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Holiday Cheer
by Jack deMule
Jack deMule -- all rights reserved

Wanderer fairly bounced through the door of the Blind Pig bar, humming merrily with a closed-mouth smile. As the place was still fairly deserted as yet, he fairly skipped his way to the bar, where Donnie had already fixed his usual ... a glass of Coca-Cola. "Good day, Donnie", he said, getting a nod in response. Slapping down a five, he pirouetted on one footpad before turning to the piano, where Jack DeMule was already idly tickling the ivories. "Good Morrow, O magnificent musical mule."

A long, furry, ear, swiveled to point in the direction of the bar. "Hay there Wanderer," Jack replied over his shoulder. "Has the season's spirit grabbed hold of you? Or did you get that part in the production of 'Peter And The Wolf' that the lupine boys were howling about a few nights ago?" Turning as he spoke, Jack displayed a toothy equine grin, that would make even the British Aristocracy gasp in horror.

"Ah, 'tis merely the manner of the season, my friend", the caped wolfmorph said with a near-toothy grin. "For some strange reason, I am incapable of being melancholy at this most enjoyable time of year."

"Hay, merry Christmas! My furry, feral, friend," said Jack. As he pulled a small gift wrapped box from inside the piano bench. "It's not much, but when I saw it, well, I figured it was perfect for ya. Go ahead...open it!" Wanderer carefully pulled the tape from the wrapping, and unfolded the badly wrinkled, Santa Claus emblazoned paper. "It's the original version of Little Red Riding Hood. You know, where there's no hunter to rescue Little Red, and the wolf wins in the end. I found it in that cubby hole of a used book store, over on Broom street. Nice illustrations, huh?"

"You, sir, are a pip", Wanderer replied with a growling laugh. Then, sobering slightly, he sighed. "Unfortunately, I had no idea what present could possibly match the beauty of your musical artistry". A smile tugged at his muzzle, though, in a most suspicious way. "Now, are you up for a bit of music?"

"Haaw! Keep talking like that, and I'll get a big head," said Jack. Then, looking a little cross eyed, as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Hmm...on second thought, say no more, your wish is my command. If my honker grows any longer, my lips will be dragging on the keyboard. Name your tune!"

"Oh, another golden oldie, I'm afraid", Wanderer said with a faraway look in his eyes. "And not one most persons connect with Christmas. Do you know, 'It Was A Very Good Year'?"

"Yes, it was a very good year. Rydia finally accepted my offer of dinner and a movie, and...why are you looking at me like that? Sure, I can play that song by ear. I mean if I can't play by ear, who...shut up and play, got'cha."

Wanderer rolled his eyes as he turned to face the audience. Then, as Jack strolled his fingers through the opening bars of the old ballad, Wanderer breathed deeply, closed his eyes for a moment, and straightened his back. Then, with loving care, his muzzle brought forth words, caressing each one like a sweet kiss.

"When I was twenty-one ... It was a very good year ... It was a very good year For city girls That lived up the stair ... With perfumed hair ... That came undone ... When I was twenty-one."

Jack's usual grin slowly faded as Wanderer sang the opening stanza. Remembering life at twenty-one, before the martian flu had altered him, was sobering. It made the present, playing piano while a wolf-morph crooned, as old blue eyes never could, seem unreal. Jack turned his head to gaze at Wanderer. His large equine eyes looked tired, and he nodded slightly to Wanderer as the last notes of the bridge played out.

Then Wanderer's voice sang out soft and sweet, a faraway look in his eyes and a wistful smile on his face.

"And now the days grow short ... I'm in the autumn of the year ... And so I drink my life Like vintage wine >From fine old kegs ... >From the brim to the dregs ... Running sweet and clear ... "

And his voice fell into a stillness like a drop of honey as he smilingly bowed his head.

"It was a very ... good ... year ... "

Jack finished playing the bridge. Then he quietly closed the keyboard cover of the old upright piano, and he headed for the bar. There was an eerie silence for a long minute, before the normal undercurrent of clinking glasses, and muted conversations, returned. Finally, Jack spoke the words that had brought him comfort so many times before. "Donnie, I need a drink."

