The Buffalo News runs a short story contest around Christmas every year. They supply the first few lines (the BN bit ends with “You don’t want it?”) and you carry on. To be perfectly honest – I hate this opening. I think anyone who has ever owned a dog will say, “What? You’re rewarding a dog for growling???” to start with, and then there are other issues. However, this year I decided to take up the challenge and write a story with a bad beginning.
I did not win. The story that did win was lovely; I prefer mine. The runners-up were… not mine. Anyway, I thought I would share with you what I wrote and you can make your own snarky remarks about this, failed, entry.
“At least the table looks good.”
It did – everything was shiny and perfect. The other preparations were coming along, too, though there was much still to do. With luck, they would have it ready in time.
And then: “Grrrrrr – GRRRRR!” loud and louder! What on earth was upsetting the dog?
“Here’s a biscuit… What’s the matter? You don’t want it?”
The growling continued. The hair on the dog’s back stood on end as she glared at, but did not approach, the door.
Skye was used to the dog growling at what most people would think was nothing, but she and Smoke were very well aware that there was something there, something that had no substance but much energy, something that might be called ghosts but Skye called spirits. Her spirit friends.
Skye had had one or more spirit friend since she was an infant. Her mother used to say that she talked before she could talk, that even as a toddler Skye would be obviously chatting away with an invisible someone – or something – before she had words. Those chats continued throughout her childhood, into some rather difficult teenage years and now, as a young woman settled into her own home, well into her 20s.
Smoke was a rescue dog, found at a no-kill shelter about 8 months ago. Of indeterminate breed, with a skinny build and a hugely intelligent face, the two of them had bonded upon sight. Looking at the matted gray fur around that face, Skye slipped to her knees to talk with the dog she knew would be coming home with her.
“Here’s the thing, beautiful girl,” she whispered. “I see spirits. They come into my home, they follow me around. They like to tell me things.”
Skye reached between the bars to scratch the dog’s ears. “They don’t scare me. Actually, they seem to need me to tell their stories to family and friends. But,” Skye looked right into those warm and trusting eyes. “But, it’s important you don’t scare them. Think you can get along with spirits?”
It seemed Smoke, as she was quickly named, could get along with spirits. There were a few nights over the months when it seemed to Skye that, in fact, they were all getting along so well, rousing games of catch were being played at three in the morning, while the one, living, human was trying to sleep!
This growling, however, and the cockles raised were different. Skye looked around the room, trying to feel her friendlier spirits. Despite the glowing lamps, the pretty table, the smell of pine and roasting chicken for supper, the room felt peculiarly empty. She looked again at Smoke, now in a tense crouch, facing the door, quiet now but ready to move and bark at the slightest provocation.
“What do you think, girl? Shall we open the door, check it out?”
Smoke yipped, and walked toward the door, staying even with Skye’s slow but easy steps. Skye turned the key in the deadbolt and carefully opened the door. A small gust of wind pushed the last of the autumn leaves past the doorstep but it was only leaves Skye saw. Smoke poked her head around the door frame and took a look from her height. Nothing there, either.
And yet… Skye shivered. Smoke looked up at her and waited for the signal to go back into the house. It was the faint ringing of bells which pulled Skye, and Smoke, back into the house behind the closed front door.
That was Uncle Cuthbert, always announcing his presence. Her grandmother made herself known with a whiff of apples and Mrs Brooker, from down the street, never came into the room quietly, always tripping over a small piece of furniture, or knocking a picture askew on the wall. Uncle Bertie, meanwhile, would ring his church bells to tell Skye he was here.
“Are we having the Carol Service here tonight, Uncle Bertie?”
Skye’s tone was light as she walked slowly through dining room, looking around for some other sign spirits were here and warm. Smoke was slower to leave the hall, keen still to watch the door, aware that not all was as it seemed but uncertain how it was different. The bells sounded again and this time Smoke heard them too. She trotted up to her human and sat down beside her, both of them watchful, listening with all their senses to what was, and was not, there.
“Dear Uncle Bertie, I have friends coming for supper tonight, and so much still to do in the kitchen before they arrive.” Skye was patient. “What do you need from…”
She was interrupted by Smoke growling again, facing the front door again, anxious and defensive. Skye crouched down to reassure the dog, scratching at her ears, whispering that it just seemed to be Uncle Bertie when the picture of St. Anselms, over the hall desk, was knocked askew, and from the kitchen where once Skye could smell roasting chicken, came the distinctive odor of crisp fall apples. All this, and at the same time, in her inner ear, was the murmuring of her cousins, the twins who had been born together and died together, talking together, sharing what they were feeling. “Christmas is coming,” said one voice, while the other said, “The spirit is alone.”
