The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
By Amelia Kibbie
Every night, Elaine Berry’s dreams were dark and twisted. If she did not take her sleeping pills, she woke each day sweaty, disoriented, heart worming free of its cage. She did not often take her medication, because it made her dead. If Faye woke up crying, Elaine would sleep right through it. She traded nightmares for her daughter’s occasional call in the dark, her reedy, babyish voice floating to her ears. “Mommy… Mommy!”
“Mommy… Mommy, wake up!”
Elaine jerked awake. Faye’s brown eyes glimmered through the half-dawn that wept through the curtains, rich and liquid. “Mommy, you were crying again.”
“Sorry, baby, did I wake you up?” Elaine forced her frozen body to move, bending into a sitting position. Faye climbed into her lap, straddling her thighs and snuggling close so her mother could stroke her dark hair.
“No, I was already awake,” Faye admitted. “Today is Tree Day!”
“That’s right!” Elaine ground the remnants of her dream into little shards and swept them aside, focusing on the post-it note she’d stuck to her vanity mirror. It read “SAVE CHRISTMAS.” She put a note there every year, and every year it said the same thing. Christmas, for Elaine, was like a kitten stuck down a storm drain or a whale trapped under the ice. “Are you ready for this, baby girl?” She wrapped her arms around the elf-child dressed in reindeer footy pajamas and tickled her until she squealed.
Faye escaped off the bed and raced off to the meager living room, where the bare Christmas tree stood, naked and proud in a way Elaine could never be without clothes on. “Let’s go, Mommy, come on! This tree isn’t gonna decorate itself!”
“I don’t know where you got all this sassy attitude.” But Elaine smiled as she said it, leaving the bedroom for the tiny kitchen. She flipped on the coffee maker, and ignited the burner under the kettle. “I have to make the hot cocoa first!”
“I’ll go get the ornaments from the basement!”
Elaine stopped her, snatching her hand from the door. “Ah ah ah, nope. Remember, there are spiders down there. Mommy will go get them. Why don’t you put on the music?”
Faye knelt in front of the outdated CD player and flipped through a stack of red and green discs. Elaine poured the boiling water into a cup with cocoa mix, and left it to cool.
The little house where they lived was old, but the basement seemed older. Cool and dimly lit by the small windows in the foundation, the bare light bulb that hung from the ceiling offered little assistance. The dank crevice was home to many things: summer fans, boxes of books, warm-weather clothes, and Elaine’s barely-used treadmill. In a corner near the furnace she kept a stack of plastic red and green tubs, and one by one, she tugged them up the stairs.
The first Saturday in December was always Tree Day, and this year was only different because it felt merrier than each one before it. Several hours later, they were stuffed full of Christmas-tree-shaped Rice Krispies treats and cocoa, and the tree was a resplendent obelisk dripping with homemade ornaments Faye had brought home from school, and vintage treasures Gramma Jean had passed down to Elaine.
“I wish Daddy could see this,” Faye said, straightening her little drummer boy on one of the lower branches.
“What do you think of all our hard work?” Elaine deflected.
“It’s perfect!” Faye threw her arms around her mother’s waist and squeezed hard before bouncing off to unpack another box.
Perfect. Elaine smiled, gazing at the glowing Tanenbaum. Christmas had to be perfect for Faye. Had to be perfect.
“Now the angel!” Faye bubbled, putting the finishing touches on her nativity scene she’d set up on the coffee table.
Elaine searched the bins, rustling through tissue paper. She checked, and checked again. “Did you put it somewhere, honey?” she asked.
“No,” Faye said.
“Are you sure?” They searched through the bins together, piling all the tissue onto the threadbare couch.
“It’s nowhere, Mommy.”
The angel was hard to miss. She was easily a foot and a half tall, a ceramic figure in a flowing gown with light up wings and a beautiful, serene, Sistine-chapel face. It had been Gramma Jean’s favorite.
