Sylvie and the Christmas Ghost © 2014 by Foxglove Lee
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system.
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design © 2014 Foxglove Lee
First Edition December 2014
Sylvie and the Christmas Ghost
By Foxglove Lee
When I turned to see if the bus was coming, my mom wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck. “Zip up your coat, Sylvie. You’ll catch your death.”
Rolling my eyes, I said, “I’ve got a huge sweater on underneath. Besides, it isn’t very cold for December.”
I don’t know why my mother insisted on waiting with me on the bus platform. If anyone heading to Erinville for the holidays wanted to stab me with a fork, wouldn’t they wait until I was alone on the bus? Not that I would suggest such a thing to my mom. She was concerned enough about letting me travel on my own.
“Where’s your ticket?” she asked.
I held it up, valid one day only: December 21, 1994.
“And where do you sit?” Pop quiz!
“Up front, near the driver.”
“And if anybody makes you uncomfortable, be sure to report them.”
Groan! “Mom, we went over this already.”
“I know, Sylvie, but I worry about you.”
“I’m fourteen years old. I can take care of myself.”
My mom looked at me in a sappy way that meant she was about to cry. I hated it when my mom cried, and ever since she and my dad started their whole “trial separation” thing, she’d been doing a lot of it. Not in front of us kids, of course. She always put on a strong front. But even if she was downstairs and we were up in our rooms, we could still hear her.
“Graham and Alley are getting restless,” I told my mom, and pointed at my two younger siblings pummeling each other in the back of our station wagon. “You don’t have to wait with me. I’ll be fine. Really.”
The waterworks came on like a storm. My mom wrapped her arms around me and hugged me tight. “You’ve never spent Christmas away from home. I’ll miss you so much. You know that, right?”
Her tears fell hot on my head. I hadn’t worn a hat, so I felt them seeping through my hair and wetting my scalp. “I’ll miss you too, but I’m sure Dad’ll miss Graham and Naomi and Douglas and Alley just as much as you’ll miss me.”
My mom brushed my bangs from my eyes. “You see? That’s what I’ll miss most: you’re always thinking about others, putting their needs above your own. Most kids your age can’t manage that.”
She said the exact opposite on nights when I refused to dry the dishes because there was a new Simpsons on TV. But moms were like that. At any given moment, they could either adore their kids or despise them. No mother could look at her children and see just normal, average individuals. My siblings and I were special or we were trouble, but never anything in between.
When the bus pulled up, a woman in uniform stepped out to open the luggage hatch. My mom smiled with relief. If the driver was a woman, I’d be taken care of. That was my mother’s way of thinking.
“Be safe,” my mom said as the driver heaved people’s suitcases into the luggage compartment. “Call home to let me know you arrived in one piece.”
“But Dad’s doesn’t have a phone yet.”
“Call from a payphone.” My mom placed a few quarters in my gloved hand and snickered. “Assuming they’ve got one in Erinville.”
“I’m sure they must have one,” I said, going along with her joke.
The driver took my case and shoved it in with all the rest. My mom thanked the woman, then gave me a final once-over. When I took a step back, she must have noticed I didn’t lift my foot properly, because she asked, “You’re not wearing your leg brace, are you?”
“I packed it,” I said. “It doesn’t fit right under these boots.”
She gave me the squinty eyes. “Are you sure you packed it?”
“Come on, Mom. Would I lie to you?” Yes. Yes I would. And I’m lying right now, because my leg brace is under my bed and if you go looking for it I’ll get super-mad that you were snooping around my room.
“It’s in your suitcase?” my mom asked suspiciously.
“You definitely packed it?”
“Definitely.” Under my bed.
“And you’re going to wear it?”
“Every day.” Lies, all lies!
My mom’s eyebrows did that thing where they looked like two caterpillars falling into a martini glass. “I’ll check with your father, you know.”
Sure you will. “Ask away. If his house is being renovated, why would I go around in bare feet? I’d probably step on a nail and have to go to the hospital for a tetanus shot.”
My mom smiled when I said that. She was obsessed with tetanus shots. Every time my siblings and I even looked at something rusty, she would lecture us about blood poisoning.
But what she said was, “I don’t think they have a hospital in Erinville.”
“Not even one?”
Mom shook her head.
“How can they not have a hospital?”
“It’s just a small town, honey.”
In my best small-town accent, I said, “Everybody knows everybody. Nobody locks the door.”
“You laugh, but you’ll soon find out.” Ruffling my hair, my mom said, “Wish your father a Merry Christmas.”
When she hugged me again, I almost cried. Not because we were saying goodbye for a week, but because it was rare that my mom showed she cared about my dad anymore. Not that she went around bad-mouthing him. Neither of my parents said anything negative about the other—that was a pact they’d made that they thought we didn’t know about.
But just the fact that my mom would tell me to wish my dad a Merry Christmas showed she still had feelings for him, didn’t it? My one and only wish was for them to proclaim the trial separation a big failure. Maybe by the end of the holidays they’d get back together.
Anything was possible…
Erinville didn’t have a bus depot, just a pole by the side of the road with a picture of a bus on it. There were only two people waiting by the pole, and one smiled brightly when he saw me. I hadn’t seen a smile like that on my dad’s face since way before the separation.
He offered me his hand as I got off the bus and said, “Be careful with the step. Are you okay getting down? Are you wearing your brace?”
“You sound just like Mom.” Normally I didn’t let anybody help me, but I put my gloved hand in my father’s. The step was way higher than it needed to be.
“How’s my middle child?” he asked eagerly. “How was the trip? How was traffic? How were the roads?”
I smiled so hard my jaw hurt. I hadn’t seen my dad since he’d started his renovation project, and it felt like a million years ago.
“Roads were fine. Traffic was fine. Trip was fine.” I stepped away from the door so the lady standing at the bus stop could board, but she just stood there grinning at me. “Mom said to tell you Merry Christmas.”
My father’s smile faltered for a moment, then he cleared his throat. “That’s nice.”
The driver opened the luggage compartment. “Is this your suitcase? The one with the flowers?”
“Yeah, that’s mine.”
“Say thank you, Sylvie,” my father said, quietly.
“Thanks,” I grumbled, not because I had anything against the driver but because I felt like my dad was treating me like a little kid. That always bugged me.
The driver wished us a Merry Christmas and then climbed into the bus, rubbing her arms. She was only wearing short sleeves and no coat, and she closed the doors right away. For a second I thought maybe I should knock because the lady waiting at the stop still hadn’t gotten on. When the bus drove off and the smiling lady didn’t say anything, I got a bit confused.
“I like your coat,” my dad said. “Didn’t that used to be Naomi’s?”
“Obviously.” I wasn’t sure why I was being rude to him. I didn’t mean to be. “All my clothes used to be Naomi’s.”
The strange lady nodded, and not just her head. She nodded her whole body, almost like she was bowing. “Big family. I get it. I have a lot of brothers and sisters, just like you. I think the whole reason I’m so into fashion now is because I never got new clothes until I had my first part-time job.”
I hadn’t looked at the lady in detail before she started talking to me. She had that sort of face where I couldn’t tell if she was young or old. Was she twenty? Was she forty? Her outfit didn’t help. Her coat was more like a cloak, like the kind women wore in the olden days. She had unnaturally red hair, which was cut in a bob, and she wore a Blossom hat, which was too summery for winter. Her boots were pointy, like witch shoes, but they were red, just like her wool skirt, so at least she matched.
“Sylvie,” my dad said. “I forgot to introduce you. This is Amy. She’s the architect who’s redesigning my house.”
Instead of saying, “Hi! Nice to meet you!” like a normal person, I looked at my dad and said, “I thought your house was already built and you were just renovating it. What’s an architect for?”
He chuckled nervously and glanced at Amy. “Well, it’s a very old house. Neglected houses tend to fall into disrepair. It nearly needed to be gutted, and—”
“That’s when it’s useful to have an architect plan out the space,” Amy added. Holding out a shiny gold gift bag, she said, “I almost forgot, I bought you a little Welcome to Erinville present. Hope you like it.”
Why was my father’s architect buying me gifts? Weird. I pushed the tissue paper aside and pulled out a pair of knee-highs with reindeer all over them.
Looking at Amy the Architect, I asked, “Christmas socks?”
“Yeah,” she replied, seeming eager to please. “Do you like them? I thought they were sort of fun. And your dad told me about your… disability, so I thought I’d—”
“Draw attention to it?”
“Sylvie!” my father scolded. “Say thank you to Amy right this second.” Looking at his architect, he said, “Christmas socks were a very thoughtful gift.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. I wasn’t sure why I was being mean to her. She’d given me a gift for no reason. I should have been grateful. “I do like Christmas socks, and I don’t have any with reindeer on them.”
“There you go,” my dad said, tapping me gently on the shoulder. “This is good. We’re all getting along.”
He seemed to really want me to like this architect woman, so I conceded. “It’s cool that they’re knee socks. They’ll be warm for winter.”
My father said, “When I told Amy about your brace, she was concerned the plastic might cut into your skin. That’s why she bought you the high ones. Wasn’t that thoughtful?”
“Yeah.” It actually was really thoughtful, and my brace did cut into my leg if I wore short socks… if I wore the brace at all, which I tried not to as much as possible. It still bugged me that my dad talked to some stranger about my leg, which is why I didn’t say anything more.
After a moment of awkward silence, my dad said, “Amy’s offered to drive us back to the house so we won’t have to lug your suitcase through the snow. Wasn’t that nice of her?”
She pointed to her car, which was parked across the street. It was bright red, just like her boots, and a lot newer and nicer than my dad’s sedan or my mom’s station wagon. Still, it seemed weird that this random lady was driving us home.
I asked my dad, “Where’s your car?”
“Oh. Your mom didn’t tell you?” He seemed flustered, and he loosened his scarf. I’d never seen my dad in a scarf before, come to think of it.
“Mom didn’t tell me what?”
He looked at Amy the Architect as we crossed the street. Then he said, “I sold the car. It was old anyway. I’ll buy a new one when the renovations are done. Then I’ll be able to visit you in the city. That’ll be good, huh?”
Amy opened the trunk so my dad could put my suitcase inside. I stood by the back door, not really knowing what to say. I probably shouldn’t have asked, “Are you poor now?”
Dad closed the trunk, chuckling in that way he did when he didn’t want to talk about something. “No, no. Money’s just tied up in the house.”
Amy leaned in close to my dad and whispered, “Not to mention alimony and child support.”
She obviously didn’t mean for me to hear that, but it made me feel awful. Did my dad have to sell his car because of us?
Unlocking the passenger side, Amy said, “Here, Sylvie. You can sit up front with me. It’ll be easier on your leg.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my leg,” I snapped, like I couldn’t control myself. “I’ll sit in the back.”
“Sylvie!” Dad said. “Apologize.”
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“It’s okay.” Amy reached around to unlock the back door. “It’s my fault. I’m being insensitive.”
“No you’re not,” my father told her. “My daughter is being rude.”
I felt guilty but also angry and I didn’t know why. When I looked down at the shiny gift bag, the guilt took over. I was acting like a little kid.
Amy walked around to the driver’s side. She must have noticed me standing there, because she whispered across the car, “Does she need help getting in?”
Did she think I couldn’t hear her?
“I don’t need help doing anything,” I said, and threw myself into her car.
Amy the Architect apologized, even though my dad told her not to. He told her I was being deliberately disrespectful, which I really couldn’t be mad about. It was true. I was.
The back seat of Amy’s car was much cleaner than our station wagon. There was an emergency kit under the driver’s seat and a leather briefcase on the seat, but no gum stuck to the upholstery or tissues crammed anywhere or chip bags or chocolate wrappers. Obviously Amy the Architect didn’t have five kids. She probably didn’t even have one.
“Are you married?” I asked her, even though I knew it was a rude question.
She stuck the key in the ignition and held it there, like she was afraid it would fall out.
“Sylvie,” Dad growled.
Amy the Architect didn’t answer my question, which made me feel like I’d won some weird kind of battle.
Nobody said much for a while. Erinville seemed vaguely familiar, like the kind of place you’ve seen in a dream. My father grew up in this town. When I was a really little kid we used to visit my great-aunt in a retirement home. That’s one reason my dad decided to move here: to be closer to her.
Dad pointed out how busy the main street was. Busy with city slickers, Amy said, because the weather was mild. Erinville had a store that sold only Christmas stuff. It was open year-round, but it was especially popular in December.
All the lampposts along the main street looked like they came from the olden days. They weren’t giant wooden poles like we had in the city. These ones were fancy and black and not too tall, and the lights on them looked like old-timey lanterns.
Everything was strung up with pine boughs and red velvet ribbons, and all the stores and houses had their Christmas lights on even though it was only two in the afternoon. It was like driving through a Christmas village.
When we passed a place with a Cut Your Own Tree sign, I asked my dad, “Is that where we used to get our trees when I was little?”
My dad turned around and smiled. “You remember that? You must have been only… oh, I don’t know. Four? Five?”
“I remember.” It was like a winter wonderland, something you couldn’t experience in the city.
“If you want to cut down a tree we certainly can, but we’ll get it from our own property. This new house has a huge back lot.”
“A forest,” Amy said, speaking up for the first time since I’d been mean to her earlier. “It’s beautiful. It’s gigantic.”
I wondered how my father could afford a beautiful, gigantic property when he couldn’t afford a car, but I’d heard houses were a lot less expensive in small towns than in the city. Maybe he got the place for cheap.
That’s what I thought until Amy pulled up in front of a mansion and said, “Home sweet home!”
“Your dad’s,” Amy told me.
I couldn’t believe it. The place was like something from a movie—one of those movies where a regular family inherits their rich relative’s every earthly possession if they stay overnight in a haunted house.
But the house itself wasn’t the weirdest thing about the property. The weirdest thing was the people sitting in lawn chairs outside the house. It reminded me of a movie director and film crew. All they needed was one of those giant cameras.
What they had instead was a garbage can with a fire burning in it. And a barbeque.
“Are there gonna be fireworks or something?” I asked as my dad opened his door. “What’s with the crowd?”
My dad and Amy the Architect both breathed in and breathed out simultaneously. Then my dad turned halfway and said, “Erinville is a small town and people in small towns are very… curious… about newcomers. They’re just watching to see what we’re doing with the house.”
“That’s weird,” I said. “Why do they care so much?”
Amy answered this time. “The integrity of the town’s architecture is important to them.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
Dad said, “It means they don’t want to see anything too modern.”
“How is it any of their business? It’s your house, not theirs.”
“But it’s their town.”
“It’s yours too,” I said. “You were born here.”
“So was I,” Amy said. “I only left long enough to earn a degree and get a little work experience, and they still call me City Girl.”
I shook my head. “Small towns are weird.”
“That they are,” Amy agreed. Then she pointed to the gift bag and said, “Don’t forget your socks, Sylvie. It was very nice meeting you. I’m sure we’ll get to see a lot of each other while you’re staying with your dad.”
“Oh. Okay.” I slipped out of her car wondering why I would be seeing a lot of my father’s architect. I didn’t know architects were so hands-on with their clients. But when she popped the trunk and I walked around the gravelly driveway to grab my suitcase, I forgot all about Amy.
I forgot about her because there were two dozen pairs of eyes on me.
Was I supposed to wave? Why were the townspeople staring like that? Even the bearded man by the barbeque stopped turning hot dogs long enough to gawk. It made me really self-conscious to have so many men and women, young and old, all looking at me. There were children running around, from toddlers to kids my age. A few dogs on leashes. And—was I seeing that right? One young boy had a ferret peeking out the sleeve of his coat. Even the ferret was looking at me.
“Let me grab that for you.” My dad took my suitcase even though I was still holding the handle. “Come on, Sylvie.” He tugged me toward the house, but I wasn’t ready for it. My bad foot caught in the gravel and I did a face-plant in front of all those people.
Amy the Architect rushed to my side, saying, “Sylvie! Are you okay? Let me help you.”
“I don’t need your help,” I growled, pushing myself up with one hand.
“Sylvie!” Dad said. “You should be thanking Amy for her concern, not acting like a toddler having a temper tantrum.”
At least he didn’t ask if I was wearing my brace.
“Oh, you’ve got dirt all down the front of your jacket,” Amy said, brushing it off with her hand.
I hollered, “Don’t touch me!” and pushed her hand away from my chest.
She jumped back and said, “I’m so sorry, Sylvie. You’re right. I’ll see you both later.”
There were tears in Amy’s eyes as she turned away, and I noticed she didn’t start up her car the second she got in. First she pulled a folded tissue from her pocket and dabbed her eyes.
I made Amy the Architect cry!
Good. I felt like she deserved it, even if I didn’t know why.
When my father led me to the front steps, I took a good look at his new house. The three wooden stairs leading up to the porch were cracked in the middle. The handrails weren’t straight up and down like they were supposed to be. They were both diagonal, so they looked like a V. The porch wasn’t in a much better state. The blue paint had peeled off almost completely, and the lumber underneath was grey with cracks throughout.
“Careful going up,” my dad said. “Don’t want you falling through.”
I laughed even though I was pretty sure he wasn’t joking. As I swung my right foot onto the porch, I noticed the crumbling bricks and rotting windowsills. I couldn’t look at my father. I was too disappointed. This would be my first Christmas away from my mom and my siblings, and I had to spend it in a house that probably had mice in the walls?
Great. Just great.
