The Necklace (a Christmas short story)

The seventh and final in my Christmas short story / flash fiction series. Enjoy!

I hesitated as I rounded the corner and hunkered into my down jacket.

Half a block ahead, a grizzled and unkempt man sat with his back against the brick wall. He wore a stocking hat and overcoat, both of which had seen better days. Without gloves, he rubbed his hands together and blew warm breath onto his fingers.

Maybe if I had seen him sooner I could have crossed the street. I thought about turning around but he caught me with his gaze.

What’s the big deal? you might wonder. I felt bad enough whenever I walked by a beggar on a normal day, but Christmas Eve?

I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets and sighed.

“Hey, Mister?” the man said with a gravelly voice. “You got some change?”

“Sorry.” I quickened my pace.

“Merry Christmas!” he said to my back.

My heart sunk. I had a dollar in my wallet. I suppose I could have given it to him though it wasn’t much but I wasn’t turning back.

In three more blocks, I reached my destination. Bart’s Cafe on Fourth Avenue had existed longer than I had been alive and I was certain they hadn’t changed the fryer grease in those thirty-four years, either. Mom used to work there. I was three when she died. Dad helped keep her memory alive by taking me and my older brother to the diner every Christmas Eve. I hadn’t been in a decade, neither had Dad or Aaron. I wouldn’t have gone that year except I needed the solace of familiarity.

I stepped inside, pulled off my gloves and scarf, and welcomed the warmth. There were only two other patrons, a waitress in a green elf’s hat, and a cook who chomped on gum and shot the breeze with a man on a barstool.

I sat at the opposite end of the bar. The waitress approached and asked what I wanted. “Double cheeseburger with mustard and extra onions,” I replied. I thought about the homeless man I passed. “Actually, you know what, make that two. No onions on the second. And two coffees to go.”

“You want anything with that? The slaw is fresh.”

“Two orders of fries.”

“K, hon. It’ll be a few minutes.” She relayed my order to the cook.

I rubbed my face and then played with my wedding ring. It was my and Katie’s tenth Christmas together. I was afraid it would be our last. We had opened presents that morning, a tradition of our own, then she took the kids to see her parents. I hadn’t been invited on the trip. The year hadn’t been easy, especially after I lost a second job in six-month’s time. We argued almost every night, a few times in front of the kids at supper, something we had once vowed never to do. We were drifting. I had spent more nights sleeping on the couch than I had in our bed.

How could two people once so in love find themselves so far apart?

Neither of us had cheated. We didn’t hate each other. We just couldn’t get ourselves on the same page. A friend had recommended counseling. We had gone a few times but even those sessions often ended in verbal tussles.

We were worn down and tired. Josh and Hannah felt it, too.

The waitress brought me the food, two takeout containers in a plastic shopping bag. She ran my card. I added a ten-dollar tip and scrawled Merry Christmas! across the receipt.

The man still sat where I had passed him. He gave a curt nod, likely thinking I would walk by again. Instead, I asked if I could join.

“No one’s ever asked that.” He gestured to the sidewalk.

“Sorry, I was rude.”

He shrugged. “I’m used to it.”

I handed him a box. “I don’t have cash to give you but no one should eat alone on Christmas Eve. I hope you like cheeseburgers.”

He smiled. “I love them.”

I held out my hand. He shook it. “My name’s Kenton.”

“Gus.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“What’s your story?” Gus asked, his mouth full of cheeseburger.

“What do you mean?”

“You said that no one should eat alone on Christmas Eve. If I hadn’t been here, you’d have been alone.”

I chuckled. He had a point. I told him my reason.

“That’s rough,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Do you still love her?”

I rumpled my brow. “Of course.”

The man glanced at me and grinned. “Then why, Kenton, are you sitting here talking to a lonely old man?”

I slowly chewed my bite, pondering what he meant.

“Go to her,” he whispered.

I stood. He was right. I gave him the rest of my food.

“You might need this.” Gus reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny box.

“What is it?”

“Take a look.”

