They trudged through the snow up to the small farm house off the main road. The wind whistled around them and blew their coats and scarves in all directions as the fast-falling snow found its way down their necks and stuck to their hair. Their feet began to freeze as the cold seeped through their pants and socks after the long walk to the other side of Belvidere where Jeffrey’s family lived.
Jeffrey had visited a few times a week since they had been mustered out in August but Albert’s presence at the home was much less frequent. He had come around with Jeffrey briefly during harvest time to help out with some work on the farm but never stayed long enough to meet the whole family. Albert generally preferred to linger in the background and go unnoticed by those around him, and even though Jeff was his best friend, he still had his anxieties about the Davis family. But Jeffrey was Jeffrey, and Mrs. Davis had insisted profusely that Albert come spend Christmas with them. Jeffrey may or may not have also let slip that Albert’s birthday was on Christmas, so Mrs. Davis would be damned if she let the boy spend the day alone.
As they walked up to the house, the door burst open and a voice shrieked over the howling wind.
“Jeffrey!” A flurry of skirts and braids came flying towards them and Jeff didn’t miss a beat as he swept a little girl up into his arms and spun her around in the snow. Jeffrey’s gleeful laugh sounded through the storm like a thousand silver Christmas bells.
“Frances Elizabeth Davis!” A commanding voice called from the open doorway. A stout yet intimidating woman stood in the doorway, hands on her hips, staring disapprovingly at the girl being carried back to the house in Jeffrey’s arms. “I have told you time and time again, young lady, you cannot go running out into the cold like that. And close the door if you do.” Mrs. Davis’s stern expression cracked a bit as she added the last bit. She watched her daughter wryly as she rushed back into the house, her brief adventure into the snow having chilled her a bit too much for her taste. Mrs. Davis turned her attention back to the boys walking up the steps of the porch.
“Jeffrey, darling!” Her eyes sparkled as she held her arms out to her eldest son. Jeffrey grinned broadly and his green eyes twinkled identically to hers as he leaned down to hug his mother and let her kiss him on his cheeks, bright red from the icy cold. “Come inside, boys, or you’ll catch cold.”
“Merry Christmas, Mama,” Jeffrey greeted his mother once she had let go of him. She began to pull off his coat as Jeff continued. “You remember Albert, don’t you, Mama?” Jeffrey pulled Albert further into the house. The boy had previously been trying to melt into the doorframe, but neither Jeffrey nor Mrs. Davis was going to let him get away that easily.
“Ah! Of course I remember Albert,” Mrs. Davis pulled Albert into a hug just like the one she had greeted Jeffrey with. She practically knocked the boy off his feet. “I couldn’t possibly forget. Jeffrey talks about you enough when he comes ‘round for Sunday dinners. It’s wonderful to finally meet you properly, dear.” She leaned in close and added quietly, “And happy birthday, darling.” Something warm welled up inside Albert when she used the same term of endearment as she had for her son.
“Thank you, Mrs. Davis. It’s good to meet you, too.” Albert offered the woman a kind smile as she ushered him into the sitting room where several more children were already greeting Jeffrey.
“Children, come say hello to Albert, Jeffrey’s friend.” Mrs. Davis announced. She pointed to them each in turn. “That there’s Charlie and Annie,” She indicated two older girls sitting on the floor, one working on pinning the other girl’s braids into loops at the base of her neck. “And over there, you already met Miss Fanny out in the snow. And finally… well, where’s Nate gone off to?” At the mention of his name, a fit of giggles erupted from behind Jeffrey’s knees and a small boy with blond hair and freckles just like Jeffrey’s poked his head out. Albert couldn’t help but give his own surprised laugh in return as he marveled at the sight before him. Five Davis children… and Albert thought Jeffrey could be a handful on his own, sometimes.
“Charlie, dear, will you come help me in the kitchen when you’ve finished pinning the girls’ hair?” Mrs. Davis didn’t ask so much as told her eldest daughter before leaving the children to go finish preparing dinner. Albert stood awkwardly in the doorway for a moment as the girls chattered over one another, eager to tell Jeffrey everything they planned on doing.
