Lauren stood on a small slope overlooking the cemetery. The air was chilly and smelled of smoke from fireplaces surrounding the small town of Liberty Hill. It should have felt like Christmas, but after losing Robbie three months earlier, Lauren could no longer find the energy to get into the holiday spirit. Ignoring it was just much simpler.
She had started working on a new children’s book that weekend and thought she was really onto something. She had already written two chapters that night when Robbie walked up behind her and hugged her tightly while resting his chin gently on her head. “I have to go in early tonight. Mona says the hospital is slammed. I swear, people don’t know how to drive in this snow and ice! Please do not forget to eat dinner. I made chicken enchiladas and left you a plate in the microwave. Love you.” Distractedly, Lauren had turned to give him a peck on the cheek and returned her attention to her laptop.
She could not have known that later that night, a small blue car would pull onto the highway three miles from the hospital and be struck multiple times as it slid across the highway on a patch of ice. The car would flip side over side twice before coming to a stop upside down on the median. The three cars unfortunate enough to have hit the blue one sat where they had come to a stop, flashers blazing and headlights still burning trails of light at odd angles to each other.
Robbie was the first one on the scene. After calling 911, he knelt beside the blue car first, certain it would hold the more seriously injured people. He peered in, using the small flashlight on his key chain -- a gift from Mara from the previous Christmas – to look for survivors. The occupants of the car were a man and woman around his age. His heart sank when he could not find a pulse for either one.
As Robbie stood to move to the next vehicle, a truck came racing through the ruin clogging the road and lost control on the same patch of ice. The truck went partially airborne and….
Lauren shook her head to clear it, wiping at the tears trickling down her cheek with her empty hand. She began to make her way down the hill, a bouquet of lilies and lilac clutched in the other one.
After placing the flowers neatly on top of the still mounded grave, Lauren stood a moment silently telling Robbie how much she loved him and for the millionth time how sorry she was. As she was again wiping her tears, her phone began to ring. She ignored it at first, listening to the jagged notes of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” break through the crisp morning air.
Finally breaking her reprieve, she pulled out her phone and saw it was her mother calling. Her mothers voice seemed to boom from the phones speakers in the sudden quiet. A redbird screeched scoldingly and winged its way into the sky as if it were warning her that she did not want to hear what her mother had to say.
“Lauren! What took you so long to answer? When can we expect you to arrive for Christmas? Your father and I have someone we want you too meet! You will help with the Christmas festival, right? I’ve already signed you up for a few things, I hope that is alright.”
“Mom,” Lauren cried in exasperation, “Can you breathe for a second, please?” Sighing, Mara apologized and asked again when she would be arriving.
Hanging up the phone a few minutes later, Lauren was certain the last place she wanted to spend Christmas was back home in Maine, but somehow she had been bullied into just that. That also included being unwillingly volunteered to work the Bleurey(pronounced Bloree) Christmas festival, and having some poor, unsuspecting man shoved at her. All because her mother thought the best way to move on was to meet new people. Mara had even told her daughter that the worst part of the end of a relationship can be the lack of one, at Robbie’s funeral no less.
She could never understand what Lauren saw in a man who was a nurse and not a doctor as he should have been. Mara’s views on gender roles really were quite old fashioned. It probably did not help Robbie’s cause that after eight years he was unable to give Mara the grandchildren she thought she deserved and the children she felt Lauren had been made to mother. Mara had often boasted about her daughters magic touch with children from the time she was very young.
She loved to regale visitors with the story of the little boy who fell off of the jungle gym at Lauren’s preschool and how her daughter had held him and comforted him by stroking his forehead until the paramedics arrived. Her mother was controlling, and set in her ways, but Lauren needed to believe that she really did mean well.
The train station was a mad house when Lauren arrived. She stood in line for almost 20 minutes before finally reaching the counter. The older lady behind the glass was wearing elf ears on a headband beneath a green Santa hat and slipped her three green and red peppermints with her tickets while smiling jovially. “Happy Holidays! Have a safe trip!” Lauren thanked her with a wave and gathered her large purple suitcase and matching carry on to find a bench near the gate.
Upon boarding the train, Lauren quickly found her seat and placed her carry on in the overhead compartment. Strangely, most of the seats in this part of the train were empty. There was quad of teenagers a few rows down and an older couple at the other end of the car, but otherwise the compartment was deserted. Then a man came through the door, obviously running late. When he reached the seat across from her, he smiled triumphantly saying “Oh, I think this is my seat.” He quickly stuck his hand out and introduced himself as Colin. She tentatively shook his hand while introducing herself.
