Did you hear the one about Robert Downey Jr, back when he was struggling with substance abuse? One night, all lit up on some combo of booze and pills and who knows what, he broke into a dark house, went into a little girl’s room, stripped down, and passed out in her empty bed. When the family came home they found him gently snoring. Imagine them there, in the doorway, the girl, the dad, the mom — maybe a brother — looking at this handsome movie star asleep in the bed. The dad said he wasn't threatened, since Downey's clothes were so neatly folded and placed just so on his daughter’s little bedside chair.
I thought of that story when I read news of a fellow who woke to the sound of his daughter crying, and found a strange man holding her in his living room. Imagine being that dad, all bleary, coming into a dark room following your girl's cries and seeing a silhouette there, swaying, holding her. Trying to soothe her with too much boozy emphasis — like a drunk had put too much english on the cue ball of communication and ripped the table felt.
My dad was a drunk. He sobered up and earned his twenty year coin before he passed. That's nearly a third of his life spent making his amends, so I'm not going to begrudge him his successes by picking apart his all-to-numerous failures. But given the day, maybe it's the right time to tell this one story.
It was Christmas Eve. I must have been nine or so, which means Glory was five. You’d think I’d have this timeline all nailed down, but I can’t recall, without looking at records, if my mom had died yet. She wasn’t there, so it's possible. But maybe she died the next year after Thanksgiving, and this was the year she was out of town at the bedside of her own sick mother.
Dad liked a formal Christmas Eve. He roasted duck, with braised greens, a little salad with candied walnuts and mandarin orange slices, and an apple pie. He spread it all on the lacquered table with the lace runner, and killed the lights so we could dine by the soft glow of tall white candles in silver holders. He drank beaujolais; he served us Martinelli’s sparking cider in wine glasses which made us feel so grown up. We talked about Santa coming that night. He told the story of Jesus, but Glory stopped him, because she hated the part when Jesus came back to life. Dad hushed her and said “That’s the Easter story. Let’s talk about Mary and Joseph and the Three Kings.”
I remember thinking about that number three. Three Kings. The trinity. Three ghosts in a Christmas Carol. Three of us at this table, all safe and warm. What was it about threes?
After dinner, after we did the dishes with Dad washing, and Glory drying, and me putting them away, Dad pulled me aside.
“Can you get the presents out after Glory is asleep?”
“Why can’t you?”
“I’m going to midnight service.”
“That's not for four hours.”
“Midnight service is at 10pm,” he said, which is still confusing to me to this day. “I have to help set up.” So Dad went to church and left me in charge.
Glory and I had a nice evening of it. We sang a few carols and made sure the tree was looking sharp. We stayed up later than we should have, and ate all the cookies we were supposed to leave for Santa. Glory cried, worried that Santa wouldn’t forgive us for eating them. I convinced her that Mrs. Claus put Santa on a diet and he would prefer some of Mom’s Wheat Thins, anyway, so we really did him a favor.
I read Glory The Night Before Christmas, the one with pictures by Gyo Fujikawa, the one with the pink stripes on the cover. It was nearly 11:30 when she finally fell asleep.
I knew where Dad was: in the basement of the church where the choir practiced. Sitting at the folding table with Peter Pershing, and Tom Mildebrand. Tom was the church Sexton, so he held the keys to the place. Those three would sit around that table and play cards, drinking rye until there was no rye. We three drunks. Dad would make a late night of it. I figured we’d be opening presents in the morning without him, unless he just drank all night and didn't sleep, in which case he’d be there, still drunk, saucy and cheery, until he passed out in his reclining easy chair.
I pulled all the presents out from under Mom's dresses in her closet. I walked them into the living room and put them under the tree. I made it look nice, too, pretending I was Santa, and I thought about how it would look to Glory when she came in that morning. I ate the crackers, making sure to drop some crumbs, and drank the warm milk. I brushed my teeth and got into bed myself around midnight.
When I think about that man whose daughter’s cries awoke him, I think about how you never really hear the first cry in the night. You only wake, aware and concerned, in the darkness of your room. You wait for a signal, some noise or triggered sense to explain why you are not asleep, to explain why your heart is thumping and your endorphins are whispering “danger”. Then comes another cry, another “Mom!” or “Dad!”, or if you’re in my adult house, today, a knock at the wall that separates your room from your child’s.
So it was that Christmas Eve I woke suddenly, panicked. My room, in the attic, was sometimes drafty, but the cold in the room right then was unnatural. My flesh pimpled at it, and I pulled the covers up over my mouth. Yes, it was snowing outside, but this cold was deeper, more unsettling. This cold felt cruel and intentional.
Then I heard what woke me. A three-sound knock: Knock. Knock. Knock.
It wasn’t from the front door. It was almost wood-on-wood, like it came from inside the walls. Years later I lived in an old building in New York City and the radiator coming on had this quality — like the building itself was calling out to you. Like our old house, the house my Dad grew up in and the one his Dad grew up in, too, was trying to warn me about something. Danger! Be aware! Tonight is not still and safe!
