Nicholas A. DiChario
A prolific writer of short fiction, Nicholas A. DiChario has published more than two dozen stories in the past decade. His short fiction, some of it written in collaboration with Mike Resnick, has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Starshore, and Science Fiction Age, and been anthologized in The Ultimate Alien, Universe Three, Witch Fantastic, Christmas Ghosts, and numerous other anthologies. DiChario’s special interest in alternate history is on display in his contributions to Alternate Tyrants, Alternate Warriors, and The Way It Wasn’t. “The Winterberry,” which appeared in the anthology Alternate Kennedys, was selected for inclusion in the Writers of the Future series.
Nicholas A. DiChario
IT WAS UNCLE TEDDY who taught me how to read and write. I think it took a long time but I’m not sure. I heard him arguing with Mother about it one night a few years ago when I wasn’t supposed to be out of my room, but I was very excited with the next day being my birthday and I couldn’t sleep.
“He can do it,” Uncle Teddy had said.
And Mother said, “He doesn’t care whether he reads or writes. It’s you who cares. Why do you torture yourself? Let him be.”
“He’s fifty-four years old,” Uncle Teddy said.
“Let him be!” Mother sounded very angry.
I listened to Uncle Teddy walk across the room. “If you feel that way,” he said, “why didn’t you just let him die?”
There was a long silence before Mother said, “I don’t know,” and another long silence after that.
Something in their voices frightened me so I returned to my room. I became very ill, and for several weeks Dr. Armbruster came to see me every day but he wouldn’t let anyone else come in because he said I was too weak to have visitors.
But sometime after, when I was much better, Uncle Teddy came to visit and he brought a picture book with him which made me remember his talk with Mother. I’m glad Uncle Teddy got his way because now I read and write a lot even though I throw most of my writing away. I hide some of it though and keep it just for myself, and it’s not because I’m being sneaky, it’s more because some of the things I write are my own personal secrets and I don’t want to tell anyone, just like people don’t want to tell me things sometimes when I ask them questions.
I am very excited about Christmas almost being here. I am looking forward to Uncle Teddy’s stay because he always has something fun in mind. Yesterday after he arrived he walked me through the house and showed me all of the decorations—wreaths and flowers and a huge Christmas tree near the front hall, strung with tinsel and candles. He brought with him several boxes full of gifts, all shapes and sizes, wrapped in bright colors—red and green and blue and silver with bows and ribbons—and I knew they were all for me because he put them under my tree upstairs.
Our house is very large. Mother calls it a mansion. She doesn’t allow me to go anywhere except the room on my floor. She says I have everything I need right here.
That’s why sometimes at night I’ll walk around when everything is dark and everyone is asleep or in their rooms for the night. I don’t think I’m being sneaky, it’s just that I am very curious and if I ask about things no one tells me what I want to know. I’ve come to know this house very well. There are many hidden passageways behind the walls and I know them all by heart. I will hear things every once in a while that mother would not like me to hear.
There was a big happening in the house last night and the servants were very busy, although it did not look to be a planned thing because everyone appeared disorganized and Mother didn’t come to lock me in my room.
I went through one of my passageways that led to the main entrance of the house and I peeked through a tiny opening in the wall and saw a very beautiful woman with dark hair standing inside the door. She was so beautiful that I held my breath. It must have been very cold outside because she was wearing a long black winter coat and there were flakes of snow on her hair. When she spoke, it was the most soft and delicate voice I had ever heard. She said, “Merry Christmas.”
I wanted to stay and watch the woman forever but I knew that Mother would be up to check on me so I ran back to my room and pretended to be asleep. Mother came in and kissed my head and said, “Sleep well, child,” like she did every night. I listened very closely for a long time hoping to hear the voice of the woman again, but next thing I knew it was morning, and she was gone.
I heard Mother and Dr. Armbruster arguing yesterday. They were just talking pleasantly for a while and I was listening in my passageway to the low, pleasant sound of their voices. The doctor was saying things I did not understand about sickness and diets and so on, when all of a sudden he said, “But John is doing fine,” and Mother just about exploded with anger.
“His name is not John, do you understand me? Don’t you ever call him by that name again! John is dead! My John is dead!” I had never heard Mother get so angry except for that one time with Uncle Teddy. She made the doctor leave right away and told him he could be replaced, but I hoped that she wouldn’t do that because I sort of liked Dr. Armbruster.
I don’t know who John is, but I felt very bad for Mother. I had never really thought about my own name before. Uncle Teddy and everyone calls me Sonny because it’s short for Sonny Boy, and that’s good enough for me. But it made me wonder how someone could get a name like John. Uncle Teddy was probably named after a teddy bear. Mother was just Mother.
