“Having a jolly ol’ time?” My older sister Janice hits me on the back of my head with a pink folder as she runs past.
“Hey,” I yell after her, my hands tightening around my own baby blue folder. She smiles teasingly, moonwalking easily across the pine wood.
“Don’t ruin Christmas for everyone.” I try to move to chase her, but crossing the hall suddenly feels a daunting task. The family portraits stare down at me, their faces cast in menacing shadows. A draft whispers about my ankles as I take a careful step, my eyes glued to a wicked looking woman more corpse than human. The board creaks.
I leap back. My socks give way and I go windmilling back. Just as I grab the banister, the entry carpet slides. The ground catches me none too softly. I hear my sister’s cackle echoing from the portrait hall. Her feet seem to glide forward. Clad in Christmas tree socks, they mock me. My face burns, hot, embarrassed, angry. “Go fly a kite.”
She squats down, I won’t meet her eyes. “Stop being such a scrooge.” She says in a serious voice. I glance up, my body tense. She’s frowning; Exaggerated disappointment masks her face.
“Or else you’ll see ghosts.” My skin prickles and I flinch. Janice whacks me with her folder again and steps back quickly, not that I could hit her if I tried. She’s back to cackling.
“It’s true,” My mother says, spooking me a second time. I rush to her and bury my face in her sweater. She looks at me with concern, the corners of her mother twitching like she really wants to smile.
I glare at her, as she gushes. “My Emory’s such a cutie.” She plants a kiss on my head, and mad tears come to my eyes. Her smile only seems to get bigger. “It’s not fun being the baby of the family. Is it?” I nod, and my mother seems like she might melt. She presses a hand to her face. “What did I do to deserve such a cute ten-year-old?—oh right! I was telling you your big big sister’s baby’s due in only a month.”
“That’s right.” My dad peeks his head next to my mother’s face. They both look down on me, a pout squarely fixed on my face. “We need to pick them up before the snow gets worse.” He glances at the warped glass of the front door. “I can’t even see the car.”
My mother lets go of me to move towards the door, I’m all forgotten. So I forget my fear, climb the stairs, and slam the door loudly. I tuck my knees between my arms—why does my family have to come here? To this house, and for Christmas. My jaw feels tight and I feel like the lava-man action figure I want for Christmas, steam curling off of my head.
I don’t want to listen, but I do anyway. The heavy steps of boots, the hurried questions of finding the car keys, and a single call up to me to behave, before the rattle of the door closing and the distant warble of the motor. Goosebumps run down my skin at the silence, I have the sudden urge to chase the car, tell them I want to go with, don’t leave me in this creepy house.
In response my eyes flick to a spider winding it’s way to the floor. Well-before it makes contact, I’m out the door, down the stairs, into the only welcoming room of the house: The still warm kitchen.
“Hello, Emory.” A voice croaks. I whip back to find my grandmother, a mug of some liquid the color of the floor gripped as if she planned on pouring it. Almost as creepy as her house, my grandmother has the kind of eyes that pierce to your very soul. She didn’t even flinch at my turn. Setting down her mug with her eyes continually fixed on me, she smiles. The line is uncomfortably long, too long for her face, it might have been cute as a kid, but now framed by wrinkles she might as well be the big bad wolf in disguise.
I give a polite smile, that doesn’t reach my eyes and reach for a cookie. “Emory dearest, go greet the guests.” My grandmother says, this time not meeting my questioning look.
“What gues—?” The eerie toll of the bell fills the cold halls. “Oh.” I look back at my grandmother. She peels an orange, stabbing a manicured blood-red nail into the flesh more aggressively than seems necessary.
I pass holly that reminds me of funeral homes, reused tinsel with a black section where the paint has peeled off. I keep my eyes firmly glued to the target in front of me. The front door where I can already see the figure of a blond woman in a blue jacket, and another figure all in black; male or female—impossible to tell.
I grip the doorknob the cold metal giving me goosebumps. “Hello,” I say, the tremor clear to everyone but me.
The larger figure, who is actually a polished woman in a strange floral print, leans forward, some strands escaping from her hairdo behind her neck. “Why hello Emory, you’ve grown so much” The door squeaks, I recoil in fear.
“Who, who are you?” I ask, wondering if I’ll be strong enough to close the door on them. No that’s stupid. They’ll just break the glass.
“I’m Emmerson, you were named after me.” She replies cheerily, her face is rosy and round and she kind of looks like my mother. Or grandmother, I step back as the smile warps in my mind into a long stretch of shark teeth.
“Can we come in?” She asks sweetly like she has all the time in the world to wait in the cold. I shiver, my knuckle white from gripping the door. A hand lands on my shoulder, I give a yelp only to find it’s my grandmother. Her expression normal-sized.
“Of course Aunt Emmerson, and who is this you’ve brought?” She says, her hand finding its way back to my shoulder.
Aunt Emmerson pushes into the entry room, the girl walks behind shyly. She nods at us, only after Emmerson sets down her bag, she sets down her bag, then pulls off her boots, she pulls off her boots, etc. I can’t figure out if it’s politeness or the blond woman has no idea what she’s doing.
“My car broke down the way here, the ancient thing. This lovely angel, Marie, picked me up. She’s going to surprise her parents for Christmas.” Aunt Emmerson beams during her account as if she were showing off her own daughter.
“I was supposed to visit after final exams are finished, but I just couldn’t wait. The most festive time of the year, does that make sense?” Marie pushes her blond hair around in the air and without fail it falls back to her shoulder. Her sentences rush into one another. Except where Aunt Emmerson made it seem commanding, Marie sounded desperate yet hopeful.
“It totally does, there should be lights and singing and laughter,” I said, only to receive a squeeze to my shoulder.