As Wanderer relaxed from his performance high and brought his head up, he noted Jack's retreat. Coming up behind his mulish friend as the gin arrived, he cocked his head in puzzlement. "Jack?"

Jack took a quick gulp from his drink, and forced a smile. "Wanderer! Wonderful performance. Someday your furry kisser will be featured at Carnegie hall! Of course by then it may be renamed carnivore hall."

His head still cocked, the lupine singer pressed on. "Is something wrong?"

Jack's smile evaporated when he found his bluff had failed. "Everything is wrong. You're a wolf-morph actor, who can only find work being type cast as Big Bad, and I'm an former engineer, who looks like an escapee from a cartoon. I'm playing piano in a bar on Christmas eve, because my family can't bear the sight of me. Worst of all, I'm just sober enough to remember what it was like to be twenty-one, and normal. You can see why it's not one of my favorites."

Wanderer shook his head with a smile. "Of course, Jack", he said as he sat on the next stool. "But you see, I was singing that song to remember. I mean, look at everything that's happened this past year ... Bailey and Ailynne fell in love, Donnie gets to see his daughter again, I've got a girlfriend, a pack, and a project ... not to mention the walk-on in Irma Vep ... and", he added with a serious look to his smiling eyes, "I have a very good friend who just happens to look like a mule. And that I wouldn't trade for anything."

Jack turned away, and facing the bar, he examined his reflection in the mirror. Then he took another sip from his drink, and made a pitiful little half bray, half sigh. "Haw, you're right. As years go, it's been purdy good. I was thinking of those that didn't find what they needed, like the people that fill the mission, and myself. Mostly of myself, and that ain't right."

Wanderer grinned unabashedly, remembering to cover his carnivore's cutlery just at the last moment. "Happens to the best of us", he growled in his husky baritone. "After all, we're only human." He grinned a bit more widely at the obvious incongruity.

Jack smiled, and his speech sounded resolute. "I'll make a better job of it next year." Now let's see if we can spread a little happiness at The Blind Pig, after all this is a special night. Let's make the best of what little remains of it. How about singing another song for us? Something up-beat, and filled with the Christmas spirit."

"Darn, and I was going to break Kurt Cobain's record for depressing music", the wolfmorph musician replied with a grin. "Okay, how about "Wake, O Earth"? Do you know that one?"

"Well, it's no 'I caught Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,'" sighed Jack, "But if you hum a few bars I can fake it." Haaw! Got ya! Jack took his place at the piano, and played a few introductory chords. Then he smiled, and nodded for Wanderer to begin.

"Ah-ah-ah, Jack", the lupine crooner said with a mischievous smile. "This time, you get to be the audience."

Jack was stunned. "You mean you're gonna sing it acapella? Now look, Wanderer, your voice is purdy good, but...you've got that look again. Yeah, OK, I'll shut up and sit down. Message received, loud and clear.

As his asinine friend settled into his seat, Wanderer nodded to the Lupine Boys at their table. At once, the one known as Wolfshead sprang from the table, carrying an old-time tape and CD player ... it couldn't have been made after, say, 1993.

"Ladies and gentlemen ... and everyone else", Wanderer began, "Tonight I am going to do the one thing you haven't heard me do before ... I am going to sing ... " A pseudo-drum-roll started as the more humanoid Lupines beat their paws on the table in concert, " ... a fast song."

The Lupines gasped in mock horror. "He'll never make it!", one of them cried aloud ... and fell into a clearly faked faint.

"That antique of his will never make it," grumbled Jack.

"Nonetheless", Wanderer growled through the growing chaos, "I shall persevere. And now ... ", he said with his voice dropping to a whisper, " ..... it begins."

With that, he pressed a button on the ancient cassette player. There was a glaring sound of tape hiss for a few moments, then a tap, tap, tap of a rhythm stick.

And Wanderer, with a silent prayer and a blare of his growling voice, began to blast out his first fast song at the Blind Pig.

"Wake, O Earth, Wake e-e-v'ry-y-thing."

, went the recorded drums.

"Wake and hear the joy we bring."
"Sing, Creation, sing tonight."
"Heaven and e-e-v'ry-y twin-kling light."