“Jeffrey, look at my hair! Marta Larson taught Charlie how to pin it and tie ribbons around the braids.” Annie looked up at her brother, only for Charlie to press her head back down so she could get a better angle to place the pins.
“I think you look like a right Swedish princess, Annie.” It seemed as though even Jeffrey’s sisters weren’t immune to his flattery.
Albert looked down when he felt a small hand take his own. It was Fanny, guiding him over to a stack of homemade decorations sitting on the floor. “Here, come help me, Albert.” She told him as she sat down next to him and began showing him how to string popcorn together in long chains. Albert shot a startled look as Jeff, and the boy just gave him his own good-humored stare before unwrapping Nate from around his legs and sitting beside Albert with his brother in his lap. Fanny taught all the boys to make the decorations, and Albert was grateful for something useful to do.
Jeffrey held Nate’s pudgy hands in his own and helped him guide the popcorn onto the strings. Something strange welled up in Albert’s chest as he watched Jeffrey patiently speak into his little brother’s ear. Nate was practically mesmerized as he looked at the homemade garland growing longer and longer in his brother’s hands. Albert thought about what Jeff had asked him back in Mississippi, about building a family and having kids and a home together. Albert had outright rejected everything Jeffrey had proposed then but he wasn’t so sure now. It looked so right to have Nate leaning heavily against Jeffrey’s broad chest, entirely content with being engulfed in his older brother’s presence. The two were in their own little world, and Albert was sure they could have gone on happily crafting Christmas decorations like that until the end of time.
But the popcorn wouldn’t last until the end of time, and soon the three youngest Davis children took turns being lifted into Jeffrey’s arms and stringing the garland and other paper decorations around the room. There was much giggling from everyone as the children flew into the air, trailing popcorn and paper behind them. At some point, the children got bored of flying into the air themselves and insisted that Albert have a turn. Albert had, until that point, been quite satisfied with observing their antics from his spot on the floor. He tried to protest and tell the children that he was too big, but Annie countered and said that he wasn’t that much bigger than she was and Jeffrey could certainly lift him. Anyway, there was a spot above the mantel that they couldn’t reach.
Eventually the children wore them down. The boys stared at each other for a moment, awkward and unsure in a scene all too familiar since they had come back from the war. They had gotten used to sidestepping one another, giving each other more than enough space while they tried to rebuild the ease with which they’d coexisted before. They couldn’t tell who reached out first, but Jeffrey bent down and wrapped his arms around Albert’s knees and Albert held his balance with his hands on Jeff’s shoulders. The children were absolutely delighted as Albert nearly touched the ceiling while stringing decorations around the top of the mantle.
Jeffrey let him down slowly, and their touch lingered for a moment, eyes locked, breaths stilled. The children didn’t notice, or maybe they did, but nobody found out because Mrs. Davis came in and ushered them all into the kitchen for supper.
Mr. Davis made his way to the table after spending the afternoon working outside and joined them as they ate. He was a gruff, stoic man of few words, the polar opposite of Jeff in all ways except physically. Albert saw shadows of Jeffrey in all the Davis men, almost as if he could see one boy living out three different parts of his life all at once.
The family ate for a long while until they were full, and Mrs. Davis even brought out treats to celebrate Albert’s twenty-second birthday. They then retired back to the newly-decorated sitting room after cleaning up the kitchen. They all spent the night talking and telling stories. The girls were all very interested in hearing stories from Albert about the war, and Albert got to hear a few family stories about the antics of a young Jeffrey N. Davis. Late into the night, as several small heads began to bob sleepily, Mrs. Davis told the children it was time for bed. Of course, at that moment, all the children began to perk up and protest, telling their mother that they didn’t want to go to sleep and that they weren’t tired at all.
“What do you say you all go get dressed for bed and you can come back out here and I’ll tell you a story? Alright? One more story and then you all go to bed.” Jeffrey enticed his siblings. Their eyes all lit up and the four of them nodded furiously before scuffling up the stairs to put on their night clothes.
