Holiday ’17: “Buddy” by Mike Wilson

Eight-year-old Katie was seated at the dining room table, in her bluebird pajamas and fuzzy slippers, swinging her feet, waiting for breakfast.

“Mom, why didn’t Buddy move?”

There was a snapping noise and toast rose up from the toaster.

“What?” Mom said, not really wanting to hear.

Mom put the toast on two plates, one for Katie and one for Wayne, her six-year-old cousin,. She pried the top off the tub of butter and dipped a knife in. She lifted out little curls of butter and spread them around on the toast.

“Why didn’t Buddy move?” Katie repeated.

Buddy was the elf on the shelf. Each night, while they slept, Buddy would move to a new location to watch who was being naughty or nice and report it to Santa. When Katie went to bed last night, Buddy had been on the second shelf of the cabinet in the dining room. This morning, Buddy was still there.

“Maybe he just decided to stay there,” Mom said. “That’s a good place to watch everyone.”

Katie wasn’t buying it. Buddy was under orders from Santa to move around. She looked at Wayne for support. Wayne was holding toast in front of his face and licking it.

“Wayne, don’t play with your food,” Mom said. Mom’s eyes were red. She was tired a lot since Dad moved out.

“Yeah, Wayne,” Katie said. “Buddy’s watching.”

First thing each morning, she noted Buddy’s location. Then, whenever she was where Buddy could see her, she made sure to share, to not talk back, and to play patiently with Wayne, even when he was driving her crazy. Buddy’s reports surely were racking up tons of goodness points for Katie at the North Pole.

“Katie, would you eat an egg if I fixed it?” Mom asked.

“Yes ma’am.”

She didn’t want an egg, but Mom wanted her to eat one. Pleasing Mom was a good deed, and it probably counted double if it was something you didn’t want to do.

Katie had reasoned that a few good deeds were enough for little presents or things she didn’t want, like socks. The good presents on her list probably required lots of good deeds. She had asked Mom, but Santa didn’t publish guidelines, which she thought was unreasonable. Katie was writing down all her good deeds in a notebook in her room, just in case Buddy had missed any.

After breakfast, Mom gave Wayne the iPad so he could play Minecraft, and told them that she was going to pay bills. Katie set up her construction paper and markers beside Mom, where Buddy could see. She was going to draw a Christmas picture for Mom, probably a tree with presents and a snowman.

However, Katie was concerned that this good deed wouldn’t count in her point total. Buddy hadn’t moved. Yesterday was over, and Buddy hadn’t reset to count today’s good deeds.

“Do you think Buddy is sick?” she asked.

“Buddy’s not sick,” Mom said, not looking up from her bills. “Elves don’t get sick.”

“Why not?”

“Elves just tend to be healthy.”

“Is Buddy covered by health insurance?” she asked.

She’d heard Mom talking with Dad over the phone about Katie being covered under Mom’s health insurance because Dad had lost his job.

Mom looked up and smiled. Whenever Mom smiled, Katie felt good inside.

“Yes, Buddy is covered,” Mom said. “Santa has health insurance for all the elves, but Buddy’s not sick. He’s fine.”

“How come there’s not an elf at Dad’s house?” she asked.

Mom and Dad were divorced, which meant they lived in different houses, but they both were still her mom and dad.

“I don’t know,” Mom said. “You’re here most of the time, so I guess that’s enough for Santa to know if you’re being good.”

This bothered Katie. If I’m good at Dad’s house, how does Santa know? Katie wanted to ensure that an accurate tally of good deeds was being kept. It wasn’t like Santa would cheat her, but if he had bad information, she wouldn’t get all the presents she deserved.

“Wayne, use a tissue,” Mom said.

Wayne was wiping his nose on the arm cover of the couch and Katie wondered why Wayne ever got any presents.

“Do you have an elf at your house?” Katie asked Wayne.


She wondered whether Wayne’s elf was just stupid or if Wayne only misbehaved when his mom wasn’t around.

“Does your elf move?” she asked.


“Mom, the elf at Wayne’s house moves,” Katie said.


Mom looked up. Wayne and Katie both were looking at her.

“Wayne’s elf moves,” Katie said. “Something’s wrong with Buddy.”

Mom was mad, but not as mad as she would be if Wayne wasn’t here.

“Don’t worry about Buddy,” Mom said. “Maybe he was just tired and forgot to move. Maybe he overslept.”

That seemed plausible. Sometimes, Dad overslept and would forget to pick up Katie on his weekend. Katie looked out the window.  

“It’s snowing!” she said.

She and Wayne went to the window and watched the thick flakes. They were falling fast and covering the ground.

“It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” they said. Saying it over and over made it fun.

Mom looked out the window as well, but didn’t seem excited about the snow.

