By Miranda Crites
It had been unseasonably warm, and it made decorating the yard much easier. There was a big snowstorm brewing in the west, and it would be hitting within the next few days. George and Eloise Amberson always had a nice display of Christmas lights and decorations. Families drove from miles around to see the display. This year was going to be extraordinary. Grandpa George had been nipping the Fireball bottle a bit, and between that and the lovely sunshine, he was in high spirits! He couldn’t wait until Christmas Eve. Nothing in the world made him feel more youthful than Christmastime. The lights, presents, decorating the tree, the family, and the feast!
Kate had turned twelve early this year. She was almost a teenager now and was looking forward to her late winter birthday in February. For now, she wished she could still be excited for this year’s special holiday at Grandpa and Gran Amberson’s. It had always been a nearly magical moment for her.
“Knock-knock, Katie. Are you awake yet?” Maria asked as she entered her daughter’s cluttered room. “Good grief, kiddo, you’re going to have to get this mess cleaned up.”
“Ugh! I’m not even out of bed yet, Mom, and you’re already griping at me. Besides, it’s Saturday,” Kate whined from under her comforter.
“Well, grumpy, I have some good news,” Maria said as she sat down on the edge of Kate’s bed.
“What? Did you win the lottery or something?” Kate asked, rolling over and giggling. Her little sister, Emma, had sailed into her bed and was tickling her feet.
“Oh, now that would be some great news for sure! Actually, I got a call from work this morning, and I get the entire week off with pay!”
Kate sat up. “That’s awesome, Mom! We get to spend the whole week together!”
“Yeah, I thought we could do something fun today. Maybe go to the mall and finish up our shopping, grab a pizza—”
“Pizza. Pizza. PIZZA,” Emma started chanting. She was eight, and annoyed Kate half to death at times, but they had a strong bond. They fought a lot, but she swore she would always protect Emma and keep her safe.
“Yeah! Pizza, pizza, pizza face Emma,” Kate teased.
Their mom finished, “I want to get everything wrapped tonight and get packed. I would love to leave for the mountains early in the morning so we can spend a day with Mom and Dad before everyone else starts to arrive. Dad said he would like you girls to help him get the tree this year.”
Emma began to bounce up and down on the bed in excitement, her blonde curls bobbing wildly. She took off to get her suitcase from the basement.
“We get to stay at Grandpa and Gran’s the whole week?” Kate asked, her big brown eyes wide.
“I talked to Dad earlier, and he is really excited. I think the mountain air will do wonders for the three of us. It’ll be great to spend more time with the family. More relaxing. Less rushed.”
“Who else will be there?” Kate wondered.
“The timing for everybody is looking pretty good. I think almost everyone is supposed to show up on Monday except for your Uncle Leo. He won’t be there until Tuesday,” Maria answered. “Gonna be a full house. Mom and Dad haven’t had all their kids and grandkids under one roof for a long time now, so they’ve really got the Christmas spirit this year. Without Lucille, this is as complete as the family will ever be.”
Kate slid down in her bed and covered her head with the comforter.
“Everything okay, hon?” Maria asked.
“Yeah. What time are we going to the mall?”
“As soon as you two get ready, we’ll go,” Maria told her and went to finish getting herself ready. Kate rolled over and punched her mattress several times then screamed into her pillow. The muffled screams were drowned out by the sounds of the holiday music now blaring from Emma’s room.
She wanted today to be a good day. She wanted to visit with Grandpa George and Gran Eloise, her aunts and uncles, and all her cousins she only saw once a year at most. But it was hard to enjoy any day when her thoughts kept returning to Uncle Leo. He’d been married to her mom’s baby sister, Lucille, before she’d been killed in an accident at work, but he’d been a friend of the family all his life. And vacation at Grandpa and Gran’s with Uncle Leo there? It just hadn’t been the same the last couple of years. He’d been her favorite uncle. They were close. He always flew in at Christmas. He almost always made it to their home for Kate’s and Emma’s birthday parties every year, he stayed with them over the Fourth of July holiday, and usually again for a long weekend in the autumn.
