This story originally appeared in the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group‘s now-out-of-print anthology, CHRISTMAS BIZARRE. It is reprinted as part of SIW’s latest anthology, HOLIDAY BIZARRE, which includes stories involving holidays throughout the year. I’m posting the entire story here as part of Alliteration Ink‘s SPEC THE HALLS celebration.
Yes, I was interested, but the price set off alarm bells in my cynical mind. The house cost so little…. It was a small house, but it came with ten acres of woods and a pool. Well, a pond, really, but the banks were steep except for one gentle shelf. Iris and cattails surrounded the pool and three koi–fat, pink, gold-dappled carp the size of dachshunds–lived in it.
“Does the pool freeze over in the winter?” I asked Carol Pittinger, the realtor/owner.
“Most years, thank God,” she said.
Odd thing to say, I thought. I like ice skating as well as the next woman, which is why I had asked, but I didn’t invoke the Deity over it.
I had the house inspected, of course, and I even had a check run on the pool, just to make sure there was nothing noxious about it. Those koi might have been dumped in for window dressing, for all I knew; they might die and be replaced daily. I had a dog to think of, after all.
Baxter Browning (my mutt) loved the place. He thought he’d died and gone to Sunnybank. “Look, Mom, I’m Lad! Look, I’m Bruce, the collie without a flaw!” I could almost hear him shouting.
“None of the above!” I shouted back, not caring if anyone heard me and thought I was a little cracked. I had long ago stopped caring what anyone else thought of me. It had been a hard dependence to break, but now I found I had very little stress. Or company.
All the inspections came up roses, and we closed the deal in late July.
I had already unpacked everything when I found out what the catch was: The place was haunted. Not by a ghost–I could have dealt with a ghost–but with an aggressively living boy.
Baxter Browning loved to bark (what a title for a children’s book!), but he didn’t bark at Len. I went out to announce lunch, and there was Baxter, wrestling with a rumpled and smudgy four- year-old who was cackling laughter like a forty-pound hen.
“Hello,” I said, loud enough to be heard over the love-feast on the lawn.
Dog and boy sat up and grinned at me.
“Hi,” said the boy. “I’m thirsty.”
“Are you?” I said. “Lunch, Baxter.”
Baxter started for the porch. The boy stood up, tucked his t-shirt into his denim shorts, and came after him.
“Didn’t your mother ever warn you not to go into strange houses?” I let Baxter in, but blocked the boy’s way with my frowning body.
“I sure am hungry,” he said. “And hot. And I need to Go.”
“Why don’t you? Tell your mamma you’re hungry.”
“I have to Go.”
Did that stuff take the finish off treated lumber? I didn’t want to learn the hard way.
“Come in,” I sighed.
“Len What?” I asked. “And where do you live?” With a last name and a general address, I could probably track down his parents and give them a little unsolicited advice on child-rearing.
“Leonard Scott Marcus, 2342 Shepherds Pike, Shepherds, Indiana, 47112. 812-555-7384. My mamma’s name is Shirley Lynn Marcus and my daddy’s name is Leonard Paul Marcus. I got two brothers and three sisters. But I don’t have a dog.”
I got a pencil and pad and wrote down Len’s vitals.
“You got a dog,” said Len. “Do you have a little boy?”
I thought of all the boys of various ages I had declined to have over the years and said, “No, I do not have a little boy.”
“Do you wish you had a little boy?”
“No, I do not.”
That was the last either of us spoke until Len walked out of the house. “Thanks for the goodies. I’ll come back tomorrow to play with your dog, since you don’t have a little boy for him to play with.”
And he was gone before I could tell him no.
I called the number he had recited. A woman answered. I could hear Chaos shrieking in the background.
“This is Joy Crawford. I just moved in down the road from you. Did you know your little boy was at my house?”
“Which little boy? I have three–Pipe down, I’m on the phone!–Oh, it must be Len. Just send him home, if he gets to be a nuisance. —You two…” Click.
In late August, Len started pre-school. Every evening I drove home to find a grubby urchin on my front porch with an armful of my dog and a stream of gossip about “the kids.”
Darkness held no terror for him; the days grew short, but my headlights always picked out that figure waiting for me. I’d give him “goodies,” listen to him while I got my supper started. Now and then he’d say, “Whatcha making? That looks good,” but I had no trouble resisting the temptation. I’d just put everything on simmer and drive him home, then come back to my quiet and my solitude.
Len’s parents, I discovered, were nice people. They cared for their children, but they had half-a-dozen; and Len, rather than being over-supervised, seemed to get overlooked. He made me come in once and look at his shelf (which is what you have when there are eight people and three bedrooms): It held a bird skull, a purple-quartz geode the size of a silver dollar, a magnetic travel-version chess set missing two pawns (one of each which, Len said, made it okay), and a dozen Little Golden Books. While I was there, one of his brothers gave him a Transformer; Len showed me how to change it from a lion into a man, made room for it on his shelf, and tucked it in his pocket.
“Did you have to work today? I been here all morning.”
He had made me a present at pre-school: a bouquet of paper flowers, torn and crumpled and decorated with a unique patina of finger-grunge and Elmer’s Glue.
So I didn’t feel so stupid giving him the stuffed dog I’d ordered for him from an ad in the NEW YORKER.
As Carol, the former owner, had promised, the pool had frozen over. I had thrown a skating party for some of my closer acquaintances. Now, alone in the hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, I had a fancy to see the sky reflected in the ice.
As we neared the pond, Baxter stopped, lowered his head, and whined.
“What is it, boy? Come on.” I walked ahead, patting the side of my leg by way of encouragement.
Then I heard what Baxter must have heard: A weak, faded scream.