For the next two hours they chatted and made small talk. She learned he had grown up in Liberty Hill and they discussed how rapidly the small town was growing. They talked about their families, and when he pulled out his wallet to show her pictures of his nieces and nephews, she scooted to the seat next to him to see better.
The next thing Lauren knew, she was waking up with her head on Colin’s shoulder. She jumped up in embarrassment and apologized profusely for using him as a pillow. He just smiled and told her that he hated to wake her because she was sleeping so peacefully, punctuating his sentence with a nonchalant wave of the paper back murder mystery in his hand. It was then that she noticed his beautiful blue eyes and the sweet way he smiled and she wondered if there was some truth to her mothers crazy theories.
Since Colin was occupied with his book, she took her jacket off and used it as a pillow to curl up in the corner. Lauren noted the way he kept sneaking little glances at her out of the corner of his eyes. She smiled warmly to herself and was asleep again in no time.
Lauren was still napping, making little moaning noises in her sleep when Colin saw that they were almost to his stop...their stop. He slowly got to his feet, being careful to be as quiet as possible and not wake her. He conveniently had no bag to draw down so he strode quickly to the door and waited for the train to stop. Colin then hurried though the lot to the black sedan he had parked there two days ago when he traveled to Liberty Hill for the first time. He drove quickly out of the lot and was long gone before Lauren awoke and emerged from the train. Colin pulled the car into his garage and clicked the little button on the visor to close the door. He then went inside, ignoring the rancid smell creeping from the basement and made himself comfortable while he waited for tomorrow.
Lauren was jolted awake once more as the train pulled into her stop. Noting regretfully that Colin was already gone, she pulled her bag from the overhead compartment and exited the train. Her mother was waiting impatiently at the gate and just as Lauren arrived, her father pulled up in the truck, an old blue Ford Bronco he had restored himself. Pops hopped out nimbly for his age and placed her bags in the hatch after first wrapping her in a bear hug and kissing her head.
Their first stop was by the old two story at the end of Bleurey Playhouse Rd where Lauren had grown up. The yellow Victorian needed a new coat of paint, but it was still in good shape otherwise and beautiful as always. The only truly bad thing about her childhood home was its close proximity to Bleurey Cemetery just over the fence that surrounded the property.
Her father carried her bags in and put them in her old room while she used the restroom and splashed cold water on her face. She felt groggy from her nap. The sight of the town all lit up for Christmas as they passed through was starting to bite into her resolve to ignore the holiday this year. Dare she admit she was feeling a tinge of excitement?
Lauren had changed clothes and was putting the rest of her things away when Mara breezed in and asked her if she minded riding with her to the store to pick up a few last minute things for tomorrow. Afterwards, they could drop the things off at the house and go stake out their spot for the festival. Lauren was happy to oblige if only to pass back through the town again.
As they pulled off of Harmony Drive and into the parking lot, she realized what chaos they would be stepping into with everyone stocking up on supplies for the festival and doing last minute Christmas shopping. Her mother finally snagged a spot in the very back of the lot and they had to hike for what seemed like miles to get to Shawn’s Supermarket. Something about this location had always reminded her of a funeral home, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
As they walked, Lauren could not help but notice that, like her mothers car, almost every car in the lot was proudly pasted with an orange and gray Bleurey Bulldogs sticker. Some boasted names of football players, others of members of the dance team or band. Still others bore a simple gray paw print circled with “Proud Bleurey Bulldogs” in orange type. She had to admit that maybe she missed this “small town USA” just a little bit.
Mara literally swooped through the store and the girls were on their way to the festival grounds less than an hour later. It was a beautiful wide open lot behind the post office down town just off of Meadow street. At the city hall meeting that morning, all the vendors were given flags with numbers to stake out the spot for their booths. Mara popped the trunk and pulled out the bright orange flag emblazoned with the number 13 in gray. Looking at the number gave Lauren a bit of a shiver, but she attributed it to the brisk air.
They chose a spot where her mother assured her that they would get the best business. They would come back bright and early in the morning, assemble the booth, and load it with the beautiful assortment of dragonflies her mother and Pops had made by hand. There were dragonfly ornaments, bookmarks, and wall hangings just to list a few.
That night Lauren laid awake alternately wondering what had happened to the wonderful stranger on the train and scolding herself for even thinking about another man three months after her husband’s death. Try as she might, she could not rid her mind of thoughts of his dreamy smile, wonderful smell, and brilliant blue eyes.