Today was a very special day. It was my seventieth birthday. Uncle Teddy came to visit and I was very excited because I hadn’t seen him in such a long time. We had a big cake and a lot of food and we played checkers for an hour. Then Uncle Teddy took me outside for a walk!
I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I think Mother was not happy about it because she did not want to let me go at first, but Uncle Teddy talked her into it and we went outside surrounded by men in black suits and ties and shoes. Uncle Teddy asked me if I minded if his friends went with us, and of course I didn’t care. They came to my party and they had a right to have fun. In fact, I told them that if they smiled more they might have a nicer time all around, but Uncle Teddy said they were usually very serious people and were happy that way.
It was a sunny day. The wind blew in my face and stung my eyes at first, but it felt good. Uncle Teddy took me all around the yard and into the garden where I smelled the roses and touched the bushes and the vines. I listened to the birds calling and the insects buzzing. I never dreamed they would sound so loud and so near.
I touched the winterberry hollies which were very special to me because I could always see their bright red berries from my window, even during the cold cold winters.
After a short time I caught a chill and had to go inside, and I was weak for the rest of the day. But I didn’t care—I had such fun! I’ll always remember it.
One night I entered a storage room through my passageway where there were a lot of tools and brooms and rags and buckets and things. I rummaged around in the dark and my hands found a flashlight. I thought this would be a wonderful thing to have so I took it with me hoping that no one would miss it. Now I can sit in bed at night and read and write as long as I like and not have to worry about someone seeing my light.
I have not seen Mother in a very long time. I wondered if she was angry with me even though I didn’t think she knew about my passageways or my late-night writing. Mother would have yelled at me if she knew.
I’ve been seeing more and more of Uncle Teddy, so I asked him about Mother today and he said that she went away on a very long trip and I wouldn’t be seeing her for a while.
I asked him how long that might be and he said not long, he said soon we’d all be seeing her and then maybe we’d find out whether we did the right thing, whether the choices we’d made over the years had been the proper ones. He looked very sad when he said this, and then he said, “I think there is such a place, Sonny Boy, a place where we learn why everything is the way it is.”
I asked him if Dr. Armbruster had gone with Mother since I hadn’t seen him in so long and I was seeing Dr. Morelande almost every day now, and Uncle Teddy told me yes.
I thought about how lucky Mother was to visit this place, a place where every time you asked a question you got an answer, and I could not blame her if she didn’t want to come back for a while. I told Uncle Teddy so, and he seemed to cheer up. We played cards for the rest of the afternoon.
Today was my eightieth birthday. I have been very sick and I was afraid that I might not be able to have my party, but Dr. Morelande said it was OK so we had cake and games with Uncle Teddy and I had a very nice time even though I had to stay in bed.
It was after my party that I had a scare. I was very weak, and I probably should have just gone to sleep, but being so excited all day and not being allowed to get up, I turned restless after dark, so I decided to take a short walk through my passageways.
I followed a path that led to the back of a closet in Uncle Teddy’s room, and I saw some light coming through the darkness so I went up to it. That’s all I was going to do—peek and go away—until I saw Uncle Teddy crying. I’d never seen Uncle Teddy cry before. He was in bed. He had a large, green book on his lap, and every so often he would turn a page and cry some more.
I watched him for a while, waiting for him to be all right, but he didn’t stop crying and I couldn’t stand to watch him any longer, so I did a foolish thing and I entered his room through the closet.
“Sonny Boy,” he said, “what are you doing here?”
I thought he might be angry with me so I wanted to say that I saw him crying, and that I only wanted to help him and be a friend, but before I could say anything he said, “So you know about the passages,” and he didn’t seem to be upset at all.
“Come over here, Sonny,” he said.
I went and sat on the edge of his bed. He was looking at a photo album. Mother had shown me some photo albums years ago, and I thought they were interesting and we had a lot of fun even though I didn’t recognize any of the faces. I don’t ever remember crying over them. But Uncle Teddy’s album was different. There were newspaper pictures, and headlines, and articles.
Uncle Teddy was looking at a picture of a man and a woman. The man seemed very serious-looking, and his right hand was raised like an Indian chief’s, but he had on a suit and tie and no headdress. The man’s eyes were closed.
The woman had short black hair with long bangs, and she was looking down.
And then all of a sudden I just about screamed. I knew that woman. I remembered her from . . . from somewhere.
