Happy Holidays, dear readers! For you, something festive yet dark, with love from Postscripts to Darkness. The following tale was composed, exquisite-corpse-style, by four PstD grinches, none of whom knew what the next contributor was planning. Chapter 1: Tisha Moor. Chapter 2: Ranylt Richildis. Chapter 3: Canice Caskey. Chapter 4: James K. Moran. These four naifs quickly learned just how challenging it is to produce a decent tale using this method. We can’t promise it’s our best work, but in the spirit of giving, here are the results.
Christmas in a Box
Chapter 1 (TM)
With every passing kilometre, her headache worsened until, by the time their little car approached the widening lanes and towering condos of Toronto’s sprawl, Elena had to crack open her window and press her forehead to the cool glass, her eyes squeezed shut to keep out the grey glow of the clouded sun.
“Do we really have to do this?” she moaned, wrinkling her nose at the exhaust fumes. How could it be minus ten and still stink of exhaust? For the twentieth time in the last four hours, she wished they had stayed in their quiet house on the lake, breathing clean, wintry air tinged with the aromas of cedar, pine, and the dried monkshood that hung in bunches from the rafters of the old front porch.
Her husband reached for her hand and squeezed it, careful to keep his eyes on the highway and the endless line of angry red tail-lights.
“Just remember, it won’t be for long. Only one night. And—” he glanced in the rear-view mirror, his blue eyes softening, “—they may surprise us and spoil Tally rotten.”
Elena turned towards the back seat for a glimpse of the chubby cheeks of their sleeping four-year-old half-buried in her winter coat. She smiled, but the anxiety would not leave her.
“Tally doesn’t know them. She saw them once, two Christmases ago. And you know how that went.”
John didn’t answer; she didn’t expect an answer. They had had this conversation a few times before setting out for Henry and Margot’s house.
Creepy Margot. Margot and her porcelain dolls. They lined the loudly patterned wallpaper of her home, perched on the banisters, and glared from frilly-sheeted beds. Tally had been terrified of them at the age of two and Elena herself avoided looking at them, the fussy clothes, the glaze of their eyes.
Margot was John’s stepmother; John had never been close to his father, Henry, who left when John was three. Once John grew up, married and had his daughter, his father and Margot expressed a wish to see more of them, and they had tried, but things were still awkward. Margot and Henry didn’t approve of Elena’s past. The last conversation Elena had with them, two Christmases ago, ended in her weeping all night, mortified. Since then, she had refused to visit, refused to have them in her home.
But, in spite of it all, for Tally’s sake, Elena had agreed to a tentative rapprochement after a recent flurry of painfully stilted emails and phone calls between John and his father. “You don’t have to do this, sweetheart,” John said at the time, still furious with his parents for the way they had treated her. “I hope you know that.”
“But they’re family,” Elena said. “You can’t just cut off family.” She had lost all of hers at an early age and she needed some relatives. Then there was Tally, their lovely little girl. What right had they to deny their daughter grandparents, even imperfect ones?
Chapter 2 (RR)
They drove into a Pickering subdivision with minutes to spare before supper. The car stopped in front of one of thousands of identical houses with the same aluminum siding, the same cheap Palladian window, and the same boxy garage obscuring its face. Snout-house, Elena silently complained. John killed the engine and Elena took a deep breath. Christmas. In-laws. Disapproval. She held back a grimace. Gifts. Food. Tally’s smiles. Okay. Elena let out her breath and opened the car door.
Henry greeted them, his sweater threadbare, his face flushed with something stronger than wine or beer. Margot had to be coaxed out of a kitchen that emitted one part President’s Choice lasagne, one part Coke-sweetened Canadian Club, and four parts cigarette smoke. The lights were too dim in John’s parents’ house, and the air was warm and strangely moist, and just as oppressive as the smoggy 401. Elena drew up the corners of her mouth and ensured Tally made obeisance to her elders, unfamiliar or no. She avoided eye contact with her hosts for as long as possible.
Over Henry’s lumpy shoulders stood the tree, as round as he was, and sagging with Christmas lights—the kind that disco-blink in red, green, and white until you want to scream. The lights and the cigarette smoke dug fingers into Elena’s temples. Tally was drawn to the tree, but stopped at the coffee table and eyed a candy bowl, where red and white fish-shaped candies stuck to the ceramic. If Elena’s memory served, they would leave a coating of cinnamon-scented ash on the palate. Tally pointed at the dish. Adults nodded, and Tally worked a candy loose from the clump, then hurried to the tree.