With one yelp, Baxter tucked his tail between his legs and scuttered for the porch.
I stood there, chilled inside my coat, and listened. Another scream, and another–pale and unreal, but undismissable.
“It…must be the ice breaking up,” I said, and followed Baxter back to the house.
Sure enough, the next day there were cracks in the ice and the weather lady said a thaw had set in the night before.
I went out after Christmas Eve Mass with a packet of freeze- dried grubs. Baxter refused to leave the house. Coward, I thought.
But, as I neared the pool, I heard them: the screams. They seemed louder this year and I ran to the pool, convinced that, this time, they came from human lungs. In the water, two fat pink arms reached up; a round face, too small for the arms, between them… mottled… gaping…
The panic passed, my vision cleared, and I saw the koi, lined up for feeding. I shook the grubs out in one grand spray and staggered home.
The years passed, and every year brought a present: A cigar box pasted over with old Christmas cards (I supplied the cards). A brooch made of buttons (my buttons) stuck onto a flat wooden heart with a mass of craft cement. A dusty bottle of perfume with a yard sale sticker still on the bottom. A bird feeder made out of Popsicle sticks.
Winters were properly cold, and the pool was frozen over every Christmas Eve. I ventured just close enough to hear those muffled, icy screams; having heard them, I went back to the house with Baxter and cranked up Johnny Mathis.
I called Carol Pittinger, informing her that it was actionable to sell a haunted house without informing the buyer. She protested that the house wasn’t haunted, just the pool, and only on Christmas Eve, and only by a sound, and you couldn’t call a sound a ghost, could you? She said the screams hadn’t been there, so far as she knew, when she had bought the house. She first heard them two years after she moved in (and she named the year, as if I cared), and she had only heard them on Christmas Eve. She said she hadn’t sold out because of “a little auricle illusion,” as she called it, and one that only happened one night a year…
“Just don’t go out there Christmas Eve. I didn’t, the last year. Christmas is supposed to be nice and fun.”
“Yeah, nice. Fun.”
Not go out? Not listen? Not even check to see if the screams were there? Somebody was making those sounds–some person was making them–or had, at some time past, maybe. I owed that screamer a listen, one human being to another.
The strange weather had me out-of-sorts and lazy. I usually took myself out for dinner and a movie before church, but this year I just boiled an egg and looked at the illustrations in a volume of Dickens.
A Christmas Carol, The Haunted Man, “The Trial for Murder”… So many of Dickens’ Christmas stories had ghosts in them. Someone had told me once that ghost stories were a Christmas tradition in Victorian England. Bizarre tradition.
Then again, maybe not. Christmas is a sort of ghost story: The Baby is born with his death and resurrection already a done deal. I thought of a painting I’d seen of the Annunciation: Gabriel telling Mary about the coming Child while, on a beam of light, a tiny spirit descends carrying a cross.
Baxter and I sat alone by the gas fire while I tried to work up some enthusiasm for Mass, thinking I might not even go this year. My feelings were hardly celebratory.
Baxter jumped up with a yelp.
“What is it? Christmas present from a flea?”
“It’s started. Okay, let’s listen. It’s the least we can do, right?”
Baxter started to bark. He ran to the back door and scratched the panels, which is something he never does.
“You want out? But you never…” I opened the door. He raced out and away, toward the pool. I was right behind him.
I could hear the screams louder this year than ever–less faded…. –They were real!
The full moon cast shadows that picked out detail instead of obscuring it. As I ran, I could see the bank of the pool, with its rim of dead vegetation. In the tangle lay a “vase”: a jar covered with adhesive tape and colored with shoe polish. I had made one, myself, when I was about ten. Some wilted carnations tumbled out of it–had he stopped to get water for them? In too much of a hurry to walk around to the shelf, thought he’d just lean over, lost his balance, scrabbled for a hold and went in?
I hesitated only long enough to see Len come up–I wouldn’t do him any good if I landed on top of him–and jumped in feet first.
Len was heavy in his sodden jacket, and he thrashed with terror. Holding him up, I went under. Baxter danced on the shore–scared of water, the worthless mutt. I kicked toward the shelving bank. I went under again, and got a lungful of water. Dumb kid. I started to see flashes of red. One more heft. One more…
Len left my arms as my foot slipped off the shelf. I pushed him toward shore and felt myself slide backwards. My chest was tight. I couldn’t pull in enough air. I kicked feebly once again, slipped beneath the surface, and flickered into blackness.
After the blackness came the light: light that shone through me, illuminating me inside and out. I heard familiar voices, but couldn’t make out the words. I smelled roses, and fresh-baked bread… then it all faded back to black…
Len sat next to me, water running from his jacket in rivers and from his eyes in streams. He was holding Baxter off me with one hand and clutching the vase of carnations in the other.
When he saw my eyes open, he let the dog go; I had to sit up to save myself from a spit-bath.
“Len…You pulled me out?”
“No, you got me out. You walked out by yourself.”
“You went under. I couldn’t reach you. I thought you were gone….” Len’s voice was still thin with fright. He shuddered and said, “Then your head lifted up and you opened your mouth and all this water p-poured out, but you wouldn’t open your eyes. And you walked out as light as a feather, just so light…almost like you were floating… And you just sort of laid yourself down. But you wouldn’t open your eyes, and I was scared…. I made this for you.”
Ten-year-old Len held out his holy gift, and I took it with more gratitude than he would have understood.
Ten years ago, Len had been born. Ten years ago, screams had begun haunting the pool. Now, ten years later, I had followed those screams to the aid of my young friend.
He had given me his love, with no hope of return, and I had given him my life. And, in the true spirit of Christmas, both gifts had been blessed and reciprocated.
~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: How would your main character deal with a pesky child?