I opened the box and inside was a necklace with two butterflies. Katie loved butterflies. I had bought her a necklace like it when we dated. Somewhere along the way she had lost it. Neither of us could quite remember when.

“How’d you…” I glanced up. Gus was gone. The boxes were still on the concrete where we sat. I looked left, then right. He couldn’t have disappeared that quickly. My eyes returned to the locket. Whatever happened with Gus or whoever he actually was, I knew what I had to do.

It was a three-hour drive. I arrived just as the sun was setting. Many of my in-law’s neighbors tried to outdo each other with their display of lights. The little white and brick house that sat on the corner, however, had simple strings of white running along the gutters. Things didn’t have to be complicated.

That’s what I forgot.

Spend time with her. Listen. Enjoy life with her and our children.

I parked, ran to the door of that white and brick house, and rang the bell in a frenzy.

“Okay, okay, coming!” my mother-in-law hollered.

She opened the door. “Kenton?”

Katie sat on the floor playing Candyland with Josh. She glanced up. I smiled.

+++

The next week, we walked hand-in-hand down the street. Katie wanted to see what after-Christmas deals the stores and shops promoted. Across the street, I saw a familiar face. A young man stopped and handed him a bottle of water.

“I have to do something.” I started toward the street.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll be back! Give me a moment!” I called as I jogged to the unkempt man. “Hi, Gus.”

The man stared at me with yellowing brown eyes.

“I wanted to say thank you again.”

“Do I know you?”

I gazed at the man, unsure what to think about him, his question, or what had happened. I carried a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet that time. Instead of pressing him further, asking who he was or how he knew about the necklace, I pulled out the bill and handed it to him.

He grasped it with rough, callused fingers. “Thanks.”

I gave a nod and returned to my wife.

“What was that about?” she asked.

I shrugged and took her hand. Then I pointed at the store window. “Hey, there’s that train set Joshie wanted. Looks like a good deal. Maybe we should get it for his birthday.”

©2020 Michael Bergman

Image by unsplash.com/@golfarisa

The inspiration behind “A Grandfather’s Yarn” (Of Stars and Space)

With the publication of my collection of stories, Of Stars and Space, this is part 9 in a series of posts about the inspiration behind each of the twelve stories.

A Grandfather’s Yarn is, perhaps, the shortest story in this collection. I wrote it as a submission to a science fiction contest a few years ago. It has two inspirations: First, was a trip a friend and I took to Arches National Park a decade ago. It was a beautiful scene and I tried to capture that with my words. Second, is the old notion that grandfathers like to spin stories with embellished facts–like the “walk uphill both ways in the snow” idea.

I combined these two inspirations and added a twist. Maybe aliens are real or maybe grandpa just likes to talk…

Of Stars and Space (and other stories) is available at Amazon in both Kindle and print formats. Kindle is immediate delivery; print is print-on-demand and may take a few days before the order ships.

“A Grandfather’s Yarn” and Of Stars and Space, © 2020, Michael Bergman

Excerpt from “A Grandfather’s Yarn”

I sat on the porch in my chair with my three grandchildren at my feet. Peter and Lucy were eight-year-old twins, and Michael was four. Peter giggled as he listened to my story.

“Grandpa, everyone knows that aliens aren’t real!”

I smiled. “Just wait, one day you’ll meet them, too.” The night had grown dark and the full moon hung high in the sky. “Now go wash and get ready for bed.” I loved it when my grandchildren visited and they loved staying up well past their bedtime, even if they didn’t always believe my stories.

The inspiration behind “Space Dinosaurs” (Of Stars and Space)

With the publication of my collection of stories, Of Stars and Space, this is part 8 in a series of posts about the inspiration behind each of the twelve stories.

In my one-year-old son’s room there hangs on the wall behind his closet door a banner to measure height and growth. My wife and I went with a dinosaur theme for his room, so in keeping with that theme, the banner has blue and green dinosaurs, a t-rex and brontosaurus, dancing and smiling. In between are the words Little but Loud.

Change the brontosaurs to a triceratops and you’ll notice a matching banner in this story.

