Our Christmas present to you is this East End Irregulars short story, starring none of the Irregulars. But it does have lots of other stars, and also Caduceus, the bio-psychokinetic doctor-in-training and sometimes ally of the Irregulars we introduced in The Dismal Tide. Two new sketches also accompany the story.
This is not a tale of adventure, but of reflection. It was written for anyone whose holidays have felt a little emptier and wearisome after some loss, and also for everyone who struggled to find the perfect Christmas present–and succeeded.
His Star at Its Fading
by Michael A. DiBaggio
Illustrations by Shell ‘Presto’ DiBaggio
Michael Cormier, better known by some as Caduceus, leaned over a sturdy pine dining table, hearing—but not listening to—the cheerful conversation of his roommate, Alyosius ‘Aly’ Fitzgerald. Michael looked desolate, a jarring contrast to the merry voice of his friend and the lighthearted surroundings of the dining room they sat in for a late Saturday breakfast. This was one of their favorite spots, the Country Kitschen just outside of Mt. Washington: 14 flavors of home-made pancakes amid walls covered with nostalgic advertisements and shelves of tasteless, retro knick-knacks.
Aly gave up on his story, surrendering to his friend’s distracted and depressing manner. He peered over the top of his menu, bushy black eyebrows arching. “You look like a run-over cat. Are you sure you’re OK, Mike?”
“Just tired,” Michael answered distantly.
“Whatever you’ve been up to lately, you need to take a break and relax. You’re too stressed. You’re supposed to enjoy Christmastime.”
Aly had never seen his friend caught in the holiday blues before, but he figured he knew the cause. Michael was a spendthrift obsessed with having the latest gadget, whether he had any use for it or not, and his lack of discipline had lately caught up with him. Aly suspected that his troubles were mostly due to this new need of frugality in a season of shiny temptations.
“You should come out with us tonight, see Bernie and Josh while they’re still in town. Come on man, it’ll be fun,” Aly suggested.
“I can’t. I have something I have to do.” Michael didn’t offer any further explanation, and Aly wasn’t going to press it.
“Alright,” Aly shrugged. “You decide yet?”
Michael, whose love of the cinnamon and fried-apple French toast was legendary, was unenthusiastic. “Just biscuits and gravy today, I think. I’m not that hungry.”
After they had paid their overly friendly waitress and left a tip that was sure to disappoint her, Aly asked, “Hey, do you mind if we stop by the mall? I still haven’t figured out what I’m getting Tania. Time is scarce, you know?”
“Sure,” Michael shrugged, donning his winter gloves. “I thought you order everything online?”
“I do,” Aly agreed, “but I need ideas. What about you? You have everybody on your list checked off?”
“Just about.” He ran his hand through his mop of fluffy brown hair a couple of times, something he did habitually whenever confronting an unpleasant thought or topic. “Mom still wants to do the ‘No gifts over $10 thing’, which is convenient, since I’m broke. I don’t really have anyone else to buy for.”
Aly coughed theatrically. “Oh, I see how it is now.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s go, huh?”
For the next hour, Aly wandered through Kaufmann’s department store, scribbling gift ideas and their prices on his notepad while Michael followed, bored, but without complaint. Finally, as he stood in the cosmetics department, choking on the foul perfumes offered up as suggestions by the over-jeweled saleswomen, Michael decided that he’d had enough.
He wandered idly down the aisles, looking at blenders and fuzzy slippers and many more things of absolutely no interest. On his way past the confectionary, he picked up a box of Moon-Pies on a whim, and wandered into a sparsely stocked toy department. Beyond the stuffed animals and super-articulated action figure versions of some people he actually knew, a small black box covered with reflective star stickers drew his attention.
He tucked the Moon-Pies under his arm and lifted the package. “Wonder School electric planetarium projector,” he said, and then silently read the description below the staged photo of smiling siblings and their dad staring up at an artificial night sky projected onto the floor of their bedroom. Michael smirked at how silly it seemed. Even to an inveterate lover of electronic doohickeys like him, it seemed gratuitous when one could just walk into the backyard and look at the sky for free.
