“Margaret — call for you.” William enjoyed her scowl of displeasure. She had been annoying him all day. He felt it only just that she have to take the call this year. He wouldn’t admit how much pleasure he took in her discomfort. William was stout, dressed in an old-fashioned tweed suit, with his tie loosened, and the top button of his pants unbuttoned for comfort. His hair, sleek, white, and still thick, was combed across his head, parted with a ruler on the left.
Margaret was thin rather than stout, with iron-gray curls rioting around her head. She had a thick robe placed over her dress, keeping out the cold. After a long pause, she loudly shuffled the pages of her newspaper, held it stiffly in front of her, and affected an intellectual pose. She was going to ignore him, then.
“Margaret! Call for you!” William wasn’t quite shouting, but she couldn’t ignore him, not at that volume. Serves you right for being such a nag today.
She sighed, exasperated, and pulled her newspaper down, shaking the pages, then slowly folding it back into its original shape. When it was a neat package, she set it on her lap, then looked over at William, peering through dark-rimmed eyeglasses.
“Really, William, you needn’t shout like a carnival barker. I’m right here, you know. It’s not like I’m in the next county.” Her acerbic tone matched the pursed shape of her lips, echoing the rigid posture.
“If you’re here, then you heard me. The call’s for you.” William shot back.
“Are you certain? I believe I took the call last year, don’t you recall?” Margaret attempted to relax her face and mouth, unpuckering her lips, feeling her cheeks droop. Looking pleasant was beyond her, but she didn’t need to look like she’d sucked on an unripe lemon.
William merely shook his head, smiling at her folly. “Now, Margaret, we both know that’s not true. I took last year’s call. This year it’s your turn. Unless I’m to believe that, after all these years, your memory is failing you?”
Her face flushed, and she began to argue, before changing tactics. “Why do they have to call, anyway? Disrupting our peaceful lives is most inconsiderate, if you ask me. It’s all a bunch of nonsense.” She held the newspaper tightly in her hands as if she was ready to unfold it and begin reading again.
“You know as well as I do, it’s a family tradition.” William’s tone was flat, uncompromising. “Traditions are passed on from generation to generation. That’s what makes them tradition.” His expression matched his tone, eyes narrowed, bushy mustache making a horizontal line that matched his thick dark eyebrows, a startling contrast with his shock of white hair.
Margaret muttered to herself, in a soft voice so William could pretend not to hear. Some traditions should die off. He knew she didn’t really mean that. She just liked grumbling and complaining. After she took the call, she would be bubbly, full of family news, gossip, juicy tidbits about who got hired or fired, married or buried, and, of course all the new babies to fuss over.
Their room was snug and warm, complete with a crackling fire and steaming mugs of cocoa. The snow tapping the windows made the room feel even cozier in comparison. Margaret would have to go out into the great hall, though, for the call. Out there, the footing was flagstone, not soft carpet, and the breeze a draft blowing through the cracks around doors and windows, not a warm kiss from the cheery fire.
The hall was festive; there were garlands of evergreen, studded with mistletoe and holly berries, adorning the walls. Fat candles sat in the sconces, waiting to be lit. There was even a wreath garnished with a great red bow hanging on the fireplace above the mantle. But it was cold as the grave.
“Are you sure it’s time?” She tried one last delaying gambit.
“After all these years? Of course.”
Margaret got up from her chair, wrapping her robe tightly about her in a vain attempt to keep the cold out, heaved a dramatic sigh, and left the room. William watched her exit, shook his head, and picked up her newspaper. He turned to the business section, and was quickly immersed in the news of the day.
The Christmas tree nearly touched the tall ceiling, an angel perched atop it, blowing its trumpet in joy. The tree was choked with bright, shiny ornaments and topped in shimmering strands of tinsel. Underneath the tree and for several feet around it, sprawled in untidy piles, were presents, packages of all sizes and colors, with name tags tied onto a ribbon or bow. A crackling fire on one wall made the room cozy despite its great size. The walls were festive with holly and evergreen, bells and mistletoe. Above the mantle, hanging across the fireplace, a row of stockings filled the space, bright-colored, each with a name stitched across the folded top of a stocking.
The adults sat around the dining room table, enjoying themselves and the anticipation. They were finished eating; an occasional cookie was nibbled on, but no one had room for anything more. Laughter and conversation filled the air like a cloud of sound, with the occasional shriek from a child piercing through like lightning.
Announced by thundering feet, an avalanche of children poured into the dining room, all talking over one another. “Is it time?” “Can we call now?” “I want to do it!” “No way, I asked first!” “You did it last year!”
The adults stood, and the children fell silent. The group moved into the great room, where the Christmas tree drew all eyes.
Everyone found a seat and got comfortable. The oldest, before sitting, reached into a cupboard and removed a dusty box. He sat down at a small desk, opened the box, reached inside, and set a Ouija board on the surface in front of him.