Other than the rustle of ribbons, and the occasional “tink” of Christmas ornaments brushing against each other as they were removed from their entangled mess in the ornaments box, an eerie silence hung over the room as the little snow leopard decorated his tree. Usually the act of decorating the tree would be accompanied by the traditional Christmas music streaming out of the laptop from a favourite on-line Christmas station.
Streaming music could lead to singing – or, more accurately, cheerfully caterwauling an off-key approximation of the music. Singing could lead to tail thumping in time with the music. Tail thumping could lead to dancing with the wreaths as one strung them on the tree. Dancing could lead to joyful abandonment and broad sweeps of the tail, which could ultimately lead to a pair of broken lamps, a nativity scene on the coffee table being swept across the room (Mufasa stood in as a surrogate for the still-missing Joseph so that poor baby Jesus wouldn’t be an orphan on his birthday) and a frightfully sticky melange of eggnog, nuts, cookies and candies flying in all directions.
On the lamp with the crooked shade, a single Post It note on its base read, “No singing this year!” At the base of the newer, mismatched lamp at the other end of the sofa was a note, which read, “No humming either!” Plonq sighed and carefully extricated his Vader Claus ornament from the mass of tangled decorations. He straightened Vader’s stocking hat, and experimentally pressed the button at its base.
"I sense something, a present I've not felt since... [bzzt] [blrp]..."
The battery was clearing dying, but the feline kept the ornament around for its kitsch value, not its sound effects. He selected a green bulb on the outer string on the tree and inserted it into the unfortunately placed bulb receptacle in Lord Vader’s nether area. The Dark Lord’s frosted light sabre obligingly lit up green. Plonq pushed the button again for good measure.
“You are unwise to lower your.... [bzzt] [blrp]”
Plonq took a step back from the tree and examined his handiwork, massaging his chin fur absently with his forefinger and thumb as he pondered on whether the tree needed more ornaments. He ignored the fact that the tree was leaning noticeably to the left, since he had already made several fruitless efforts to straighten it. No matter how many times he righted it, or placed paper shims under the stand, it always ended up leaning. The little cat had carefully tilted the pictures and cards hanging on the wall behind the tree to match its cant. At least the tree was in no danger of falling over. Yet.
There were still a fair number of unused ornaments in the box, but the feline decided that the tree looked adequately festive for another year, so that just left one remaining task. With the nearest thing he could muster to reverence, the little cat carefully pushed aside the clutter in the box of ornaments to reveal the smaller box holding the tree topper. The topper was a family heirloom of sorts, to the extent that he had rescued it before his mother could throw it in the garbage. The box had seen far better days and the bauble inside might once have been called a crystal star, but over the years, any crystalness remaining in it had been largely supplanted by tape and glue.
Plonq carefully lifted the fragile box with both hands and then paused when he saw what lay underneath; it was an advent calendar. No, that would not give it due justice. It was the advent calendar. It was the calendar of evil and despair that he usually managed, through heroic effort and no small amount of alcohol, to push out of his memory after each dreadful Christmas. The little snow leopard felt hopelessness begin to rise in his craw like acid reflux after a night of binging indiscreetly on hot Mexican food. Ack! The horrid calendar was already casting its spell on him.
The cat shook his head and forcibly willed himself back into a good mood. He even allowed himself to cautiously hum a few off-key bars of “Oh Holy Night” as he affixed the star to the top of the tree. Still, the calendar gnawed at his veneer of joy, even as he made another half-hearted attempted make the star sit, if not exactly straight, at least with the same lean as the tree. Plonq worked on the topper until it became obvious even to him that he was just stalling. With a sigh of resignation, the cat flomped himself down in the middle of the sofa and pried the calendar loose from the mass of unused ornaments. He shook it free of stray tinsel and then started mutely at the front.
The calendar was comprised of two ledger-sized pieces of card stock stapled together around the edges. The card sported several flaps, where the front card had been cut on three sides to allow one to peel it back like a door to reveal a message behind. There were an equal number of uncut “doors” that had been penciled in for future expansion. Across the top, in bold indelible marker, his own handwriting read like an indictment.
The calendar was in rough shape. The corners were curled, one edge was slightly charred, and it was streaked with stains varying from blood, to things that his sanity would not allow him to remember or acknowledge. The cardboard was saturated with the vile scent of misery and woe. With a trembling hand, Plonq peeled back the first flap. In angry, red letters was a simple message: “This Christmas is going to suck.”
