“Oh, Joselyn! Lovely to see you, darling!” Margot, flashing a dazzling smile, kissed the fading starlet on each cheek. Joselyn politely nodded, her eyes skirting around the room. The Christmas tree in the foyer, one of two dozen in the house, sparkled under the crystal chandelier. “Shane’s already here. I’m sure he’s saving you a seat.” Joselyn’s lips tightened, though she graciously presented Margot with an expertly wrapped bottle of what was clearly just nice enough wine. “No sign of Ms. Keening however, though she intimated she was bringing… friends.”
“Is my cousin around?” Joselyn asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Oh heavens, darling. You know Artie, he’d be here in moment if only he could get away,” Margot, hand to impressive chest, sighed with a melodramatic pang. “But, love, he’s off playing Santa for all those sick children. Terribly cute Santa, Josie– I’ll have him send over a text or something.” Joselyn said nothing, but smiled blankly.
“Of course,” Joselyn assented, a large figure in the doorway begging her eye.
“Jos!” Shane Laurent swept into the room, and caught Joselyn by the elbow. He kissed her on the cheek, and exclaimed, “We’ve been waiting for you all night. Come settle a debate for me and Mrs. Finebairn– it’s about that strange fellow who played Manservant Goblin on Clockwork Skies. Andromeda is convinced he may have been an actual goblin.”
Shane escorted Joselyn into the parlor, and Margot turned to the foyer looking glass. She practiced a smile two times, and fixed her curls. As she did so, she heard a clatter from the room’s only closet. The clatter was followed by a series of rather strong curse words, and what was likely a zipped.
Margot crossed her arms, and turned towards the source of the sound. Moments later, Jordan Albright Jr. stumbled out, his tie slightly askew, and his mouth an arrestingly hip shade of smeared raspberry.
“Jordan.” Margot said flatly.
“Margot! Uh–” Jordan quickly attempted to straight his tie. “Is my dad or Aunt Lilah here yet?”
“Jordan, you know this house used to he a waking house, yes?”
“Uh, yeah. Dad’s mentioned it,” Jordan stumbled.
“Any idea what that closet was used for?” she asked, tapping her immaculate nails on her elbow.
“Storing bodies,” Margot said airily, smiling just a bit too brightly. “Have some respect for the dead, love.”
Travis shuffled over the carpet with a bit more joy than he had been the previous months. While the sting of November still slowed his step, it was his favorite season. For Travis, Christmas commenced some time in November, and continued throughout the winter. When Christmas Day passed, Travis tempered the post-holiday blues by continuing its celebration for the next six months. (He would, of course, take a brief respite in July, in order to celebrate Independence Day for the remained of the summer.) Nevertheless, there was no day held closer to Travis’s heart than Christmas. His reasoning, held equally close, was a private matter.
For those who knew the Millers, their small home looked shockingly charming. The boxes of receipts and reminders were stacked neatly away. The lists of trespassers and wrong-doers were covered with wreaths. The festooned garlands leaned towards gaudy, but had been elegantly arranged by Shannon. The Christmas tree, plastic and at least sixteen years old; it was arranged with warm white lights, and, in an unconventional design choice, hung with sample soaps and toiletries provided to motel guests.
A large pile of presents fanned out around the tree skirt. As they didn’t particularly like eachother, neither Shannon nor Travis had wrapped gifts for one another. They both, however, had tenderly selected a gift for each of Shannon’s twenty-seven cats.
“Travis! Come on!” Shannon called from the front door.
“Yeah, yeah,” Travis muttered, grabbing a can of cat food from the mantle.
“Dress warm,” Shannon nearly admonished. “Cold out.”
Travis wrapped a scarf around his neck, and coughed. For the next three hours, he and his sister, always silent, would set about to feed the stray cats of Prescott.
William generally acknowledged both the major and minor holidays with a passing, academic sort of reverence. They were important, he contended, to how the world organized itself; they were of minimal importance, he felt, to his own spiritual integrity.
Violet, however, glimmered during the holidays. She set electric candles in every window of the museum. She lit, every year, the first Menorah displayed in a Prescott storefront. (Donated, in the 1970s, by the Appelbaum family.) She also, every year, decorated a Christmas tree with antique ornaments from the collections. The holidays were the only time Violet mentioned her childhood– back when “the Chesterfield party, not the Thursday one, was what everyone went to.”
This year, before everything happened, been working with Aloysius Longnight to organize a children’s storytelling night at the museum: “Winter Legends from Prescott History” had been the working title. It had been dropped after the incident. William and Aloysius never talked, anyway.
This Christmas night, William stood alone in Violet’s office. With little expression, he placed a neatly wrapped gift on her desk. The tag read only “For: Violet, When You Return.”
Crowley had returned from the Thursday party hours ago. Never one for too much company, he now relaxed in his study.
