Red pills for Christmas

It was a world of snow. The black asphalt road was now soft and crystalline—so was the murky night, illuminated only by the snowflakes suspended in the air, as if the entire world was adrift in the clouds. The shops lining up the street have all gone blackout, their windows dormant in the darkness that the dim orange light from the streetlamps couldn’t light up. No colored lights, no Christmas trees—it was a desolate part of town where the merry Christmas spirit doesn’t visit on this special eve.

Through the white veil, a figure emerged, treading past the lonely lampposts. Closer and closer he came—he was clutching to a bottle of liquor in one hand, and the other hand clenched tight to the front piece of his overcoat. He was walking amazingly steadily, considering the state of drunkenness he was in. The streetlamps cast the trail of footprints he left behind in shadows, lengthening and shortening rhythmically as he moved past each of them.

He stopped at a bus station that stood in the snow like an ancient temple, waiting for its pilgrims. The station bathed the faint red-and-green aura from the Christmas lights lining its edges, the only sign of the holiday in the area. He walked under the roof and collapsed on the bench. The simple move seemed to have taken all his strength and sanity. He took a sip from the liquor bottle and stretched himself.

How long do I have to wait? He wondered as he looked around. No sign of his bus. Okay, I’ll keep on waiting. He assured himself.

A gust blew by, rubbing a few snowflakes against his face. Then he heard music. At first, it was lying beneath the noise of the wind; but as the howling faded away, the melodies grew more conspicuous.

He looked around. The music was coming from behind him. He stared in that direction for a few seconds and located a CD store opposite the bus stop. He remained immobile at first, but eventually, he stood up, wiped the snow off his coat, and marched towards the door. He pushed the glass door open and, as he groped the walls and found the switches, turned on the lights. Next to the shop window stood a grand piano, gilded by the spotlights, rendering it in a surreal atmosphere. The music was pouring out from that piano.

He felt his heart pounding as he approached it. The music became fainter until it was completely gone when he stood in front of the keyboard. He laid his index finger on a key and cautiously pressed it down. A clear note filled up the empty chamber, emanating light brighter than the pale fluorescent lights. It flickered in the winter night like a small spark of flame, whose warmth raced through his nerves, then quickly dissipated into the cold air. He quivered.

He sat down on the piano bench and set his hands on the keys. Tentatively, his right hand moved to play out the same tune summoning him. A plain triad, going 5-6-7, 5-6-7—simple G major. A mysterious force drove him to play it over and over again. He heard the tinkling of bells, going jingle-a-jingle—they went across the sky like snow fairies. Stars opened their eyes one by one, suddenly immersing the lonely street in a genial aura of starlight. With each sweep of the scale, the light pulsated, the bells jingled, and there came some distant laughter, from carefree angels, they must be.

He smiled as he looked out through the shop window at the twinkling stars. The world is working its miracles on him, in this night when all magic becomes reality. His fingers danced on the keyboard to add some more motifs, turning the simple triad into an intricate prelude. He heard the door creaking open. A flux of almond fragrance drifted in, along with the laughter of an old couple. Those were his parents, he immediately recognized. There came the noise of dragging chairs; then claps and cheers. His father shouted, “Bravo! Bravo!” in his heavy accent. He grinned as his hands wove the notes.

Four more bars of the prelude, then an ascending scale that levitated the music to the first theme. “Swoosh—bang”—Fireworks bloomed on the star-embellished velvet night sky, the explosions almost masking away the piano. Red, green, yellow, white—one after another, they interwove colorful threads until the little CD shop, with the neighboring houses, was enclosed under a dome of blinding light.

He was watching the fireworks in awe when the blow of a horn pierced through the splattering. Above the buildings opposite the street, the dome opened up a slit, exposing the black background; three figures were hovering in midair, their backs all facing him. He saw them whispering to each other as they stood there solemnly, their curly hair emitting a faint glow, their hands pointing towards the far horizon. They were bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, he knew for sure—but did they have gifts for him? Did he deserve any gift? Before he heard an answer, the figures disappeared, leaving behind three brightly shining stars.

The melody flowed towards the second verse. The door opened again, this time welcoming several boisterous young men crowding through the tiny opening. One gave a brotherly pat on his shoulder, and there came more noise of dragging chairs. He heard the pop of a cork, then fizzing sounds—it was a champagne opened, not beer, not any liquor that had accompanied him for so long. It was a bottle of champagne fizzing with jubilation. The men laughed and cheered, “John, John, it’s time for celebration!” Guitars and basses soon started to accompany his piano solo. One, obviously drunk and half-insane, started singing out of tune. Everyone made fun of him, but the drunken man took no notice.