“It will not!” he yowled in angry defiance. “I’ve taken all reasonable precautions this year. I am staying in. I am not turning on the oven. My expectations have never been lower, so I cannot help but be pleasantly surprised! THIS Christmas will be better.” He peeled back the next flap.
“No, it won’t.”
The plaintive sound escaped before he could stop himself. He peeled back the rest of the flaps in silence. Behind them were cryptic messages meant only for him.
“Santa: restraining order.”
“Shouldn’t have drunk that.”
This one had a little frown face drawn beside it. He peeled and closed the flaps one at a time until he got to the last. When he was done, the little spotted cat sat for a long time staring the calendar in his lap, ostensibly motionless except for the tip of his tail, which was curled around him and thumping rhythmically on the front of the sofa. Maybe – just maybe mind you – it had a point and his wiser choice might be to forget the season for a change. There was no shame in taking down the tree, putting away the decorations and simply enjoying some commitment-free time to himself.
He glanced up at the tree again (was it leaning more than had been a few minutes earlier?) and caught himself meeting the empty gaze of his Vader ornament. The vacant, plastic stare somehow managed to convey an accusation. “You would dare to forsake me? The force is WEAK in this one!” Suddenly all of the hopelessness and despair gelled into a solid glom of resolve.
“No!” said the snow leopard, rising suddenly from the sofa. A few moments later as the blood returned to his head he rose again, more carefully. “It is Christmas, and I will enjoy this Christmas. Failure is not an option.” If he could have seen a video of the moment, Plonq probably would have been more than a little concerned at the shrill growl in his voice, and the manic gleam in his eye as uttered those words. He taped the advent calendar on the wall where his fireplace would be if he had one, and then defiantly hung his tattered Christmas stocking under it.
With dismissive flourish, he spun on his heel and strode purposefully out of the room. A moment later, he peeked back around the corner and shook a fist in the general direction of the depressing calendar. “It will be a good Christmas!” he said with an unhealthy dose of cheer in his voice. Coincidentally, at that moment, a cloud passed across the sun and a clock tower somewhere in the wintry morning struck thirteen. Plonq shook off the icy fingers of foreshadowing that tickled their way down his spine and trundled off to the kitchen.
Christmas dinner lay on the counter where he had left it earlier that morning. It took the form of a large, vacuum-sealed foil bag emblazoned with a label that identified it as “Christmas Dinner-In-A-Bag™”. It was written in an arch of bold, sparkly letters that were adorned with mistletoe and holy. Below was a picture depicting a delectable turkey dinner that did not look at all like it had been reconstituted and chemically heated. In finer print below the name was the line, “Just like Mom™ used to make!” Plonq was not sure why the word Mom was trademarked, but a little voice in the back of his head suggested it was probably so that there would be no obligation on their part to actually have the word mean anything remotely like a creature, living or otherwise, that might actually have produced anything resembling offspring.
He shook his head to clear it of such negative thoughts and turned the bag over to read the instructions. “Just add water and glycerine. Shake, wait and enjoy.” That certainly sounded easy enough. Plonq purred tentatively – it had been the simple instructions that had drawn him to the product. There was no need to turn on the oven or stove and risk injury again. He did not have any glycerine, but that was just a fancy word for alcohol, wasn’t it? The cat had lots of Everclear left over from Easter that would probably do just as well. In fact, he had enough left that he could probably skip the water as well. Plonq liked simplicity.
The only thing that gave him some cause for concern was the warning label, which was twice the size of the “cooking” instructions. In a bold red font, it had an eye-catching warning in several languages:
“Umor tvoji starši!”
“DO NOT CONSUME WITH ALCOHOL! DO NOT CONSUME NEAR AN OPEN FLAME! THIS IS NOT A SUBSTUTE FOR REAL NUTRITION!”
It gave what he assumed was the same warning in every language. He pondered over the warning, looking back and forth between it and the unopened jug of Everclear in his other hand. It just said not to consume it with alcohol; it did not specifically say not to make it with alcohol. His whiskers twitched as his brain worked to ignore the spuriousness of his logic. Surely if making it with alcohol was dangerous, they would have listed that in the warning as well. Besides, it called for a teaspoon of glycerine as a catalyst for the heating process. Glycerine was alcohol. Sort of.
