HOLIDAY HORROR CHALLENGE HONORABLE MENTION
It should have been a cheery scene: the crackling fire over which hung stockings, and the Christmas tree trimmed with sentimental ornaments from over the years, homemade ones from the kids and souvenirs from their travels. But even the sparkling lights and rich pine scent could not detract from what was missing.
Vera. It just wasn’t Christmas without her.
Jacob sighed. He had tried so hard over the past six months to put on a brave front for his grown-up sons, each of whom had invited him to spend Christmas with them. “I’ll be fine,” he assured them. “I’ll put out all your mother’s decorations at home. It’s what she would want.”
He was wrong, and he knew it. Vera wouldn’t have wanted him moping about, drinking mulled wine alone on Christmas Eve when he could have been celebrating with his remaining family. Sure, Hank had the twins to deal with now, but maybe he and his wife would have liked Jacob’s help. Maybe they would’ve enjoyed his company, not to mention his cooking skills. He made a mean steak that everyone loved. And then there was Jeff, such a good man who appreciated the wisdom and humor of his dear old dad. He and his boyfriend had made a convincing argument to come with them to a cabin in Tahoe for the holiday, a trip that sounded filled with fun and adventure.
Jacob couldn’t do it. He knew the boys loved him and worried about him, but he didn’t want to intrude on their holiday, and he didn’t want to leave his town or his house. Why deal with the stress of travel?
For forty years, he had spent Christmas right here, in this mid-century modern home. During his own childhood, shuffled back and forth between his parents, neither of whom really wanted the reminder of their failed first marriage, he’d rarely received a present or hung an ornament. But Vera adored Christmas, had turned into a whirling dervish of holiday cheer every year on the day after Thanksgiving, throwing tinsel around the house and singing carols in her off-key but delightful voice. Once the boys joined their fold, she made every year a special Christmas.
Jacob smiled, the ghosts of Christmases past frolicking through his memory. The year they had a gingerbread house-making contest and that dagblasted dog, that crazy Labrador named Benji, had eaten up every single one while they slept, and the boys woke them up Christmas morning in tears. The year Vera caved to the pressure in her church group to “put the Christ back in Christmas,” only to end up on a last-minute shopping spree because her little boys deserved toys in addition to Jesus.
He remembered kissing her soft, full lips under the mistletoe year after year, as they evolved from youngsters fresh out of college to middle-aged empty nesters.
“Promise me you’ll celebrate Christmas next year,” Vera had said. The cancer had already ravaged her body, had shrunk her supple frame into that of a withered stick, but she looked beautiful to Jacob. He had tried to hold back his tears when he kissed her for what they both knew was their last Christmas together.
She had lasted another six months after Christmas until her body finally gave up.
The mistletoe was Jacob’s one transgression in honoring Vera’s wishes. He wanted to put it up, had even removed the tacky, glittering decoration from the storage bin, but he just couldn’t do it. The snowmen, Santas, and reindeer cluttering the house were a different story—he looked at those and remembered the happy times, like when Jeff skateboarded into the tree, knocking it down, and they had to superglue the angel’s head back on before Vera came home from her job at the bank. As a family, they had all laughed when Vera pointed out that their trickery hadn’t worked since the head was now on upside down. And that plaster Santa, the goofy one in the swim trunks, bore witness to the wonderful trip to California they had taken after Hank’s wedding.
But a mistletoe without a wife to kiss only heightened Jacob’s loneliness. No, it didn’t feel like Christmas without her, not even with her favorite holiday CD playing in the background.
Jacob refilled his mulled wine a few times while the fire died down. As he stared into the embers, he knew what he needed to do to feel close to her. He put on his jacket and placed the mistletoe in his pocket. It was a short drive to the cemetery.
No, he had had a little too much to drink. He should walk, even though it was late and a light snow was beginning to fall.
Vera would have loved it—it was going to be a white Christmas.
Jacob wished he had had the sense to put on a hat. The few hairs left on his balding pate did a poor job of keeping out the chill. He gave a gentle squeeze to the mistletoe in his pocket and trudged up the hill, closer to his love.
When he finally reached the graveyard, Jacob marveled at its beauty. With the cleansing dusting of snow under the glow of a full moon, the elaborate tombstones looked positively regal. He smiled, glad he had forked out the lavish sum against the protestations of his sons to buy a plot in the fancy burial ground. Why not show the world how much he loved his wife?
The churchyard was hushed, quiet except for the low thrum of the wind. No other mourners joined Jacob at this late hour, though there was plenty of evidence of their love: poinsettias, small wrapped presents, even flasks of spirits. Jacob considered borrowing a swig to warm himself up, but he couldn’t rationalize stealing from the dead, even if those decaying lips could no longer nurse a drink.
And there it was: the five-foot tall black marble Celtic cross to honor Vera’s Irish heritage and religious devotion. It gleamed and beckoned him to come closer, a tribute to the beauty, kindness, and grace of his dear, departed wife.
“I miss you, my love,” Jacob whispered, his lips trembling from cold. He had cut back on his visits after the boys told him it wasn’t healthy, making it nearly two weeks without stopping by. “I brought the mistletoe.”
He imagined Vera underneath the frozen, snow-covered ground. At her request, they had buried her in the dress she had planned to wear for their fortieth anniversary, which he had celebrated by himself this fall. She had splurged on it during their previous anniversary trip to Milan, buying it before the cancer diagnosis that changed everything. The undertaker needed to pin it back due her weight loss, but Vera still appeared beautiful during her funeral.
Jacob wondered what she looked like now, six months later. Her limbs had barely contained any remaining flesh by the end of her life—how long would it cling to her bones? What about those once-lush lips? Did they continue to bare the imprint of decades’ worth of his kisses?
He had paid extra for the fine engravings of their faces from their wedding day, those wrinkle-free kids with their whole lives and heartaches ahead of them.
“Merry Christmas, baby,” Jacob said, stooping down. With one arm, he held the mistletoe up over his head. He wrapped the other around the cross and pursed his lips into a kiss onto the frigid marble likeness of his dead wife’s face.
As he pulled himself up to his full height, he slipped on the slick snow. Trying to right himself, he grabbed the cross, which lurched forward toward his bulk.
Father Kowalski, who liked to clear his head with a brisk walk through the cemetery before mass, found him the next morning, Christmas Day. Jacob’s body, crushed under the heavy marble cross, looked almost like a fallen snowman at first, for several more inches of snow had descended on his immobile form. When the priest realized what he was seeing, he rushed over to check for signs of life. Brushing off the blood-soaked snow, he grabbed Jacob’s arm to check for a pulse.
Though Jacob’s flesh was cold and lifeless, his heartbeat having ceased hours earlier, he still gripped the mistletoe in his rigid hand, held over his head, ready for a kiss.
Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar is a writer and associate English professor in Pennsylvania. Her creative nonfiction, short stories, flash fiction, microfiction, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in 666: Dark Drabbles, Black Petals Horror/Science Fiction Magazine, Eerie Christmas 2, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Dillydoun Review, Little Old Lady Comedy, The Centifictionist, The Dribble Drabble Review, Friday Flash Fiction, The Drabble, and Merlyn’s Pen. She holds a Doctorate of Education with a Literacy Specialization from the University of Delaware and is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Wilkes University.