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The breath coming out of my nose was visible in the chill. Was it Dad making that noise? Was he home? Every fiber of my being wanted to stay in bed — begged me not to move — but I had to know. I feinted a few times, then got my nerve together and threw back my comforter. I ran to the window, wiping the fog from the pane with my pajama arm, and looked out front to see that his car wasn’t there. No tire tracks in the fresh sheet of snow lining the street, even.
Dad wasn’t home.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Was it Glory? Did she need me? I felt absolutely defenseless and alone, but Glory was so young. I had to protect her. I pulled on my wool robe, shivering against the insane chill — it felt like I would never be warm again — and with my teeth clattering, crept down the stairs, each groaning under my foot.
Opening her door, I saw her there by the yellow nightlight, asleep in bed. She was whimpering, as though her dream had been infected by the chill in the air. As if the house were trying to warn her by making her dreams unsettled.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The sound was just as mysterious — as placeless — in her room as it was in mine. It came from all around, but if you turned as it sounded, its source was no clearer to you.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I put my hand on her forehead, which was clammy.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
She tightened her brow, and looked like she was about to cry.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Was it getting louder? My teeth clattered, the cold pulled my muscles taut, and a panic was rising my spine.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
But I didn't want her to worry. I said “It’s okay, Glory. It’s okay.” She let out a sigh, and her furrowed brow loosened.
It was like an exhale, then. The room warmed. It just felt normal, like waking from a nightmare and the still of your room feels like true comfort.
I sat on Glory’s bed for as long as I could stand it, just listening to the old house ticking and settling in its normal way. I waited for another knock, sure one would sound any minute, but none came.
The hall clock read 1:30 when I went back up the stairs to my own bed. I cursed Dad for leaving us alone. He should be here now. Why did I have to get out of bed to check on Glory? That was his job. That was a job he gave away so easy. I hated him so much right then. I hated him for not caring. I hated him all the way back to my bed, still unnerved over that sound and where it came from. I hated him all the way back into sleep.
It was a child’s cries that woke me second. No stillness of the room this time — no wondering what it was that woke me. The cry was continuous, penetrating. I stumbled down the staircase, slipping and falling on my behind and thunking down two stairs. When I reached Glory's bedroom and flung open the door, sure I would see her sitting up in bed with tears in her eyes, she was still asleep, in the same position that I left her.
I can't explain that feeling of looking at my sleeping sister and hearing another child wailing. The mental shear of this information had the effect of misfiring all my logical neuron patterns. It was a storm of impulses and confusion in my head, that calmed, like a growing dark, into a pure, heart-seizing panic.
I went over the facts: there were no other children in this house. There were no other children on this block. But there was a child crying, and it was coming from downstairs. From inside the house. From down by the tree.
I padded down the hall. My first step down, in my bare feet, was like stepping into a pool of cold water. It was that cold, again, settled like a fog over the first story of the house, and here I was, descending into it, following the cry of a child that could not exist.
On the wall, a light from the street hit the reproduction of Christina's World that Dad kept there, the emaciated body of Wyeth's model climbing that dry wheat hill. It was almost animated in this light, a sickly, crawling animation that felt insectile, cursed.
Two steps more and I was up to my armpits in freezing cold, the cries echoing, growing, changing, and turning into a kind of word I couldn't quite resolve.
My feet were nearly numb with the cold, but down I went, white-knuckling the bannister. There was some light, I could see. A glow from the living room, and then my bare foot touched the frigid wood of the floor, I turned the corner of the stairs to look down the hallway where I could see just a bit of the tree, and saw that the white lights were turned on, and glowing brighter than I remembered them being. The whole living room was glowing.
But part of it wasn't glowing, I saw. Part of it was shadow. The shadow had a form, and the form was a man, standing there, arms at his side. Swaying a bit, as he blocked lights on the edge of his shadow when he moved across them, and it seemed like they blinked on and off. A man, in my living room, standing in front of my tree, and somewhere near him was an unhappy child.
That cry! That desperate wail! And the words made sense now "I hate you!" they said. "I hope you die!"
Then a large dark blur, the shadow of the man moving across the hallway entrance, blocking the light of the tree as he went across, throwing me into dark cold for a moment. A sound — that sickening sound of hard flesh on flesh, the dull muffled sound of a punch that is so different from that sharp thwack of movie violence.
The child's cry louder, more intense: "I hope you die!"
My breath like clouds in the hallway. I gasped, stepped backward into the wall, bumping the painting of the farmhouse. It clunked, twisting on its nail. I reached to steady it.
The cries stopped. A heavy footstep. A man's voice "Who's that, now? Who's there?" The light on the trees shimmered, as if the man asking made the electricity swell in their green cables.
Then that shadow blocked the tree again. That shadow in the entrance to the hallway. That shadow taking booming steps, coming from the living room towards me.
I shrunk down the wall, teeth clattering in fear and cold. I pulled my arms over my head to stop this devastating strangeness. I felt like a shivering skeleton, all the flesh of my body and soul stripped and flayed on the open rime furnace of horror.
And the footfalls came closer. The man, whoever he was, came to me with waves of ice. He was right there in front of me. I could see his foot, in a brown boot, and I was about to look up at him and see what terror he was about to unleash.
"Is it Santa?" came the voice, the familiar voice of a little girl.
On the stairs, there, half way down in her cotton nightgown with the little red flowers, Glory.
