Christmas seemed to shrink the older I got.
First Santa stopped coming and all the gifts under the tree were signed by family members. Then my brother moved out for college a few states away. I followed suit, but closer to home. Then my sister.
The first few years, we still all made the trek back to our parents’, but then Gabe met a girl out at his school and started dividing holidays between our family and hers. Amelia landed a nice job in a city a few hours north with lots of overtime and little PTO.
And I just kind of floundered around.
I couldn’t settle on a major, didn’t have a dream career, and I spent a lot of college feeling lost.
Then, after graduation, a lot of time living in my childhood bedroom on the second floor of my parents’ house.
I put my English degree to good use as a cashier at a craft store, where I made minimum wage and got yelled at by customers who thought I should have warned them the glitter they bought for their small child would become ubiquitous (see what I mean about good use) to their environment. The days were slow and long, but my coworkers were nice enough and, whenever I had the odd urge to get artsy, I could use my employee discount.
It never came in more handy than around Christmas.
Ma enjoyed decorating the house with a little ceramic village, a big tree, and tinsel wrapped all around the staircase banister. For years she’d put little tea lights in the village, giving it a warm glow, and along the mantle over our stockings, but after all the kids had (temporarily, in my case) moved out, she and Dad got a cat for company. One singed whisker later, and open flames were all but banned. Ma missed the coziness of her candles, but they weren’t worth the risk.
So when I saw we got in some pretty electric votives at the store a few days before Christmas, I knew I had to grab them.
I texted my sister pictures of the various colors, asking which she thought Ma would like best.
Can’t go wrong with white, she replied.
K, I sent back, and then after swiping half a dozen to hide under my register until it was time to check out, added, Any plans for Christmas?
I’m working Xmas eve and the day after so staying home with canned cranberry sauce and the Muppets Christmas Carol.
Isn’t it though lol
Too bad you can’t come home. Gabe isn’t either. He’s going to Lynne’s.
Hopefully next year
I sighed. Hopefully next year indeed. After I noticed my manager side eyeing me, I stuffed my phone away and stared dutifully ahead to await my next customer like a good little customer service automaton.
Ma was thrilled with the candles when I gave them to her that night. She immediately set them up around her village and on the mantle and shut off the lights to admire their artificial flickering. It took their cat, Tuba, about fifteen seconds to jump up and knock the center one off. It bounced against the hardwood floor and rolled to Ma’s feet.
“This is why we can’t have nice things,” I said, picking the fat tomcat up to toss him on the couch.
Ma stooped to pick up the candle with a laugh. “You kids were worse.”
She replaced it in front of the picture of me and my siblings, pausing long enough to blow kisses to my brother and sister’s smiling faces.
We left the votives on for the rest of the evening while we had dinner and watched a movie, until it was time to head upstairs for bed. Ma switched them off, starting with the ones in the village and ending at the one Tuba knocked over.
She flicked the switch on its bottom.
The bulb continued to glow.
She gave it a little shake and tried again, clicking the switch back and forth.
“It won’t shut off,” she said, frowning down at it.
“Tuba probably broke it,” I said.
“Or,” Dad suggested, wiggling his fingers dramatically, “it’s haunted.”
We rolled our eyes and Ma held the candle out to him. “You try.”
“Oh no you don’t,” he turned away, hands held up. “I want no part of that.”
“But you’ll let Ma handle it?” I asked.
“It’s too late for her. I can still save myself.”
Ma decided to just leave it, reasoning its battery would burn itself out, and we all went to bed.
The next morning, it was still lit.
I tried tapping its bottom in case a wire was loose, turning it on and off again, shaking it, but the little bulb refused to go out. At a loss, I put it back in its spot in the center of the mantle and left for work.
“Drive safe,” Ma called after me. “We’re supposed to get a lot of snow.”
I told her I would and grabbed my hat and scarf on my way out the door. As I expected the candle to be dead when I got home, I bought a replacement during my shift.
It turned out I hadn’t needed to.
The middle votive’s plastic flame continued to flicker, its light reflected in the frame behind it.
“Is it safe to leave it?” I asked later that evening as I said goodnight to my parents.
“I think so,” Dad said. “It’s just battery powered.”
Ma agreed, so I shrugged it off and went upstairs with Tuba weaving around my ankles.
The chattering of my teeth woke me hours later.
Cold had seeped into the room, sinking through my thick comforter and dappling my flesh with goosebumps. I sat up, hugging myself to try and ease my shivering, and gazed through the dark toward my window, as if it might have opened itself while I slept. The curtains remained shut, unruffled by winter wind, but I still swung my legs over the side of the bed.
The floor was like ice against my bare feet.
I inhaled sharply through clenched teeth and danced to the window, double checking what I already knew: it was shut and locked.
