When Christmas Comes
In the waning afternoon light, a red Chevrolet sped along the frozen road. A man and a woman sat in the front seat of the car. A Mozart piano concerto streamed from the radio.
The wife stopped wiggling her gloved fingers and asked, “Michael! Where’re we going?”
“We’ll be there soon, Jennifer.”
“To visit my grandparents, don’t you remember? I told you we’d go to…their place…when Christmas comes.” Michael grinned and drove on into the growing twilight.
Michael raised his eyes and blew air through his mouth, before answering his wife. “Jennifer, be patient, please.”
“Jennifer! You used to call me ‘Jenny’ or ‘Jen’—or even ‘Jennina’!”
“Jennifer is your name, isn’t it? What’s the difference?”
“Oh, Mike!” She let out a loud sob. “You know what I mean! You aren’t the same to me anymore, not since you became director of that British orchestra!”
“You ought to be very proud of me, Jennifer!”
“Oh, but I am, Mike! I am! It‘s just that…you don’t seem to have much time or patience for me anymore.”
“I’m busier than ever, Jennifer. I don’t even have much time for myself!”
“You seem to find quite a bit of time for that Gianinni woman….”
Michael chuckled and said, “So it happens that Francesca and I are frequently hired to collaborate on the same recording and performing projects.”
“Sure. Projects.” Jennifer sucked in her lips. “Don’t you remember all the sacrifices I made for you? All those years of day jobs and evenings of violin freelancing?”
Michael whirled around and replied, “And, who’s the one who makes money nowadays? Who bought our beautiful home near London? Whose salary pays for our servants, our two cars?”
“A home which is a drop-in place for scantily clad primadonnas and virtuosas!”
“You seem to forget, my dear, I happen to work with primadonnas and virtuosas!”
“Yes, I know!” She burst into tears. “I’m all alone in the world! I wish Mom and Dad and Bob hadn’t taken that flight to Miami!”
“Oh, c’mon, Jennifer! Quit whining!” Switching the radio dial, he said, “Let’s hear what’s happening in the world, huh?” He stopped at the first newscast he found.
“…escaped from their burning farmhouse. They are harmless, but may be frightened and confused.” The broadcaster paused and added, “The staff appears to have perished in the conflagration, along with most of the facility’s other patients. The private institution’s inmates had been transferred there by a philanthropic physician, upon the closing of the Louisiana colony, a decade ago.”
During the noisy commercial that followed, Jennifer asked, “Who escaped from where?”
“Duh! Beats me!” Michael shrugged. “Maybe some lunatics or ‘reformed’ serial killers! Ha ha ha!”
The radio announcer’s voice resumed reciting the news, “And now, the weather; more snow overnight and temperatures dipping into the single digits. Bundle up, folks!”
The car stopped. Night had already hidden the horizon.
“Now what, Michael? Car trouble? In this kind of weather? With madmen or murderers running loose? Oh, my God!”
“No, Jennifer. We’ve arrived at our destination…that’s what!”
“What sort of a place is this?” Jennifer spied through her right window. She could see a musty stone gate and rusty iron fences. She screeched and covered her face with her hands. “It’s a graveyard! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
“Stop those antics, Jennifer! Let’s get out!”
Jennifer pulled a dark pink beret over her light-brown hair and tightened her bright orange scarf around her neck. “Let me guess. This is where your…venerable grandparents…reside?”
Michael shot her a sharp look and got out of the car. He did not help her out. “Let’s just find their graves,” he said.
As they made their way through a path among tombstones, Michael whistled the theme from Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.
“Michael! Show some respect for the dead!”
“They can’t hear me, Jennifer,” he laughed.
“But I can–and it scares me!”
Michael waved her comment aside and continued walking, using a flashlight to read the names on the stones.
“Oh, Mike! Why are you putting me through this? It’s freezing!”
“Be quiet! Don’t you remember anything?”
“My maternal grandparents were the ones who believed in me—right from the start!” He paused and looked her straight in the eye. “I just had to come here and thank them.”
“But, didn’t you just assure me of that? The dead can’t hear us, dearie, can they?” Jennifer’s ironic smile vanished when she caught her husband’s steely face in the moonlight.