Albert eyed his friend curiously as he sat on the floor near Jeff in front of the blazing fire, waiting for the children to come back. One by one, they came thundering back into the sitting room, until at last Nate finally made his way over to them. Nate stood in front of Albert, considering him for a few moments before planting himself firmly in Albert’s lap, much to Albert’s surprise. Jeffrey broke out into a warm grin at his little brother’s unabashed show of love. Behind the children, Mrs. Davis clutched her hands while a soft smile even more heartfelt than her son’s spread across her face. Even Mr. Davis gave a slight quirk of the lips at the sight.
Albert let Nate make himself at home in his lap as Jeffrey began his story.
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…” Jeffrey sprang to life in front of the fire, illustrating the poem for his family with practiced ease. He pantomimed the actions of the story and put on a deep voice for St. Nick, proclaiming the names of his reindeer for all of Belvidere to hear. He leaned down and tapped Charlie on the nose and pinched Fanny’s cheeks, and the children erupted into a fit of gleeful laughter. He quieted as he drew near the end of the poem, lacing each line with an air of bittersweet finality instead of the bravado he displayed earlier.
As the last line of the poem hung in the air, Albert looked down at the little boy in his lap and saw that he had nodded off to sleep. The girls all stood and slowly made their way to their bedroom after saying goodnight to Albert, Jeffrey, and their parents. Albert carefully turned Nate around in his lap and lifted him into his arms. Nate slept soundly through it all, his small, blonde head leaning heavily against Albert’s shoulder. His little hands groped blindly in his sleep and he clung gently to the back of Albert’s shirt.
“I can take him, Albert,” Mrs. Davis whispered as she came up beside Albert with her arms outstretched.
“It’s alright, Mrs. Davis, I’ve got him,” Albert flashed her a quick smile as Mrs. Davis melted at the sweet sight again. Albert carried Nate upstairs to his bed and gently set the little boy down, careful not to wake him. He pulled the blankets up to the boy’s chin and ran a hand over his hair before quietly making his way back into the sitting room.
When he returned, he found that Jeffrey had disappeared. Mr. and Mrs. Davis were slowly cleaning up the room from the night’s festivities and arranging a spot in front of the fire for Albert and Jeffrey to sleep. Mrs. Davis noticed Albert looking around, knowing what he was looking for.
“He’s outside, I expect,” Mrs. Davis said, a hint of sadness creeping into her voice. She didn’t say anything else, just pressed a warm quilt into Albert’s hands. Albert stole a glance out the window and sure enough, Jeffrey was sitting on the porch, his shoulders hunched and head bowed. Albert stood still for a moment, unsure of what he should do. But Mrs. Davis answered that question for him after noticing his uncertainty.
“It’s alright. You can go out to him. I think he’d appreciate the company tonight.” She gave his shoulder a comforting pat before moving off to clean again.
Albert put on his coat before going outside, careful not to let the door squeak on his way out. He quietly closed it behind him and stood for a while, solemnly watching his friend. Jeff was rocking back and forth, a habit of self-soothing Albert remembered from their days in the war. The snow silently drifted down from the sky, not the whistling and roaring blizzard that had greeted them earlier in the day. Albert heard Jeff singing while he stood.
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace
He sang the way he did when Walter died on the battlefield, as if depending on the words to keep himself from entirely falling apart. His voice rang high and sad out across the darkened plains of Belvidere. It cracked every once in a while, and Albert could hear him holding back tearful sniffles between the lines.
Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God love's pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Albert moved towards Jeffrey when he finished singing. Jeff kept staring off into the empty blackness before them as he heard Albert’s footsteps creak across the worn wood of the porch. Albert sat next to Jeff and draped the quilt over their shoulders. Jeffrey pulled the quilt tighter around his large frame, grateful for the warmth. They both sat in silence for a while, admiring the snow glinting against the faint light from inside as it fell to the ground. Finally, Jeffrey spoke.