And with that, a full orchestra blared forth from the old machine, the volume a close match to Wanderer's all-out blast.

"Wake, O Earth, wake e-e-v'ry-y-thing, Wake and hear the joy we bring. Sing, Cre-a-tion, sing to-night, Heaven and e-ev'ry-y twin-kling light.

Gone the dark-ness All a-round us >From the E-earth i-is ris'n a son. Shi-ines a-all night though day. Be. Dooooone."

Jack turned to address Lupine boys, "Twenty bucks says he can't make it through the next part without his voice cracking." Without saying a word Wolfshead held up two ten-dollar bills.

His voice beginning to roughen from his attempts upon the no-man's land of the higher notes, Wanderer blinked back tears of pain as he rushed on.

"Hail O son, O ble-e-sse-ed light. Sent in-to the world, this night. Let thy love and heaven-ly pow'rs Shine in-to-o the-ese hearts of ours. Fo-or we know that thou-ou art tru-ly. Go-od and ma-an we-e do con-fess. Ha-ail O-o son of Righ-teous-ness."

Jack smiled. Money in the bank, he thought to himself. "Ya know that's the trouble with canned music! I could have transposed it to a key he could manage," boasted Jack. Making sure he spoke loud enough that the now fidgety Wolfshead would overhear him.

Wanderer quietly coughed to clear his abused throat as he felt the lining begin to swell from the strain. He knew he'd be pushing it with the final chorus, but he had to try.

"Wa-ake, O Earth, wake e-e-v'ry-y-thing, Wa-ake, and hear the joy we bring. Sing, Crea-tion, sing, to-night, Heaven and e-e-v'ry-y twin-kling light.

Gone the dark-ness all around us, >From the E-earth i-is risen a son. Shi-ines a-all night though day-y be-e do-ne."

The music rose to a crescendo as Wanderer blinked his streaming eyes and gratefully fell into the quiet space as the music disappeared, leaving only the percussion once more. The percussion and his aching voice, straining to sound happy.

Suddenly Jack stopped smiling. Crud, what if he breaks something. How's an actor supposed to act without a voice, he worried. That's what I get for betting on Christmas eve. Aaah, I'll have to give the money to the mission, well at least the twenty I'm getting from Wolfshead.

"On this night so bri-ight a-and clear, An-gels tell us no-ot to fear Clap your hands and lou-dly cry ... "

Then the percussion gave a thunderous clap, and the lupine singer gasped an extra breath as he strained to boom,

" ' Come ye chi-il-dre-en wake and rise!' Wake O Earth, wake e-e-v'ry-y-thing. Wa-ake and hear the joy-y we bring. Sing creation, sing to-night, Heaven and e-ev'ry'y twin-kling light."

And as the tape accentuated the end of each line with a cymbal crash, Wanderer strained to hold his voice together, the notes sounding harsh and strained in his ears as he prayed he was the only one who heard the terrible roughness emerging.

Jack rubbed a hand over his throat and swallowed hard. Dear Lord, I'll give all the money to the mission, if you'll only save what's left of his voice.

"Wa-ake O Earth, wake e-ev'ry-y-thing, Wa-ake and hear the joy-y we bring. Sing, Creation, sing, to-night, Heaven and e-e-v'ry-y twin-kling light."

And, his song finished, with hardly a crack, Wanderer spasmed into a ferocious coughing fit.

A smiling Wolfshead approached the appalled Jack. "Pay up," Wolfshead growled.

"Why sure! Here you go! Guess I can't win all the time," said Jack with a grin. As he put an arm around Wolfshead's shoulders and slipped him the twenty. Then, leaning close enough so he'd not be overheard, "and if Wanderer ever gets wind of this bet, I'll fix it so you can take yer fangs out for easy cleaning."

Wolfshead smile vanished. "Sure thing Jack, Like I'm the very soul of discretion, uh, Merry Christmas." Then he retrieved Wanderer's CD player from atop the piano, and returned with it to the lupine boys' table.

