It’s Tradition

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Unless you’re hundreds of miles away from home with no nearby friends and family. Then it’s just kind of depressing.

I hadn’t even been thinking about the holidays when I’d accepted my new job in early December. I was too caught up in the stress and excitement of moving to think an hour ahead, much less three weeks. It wasn’t until my mom called to make sure I was settling in that I realized my predicament.

“So, can we expect you back for Christmas?” She asked, unable to keep that hopeful note out of her voice entirely.

“Oh,” I paused from pulling plates out of the box I’d been unpacking and glanced at the calendar I’d hung on the kitchen wall. “Sorry, Mom, I can’t. I’ve got work the day after.”

“That’s alright,” she said, “we’ll miss you, but we understand.”

It would be the first Christmas that I’d ever spent apart from my family. No big reunion at my grandparents’, no turkey feast, no opening presents with my siblings and cousins. Just me, alone in my apartment.

Determined not to let my favorite day of the year go by without any fanfare, I went out and bought a fake tree, some ornaments, and a few small decorations to put up around my place. It didn’t feel quite like home, but it was better than nothing. I sent some photos to my parents, they sent some of their house, all done up in red and green cheer, and I said I’d video chat with them on Christmas.

Christmas Eve found me snuggled up on my couch with an eggnog in hand and Ebenezer Scrooge surrounded by Muppets on TV. I had worked a full shift and was starting to doze before The Ghost of Christmas Past had even made its appearance. There was just something so soothing about the colorful glow of the lights from the tree and a familiar childhood film playing in the background.

Three sharp knocks rattled my front door.

I jumped, almost sloshing my eggnog down my front, and sat up to peer at the door. It was close to nine at night, I couldn’t imagine who might be stopping by. A friendly neighbor dropping off cookies? A delivery guy making his last stop for the evening? Neither seemed very likely considering I had yet to say so much as “Hello” to anyone in the building and the gifts from my family had already arrived.

I set my glass aside and got up to pad softly to the door.

Knockknockknock

My face was only inches from the peephole when whoever was on the other side knocked again. I could just hear that they were muttering to themselves, but it was too quiet for me to make out any words. I rolled my eyes at their impatience and peeked out to see who my unexpected visitor was.

The hallway outside of my apartment was empty.

I remained in place, pressed up against the door with my breath held, trying to see as much of the hall as possible. Someone had just been there! It didn’t seem possible that they’d have been able to run off before I looked through the peephole. Increasingly nervous thoughts began to pop up in my head: what if they were crouched out of view? What if they were waiting for me to open the door? Mom had been very worried about me living in a new city all by myself and had warned me repeatedly about what could happen to a lone woman who wasn’t careful.

I double checked the deadbolt was locked and then, as an added precaution, slid the security chain into place as quietly as I could.

After another minute with no sign of anyone lurking in the shadows, I stepped back and shook off the chill that had crept over me. There was no point in getting myself freaked out over what had probably been someone knocking on the wrong door. I left the movie running on the television, the noise from it made me feel less alone, and grabbed my phone to head to the bathroom.

This was nothing a hot bath couldn’t fix.

I settled into the water with a sigh and rested my elbows on either side of the tub to help hold my phone up.

You still up? I asked Mom in a text.

Yes, she shot back almost immediately.

She picked up on the first ring.

“Merry Christmas, Shannon!” She said cheerfully. I could hear loud conversation and laughter in the background.

“You at Grandma’s?”

“Yeah, we got here a few hours ago. Uncle Sam and Aunt Marie are here with their kids, too. Steve and Gail arrive tomorrow. What about you? How’re you doing?”

“Ok. Wish I could be there, though.”

“You sound a little off, sweetie. You sure you’re ok?”

Nothing ever got by Mom.

I hesitated, tapping the fingers of my free hand against the tub. “Yeah, just got a little spooked. Someone knocked on my door. Don’t worry, I didn’t answer it. No one was even there when I — ”

It occurred to me mid-sentence that the line had gone quiet and I frowned.

“Mom? You there?”