And in front of me, nothing. An empty hallway. The tree with its lights off. The house warm, again. And I, on the ground hunched.
"Is it Santa?" she repeated.
I stood. Stepped tenderly the living room, but all was as it should be. The fear left me, like I was a cask uncorked. It drained from me, and relief came in. My feet were cold on the ground, but the normal cold of bare feet on hardwood at night. Not the unnatural frozen fear of before.
I felt a soft hand in mine. Glory, beside me, looking into the darkness at the tree.
"He did come!" she whispered, like we were in a church looking at a sign of divinity.
"It's not morning yet," I said. "We can't open them yet."
"Okay. I'm having bad dreams. Can you sleep in my room?"
I was glad she asked, because I wanted that too, but didn't want her to think I was too chicken to be on my own.
"Sure," I said.
On the way back upstairs, I looked out the front window. Dad's car, still not home. The clock said: 2:30. Glory and I crawled under her blankets. I was sure I wouldn't sleep with everything that night had held, but fear has its tolls, and on me the stress of it acted to put me right out. We both fell asleep in minutes.
It's all threes. All of these stories happen in threes, don't you see? That's the point of them. They want to show you the pattern early on so you'll know. What have we met yet? The holy ghost? The Ghost of Christmas Past? The son? The Ghost of Christmas Present? What is left, then? Who is coming? Who is left to break into this house? To breach the barrier we all hope guards with our walls?
I don't know what woke me the third time. Maybe it was Glory, who was all elbows and knees in her sleep; who somehow ended up sideways in bed, and stole all the covers to boot.
It was quiet in the house. I did not feel that supernatural chill, and I was not scared. I remembered, as palpable as recalling the taste of grape bubble gum, the fear and cold of before. But I didn't feel them now.
I rose, left Glory to her slumbers. I went down the stairs again, down into the entry hall. Down into the living room to see all the presents. The pine smell of that tree hit me, and it was a comfort I can't quite place, like being outside on a crisp night in the woods when everything is well and that scent makes makes the animal in you whole.
I crouched on my heels, just smelling the air, a certain rare Christmas spirit filling me. It was welcome, that animal peace of love and safety, of security and hope, that even in the most desperate times can find its way into your deepest self.
"Do you think she'll like it?" came the voice. That deep voice, deep from his chest, a man used to being heard and followed.
There, in the dark, sitting in his easy chair. Dad. Home, now.
"The house. Do you think she'll like it?"
I could see it then, in the dim light — it wasn't there when I put out the wrapped presents. A doll house, made by hand. A three story cut-away with a thatched green roof. It was tucked under the tree. Did he make this for her? Did he bring it home tonight? It was marvelous craftsmanship. Gabled windows, with scroll work around them. Fully furnished. A family inside. Couches, stoves, toilets, everything.
A little decorated tree in the living room. By the tree, a man, holding a child with one hand, the other raised as if to strike.
"Was your dad mean?" I said, quiet, under my breath.
He didn't answer. Not for a long time. It was quiet, and I studied the doll house as best I could in the dimness, looking at the little brass doorknobs, the curtains, the comforters on the brass beds. Then his voice broke through, sudden and booming.
"There was a man who used to live in this town," he said. "A man who everyone knew was good. He was kind, set aside time for people in need. Set aside money to help those without. The kind of man we all would like to be, but who so rarely we can find it in ourselves to act like.
"This man had a sleigh, and he would load it with children every Christmas Eve, given enough snow, and he would hitch up his horses, and he would drive them on a ride through the dark. They'd go up the lake onto the hill, around that bluff curve to the top where they could see the town. Then he'd ride them back. They'd gather back at his house where their parents were making merry, and there would be hot chocolate, and gingerbread cookies, and everyone would sing carols.
"Except one year a boy who was older, and hated the man because the boy's own father had not achieved the things that the man had, decided he was going to play a joke. He snuck up on the hill, to the part where the road curves on the bluff, and he spent the afternoon making himself an arsenal of snowballs. His plan was to pelt the man and the children in the sleigh as they went by. He was going to get them cold and wet under their blankets. He was going scare the little ones, and scare the girls, and just show that not everything is perfect all the time. He was going to show them what the world was like for real. Not everybody gets what they want. Not even for Christmas."
He stopped. I looked over at him, but his face was in the shadows. I looked away. It felt wrong to watch him when he seemed to be having trouble telling the story. I waited, looking at the roof of the doll house, built tile-by-tile. Looking at the front door with the inset panels. Looking at the window boxes full of tiny wooden painted flowers. He started again when he was ready.
"And so he waited, and as he waited he pictured perfectly what the moment would be like, and how they'd all cry and get pulled away on the sleigh, their upset floating on the wind as they went into the distance. He thought about how this memory wouldn't be a storybook tale for the kids. He saw how they would learn their lesson.
"He planned how he would let them go by to have their view of the town, so they'd think on the way back down the hill that everything was just dandy. They'd be on the decline of their ride, the last moments when nobody would expect a thing.
"And so when the horses went by up the hill, he let them go. The horses were panting with the effort, steam coming from their nostrils. The sleigh bells danced and sang, skids shushed on the crunchy, fluffy snow."
