A short story by Harriet Young
Christmas was always a tricky time of year. His mother knew, she kept her distance, had done since he had first moved away. There might be a phone call on Boxing Day or, more likely, the day after, but Christmas Day was his and his alone – or at least, it was supposed to be.
His wife had crashed into his life just two years ago, and he loved her fiercely. She brought him a joy he hadn’t realised that he could feel. He loved his life with her. Most of the time, he couldn’t imagine being without her. But this Christmas thing was becoming a bit of an issue. The first year, they had just met so it wasn’t odd for them to spend the day apart. Last year was a different story. Their relationship had been a whirlwind and they were married within six months of meeting. They did everything together and she didn’t think it unreasonable for them to spend Christmas Day together too. On the whole, he could see her arguments. But he had to keep this thing to himself.
He couldn’t remember when it had started. He couldn’t remember a Christmas without it. Even the gentle ones furthest away in his memory included a shadow, a dark spot that couldn’t be illuminated by twinkling lights on a Christmas tree. As the years moved on, the darkness had grown edges and become something far more tangible. Last year was the worst yet.
Why had he been chosen? As far as he could tell, he was the only one. No answers were forthcoming and there was no hint of a way out of it. It just was.
They sat next to each other on Christmas Eve, faces glowing in the light of the many candles his wife lit each evening. She was hurt and confused.
‘I don’t understand.’ She kept saying. And how could she, when he didn’t himself? He was helpless.
‘It’s just one day.’ A meaningless and empty phrase. An attempt to placate that would just anger her more.
‘I don’t understand.’
He reached for her hand but she pulled it away. With a sigh, she stood and wiped her eyes. Her weekend bag was in the doorway, along with carrier bags overflowing with brightly wrapped gifts. She struggled to lift them all, swatted away his attempts to help.
‘Wish your family a Merry Christmas from me.’ The words dropped like stones at her feet. She didn’t reply, simply walked through the door and out into the night, taking all of the warmth with her.
He went back into the lounge and blew the candles out one by one, puffs of black smoke hanging in the air. It was early still but heavy with darkness so he headed to bed. Tomorrow it would start.
Despite knowing what would await him in the morning, he always slept well on Christmas Eve. There was an inevitability to his fate that led to a deep, cocooned night of rest. It was dreamless, angst free and gave his mind space for the day ahead. It was his favourite part of the Christmas period.
As with all good things, the end came quickly. As he was dragged back to consciousness, he knew that they were here already. Refusing to open his eyes, his other senses began to heighten and he heard the quickening thump of a heart. The thump became a pound, an incessant, urgent cacophony that throbbed in his skull until he was forced to open his eyes.
The heart stopped. The room was black. Not just dark. Suffocatingly black. He lay still, listening to the silence. There was no sound but his own shallow breaths. He could reach for his lamp, but he knew by now that it would do nothing. This was how they always greeted him.
Slowly, slowly, the blackness began to fragment into shapes. Shifting into their forms, crowding the room. There were even more this year. For the first few years there had been one, a faceless silhouette who grew ever more opalescent. The year that another came – he was ten – was the worst in his memory. From then, each year brought more.
He had theories about what they were, but he could never know for sure. Shadows – that was the best way of describing them. It wasn’t so much the sight of them that was terrifying, it was the sense of oppressive dread they brought with them. Standing there, staring with no eyes, filling the room with icy hopelessness.
He lifted himself from the bed and movement fluttered through them. They always followed.
Every year, he spent Christmas Day sitting. There was nothing else he could do. He couldn’t leave the house taking his audience with him. He couldn’t eat – he had no appetite when they visited anyway. Nothing could distract from them.
When he was a child, his mother had been disappointed and upset by his lack of interest in his gifts and lovingly prepared food, spending his time instead staring off into the middle distance. It had translated as ungratefulness, and had damaged his relationship with his mother who had tried so hard for him. But there was nothing he could do.
He walked slowly into the lounge, not bothering to dress. They followed, crowding him and stealing his breath. He had tried to talk to them in the past. He had begged them to leave in countless occasions, bargaining and pleading, but to no avail. There was no change to show they heard, just the constant, overwhelming presence.
He sat and he sat. They watched and they watched. A never ending day.
There was a sudden shrillness. He went cold, a panic snapping through his already taut nerves. He realised it was his telephone. He looked at it, unsure what to do. They looked at it too. The light from the screen pressed through the darkness so vividly that he snatched it up and answered it to make it stop.
‘Yes?’ He snapped. They were closer than ever.
‘Gerry?’ It felt like an exhale. Her voice floated like a blanket over him, comfort and love. They moved back.
‘Gerry?’ She said again. They moved back further, shrank to the corners of his eyes.
‘Melinda?’ He breathed.
‘I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.’ And with that last word, they and their weight were gone.
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