Christmas Spirit (Part Two)

31 Days of Holiday Hooligans is at its end. I hope you thoroughly enjoyed all the holiday shenanigans. Click here to revisit some of your favorite posts. Day 31 will end with the conclusion to “Christmas Spirit.” If you missed it, read Part One here. Don’t forget to come back tomorrow to read the first installment of the equally haunting Buried Series!

Christmas Spirit (conclusion)

I was still in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church thirty minutes after the funeral service was set to begin. I twisted the bottom corner of my blazer around my index finger, brushed away lent from my pants, checked my reflection in the rearview mirror, adjusted my lipstick, fluffed my hair. While I had attended funerals before, this was my first one for someone I met after death. How was I supposed to introduce myself? The church was no bigger than a small house in the suburbs, and I only counted eleven cars in the parking lot. Someone was bound to ask me who I was, how I knew the family.

I was cranking the engine when the doors to the church opened and four men in gray suits carrying the casket stepped down the stairs one by one, in sync with one another. Parked at the curb in front of the church was a black hearse. They pushed the casket into the back of the vehicle and returned to the bottom of the steps to assist people down the stairs. The first to exit was the family: the mother, the three sisters, and an older man who might have been the grandfather. They stood in front of the hearse as those headed to their cars stopped to pay their final respects. The mother could barely hold herself together. Every few minutes, she was pulling tissue from her purse to wipe her nose. Her head was red and swollen from all of the crying. After the sixth or seventh person walked up to her to squeeze her hands and reassure her that everything would be ok, she collapsed into her father’s arms in a fit of shudders. I didn’t have to roll my windows down to hear her wailing, “My boy! My Jason!” The girls stood off to the side, hugging themselves.

I turned off the engine and got out of the car. I wasn’t sure what I would say, but watching this woman break down over the death of her son, her only son, hurt my heart. Would she believe me if I told her I had seen Jason’s ghost?

“I just want to say that your son will truly be missed.” I spat out the first generic, unemotional words I could think of. I was so disgusted with myself, I started back to my car before letting her respond.

“How did you know my son?” she called after me in a weak, shaky voice.

I slowly turned around; praying that I could think of an acceptable lie before my mouth opened and regurgitated another classic funeral line I’d learned over the years. “Excuse me?” I asked.

“I don’t think we’ve met. How did you know Jason?” the woman asked again, dabbing her nose.

“I, uh—”

“Are you one of the teachers at his school?”

“No.” A reflex answer, but I wished I had said “yes” to end the interrogation.

“Then how?” she asked. The pallbearers, the grandfather, the lingering friends waiting on the steps for their turned to give their condolences, or by their cars to head to the cemetery for the burial were all staring.

“I don’t remember seeing you in the service,” the grandfather said.

“She was in the car the whole time,” the youngest of the sisters said, pointing behind me to my car, the driver’s side door wide open. Had she been watching me?

“Who are you?” the mother demanded.

“I—I,” I couldn’t think of anything, so I told the truth. “I was there.”

“You were where?” she asked.

“When he died.” I didn’t want to say too much. I knew the circumstances were hard enough for them to bear. They didn’t deserve the reminder of how they had gotten there. However, when the only responses I received were confused faces, I began to wonder if I made the right decision in coming. “When he hung himself?” I added, hopeful.

“What are you talking about? My son was killed by a drunk driver!” the woman screamed. She fell over the side mirror of the hearse, heaved up air and released a series of loud sobs.

“Alright, you need to leave,” the grandfather said in a deep, commanding voice. That was when I noticed the program in his hand. Underneath the words: “In Loving Memory of Jason Wilkins,” was a picture of a teenage boy with olive skin, a full face, and full, pink lips. He had brown freckles only on his nose. His hair was black and cut short, and his eyes were a dark brown. He was not my ghost.

I tried to speak, apologize for the trouble I’d just caused, but the grandfather glared at me and pointed towards the parking lot. “Get,” he said slowly.

I left humiliated, unable to hold back the tears. I drove straight home and stormed through my front door.

“Jason! Or whoever the hell you are because you’re not him!” I said, slamming the door behind me. “You made me look like a fool out there!”

