Third Place

The Mertzville Holiday Goose

by Joshua D. Taylor

 

Elijah’s phone rang 7:48 in the morning.  He worked nights as a producer at a local radio station.  Mostly conspiracy theory shows and softcore erotica programming.  His shift had only ended a few hours ago and he had just drifted off to sleep.  He wondered if the unwelcome phone call was being made out of ignorance or apathy.  He reached over and checked his phone to see that his girlfriend, June, was calling.  He loved her and she gave his life meaning, so he answered.

“Yeah?”

“Oh my God, did you see the news?”

“Did I win the lottery?”

“What?  You don’t play the lottery.”

“Then is my apartment on fire?”

“No, it’s-”

“Then it can wait.”

Someone posted a picture of the Holiday Goose at the Gas’N’Go on Instagram at 5:34 this morning.  It’s finally here,” she spat out before he could hang up.  Elijah pinched the bridge of his nose.  He dreaded this every year, but he put on a strong face for June.  “Did you win the pool?”

“No, Jean-Paul did.  I bet the 13th.  Missed it by two days!”

“Oh well,” he yawned.  “There’s always next year.”  The thought filled him with unease.

‘It’s alright, but you know what this means?”

“The town is going to be terrorized by a giant semi-mystical bird for next few weeks?”

“It means the Goose Gala is tomorrow night!”

“Have fun.  I’m going back to sleep, honey.”

“No no no!  You have to come.”

“Not gonna happen.”

“Come on, it’ll be good for you.  Make some positive associations.”

“Let’s talk about it later.”

“Okay, don’t forget to meet me at 3:30.”  But Elijah had already fallen back asleep.  His dreams were filled with a giant silvery bird that appeared every winter between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The townspeople of Mertzville considered its appearance the beginning of the holiday season.  Then just as mysteriously as it appeared, it was gone.  Everyone loved it, but it cast a dark shadow over his entire life.

As he drifted off to sleep his mind went back to that fateful day in elementary school when the course of his life changed forever.  He had been at recess the week before Christmas vacation.  Children played on the swing set and chased each other playing tag.

Then, out of nowhere, next to teeter-totter, the goose appeared, flapping its wings and honking in the cold bright December air.  It was if Santa Claus himself had shown up on the playground.  Children, all bundled up in coats and hats rushed over to see him.  Teachers beamed with joy at the unexpected blessing.  Encounters with the Holiday Goose were said to bestow different types of good luck and fortune.  Sightings were good, touching it or finding a feather was better.

The children gathered around as the large goose allowed them to pet it.  When it was Elijah’s turn he was so excited his hand trembled.  The goose towered over him as he reached out.  The goose leaned forward, arching it’s the long graceful neck.  And bit his nose.

Elijah screamed.  The goose threw its winging in the air and squawked loudly. Elijah fell down.  Children cried.  The goose flapped its wings and flew away, not to be seen for another three days.

Elijah was taken inside and examined by the school nurse who gave him a clean bill of health.  She was the first to ask him something nearly everyone in town would ask at some point in his life.  “What did you do to the Holiday Goose?”

Nothing, he told them but no one believed him.  It was inconceivable to them that their universal friendly and beloved holiday mascot had attacked a child for no reason.  Even though normal geese were notoriously mean and foul-tempered.  As far as the townspeople were concerned he was the boy who harassed the Holiday Goose then lied about it.

He was never outright accused of anything but the suspicion was always there in people’s looks and tone.  Even from his friends and family who said they believed him.  He became bitter and withdrawn.  He had few friends and never dated in school.  When he graduated he took night jobs to avoid most people.  Then June moved to town.

Elijah woke to his alarm sometime after lunch.  He groaned.  Not only did he have to get up and face the world.  Now it was a world where the Holiday Goose was on everyone’s minds.  Every time he walked into a room, people would look at him as the boy who earned the wrath of the Holiday Goose.  He showered and dressed, leaving his blackout curtains down.

June had moved to Mertzville from California to pursue a career as a social worker and had been unfamiliar with the town’s quirky holiday tradition.   They met when he was in college working the night shift at a Gas’N’Go.  She was chipper and pleasant, the polar opposite of his glum and morose demeanor.  She stopped by several times a week during his shift to buying Twizzlers and mentioned that she was from California.  She didn’t know about him or the Holiday Goose.

He eventually worked up the courage to ask her on a date.  She declined, citing a busy schedule and the whole glum and morose issue.

He continued to ask until she acquiesced and agreed to let him accompany her to an art gallery opening.  For the first time since he was a child, he was able to be a version of himself free of the shadow of the Holiday Goose.  She had been impressed enough with him to agree to go out again.  Three years later she was still adequately impressed to keep him around.  He couldn’t imagine his life without her.

