Welcome Home, Daniel | By Alex Starke

Daniel sat on his daughter’s suede couch facing an enormous television. It stood at the far end of the living room blocking an old brick fireplace. What a damned shame about that fireplace, he thought taking a sip of bourbon, When I was a kid, this house always had a roaring fire going this time of year. He took another drink and pondered the small Christmas tree that stood beside the couch. The glaring, cold LED lights strung on its plastic limbs caused him to squint and turn away. He shook his head. Damn fake trees are an insult to Christmas.

On his visit last year, his daughter, Jean, made a show of the tree. “A faux tree is so much more economical in the long run Dad, and it doesn’t shed those nasty needles or dry out. You simply take it apart and store it in the attic until next year, easy-peasy.” Daniel sighed and looked in through the open kitchen door.

 His two grandchildren Jake and Ashley sat at the kitchen table. Both wore expressions of bored amusement while they bent their heads towards the devices in their hands. Jean’s back was to him, but he could tell her fingers were working a little hand-held. He imagined her husband, Roy, was likely engaged with the computer upstairs in his home office.

Daniel shifted his view back to the TV. A guy was shouting about a dicer/chopper that could make your world a paradise on earth if you bought one. ‘Or get two for the price of one, just pay the extra shipping and…’

“You okay out there, Dad?” Jean asked without turning around, “Roy and the kids will be going to pick up the pizzas in a few minutes. I thought since it’s Christmas Eve we would eat here at the table and just talk like we used to when I was a kid. Maybe play some Christmas music. Sound okay?” He thought, Pizza for Christmas Eve? Whatever happened to goose or roast beef?

“Doesn’t sound okay to me,” Ashley pouted, “I want to play Anxious Carrion Birds.”

“Sounds like bullshit,” Jake said without looking up from his phone, “I wanna watch Fast and Furious XVII while we eat.”

Daniel wondered what those devices were doing to Jake and Ashley’s minds. What manner of technical deviltry will enthrall them when they reach their twenties?

“You two will just have to tolerate a little change in your routines for one night,” Jean scolded, “Anyway, we can all do with a break from games and TV.”

The whining and complaining that followed—mixed in with the gabbling of the television — became white noise to Daniel. His mind sailed into the silver fog of time.

His parent’s house on Oak Street—eaves bedecked in lights—had always stood out in December. The red, blue, and green bulbs beckoned warmly in the wet winters of Eugene, Oregon. Ten-year-old Danny knew right after Thanksgiving dinner—weather permitting—his father would go out to the attached wooden garage and bring forth a tall ladder. Danny brought boxes containing the coveted strings of merry lights down from the attic aided by his Jack Russell terrier, Snoozer.

Danny was Dad’s right-hand man during this process; passing nails, the next end of a light string, tossing up a new bulb, and catching the occasional dropped hammer. When the latter occurred, his father often uttered a few expletives that made young Danny grin at Snoozer.

 Their work finally finished, Daniel and his father—hands on hips—stood in the front yard to inspect their handiwork. When Dad gave a nod to Danny, he knew it was the signal to fetch Mom for the final verdict. His mother—with her old woolen sweater wrapped around her shoulders — made the obligatory walk around the house, all the while gushing admiration about doing such a fine job.

The following Saturday evening Danny and his parents would drive over to the nearby Christmas tree lot on High Street. Daniel remembered the bare yellow bulbs strung up around the perimeter, illuminating the trees; the foggy breath of all of people inspecting the various firs and pines on display; the ramshackle shelter—with makeshift stove billowing smoke—where cash for trees changed hands and…

“Hey Dan, you wanna come with us to get the pizzas?” 

Daniel looked up and regarded his son-in-law Roy. Jake and Ashely stood behind him, their eyes still glued to tiny screens.

“C’mon, we can have a couple of beers while we wait. Whatta ya say?”

Daniel raised his glass and said, “No thanks Roy, got about all I can handle here in my hand.”

Roy shrugged and threw on a rain jacket. “Suit yourself. C’mon kids, get you gear on and let’s hit it!”

The door closed behind them, Daniel took another drink and sank back into the couch. The TV blared and blatted… 

Daniel could recall many times returning home with his parents during the 60s—a prized tree strapped to the roof of the car. Their jewel-lit house stood waiting patiently in welcome, as did Snoozer looking out the front window. When Dad carried the green intruder into the house Snoozer would usually growl, give a wary sniff, then a wag of approval. The tree stood near the glowing fireplace awaiting the fond application of ornaments and lights. Sounds emanating from the black-and-white TV melded with the crackle of wood from the fireplace; together they provided background music for the chatter of Danny and his parents as they decorated the fresh smelling tree…

“Dad, do you need another drink?” Jean called from the kitchen. Daniel surfaced out of the fog and looked at his empty glass.

“Huh? Sure. A light one please, honey.”

She came to retrieve his glass and instead of returning to the kitchen she sat next to him.

“Are they taking good care of you at River’s Edge, Dad? You know I worry, especially since that last heart-attack. Are they making sure you take your medications and get your therapy?”

Daniel replied, “Yes, yes. You don’t have to worry about me. I may have a little problem with my ticker, but I am certainly not senile. I can take care of the meds and everything else myself—I don’t need people pestering me about it.”

Jean patted his knee. “Okay, okay. I just wanted to check, is all. No need to get up in arms about it.” She rose and headed to the kitchen to refill his drink.

When she returned she sat and looked at him anxiously. “Dad, I need to tell you that Roy and I have decided to sell the house.”

Daniel’s eyebrows rose. “What? Oh, Jean no you just can’t…”

Jean held up a hand. “Now Dad let me finish!”

