An old misplaced Christmas gift tells terrible truths of the past...and the future.
Carl’s shoulders slumped against the snow flurries as frustration reddened his face. The dog at the end of the leash didn’t notice.
She tiptoed through the snow-dusted grass, sniffing at random debris and occasionally chewing on something unidentifiable. Carl rolled his eyes. It was never a problem for Pepper to take a leak, but when it came to doing number two, she showed unyielding reluctance. He tugged the leash. “Come on, dog. Take a crap already.”
A clinking sound caught Carl’s attention. Mr. Frederickson and Champ, his golden retriever, emerged at the opposite side of the street. Frederickson smiled and waved. Carl offered a halfhearted salute, and looked upon Champ with envy as the larger dog was taking, what seemed to be, a satisfying dump next to the fire hydrant. Carl wrenched the leash. Pepper’s head snapped around as Carl jabbed a finger toward the bigger dog.
“See that? Do that!”
Pepper looked in Champ’s direction, but was apparently left unimpressed as she faced away and started nosing a small collection of dried leaves.
“No lights this year, Carl?” Frederickson mused, tugging at his flannel cap. He didn’t bother hiding the disapproval in his voice. “Maddy’s folks always had that place aglow this time of year. It seems strange, that house has nothing on Christmas Day.”
It was true. While the other houses along King Street cast flashing, multicolored hues throughout the neighborhood, Carl’s green two-story home lurked in shadows. Its only decoration was a tattered American flag hanging on the front porch. Carl offered a bland smile. “Christmas is for kids, I guess. I’m too old to start, and Maddy doesn’t want little ones.”
“She’s young enough to change her mind in time, though, isn’t she?” There wasn’t anything friendly in Frederickson’s smile, either. He glanced at the shadowy lot and sniffed. “Maybe you’ll have some lights next year. Take care.” Frederickson turned, and loyal Champ followed behind without an order.
Carl frowned as he looked down at the little dog. “Come on.”
By the time they returned home, Carl was shivering and muttering to himself.
He led the dog through the front door and considered punting her across the room.
“Have a good walk?” Madeline didn’t look up as she spoke; she was engrossed in one of the various reality show DVDs she’d received as a gift that morning. She was dressed in a bathrobe and picked at a bowl of buttered popcorn. On the television, a group of girls forged false alliances and stabbed each other in the back with glee to get the attention of some man that was, allegedly, quite a catch.
“Not so much,” Carl muttered, stripping out of his jacket and hanging it on the rack. “Your dog finds it inconvenient to take a crap. It’s not in her schedule, apparently.”
“My dog is a sweetheart,” she replied with a smile, remaining glued to the television. She made an offhand gesture in the direction of the coffee table, where his cell phone was resting, opened. “Am’s on the phone. She wants to talk to you.”
He smiled and picked up the phone. “Merry Christmas, Amelia,” he said.
“Merry Christmas to you, Carl,” she replied. There was a hubbub in the background. “Sorry about the noise. We’re still at Aunt Beryl’s, but I’m going to be leaving soon. I didn’t want to have Christmas go past without saying hi to my favorite brother-in-law.”
“Your only brother-in-law,” Carl corrected with a laugh.
“Hey, particulars aren’t important here.” There was merriment in her voice. “Besides, someone’s got to love you in this family. Aunt Beryl isn’t about to send a Christmas card to the middle-aged teacher that lured away her baby niece.”
“I take it I’m still not missed there, hmm?”
“Camryn, Caitlyn, and I miss you both. We’re the only ones that count, right?”
Carl chuckled. “You got it.”
“Hey, ask Am about Ryan,” Maddy said around a mouthful of popcorn.
“What about Ryan?” Carl inquired.
The warmth of the conversation ebbed. “Tell Mads to stop being so worrisome,” Amelia replied, but Carl did nothing of the sort. “He called the other day. Wants to see the twins, and give them some Christmas presents. He said he would even do it in a supervised visit.”
“You didn’t agree, did you?”
“God, no,” Amelia responded, an edge to her voice. “I’m not that stupid anymore. Though he did everything he could to try and convince me. When he finally got the point he told me he would make me sorry for all of this and hung up.” She barked a mirthless laugh. “Sorry? I’ve been sorry for quite some time.”
“You called the police, right?” Carl pleaded.
“No, I didn’t, because Ryan’s all talk now,” Amelia said. “He’s been warned enough, and the police already have him looking over his shoulder. I’m not worried about him and neither should you.” There was a shout in the background. “Look, I don’t want to ruin my spirit, so I am going to go before you nag me some more. Don’t get me wrong, I know you do it out of love, but the kids and I are going to be fine. Merry Christmas to both of you.” Before Carl could respond, there was a click on the other end.
He put the phone down and glanced over to Maddy. She was still staring at the television, and munching on popcorn. She didn’t look up as she spoke. “I love her to death, but she never knew how to pick a man. I’m sick of warning her. She’s older than me; she should know better.”
Carl was more worried about the girls. “I still can’t believe she didn’t call the police,” he muttered.
