Christmas in Apocalypse

by Karl El-Koura

He began to regret his decision to leave about five kilometers from the survivors’ camp, on what must have been the coldest night of one of the coldest winters he could remember. The boots whose soles had separated let in waves of snow, which melted and soaked his socks. To pass the time and remind himself that things could be worse, he thought of the many layers he wore, each in turn. Long johns, pajama pants, jeans for his lower body; t-shirt, two long-sleeves, a woolen sweater, and winter jacket for his upper body. A scarf wound round his neck and a toque for his head completed the ensemble, hastily put together in the dark so no one would see or hear him leave. He wore gloves but they were worn and had small tears in the fingertips that let in the blisteringly cold air; he kept switching the rusty saw from one hand to the other so his hands could take turns in his jacket’s pockets and hopefully stave off frostbite. But, for the most part, he was warm enough under all his clothes. Worst case, he might lose a toe or one of his thumbs on this whim, this spur of the moment adventure he’d undertaken by himself in the middle of the night, but he wouldn’t freeze to death. Probably.

Aboard the bus that had brought him and the other survivors to the repurposed military camp they now called home, he’d remembered passing a tree farm, with a sun-faded large placard advertising last year’s Christmas trees still on the lawn, its painted cartoon snowflakes striking a discordant look in the summer heat. The bus drove on for another fifteen or twenty minutes, from what he remembered. He’d figured ten kilometers, then, and he’d already walked a good five kilometers at least.

The snow covered the ground five to six feet most places. He tried to walk along the road, by positioning himself between imaginary lines drawn down the occasional road signs. He tried to step lightly, but his feet kept sinking into the snow, slowing his progress remarkably. Once his sinking foot hit something hard right away and he figured it was the roof of a car, abandoned on the road. He bent down and began to clear away the snow.

“Bad idea, little brother,” he heard, in the lilting voice of his dead sister.

He snapped straight up and looked all around, eyes straining to see in the darkness, head whipping in a three-sixty near-delirium. And there she was all of a sudden: on the side of the road, sitting on top of the power line as if she were a bird, hands gripping the line on either side, feet dangling below her. She wore the same outfit as when he’d last seen her, giving her a big hug before he got on the bus to Ottawa, the blue jean shorts and Johnny Cash Man in Black t-shirt she loved, but she didn’t seem to mind the cold. Her long brown hair fell over her shoulders.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, looking down at him. “Take a break in a warm car, yeah? Well, little man, that car isn’t as warm as you think. And you really don’t know what’s in there. You go in there and have a quick dodo, let me tell you—you never wake up, yeah?”

Lily and he were polar opposites, as if their parents had wanted to cover the gamut with their children. Lily was—had been—popular, fun, and alive to the world. Jimmy kept to himself and had few casual friends, let alone any real friends; he didn’t care too much what happened in the world; he listened to Lily vent about some war in this country and how horrible it was, which it was, or some natural disaster that had just struck that part of the world and what a tragedy that was, which it was. And sometimes he went to some of the things she helped organize, like fundraising dances where he always volunteered to DJ or coat check, anything that gave him an excuse not to mingle or dance. But he went to support her; he much preferred to be by himself. He spent most of his time watching YouTube videos and reading the web or books. He liked people, but found it exhausting to be around them. Except for Lily; she was as easy to talk to as himself. She almost never agreed with him about anything, but he felt she understood him enough to disagree with him.

“Are you real?” he managed to choke out, staring up at her.

Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head vigorously, the way she used to do when he said something out-of-this-world stupid.

“I wasn’t going into that car,” he said lamely, kicking snow back into the hole he’d started to dig. “I was just curious.”

“You lie to me, little man, you’re just lying to yourself.”

He looked up at his older sister and, although he knew she was a figment of his imagination, he took a moment to enjoy her presence.

“Take a picture,” she said. “It’ll last longer.”

