Linda M. Fields
Harry woke with a start as dark fingers of night danced around him. The dream lingered just beyond reach darting like a frightened doe when he tried to recapture it.
He was sure of two things; one, he could go back in time to the shore of Lake Erie where Emma waited only once per night, and two; she was only allowed to get so close before something awakened him.
Judy slid quietly between the sheets next to her husband. She didn't know if he were asleep or not, either way she didn't want to disturb him. This was the 'bad' time of the year and she knew that the slightest thing could set him off. Ever since his mother's death ten years before, Christmas had become something to shun. She knew that Ben blamed himself in some obscure way for Emma's death, as did his father, Harry. Judy tried to reason with both of them, but eventually admitted defeat as both men insisted on wallowing in his own self-pity and unfounded guilt, as though Emma's death were some macabre gift to be vied over.
Judy sighed, rolling onto her side, only a couple more weeks and the ghost could rest for another year.
Ben felt a sharp pang of guilt when he heard Judy sigh and roll away from him. He knew his actions toward his wife and son were irrational, just as he knew the mood swings were caused by the guilt that he felt over his mother's death. It was wrong, yet there didn't seem to be anything he could do to stop it. He knew they suffered his loss almost as much as he did; yet the irrational anger remained. I should have known what was going to happen.
Ben never remembered his mother being sick once his whole life, so that evening, Christmas Eve, when Emma called to say Christmas dinner would be served at two o'clock he hadn't listened to what she was really saying, or to his own instincts, especially to his own instincts.
"Mom", he remembered laughing, "you don't have to tell me what time Christmas dinner is, it's always been at two."
She chuckled half-heartedly, and that chuckle sent such a chill of dread through Ben that he actually shivered.
"Mom, are you OK?"
She sounded surprised at the question, "Why, I'm fine, other than a bit of indigestion from sausages I had for supper, guess they were too spicy. Why do you ask?"
Ben struggled against his inner voice; "Maybe you should call the doctor. You might . . . you might have food poisoning, or something."
"Oh Ben, don't be silly! Call a doctor on Christmas Eve for an upset stomach? I'll take a couple of anti-acids and be just fine in the morning."
"Well, still", he hedged, "if you're not feeling well maybe we should have dinner here tomorrow."
This time when Emma laughed Ben felt the old familiar warmth of her love flow through him. That was Mom's laugh, the one that always made the world seem bright and sunny.
Forcing the nasty little doomsday voice to the farthest reaches of his brain, Ben laughed along with Emma.
"Yeah, kind of late in the day for that now, isn't it? Of course we could always have stuffed hot dogs and cherry toaster tarts". He joked, relieved that his fear was silent.
"Hey! I know, you and Dad load the car and come down tonight, then in the morning Judy can help you with the rest of the meal."
"I love you Gentle Ben, but sometimes you have the most illogical ideas. You have to get it from your father's side of the family."
Emma told Ben again that she loved him, that she was fine and looking forward to seeing them the next day. Ben never got to talk to his mother again. The little touch of indigestion turned out to be a killer heart attack.
Ben didn't have much contact with his father in the years that followed. As illogical as if felt to him, Harry kept insisting on blaming himself for Emma's death. If Ben heard, "I should have known", or "If only I'd acted quicker", one more time he'd scream.
Judy and their son, 15-year-old Nicky, had been very supportive of his sudden overwhelming aversion to Christmas. No roast turkey and stuffing, no pies, no brightly decorated tree crowded with presents. Ben realized that over the years Nicky got into the habit of quietly slipping from the house on Christmas Day and celebrating the holiday with his best friend's family. Ben never said anything, but when Nicky returned with all the Christmas odors clinging to his small body Ben was in a raging turmoil of conflicting emotions of anger and guilt. It's not fair to them, he thought. Where are their happy memories going to come from? Each year Ben hoped that he could get through this Christmas then maybe next year they would once again celebrate the holiday.
