by Aileen Baron
Enjoy another Christmas mystery short story, that’s a bit on the creepy side.
Every day, I pass the house. No one lives there now. It’s on the edge of a canyon that wind funnels through, and sometimes it sounds like cries and moans are coming from the house. They told me to keep away. Someone told me the house was haunted, that some nights, there had been sounds like harsh laughter, and lights flickered on and off through the cracked windows.
But not anymore.
I don’t believe them.
Once, I peeked inside, climbing to the terrace up the steps with some missing bricks. I peered through a crack just over the sill in the wood that covered a broken window pane.
I saw a plastic Christmas tree festooned with cobwebs, surrounded by presents, still wrapped, with their tinsel bows all faded. I saw a dark stain on the carpet near the fireplace, other stains in the hall, on the floor and streaking the walls.
Nobody was there. All was silent.
No one lives on my street now but me. I live in my grandmother’s house, just as I did then when my grandmother was alive.
A long time ago, my grandmother and her sisters lived on this street, each in her own house. The houses all had the same plan, but each one was different, just like my grandmother and her sisters.
“We come in three delicious flavors,” Aunt Jenny would say. “Blond, brunette, and redhead.”
Aunt Jenny was the brunette, with brown hair, brown eyes soft as a puppy’s, and a fine profile that she showed off when she held her chin up just so. Like my grandmother, she spent a lot of time looking in the mirror, turning her head this way and that, smiling at herself and patting her hair. They were all vain, all beautiful, and like their houses, each sister was different.
Aunt Jenny’s house was dark and plush, with deep blue velvet drapes and Boston ferns and a tea cart with a silver tea set in the dining room. She had a fur cover on the wicker table in the sun porch with tiny glass and porcelain animals hidden in the fur, looking like creatures stalking their prey in the jungle.
My grandmother was the blond one. Everything in the house was there to flatter her—the robin’s-egg blue sofa, the pale carpets, the gauzy pastel curtains. I remember her best in the sun room, seated on a maroon velvet chair that had carved arms and legs, and looked like a throne. She would play with a panel full of dials and gauges, all shiny black and silver that sat on a table in front of her chair. She would wear earphones, and keep turning the dials, the smoke from her cigarette rising from the ashtray where it rested, and filling the room with the scent of burning tobacco. She would smoke cigarettes in a white mother- of- pearl holder that had a black ban studded with rhinestones around the edge.
If I interrupted when she sat out there, she would just stare at me silently and tap her foot until I ran out of the room.
There was a cherry tree in the garden, and every year, my grandmother would make cherry brandy, putting cherries and sugar and vodka into a large white crock in the store room in the basement. Every year, the crock would explode, and musty red cherry juice would drizzle down the walls of the basement store room.
But that wasn’t all that was in the basement. My grandmother told me that Santa Claus hid down there, waiting to take away bad children, and if I was bad, he would take me away. Santa Claus carried a sack over his shoulder and little legs of bad children stuck out of the top like broken sticks, and inside the sack, they kicked and squirmed, and tried to get out.
One time, when I spilled a glass of milk, my grandmother locked me in the basement for what she called ‘time out’, even though I didn’t spill the milk on purpose. It was just an accident, but she sent me to the basement anyway.
I screamed and yelled, and begged to be let out, stayed on the stairs near the door, huddling as far away from Santa as I could, heart throbbing with fear, waiting for him to take me away. I cried, I shouted, I pounded on the door, begged to be let out.
Couldn’t she hear me? Convulsing with fear, sobbing, I hammered on the door with my fist, banging on the pebbled glass window in the top half of the door until the glass broke and my hand went through. When I got out of the hospital, there was a new door, heavier, without a glass window.