“Could I?” He, in fact, had no pictures of his sister, his parents, or the life they’d lived. Everything had been digital, but his phone and his tablet had been washed away in the floods. Maybe somewhere, some server maintained the photos of his former life. Maybe one day he would return to the University of Ottawa, where he’d been starting a four week coding summer camp when the asteroids struck, and he’d find his phone, all dried out. He’d plug it in, give it a charge like a pulse from a defibrillator, watch it spark to life. And he’d thumb through the thousands of pictures stored in its unfaded memory.

“Nope,” his sister said.

“Lil—have I gone crazy?”

“Not exactly gone crazy,” she said, winking. “If you know what I mean.”

He laughed, his natural closed-mouth mhmm-mhmm-mhmm that she’d once described as a creaky train coming to a stop with rusty brakes.

“I know why you’re doing this,” she said, tilting her head down and looking at him through her thin eyebrows.

He shrugged. “I want a real Christmas tree. For the kids.”

“That’s why you’re doing this,” she agreed. “But it’s not why you’re doing it.”

“You’re impossible to talk to,” he said, which of course was less true of Lily than anyone else he’d ever known. “Will you walk with me?”

“I go where you go, little man,” she said, and jumped off the power line.

Lily and he used to love walks around their neighborhood. She’d be driving herself crazy cramming for some biology or math exam, decide she needed a break, and stomp to his room, fling the door open, saying, “Quick walk?”

He always said yes.

They often walked in silence, or talked about whatever was on either of their minds, and the two—silence or conversation—felt as natural as the other. The only time he felt uneasy was when she had a hidden agenda, like trying to get him to make friends or ask out a girl whom he was content to like from a safe distance.

They walked for a little while, then Lily revealed her agenda. “You think maybe you should head back?” She turned her head to look at him, gauge his reaction. “Before you die out here?”

“I’m fine,” he said, not returning her look in the hope she wouldn’t see he was lying. “This is important. I loved having a real Christmas tree. These kids deserve that too.”

“Why? Because of what you said to dad?”

He thought of keeping up the lie, but it was useless. “We had a deal,” he said, finally.

“I think a bunch of asteroids hitting the Earth lets you off the hook.”

Every year for as long as he could remember, on the first Saturday of December, Jimmy, Lily, their mom and dad would drive their SUV to Peterson’s Tree Farm early in the morning. They had a pancake breakfast with sausages and tons of maple syrup, then walked out to the tree farm and picked out the tree they would bring home that year. Their dad would cut it down, then carry it on his shoulders to the cashier about a kilometer away because he didn’t want to wait in line for the crowded tractor-pulled wagon. They’d bring it home, decorate it with their idiosyncratic ornaments, each one putting on its branches the ones they most identified with, then he and Lily would each spend hours lying underneath it for the rest of the month.

Every year they went to Peterson’s together, except for the last year, when Jimmy decided, on a whim, to be stubborn that day.

“Not up to it,” he’d said, when his dad had asked why he didn’t have his jacket and boots on. He still remembered the sound of their SUV’s large motor rumbling in the driveway, warming up.

His dad, already dressed top-to-tail in his toque and big boots, had closed the garage door and removed his gloves, holding them in one hand patiently. “Not up to what?”

Jimmy had stood awkwardly in the hallway. “Not worth the effort. Not worth the cost.”

“I’ll take care of the expense, don’t worry,” his dad had said playfully.

Jimmy had shaken his head. “Why do we need a real tree, anyway? Why can’t we just buy one at the store, save ourselves going through this rigmarole every year?”

“We don’t need a real tree. But it’s really something nice, isn’t it? Maybe that’s enough.”

“Not going,” Jimmy had said.

“Buddy, I like the rigmarole. I like the rigmarole with you. But I’m starting to sweat in here and I’m not going to argue with you. Just put on your stuff and come—or don’t.”

“Not going,” Jimmy had repeated, insistently, and his dad had stared at him for a little, then nodded, put his gloves back on and left.