Katie helped Mom make Christmas cookies and the house was filled with the smell of butter and sugar. She’d been good all day and she hoped Buddy had been taking notes.

It was dark, now, and still snowing. The snow was piling up, making it difficult to drive.

“Are we going to church tomorrow?” she asked.

“We’ll see,” Mom said. “Maybe not.”

“Can we have pancakes in the morning?” Wayne asked.

“You bet,” Mom said.

“When is Wayne going home?” Katie said, then realizing that saying that might count as a bad deed because she wanted Wayne to go home, which wasn’t nice.

“Yeah, when am I going home?” Wayne asked, saving her. That changed things. If Wayne wanted to go home, Katie asking was like helping Wayne, which counted as a good deed. More goodness points.

“Monday,” Mom said. “Both of you need to hop into bed.”

Katie put on her bluebird pajamas, brushed her teeth, and hugged Mom goodnight. Mom put Wayne to bed in Katie’s room and Katie went to sleep in Mom’s bed.

She lay in bed, trying to decide whether she hoped they would go to church or hoped that they wouldn’t go. Reasons to go would be Sunday school if there was a Bible story. Katie liked stories where people had adventures. She also liked the singing in the church service and that she got to chew gum while the preacher preached.

Reasons not to go would be everything else. Church was boring and the wooden pews hurt her butt. There was nothing to do but count the tiles in the ceiling and look at the stained-glass windows.

Worrying about going to church was keeping her awake. When Mom didn’t come back to bed, she decided to get up for a glass of water, just to see what Mom was doing. She tiptoed to the kitchen but stopped and peeked into the living room. Mom was on the phone. She could tell from the sound of Mom’s voice that she was talking to Dad.

“I can’t pay our bills if you don’t pay child support, Brian.”

Katie went to the kitchen and filled a plastic glass half full of tap water. She passed by the living room on the way back. Mom was still on the phone so Katie didn’t bother her.

Back in bed, Katie felt uneasy. It wasn’t like being scared that there were monsters under the bed. She was too old for that. She just felt uneasy. She tried to think of angels. Angels were easy to think of. Katie imagined a beautiful angel and one immediately appeared in her mind in a white dress. The angel was surrounded by light. Katie knew the angel was watching over her, and she felt safe to fall asleep.

It was morning. Mom was in bed beside her, asleep. Katie slipped out from under the covers, put on her fuzzy slippers, and went to check on Buddy.

He still hadn’t moved.

Katie was impatient for Mom to get up. Katie got out paper and markers and tried to distract herself by drawing, but her heart wasn’t in it. This was a crisis. If Buddy didn’t do his job, Santa couldn’t do his.

Mom finally came into the living room. She was still in her nightgown and she was wearing her robe. Katie pointed at Buddy, accusingly. Mom looked surprised. Then she sighed.

“I’m going to tell you a secret,” Mom said.

She explained that Buddy didn’t really move each night. Mom moved him, but she had things on her mind and forgot.

“It’s a game,” Mom said. “It’s fun to pretend, but now you know.”

Katie was stunned. She’d been deceived by her own mother. Evidently, the other adults were in on it.

“But don’t tell Wayne, he doesn’t know,” Mom said, winking, as she picked up Buddy and moved him to the mantle above the fireplace.

And now I’m in on it, too.

Katie grinned.

Wayne came out, rubbing his eyes.

“Look, Wayne,” Katie said, pointing. “Buddy moved.”

Wayne saw. His face lit up and he was happy. Katie was thrilled that she knew and that Wayne didn’t.

“Everybody want pancakes?” Mom asked.

They didn’t go to church – the roads were too bad. Instead, the three of them – Mom, Katie, and Wayne – went outside to play in the snow.

She and Wayne made snowballs and threw them at each other. He lost interest and started playing with an icicle that had fallen from the gutter, pretending it was a sword.

“Let’s make a snowman,” Mom said.

Mom showed them how to start a snowball and roll it in the snow to add snow and make it bigger. She said they could each roll a ball and then they would stack them. Wayne didn’t understand, so Katie tried to help him.

As Katie patted snow into a ball and they rolled it into a bigger ball, she felt like an assistant mom, not a little kid like Wayne. She knew that Buddy was just a story, crossing the line separating adults and children.

But with Buddy out of the picture, she still had to figure out how to get her list of good deeds to Santa.

Mike Wilson is a writer in Lexington, Kentucky. He’s published poetry and stories in anthologies and small magazines including Appalachian Heritage, and authored a biography, Warrior Priest: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and The School of the Americas.

