Terror Three The Ghost of Christmas Could've Been
There she stood beside my tree. I watched in absolute silence as she tapped the ornaments enclosing the boys’ pictures. One, two, three.
She didn’t answer. Didn’t even turn. What was she doing here? She should’ve been nearly three-thousand miles away in Monterey.
Had the rheumatoid arthritis had moved into her heart and lungs as she’d been so worried it might? It would be just like her not to tell me. But…would it have made any difference? Every time she’d asked me to spend time with her, I’d just, honestly, been too busy. And now it might be too late…unless I was dreaming. *Please, God, let me be dreaming.*
We would never be two sisters marveling together over the Christmas lights she’d wanted to fly down and see at Hershey Park. I’d always had what I thought were good reasons to turn her down. My husband wouldn’t like my being away, or the boys had too many football practices and Boy Scouts meetings to attend. Or there wasn’t enough money…even though she’d offered to pay for the whole thing. At the moment, watching her lingering soul caress my tree ornaments, I would’ve slashed my arm from wrist to elbow and paid every last drop of pumping blood for five living minutes to spend with her again. The regret was crushing, feeling as though it was pulverizing every bone in my body, reducing all 206 to corrosive powder which ate away at my heart and stung the thought processes inside my brain.
I’d been the only one in my family to inherit my great-great-grandmother’s gift. I could see ghosts…spirits, but to me, the ability had always been a curse. I’d prayed for God to take this sight away so many times…to no avail.
But how could she be dead? She’d just attended a book signing two weeks ago in Los Angeles. She’d asked me to fly out and join her, but I’d refused yet again. Donovan, my husband, just would not like it. I’d gone to a weekend women’s retreat with my group at church, and he’d told me the boys were impossible to handle by himself. I found his statement so funny because I accomplished it nearly every day while he went hunting or fishing….but that was a tale for another night. I just had to be dreaming…
But the dream’s rendering was perfect. All the way from her fiery ringlets down to the red-and-black Hello Kitty sneaks for which she was semi-famous. Those and the tutus---black, gothic-emblazoned tutus with equally-black leggings, paired with blood-red contacts and even custom-made fangs. See, my sister was Morana Blackwood, semi-famous horror author. She’d worked for years writing and building a pretty impressive following; I mean for an indie author. Signing organizers were always happy when she signed up because those contacts and teeth drew a pretty impressive crowd. I’d told her more than once she didn’t need the props. For me, it would always be about her flair for writing, the stories she’d written for me since we were kids. The green of her eyes matched the needles on the Douglas fir…
She gestured. “Come with me.” I read her lips rather than heard the spoken words.
“Where?” I spoke aloud.
“Everywhere,” she responded in a frosty-blue whisper from the Otherplace to which she’d disappeared.
I’d heard that kind of whisper before. The one that meant the passing was a done deal.
“No.” I shook my head in denial. “You weren’t that sick.”
“Come with me,” she spoke, then, with the voice of the living.
“To the next signing?” She did ask me to every single one. The next one would take place in Chicago, only a few hours away.
“I miss you,” she said in that frozen brand of whisper.
“Not for long, I hope,” I whispered back.
I’d ended up back in bed somehow. I didn’t remember making my way there, just waking up beside Donovan, close to dawn, on the mattress that desperately needed replacing.
“Donovan.” I shook him lightly in the close darkness.
“What? You wanna fool around?”
“No!” My tone flooded with more annoyance than I’d intended. “I had a dream about my sister.”
“Morana? Couldn’t have been a very good dream…your weird sister. Come on, Babe. It’s practically Christmas.”
“No. I saw her. Like…you know…the way I see things.”
“Don’t start that again. You know I don’t believe in that kind of stuff.”
I rose from the stiff mattress and crossed the room. “I have to call her.” The phone rang at the very instant I finished speaking.
“Hey, Auntie Amy.”
“Jack?” My sister’s only child.
“Did you see…or dream anything weird?” Jack had never questioned my gift.
