Three days before Thanksgiving, the lights at Santatown amusement park in upstate New York were shut off for the final time.
Bill, the park’s one and only Santa, walked to the office to pick up his last paycheck. A frigid wind moaned between the darkened chalets, and garlands that had once crisscrossed overhead hung limp from their candy cane poles. Polar Popcorn’s door was boarded up, the word CLOSED painted across its shuttered service window, and chartreuse pamphlets—SANTATOWN AUCTION DECEMBER 10! ALL ITEMS TO HIGHEST BIDDERS! NO RESERVES, NO MINIMUMS!—littered the square, where the stalwart fifty-foot Christmas tree had already begun to list to the right.
He’d hoped the place would pull through at least one more holiday, but it had been apparent that the younger set had found other things to do—sometimes, there had been as few as three families at the gates. When they hadn’t hired him any elves this fall, he’d known it was the end.
After he got his check, he took a different route to the exit. He hadn’t planned on one last glimpse of his oversized chair, but he suddenly decided he’d like the arrow-shaped sign—HEEE’RES SANTA!—for his lawn. His boss had already told him it wasn’t going to auction and would probably be chucked.
When he got there, the sign was gone.
As he exited to the parking lot, he wished the place back to its twinkling, sleigh-belled self, the place it had been before they couldn’t afford to keep replacing light bulbs and touching up paint. But when he reached his truck and took one last look, all he saw were the looming dark shapes of the rollercoaster, Ferris wheel, and giant sleigh against an indigo sky, and there was a black hole where his everything used to be.
For the first Christmas in thirty years, Bill didn’t feel jolly.
At home, there were no people. Was it only last December things were as they’d always been? Yes, it was. The park was still open, Elena was still alive (was this really his first Christmas without her?) and even though all four of his children were grown and lived elsewhere, they’d been here as always, making magic—cooking turkeys, wrapping gifts, chopping wood, hanging ornaments, stringing lights.
He poured a Blackberry Brandy and told himself gloom didn’t befit a Santa, even an unemployed one. Things were going to be slightly different this year, that was all—for example, the kids’ calls heralding their travel plans were weeks late, but any day now he expected news.
He hoped it was soon. There was so much to be done.
He was about to pull out the Christmas decorations when Shannon, his oldest daughter, called from her home on a small island deep in the Florida Keys.
“When are you all coming?” he asked. “I know your Mom’s gone…but we’re still going to do everything the same. The big Christmas. Except now there’s all those cookies someone needs to bake, because she’s not here and—”
“—since I’m not working, I could do all the Christmas shopping, and that would leave you some time, and so maybe you could take over the baking—”
“And that means I could actually buy you your presents this year so you won’t know what you’re getting. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“I don’t want anything for Christmas, Dad.” She blew on the mouthpiece.
“Are you smoking?”
“I’ve smoked since high school.”
“Well, don’t do it when you come here.” Bill wandered over to the mantel, and for the first time noticed that the nails that secured the kids’ stockings had been removed. He was puzzled—no one had ever taken out the nails; they were usually there all year. He doubted he even had the correct size in the garage.
“You don’t have to worry about that,” she said quietly. “I’m not coming.”
Bill suddenly felt his knees give; he sank into a faded easy chair. “What?”
“Listen, I…” He heard her take a deep breath. “Everything’s different now, and you’re alone up there. It’s time for you to move out of all that awful cold and snow. Teddy and Deena and Ivan and I have been talking, and we’ve agreed that should come down here and live with me and Eloise.”
Bill felt dizzy. “How could you do this? Don’t you want to have a traditional place to come home to every year? Don’t you guys love that? I mean, this…this is the only place we’ve ever…this is your home!”
“I know, Dad.” She blew in the mouthpiece again. “But like I said, everything is different. It’s time for you to have a normal, happy retirement. Don’t you want an easier life?”
“You’re sweet to be concerned about me, honey.” But his skin burned. He was hoping he’d find a seasonal job as a mall Santa, maybe down in Glens Falls, at least. That, to him, was an easier life. The last place an unemployed Santa was going to find work was in the tropics. “But what would I do down there?”
There was a taut silence. Then, she said, “Hang out with me, Dad. Get to know me, spend time with me. We don’t need Christmas to do that.” He heard a glug-glug-glug on the other end of the line. “How about this. If you don’t want to live here permanently just yet, then just come from now until after Christmas, and then you can decide.”