I went to my room, looked behind the door, underneath the bed. “Come out!” I said. I snatched open my closet doors; they rattled against the wall. I pushed aside the clothes on the hangers, pounded on the back wall. I moved down to the floor of the closet, digging through piles of shoes I never wore and wrinkled dresses I never bothered to hang. I tossed everything behind me trying to reach the bottom.

“Where are you, Casper?” I shouted. Then I paused. “Oh, that’s right. You only show when I’m drunk!” I left the mess in my room and headed for the kitchen to get a Heineken from the refrigerator, but when I walked through the living room, I froze. All of my Christmas decorations were out of their boxes and on the coffee table. Not just the ones I’d bought, but also the ones that had been in the attic for over a year collecting dust: the glass ornaments, the candy canes, the red and green ribbons, even the angel.

He stood with his back to me looking at the Christmas tree.

“Hey!” I called.

He turned around. The wide grin on his face took me by surprise so much, I forgot my anger.

“Did you do this?” I asked.

He nodded his head.

“Why?”

He picked up an ornament with dancing elves painted all around it. He put a hook through the loop and hung the ornament on the tree. He looked at me, and with a grin spread from ear to ear, he clapped his hands vigorously without making a sound. He took a second ornament and held it out for me. I stepped toward him, confused. Then I looked down at the coffee table.

“You know,” I said with a wink. “Traditionally, we put the lights on first.” I ripped open one of the boxes and pulled out the string of white lights. I handed him one end, and together we circled the tree, wrapping the lights around each branch. When we finished, I plugged in the lights, and both the tree and the boy lit up. He went for the second box of lights and tossed me one end. Again, we went around the tree, making sure to light every dark space. When we finished, we hung the rest of the ornaments. Although I originally wanted a winter wonderland theme, I let him hang whatever he wanted; candy canes, reindeer, Peanuts characters, basketball ornaments, even a one-legged Santa I thought I threw out years ago. The tree appeared weighed down for all the ornaments, the branches dipping to the floor. He wasn’t bothered, however. His face was void of all hints of sadness. I could barely see the purple bruise around his neck.

Last to go up was the angel.

“I always wondered why we put angels at the top of Christmas trees,” I said. “I mean, Christmas is about Jesus being born. Why don’t we put him on top?”

I picked up the angel and examined it. She held a candle stick in each hand. A string of lights hung around the hem of her robe. I went to the kitchen, took a paper towel sheet from the ring above the sink, balled it up, and stuffed it under the angel’s robe. I returned to the living room, plugged the angel into the lights, and sat it on the top branch of the tree. All of the lights seemed to collect at her womb.

“See, it’s Mary. And that,” I said, pointing to the protruding stomach created by the paper towel, “is baby Jesus.”

He stared up at the angel. His smile was gone but he wasn’t somber. He looked content. The depression and ghostly melancholy that came with his death no longer existed. Watching him, my anger receded. He was just a boy, a lonely boy. I felt a tear glide down my face, but my hand went for his cheek. He clasped my hand in both of his. He was surprisingly warm. He laid his cheek on my hand and closed his eyes. I closed my eyes with him, and when I opened them, he was gone.

—Nortina

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Christmas Spirit

For my final two days of 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans, I’m turning left, in a rather bleak direction. The Buried Series, a suspenseful serial short story, is coming in January, and I’d like to prepare you for it with a Nortina original, “Christmas Spirit,” a yuletide ghost story. No, Buried is not a ghost story, but it will definitely haunt you. So sit back, relax, and let the Christmas spirit, guide you into the eerie realm of Buried…

Christmas Spirit (Part One)

I was drunk. The shaggy man with the body order and sweaty armpits had been grinding behind me all night and probably slipped something into my drink. I might have hallucinated the whole thing. But could I have imaged the wailing siren, the flashing red lights from the ambulance? Could I have imaged giving my statement to the police? Could I have imaged those cold, mud-crusted feet looming from above, grazing my face as I stumbled into my neighbor’s yard trying to find my way home?