Harry moved briskly down the beach, Emma would be waiting around the next bend, just like always. In his dream, and he knew it was a dream, Emma looked just as she had forty-two years earlier on the day he asked her to be his wife. Harry wasn't sure if, in his dream, he also appeared young, but he suspected he looked like he always did, a gray haired, stooped shoulder, scrawny old man.
Emma turned as Harry rounded the last bend and his heart, already pounding from the strain of hurrying, became a jackhammer at the sight of her. Maybe this time I'll make it into her arms, he prayed.
At the very moment the thought entered Harry's mind an alien sound began echoing through the air around him. He stopped and glanced at the lake, then the sky, and to the woods beside him. A lone gull flew overhead, screaming the way only a gull can. Harry looked back; Emma was still running toward him, yet never getting closer. He glanced back at the gull, it's shrill scream becoming . . . something . . .else.
"No!" Harry screamed, whether at the bird, or an unfair God was unimportant. "No, please no! I don't want . . .to . . .wake . . .up!" The words died on his lips as he jerked fully awake to the insistent ringing of the telephone.
Wiping a tear from his cheek, Harry snatched up the phone and snapped, "What?"
The silence on the other end was so deep that Harry thought he could feel the pressure of it straining to suck him in.
"Hello?" He asked, his voice sounding strange, even whiny to his own ears. I'm being silly, he thought, I've gotten crank calls before and they've never frightened me.
I'm still dreaming, that's why I'm so afraid.
The dial tone hummed in his ear, and he smiled as he hung up the telephone. I was dreaming and the phone really never even rang. This he tried to tell himself, but in the end he knew that he was wide-awake when the fear coiled within his stomach like a ten-headed serpent. He closed his eyes, trying desperately to escape back to Emma.
Ben was standing at the kitchen sink rinsing out his coffee cup when Judy and Nicky burst in through the back door. Laughter died on their lips when they saw Ben, and his expression turned from surprise to anger.
"What's going on", he snapped.
Judy remained calm as she removed her gloves. "What are you doing home?"
Ben shrugged, "Don't know, just had an urge to come home for lunch. Looks like I picked the wrong day, huh?" He watched the expressions on their faces and was shocked when he realized that Nicky was taller than Judy was. When did that happen?
Judy looked at Nicky, smiled and said, "Why don't you go on in to the family room and move the brown chair out of the corner."
Ben dropped to a chair when the boy was gone and asked, "What did you do, Judy? What in God's name did you do?"
Judy busied herself wiping invisible crumbs from the counter. "We got a Christmas tree, Ben, a real honest to God, live Christmas tree. I won't go on cheating my son out of his right to have a normal Christmas like all his friends. You had Christmas when you were a kid, and so did I, and starting right now Nicky's going to have them too. If you don't like it you can go spend the next two weeks with your father, and the two of you can wallow in all the self-pity and guilt that you want to."
Ben's cheeks flamed, "Next year I was going to . . .."
"Ben", Judy said softly as she moved to his side, "you've been saying 'next year', for seven years. It isn't right and you know it, besides, do you really think your mother would want her only grandchild cheated out of Christmas?"
Ben was silent for several seconds, then said, "I don't think I can help . . .with the tree, I mean. I don't know if I can, you know . . .."
"Honey, you don't have to. You go back to work and when you get home it'll be all done. I love you Ben with all my heart and soul, but I have to do this for our son."
Ben stood and wrapped his arms around Judy, pulling her close. "I do understand, babe, really I do. I don't deserve you or Nicky, and I don't know how you put up with me all these years."
Judy laughed, "Oh I guess we're just a couple of Saints."
As soon as Ben left for work Judy and Nicky got busy. It wasn't easy finding all the Christmas decorations and the strings of lights were tangled and many didn't work at all. All together Judy made three trips to the hardware store, but by five o'clock the family room was aglow with Christmas warmth.