“Uh huh,” Madeline replied around a mouthful of popcorn, never looking away from the screen.
Carl attempted to nuzzle next to Maddy. Pepper curled at Maddy’s feet and glared at Carl with impudence and soft growl. He glared at the dog, imagining colorful ways of treating her like a soccer ball.
“How much longer does this have?” Carl asked, feigning interest in the show. On the television, a blonde with far too much makeup was explaining to the television how she planned on getting the upper hand in this particular competition.
Maddy shrugged. “This is only episode three, I think. The fun doesn’t really start happening for another few episodes.”
“Wait. You’ve already watched this?”
His tone of annoyance must have been pretty evident, because Maddy’s eyes finally turned from the television and fell upon him, narrowed and vicious. Carl did his best to look emotionless, but it was too late. “Yes,” she spat, “I have already watched this. Do I nag you whenever you feel the need to watch one of your stupid races?”
Yes. Yes you do. Carl’s mind rebutted, but he said nothing. He wasn’t in the mood to fight with her, because he’d discovered early in their marriage that even when he won the argument, he still lost. He tried to look shocked at her sudden anger and played dumb.
“No, honey, and I’m not trying to nag you,” he replied in soothing tones. “I just wish I had known you’d already watched this show before I bought you the DVD. Now I feel like I didn’t get you a good gift at all.”
Her face softened. “Oh.”
Carl knew better than to rest; he still had some work to do to avoid an argument. “I just wanted to get you something special, and now I feel like I didn’t get you something nice.” He let out a theatrical sigh to show his disappointment.
“No, baby, it’s fine, I really like it,” Maddy assured. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just I’m used to Christmas being a big deal, and I feel like it just came and went before I had any time to enjoy it. Mom used to make the biggest deal out of Christmas here when I was a kid and now…” She paused. “It’s not your fault. I just don’t think Christmas was that ever that important to you.”
“All I needed to have a Merry Christmas was you, sugar,” he said, hoping that the excessive sweetness would help end the conversation, but Maddy had already paused the show and was focusing on him.
“I know, Carl, but would it really have hurt to hang some lights? Or even put up a tree?” She set her popcorn bowl on the coffee table in front of them. Pepper leered at him accusingly. “I just want us to be able to have great memories of holidays. Something we can look back on when we get old and remember doing as newlyweds. Our first Christmas together and no tree? It’s depressing.”
Carl felt a pressing need to remind her that while she was barely twenty-four that he was pushing fifty, so getting old was going to come quite a bit more quickly to him than to her, but he chose silence. A malicious thought raced across his mind: If it mattered so much to you, why didn’t you get out there and hang stuff up, or put up a tree? He was glad he could keep thoughts in his head; saying such would make the night far worse.
She nudged closer to him and pressed a soft kiss against his cheek. “I loved my gift, and the fact that I’ve already watched the show didn’t make Christmas any less special to me, ok?” She threw her arms around his shoulders and hugged him. “But next year, will you promise to decorate the yard? Please?”
Carl sighed and kissed the top of her head. “Sure, honey. I promise.” He loathed how weak he sounded, and knew that this time next year he’d be kicking himself for being such a pushover.
She smiled and hopped up quickly. “Good.” She grabbed his hand and tugged. “Come on, we can still make this a little more like Christmas. I’ll show you some of the decorations we used to hang when I was a kid.”
Carl remained seated. “Right now?” he asked, trying to hide his disinterest.
“Come on, it’s not like you wanted to watch this show anyway. And it will help perk up my holiday spirit.” She pulled harder on his arm. “I’ll make you some hot cocoa later.”
He smiled. She made great hot cocoa. “Can I kick the dog?”
She laughed and pulled him again, and they walked toward the attic. Carl did indeed tap Pepper with his foot as they passed. His face split in a grin as he earned a startled bark from the little dog.
The attic, as could be expected, was a freezing cell of dust and grime.
They’d never taken the time to really do a whole lot of cleaning in this spot since the move, and Carl knew that just looking at it would likely lead to a bout of spontaneous cleaning come spring. There were boxes on top of boxes, dust-caked wooden furniture, and even an old vanity with a cracked mirror. Shuffling sounds in the shadows that made his skin crawl, and when he’d mentioned rats she dismissed it with a wave. He held his arms close to himself regardless, and found that the dust seemed to swarm to him, regardless of what he touched. Maddy hadn’t mentioned the filth yet, being too engrossed in shoving boxes in and out of various alcoves. But Carl had no doubt that she noticed it, and he knew taking care of it would be at the top of a honey-do list in the very near future.
Carl shifted uncomfortably as Maddy grunted and groaned, knowing in his heart that as the man he should be doing the heavy lifting, but he didn’t have any idea as to what she was looking for. It wasn’t until she gave a little hiss of triumph and hoisted a huge cardboard box. Her face was streaked with dust as she flashed a huge, borderline obsessive smile.
“Christmas stuff?” he ventured.