Christmas night was his favorite night of the year: it was the only night during which he took out his model train set. A perfect replica of the first train that ran through Mathews Station, every year, a bit before the witching hour, Crowley would watch the train loop around the miniature version of Prescott.
The Proper Witch, feet kicked onto his desk, would watch this train, going round and round. With a certain level of bemusement, he would muse of which things would be set into motion with the New Year.
He would watch until the tiny train seemed pleased with itself, and then, dutifully, he would pack it away.
Molly smiled to herself. For the first time since Thanksgiving, she didn’t feel quite as lonely. As she whisked eggs for pancakes, Aloysius and Billy Lee laughed from the living room. They had been up since 5am– Dalliance McPhee, their houseguest for the past few months, had exclaimed that Santa had come.
Now, the living room a disaster of wrapping paper, the four-year-old McPhee was showing Aloysius how her toy car worked.
A messy, noisy Christmas, Molly pondered, but the first one in years that filled the house with something other than emptiness.
A knock sounded from the front door.
Molly frowned, confused, and put down the bowl of eggs. She walked towards the door, and opened it.
No one was there.
There was, however, a package. It was a carefully wrapped box, decorated with a threadbare red bow. In untidy scrawl, the package read “FOR DALLIANCE.” There was no other writing.
Though Molly didn’t know this, a similar package had been delivered to Shelly and Skip. That package, like this one, contained only some simple bracelets: red beads on white string. It was what somebody, somewhere, had to give.
Boyd sat in the Police Station’s lobby. No one, by some strange luck, had been yet hurt, scared, nor disorderly. There was, of course, some time before his shift was over. And, afterall, it was only 6pm. Jordan Albright Jr. had likely only been awake for three hours.
As Boyd dealt himself out another hand of solitaire, the jingle bells on the front door rang out. Festive but practical, the loudly alerted him to someone entering the station.
It was, bundled in a blue scarf and hat, Felicity Jane.
“Hi!” she said brightly.
“Hi,” Boyd said, standing slowly. Felicity had, in her hands, an envelope.
“Just wanted to deliver the Christmas card in person,” Felicity gestured with the envelope. “It’s from me and Sally.”
“Oh, well, thanks, Felicity,” Boyd ran his hand through his hair. “Any plans tonight?”
She smiled a bit sadly, “Just me tonight.” Sally Lautner was still, much to everyone’s worry, out on “tribal business.”
“Oh, well,” Boyd glanced at the clock, and swallowed. “Want some company? I’m off at 8.”
Felicity beamed, “That would be lovely! I haven’t made anything for dinner–”
“Come over to my apartment, then. I, uh, picked up a new recipe from a new blog the BAMFSHEE girls follow. Really mean vegetarian meatloaf. Well, not meat, of course. Just black be–”
“I would love that, Boyd,” Felicity interrupted.
Frank Ludlow rubbed his hands together, warming them from the chill. He closed the front door, and looked into his cozy, if empty, house. Normally, during this time on Christmas, he’d start on the crust for his mother’s chicken pot pie. It was a nice way to shift from the gravesite visit: a pleasant memory, rather than a bleak reminder of just how alone he was.
He didn’t feel like it this year. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he was just old.
In any event, Christmas dinner would likely be an unceremonious helping of whatever was in the cupboard. He hadn’t been to the store to buy groceries, and certainly hadn’t bothered to get a chicken from Raymond Farms.
Maybe, Frank thought, he’d just go to bed. Might make the next eight hours easier. Early to bed, and then early back to work.
As Frank wondered on the merit of a 3pm bedtime, the phone rang. Frank hastily picked it up.
“Hello, Frank Ludlow speaking,” he answered with a chirp.
“Hey Frank,” Sasha McKeen responded, “it’s Sasha.”
“Oh! Happy Yuletide, if you’re celebrating,” Frank exclaimed.
“Thanks, Frank. Sam and I were actually just thinking of you,” Sasha continued, “we’re making your mom’s pot pie for dinner tonight.”
“Oh, Sasha,” Frank’s voice stopped in his throat.
“Ruby’s is back open now,” Sasha said lightly, “care to join us for Christmas dinner?”
“Oh…” Frank cleared his throat. “Yes, please. Thank you. That would be wonderful. I, uh, I may even have a bottle of wine from the municipal dinner.”
“Just your company is fine, Frank. Come on over whenever. Dinner is on around 7pm.”
Sally Lautner leaned back in his truck’s seat. He exhaled, deeply. His heart rate hadn’t been this high in years.
He peered into the rearview mirror, and wiped the smear of blood from his brow. Sally then patted his pocket. The pictures were still there.
He thought momentarily about calling Boyd, but it was Christmas. And he only had bad news.
Instead, he turned the key in the ignition, and started the long drive back to Prescott. He flicked on the radio.
Elvis started to croon, and Sally, for a moment, wondered if he might cry.