THE MIDNIGHT SERVICE SECOND PLACE OUR HOLIDAY FICTION WINNERS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

My name is Slats Hennessey and I just turned 19 years old. My real name is Matthew, but everybody calls me Slats because I used to be so tall and skinny. I'm six-foot-three and the joke in high school was that you could count my ribs right through my shirt. But two years of college and sitting around not playing basketball or baseball gave my body a chance to fill out, so that now you can't see my ribs anymore and I have a sort of potbelly when I slouch.

I'm thinking of my ribs, and how they used to stand out like the thin wires of a bird cage, because I'm home for Christmas. No sooner do I walk in the door than my mother gives me sugar cookies shaped like angels and stars, colored with sprinkles of green and red sugar. She's a great mother, short, wearing an apron, and when she hugs me she smells like baking and apples and perfume. She's always wanting to "put meat on my bones," she says. I know I'm home.

"You grew." She looks up at me and smiles. "You must be taller than your father by now."

"I don't know," I say, talking around a mouthful of cookies. "You look great, Mom."

I haven't grown, of course. I haven't gotten any taller since last year, just thicker. My father and I are exactly the same height.

So I sit down and my mother carves slices from a cooling ham to make me sandwiches on fresh-baked bread. She pours herself a cup of black coffee and sits down across from me with a single cookie while I tell her about school, final exams, my crazy roommate. At 5:30 we hear a car pull into the driveway and my mother jumps up to get the door. I sit at the table, sipping coffee, and I hear my father striding through the house on his long legs, yelling "Slats!" until he comes into the kitchen all grins and handshakes. The three of us fill the kitchen that smells like baking cookies and ham, smiling and laughing and not really hearing what anyone else is saying. My dad throws his briefcase and coat into the corner and we sit down to eat, the three of us together, talking and eating for hours until we begin to yawn and it's time for bed.

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PICK UP: "LOOK WHAT YOUR FATHER brought me," my mother says,

d of midnight

By David Healey

My name is Slats Hennessey and I just turned 19 years old. My real name is Matthew, but everybody calls me Slats because I used to be so tall and skinny. I'm six-foot-three and the joke in high school was that you could count my ribs right through my shirt. But two years of college and sitting around not playing basketball or baseball gave my body a chance to fill out, so that now you can't see my ribs anymore and I have a sort of potbelly when I slouch.

I'm thinking of my ribs, and how they used to stand out like the thin wires of a bird cage, because I'm home for Christmas. No sooner do I walk in the door than my mother gives me sugar cookies shaped like angels and stars, colored with sprinkles of green and red sugar. She's a great mother, short, wearing an apron, and when she hugs me she smells like baking and apples and perfume. She's always wanting to "put meat on my bones," she says. I know I'm home.

"You grew." She looks up at me and smiles. "You must be taller than your father by now."

"I don't know," I say, talking around a mouthful of cookies. "You look great, Mom."

I haven't grown, of course. I haven't gotten any taller since last year, just thicker. My father and I are exactly the same height.

So I sit down and my mother carves slices from a cooling ham to make me sandwiches on fresh-baked bread. She pours herself a cup of black coffee and sits down across from me with a single cookie while I tell her about school, final exams, my crazy roommate. At 5:30 we hear a car pull into the driveway and my mother jumps up to get the door. I sit at the table, sipping coffee, and I hear my father striding through the house on his long legs, yelling "Slats!" until he comes into the kitchen all grins and handshakes. The three of us fill the kitchen that smells like baking cookies and ham, smiling and laughing and not really hearing what anyone else is saying. My dad throws his briefcase and coat into the corner and we sit down to eat, the three of us together, talking and eating for hours until we begin to yawn and it's time for bed.

"LOOK WHAT YOUR FATHER brought me," my mother says, leading me through the house. On the dining room table there are flowers in a vase, an arrangement of reds and whites.

"That's nice," I say. "They're perfect for Christmas."

Dad is in the living room, reading the paper. The news is on TV. He's still wearing his tie, though it's loosened, and there's a bottle of beer on the table beside him, making a puddle on the coaster.

"I can't believe you still buy Mom flowers."

"Your mother's a wonderful woman," he says, looking up from the paper. "I like to show her I haven't forgotten."

"I think it's good, how you two get along."

I go into the kitchen, where Mom is mashing potatoes. The muscles at the back of her arm tremble. It's hard work, but she loves to cook, especially during the holidays. Sometimes in the summer, though, my mother decides it's too hot to cook and we go out to eat.

