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Sean Padraic McCarthy portrait

Excerpts of “An Empty Sky,” a short story by Massachusetts writer Sean Padraic McCarthy  from the 2020 Open issue of Passager.
6 minutes


In its Issue 68, Passager published a short story by Massachusetts writer Sean Padraic McCarthy titled “An Empty Sky.” Here are some excerpts.

Carter took Lyla’s hand and started down the path beneath the archway of colored lights . . .

. . . The carols stopped as soon as they entered the building, sealed off outside, and the heat, the warmth, hit them with a rush as the door swung shut. The lights in the room were bright, and the room was decorated with trees and lights and elves and snowmen and wreaths. A model of the park, complete with the train that traveled about the perimeter was set up against the far wall, and just past the restroom was a green felt carpet, and a large high back chair, looking like a throne. A camera with a tripod stood before it. The chair empty, and the photographer nowhere in sight. There were stacks of wrapped presents, tied with ribbons. Props, Carter thought. Empty boxes.

It had to be too late. The room almost looked like a stage set, in between the plays, waiting for the players return. Carter heard a noise, and suddenly a snow machine turned on, shooting up fake snow into the sky to fall upon the train set and the miniature village.

“Where’s the old man, Daddy?” she suddenly asked.

“What old man?”


Carter listened for noise. Something, anything. “Maybe he’s taking a break.”

“In the potty?”


Lyla looked at the empty chair again. “So he doesn’t pee his pants.”

There was noise then from a room out back, the door marked for employees. A cough, and then a muffled curse. Lyla gazed up at Carter.

“It’s him,” she said.

But when the door opened the man who came out wore no red suit, no white beard. His face was red though, hardened by drink or working in the elements, and he wore a blue trucker’s vest over a sweatshirt and overalls, all stained with either grease or soot. Something black. He wore a knit cap, too, the old New England Patriots logo — Pat Patriot down in a three-point stance — on the front. He was a big man with a barrel chest, and ice blue eyes. He had to be in his late fifties, early sixties.

“He’s a dirty man, Daddy,” Lyla said. “He must live in a dirty house.”

“. . . Maybe he came down the chimney” [Carter said.]

The man wiped his hands with a rag, and raised his chin as his eyes caught sight of them and he started across the room. “We were just about to close up in here, folks,” he said.

“We’re looking for Claus,” said Lyla.

“Santa Claus?” the man said.

Lyla nodded.

The man stopped and leaned over, bringing his eyes to Lyla’s. “Well, he was here, but he had to go. A lot of work for him to do tonight. It’s the busiest night of the year for him, little lady . . .

“He’s going to bring me a Tickle Me Elmo,” Lyla said.

“Oh, I saw his bag, and he has a lot of Tickle Me Elmos this year,” the man said. “The elves were coming and going with them. You seem like a really nice little girl, so I bet one was yours.”

Carter thought he caught the faint smell of booze, but couldn’t be sure, and what was more, he couldn’t blame the guy. Working Christmas Eve, the park empty and cold.

“And I bet Santa has a nice snow shovel to give your Daddy, and maybe some pretty perfume to give your Mummy,” the man continued.

Lyla smiled. “He can’t.”

“Well, why not?” the man asked.

“Because she’s dead,” said Lyla.

The man hesitated a moment, mouth open.

“Well, I guess Santa will just have to give her present in heaven then,” he said.

Light displays were set up throughout the bogs. Snowmen, elves, Santas, and reindeer, candy houses, Christmas trees, and characters from Disney, most of them appearing to move as they blinked on and off.
Carter pointed each one out as it came into view, and Lyla would smile, and then look back off towards the sky, the stars bright in the vast, cold darkness. It was a beautiful winter sky, Carter thought, perfect for Christmas Eve.

He kissed the top of Lyla’s head. “It’s a good thing the sky is empty tonight, that will make it easier for Santa Claus.”

Lyla was breathing slowly now, her eyes beginning to close.

“The sky is never empty, Daddy,” she whispered. “That’s what makes it beautiful.”

. . .

Excerpts from Sean Padraic McCarthy’s short story “An Empty Sky,” which Passager published in its Issue 68.

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