In the mornings or after naps, H will walk to the edge of his crib, smile, and start waving at his banner. It’s just like one of the characters in this story. Who knows what goes on in the mind of a one-year-old, but I thought it would be fun to write a short story to give a reason behind the why? of smiling and waving at that banner.

And, so, “Space Dinosaurs” was born.

Of Stars and Space (and other stories) is available at Amazon in both Kindle and print formats. Kindle is immediate delivery; print is print-on-demand and may take a few days before the order ships.

“Space Dinosaurs” and Of Stars and Space, © 2020, Michael Bergman

Excerpt from “Space Dinosaurs”

Lydia’s blue eyes narrowed before they rolled. “Not this again.”

“Come on…”

“No, Steven. The theme is space and astronauts, not dinosaurs.”

“Just pretend they’re space dinosaurs.”

She glanced down and rubbed her belly. Our son, Issak, was due in two weeks. “What are we going to do with your daddy?”

I laughed. Then I held the banner against the wall. “How about over here by the closet door. When the door is open, you won’t even see it. Please?” I saw her look. I knew I was pushing it. “It was on my wall as a kid. It meant a lot to me.”

“Why? I mean, it’s cute, but why is it so important?”

The inspiration behind “The Perfect Man” (Of Stars and Space)

With the publication of my collection of stories, Of Stars and Space, this is part 7 in a series of posts about the inspiration behind each of the twelve stories.

“The Perfect Man” is the first story in the science fiction section of my book. It is a story about love, with a twist. It’s hard to dive too much into the inspiration of the story, because that would give away the twist.

I do, however, owe the story to my wife. A few years ago, I was suffering a case of writer’s block and I told her that I wasn’t sure what to write about. She thought for a moment and replied, “You should write a story about…”, and then four hours later, the first draft of The Perfect Man was finished.

I also submitted this story to Writer’s Digest annual writing competition. It took home an honorable mention. And, yes, they sent out the image below to use for “bragging rights.”

Of Stars and Space (and other stories) is available at Amazon in both Kindle and print formats. Kindle is immediate delivery; print is print-on-demand and may take a few days before the order ships.

“The Perfect Man” and Of Stars and Space, © 2020, Michael Bergman

Excerpt from “The Perfect Man”

Hearing their voices urging her on, she filled out a profile for an online dating site, entered her credit card information, and clicked Match Me!

And then she went to bed.

The next morning, Tamara found herself matched with ten guys. She immediately got rid of three who had no pictures. Four more seemed only interested in showing off muscles and cars. “Grow up,” she murmured as she closed them as well. Another guy looked cute, but was three years older than her and still lived with his mom. Another claimed to be some sort of wizard supreme from a parallel realm, whatever that meant. The last guy seemed normal and sweet, but he was an inch shorter than her and she just couldn’t see that working.

After the failure, she went about her day and woke with anticipation the next morning, much to the same results. Finally, on day four, she came across the profile of a man named Chad. He was thirty-two, never married, and an accountant with a legitimate firm. He had no pictures of himself flexing, none with his car, and none that appeared to have ex-girlfriends cropped out. He liked reading and hiking, and he owned a single cat—a British shorthair named Milo.

Best of all, she had a message waiting from him.

The inspiration behind “Trail Blazing” (Of Stars and Space)

With the publication of my collection of stories, Of Stars and Space, this is part 6 in a series of posts about the inspiration behind each of the twelve stories.

“Trail Blazing” is the final story in the life, love, and loss section of my book. It is a story about growing up and leaving behind childhood loves for new grownup loves. It is the adventure of two brothers and a cousin as they spend a week hiking along the Current River in southern Missouri.

One inspiration was growing up canoeing the Current River. Almost half the summers of my life have time spent on that river. Another inspiration is reflecting back on my own experiences of how life changes as you age.

Of Stars and Space (and other stories) is available at Amazon in both Kindle and print formats. Kindle is immediate delivery; print is print-on-demand and may take a few days before the order ships.

“Trail Blazing” and Of Stars and Space, © 2020, Michael Bergman

Excerpt from “Trail Blazing”

On that first trip Xander took with us, Parker was still out cold well after Xander and I woke. My brother sat beside me with a mischievous grin as we munched on granola and dry cereal. Then he told me his plan for a practical joke that involved a hatchet, duct tape, and the words last one up.