He turned to look at his sister, or the ghost of his sister. “You’re going to tell me what heaven is like?”

“Nope. You’re going to turn back?”

“Nope,” he said, stubborn as ever. Even a worldwide catastrophe couldn’t change him.

“All right,” Lily said, starting to walk ahead of him, “then march on, march on!”

She picked up her feet in an exaggerated military march, as she used to do, stomping around the living room when they were much smaller, making him howl with delight.

He tried to keep up with her, but finally couldn’t go any further. The saw dropped from his hand, and he decided to join it on the ground. She stopped instantly and turned back to him.

“Better if you get up,” she said. “I’ll slow down.”

Reluctantly, his muscles aching and his fingers and toes numb, he forced himself to his feet, forced himself to pick up the saw, and followed her, resuming their more reasonable pace.

“Did you come out here to die?” Lily said suddenly, turning on him.

“What? No, of course not! Why would you say that?”

She gave him that same sideways look. “Not going swimmingly with your new family, is it?”

“They’re not my family!” he said. At least now his body felt a little thawed again, the anger warming him up. “They’re just a bunch of survivors, waiting for this winter to pass so they can go back to their homes, look for their own real families.”

“Maybe that’s what the government told you,” she said. “But no one who’s been evacuated is going back anywhere. Not for a long time. Everything’s destroyed or buried.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re gone. Mom and Dad are gone. I wouldn’t have anywhere to go back to.”

They walked in silence again, and finally Jimmy, now feeling sleepy on top of everything else, decided that no way could he go another step without a rest. The best idea was to lie down on the snow and pick up his journey in the relative warmth of the morning.

“What are you doing?” his sister said.

He knelt down, feeling four or five times his age, then fell back onto his padded butt and stretched out across the snow. The sky was dark blue and starry, the moon bright white.

“Hullo?” she said, insistently. “Look at me, little man.”

He groaned but Lily was relentless. He pushed himself up on his arms and looked for her—and there she was, hand to head, elbow resting on the exposed part of the Christmas tree sign, now half buried in snow.

“We’re here?” he called out.

Lily nodded, a beaming smile on her radiant face.

The year before, his parents and Lily had dragged their Christmas tree into the house, always a bit of a comic ordeal. Jimmy had been waiting for them upstairs, but now that they’d arrived, he’d stayed inside his room. He’d listened to them, laughing as they pushed and shoved the always oversized tree through their relatively narrow front doorway—a consideration that never seemed to occur to his father while they were out on the tree farm. A few times Jimmy had been tempted to wander out of his room casually, offer some help when he saw what they were up to. But they’d had it in before he could convince himself to do that. “Jimmy!” his dad had bellowed then, still out of breath from jamming the tree into the house by almost force of will. “Tree decorating!”

And just like that, the spell that had held him frozen, stretched out on his bed, staring up at the stippled ceiling, had been broken. Jimmy had emerged from his room, pretending he’d been napping, but his status with his dad and in the family had been restored—restored as if it had never been broken. They’d decorated the tree together, like they’d always done, and no one breathed a word of Jimmy’s petulant protest, until Jimmy himself said to his father later that night, as a way of broaching the subject, “Dad. How about next year I cut down the tree?”

His father had been slicing onions for dinner while Jimmy grated ginger. He’d looked over at him with a side glance and said, “I don’t know. You sure you’re ready?”

Jimmy had made the offer several times before, but his dad had always rebuffed him—Jimmy was too young; the last thing they needed was to rush to the hospital to get a surgeon to reattach their boy’s severed limbs; what would the other dads think, him putting his little man to such hard labor? and so on. Jimmy had only made the offer again as a way of signaling to his dad that this year’s refusal to accompany them was an aberration, and he’d been taken aback that his dad was actually considering it.

“Come on, Dad,” he’d said, finally. “I’m ready.”

“Okay, then.”

“What, really? Promise?”

“Yeah,” his dad had said. “I promise.”

