War Words by Travis Richardson

War Words

We entered a toy store, wanting to buy presents for our children. It has been an awful year, and they’ve been troopers. Literally. Loading ammunition into magazines. Bringing provisions to the front lines. Treating the wounded and burying the dead. Only eight and five years old. Nobody should witness such horrors at those tender ages. With the shaky armistice in place, we held onto a naïve hope that maybe we could reassemble our lives back into some semblance of how things used to be. Walking on the streets again to buy presents without the fear of attacks seemed like a step in the right direction.

While the busy store had a Christmas tree against a wall, a large nativity scene dominated the center aisle. My wife, Grace, shuddered. I pulled her close.

“Take a breath,” I whispered. “It’ll be okay.”

A clerk turned, his one good eye giving us a suspicious once over. A patch covered the other one. Many of us carried our physical wounds on the surface, but we all had twisted physiological pain buried much deeper. Shrapnel in my shoulder limited the range of motion in my left arm. Grace lost her pinky. And all of that suffering and sacrifice for naught. We’d been on the losing side and had to make concessions. The same hostile feelings that tore our communities apart had not vanished overnight.

I gave the man a reassuring nod and ushered Grace into another aisle.

“This was a bad idea,” she whispered. “We aren’t ready for places like this. Not yet.”

“We need to get something for the children.”

Not only were our kids deserving, but buying gifts for children under 17 was required by law. By the 25th of December, all homes must display Christmas trees, stockings, and wrapped gifts. The victors had pushed for mandatory nativity or religious icons to be displayed, but the negotiators on our side held firm. Wanting to finish the war before Christmas, the other side finally relented.

I lingered by a basket full of plush animals and picked up two.

“Would Laura like a pink unicorn or a purple bunny?”

Grace looked at me with wide, exasperated eyes.  “She’s seen corpses. Built bombs. How can she…”

“It’s a return to innocence.”

She shook her head, her eyes glassy but incapable of any more tears. “There’s no going back.”

My heart ached. Grace, a former progressive who used to brim with hope, wanting to make the world a better place, had become a shadow of that woman.

I tossed the bunny back. Might as well go with fantasy. Reality was too bleak.

Next we needed to get Josh a present, and then get the hell out of here before Grace made a scene. No need to rankle the zealot shoppers with violence still simmering in their brains. Taking her hand, I turned the corner into a crowded aisle. Toy guns and knives lined the shelves.  

“Dear God,” Grace gasped.

Several customers turned our way. With crew cuts, coifed or bobbed hairdos, it was obvious they served for the other side. I pulled Grace away. Spotting a set of toy cars, I grabbed a pack and stood in line. People who tried to kill us a month ago surrounded us on all sides. And while we tried to murder them as well, we never fired the first shot. Nor the second or the third. I will argue until my dying day that all of the violence I inflicted on my fellow man was done in self-defense.

Keeping our heads down, Grace squeezed my hand tight. We’ll just check out and go home. Easy-peasy.

“Merry Christmas,” the woman at the checkout counter said. She wore an elf hat with a button that read, Remember the Reason for the Season. “Will that be all?”

Nodding, I pulled out cash from my wallet.

“You two have a boy and a girl?”

I nodded again. She made change.

“So glad y’all are gettin’ to celebrate with your children, especially after these rough past few years.”

“It’s been hard on them.”

She put the toys in a plastic bag and handed it to me, a big toothy smile across her cheeks. “Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas.”

I took the bag, feeling hopeful. Maybe our two sides could reconcile in spite of everything. Before I could stop myself, the words “Happy Holidays” escaped my lips. 

That’s the phrase that cannot be spoken under the terms of the armistice. The punishable war words. According to the opposing side, the phrase “Happy Holidays” instigated the war. It denied Christmas and the birth of their savior. They felt attacked and responded with violence, dividing the citizenry into two camps: you either said “Merry Christmas” or you were the enemy.      

The woman’s cheery pink complexion drained to snowman white. Voices in the store hushed while “The First Noel” played in through the overhead speakers. The exit stood twenty feet away. I looked into Grace’s fear-widened eyes.

“Run!” I shouted.

I threw the bag of toys at the one-eyed clerk as we sprinted out the door.

A mob of Christmas veterans chased us down the street. Eventually we eluded them in alley, buried under a heap of garbage. Under the cloak of night we grabbed our kids and some provisions, and fled. I understand our apartment has been ransacked and search parties are hunting us with shoot-to-kill orders. We are currently hiding out in a bombed out elementary school. Our third hiding spot. The four of us huddle close under a blanket to keep warm not wanting to keep a fire burning longer than a few minutes. 

I’m not sure if we’ll live to see the new year.

“Daddy?” Laura asks.

“Yes?”

“What day is it?”

I look at my watch and sigh.

“It’s Christmas, isn’t it?”

I nod. She doesn’t say a word, but her shoulders drop as she stares at the bullet-pockmarked dry erase board.

Merry fucking Christmas.

Travis Richardson has been a finalist for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. His collection of short stories, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED came out in 2018. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. His second novella, KEEPING THE RECORD, came out in 2014. He has published stories in crime fiction publications such as Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, and All Due Respect. He used to edit the SINC/LA newsletter Ransom Notes and reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories at http://www.chekhovshorts.com. He lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. http://www.tsrichardson.com