Holiday ’17: “Ornaments” by Amanda Noble

Holiday ornaments stalled my progress with the fir tree in the living room. My husband, Bruce, had died nearly seven years ago, and I wanted to combine the task of going through the ornaments to either throw out or donate, while hanging a few on the tree. So much of my life had turned into a mission of clearing out. Bruce’s possessions had taken me years to sort and clear and, yet, I wasn’t finished. What belonged to both of us also needed attention, hence the ornament project, but the task overwhelmed me and took several days to complete. I barely managed to hang a few ornaments on the tree.

Bruce had an oddball assortment of holiday ornaments, many of them handmade His other ornaments were cookie cutters, metal tea holders, and bits of macramé small enough to hang on a tree. I found these hard to throw away or donate. Just when I thought my hide was tough, I’d locate a tender spot.

When he walked in the world, Bruce always looked for natural things, some living, some dying. From sidewalks, he’d collect fall-colored leaves and arrange them prettily on the dining room table. We collected mushrooms; he’d place them on white paper to collect spore prints to help identify them, and decide whether they were safe to eat. Feathers, especially from large birds, were something he couldn’t resist, as were pinecones, but the ones he wanted were far too big for our holiday trees. I missed being in the woods with him, walking slowly so that we didn’t miss a thing.

I was in one of those garage sale, estate sale, thrift and antique store habitués. This year, when I attended estate sales, the holiday décor hurtled to my attention. The items were usually piled chock-a-block on a too-small table. Glittery, you could identify them from afar. I nosed around in the large collections of holiday ornaments and more: small fake trees, fake wreaths and garlands, holiday-themed candle holders, fat ceramic Santas and gold-painted angels, midcentury era strings of lights with large opaque colored bulbs. The ornaments were usually glass and fragile, and I wondered how many might survive in the jam-packed arrangement. It made me terribly sad, and I couldn’t help but think of my mother who died recently.

When my elderly mother wanted to give away her ornaments, I was happy to take them. Among them, I found the dyed capiz-shell ornaments I bought for her in the Philippines: a pink bell, a blue stocking. When she and my father traveled through Europe, she bought Christmas ornaments wherever they went. I did not keep all of her ornaments, but I did keep those that made me smile. When my mother died, she had pared down to a tiny pre-lit fake tree and a few appropriately tiny ornaments.

When I saw the holiday detritus from other people’s families at estate sales, questions came to mind. What had the families of the loved one who died been thinking? That someone might be willing to pay 25 cents an ornament? That no one in the family really cared? Was it that the holiday bits and pieces reminded them of parents who had hurt them in some way? Was the family estranged? Did the adult children have no interest in old, vintage goods, preferring instead to buy new things every year from the multitude of big box stores? Was it the collection of a person who had no children? I was a woman without children and the holiday ornaments I decided to keep would likely end up in the trash. That thought took my breath away. Still, paring down was also meant to prevent me from becoming a hoarder or one of those people who beds down wherever she can find an empty bit of floor.

I continued to donate, throw out, and purge what remained of our lives together. As I persisted in freeing myself of these things, I understood that I wasn’t undertaking these acts because my death was imminent. It was life, instead, that loomed.

Amanda Noble has a Ph.D. in sociology. Frustrated by the constraints of social science writing, she turned her attention to creative non-fiction writing, especially personal essay and memoir. Her work has appeared in Seven Hills Review, Indiana Voice, and Eastern Iowa Review, among others. She lives in Davis, California, with her cat, Lucy, where she is revising a memoir of her Peace Corps experience in the Philippines during the tumultuous 1970s.

Holiday ’17: “June in December” by Annie Dawid

Sighing, she tries to blink the light back out, pulse racing after unkind dreams, and June is hungover Christmas morning. The house sags and the doors won’t lock, the plumbing so shot she must empty buckets from beneath the sink. It stinks, her house on the swamp, an extremist’s escape from the tidy suburb of her childhood. Down the impressive lanes of Glorieta, mothers and chauffeurs transported children and maids, always going somewhere. Here, the squalor dazzles even June.

Detritus of last month’s jamboree includes an old boyfriend’s running shoe, fungi sprouting in a teacup, and a pint bottle of something too bitter to drink.

“Merry Christmas California,” June mutters, dreading the day’s events.

What did this golden state promise her parents that drought year she was born, twenty years before, joining two brothers and one sister to make a perfectly balanced family? Their house was a castle, sold as part of the divorce settlement. Her father, George, declared her mother a white elephant like the house, said no one needed anything that big and useless.

Four years ago, June, at sweet sixteen, moved in with her mother, , to an apartment the size of their old garage, but cozy – packed with herb smells and the maternal scent of talc. George, at 51, did leave his wife for a girl half his age – not his secretary but that of his best friend, Dick, the partner and neighbor with whom he’d commuted for thirty years on the ferry which magically departed from San Francisco at dusk with bar on board. When they docked in Glorieta, George and Dick stumbled down the ramp to the serenade of jib lines on their weekend boats, clanging against the masts like warning tolls no one ever heeded.