They zipped the body up in a large black bag and pushed it into the back of a van destined for the morgue. The police could have arrested me, charged me for being heavily intoxicated outside, but the trauma of seeing a young child hang himself saved me. I slurred my address, pointed to the dark house across the street. They carried me home, laid me down on my stomach on the living room couch. There, I awoke the next morning and realized the boy wasn’t dead.

His clouded, gray eyes peered at me through stringy, blonde hair. He wore a wrinkled white t-shirt and basketball shorts. His skin was so pale, it blended with his clothing. What stood out was the purple ring around his neck, created by the shoestring that strangled him underneath the ice covered tree branch. He could barely hold up his head, similar to the struggle of an infant trying to sit. He looked so short and frail, but when I asked him his age, he mouthed, “Sixteen.”

I thought I was dreaming. Maybe that was why I didn’t immediately scream and flee out of the front door. Instead, I rose from the couch and tried to touch him, confirm that he was real, but he drew back, dodged my questioning fingers, and disappeared behind the naked Christmas tree in front of the window facing the scene of his attempted suicide. I tried to follow him, but all of the alcohol from the night before rushed to my head in search of an exit through my ears or eyes. The red and beige zigzags in the carpet twisted my stomach into knots. I toppled over to the burn of the carpet’s fibers against my nose and cheek.

***

The office lights were too bright. The white cells of the spreadsheet absorbed the numbers I’d just entered and glared into my brain. I could taste my breakfast, a hazelnut latte, at the back of my throat. I pulled the trashcan from underneath my desk, laid my head down on the edge, and leaned over the trashcan, prepared to heave up the rest of my stomach.

“So how about that Christmas party, huh?” I heard my co-worker say.

I raised my head to see Charlette standing over me. She was a petite blonde, who was as skinny as my pinky finger. A temp five years out of college, but she had the voice of a three-year-old.

“Hey, Charlette,” I said.

“You look like you’re still hung over!” Her shrill voice vibrated against my skull.

“It’s been a long weekend.” I messaged my eyebrows.

“You were dancing with Danny from finance most of the night.” She nudged my shoulder and winked.

“Not by choice.” I rolled my eyes, searched the office for a way to escape the conversation. The cubicles were quiet. Other than an occasional “Southland Rentals?” in response a ringing phone, I would have believed that Charlette and I were the only ones there. Most were already off for the holiday. The rest of us had to work up to Christmas Eve. Customer service—so sure there would be last minute orders placed.

We weren’t the only souls in the office. Every sudden chill, every attack of goose bumps, every time the hairs on my neck and arms stood on end as a current of static electricity surfed amongst them, I knew he was there with me.

I wasn’t ready to admit that I had a ghost following me. The only spirit I believed in was the Holy One, and I had no confirmation that the boy was even dead. I had woken up early that morning, five o’clock, just to watch the news, hoping the reporters would reveal information about the boy hanging from Mrs. Nash’s tree. I didn’t have the convenience of asking her. She was spending the holidays in Georgia with her daughter. Any other neighbors were busy, working parents who barely had enough time to worry about their own children, more less come to the door to talk about someone else’s dead child. Unfortunately, the news was of no avail either. Maybe that segment came on while I was in the shower, or down on my hands and knees, searching underneath my bed for my other pump.

“Well I saw you two leave together—”

“Did you hear about the kid who killed himself Saturday night?” I interrupted.

“No! That’s horrible! Where did you hear that?”

“I just…I heard,” I said. The evidence, or lack thereof, pointed to my encounters Saturday night and Sunday morning being nothing more than dreams.

***

The bar after work was a mistake, but I needed the whiskey. I needed the burn in my throat to kill the haunting feeling that I was being watched. Unfortunately, I gained another pair of eyes. They were green and belonged to a dark skin man with one dimple that made his smile look like a mischievous smirk. He was disgusting. The way he ran his tongue along his front teeth and bit his bottom lip whenever he made a suggestive comment about what other hard things, besides brown liquor, my throat could take. He put his arm around my chair and breathed words of encouragement into my ear, so confident that his one-liners would hike my skirt. I wanted to retch my response all over his face, show him how lattes and take-out Chinese food tasted after festering at the bottom of the stomach for seven hours.