Twenty minutes later, they’d checked every room, drawer, and closet in the small dwelling. Elaine picked through the junk in the basement as best she could, but there was shit everywhere, and one wrong move would send boxes tumbling. Her eyes stung as she dragged herself back upstairs.
“Look, Mommy, I made a star.” Faye presented her with a tinfoil mass that was vaguely celestial. “This will do until we find her.”
The angel should have been there. There was nowhere else it could be. Its absence clawed at Elaine constantly for three days. Each night after her shift at the hospital, she searched. She searched in the middle of the night after Faye was asleep. The angel was gone.
A few nights later, Faye woke up screaming. Elaine had given up after hours of gnawing insomnia and taken her pill, and awoke with the vague dread that her daughter had been yelling for a long time. Stumbling, she raced around the corner and flipped on the light, rushing to lift the child from her bed and fold her into herself. “What is it? What is it, baby?”
Incoherent blubbering. The words “man” and “shadow” and “dark.”
“It was just a nightmare.” Like how Mommy has nightmares, she almost said, but stopped herself. They couldn’t be the same. Faye had not witnessed what her Elaine had seen when she was ten years old. What she dreamed of every night.
It wasn’t always the same, Elaine’s dream. Sometimes the circumstances were different. She and Gramma Jean would be in the kitchen, maybe, eating. Or she’d be outside, watching it all happen through the fake frost painted on the windowpanes. Once, she was the tiny Mary in the nativity scene and the violence was colossal compared to her size. Well, the violence was colossal no matter the scenario.
Each time, the same thing happened. In real life, she’d seen it through the bannister, cowering on the top step. It seemed her ears rang for days after the gunshot. That was preferable to the echoes in her head of Gramma Jean choking and gagging against Pap’s hands around her throat.
It took half an hour for Faye to fall back to sleep again. The next night, after another nightmare, it would take almost an hour. Faye was so tired in the dark December mornings that she wasn’t interested in opening the little doors on her Advent calendar. Every night, sometime around 3am, her sleep moans turned to shrieks. Elaine began to wake preemptively, lying in the dark until she heard the sounds of distress begin.
I should take her to a doctor, she thought. But this time of year, nobody was going to get time off. Her supervisor made that clear enough. The nights were long and cold and black.
It was December 14th. Well, 15th. It was after midnight. Elaine stared at the white, crumbly ceiling of her bedroom, waiting for Faye to start crying, ticking things off the checklist in her mind. Presents were purchased and wrapped. All of the cards were sent. She had Betty covering her on the 26th so she could take Faye ice skating. Her eyes roamed to the post-it on her mirror. Things were good. Ahead of schedule. There should be nothing left to do but sit back and enjoy as the holiday crept closer and closer, a tinsel-draped predator. Yet dread settled, heavy and grainy, in her stomach.
Elaine got up and pulled on her soft purple robe. There was no sound from Faye’s room, but it had to start any minute. A little light spilled in from the twinkling tree, just enough for her to see the little body balled up under her pink blankets.
And the hulking shadow that hovered at the side of her bed.
Elaine felt her throat go watery and pins pierce her knees. She feared falling.
The mass was man-shaped. It quivered and shook like smoke on the wind, but it was unmistakably the outline of a person. A man, with a barrel chest and a baseball cap. No face. No eyes.
It bent at the waist and put its ill-defined hands around Faye’s neck.
She whimpered and tossed under its touch, and then sucked in air to scream.
Elaine beat her to it, letting out a breathless shriek and slapping her hand against the wall to claw on the light.
There was nothing there. Just a screaming girl twisting in the sheets.
They were up the rest of the night. Elaine forced herself to go to work, to take Faye to school. Get them both out of the house.
It was not discussed, but at bedtime, Faye crawled into bed with her mother.
Elaine plowed through her nightmares in the wee hours, and woke to Faye thrashing. The shadow was there. She registered it, but refused to acknowledge its existence. Wrapping her arms around Faye, she plunged them both under the covers where they breathed heavily. Silence. They lay, frozen.
