Christmas. A time of cheer when you sit around the table with your family; drinking eggnog as you catch up. You laugh as your dad and uncle Phil fight over who gets to carve up the turkey while your mom and aunt exchange embarrassed looks. You turn to your siblings, your laughs are slowly fading, yet the smiles remain. Later in the night, you smile to yourself as you lay in bed, wondering when the last time you were so happy was.
Once upon a time, Christmas was like that for me too. Though, as I sit here, sipping bourbon from a tumbler, sitting in my empty living room – hoping the sweet buzz of drunkenness will soon carry me off into a dreamless sleep – I can’t help but feel resentment for such families.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let me start from the beginning.
It was our first Christmas as husband and wife, by God, it’s hard to believe that it’s already been nine years. We’d gotten married that October on her parent’s acreage and it was perfect. The leaves fell around us as we exchanged our vows, painting the forest’s path with oranges, yellows and reds that turned an otherwise dull setting into a scene from a fairy tale.
She looked so beautiful in her dress.
We were still in our ‘honeymoon’ phase when the snow began to fall on our quiet home, plunging that world of autumn colors into a vast expanse of white. We’d walk down the street almost nightly, marveling at our neighbors immaculate Christmas decorations, her red gloved fingers interlaced with my black ones. I can still recall the way she’d look at me and smile; the faintest tingest of pink coming forth under her pale cheeks, and the tip of her nose.
I’d give anything just to have one more of those moments with her. To feel her hand in mine and experience that smile that sent warmth radiating through me regardless of how cold the air was. She was mine, and I was hers.
As a wedding gift, her parents gave us a family heirloom. It was an old, hand painted Santa statue that had been in their family for years, and as tradition dictated, it was always given to the first child to get married. Sheila was an only child, so it was always destined to be hers. It stood just over three feet tall and was dressed in a shiny blue robe as opposed to a red one.
I remember the words her mother told me as her father loaded it into the back of my car, “Just leave out milk and cookies Daniel. He likes notes too.”
I chuckled, “You know Delores, we’re not expecting to have children anytime soon.”
She smiled, though it looked a little strained, “Just do it Dan, it’s a fun tradition to get into and when you have kids it’ll make it all the more worthwhile.”
I nodded, confused, “yeah, sure thing. Whatever you say.”
I turned to look back to Sheila and her father, though from the look on her face, he’d just given her the same run down that Delores had given me. I shrugged, thinking nothing of it and walked back to my car to drive Sheila and I home so we could consummate our wedding vows before we left for Maui the next day.
We sat in the den drinking hot chocolate on the night of December 20th, simply enjoying each other’s company and the warmth of the fire. The light coming from the Christmas tree twinkled idly across the floor and ceiling alight, really setting the mood for the evening.
I looked into Sheila’s eyes and smiled, “I love you so much.”
Her deep brown eyes widened as she stared back into mine, a smile trickling across the edge of her mouth, “we love you too.”
I frowned and raised an eyebrow, “we?”
Her smile widened as she placed a hand on her belly, “Yes, we.”
I looked at her confused, then to her hand, then back to her. My confusion turned into happiness as I finally understood the implications of her words.
Joyfully, I exclaimed, “really?”
She smiled at me, “really.”
I wrapped her up tightly in my arms, as tears of joy ran down my face, “since when?”
She smiled, obviously pleased at my reaction, “I just found out this morning.”
Once more, I doubtfully looked at her, “so I’m going to be a father?”
She nodded as she chewed on her lower lip, “yes you are, now come here.”
I smiled and started kissing her passionately, but then stopped altogether and withdrew, “are you sure I won’t hurt it?”
She giggled, “yes, now come here daddy.”
That was all the encouragement I needed.
We placed the Santa statue just off to the right of the fireplace, and almost instantly forgot about it. Sheila had scolded me when I insisted on calling it ‘Gandalf’ and got even madder when I’d point at it and say “you shall not pass” as she left for work in the mornings.
As a freelance digital marketer, I do most of my work from home and very seldom leave the house for meetings. Thus, most days I’d find myself seated in the den with my laptop, working away the hours until Sheila would come home. Then, I’d simply pack it up and tuck it away, resigning to finish whatever work I had left for the next day.
I made a comfortable income and had no inclination to pursue a higher tax bracket if it meant forfeiting the time I’d share with my wife. In the times she worked, I worked, and when she was home, I made sure I was home both physically and mentally, with no distractions.
Often times, however, when I was home alone, I found the Santa statue quite unnerving, and would turn it around so it would face the fireplace. Though I’d never see her do it, Sheila would wordlessly turn him back around, probably figuring the same thing I did; he was unnerving in almost every way.
On December 24, 2010, I almost forgot to follow the simple instructions given to me by Sheila’s mother. Okay, I admit. I did forget. Thankfully, Sheila didn’t.
Right as we were going upstairs to bed she halted, “Oh shit, the milk and cookies.”
I frowned, “the what?”
She scowled, “for Santa!”
I stifled a laugh, and thankfully, she didn’t notice it. No, by that point she was already halfway back down the stairs, undoubtedly headed towards the kitchen to get Santa his milk and cookies. I shrugged and followed her, bemused. I figured that she must have grown up with it, must have gotten used to putting out the milk and cookies for the fake Santa claus every Christmas.
