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Christmas Holiday Bedtime

Althea woke up and remembered it was Christmas.

She pushed off the blankets that were feeling exceedingly heavier with each passing morning, and placed her feet down on the warm, wooden floors.

“Warm floors,” she said to herself, “I’ll never get over warm floors.”

When she was a little girl, there were things promised from the future and things that couldn’t even be imagined. Althea was still waiting on the things promised, but the unimaginable had arrived time and again, and each time, she couldn’t believe how much energy people expended on erasing minor inconveniences while the greater problems of the world were left unsolved.

A few months earlier, Althea had celebrated her eighty-fourth birthday, but since it was Christmas, a fuss was not made. People on the street wished her well, and the staff at the hotel presented her with a cake when she came downstairs to start her day, but that was all. The holidays were assertive. They did not allow for sharing.

She had lived in this hotel since she was sixty-five. After retiring from the robotics company she’d founded in the early 80’s, she was determined to relax for a change. Her life had not included marriage or children, because work filled every moment with chaos and technology. Althea had made herself rich coming up in a world where men held the purse strings. She had been given every award on the planet when she’d decided to retire. Magazines featured her prominently and the question posed again and again was--

What will you do now?

The answer, she knew, was die. Even though sixty-five wasn’t old, it also wasn’t young. Althea knew that most people in her family lived long lives, but who was to say she wouldn’t be an anomaly? She’d had a health scare when she was thirty and then again when she was forty. Both were handled quickly, and she hadn’t had any issues since aside from the usual wear and tear. She was what her parents would have called “spry.” There wasn’t much exercise going on, but she could still climb a flight of stairs without complaining and if she had to pick something up off the floor, she didn’t require assistance. The bar was lowered a little more with each passing year, but part of her enjoyed that. She liked subverting expectations. It was what had allowed her to move through her industry like an octopus in the deep.

Even when she’d made her first big windfall after a successful product launch, she had kept her living conditions simple. A two-story farmhouse out on an albeit sizable plot of land right outside of Cambria, California, a little town that enjoyed antique stores and loaded salads. It wasn’t until the day after her retirement party that she called in a contractor to talk about building something a little more…intriguing.

“You did a decent job with these plans,” he said, looking over what Althea had been drawing up for the past year and apparently forgetting that she has over thirty patents, including one for a mechanical kidney, “But I don’t get what this is? Is it some kind of…amusement park?”

That inquiry reminded her that she needed to have people signing NDAs moving forward. The building began almost immediately. Long life or not, there wasn’t any point in wasting time. Althea tried to keep the construction team small, but it was a large project, and there was no way around that. A few of her close friends, some of whom were also retired, assisted with the more unusual elements of the undertaking. She managed to deconstruct it so that everybody knew what piece they were working on, but without being able to get a sense of the big picture. Normally, that was not how Althea liked things. When she ran her company, she had always wanted everybody invested in the overall vision, but this was unlike anything she had ever done. It required much more secrecy.

It wasn’t that she was concerned people would fear for her sanity. Who cares if people think you’re not in your right mind after a certain age as long as they don’t try putting you away? No, it was her legacy she was thinking about, especially since it would be all she’d be leaving behind. She’d worked hard to earn her place in the history books, and she didn’t want to wind up spoken of like Howard Hughes--the genius who went off the deep end and tarnished all his best accomplishments with some upsetting eccentricities.

It took nearly two years to complete the project even when Althea paid extra to have work happening around the clock. The closer it got to completion, the thinner her patience ran. When it was finally finished, only the lead contractor and a few of the tech specialists were there to see it all come to life. One of them whispered in her ear and asked what she was thinking as she stood there on a train platform looking out onto a beautiful town covered in snow.

“Merry Christmas,” Althea said, “Merry Christmas.”

* * * * * * *

It probably had something to do with growing up in California. As a little girl, Althea never got to have that kind of traditional Christmas one sees in storybooks. There was never any snow, and because she grew up poor, there were never many presents either. Her family lived on a farm similar to the one she was living on now, although they worked theirs--and hard. By the time two of her brothers were teenagers, they looked old enough to start their own families. The only enrichment or creativity to speak of was a battered copy of “A Christmas Carol” that some traveling library had given to Althea as it was passing by her house. Her brothers made fun of her for accepting the book since it was the middle of summer, but she was transfixed by the old man on the cover sitting in an armchair, holding a candle, while a ghost hovered above him and snow fell past his window.