Michael inhaled and exhaled with deliberation. “Look, why don’t you wait for me here, by this monument? I’ll be right back.” He glanced up at the elongated, white column, with an angel perched atop.
“Are you kidding? What if you get lost on your way back to me? I’ll freeze to death!”
“It’s a small-town cemetery. I’ll find you, if you don’t wander away.” His eyes flashed for an instant.
“Why can’t I go along with you?”
“Because this is a private moment for me, Jennifer. My American grandpas made all the difference in my early musical life. I’d rather be alone with…them.”
“Then, why the heck did you insist on bringing me all the way here, to middle America, Michael Zorrilla?” Mimicking Michael’s deep voice and faint Chilean accent, Jennifer chanted, “When Christmas comes, I’ll take you to my grandparents’ place! When Christmas comes, I’ll take you to my grandparents’ place!”
Michael’s icy stare stopped her. He said, through his teeth, “Because I never thought you’d behave so childishly!” Pointing beyond her, he said, “Run back to the car and wait for me there!”
Jennifer turned around to look in what she assumed was the direction of the cemetery’s entrance, but saw only darkness. When she turned back around, Michael was gone. She could hear him scurrying away. Fearing his anger, she did not dare call after him. The moon had by then disappeared behind some large, dense clouds. It was getting chillier by the minute. Jennifer searched her purse for her penlight and set about retracing the path back to the gate. Her heart pounded. Her throat felt like sandpaper.
C’mon, Jennifer, you can do this! You can find your way back to the Chevy!
A frigid wind blew; Jennifer pulled her wool scarf over her mouth.
Aargh! Is my imagination playing tricks on me? I hear whisperings! Quickening her steps, she gasped for air. My God, help me! Some notion of a Christmas time surprise! Only my husband could conceive of this! She swallowed air again. Darn his twisted mind!
The moon emerged from the clouds and illuminated once more the interminable rows of snow-covered tombstones and monuments to the dead. An occasional ice-frosted, gnarled tree dotted the field.
Jennifer looked straight ahead. Where’s the graveyard entrance? It was nowhere in sight.
I’m lost! I’m lost! Amidst her sobs, a cry burst from her mouth: “Michael!” She pressed her lips and looked around. She felt dimly ashamed of breaking the sepulchral silence, but called out more loudly, “Michael! Please, find me! I’m lost! Help!”
There was no answer from Michael. She could hear the wind whistling, gathering speed; it sounded as if someone were trying to tell her something. She shivered and hugged herself.
God Almighty! I’ll turn into an icicle, if Mike doesn’t find me soon!
Jennifer wiped her tears with her sleeve and looked up. There appeared to be a large structure looming ahead of her. The gate! Thank you, God! She hurried toward what looked like a sizable doorway. Oh, no! This isn’t the main door! Maybe it’s a side entrance? She approached the aperture, then stopped. Panting. Oh, my God, it’s a mausoleum! She read the bronze plaque on its door: “Lambert Family Mausoleum.” With a shudder, she veered. It was getting colder.
Oh, Heavens! Where do I head now? I’ve no idea where I am!
Jennifer started moving away from the mausoleum, in a different direction from whence she’d come. Shaking and sobbing softly, she tried to walk as fast as she could, in between rows of graves. She ignored the voices she was suddenly hearing all around her.
“Aaaagh!” she cried, when she saw a shadow dart away. “Who’s that?” She looked around, with wide-open eyes and trembling lips. “Is that you, Michael?” She stood still for a second, listening. Gosh! What if it’s one of those escaped lunatics or murderers? She stifled a scream and fled from the spot, not knowing where she was going. After a few minutes, she halted and rested against a moldy tree trunk. She could see her breath, swirling in front of her. Jesus! It’s so cold! She began sobbing again.
An owl hooted, close above Jennifer’s head. She shrieked and raced—until she stumbled.
Steadying herself, she came face to face with a hideous, sneering gargoyle head, topping an elaborate tombstone. The whole monument was black. Jennifer’s scream got lost in her throat; she gasped for air. The inscription on the gravestone caught her attention. It was framed by dancing demons and tongues of fire. It read: “Here lies George Grandville (August 13, 1949-November 30, 2013), a monster of a husband. May he burn in Hell’s eternal flames.”