Uncle Leo always brought the best presents, presents her mom couldn’t afford since Kate’s dad had passed away. Last Christmas, he brought her the huge art kit she had secretly been wanting. It was the one in the gorgeous stainless case with acrylics, oil pastels, watercolours, papers, pencils, charcoal, craft knives, a wooden palette, and pretty much anything a real artist needed. She knew it was an expensive kit, so she hadn’t bothered to ask her mom for it.
There were always conditions anymore. He would make her come sit on his lap and cuddle with him, or give him lots of kisses before he would let her have the gifts. She felt a bit silly being such a big girl and still being cuddled and tickled like a baby. Her mom would prod her to go. “Oh, Katie, just go give him a big hug. It’s the least you can do after he bought you all those presents.” Or, “Katie, quit being such a brat.”
But it wasn’t okay. Over the last year, Kate had grown and blossomed. Her mom was now a single parent and didn’t get much alone time, so sometimes when Uncle Leo would be home for a visit, she would go out with friends and leave Kate and Emma with him. At first, it was nice to see her mom happy again, and for the girls to have time with Uncle Leo. He’d always been super-affectionate, but recently his wandering hands had become exploring hands. When alone with the girls at night, Emma would go to bed; she was always ready for a nap or bedtime. Uncle Leo would promise to let Kate stay up past her bedtime, eat popcorn, and let her choose horror movies to watch. Kate had just begun exploring the world of horror movies, so it was a special treat for her. Her mom didn’t let her watch them.
When Uncle Leo would see her jump from a particular scene, he would encourage her to scoot closer, eventually persuading her to sit on his lap. During any sex scenes, Kate would look away, embarrassed, or head to the kitchen for a Coke, but he would praise the woman’s body and tell Kate she had a beautiful body, too. And the touching and wandering hands intensified. Things just kept getting worse. Things kept going farther.
The last time she’d seen Uncle Leo was in October. There had been a Halloween convention with a large haunted house Kate had been wanting to attend. He had volunteered to take her. It was a long drive, so he booked a room at the hotel for the night. They had a wonderful time…until what he called “the afterparty” began.
He offered her wine, “C’mon, Katie, I won’t tell if you won’t. It’s good stuff.”
“Oh, no, I don’t think I like that stuff,” she’d replied.
“Katie, it can be our little secret. I’ll let you choose any horror movie you want if you drink half a cup,” he’d told her. “I believe I saw some new releases on the guide.”
“I…what’s it taste like?” she had wondered.
“It’s delicious. There’s only one way to find out!” He pressed the cup to her lips.
As usual, no was never an answer with Uncle Leo.
She took a couple of sips. It was hot and burned her throat. She didn’t like it. Uncle Leo must have liked it a lot. He emptied three bottles himself. Finally, he had pressured her into drinking at least two of the hotel courtesy cups full of wine.
“I said you could choose the movie once you drank half a cup. Now, finish it, and I’ll let you watch it!” he had told her sternly but then laughed. It was almost like he was joking. Almost.
She couldn’t remember much from that night after that. The room had spun so fast, and she fell back onto the bed. Only bits and pieces came to her at times, and not being able to remember fully what had happened, she wasn’t sure of anything that had happened after the second cup he’d forced her to drink. Was it a dream? Was it a movie? Did any of those horrible things really happen between her and Uncle Leo? Deep down, she knew the answer, but she was afraid. More than anything, she was ashamed. She was afraid to admit it to herself. She knew she couldn’t tell anyone. No one would believe her especially if she wasn’t even sure she believed it herself. She knew for certain that she didn’t want to see him again, and she didn’t know how she was going to be able to avoid him over Christmas.
Kate tore herself from her bed and headed to the shower. She didn’t want anything to ruin her day with her mom and sister. But those terrible thoughts (or were they memories?) were always there. She shoved them down deep, as far as she could, and their day out was one to be treasured.