June blames all things on George: her drinking, her sister’s, her oldest brother’s health mania, her other brother’s drug obsession. Swallowing away sour residue and saliva, she showers amidst the mold, black and blue spores a plague taking over her home, the disease of a past she tries to scrub away like so many spots, the markings she can’t fade or scrape off.

Christ’s Birthday in Northern California, close by the Marin County line: already the sun is high, sky crisp blue after weeks of downpour, the day dawning the color of hope and fulfillment. June closes her eyes to the perfect weather as she scours the shadow of a birthmark on her left cheek, the dark spot shaped like a dagger or jagged tear. She hates it, has inflamed it, had it surgically removed years ago but feels it still, beneath the hot water’s rush wiping away the morning patina of pain. Coffee, four aspirin, a can of tomato juice left over from Bloody Marys, the cats mewing so loudly she’d like to throw them through the window but feeds them instead. And in her former boyfriend’s rich velour robe – in which she feels rich and cared for – the blue cloth a nearly human caress, she looks to the clock to see how late she’ll be, when the phone shrills.

“Sweetie? I’d hoped you’d help with the dressing but don’t worry I got it all done last night and there really isn’t too much left to do now but if you could get here before the others then you’d help me out getting them drinks and taking coats while I do last-minute things in the kitchen. Can you do that, Junie?”

Nausea rises as she listens to Jean, almost always, but especially when her mother is at her sweetest and most self-effacing: You stupid woman, that’s why he left you so cruelly and casually as if walking out over the porch floor he’d never noticed, but which always received the mud on his shoes, dogshit, and the flung umbrella. As much as she despises George and loves Jean, she harbors shoals of hate for them both, blaming both parents for her ill-equipped and, so far, failing venture to adulthood. Her brothers, their wives, and her sister are coming today, but no one will offer to help Jean in the kitchen except for June, who will be resented by her siblings and martyred by her mother for the most minimal assistance. Jean, now 54, lives alone and loves it, she insists, volunteering at adult literacy next county over, teaching English to children of migrants, and living well on George’s settlement and investments; so why must June resent her ever-sacrificing mother? Jean is still the porch floor, necessary and trod upon, and her children continue to treat her as such: Mom, can you sew my coat, loan me money, your car, a credit card?

“Okay, Mom. I’m on my way. I’ll help you. I promise. Good-bye.”

What it means to be the baby of an older woman is to do no wrong, to be always the prized possession, loved and pampered and sucked up to. June has become a younger George, and Jean, learning nothing, invites spit and scorn and walking on. If June arrives late – and she is inevitably, irrevocably late – Jean will never rebuke her, will say, later, quietly, that it was tricky basting the goose and opening the door, as if her own children could not open the door and take their own coats, but Jean prides herself on being the ultimate hostess, planner of extraordinary fetes with every detail attended to. Her talents are, in part, the reason for George’s making partner at the unprecedented age of 26, clients stolen from competitor firms, seduced by Jean’s homemade hors d’oeuvres and hospitality. Gracious Jean who makes everyone feel at home. Overheard in the living room by five-year-old June, Dick to another lawyer: “Jean looks more like George’s mother than his wife, but she can sure put on a spread. And she never hires help. Wouldn’t mind one of those at my house.”

Jean never complains, June says to herself, tearing clothes from the closet, finding everything inadequate, settling finally on oversized overalls, which she hides beneath an old cardigan from her mother’s college days. Jean is the paragon 1950s wife. Jean assures June she has forgiven George, says she is glad to be on her own for the first time since Mills, which she quit her senior year to marry and start the family. She always dreamed of two boys and two girls, and was, she likes to say, blessed to get what she wanted. George never married the secretary but did take her to France, where Jean spent junior year abroad – the best year ever, she claims – she and her girlfriends carefree, hungry for life in a Paris still recovering from the war. Americans welcome visitors, and all their hopes before them.

June’s car smells of old roses, dried petals blanketing the seats, carpeting the floor. The coupe was George’s once: the first Alfa Romeo he bought to keep his interest after it had strayed from home. June drives it to her part-time job on the county advertiser, where she types ads for backhoes, horses, free mutt pups, and do-it-yourself septic systems. She imagines herself subversive, her middle finger raised to George as she fails to finish everything: college, jobs, dishes, affairs. Of her siblings, only the health fanatic went on to follow their father’s anointed footsteps to success. A highly specialized plant biologist in recombinant DNA, Tom works for Del Monte, making bigger, better vegetables for growing Americans like the residents of Glorieta. June snorts, lights a cigarette, and smells the roses she has filled the car with to chase away the stubborn scent of George: that expensive cologne he wears every day of his life, that smell the essence of her father, who, just last year, married the former wife of his best friend, and bought back the white elephant at a hundred thousand more than he’d sold it for, he and his new wife now living there alone but for invitations to the children of both – some who visit, most don’t.