“Why do you ask, Sweetie?”
“I just had a weird dream; that’s all. Like…something happened to Mom.”
“Like or did?” I queried, my voice stretched tight like a gum band reaching its limit.
“It—it’s hard to explain. It’s more like…”
“Jack? Jack, are you there?” The line had gone dead. Feeling a presence behind me, I whirled to find Donovan, the phone cord wrapped around his hand.
“The boys are up. I think you promised everyone pancakes today; didn’t you, Sugar?” He smacked me, in that way he found playful, on my rump. “It’s Christmas Eve. You can talk to Jack when he comes over tonight.”
But Jack had been unable to make it out to our house, situated in the midst of twisting mountain roads and long stretches of Pennsylvania farmland. The snow had begun to make its way down to Earth, twisting into white-out gusts as it neared the ground. “Sorry, Auntie Amy. Dad doesn’t think I should be driving.” Even though I agreed that Jack shouldn’t be out on the roads, especially given his inexperience driving at the tender age of seventeen, I couldn’t help the throbbing pang of disappointment worming its way through my gut when he spoke the words.
“Well, you and your dad just have a Merry Christmas, okay? We can talk about your mom tomorrow, and if the weather clears up, maybe you can make it out for turkey dinner.” I knew I had to cut our conversation short, what with Donovan’s gestured annoyance for me to return to the table with pieces of cake for him and the boys.
“I hope so, Auntie. No one makes better gravy than you.”
“Thanks, Sweetheart. I sure do love you. Merry Christmas.”
“Love you too. Merry Christmas. Give the boys a punch in the shoulder for me…”
“Hey, Sugar! The boys are going to want to decorate those cookies for Santa soon, so you’d better hurry it up,” Donovan shouted from the dining room.
“I’ll do that, Jack. Talk to you tomorrow. Hey, wait a second.”
“Your mom, she’s still visiting that friend of hers up in Canada, right?”
“Yep, she was going to stay until after New Years’ Day.”
“Thanks, Jack. Try to have some fun tonight.”
“You bet. Dad ordered us pizza, and we’re going to watch some Krampus movie.”
“Sounds awesome. Have fun.” I eased the phone back into its cradle and made my way back to the dining room burdened by all five plates.
“Come on, Amy. Come on!” The voice echoed with an ethereal quality, like we’d fallen into a well.
“Morana? Is that you?”
“Who else silly? Come on; let’s go ride the Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier.”
“What, where? But the snow…”
“It’s not snowing in Chicago, and even if it were, the cars are heated. We may as well have some fun before the signing tomorrow. After, we can go to this great little sushi place downtown if you’d like.” I felt her take my hand, an action which seemed to flip on my vision so I could see her face. Her cheeks flamed with evidence of a wind touched by winter, and her hands were painful to touch.
“Mor, you need mitts. My goodness, your hands are cold.”
“Doesn’t matter. Come on.” There was no line for the Ferris wheel, and for that I was grateful. The warmth of the car began to permeate, first my coat, then my sweater, until it finally touched my skin.
“Is that Christmas music?”
“Sure.” My sister shrugged.
“But if we’re at the signing, shouldn’t it be February?”
Morana laughed, deep and dark. “Oh, Little Sister, but death is funny that way.”
“Shhh, just look at the city at night. Isn’t it beautiful? All those lights…”
“Wait. Wasn’t it just Christmas?”
“Was it?” She grinned at me in that conspiratorial way she used to do when we were little. “The whole world’s upside down now.”
The gigantic wheel shuddered to a stop at its highest point. The metal supports groaning as if someone had stabbed them. “What’s happening?” I whispered when the light inside the car blinked out, the music distorting into a strangled moan.
“Upside down,” Morana laughed, tapping the tip of my nose with the end of her index finger. Then, we both flew—not upside down, but hard into the left side of the car as the support on that side gave and fell away, tilted us in the direction of the too-far-away ground.
“No! I don’t want to die.”