Judy made sure that not so much as a sprig of Holly adorned any other room in the house.
Together mother and son surveyed their handy work while Silent Night caressed the air around them. Nicky looked down at his mother, tears glistening the corners of his eyes, "It's beautiful, Mom, just like I remember."
Before Judy could respond she felt Nicky stiffen at the familiar click of the front door being opened. "It's all right, Nicky, everything will be just fine."
Ben moved through the house and went into the kitchen where Judy was waiting for him.
"Hi", she smiled, trying to ease the twinge of fear that tightened her stomach. How was he going to react? Would his earlier reluctance acceptance of their plans to decorate the family room be forgotten? Would he fly into a blind rage and tear their Christmas world apart?
Ben nodded toward the family room, "All done?"
"Umm, took longer than we thought, but yes, it's done. Problem is I haven't gotten supper started yet. Hope you don't mind having pizza?"
"I've got a better idea, why don't we go out for dinner?"
Harry stamped slush from his shoes before he entered the house. With each thump of his feet pain would scream through his knees. Between the aches in his joints and his grumpy disposition caused by all the 'Christmas spirited' morons, Harry was ready to crawl into bed and stay there until spring.
It sickened him the way everyone was happily wasting they're hard earned money on presents and decorations. All the bright-eyed children trying their damnedest to be good and failing miserably, while their mothers shopped for the family's Christmas dinner, made him want to vomit. What was most depressing though was the knowledge that ten years ago Emma would have been in that throng of women choosing the plumpest turkey, the ripest tomatoes, and the cheeriest wrapping paper for her family.
Harry went to the kitchen and took seven TV dinners from his shopping bag; chicken, ham, beef, everything except turkey. He hadn't eaten turkey since Emma . . ..
He sighed, sticking an anemic tomato in the refrigerator. You know it's just not fair, Emma. Everyone knows that the man is supposed to go first. You were always the strong one, Emma you would have coped. I'm just a lonely grumpy old fool without you.
After putting away his meager supplies Harry thought about calling Ben. Just to see how Nicky was doing in school and to find out if Judy was still at her new job, and, and who was he kidding? He just wanted someone to say hello to.
In the end though he didn't make the call. He kept putting it off until finally all he could think about was going to bed and dreaming about Emma.
The breeze was slightly fishy smelling, and it ruffled the few long strands of hair remaining on his head as he hurried along the golden shoreline. Two more bends to round before he'd see her. He urged his feet to move a little faster, ignoring the searing pain in his knees. He never questioned that he took his pain with him into his dream world. The pain was just another fact of life, much like the terrible loneliness that haunted him day and night.
Two gulls flew overhead, circling the lake before diving to pluck small fish from beneath the surface. Sometimes there were one or two gulls, other times there would be as many as a dozen circling and screaming. Harry didn't wonder why sometimes there were only a couple and other times a dozen or more, anymore than he wondered why, in some dreams there were clouds scurrying overhead and in others the sky was untouched by even the most obscure hint of white. Sometimes a brisk breeze blew, like today, other times the air was so still he could hear a leaf rustle in the woods to his left. The only thing about the dreams that was always exactly the same was he and Emma. He would round the last bend and Emma would turn toward him, a moment would pass as they just stared, then they would run toward each other, and then he would awaken. He never reached Emma, but it appeared that each time he saw her they managed to get a little closer and he knew in his heart that one of these times they would finally touch once again.
Off in the distance a multicolored sailboat skimmed the horizon. Funny, he thought, they didn't have sailboats like that in 1948. The thoughts quickly slipped away as he rounded the final bend and saw Emma standing at water's edge looking out over the lake. Her long black hair billowed out behind her and the shirt of her azure dress clung to the front of her thighs like a second skin, while the back flapped wildly in the lake breeze looking like a beautiful bird trying to take flight.