Mara and Pops were up with the sun the next morning. Lauren insisted on stopping by Poodles Ice Cream Parlor for a doughnut and coffee. They all piled into Pops truck. Pops had already loaded up with everything they needed for the booth and Mara held the box of breakables on her lap. Lauren dutifully took the middle seat and soon they had arrived at Poodles.
Lauren remembered Poodles from her childhood and the place had not changed a bit. The top half of the building was painted white with its triad of widows peering wistfully into the distance while the lower half was coal black with a stark division line between the colors. The window trim and porch rails were painted a bright green in contrast and cute hand painted characters, mostly consisting of anthropomorphic ice cream and ballerina leotard clad poodles, danced across the windows. The smell of coffee wafted from within.
Coffee in hand, and doughnut long gone, Lauren was hard at work putting the booth together when she noticed her parents were nowhere in sight. Turning in circles to look for them, she found herself looking into a pair of familiar blue eyes. “Colin! What are you doing here?” He smiled that wonderful smile and opened his arms for a hug which she happily gave him. He then explained that he actually lived in Bleurey, and was just returning from visiting family in Liberty Hill when they met.
Between her and Colin, the booth was quickly assembled and Mara and Pops conveniently reappeared from a very long bathroom break just as they were finishing up. Mara walked up to Colin and gave him a big hug, puzzling Lauren, but then she explained in her usual shotgun fashion. “Lauren, you’ve met Colin! He is the one I told you about that I wanted you to meet! He bakes the best banana bread you have ever tasted! He helped us with a lot of repairs on the house out of the kindness of his heart. Isn’t that right Colin? He has the prettiest blue eyes too.” Colin blushed deeply and grinned ear to ear. “Yes ma’am I suppose so.”
Mara then shoo’d them off to enjoy the festival, but not before leaning over to stage whisper in Lauren’s ear “He’s single too!” She then wandered to the Bronco to get the box of breakables from the front seat.
Sighing, Lauren stuck her elbow out for Colin to take hold of and offered her best apologetic smile. She escorted him around the festival. Colin said he had never been to a Christmas Festival before so Lauren vowed to show him the best time possible. They took a hot air balloon ride, then squeezed into an unoccupied bouncy house, giggling madly and jumping until they could barely stand. They had corn dogs and cotton candy, funnel cakes and twisted pretzels on a stick. They played a myriad of carnival games and Colin showed off just how bad his aim was. Lauren won herself a large stuffed teddy bear instead.
As the night moved in, the excitement wound up. The entire place was strung with Christmas lights that gave the festival a romantic glow. Christmas music played softly on the speakers scattered through out the festival. The air was chilly so a large fire pit had been set up with log benches all around. Colin collapsed onto one of the benches and pulled Lauren down next to him. His eyes glowed merrily in the fire light and just as he leaned in to kiss her, a booming voice came over the speakers proclaiming that the band was about to take the stage and cake and Christmas punch would be served at the food trucks in fifteen minutes.
“Oh! Let’s dance!” Lauren proclaimed, dragging poor Colin back to his feet. They took their places and waited for the music to begin. The first few songs were upbeat, but then a slow number started and Colin drew her into his arms. He turned elegantly, his eyes scanning the crowd to make sure they did not bump into anyone. His body moved effortlessly, perfectly in tune with the slow music. That was when Lauren knew it was okay to let go. Let her guilt, pain, and sorrow go. For the first time in three months, she was living again.
Then Colin slowed their motion. They stood there looking into each others eyes. The kiss was gentle and lingering. A lone hand came up to gently rest on her neck as she kissed him back. It felt as if time had stopped and no one else existed on the dance floor.
When he pulled back and peered into her amber eyes with his beautiful blue ones, he asked “Are you okay?” “I’m more than okay,” She responded with a smile,” Now lets go get some cake and punch.” They did and took it back over to the fire pit. After they finished eating, they sat closely together, her head resting his shoulder and his arm around her. Christmas had become magical again.
That night Lauren had no problem going to sleep despite being back in her childhood room. It was the best sleep she had gotten since Robbie’s death. There were no nightmares to haunt her, no waking herself up crying out his name into the dark. She could hardly wait for the second day of the festival. How had she ever thought her mothers ideas were crazy and obscure?