There was so much in that illustration that Althea had never seen--an armchair, a ghost, but most of all, snow.

She used the book to teach herself how to read along with some help from her mother, who would use the farm equipment catalogue and whatever else she could find. She’d read it over and over regardless of the time of year, but the first Christmas Eve after receiving it, she had the honor of reading some of it out loud to her family before bed. Her brothers, who were not known to behave when their sister was the center of attention, sat rapt in front of her, and in that moment, she thought she might become something of an actress.

“Very nice, Althea,” said her father when she had finished the first chapter, “Very nice indeed.”

Althea was the last to leave the farm, and when she did, she swore her next life would be in New England. She dreamt of finding a little place that put wreaths on its doors every December with carolers and a giant Christmas tree in the town square.

What her life would be once she got there was anyone’s guess. Her fantasy of being an actress disappeared over time when she realized that speaking in front of large groups of people would be out of the question. She didn’t have the bravado for it. She thought about being a writer, but the mere suggestion of it nearly caused her parents to disown her. She supposed she would save up some money working as a secretary in Los Angeles until she had enough to travel east. Once she was there, it wouldn’t matter what she did.

She’d be home.

* * * * * *

Her first robot was an accident. In the fifties, robotics was being pioneered far across the pond in Bristol. In California, Althea found herself working for an engineer who drank too much in a rotting studio in Chatsworth. The money was decent, because her boss, Mr. Vershun, came from a family full of oil money, but he was more of a tinkerer than a proper engineer, although he certainly had a grand imagination. He had aspirations to break into a world only science fiction had showcased up until then.

“Robotics,” he told Althea the day he hired her, “We’re in the robotics business, you and me.”

Some secretaries end up marrying the men they work for, but Althea became more like Vershun’s mother. She’d pick up after him, see that he ate enough, and even threatened him when he pulled an all-nighter. Despite his passion, he had no proclivity for tech, and it turned out, some things are closer to art than they are to science when it comes to being adept at them. There are prodigies in music and prodigies in creating robots. Mr. Wilfred Vershun was no such prodigy.

Althea, however, was.

After organizing all of her employer’s files, poring over his submissions to journals, and transcribing all his thoughts, somehow the intricacies of his obsession became etched into her consciousness. Once there, she found she could move those details around as she liked, and soon, on nights when Vershun had passed out at his desk, she became the tinkerer. She began to build, and fairly quickly, she realized she might not be heading east after all.

It wasn’t that her interest wouldn’t travel with her, but in Los Angeles, she had an entire studio at her disposal with only minor interference from Vershun, who was slowly drinking himself to death no matter how much Althea objected. That studio became the birthplace of what would one day be her company. Had she been a man, it might not have taken decades to come to fruition, but Althea was steadfast. She knew she’d been given some kind of gift, and she would see it through to the end. Once she had, she would use any currency that came from it to purchase the life she wanted in that perfect town with its carolers and Christmas tree.

Just as some novels never get written and some paintings are never painted, Althea’s dream of a Christmas town in New England began to move further and further out of her grasp not because of failure, but because of success. Once the company was up and running, it couldn’t be easily moved. Money made was put back into the coffers, and there was never any extra for so much as a long weekend in Vermont, let alone a house there.

When she’d made her first million, she decided enough was enough. It was time to live out her dreams. She’d earned it. She’d more than earned it. After some scouting, she found the perfect little town on the border of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Before jumping into anything, she decided to rent a room at the hotel inn and experience a holiday season there. With her company in its slow season due to the holidays, she could get away for a few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas provided she was back by the first of the year. If all went well, she’d start creating a bicoastal life for herself as she transitioned into a full-time New Englander.

That was the plan anyway.

Years of polishing a dream had made it hard to look at once the light hit. When Althea arrived, the town was very pretty and very quaint, but it didn’t live up to the image she had painted in her head. It was not the Dickensian England portrayed in A Christmas Carol (all the better, honestly, when you consider the social conditions of the time). There were wreaths on doors, but not every door. There were carolers, but they only performed once while she was there, and one of them was slightly off-key. The tree in the town square was decorated, but Althea wanted it to be taller. She wanted it to reach up nearly to the sky.