"Some time later his patience paid out. The sleigh came down the hill, and maybe, according to some, it was going too fast and the man who everybody loved should have been holding the brake tighter. But maybe it was just fortuitous timing, one of those acts of fate nobody could predict, least of all a jealous boy who can't imagine the world past his own narrow purview.
"His moment upon him, the boy stood, and he took aim, and he let loose a volley of snowballs aimed at that sleigh of children looking forward to their hot chocolate; a sleigh he had been party to in previous years, under whose blankets the chill was kept at bay, under whose pull he felt safe and warm for the all-too-brief amount of time he was away from his own parents.
"A young one, all of four, cried as a snowball hit his face. He aimed for the youngest, and hit a girl about his own age with a particularly slushy ball. He pelted them, laughing, guffawing and finding it hard to throw through his merriment at their confusion. Children were screaming, pointing. It was the kind of chaos he had wanted. It was all going according to his plan, just perfect.
"And then a wild throw hit a horse, right on the blinder, right on the eye. A skittish mare. She bucked, and scared the other horses. An animal panic took them, and they pulled the sleigh off the road, and one skid went up on some rocks.
"Imagine that boy, holding snowballs in his hand, dozens more stacked and ready to go, watching as that sleigh slipped down the slope and crashed onto that lake, partly frozen. As the sleigh teetered for a moment, before a horse, struggling, cracked the ice with its hoof. As they broke through. As children, too young to swim, were tossed into black water. As all of them weighed down by wool and boots and gloves, went in right at the point where the lake goes deep, and the only thing that connects the water to land is sharp, iced, slippery rocks. Imagine the inhuman cries of the horses, attached to that heavy sleigh. Imagine the sounds children never had time to make."
I could picture it. I could picture that boy, his frozen face as he saw things go terribly wrong. I could picture him knowing he had to decide: go help at the edge of the water, or run. One of those moments in life you could never forgive yourself for if you make the wrong choice.
"What happened?" I said, and I noticed my breath in the air. The cold was here again. I was freezing. "Did people die?"
A wind at my back, a crash, a sound. I turned, and there in the open front door was Dad. Slumped against the frame. His car, half on the snowy lawn, behind him. His keys dropped his hand to and clattered on the floor.
His chair? Empty. The doll house? Gone. The chill was from the open door. For the first time, the cold I felt had a source.
I walked to him. "Come on." I yanked his hand and he stumbled inside. I closed the door. Locked it. Placed his keys on the hook. I didn't even bother with the stairs, I just led him to the living room, his arm around my shoulder, leaning on me. Mumbling to himself. Thanking me. Saying he loved me.
I put him in his chair, and reclined it with the bar on the side. Took off his soaking wet wingtips. His thin cotton socks, his feet were pure ice. I ran up the stairs and got his pillow and his comforter from his bed. Covered him so that he'd warm up. Made sure his feet were tucked under the blanket.
As I walked away, "turn the lights on," he said.
"The lights?" I asked.
"The tree. Turn the tree lights on," he said.
I did. I plugged them in, and the tree glowed. You could see the presents underneath so clearly. You could see little white glowing dots reflected in every window. You could see the crumbs on the plate and the empty milk glass. You could see Dad, in his chair, his eyes listing, his head lolling.
"Beautiful," he said, his puffy face warm in the glow. And then he was asleep.
3:34 said the clock on the wall as I walked up. I was out in minutes, this time. Dad was home. Maybe he was passed out, but he was here. I was off duty.
I slept until Glory jumped on my bed to wake me.
"It's Christmas! And Santa's come! He ate all the crackers!"
We went downstairs together to wake Dad and see what was wrapped in those presents under the tree. We went down into the warm old house, a place in the universe moving across time.
A place in time moving across the universe.
Early in the darkness of Christmas Eve, on top of Capitol Hill, over by Volunteer Park in the old section where the mansions loom, four young women stood on an unlit porch, pressed against the door, their backs turned to a driving downpour.
In the front of the group Imani struggled with her keys, going through a few before finding the one that took purchase. A shriek cut the air, the hinges of the door complaining from uncommon use.
"Dudes," Imani said. "Welcome to my mansion."
They dumped their gear in the great room, each of them burdened as if they were off to spend a month in the woods. The house was utterly empty. No furniture, not a cabinet or rug.
A thunderous boom, and they spun to Eun standing wide-eyed just inside the door, where a habited house might have had a small rug.
"Sorry! The door closed faster than I thought it would."
"This place is insane," said Cat, pink hair falling against her cheek.
"Are you sure it's okay to be here?" said Sandra. "Like, we're not breaking any laws, or…?"
"Totally not," said Imani. "So, this place used to be owned by some non-prof? Or whatever? They had offices here or something and then they sold it to this Chinese holding company that hired a New York management firm that hired a San Francisco maintenance company that hired me to, you know, maintain the place. So, like, if some Chinese banker or shit comes through the door then we better get lost. But, otherwise? It's fucking Christmas Eve, bitches. We're gonna have us a time."
They laid their rolls and sleeping bags down by the tiled fireplace. Sandra opened her pack and pulled out a large black thermos, a piece of worn masking tape on the side bore her dad's name from when he used to take it to the construction site each day: "T. Mendoza." She lined up four white mugs and a bottle of Fireball.