Jimmy rolled over onto his knees, then dragged himself to his feet. “Let’s go cut down a tree,” he said to Lily.

With bellyfuls of pancakes, sausages, and syrup, he and his family used to take the wagon ride to the fields of Peterson’s Tree Farm, get off at the first stop and wander around, taking their time. Every year they went on one of the first Saturdays in December, always very early in the morning, and usually the air was crisp and the sun shining bright. They examined the trees, debating among the four of them the different merits—the height, the symmetry, the health, the shape—of each until they’d narrowed down the list of candidates.

But this was late on a freezing December night, any wagon that had been here had been washed or hoarded away, and Jimmy had no interest in prolonging his visit to this abandoned tree farm. He spotted a fir tree near a snow-buried playground, with the top of a castle connected to a slide, and what must have been a swing set, still visible. Probably a tree that wouldn’t have been for sale in normal times.

He dropped down beside it, held the saw against the lowest part of the trunk he could reach by brushing away some of the snow, and began to move it back and forth. This was what he’d been anticipating—dreading—for a year now, except the anxiety had been about the audience that would have been watching him struggle with a saw. There was no audience now. Even Lily had gone off to explore the children’s castle.

The saw slipped from the trunk, so he tried again, pressing the back of the blade into the tree to force it to bite. He worked the saw slowly, then faster, but neither seemed to work.

His back was wet with sweat, which now felt cold, and his hair under the toque felt damp. Resting on his side, he allowed his tired head to drop to the ground and closed his eyes. He didn’t know what he was doing. The saw blade was rusty and so was the curved metal spine it attached to, which he found hard to grip properly. There were better saws in the camp, but they were being used and he didn’t want the camp to lose any of them if he failed to return—like the snowshoes he had also opted not to take. No one would miss this saw.

Along the way he’d wished he had tried to grab a pair of snowshoes, and now he wished he had brought one of those sharper saws too. But anyway, the poor tree hadn’t hurt anyone—what business did he have cutting it down?

“You done?” Lily said. She’d wandered back from her examination of the half-buried playground.

“Done like dinner,” he said without moving.

“Great,” she said, kneeling down over him. “Let’s get you back to camp.”

“This was important to me, Lil,” he said, closing his eyes. “But you’re right, what does it matter?” He opened his eyes again, stared into his dead sister’s brown eyes. “Nothing really matters, right?”

Lily stared back for a while, then took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “How many kids in your camp?”


“Nine kids,” she said, nodding. “And you think a real Christmas tree would make them happy?”

“Remember how much we liked it?”

She nodded.

“We lay under there for—what? Hours, right? Just looking up through the needles and the dancing lights of the ornaments, smelling the—terpenes, isn’t that what dad used to call it?”

She nodded again.

Jimmy pushed himself up on his elbows. “Yeah, Lil, I think it might make them happy for a little while.”

“Sometimes that’s enough,” she said.

It took him the better part of an hour, working the rusty saw back and forth over the tree trunk. At one point he thought the saw wasn’t cutting anymore, but he kept going, his arms working as if of their own volition, having figured out a good grip on the handle now. At another point, he imagined that his dad was standing by, and not judging him for the slow progress, but proud of him for sticking with it, proud that this tradition that had been handed to him from his own father was being carried on by Jimmy.

Finally, exhausted, he let go of the saw, hardly able to believe he hadn’t cut all the way through the trunk yet.

“Give it a scare, Jimmy,” Lily said.

He was on his knees now, and gripped both sides of the trunk and pushed, and the tree came toppling down.

He jumped to his feet and gave a holler of elation.

The deal Jimmy had made with his father that early December day had proven costlier than he’d anticipated. For the rest of that year (until the asteroid hit), any time Jimmy had tried to shirk a chore, his dad had given him a long look and said, “You know, a guy who’s too tired to shovel a bit of snow off the driveway—I’m not sure that’s the guy I want cutting down my Christmas tree” or “You can’t peel potatoes but you think you can cut down trees, huh?” Jimmy had earned the right to take down that year’s Christmas tree a hundred times over—more, probably. He had relished the thought. Not just cutting it down (because a part of him did worry if he could do it after all, despite his many assurances) but of being freed from this debt he’d unwittingly handed over to his dad.