I could only hope that when he opened the front door, the inside would be a whole lot nicer than the outside…
The inside of my dad’s new house wasn’t nicer than the outside. If anything, it was worse. Half the floorboards had been ripped up, and the other half looked like they needed to be ripped up. There were thin sheets of wood down in some places, which Dad said were totally safe to walk on, but all I could think of was that episode of Growing Pains where Carol Seaver fell through the ceiling. I could pretty much see the same thing happening to me. Maybe I’d fall through the floor and land on a pile of dead rats in the basement. Yuck.
My father set my luggage in the front hall and led me into the room on the right. “Would you look at this mantle? Isn’t it amazing? And the cornice mouldings! You won’t find a builder putting up stuff like that anymore.”
“Yeah, it’s great,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.
“And come into the dining room—oh, watch the floor. There are some nails in those boards.”
Were there ever! Boy, was I glad I’d left my shoes on.
“Look at that ceiling medallion. That’s plaster and it’s in perfect condition. The house came with a gorgeous old chandelier too, but Amy’s contractor took it down so it doesn’t get broken during renovations.”
“That’s super, Dad, but don’t you think something’s missing?” I turned back to look at what must have been the living room. “There’s no furniture.”
“Not yet,” he said. “Can’t buy furniture until you’ve got floors.”
“What do you do at night?” I asked. “There’s no TV.”
“No sense buying a TV until the knob and tube is updated.”
I had no idea what that meant, but my main concern was the fact that there was no TV.
“Want to see your bedroom?” my dad asked.
“Only if it’s got a bed in it,” I said, only half-joking.
When my dad didn’t laugh, I got a little nervous. He led me back to the front entrance, grabbed my luggage, and carried it up the stairs. The staircase was extremely straight and narrow. The railing looked like it had been painted a thousand times over the past hundred years, but at least it seemed sturdy.
“How’s your leg, Sylvie? I know you don’t like me asking, but…”
“It’s okay,” I told him. “It’s fine.”
That wasn’t strictly true. The stairs were hard to climb, for some reason. They felt wobbly, like one was tilting one way and the next was tilting another way. My dad stood at the top of the stairs, looking down at me, but it was so dark up there I could hardly see him.
Turned out my bedroom did have a bed. Sort of. It was made of squeaky black iron, but the mattress felt like it was full of hay. The wall was covered with peeling paper, just like every room I’d seen, but the floors were nicer than the ones downstairs. They were honey-coloured and they looked waxy and solid.
The room didn’t have a closet. It had an ornate wooden cupboard instead, like in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, except this one was probably full of bats. The best thing about my bedroom was the fireplace. I pointed to it and asked my dad, “I get my own?”
He laughed and said, “You’ll need it.”
“Because it gets cold at night.”
I felt my eyes widen. “You mean I actually get to use it?”
“Of course,” my dad said. “There’s firewood out back. I’ll bring it in after we visit your great-aunt Esther.”
I watched my reflection turn ashen in the antique mirror over the dressing table. All I could think about were the creepy bed-ridden and wheelchair-bound people at the old age home. They were disgusting, with their see-through skin and no teeth and drool leaking out of their mouths.
“Do I hafta go?” I asked my dad.
His smile fell. “Your great-aunt’s been looking forward to seeing you.”
I wrinkled my nose and said, “I don’t want to go. Old people are gross.”
“Are you saying you won’t visit me when I’m old and gross?”
“That’s different,” I said. I didn’t want to think about my dad being old.
My father stood in the doorway, shaking his head. “Need I remind you Aunt Esther raised me when my own mother took off? I owe her everything.”
“Yeah, you do,” I said. “But what’s that got to do with me?”
His eyes blazed, but he didn’t raise his voice. “Esther took me in as an infant. I didn’t have parents, Sylvie. All I had was your great-aunt.”
“Yeah, but Grandma said sorry for abandoning you before she died. She came back eventually.”
“When I was an adult, sure.” My father stared across my room, right out the window. “Look, Sylvie, I realize Grandma was always there for you. I don’t want to sour the happy memories you have. All I’m saying is that Esther raised me just the way your mother and I raised you.”
“I know, I know…”
“No, you don’t know, Sylvie.” His tone surprised me so much I fell onto my million-year-old bed. Dad hardly ever snapped like that.
“Sorry,” I said.
He sighed and then sat beside me on the lumpy mattress. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you. I’m sorry for that. But I think you’re old enough to consider what it must have been like for your great-aunt to raise a child born out of wedlock.”
I bit my bottom lip. I’d never thought about my father like that and it made me feel kind of weird.
“Small-town folk really know how to get the rumour mill running. Your grandmother was young when she had me. Her sister was a proper young woman, but the family name was dragged through the mud.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t your fault,” I said, because I could tell my dad felt guilty for something out of his control. “All you did was get born. It wasn’t your decision to be abandoned.”
When he looked me in the eye, I felt like we understood each other in a new way. I felt like he saw me not just as his little girl, but as someone he could actually talk to. And then a shadow crossed his face, and he said, “Your grandmother was only a few years older than you when she had me.”
My whole body turned to stone. I hoped and I prayed he wouldn’t say more.
And he didn’t, luckily. Except he did ask, “Are you sure you won’t come visit your great-aunt? She was really looking forward to seeing you.”
“Maybe another time.” Not if I can help it! “Can we go to that Christmas store instead? You don’t have any decorations up.”
“No sense putting them up when the workers will just take them down tomorrow. Anyway, I’m going to see Aunt Esther whether you come or not.”
A sudden burst of anger shot through me, and I said, “What? You’re going to leave me alone when I just got here? But I’m your daughter!”
“And family is the most important thing in the world.” My father stood up from my lumpy little bed. “That’s why I visit my aunt every day, rain or shine.”
I stood too, like a shot. “If family’s so important, why have you hardly visited us since you moved here? We’re your kids, Graham and Douglas and Naomi and Alexandria and me. We’re your kids and you don’t even care about us!”
“Sylvie!” My father reached for my shoulder, but I sped past him and down the stairs.
When I got to the bottom, I realized I didn’t have anywhere to go. Not just that, but I was getting really hot. I’d unravelled my scarf, but I hadn’t taken off my coat.
My father walked slowly down the stairs and stood silently at the bottom. I knew he was looking at me, but I didn’t look back. “You honestly believe I don’t care about you?”
I sighed and crossed my arms.
“I know you care about us, okay? Are you satisfied?”
“No.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “But I’m not satisfied with anything, these days. Ever since your mom and I split I’ve felt like a piece of me was missing. And ever since you stepped off that bus, I’ve felt like a part of that piece came back.”
I blinked back tears and looked up at my dad. “You’re happy I’m here?”
“Happy?” He laughed. “I’ve been looking forward to this week ever since you wrote to say you were coming.”
I could feel myself smiling like an idiot, and I couldn’t stop it.
“You know who else would be happy to see you?”
“Who?” Stupid question.
“Your great-aunt Esther.”
I shouldn’t have asked.
When I didn’t say anything, my dad waited for a moment and then opened the front door. “I’ll bring dinner when I get back.”
“Dinner?” I asked, sounding even more shocked than I felt. “You’re gonna be gone that long?”
He shrugged. “Feel free to come along.”
I looked away because I couldn’t stand how guilty he was making me feel. When he headed down those rickety front steps, I said, “Wait! What if I want to go out? I don’t have a key.”
Pointing to the door, my dad said, “I don’t have a lock. See ya later, alligator.”
I tried not to smile, but I couldn’t help it. How right I’d been about small town living! Not only did nobody lock the doors, but my dad didn’t even have a lock on his. Although, who would be stupid enough to break in with that crowd sitting in front of the house?
When I realized all those curious eyes were staring at me, I closed the door and leaned back against it. I hadn’t noticed the long narrow hallway before. It had the same peeling patterned paper as the wall going upstairs. I’d already seen the front room and dining room. This hall must lead to the kitchen.
The floorboards squeaked underfoot as I made my way toward the white door. I don’t know why I knocked. Obviously there was nobody else in the house. I just wanted to be absolutely sure I wasn’t walking in on some construction worker on the toilet. Yikes!
Nobody answered, so I turned the decorative brass handle and inched the door open. I don’t know why I’d been so frightened about what I might find behind it. It was just a kitchen. A kitchen with the oldest-looking oven I’d seen in my life.
Obviously the renovation people hadn’t started on it yet. The ceiling buckled in multiple places, and bits of plaster had randomly fallen off. I was no expert, but I knew what those brown stains were: water damage. And, come to think of it, this kitchen didn’t have a fridge. Did my dad eat take-out every night? You’d think, in a town as small as Erinville, he’d run out of places to grab and go.
At least there was a round wooden table and four chairs. I sat. What else was there to do? Good thing I’d kept my coat on, because the air was chilly. Instead of glass in the door leading outside from the kitchen, there was just a sheet of plastic.
What a dump.
My poor dad, staying here all alone. I couldn’t decide if I was mad at him for not living with us or if I felt bad for him because he was so far away from us. Mostly, I just wanted him to come back. Eventually my parents would realize they were happier together. My older sister Naomi kept telling me I had to grow up and see the writing on the wall. This was the first step toward divorce. But she only thought that because so many of her friends’ parents were getting divorced. Our family was different.
The kitchen suddenly grew cold. Very cold. I tightened my scarf around my neck, but it didn’t help. Was there a window wide open somewhere? That’s what it felt like. Even under a bulky sweater and winter jacket, my skin felt naked. I could feel my arms go all goosebumpy and the hair at the back of my neck stand up.
How had it gotten so cold so fast?
But it wasn’t just cold. There was something else going on. I felt like a rabbit on high alert. Suddenly my ears were attuned to everything. At first, I heard nothing but a strange high-pitched buzz. And then another noise, like tiny footsteps right beside me.
I was too scared to move. There was nobody in the kitchen but me. Where was the noise coming from?
The cupboard! I grabbed the knob and swung it open, fully expecting to find a very small person crouching in there.
Nope, not a person. A raccoon. A chubby raccoon holding a take-out container in one little black hand and leftover rice in the other. It looked up at me and cocked its head and it was just so cute that I said, “Awww! Are you eating my dad’s garbage?”
I guess it didn’t appreciate being called out, because its eyes got beady and mean. Without letting go of the take-out container, it dropped down on all fours, stuck its big butt in the air and let out a wild growl. I’d never heard anything like it. It was a cross between a swarm of bees and a dog getting ready to bark.
Normally I wouldn’t have been afraid of a raccoon, but normally when I saw them they were rifling through our neighbour’s trash cans, not trapped in a kitchen cupboard. When the raccoon’s growl grew deeper, I flew out of the kitchen, knocking over a chair as I stumbled toward the long hall. When I got to the front door, I swung it open, slipped out onto the porch, and slammed it behind me.
I’d forgotten half of Erinville was sitting outside. They all looked like they were watching TV, and I was the show. They stared at me expectantly, letting their hotdogs hover close to their mouths and their popcorn cool in their hands.
Where did that popcorn machine come from?
One lady stood up from her lawn chair. She wasn’t young and she wasn’t old, but she did have a dachshund on a leash. Taking a few steps closer, she called out, “Did you see one, dearie?”
I nodded, still feeling afraid even though the raccoon obviously couldn’t get me. Unless it came up through the cracks in the porch boards…
Letting out a little shriek, I rushed down the front steps.
“Oh, my poor dear! Come here. You’re safe now.” The not-young-not-old woman wrapped her arms around me and I let her, even though she was a total stranger. “Tell Marcie all about it.”
I guessed her name was Marcie.
“It was in the kitchen,” I said. “In the cupboard.”
“In the kitchen,” the townspeople whispered, passing word down the line of lawn chairs.
This was so silly. I was acting like an idiot. Pulling out of Marcie’s arms, I dusted myself off and said, “It’s okay. I’m okay. I don’t know why I was so scared in the first place.”
Marcie looked around and said, “I’m sure it woulda scared the bejesus out of any one of us.”
The others nodded, which was nice of them. Made me feel a little less flighty.
“Tell me, now…” Setting her hand on my shoulder, Marcie bowed down to my height. “What did it look like?”
Weird question. “It looked the same as all the other ones I’ve seen.”
The townspeople gasped and whispered while Marcie asked, “You’ve seen others?”
“Sure. There are tons in the city.”
“I guess that makes sense,” an older man said. “More people in the city.”
“Did it make a banging noise?” the bearded barbeque guy asked.
“No, more like a growl.”
The boy with the ferret stared at me for a moment before asking, “Was it more like a mist or was it solid like a person?”
These small town people really were weird.
Marcie reinforced the boy’s question. “Was the ghost hazy, or did it look just like you or me?”
“Wait, what?” I asked. “What ghost?”
“The ghost in the cupboard,” Marcie replied.
I laughed, even though I knew that sounded mean. “I didn’t see a ghost in the cupboard. I saw a raccoon in the cupboard. Why would you think I saw a ghost?”
I took a step back and browsed the curious faces of Erinville. They seemed disappointed. And then Marcie said, “That’s why we’re here, dearie. Didn’t your father tell you his house was haunted?”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “My father lives in a haunted house and he never told me?”
“He probably didn’t want to upset you,” Marcie said, brushing my bangs out of my eyes.
“But I’m staying here for Christmas. He should have told me.”
The woman sitting beside Marcie shook her head. “Your daddy don’t buy into none ‘a this ghost business. That’s why he didn’t tell ‘ya, kid.”
I was too old for my dad to be keeping things from me just because they might be upsetting. That’s what you do with little kids. I wasn’t a little kid anymore.
But the more I thought about, the more exciting it seemed. I got to spend Christmas in a haunted house! I’d never seen a ghost, but I’d always secretly wanted to.
“Why does everyone think it’s haunted?” I asked Marcie.
“Because every time out-of-towners step in and buy the place, they wind up abandoning it a few months later.”
“You’ve been inside,” Marcie’s friend added. “You’ve seen the state of the place. Needs fixing up, but that’s the thing about spirits: they don’t like remodelling. Wakes ‘em up. Gets ‘em agitated. That’s when they come outta the walls and creep folks out.”
“Is that why everybody’s here?” I asked. “You’re all waiting to see a ghost?”
“We don’t know what we’re waiting for, exactly,” said the barbeque beard man. “None of those city slickers stayed long enough to tell a soul what they seen.”
“My dad’s not a city slicker,” I said. “He was born in this town.”
A few people grumbled, but nobody outwardly argued. Maybe Amy the Architect had been right: the people of Erinville didn’t take kindly to anyone who left town, even if it was only for a little while.
“So, you didn’t see a ghost in there?” Marcie’s friend asked.
“No,” I said. “But I’ve only been here five seconds. Maybe I will. You never know.”
Barbeque beard man nodded. “Want a hot dog?”
I checked my pockets for spare change, but I only had a dime and three pennies. My wallet was in the house. The man didn’t have a price list up like the vendors in the city, so I asked, “How much?”
He laughed and so did all the other people camped out on my father’s lawn. Then the man said, “I’m not selling them, kid. Just sharing what I got. That’s how we do things around here.”
I must have looked like a city slicker extraordinaire, but no sense being embarrassed. I took him up on the offer. He’d set up a little table beside the barbeque with ketchup, mustard, relish and lots of napkins. When I’d finished dressing my dog, a lady with a baby offered me her lawn chair. I wasn’t going to take it, but she said her baby was fussing and she needed to get back anyway.
Sitting on someone else’s lawn all day seemed like a pretty weird pastime, but I could kind of see the appeal. My chair was on the outer edge of the grouping, where the lawn petered out and the forest took over. While I ate my hot dog, I eavesdropped on conversations about people I didn’t know. I’d seen small-town gossip in movies, but I didn’t think it was a real thing. It was.
When I’d eaten everything but my ketchup-stained napkin, I walked around to the side of the house to see if that’s where my dad kept the trash cans. He hadn’t exactly given me the grand tour. His garbage was right where we had ours at home: beside the house, with two big stones on the lid to keep out the raccoons. Apparently, around here, that just drove them into the kitchen cupboards.
“Hello,” said a voice so close behind me I actually gasped as I spun around. The girl stepped back, chuckling sweetly as her shiny ringlets bobbed against her cheeks. “Did I frighten you?”
“No,” I said, to save face. “Well, yeah, a little. But only because of all the ghost talk.”
“You must be Sylvie. I’m Celeste.” When she introduced herself, she placed her hand on her heart. She wore white leather gloves and a red cape, which made her look like something you’d seen on an old-timey Christmas card. “I’ve so been looking forward to meeting you. I heard you were coming for the holidays.”
“Wow, word sure gets around.” I tossed my garbage in the can, then set the stones back on the lid. “Are you from England?”
She looked a little confused and shook her head.
“Australia?” I asked. “I’m not good with accents.”
Laughing she said, “Hardly.”
She shook her head again, sending curls flying this way and that.
“I give up. Where are you from?”
“I was born right here in Erinville,” she said.
This time I was the one shaking my head. “Small towns are weird. You talk so different from people in the city. And you look all nice and proper.”
“You look quite fine as well.”
“Thanks.” I looked at my pea coat, which wasn’t particularly in style. My mom said it reminded her of the Beatles. “A lot of girls at my school want NBA starter jackets for Christmas. I don’t get it. They’re so big and bulky.”
Celeste smiled, but didn’t say anything.
“Celeste—that’s a really pretty name. Sounds like a Disney character: Princess Celeste.”
“Hardly.” She smiled bashfully. “But I appreciate the compliment. Have you explored the woods yet?”