Emma turned slowly, looking back toward him as though she'd been waiting and knew the exact moment that he'd appear. His heart skipped a beat and he willed his skinny, arthritic legs to go a little faster.
As he drew nearer his excitement grew. She was so close now that he could see the golden flecks in her brown eyes. They stopped close enough to touch, then Emma reached out and their fingertips met and . . . time stopped. Frozen as in a photograph they stood facing each other, then Emma moved. They didn't fall into each other's arms; instead Emma reached up and lovingly wiped a single tear from Harry's cheek. Her fingertips felt cool against his fevered face. "Christmas dinner at two." Then she was gone.
Harry hugged the pillow to his chest. Why had the dream ended so abruptly and what did she mean about Christmas dinner? In his dream it was always June 3, 1948, the day Emma accepted Harry's marriage proposal.
At 2:48 a.m. the telephone rang, startling Harry from his thoughts. He didn't want to answer it, yet knew he had no other choice. His hand shook as he pulled the receiver to his ear and was instantly pulled into the same heavy silence as before.
"Hello?" He heard his voice echo as though from a distance place.
"Don't forget the eggnog, Lovekins, and the rum. Mustn't forget the rum". She laughed and the sound slowly drifted away only to return even louder. "Dinner at two, just like always."
Harry pulled the phone from his ear, the dial tone humming loudly, and stared thoughtfully into space. Emma, no, Emma's dead, the dead don't call you on the telephone to remind you not to forget the eggnog. That's what she told me ten years ago when she called to remind me to pick up the eggnog and rum, and she is the only person in the world who ever called me Lovekins. How wonderful it is to hear that silly name again, I'd forgotten all about it until now. OK, so I know I'm losing my mind, but if being crazy is what it takes to bring you back to me, Emma, then crazy I'll happily remain.
Later that night, after Judy and Nicky were both sleeping, Ben crept down the stairs and stood outside the family room door. The courage to enter eluded him earlier in the evening when they returned from dinner. He knew that Judy and Nicky were disappointed and he silently thanked them for not saying anything. Now Ben stood in the darkness outside their Christmas fairyland, praying he could overcome his emotional deficiency for their sake.
He couldn't just step into the dark room so he reached around and flipped the switch that would turn on a light. He didn't know that Judy had the lights, tree, and stereo all programmed to come on with a flip of the switch, and suddenly the room was alive with merrily twinkling lights and soft Christmas music.
Ben closed his eyes, and Away In A Manger floated through the night. Slowly he took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and tried to calm the terrified little animal that was his heart.
His vision blurred briefly then cleared, and the beauty of the room took his breath away. He forgot how wonderful it was and now as he stood there in the doorway he was seeing memories of a happier time. There on the table next to the couch was the cone shaped angel that Nicky made in second grade. On the tree a faded red satin ball with Judy scrawled in gold glitter, a memento from her childhood. His eyes darted to the mantel above the fireplace, and yes, there the large ceramic Santa Claus that his mother had made for him when he was ten-years-old and she was taking ceramic classes.
Dying embers glowed in the fireplace, blurring through years of unshed tears.
He wasn't sure how long he stood there lost in the past, neither seeing nor hearing, but suddenly he was aware of a sound that wasn't there before. He stepped back with a jolt; the fire was burning brightly in the fireplace no longer just a few glowing embers. What caused the tiny hairs on the back of his neck to bristle wasn't the fire, but the sound. So familiar, yet . . . it couldn't really be the sound of knitting needles clicking together. Breathing deeply to keep himself from fainting dead away, Ben put one foot in front of the other and moved to the overstuffed chair set off to one side of the hearth facing the fireplace. I'll Be Home For Christmas was playing now, and Ben's tongue felt glued to the roof of his mouth. Only one person ever sat in that chair knitting, Emma.
Making a wide arc around the back of the chair, Ben tried to peek around to see who was playing suck a cruel trick and . . . Emma smiled up, "Don't forget Gentle Ben, dinner at two".