After putting both items back on the table, Plonq unscrewed the plastic cap from the opening in the side of the bag. He used a razor sharp claw to cut away the foil safety cover under the cap. It tore free in a puff of desiccation that smelled remarkably like what he imagined one might find inside of an Egyptian tomb when one first cracked its seal after a few millennia – assuming the tomb was located in a chemical plant.
With a last twinge of misgivings, he uncorked the jug of booze and poured what he estimated to be about four cups of liquid into the bag. Then, using his teeth to tear open the pouch, he dumped in the powdered primer into the bag and quickly replaced its cap. He shook the bag vigorously for a few seconds until it suddenly became too hot to touch, and he dropped it on the table with an indignant yowl.
Plonq blew on his fingers and watched in morbid fascination as the bag ballooned out to the point where the seams were sorely tested. It emitted alarming gurgling sounds, and strange bulges appeared in the sides and then subsided again as if an alien chest-burster was uncoiling itself within. Eventually the disturbing movements stopped. The cat remained still, staring fixedly at the bag with dilated pupils for another three full minutes, muscles tensed for an emergency escape. Finally he relaxed and sighed. “In for a penny...” he muttered. He extended a claw to slice open the bag, but his still-smarting fingers convinced him to reach for the paring knife and oven mitt instead.
He was not sure what to expect when he cut open the bag; a gush of steam and brimstone, and perhaps a spawn of Satan. He was honest enough with himself to admit that he had not been expecting to find a perfect turkey dinner, almost exactly matching the one pictured on the front of the package.
“It’s beautiful,” he crooned, unable to suppress a purr. Using the paring knife, he cut away a small slab of turkey from the breast and stabbed it with the blade. It seemed to have a comparatively turkey-like texture to it, and it smelled like something reminiscent of turkey. He dipped the meat in what he assumed was the gravy, blew on it for a moment and then shovelled it into his maw.
It was as if heaven had peeled open his head and spooged all over the pleasure centre of his brain. “This is,” he mewled, “without a doubt the best instant turkey I have ever eaten! Science is amazing!” Those words later took on the dubious distinction of being his last lucid memory of Christmas Day.
Plonq took a sip of hot chocolate and surveyed the remains of his living room. The Christmas tree had been strewn everywhere, and the cat feared he would be finding ornaments for months to come. The only thing that remained where tree once stood was the topper. The little snow leopard took another sip of hot chocolate and licked the fur around his mouth clean again. “Mental note,” he said as he eyed the hapless tree topper, “buy more tape.” He elbowed the broken lamp away from the tattered sofa again as its bulb came dangerously close to the fabric. As he surveyed his apartment, Plonq realized that the tree was probably the least of his concerns.
With a sigh, he pulled the recently-righted coffee table closer and turned the advent calendar around to face him. Using his bad arm, he held the calendar in place with the wrist brace and carefully cut along the lines for the next door. When that was done, he swapped the knife for a pen and tapped his right canine with the capped end while he tried to come up with a pithy, concise way to sum up his Christmas. He glanced at bandage in the middle of the shaved part of his good arm where the I.V. drip had gone, and the words came to him. He pulled the cap off with his teeth and carefully filled in the new square on the calendar.
“Arrested. Naked. Stomach pump.”
With a nod of satisfaction, he recapped the pen, closed the new door on the calendar and jammed it back into the box for another year.
As the snow leopard thought back on the excitement of the past, indeterminate number of days, he concluded that in the grand scheme of things this had not been a bad Christmas. Once the nosebleeds and industrial-strength headache had eased, he actually felt good about how things had gone. Better, actually, because he could not remember any of it. He knew that he would probably feel a little differently about things when his sprained wrist was well enough to begin the chore of untangling his apartment, but for the moment, he was content.
Plonq took another sip of hot chocolate and sighed with relative contentment. A cute nurse had given hot chocolate taster packs to all of the patients who had been brought in with alcohol poisoning on Christmas Day. It was good hot chocolate. A representative of the company who made the instant turkey dinner he had eaten had also come in to see him in the hospital. He had given Plonq a $10 gift certificate in exchange for signing a waiver promising that he would not take part in any possible class action lawsuits.
“Woo!” croaked the snow leopard – they told him it would be a few days before his throat would be well enough to talk normally again. Free money and a hot chocolate gift pack! It had been a good Christmas indeed!
Or was it a good New Year? Plonq was still a little hazy on the date, and figured he probably would be until the last of the morphine wore off.