The single dull lamp illuminating the room gave the ferns of ice crawling across the window glass a golden autumnal hue, out of place against the heavy fall of snow. John rolled another thin rag, greasy with coal soot, and carefully stuffed it along the edge of the window frame. He was trying to keep out the creeping chill of the Quebec winter. John kept telling himself that the storm had nothing on the howling wind that blew off the Hudson Bay back home, but that thought did little to warm his hands.
He knew he should get a fire going in the little potbellied stove of his rented room, but the coal was running low and getting more would mean leaving his room and facing the holiday merriment downstairs. As it was he could hear Glen Miller and “Moonlight Serenade” coming up from the parlor below his room. It was underscored by the deep laughter of old men well into their cups.
A heavy knock rattled his thin door. John knew it would be Mrs. Bruce on the other side. She always knocked the same way; two knocks loud enough to raise the dead, or at least drunks late on their rent, then a third little knock like an apology to the innocent. John managed to forgo his cane as he took the half dozen steps to the door. He opened it to Mrs. Bruce with her sharp blue eyes and her face cracked liked ice on a spring sea.
John forced a smile. He could feel the tiny pricks of an icy burn just where his cheeks touched the cold wire rims of his glasses. “Good evening, Mrs. Bruce.”
“Hello, Johnny. I noticed you didn’t come down for supper.”
John knew his absence would be conspicuous but the very idea of the evening was just too much for him to handle. “I’m sorry. I’m not really in the festive spirit this year.”
Mrs. Bruce just nodded. John was sure she’d seen every permutation of humanity pass through her boarding house doors and would hopefully understand. “Well, I thought you might be having one of your moods so I brought you some rolls and a little ham.” She held out a dish wrapped in a thick linen napkin instead of the usual dishtowel. “You don’t eat enough the rest of the year; you should have a little something now.”
“Thank you.” John took the still warm plate and let the heat soak into his fingers. He knew Mrs. Bruce was expecting more from him. He was one of the “good ones” by her reckoning. “If the weather clears up a bit, I’ll walk you to the morning services,” he offered.
“You’re a dear boy.” She patted his cheek. “Any more word from Robert?”
John kept smiling despite the constant dull ache in his chest suddenly becoming a sharp pinch.
“Only that letter a few weeks ago.”
“Well, next time you write him, tell him he better come home safe and sound. He’s got the only strong back in this place and I need some help moving the sofa in the parlor.” John laughed, his breath turning to steam. “And you should light a fire in here. The cold can’t be good for your leg.”
John shifted his weight off the metal frame holding his leg in place. It creaked a bit, as stiff in the cold as the rest of him. “I was just about to light one,” he smoothly lied. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, dear.”
John shut the door and balanced his dinner on the mess of papers covering his desk knowing the food would be ice cold in minutes. He also knew he wouldn’t eat it. He dragged himself back to his bed and flicked on the small secondhand Bakelite radio that lived on his nightstand. He watched it begin to glow. He carefully twisted the knobs, straining to hear voices woven into the static. If he was lucky and there was just the right kind of weather over the North Atlantic and not too much aurora activity he could tune in the BBC. Not that the BBC ever broadcast the things he really wanted to know but he liked to think that just maybe he and Robert were listening to the same thing in the same moment.
As he slowly shifted through the bands, he traded one flavor of static for another. He caught the occasional burst of Christmas music or some girl singing in a husky voice about her boy overseas. He preferred the static. John finally flipped off the radio in disgust, the room becoming that little bit darker. There was still static in the sound of a billion dry snowflakes grinding away at the layers of boarding house whitewash and old rippled glass windows.
He pulled open the drawer of his bedside table wiggling it so it wouldn’t stick. Without even looking, he pulled out an envelope and a single photo. He drew his finger along the scalloped edges of the photo and turned it a little toward the light. In it Robert stood straight and tall in his RCAF uniform with a half dozen other men in front of a British bomber. It had still been summer when the picture was taken and Robert had only been gone a handful of months with promises to be home before the next school term started. After all the war couldn’t last that long. That’s what he had said after their lips touched for the last time.
Of course, Robert shouldn’t have been in England to begin with. It wasn’t part of the Plan. The Plan was so old it deserved to be a proper noun. Worked out when they were just boys stealing sinful kisses behind Father Jeremiah’s smoke shed, the Plan stated that they would get the hell out of Nacknik and even right out of Manitoba. They would go to Quebec or maybe even Toronto, get a room and enroll in university together. Robert would study engineering while John would study the subtleties of the English language.
They were hardly a year into the Plan when everyone in the boarding house gathered around the tall radio in the parlor to listen to their newest king. It wasn’t long after that Robert was asked to do his part for King and country. No one asked John. With a leg that dangled half dead beneath him even much of the “women’s work” was kept from him. His mother always told him to count his blessing as far as his leg went, and he did. He still had nightmares of the other boys in the hospital trapped in iron lungs with their limbs strapped to boards. Instead, he was told to keep to his studies, and he did, while he tried not to think of Robert falling out of the sky every second of every day. If he was lucky, sometimes he’d get a full minute when that thought didn’t cross his mind.
John looked around perfectly aware that the room was empty of all life except his own then pressed the photo to his lips before setting it aside.
He ran his fingers along the edge of the envelope, just like he had the picture, but he didn’t open it. He knew every word the letter contained. It was full of banalities, one old friend to another, and contained no word of missions or postings. Still, John knew it was a love letter hidden under the most common language, and he had this strange fear that, if read too often, the words would somehow fade like the watercolor down in the parlor that always caught the afternoon sun.
He put the photo and envelope away and flipped off the little bedside light. He waited for his eyes to adjust. Somewhere above the snow and howling wind was a full moon. After a minute he could see his breath begin to sparkle in the tiny hint of light filtering through the clouds.
He watched the little cloud of steam grow before him, breath by breath, until he realized his fingers were as numb as his nose. He heard the old clock in the hall strike eleven. He crawled under his blankets only stopping to peel off his grey canvas shoes. The blankets didn’t give much warmth, but like the fire, he didn’t care enough to take a spare from the linen closet down the hall. Instead he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He didn’t want to be awake when it became Christmas.