”
“Did anything happen with your ex-husband?” asked Lorelei.
“Yeah,” said Sandra. “Dumbass got drunk and wrapped his car around a telephone pole the night before Christmas Eve. We didn’t even find out ‘til Christmas Morning. He got almost a whole year of jail time out of it.”
“Ancient history now,” said Leticia. “All our kids are grown up and going to college. I’ve been waiting a long time to see Drew catch up to his sister at the U.”
“They don’t really let you ‘catch up,’ Mom,” Sandra said with a hint of sibling rivalry. “I’m gonna be done before he’s even a second year.”
“What can I say? My hobbies don’t come with a lot of scholarships,” said Drew.
“Neither did mine,” his sister teased right back. “Chemistry isn’t a hobby.”
“As long as you get it done,” said Leticia. She glanced at Drew. “Both of you.”
“I know,” he assured his mother. “Not like I can get a head start on anything. The quarter opens up in less than two weeks. Don’t worry, I got this.”
“What about you, Rachel?” spoke up Alex’s grandmother. “Are you in school?”
“Hm? Nah, I’m past that,” Rachel answered easily. “I’m working full-time now. I’m even on call tonight, you could say.”
“Oh, right. Michelle mentioned that. What do you do?”
“I handle a lot of interfacing between city and county overlap for protective and social services,” she answered with a masterfully casual face. Alex swallowed hard and almost choked. Drew coughed, turning away from the table to cover it. Rachel continued. “Little emergency management planning. Day to day stuff. It’s not the sort of job title that makes a lot of sense. Really, one of my bigger projects is just making sure a lot of people get to use some time off they’ve had coming for a long while.”
“Oh.” Katherine’s nod said it all: she didn’t understand the answer, but found it acceptable. “That sounds interesting.”
Alex glanced to his left. Lorelei’s usual perfect posture and poise remained undisturbed, though he caught the hint of an amused grin. He wondered if she’d helped with that answer or if Rachel came up with it all by herself.
“And what about you, Lorelei?” Katherine asked. “Michelle said you do something in the arts?”
“I work with fundraising for the conservatory and the symphony, along with a couple of museums. It’s nothing with a regular office schedule. You might say I donated my way into the job.”
“So,” said Roy in the pause that followed, “are we done? Time to clean this up?”
Michelle looked to the newcomers to the family gathering and explained, “Dad’s about as patient about Christmas presents as these guys were when they were little.”
“C’mon, the kids give better presents every year as they get older,” Roy countered with a wink. He rose from the table with his plate in hand.
“Alex already told me he got you a box of defective socks from that store he temped at for the Christmas rush,” Drew warned the older man.
More than that stupid hick fuckin’ deserves,
Alex heard in the back of his head. The thought hit as he stepped away from the table, his own plate and Lorelei’s in hand, now out of reach from the angel. The plates and utensils that rode upon them shook.
Oh my god
, thought Alex,
do I really need her help this bad?
He glanced up to the kitchen. Roy looked over his shoulder and said, “When I was your age, we walked uphill in every direction in defective socks and liked it.”
You said that same dumb joke all the time back in ‘Nam, motherfucker
, grumbled the grandson’s memories. He felt his chest tighten. A minute ago, he felt like he’d stuffed himself with a holiday dinner. Now he felt hollow inside.
Setting the plates down involved standing next to Roy. He managed it. He also managed not to punch his grandfather. “I’m, uh, gonna go hit the bathroom, sorry,” Alex mumbled.
His walk took him down a short hall. He needed distance, walls, and a door between himself and his problems. That was completely impossible, though. This problem wasn’t in the kitchen or the dining room. It lived in his head.
Alex gladly took advantage of the twist handle lock in the doorknob. He dropped the lid on the toilet and sat down with his head in his hands. His breath shook. His lip quivered. He tried to keep quiet, not wanting anyone who might walk by the bathroom door to hear if he started sobbing.
He’d thought he had this problem licked. Friends and lovers had helped with the unwanted memories of the people he’d once been. He’d mourned and moved on. Memories still caught him off-guard now and again, but never to the point of causing stress. Pieces of lives he couldn’t fully remember sometimes spoke up when confronted with a problem or challenge that his memories could handle. He remembered skills, talents, and the basics of his previous lives, but nothing like a full narrative. In truth, Alex didn’t even want to dive down that well. Those lives were over. He was Alex now.
Except tonight. The last young man he’d been felt all too near. Certainly a key figure in his death was close.
This is Christmas
, he thought.
Century Christmas, and my family, and my grandfather.
“Oh good,” whispered a familiar voice. Alex nearly jumped to his feet when he saw Rachel’s face—and only her face—poking straight through the still-closed bathroom door. The rest of her faded through a second later. “Sorry. I didn’t mean, ‘Oh good, you’re having a mindfuck,’ but, ‘Oh good, I’m not walking in on a bombing run.’”
The explanation added a new dimension to his confusion. Rachel shrugged. “Okay, I may be shameless, but even I’ve got some standards. Don’t want to walk in on
, y’know? Anyway, hey,” she said, crouching in front of him and taking his hands. “What’s going on?”
Once again, her touch helped. He simply breathed as she calmed his nerves. “It’s my granddad.”
“I figured that. Lorelei and me both. Drew caught on, too. None of us knew why.” She squeezed his hands. “I know it’s nothing abusive. He never hurt you. I can read that much from him, and from you.”
“Huh. Right.” His voice dropped. His inflections changed. “Guess that all depends on what kinda shit you call abusive.”
“Oh this is some past life shit, isn’t it?” Rachel asked. “That’s why I can’t see the problem.”
