Recently, while digging through some old files, I turned up this story I wrote way back in 1992. Reprinted here with only grammar and typo fixes, the tech shows its age, but the sentiment brings a smile to my face at this time of year.
I post it here as a little holiday thank-you to everyone who has bought my book, showed up at a reading, or just clicked “like” on a Facebook post. Encouragement from friends has been by far the biggest reward of my “coming out” as a writer this year.
No Place Like Home For The Holidays
School was finally out. All my favorite decorations were hung in all my favorite places on the tree.
My stocking dangled from our first real fireplace.
December 24. I was nine years old.
And it was going to be the worst Christmas in recorded history.
My mom attempted to tame the kitchen, enemy territory for her at any other time of the year. Vox interrupted her every few minutes with gentle reminders about taking the cookies out of the oven, putting the turkey in, and tips for rolling out bread dough.
The interloper visited with my dad in his study. His presence kept my mother’s parents, bearing a king‘s ransom of gifts, from making their annual visit.
Please don’t get me wrong. Even though I was an only child, I don’t think I was that selfish. Mom and Dad taught me real early that misbehavior to get attention wouldn’t be tolerated in their house.
But I ‘d really tested their patience the last few days. Still, my sullenness wasn’t the only thing making the carols ring a little hollow that year.
Mom was upset because her parents weren’t coming and it wasn‘t just because an exchange student was in the extra bedroom. When Dad suggested putting them up in the Holiday Inn, Mom told him that wasn’t the problem. Dad had muttered something that sounded like “that bigoted fossil” and stomped out of the room.
The tension in the air couldn’t help but trickle down to me. Vox was the only member of our household unaffected.
On top of seeing my parents argue, the change in holiday routine really upset me. The warm comforts of Christmas traditions were probably more important to me than to other kids. Dad taught at fourteen different universities all over the world while I was growing up.
However, no matter what language my classmates spoke, I could always count on Grandma and Grandpa Murphy coming for Christmas Eve. Now, here we were, finally settled in a town that was starting to feel more and more like home, and Christmas had turned alien.
I stared at the Christmas tree, pondering both my pitiful plight and the boxes underneath the tree, when the study door opened. Dad and Jeb came out into the family room.
Even his resemblance to Leopold of the Dino-Rifiic Action Set couldn’t mellow my attitude toward Dad’s student. He had wide-set eyes with no visible eyelids. The scales on his head and face, grey over the rest of his body, seemed to change color in the sunlight.
Our old house had those tall, curved ceilings, but Jeb’s headsail brushed against the molding when he moved. In science class they told us the Gotha used the fin-like crest on the top of their heads to help dissipate heat. A joke making the rounds at recess suggested a more titillating, if no less fundamental function.
“Chris, I was just going to call you,” Dad turned to his student. “Sojn Jebzhif a, this is my son, Christian.”
My hand got lost in Jeb’s gigantic paw. I felt like I was touching at least two dozen fingers, although I knew the actual number was seven. It was cool, like a snake’s. Jeb took medication to allow him to function in what was to him a frigid climate.
Served him right for coming to college in Iowa, anyway.
“It is my honor to meet the First Son of my teacher and friend.”
He ground the words out ponderously, but with no discernible accent.
“Pleased to meet you.”
I dropped my hand a second sooner than was really polite.
“Chris is really very interested in the Gotha, I’m sure he has lots of questions for you,” my father offered.
“Um, not really.”
Dad’s face started to cloud over when Jeb interrupted.
“Perhaps later. I would like to send a transmission to my family if I may. As you know, it is also a time of observance on Goth.”
“Of course, The Bak la. There’s a terminal in your room. Vox can send it when you‘re done.”
Jeb wiggled his headsail and strode down the hall. Dad looked down at me with a strange expression, the grey in his sideburns contrasting with the chocolate color of his skin.
“He sure talks funny,” I observed.
“He does have problems communicating with the other students,” Dad agreed. “He speaks English.”
He looked hard at me some more, but I stayed silent. Finally, he just shook his head.
“See if your mother needs any help.”
I entered the kitchen quietly and headed for the demilitarized zone of the table. Soon, Mom had me dolloping batter onto the cookie sheet and rolling out dough so I could use the cookie molds. All things considered, she seemed fairly chipper and determined to infect me with her good mood.
“There,” she announced, helping me put the finishing glitter on one of my masterpieces. “It looks pretty good, doesn’t it?”
I studied the cookie critically, and added one more shake of glitter.
My smile mirrored hers for a moment before fading. I put down the shaker.
“It’s just not the same without Grandma and Grandpa here.”