That smell of cider! The steam made the echoing room around her pull in to almost feel cozy. She poured four measures, then topped them off with healthy shots of the whiskey. She passed them out, then offered a toast.
"Fuck going home for Christmas," she said, and they all drank.
Eun walked to the built-in bench by the window and tried to look outside. It was as if a black felt overlaid the glass, for the light was nonexistent. She thought she saw something — a quiver of light through a shivering branch, perhaps? She leaned close, her breath fogging the pane of glass. It was just a suggestion of movement. A vibration — how could it be so dark outside? In the middle of the city? The cold of the window radiated against her face.
Then a wash of hard rain drenched the window, and so startled her that she stepped away, sloshing a her cider over the mug edge. She put it down.
"This place has to be haunted," she said, and turned away from the windows to look instead at the grand staircase. She imagined the lady of the house making an entrance here, descending to a waiting crowd, during some Christmas party. They all had that vision, the lady in red coming down, the house decked and jovial.
"Oh, no doubt it's haunted," said Imani, finishing her cider, and putting down her mug on the floor. "Let us go scare them up! Hide and seek! Not it!" She ran, her boots pounding each step, and they could hear her taking the stairs two at a time, and then above them in the second floor, more pounding as she ran around, screaming in faux-terror, before suddenly the footfalls stopped completely and the rain was the only thing they heard.
"Is she serious?" said Sandra.
"Not it!" said Cat, and she, too, was gone in a flash.
"Jesus!" said Sandra.
"It's all you, doll," said Eun, and she backed towards the stairs moaning like a ghost, shooting imaginary bullets with six-gun fingers, and then she was gone up the main stairs as well.
Sandra, hands at her side, yelled at the top of her lungs "this is so fucking not cool you assholes!" She poured more Fireball into her empty cup, and downed it — the burn of the alcohol and the cinnamon killing her throat. Was it scarier to walk through an unknown house to find her asshole friends, or to stay here and let them freeze and rot while she drank their liquor and ate their food?
Yeah, eat their food totally alone. With no one to talk to. While the rain fell on the windows, and the house creaked and groaned around her.
"Fine!" she cried out. "Ready or not, here I come!"
She crossed to the staircase, but stopped before it. She had that feeling of not being alone — that somebody was watching her. She spun her phone around, shining a light through the empty dark house. The windows showed only the reflection of her glowing white phone light. Shaking off her raised cackles, she started up the stairs.
She was on the fourth step when it came. Boom! She grasped the bannister, spun around trying to find its source, her heart leaping out of her chest. Then again — Boom! Boom! Boom! echoing through the empty rooms. It was from the door, the front door. Someone was at the front door.
"Hey, uh, guys?" she said, but really it was so quiet that she knew no one had heard her. Then a cry, like an animal — no, a shriek. That door hinge. Somebody had opened the door.
It's gotta be the cops, right? Some neighbor saw them, saw lights in the house. Was totally nosy and called the fucking cops in. But if it was the cops, why no beams of light from powerful cop flashlights? She cried out, making her voice as low as possible. "Who's there?"
"Uh, hello?" came a reply. A man, but the pitch high and uncertain. Sandra willed herself to walk down each step, and turned the light of her phone to see a tall man, a skinny white man, completely underdressed in a swamped hoodie.
"Who are you?"
"I was invited," he said.
"You were invited?"
"It was Eun, wasn't it?"
"It was supposed to be kind of a girl's night, dude."
Sandra sighed. "Lock the front door so no one else just walks in, okay? And then you can help me. They're all hiding from me but I'm really freaked out about walking around this fucking house."
"Yeah," he said.
Cat had discovered the biggest bathtub in the world. It had to be nine feet long. She could lay completely flat, and there was at least two feet of clearance above her head, and another two below her feet. It was incredible. She could live in this tub. She could take baths with Sandra. They hadn't done that since they moved into the new apartment with its cramped little bullshit bucket of a tub.
The rain was quieter here on the second floor, on the east side of the house. Her breath comically loud against the tub walls, and she could see the pattern of bead board on the ceiling thanks to some neighbor's security light that just penetrated a tiny high window. She watched it and took hits from her weed vape pen, feeling the buzz wash down her body, watching the little light at the end glow.
Any minute Sandra was going to come up the stairs and into the bathroom. She would walk through to make sure no one was in here, and when she did Sandra was going to jump out and scream and scare the shit out of her. It was going to be amazing.
While she waited she imagined this house filled with life. A tree down by the fireplace, all trimmed and dressed. One of those huge trees that almost touch the ceiling, and so full they look like they're made from felted wool. Ribbons would run it, and since this place is so old, maybe candles, too. Unsafe, sure, but how pretty would they be? Some fancy gilt crèche on the mantle, garlands and cheer throughout every room. The table in the dining room dressed with white lace with stacked holiday china and silver at every setting. Servants bustling around, making ready for the party to start.
Boom! And a second later Boom! Boom! Boom! Then the front door opening, and Cat was wondering if she should go check on Sandra. But, without warning, the light in the bathroom snapped on. Cat would have sat straight up in the tub, but suddenly she couldn't. Her body was frozen — she couldn't move any part of herself. She was stuck. Imani said the electricity in this place was off, so what the fuck was going on? It was too damn bright. She wished she could cover her eyes, but her arms felt pinned down.