Elena tried to avoid the dolls, but they were everywhere: huddled on the mantle, nudged in the corners of couches, holding court on occasion tables. She had to choose between their glassy, heavy-lidded gazes and Margot’s beaky face roosting on a neck that was even longer than Elena remembered. Elena chose Margot over the dolls and strained out another smile as she shook off her coat and lined her family’s boots up as neatly as possible by the door. She felt slightly car-sick.
“My name, Mommy,” Tally said from the floor, touching a box as large as she was. Margot nodded and John looked apprehensive. Not one of those dolls, Elena prayed. Tally didn’t seem phased by them this time around. She was older, and distracted by a four-year-old’s yule-time acquisitiveness, but the thought of a Margot-doll in Tally’s bedroom back home by the lake stirred up light acid in Elena’s gut.
“That’s for tomorrow morning, dear,” Margot syruped. “Little girls need to eat their lasagne before Santa arrives.”
Tally nodded and left the giant box. Supper didn’t smell very appetizing, but even the littlest guest felt a sense of occasion. It was time to face the dining-room table. Would the prefab pasta come with a side of insinuations or outright disapproval?
Elena, resigned, let her hand fall on her daughter’s soft hair and followed John and his parents towards the dining-room. The tree blared at her as she passed and she lowered her eyes. Her gaze caught on the Tally-sized box meant for her daughter, and in that moment the box heaved and rippled the way Tally had heaved and rippled in Elena’s belly, and a slight crinkling sound whispered at her from beneath the tree.
Chapter 3 (CC)
Elena cringed, instinctively tugging Tally toward her, away from the papery rattle-snake sound. It was a faster, more forceful action than she would’ve liked, and Tally gave a startled bleat and stared up at her uncomprehendingly.
The little cry drew John’s attention. He turned, concern writ in his broad face, and placed one hand on Tally’s head, the other on Elena’s shoulder.
“What’s wrong, El?” he whispered, the question hovering somewhere between quiet concern and contained rage. Facing the dining-room, John hadn’t seen that ripple, heard that quiet crinkling.
“I saw—” she started to say, before gauging his anger, so much heavier than sympathy, sliding like an armoured shell over his eyes. Better not to stoke it unless she was sure. What had she seen? The garish package was perfectly still now. No need to nettle John, so easily set off by his parents. There didn’t have to be a repeat of the last Christmas she’d spent in this house. Elena recalled the smug, gloating look that had crept across Margot’s face two years ago as she’d asked, while Elena pressed back folds of tissue paper, What’s wrong dear? Isn’t it lovely? Doesn’t it look just like you? She shuddered.
Her fear of what might tremble in the gift-box, and the hundreds of enigmatic, beaded eyes on her, was drowned by a flush of embarrassment. Just a case of Christmas anxiety, frayed nerves from a yuletide visit to the oddball in-laws. Why didn’t you just tell John you didn’t want to come? she asked herself. Because Tally might resent it, later, not having had her (however bizarre) grandparents in her life. You don’t have to let Margot and her frilly creepshow get to you, Elena told herself forcefully.
Wanting to ease John’s tension, she blurted: “Out the window—I saw somebody by the car. I thought they were going to break into it.”
John’s expression shifted to a different kind of concern as he moved to the window. He stared out at the glittering pools of electric light on the icy sidewalk, where two oblivious pedestrians, holding hands, passed their undisturbed car cooling in the driveway.
Margot and Henry were already in the dining-room, and didn’t witness this exchange. Elena crossed her arms over her chest and heaved a sigh as Tally’s bright voice drifted from the table. “Are these crackers for me, Margot?”
“Whichever ones you like, precious. And please, call me Gramma Margot.”
John turned from the window with a shrug and relieved smile.
“Nothing to worry about. Listen,” he hushed, his hand lighting, briefly, on Elena’s face, “you just need to relax. Everything’s fine. Tally’s having a great time. It’s not going to be like the last visit—”
“I know. I’m sorry,” she breathed, squeezing his offered hands in hers.
As he led her into the dining-room, toward the pre-fab lasagne, the boozy relatives, the forced conversation—no, toward her daughter—she chanced a furtive glance over her shoulder at the defiantly bright box under the blinking tree.
Chapter 4 (JM)
Margot stood at the table, cigarette dangling from her mouth. Her upper lip curled as she unwrapped the aluminum casing for the lasagne with both hands. Henry, resembling an inert golem for all his girth, stood behind her, gazing down at Tally. The table was laid with white ceramic plates with mould-green borders atop a plastic floral tablecloth. Each setting included tarnished cutlery and no-name paper napkins.