She didn’t respond. I pulled the phone away from my ear and saw that the call had disconnected. In the top left corner of the screen, instead of bars, it read “No signal”.

“Perfect,” I grumbled.

I stretched over the edge of the tub and set my phone on the pile of clothes on the floor before sinking back into the water, where I stayed until it cooled too much to be comfortable. Once it had drained and I had towel dried, I went into my room to change into my pajamas.

At first, I thought the distant clinking of pots and pans I heard as I tugged my shirt on was coming from the TV. Tiny Tim’s family was finally getting their turkey feast. But the soft singing that followed was certainly not from the movie. It was an older woman’s voice, gently warbling a tuneless version of some carol.

And it was coming from my kitchen.

My first thought was to call the police. My second was that my phone was still in the bathroom where I’d left it on the clothes. Walking back to it would put me in clear sight of the kitchen. How had I not seen a person in my apartment when I’d first come out? Had she seen me? More confusing and unnerving, how had she gotten inside to begin with?

I had double locked the front door. The only door. It wasn’t like she could have gotten in through a window, either. I was on the second floor!

As my thoughts raced, I tiptoed to my bedroom door and poked my head out just enough to look down the hall. The overhead light that I definitely had not left on illuminated the kitchen, and the short, stout woman who was standing in the middle of it, staring back at me. She looked like I imagined Mrs. Claus would. Her round, grandmotherly face lit with a warm smile the moment our eyes met.

“There you are! Come out, it’s time to eat,” she said with an encouraging wave of her hand.

I remained in my doorway, one one on the door, ready to slam it shut. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here?” She tutted. “Why wouldn’t I be? I always come ‘round to see you for Christmas! It’s tradition.”

I sideeyed the bathroom across the hall. Surely I could make it before she got to me. She was only an old woman, after all.

An old woman who had somehow gotten herself through a deadbolt and security chain without me hearing.

“Come along, dear, I’ve made your favorites! Turkey with stuffing, green beans, even those sugar cookies you love so much!”

She started to move about the kitchen again, grabbing a pair of oven mitts I didn’t recognize and tugging open the oven.

“Who are you?” I demanded again.

“Stop being silly! It’s Gran,” she replied over her shoulder.

While her back was turned, I took my chance, springing from my room toward the bathroom. I’d barely made it into the hall when the door slammed shut in front of me. Behind me, the bedroom door did the same. I grabbed the knobs and tried to turn them, but they refused to budge, and I was left stranded between them with no place to go. My heartbeat thundered in my ears and I stood there like a rabbit facing down a fox.

Except my fox was a geriatric home invader who could apparently close doors with her mind.

She had turned back to me and was holding up a covered turkey pan. Her cheeks had taken on a pinky hue. She was smiling cheerfully, as if nothing were amiss.

“Supper’s ready! I’ve already set the table, so just have a seat.”

I didn’t move. I could barely remember to breathe. Her smile flickered just slightly, allowing a second’s worth of darkness to cross her features, but then she was clucking her tongue in god natured reproach. She set the pan down and bustled toward me, ignoring my desperate attempts to shoulder open my bathroom door and get to my phone. Her plump fingers closed over my wrist and she tugged me toward the kitchen.

I began to scream.

“You’re feeling spirited today, aren’t you?” Was all she said.

Someone had to have heard me, I thought wildly. They’d come knock or call the cops or do something!

But no one came to check on me as the woman who called herself Gran pushed me into a chair at the dinner table. I glanced toward the front door, still locked and chained, but then Gran was standing between me and it with her turkey pan clutched in both hands.

“Here we are,” she said in a singsong voice. “Tuck in, dear!”

She placed it in the middle of table and removed the lid.

The smell hit me first, strong and putrid. Rotten. The meat that still clung to the carcass sitting in the pan was grey and had a slimy sheen. In its cavity, tiny maggots wriggled about in the mush that might have been stuffing at one point. It was surrounded by potatoes, carrots, and green beans, all black and withered into husks.

I shoved myself back from the table in horror and disgust, a hand over my mouth.