The unmistakable sound of heels on bathroom tiles, and a white woman walked by the tub close enough that Cat could see her. She had dark hair, long, and straight, dressed back with a burgundy ribbon. Her dress was silken and red, it dipped in the back, but what little skin it might have shown was covered in lace. It was just an instant Cat saw her, but she glowed in afterimage, like a flashbulb in a dark room.
Then Cat's back was wet. The faucet was dry, no water coming from it, yet somehow the tub was filling. Her shirt was wicking the moisture up her sides onto her stomach. The water unheated, arctic, shocking her everywhere it touched. Cat still couldn't move, as she felt fingers of water crest the sides of her neck and join in the middle of her throat. It came around her shoulders and crept up her sides, rising faster than seemed possible. Her face, for a moment, an island, and she drew a deep breath before feeling the liquid top her chin.
"Is anybody there?" she heard the woman say, her reedy voice echoing off the tile. "I have the oddest feeling that I'm not alone."
The water crested her nose and Cat was completely submerged when she saw the woman leaning over the tub to look in. A struggling muffled effort from her own throat was the only sound Cat could hear, and then noise of air bubbles escaping her frightened mouth. The woman's face blurred through the lens of the water. She saw, dangling from a chain on the woman's neck, a small brass key. The woman reached out, as if to touch Cat's face, and Cat opened her mouth to scream.
Imani wasn't even gonna try. Let them come find her, and fine, she'll get caught and go be it and chase those bitches down, because she knew this house inside out. Even if they got brave and went to the basement, she would find them and rout them out and drive them up and they'd go feast in the great room and have a fucking good night.
So she went to her favorite spot in the house, right out in the open: the window seat in the master bedroom. On a normal day, not like this wretched dark night, you could see the manicured front yard of the house, where it rose above the street below. You could see the other mansions that neighbored this one.
Sometimes she came and sat up here with her lunch, when she was doing her rounds. Wondered about that family with the famous name that built this place, wondered how their legacy lived on other than on street names.
Ghosts. In this house? How could there not be? But not some stupid Victorian specters. Just the ghosts of rich dead white people leaving their names laying around her city where she had to read them all the time. Ghost of Mercer, ghost of Denny, ghost of Boren. She drove on those ghosts every day. Of course this house has ghosts. It has the ghost of money made good.
A scream cut her thoughts. A piercing sharp cry. Imani ran towards it — down the hall. It came from the bathroom, and she entered to find Cat leaning over the side of the tub, gasping and heaving.
"What happened?" Imani said, leaning over her, putting a hand on her shaking back. "What in the world?"
Cat said nothing, but looked at her with darting eyes wide with fear. Eun was with them, then, and together they helped Cat out of the tub and Cat tried, not very well, to explain what had happened to her.
"Maybe you fell asleep," Eun said.
"No," said Cat, but there was enough uncertainty in her voice that the other women believed she at least thought it was possible.
And then Sandra was in the doorway. "You guys have to see this."
It was a square waist-high cabinet with low legs and a solid door. It had a small brass keyhole and a brass handle, which, when tugged, showed the front was locked. They were all inexorably drawn to it. It had its own gravity.
"I really want to know what's in it," said the man, voicing a thought they all harbored. "I really want to open this."
"Who put a man in my Christmas Eve?" Imani said, pointing at him.
"Eun did," said Sandra.
"Yes," said Eun, looking a bit confused. But she stepped forward and gave him a kiss, and rested her head on his shoulder. "Yes, it was me. I forgot to tell you all."
It all seemed so strange to Cat. She would have left right then, but Sandra held her hand and that calmed the animal of her so much.
"I thought you said this place was totally empty?" Eun said.
"I think even counting a cabinet it still is," said Imani. "I don't remember seeing this before, but I don't remember ever coming up to the attic either." She looked around and waved. "Hello attic."
"Do you think there's a key somewhere?" the man asked.
"It's not ours to open even if there was," said Imani.
"You could say the same about the house," said Sandra.
"I have the keys to the house," said Imani.
"Maybe they gave you the keys to the cabinet," said the man.
"They did not give me keys to a cabinet," said Imani. "I take care of properties, not objects."
"I know where the key is," said Cat, and everybody turned to look at her. She drew Sandra down the stairs out of the attic.
The rest waited. They circled the cabinet, and each laid a hand on its top. They didn't talk, and didn't look at each other.
"So, is she getting the key?" asked the man after a few minutes.
"I don't think she is," said Imani.
The three of them found Cat in the great hall pouring more cider and Fireball for her and Sandra.
"Did you get it?" Eun said.
"The key. You said you knew where it was."
"It's around her ghost's neck," said Sandra, but it was too dark for anybody to see if she rolled her eyes or not when she said it.
"It's not my ghost," said Cat. "And even if I had the key, I wouldn't hand it over. We are not opening that cabinet."
Imani poured cider into the other two mugs, and topped them off as well, then handed Eun hers. "She's right," she said. "We're not going to open the cabinet. We're going to eat our dinner and hang out here in the great room and have a wonderful evening, yes?"
"Yes," said Cat. "I'm never walking up those stairs again."