“No, I just got here. My dad said we could cut down a Christmas tree, though.”
Celeste’s eyes lit up. “I know the perfect one. Come, I’ll show you.”
When she reached for my hand, I let her lead me toward a path cut out between a pair of pine trees. Even through my clunky wool mittens, I could feel the softness of her leather glove. Her boots were leather too. They looked really expensive, but she had no problem tramping through mud and sticks and snow. Imagine that: a princess who didn’t mind getting her shoes dirty.
Her pace was too quick for me, but I powered through. I had to concentrate hard on lifting my foot fully over rocks and fallen branches. The last thing I wanted to do was trip and make a fool of myself again.
Had Celeste seen me fall by the car?
We ducked under evergreens so thick and full they nearly blocked out the winter sun. It was like a secret world, the world beneath the pine boughs. The trees out here were old and tall. We could stand easily beneath them without hitting our heads.
“You’re not thinking one of these should be our Christmas tree,” I said, touching the trunk of a tall pine. “If our house was ten times the size, it still wouldn’t be big enough.”
Celeste chuckled sweetly. Her cheeks were rosy from the pace we’d kept and she said, “No, that tree is still a ways off. Only, I thought perhaps you might benefit from a rest.”
“Me?” I said, trying not to pant too hard. “No, I’m fine. We can keep going.”
“Only, I wanted to show you my special spot before we passed it by.” Celeste sat on a log that had been stripped bare of bark. “This is where I come when I want to be alone.”
“Isn’t it on my father’s property, though?”
“I suppose it is… now.” She looked at me curiously. “Your father seems like a kind man. He wouldn’t eject me from his property, would he?”
“Doubt it, unless you’re littering or setting forest fires.”
Celeste smiled mysteriously. “Nothing like that. I only come here because it’s so peaceful, like my own little home.”
“Sure, if you’re a Keebler Elf,” I said.
She stared at me blankly.
“The TV commercials? With the elves? They bake cookies in a tree?”
Celeste shrugged, then asked, “What is wrong with your leg? You have an odd sort of limp when you walk.”
“Yeah, thanks for pointing it out.” Leaning against a tree, I kicked the rust-coloured pine needles. “I have this thing called drop-foot. I’m supposed to wear a brace, but I left it at home.”
“What kind of brace?” Celeste asked.
I’m not sure why I was telling her this stuff. With most people, I would have told them to mind their own business. “My brace is plastic. It supports the back of my calf, then scoops down past my ankle and goes under the bottom of my foot.”
“How does it stay put?”
“There’s a strap at the top,” I told her. “It goes around my leg, just under my knee.”
She stared at my leg, even though I wasn’t wearing my brace. “Does it go on top of your clothing?”
“No, it goes under. Well, under my pants but over my socks. If I don’t wear high socks it rubs against my skin and cuts in after a while.”
I thought about the Christmas socks Amy the Architect gave me.
“Does it pain you?” Celeste asked.
“What, the brace or the drop-foot?”
“Drop-foot,” Celeste said.
“Nah, it’s not like that. It’s because of a pinched nerve, but that doesn’t hurt either. It just makes it so I can’t really feel my foot the way I should. I kind of can’t lift my toes off the ground right. That’s why I walk funny.”
“What is the cause of this disorder?”
I laughed at her phrasing. “You sound like a doctor. But I don’t know what caused it. I wasn’t born like this. One day I just noticed my leg felt a little weird. Then my big sister Naomi told me I was walking funny. I figured it would go away on its own. When it didn’t, my mom dragged me to the doctor.”
“And is there no remedy?”
“The brace holds my foot in position, but I’m sick of wearing it. Anyway, I don’t know why people make such a big deal about it. I fall a bunch of times if I rush around, but so what? There are worse things in life.”
She looked away and said, “Yes…”
In a way I was relieved that she’d stopped asking questions about my stupid foot, but at the same time it made me nervous that she’d gone so quiet. “So tell me about this ghost in my father’s house,” I said. “What have you heard?”
Celeste looked up at me with her eyes wide open, like the thought scared her. “According to town gossip, every time a new buyer tries to fix the place up, they leave it barren before the work is ever done.”
“Why?” I asked, taking a seat beside her on the log. “Do they hear footsteps? Do they see apparitions? Oh my God, is there a poltergeist? It must be something really scary if they abandon a house they just bought.”
“People often are frightened by perfectly blameless matters.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. As I sat beside her, winter’s chill crept into my bones. The day was so mild I hadn’t felt cold until that moment. In fact, after wearing my coat on the bus and in Amy’s car and my dad’s new house, I’d even been a little sweaty. But not anymore.
When I shivered, Celeste put her arm around my shoulder to warm me up. It didn’t help. The chill had gone right into my spine.
“Maybe I should have stayed home with my brothers and sisters.” I hugged myself to keep out the cold. “Christmas is going to be so boring with just my dad. For some reason I thought it would be exciting to come here to Erinville. Boy, was I wrong about that. Where are we even going to cook the turkey? His kitchen is full of raccoons!”
“You mustn’t fret,” Celeste said. “Your father loves you—that much is obvious. You have no idea how lucky you are.”
I turned my head to look at the strange girl, but her face was too close to mine. She was just a blur. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to ask what she meant, because it gave me a bad feeling, like a knot in my stomach.
“Your father seems like the sort of man who would accept you no matter your whims.”
“Yeah, I guess so…”
“Even if those whims were rather unconventional.”
Celeste inched closer and hugged me tighter. Her arm was like a vice around my shoulder. That was the first time I thought about how I didn’t know this girl. I trusted her because she seemed sweet and innocent, but was she? Maybe she was an axe-murderer like Lizzie Borden.
“Sylvie?” she asked. “You live in the city, isn’t that right?”
I squirmed beside her but she didn’t let go. “Yeah. So?”
“I wonder if perhaps you have a sweetheart back home.”
“Me? No way. I have a best friend, Zachary, and the other kids used to think we were secretly girlfriend and boyfriend, but we weren’t. If you ask me, it’s pretty stupid that kids our age say they’re going out, because it’s not like they ever go anywhere. They sit across from each other in science class and that makes them a couple?” After bashing the institution of dating, I wondered why she was asking me. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Her face was still a too-close blur, but I’m sure I saw a grin cross her lips as she said, “Goodness, no…”
“I don’t know why anyone would want a boyfriend. Like the girls in my class, the ones who have boyfriends, some of them are too scared to even talk to the guy! What’s the point of that?”
Suddenly Celeste’s face was against my face. At first I didn’t realize what was happening. Then I felt her lips on my lips and my body froze solid. What was she doing? Was she… was she… kissing me? Why would she do a thing like that?
Summoning all my strength, I pushed her away so hard she landed on the carpet of pine needles. I shot to my feet. My heart was thumping like a drum. In fact, that’s all I could hear. Until my voice intruded and I yelled at her: “What are you doing, you freak?”
She stared up at me. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even blink.
I wiped my lips hard. There wasn’t even any saliva or lip gloss on them, but I brushed them again and again with my mitten just to make a point. “What’s wrong with you? Why would you do that?”
“I felt as though you wanted me to,” she said, sounding quiet and very hurt.
I yelled, “Well I didn’t want you to. You must be crazy if you thought I did. Don’t ever come near me again!” I kicked through the neat carpet of pine needles, but turned around before ducking out of Celeste’s shelter. “And stay off my father’s property. This secret spot is mine now!”
I’d said that just to hurt her. I’d seen in her eyes how much she loved the place, and I really wanted her to suffer. But I wasn’t sticking around to watch her cry. I had to get as far away from Celeste as humanly possible. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so mean, but I couldn’t help it.
So I took off through the woods, hoping I was heading in the right direction. I ran as fast as my leg would let me. And I only tripped twice…
I woke up in the morning thinking about that kiss. I woke up reliving it in my mind. My first kiss! My first one ever and it had to be with a weird girl I barely knew. It was strange, but I’d never been able to picture myself kissing anyone. I’d never wanted to.
Why couldn’t I stop thinking about it?
As I rolled over on my lumpy, pokey straw mattress, I forced my brain to change the subject. I forced myself to think about the dinner my dad had brought home the night before, which sat like a brick at the base of my belly. I figured he’d get a pizza or Chinese food, but his version of take-out was a little different from what I was expecting.
Apparently the people who worked at Great-Aunt Esther’s old age home were really fond of my dad. He was the only person who visited a relative every single day. They probably felt sorry for him too, considering what his kitchen looked like. So every day they let him stay for dinner, and yesterday they packed it up to go—enough for me, too.
The food was gross: mystery meat concealed under gelatinous gravy, overcooked vegetables, watery mashed potatoes. I don’t know how my dad could stomach it.
Maybe he couldn’t afford any better.
As I tried to get a few more minutes’ sleep in my lumpy bumpy bed, I heard a rumbling noise. At first I thought maybe it was coming from my stomach, but then it got louder. Maybe the house was haunted after all! Maybe all those people camped outside would finally get a glimpse at something supernatural!
And then my bed started to shake.
I bolted upright and struggled for my clothes. The evening had been warm so we didn’t light any fires in the fireplaces, but the temperature must have dropped overnight because now my bedroom was freezing cold. When I’d bundled up in layers of tights and jeans and tops and sweaters, I rushed from my room to see what was causing such a racket.
My father came out of his bedroom at exactly the same time, putting on a top one of Great-Aunt Esther’s old lady friends had knitted him. It looked like those hideous dad-sweaters from the sitcoms.
“What’s happening?” I asked. “What’s that noise?”
“Sorry, sunshine.” He pulled his sweater down to cover the white T-shirt he had on. “I completely forgot the kitchen guys were coming this morning. They’ve already shut off the water. Hope you got to your morning ablutions early.”
“Umm… no?” And suddenly I had to pee worse than I’d ever had to go in my entire life. “How long is the water gonna be off?”
“All day,” he said, guiding me down the staircase.
“All day?” Oh great!
“Good thing there’s an outhouse, eh?” Picking up my coat, he helped me on with it. While I slid my feet into my boots, he looked down and asked, “Sylvie, where’s your brace?”
“Oh, I…” A huge rumble came from the kitchen, which distracted my father long enough for me to finish putting on my boots. “So, where’s this outhouse? I hope it’s not too gross.”
He looked at the closed white door at the end of the long narrow hallway. “What are those guys doing?”
“Dad, where is the outhouse? I hafta pee.”
“Huh? Oh. Yeah. Come this way.”
Ha! He’d forgotten all about my leg brace. My dad seemed totally distracted as he led me through the kitchen door. In the tumble-down kitchen, there were three brawny men and one brawny woman and they were all hard at work. The air was full of dust as they tore apart the cupboard where I’d seen the raccoon.
“No, no, no,” my dad said to one of the men. “The range is staying put. It still works.”
“Hold your horses, bub. It ain’t going nowhere,” the man replied. “Here—take a look at the blueprints. We gotta move it over here while we install the new…”
“Dad!” Tugging at my father’s sweater, I stood on my toes and whispered, “I have to go to the bathroom.” I felt like I was four years old all over again.
It was like he’d forgotten I was standing right beside him. But he directed me out the kitchen door and into the backyard.
“I’ve got a few things to discuss with the guys,” he said from the doorway.
The woman worker cleared her throat.
Dad corrected himself. “The guys and Shirlee. I’ll be out in a couple minutes, okay?”
“Okay.” I turned around when he closed the door and looked at the wooden hut with the moon window. “Here goes nothing.”
Holding my breath, I swung open the squeaky wooden door and launched myself inside. The hinge snapped back faster than I expected and almost caught my foot. I got in just in time for the door to smack me in the butt.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, and that moment was truly terrifying. Were there cobwebs all over my face? Spiders crawling up my pant legs? The smell was overwhelming. For all I knew, there might be a dead moose in the corner. In the dark, you don’t know what’s out to get you and forget it’s all in your mind.
Winter’s morning sun found its way through the cut-out in the door and the tiny spaces between the boards of the walls. Though the light was dim, at least I could faintly see the small space. Not that there was anything to see, really. In front of me there was a wooden bench with not one but two holes in it. Two holes, side by side! And they both had mint green horseshoe-shaped toilet seats on top of them, like someone from the 1950s wanted to spruce the place up.
“This is so weird,” I said to nobody.
Now, which green toilet seat should I go for? They both looked equally usable, which was strange for an outhouse. Wouldn’t you think a place like this would be long-abandoned? But this one looked like it saw action every day. Maybe the ghostbusters from the front lawn had made it their own.
Anyway, my bladder was ready to burst. I just had to choose one and go for it. And I did. And, let me tell you, that toilet seat was cold as ice! I had to hover above it because it was just too freezing to make contact with.
When I reached for the toilet paper I realized… wait… there was no toilet paper! The only thing around was somebody’s newspaper sitting beside me on the bench. That’s weird—the newspaper had pieces torn off of the pages. Torn off in sheets, it looked like. Wait… did people in this town use newspaper to wipe their bums?
I don’t know what got into me, but I just started laughing. Suddenly everything about my dad’s falling-down house seemed so funny I couldn’t hold back. I probably wouldn’t have been laughing so hard if I didn’t have a bunch of tissues in my coat pocket, but still.
As I zipped up my pants and pulled down my coat, something caught my eye. I froze in position when a shadow passed in front of the outhouse. I saw it in the moon-shaped cut-out. It wasn’t a person. I know what it looks like when a person walks by. This was definitely a shadow, but it wasn’t dark and cloudy like a thunderstorm. It was light and bright like a sunny day. It scared me stiff.
When I finally got up the courage to talk, I asked, “Who’s out there?”
“Who’s out there?” I asked again. “I saw you pass by. Tell me who you are.”
“I was just gearing up to knock,” a man’s voice said from outside. “Didn’t mean to put a fright in you.”
Relief washed through me like a wave and the feeling came back to my fingers. When I opened the door, barbeque beard man turned around. He was standing a few feet away from the outhouse and facing the opposite direction. He had on a blue toque and a hockey coat that, as he turned, I saw had the word “coach” embroidered across the chest. The leather sleeves were white. Could that have caused the flash of light I’d seen?
I must have really been staring at the man, because he said, “I weren’t peeping, if that’s what you think.”
“No, I know.” I didn’t want him to feel bad. “I thought I saw something. Not you, I mean. I thought I saw something else.”
He looked around the yard, then said, “I didn’t see nothing.”
“My eyes must be playing tricks on me.”
He stared at me kind of desperately, and that’s when I realized he was waiting to go to the bathroom. I got out of his way, and the second the outhouse door slammed behind him, he let ‘er rip! I covered my mouth so I wouldn’t laugh, but then I heard myself laughing anyway.
Wait a minute… that wasn’t me laughing. Where was the laughter coming from?
I looked to my left, to where the dead, snow-dusted grasses gave way to the treeline. That’s when I spotted a lush red cape, two white leather gloves, two black leather boots and a heap of golden ringlets.
Happiness sprouted wings inside me and soared until I remembered what had happened the day before. Then that joy burned down until nothing was left but cinders. I walked toward Celeste, not because I wanted to, but mainly because the barbeque beard man’s stink had infiltrated the great outdoors. Anyway, I didn’t want him overhearing our conversation.
“I told you to stay off my father’s property,” I said when I was near enough to whisper. “What are you doing here?”
“Only, I thought we might speak about the kiss.”
“Shhh!” I hissed. “Tell the whole world, why don’t you?”
“Are you still upset about it?”
“Yes, I am still upset about it,” I said, over-enunciating each word the way she did.
“What did you find so upsetting, Sylvie? It was only a kiss.”
She reached for my hand, but I swiped it away and hid it behind my back. “It wasn’t only a kiss. A kiss means something, especially when it’s a girl kissing another girl. Don’t play dumb with me. You might be from a small town, but you can’t be that stupid.”
Grave concern shone in Celeste’s eyes. We’d only just met and already she cared for me enough that I was yelling at her and she wasn’t yelling back? She wasn’t running away? That’s what broke my anger down. That’s why I didn’t run away either.
With a deep sigh, I leaned my shoulder against a tree and stared into the woods. “There’s this guy at school: Shawn Connolly. He asked me to the Christmas dance and I said no, so he told the whole class I was a lesbian. I haven’t told anyone but you, so don’t go spreading it around. I didn’t even tell my big sister. I didn’t even tell my mom. But I guess there’s a lot of stuff I don’t tell my mom anymore.”
When Celeste didn’t say anything, I turned to see what kind of look she had on her face. She was smiling. I didn’t expect that.
“Cat got your tongue?” I asked.
“Only, I wonder how you responded to such an allegation,” she said sweetly.
“Allegation? It wasn’t an allegation. He spread a rumour about me. Didn’t even have the guts to say it to my face.”
“How did the rumour find you?”
“My friend Zachary told me. He said he wasn’t going to. He didn’t want to hurt my feelings. But the weird thing is that it didn’t hurt my feelings. It made me mad, but that’s different.”
“Mad?” Celeste asked.
“Well, yeah. Wouldn’t you be mad? I mean, just because I say I don’t want to go to the dance with a guy doesn’t automatically make me… you know.” I’d always found that word hard to say. Lesbian. It sounded so final. “Just because I’ve never wanted to go to any dance with any guy doesn’t automatically mean I want to go with a girl. I don’t want to go out with anyone. So what? Why does Shawn Connolly think it’s any of his business, anyway?”
“The male of the species is awfully intrusive,” Celeste agreed.
“Intrusive, yeah. I like that word. Who does he think he is, intruding into my life and telling people made-up stuff about me?”