Aunt Josie’s house had a formal garden in the back of her house, and sometimes when Aunt Josie and I would walk around in the garden she would hold my hand and call me her little elf. There was an organ with tall gleaming pipes in the sun room of her house. She would move her hands from one keyboard to the next, and play dark, hollow tunes that sounded like a whole orchestra and made the room shake while she squirmed on the bench in front of the organ to reach down to the pedals with her feet. She would pretend that she was the phantom of the opera, and she would toss her red hair and laugh at me with her bright green eyes, her gold tooth blinking in the light from the chandelier that swayed with the vibration from the music.
Aunt Josie’s house was in the middle of the street, and Aunt Jenny’s at the end, and every time I pass Aunt Josie’s house, I think about the Christmas tree that I saw that time I peeked inside through the crack in the wood that covered the broken window, and I shudder.
When I get to the end of the street, I stop. That’s as far as I go. The other side of the road is where the people and shops are, walking, shoving, pushing each other, full of noise and shouts and cars that speed down streets, braking, crashing into each other.
I’ll never go there. They told me that after a while, they would bring me there, teach me to buy things in the shops, walk along the streets with the others. I won’t go.
I started back and stopped at Aunt Josie’s again, curious, trying to remember.
I climbed the steps to the terrace again, tripped on a loose brick, and kept going. The latch on the front door was rusted and hanging. When I pushed, the door moved, scraping against the floor inside. I shoved again. It fell off the top hinge, hung partly open.
I had to go inside.
Using all my strength, shoving against it, I rammed the door open. The bottom scratched along the floor and I heard the scurry of rat’s feet, tried to back away. When the door hit my leg, it pushed me back into the room.
And I began to remember.
I moved toward the tree surrounded by the dusty gifts and adorned with the spider webs that look like smudged tinsel. The corners of the boxes were nibbled, the paper torn away from some of them. Santa Claus lay there, a bony hand clutching one of the boxes. A thin beam of light penetrated the crack in the wood over the window, and pointed at him, like the shaft of a javelin.
And I remembered, chest thumping, sounds drumming in my ears.
I remembered that day. I remembered the boxes under the tree with their bright ribbons. I remembered seeing Aunt Jenny’s sewing scissors, all silver and gold and shaped like a stork, with the blades of the scissors like the long, sharp beak of the bird, sitting on top of one of the boxes.
I remember sitting amid the boxes when I saw Santa Claus stumble into the room and come toward me, white-faced with a fake smile, slits for eyes, and a wooly beard and moustache.
I remember the flutter of fear, my heart hammering against my chest, my hands shaking as he advanced on me. I remember how he leaned down and rumbled in a hollow voice “Have you been good?” and reached out to grab me.
I began to cry. Sobbing, heartbeat thrashing, I looked around, tried to beg for help. But I choked.
He kept moving toward me, and no one came to help.
He groaned, fell to his knees, and I gouged again.
Deep in his head, his eyes went this way and that.
I can still feel the handle of the scissor, slippery and sticky as he fell to the floor, and I close my eyes to block out the memory.
# # #
I open my eyes, still shuddering, and see a golden glint at the end of the beam of light that shoots through the crack in the boards covering the windows.
It pulls me toward it. Still shuddering, I move past Santa’s body splayed on the floor, covered with the faded red uniform held in place with a dusty black plastic belt, and up to Santa’s head.
He’s still smiling.
I look closer at his face, and see it’s only a mask. The beard and the moustache are cotton wool, now crusted with dry blood. A corner of the mask is nibbled, just like the corners of the boxes, and the shiny reflection comes from a gold tooth underneath.
I pull off the mask. Underneath is Aunt Josie’s red hair, matted on the forehead of what is left of a bony face lit by the glint of Aunt Josie’s gold tooth, mouth agape, grinning from ear to ear in a rant of silent laughter.
And I fall back, over the boxes, over ribbons, over the scissors.
It’s Aunt Josie alright. Right here under the tree, wrapped up like a Christmas present.
Waiting for me.
Check out more Christmas short stories in our Terrific Tales section, and watch for more to go up between now and Christmas!