Christmas in Brooklyn
Christmas Eve dawned clear and bright. Steve woke up before the sun and watched it rise out his bedroom window, wishing he could be somewhere else. Anywhere else, as long as his mother and father could be there.
He got up when he felt strong enough – about an hour later – and whistled as he tidied the apartment. It didn’t need cleaning, but he did it anyway. The work was slow, due to the ache throughout his body from the beating he’d taken the day before, but he kept at it until the apartment was spotless. Then, he made coffee and started cutting out strips of newspaper. He hadn’t found the time ’til now… mainly because hadn’t felt like it.
His heart sank as he cut another link for the chain. I wish Mother could be here…
He wondered where she was and what she was doing. Was she with someone who could distract her from the war, or was she with a screaming patient who needed her help? Did she even know that it was Christmas Eve? Was she thinking of him?
Steve started pasting the ends of the links together, adding them to the chain one by one. It felt slightly therapeutic, but he didn’t feel totally at ease yet. Somehow, he didn’t think he would ever be completely at ease again.
He knew he wasn’t alone with this clawing feeling deep inside his stomach. He wondered how long the war would last this time… and if, after it was all said and done, another war would start up ten years later. If that happened, he knew the world would be broken and no one would be able to fix it.
I need to help. I need to do something to help end this war. He frowned. But is there anything I can do?
If Steve knew one thing, it was his limits. Ever since he was a young boy, he had suffered from illness after illness, keeping him from having a normal life. He still got sick more often than Bucky did, and it took him a long time to recover.
But he didn’t let that stop him from trying.
Steve set his jaw and stared at the strip of paper in his hand. I’m going to enlist.
After lengthening the paper chain a little more, he wrapped it around the tree and stepped back to survey his work. A lopsided grin slowly grew on his face. Looks pretty good, if I do say so myself.
He pulled on his jacket, rolled the sleeves up a little so they fell at his wrists and not the end of his fingertips, and locked the door behind him.
As Steve walked down the street, he thought about what he was going to do. He was resolute in his act, knowing full well what it might bring on. Injury, death – at this point he didn’t care. His father had given his life for his country. Who knows what his mother would have to give. All Steve knew now was that he was willing to do anything.
What man wouldn’t want to give as much as he could to his country?
He finally reached the first enlistment office. Looking up at the poster beside the door, the old man’s finger pointing in Steve’s face right above the words “I WANT YOU,” Steve squared his small shoulders, took a deep breath, and pulled on the door handle. Nothing. Steve pulled again, but the door was locked. He peered inside, but couldn’t see a thing. The lights were off. Oh, he realized. Because it’s Christmas Eve.
Steve took a step back onto the street, his shoulders now slumped. He thought about trying another office, but knew he wouldn’t have any luck there, either. He started shuffling down the street, kicking a rock every few feet. He tried to tell himself that it was okay – that he could try again another day – but it felt like a bad omen, almost as if foreshadowing what would happen after future visits.
Steve looked up, a grin appearing on his face a split second later. “What’re you doing out this close to Christmas?” he called out as he walked towards Bucky. “I would’ve thought your mom would have you stuffing a turkey or something.”
Bucky laughed, rubbing his hands together to warm them. “She’s got me out doing last-minute errands.” He pulled a package wrapped in brown paper out from the crook of his arm and held it up. “The bread for the stuffing’s right here.”
Steve chuckled and closed the remaining space between them. “A little late this year, isn’t she?”
Bucky started walking, and Steve struggled to match his powerful stride. “We couldn’t find some ingredients for the stuffing, so she didn’t want to buy anything ’til she knew she could make it. I hear there’s a war on.”
Steve instantly felt his smile disappear. He tried to smile again as he looked down and kicked a rock across the sidewalk, but suddenly didn’t feel like joking. His parents’ faces flashed before his eyes. “Yeah, I think I read something like that in the papers.”
Bucky didn’t say anything for a minute. Steve looked up and saw an odd mixture of sadness, regret, and anger on his face. He half-winced, half-smiled. “Sorry, Steve.”
Steve shrugged dismissively. “It’s okay.” He clenched his fists in his pockets, partially to warm them and partially to keep his emotions at bay.
After a few moments of awkward silence broken only by their footsteps crushing the snow beneath them, Bucky slowly said, “So what’re you doing out so close to Christmas?”
Steve smiled a little. “Trying to get into this war we keep hearing about.”
Bucky’s jaw dropped as he stopped walking. “You… you what?”
“I tried to enlist, but the office was closed. It didn’t hit me ’til after I got out here and tugged on the door a little that it might be closed because of Christmas. You’d think they’d-”
“You tried to enlist?” Bucky repeated, his tone undefinable.
“Yeah,” Steve slowly replied, turning around to face Bucky. He furrowed his brow a little and tried to determine Bucky’s thoughts. “What about it?”
Suddenly, Steve could easily read Bucky’s face. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Bucky was mad. Steve quickly tried to think of a time he had seen Bucky this mad. He couldn’t.
“You tried to get into the Army?!” Bucky demanded, taking a step towards Steve. “What were you thinking?!”
“I was thinking I’d try to do something for my country for once,” Steve countered, trying to keep his tone civil.
“Oh, you were? Wow, what a load of good you’ll do!” Bucky let out a deep, exasperated sigh. “Why’d you think you’d ever get in?”
Steve frowned and clenched his fists again, now for a completely different reason. “I thought I’d have a chance. Thought I’d try my luck.”
“Steve, this is war! You, of all people, should know the full cost of war.”
Steve threw his hands in the air. “Me, of all people?! What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“You saw the look on your mother’s face when she got the news about your dad. Why don’t you take a wild guess at how she’ll feel if she gets the same news about you?!”