His arm froze in the motion of returning it to the shelf, and he looked at it again with more interest. If anyone had been in the aisle studying him, they might have seen something like hope shine in his eyes. He grabbed the box and walked quickly out of the aisle, craning his head in different directions as he looked for a clerk.
Aly intercepted him, a small paper bag in his hand. “There you are,” he said.
“Oh, sorry,” Michael replied. “Didn’t realize I’d been gone that long.” He walked past Aly, continuing his search for the checkout while his roommate followed.
“You weren’t. They conned me into buying this here, said it was a store exclusive. Also came with some free make-up kit that Tania will probably like. Oh, hey! Moon pies! Are they the kind that are actually made on the moon?”
Michael stopped a few paces from the checkout and swapped the mini-planetarium’s position with the moon pies, reading over the box. He shook his head. “No, not unless Tennessee moved to the moon.”
“Darn,” Aly mumbled. “I wanted to try those microgravity pies since I saw them on the Food Channel.”
“I’m sure they taste the same,” replied Michael, already losing interest in the exchange. “Excuse me, can you tell me if this is any good?”
“Uh, well…” The clerk, a teenage boy wearing a green felt elf hat and a candy cane-covered tie, eyed him skeptically.
“Oh, sorry.” He tucked the moon pies back under his arm and handed the planetarium to the young man.
“Heh. I was wondering why you were asking about the moon pies… but sure! It’s a great gift.”
Michael knew the kid was giving the standard sales pitch, and he frowned a little. To his credit, the young clerk picked up on Michael’s expression and tried to elaborate. “Well, are you buying it for your son or daughter? How old are they?”
Michael made a little noise of uncertainty, but otherwise ignored the question. “I mean, is it accurate, or just random patterns of light? Does it show the northern and southern hemispheres or what?”
“I’m not sure. Well, I would say no, not for six bucks,” the clerk said with honesty. He scratched his cheek and laughed, realizing he’d just shot his tiny commission.
“Oh, brother.” Aly shook his head at the exchange. ‘Classic Mike,’ he thought, ‘picking up whatever junk appealed to his fickle attention span.’ It was only two weeks ago when Michael, short on the rent and living off a bag of stale Easter M&Ms he’d found in the back of the cupboard, pleaded with Aly to stop him from wasting any more money. Well, a promise was a promise.
“Come on, Mike.” Aly’s good-natured smile made the thick whiskers of his beard ripple. “Remember what you said before: no more of these impulse purchases. Save the money.”
“Do you have any more? Better ones, bigger ones?” Michael asked intently, ignoring his friend.
“No, sir, I’m afraid not. We used to have a bigger one in stock, but even that wasn’t so good,” the kid replied. “You probably want to check The Cutting Edge at the other end of the mall. They have all kinds of stuff like that there, big ones that show the whole sky, play classical music and everything.” The kid raised an eyebrow, giving it one more chance, “but you know it’ll be a lot more expensive than that.”
Aly stepped forward and took the little planetarium out of Michael’s hand without any resistance.
“Thanks,” Michael told the clerk. “Merry Christmas.”
“You too, sir! Happy Holidays!”
The pair ascended the escalator towards the parking deck. Michael shot a furtive glance at his roommate. “So, are you going anywhere else here?”
“No, I’m done.” Aly was already twirling his car keys around his index finger. “I appreciate your patience, bud—”
“Actually,” Michael interrupted, “I just remembered something. Can you give me like 10 minutes? I’ll meet you at the car.”
“I’ll just come with you.”
Michael turned his head away from Aly and frowned. He remembered how he made Aly promise to keep him from wasting money and didn’t want to get into an argument about it, especially after the embarrassing situation with the rent last month. He walked faster, and called over his shoulder. “Nah, you don’t have to. Just give me a few minutes, OK?”