“He loved Christmas.” Jeffrey said. Albert looked up at his friend’s face and saw the boy’s eyes lost in memories. He lingered in some place between now and then, reliving the events of past Christmases in his mind. “He’d even pretend it was Christmas the rest of the year. I’d hear him out wandering around singin’ carols to himself in the middle of August. And when Christmas did come around, he’d be out in the snow and we could hardly get him inside and he just had the time of his life putting up decorations and tryin’ to make presents outta whatever he could find lyin’ around.” Jeffrey smiled bitterly at the memories. Albert tentatively held out his hand and Jeff laced their fingers together, engulfing Albert’s hand in his own and running his thumb across the back of Albert’s hand in a gesture of thanks before continuing. “I used to tell him that story all the time when he got sick. Made him feel like it was Christmas every day, even being sick and hurtin’ like he was. If I couldn’t do nothin’ else, I could make him feel like it was Christmas just a little bit.”
“His name was Lawrence, wasn’t it?” Albert asked. Jeffrey just nodded his head, tears beginning to form in his eyes. Albert had gotten bits of information about Jeffrey’s brother while they were in the war together, but never so much as this. Jeffrey always stopped himself from revealing too much, an act that felt very out of character for the boy who’d talk for days if you didn’t stop him. “I remember the first Christmas I was alone. It weren’t too many years ago, just a little before the start of the war.” Albert swam in his own memories. Christmas had never really been a festive time for him. It was always draped in anxieties over something else, something bigger. Back in Ireland, it was just another day without food. In America, it wasn’t much different. A few years he spent entirely alone without much reason to celebrate and nobody to do it with anyway. The closest Albert had ever come to a proper Christmas was in the army and even then, there was the promise of another day of fighting tomorrow. Nowadays, Christmas was better for the both of them but the shadows of the past still hung low and heavy over their celebrations.
Christmas would never feel the same for them. Even as time healed their wounds, a pang of grief would rattle through their chests momentarily when the holidays came around. Amongst the backdrop of singing and eating and the families that the Davis siblings built up over the years, the boys felt themselves wishing for the presence of someone else. Jeff would hold one of Charlie’s or Annie’s sons in his lap and see eyes that looked too familiar and a nose that scrunched up in a way he remembered all to well. Fannie would pat his arm late in the night and Albert swore he saw a glimpse of his mother in the way she smiled at him. Nate, now all grown up, would laugh and play tricks on his siblings while trying to sneak an extra piece of orange under the table for his nieces and the boys couldn’t help but imagine a similarly mischievous boy with a mop of brown hair and a habit of cracking dirty jokes around the campfire. They saw Walter in the way Annie’s husband took sips from his flask when he thought nobody was looking and Collins in the way Charlie would order her children to bed at the end of the night. There were countless faces they wished they saw milling about the house with the rest of the family, countless army boys and lost family members who deserved to be there for Christmas but weren’t.
And they would do the same thing they did that night. Albert and Jeffrey would silently make their way out to the porch at the end of the night with a well-loved quilt draped around their shoulders and sit in the quiet of the night with their memories of loved ones and Christmases past. Sometimes they would talk. Sometimes not as much. They would share chaste kisses of comfort, Albert leaning up to peck Jeffrey’s cold cheek and Jeffrey pressing his lips against the top of Albert’s head as they sat with their fingers intertwined and their sides pressed together in the cold. If they couldn’t have everyone, they at least had each other. Albert would finally pull Jeff inside just as their toes began to freeze and their fingers turned blue and they would curl up in front of the fire, safe in each other’s arms.
“Happy birthday, Albert,” Jeffrey whispered as he pulled the blankets further up their shoulders and curled his legs up beside Albert to keep his long legs under the blanket.
“Merry Christmas, Jeffrey,” Albert replied. Soon, the two boys dozed off, happily dreaming of Christmas festivities until morning.
Yes, Christmas would never feel the same for them. But that never meant it wasn’t still good.