Skye stood up. This was too much. “Stop it all of you, right now!” The voices stopped talking, the bells stopping ringing, and the room was once again filled with the tantalizing smell of stuffed chicken crisping up. The only continuing sign of spirits still present was the decided knock against the table, causing the glasses to tinkle.
“Alright, Mrs Brooker. What is it? Do you have something special to say?”
Skye’s mind started to fill with images, of Mrs Brooker standing by the window, watching the neighbourhood children playing in the snow. And of the three Brooker boys, middle-aged men now with at least two grandchildren between them, but in these pictures still boys, excitedly opening Christmas presents. And of Mrs Brooker, again by the window, this time sitting in her Queen Anne chair with a warm afghan settled on her knees, excited to see at least one of her “boys” arrive soon for a Christmas visit.
Skye’s inner ear heard one of the twins, Edwina she thought, “This spirit is alone…. oh, alone.” Smoke went to the door again, this time scratching at the bottom, as she did some mornings when Skye was just a little slow coming downstairs. So Skye also went again to the door, and opened it. The rush of air that filled her hall was cold, yes, but also remarkably grateful. Smoke still growled but not like before, more in the way of reminding whoever had come in that this was still Smoke’s house and introductions still needed to be made.
“Hello. Merry Christmas!” Skye was sure that someone was waiting. “Do I know you? I think you must be new here but I hope you know you’re welcome.”
Skye’s mind was now filled with Frances Goode, her friend Tina’s mother. Tina was coming for supper. Skye knew mother and daughter both were looking forward to sharing this holiday meal together with friends in both worlds. It was odd of Mrs Goode to show up early, before Tina arrived. Still, she was there, all motherly hugs and warm snicker doodles. Now Skye saw her grandmother with a blue afghan in her hands, while Mrs Brooker proffered a ball and glove. It seemed the spirit was a boy.
A very lonely boy, Skye realized. And scared. Skye had never felt a spirit to be so completely alone like this boy, a sentiment echoed by Mrs Brooker. “Alone. All alone,” rang in her ears.
Smoke left Skye’s side finally and went to the bottom of the stairs where she sat down and looked up, for all the world as if waiting to have her ears scratched and her head patted.
“Looks like you’ve made one new friend already.” Skye looked at Smoke who seemed quite content to stay there with this boy. “Can you see the others? Can you see my grandmother? And Mrs Goode and Mrs Brooker? My Uncle Cuthbert is here too, but don’t let the collar fool you. He was a bishop but not a stuffy one. If you like baseball, the two of you will have lots to talk about.” Skye heard her grandmother say, “You don’t have to talk about baseball, dear. Bertie will tell you everything about it!”
“Is… is your name ‘Daniel’?” The warmth of a positive answer filled Skye’s mind.
“Well, welcome to Birch Cottage. I live here with Smoke,” who in turn barked hello. “And of course, with my spirit friends who,” she interrupted the chorus. “Who will introduce themselves in an orderly fashion.”
The warming feeling grew as Daniel was welcomed. “Are you alone, Daniel? Do you have family?”
Skye felt a drop in temperature, and a desperate sense of loneliness. “Not any more, Daniel, not with us. Is that why you’re here? Did you know you would find… family here?”
There was nothing at first. No response from Daniel, no ideas or feelings from the others. Even Smoke was quiet but watchful. Then Skye felt her cheeks dampen although there were no tears.
“Do you know, Daniel, Mrs Brooker loves boys. She would play catch with her sons all the time, and they would make snow angels in the front yard together. Her son, James, and her grandson, JB, will be here at the cottage for Christmas dinner with me and a few others. You’ll see them all playing then, and I’m sure you’ll be welcome to join them.”
Skye went about lighting all the candles in the dining room, adding to the light and warmth already filling her heart and head
“And my friends who are coming for supper? They will have family and friends there with you soon. Frances, Mrs Goode, is already here, waiting for Tina. Ask her about Tina’s doll collection!”
Skye bent down to scratch Smoke’s ears again. “We’ve found the Christmas spirit a little early this year, haven’t we, girl?” She stood up and walked into the kitchen to finish up dinner.
“But that’s a good thing. Being filled with the joy of Christmas, wherever we are, and sharing the love of the season, is a very good thing.”