Michael strode into The Cutting Edge like a man on a mission, searching for one of the big, full-sky, classical music-blasting home planetariums the clerk in Kaufmann’s had mentioned. It didn’t take him long to find a couple different variations. He zeroed in on the one in the largest box and excitedly read about its variable rotational speed, the ability to view the sky as seen from any desired location in any season, the spoken-word narration by that guy from The Waddling of the Walruses, the background music by Gustav Holst, and all the rest. It was perfect. He looked at the price tag, already knowing that he was going to see something obscene. But there was never any doubt that he was going to buy it, even if it meant eating stale cereal and scrounging for loose change under the couch cushions.
A swipe of the credit card later, and it was his.
The perky blonde behind the counter flashed him a plastic smile. “Would you like this gift wrapped, sir? It’s complimentary!”
“Yeah,” he said without even thinking. “That’d be great.”
She handed him the receipt and took the box back to get it wrapped. For the first time this December, Michael looked happy.
But Aly stood behind him, peering over his shoulder at the $100 total on the receipt. Aly had the sneaking suspicion that Michael was coming here, and so he followed along in spite of the request.
Michael tensed at the low growl coming from behind him and felt the breath on the back of his neck. He quickly crumbled up the receipt and stuffed it in his coat pocket, trying to look casual.
“Hey! I just remembered that my aunt wanted me to look for this thing for my nephew, that she’d pay me if I—”
“Save it,” Aly snapped. He turned way, disgusted.
They drove back to their apartment in icy silence. It wasn’t until he parked the car that Aly held forth.
“You’re a piece of work, Mike. You’re late on the rent last month; you haven’t contributed a dime towards groceries since the Halloween party. The only reason you haven’t starved is because I’ve overlooked you pilfering my soup and cold cuts. You don’t lift a finger to clean anything. On top of that, every day I have to put up with your sullen, moody crap! And now you pull a stunt like this?”
Michael tried to get a word in, his voice soft and guilt-ridden.
“No! I don’t want to hear it! A hundred bucks for that junk? What are you going to do with it? Since when do you care about stars? Mike, I promise you, if you leave me in the lurch again, I’ll—”
“OK, Aly, I get it!” Michael took a deep breath and tried again. “The rent is due in what, two weeks? I’ll have at least half the money on Wednesday, and I won’t be late with the rest. I promise you, really, no matter what I have to do, I won’t let you down again.” His voice changed suddenly, pleading. “Please, just cut me a break on this, OK?”
“Whatever you say, Mike.” Aly left the car, slamming the door behind him.
Michael shuffled awkwardly out of the tight parking space, fumbling with the big package. “I’m going to see my mom for a little while. I’ll probably be back late,” he called out.
But when he turned to look, Aly was already gone.
Later that evening, Aly sat across from his girlfriend Tania at the small kitchen table in his apartment, vacillating between being indignant over the planetarium and feeling guilty over his outburst. At first, she nodded sympathetically, but as her boyfriend went on about how intolerable Michael was becoming, Tania just quietly sipped her coffee.
“You think I’m wrong, I take it?” Aly said, not all that pleasantly.
Tania sighed, letting her narrow shoulders fall heavily. “No, I don’t think you’re wrong. But Mike is going through a lot right now.”
“What? What is he going through?” Aly asked testily.
Tania looked surprised. “He hasn’t told you about his grandfather?”
“What? No, he hasn’t told me anything. What about his grandfather?”
“Oh…” Tania thought for a moment about where to start. She hadn’t brought the topic up because it was pretty depressing, and of course she’d assumed that Aly had already heard about it. “His grandfather is really sick. Lung cancer. He was in IU at Presby until last week. Usually the other nurses checked on him; I did, once or twice, but I had no idea that it was Mike’s grandfather until I saw him and his mom stop by one day.”
Aly straightened. His voice became a whisper. “I had no idea. Well, how is he handling the treatment? Are they using vitamin therapy or can he handle the monoclonals–?”