“He was…he was my boss in Vietnam.
boss,” Alex corrected in his own voice once more. “He was horrible. All the time. He did his job, pulled his own weight and then some in the bush, but he was such a bigoted asshole. Called me and the black men in the company every dirty name in the book like it was normal. Nobody with authority over him ever did anything about it. I guess back then that really was normal for a lot of people, but him… Hell, even some of the white guys called him Cracker Carlisle.
“And at the end…” His voice cracked. He tried again. “In the end…”
“Sshh.” Rachel leaned in and kissed him gently. Even an angel’s touch could relieve only so much of this burden. “Hold still for a sec, babe.” She went back to the door, fading through once again. Alex watched, still amazed every time he saw such things no matter his mental state.
As promised, she wasn’t gone long. This time she faded in through another wall with a thoughtful expression. She didn’t look at Alex right away, processing whatever she’d seen when looking at Roy until she asked, “You were Will? You were being chased, Roy fell behind, and then you and Darren went back for him?”
He shrugged. Blinked away the water in his eyes. Found his own voice again, if not entirely his own words. “We were both hurt. Cracker and me. Darren couldn’t carry both of us. Cracker had a concussion. I had a bullet in my gut. And I figured…I figured Cracker had a wife and daughter, but I didn’t have nobody. I told Darren to pick him up and go.”
“He had a wife and daughter,” Rachel repeated. A tear rolled down her cheek. “Oh, Alex.”
“Is this how Heaven works shit out when it’s time to come back? Who decides where you go from one life to the next? Is this supposed to be fucking funny?”
Her eyes suggested an apology. “I keep telling the other angels we should get a sorting hat, but they just love shooting every soul through that stupid cannon.”
A laugh escaped him in spite of himself. He quickly smothered it, though Rachel’s smile ensured the small lift to his spirits wouldn’t fail again. “Babe, you saved more than his life and Darren’s. This guy you’ve known all your life? He’s real. You—
made him see the light. That day in Vietnam un-fucked his whole mindset about a lot of things. It took time, but that’s how this works. That’s how the world gets better. Hopefully it doesn’t take a sacrifice like Will’s, but sometimes it does.
“Roy doesn’t talk about it because he’s ashamed of who and what he was back then. For a long time, everything he did was about making up for his past. Eventually he forgave himself, but he kept on because he knew it was right. That’s why he was so good to Drew and his family. That’s why he was so good to his students. It started with guilt, but it became more than that.”
“We went to his retirement ceremony,” said Alex. Bitterness crept in with the anguish. “People went on and on about all the good he did. People who got through college because of him. People who didn’t look like me. They looked a lot more like Will. I was so proud of him then, and now…now I look at him and I hear all the shitty things he used to say. All the shitty things he did. And I remember realizing I—
wasn’t getting out of that jungle.”
“I know about that war,” said Rachel. “Will was, what, your third American life? You think those other lives were as enlightened as you are now? You think you never believed any of the racist stuff most people grew up with in your other lives?” She asked the questions without reproach. “Do you think you don't have any prejudices now?”
Alex opened his mouth to object, but he understood the weakness of any argument before he spoke. The answer would always be more complicated than the idealistic “yes” he wanted to give. He’d learned that from his mother and the family that shared their holidays. He’d learned it from Katherine and Cracker Carlisle.
He’d brought two girlfriends home for Christmas. The worst he got for it was a few clumsy questions. Whatever anyone else's doubts or discomfort, they kept it to themselves and treated Lorelei and Rachel with warmth and respect. That said a lot for the people who raised him.
“I don't know how to forgive him,” he admitted. “And I guess maybe that's shitty of me when I'm not so perfect myself. Or never was.”
“Nobody ever is,” said Rachel. “Don't beat yourself up for that. I only asked so you'd put it into perspective.”
“Yeah. I get that. I don't know what to do with this. I'm sure part of this is the shake-up from walking right into the past again, but...” He shrugged.
“You forgave Lorelei. You've seen what she is. You saw her last victim. Every one of them was probably bound for Hell, sure, but you know she didn't do any of that to make the world a better place. You know she did a lot of fucked up shit along the way. She wasn't one of the good guys.”
“Lorelei came from a different world.”
He saw her point. “I guess maybe this is different for me because it’s personal. Doesn't make what he did worse that her past. I know that. But Lorelei never did any of those things to me. She never needed to apologize to me.”
“Roy can't apologize to you, or Will,” she corrected. “But he would. I can see that in his heart. He's wanted to apologize all his life. Roy knows he's done a lot of good since the war, but part of him still wishes he could run back into that jungle and trade places. The only thing he could do instead was to make good on the second chance Will bought for him. He's sorry, Alex. He's so fucking sorry.”
"Yeah. I imagine he is." He was surprised at how much it meant to hear it. Then again, he realized he'd probably already been working that part out in the back of his mind all evening. Alex let out another shaky breath to release as much of Will's anger as he could.
“I thought I had this stuff settled,” said Alex. “This is twice now I've run into my past. When is yesterday gonna be over?”
“Babe, you might have a unique twist on it, but even demons have their demons.”
* * *
“This definitely needs to go out before I go to bed tonight,” muttered Michelle. Disposal and cleanup from dinner didn’t take long, particularly with everyone helping, but some things were always awkward. At least for once the oven bag didn’t tear when she and Sandra removed the turkey’s remains. It went straight into the compost bin, which had filled up quicker than she expected. “By morning this will probably smell awful.”
“I can take care of it,” said Lorelei.
“You’re sure? I think it’s all still freezing rain out there. We usually send Alex or Drew.”
“Dang,” grumbled Drew from the other side of the kitchen counter. “The Patriarchy don’t do us any favors in