He went to take a sip of brandy, but found his glass empty; then he remembered the year he’d returned from work and no one was home. He’d walked about for an hour before his whole family had leapt from behind the tree and yelled, ‘surprise!’
Surely this was like that time. Of course! A little ruse. Ha! He laughed at himself. “Oh, so you mean we’ll just all be doing Christmas at your place! Are the other kids already down there with you?”
“They…we…” Sip. “We’re all sort of doing our own thing this year…and every year, Dad.”
Bill felt like he’d been punched. “Why?”
“Because…they’re all married. They’ve never spent even one Christmas with their in-laws, or alone. It’s time for a change.” Breath on the mouthpiece. “Promise me you’ll think about it?” Sip. “I love you, Dad. I have to go.”
She hung up.
Bill clutched the receiver and stared at the nail holes for a long time. He’d never noticed, when the stockings had been there, that the nails hadn’t been exactly in a straight line or spaced properly: the hole for Elena’s nail was slightly higher than his children’s. And the one for his had a large space between it and the other five.
He got up and went to the kitchen, grabbed the bottle of brandy, and chugged down what was left.
He looked out the window. It had started snowing—hard. He remembered the weatherman had predicted a major storm—nearly three feet. The stuff was going to bury the tires on his truck. It painfully hit him that no one was coming. That Teddy, the one who always shoveled him out, wouldn’t be. He’d have to do it himself.
An easier life.
Right now, Shannon was only asking for Christmas. And Christmas with one of his children was better than no Christmas at all. He was sure she’d miss the normal hubbub. They all would, and next year they’d be back in routine. They’d forget all about moving him down there.
He drained the bottle, then called Shannon back and told her, yes.
No one on his Miami-bound flight had even heard of Eldur Key, so he was glad when he arrived at the airport and a driver was waiting for him.
“I told you it was tiny.” Shannon heaved his suitcase up the porch steps. “Jeez, Dad. Hard case luggage? Nobody uses this anymore. What is it, like a million years old?”
He held open the screen door. “Yup, but it still looks new, doesn’t it?”
The house’s bright interior shocked Bill. One whole side of the room was floor to ceiling windows, and the rest teemed with color: lime walls, turquoise couches, orange ashtrays, pink sheer curtains, yellow chairs; the wicker bookshelves were crammed full of Shannon’s painted wooden models, the ones she’d picked out for herself every Christmas and put together with Elena. Potted palms filled in the spaces. It wasn’t—at all—like their house up north, dark stained woods, rich carpeting, tiny rooms that did well in candlelight. He envisioned a Christmas tree with multi-colored lights in the room, hoping he’d feel better, but it didn’t work—the place would still feel cavernous, the tree as freakish as a flamingo in snow. “Isn’t the Christmas tree going to clash with all this?” His voice echoed when he talked.
Shannon had vanished around a corner.
“Did you hear what I said?” He followed her into a white room with a King-sized bed and sliders that opened to a swimming pool.
Shannon had set the suitcase down and stood looking at him, sadly. She sat on the edge of the bed and motioned to the wicker chair in the corner. “Have a seat, Dad.”
Bill was confused. “Why?”
“Just…just have a seat.”
Bill was puzzled, but he took a side-step and settled into the bright green chair. It creaked under his weight. “Don’t you care if the tree clashes?”
Shannon pressed her lips together and stared at the floorboards; she took a deep breath. “We’re not doing a Christmas tree, Dad.”
It took Bill a moment to find his voice. “Um, what do you mean?”
“We don’t do a Christmas tree.”
Bill felt like he had a thousand words to say but they were jumbling in his mind. “I thought it was…I mean I thought—”
“We—we don’t do much for Christmas.”
He felt like someone had ripped out his stomach. “What?”
“It’s just what I said. We don’t do much for Christmas.”
There was a long silence; Shannon sighed. “Because.”
Bill was so caught off guard he didn’t know how to react at first. Then, he said, “Maybe I should go stay with one of the other kids.”
“No.” She rose to her feet. “The other kids…the other kids don’t…we decided that my house was the best place for you, for that very reason. You need a break, Dad. You’ve worked hard to be Santa your whole life and now it’s time for you to relax. And I have plenty of room. We were all excited about this decision.”
“But you don’t—even decorate for Christmas?”
“It’s not like it was at home. And I’m sorry to spring it on you like this but I knew if I told you that, you’d never come.” She hefted the suitcase onto the bed.