“Did you make any attempt to set the record straight?” Celeste asked, without even laughing at the pun.
“I’m not gonna go around to every kid in school and be all like, ‘Hi, I’m Sylvie and I’m not a lesbian.’ Because that would be like saying there’s something wrong with being that way. If I was, I mean. If it were true.”
I thought back to when Zachary told me about the rumour. I’d felt exactly the way I was feeling as I explained it to Celeste: confused and nauseous and dizzy, like my insides were tied in knots, and my tongue too.
“Oh, who even cares?” I said. “What difference does it make what people say about me?”
Celeste turned to watch the barbeque beard man leaving the outhouse. He waved his hand in front of his face like he couldn’t take any more of his own stink. As he walked by, we remained quiet so he wouldn’t look over. We were hidden in the trees enough that he probably couldn’t have seen us anyway, but I guess we really didn’t want to be spotted.
When the bearded man had gone around the side of the house, I said, “You know what? Why would anyone believe Shawn anyway? He thinks girls pee out of our butts.”
Letting out a giggle, Celeste covered her mouth with her gloved fingers. “Say that again?”
“Shawn told the guys in our class he didn’t get why it’s such a big deal for a guy to be gay. He said doing it with a girl or a boy was same thing.”
Celeste raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“None of the guys understood either. Then someone asked Shawn where he thought girls peed from, and he said we peed from our butts. He thought all we had was a butt and the front of us was just flat like a Barbie doll. That’s what my friend Zachary told me.”
Celeste clapped her hands, like she’d never heard anything so funny in all her life. “Did your friend Zachary correct the boy’s mistake?”
I shook my head. “Nobody did. Shawn probably still thinks that.”
We both cracked up, until the crunch of frozen grass rang out behind my back. Celeste suddenly looked stricken. She spun around and ran into the woods.
Before I could call out after her, my dad said, “What’s all this laughter about? You know there’s no laughing allowed around Christmastime.”
His stupid dad-jokes always made me smile, even if they were totally lame. “I was just telling my friend Celeste a story about school.”
My dad looked around, smiling, but furrowing his brow. “Your imaginary friend Celeste?”
“No.” I rolled my eyes. “She ran away when she heard you coming.”
“Where do you know this girl from?”
I felt a blush coming on when I remembered why I hadn’t told my dad about her before. “I met her yesterday when you were at the old people’s home. She was in the crowd of your biggest fans out front.”
“Right.” He smirked, and it made me sort of proud that he was amused by my jokes. “So your friends are afraid of me, huh? Maybe they think I’m the ghost that’s haunting my house.”
As my dad led me around the far side of the house where the driveway was, I said, “I still don’t know why you didn’t tell me the real reason all those people are out there. You really thought it would make me scared?”
“I’m not a little kid, you know.”
Putting his arm around my shoulder, he led me up the gravel driveway. “I hope you’re not too grown up for chocolate chip pancakes at Darla’s Griddle.”
“Never!” My mouth gushed with saliva just thinking about them. “Remember the time we all came up here and you took Graham and Naomi to visit Great-Aunt Esther while Doug and I went to Darla’s Griddle with Mom? Alley wasn’t born yet. We got chocolate chip pancakes that time too.”
“I remember you telling me all about it.”
I was impressed that my father remembered something so inconsequential.
“Your mother thought an old age home wasn’t the best place for you younger kids. You’d been scared the times we took you before. You had bad dreams.”
“I know.” Just the thought of those ghouls with their bony fingers sent a shiver down my spine. “Old people are gross.”
“Sylvie,” my dad said with a firm voice. “You said yourself you’re not a little kid. It was one thing when you were four years old, but if you want to be treated with respect you need to show some maturity.”
I couldn’t believe my dad thought I was being immature! But I didn’t want to rehash the same disagreement we’d had the day before, so I looked out across the sea of townsfolk assembled outside the house. Celeste stood just inside the treeline. I smiled when I saw her, but she stepped back and disappeared into the woods.
There were no sidewalks on my father’s street, so on our way for pancakes we were forced to walk on the road. He probably asked me sixty times how my leg was holding up. I was perfectly fine. Still, I looked forward to settling into one of the red vinyl booths at Darla’s Grill. Well, until I saw who was waiting there to meet us.
“Sylvie! So good to see you again.” Amy the Architect moved closer to the window so my dad could sit beside her on the bench. “How was your first night in your dad’s new house?”
“Fine, I guess. My mattress is weird and they turned off the water this morning. I think I stink.”
“You smell fine,” my dad said. “Sit yourself down and have a look at the menu.”
I sat across from Amy and my father, but I didn’t look at the menu. I didn’t need to. “I’m getting the chocolate chip pancakes.”
“You can have anything you want,” Amy said. “My treat.”
My dad said, “Amy…”
Amy said, “Jonathan…”
The waitress came over and asked, “Have you decided what you’d like to order?”
She looked about my age, and that made me wonder if I should start looking for a job. When she smiled, I noticed she had red and green elastics around her shiny metal braces. Holiday colours. If this girl found a job, how much trouble could I have?
My dad ordered for everyone, and I wondered how he knew what Amy wanted. She didn’t correct him, so he must have guessed right. All she added was, “Orange juice all around.”
“We don’t need orange juice if we’re getting coffee,” my dad said to her.
“We can have both,” she replied.
“Can I have coffee?” I cut in.
Amy and my dad both looked at me like they’d forgotten I existed. Then my dad said, “Sylvie, you’re way too young for coffee.”
“My friend Zachary drinks coffee all the time,” I said.
“Zachary’s too young too.”
Amy the Architect looked at Braces the Waitress and said, “Three coffees and three orange juices, please.”
The waitress took off before we could make any more changes to our order. My dad turned to Amy like he wanted to be mad at her, but she beamed at him and he smiled back, shaking his head. “You could get away with murder.”
“I bet you think I’m too young to get a job,” I said.
My dad turned his attention back to me. “Why? Did you get a job you didn’t tell me about?”
“Digging ditches?” he asked, then he sang, “At the carwash?”
I shook my head, trying not to laugh. “You’re so lame.”
“What kind of job would you like?” Amy asked.
“Any job. My friend Zachary has a paper route, just with the local free paper. He doesn’t actually get any money for delivering it, but he earns one cent for every grocery flyer he inserts in everybody’s papers.”
“Isn’t that interesting?” Amy said, even though it really wasn’t interesting at all.
“I help him sometimes after school. Not for money, just because.”
“That’s nice of you,” Amy chimed in.
It wasn’t her attention I wanted. I looked at my dad and asked, “What kind of job do you think I should get?”
“Pizza delivery man,” he said.
“Dad! I’m not even old enough to drive.”
“You could train attack dogs.”
“I’m allergic to dogs—especially attack ones!”
Then he said, “Maybe you could be an architect like Amy.”
I caught her gazing at me expectantly and, I don’t know why, but it bugged me. So I said, “Architect is a stupid job. I would never want to do that in a million years.”
Amy’s shoulders fell and Dad’s brow furrowed. “Sylvie, what a rude thing to say.”
“It’s fine. It’s fine.” Amy the Architect touched the back of my father’s hand just lightly with her fingertips. “Jonathan, really. Sylvie has her own opinions. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sylvie, tell me what kind of a career would excite you. What do you want to do when you’re finished school?”
I shrugged as Braces the Waitress started awkwardly setting glasses of orange juice and cups of coffee down on the table. She looked like she was really struggling not to spill stuff over the sides.
“I thought you and Zachary had a plan to set up your own theatre company,” my dad said.
“Are you cooling off on the idea of being an actress?” my dad asked.
“What kind of director’s gonna hire an actress with a bum leg? I can’t do musicals if I can’t dance, so what’s the point?”
“That’s why setting up your own company would be perfect.” He took a sip of black coffee while Amy poured cream in hers. “Then you could direct plays, and maybe give yourself roles with no dancing. You’d really enjoy that, I bet.”
He was right, but something kept me from saying so. The silence between us must have made Amy the Architect uncomfortable, because she stood and whispered, “I’m just going to wash my hands before breakfast gets here.”
My dad stood too, and stepped out of the booth so Amy could get by him.
And then it happened: she quietly said, “Be right back,” and leaned in close and kissed my dad on the cheek.
My dad looked like a statue. His eyes shot wide open, and then Amy’s did too as she glanced awkwardly in my direction. She must have done it without thinking. She must have done it because it’s what she usually did. She must have forgotten I was there.
Amy the Architect’s cheeks broke out in a blush. She slipped away just as the waitress approached with my chocolate chip pancakes.
I vaguely heard my father say thank you to the girl with the holiday braces, but he didn’t say anything to me. I doubt I’d have been able to hear him anyway. I couldn’t hear anything, not even the clatter of cutlery or other diners chatting. The only sound in my ears was the sound of the ocean, like when you listen to the inside of a seashell.
My throat burned too much to eat. I just stared at the chocolate chip pancakes in front of me, stared at them in a daze, trying desperately not to cry.
Because I was visiting, my dad had taken Christmas week off from his usual job. When it snowed the day before Christmas Eve, he told me he’d been picking up extra cash by shovelling driveways.
Shovelling driveways? That’s what my older brother Graham did for pocket money. If I was too young for a part time job, my dad was definitely too old for one. But the water was off at his house again, and with the kitchen full of noisy workers I didn’t want to stay there alone.
“Do you have an extra shovel?” I asked. “I can come with you. I can help.”
My dad looked over his shoulder from inside the toolshed. He was wearing the bulky ski jacket he’d had since the 70s and insulated winter gloves. “Are you sure you can handle it?” he asked. “Shovelling is physically demanding work.”
I knew exactly what he was implying, and I shot back, “Just because my foot is stupid doesn’t mean I can’t shovel a driveway. I can do anything anyone else can do.”
He looked like he didn’t know what to say. He just grabbed an extra shovel and handed it to me. Then he led me down his gravel driveway, which he didn’t bother shoveling because he didn’t have a car.
Even the day before Christmas Eve, his fans were out in droves. Most of them had gone home when the snow fell, but some huddled under umbrellas sat there staring at the house. The garbage can fire burned brightly and the barbeque beard man cooked hotdogs. No sign of the popcorn machine, but someone had brought an urn of hot cider and people filled mugs they must have brought from home.
Things hadn’t been totally comfortable with my dad since that thing at Darla’s Grill, but I told myself I must have misread Amy’s affection. It was just a kiss on the cheek. That didn’t have to mean anything.
As for snow shovelling, we got into a routine pretty fast. My dad went up to each house and knocked at the door while I waited on the road. If the people inside didn’t want their driveway shovelled we moved on. If they did, he turned around and gave me a thumbs-up. I worked up from the street and he worked down from the house and we’d meet somewhere near the middle. Teamwork!
Until he noticed me walking a little funnier than usual and asked, “Sylvie, are you sure you’re wearing your leg brace?”
I didn’t want to lie, so I turned the tables on him. “Mom thinks she has to protect me from everything and you think I’m a gimp? That’s nice, dad. Thanks a lot.”
“Sylvie, you know I don’t think that. I just don’t want you pushing yourself too hard.” And then he surprised me by asking, “How is your mother doing, anyway?”
My suspicions burbled up and I said, “What do you care?”
Oh no! Why did I ask that question? It was so obvious what I was talking about and I really didn’t want to get into it.
“I’ll always care about your mother, Sylvie.” He walked through the unshovelled snow between us and brushed my bangs out of my eyes, which made me want to cry. He hardly ever did those tender things, but when he did it meant something. “I’ll always care about Mom just like I’ll always care about you and your brothers and your sisters. I might not live in the same house with you anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about the six of you. I do. Every day.”
“Then why don’t you come back home?” I pleaded. I didn’t mean to. I felt stupid asking, like a little kid. “Just sell the crappy old house and move back in with us. Mom cries all the time. I know she misses you.”
“Don’t you Sylvie me!” Dropping my shovel in the snow, I stormed off down the sidewalk.
I probably should have been more careful. I probably should have noticed where the curb gave way to the road, because my foot sure did. It sunk into that big pile of unplowed street snow and I did a face-plant.
Behind me, I heard my dad cry out, “Sylvie! Sylvie, are you okay?”
His hands found my shoulders and he heaved me up as I pushed up off the road. There was snow all over my face. I could feel it there, melting on my skin, making me hot and cold at the same time. I didn’t stand. I didn’t want to. I sat on the side of the road, letting winter’s chill creep up my pants.
“Are you okay?” my dad asked as he kneeled beside me in the snow. He was going to get his jeans all wet.
I wanted to show him how angry and betrayed I felt about Amy the Architect. Out of nowhere I asked, “Are you cheating on Mom?”
“What? No! Sylvie, your mother and I are separated.”
“Yeah, separated, but not divorced.”
“Separated, divorced… Sylvie, it amounts to the same thing: the marriage is over.”
Nooo! My mind wouldn’t stop screaming that word. Nooo! Nooo! Nooo! “Does Mom know?”
“Yes, Sylvie. It was a mutual decision.”
“Is it because you were cheating on her?”
My dad smiled and cocked his head like he thought I was crazy. “No, honey, I never cheated on your mom. It’s just like we told you when we sat you kids down: sometimes people who’ve been married a long time just realize they have nothing in common anymore. It isn’t always a big thing that causes a divorce. Sometimes it’s a lot of little things.”
“Says you,” I shot back, looking away from him.
He sat back on his feet, still kneeling at my side. “Sylvie, where is this coming from?”
“From Amy,” I spat. It was all coming out now. “She kissed you at Darla’s Grill. She’s your girlfriend, isn’t she?”
My father looked me straight in the eye and pursed his lips, not in an angry way, just in a way like he didn’t know what to say. Finally, he admitted, “Yes, Amy is my girlfriend.”
“Was she your girlfriend when you were still living with us?”
“What? No! We didn’t even meet each other until I was looking at houses in Erinville.”
I didn’t want to believe him, but I knew he was telling the truth. I could see it in his eyes.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
Hurt by what? By the fact that my parents for sure weren’t getting back together? By the fact that my family would never live the way we used to? By the fact that my dad was dating a woman who drove a little red car with no garbage on the floor or gum stuck to the seats?
I shrugged his hand off my shoulder and said, “What do you think?”
Pushing myself up off the ground without my father’s help, I stormed down the street. He didn’t follow me this time. He just let me go, which was pretty unfortunate, because I had no idea where I was walking. We’d come from the opposite direction, but I didn’t want to retrace my steps and have to walk by him and finish this conversation.
“You look positively distraught.”
Gasping, I turned to find Celeste leaning against a tree on someone’s front lawn. “Don’t do that,” I said, hiding how pleased I was to see her. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“My apologies.” Celeste kicked through the snow and took my hand and I let her. “Did you come here looking for me?”
“No, I didn’t even know you lived here. I just couldn’t stand being around my dad for another minute.” I told her why while we walked along the snowy street, and she listened politely. She didn’t offer any advice, which was fine. I didn’t want any. Then I asked, “Hey, why did you run away yesterday when my dad came by?”
Celeste smiled gently and said, “I’m not overly fond of the male of the species.”
I could feel myself blushing. “Yeah, I noticed.”
“Are you?” Celeste asked. “I apologize if this sounds forward, but it seemed perhaps you weren’t. One has auspicious feelings about these things. Feelings that cannot be spoken—must not be spoken.”
Everything Celeste said sounded like poetry, and I wasn’t good with poetry. “Are you talking about crushes and stuff? I don’t really get them. Have you ever asked your other friends about all this?”
“I can’t say I have a great many friends,” Celeste replied, sadly.
“I do.” For a second, I was going to stop there. But there was something about Celeste. I felt like I could really trust her. I felt like I could tell her things I’d never told anyone. And so I said, “Sometimes I worry they’re just being nice because they don’t think I could make friends on my own. Because of my foot. Does that make sense?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Celeste said. “Explain it to me.”
“Well, Zachary used to be my only friend. We’ve always been friends, ever since kindergarten. Kids used to make fun of him and call him gay. Well, they still do, but everyone used to just ignore me until I got my nerve damage. After that it was like they went out of their way to be super-super nice. Sometimes they talk to me like I’m stupid or like I’m an old person or a puppy.”
“I see what you mean.” Tightening her grip on my hand, Celeste said, “It sounds as though you question whether they are true friends at all.”
“Yeah, exactly. Like, are they being nice to me or making fun of me? It’s hard to know sometimes, so instead of being nice back I…”
I didn’t want to tell Celeste. She was the first person I’d met in a long time who genuinely seemed to like me. What would she think if I told her I’d been called down to the Vice-Principal’s office three times for bullying? Mrs. Weaver never seemed to understand. All the girls would say, “We were just being nice. We were just trying to help her,” and nobody heard the tone of their voices. Nobody heard it but me, and I didn’t need their pity.
So I didn’t tell Celeste any of that. Instead, I asked, “Have you seen Show Boat?”
She cocked her head. “Show Boat?”
“Yeah, the musical.”
Recognition sparked and her eyes lit up. “Ahh yes, I do recall Show Boat: Old Man River, After the Ball, Can’t Help Loving That Man—so many classics.”
“It’s playing at the new theatre in North York. I went with Zachary. Our moms bought tickets as a surprise early Christmas present.”
“How lovely,” Celeste said with a smile.
“Yeah, well we’ve been listening to the world premiere cast recording since October. Zachary calls us Show Boat and Slow Boat. You can guess which one I am.”
