Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Gal's 62 Days of Horror Christmas Takeover 15: Russell R. James


Snow for Christmas
By: Russell R. James

A knot of black fur hung wedged in a split in the wooden porch railing.  The winter wind whipped the strands and they waved like frantic warnings.  Bears had walked Myra Lawrence's porch.

            Myra clenched the window frame with thin, gnarled fingers as she stared at the fur.  Bears terrified her.  Big.  Black.  Prowling the woods at the farm's edge.  The only reason a bear would break hibernation on Christmas Eve would be starvation.  Myra had heard stories of bears, too groggy to fear man, breaking into houses and killing the occupants in search of something to eat.

            A north wind beat against her house and the thick windows rattled in their uncaulked frames.  Flakes of snow spit in around the edges, intrepid scouts from the drifts piled up outside.  A week of foul weather had buried Cayuga County under several feet of snow.  The Lawrence home, at the center of twenty-five tilled articles, acted as a natural snow fence.  It attracted the worst drifts, just as the family within had attracted life's tragedies all of 1906.

            Myra gathered her worn sweater tight over her frail body.  She shivered inside two layers of clothes.  Gray streaked her bun of black hair.  Worry had painted dark circles under her eyes.  She rubbed the cold tip of her nose to warm it.

            Dinner, what little there was, was long gone.  With the fire out in the stove, the kitchen temperature plummeted on the way to meet the sub-freezing reading outside.  The drafty farmhouse hadn't changed since Myra's father had built it in 1865.  An oven in the summer and frigid in the winter.  Myra could have moved to the parlor's burning fireplace to keep warm, but her boys were there, and she dreaded facing them this Christmas Eve.

            Last Christmas, Warren held it all together, as he always had.  Her late husband had managed the farm, brought the crops in to market, repaired the horse's tack, even once dug their sputtering spring back to life.  Last December 24th, the winter's wood lay stacked by the door, the cellar burst with crops and smoked ham, and gifts for the boys, wrapped in store-bought paper, sat under the tree.

            This year, none of that was true.

            Six months ago, a heart attack had taken her husband, and the Darkness took his place.  With the light of her life gone, nothing could keep the enveloping black cloud at bay.  The Darkness drained the color from the sky, the scent from flowers.  Like an evil wick, it drew the oil of hope upward, and then squandered it to fire a lamp that only illuminated the past.

            The Darkness amplified her fear.  Now every creak of the roof signaled its imminent collapse, every outdoor noise the attack of some wild animal.  Were it not for her boys, Myra would stay in bed all day, counting the minutes until she could rejoin her husband.

            The pain in her joints forced Myra into the parlor.  Over the mantle hung a model '58 Springfield rifle, bayonet still mounted, the only tangible remains of her father's war service.  Three logs crackled and burned inside the fireplace, greedy flames licking the edges.  Myra did the math.  New logs in an hour.  Fifty four seasoned in the woodpile.  Four days on hand.  The days since Warren's heart attack had been a countdown of the family's dwindling resources.

            Frank and Burt, the seven-year-old twins, sat close to the fireplace playing checkers.  The light gave their round, cherubic faces a pink glow.  The twins' black locks brushed against their shoulders.  She could no more summon the energy to cut their hair than she could to cut her own.  The Darkness told her it made no difference.

            In the parlor corner, a sparse three-foot cedar stood in a bucket of water.  Its boughs drooped to the floor, as if melted by the warmth of the fireplace.  Myra hadn't planned on frivolous Christmas decorations.  The Darkness had no use for them.  But the boys had persisted.  Last week they snuck out to the woods dragging an ax.  The trunk's jagged base attested to its hard-fought battle with the two.  When they hauled it to the door, Myra could not refuse.  The boys had fashioned some forlorn decorations; a string of half-popped feed corn and some newspaper chains.  A soup can bottom, beaten into a star, graced the tree's crooked peak.

            Frank looked up at her and smiled.  "We're going to Uncle Charles' tomorrow, aren't we?"

            "I'm not sure," Myra said.

            Myra's older brother Charles and his wife lived ten miles away in Ithaca with their sixteen-year-old son Jessie.  Charles' spacious house was always the holiday focal point.  Whether it was Fourth of July on the wraparound porch, or Thanksgiving by the marble fireplace, every family event was better at Uncle Charles'.

            But the Lawrence family's Thanksgiving had been a solo event this year.  Charles had volunteered his son Jessie to come get them in their new Model T Ford, but the Darkness would not let her accept.  The Darkness demanded she stay home and avoid reliving the memories of Warren carving turkey and the boys fighting over the drumsticks.  Even if she could ignore the Darkness about visiting this Christmas, this weather would keep the outside form knocking on their front door, and the bears would keep her from opening it.

            "Jessie will fetch us in the morning," Frank said, "and we'll have cakes and pies until we burst."