Early Sunday afternoon, Maria, Kate, and Emma arrived at Grandpa George and Granny Eloise’s farm in the mountains. The drive took four hours on a good day, but it gave Kate plenty of time to draw. She didn’t go anywhere without her art kit. She hoped to one day become a comic illustrator. Emma just slept the whole time. Sleeping was her favorite pastime, well, other than eating. The last stretch of the drive had been tedious and had taken them an extra forty-five minutes due to the heavy snow, which had finally slacked off during the last ten minutes of the drive. They could see the Christmas lights from the end of the long driveway.
“Mom was right! It’s the best display yet. She said Dad really worked hard on the lights this year!!” Maria squealed as she turned into the gravel driveway of her childhood home.
They were greeted at the door with hugs and kisses from Grandpa George and Granny Eloise. Gran and Emma ran off to the kitchen where Granny was cutting out her famous sugar cookies. Maria and Kate went to see Grandpa George’s electric train display he had set up on the pool table in the den.
Everything seemed almost perfect in the world.
Everyone was awakened before the crack of dawn on Monday morning to what sounded like a rusty-jawed dinosaur roaring then going into a coughing fit.
“HOOOOOO-ie!” Grandpa George let out a huge holler and honked the horn on his antique red truck. He’d gone to the barn and managed to get “Ol’ Red” started.
He hobbled back into the house, careful to avoid the icy patches, and yelled, “Katie and Emma, c’mon! I got Ol’ Red runnin’. Hear that? She purrin’ like a kitten! Let’s go get that Christmas tree!”
They quickly dressed and went out the door with Grandpa George, excited to be going with him to choose the special tree. This was the first year either of them had gotten to go help choose the tree. Grandpa George had planted a nice patch of a variety of pine trees in one of the fields behind the house thirty years ago, and he always planted twenty more every spring. He was proud of his pines. The girls chose a blue spruce this year. Grandpa fired up his trusty old Stihl chainsaw, and soon they had the tree loaded and were back home.
“Lookie there, Gran,” Grandpa George said that evening, pointing at the sparkling tree, “that’s the best lookin’ Christmas tree in all of North Carolina. Get the Polaroid and take my picture in front of it.” He tugged at his red suspenders to show how proud he was. Granny Eloise took his picture. He wrote the date on it and pinned the photo to the wall with the last forty or so that were pinned there. “That’s one for the books!”
Tuesday was Christmas Eve, and by noon, everyone was under one roof. Uncle Leo had been the last to arrive.
All the boys were roommates in Lucille’s old bedroom. The girls stayed in Maria’s old room. Kate had stayed in the bedroom as long as she could. She knew she had to come out soon. They always opened presents before supper, and it was time. She thought she might faint or puke or both. She wasn’t sure she could do this.
Emma knocked and peeked through the crack in the door.
“You in here, Katie?” She saw Kate sitting on the bed and asked, “You doing okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Maybe you’re hungry. I’m hungry.”
“Em, you’re a garbage disposal,” Kate said and added exaggerated hungry monster sound effects as they left the bedroom.
“Well, well, look who finally decided to make an appearance!” Uncle Leo had just exited his bedroom the same time as the girls.
Emma said, “Yeah, he’s been wondering where you were.”
“Oh. I was…drawing. Drawing a lot.”
Uncle Leo walked toward the girls and gave Kate a big hug. Emma ran on down the hall toward the living room, or more likely to the kitchen to snag another of Gran’s cookies.
“Drawing, huh? You were always such a good artist, Katie. You’ll have to show me some of your latest work,” he said. “Sure have missed you guys.”
“Yeah, well, I—I’ve missed you, too,” Kate said. She hadn’t wanted to see him again, but maybe everything had really been a dream. Maybe it was her imagination. Some weight dropped from her chest and shoulders. Maybe things were okay.
He hugged her again, and said, “Well, let’s see that artwork.”
He put his hand on her back and nudged her back toward the door. Kate smiled slightly, and they headed into her bedroom.
Leo sat on one of the beds, and Kate brought him one of her sketchbooks. He thumbed slowly through the pages and praised her talent.
“Sit with me. Tell me about this one,” he pointed to the dragons on the page.