Celeste’s eyebrows went up. “That’s awful.”
I shrugged. “It’s kind of funny, if you ask me. I walk slow so I won’t trip. Big whoop. When Zachary teases me, I know it’s because we’re good friends. If we weren’t so close, he would be just like everyone else: over-nice and treating me like an invalid.”
Swinging my hand, Celeste she started singing a song from Show Boat: “Why do I love you?”
I couldn’t resist. I answered in song: “Why do you love me?”
And then we both sang together: “Why should there be two happy as we?”
Zachary and I performed this song together all the time. We had a whole routine worked out for it. But singing it with Celeste was more fun, even if her voice wasn’t as strong as Zachary’s.
As we walked in the tire tracks of that unknown Erinville street, a group of girls came up on the horizon. Most of them were wearing puffy NBA starter jackets with team names emblazoned on them. Those girls didn’t dress anything like Celeste. They looked more like the girls at my school, but they acted exactly just the opposite.
“Are you singing show tunes?” one of the girls asked, mocking us.
“Why are you singing show tunes on our street?” another girl chimed in.
In about five seconds, the gaggle of girls was right in our faces.
That’s when I knew we were in trouble.
One of the girls got right up in my face and burped. “Ha! My burp sounds better than your song!”
The girls all laughed.
“On this street, you can only sing Ace of Base,” someone shouted.
“Yeah, they’re the best!”
Half the group of Erinville girls started singing Don’t Turn Around while the other half sang The Sign. Both were equally loud and off-key, but at least they’d found another focus. The competing gangs stood so close together Celeste and I struggled to slip through a gap. All I could think about was that scene from West Side Story where the Sharks fight the Jets.
“Hey, look how she’s walking!” one of the girls said. When her friends turned to watch, she swooped her leg around in an exaggerated motion. Was that supposed to be me?
Then they all started doing it, planting one foot heavily in the snow and then swerving the other leg around, landing gingerly on their toes. “Duhhh George!”
“Duhhh George!” they all shouted. “Duhhh George!”
My jaw dropped. Now I wished they’d go back to making fun of Show Boat.
“She’s not even from here,” a girl with a slicked back ponytail said. “Her dad bought the ghost house.”
They laughed as they walked down the street imitating me but also singing Ace of Base songs. Celeste and I turned to watch them go, on high alert in case they turned around to come after us. Eventually they must have forgotten we were there, because they started pushing each other around, teasing, shoving snow down the backs of each other’s coats.
“Do you know those girls?” I asked Celeste.
“I’ve seen them around town,” she replied.
“So they’re not in your class?”
She said nothing.
I don’t know how long we stood there in the middle of the road, just watching our tormentors, making sure they were through bothering us. It didn’t make sense that I could push around girls at my school because they were too nice to me, but when it came to the brats of Erinville I couldn’t speak up for myself. Those girls deserved a punch in the mouth. I should have run after them. I should have plunged their stupid faces in the ground. I should have done something. Anything!
Just when I got the idea to throw snowballs at their heads, a pick-up truck honked and flashed its high beams. Celeste and I shrieked, because it came out of nowhere. After we’d moved out of its way, Celeste took my hand and sang, “Why do I love you?”
That brought a smile to my face. I joined in and we sang even louder than before. I didn’t even worry about whether it sounded nice. By the time we’d arrived at my father’s house, we were just laughing and screaming the lyrics.
“Want to come inside?” I asked.
Celeste shrugged and we entered the unlocked house which was, mercifully, quiet. Dad’s workers had even left a plate of Christmas cookies and a nice card saying they’d see him after Boxing Day. That meant my dad and I would be spending Christmas in a house without a working kitchen.
Great. Just great.
At least they’d installed the new sink into the new countertop, but there was still a lot missing. I turned on the taps and coppery water splashed out.
“How very unpleasant,” Celeste said, turning up her nose.
“It’ll go back to normal in a minute.” I snacked on a sugar cookie while Celeste picked up a piece of blue chalk the workers had left behind. “There. See? Clear water. At least I can take a shower later if I get too cold.”
“There is rather a chill in the air,” Celeste said.
“Sorry.” I picked up the plate of cookies and led Celeste to the front room. “The central heating doesn’t work, so we have to light fires. It’s actually kind of cool.”
“Warm,” Celeste said with a straight face, like she didn’t even realize she was making a joke.
I laughed and set the cookies down on the kitchen table, which Dad’s workers had moved into the front room. My dad had taught me how to arrange newspaper and kindling so the logs would light. Still, it took a while to get the fire going. By the time I turned around, Celeste had drawn all over my father’s table.
“What are you doing?” I cried. “That’s an antique!”
She looked surprised. “It’s only chalk. Chalk rubs off.”
When I looked at what she was writing, my fingers went numb. “Are you making a Ouija board? Those things are evil!”
Tracing her fingers around the letters of the alphabet, she said, “If the neighbours are correct in thinking this house is haunted, aren’t you the least bit curious who might be lingering here?”
“It’s not really haunted. All those people outside are nuts.” As I looked over Celeste’s shoulder and out the front window, I felt a chill all over my skin. “Wow, it’s super-cold today. Help me move the table closer to the fire.”
We dragged the table over, pushing chairs out of the way and spilling cookies off the tray.
When Celeste grabbed a candlestick off the mantle and lit it in the fireplace, I asked, “What are you doing? The fire isn’t enough for you?”
“This is a spiritualist method,” she replied.
“Spiritualist? What’s that, some funky new religion?”
“No, no. Spiritualism involves conversing with those who have passed over.”
“With ghosts, you mean?” Another chill ran down my spine, but I shook it off the way dogs shake water out of their coats. “If there were ghosts in this house, I think I’d have seen one by now. Or my dad would have, at least.”
Celeste set the candle on the table with reverence. She took this really seriously, so I pulled up a chair.
“How is a candle supposed to tell us if there are ghosts around?” I asked.
“It is quite the simplest of methods,” Celeste replied as she closed the heavy velvet curtains, depriving the room of outside light. “Very basic, but an excellent starting point for spiritualist activity.”
“I’ll just have to trust you on that one.”
She placed both hands on the table. “Do as I do.”
I followed her lead and set my fingertips but not my palms on the tabletop. “What now?”
The fire crackled and I jumped, which made Celeste laugh. “Now we watch the candle flame. We observe how neatly the fire burns, how strong and intense and upright it glows. We see the darkness of the wick and the brightness of the flame.”
As I followed her instructions, I felt a little weird. I felt not quite myself, like my head was floating but very heavy at the same time.
Celeste made a humming sound, which I would have found weird at any other moment, but I was so mesmerized by the candle I just kept staring. After a moment, she asked, “Is a spirit in the room with us? Move the flame to the right for yes and to the left for no.”
My heart froze when the flame flickered to the left. “Oh my God, there’s a ghost in the house!” And then I thought about it for a second and asked, “Wait, why did they answer no? Is there a ghost here or not?”
“A spirit,” Celeste said, correcting me. “And it’s understood that they move the flame to the speaker’s left or right. I am the speaker me. So, to me, that was a yes.”
“Oh.” What did I know? I’d never done this before.
“Are there many spirits here with us?” Celeste went on. “Right for yes, left for no.”
The flame flickered to the right this time—so Celeste’s left. “No?”
“Only one?” Celeste asked.
Yes, the flame replied.
The logs in the fire crackled and I pressed my fingers harder into the tabletop.
Celeste asked, “Are you known to us, Spirit?”
The flame burned brighter and then dimmer. It flickered to the left and then the right. It kept going back and forth.
“Maybe it’s known to me and not you,” I said. “Or you and not me.”
“Spirit, are you a family member to someone in this room?”
Yes! A bright orange yes that leaned so hard the flame was practically horizontal.
“Are you a family member to me?” Celeste asked.
I swallowed hard. That could only mean one thing.
“Are you a family member to Sylvie?”
Yes. Again, the flame leaned so far to the side liquid wax spilled down the candlestick.
“Grandma?” I asked.
The flame didn’t react at all to my question.
Celeste asked, “Are you a woman?”
“A man, then. Did you meet Sylvie prior to your passing?”
“You passed before Sylvie was born?”
Yes. An ardent yes. My skin felt goosebumpy and cold despite the blazing fire.
“It could be anyone,” I said. “Lots of people died before I was born.”
“So you have no inkling who this man might be, Sylvie? Not the slightest clue?”
I got a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach and I said the first thing that came to mind. “I never met my grandfather. My father’s father, I mean. My dad never met him either, never knew who he was.”
Celeste didn’t look as surprised as I thought she’d be, but she did say, “How exciting.” Then, focusing on the candle, she asked, “Spirit, are you Sylvie’s grandfather? Are you the man whose identity her father never knew?”
For a moment, the flame held perfectly still. And then it flickered gently. Yes.
“Why did your son never know you?” Celeste asked.
“Celeste!” Even though I hadn’t met him, I felt like I should defend my grandfather. “How’s he supposed to answer a question like that? Maybe he didn’t even know he had a son.”
Celeste chewed her lip, like she was trying to think what to ask next. “Spirit, did you die of old age?”
“Don’t ask that!”
But the question was out and answered: No.
“Was your death an accident?”
“Celeste! You’re being rude.”
“Not an accident,” Celeste mused. And then she asked, “Did you die close to home?”
“Why are you asking these questions, Celeste? Why are you asking how he died? Wouldn’t you rather know who he was and how he lived?”
Raising her brow, Celeste moved her fingers to a cookie in the shape of a Christmas tree, which had fallen from the tray when we’d moved the table. “Spirit,” she said. “Tell us your name.”
The cookie started moving in quick, jerky lines. The Christmas tree shape acted as a pointer, which landed first on the P Celeste had drawn on the table. It went next to R, then I, then V.
“You’re doing that yourself,” I said.
“I can assure you I am not,” Celeste replied.
The cookie moved to A, then shot quickly to the T, then back toward the beginning of the alphabet where it landed on E.
“Private,” Celeste said.
“He doesn’t want us to know who he was. Leave him alone.” My plan was to brush the cookie away from her, but the moment I set my fingers on it, that little sugar cookie took off.
“Are you moving it?” Celeste asked.
“No. You are!”
“I am not!”
The cookie moved around the table, taking our fingers with it. We called out each letter it landed on.
A shot like lightning ran through my arms and I pulled my hands away. “What was that?”
Celeste hadn’t felt it, apparently. She picked up the blue chalk and wrote what the spirit had spelled out for us: PRIVATE GERALD RAWLEY.
The moment she’d finished writing it, the letters glowed a ghostly shade of blue. Celeste jumped away from the table, letting out a gasp. I couldn’t move. My feet were planted to the floor, but my knees grew so weak I had to lean against the table.
Then, all at once, the table began to vibrate.
“Sylvie,” Celeste said. “The table… it’s lifting itself off the floor!”
“No.” I shook my head, but she was right. I could feel it trembling under my hands, rising into the air, levitating!
Celeste scrambled toward the front window and tore open the velvet curtains. As quickly as the strangeness had started, it came to a halt. The letters stopped glowing, the candle stopped flickering, and the table fell to the floor with a terrible bang.
The air in the room felt different. It felt normal again. I could breathe. I didn’t feel tingly. No goosebumps. No chills. If anything, I felt uncomfortably hot from being so close to the fire.
“Are you okay?” I asked Celeste.
She licked her fingers and used them to put out the candle flame. “No harm done. And yourself?”
“I don’t know. That was so weird, like something you’d see in a movie.” I couldn’t stop staring at the words scrawled across my father’s kitchen table. “PRIVATE GERALD RAWLEY.”
“Rather exciting,” Celeste said. “Today you met your grandfather for the first time. Just imagine what spirits you might encounter in the days and nights ahead…”
I’d written my grandfather’s name on a scrap of paper and put it in my coat pocket. As we wandered the woods on Christmas Eve, I kept taking off my mitten and checking that it was still there. I’d told my father what had happened (and why his table was covered in chalk) as soon as he got back from visiting Great-Aunt Esther. He dismissed the information as the result of childish games.
“But aren’t you even a little bit curious?” I asked him in front of Amy. I was still really mad at her for stealing my dad away from my mom (even if he said they didn’t meet until after the separation), but I knew I could get Amy on my side. She was obviously eager to impress me. “Dad, this ghost said he’s your father. You don’t want to find out more about him?”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, Sylvie.” My dad trudged through the snow with an ax in one hand and a mug of hot chocolate in the other. “Your friend was playing a trick on you, that’s all.”
“But then how do you explain the name? You think she made it up?”
“Most likely,” my father replied.
“What about his rank?” I shot back. “You think Celeste randomly made up a soldier’s name and the fact that he was a private in the army?”
“I was born at the tail end of World War II, Sylvie. Lots of men were Privates in the army back then.” My father stopped trudging for a moment and said, “Your friend might have spotted that name on a gravestone. You told me she runs around these woods a lot. Well, I came across a small cemetery a ways over that hill. She could have seen it there. She could have seen it anywhere, really.”
Amy the Architect hadn’t said much all day, probably because I glared at her every time she opened her mouth, but she spoke up now. “I don’t know, Jonathan. This is kind of spooky, if you ask me. Sylvie, you’re saying the table actually levitated?”
“I’m sure it didn’t lift up off the ground,” my father scoffed.
“It did!” I told him. “Why won’t you believe me?”
“Well, there’s one way to find out,” Amy said.
“What, have security cameras installed?” My dad laughed. “It’s a little too late for that now.”
“No, not about the table,” Amy replied. “About the man—the soldier. If he’s a real person, Ken Dempsey will have a record of him.”
“Why would Ken have a record?” my father asked.
Amy shook her head. “Haven’t you been to the library lately? Ken’s had all those army records on display since Remembrance Day.”
“Can we go, Dad? Please?” Who’d have guessed I would be begging my dad to take me to the library on Christmas Eve?
“I don’t know, Sylvie. It might not even be open.”
“It is,” Amy jumped in. “I saw Ken at Darla’s this morning. He was just heading over to open up, but for shortened holiday hours, so if we’re going we’d better get there before noon.”
I still wanted to be mad at Amy, but she was definitely on my side so I tried to be nice. “Let’s go. Let’s just pick a tree and get this over with.”
“Get this over with?” My dad looked really hurt. “Sylvie, you begged me to chop down a Christmas tree and now that we’re out here you’re changing your tune?”
“She only means let’s speed up the process,” Amy cut in. “Here, how about this one? It’s a perfect size.”
“It’s a little small.” My dad walked to the tree Amy was petting. “It’s barely taller than Sylvie.”
“It’s perfect,” I said. “Chop, chop! And I mean that literally. Here, I’ll hold your mug.”
“Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” my dad grumbled.
In the back of my mind, I’d been looking forward to this ever since I’d decided to spend Christmas with my father. Now that it was happening, all I could think about was his father, the grandpa I’d never met.
The tree wasn’t heavy or big, so it didn’t take long to drag it back to my dad’s house. We hadn’t even set it upright and already I was begging my dad to take me to the library.
“I can drive you,” Amy said.
“No, my dad has to come too.” I tugged at the sleeve of his coat. “This is your father we’re talking about. Don’t you want to know who he was?”
The look in his eyes confused me. It was like he wasn’t sure. But finally he relented and Amy drove us so we’d get there in time. She also came in with us, which I didn’t want her to at first, but when she gave the old man there a hug I was glad to have her as a buffer.
“Merry Christmas Eve, Ken.” Moving out of the way, Amy said, “This is Jonathan’s daughter, Sylvie. She’s got a bit of research you might be able to help with.”
“Hi-ho, Sylvie.” Mr. Dempsey bent forward and talked to me like I was a kid. “What can I do you for?”
I took the slip of paper from my jacket pocket and handed it to him without a word.
“Sylvie wants to find out a little more about this man,” Amy said, without explaining why.
Ken the Librarian nodded slowly. “I know this name. Why do I know this name?”
“We think he might have been a soldier,” Amy added.
“Well sure, sure.” Mr. Dempsey rubbed his head. “Where have I seen this name?”
We all waited and watched him in silence. The man kept rubbing his forehead like he expected a magic genie to pop out.
“Of course!” Mr. Dempsey pointed to one of the glass cases containing a number of old books. On the wall above it, there were black and white pictures of soldiers—entire battalions of them. “Now I know why I remember the name. Oh, this is a fascinating story.”
Amy, my dad and I all crowded around the glass case as the librarian slipped a key into the lock and slid the front open.
“I’ll ask you not to touch these volumes. The oils on your skin can ruin the paper.” Mr Dempsey pulled a pair of white cotton gloves from his pocket and turned the pages carefully. “Gerald Rawley didn’t start out as a private in the army. Well, I suppose he did, but he moved up the ranks rather quickly. Soon after joining up, he was transferred to the training camp just outside Erinville. He wasn’t happy about it, though. Gerald Rawley didn’t join up for the accolades. This was wartime, you know. He wanted to defend his country overseas, not spend the war training new recruits.”
“Why didn’t he just go?” I asked.
“How much research have you done into the great wars of the twentieth century?” Mr. Dempsey replied.
I looked at my dad. “Umm… none?”
“Well, then I’ll give you a bit of history.” Mr. Dempsey cleared his throat like he was about to sing a showstopper. Then he said, “In the Great War, WWI, as we know it today, plenty of black men joined the army. In those days the troops were segregated. That means there were black troops and there were white troops.”
Amy looked from me to my dad, like she was trying to figure out if either of us knew what the librarian was talking about. I sure didn’t.