"Fine with me," said Eun.
"Whatever Cat wants," said Sandra.
"I dunno," said the man. "I mean, it's Christmas. Aren't we supposed to open things on Christmas? Isn't that the whole purpose of it all?"
But, seeing that none of the women were with him, he sat down by the window.
They drank more cider with whisky, and then there was wine. Cat passed around her vape pen and they all smoked out. They ate cheese and crackers and Salumi salami; olives, humous, and pita from Trader Joes; cookies and candies that Eun made herself that morning.
Sandra took out her guitar, and sang two of her own songs ("My Pussy is a Cauldron" and "Cradle of Strife"), then Cat leaned against her, and they did a duet of their favorite rape-culture song "Baby It's Cold Outside", their voices alive in the room, bouncing off the empty walls, and making everybody calm and feel nice with their sweet harmonies.
"I should come record in here," said Sandra, when they finished, and everybody agreed with silence. Then they all sang Christmas songs.
Eun asked Imani if she would recite a poem, and she read the one that was going to be published in the spring in a journal out of Bellingham, about standing with one foot on a mountain and one foot on a city.
Then they all just were quiet. The rain had let up, but the empty house howled as the wind crossed it, different pitched moans from the upper-stories. They got into their sleeping bags. The man laid down on the window seat covered with some of their jackets. Cat and Sandra had bags that zipped together. Imani had packed a whole grain-husk pillow in her bag, and it crunched under her ears when she shifted her head.
Cat, feeling safe and warm with Sandra's arm around her, thought back on her near drowning. Had she been dreaming? She could feel it, still — the water on her, the woman hovering over her reaching in. But Sandra gave her a sweet kiss the back of her neck, and her fears melted, and she felt herself slipping off.
It wasn't even midnight yet before they all fell asleep.
Imani woke with a rare awareness. Like, when a noise from outside called her from sleep and some part of her mind has already processed what it was. She looked around the room, and then not able to see anything, used her phone to illuminate. Sandra was snoring, in a kind of adorable way. Eun's arms were stretched above her head. The man was gone. Imani knew what had woke her was the sound of his footsteps on the stairs.
She followed, in her wool socks, up the main staircase. Then, along the hallway to the attic stairs. Up those stairs, and there he was, standing alone in front of the cabinet. A gust of wind called out in a low moan. A draft moved against her, and she shivered.
"I found the key," he said, not turning to face her.
"Where?" she asked, softly. Was he sleep-walking? Was this real? Who was he, again?
He held a hand up and there it was, a little gleaming brass key. "It was on the stairs. Can you believe it? Just laying there, on the third step. We all stepped over it at least twice."
"I don't think that's possible," Imani said, but she could offer no other explanation. "You know we cannot open that," she said.
"We have to," he said. "We have to see what's inside."
"Whatever is inside there is not ours to see," said Imani.
He kneeled, and he inserted the key into the lock. She felt it, when he did. Like the roof of the house disappearing and the frozen breath of outside crashing in. Like they were in some field stripped bare of foliage, only populated by winter. But that freeze was less about a landscape and more about humanity leaving their bodies.
"But I have the key," he cried, his breath visible. She was unsure if he felt what she felt, and if he did, if he felt it in the same way. She was unsure if he was saying this to her, or saying it to whatever spirit had turned them out onto frozen wasteland.
"It is not yours!" said Imani, emphatic, moving to him. Bringing her light up beneath them, so their faces were illuminated from the chins up and they could see each other. "Why would you do this? There are five humans in this house, and four of us said not to open the cabinet. Why would you think you get to open the cabinet when the four of us voted against it?"
He turned the key in the lock with a distinct click. The cabinet was unlocked. A terror struck Imani, then. A stark terror unlike anything she'd felt before; made of coldness, like a wall built by grief. She wanted to run far away from this cabinet, this house, this man. She could not believe he wanted this open when every fiber of her wanted nothing to do with it.
"I have the key. They wanted me to find it." He slid a finger through the loop of the pull, and started to open the door.
Imani slapped her hand on the cabinet and held that door closed. "And what makes you think that they have good intentions!" she said. "What makes you they want to help you?" His hand dropped.
"I don't know. I mean. Huh." His resolve was fading. "I don't know."
Imani turned the key, engaging the lock. She withdrew the key from the hole. She put a hand on the man's shoulder, suddenly feeling more warmly towards him.
"Whatever is in there is part of another person's story," she said. "And whatever it is, we must leave it." She would put the key back on the chain with the house keys. She would turn it over whenever she ended her work with the house. It was the owner's problem now.
"I was just so curious," he said. "I just had to look. I mean, didn't you want to look?"
Imani almost answered him, but how could she describe exactly how much she did not want to look? How could she describe how hard she would have fought to keep him from looking? How can she describe that he almost caused violence on this, of all nights?
They four women woke to a silent Christmas. "Oh my god, look everyone!" said Eun, sitting in the window seat. They all went over to see the world coated in white powder.
It was a clean morning, open and new, like the best of mornings. Full of any intention they could bring to it. Then they were leaving. Someone had Googled a nearby coffee shop that was open even today, so that's where they would have breakfast. Eun was in front, holding her bags, her boots crunching the first steps in the new snow. Behind her Sandra and Cat holding hands. Imani followed, but stopped before they had gotten a block away. A whisper in her ear of something forgotten.