The whiskey had other plans. It invited him back to my house, challenged him to test the limits of my strong throat. The whiskey took complete possession of my body. I could see myself in the mirror biting on his neck and shoulder as he nearly ripped the zipper off my pencil skirt. He threw me onto the bed and fumbled to unbutton his belt. I looked at his reflection in the mirror, hypnotized by his mahogany skin, and the gyrations of the muscles in his back as he moved. When he bent over to drop his pants, I saw in the mirror, standing directly behind me, another person in the room with us. Immediately, I screamed.

“He’s big isn’t he?” he said, looking down in adoration of himself.

“You …you have to go!” I scooped his pants off the floor and shoved them into his chest.

“Intimidated?” he asked laughing.

“Now!” I threw him out of my house with his pants still in his arms. He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed about being naked from the waist down. He proudly strutted to his car, proclaiming to the world a false victory. I slammed the door behind him and stomped back to my room. The boy was sitting on my bed, his chin in his chest.

“So you only show up when I’m drunk? Is that it?” I asked him. I shifted all of my weight onto my left foot and place my hands on my hips.

He slowly lifted head and stared at me with wide eyes. He looked heartbroken.

“I’m sorry.” I sighed and dropped my arms. “You just…please, you look so sad. Are you depressed? Of course you’re depressed. You killed yourself. I mean—” I was rambling.

He slowly stood to his feet. I rushed to the bed and knelt in front of him, almost touching him.

“Why did you do it?” I asked.

He walked around me.

“Did your parents divorce? Do you blame yourself?” I continued.

He paused at the doorway but didn’t turn around.

“Are you homeless?” I asked.

He started down the hallway towards the living room. I followed behind him on my toes. He was so silent, I felt like I was disturbing him.

“Are you gay? Did kids tease you at school?”

He stopped in front of the Christmas tree, which still had not been decorated. He looked it over from top to bottom and reached up to pinch the top branch.

“It’s not real,” I said. I’d bought the tree at Wal-Mart on Black Friday along with blue and white lights to go around it. The tips of the branches were white to give the allusion of a dusting of snow. I was on my way to the checkout when I’d spotted silver-glittered snowflake and icicle ornaments and bought four boxes each. They were a perfect addition to the winter wonderland theme I had planned for my Christmas decorations. I was going to prove my mother wrong. She often joked that people could tell I was single and without children because my house always stood dark during the Christmas season.

Unfortunately, in the time between exiting the store, and entering my house, I’d lost my motivation. Instead, the decorations adorned the coffee table for four weeks. The only reason I put the Christmas tree up was because I was sick of seeing the bulky box on my couch.

“I know it’s late. It’ll probably be next year before I get it decorated. But what does a Christmas tree mean, anyway? It’s not in the Bible,” I said with a weak laugh.

He looked translucent, his skin the color of glassine paper. I could see my brown curtains through him and feared he was about to fade away before my eyes.

“At least tell me who you are,” I begged. “Who you were?”

Without looking, he pointed to the coffee table where I had tossed the morning’s newspaper on top of the unopened Christmas decorations.

“The obituaries! Of course!” I shouted. I snatched the paper from the plastic bag and flipped to the obituary section, hunting for any name that didn’t sound like it originated in the 1920s. This was my final hope to prove I wasn’t imagining my haunting. I read throw the Beatrices, the Henriettas, the Homers, and the Kermits, until fell upon a Jason. Sixteen, first baseman on his high school varsity team.

I looked up at him. “Jason?” I asked.

He turned around, but the melancholy didn’t leave his face, a sad recognition of the life he once had. I continued reading. He left behind a grieving mother and three younger sisters.

“It doesn’t say that you killed yourself,” I said.

He curled his lips, as if to say, “Why would it?”

“Yea, I guess you’re right. The funeral’s tomorrow. That seems pretty quick,” I said, still reading. I considered going. Maybe that was what he wanted, why he latched onto me. Though our connection bore from a tragic event, maybe all he needed was a stranger to care about him after the world was rid of him.

“I’ll go,” I said to an empty room.

Nortina