Bill looked around. “Is this my room?”
“Yes. This is my old room—it’s the most comfortable.”
“Where will you sleep?”
She popped the locks on the suitcase. “I’m all set.”
“You shouldn’t sleep on the couch.”
“I’ll just crash in Eloise’s room.”
He watched her take his things from the suitcase and stack them neatly on a bright blue bookcase; it wasn’t at all like back home, where he put his clothes in drawers. Then he recalled what she’d said: It’s not like it was at home. Of course! She probably didn’t do much for Christmas because it would just pale in comparison to what they had up north! But he was here now and he could fix it. He could surprise her. He envisioned a Christmas tree in the empty corner, to the right of the sliders, and, he thought, if he bought some drapes to keep the pool out of sight, that would make all the difference. He didn’t know where he’d find a pine tree or a Christmas shop on this island—come to think of it, he hadn’t seen much Christmas decoration on the drive in—but he hadn’t seen anything that looked like a town yet, either. He probably just needed to find the town.
Shannon closed his suitcase and set it on the floor; then she went to him and set her hands on his arms. “I know that it’s going to be hard for you at first, but I think you’ll find life here is pretty nice. Why don’t you get settled and then we can hang by the pool, have some Mai Tais, and talk. Eloise’ll be home soon.”
“Actually,” he said, “I think I’d like to explore.”
“I was going to give you a tour, maybe tomorrow.”
“No, I really…I can go on my own.”
Shannon licked her lips. “There’s bikes on the front porch. It’s how we get around.” She looked at her shoes. “Dinner, then. At six.”
He nodded. “Dinner at six.”
Downtown was a tennis court-sized palm garden hugged by five brightly-colored buildings: the Quaffin’ Swallow Bar, Town Offices, Key Oddities & Groceries, the See Glass Inn & Restaurant, and an unnamed church. But to Bill’s dismay, the only evidence of Christmas he found was on the church’s letter board: CHRIS IS BORN. He stopped to see if perhaps he could locate the missing letter and put it back on, but he didn’t see it anywhere.
Hopelessness overtook him.
On the way back to Shannon’s, a glint in the trees caught his eye. He stopped and pulled aside two gargantuan palm fronds, surprised to discover a roped-off narrow path that plunged deep into close foliage; it looked as though it had once been cobblestone, but now it was cracked and littered with chunks of rock—too dangerous for a bike. He’d have to go on foot.
When he ducked under the rope he heard music—steel drums. It took him a moment to figure out that it was…Christmas music! A steel drum version of “White Christmas”—not his taste, but familiar and comforting all the same. As he walked, it got louder, but it didn’t seem to be coming from any one direction.
Finally, he reached the music’s source—a greenhouse. It wasn’t the typical barn-shape, and reminded him a little of the chalets at Santatown: a steep-pitched roof and an over-sized door, which was open, revealing rows of potted three-foot Christmas trees and allowing the scent of pine to escape. At last, he thought, someone with holiday spirit! He walked a little further and saw the structure dwarfed an adjacent violet bungalow. Squatty palms studded with white lights huddled around it, partially obscuring a salt-and-pepper-haired woman in a wicker chair on the porch.
“Well, Merry Christmas!” he called.
The woman craned her neck to see him. “Merry Christmas back! Come and join me!”
“So this is where it’s been hiding.” He ascended the steps.
“Yes, I’m Cora.” She had a pile of palm fronds at her feet, and one on her lap; she moved carefully while she poured him a glass of punch from a ceramic pitcher. “They call me Madam Christmas.”
“Bill.” He accepted the glass. “I’m a full-time Santa at an amusement park.”
“Hmmph! A real Santa on this island and I didn’t know?” She settled back in her chair, picked up the palm frond, plucked a blade from the stalk, and set it with a bundle of others on a side table next to the pitcher. “Please, sit down.”
Bill sat in the other chair and sipped his drink; he tasted rum, cranberry, and cinnamon.
“Are you new?”
“I’m visiting my daughter.”
Cora chuckled. It had a smoker’s gauzy edge. “Daughters are great, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” he said. “They are. I have two, Shannon—that’s the one who lives here—and Deena. She’s in Washington State.” “White Christmas” ended; “There’s No Place like Home for the Holidays” began. “I have two sons, too. Ted’s in New Mexico and Ivan’s in Baltimore.”