"It's colder than I thought," she said. "I'm going to check the pipes. Make sure they won't freeze. Maybe leave some water on. Go on without me. I'll catch up."
Inside, she locked the door behind her. She dumped her gear in the entry hall and went back up the stairs.
It struck her that the key should stay with the cabinet, no matter what, not on a keychain where it might get misplaced or lost in translation to the new owner. She had a paperclip. She'd open it, bend it through the key, and then bend the other part through the handle.
The cabinet was so plain. It seemed unlikely to belong to somebody as rich as the the people would live in this place. She felt its top, cool and smooth. Then she knelt in front of it.
When she put the key in she braced herself for a rush of freezing wind, but nothing came. Not any strange feeling, not any otherworldly coldness, not a lack of humanity. Just a woman alone in a big empty house with a locked cabinet in the attic. Just Imani doing her job.
Last night was foggy in her mind. So much had happened. All of it could be attributed to nerves, right? To drink and smoke; to Cat's infectious phobias; to fear of the unknown, and a weird old house that seemed less funny the more time she spent inside it.
Then she remembered Cat's description of the woman with dark hair and the red silken dress with lace and it was like that woman was standing behind her as Imani knelt. The hairs on the back of her neck stood straight up. She was being watched, she was sure. And, as if she could feel it instead of hear it, the woman watching her reassured her.
This was put there for you, the woman said. It was brought here for you to find, and it will benefit you to open it and see what is inside. It will benefit your life and make your pain less, and your sorrows less, and your burden less.
Imani rested her hand on the key for the longest time. She could take that paperclip and bend it, and forever that key will be attached to the cabinet where it belonged, and then she could just get up and walk away and meet her friends for breakfast. Or, perhaps, she could turn it. She could turn it and pull open that door. It was Christmas morning, after all. Imani was sure there was a present waiting for her inside.
One of my favorite Christmas traditions is ghost stories. A Christmas Carol comes to mind first, of course. It has its own delights, to be sure — especially in reading, as opposed to the many dramatic renditions which have rendered it more toothless and hackneyed than it deserves. The story still has some spook and humor left in it, thanks to Dickens' steady lyrical hand. Look how he described just how despicable Scrooge is:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.
Dickens, of course, was drawing on an older tradition of ghost stories for Christmas. It is quaintly Victorian, when spinning scary yarns in the parlor was a way to pass the time. This seems strange, in this age when storytelling in the popular mediums is left to the professionals, but at one time having your group of friends all spin a tale would have been as common as having them accompany you to see a movie.
These stories usually have little to do with Christian morals, and often had little to do even with the spirit of the season. They use the holidays as a circumstance in which to have people gather, and more than this, gather indoors. Rarely is there a true lesson to be imparted, although I certainly wouldn't begrudge you one if one appeared.
About a year ago, Colin Fleming covered the genre for the Paris Review.
The first key to a Christmas ghost story is a convivial atmosphere. People in these stories are well fed, they’re often hanging out in groups, you feel like you’re hanging out with them, and you do not wish to leave any more than they do. It is cold outside but warm in here, and it’s time to rediscover that sense of play that so many of us adults lose over the years, and which, when we are fortunate, we remember to rediscover at Christmas.
He listed five of his favorites, all readable online, and worth some time exploring. You may, or may not, find true fright, but sometimes luxuriating in laborious meandering prose of old-timey writing is balm to the modernist.
Of all the Christmas ghost stories, my personal favorite is Frederick Forsyth's "The Shepherd." A gripping mid-century airplane yarn made famous in Canada by the radio show As it Happens which broadcasts it every Christmas Eve (and which is where I first heard it). You can hear it here, and that reading is truly a classic telling of a remarkable story. We listen each Christmas, while driving to see family, a tradition I hold somewhat sacred in my little family. How strange it is to read or hear a story told again and again. Like a favorite song, parts stand out, and just when you think you're tired of it, you find it anew.
Ahead of me, as I waited for the voice of the controller to come through the headphones, was the runway itself, a slick black ribbon of tarmac, flanked by twin rows of bright-burning lights, illuminating the solid path cut earlier by the snowplows. Behind the lights were the humped banks of the morning's snow, frozen hard once again where the snowplow blades had pushed them. Far away to my right, the airfield tower stood up like a single glowing candle amid the brilliant hangars where the muffled aircraftmen were even now closing down the station for the night.
Perhaps there is no better way to honor the tradition of Christmas ghost stories than to write one yourself. The rules are as you want them to be — Victorian parlor games, or RAF pilots trying like the dickens to make it home in time for Christmas morning. Just remember the set pieces that all ghost stories need: a dead person, and an alive person who encounters them in an eerie setting. Whether the ghost is benevolent or not is up to the writer. Whether the outcome is good or not is as well, although, usually, at least one character needs to be left standing to tell the tale.
If tomorrow, during the quiet in the day (and we hope you have some), you find yourself thinking about Christmas ghost stories, we invite you to come back and pay our site a visit. We're not saying we'll have anything for you, but this season does offer strange hope; even when it brushes up against unsettling horror.