The next morning, as the sun peeked over the horizon, they were loading up the Bronco when a strange black sedan pulled into the driveway and out jumped Colin with a cup of coffee and a little brown bag that Lauren hoped contained a doughnut. When he reached her, he took a bow and handed her the coffee and bag, proclaiming theatrically, “Your sustenance my lady!” She took it, giggling, and kissed him. Colin invited her to ride with him to the festival. She accepted immediately, thrilled not to be trapped in the middle seat between Mara and Pops for once.
When Lauren and Colin had not made it to the festival by 9am, Pops told Mara that he was getting worried that something may have happened to them. Mara assured him that they were young people in love and were perfectly fine. She was sure they would be along any minute now with tousled hair and wrinkled clothes. When they still had not arrived by noon, Mara was sure they were both dead in some terrible accident, and it was all Pops could do to keep her calm.
By 12:30, the Bronco was loaded back up and parked in front of Colin’s house. No one answered when Pops knocked, but the front door was unlocked and slightly ajar, so him and Mara let themselves in. The interior was demolished. Furniture was flipped over. Pictures were taken down and torn to shreds. Inhumanly large scratch marks littered the walls. Worse was the smell, an overwhelming stench of decay. The smell only got stronger as they moved into the kitchen. After sniffing around, Pops deduced that the smell was coming the basement door.
He had insisted that Mara stay upstairs to watch for Colin or Lauren to return, but the real reason was to protect her from whatever he might find down here. The old basement steps creaked and groaned under Pops’ substantial weight. After toggling the light switch at least a dozen times, he was forced to rely on the light from a tiny key chain flashlight Mara had given him for Christmas last year.
Soon enough, or maybe too soon, the stairs ended and Pops was left standing on the dirt floor of an unfinished basement. From here, the smell was absolutely suffocating, and the roar of hundreds of flies was deafening. He pulled his shirt up over his mouth and nose to try to make it a little more bearable, but the noise made it hard to think and he could barely breathe. After a couple of deep, shuddering breaths to calm himself, Pops shone the tiny beam of light around the room and immediately located the source of the smell
Pops had been gone maybe five minutes when Mara heard a car pull into Colin’s garage. Relief washed over her. After what felt like ages, a tall, lanky form emerged from the garage and Mara ran to him and threw her arms around him. “Colin!,” She exclaimed,”Thank goodness you two are alright! I was so worried!” She was absolutely sure that Lauren would be walking in behind him any second and they would exclaim over the break in, call the police, and all would be well.
When Colin did not return the hug or respond to her outburst, Mara stepped back in confusion and peered up into his face. The shotgun stream of words ready to continue flowing from her mouth died instantly on her tongue. It was Colin alright. But his hair was dripping wet and tousled wildly about his head. Those same, familiar blue eyes squinted down at her, but they were rimmed in red and seemed to shoot daggers of intense anger. His face was also bright red, as if the anger burning in his eyes had set his entire face aflame. The redness extended down into his neck where muscles and ligaments stood out. Colin’s jaw was set solidly in a grimace, and tiny beads of perspiration hung above his upper lip.
About that time, Pops walked into the living room and turned as white as a ghost when he saw Colin standing there. “But you can’t….can’t be….in the basement….body.” The old man stuttered placing his hand over his heart and hunching over as if in intense pain. Sucking in air between his teeth, he was finally able to get a coherent thought together and screamed to Mara. “That isn’t Colin, Mara, get away! The smell, he is in the basement. Oh God!“ Pops struggled to sit down on the floor still holding his chest. Mara did not seem to understand and just stood there dazed staring up at the man who looked ready to kill her. She finally shook her head in bewilderment and took a few steps back from Not Colin.
Smiling in a way that would make anyone’s hair stand on end, he-it-laughed an awful croaking sound and lunged forward, stomping hard on the floor. Mara scurried, like a scared mouse, to her husband’s side and knelt there shaking.
“You stupid human!” It roared, the voice seemed to reverberate through the entire house and echo back. Burning blue eyes bored into Mara, “What are you doing here? You just couldn’t leave her alone for five minutes, could you? Couldn’t stand her being so far away so you couldn’t control her, huh? Well that worked out just fine for me, you got her back here exactly where I needed her!”
By now Pops had collapsed to the floor and was breathing shallowly. Mara burst into tears and began to sob, shaking uncontrollably. “Oh you retched thing,” it sneered,” shut up or I will shut you up!” The face that had been Colin’s only moments before was beginning to waver and melt. There really were no better words for it. At first Mara thought it was the multitude of tears flooding her eyes, but when she rubbed them, his face continued to waver and ripple. The exquisite blue eyes that Lauren had been so in love with had also dimmed as if the life had been sucked out of them.