Elena looked away from the living-room and the dime-sized eyes of too many dolls. She felt, absurdly, as though she was turning her back to an audience. She took a chair at the table as graciously as she could and arranged Tally beside her. The lasagne arrived, and she accepted as small a piece as possible. Eat. Say little. No trouble, she ohmed.
Her mantra kept Elena placid enough, but trouble arrived anyway. Margot and Henry drank their suppers, their pats of limp lasagne congealing on their plates. Only Tally and John seemed to have any appetite, but when Henry swayed on his chair and brushed his highball uncomfortably close to Tally’s head, John stiffened, and the calm was dashed.
“Hey, easy,” John warned.
Wearing his 74-year-old scowl, Henry tipped his glass in his son’s direction.
“Let me ask you something, Dad. Are you ever going to say sorry for any of it?”
Elena’s shoulders sagged. The lid was off.
Henry laughed, mirthfully at first, before he sounded like any old man coughing up a lung. “For what?”
“When I was three, you and your pals got drunk. I was acting up. You decided,” and here John breathed deeply, “you decided to take all of our toys and throw them out in the snow. Mine and Gwen’s.”
Henry’s lined, jowly face was as confused as it was shop-worn.
“You can’t remember half of that stuff, can you?” John asked.
Elena tried not to look at what was obviously battering the box around, what was clearly tearing through the midsection of Tally’s present, judging by the sounds coming from the living-room. There was no more doubt in her mind, now. It was time. She closed her eyes and concentrated. She went so deep she barely registered Margot’s horribly inappropriate and ill-timed offer to her daughter—a sip of that noxious-smelling rye and Coke. She only went deep for a moment, though, and resurfaced just as the others noticed the tumult in the living-room.
Margot hollered, stood, and pointed at the gift coming undone under the tree. “What is that?”
Tally began to cry. Elena massaged her little shoulders.
“A little solstice gift for you,” John said, standing as well. He met her eye, then those of his stunned father. “We thought you might be vindictive, although I assured Elena you wanted to make amends. Foolishly.”
Margot interrupted him with a scream, cigarette in her bony hand. “What is in that box, you idiot?”
“I could ask you the same.”
“What do you think? It was meant for Tally.”
“I’m sure it was,” Elena replied.
“What—” Henry panicked, rising from his chair and seizing John by the shirt in a large, liver-spotted hand, “—have you done?”
“Turn away please, Tally,” John said. “The grown-ups are talking.”
John grabbed his father’s wrist and smiled. With a quick yank, he pulled Henry’s hand away, against the thumb joint, the resulting crack not unsatisfactory. His father yelped in pain. The sound saddened John more than anything.
“Elena cast a reversal spell,” he explained. “A karmic reversal spell. She cast it out in the woods before we left, and drew on it just now. It’s a purely white magic spell. Whatever nonsense people try against us gets sent back to them. So, whatever that gift was, and whatever effect it would have had on us has reversed—back onto the two of you.”
Henry, clutching his wrist, watched a shape emerge from the box. A small, black-fingered hand with cracked, soiled fingernails tore through the green-and-red wrapping paper.
“It’s a real shame you couldn’t say sorry,” John said. “It’s a shame that you don’t approve of Elena and what she did in Holland before I met her. But I’ve learned a lot from her, and not only spells.”
Margot cut him short, unimpressed with his monologue. “What is it?”
Elena glared at her. “I’m not rightly sure. It’s definitely not one of your traumatizing dolls anymore, though.” She waited a beat and spoke again. “Turn away, Tally. Let’s go get our coats.” Now we get to leave. At last.
Doing as she was told, Tally walked toward the front door with her mother.
“I want to go home, Mommy,” she whispered. “Gramma’s breath smells bad and she wanted me to try her stinky drink.”
Grandpa and Gramma watched the shape shred its way out of the box. John refused to look. He knew better, certain that whatever lay inside was much worse than a life-size Tally doll. It would be red-eyed, pale-skinned, hungry. The word otherworldly struck him as Margot’s hysteria bloomed like a mushroom cloud and Henry spluttered incoherently.
John held the door for Tally and Elena. “Merry Yule,” he said without looking back. His wife and daughter walked ahead of him. “Thank you for having us over for Christmas.”
With the front door shut, the street was hushed with snow. Quickly, they descended the powdered stairs in silence. Inside the house, the sounds of screaming rose. Inside, red, green and white lights flashed. Glass shattered. Something crashed to the floor.
“Hate to say you were right,” John told Elena.
“Are we going home now?” Tally whined.
“Yes,” Elena said, opening the passenger door of their car. She tried to ignore the cacophony coming from inside the seemingly innocuous snout-house. She wondered silently if there was still time to see Gwen and the kids over the next few days. “Home for the holidays.”