The buildings went alight one by one. Their Christmas lights flickered red and green, little chandeliers of hope in the dark of night. The stream of lights flowed all the way down the street, down the hill, towards the far shoreline where the city meets the sea. He had a feeling that it was a divine road paved exclusively for him, late when the whole city was asleep.

A crescendo scale, then fortississimo whacking of the same chord several times, leading the way to the second chorus. Music was running riot. He leaned forward on his seat, fingers pressed tight against the keys. His blood was ignited, his veins circulated with fire. The heat resurrected his long-stiff body, making him feel the vibrant spirit of life again. Tonight, he had everything, right here, right now, in this room filled with the aroma of roasted turkey and champagne, with clangs of glasses and people telling each other the most terrible of jokes. An old man’s voice echoed in his ears: “Live with gratitude and cherishing. Live every day like a gift.”

He couldn’t stop his fingers—he mustn’t. His soul was poured into his fingertips and flowed onto the keys. He was Karen dancing in her red shoes; he was the little match girl, striking matches one after another. He had the feeling that the moment he stopped playing, all the joy would be gone, vanish’d into the air, melted as breath into the wind. If it were a dream, then let himself sleep forever, he prayed.

End of the second chorus. With the hit of the last accented note, all the bustling atmosphere suddenly froze. Everyone halted their movement, their hands stopping in midair. Their heads turned uniformly towards the door as if eagerly anticipating someone. Only the bridge silently played. One man’s announcement broke the silence: “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome the best part—” A stream of cold air slipped past his neck. He turned around and saw, as the man opened the door with a gesture of “welcome”, the girl coming in. Her cheeks, half-buried in the white wool scarf, was blown red, the rosy blush on her snow-white skin only adding to her breathtaking beauty.

The smothering quietness broke into a huge wave of applause. The drunken man, sitting up on the couch from his sleep, called out, “O, that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!”

That was the moment when the last chorus arrived with all its affection and bursting vitality. The girl took off her down coat, sat next to him on the bench, and started singing to the melody. The crowd immediately followed along.

Oh, Christmas lights
Light up the street
Light up the fireworks in me
May all your troubles soon be gone
Those Christmas lights, keep shining on

The music concluded in the last major chord. His fingertips still lingered on the keys, his head bent low, his heart pounding, his mouth opened wide trying to catch his breath. He heard himself laughing deep inside. The roof was almost torn off by the storm of stomping and cheering. He had never been more alive.

And the next moment, everything fell back to pitch-black. A gust of wind blew in through the open door, sobering him up. He quivered. Where did all the people go? He looked around in puzzlement. Where is this place? His mind was like a kite fluttering wildly in a storm. No more music. No more light. He was just lying under hangover in a CD store, deserted on this Christmas eve.

He stood up from the chair behind the cashier. The tiny shop was crowded with shelves of CDs—no windows, no piano, no spotlights. He went out of the door. The snow was still falling, the bus stop still lonely and silent. He sat down again at the bus stop. Falling snowflakes blanketed his footprints, the rooftop, and every inch of the earth, leaving behind only a soft, crystalline, unsullied layer of white. It was a world of snow again. He still waited for the bus to come.


Christmas lights was this one song that I once promised to play for a girl at Christmas but didn’t get a chance to. Plus, I wasn’t able to purchase a tenth-anniversary vinyl version of this song, so I was pretty upset. (It cost quite a fortune anyway.) This morning, I received a marvelous A Rush of Blood to the Head vinyl record as Christmas present from that girl. Well, in return, here is how I would play this song for her—not on the piano, but on paper. I hope she likes it.

Red pills are by no doubt a tribute to the Matrix. Last time, when I wrote Blue pills and a birthday, someone asked me if blue pills had anything to do with the movie. My answer back then was no—they just referred to the anti-depression drug. But the idea got the point since that story was certainly meant to be dreamy and fantastical. So this one hopefully gets soberer. Recently there have been some political claims about “taking the red pill”; well, I have no interest in such business. This story is about some personal feelings, about how eventually everyone has to come back to reality. This is also another story with elements of Christianity, which has proven to be a challenge for me.

I almost wasn’t able to finish this and had to leave the draft to someone else who would help me. But then I said to myself, “Dude, it’s Christmas!”, so anyway, I did make it. In addition, I made a minor last-minute edit to the ending. Everyone, have yourself a merry little Christmas!