Steve’s gaze dropped to the pavement. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the memory of his mother’s sobs as she read the telegram. He let out a deep breath, opened his eyes, and looked up at Bucky.
“Bucky…” he slowly started. He paused, gathering his thoughts. “I know you don’t understand. You’re probably wondering why a skinny kid from Brooklyn wants to try to get himself killed somewhere in Europe. But… ever since my dad’s left, I feel like I need to be over there. I need to do something.”
“There’s nothing wrong with doing stuff here, Steve,” Bucky firmly protested. “There are factories and-”
“And scrap drives. I know, Bucky. But I can’t stay here and take an easy day job while other guys are over there, giving their lives for my freedom.”
Bucky clenched his jaw and looked down, not saying a word.
Steve watched him, trying to determine what he would think. He had tried to phrase his thoughts in a coherent way, but he still didn’t know if Bucky would get it. He glanced at the ground, then looked up at Bucky. “Can’t you try to understand?”
Bucky didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, the half-wince, half-smile appeared again. “Whatever you say, kid. I won’t try to stop you. Just don’t come crawling to me when you get your arm blasted off in a fight.”
Steve tried to smile back at Bucky. “I won’t.”
Bucky put his arm across Steve’s shoulders and pulled him forward. “Now that we’ve exhausted that topic, want to come over? You can spend the night. I’m sure Maggie will be more than happy to let you sleep in her room.”
Steve grinned. “Sounds great.”
Bucky put the cushions back on the couch as his younger siblings started appearing by the small pile of presents, giggling and letting out short shrieks of joy. Peter and Timmy rough-housed on the floor while Maggie sat in Steve’s lap, taking in the pictures in the book Steve held in front of her as he read the the story. The other three weren’t up quite yet, but Bucky knew they would be down soon. He poured himself some coffee and added a little sugar, then a little more – after all, Christmas demanded it – and sat down on the couch, watching Steve.
He still had trouble thinking about Steve trying to get into the army. Steve was skinny, but it was almost like he had a stronger, braver man somewhere deep down inside him. He never backed down from a fight – in fact, he almost always started them – but he was never the one to end them.
Bucky couldn’t help but think that Steve didn’t know what he was getting into. The trenches were more than a back alley fight – they were the symbol of all-out, no-holds-barred, fight-to-the-death war.
Bucky wrapped his hands around the warm mug, trying to warm them. He stared at Steve. If anything ever happens to him, I’ll kill him. And then I might kill myself.
“Mommy and Daddy are up!” Susie shrieked, thumping down the stairs. “IT’S FINALLY CHRISTMAS!”
Several hours later, after all of the brown paper had been tossed into the fire and most of the gifts had been put away, Bucky slipped out the back door with Steve in tow. “I’ll be back later, Ma!” he called, slamming the door before she could protest. He tossed the end of his new scarf over his shoulder, smiling at Maggie’s uneven stitches.
“You don’t have to do this,” Steve told him, shoving his hands into his pockets as they walked. “I know the way home.”
“I know. But I didn’t want the kids around when I gave you your gift.” He pulled a small package out of his jacket pocket and tossed it to Steve.
Steve smiled lopsidedly, pulling an envelope out of his back pocket. He handed it to Bucky. “Here. You first.”
Bucky grinned and ripped open the envelope. He frowned slightly and took the tickets out. Suddenly, his face lit up as he realized what they were. “Wow, Steve. Thanks!” He shot Steve a wry look. “Are there two tickets in here because you want me to take you, too?”
“No,” Steve replied, smiling a little. “There are two for you to take a date. Lizzie, maybe?” he added with a suggestive look.
Bucky smiled and put the tickets away. “Maybe. Your turn.”
Steve started untying the string, slowly opening the package so as to save as much of the paper as possible. Bucky blew on his hands as they walked, deciding to make a fire the second they got to Steve’s apartment. As soon as Steve pulled the paper away and saw what was inside, he gasped.
“Actual paper,” Bucky told him, tapping the notebook. “Now your sketches won’t be ruined by headlines and boring articles.”
Steve stared at the notebook and set of three pencils. “I can’t believe it. I haven’t had an actual piece of drawing paper since… since…”
“Since we were in grade school; I know. You were always the best in the class, and it’s not fair that you never get to draw anymore.”
Steve leafed through all of the empty pages as they started up the stairs. He didn’t want to think about how much it had cost Bucky – and how paltry his gift seemed in comparison. After a minute, he softly said, “Thanks, Buck.”
“You’re welcome,” Bucky replied, a little dismissively, but inwardly happy because he knew how much it meant to Steve. He reached the landing first and kicked the brick by the railing, revealing the key to Steve’s house. “Let’s get in there and make a fire – I’m freezing!”
“You don’t have to do that,” Steve absentmindedly said, still staring at the gift. “Don’t your parents want you home?”
“As soon as I get home, they’ll have me watching the kids or making dinner or something,” Bucky told him, fishing a match out of the matchbook. “Let me have a few more minutes of solitude.”
“But I’m here,” Steve told him, laughing a little.
“You don’t count,” Bucky shot back, giving him a look.
Within minutes, the fire was crackling in the blackened fireplace. Bucky plopped down next to Steve on the couch and dropped his feet on the coffee table, then leaned back and put his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes and sighed contentedly. “Man, you’re so lucky you don’t have siblings.”
“I don’t know…” Steve muttered, leaning forward. He rested his elbows on his knees and started to sharpen his new pencil. He blew the shavings off his pocketknife before continuing. “Sometimes I’d like to have a sibling. A younger sister, maybe…” He flashed a grin over his shoulder at Bucky. “After all, I’ve pretty much already got an older brother.”
Bucky smiled. “Til the end of the line, pal.”