Ah! He died a few weeks ago! What if his evil spirit is still lingering around here? Jennifer noticed many more over-decorated headstones, toward her left. Hah! This is the burial zone for the wealthier townsfolk.
The sky was now loaded with rose-colored clouds. Oh, Jesus! It’s snowing! She looked all around. The snow was piling fast over the graves and monuments, lending them a ghostly appearance.
Where do I go now? She shuddered. Not to a mausoleum! But, what other shelter can I find in a place like this?
In an instant, the cemetery’s silence was slashed by the sound of a car’s engine starting up. Two headlights flashed diagonally to Jennifer’s left, not too far from her. Mike? It must be him! As she dashed towards the lights, Jennifer heard the sound of a car about to take off. Her heart sank in her stomach. She ran as fast as she could, screaming.
“Mike? Mike, is that you? I’m here! Please, wait for me! Mike! Please, wait for me!”
By the time she reached the graveyard’s entrance, the car was moving away and gaining speed. The bright, whitish sky helped her recognize the red Chevrolet. She ran after it, yelling at the top of her lungs:
“Michael! Michael! I’m here! Please, don’t leave me! Please, wait for me!”
Her hysteria was in vain. The car disappeared from view; the sound of its engine soon became inaudible.
Jennifer bumped into a pile of snow and fell down. All was still again. She was alone, exhausted, cold, with a sinking feeling in her stomach.
I should’ve listened to that colleague of Michaels’s. Victoria. Victoria Fontana! She was so right! She warned me not to make this mistake! The mistake so many women make nowadays! Supporting my husband through graduate school and early career!
Victoria Fontana’s words echoed in Jennifer’s mind, “He’ll dump you later on, for a ‘trophie wife!’ He’ll take your sacrifices for granted!”
Jennifer shook her head with vehemence and tried to reassure herself. No, no! Michael isn’t abandoning me. No, no, no! He isn’t that cruel! Her sobs turned into wails and she began pounding the snow on the ground; it was falling very fast by then. No! It can’t be! It must be a joke! Mike will come back! He’ll be here in no time, to fetch me!
She wept until she felt asleep on a mound of snow, layering the right corner column of the graveyard.
At some point later, she was awakened by someone attempting to raise her from the frozen earth. “Mike? You came back! I knew you would!” she mumbled, her eyes still closed. “I love…!” She opened her eyes and screamed with all her might.
None of the snow-freckled figures surrounding her bore the slightest resemblance to her handsome husband. Some of them were missing their ear lobes, others their noses or part of their lips. Their faces were blotched and discolored. One man hobbled on leg stumps. The hands that made the effort to raise her had only two or three fingers each. The creatures eyed her with curiosity. Jennifer choked on the phlegm in her throat and collapsed.
It is early morning; the ground is covered with a few inches of fresh snow. Two police officers are riding in a patrol car. A voice is coming through their radio.
“Dobson here. No trace of the lepers who escaped from the fire in the farmhouse.” There is a momentary silence and the voice is heard again: “But we found a woman’s body in a corner of the graveyard.”
“Campbell here. Do we have a description of the dead woman?”
The car radio blares once more. “White. Around forty. Five feet five. Average weight. Long, light brown hair. Orange wool scarf. Pink beret and down coat.”
“Possible cause and approximate time of death?”
“Heart failure. Sometime last evening.” Dobson pauses and adds, “There’s a look of horror on her face.”
”She must’ve bumped into the lepers! Continue the search, Dobson!”
“Orange scarf, huh?” The second police officer scratches his chin for a moment.
Turning to his partner, he asks, “Hey, Steve, isn’t that the description given by that guy? The music conductor who reported his wife missing in the cemetery?”
“Yep. You’re right, Joe,” replies Officer Steve Campbell. “Only thing I never quite bought his story.”
“Neither did I, Steve!” Officer Joe Davies nods and adds, “Like, why did he wait until dawn, to call for help?”
“Exactly, Joe! And, why didn’t he make sure his wife was by his side all through the night? There isn’t much light in that cemetery!” Campbell restarts the car and says, “Let’s pay him a visit at his hotel.”
“Yeah, Steve. Let’s nail him!”