Now, as we waited for my brother to emerge, my and Parker’s laughter turned into solemn stillness. Without saying a word, we both knew what weighed on each other’s minds. He and I had just finished college, Xander would soon be a high school senior, and I was engaged to be married at the end of summer.

“I think I’m going to take the job in Virginia.” Parker broke the silence.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

The inspiration behind “Strange Walls” (Of Stars and Space)

With the publication of my collection of stories, Of Stars and Space, this is part 5 in a series of posts about the inspiration behind each of the twelve stories.

One of the things you learn as a foster parent is to never say a negative thing about a child’s biological parents. It doesn’t matter the backstory. Every child has a longing for a good relationship with those who gave birth to him/her. To speak negatively about a child’s mom or dad is to attack that longing.

“Strange Walls” is a story about such a longing, told through the eyes of a 17-year-old boy in foster care. Abused and neglected, he simultaneously both loves and hates his father and longs for the good memories before his family was torn. Within the raw emotions, it is within those memories that a hope for the future is found.

Of Stars and Space (and other stories) is available at Amazon in both Kindle and print formats. Kindle is immediate delivery; print is print-on-demand and may take a few days before the order ships.

“Strange Walls” and Of Stars and Space, © 2020, Michael Bergman

Excerpt from “Strange Walls”

There is a funny thing about being a kid in the system. Good people, like the Isaacs, mean it when they say they are there for you. Their love is genuine. In time, you figure that out and even begin to feel love for them.

And then you hate yourself.

It’s like you’re betraying where you came from, even if where you came from involved too much alcohol and yelling, and not enough hugs.

The inspiration behind “Flowers for Every Day” (Of Stars and Space)

With the publication of my collection of stories, Of Stars and Space, this is part 4 in a series of posts about the inspiration behind each of the twelve stories.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to inspire a story. This is true of “Flowers for Every Day.” It is, indeed, a short story, one of the shortest in the collection, and a simple story about lifelong love.

So, where did the inspiration come from? A song.

The Gray Havens is one of my favorite bands. On their debut album, they have a song called Gray Flowers. The chorus starts with the line, “He brought her flowers every day.”

That’s it. That’s the inspiration.

Sometimes, that’s all you need.

You can read an excerpt of “Flowers for Every Day” below.

Of Stars and Space (and other stories) is available at Amazon in both Kindle and print formats. Kindle is immediate delivery; print is print-on-demand and may take a few days before the order ships.

“Flowers for Every Day” and Of Stars and Space, © 2020, Michael Bergman

Excerpt from “Flowers for Every Day”

The young man watched as the young woman stepped into the room. She stood tall, though she was of average height, and held her head high. Brown locks with waves of curls were pulled and pinned near her left ear. Her golden-brown eyes scanned the crowd until she found the two other girls she was looking for. Then she smiled and waved.

“Who is that?” the young man asked.

Another young man, shorter and stockier than he, glanced up. “I don’t know. Maybe she’s new. Wait, Robert, where are you going?”

Robert had already stood and moved away from their seats before his friend had finished. He smoothed his dress shirt and adjusted his tie. The school concert was set to begin in ten minutes, leaving him enough time.

A vase of fresh flowers sat on a table near the entry. He plucked one, a white daffodil, and approached the group of three with a smile.

The inspiration behind “Burn” (Of Stars and Space)

With the publication of my collection of stories, Of Stars and Space, this is part 3 in a series of posts about the inspiration behind each of the twelve stories.

Several years ago, an online magazine ran a lengthy story, filled with pictures, of the Burning Man festival. Going to such a festival would not be my thing, but the story and images captured my imagination. I tried several times and failed to take those images and turn them into a story about a trip to Burning Man.

Around the same time, I had a doctor misdiagnose me with a symptom linked to quite a few serious neurological disorders. It is never fun to have such a fright, but I was able to link one of those disorders with the Burning Man story.