Annie Dawid teaches creative writing at the University College, University of Denver. She was professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, 1990-2006.
Annie won the 2016 International Rubery Award in fiction for her first book and the Music Prize from Knuthouse Press in Fiction. Other awards include the Dana Award in the Essay, the Orlando Flash Fiction Award, The New Rocky Mountain Voices Award (drama) and the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction.
Most recent publications: Brilliant Flash Fiction, Tikkun, Windmill, and “Jonestown, Japantown,” in Joyland: San Francisco, The Casket (UK) and a poetry chapbook, Anatomie of the World, Finishing Line Press, 2017.
Forthcoming poems in Ache magazine, UK, print & online, fiction in Fictive Dream.
Multiple websites feature her short works, including TubeFlash, RetreatWest,
Spelk, Octavius, Nowhere, WeSaidGoTravel, Structo, Fiction Attic Press and others.
Her three published volumes of fiction are:
York Ferry: A Novel, Cane Hill Press, 1993, second printing
Lily in the Desert: Stories, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2001
And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family, Litchfield Review Press, 2009

Holiday ’17: “Sibling Revelry” by Eileen Cunniffe

I am trying to find a way into this story, one that will help you understand The Project, and by extension the man behind The Project, namely my Dad.

This isn’t easy, because the story has a lot of moving parts. It spans several decades, and it has a ridiculous number of characters—none of whom can be given short shrift, because this is an ensemble piece; each member of the cast carries as much weight as the next.

I’ve gone around in circles trying to find an opening or a window into the proceedings. All roads lead back to the family Christmas tree at 441 Highland Terrace, my childhood home from the age of five and the only place I ever remember spending Christmas Day. I’m dialing all the way back to a time when our tree was adorned with hand-painted and glittered walnut shell ornaments. Our tree was then dusted with fake plastic snowflakes, which we also liberally sprinkled on each other, accidentally on purpose of course.

Let’s call it 1967, although any Christmas Eve in the mid-1960s will do—the only difference being how many of us were still wearing fuzzy, footsie pajamas.

Dad finally wrestled a sweet-smelling, slightly lopsided Christmas tree into place and untangled the string of lights with fragile, tube-shaped bulbs, already in their second decade of service. He had managed to drape them around the tree evenly enough to secure Mom’s approval. As the oldest child, I helped a bit but, at only nine-years-old, I could not reach too high. So, I mostly just unpuddled the lights from the floor and handed them up to Dad, who was using a kitchen chair as a stepladder.

Mom was still in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner, thinking of all the elfish work still to be done before she could call it a day: supervising the rest of the tree-decorating and stocking hanging, then bundling the five of us off to bed. (On Christmas Eve in 1967, there were still only five siblings, although we knew twin babies were expected sometime around Easter.)

After we were nestled snug in our beds, Mom would still have to fill the stockings with care, then wrap, label, and stack what must seem like (and could well be) a hundred presents. Those included a few for her and Dad, as well as some for our Pop-Pop and Uncle Mickey. So she was savoring this patch of relative peace in the kitchen, knowing Dad had the next little while sewn up in the playroom.

Those of us old enough to remember our Christmas Eve tradition could hardly contain ourselves. We didn’t want to spoil it for the little guys, since Pete was only three, but we wanted them to know it was going to be so great. Angie and I might have been jumping up and down in anticipation. There might have been just the teensiest bit of jockeying for position between Brian and Dennis when they could tell Dad was almost ready to begin.

With one look he settled us, and, in a flash, we were all flat on our backs with our feet under the lowest branches of the tree, faces pointed toward the ceiling, one big gap more or less in the middle where Dad would squeeze in among us.

Then, Dad turned off the overhead light. He crawled to the outlet on the wood-paneled wall near the back of the tree.

“Is everyone ready?” he asked.

“Yes,” we cried out in one voice, “Plug it in!”

And there on the playroom ceiling, a whole new world opened up—a land of shadows, projected through the branches of the tree, tinted by the red and blue and green and yellow bulbs. Dad wriggled in among us and pointed to a spot just to the left of the treetop.  “Up there,” he said, “is a road that leads into the forest. I see a group of boys and girls walking along that road. I wonder where they might be going.”

That one tiny suggestion was all it took to set our storytelling in motion.

We pointed, we gestured, we invented.

We laughed, we gasped, we sighed.

We found rivers, roads, and birds in the shadows—bad guys, good guys, and angels. We were sure we could make out a team of flying reindeer and a jolly fellow in a red and white suit driving a toy-stuffed sled. We interrupted each other—but not too aggressively, as Christmas Eve swayed us all to be on our best behavior.