She knew she was being unreasonable, but what kind of dream is reasonable? Especially when it’s the only one you have.

The robots had become her entire life, but if suddenly they went away, she wouldn’t care. Not as long as she could have that big armchair with the snow falling outside. She’d even allow a few ghosts to haunt her provided she could wake up on Christmas morning, throw open the shutters, and shout down to a boy below about buying her a goose.

On the plane ride home, she thought about whether or not she should try visiting England the following year, but she decided that if it turned out to be as disappointing as well, her heart might not be able to take it.

No, the only solution was to create exactly what she wanted. Just like she had built the company from scratch, Althea would have to build her own kind of Christmas.

It would only take her a few decades.

* * * * * * *

“Good morning, Althea,” said Gerard at the front desk, “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Gerard,” she responded with a smile, “How’s your arm doing?”

As if to answer her, a spark jumped out from just above his elbow.

“I’ll take a look at that after breakfast,” she said, and made her way out the door.

It snowed everyday around 9am. It would continue snowing straight into the evening, but would stop sometime after midnight, long after Althea had gone to sleep.

She didn’t always stay at the hotel. Sometimes she’d take the train (which was more of a shuttle) back up to the farmhouse. There, she’d open mail, throw expired items out of her fridge, and act like a normal person for a bit before the boredom nearly made her keel over. Her time in the village (as she called it) began to overtake her time spent in what some would consider the “real world.” In that way, it really was like she’d stepped into a dream. Stepping out soon began to feel foolish. Why spend all that money and time on something and not fully embrace it?

Every cog in the operation had been thought out by her. From the solar panels that powered it to the delivery entrance for when large items needed to be restocked, it was all her. It was the closest thing she’d ever have to a child.

Of course, it was really more like twenty children.

There was the hotel--all five stories of it--the bookstore, several restaurants, the gazebo, and the town square that featured a Christmas tree reaching all the way up to the sky. The sky itself was fiber optic. Althea wanted no part of the outside world to touch this place, not even the stars or the fresh air. By containing it, she felt as though she could control time itself. Even the weather was under her command. Whenever she wanted to liven things up, she’d plan a small blizzard and tuck herself into the armchair in her hotel room to read the first chapter of A Christmas Carol out loud to herself while thinking about a family that had left years ago. The last was her middle brother who died in a car accident the year she turned sixty. Longevity might live in the genes, but tragedy lurks on the road.

She used her brother’s likeness when designing the android who worked at the hot chocolate shoppe since he always did like chocolate. Using photos of her family, she could recreate them all over town. Her mother was the mayor, her father owned the bookstore, and even Gerard was based on her great-grandfather.

Their programming allowed them to develop their own personalities within reason, but they all followed one strict guideline--

They must always know that it was Christmas.

And it was always Christmas.

Each morning was Christmas morning and each night was Christmas Eve.

Althea kept track of what day it really was in the outside world, but within the compound, as she began to think of it, it was only Christmas.

* * * * * *

That day, after having breakfast and fixing Gerard’s arm, she walked to the center of town for the daily tree lighting. All around her were people who weren’t people. There were adults, children, and even some who looked to be almost as old as she was, but none of them would ever age or get sick or die.

A small child that was modeled after a sister that had passed away from the flu when Althea was five ran up to her and wished her a Merry Christmas.

Althea smiled, reached into her pocket, pulled out a candy cane, and handed it to the little girl. They did this everyday, but everyday Althea found it charming. She always made sure to have the candy cane on hand, and if she remembered correctly, the little girl was programmed to leave the tree lighting, go straight to the hotel, and leave it in the jar on the front desk where Althea would retrieve it the following morning.

It wasn’t even real.

Very little here was.

And Althea didn’t mind at all.

When the countdown to the lighting began, she looked around and saw a beautiful wreath on every door. There were carolers in front of the tree singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” in perfect harmony. The air was not fresh, but it smelled of pine and gingerbread.

Outside, she knew it was late July. Either the 20th or the 21st. She would make a trip up to the farmhouse in early August, but that might be her last of the year. She was far too happy here.