“Four kids! I’m envious!” She picked up a blade, held the pointed side up, and folded it to make a right angle. “My daughter and I, it was just us. But we took such delight in growing the trees, and decorating them, and delivering them to the porches of every house in town every Christmas Day. We made out just dandy.”
“You mean, you make a tree for everyone that lives here?” That was why Shannon said they weren’t getting a Christmas tree, and that explained why there wasn’t any evidence of Christmas around! His daughter was keeping it a secret to surprise him. Now it all made sense.
“Yes!” She folded the blade until it was in a square, pushed the pointy end around the back, and folded it again. “We were always so, so busy. It was such an exciting time.”
“It was like that at my house, too.” He watched her make a loop in the blade. “Of course, I was always so busy. I was Santatown’s only Santa, you know, and I worked year-round and barely spent time with them. But the holidays were special because we all came together.” He knew what she was making now—crosses, like the kind they used to give out at Lake Placid Lutheran on Palm Sundays when he was a kid. “I always had to work double shifts between Thanksgiving, but when I came home every night it was just like elves had been at work—Elena—that’s my wife, but she’s gone now, she died in January—”
“I’m sorry.” She set a finished palm cross on the table.
“—thank you. She baked dozens and dozens of cookies. Shannon, she did all the shopping—she even picked out her own Christmas gifts. Teddy chopped all the wood and made the wreaths and cleared the driveway. Deena made the turkeys for the employee buffet—I hosted one every year for all my friends at Santatown—and she did Christmas dinner, too. And Ivan—he did all the decorations in the house. Everything. We had a twenty-three foot tree outside that we decorated, and two small ones inside, one in the dining room and living room.”
Cora began to fashion another blade.
Bill gulped a few more swallows of the drink. “When the big day finally came, I’d get the kids up at the crack of dawn so I could see them open their gifts. Because Santatown was open. That was my favorite day to work all year, actually.”
“It sounds wonderful!”
“Oh, yes. Even when the kids grew up, they came back for the holidays.” Bill put the glass down and thought about pouring another; his limbs were tingling, though—probably because he hadn’t eaten anything—so he decided not to. “Except for this year. They all decided to—go their own ways.”
Cora sighed. “Yes, well, that’s children for you. My daughter, she grew up and moved out, and then she stopped visiting, and…ever since, I’ve been doing this whole thing myself.” She took a sip of punch. “She said, you’re too old, Ma, you should stop all this nonsense and have a nice quiet holiday doing something you like—but it is all I like. It’s all I live for, to imagine them, especially the kids, opening their doors on Christmas and seeing the tree, and the cookies, and some presents!”
He was startled by how much her daughter sounded like Shannon: an easier life. “You shouldn’t stop. You mean something here, not like me. Shannon wants me to move here.”
Cora blinked. “You should!” She bent over at her waist and tidied up the palm frond pile at her feet. “Why wouldn’t you want to?”
“It’s not that, it’s that nobody needs me here,” he said. “You don’t need an extra Santa. You’ve got it covered.”
Cora shifted in her seat and set her hand on his arm. “I could use some help. I’m only halfway through these—I use them for bows on the presents—and I’ve barely started the garlands!”
For the first time, he noticed scissors, twine, and a punch tool on a wicker table next to her and a basket at her feet. “Garlands?”
“Yes.” She reached around to the other side of her chair and pulled out a ribbon that made a soft tinkling sound. “Out of jingle shells. They’re from little clams. Maybe you know them as Mermaid’s Toenails?”
Bill shook his head.
“Go on, take it.” She coiled a strand of penny-sized opalescent shells on a stretch of twine into his palm. “They look splendid on the trees! Those white lights reflect on them and the whole thing just shimmers, like something out of fairyland. I need to make at least forty more, but my hands are so sore I was stopping for now. If you want to help, you can spend the day tomorrow. I could show you.”
He stayed with Cora until after sunset. He pedaled to Shannon’s, thinking about how spry his daughter was, that little devil, scheming to surprise him! He didn’t know how he was going to keep it from her that he knew her secret.
On the porch, he propped the bike beneath the kitchen window, and shadows on the sheer curtains caught his eye. He peered in and saw Shannon and a willowy, raspberry-haired woman—Eloise, he assumed—washing dishes at the sink.
“Give him time. He just got here.” Eloise set down a dish she’d dried.
Dinner! Bill looked at his watch. Eight fifteen.
“All I’ve given him is time, El.” Shannon set a dish in the drainer. “All those years, waiting.”
Bill was confused.