Our story twisted and turned across the ceiling as we tried to impress Dad—and outdo each other—with improbable plot detours, magical discoveries and strange sound effects. By that point, Mom was hovering in the doorway, enjoying Dad’s annual ritual. We stayed there on the floor for as long as we were allowed to, until it was time to finish trimming the tree and hang up our stockings.

Dad succeeded in calming us down and working us up at the same time. He had gotten us thinking, and playing and dreaming along with each other, head to head, toe to toe, right there under the Christmas tree.

Fast forward to Christmas Day, 1990.

We were now too big to squeeze in under the tree, and a little old for the game with the Christmas lights, even though not one Christmas had passed without somebody recalling that old tradition. And there were several more of us: Angie, Brian, Dennis and Pete were all married, and Dennis had two little daughters. We didn’t know it yet, but by spring there would be two new babies born in another part of the world who would be joining our family as adopted siblings in time for next Christmas.

Some of us spent Christmas Eve in our own houses or apartments, or maybe with in-laws. But we all managed to come home for Christmas dinner, and this was one of the last years we would all be able to organize ourselves to be there like that, geographically speaking.

The presents had all been unwrapped and the stockings emptied. Because of grandchildren in the mix, the number of presents increased exponentially.

We had just about cleared up all the paper and bows and bags when Dad waltzed into the living room with a big brown cardboard box. Mom came in from the kitchen to watch. With great ceremony, Dad presented each of the seven siblings with identical unpainted wooden birdhouses, which he had constructed himself that fall while recovering from a heart attack (his first, but not only). He instructed us to paint or otherwise finish his handcrafted objects, turn them in to him by early March, and be prepared to let the guests at Angie and Rich’s St. Patty’s Day party vote on who had delivered the best “project.”

And just like that, Dad had turned us into kids again. He had gathered us around the tree, at the home we had by then renamed “Club 441,” he had figuratively plugged in the lights, and had given us the beginning of a new story. He had gotten us thinking and playing and dreaming along with each other once again, right there in the shadow of another Christmas tree. It was “game on.”

We were already imagining all the ways we might impress him—and outdo each other—when March rolled around. It was safe to assume there would be improbable plot detours, magical discoveries, strange sound effects, and, as always, lots and lots of laughter.

I know, I know. According to Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Not that any family is happy all the time, and I suspect even the unhappy ones have occasional moments of joy, but, somehow, the opening line from Anna Karenina has been twisted into an unwritten rule against writing about happy families. Mr. Tolstoy, I beg to differ—but you haven’t met my family, and I’ve never met anyone else with a family tradition quite like ours.

Now, fast forward one more time to March 2014, as we teetered on the brink of a quarter-century of playing along with The Project and telling our stories year after year after year.

Only in hindsight did it occur to me that our first project, Dad’s hand-crafted birdhouses, might have been a not-so-subtle reference to my parents’ rapidly emptying nest.

Really, though, I think Dad was just trying to mess with us.  He had figured out a new way to tap into our creativity, while he stepped back and waited to see what we’d do with his unfinished carpentry work.

The birdhouse competition was a big hit at the 1991 St. Patty’s Day party. So, the next year he gave us bits of wooden scraps and dowels. The next year, we got children’s playing blocks. Then the following year, it was popsicle sticks.

Echoes of childhood, placed into the hands of adult siblings, each time challenging us—and our respective and often-expanding households—to turn them into individual creations, while simultaneously turning us loose on each other as fiercely friendly competitors.

Over the years, the raw materials we have received had sometimes been sentimental (family photos), sometimes seemingly random (bags of clear marbles), and other times just plain weird (cans of SPAM). The projects delivered have included well-made pieces of furniture, working robotics, musical performances, short films, essays, appetizers, poems, puppets, and overly elaborate costumes.

Often, our assignments were delivered in plain #10 envelopes, with the words “Project Control” typed in the top left-hand corner. Sometimes, the letters were businesslike, other times they were philosophical, reflective, or nostalgic.

Sometimes, the rules were incredibly specific: “You have each received a total of 450 craft sticks. You must use at least 425 of them.” Other years, they were deliberately vague: “Make a contemporary work of art out of the materials I have provided.” (Those materials included circuit boards from old computers, which had fallen into Dad’s hands through volunteer work at our old high school.)

The earliest letters began with “My Dear Boys and Girls,” although many of us were well into adulthood. I was 32 when we got our birdhouses, and the twins, Amy and Jen, were 22.