The sun was already low in the December sky as he walked into their favorite Mexican restaurant, el Feliz Taco.  It was his first meal of the day and something between lunch and dinner for her.  She sat at a booth with a bottle of pineapple jarrito, engaged in an age-old Mertzville debate, with their waiter, Clint.  Was the goose fantastic or mundane?

“It can’t be the same bird every year.  It’d be decades old by now.  They have switch it out every few years,” Clint said

“No, when it leaves town it flies to Santa’s workshop at the North Pole for the rest of the year.  Where it doesn’t age, like Santa.” June choose the fantastic.

“The Holiday Goose has never a given a religious preference.,” Clint was pragmatic.

“But is it kosher?” Elijah asked, sitting down at the table.  Clint glared at him.  Elijah smiled back.

“Be nice,” June said.

“Sorry,” he said.  They gave Clint their orders and he went off to the kitchen.

“So?” She asked.

“What?” He raised an eyebrow, a chip with salsa halfway to his mouth

“You know, the Goose Gala,” he suppressed a shutter.  After finally hearing about the Holiday Goose she became a true believer.  He stuffed the chip in his mouth.  “Come on, it was so much fun last year, and I missed you”.  She knew how to tug at his heartstrings.  “I know you don’t have to work,”

“True,” he admitted.

“Last year I had to go with Kelly.  Then she and Troy broke up.  Then she got back together with her ex, then they broke up.  Then she made out with Troy’s brother and got into a fist fight with Troy.”

“I thought you said it was fun?”

“Everything except for that.”

“You’re not doing a great job selling it,”

“Kelly is under house arrest this year.  Amanda’s gonna pick me up after her last yoga class.  You could meet us there after you wake up.”

“I don’t know,” Elijah looked around the restaurant, trying to avoid eye contact.  He felt his resolve weakening.

“Come on.  I know what happened to you as a kid was traumatic but you can’t let it control your life.  This would be a good way for you to start to take it back.”

“How dare you use your charm and social worker tricks on me,” he said in mock indignation.  June’s expression lit up.

“So you’ll go?”

“If I get attacked by any kind of bird or person in a bird suit, I’m not leaving my apartment for a year.”

“Deal,” she said as Clint put their plates of huevos rancheros in front of them.

The following evening Elijah tugged at his necktie as he changed lanes.  It was one of two that he owned.  The driving snow was making it difficult to see the sign for the banquet hall.  They always held at the Goose Gala the evening after the Goose’s first appearance.  It had grown so large that they had to move from a firehall to the banquet hall.  There was a gorgeous view of Mertzville.  Because it was located on the side of a mountain.

The road that zigzagged up the mountain was surprisingly empty.  Everyone must have been at the gala already.  He was running late.  He didn’t have any dress shirts that didn’t have stains on them.  So he had to run out, half dressed to buy a new.  He had tried to call June to let her know, but she had not answered her phone.

He had tried to make up the lost time by speeding but the snow was hampering the already poor visibility and making the road slick.  He hoped the gala would be canceled due to the snow.  No such luck.  He wondered how Amanda’s old Volkswagen Beetle had made it up.

He glanced at the clock, hoping he’d be there soon.  He slowly took another hairpin turn, headlights cutting thru the darkness, when the gray shape of the Holiday Goose landed right in the middle of the road.

Elijah slammed on his breaks and spun the wheel.  The brakes locked up and the car skidded across the snow.  It came to a rest inches from the goose.

He stared out the window at it.  He should have known.  He finally tried to put the past behind him, but the goose wouldn’t let him.  If his car had skidded off the road, he could have died.  He grabbed the ice scraper from the back seat and got out of the car.  He wasn’t in elementary school anymore.

He stalked toward the goose, raising the scraper above his head to strike down the bird.  Then he noticed the goose was standing on a pair of tire tracks in the snow he hadn’t seen from the inside the car.  His eyes followed them as they veered off the road, over the drop.

He forgot about the goose and ran to the edge of the road and looked over.  He could see the brake lights and the rear end of a Volkswagen Beetle.  Icy panic gripped him.  He called 911 and began to climb down the hillside.  He slipped on the frozen slope as he tried to reach the car.  He called out to June and heard a low groan.

He found both women inside stunned and unable to free themselves.  He had to help them before hypothermia set in.  It took him several minutes to get both of them out of the car and up to the road.  The entire time he was under the watchful eyes of the Holiday Goose.  By the time he heard the ambulance in the distance, Elijah was exhausted.  The Holiday Goose waddled over to the three of them and gently pecked him on the nose.  Then it flew away.

 

***

 

Joshua is an amateur writer in his thirties. He works as a lab tech in southeastern Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and a one eared cat.  He loves the madcap and unexpected.  He is looking to create stories that captivate and stretch the imagination.