by Luke Cai
A few months ago, I met one of my neighbors for the first and last time before they moved out. They decorated a tree and had a black cat. I couldn’t really figure them out, so I wrote this story about a young man who copes with his peculiar uncle and querulous brother in an attempt to do so.
Almost everyone who critiqued this story told me to expand, but that was never the goal. I was trying to figure out how to write short fiction- dense and succinct- so I cranked this story out instead. I got it done, more or less.
Santa was not kind. Every Thanksgiving, my brother Rex and I would scurry out of the dining room as Tommy dragged out the wooden stake and draped a Santa suit around it. Santa threatened us with coal and demanded us to be his elves while on St. Patrick’s Day, the leprechaun would want us to find its pot of gold, but Rex was on the short end of the stick. I think Uncle Tommy taught me how to use my imagination, but Rex never learned to quell his frustration. With the stake, I learned how to whitewash, and when Tommy taught me how to use a gun, I also learned what not to shoot. Rex, however, would always say the stake demeaned him. It continued past Halloween, when the ghost of Georlee Zhurkovsky would haunt the front yard and Rex wanted to kick him. Uncle Tommy became a ventriloquist of sorts, and the stake a concession to joy. Sometimes I think this is because he had no kids, but strangeness, as I understood, is not formulaic.
When Rex and I grew up, we rarely had the chance to see Uncle Tommy. I harvested the fruits of creativity while Rex cultivated the seeds of cruelty, becoming enraged at Tommy and his stake. Rex discovered 4chan and Reddit and found an audience to troll Tommy’s art. Tommy discovered that cesspool of hatred around the same time he started receiving hate mail and two months later he became a shut-in.
Then two days before Christmas, I got the news while I was standing in the sleet in a Santa suit after work: Tommy had a mental breakdown at work and went in for a psychiatric evaluation. Our family was dull that night; puppeteer had become puppet, no less. Rex got what he wanted, I guess, but Aunt Becky was devastated at the shriveling mess her husband had become. She asked me and my boyfriend Dick to help clear their house to start their life anew, so we went over the next day with the truck.
Aunt Becky told us to take whatever we wanted, but to get rid of that stake. We filled up the truck with wood scraps, crates of beer bottles, and a smelly sagging sofa set. We tossed the stake in the back with my wet Santa suit. Now we couldn’t find anything worth taking home besides a collection of 70s Playboys, but Dick found a stack of comic books for me. I wanted to toss the old stake, but Dick refused. “We can use this to dry our clothes.” So at home I pretended for a moment that Georlee Zhurkovsky stared me down as I draped my soggy old Santa suit around the stake.
Cai can be contacted at email@example.com and reached out on Twitter and Instagram @lukecwolf