Then she slowly faded away until only the click, click, click of her knitting needles lingered, then even that was gone.
Ben looked at the fireplace where the last of the embers winked into extinction.
Harry rose early the next morning and hurried to the State Store to buy the best rum available for Emma's eggnog. Today he smiled back at the many happy faces that wished him a Merry Christmas. He even surprised himself by dropping a ten-dollar bill into the red metal pot of a bedraggled bell ringing Santa Claus.
Next he hurried to the grocery story to buy the eggnog. It wouldn't be the same as when he and Emma made it from scratch, but it would do. A mother and daughter smiled at Harry as he hurried past on his way to the dairy section and he wouldn't figure out what they were smiling about until he realized that he'd been singing Winter Wonderland in a rather loud voice. Slightly embarrassed, Harry lowered his voice, but then decided with a shrug, what the hell, and raised his voice once again to the delight of the little girl.
He bought a gallon of the most expensive eggnog that the store carried and was proud for remembering to pick up some ground cinnamon for Emma to sprinkle over the top.
Outside a light snow had begun to fall. The large fluffy flakes, the size of quarters, drifted gently to earth and Christmas filled the air, the people, and the very soul of the earth herself. Harry stood still; his face lifted toward the heavens and enjoyed the feel of the delicate crystals as they caressed his whiskered cheeks before melting.
"It a beautiful day!" Harry shouted, and a man, hurrying to be someplace, glanced at him, then embarrassed for the crazy old man, looked quickly away.
Harry smiled and called, "Merry Christmas", after the retreating figure. He thinks I'm senile, but I don't care! Let the world thin I'm crazy! Joy to the world, he thought, only to realize the words were floating on icy fingers of frozen breath. Dinner at two!
"Dad freaked, huh?" Nicky asked the next morning, his scrambled eggs momentarily forgotten.
Judy studied her son, what could she say? She didn't think Ben 'freaked', but then again how often do sane people claim to see their mother's ghost knitting away in their family room.
Nicky shifted uneasily when Judy didn't answer. His face a road map of emotions, "Do we have to take it down?"
"No", Judy snapped, "no we are not going to take it down. I think your father just thought he saw Grandma because Christmas time the last time he saw her."
Nicky figured it didn't matter if Grandma really visited Dad last night as long as she didn't decide to pay him a visit. That kind of stuff was fine for Halloween, but not Christmas.
It was Christmas Eve and they were sitting in the family room like a real family when Ben suddenly said, "I've got to call Dad."
Judy looked up from her book, "That would be nice. You haven't talked to him since his birthday last February."
"Yeah, I should call and see how he's doing. What do you think, should I invite him down for Christmas dinner? He probably won't come, but at least we could ask."
Christmas carols filled the room and in the corner the tree blinked merrily beside the picture window where large fluffy snowflakes continued to fall. The fire in the fireplace added a warm glow to the tinsel and the golden garland strung around the room.
"Peace on earth", Judy said softly.
"You say something, Babe?"
"Yes, yes I think you should invite your father to Christmas dinner."
Harry looked around the room, a smile teasing the corners of his mouth. "Yes, just like you always had it, Emma." A large tree stood off to one side; it's white lights, balls and tinsel reflecting the warmth of the red velvet bows Harry had hung on it. Candles of every size and shape from Emma's collection glowed warmly around the room. Tiny buttons of flame danced merrily on the heads of candles that Emma had refused to burn.
Harry waited for the phone to stop ringing before he unplugged it. It wasn't Emma this time, and she was the only person he needed to talk to.
Ben frowned, "He doesn't answer."
"Maybe he went out?" Judy asked, not believing it. Harry never left the house except to run to the store for more of those horrible TV dinners he insisted on eating.
Ben paced, "Yeah, maybe." He sighed, dropping to the couch beside Judy. Nicky was sitting on the opposite end of the couch, his head bobbing to some unheard beat on his IPod. "He", Ben said, nodding towards his son, "really gets into Silent Night, doesn't he?"