“What’s wrong, dear?” Gran asked, her face pinched with concern. A flush had started to rise up her neck. “It’s your favorite!”

“Why are you doing this?” I cried.

“It’s Christmas! It’s tradition.”

I started to stand, but she pushed me forcefully back into my seat.

“Maybe some sweets will get that appetite of yours going! Don’t you worry, old Gran’s got just what you like.”

I stayed in my chair, trembling and whimpering in a way I didn’t know I could, while she fetched another plate from the kitchen. She held it out toward me with an encouraging shake.

“Go on, dear.”

Cookies were lined up in two neat rows. Green, fuzzy mold sprouted thickly on every one of them. I leaned away, retching.

The flush had spread to Gran’s face now. She was still smiling, but it was with clenched teeth.

“I worked very hard to prepare all of this for you, dear,” she said with strained cheeriness. “Take one.”

“No!”

Gran’s grip on the plate had tightened so much that her hands were shaking. With a frustrated howl, she hurled it to the floor at my feet. The plate shattered, scattering bits of ceramic and cookies in every direction.

I was too terrified to make a sound and could only stare up at her through painfully wide eyes.

She inhaled deeply and smoothed her skirt in quick, jerky strokes. Her face had gone from a warm pink to a rosey red.

“You know, you really don’t deserve this, but it is Christmas and maybe this will improve your sour little mood,” she said thinly. “I’ve put your present under the tree. Why don’t you open it, hmm?”

When I didn’t move, she took me roughly by the upper arm and dragged me across the room to where my Christmas tree was set up. A large, oblong package wrapped in wreath covered paper was had been placed beneath it.

“Please, no. I just want to go. Please,” I begged, pulling at my arm, but she held on tightly.

“We always open one gift on Christmas Eve, dear,” Gran practically growled. “It’s tradition!”

The redness in her face was deepening into crimson. I could actually feel heat radiating from her skin. She pushed me to my knees and stood over me, her arms crossed over her chest. Any semblance of holiday merriment was gone from her features.

“Go on,” she said.

I looked from her to the gift and slowly reached for it. A name card dangled from the top, beside green bow.

Merriest of Christmases, dear! Love always, Gran, was written across it.

I could feel her eyes boring into me as she waited for me to open the gift. Reluctantly, I peeled back one corner of paper, revealing the top of an old fashioned bird cage. Immediately, my stomach sank. I swallowed hard and ignored everything in me that said not to open it any further, but Gran had started to tap her foot impatiently. I tore the wrapping back further.

Lying at the bottom of the cage in a mass of feathers were the skeletal remains of two birds.

“Turtle doves, dear,” Gran said from over my shoulder. “Just like in the song! You always said you wanted some.”

I shrieked and knocked the cage away from me. It fell on to its side and rolled a few times, leaving a trail of bone and feather behind it.

The woman who called herself Gran screeched in fury.

Her skin had started to blister and crack and, the more she bellowed, the worse it became. I scrambled backwards on my bottom as the blisters darkened and cracked and peeled back, their edges crinkling like thin paper. Wisps of smoke were curling upwards from her hair while she clawed and tugged at it. The apartment filled with the stench of burning flesh and our combined screams, mine terrified, hers enraged.

I bumped into my couch and used it to pull myself to my feet. Gran flailed wildly, the fire the burned from within growing and consuming and catching around her. My tree ignited with a loud crackle. I threw myself at my front door, but the deadbolt wouldn’t turn! Smoke burned my eyes, her endless screaming rang in my ears. It was getting harder to breathe.

Gran, engulfed in white hot flames, was coming toward me, arms outstretched, snarling.

“You ungrateful child!”

Sobbing and choking, I launched myself over my couch. The smoke had become so thick, I could barely see. Every part of me prickled and stung from heat. I had to get away from Gran. I had to get out.

And there was only one way.

I don’t remember jumping through the window or getting cut up by its broken glass. I don’t remember landing in the snow two stories down or being found by neighbors. I don’t even remember going to the hospital.

All I remember was thinking amidst the hysteria in my head was, I never want to celebrate Christmas again.

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