“So what’s a little longer?”
“You should talk. You waited for your Mom and nothing changed and then it was too late.”
El turned off the spigot and dried her hands on a towel. “That was different.”
“No it wasn’t.”
El set her hands on Shannon’s shoulders and faced her. “This isn’t about my Mom. This is about your Dad. Don’t make the mistake I did, cutting it off without trying. Be patient.”
Then El set her hands on Shannon’s cheeks, pulled her face to hers, and kissed her on the mouth.
For a second, he wasn’t sure what he was looking at—it was like the color blindness tests the eye doctor gave him a while back, some pink and orange bubbles against gray and black ones. In his head, he recalled Shannon’s I’ll just crash in Eloise’s room, and then it hit him, just like in the eye doctor’s office—Oh, yes, there it is! It’s the number twenty-six!—Shannon is…Bill felt dizzy, and his breath caught in his throat. Shannon is gay?
He marched into the kitchen, and the couple separated.
“How long has this been going on?” He knew he sounded angrier than intended.
El patted Shannon’s arm. “I’ll be at the pool.” She nodded at Bill and left the room.
Shannon went to the kitchen table and poured a glass of wine. “About ten years.” She sat down and lit up a cigarette. “I know. You’re shocked.”
He took a deep breath. The truth was, he didn’t know how he felt about it. Not yet. What he did know was that ten years was a long time, and how could he not have known? How could he not have ever even heard anything about it? He had always been so good to them at Christmas, Shannon always got every model she’d ever asked for, they had a stable home life, nothing broken—he knew all of his children so well, how could it be possible?
“We were going to tell you tonight. At dinner. Which you didn’t bother to show up for.”
“I…guess I lost track.”
Shannon glared. Then she exhaled smoke and gazed in the direction El had gone; when she looked back at him, her expression lost its prickle. “Well, I guess it was your first day. Do you like our island?”
“‘Nice’ That’s it?” She tapped her ash. “Well, just wait ’til tomorrow—I have a whole day planned! We’ll enjoy the pool in the morning, and then take out the boat—”
“Actually, I know—” He stopped. He’d almost blown it. “I mean, it’s been a long haul for me, coming down here. I think tomorrow I’m just going to take it easy, sleep for the day.”
“Come on,” he said. “You wanted me to have an easier life, right?”
Shannon eyed him for a moment. “Yes.” She crushed her cigarette in the ashtray. “You’re right. I did.”
The next day before dawn, Bill snuck out of the house through the slider in his bedroom; he couldn’t take the bike or Shannon would know he wasn’t there, so he left it on the front porch and headed to Cora’s on foot.
Cora handed Bill the punch tool. “Just put a hole in each shell.”
But boring the holes proved to be hard—he shattered shell after shell into iridescent shards.
“You press too heavy.” Cora threaded twine through a shell she’d punched herself and tied a knot to secure it. “Don’t be so intense.”
He tried to lessen the pressure, but each time he focused, the image of Shannon and El replayed. He cracked another shell. And another. And another.
“One of us’ll have to trek to the beach for more shells if you keep it up.” Cora laughed, and spiraled her finished strand into a basket.
“Maybe I should tie and you should punch.”
She eyed him. “Maybe you should tell me what’s on your mind.”
Bill felt like there was nothing solid underneath him—every time he felt this way, he poured a brandy or went to Santatown. And there wasn’t either thing here. It struck him that he never had—not really—talked about anything that bothered him. “I…I don’t know where to start.”
“Try.” Cora refilled their punch glasses.
He sipped his drink, then recounted the night before. “I just…I know my kids. Like Ivan’s sloppy. One year he cut down the tree but didn’t want to set it up right away, so he left it outside in an ice storm. When he moved it in, it rained in our living room because all the ice on the needles melted. Deena’s a perfectionist. She never, ever, cooked that turkey longer than two hundred forty minutes. And Teddy is headstrong. If Elena told him to use one color ribbon on the wreath and he didn’t agree, boy, he just did his own thing. Shannon is so honest—that’s why she did the Christmas shopping, because she had to buy her own gifts, too, and I could trust that what she bought for herself was within reason, just a few new wooden models. I can’t imagine why she didn’t tell me about Eloise.”
Cora picked up the punch tool and a shell.
“Perhaps,” she said, “you should go back to your daughter’s in time for dinner tonight.”
“But we still have so much to do!”