He stomped his boot in irritation when he noticed Mara had begun to ignore him and had moved her attention to her husband’s crumpled body. “Look at me and stop sniveling! Do you want to know where your daughter is?” It raised its eyebrows in a twisted look of amusement that was becoming more skewed by the moment. Mara was still shaking and sobbing, but found the strength to nod her head. “Your precious little girl is in the garage in my trunk. If you love her so much, go get her!” Mara stood shakily, and began to toddle toward the door to the garage. The creature sneered and stepped to the side, effectively blocking her path.
“Did you think it would be that easy?” It laughed again, an awful sound that made her feel like vomiting. Mara had spotted a metal pipe leaned in the corner and longed to use it to bash the thing’s head in. It saw where she was looking and appeared to almost read her mind. It poked her hard in the chest with an outstretched finger and caused her to sprawl to the floor.
Amusement seemed to have replaced the anger in Not Colin’s eyes which flickered like an orange flame. “Do you know what a skin walker is?” It paused a moment thoughtfully. “No probably not, you seem too uptight to take interest in anything of that sort. Well, I will tell you but I’ll make it short and sweet!
Your kind have many names for us. The Navajos called us ‘skin walkers.’ I always did like that one.…but in a nutshell, we are demonic shape shifters that can take the form of any other living being we please. Pretty neat! The Navajo thought they could destroy us by burning us with turquoise, which might have been pretty smart actually. But they got one thing wrong. The Navajo thought we had to actually TAKE the skin. Maybe our ancestors did, but that is so primitive! That is so much work! Too much work really! But guess what! Not me, all I have to do is kill them and they are mine! So easy.
By the way, so terribly sorry about Colin. Or am I? I just needed a pretty face to lure your precious little girl to me. How convenient such a pretty boy lived right down the street from you. Things couldn’t have worked out better, really. Thank you for your help, Mom! Some call me El Cuco, or El Coco. Some cultures even call my kind Bug Bear. Isn’t that cute?
“So why MY daughter?” Mara asked in a weak voice,” What do you need her for?” The thing smiled, obviously enjoying itself. “Ah I was hoping you would ask that! Your daughter has a special touch with children. But then I’m sure you knew that much. They love her, are drawn to her, and she reacts to them in the perfect way to make them feel safe. To me, children are just a meal ticket. Just imagine! Winner winner chicken...well children….dinner.” It laughed again, its sickening smile widening and its face beginning to look mushy like mashed potatoes. The fire burned brighter in its eyes.
Mara had been working her way slowly to her feet as he talked, and did not notice the pipe was now in his hand as she lunged at him. One swift swing of the pipe and Mara was out cold. The creature kicked at her a few times just to be sure. The old man was still slumped in a pile and no longer moving. It figured he was no more a threat then the old lady. “Winner winner children dinner,” it sung in a sing song voice as it walked out to the garage.
It wouldn’t be long now.
Pops was the first one to wake up. He was covered in sweat, his jaw ached and his heart was pounding, but the horrible pain was gone. He tried to slowly get to his feet but crumpled to the floor twice before he was successful. Once up, he felt a sinking sensation in his stomach when he spotted Mara laying on the floor near the door to the garage. He could see a small amount of blood in her hair that had trickled down her neck to pool on her shirt collar.
He pulled out his phone and quickly dialed 911. They said they had an officer and ambulance en route. He hung up the phone and slipped it back into his pocket. As he leaned closer, he realized Mara was trying to say something. Her voice was thick and sleepy sounding, but he finally understood that she was repeating Lauren’s name over and over and the word “car”.
Pops hated to leave her in the shape she was in, but help was on the way. And...if Lauren was in there, he had to find her. The garage floor was covered in mud from the car and car tires. Pops stood quietly, unsure how to proceed, when he heard muffled sounds coming from the trunk. He struggled with the latch, and once he got it open, he found Lauren, tied up and tearful but safe.
Christmas morning, Lauren, Mara, and Pops were sitting around the Christmas tree passing out packages. Lauren had just opened her last one, a beautiful dragonfly necklace commissioned by Mara and handmade by Pops. It was sterling silver, with a large piece of turquoise inlaid down the insects back. Lauren picked the pendant up to admire it more closely. Screeching, she dropped it. When Pops and Mara asked what was wrong, she assured them she had just gotten a paper cut on the box. Gingerly picking the necklace up by the chain, Lauren slipped it back into the box and secured the lid. Then she jumped up and hugged her Mom and Dad and kissed them both on the cheeks. Merry Christmas!
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