The sky was absolutely clear, every star visible, and the air was cold, like the empty black sky could not stop all the warmth from escaping the earth. Snow caked Henry’s boots as he walked up to the house from his car. Why hadn’t Dad shoveled? Was he sick? Henry would do it after he checked on the old man.
“Henry,” said his father. “So good to see you.”
“Thanks,” said Henry. There was a mat inside the door, and he tried to stomp off the snow on his boots. “Sorry about the mess…”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” said his father. The old man, wearing the big bulky cardigan that was the only sweater he seemed to like, came over to help Henry with his coat. “Snowy, huh?”
“Clear, now. You all right? The path’s a mess.”
“Sure, I’m fine.”
“Just not like you—”
“I haven’t had the time.”
“I remember the doctor told you—”
“Henry,” said his father, patting him on the shoulder, “it’s all okay. I’m sorry you had to walk through all that. Come on in. You want some coffee? Beer or something?” His father gestured to the living room, just inside the door of the cabin. There, beside the old man’s favorite chair, was his own coffee mug, the #1 Grandpa mug that Henry’s kids had given him.
“Thanks, Dad. Hot coffee would be great.”
Then they were both seated and Henry was looking around. There was a small tree in the corner, covered in a blaze of multicolored lights, maybe hundreds of them, but only a couple of ornaments. Holly swags ran along the walls. A cozy fire was going nearby, stockings hung over it. Henry was tempted to make a joke about the stockings not being fireproof—his father had always been a dedicated safety-first man—but he was too amazed at the scene itself.
“Dad—did you do all this?”
“I had help.”
“Yeah, your mother always did the decorating.”
“Except the outside lights. She made you do those.”
His father grunted a laugh. “I had to,” he said. “She would have gone up the ladder herself if I didn’t. I was afraid she’d kill herself.”
“Mom loved Christmas.”
Henry’s father drank some coffee. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. Henry thought that seemed strange—his father didn’t smoke anymore—but of course Henry’s mother wasn’t here. Yeah, Dad must be getting away with naughty behavior, he thought.
“How’re Jane and the kids?” asked his father.
“Great. Wonderful, really. The kids are excited for Christmas. It’s hard enough when one of them has a birthday coming up, but Christmas is like all their birthdays at once.”
“They behaving? Santa’s watching.”
Henry laughed. “That works on them about seventy percent of the time.”
His father lit the cigarette and blew out a stream of smoke toward the fireplace. “Used to do better on you,” he said. “I wish I could see them, too.”
“Yeah, I do—”
Henry stopped. There was something he was trying to remember but couldn’t. Was there a problem with one of the kids? No, everyone was fine. But something was not right.
A minute passed in silence. Henry looked out the window to the star-crusted sky. He felt his father’s eyes on him.
“You remember your uncle Billy’s house?” asked his father. “The one on Maxwell.”
“Remember? Dad, how could I forget? That was the hottest summer of my life.”
His father snorted smoke with laughter. “Yeah,” he said. “I was just thinking about that.”
Billy had been Henry’s grand-uncle. When he died, the family wanted to sell his house. Henry’s father was extremely handy, and volunteered to fix it up so they could get a good price for it. They spent evenings and weekends toiling in the little house with no air conditioning, not even a ceiling fan.
“It would have gone a lot faster if I hadn’t had that summer job,” said Henry, who’d been in college at the time. “Spent all day trying not to fall asleep while entering data.”
“Pretty dull, huh?”
“I was working full-time too. We had to fit it in when we could.”
“He was a real slob, Uncle Billy, wasn’t he? That place hadn’t even been dusted in twenty years.”
“Not so bad,” said his father. “There was no sign of ants or mice.”
“That’s because he never had food in the house.”
Henry had canceled dates, watched his friends go do fun things without him. Several Saturday mornings found a hungover Henry being toted to the hot little house to move and clean and paint and hammer and do everything else a young man with a hangover would not want to do. It was a miserable three months.
“Why did we do it? That’s what I still don’t know,” said Henry. “The family didn’t give us a fee for all that work. The rest of them barely helped out. We were lucky they paid the expenses.”