Judy smiled, "More likely Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."
For a second Ben's eyes clouded, and Judy could have kicked herself.
Ben stood and said, "I'm going to try Dad again."
By midnight Ben gave up, either Dad was out for the night, which Ben couldn't imagine, or he just wasn't answering the telephone. Shivering at the need to speak to his father, and remembering his last conversation with his mother ten years earlier, Ben settled in for a sleepless night.
Harry woke before the sun, if the sun had been shining, and hurried to the kitchen to put the twenty-pound turkey into the oven. Several pies lined the counter like multinational soldiers.
He began peeling potatoes, stopping only long enough to find some Christmas music on the radio, anticipation was running long fingers up and down his spine and he sipped the eggnog frequently to calm his jittery nerves.
Sixty-five miles to the south Judy was going through almost the same ritual, minus the spiked eggnog. The only recipes she had were Emma's because Christmas dinner had been a ritual performed at Emma and Harry's until Emma's death, and the ritual had died with her. Now a new ritual was about to begin and Judy wanted Harry to become apart of it, but so far Ben was unable to reach his father.
She hated the thought of the three of them sitting here enjoying their meal while poor Harry was all alone eating TV dinners.
Ben and Nicky came down together around eight, and she smiled when she heard the excitement in Nicky's voice as he coaxed, "Come on Dad, let's open our presents!"
"What presents? I never said anything about presents", Ben teased and both of them froze in amazement.
"Wow", Nicky whistled, "someone sure remembered them!"
"Ouch, my aching wallet", Ben teased, but Nicky was too busy yelling for Judy to leave the food and come open presents.
When Judy came into the room Ben whispered, "Looks like Santa made up for lost time."
Judy nodded, "Yep, looks that way."
Later Judy suggested that Ben try getting a hold of Harry again and was worried when he still couldn't get through. "Do you think he's just not answering?"
"I don't know". Ben 's heart began to pound a bit too hard. Another Christmas flickered past his eyes, then was replaced by - his mother sitting in their family room knitting, smiling up and saying, "Dinner at two."
Nicky screamed and together Ben and Judy raced through the house to see: Nicky standing beside the tree pointing at the chair next to the fireplace where Emma smiled and said, "Dinner at two, you better hurry or you're going to be late."
Harry hummed happily as he lit the candles in the center of the table. Inhaling the scents of Christmas made him so happy he thought his heart would burst. Dinner at two, gotta hurry. Everything has to be done at the same time, that's what you always said, Emma.
Harry filled two Christmas mugs with the thick eggnog and placed one beside each plate. The turkey, already carved, cooled on a platter in the center of the table, surrounded by bowls heaping with steaming food. Christmas music filled the room and the tree twinkled merrily in the corner. Harry checked his watch, and at 1:59 he pulled Emma's chair back.
"Thank you, dear," Emma said, as Harry gently pushed her forward to the table.
"You're most welcome, Emma, my love. I'm so glad you came, I've waited forever."
"Not forever, Lovekins, dinner is when forever begins, shall we?"
At exactly two o'clock Christmas day Ben, Judy, and Nicky walked through the front door of Ben's parents house and saw a handsome young couple laughing as they happily danced and twirled into nothing more than a shimmering mist.
Harry was slouched over a plate heaped high with Christmas turkey, and at the opposite end of the table was another plate, also filled with food, a piece of turkey still embe dded on the fork. Next to each plate was a cheery Christmas mug filled with eggnog, but what caught Ben's attention was the rim of dark coral lipstick on the other mug. His mother's shade, the only color lipstick that she ever wore.
Ben turned to his wife and son; "She came back for Christmas dinner."
Judy who was still staring toward the center of the room where the young couple had disappeared said, "Yes, she came back for Harry and to let us know that for them it will be an eternal Christmas.”