Hours later, just before her alarm went off, Elaine drifted as Faye snored gently in her arms. Somewhere, deep in the little house, she heard flapping. Wings flapping, deeply echoing, like a pigeon alighting on its nest in a parking garage.
All this, it happened every night. Faye grew hollow-eyed and skeletal, but she never spoke of it. Elaine said nothing for fear that acknowledging such things made them stronger.
If you ignore a bully long enough, he’ll go away, Gramma Jean once promised.
Of course, in the end, that hadn’t helped her one bit. Elaine hadn’t pulled the trigger in time.
It was December 21st before Elaine finally got a call back from a church. Though she left a dozen messages, none seemed particularly interested in performing a house blessing this close to Christmas. There were craft bazaars and bake sales and choir concerts to plan. The Catholic church left a voicemail while she was at work, but when Elaine called back that evening, no one answered.
The next morning, they padded into the kitchen, exhausted, silent. Elaine flipped on the radio to fill the void as Faye halfheartedly helped herself to her Advent calendar. The foil-wrapped chocolate imploded in her hand, oozing and rancid. Small oblong white objects slithered free over her palm.
“Mommy, there’s rice in my chocolate,” Faye said.
Elaine looked, and spilled the orange juice she was pouring. Maggots writhed in the ruined candy, and a foul stench bathed the air. “Oh my God!” she gasped, clattering the cup and juice bottle to the counter and sweeping Faye into her arms. She ran the hot water into the sink and washed everything down into the disposal, flipping the switch. The metal teeth in the sink roared to life as she poured a generous dollop of antibacterial dish soap onto Faye’s hands and scrubbed hard.
“Ow, Mommy, too hot!”
“Sorry, baby, here, dry off.” She pulled a kitchen towel free from where it hung on the fridge door and ushered her daughter aside, gazing fixedly on the tree-shaped advent calendar. She stepped over to the kitchen table and reached out with quaking fingers.
“Mommy, you aren’t supposed to open them on the wrong day!” Faye complained.
Elaine murmured something unintelligible, and opened the next flap.
The small space within squirmed with larvae. As she recoiled, more maggots erupted from the other pockets in the calendar, bursting through the cardboard seams. Elaine swallowed her disgusted scream, and shoved the whole thing into the garbage. She tied the plastic strings, and dashed out to the can at the curb in her stocking feet, shoving the bag deep within.
When she returned, Faye stared at her with shadowed, red-rimmed eyes.
Elaine struggled to catch her breath. “There’s… not supposed to be rice in them,” she said.
The next afternoon, when they got home from daycare, Faye’s ceramic nativity scene was a war zone. Someone had smashed the manger holding the baby Messiah before He could properly die for our sins. The rest of the figurines lay at odd angles next to His remains.
Faye wept bitterly.
I think there’s a bird in the house,” Elaine soothed, pulling her daughter onto her lap, their coats sliding against one another. “Have you heard the wings? The wings beating?”
Faye cried harder.
“The bird knocked it over,” Elaine lied.
She wanted to stay up late and glue Jesus back together, but didn’t dare send Faye to bed alone. Elaine packed the Messiah-less nativity back into the storage bin while her daughter took her bath that night. In the basement, she heard a rustling, and ran back up the stairs, slamming the door. Sinking against it, she dissolved, burying her face in her knees and letting loose the silent weeping that all mothers have perfected. Christmas is not saved, her mind moaned. Losing the angel was an ill omen. She’d put that statue in a place of honor every yuletide since Gramma Jean died. Christmas is not saved; Christmas is ruined.
Christmas Eve. “Can we sleep by the tree?” Faye begged. She craved the light, Elaine knew.
Elaine stretched out on the lumpy couch with her comforter, and Faye curled up on her secondhand sleeping bag. The CD player sat on the floor between them, quietly serenading Christmas tunes.
“Is Daddy coming tomorrow?”