Mr. Dempsey stopped flipping pages at a chapter called Coloured Infantrymen. “In WWII, what happened? At the start of the war, men were turned away because of the colour of their skin. That soon changed as more soldiers were needed. Here in our country, battalions were integrated. Black soldiers and white soldiers fought sought side by side. That didn’t mean everything was fair and equitable, though. Not by a long shot.”
Amy must have been as confused as I was, because she said, “Sorry, Ken, maybe you’re confused. We’re asking about this guy called Gerald Rawley.”
“And I’m trying to tell you about this guy called Gerald Rawley,” Mr. Dempsey replied. “You see, the first three times he tried joining up, he was turned away. When the army finally took him in, he shot right up in the ranks.”
“That’s so weird,” I said, still trying to wrap my head around all this. “First the army won’t let the guy in, and then when they finally do they just keep promoting him?”
“He must have been an exceptional soldier,” Amy said.
“I’m sure that’s true,” Mr. Dempsey replied. “But the army kept him here on our soil, training new recruits. Gerald Rawley was so desperate to see action that he told his commanding officer he’d go AWOL if they didn’t send him overseas. His CO said, ‘No can do.’ Told Rawley he was too important to operations here on the home front. So, bold as brass, Rawley tore off his insignia and demoted himself down to Private. He said, ‘No man in this army is any more or less important than another. We’re in this together, Sir, and when these new recruits I’m training head over there, I’ll be standing shoulder to shoulder with every last one of them.”
“And they let him go?” I asked the librarian. “Did he go to war and fight the Nazis?”
Mr. Dempsey nodded. “He certainly did. Gerald Rawley was desperate to see action on the front lines, and he made the ultimate sacrifice in doing so.”
My father spoke up for the first time since we’d stepped into the library. “You mean he died in battle?”
“That he did.” Mr. Dempsey flipped the page in his book and pointed to a picture of a smiling young man in a military cap. “And there’s the man himself. Only twenty-three years old. A life cut short in battle.”
The name Private Gerald Rawley was printed beneath the sepia photograph. It was difficult to tell his precise skin tone, but if he was listed in the “coloured infantrymen” section of this old book, that obviously said something: my grandfather was black. That meant my dad was part black. That meant I was too.
Had the ghost in my dad’s house been wrong? Did he think I was somebody else? Or was he really my grandfather?
As I looked from the picture of Gerald Rawley to my father standing right there beside me, I started to see the family resemblance. They had the same nose, the same forehead, the same eyebrows. Gerald Rawley’s hair was slicked back while my father’s did its own thing. Gerald Rawley had a slim moustache. My dad didn’t.
“He never came home from war,” my father mumbled.
“That’s right,” Mr. Dempsey replied. “He’s buried in Holland, I believe. I can look up his place of rest, if you like.” Glancing at his watch, he said, “But it’ll be after the holidays. I’m taking a couple days off to visit my daughter.”
“That sounds lovely,” Amy said. “Wish her a Merry Christmas from me, will you?”
“Of course, of course.” They kissed on the cheek and then Mr. Dempsey asked me, “Aren’t you a busy little bee, doing research right up to Christmas! I wish our kids here in town had half your gumption.”
“Thanks,” I said, because I worried it would disappoint the old man if I told him we were following up on gossip I’d heard from a ghost.
“Are you looking up Gerald Rawley for a school project?” Mr. Dempsey went on.
“No,” my father cut in. He had tears in his eyes as he grasped my shoulder. “That man in the picture, the hero who died for his country—that man was my father.”
We talked about him for two hours: Dad’s dad, my grandpa, the man we never knew. Why hadn’t Grandma told anyone about him? Was it because of the colour of his skin? That was terrible! But my dad said back when he was growing up, pretty much everyone in Erinville was white. A lot of people were “prejudiced,” as my father phrased it. They didn’t say “racist” in those days, but it amounted to the same thing.
“What about Great-Aunt Esther?” I asked. “Was she prejudiced?”
“You can ask her yourself,” my father said, looking at his watch. “It’s about that time.”
I looked at my father’s wrist, where he’d drawn back the cuff of his shirt to check the time. His skin was a little darker than mine, and certainly darker than my mother’s, at least in the winter. In the summer, my mom spent a lot of time in the sun and then their skin tones matched up a little more. So I guess I always thought of my father as having a year-round tan.
“Are you coming to visit Esther? You can tell her what we found out today. It was your research that led us to Gerald Rawley.”
I rolled my eyes. “It wasn’t research. It was spiritualism.”
My dad picked up his coat off the back of a chair, but he didn’t stop staring at me as he put it on. “It’s Christmas Eve. Esther keeps asking when she gets to see you. I can only keep making excuses for so long.”
It made me feel kind of bad that my dad had to lie for me so my great-aunt’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt, but every time I thought about those old people with their see-through skin and their gross blue veins it made me sick.
“I can’t go,” I said, latching onto a fairly solid excuse. “Celeste is coming over.”
My dad furrowed his brow. “I wouldn’t mind meeting this Celeste you keep telling me about. I’m starting to think you made her up as an excuse not to visit your aunt.”
“Dad! I’m way too old to have an imaginary friend.”
“I’m not saying she’s an imaginary friend, just an invention of convenience.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by that, but I wasn’t going to ask. He seemed… not mad… just really hurt that I didn’t want to visit a family member who meant so much to him.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I said. “Anyway, Celeste and I can string these cranberries Amy brought us, and pop the popcorn kernels. See how sad our tree looks? It needs decorations.”
He wasn’t buying it, but he didn’t bother arguing. He just warned me to keep an eye on the fire. Then he looked at me for a long time. I thought he would ask me again to come visit Great-Aunt Esther, but he just sighed and left by the kitchen door.
When he was gone, I went to the window seat in the front room and looked out across the yard. How long were all those people going to spy on my dad’s house? There must be something good on TV. Anything would be more entertaining than staring at this old place.
Shaking my head, I said, “Small towns are so weird.”
My heart jumped into my throat as I turned to find Celeste standing by the fire. “Oh my God, you almost gave me a heart attack! Where did you come from?”
“From outside,” she said.
“You could have at least knocked. This isn’t your house.”
Celeste pointed to the kitchen. “I came in the back way and there was nothing to knock on.”
That was true. The gap in the door where a window should have been was still covered in plastic.
“Are you terribly upset with me?” she asked.
“No, but it’s rude to just walk into someone else’s house like that.”
Her eyes got all watery and she said, “I apologize, Sylvie.”
I didn’t want her crying and spoiling Christmas Eve, so I said, “It’s no big deal. Want me to hang up your coat for you?”
She wrapped the red velvet cloak tighter around her body. “I should like to keep it on. Your father’s house is dreadfully cold.”
“Sit by the fire, then.” I showed her the cranberries and popcorn Amy had brought us. I’d only ever made popcorn in the air popper my mom had at home. Celeste and I went through the storage boxes until we found a big metal pot and then she showed me how to make it over open flames. My dad would have freaked out. It definitely wasn’t the safest thing to be doing unsupervised. I nearly burnt myself more than once, but it was still as much fun as watching movies with my brothers and sisters.
“I wish my whole family could be here. I miss them a lot,” I told Celeste. “It would be so much fun if my mom, my dad and all my siblings were decorating the tree together.”
“Would you still want me around?” Celeste asked. “Even if your brothers and sisters were here to amuse you?”
“Of course! I think you’d really like them, and they’d like you too. My family is pretty cool.” As I said those words, I realized I hadn’t told Celeste my big family news, which she’d helped me discover. “Oh, Celeste, you’re never gonna believe this…”
As she threaded two needles, I told her about going to the library. While we strung berries on one cord and popcorn on another, I told her about the book Mr. Dempsey had shown us, and the picture of my grandfather, and the story of his life and death during the war.
Celeste didn’t look at all surprised. She said, “Your grandmother must have met him in town while he was training new recruits. Often, the boys spent their Saturday nights at the dance hall here in Erinville. Local girls fought tooth and nail for a young man’s affections before he went off to war. Did you know that?”
“No. How would I know a thing like that?” I asked. “In fact, how do you know a thing like that?”
Her eyes widened for a moment, and then she shrugged and looked down at her train of popcorn. “Local history, I suppose. One hears such stories around town.”
“Not everybody does, obviously, because nobody could tell my father who his dad was. Even my great-aunt who raised him never knew.”
Smirking, Celeste said, “Your fingers have gone all red.”
“It’s the cranberries.” I looked down at my light blue snowflake sweater to find it splattered with tiny red droplets. “Aww crap!”
Celeste laughed at me as I went to the front hall and climbed up on the bench to get a full length look at myself in the mirror. The red cranberry splatters were obvious, but it was too cold to take off my sweater even long enough to throw another one on. Anyway, it wasn’t like my dad had a washing machine. I’d just have to live with the stain.
“What are you doing out there?” Celeste called to me.
“Nothing.” But my reflection caught my eye and I looked deeply at myself in a way I never had before. My skin glowed a little more golden and my hair shone a little darker. I stood a taller as I gazed at my reflection. “Have you ever had a moment where you felt like you finally knew who you were?”
“Yes,” Celeste replied.
I jumped down from the bench and walked into the front room. “No, I mean, like, for the first time in your life you really knew who you were?”
“I understood the question very well, thank you.” Celeste didn’t look up from her needle and thread. “People come to that realization for a variety of reasons.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant, but when she didn’t explain, I just asked, “What’s your family doing for Christmas?”
Celeste shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Oh. Sorry. Are you Jewish?” That thought hadn’t even occurred to me.
But Celeste said, “No.”
“You just don’t celebrate Christmas?” I asked.
Celeste shrugged, but said nothing.
I wondered why, but I didn’t want to pry so I sat silently in front of the fire and continued stringing cranberries and ruining my sweatshirt.
“Are you giving your father a gift for Christmas?” Celeste asked after a while.
“Of course I am. We make each other gifts, in my family, so my brothers and sisters all spent a Saturday making my father’s favourite salsa. It’s got tomatoes, onions, green pepper and spices. We made a huge batch and canned it in jars. We used to make it every summer with my dad, but… not this year.”
“What a thoughtful gift,” Celeste said. “He will surely love it.”
“Sorry I don’t have anything for you.”
Gazing into the fire, Celeste smirked. “Not even a kiss?”
I got a weird feeling when she said that, but not the same weird feeling I’d had that time in the woods when she actually did kiss me. That kiss had come out of nowhere. It took me by surprise, and the fact that I didn’t see it coming made me angry. This feeling was something else altogether. It was a kind of queasiness, like butterflies in my stomach, same as I got before a school play.
“You want a kiss?” I asked, staring down at the bag of cranberries in my lap. “That’s all you want? Just a kiss?”
“Preserves would have been lovely,” she replied. “But I hardly think you’ll have time to prepare them for tomorrow.”
I laughed. “Yeah, especially in a kitchen that barely has countertops.”
She laughed too, and we didn’t mention the kissing idea the whole time we finished stringing popcorn and berries and decorating the tree.
When Celeste said it was time to head home, I told her, “If you’re not celebrating with your family tomorrow, why don’t you come over here on Christmas morning? My dad won’t mind. He wants to meet you.”
“Thank you,” Celeste said. “I believe I will. Perhaps you’ll even have a gift for me.”
She smiled coyly. As she took off into the gloaming, I imagined giving her what she wished for. There was something exciting about knowing someone wanted to kiss you so much they were willing to wait for it. They were willing to go away and come back, when all that time you just knew they’d be thinking about it. They’d be thinking about you.
It was only a few minutes later that my father came through the kitchen door. He was carrying two big paper bags, but I didn’t even let him put them down before dragging him into the front room. “Look at our tree! Look how Celeste and I decorated it! Eww, did you bring us old people food for dinner?”
My dad’s smile fell.
“Sorry,” I said quickly. “I meant to say thank you, father dearest, for providing a healthy meal for me on this, the holiest of eves. Amen.”
Rolling his eyes, he set both bags on the kitchen table. “One bag is food. The other one’s Christmas decorations your great-aunt Esther’s had since she was your age.”
“What do I get if I guess which one’s which?”
“You get to not eat tree ornaments for dinner,” my dad replied with a smirk.
“So funny I forgot to laugh.”
My dad handed me one of the bags and said, “Be careful. They’re glass and they’re old.”
I opened the bag while my dad set the table with paper plates and plastic cutlery. The ornaments had been carefully wrapped in white tissue.
“We’ll add them to the tree after dinner,” my dad went on. “Oh, and I almost forgot about these.”
As I sat across from him, my father took a rectangular box out of his coat pocket and slid it across the table. I asked, “What is it?”
“Open it up.” He took Styrofoam containers out of the paper bag while I carefully removed the box top. “Remember those?”
“Slides?” I asked.
“Yup, just like when you were little and we’d get out the projector.”
“Do you have one here?” I asked.
“Yup. I thought we’d take a look at those after we were done with the tree. They’re from when I was growing up, believe it or not. Lots of Christmases on there.”
I wondered if this was some underhanded way of guilting me into visiting my great-aunt, but I really couldn’t blame him. I asked, “What did Great-Aunt Esther say when you told her about Grandpa?”
“You should have seen the look on her face!” My dad imitated it: mouth open, eyes wide.
I laughed. “Dad, you look so lame.”
He smiled and went back to opening Styrofoam containers full of mashed potatoes, droopy carrots and slices of honey ham. “I’ll tell you this for sure: she wasn’t keeping anything from me all those years growing up. I always wondered if she knew who my father was and just wasn’t telling me, but I could see it in her eyes—she didn’t know any more than I did. She’d never even heard of the guy. Your grandmother must have kept their relationship secret from the whole town.”
“Wow—exactly.” He served ham onto my plate and his, then licked his thumb where he’d touched the slices. “Keeping secrets isn’t easy in a place like Erinville.”
“I bet.” Turning around, I gazed across the lawn at all the families camped out there. On Christmas Eve! “Do you think those people will ever go home?”
“Yup,” my dad replied. “As soon as they’ve seen the ghost.”
“Should we tell them the ghost is your dad?”
My father looked around the room, at the peeling wallpaper and cracked plaster. “I don’t think so.”
We ate our dinner, which was okay for old people food, and then unwrapped the ornaments from my dad’s aunt. Some were plain glass balls. Others were shaped like geese or doves or deer. Some had been rolled in sparkles that had the texture of coarse salt, like the kind they put on a pretzel. Hard to believe these decorations had made it through the generations in one piece.
After we’d decorated the tree, my dad set up the slide projector. I worried that it would be boring, but it wasn’t. He had so many funny stories about growing up with his aunt Esther. There were lots of Christmas slides with him and his aunt and his grandparents, who had died before I was born.
It wasn’t very late when my eyes started feeling scratchy. There was something about living in a house with no TV and limited electricity: when it got dark outside, you kind of just wanted to go to bed instead of staying up. Even on Christmas Eve.
So I said goodnight to my father and went upstairs with a candle to light my way. In my room, I lit a fire and sat in front of it until I felt warm enough to change into my pyjamas. I didn’t change all the way, though. I left my woolly tights on underneath my long flannel nightie so my feet wouldn’t get cold overnight.
When I was in bed, I thought about the family traditions I was missing out on: leaving milk and cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer, hanging stockings on the mantle. I’d already missed caroling with Zachary and his family.
My bed was bumpy, my room was cold, but did I regret spending Christmas with my father?
No. Not for a minute. Christmas Eve with just him and me was actually kind of fun.
As I closed my eyes I could hear two things: the fire crackling and the soft murmur of neighbours chatting outside. In a way it seemed weird that they hadn’t gone back to their own houses yet, but in another way it kind of felt like having a huge extended family right in my own backyard, or front yard, as the case may be.
Part of me wanted to get up and look out the window to see what they were doing—and what they were eating—but the sensible side of me said, “Stay in bed! It’s cold outside these covers!”
And so I did.
But I couldn’t sleep. Ever since I was a little kid, I could never get to sleep on Christmas Eve, but this year’s insomnia was different. My whole world had changed since arriving in Erinville. I’d learned that my father wasn’t coming home. Not just that, but he was dating another woman. We’d never be a family again. And on top of that, my dad and I had found out who his father was after a lifetime of not knowing. And in case that wasn’t enough, I’d had my first kiss with Celeste and I knew she wanted another.
And now I was supposed to somehow fall asleep in a haunted house? Good luck with that, Sylvie.
“Grandpa?” I asked. “Can you hear me? It’s your granddaughter, Sylvie. We met yesterday.”
I stared into the fire, but nothing changed.
“Are you here in the house? Move the flames to the right for yes and to the left for no. Or, wait, if it’s no just don’t do anything.”
I waited for a while, but nothing happened. Funny, the place didn’t seem haunted. It didn’t give me that goosebumpy feeling I got when my parents rented Silence of the Lambs and Naomi and I crouched outside the family room to watch it. That was a big mistake, by the way. For a month after that we had to sleep with the lights on.
Eventually I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remembered was waking up.
That’s when I got the feeling: the goosebumpy feeling, the Silence of the Lambs feeling, the feeling where your breath turns to ice and you can’t move, you can’t even blink. I tried to speak, but my mouth wouldn’t budge, so I just thought the word, “Grandpa?”
My ears buzzed. There was white noise all around me, like I was wearing headphones and someone had left the radio between stations. Inside that white noise, I listened for any trace of a word.