The temperature felt like it had somehow dropped even further in the seconds since I’d gotten out of bed and rubbed my arms vigorously, trying to keep some warmth in them. Confused, I crept to my bedroom door and pulled it open.
The hall was dark and still. My parents’ door was shut. Didn’t they feel how cold it had become? I took a step out, and stopped.
From somewhere downstairs, I’d heard something, so faint it might not have been there at all. Still, it raised every hair along the back of my neck.
After another glance towards my parents’ door, I tiptoed to the top of the steps and peered down.
In the darkness of the landing, something moved, and the sound came again.
It was weak. Plaintive.
“Tuba?” I whispered down the steps.
My stomach twisted. Had the cat been hurt? Worried, I started down the steps, but with each one, the cold pressed in, deepened, and my whole body trembled until I was clinging to the railing.
The only light downstairs came from the living room, so faint it barely did more than stretch the shadows in the entryway.
The votive, I realized numbly, my thoughts frozen and sluggish. It was still on.
A footstep dragged across the floor at the bottom of the steps, then another, and a soft, shivering sob accompanied it.
The outline of a woman separated from the shadows.
I clutched the railing, wanting to shout, to warn my parents someone was in our home, but the cold stole my breath. I could only stand there and watch as the figure, featureless in the dark, limped past the steps. If she saw me, she didn’t show it. She just kept staggering toward the living room.
Her steps were slow and uneven, and with each one, she let out a heavy breath that shimmered pale white against the dark. Her shoulders were hunched forward, her back bent slightly, but her head was raised, facing forward.
One heavy footstep.
“H-hey,” I squeaked, finally finding my voice.
She didn’t acknowledge me. Never even hesitated. She just kept moving, one foot, then the other, her eyes locked straight ahead on the living room.
She passed through the archway and disappeared from sight.
Instead of doing the smart thing and running upstairs to warn my parents, I braced myself against the cold and my fear and I followed.
In the dim lighting offered by the single votive, a woman stood before the mantle with her back to me, but it was the not the same one from the entryway. Confusion mingled with fear and I stepped toward her.
She had the electric candle cupped in her hands and was staring at the photo of me and my siblings, expressionless, lids half closed.
“Ma?” I repeated, this time touching her shoulder.
She jumped, eyes snapping open in surprise, and for a moment, she looked utterly lost.
“Emma?” she asked. “What…what’s going on? It’s freezing!”
“You’re downstairs. I think you were sleepwalking.”
She shook her head as if to better organize her thoughts. “I was dreaming. I was walking through these woods…”
Before she could continue, the cold dissipated suddenly and the candle in her hands went out.
And in the darkness, the telephone rang.
An hour later, my parents and I were pulling into the parking lot of a small hospital. The doctor had told us over the phone that my sister had been in a car accident.
From what they’d gathered, she’d been driving home to surprise us for Christmas when she hit a patch of black ice and slid off the road into an embankment in the middle of nowhere.
“She was lucky she was able to find her way to a house,” he’d said. “It could’ve been much worse.”
Once we reached the hospital, my parents could barely stand still long enough to get directions to Amelia. We practically ran down the corridor, until we found her room number, and filed quickly in to surround her bed.
Her eyes went wide at the sight of us.
“Are you ok?” Dad asked after kissing her forehead.
But she was staring at Ma.
“Amelia?” Ma took her hand and held it tight. “Is something wrong?”
Slowly, she shook her head, her expression still caught between baffled and wonder. “No. I’m ok. It’s just…I saw you, Ma.”
It was our turn to be confused.
“Saw me?” Ma asked.
“Yeah.” Tears welled in Amelia’s eyes. “After the accident.”
After waking in her overturned car, Amelia had managed to unbuckle herself and crawl out the window. Unable to find her phone, she’d climbed the embankment to the road, hoping to flag a passing car. At that hour, though, and on that desolate stretch in the middle of the woods, no one came.
“It was getting colder and colder and I thought I’d freeze if I just sat there, so I started walking. I didn’t know where I was going, I hadn’t seen any buildings or anything for miles. And then…I saw this light.”
It was flickering in the woods, like a candle, and she was so desperate she started walking toward it, thinking it might be a hunter or something. Every time she’d start to get close, though, it would move away. It became like a game of cat and mouse, leading Amelia further and further into the woods.
“When I stopped, so did it, like it was waiting for me, so I’d follow it again. It went on so long and I got so tired, but I knew I couldn’t stop.”
Finally, ths trees started to thin and a house appeared in the distance. Amelia dragged herself through the snow toward it, following that light, and as she made it to the door, she turned around and caught sight of who had been leading her.
“It was you,” Amelia’s voice cracked. “In your nightgown holding a candle.”
Her grip tightened around Ma’s hand.
“You saved me.”