Besides, with her gone, who would give the little girl her candy cane?

Who would fix Gerard’s arm if it began to spark?

And who would all those ghosts haunt in the middle of the night while the snow fell, and fell, and fell? 

August 12, 2023 00:30

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20 comments

Vid Weeks
20:23 Aug 19, 2023

Great Christmas tale

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Story Time
02:59 Aug 20, 2023

Thank you, Vid!

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Bruce Friedman
16:47 Aug 14, 2023

Fascinating work. Good momentum an interesting tale.

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Story Time
17:01 Aug 14, 2023

Thank you so much, Bruce.

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Mason Burnett
15:45 Sep 01, 2023

This honestly sounds like some grand plan that my mother, grandmother, late great-grandmother and sister would come up with. It hits very close to home, and I love it. It has the right amount of emotion. I need to know, how are you this creative? Anyhow, amazing story.

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Story Time
17:03 Sep 01, 2023

Thank you, Mason, I think it comes from years of doing theater where you have to constantly be finding new elements to discover within a story.

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J. D. Lair
03:06 Aug 22, 2023

“she couldn’t believe how much energy people expended on erasing minor inconveniences while the greater problems of the world were left unsolved.” - so much truth here. Great story Kevin!

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Story Time
16:13 Aug 22, 2023

Thank you so much, J.D.!

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Rabab Zaidi
14:53 Aug 19, 2023

Intriguing

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Story Time
03:00 Aug 20, 2023

Thank you very much.

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Marty B
04:03 Aug 19, 2023

"She knew she was being unreasonable, but what kind of dream is reasonable? Especially when it’s the only one you have." Althea lived in a ream world even when she was just imagining the robots her company would build. I thought you did a great job slowly providing the details of her own -fullsize- Christmas snowglobe.

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Story Time
03:01 Aug 20, 2023

Thank you so much.

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Lily Finch
19:44 Aug 13, 2023

Kevin, such a great story. Althea created her own heaven. How lovely. LF6

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Story Time
02:05 Aug 14, 2023

Thank you so much!

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Lily Finch
03:15 Aug 14, 2023

Awesome bit of story telling. LF6 D)

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Amanda Lieser
14:52 Sep 09, 2023

Hi Kevin, What a heart warming story! It’s the perfect July treat. I’ve always lived in Colorado, so I’ve naturally taken cold Christmas days for granted-although, I can’t imagine it any other way. This piece was wonderfully kind and hopeful. I loved that this character had a dream and found a way to mark it work. Oh to be in the cutting edge! What a privilege. You weaves her back story in beautifully and each break in the piece revealed another part of her heart. Nice work!!

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Michał Przywara
20:50 Aug 22, 2023

Oh, this is a great piece! It starts so mundane, but gradually the story grows and grows. First we learn Althea's got quite a history, then that she's been working on secret projects after retirement, and finally: that she's built herself a gargantuan snowglobe to live in. "The sky itself was fiber optic" this line, for me, really drove home just where Althea was. "erasing minor inconveniences while the greater problems of the world were left unsolved" - this whole paragraph is gold. Her life is greatly influenced by A Christmas Carol, b...

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Ken Cartisano
08:04 Aug 18, 2023

This is a weird story. I love your writing, it's flawless and verges on spellbinding at times. But this story is missing something. I'm not sure what. It nails the prompt squarely on the head, which in itself is an achievement, but stops there. When you used the term deconstruct, I think you meant 'compartmentalized'. I think I know what it is. The character's lack of humanity, her obsession with precision. Plus, her neurosis would, in fact, tarnish her legacy. I just sxxxxd a fat one and ate a pile of chocolate ice cream and here is w...

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Story Time
19:00 Aug 18, 2023

Hi Ken, I think of compartmentalizing in terms of something you do in your personal life, whereas here I think she really is deconstructing the project so that it's just an assembly of pieces. I don't see her as having no personality at all. I think people who live mostly isolated lives spend a lot of time looking at other people and trying to figure out what makes them tick. There's definitely an energy that's different when you're adept at socializing as opposed to when you're not. I think she creates this world, because she needs a certa...

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Mary Bendickson
01:59 Aug 13, 2023

It's a wonderful world!

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