She began with how the neighborhood was changing into rentals for college students and boutique businesses. “We can make a lot of money on it right now, Dad. You know Roy and I always wanted to move out to the new development by Larkway Mall. Gosh, no more lawn to mow, no creaky floors…”

It all became a buzz in Daniel’s ears; he took a deep pull off his drink and sat back on the couch.

The house came to him after his parents died in a plane crash in the 70s. He and his wife Wendy gave up their apartment and moved in with their daughter Jean in tow. Daniel lovingly kept up the old tradition of Christmas lights for the next twenty-five years, until Wendy died of cancer. With Wendy gone and Jean married he lost interest. He would go to Jean and Roy’s apartment for the holiday dinners and celebrations and return home alone to the empty dark house. Empty of people, Daniel thought, but not memories. A few years and one heart-attack later, he deeded the house to his daughter and moved to the assisted living facility at River’s Edge.

“So, you can see Dad, it will all be for the best and we will be even closer to River’s Edge.”

Daniel looked over at his daughter in resignation. He knew if he protested it would all be in vain in the end.

He sighed. “So, when is this plan going to start?” 

“Why Roy thought we would put it on the market the day after Christmas. He has been cleaning out everything around here, he even found those ancient Christmas lights of your Dad’s in the attic last week. They’re in the recycle box in the garage.”

She paused and asked softly, “You want to give them a last look before they go?”

He drained his drink. “Yeah, I believe I would, Jean.”

Daniel handed her his glass. “Mind fixing me another while I’m out having a look?”

“You sure you don’t want me to come with you?”

He shook his head. “No, I’ll be fine. I’d like to be alone if it’s okay with you.”

Jean got up and said, “I understand Dad. You go ahead, but remember dinner is on the way. I’ll put your drink on the kitchen table next to me.”

He put on his coat and shuffled out the front door. Daniel carefully picked his way down the porch stairs; when he reached the bottom, he almost slipped on the icy concrete walkway leading to the garage. Careful, old man. He made slow deliberate steps along the pathway to arrive at his goal. When he stretched out his hand to grasp the garage’s door handle, his feet slipped on the slick surface.

With a lurch he fell into the garage. Dazed, he picked himself up and checked to see if he broke anything. Satisfied he was in one piece, he turned to switch on the overhead light. In the glare he could see the old dusty bulbs peeking up at him from the recycle bin. Daniel walked over and picked up a string—the wiring was cracked and bare in spots. He unscrewed a bulb and polished it on his sleeve, but what used to be a jolly bright green had faded to a pallid lime hue.  Just like me, he thought. He felt tears welling up behind his eyes and grudgingly released the string to fall back with the others lying there. Leave them, old man. Their time has passed, and it’s a whole new world now—an alien world.

He flipped off the light and started back to the house. His way was lit by the cold white and red LED lights Roy had wrapped around the porch railings earlier in the day.

Quietly, he came in the front door, made his way to the couch and collapsed. For a moment he watched as an orange-faced man with preposterous hair waved his arms frantically on the TV. Daniel suddenly felt very weary and slipped into the mist…

He awoke with a jerk, the smell of fresh pine in his nose. I must have gone off pretty deep there for a moment. Glancing around he saw a huge blaze in the fireplace. What the hell? Where was that monster TV? His eyes shifted to a six-foot tall tree hung with softly glowing bulbs, colorful glass ornaments, and shrouded in tinsel that stood next to the hearth. He thought Jean, Roy, and the kids must have pulled a fast one on him while he napped. He smiled. Very thoughtful though

After twenty minutes Jean began to get impatient. Where the hell are Roy and the kids?  She got up from the kitchen table. She said to herself, “He had better not be having more than one beer and then drive with the kids. Why, I’ll…” She turned to the living room and her hand went to her mouth…

Daniel stood up feeling odd—not quite right. He looked down and beheld smallish feet encased in black-and-white sneakers. From the kitchen came a joyful bark; a small dog bounded through the door and leapt into Daniel’s arms, covering him with kisses. Snoozer? 

A voice came from the kitchen. “Danny that you?”

The glow from red, blue, and green lights on the eaves streamed in from the kitchen window, silhouetting two familiar figures in the doorway.

“Dad? Mom?”

“Well who else, young man? C’mon in, we’ve been waiting Christmas Eve dinner for you.”

Smiling, Daniel set Snoozer down, walked past the black-and-white television and into the warm kitchen.

 Tearfully, Jean knelt next to her father who lay peacefully on the couch. She patted his right hand tenderly and said, “Oh Dad, please don’t be gone, don’t be…” Something fell out of his hand to the floor. Jean reached down and picked up an old-fashioned bulb. It sparkled like a bright emerald in her hand.

From the kitchen came faint sounds of yapping, glasses clinking, and of people laughing in good cheer. Jean turned to the doorway and caught a brief glimpse of warm blue, green, and red colors playing across the kitchen table. On the kitchen wall Jean saw the shadow of a boy petting a small dog. The sounds and colors began to dissipate like a cloud on a hot day. As the last shreds of the scene floated away, she heard a fading voice that said, “Welcome home, Daniel.” 


About Alex Starke

Alex Starke is a graduate of the University of Oregon with a degree in Medieval Studies and a minor in Early Modern European History. He is now back at Lane Community College pursuing a degree in Multimedia Design.  Alex met his wonderful wife, Anne, while singing in the Johann Strauss operetta, Die Fledermaus. He and Anne currently reside in Eugene, Oregon with their Pack of Jack Russell terriers. Alex loves to write on almost any topic from travel to Sci-Fi short stories. He also loves doing photography in many genres. When not writing, doing photography, studying, or traveling you will find him most afternoons in his backyard flinging the sacred orb for Thor, his #1 Jack Russell.

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