Uncle Teddy said, “You know her, don’t you? Think, Sonny Boy, think very hard. What do you remember?”
I did think very hard, and then I remembered where I had seen her. She was the beautiful black-haired woman I had seen at Christmastime in the main entrance of the house years ago.
But then there was more. As I looked at the woman in the picture something very strange came into my head. I had a passing thought of this same woman in a pretty white gown, with a white veil over her face. It was just a piece of a thought that I could not keep in my mind for very long, but I’ll never forget it. I reached out and touched the picture.
“Always grand,” Uncle Teddy said. “She was wearing a very dignified, raspberry-colored suit that day.”
But that’s not what I had seen. I had seen the white gown. I had seen something that happened before my room and my house and my passageways and Mother and Uncle Teddy. Was there anything before them? Yes, I think there was. It was more than a passing thought—it was a memory.
“Was I married, Uncle Teddy?” I asked him.
He smiled. “Yes, you were. You proposed to her by telegram, you know, from Paris.”
I thought this was interesting, but nothing more than that. Uncle Teddy started to cry again.
“Please, don’t cry,” I said.
He held my hand then. “I’m sorry we couldn’t tell her you were alive. We couldn’t tell your children, not anyone, not even Father because we couldn’t be sure of his reaction. Mother was adamant about that. No one could know. Just Bobby and Mother and myself—and the doctors, of course. Now there’s just me.
“It was for the good of the country. Those were critical times. The eyes of the world were watching us. We could not afford hesitancy. We felt you would have wanted it that way. Do you understand?”
I didn’t, but I nodded anyway to stop Uncle Teddy from crying. He was clutching my arm very hard.
He traced the newspaper picture with his finger. “She was a strong woman, Sonny Boy. You would have been proud of her. I remember her standing right next to Lyndon, solid as a rock, little more than an hour after you were pronounced dead.”
I was very confused about Uncle Teddy calling me dead, and about what the woman in the picture had to do with any of it, so I closed the book and placed it on the floor. I remembered what Mother used to do to make me feel better, so I thought that maybe the same thing might help Uncle Teddy feel better too.
I pulled his bed covers up to his chin, brushed back his hair, kissed him on the forehead, and turned out his light. “Sleep well, child,” I said, and then I went back to my room. I was sure Uncle Teddy would be just fine in the morning. It had always worked for me.
Dr. Morelande is the only one who comes to see me anymore. He says that Uncle Teddy is so busy he can’t find time to stop by. But I don’t think that’s exactly true. I think Uncle Teddy went on vacation with Mother and Dr. Armbruster, and he is having so much fun that he is not coming back at all.
Dr. Morelande has tried very hard to make this a good Christmas, but I am sorry to say I am not very happy. I am tired all of the time, and I can’t even move out of bed. Dr. Morelande asked me if I wanted anything for Christmas, but if I couldn’t have Mother or Uncle Teddy, then there was nothing to ask for.
But then I thought about it and thought about it for a long time, and I remembered the pictures Uncle Teddy had shown me many years ago. I told Dr. Morelande about the green photo album in Uncle Teddy’s room and asked him if he could find it for me. A little while later Dr. Morelande returned with the book.
Together we went through the pictures, and when we got to the one Uncle Teddy had shown me, the one with the man and the beautiful dark-haired woman, I made him stop.
“There is something I want for Christmas,” I told him. “There is something I want very much.”
I decided to tell Dr. Morelande about the passageways then. I didn’t think that I would get in trouble. I made him put me in my wheelchair and take me for a walk behind the walls. He argued with me at first, but I refused to be put off.
I told him exactly which path to follow. He wheeled me all the way down to the wall at the main entrance. I looked through the small opening. I was sure that the beautiful dark-haired woman would be standing at the door in her winter coat. I was disappointed that she wasn’t there. I thought that if I waited long enough she would certainly show up—she would come back like the winterberry, bright and strong even in the cold cold winter. There would be snowflakes in her hair, and she would say “Merry Christmas” in her lovely voice. So we waited.
Finally Dr. Morelande said that if I agreed to go to bed, he would wait for the woman, and bring her directly to me as soon as she arrived. I thought that this would be a good idea since I was so tired.
When she arrives, we will have many things to discuss. I have decided to make her my new friend. I think I will show her my book of writings. I think I will ask her about the white gown to show her that I have not forgotten, and then I’ll ask her about the children Uncle Teddy mentioned. I won’t tell her about the vacation place where everyone has gone without me, and not because I’m being sneaky, but only because I am very lonely and I would like her to stay with me for a while.