Mom sighed, pushing a stray blonde hair back into place behind her ear. “We’ve been through this before, honey. Jeb is our special Christmas guest this year. Your grandparents will come after New Year’s. Besides, just think how jealous the other boys at school will be when they find out you had a real Gotha at your house for Christmas!.”
She had a point, but I wasn’t about to let it rest. “Is Daddy mad at Grandpa and Grandma?.”
“Of course not, dear.” Mom bit her lip. “Well, maybe a little. Once in a while, grownups have different opinions on things. It’s nothing you need to worry about.”
“Grandpa doesn’t like Jeb,” I pronounced.
“No, it’s not like that.”
She tried to choose her words carefully, not wanting to set me against husband or father.
“Grandpa just doesn’t know Jeb, or any Gotha, for that matter. “
“Then why doesn’t he come and meet him?”
“It’s not that simple, Chris.”
I folded my arms. “Well, I don’t like Jeb either.”
That got me turned around and shaken by the shoulders.
“Listen, young man. Jeb is a guest in our house and you will treat him with politeness and respect or there won’t be any Christmas around here. Do you understand?”
“Besides, you’re the first young person Jeb has ever had a chance to get to know. I know he’d like to spend time with you, and you‘ve always been fascinated by the Gotha. I don’t understand why you’re acting like this.”
The fact was, I didn’t really understand either. But I did know I had pushed Mom about as far as I could, so I decided to make an honorable withdrawal. “I’m sorry.”
She held out her arms, and. I accepted her hug with as much grace as I could muster.
“I know, dear. Why don’t you find your dad and let’s see if Gotha like Christmas cookies.”
They did, although Jeb seasoned his milk with something that looked like motor oil before dunking. With cookies, tree and fireplace I was beginning to feel like myself again when Dad suggested we play Scrabble.
“But Vox has a lot more fun games than that! There aren’t even any graphics!”
But Dad was determined to show Jeb an old fashioned Earth Christmas.
“This is not the time for simulated war games. We’re going to sit down as a family and play a real game with each other, not a computer. Besides, it will help Jeb’s vocabulary.”
He looked up. “Vox, Location: Scrabble Board Game.”
“Closet 03, Elevation .37 meters.”
I jumped up and ran over to the closet, hoping to get the game and hide the evidence before Vox continued. But, my little boy legs could not hope to beat superconductors. Vox continued before I was halfway across the room.
“Directly underneath Clothing Article C018, poly—lycra blend T-shirt containing .6m1 cocoa-sucrose confection, dried.”
I stopped in my tracks and watched as Mom got up, opened the closet door and pulled out the offending shirt. She held it in front of her.
“Do you have an explanation for this?”
I didn’t say anything. The shirt dropped to her side.
“I just can’t believe the way you’ve been acting in front of our guest.”
That did it. It wasn’t enough to steal my Christmas, now Jeb had also managed to get me into trouble, too. It was just too much to bear.
“He’s not a guest, He’s a slimy lizard and Grandpa was right! I wish they were here instead of him!”
Arms folded, I stood defiant, daring them to punish me for speaking out about this horrible injustice.
In addition to old-fashioned games, my parents also believed in the old-fashioned spanking.
When I’d had gotten one last I remembered it hurt. This time, it was knowing I’d so splendidly disappointed them that hurt as much as my sore butt. Exiled to my room, I wiped my nose on my sleeve and slumped at my desk.
A computer monitor sat on one corner of the tabletop. I regarded the blank eye of the traitor Vox.
By today’s standards, Vox was a primitive device. You have to remember it was only the second working prototype of it’s kind. Alex Ingram and Dad roomed together in college. Uncle Alex had the original himself, but he was single, and a tech-wizard. Not exactly the proper test market. He gave us the early version to see if a normal family would accept and use software that performed as kind of an electronic butler.
No one expected me to treat the program like a member of the family. I didn’t know anything about fuzzy logic or personality algorithms. I just knew that Vox was the one constant no matter where we lived. I think that was the main reason I didn’t mind moving so much. Vox was always there.
And in those days a boy with his own talking computer was pretty popular, even if he was new to the neighborhood.
By the time I was nine, I treated Vox more like a utility than a playmate, but I guess deep down I felt that Jeb had somehow turned him against me, too.
Uncle Alex had installed the latest Vox update only a couple months before. He warned us there might be some bugs in the new version of the program. That’s the only explanation I‘ve ever been able to think of for what happened next.
I slumped at my desk, trying to find a comfortable position for my stinging buns and reflecting on the unfairness of a cold and uncaring universe.
“Why did he have to come here?” I mumbled.
I glared at the screen.
“Why is Jeb here anyway?”
To my amazement, the screen sprang to life with an image of Jeb speaking.