She's still dressed for work in her office clothes. I notice her earrings, tiny golden scallop shells. They're new, and they make her look girlish and pretty even like this, working in the kitchen. "I like your earrings," I say.

* "Your father bought them."

MY PARENTS CELEBRATED THEIR 25th wedding anniversary in July and had a second wedding to reaffirm their vows. I suppose if they hadn't been my parents, the ceremony would have been dull. The minister read in a sonorous voice, summer flies bumped against the screens, trying to get out, and it was so hot that the women in the pews fanned themselves with the songbooks. Seeing them side by side at the altar, and my tall father bending down to kiss my mother, I wanted them to be happy.

All through the summer he gave her things: stuffed animals, candy, a bracelet. Or else he just walked into the house at lunchtime, his shirtsleeves rolled up, with a bunch of flowers in his hand.

0$ "You're wonderful," he told her.

THAT NIGHT AFTER DINNER, THE telephone rings. My mother goes into the kitchen to answer it and comes back a moment later.

"They hung up," she says. "I guess it was a wrong number."

The TV is on, though nobody is watching it, and the sound is turned down low. My father is looking through the paper again and my mother has a novel she reads through the crescent-shaped glasses balanced on the end of her nose.

There's a fire in the fireplace, the Christmas special buzzes on TV, and the pages of Dad's newspaper crackle. I start to drowse off over a book I'm pretending to read.

Dad gets up and goes into the kitchen. I can just see his back as he picks up the phone and stretches the cord around the corner of the refrigerator, out of hearing. After a while he comes back in and settles down with another bottle of beer and the paper.

"I was just calling Jack from the office," he says after a minute. "I had to get some things straight for tomorrow."

My mother is crying. She takes off the glasses and wipes at her face with her fingers, as if trying to push the tears back into her eyes.

L "What's wrong?" I ask, half-standing from my chair, alarmed.

"Nothing," she says, her voice choking as she tries to get control of herself. "Nothing at all. I'm just so . . . happy." She sniffles. "Everything is just so happy."

Dad doesn't say anything. He just stares hard at his paper and takes a long drink of beer.

OTHER CARS STREAM INTO THE church parking lot for the midnight service. All the windows of the church glow with yellow warmth and the pattern in the round, stained glass window above the heavy double doors shines with cool greens, reds and blues. An old man in a hat holds the church door open for his wife, flooding the broad stone steps with light. Someone inside grips his shoulder in greeting as he takes off his hat.

"You couldn't get me to go to church Christmas Day," Dad says, opening the car door. Cold air washes in and the overhead light comes on. "All those screaming kids so excited from opening presents."

"This is nice," says Mom, looking at the church. "It seems holy, Christmas-sy, like it should. Did you bring the collection envelope?"

4 "Yes," he says. "It's in the glove compartment."

She reaches for the knob.

"Don't bother, honey," Dad says. "I'll get it."

But she is already turning the catch. The compartment opens and a small, gift-wrapped box falls onto the ledge of the open door.

"Oh!" she says. She looks at Dad and smiles. "Were you going to surprise me?"

He grins back. "We have to save it for tomorrow."

"I don't want to wait," she says. "Let me open it now. It's Christmas Eve. You're allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve if you want."

She picks it up, her hand just ahead of his as he moves to take it away. His smile is gone and he watches her nervously, leaning toward her.

"It's really --" he starts to say. "I bought it for one of the secretaries at work, you know. We give them little things at Christmas."

"I just want to see what it is," she says, smiling, as her nail delicately slits the tape and she unwraps the package without wrinkling the paper.

Inside the box are two gold earrings in the shape of scallop shells.

"You bought her the same thing," she says, speaking very softly. "How could you? I won't stand it anymore. I won't have you calling her at night." She's crying now. " 'Jack from the office.' Do you really think I'm that stupid? Don't ruin everything."

She sobs, hunched down in the seat. The box has fallen onto the floor. Dad picks it up, the box, the wrapping paper, and the earrings like two bright eyes, and throws them out the door. In the darkness I hear the metal ring as it bounces on the cold asphalt. He shuts the door.

Mom stops crying and wipes her face, pats her hair into place. We get out of the car, silently, and walk toward the church, where the choir has already begun to sing so that a little of the music carries out to us. They hold each other and I walk slightly behind and to one side. We go up the steps and into the church, on Christmas Eve, a family.End of midnight

DAVID HEALEY, 23, works as a copy editor for the Cecil Wig, a newspaper in Elkton. This is his first published fiction, but Chesapeake Bay magazine has bought a short story of his to be published soon.

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