Tania shook her head sadly. “No, it’s too late for all that. It’s metastasized, end stage. It’s over all of his major organs. There was nothing we could do, so he went home to Mike’s mom’s house. They have a hospice nurse come over.” She added resignedly, “He probably won’t make it to Christmas, but that’s probably a blessing. Poor man can’t even get out of bed. The kind of pain he’s in…”
Aly fell back heavily against the chair, letting his hands slide off the table. “Oh my God,” he said, staring off into the distance.
“Can you imagine what that must be like for Mike?” Tania said.
“Healing people your whole life by willpower alone, but not being able to do anything for your own grandfather?” Aly looked at his girlfriend bleakly. “No, I can’t even begin to imagine.”
Michael arrived at his mother’s house just as the hospice nurse was pulling out of the driveway. Through the kitchen window, he spied his mom slouching at the table, looking exhausted. He microwaved a cup of cocoa for her and set her down on the couch with a blanket to relax for a while.
“I’ll stay with grandpa for a bit,” he told her. When she asked him about the box, he shrugged, embarrassed enough for his cheeks to darken. “Just something for Christmas.”
He trod softly up the creaky staircase, tilting the huge, gift-wrapped box so that it would fit through the narrow hallway of the old house. He knocked softly on the door of his grandfather’s bedroom and stepped inside. “Pop-pop?” he whispered.
The room was dim, with only a small table lamp in the far corner of the room and moonlight coming in through an open curtain that he could see his grandfather by. The old man was pale and rail thin, and his head turned slowly and fitfully, but he smiled when he saw his grandson. The effort made him cough, that horrible raking cough like the sound of grinding metal, and Michael ran over to hold him steady until it faded into a strained wheeze.
“You don’t have to talk, Pop-pop,” Michael said in a shaking voice, cradling the old man’s head as he gently lowered it back down to the pillow. His grandfather nodded ever so slightly and blinked up at the ceiling, the smile gone.
Michael kneeled at the bedside for a moment, almost forgetting the gift. He held it up in the light for his grandfather and forced an unsteady smile. “Hey, I know it’s not Christmas yet, but I figured…” Michael choked up again, shook his head. “This gift is too good to keep wrapped up. What do you say?”
He held out the wrapped box while the old man tried to focus his eyes on it. “What’s this?” he wheezed so softly that Michael almost didn’t hear it.
“Open it,” Michael said encouragingly.
His grandfather stretched out his fingers against the paper and scratched at the box. At first Michael thought he just couldn’t see it clearly, but soon it became heartbreakingly clear that he didn’t even have the strength to tear through the wrapping paper.
“Here, here…” Michael broke in, snapping the ribbon. “Let me help.”
He tore off all the wrapping paper and crumbled it in a ball at his knee, then started opening the box itself, explaining as he did so, “It’s a planetarium. It projects the stars up from this dish here, onto the ceiling and the walls and…”
Michael had to take a deep breath to hold back the tears, but quickly found that he couldn’t.
“I remember you told me how much you used to love watching the stars back on those old cargo ‘digs, and how clear and bright the sky was high over the oceans, without the clouds or the city lights to drown it out. I thought you might like to see that again.” His voice suddenly became very angry, and he choked on his sobs. “I thought it’d be nice for you to look at something besides the damn ceiling all the time.”
His grandfather lightly placed his weary hand on Michael’s cheek, and stretched out his fingers to stroke his hair. The old man summoned every bit of his strength and forced himself to sit up and speak loud and steady for the sake of his grandson. “It’s wonderful, Michael. Will you stay here and watch it with me?”
Michael wiped his sleeve over his eyes and nodded. He freed the projector and the long electric cord from its styrofoam container and positioned it on the nightstand. The walls and the ceiling of the bedroom lit up like a clear, cloudless winter night, with all the heavens twinkling and dancing amid the echoes of horns and angelic strings, while grandfather and grandson gazed up at their majesty in peace.