Over time, “My Dear Daughters and Sons” became the most common salutation, although Dad tried to be inclusive; for example, once he went with “My Dear Daughters and Sons (Outlaws included),” using the nickname my sisters- and brothers-in-law gave themselves years ago. But he likes to mix it up: once he referenced our birth order with “My Dear Daughters (2), Sons (3), and More Daughters (2).” Once, he went with “My Dear Sons and Daughters (used to be Boys and Girls).” Over time, he tipped his hat to the second—and now third—generation of Projecteers, addressing one letter to “Ladies and Gentlemen… Boys and Girls of All Ages.”

In addition to being the most inclusive salutation in Dad’s repertoire, that last one best established his role as Ringmaster in the family circus he orchestrates every spring as we enthusiastically present our projects to be judged, and The Project to be celebrated.

The project letters have been signed by “Dad,” “Santa Claus (the real one),” “Project Control” and (since the arrival of grandchildren) “Pop.”

As if we didn’t know.

Eileen Cunniffe has been writing nonfiction for nearly 35 years—but the first 25 were without the benefit of a byline, as a medical writer, corporate communications manager, and executive speechwriter. Her writing has appeared in journals such as Hippocampus Magazine, Bluestem Magazine, Superstition Review and Stone Voices. Three of her essays have been recognized with Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and another received the Emry’s Journal 2013 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. Read more at:

Holiday ’17: “Christmas Eve” by Michael Chin

We’d always spent Christmas Eve at Uncle Jack and Aunt Jill’s place. Jack and Jill. When I was little and heard the nursery rhyme, I assumed it was about them in that way you do when you’re small and left to assume the world is scaled down to you and it makes sense that your aunt and uncle would be the subject of legend.

At that point in my life, I marveled at their tree. Uncle Jack would bring a tree bigger than the previous year’s, until one Christmas season, he brought home one that was so tall, it could barely fit in their living room, curling against the ceiling. We had a little artificial tree at home, set on an end table, adorned with plastic berries and flecks of white snow, and painfully artificial, lifeless and dull, with a half dozen presents my mother wrapped in newsprint stacked around it. Uncle Jack and Aunt Jill felt magical, with stockings hung by a real fireplace, strings of light in swooping loops around the room.

I was jealous of my cousin, Cheryl. Cheryl, who wasn’t an honor roll student, got a cash reward for every passing grade. Cheryl, who had presents wrapped in shining foil. Great big plush animals at first, then gold jewelry and an iPad when we were teenagers. In the car, Dad said she was spoiled rotten, and I thought he was just bitter and mean. I thought that until I came to agree with him. Maybe because it became true. Maybe, I just couldn’t see it when I was younger. Or maybe, what I feared most, I had become old and bitter and mean just like my father.

I hadn’t been home for Christmas for four years, though. After I got serious with Tyler and felt better about playing second-class citizen with his family than my own, if for no other reason than because my absence would leave my family to assume I’d moved on to better things.

I should have stayed away that Christmas, closed the shutters and enjoyed a holiday of cable TV movies and mint Oreos in my apartment.

However, I told Mom that Tyler dumped me in a moment of weakness—a late night phone call amidst a stream of old episodes of Felicity, glasses of Syrah and my second pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream—and she’d insisted, even then, even two months out as if it were the gravest component of my recovery, that I must come home for Christmas. By the light of day, I realized my mistake, but it was too late. Mom texted about the logistics of my visiting, and when I didn’t answer, sent guilt-trip messages to reinforce that it wouldn’t only be for my own good to come home, but she would be devastated if I let her down and backed out.

So there we were—me, Mom, Dad, my younger brother Adam, Uncle Jack, Aunt Jill, and Cheryl. The lot of us a few years older. I’d put on eighteen pounds. Dad’s hair had gone gray. Mom had started dying hers chestnut brown. Adam had started lifting weights and was newly barrel-chested and all too aware of it, wearing a polo shirt both out of season and self-consciously too tight on him.

Cheryl was as pretty as ever in that “no acne, perfect hair” sort of way. She wore a preppy argyle sweater over a blouse that looked like we had gathered for a corporate mixer, not a family Christmas Eve.

Then, there was Kathleen. Clearly ten, fifteen years older than me or Cheryl, but still a good ten, fifteen years younger than our parents. Aunt Jill introduced her as Cheryl’s friend, but Cheryl took Kathleen’s hand immediately to clarify, “She’s my girlfriend.”

I gathered the remaining piece. Cheryl had told her father about a guest for Christmas, and he passed her off to Aunt Jill as a friend, an idea Cheryl made no effort to uphold. On the contrary, she would very forcibly assert the nature of their relationship to anyone who might not know. Cheryl and Kathleen met when Cheryl was an undergrad and Kathleen was a grad student, a teaching assistant for a required lit seminar Cheryl had put off until her senior year. Cheryl made it clear Kathleen was her first serious girlfriend.