His dad cocked his head and an eyebrow, a gesture of who knows? that Henry knew better than he knew anything that ever happened on his own face. “Uncle Billy was a sad case,” his father said. “I wanted his house to look nice for when we sold it. Give him a little pride. And I didn’t want to get into a fight about money with any of the relatives. Then everyone gets mad.” He puffed again and added, “And I wanted to work with you.”
“Was a hot one, though.”
“But---I loved it,” said Henry. “That was an awful summer, Dad. I wish I could live it all over again.”
His dad smiled. “Me too.”
“There are a lot of things I wish I could live over.”
His dad sighed. “Me too.”
And that’s when it struck. “Dad—”
His father sat forward suddenly, jabbing out his cigarette in an ashtray Henry hadn't seen. “Henry, there’s something you should know.”
“Some of it.”
Henry looked out the window. “Enough of it.”
“No,” said his father.
Henry’s chest felt cold and heavy now, a slick stalactite of terror running down it, chilling him all over again. Hard to breathe. He wheezed in, remembering.
“You,” he said, breathing hard. “This is you.”
His father turned toward the Christmas tree.
Henry took a deep breath. It was hard, although his lungs were clear. “This is how I heard you breathe. September.”
“Look at the tree,” said his father.
“It’s the sky,” said Henry. “It’s all wrong.”
His father got up.
“It was cloudy all day,” said Henry. “Supposed to rain on Christmas if it gets warmer.”
“It’s all right,” said his dad, putting a hand on Henry’s shoulder. Instantly the heaviness in Henry’s chest eased. “There’s just one thing.”
Henry got up. His father was pointing to the tree.
“That’s a lot of lights,” said Henry.
“I didn’t decorate this place,” said his father. “It’s not my house.”
“No—no, you live in North Carolina now.”
“But I did decorate the tree.”
Henry laughed. “You never did a tree in your life.”
“I did this one.” His dad pointed to it again. “I just wanted you to know.”
“The lights,” said his father. “Each light is one time I looked at my boy Henry and knew that I loved him, loved him with everything I had in me.”
Henry straightened. It was a staggering number of lights.
“But each ornament,” said his father, “each of those were the times I actually told you.”
Henry counted them, one, two…
“This one was when you were born,” said his father, pointing. “That one, you were maybe two.”
“Dad,” he said. He turned to his father, whose eyes were shining, but full of sorrow.
“Dad, no,” said Henry. “If that tree had an ornament for every time you showed me you loved me, this house would be full of nothing but ornaments, do you hear me?”
His father looked down, smiling, clutching Henry’s shoulder tightly.
“But it’s beautiful,” Henry murmured.
His father wiped his eyes on a sleeve. “Here,” he said. He took something from his pocket and handed it to Henry. “Put it up.”
It was a crystalline glass ornament, heavy, bright. The lights from the tree splintered and showered Henry’s hand around it. It already had a hook on it. Henry took it to the nearest branch—empty, like most of them—and hooked it on.
“Daddy,” Henry whispered, looking at the million lights reflected in the ornament, almost not noticing the -dy he’d attached at the end, “you know there are a billion fathers whose trees would have ornaments everywhere and not one real light? How dark, how awfully dark they would be.”
His father sniffed, and said, “Merry Christmas, Henry.”
“I dreamed you,” said Henry. “I dreamed you so I could say good-bye.”
“I wished you,” said his father. “There at the end. When I couldn’t breathe. So I could tell you one more time.”
The bedroom curtains were closed.
Henry got up. Jane was curled into a ball like a kitten, facing away, her usual sleeping position. Henry’s practiced ear listened for anyone coughing, crying, walking, talking, whatever else three kids might be up to. He also listened for any sounds from the bedroom next door, where his mother was sleeping while staying over for the holidays.
Quietly Henry rose. He parted the curtains with care. Glossy snow frosted the yard below, the street a ribbon or a river beyond. The sky was painted over with a uniform coating of clouds, but just above them was a powerful bright moon, nearly full, so strong it lit up the sky like morning. But of course it was not yet morning.