Nothing was happening, but everything was weird. I tried to lift my head off the pillow, but I couldn’t. My muscles locked. The air was cool and the fire had died down to embers, but my cheeks bristled. My skin blazed even though my lungs were frozen.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
It was someone. I couldn’t see anything out of place, but I felt someone’s presence in my room.
Or… outside my room?
“Daddy?” I whispered. I didn’t usually call my father daddy, but I felt like a little girl again. I was so scared of monsters in the closet, of invisible phantoms. “Daddy, is that you?”
I heard a creak outside my door, and that made it all too real. My blood ran cold. Somebody was out there.
No response. If it was him, he’d have said something. Unless he was sleepwalking. I’d never known my father to sleepwalk, but what if he fell down the stairs? He could really hurt himself.
If there was even the slightest chance my father could be injured, I’d have to be brave and face whatever was out there. Casting off the covers, I threw my legs over the side of the bed and moved quietly across the cold floor. The air chilled my skin even though it was all covered up. The brass doorknob was cold too. I turned it slowly, trying to be as quiet as possible.
I opened the door a crack. When nothing happened, I opened it a little wider.
“Merry Christmas, Sylvie!” Celeste stood on the stairs beaming in her usual red velvet cloak. “It’s officially Christmas morning.”
My fear fell away and turned into tiredness as I looked at my wrist. I wasn’t wearing a watch. “What are you doing here at… what time is it?”
“Three in the morning,” she replied, with a bright smile. “I couldn’t wait to see you. Merry Christmas!”
“Uh-huh, yeah.” I yawned, but I only covered my mouth partway through. “Can you come back after nine? You’re going to wake my dad.”
“But I already woke you, so I might as well stay.”
There was such giddy glee on her face that I felt guilty for turning her away. In fact, her smile wasn’t the only thing that was glowing. Her hair looked almost white in the moonlight. Even though the house was dark, I could see her very clearly. She was her very own light source.
Maybe I was too sleepy to realize right away how weird that was, but it dawned on me after a moment that Celeste looked strange and unreal. Was I dreaming?
She smiled up at me as I stepped into the hallway. Her smile brightened the closer I came. It wasn’t until I set my hands on the bannister that I realized why Celeste looked so odd.
Her feet were not touching the ground.
I blinked my eyes. I rubbed them. But when I looked again, it was still the same vision before me. Celeste wasn’t standing on the stairs—she was floating above them…
“It’s you,” I said, stumbling back a few steps. “You’re the ghost! It was you all along!”
Celeste shrugged and smiled sweetly.
“Why are you here?” I asked her. “Why are you haunting my father’s house?”
For a split-second, Celeste looked like she was about to answer my question. Then, instead, she disappeared into thin air.
“Celeste?” My feet acted, hopping to the place where she’d been floating only moments before. “Celeste? Where did you go?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash downstairs and followed it. Celeste was in the front room. I could see her from the hallway. She was sitting in an armchair by the fire. Except—wait a minute—the room was completely different. It had old fashioned furniture, and the wallpaper wasn’t peeling. Everything looked fancy.
“What are you waiting for?” Celeste asked. “Put on your coat and your boots. There’s something I want to show you.”
I stood at the bottom of the stairs feeling stunned. What was I seeing? This had to be a dream.
And then, as if in response to that thought, Celeste dematerialized. This time, instead of disappearing completely, a bright light soared across the front room. It passed right through me, then went through the door. For that moment, when the light of her spirit crossed through me, I felt warmth inside and out. I felt completely at peace. I knew for sure Celeste meant me no harm, so I followed her.
Jamming my feet into my boots and my arms into my coat, I slipped out the front door and walked carefully down the creaky porch steps. I’d completely forgotten about the audience my father’s house kept, but luckily, since it was Christmas, everyone had gone home. Everyone but barbeque beard man. He’d fallen asleep in a lawn chair behind the garbage can that still glowed with his perpetual fire.
But he must have heard me trudging through the snow, because he awoke with a start.
I could only hope his eyes were too blurry to see me as I dragged my right foot along. It was really acting up, way more than usual, to the point where I wished I’d brought my brace with me. Not that I would have time to run up to my room, take off my shoe, put it on, put my shoe back on and get back down to the lawn before the white light of Celeste’s spirit faded away.
I didn’t know much about ghosts, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t hang around waiting for someone to change their shoes.
Celeste’s light moved between trees, guiding the way. I had to keep up my speed or I’d lose her, but my foot wasn’t cooperating. It kept catching on buried sticks and snow-covered branches. Every time my mittenless hands met the ground, snow and pine needles attacked my palms, but I wouldn’t give up.
My heart pounded. Every breath of cold air sliced my lungs like a knife. Still, I followed the white light through the woods. The world didn’t seem real. I felt dizzier than I’d ever been, and still I followed Celeste.
After a time, the light grew dim, the forest darkened and I walked forward guided only by the moon. I didn’t know where I was going, but somehow I could move with confidence. So I kept going. Until I found Celeste looking more like herself, not glowing anymore, and sitting on a rock.
Wait, no… that wasn’t a rock. It was a gravestone. She’d guided me to some kind of overgrown cemetery on my father’s property.
Of all the words that could have come out of my mouth as I stood there, panting, I asked, “Is that my grandfather’s headstone?”
“No, silly goose.” She inched her legs to the side so I could read the name. “It’s mine.”
My heart nearly stopped. I couldn’t catch my breath, and it clouded my vision in the cold night air. Dawn wasn’t far off, and the sky had a hopeful blue-grey glow behind its shield of darkness. It was enough that I could read the tombstone:
Born 1885 ~ Died 1949
“Sixty-four?” Suddenly this all seemed too real.
“I know, I know.” Celeste swung her legs around to cover her name. “I don’t look a day over sixty-three.”
How could she make jokes at a time like this?
“You’re dead!” I said. “You never told me you were dead.”
“In the past, when I’ve been forthright about my life status, people have been reluctant to form friendships.” She smiled sweetly. “I apologize for having deceived you.”
“Deceived me? That’s a pretty big deception.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Is it?”
“Yes!” I didn’t know whether to be angry or laugh hysterically. “Why are you here? Why aren’t you… I don’t know, in heaven or wherever normal dead people go?”
When she looked at me with mystery, I could tell she knew way more about the universe than I did. But all she said was, “I always looked back fondly on this time in my life, just before the turn of the century.”
I thought about sitting on one of the other low stones, but it seemed rude to put my butt on a grave that wasn’t my own. Celeste must have seen my thoughts, because she moved over and patted the spot beside her. The stone was surprisingly warm, and her thigh felt surprisingly real beside mine. In that moment, it was hard to believe she was a ghost.
“I grew up in that house, you know, just as your father did many years later. When I lived there it was new. This whole town was fairly new. This country was. It was such a happy time.”
“And that’s why you haven’t moved on?” I asked. “Because you were happy here?”
“Yes,” Celeste replied. “And no. You see, when I was your age I had a best and closest friend named Flora. We were inseparable. She was quite a lot like you. In fact, you even look somewhat similar. That’s why I found myself particularly drawn to you.”
“Oh, yes. It takes quite some effort to appear this way to the living. I wouldn’t do it for just anybody.”
Her compliment was a warm breeze that inflated my heart like a balloon and made me feel light and floating. “So, your friend Flora—was she, like, your girlfriend?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so at the time. When I was quite young I do recall telling my mother I was sweet on Flora. My mother informed me gently that a girl must not be sweet on another girl. She told me all girls feel this way when we are young, but we grow out of it in time. We learn to be sweet on boys instead.”
“A hundred years later and some moms still tell their kids stuff like that,” I said.
“Well, I never did learn to be sweet on boys. As a matter of fact, I never understood why I ought to. Flora felt much the same way, and so we formed our own secret sweethearts club, of which we were the only two members.”
“Aww, that’s so cute,” I said. “What did you do in your club?”
A blush took over Celeste’s pale skin when she said, “Mostly, we kissed. Our club met in the secret place I showed you when we met. We went there every day.”
Celeste and Flora kissing a hundred years ago was the most exciting thing I could possibly imagine. It sort of made me want to kiss Celeste then, as we sat on her gravestone. It sort of made me feel like it was okay to want that.
“My father was not partial to Flora,” Celeste went on. “He must have seen the way we looked at one another. He must have had his suspicions, and understood the implications, because one Christmas morning, when I met Flora under the pines, my father interrupted us.”
“Oh no, indeed,” Celeste replied, “for my father had brought his strap.”
“What’s a strap?” I asked.
Celeste laughed, and she’d never looked so pretty in my eyes. “How the times have changed, dear Sylvie! The strap was a length of leather used to punish children for their misbehaviour.”
“You mean he hit you with it?”
“He most certainly tried,” Celeste said. “But the weather was so frigid that morning the strap froze folded in his hand. Flora ran off screaming. For a long moment, I cowered in our bed of needles. As my father battled with the strap, I struggled not to laugh at the scene. It really was quite preposterous. But soon I realized I was in some danger, for I had never seen my father sneer in quite the way he did that morning.”
“Did you run away with Flora?” I asked.
Maybe I shouldn’t have, because Celeste hung her head. “I ran home to my mother and told her I was afraid. She must have seen the rage in my father’s eyes as he’d left to follow me. That very day, she packed up my belongings and hired a cart to take me into town.”
“Town?” I asked.
“The city,” Celeste clarified. “She sent me to care for a maiden aunt who, as it turned out, shared my same proclivities. Perhaps my mother knew this was the case. Perhaps sending me to live with Harriet was her show of mercy. At any rate, Harriet was quite elderly when I arrived and so I spent my formative years caring for the woman.”
This time it was me turning up my nose. “Eww, how could you stand it? I would be so grossed out if I had to spend all my time with some old lady.”
Celeste tilted her head and looked at me with an expression of surprise. After a moment, she said, “Perhaps I felt the same way when I first arrived at the small house we were to share. I felt as though I had instantly become a nursemaid. I was not as gracious as I ought to have been. But in time, as Harriet shared her life with me, I realized what extraordinary times she had lived through.”
I thought about Great-Aunt Esther: how my dad kept trying to get me to visit her, how I kept saying no. Imagine if my parents sent me to live with her and take care of her! That’s basically what had happened to Celeste.
“Harriet’s stories were really quite enthralling,” Celeste went on. “The more she told me about her life, the more I grew to respect and admire her. I was only in my twenties when Harriet died, and she left me her home and a considerable pension.”
“Wow,” I said. “Does that mean you didn’t have to work or anything? You could just go to the theatre and see musicals every day? Now we’re talking!”
Celeste giggled sweetly. “A life of leisure quickly loses its glittering quality when one is lacking in education and companionship. And so I enrolled at the university. It was there I met Nettie, the woman who won my heart.”
I don’t know why, but I felt jealous when she said that. I wasn’t even sure if I was jealous for myself or for Flora, but I decided not to say anything. I didn’t want to make her feel bad.
“Throughout our many years together,” Celeste confessed, “dear Nettie and I lived as spinster sisters.”
“As sisters?” I asked, bursting out with laughter. “Did you look anything like sisters? And what did people think when you kissed in public?”
“Oh, we never took chances like that,” Celeste said quite seriously. “Living as we did, we could have been arrested at any moment.”
“Arrested for what?” I asked. “You mean for being… lesbians?”
Celeste’s eyes widened. She stared down at her boots, nodding slowly.
“You’re joking,” I said. “It was against the law for a girl to fall in love with another girl?”
A smirk grew across her lips, like she recognized how stupid that sounded.
“Eww, wait,” I said as a weird thought dawned on me. “If this is your gravestone, does that mean your body is buried under the ground?”
Celeste nodded and her curls bobbed sweetly on the shoulders of her red velvet cape.
“Like your bones are down there rotting away as we speak?”
“Shall we dig a hole and find out?” she teased.
A shudder ran down my spine and I smacked her thigh. “You’re so gross, Celeste! I never knew ghosts had such a good sense of humour about their disgusting dead bodies.”
“I am a particularly good-natured ghost,” she bragged.
When I thought back on what she’d told me, one thing didn’t make sense. “If you lived most of your life in the city, why were you buried here?”
“Because when war broke out for the second time during our lives, Nettie and I sold the house in the city and moved here.”
“To my dad’s house?” I asked.
“Oh, no. By then your father’s family had taken up residence. At any rate, it was too big a place for two old maids. We couldn’t pretend we were sisters in Erinville. Too many townsfolk remembered my family. Nothing can compare with the fulfillment of returning to the place one grew up. I can understand your father’s joy.”
“But why would he feel joyful about abandoning his family?” I choked on that question, barely got it out.
Celeste tilted her head and smiled like she knew something I didn’t. Then she slipped her gloved hand into my bare hand and said, “In any town, there are more secrets than there are inhabitants. Would you believe many of the young people here in Erinville confided in Nettie and me?”
“That’s weird,” I said. “Because there were probably rumours about you. People probably guessed you were a couple.”
“Yes indeed, and the town’s children and adults treated us with contempt. Some parents even went so far as to tell their young not to walk by our house. They believed we would have a corrosive influence, if you can imagine such a thing! We were merely two older ladies and half the town feared we would bring moral decrepitude down on their children. But the teenagers viewed us as rebels. You know what young people are like: they love everything their parents despise.”
“Hey, watch it,” I said. “I’m a young person, in case you’ve forgotten.”
She smiled gently. “The teens of Erinville trusted us with their secrets. Sylvie, your grandmother confided in me her love for your grandfather. She knew I would not judge her.”
I felt my face freeze, and it had nothing to do with the weather. A realization dawned on me like a punch in the gut. “That wasn’t my grandpa talking to us in the living room. All that spiritualism stuff—it wasn’t real. It was just you telling me who my grandfather was so I could tell my dad, so we could do the research.”
Celeste tilted her head. “I apologize for the deception, but I felt it was important to let you in on your own family secret before I go.”
I couldn’t keep up with what she was saying. “Before you go where?”
With a sigh, she said, “My happiness and unhappiness have resided together in this property far too long, Sylvie. The pain of my expulsion lives on in this place, though I died long ago.”
My heart started to race in a panicky way. “Why come back here, then?”
“Because my greatest happiness was here too,” she told me. “Those secret days with Flora were the grandest of my young life. I know well that she is long gone, and still I return to the land I loved, seeking one last kiss.”
“Just one kiss?” I asked. “And then you’ll be able move on and be happy forever?”
Celeste didn’t answer me. She looked up into the sky, which glowed an eerie dawning blue, then closed her eyes and smiled.
Two parts of me argued as I watched her. One part wanted Celeste to live in my father’s house forever, even if no one could see her but me. That way, she’d be mine. She’d be my secret.
But the other part of me knew I was being selfish. Celeste had been hanging around Erinville since long before I was born. She’d already mentioned how hard it was to materialize so I could see her. Maybe she’d wear herself out if she kept trying for my sake. Maybe she’d make herself sick. Could ghosts get sick?
Squeezing her hand, I said, “I really care about you, Celeste. I want you to be at peace, even if it makes me sad to see you go.”
She opened her eyes and gazed at me hopefully.
Tears came out of nowhere, filling my eyes as I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her tight. “I’ll miss you so much.”
“I apologize,” she said, and her voice cracked with every syllable. “It was quite wrong of me to appear before you. It was quite wrong of me to kiss you the day we first met.”
“No,” I said, pulling back so I could look at her. “I’m glad you did. Really. Maybe I wasn’t happy about it at the time, but now, I can’t explain it. I feel like I know myself better than I did before, and all because of you.”
Brushing a tear away, she asked, “You’re not upset with me?”
“I’m sad you have to go,” I said. “But I’m not mad at you. I like you too much to be angry.”
She clutched my hand and I gripped hers so hard it probably would have hurt if she hadn’t been a ghost. I knew what would happen if I kissed her. I knew I’d have to say goodbye forever, but I also knew it would set her free.
And so, as we sat together on her tombstone, I leaned in and tilted my head. The last thing I saw before closing my eyes was the blonde of her curls bouncing against red velvet as she tilted her head too. When her lips met mine, I felt warm all over. Peace and light seemed to pour from her ghost body, filling me with wonder and excitement.
In my mind’s eye, I saw the sun rise high in the sky. It was the brightest sun I’d ever seen. I tried not to look directly at it, but I couldn’t help myself. It hypnotized me with its sheer beauty. And then the sun opened up and became pure white light, and my heart opened with it and all I felt was bliss. No pain, no sorrow, no tears.
I knew, in that moment, Celeste would be leaving for that place. I knew she would never again feel the pain of this world. She would live in light forever.
The tighter I clung to her hands, the less I could feel her gloves against my fingers. In my mind, I heard her say, “You need to let go, Sylvie.”
“I can’t,” I replied, all in my mind. “I don’t want you to leave me.”
I held her hands tighter and again she whispered, “Let go.”
The sun in my mind’s eye grew so bright it illuminated every shadow. When I looked around, I saw two smiles I recognized: my grandmother’s, but she looked different—young, like she wasn’t much more than my age. Beside her was the man I’d seen in the book at the library, my grandfather. He was standing next to her and smiling radiantly. They’d found each other.
And then I heard Celeste gleefully cry out: “Harriet! Nettie! Flora! You all are here!”
I turned in time to catch Celeste running toward an older woman, a younger woman and a girl my own age. In that moment, jealousy didn’t exist. I felt nothing but her joy at being reunited with the people she’d loved in life. I felt happy for her. Truly happy. I didn’t feel the cold. I couldn’t even feel the gravestone under my bum. I couldn’t feel anything but the pure joy of love and reunion.