“There’s three days to Christmas. Come early and you could go back for dinner every night and we’ll finish in time.” She stood up. “In the meantime, I’m thinking Christmas needs to come to your house a tad early. Come over to the greenhouse, and I’ll show you what you can bring for a peace offering.”
Cora wrapped a pine tree in burlap; she strapped it to his back and filled a canvas bag with Christmas trimmings. The burden should have made the hike back to Shannon’s laborious, but Bill was so enthralled with visions of her joy he was there before he knew it.
He stole inside the house to find it empty, so he set to work setting up the tree in a corner of the porch: he wanted it to be the first thing Shannon saw when she returned. He laced it with white lights and the jingle shell garlands, decked the boughs with ornaments fashioned from dehydrated fruits and flowers, and crowned the top with a dried sugar star. When he was done, he plugged in the lights and stood back.
Cora was right. The tree shimmered.
And then he heard a thud.
It was Shannon. She’d dropped an overstuffed paper bag; a pineapple bounced down the front steps and oranges rolled everywhere. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Oh my God. We need to get this off the porch. We need to get rid of it right now.”
“Where did you get this, Dad?” Shannon stepped over the grocery bag, rushed to the tree, and began yanking the ornaments from the boughs.
“I met—I met this woman, and she calls herself Madam Christmas and she said she could use my help and I just felt useful, so—”
“Oh, my God, is that what you’ve been doing every day?” Shannon frantically stuffed the ornaments into the grocery bag she’d dropped earlier. “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.”
Bill stepped in front of her. “What are you doing?”
“This?” She seized a strand of jingle shells. “This can’t be here when El gets home!”
“But I made that! I was trying to surprise you! Like you were trying to surprise me! Right? You were really going to do Christmas, right?”
“No. It’s…it’s complicated. I don’t want to talk about this now.” Shannon knelt, chucked a couple of oranges back in the bag, and stood up. “I’m going inside to get a trash bag and we have to get rid of this. Jesus Christ, Dad.” She flung open the screen door and stomped inside.
Bill was hurt. His limbs were numb. It took him a second for him to be able to follow her. “I don’t understand.”
She stood at the counter and slammed oranges into a wooden bowl. “Eloise hates Christmas. I hate Christmas, Dad. Do you know why I hate Christmas? Because Christmas took you away from us. Year round. You put on your stupid Santa suit and off you went. Were you at my spelling bees? Teddy’s wrestling matches? Deena’s art shows? You blew off your anniversary twice. Twice! Mom was crushed. And for what? So you could be fucking jolly for other people’s kids. Total strangers.”
Bill felt like someone had brutally clubbed his heart. Oh, no. He wasn’t going to take responsibility for her hatred of Christmas. And what she was saying was wrong, just plain wrong. “But you kids always acted like having a Santa for a Dad was a great thing! You had great Christmases! I gave you everything you asked for—”
“Christmas was work! We came home and did what you asked us to because it was the only time you paid any attention to us—you think I loved shopping for three weeks straight? You think I enjoyed buying my own presents?”
“…but you got your models.”
“Yes, I did. And every year you said, ‘Shannon, maybe next week I’ll sit down and do that with you.’ And did you? Never. Every week I thought, ‘maybe this week, he’ll ask me to do it.’ But it never happened. And finally it was November and I’d give up, and Mom would do it with me. And she had enough on her plate.”
This last thing he couldn’t deny. He remembered the promises, and he remembered how he forgot them. Until they were all busy in the holiday season again and he saw Shannon and Elena in the laundry room, glue and pins and flimsy pieces of wood littering the tops of the washer and dryer. He remembered Shannon showing him a completed, painted model with one big grin on her face. But he hadn’t realized that Elena had stepped in to help Shannon only because he’d forgotten.
A tumble of other things came to him: Teddy wrestled? He vaguely recalled that. Deena’s art shows…oh, he remembered her being artistic, but was it sculpture? Drawing? Or something else? And he remembered how worn, gray, gaunt Elena looked after every holiday season. How she used to sleep with a heating pad, “all that kneading, rolling, cutting,” she’d say. All these little things he’d ignored. Then he recalled the phone conversation, Shannon saying Teddy and Deena and Ivan and I have been talking.
My God, they all felt the same way, didn’t they?
He felt sick and sank into a chair.
Shannon seemed to hedge on saying more, but instead, she made a frustrated noise and ducked under the sink to retrieve a large trash bag. She headed back toward the front porch.