            "The weather's very bad, boys."  Myra stopped herself from telling them about the bears.

            "Oh, no," Burt said.  "Jessie will make it.  He'll drive the Model T."

            The boys didn't understand.  Trains crossed the country, tractors plowed uphill, steamers crossed oceans.  Since machinery conquered all, the mighty Model T surely could blast through the snow and whisk them away. 

            But the snow on the frozen road was deep enough to bury the flimsy little car past its floorboards.  She couldn't tell the boys that.  No more than she could tell them there were no gifts, no sweet potato pie, no roast ham for Christmas dinner.  She could not bring herself to dash their hopes the way Warren's death had smashed hers.  The Darkness may have consumed her, but with her last ounce of strength, she would keep it from conquering her children.

            "We'll have to see, boys," she said.  She sat between them at the fireplace, embraced them and pulled them close.  The boys had hung two tattered gray socks on the mantel.  She fought back a tear knowing they would be just as empty in the morning.

            A thump sounded on the porch outside.  Myra thought it might be snow siding off the roof, but then it repeated.  Too heavy for snow.  Her anxiety kicked in and her nails gripped her boy's shoulders.  A hulking shadow crossed the parlor window.  Myra held her breath.

            Bears.

            The front door shook under the weight of a heavy blow.  Myra fought back a scream.

            "Get to your room, boys," she whispered.

            "Ma, what's at--"

            "I said get to your room," she snapped.  She gave them both a slap on the head.  "Move now."

            The boys scrambled off to their room and slammed the door.

            Fear ran through Myra like a bolt of lighting.  A pack of ravenous bears probably had the house surrounded.  They'd break down the door, smash through the windows.

            She would not let them get to her boys.

            The rusting rifle hung above the mantle.  She had no powder or bullets, but the bayonet menaced from the barrel's tip.  Daddy had told her stories from the war, how it would run men clean through.

            She pulled the weapon from the wall.  It felt stone cold and heavy.  How had Daddy lugged this thing all the way to Atlanta?

            The shape loomed in the window again, distorted by the feathers of frost coating the glass.  It leaned its massive heap up to the window, black as pitch and backlit by the setting sun.  It exhaled great plumes of steam.  A limb of coarse, black fur pressed against the glass.

            The bear disappeared.   Another pounding rattled the door's hinges.  Myra slipped up to the door and turned the handle.  She cracked it open and retreated.  She swung the rifle butt up into her hip and pointed it straight ahead.  Her heart pounded so hard she was sure the bear could hear it.  She tensed to charge as soon as the door swung open.

            God, preserve my boys, she prayed.

            Another thud sounded on the porch.  The door shook and slowly swung open.  Snow whirled in on a blast of cold air.  Myra held her breath and counted down.  Three... two...

            "Aunt Myra!"

            Jessie stepped in and stomped snow from his oversized boots.  Snow caked the shoulders of his bearskin coat.  He unwrapped a long black scarf from around his head.  He gave the rifle a quizzical look.

            "You greet Santa like that, he won't leave you nothing," Jessie said.

            "Cousin Jessie!" screamed the twins as they raced past their mother.  They plowed into Jessie with a smothering hug.

            Myra abandoned the rifle against the wall.  "What are you doing here?"

            "Pa said I should come get you now," Jessie said.  "The weather ain't going to get no better and there might be too much snow tomorrow."

            "But how could you even get here today?"

            Jessie gave a proud grin that reminded her of her husband.  He pointed a thumb over his shoulder.

            At the end of the road sat the idling Model T, bright red agains the white snow, a Christmas wreath tied over the side mounted spare.  The front tires were gone, replaced with a set of skis bolted to the steering rack.  Two splash guards stretched like angel's wings above new, knobby rear tires.

            "We call it a 'snow-mobile,'" Jessie said.  "Rides right on top of the drift like it's got snowshoes.  Took us all day to modify it in the barn, but Pa said it wouldn't be Christmas without Aunt Myra and the boys."

            "Can we go, Ma?" the boys said in unison.  They flashed her two blazing smiles, eyes alive with the magic of Christmas.  Against such an assault, the Darkness had no defense.

            "In just a few minutes."  She ran a hand through Frank's ragged hair.  "I see two mops that need trimming if we're going visiting.  Who's seen my scissors?"

About the author:
Russell R. James was raised on Long Island, New York and spent too much time watching Chiller, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and Dark Shadows, despite his parents' warnings.  Bookshelves full of Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe didn't make things better.  He graduated from Cornell University and the University of Central Florida.
            After a tour flying helicopters with the US Army, he now spins twisted tales best read in daylight.
            He has published the novels Dark InspirationSacrificeBlack Magic, and Dark Vengeance, the compilations Out of Time and Tales from Beyond, as well as numerous short stories.  He founded the Minnows Literary Group.
            He and his wife share their home in sunny Florida with two cats.
            Drop by the website to kill some time with some short stories.

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