Spines of Ice

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1982, and there was nothing more important, no day more significant, than when I woke up on Christmas morning. I was 6, and the magic of Santa Claus had just passed over the house. The daylight had heard, too, and it was waking up slowly, still half asleep, just as excited as I was to be alive and awake. Sleep had been a chore of insane proportions. The promise of the next day had sat on my chest, whispering things to me of what might lie ahead.

It had been a sparse year, my parents digging deep to pay for my brother’s birth. Things had been about him since the day I had met him, and I had shouldered it all with this day in mind. Santa was going to come through. He was like that back then. He was a guy you could count on, the one truly good, one truly pristine thing I had.

That morning was supposed to be about Santa. He had waited, just as patiently as me, for his big night. The morning of his glory was upon us, but this day, he would be overshadowed by the magic left in his wake.

Santa comes like an earthquake. Tremors of magic ripple out before him. Tidings of joy and thanksgiving can sprout up anywhere. People who wouldn’t look at each other any other time rush to help one another. His aftershocks tremble the earth. For days after, anything is possible. Reindeer have just entered the sky, and the world has been suffused with power.

The creature that had ridden that ripple to this plane would stop my heart and pump me full of wonder.

Milwaukee is no joke. When my soft feet hit the linoleum floor, it was like stepping in snow. But who has time for socks on Christmas morning? I rushed into the living room and stopped and stared.

The lights had been up for almost a month. They had never shined like this. The ornaments had been dangling for weeks. They never sparkled like this. The tree had been wreathed with presents when I went to bed. But now, a wave of presents rolled out onto the floor and into the living room. The man himself had dropped them for me, and my tiny mouth hung open with wonder as I stared in awe.

Her hand was in mine. She was sweet like that then. She touched my hand and it jumped. My sister interlocked her fingers in mine. I did not turn to look at her. I could not peel my eyes away, but we stood there holding hands. Something about that moment makes me cry to think on now.

We couldn’t open the presents. A few things had to be taken care of first. Coffee had to come before the first of the paper was ripped. Lisa ran to make it. The dog had to be fed. Ginger got a bowlful. The parents had to be woken.

This was a sketchy situation. You had to handle this just right. There was no running in shouting. That would not do. You approached these parents with caution and respect. Lisa and I stepped into the room as one. We crept to the bed and winced when the boards creaked. We stood there, careful not to breathe too hard. She shoved me forward.

“Mommy, Santa came,” was all I could muster. For a horrible moment, nothing but soft breathing. “Mommy, Santa came,” a little louder.

My step dad groaned. My mother sighed. She peeled the covers from her body and sat up, rubbing her eyes. She looked at the clock as my heart stopped dead in my chest. She was checking to see if it was a reasonable hour. If she deemed it too early, she could go right back to sleep. She turned to the bassinet in the corner.

“I have to fed your brother.” She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye. “Was he here?”

I grinned. God, how much I love that woman. I nodded. “He came.”

“How does it look?” she said. Tom groaned again and sat up, rubbing his bald head.

“There is so much, mommy. I think he loves me.”

“Come here.” She wrapped her arms around my small body and kissed my forehead. “Of course he loves you, Darrin. Everyone loves you.”

I knew it wasn’t true, but I smiled anyway.

“Now go. I have to feed Larry.”

“Is there coffee?” Tom asked.

“Uh huh,” I said.

“Thank God,” he said.

I rushed out the door and back into the living room. I went to Lisa’s side. She was looking out the window, and she stared at the snow outside. “Are they coming?” she asked.

“Feeding Larry.”

“Of course,” she said. “I think we got more snow last night.” I peered out the window at the streets outside coated in a thick layer of soft fluff.

The frost around the window was growing. I saw it moving, and I looked at the same time she did. The world tilted. My stomach lurched as I tried to figure out what I was looking at. I shook my head and focused again.

It was outside, its feet stuck to the window. It was about an inch and a half tall and little more than a sliver thick. It skated across the surface of the glass slowly, and where it went, a thick coating of hoarfrost rode in its path.

It was a man, breathtaking and terrifying. Its arms were lined with spines of ice that grew longer as they climbed from wrist to shoulder. Its face was a flake of snow. It came to a point on top, a point on the bottom, and a point on each side. It looked like a diamond, and from its face stared two slanted eyes.

“What is that?” I breathed. I barely heard myself speak the words. I radiated them more than spoke them, as if words would frighten this creature away.

“It’s Jack,” she said.

I pried my eyes from him and looked at her as she stared. We were in her world now. She saw these things. I never had. “That is Jack Frost,” she said. “Has to be.”

I reached out with my two tiny fingers to try and grab him. She smacked them away. “No,” she said. “Never.”

He stopped. He peered into the window at me. He looked me right in the eye. His mouth, tiny and jagged, opened as if he had never seen a boy before. I waved at him, and the wind picked up. Snow blew across the window, and he was gone.

“Are you guys ready?” Mommy asked.

I did not know what to say. Lisa turned away. She walked to the hot chocolate my mother had made for us. She grabbed her mug and reached in to pop a marshmallow in her mouth. I turned back, looking for the man of ice, the one no one ever saw, the one I had almost touched.

He wasn’t there.

Thirty-four years later, I sit at my desk. The temperature outside the window beside me will drop below freezing. Tonight, while I try to sleep, he will skate across the world. Santa is coming. The world is thrumming with magic. Watch for him. You might see spines of ice.

Don’t reach out for him.

Never.

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