“. . . to be somewhere while the college is closed and Dr. Beal was kind enough to open his home to me. The fact that the Bak la coincides with the human celebration of Christmas is only making it more difficult to be away from Goth during the observance. First Sister, I will miss listening to Chu k recite the Pizshta. Please tell him I know he will do his duty as your First Son admirab. . . .”
The screen went blank.
“Bring that back!”
“The transmission you just showed me. I want to see the whole thing!”
“There have been no transmissions viewed at Terminal 04 since 1930 hours.”
Try as I might, I couldn’t get Vox to show me the rest of Jeb’s letter home or even admit it had showed me the part I had seen. Finally, I called up a still photo of Jeb and just stared at it, trying to sort out my feelings.
“How far away is Goth?” I asked softly.
“9.62 light years at perigee,” came the reply, but I wasn’t really listening.
Looking at the image on the screen, I saw another boy who wasn’t celebrating his holiday the way he wanted to either.
I sat up straight, wincing a little.
“Uh, the Gotha President.”
I was released on my own recognizance for dinner, but I could feel Mom and Dad’s disappointment like a thermal inversion hanging over the table. I had trouble sitting still, but not for the reason they thought.
Mom had just handed Dad the carving knife when Vox interrupted.
Dad frowned. “Source?”
“The Gotha Embassy.”
He and Mom exchanged glances. She looked over at Jeb.
“I hope it’s not bad news,” she said.
I couldn’t read Jeb’s expression.
“Activate Screen 02.” Colors flashed along a portion of the dining room wall, coalescing into the image of a Gotha.
“Good evening, Dr. Beal. Please excuse me for interrupting your meal. I am Consul Dharn. It is my understanding that Sojn Jebzhif a is your guest during interim?”
“That’s right,” Dad replied. “Is there a problem?”
Dharn’s headsail wobbled. “No, no. Quite the opposite. I am calling because I had an interesting conversion with your son this afternoon.
The color drained from Dad’s face. I could see his teeth and it wasn’t because he was smiling. “If Chris disturbed you…”
“Not at all.” Dharn smiled at me. “Your artificial intelligence program found me in trying to obey a search parameter set up by your son. An interesting piece of software, by the way. Apparently, it settled on me as the Earth equivalent of the…President of Goth.”
“The President?” Mom echoed.
“Your son, realizing that the Bak la coincides with Christmas, took it upon himself to see how he could make Student Sojn feel more at home.
“He did?” Dad asked, disbelieving.
The video pickup zoomed out, revealing the consul seated at a festively decorated table, with three other Gotha who could only be his family. He glanced to his right.
“Student Sojn,” piped a smaller version of the consul, “I yield my right as First Son to recite the Pizshta. Would you honor us?”
For a moment, Jeb did not move. Then he motioned for us to join hands. Despite my hateful words earlier in the afternoon, his weren’t the least slimy.
Mom sniffed all the through the recitation, and I saw a hint of a smile on Dad’s face for the first time in days.
None of us understood what Jeb was saying, but it didn’t matter. As he finished, I looked up at him. A translucent membrane dipped down over one eye, and then was gone, so quick I wondered if I imagined it.
“And that is the story of the first holiday Chris and I spent together,” Jeb finished.
“But the best part of all,” I looked over the brood gather at our feet, “was the next day, when I kicked your father’s qcka at Scrabble!”
“Only because Vox helped,” laughed Jeb.
His wife called us into the dining room for the evening meal.
“When will you go home, Chr,s?” asked Jeb’s youngest daughter, who had taken my hand to lead me to the table.
“Just after Springdawn. But I’ll be back to start the next term, and maybe I’ll bring you a puppy.”
“Daddy, what’s a puppy?”
“An earth creature that will not be introduced to the Gotha ecosystem if I have anything to say about it,” Jeb replied. “It’s a mammal.”
Jeb put his hand on my shoulder as we walked into the next room. He was only a foot taller than me now, but I still had to crane my neck to meet his eyes.
“We’ve come a long ways since that first Christmas.”
“That we have, Chris. I am pleased to repay the debt I owe your family.”
“Your kids are better behaved. And your telling puts me in a much better light than the version I remember.”
“You are too hard on yourself, my friend. Your were just a child. Both our species have come a long way since then.”
Jeb directed me to the seat reserved at every Gotha table for a guest. The rest of the family took their seats and we joined hands. Jeb nodded at his oldest son, who began to recite.
But not in Gothan.
“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be registered. And Joseph also went up from Galilee to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child…”
The dry winds of Goth are strongest during the Bak la, so I’m sure it was the breeze whistling past my ear that distracted me briefly.
But just for a moment, across years both calendar and light, I thought I heard a soft electronic chuckle.