“Neither did I,” Morana cried just before the other support surrendered its lopsided grip, sending the car made of too much glass and too little steel hurtling toward the pavement below.
I awoke to the Donovan-mandated darkness of my room and the soft hug of a mattress pillow top beneath. *Too soft,* my mind reasoned. That wasn’t my mattress beneath me.
“That is a Hilton Doubletree mattress, My Dear.” Morana voiced in the darkness like I’d spoken my thought aloud. “I sprung for premium bedding. Nothing’s too good for you.”
“But it’s supposed to be Christmas. The Ferris wheel… I thought it was all a nightmare.”
“What are you talking about? You just need some coffee. We have to get up and get ready for the signing.”
“The signing? In Chicago?”
“Of course, Amy.” Morana giggled. “Where else? It’s the only one you agreed to come to.”
“The boys have to come first.” I spoke my well-rehearsed excuse as if she weren’t in the room. As if we were on the phone, or I was replying to her email.
“And…if you never do, come first that is, are you really giving them your best? You honestly think that if you never take time for you, to recharge your batteries, you’ll be the best mom you can be? Or are you just spouting an edict from Donovanland?”
“I’m here aren’t I?” Was I?
“Although I find it almost impossible to believe…here you are. I don’t want to fight. We’ll get room service. Yes, you deserve to have someone wait on you for a change. You just stay right there, and I’ll order up a pot of coffee and some French toast. Strawberries?”
“Of course.” She flipped on one of the bedside lamps, and the light bounced off her cherry-tinged curls with a flare that pained my light-deprived eyes. I winced and blinked…
“Hey, hand me that.” My sister pointed to the draped table covering our laps. “Yep, that. That pen, Amy.” Morana smiled at me, a strange light flashing in her eyes. Mechanically, I handed over the ebony ballpoint emblazoned with her website address and logo—a crescent of pale moon cradling her blood-dripping initials. “Who should I make it out to?” she asked the star-struck teen standing at her table.
I surprised myself by being able to wait until her fan had ambled away before I blurted out, “We’re at the signing.”
She tilted her head and drew her green eyes down to slits. “Where else should we be? Don’t tell me you regret being here, Amy. You don’t know how happy it made me when you agreed to come.”
“But Donovan and the boys…”
“My god, Amy. It’s two days. We aren’t running away to join the circus. Aren’t I important to you too?” That light in her eyes dimmed a little.
“You are, of course, but…”
She grimaced. “There’s a but?” The smile flashed back into place when another reader stepped up to the table. Their small talk faded into background buzz until Morana said, “This is my little sister, Amy.” Her irises blazed as if someone had stoked them. Her gaze flashed to me, and recognition of what smoldered inside them overtook me. Pride. All the collected years of creative piecework poured into the tomes set out across the table didn’t make her eyes spark in the same way. She was most proud of me.
“You finally get it. At least I could show you this imagining of what could’ve been.” Her smile dimmed when the heaviness of sorrow settled into it. “I’ll miss you.”
“No! Morana…” The shrieked syllables forming her name sent me hurtling into another dark room. The unforgiving mattress beneath me the origin of the ache in my lower back.
“Hey, you woke me up,” Donovan complained. I realized how disappointed I was to find his stretch of body beside mine.
“I don’t care about that,” I muttered as I set my bare feet on the cold floor.
“What did you say?” he asked, suddenly sounding much more awake.
“I need to call Morana.”
“What? It’s Christmas morning. We need to see if the boys are awake…”
“I said I need to call my sister, you callous fu…” The sound of the telephone ringing cut the wrath in my response off at the knees.
The boys were awake. My eldest, Mickey, answered the phone. “Hello? I think she just got up. Hold on.”
All the terror of lost things that could have been struck a blow that sent me crashing to my knees. And there was no amount of money I could pay, no heart’s wealth of wishing and praying, no undeterred force of physical effort I could pour forth to change it. Irrevocable. I knew what my son would say before he spoke the words. “Mom? Some lady from Ontario’s on the phone for you.”