“Daddy lives in Arizona now, sweetheart. That’s too far to come.”
“Was your daddy at Christmas when you were little?” Faye asked, squeezing her stuffed dolphin under her arm.
“The first two, I guess,” Elaine responded, looking at the clock. “Remember, mommy’s parents passed away when she was younger than you are now.”
“And that’s when you went to live with Gramma Jean,” Faye remembered.
“Yes.” Elaine wanted to close her eyes, but she knew it only made the visions worse. Instead, she stared at the tree until her eyes stung and watered. This was better than to see Gramma Jean’s protruding tongue, Pap’s brains dripping down the wall.
“There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories…” the CD player sang. Suddenly, Andy Williams’s voice melted and morphed. A guttural mewling sound spewed forth from the speakers, rasping and raging into words. Faye winced and covered her ears.
“Old cow got what was coming…” The otherworldly voice snaked and twisted through gobs of hyena-like yelps and static.
Elaine, gasping, rolled on her stomach and yanked the power cord from the wall.
But the voice didn’t stop.
“You shot me, you little bitch…”
Elaine scrambled free of her blanket and scooped up the CD player. A few steps later, she yanked open the kitchen door and pitched the machine out into the snow.
Faye stared at her as she came back in and lay down again.
“I guess it’s broken,” Faye said.
Elaine swallowed the acid of her panic. “Go to sleep,” she said. “Otherwise Santa can’t come.”
Perhaps it was the recent bundle of interrupted nights, or the terror that coursed through her veins, but Elaine slept almost immediately. She woke in the wee hours, cursing silently. She had to hurry and put out the presents. Santa hadn’t come yet, and Faye was known for getting up for Christmas morning well before four.
Creeping to her feet and tiptoeing down the hall, she eased open the closet door and shifted some extra towels to the side. The presents rustled, the papery flesh of their gay wrapping crinkling in the clock-ticked silence. She moved slowly, trying to preserve the quiet.
Then came the choking. Gagging and wheezing, a faint pounding of heels on the floor.
Elaine dropped the gifts and leapt back into the living room.
The specter had Faye by the neck at the base of the Christmas tree. His details were clearer now, and she could make out the Pioneer feed cap on his head, the greasy suspenders clinging to his broad shoulders.
“Pap!” she choked.
Faye struggled against the smoke-ghost arms that held her, but her hands bounced off ineffectually. She was just a baby, her baby—
“Let her go!” Elaine shrieked.
And suddenly, the wings, the sound of the wings roared against the basement door, feverish and insistent.
It’s not a bird, she thought, and raced for the kitchen.
Throwing the basement door open, she thundered down the splintery steps toward the noise. The deeper she went into the basement, the louder it became. Clawing against dusty cardboard, she shoved aside some boxes of clothes and fell to her knees.
There was Gramma Jean’s Christmas tree angel. It had fallen behind the furnace.
Elaine snatched it up and pounded upstairs. The angel was her weapon this time.
Taking two giant steps over the linoleum, she burst into the living room and jammed the angel onto the tree.
Light blinded them, and she heard Pap roar in rage and pain. Elaine fell on the floor and cupped Faye to her. The child breathed. This time she’d won. She’d saved the one she loved.
She rolled away and scrambled into a corner before daring to look.
The angel was not on the tree. She stood, large as life, in front of Pap’s ghost. Without a word, she shoved her hand through his chest. The shadow of him exploded with a growling cry.
Gramma Jean’s angel turned to them and smiled.
Everything went black.
When she woke, sun streamed through the windows. Elaine’s sleep had been deep, and her mind lacked boundaries. There were no dreams.
“Faye?” she cried, jerking to her knees.
A giggle. Elaine turned to see Faye kneeling over her presents, the gifts scattered throughout the hallway. “Merry Christmas, Mommy!” she laughed, her eyes dancing, joyful above the wreath of bruises around her throat.
The angel watched them, beatific and placid, from her rightful place at the top of the Christmas tree.