She sat and told him about the artwork. Things seemed to be going well. She was relieved to see that he didn’t seem to be mad at her or upset from any of the…the what? The past? The dreams? The…everything. This was good. Kind of.
“You’re growing up on us, Katie. You seemed a bit nervous earlier. I hope everything’s okay. Just missing Leo too much?” he asked and put the sketchbook aside before his wandering hands started to become friendly.
This. This brought back the past. This brought back some of the memories from the night of the convention. Kate knew she wasn’t wrong. Nothing had been a dream or a movie. She stood and grabbed her book, putting it back in her art kit. Her stomach roiled and her chest tightened. The weight was back on her shoulders.
“I think we should probably make our way down to the festivities,” Uncle Leo said after observing Kate’s obvious distress.
“Me, too,” Kate replied.
He followed her to the door and started down the hall.
“Um, I’ll be down in a minute. I forgot something,” she said.
“Don’t take too long, or I’ll send a search party,” he laughed. “Plus, I’ve got some great presents this year!”
“It’ll just take me a sec.”
Kate remembered what her dad had told her not long before the cancer had taken him. Life has an odd way of throwing memories at you at the strangest times. “Be fierce, Katie Bug, when you need to. Stay strong when you feel weak or scared. Don’t let your mind trick you into being afraid,” he’d said.
“Be fierce,” she said to the empty room before heading down join the family.
Everyone was packed into the living room. Wrapping paper was flying and piling up on the floor. Uncle Leo sat by the Christmas tree. He had donned a red sweater and Santa hat. He motioned for Kate to come over to where he was, but she pretended not to notice. She sat on the chair arm beside her mom.
“Earth to Katie!” he called through the commotion. “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Her mom turned to her, “You’d better go see what Uncle Santa has for you, Katie.”
When she stayed seated, her mom nudged her and said, “Don’t be so moody. Set a good example for the younger kids.”
A good example for the younger kids, huh? Someone needed to. Kate stood. She felt miles away from everyone. It felt like her ears were full of cotton, blocking out most of the laughter and noises. It was as if she floated across the room. She didn’t feel her feet touching the carpet. When she was beside her uncle’s chair, he looked up at her with a shiny gift in his hands.
“Have a seat on Santa’s lap, Miss Katie, and tell me what a good girl you’ve been all year. Ho! Ho! Ho!” Then he leaned closer to her and whispered, “Santa might be able to find some real spirit later, like some wine.” He gave her a wink.
“I have been good. I’ve always been a good girl. It’s you everyone has to worry about!” Kate roared.
The room quietened and all eyes turned to Kate and Leo.
“Now, Katie,” Leo said, looking nervously around the room. “Sit and tell me how your day has been.”
“I am a good girl, and you’re the devil! I am never going to let you hurt anyone again. I AM FIERCE!” she screamed as she slid the craft knife from her pocket and rammed it deep into the side of Leo’s neck, pulling it across the entire width of his throat.
Miranda Crites is a reader, writer, book reviewer, photographer, and lover of horror from the ghostly woods of rural West Virginia.
The writing bug bit Miranda at a very early age. She was pretty much born with a pen and a camera in her hands. She won the young writers’ contest in first grade and received her first camera as a gift when she was nine years old.
When not writing, Miranda enjoys spending time with her family. She and her family spend a lot of time off the grid where they are building a cabin in the supposedly haunted woods.
Miranda is self-employed. She and her husband create large and small vinyl decals, t-shirts, signs, and a plethora of creative customized items.
Some of her many hobbies when time allows are: making unique crafts and artwork, painting, hiking, and, of course, photography.
She has a diploma for Writing for Children and Teenagers although most of her current work is horror fiction and poetry.
Miranda is a member of Team Kendall Reviews at www.KendallReviews.com where you can find her horror book reviews and her monthly feature, Miranda Snaps, which generally contains horror fiction and photography.
Miranda is one of “The Thirty,” which is a group of thirty authors who are each taking a turn in writing a chapter of an in-progress horror novel.
You can follow Miranda on Instagram Miranda_C_rites
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