I watched as she threw several cookies onto one of our fine china plates and poured a tall glass of milk into one of our crystal glasses. I said nothing as she went by me and placed the two items on the table; right in front of Santa.
Not wanting to miss out on an early christmas present, I said nothing while she wrote a hasty note for him and tucked it under the edge of the plate. I smiled, thinking that we’d be doing the same thing with our child in the foreseeable future.
She walked back over to me, “all done, now you ready for bed mister?”
I smiled and nodded, “I am now.”
She winked as she grabbed my hand and led me up the stairs towards our bedroom.
I awoke to a cracking sound coming from the basement. It sounded like multiple ceramic plates falling onto the floor and breaking. Fear clutched in my chest, as my mind ran through the possible causes of the noise.
Suddenly alert I turned to Sheila, whispering out into the darkness, “Hey babe, I think someone’s downstairs.”
When she didn’t respond, I felt along the spot next to me on the bed, my alertness turning to panic as I realized she wasn’t there. Not knowing what else to do, I threw the blankets off me and rushed out from my bed anxious to disrupt whoever was making noise on the floor below.
I moved quietly down the stairs; grateful for the carpet that muffled the noise as my feet carried me to the level below. As I stepped onto the main floor, I became aware of two things. The first, I didn’t know where Sheila was, and the second, it was far too quiet.
I had just begun to search the main floor when I heard a muffled noise coming from the pantry. Without thinking I began moving towards it, closing the distance in a mere matter of seconds. I threw open the door, not quite sure of what to expect inside.
Inside, I found Sheila. She was pinned up against the wall of the pantry by a man that was holding a knife at her throat. Slowly, he turned to look at me, dragging the blade across her throat in the process; severing the blood vessels that lay within.
Instinctually, her hands flew up to her neck in a futile effort to stop the bleeding. Suddenly aware of the situation I was facing, I dove forward and drove my knee into the man’s abdomen, screaming in rage as I sent him clattering into the wall at the end of the pantry. I stalked over to him and went to kick him, but he quickly recovered and plunged his knife into the meat of my thigh, causing me to fall to the ground as he rose to his feet.
The last thing I remember as I lay on the ground with my hands on my leg was a blinding flash of light as his foot connected with my face and plunged me into a world of darkness.
I awoke in a hospital bed with bandages on my head and my leg. Sheila’s parents were in the room, though, they looked like they’d just been through hell. Looking back, I suppose they had.
In my foggy daze I looked at Delores and asked, “Where’s Sheila?”
She suddenly broke down crying, and Sheila’s father put a hand on her shoulder as he met my eyes, “She’s gone Dan… your neighbor heard your screams and called the police. The man was caught hiding in a bush just a few blocks away and admitted to everything. He said you tried to fight him off. You were just a little too late, I’m sorry.”
The numbness settled over me as I lay in that hospital bed, wondering where I’d go from there, immediately thinking of how I could just join her on the other side.
Tears began to stream from my eyes as I shakily mumbled to myself, “She… was carrying… our child.”
Her parents went white as my words met their ears, though her father was the first to speak, “what did you say?”
The reality flooded in as I screamed in sorrow, “that bastard killed our child!”
Their tears soon joined me as they made their way over to the bed and wrapped me tightly in a hug.
The following days spent recovering fluttered by in a foggy haze as I tried to contemplate my life without Sheila. She was all I’d come to know, all I loved. Now, without her, I had nothing.
I recall the drive home for the first time since that night. The yellow cab left trails in the snow behind us as it rode down the road where Sheila and I would walk. Though no one had their lights on at night, my mind filled in the spaces, showing me the once marvellous lights that now didn’t shine as brightly with her no longer there to enjoy them with me.
The cab pulled up outside of my house, and I struggled with my cane to stand onto my anxious legs. I was almost afraid to go inside, as though by opening the door I’d be disturbing the life I’d lost and see nothing but Sheila’s corpse lying in a pool of her own blood.
I walked up to the door and took a deep breath, realizing that I’d have to go inside eventually. I slid the key into the lock and turned, opened the door and stepped inside.
It was just as we left it. The tree stood in the corner with the presents we’d gotten for each other left settled just underneath it. On the table sat a plate of stale cookies with a note tucked under it and a glass of milk that had long since gone off. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I hobbled over to the coffee table where I’d seen my wife writing out a letter for Santa.
I smiled and picked up the letter, though I didn’t read it. I walked over to the bookshelf and slid it next to her favorite book, then plopped down in the chair and cried until the familiar blackness washed over me once more.
All these years later, I still don’t celebrate Christmas. Though, tomorrow night, I’ll make sure Santa’s not facing the wall. I’ll put out cookies that I bought just for him alongside a tall glass of milk.
For the eighth year in a row I’ll go back to the bookshelf and retrieve Sheila’s unread note. I’ll tuck it back under the fine china plate for him. Then I’ll go upstairs and go to bed, hoping that if I wake in the middle of the night, she’ll be there next to me and this will all just have been one long, horrible dream.