Side Stories – Daniel

What follows is a short story I wrote that comes before my new holiday story, Celebrating You. Published as part of Dreamspinner’s Heartwarming Advent Calendar this year, it’s the second holiday story I’ve written.

The story is set in a post-pandemic United States. Some 80% of the population is gone. What’s left is… empty, anarchist and lonely. Daniel, who lost his husband three years ago in the pandemic, is struggling with the loneliness, survivors guilt and, still, grief. He’s made promises to Grant that he hasn’t kept and when he is surprised by a radio broadcast, he’s forced to face that.

* * *

Daniel curled up tighter in the corner of the couch, staring into the flames of his fireplace. A whimper to his right spurred him to reach out and look over and the soulful brown eyes of his closest companion seemed to ask him what was wrong. Daniel sighed and scratched the golden retriever behind the ears, then turned back to stare into the flames once more.

He wished he hadn’t heard the radio broadcast. He’d plugged in the little clock radio he’d found to see if it worked, not realizing that the radio switch had been moved to “on.” So he’d been shocked by the voice that came out of it.

Apparently, someone had gone to the trouble of clearing out and starting up one of the local radio stations. Or something—or someone—had pushed them into it. Daniel was sure, based on where he was, that this station came out of Pittsburgh.

Daniel avoided cities at all costs and hadn’t ventured into Pittsburgh in a longwhile. He preferred to stay on the outskirts and away from the mess that they’d become. The better cities had a form of organization, though they were still corrupt, at best. The worst were still pure anarchy. Neither option appealed to Daniel.

He preferred the house he’d taken over away from Pittsburgh proper. Once a short drive into the city—assuming you could find fuel—it had become almost impossible to drive anywhere near it. The interstates were choked with weeds and dead vehicles, offering no where to go except on bicycle or horseback.

So hearing a voice on the previously defunct radio jarred him. Daniel rarely heard other human voices anymore, as it was. He’d stared at the little clock-radio for a few moments before he focused on the voice.

The man behind the mike had a quirky way of speaking that made it obvious he was used to being on air. Daniel didn’t recognize the voice, but that wasn’t anything surprising. He had listened to radio back before the world went to hell but this person could have been from California or someplace equally far. Most people tended to wander quite a distance now.

Finally, Daniel focused on the broadcast. “I’d bet very few of us bother to celebrate holidays anymore. It still seems like there isn’t much of anything to be thankful for or to celebrate and I wouldn’t blame you. My own wife is quite gone, which makes it difficult to remember what was before, what we enjoyed, how good life was. But, I think maybe it wouldn’t hurt to remember a little what would have been a beautiful holiday. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Maybe we should take a just a little bit of time and remember. So, folks, if youare celebrating or if you just want to remember, this is for you.” After a brief pause, a voice Daniel had heard many, many times over the years started singing. Two words in—“Chestnuts roasting”—was enough to nearly knock him to his knees.

Grant’s face flashed behind his eyes and he reeled. He’d managed, over the last two years, to finally put his late husband away. He’d done his grieving, managing to stop seeing that face at every moment. He staggered over and sat hard on one of his little metal-and-vinyl kitchen chairs.

Before he could stop them, images assaulted him. The seven-foot decorated tree they always had, the pine boughs with lights on the mantle, the snowball fights, the candles, the window lights, and the gifts filling the bottom of the tree and spilling out onto the floor. The cookies and pies they’d baked. Smearing batter on each other and licking it off. Christmas morning, Grant waking him with a kiss. Grant, with a bow tied around his neck… and nothing else.

Daniel held his head, gritting his teeth and struggling to hold it all in as fresh grief sliced through him. New images replaced the happy memories. Grant, black hair now limp and thin. Tan skin now so pale, it was almost translucent. Green eyes now watery and red with the sickness looking up at him from a mess of tubes. “No,” he moaned softly. “No no no. Oh God, Grant, no…”

As Nat King Cole crooned in the background, Daniel battled memories both good and bad. His insides tried to become outsides, the world shifted and tilted, and he suddenly felt cold. So cold, like he’d never be warm again. Because what used to warm him, what brightened his world, was gone.

“Make a good life for yourself. Don’t be alone, Daniel. Don’t grieve so hard you lose who you are.” Grant paused to cough so hard Daniel was sure he’d lose a lung.

“Grant, don’t—“

“No. I need to say this. You’re alive, baby. Celebrate that. Don’t lose Christmas. Don’t forget what it is to live. Promise me you will.”

“Grant, I—“

“Promise.”

Daniel swallowed and nodded. “Okay. I promise.”

Daniel stood up abruptly, desperate to stop the memories, and hit the button to turn off the radio, then staggered over to the couch. He lay down and curled up into a ball though he knew in the sane part of his brain that the pain came from within and there was no protecting himself from it.

As he scratched Bull behind the ears, the dog moved forward and licked his face. The dry chuckle hurt almost as much as the memories and he realized he was still dealing a bit with survivor’s guilt. Perhaps it would never go away completely. Perhaps his grief would never disappear entirely and as Daniel calmed down, he realized that was okay. He should remember the good of Grant. He should hold onto those memories, while not dwelling on the end.

“We didn’t keep it, Bull. We’re still just surviving.” He swallowed the lump and took a breath that wasn’t very deep but was, at least, better. “Maybe it’s past time we fixed that.” He gave another chuckle, not quite as dry or painful. “Don’t think we can do much about the ‘alone’ part because I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about you or the cats or the goats. But… There are other things we can do. And I think, just maybe, it’s time we start.”

Daniel closed his eyes and sent up a prayer to a being he wasn’t sure he believed in anymore. He paused, not quite sure what to say, then settled on,help me.

Bull jumped up on the couch, curling up behind his legs. A ginger ball of fluff leaped down from the back, stretching out over his hips and started purring loudly. Before long, he was surrounded and he smiled. “I do have something, don’t I?” He looked up at the fireplace again and decided that just to the left would be a good place for a tree. “Bull, as one of my favorite authors, the good Mr. King, said: Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. And I think this is a good place to start livin’.” As Daniel said it, he felt a lot better. And he knew Grant would approve.

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