The thought of having finally paid out the debt had put a smile on his face as he surveyed the moonlit prone tree, but the smile, and his elation, vanished with the next images that flashed in his mind: an incredibly large asteroid somehow knocked off its course in the relative safety of the belt outside Mars, hurtling towards the Earth before anyone realized what was happening, splitting into dozens of large pieces and striking land and sea with incredibly destructive force. Toronto, where his family had lived, and where he would’ve been if not for the university-level programming course he’d wanted to take, suffered a direct hit. But even cities nowhere near an impact zone weren’t spared—earthquakes, landslides, mudslides, tsunamis, flooding, throat-stinging lung-choking dust that took months to settle. With one wayward, oversized space rock, humanity had been all but wiped out.

Was it really worth the trouble? he wondered. Did anything matter?

And yet—it had to matter. An adult could lay down his head and give up the ghost in a dead world. It might be cowardly, he granted, but it might also be the most rational decision given the circumstances. But children changed all of that. A child could not make a decision to die; a child accepted the world as they found it. And it was his job, and those of all the other adults, to make the children’s lives as good as they could possibly be. It wasn’t a choice anymore; the decision was to go on, surviving, and trying to make their lives better however they could.

He walked over to the bottom of the fallen tree and picked it up. It was heavier than he would have thought, and seemed bigger now than when it had been sticking up into the night air.

“No chance you can help, huh?” he said to Lily.

“Just with moral support and motivational sayings. Keep going! You got this! You’re the man, cool guy! Look at him go, wow!”

He dragged the tree for a while, then he carried it over one shoulder, which meant he could move much quicker but his strength gave out faster. He’d received a second wind after starting back, but that blessing seemed to have dissipated. Still, he forced himself on, dragging, carrying, sometimes it seemed like he was even pushing the tree forward, all the while leaving behind him a trail of needles.

“The journey back never seems as long as the journey there,” Lily was saying, but Jimmy felt his gas tank was completely on empty.

He let the tree drop from his shoulder, then crouched down and leaned his back against it. “I’m just going to have a quick nap,” he said.

“I don’t think so, little man.”

“Oh, no,” he said suddenly. “You know what I forgot?”

“The saw,” Lily said with realization.

“The saw,” Jimmy said, banging his head against the tree trunk with a thud.

“It’s okay,” Lily said. “It’ll be there for next year.”

Jimmy smiled, let out a breath, looked at his sister, who flashed him a smile in return. “I go back to camp, you disappear, right, Lil?”


“Then I’ll stay here. With you.”


“You’re dead, you can’t tell me what to do anymore.”

“I’m your big sister,” she said. “I can always tell you what to do. Now get up and pick up the tree—or leave it, see if I care. But you’re getting yourself back to that camp before you freeze to death, yes?”

Groaning out loud, he forced himself up, forced himself to pick up the tree, and began moving it again, closer and closer to the camp, now by positioning it on one shoulder and dragging it along the ground, now on the other shoulder, now up in the air across both, now duck-walking backward, pulling it along. At one point he watched the detritus trail of evergreen needles stretching back as far as he could see in the dawning light and thought, maybe, that the tree had been getting lighter and lighter as it shed them.

I’m done, he thought to himself once, twice, three times, as trial runs before saying them out loud, but forced himself to go on just a little longer. But finally, the end of the line came for him and he had to say it: “I’m done, Lil.”

“Little man,” she said, but her voice wasn’t reproachful or angry. “How come you always give up right when you’ve accomplished your goal?”

He didn’t know what she was talking about, but he was too tired to think about it. He felt the tree slip from his shoulder, then he began to fall too—but Lily rushed forward and caught him.