Things had grown more awkward when Kathleen presented her gift to Aunt Jill—a diamond bracelet that had to have been worth hundreds, if not a thousand dollars. “She didn’t even say ‘thank you,’” Cheryl recounted to me in the kitchen, all but dripping with indignation. “She just sort of stuttered and then said she couldn’t accept it.”

After dinner, Mom and Aunt Jill washed and dried dishes while the guys watched football until one by one, all but my brother had nodded off. I stepped outside with my cup of hot cocoa with a twist of whiskey in it—the only alcohol I’d spotted in the house that came in a small enough bottle to ferry it out of sight and pour without drawing attention to myself.

Kathleen was already there, leaned over the porch railing, staring out at nothing as far as I could tell—just at grass covered in snow and a chipped white picket fence with more snow piled halfway up the boards. She had a profiterole in one hand, a cigarette smoking between the index and middle finger of the other. When she saw me, she let the cigarette drop into the snow below and waved away at the smoke left behind.

“It’s okay,” I said.

Kathleen looked something like Aunt Jill when she was younger, more the way she looked in pictures with my mother than how I’d ever known her. Maybe it was the short blond hair. Aunt Jill liked it short but explained she’d grown it out because people kept confusing her for a boy. I’d asked her why that mattered when I was little and she’d said something about wanting boys to notice her straight away without having to wonder, then cut herself off like maybe that wasn’t appropriate to talk about with a girl my age.

“Cheryl hates it, and she made me swear I wouldn’t smoke in front of her parents or they’d hate me.” Down below, a little wisp of smoke escaped the mound of snow. “Some big joke, right?”

I didn’t have anything to talk about with Kathleen, besides the disappointment we shared from Uncle Jack and Aunt Jill, and bringing that up any more explicitly felt counterproductive. It didn’t feel much better to head straight back inside. Instead, I latched onto one of the few topics of conversation I could think of.

“I saw the bracelet.” Uncle Jack had shown it to Dad, and the two of them had a conversation in raised eyebrows and puffed out cheeks of boy, this is crazy and what are you going to do with that? I’d peeked and registered that it was a gaudy, but objectively beautiful piece. “It was really nice.”

“It was stupid.” She rubbed her hands together. It was bitter cold outside, nice for the moment, in contrast to the overheated inside, but she’d been out long enough for it to catch up to her and remember what December in Upstate New York felt like, left in the elements without any place to go. From inside, I could hear just the bells of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”

“I’ve got this really stupid habit of saying things I’ve done and it sounds like bragging, even if I don’t mean it.” The way moonlight lit her face, the way it reflected off the snow to light her again, all but painted her in a younger light, face shining at points, the beginnings of lines and wrinkles hard to see. I imagined she was younger when someone first told her she was bragging. That may be, this Achilles’ Heel followed her through life, making her second guess anything she was proud of and so bold as to say something about. Or maybe, she’d been encouraged to be boastful when she was young, only to have that taken from her and be told she should be more modest after the habit had long been engrained.

“Of course, this time I went and did it before I even opened my mouth.” She must’ve seen on my face that I wasn’t following, because she clarified, “I’ve got money. The bracelet wasn’t putting me out and I thought it would be a nice offering. But then I told Cheryl what I’d gotten on the drive over, and she said it was too much, and, of course, she was right, and I was all shell-shocked about it when I handed it over to her mom, because I figured an excessive gift was better than no gift at all. But was it?” She shook her head slowly and peered down after her cigarette, no sign of it left by then. “Fucking Christmas.”

I remembered the first Christmas with Tyler’s folk. These people were supposed to be like family—were family for him—but I was staying in a stranger’s house where I didn’t know which drawer had the silverware and which coffee mugs were decorative and which were used day-to-day. His sister complained about how her husband never helped in the kitchen, least of all during the holidays. When Tyler agreed, I wasn’t sure if that were a dig at me for not helping either, or some beef with his brother-in-law. I thought that, if anyone, I’d find solace in bonding with him as twin outsiders, but he was glued to his iPhone, always sending something, always scrolling through pictures. I tried to latch onto any clue about what he was doing and peered over his shoulder, until I recognized he was probably being secretive consciously, maybe specifically because he thought I was spying.

I had almost convinced myself I missed all of that, in the throes of missing Tyler. I thought of all the ways I might help Kathleen feel more comfortable, in asking her for the story of how she and Cheryl met and what their life was like, or what kind of Christmas cookies her mother made, or what her favorite holiday movie was. In the same instant, all of those questions in my mind felt like prying. I thought about how I’d feel if she were to ask me about Tyler, for surely all Cheryl had told her about the cousin she hadn’t talked to in years was that I’d been dumped.

Kathleen, like me, had come outside to be alone. For that momentary reprieve, where it was too cold but nonetheless better. Easier.

I told her Merry Christmas and didn’t wait for a response before I went back inside.

Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.