Marie smiled at me, her smile almost too big for her face. She mouthed thank you to me as Aunt Emmerson clapped her hands together. “Oh, yes—You’ll never guess who Marie’s parents are. Do you remember your husband’s line of the family?”
My grandmother leaves my shoulder and guides Aunt Emmerson towards the kitchen “Let’s talk about this over some hot chocolate. I can’t leave guests out in this cold house.”
“Cold house please, this was where we used to play with our rag dolls come Christmas day.” Aunt Emmerson says, she runs her fingers across a decorative shelf built into the wooden corner.
“Those days have long passed, the fire stove doesn’t burn as it used to.” My grandmother replies. “Sorry, Marie.”
“No worries, it’s not something some heavy blankets can’t fix,” Marie says. She lifts a length of the old tinsel, “I love the pattern on this, you should place it higher though. Choking hazard”
“Of course.” The water starts to boil with pops and crackles from the instant boiler. Aunt Emmerson frowns at the machine, digging her nails into the side of a mug with a photograph printed on the side. I notice there is dirt caked under her nails.
“The fire stove really doesn’t burn like it used to.” Aunt Emmerson clicks her tongue when the water is poured onto the premade packet of hot chocolate. “What you can just buy everything in a box now?”
“It’s like getting presents all year—That’s fine.” Marie waves away my grandmother from adding more than a half glass worth of hot water, instead of filling it to the brim with whip cream. I grin at the adult acting more like a child than I ever had. The kitchen seems friendly again, the warm orange of the walls filling me with joy. The banter feels more like Christmas than anything prior.
“About the car, do you want me to call a service? Or you can go when it’s light”
“I hate to admit the new world is better, but do you have jumper cables. I hate to leave my car out there like that and I know someone is expecting Marie.”
“It’s really fine, don’t worry about me so much.” Marie waves off the attention. Half her hot chocolate is missing. Weird I didn’t see her drink it.
“It’s in the garage.” My grandmother says. “Emory can you go get it.”
I swallow, the only way to get to the garage is through the hall of portraits. Marie looks at me with an expression bordering on despair. “Sure.” I nodded, and with a final swig of my hot chocolate, I slip into the hall.
The holly balanced in the nook Aunt Emmerson pointed out is friendlier this time around, and the old tinsel does have some rustic charm to it. I wonder why I didn’t notice it earlier. The carol I’m dreaming of a white Christmas comes to mind and I hum softly, okay with the echo.
That is until the portrait hall comes up, their faces still run invisible spiders up my spine. I stop humming and start a sort of chant. “Jumper cables, jumper cables, jumper cables.” The floor creaks, but I continue. Do it for Aunt Emmerson, do it for Marie. I glance at a portrait, it resembles Aunt Emmerson so clearly that any doubt she wasn’t part of the family vanishes. With renewed determination, I keep walking.
Magically the hall passes and I enter the garage. Despite the temperature drop my spirits are totally lifted, not even the numerous blind spots can dissuade me from my task.
I go to the box my father had used just this morning and take out the black and red wiring. I don’t flinch when the box shuts with a click, or when a tock comes from the pipe. Once again I feel like lava-man, just this time I’m the superhero.
Back in the entry, Marie and Aunt Emmerson look just about ready to leave. “The jumper cables!” Aunt Emmerson exclaims planting a wet kiss on my forehead.
“So you’re leaving already?” I ask, clutching the jumper cables.
“Sadly,” Before my eyes are glued to the floor, she lifts my chin up. “Can we trade you a Christmas cable for those jumper cables.” Aunt Emmerson steps back, in her hands, a baby blue folder labeled Christmas Carols.
“I’ll add my voice,” Marie says, picking up my sister’s pink folder.
I nod, maybe this song won’t end with my sister blaming me for ruining Christmas. From the first note, they are off-pitch. Aunt Emmerson bellows the song, getting loud where she should be getting higher pitched. Marie has a fine voice, but she messes up the lyrics. I cringe as she sings “you’re hoping for a white Christmas.”
My grandmother, my grandmother claps at the end and the pair gives a small bow. I hand over the jumper cables to Marie, noticing a small heart-shaped mark on her thumb. “What’s that?”
“That’d be a birthmark.” Marie smiles, holding her hand up for a high five.
“Cool. I wish I had one” I high five her. Aunt Emmerson then embraces me from the side, peppering my hair with kisses.
“You’re going to be such a good brother.” She finally lets me go, tilting her head admiringly.
They leave through the front door, and even after only a few steps, their figures are invisible in the whirling snow.
“Is it really safe?” I ask my grandmother. She hiccups and I turn from the window to see a tear rolling door her cheek.
“Go answer the phone.” She says finally, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket.
“What pho—?” The repeated buzz of the phone tolls throughout the house. Christmas is here, Christmas is here.
I lift the receiver to my ear, “Hello?”
“Emory, thank goodness, your sister’s going into early labor. Tell grandma for us, we’ll be at the hospital. Can you put her on?” My father answers his voice brimming with happiness.
I hand the receiver to my grandmother only for her to promptly hang up.
Two minutes later we are pulling out of the garage. I don’t see any footprints on the front walkway. The snow probably covered them.
Two hours later we are waiting with my mother, I hit my sister with a hospital brochure to which she cackles, but more warmly.
Twelve hours later, my sister cradles a brand new baby girl in her arms. I let the baby grip my finger, only to notice a heart-shaped birthmark on her thumb. She still has yet to decide the name.
Two days later—Christmas day. The baby will be named Marie based on Grandmother’s great aunt Emmerson and my Emory. She calls us the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Strange. Huh.
My grandmother told me to go take the butter from the microwave. And there’s the timer.