She nodded. Carl noticed that her muscles were straining against the weight of the box, and he took it from her. He grimaced at the musty smell. In his mind’s eye he imagined a nest of rats wriggling about in the tinsel, and he nearly dropped the box.
He followed Maddy to the base of the stairs and was unnerved by her total excitement. He’d never realized how much Christmas meant to her, and to be honest, he wasn’t comfortable with her fervor. It was like being next to one of Santa’s elves that was perhaps a little too jolly.
She started tearing open the box before he was able to set it down. He backed away a few steps, unsettled by her fascination.
Her arms pistoned in and out of the box, yanking out streamers and paper chains, tinsel and gift wrap. She was muttered as she worked, so fast that some of it was nearly gibberish. “This was the box we used every year before Christmas all our stuff was in here and we had such a fun day when Dad would bring it down and we’d be so excited…”
He had to call her three more times before she looked up at him.
“You’re a mess. Come up from there, we’ll look through it together.”
She glanced down at herself and laughed. Her arms and robe were soiled, littered with the same refuse from the attic. “Sorry,” she said, smiling. “Guess I got a little worked up.” She looked up at him, eyes gleaming. “But I did love those Christmases from my childhood.”
“Yes,” Carl replied, smiling. He helped her up to her feet and looked in the box. There were ornaments and the separated sections of an undersized Christmas tree. There was a miniature carousel with reindeer and elves, and a strobe light with one half tinted red and the other half tinted green. There was a pewter star ensnared in tangles of musty tinsel. A dusty container of ancient candy canes was tilted askew with various teeth marks along the edges of the cardboard. Resting at the bottom, looking very out of place amidst the dirty yet colorful decorations, was a small package, wrapped in black paper, with a small tag on it.
“Someone hid a present in here,” Carl said, reaching down and taking the box. It was a bit heavier than he had expected. It was pliable, which surprised him, like a stack of small, square paper. He handed it to Maddy, who seemed puzzled at the discovery.
She turned the tag and read the handwriting aloud. “To Andrew and Family. Wishes, Kurten.” She said the last word breathlessly, and her face paled.
She showed him the tag. “Mr. Kurten used to work for my dad. He was a strange man; most people didn’t like being around him.” She sighed. “I didn’t like him. He always had one of those smiles on his face. You know, like he knew exactly what you were thinking and he thought it was funny. Dad was the only one that would even talk to him at first.”
Maddy looked up at Carl and shrugged. “He made friends, but for the life of me I didn’t understand how. I heard Dad telling Mom one night that Kurten used to brag about all of the women in the office he’d had his way with.” She shook her head. “There were times that I swear I thought he was looking at me. I’m not being dramatic, either. I was thirteen, and I always wondered…” She stopped short. “He wasn’t a good man.”
“And he gave your Dad a Christmas present?”
She handed it back to Carl and shivered. “I guess so, though I would have never expected that from him.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died,” Maddy murmured, and there was no sadness there. “Dad made us go to the funeral. No one else was there. I’m not surprised…what do you think you’re doing?”
Carl had started tearing at the wrapping paper. He stopped and gave her a guilty smile. “I just figured we might as well open it. It’s just a present.”
“It’s Dad’s present,” she said, a touch sharply. “Besides, I don’t know if I want to know what sort of creepy gift that guy would give.”
“C’mon,” Carl said, smiling a little. “It’s just a present. It would almost be like celebrating with your parents, wouldn’t it?”
Maddy frowned. “I don’t know. It feels weird to me.”
“Then I’ll open it.”
“You already started,” she accused, but there was no malice in her tones.
Carl unwrapped the gift, and held it out for them both to see.
It was a one-a-day calendar, with imagery of a monster and a strange little figure on the front, almost like it was meant for someone that was a huge Halloween fan. Written in almost neon green along the top was this: “FRIGHTS 1994 - A SCARE FOR EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR!” The monster itself was a crude caricature, as far as Carl was concerned, looking like something scrawled by an overeager child. The little figure was a shadowy man, stopped over, with a gleaming smile. The artist managed to make the little man more disturbing than the monster.
“A calendar for Christmas,” Carl said. “Not a personable gift. Of course, from what you say, that’s pretty much par for the course for this guy.”
Maddy took it from him. She began flipping through the pages. The images within were varied, showing scary and often bloody scenes. The detail of the artwork inside was far greater than that of the monster on the cover, and Carl noticed that Maddy’s face was twisting uncomfortably from what she was seeing. He shouldered up beside her and looked down.
On January 13th, there was the picture of a young woman, standing over an old man that was sleeping in a bed. She was gripping a pillow. Her face was straining with determination. The little shadowy man from the front cover was in this image as well. He was standing outside of the window. A malicious smile played at the corners of his dark mouth.
“Good grief,” Carl muttered. “That’s just creepy. She’s going to smother that old man.”
“My mom’s cousin,” Maddy whispered. “She did something like that to one of my great uncles. I swear it.” She gave Carl an anxious look. “It was before I was born, but I remember when I was at a reunion a long time ago. That was the family scandal on her side.”...