He found the strength to speak just before she went back outside. He said, “Do you…do all of you hate me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We don’t hate you.” Shannon turned to face him. She sighed. For a long moment, there was nothing between them; then she pulled out a chair, sat down, and set her hands on his. “We just want you to drop all this Christmas stuff and catch up on what you missed. We want you to be…normal.”
Normal. The word hit him hard; anger bubbled in his stomach. He had accepted her smoking. He was working on accepting his daughter’s relationship with Eloise. And yet she wanted him to walk away from all he’d ever been. She wanted him to be something he just couldn’t be. He yanked his hands from hers. “Listen, young lady—”
Eloise appeared in the doorway. “This is not funny.”
“Oh, shit. El, I can explain—” Shannon released Bill’s hands.
“What…how?” El burst into tears and then ran from the room.
Shannon was already moving to follow Eloise.
Bill trembled. “What?”
Shannon stopped, and her voice cracked. “El’s mother was known as Madam Christmas. She wasted her whole life making those—damn jingle shell trees for this town. She never had time for El and then one of her stupid strands of lights malfunctioned and torched her place, and she didn’t get out. She’s dead, Dad. So I don’t know who that sicko is that’s pretending to be El’s mother, but you’re done with it. You’re going over there, right now, and telling her you can’t help her. She can do what she wants, but I’ll be damned if the same thing is going to happen to you and me and there will be no Christmas in this house.” Shannon hurried after Eloise.
Bill heard the bedroom door slam. He heard Eloise, crying. He heard his daughter’s voice, low and soothing. And for a long time, he stood there, listening.
In the lavender waning daylight, Bill reached the narrow path; it was where it had always been. But when he ducked under the rope, there was no steel drum music.
“Cora?” he called. “Cora! We need to talk!”
But there was no answer—only a rustle from the dense jungle. Spooked, he whistled “Christmas Island” until he reached her place.
Then he stopped short.
The greenhouse was a shattered, muddy tangle of steel, overgrown pine tree boughs snaking from broken panes; the bungalow was a half-burnt porch with a few charred beams framing a pile of splintered boards and a collapsed roof. He panicked—had the place burned down in just a few hours? “Cora?” he set his foot on the lowermost porch step, and it went right through. Her wicker chair—which this afternoon had been clean and bright—was spattered with gray sludge. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Cora!”
Only the echo came back.
This wasn’t recent. It would still be smoking; the stench of burnt wood and heat would have overwhelmed him.
It hit him. Shannon’s words: lights malfunctioned and torched her place, and she didn’t get out.
Arctic fingers needled his spine, and he was aware of the loudness of nothing: no birds. No surf.
Somewhere behind him, a branch snapped.
Startled, he whirled around just in time to spot a darting black shadow zip behind the greenhouse. “Cora?”
And then he saw something in front of the door to the greenhouse, something that hadn’t been there, he was sure, just a few minutes ago. Aware that something might be watching him, he crept over to the item—a brightly-colored, undamaged box.
It was one of those wooden models that Shannon liked to make: a rosy-cheeked Santa waving gleefully from a sleigh crammed with Christmas goodies. Suddenly, Bill was overwrought, and his mind carouseled with voices: But what would I do down there? Get to know me…we don’t need Christmas to do that. My daughter, she grew up and moved out, and then she stopped visiting. You waited for your Mom and nothing changed and then it was too late. And every year you said, ‘Shannon, maybe next week I’ll sit down and do that with you.’ And did you? Never. Every week I thought, ‘maybe this week, he’ll ask me to do it.’ But it never happened. And finally it was November and I’d give up, and Mom would do it with me.
He picked up the box.
He was going home. He was dismantling that tree. He was cutting a jingle shell garland, making a necklace for Eloise, and telling her about her Mom. Then he was sitting down with Shannon to build this model, just like Elena used to do.
Christmas was going to be slightly different this year; that was all.
KRISTI PETERSEN SCHOONOVER’s work appears in The Adirondack Review, A Fly in Amber, Barbaric Yawp, Death Head Grin, Morpheus Tales, New Witch Magazine, Scalped, Spilt Milk, Toasted Cheese, and a host of others. Her collection of ghost stories—Admit One: Tales from Haunted Disney World—is due from Pandora Ink books later in 2010. She hosts the paranormal fiction segment on The Ghostman & Demon Hunter Show broadcast, www.ghostanddemon.com. She also serves as an editor for Read Short Fiction, www.readshortfiction.com.