But I did feel one thing: I felt my body go limp and collapse in the snow. I wouldn’t call it a blackout, because the world around me turned into a glittering winter wonderland. In fact, fainting face-down in the snow on a cold Christmas morning felt a lot like love. When it happens, you have no idea how close you are to never waking up again. Or maybe you do know and you just don’t care.
“Jonathan, I think she blinked.”
Waking up was like walking down an endless tunnel. It took forever, and it was uphill all the way.
“Her eyes just twitched.”
“Did she open them?”
“No, but I see them moving under her eyelids.”
I could feel something wrapped tightly around me—a blanket maybe? Somebody’s legs were under my back, and someone’s arms held me almost as tightly as the blanket.
Amy the Architect. It was Amy. I tried to push her away, but my arms were swaddled tight against my body. Finding my voice, I groggily said, “Get off me. I don’t need your help.”
“Jonathan, her eyes are open!” Amy shouted gleefully across the front room. “How’s that tea coming?”
“Just stirring some sugar into it,” my father replied. “Sugar is good for shock.”
Amy and I were bundled together in front of the fireplace, I now realized. I also realized the blanket she’d wrapped around my body covered my mouth. She hadn’t heard the unkind thing I’d said, which was just as well because I didn’t really mean it. It actually felt kind of nice, being bundled up like a big baby.
Then my father arrived at my side, pressing a mug of tea to my lips. “Here,” he said. “Drink this down.”
Since I couldn’t take the mug from his hands, Amy held me up higher off the ground until I was in a sitting position. My father tilted the mug to give me small sips. Amy glanced at the Christmas tree and said, “I brought cinnamon buns—homemade. I baked them last night. I didn’t know…”
When she trailed off, my father set the mug down by the fire and asked, “Sylvie, what on earth were you doing in the woods at three in the morning? You owe Mr. Santana a debt of gratitude. If he hadn’t been out front to see you scamper off… well, I don’t want to think what might have happened.”
“Jonathan,” Amy chided. “Let the girl catch her breath. She only just regained consciousness.”
“I know, I just…” My dad pulled me into a hug so stifling I could feel his heart racing in his chest. “When Bob showed up at the door holding my beautiful daughter in his arms, I thought… oh, it was too terrible, what I thought. You were so pale, Sylvie. Your lips were blue.”
I felt bad that my father had been worried about me. But I just kept staring at the Christmas tree. There were presents under it now. They hadn’t been there when I went to bed. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me again, but then I spotted Amy’s baking tray and I knew what I was seeing was real.
“Can I have a cinnamon bun?” I asked.
“Of course you can.” Amy the Architect kissed my forehead, then wiped her lip mark with her sleeve and apologized.
“It’s okay,” I said.
As she started unravelling the blanket, my dad said, “Honestly, Sylvie, what were you doing in the woods? Did it have something to do with this friend Celeste I keep hearing about? You weren’t chasing ghosts around the graveyard, I hope.”
Amy held perfectly still, but looked away, like she was trying not to be in the room. I didn’t say anything. I guess my father could see the answer by the look on my face, because he said, “I knew that girl was a bad influence. I don’t want you hanging out with her anymore.”
My eyes filled with tears when I remembered everything I’d seen and felt with Celeste. “You don’t have to worry about that. She had to go away. She went away forever.”
My dad looked at Amy with a confused furrow of his brow, but Amy only shrugged as if to say, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Can I have more tea?” I asked before my father could pose any more questions.
We all had tea and cinnamon buns in front of the fire. It must have been very early in the morning still, but I wasn’t tired. Amy and my dad seemed too shocked to be sleepy. When we’d finished eating, my father asked me to take a bun out to Mr. Santana, aka barbeque beard man, and thank him for saving me from the cold.
He was still out front in his lawn chair, and I felt a little embarrassed as I approached him. “My dad says you followed me into the woods and brought me home. I just wanted to say thanks. Here’s a cinnamon bun.”
“That’s very kind of you.” He accepted the bun on a paper plate, then asked, “What were you thinking, running into the woods in the dead of winter?”
“I thought I saw something,” I said without meeting his gaze.
“You did too, eh?”
Then I looked at him. “You saw it? What did you see?”
“You’re gonna think I’m right off my rocker, but I seen a great sweeping mist come out the front door right before you did. The mist goes off into the woods and, sure enough, you go chasing after it. I followed a ways, but I lost you. Had to come back, get my flashlight, and set off again. Found ya fainted in front of a tombstone in the old cemetery out there.”
I wished I had something better to say, but all I could think of was, “Thank you.”
As I turned back to the house, Mr. Santana asked, “Did you see the ghost out there?”
I took a deep breath and the cold winter air sliced my lungs. “Yup, I sure did. But the ghost is gone now, so I think it’s time for the town to stop hanging around my dad’s house.”
Barbeque beard man looked hurt and said, “Oh. I see. Well, I guess I’ll just pack up my stuff and go.”
“I didn’t mean to be rude,” I told him pleadingly. “I only meant there’s no sense hanging around. You’re not going to see anything.”
He still looked hurt, and I didn’t know what else I could say. He answered, “Only, there ain’t nothing for me to go home to. Ain’t nobody there to barbeque for.”
That’s when I had a brilliant idea, probably the best idea I’d had since I first set foot in Erinville…
Mr. Santana sat up front with Amy while my dad scrunched into the back seat with me. The car had so little leg room his knees were up around his ears, but he kept saying it wasn’t a problem—just like I kept saying it wouldn’t be a problem to walk to Great-Aunt Esther’s old age home. My dad and Amy were too afraid the cold would do me in, or my legs would give out beneath me.
“I think the retirement residence has a barbeque,” Amy said. “Isn’t that right, Jonathan? I thought I spotted one on the patio out back. It obviously doesn’t see much use in the wintertime.”
Before my dad could answer, Mr. Santana said, “I can do more than just barbeque. I been cooking all my life. My first memory is sitting at the kitchen table watching my ma get dinner ready. She’d always give me this or that to do.”
Amy asked Mr. Santana what his mother used to cook for Christmas dinner, and as he reflected back on Christmases past it became clear that he’d nursed his mother until her death. That made me think of Celeste, how she’d spent her teenaged years caring for an elderly woman. She said she’d learned so much from Harriet, and I think that’s why I changed my tune about visiting my great-aunt.
For me, family always meant my parents and my siblings. For some people who get kicked out, like Celeste, family isn’t necessarily blood relatives. When she was my age, her family was Harriet. If the people who are supposed to care about you don’t care, someone else in the world will. Or if the person you care about the most in the world dies, like with Mr. Santana and his mother, then other people can fill in that gap.
I could see how lonely Mr. Santana was, and how much he wanted to be part of something. That made me think about my dad visiting Great-Aunt Esther every day, and how lonely a lot of the old people must be. That’s why I asked if he’d ever thought about volunteering at the retirement residence. His eyes lit up. I’d never seen anyone so excited at the prospect of spending Christmas with the elderly.
“Here we are,” my dad said as Amy turned into the parking lot. “Do you remember coming here before, Sylvie?”
I wasn’t sure. I only remembered the old people and their skin and their hands. I didn’t remember the building itself.
“Bob, why don’t you come with me?” Amy said. “We’ll find Ms. Hoover and see if she needs a hand with anything.”
They went on ahead while my dad and I stood before Amy’s car, gazing up at the place. “It looks like a gingerbread house from a fairy tale,” I said.
“Yeah, it kind of does,” my dad agree.
“You know who lives in gingerbread houses,” I said. “Witches.”
My dad rolled his eyes, then put an arm around my shoulder and gave me a shake. “Remind me when we’re inside: Ms. Hoover, the manager here, she lets me make long-distance calls from her office. So before we leave, we’ll phone your brothers and sisters and wish them a Merry Christmas. I bet they miss you a lot.”
“I miss them too. And Mom.” Without looking at my father, I asked, “Don’t you ever miss Mom?”
He sighed. “Yeah, I do. Sure I do. But that’s why it’s good that we separated, Sylvie. Now we can be friendly. That’s what’s best for you kids. You know you’re our top priority.”
“But how can we be your top priority if you live so far away from us?”
The words were out before I could keep them in, and right away I felt rotten for saying them. It was Christmas. I shouldn’t make my father feel bad, especially when I knew he didn’t even have enough money to even call long distance. But instead of saying I was sorry, I just walked away. I walked toward the front entrance of the gingerbread house, bracing myself for the smell of old people.
When I opened the door, the smell that struck me wasn’t at all what I’d expected. The air smelled like just you’d expect in a gingerbread house: gingerbread! And it wasn’t awkwardly quiet, the way I remembered it. No, there was music playing. Christmas music.
With my father at my back, I followed the clang of piano keys into the main gathering room. It was full of people who were having way too much fun. I felt like I’d walked into one of those cola wars commercials where the old people are acting like young people. Some were dancing, some were smooching—which was gross but also kind of nice—and pretty much everyone was singing along with the lady by the piano.
Her hair was spikey. Some of the spikes were green and others were red, like she’d dyed it especially for Christmas. Her skin was wrinkly, but she wore a huge smile as she belted out “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” I wanted to meet her, for sure. She was an amazing performer.
When the song was over, my dad waved across the crowd and said, “Esther! Look who I brought.”
The woman with the green and red hair looked at me and her eyes lit up. “Is that my Sylvie?”
“Is that Great-Aunt Esther?” I asked my dad.
I hadn’t noticed my great-aunt was in a wheelchair until she sped across the room. She zipped toward us so fast I thought she was going to crash into my legs, but she stopped just in time and said, “None of this ‘great-aunt’ stuff. Life’s too short for all the extra words. Just call me Esther. And give me a hug!”
Throwing my arms around her shoulders, I caught a familiar scent on her hair. “Is that Manic Panic?”
“Of course,” Esther said, toying with her spikes. “You don’t think I’d dye my hair with Kool Aid. That is sooo 1992.”
I laughed as the man at the piano started playing Jingle Bell Rock. “My dad never told me you could sing. I love singing! My friend Zachary and I want to open our own theatre company one day.”
“Well, if you ever need a leading lady, you know who to ask.” Esther winked and said, “Just kidding! But you should see the look on your face.”
A woman in a snowman sweater took over the sing-song, and Esther led my father and me toward a somewhat quieter corner of the room. There was an elderly couple making out in the seating area, but my great-aunt told them to get a room and I guess they did, because they sheepishly left the vinyl bench.
“I was so scared to come here,” I admitted, because I felt instantly comfortable with my great-aunt. “The last time I was here it was so… different. And you were different too.”
“You must have just had your stroke,” my father said to his aunt.
She nodded. “Doctors thought I was good as gone, and I believed them. That’s what we do, we believe doctors, don’t we? I couldn’t speak. Well, I still can’t move this side of my body. You win some, you lose some. Anyway, a volunteer came around, this young man who could play the piano. He’d play the old songs I remembered from when I was your age, and suddenly I could sing. I couldn’t string a sentence together, but I could sing a whole song and get every word right.”
“Wow,” I said. Hard to imagine there was a time when this talkative woman couldn’t talk at all.
“Music is magic, Sylvie. It gets inside you like nothing else.”
“I know,” I told her, and for some reason I remembered singing with Celeste and being harassed by that Erinville girl gang. “I love music too.”
“I have music to thank for my recovery. If it wasn’t for music, I wouldn’t be the fine feisty woman you see before you.”
My dad chuckled and said to me, “Do you understand now why I moved into a falling-down house just to be closer to this lady?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You need to hurry up and get that place fixed up, complete with ramps, so I can check out your new digs.”
I don’t know why, but suddenly I was saying, “I guess music isn’t magic enough to get you walking again.”
My father’s eyes blazed. “Sylvie!”
But Esther waved her hand like it was no biggie. “Why stand when you can sit?” Then she changed the subject and said, “Your father tells me you’re quite the sleuth. You dragged your grandfather’s name out of a ghost!”
I knew now that was only half true. Still, I said, “Yeah, I guess I did. So you really never knew who dad’s father was?”
Esther shook her head. “Nope.”
“Your own sister never told you?”
“She never did. She never told our parents, never told anyone. She took that secret to her grave. It’s a shame she didn’t feel she could tell her own mother. Flora Jefferies Janssen might not have been the warmest woman in the world, but she was never one to judge.”
“Wait,” I said. “My great-grandmother’s name was Flora?”
“And she grew up here in Erinville?”
“Yes,” Esther said, though she looked confused about why I’d ask.
I was asking, of course, because Flora was the name of the girl Celeste was caught kissing. And Celeste said I looked a little like her. That must be why—I was Flora’s great-granddaughter! My great-grandmother and I kissed the same girl! How many people could say that?
“Maybe your grandmother is the spirit haunting your father’s house,” Esther suggested. “Maybe she wants him to know she’s sorry for running out on him as a babe.”
“Nah,” my dad said. “She apologized in person before she died. Wherever she is now, I’m sure she knows I don’t hold it against her anymore. Water under the bridge.”
“You’re a good man, Jonathan Janssen.”
“I had a good upbringing, Esther Janssen.”
My great-aunt leaned forward in her chair. “And what about you, Little Miss Sylvie? Are you looking forward to spending the summer here in Erinville?”
I looked to my dad in confusion and he said to his aunt, “I hadn’t told her about that yet.”
“Good,” Esther said. “That means I can tell her: Sylvie, your dad plans to have all five of you kids spend the summer in Erinville. The house’ll be fully renovated by then. That doll Amy showed me all the plans. Oh, it’s going to be gorgeous.”
“All of us?” I asked cautiously. “Have you talked to Mom about this?”
He nodded confidently. “Your mother’s on board. You know we’ve always run a democratic ship, as parents, so after spending the summer here each of you kids will be free to choose where you’d like to live: in the city or in Erinville. It’s entirely your choice.”
My eyes filled with tears as I realized how unfair I’d been to my dad. I thought he didn’t want anything to do with us when, really, he just needed time to get his house ready for all us kids to stay there.
“There’s something else,” my dad said. “I had a word with Richard Chen who runs the summer theatre here in town. He’s happy to take you on as an usher, if you think you can handle it.”
I blinked hard. “Dad, of course I can. Wow, my first summer job!”
“It’s not exactly leading lady, but everybody’s got to start somewhere,” my great-aunt cut in.
“Oh yeah, definitely.” I clapped my hands. This was all so exciting. “I didn’t know there was a theatre in Erinville. I can’t believe you got me a job!”
My dad shrugged. “If you’re so interested in professional theatre, Mr. Chen said you can sit in on rehearsals. But those start in May, so you’d have to come up on the weekends.”
“Zachary can come too, if he wants.”
“He’s gonna freak when I tell him!” I hugged my dad so hard I thought I might hurt him. “This is a dream come true. It’s the best Christmas ever!”
The man at the piano started up a new song, and the introduction sounded super-familiar. My great-aunt Esther, with her red and green hair, wheeled into the centre of the room and started crooning for the crowd. Some people might think Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a kids’ song, but my great-aunt proved a good performer could pull it off at any age.
When the whole room of seniors raised their voices in song, even my dad joined in, and he almost never sang. He put his arm around me and squeezed my shoulder, and I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to be hanging out with my father.
Outside, cotton ball snowflakes fell from the sky. In the winter wonderland beyond the window, diamond-like crystals sparkled and I couldn’t help thinking about Celeste. Her eyes had sparkled just like that, just like the snow.
I couldn’t know for sure where Celeste had gone, but in that moment I could easily believe her spirit was like the snow: something that tumbled gently to Earth and stayed for a while before ascending back up to the sky.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Foxglove’s fiction has been called SPECTACULAR by Rainbow Reviews and UNFORGETTABLE by USA Today.
Foxglove Lee is a former aspiring Broadway Baby who now writes LGBTQ fiction for young adults. She tries not to be too theatrical, but her characters often take over. Like Rebecca from her debut novel Tiffany and Tiger’s Eye, who is convinced an evil doll is trying to ruin the summer of 1986. Or Kenny from her Evernight Teen book Truth and Other Lies, who keeps secrets from everyone in his life when his first novel hits it big! Or Noah from OmniLit Bestseller “The Secret to a Perfect Latke,” who comes out live on national television. Or Mila and Laura, who celebrate Valentine’s Day in “I Hate Love” and destroy a family member’s kitchen in “Happy Birthday, Klutzface!”
Follow Foxglove on Twitter @foxglovelee or stay tuned to her blog http://foxglovelee.blogspot.com for new releases!
Also by Foxglove Lee
For Middle Grade Readers:
The Secret of Dreamland
Ghost Turkey and the Pioneer Graveyard
For Young Adult Readers:
Sylvie and the Christmas Ghost
Tiffany and Tiger’s Eye
For New Adult Readers:
Truth and Other Lies
Embarrassing Period Stories
Every family has its ghosts... It's December 1994 and Sylvie's spending Christmas in a small Canadian town while her father renovates the creepy old house he grew up in. According to local lore, the house is haunted. The whole town is so obsessed with spotting a spirit they camp out on the front lawn eating hot dogs, snacking on popcorn, and waiting for something ghostly to happen. Sylvie's father doesn't believe in ghosts, but maybe there really is an entity hiding in the walls. Is it someone familiar? A relative, perhaps? When Sylvie meets Celeste, an unusual girl who's pretty as a Victorian Christmas card, they get off to a rocky start. Celeste claims she can communicate with spirits. Could that be true? If they pool their energies, maybe they'll unearth a family secret... before it's too late!