“Where have you been?” she said, and the voice wasn’t Lily’s at all, but Jana’s, Jana who had always been kind to him but he’d figured that was her job as the government’s liaison to their camp. “You all right, Jim?” she was saying. “We’ve been worried sick.”

He looked up and five others from the camp were standing behind her, just outside the camp gates, a search party put together for his benefit when he hadn’t shown up for breakfast in the mess hall, and his empty bed was discovered in the men’s barracks.

Jana wasn’t Lily, but she was a living human being, a warm human being, and Jimmy hugged her tightly and began to weep. He tried to mumble something, but she shushed him, hugged him back for a little while, then turned her head to ask someone to help her carry him inside.

Someone strong picked him up and threw him over their shoulder, but Jimmy was already surrendering to sleep. Again he tried to mumble something—an explanation, an apology, an excuse—but wasn’t sure if he was making any sounds.

He slept for hours and would’ve gone much longer if his stomach hadn’t rumbled insistently. He sat up and looked around the barracks, but it was empty. Sunlight poured in through the windows, and outside he could hear the sounds of kids chasing each other. He listened for a while and though he’d often thought that he hadn’t tried to get to know this community, he could identify the kids—Ralph and Amy, ten and eleven—just from the sounds of their shrieks of laughter when one or the other was caught. He put on his boots and jacket and trudged, half-asleep, across the packed snow to the mess hall.

Ralph broke off from chasing Amy and came running up to Jimmy instead, intercepting him on his way to the hall, which had a fully stocked pantry of canned goods that sounded like heaven right now. “Hi Jimmy,” Ralph said, peering at him from the several rounds of scarf his mom had wrapped around his neck and face.

“Hi Ralph. How are you?”

Ralph shrugged, then said, “Why did you get a real Christmas tree?”

“Did they put it up?” Jimmy said.

Ralph nodded his heavily insulated head. “In the hall,” he said. “We collected lots of things we can use as decorations, but they said we have to wait for you to wake up. They said you were very”—he paused to remember the word he’d overheard—“irresponsible.”

Amy had joined Ralph now and both stood glaring up at him. Accusingly? Curiously?

“I guess it was pretty irresponsible of me,” Jimmy said.

“But why do we need a real Christmas tree?” Amy said, as if he’d ignored the important point of their inquiry to focus on something largely irrelevant.

“I guess we don’t need it,” Jimmy said, crouching down to look them both in the eyes. “But it’s really something nice, isn’t it? And sometimes that’s enough. Now,” he continued, standing up, “who wants to come in and decorate it with me?”

They both wanted to so much that they pushed ahead in front of him.

The tree had been positioned at the front of the hall, opposite the kitchen and pantry. And even without lights or decorations, it still looked very beautiful and majestic; and even before he could lie underneath it, close his eyes and take in a deep breath, the tree, like magic, had already begun to bring to his mind memories of Christmases past.

Karl El-Koura lives with his family in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). He is the author of over one hundred short stories and articles, which have been published in various magazines since 1998. In 2012 he independently published his debut novel Father John VS the Zombies, and in 2015 he published the sequel, Bishop John VS the Antichrist.

About “Christmas in Apocalypse”, Karl says, “A city boy, I grew up with plastic Christmas trees. My wife grew up in rural Ontario with real Christmas trees, scouted and cut down from her own backyard, since she lived on an almost 200-acre tree farm. When we were married, I insisted there was nothing wrong with artificial Christmas trees and she insisted that driving out to a local tree farm, scouting for the perfect tree, cutting it down, putting it up on our car, and driving it home to try to shove it through our front door, would become a beloved yearly tradition for our new family as it had been for hers. It turned out she was right. Most of the story is entirely made up, of course; but a few elements, including Jimmy’s anxiety about cutting down a tree for the first time with an audience, are true to life.”

“Christmas in Apocalypse” by Karl El-Koura. Copyright © 2022 by Karl El-Koura.

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