Wanderer's coughing had nearly subsided by the time Jack came over to give him a pat on the back. "Gee Wanderer! That was beautiful, and who'd a guessed you can still hit those high notes! It was truly inspirational! I feel like a weight was lifted from me." Jack signed for Donnie to set Wanderer up with a Coke, and plenty of ice. "Hay, it's almost closing time. What do you say, how about getting a bite to eat before we head home? I know a place that makes a great turkey and gravey sandwich!"

Wanderer's coughing suddenly increased in volume and force, the breath rasping as it was pulled through an opening that felt to him no bigger than a dime. Despite the tension in his muscles, despite his gasping attempts to draw breath, the spasms grew more and more violent, until the cough became a dry heave.

He's pulling my leg, thought Jack. "OK my furry fiend, enough theatrics! If I didn't know you better I'd swear you were going to cough up a lung," Jack chuckled. His expression of concern betraying his unsureness.

Suddenly, with a half-strangled gasp, and a single cough more ... the fit stopped.

Jack relaxed a little. Bigger than life, that's how he plays every part, Jack mused. "Gee, for a moment you really had me worried, Wanderer. I thought you really busted yer pipes!" Jack scratched one of his ears as he thought out loud, "You know, most heew-mans couldn't have sung that, you must have had a heck of a voice before ... you know. It'd be a crying shame If you didn't take care of what's left of it, yep, a crying shame."

Wanderer clutched his left side gently as he tried to speak. On the second try, the movement of his lips actually produced some sound. The result was dry and pained ... but it was a voice.

" ... I ... ... I should've ... known better. " He shuddered for a moment as he stifled a quick flurry of coughs. " ... ... Sorry."

"Say, you really did strain something didn't you? Hay Donnnie! Where's that Coke with the extra ice?"

Donnie suddenly appeared on the other side of the bar, his muzzle creased with what might have once been a frown as he pushed the large glass of Coke at the quietly spasming singer. With not another word, Wanderer scooped up the glass, and proceeded to pour the greater part of it straight down his muzzle. Then, after holding it in his closed mouth for a moment, he swallowed.

"Thanks, Donnie", he said in a slightly stronger voice. At the continued and worried presence of the bovine bartender, he sighed raggedly. "I'll ..... ... I'll be fine. Really."

"Wanderer, I just don't understand why you'd risk your career for a couple of minutes in the spotlight at The Blind Pig. What are you trying to prove," fumed Jack.

Wanderer smiled as tears began rolling down his furry face again. "It's okay, Jack", he said with a small smile. "I've ... ... done worse things and had it come back ... oh, that stings ... ", he said as he wiped his teary eyes with the back of his left paw.

Jack rolled his eyes, "Worse than this?" Taking the empty glass from his paw and setting it on the bar, Jack leaned a little closer to the still shakey Wanderer. "O.K. How long have you had problems with your voice like that, has it been getting worse? Come clean with me Wanderer, it'll be easy enough to pry the facts out of the lupine boys if I have to."

Wanderer chuckled, setting off another spate of coughs ... but coughs that were softer, and fewer of them. "Pardon. No, Jack, nothing like that. I was talking about the old days, back when I was still ordinary. I worked in this haunted house once that used petroleum-based fog. You spend a full night roaring your lungs out in that stuff, you need a full week off before you can do anything but roar. Ad a madduh ... " He snorted, suddenly, then clapped his paw to his nose. "Bladd. Doddie! Hab you god uh baber dowel bag deh?"

Donnie, seeing the problem, tore off two paper towels from the roll and handed it straight to Wanderer's remaining paw. Wanderer, for his part, immediately clasped one sheet between his knees and pulled, seperating the two ... then clapped one to his nose and blew.

Jack winced, as Wanderer unleashed a blast that even Satchmo would have envied. "You blow a mean horn, Wanderer!"

Wanderer sighed in relief as he took away the towel and used the spare to wipe his hands on. "Much better. Thanks, Donnie!" Then, turning back to Jack, "Happens every time my eyes water."

"Wanderer, call me a stuborn old mule, but I still want to know why you picked that song. It wasn't a spur of the moment affair, you had it cued up and ready to go. You planned on singing it all along, didn't you?"

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