What developed from that was not a story about a trip to Burning Man, though such is a side piece to the narrative. Rather, came a story of a young man with a clock ticking faster than most of us experience. It is a story of finding purpose and love, and holding onto faith in the face of death.

It is at the same time a tragedy and a triumph, a reminder to let our lives burn bright, no matter the hand we’re dealt or the years we’re given.

You can read an excerpt of “Burn” below.

Of Stars and Space (and other stories) is available at Amazon in both Kindle and print formats. Kindle is immediate delivery; print is print-on-demand and may take a few days before the order ships.

“Burn” and Of Stars and Space, © 2020, Michael Bergman

Excerpt from “Burn”

The previous summer, after his freshman year, Jackson journeyed to Nevada with college friends. For a week they lived on the salt flats with thousands of others, giving and receiving, dancing and sharing, all waiting for that final night where the statue in the middle crumbled to ashes in the flames. Burning Man, they called it. Listening to his stories, I wanted to go. But I was seventeen and dad said no.

I would have to wait. Then Jackson suggested, “We can do our own.”

With the fire dying, I collapsed onto the blanket and wiped my face. Somehow, I managed to crawl into my sleeping bag. I folded my hands behind my head and stared at the sky. Miles from the nearest city and the air crisp and clear, the Milky Way stretched in its long, bright band.

That’s how I fell asleep. One of my favorite memories.

And if you’re reading this, then I’m dead.

Celebrate the Diversity in Others (Letters to My Son)

Dear H,

Right now, for you, people are people. You don’t yet understand all the many ways one person differs from another. With time you will.

As you grow, learn to appreciate the diversity in humanity. In fact, you’ll have to fight to appreciate the diversity in humanity. For you see, in a broken world, we often live comfortable with those who are similar to us and suspicious of those who are different.

This should not be. We are all created in God’s image and nothing about our backgrounds change that, not social class, not economics, not ethnicity, not education, not political beliefs, and the list goes on.

Far from making us uncomfortable with each other, certain differences are meant to be celebrated. The differences in our tastes, our abilities, our skin, our cultures, and our dreams are part of God’s creative beauty infused into the story of humanity. While we should all long to be like Jesus, being like Jesus doesn’t mean that we all think, look, and act exactly like one another in these good differences.

We should neither try to force others into our mold nor should we refuse to surround ourselves with a diversity of others. Instead, we should celebrate the good things that make you you and me me, and enjoy the multifaceted expressions of God’s creation.

Love,

Dad

We are one body with many, different parts.

1 Corinthians 12:12

Image source: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The inspiration behind “First Date” (Of Stars and Space)

With the publication of my collection of stories, Of Stars and Space, this is part 2 in a series of posts about the inspiration behind each of the twelve stories.

Writer’s block is frustrating. You sit at your computer, stare at your screen, wanting to write, longing to write, and yet your brain produces nothing. Maybe you manage a few lines, but then you reread them, hopelessly disgusted, and hit delete.

In a recent bout with writer’s block, I told my wife, “I need some ideas.” She thought for a moment and began to list some out. One thing that she mentioned was “love story.”

If you know us, you know the gist of our story. If you don’t, let’s just say that I was a little awkward (I’m being kind to myself). “First Date” is a love story that captures some of that awkwardness. On the whole, the story is fictional, of course, but as I wrote parts of the story of budding love between a widower and his first wife and then between him and a new love, several aspects were quite familiar.

You can read an excerpt of “First Date” below.

Of Stars and Space (and other stories) is available at Amazon in both Kindle and print formats. Kindle is immediate delivery; print is print-on-demand and may take a few days before the order ships.

“First Date” and Of Stars and Space, © 2020, Michael Bergman

Excerpt from “First Date”

“Dad, we need to talk.”
“Um. Okay.”
“We’ve been worried about you.”
“Yeah, we want you to be happy.”
“We were thinking that you need a lady in your life.”
“Boys…”
“You work so hard to care for us, but we’re older now.”
“Yeah, almost grown.”
“So, we set you up on a date.”
“You did what?” I stared at my three boys who stood between me and the tv.