Fiction: Heirlooms

Every day at midnight between December 1st and December 25th I'll be posting new genre fiction about Christmas Eve. Today's a short horror story called "Heirlooms".

By: Erin L. Snyder

The box was gold, decorated with pearl-white ribbons and silver beads, many of which had fallen off over the years. Teresa took a handkerchief and wiped off some of the accumulated dust from the outside before continuing.

“Alice. Alice, dear,” she said. “Please come sit with me.” Her daughter came over and sat cross-legged on the floor. “No, Dear. Up on the couch.” Teresa never raised her voice around her daughter. Alice was special. She was smart, but there’d always been something different about the girl. She didn’t see the world quite the same way as other children. A few years earlier, Teresa had taken Alice to see an old college friend of hers who taught psychology at the University. She’s not autistic, her friend had said, somewhat apologetically. At least, I don’t think she is. You should really have her checked out by a therapist specializing in developmental psych. Teresa had thanked her friend, for what it was worth. Of course, if she could have afforded a real psychologist, she wouldn’t have bothered with an associate professor in the first place. But unlike her friend, she hadn’t gone to grad school and landed a nice job. No, Teresa had gone the other route and got married right after graduation. Nevermind how that worked out.

Teresa smiled at the girl, who seemed on the verge of losing interest. “There’s something I want to show you. Something very, very special. This box has been in our family for a long, long time. My mother gave it to me years ago. Do you remember your grandmother?”

Alice shook her head.

“Well. Tell you the truth, there are days I can’t remember her so well either. But that’s what’s special about this box. When I open it every year, it’s like she’s right here with me.” Teresa slowly lifted the lid, revealing an interior lined in faded blue velvet. Inside, there were a dozen colored glass bulbs, each containing a name painted on in black lettering. “Everyone in our family gets one eventually.” With exceptional care, Teresa pulled out the first layer, revealing another beneath it. “See? This blank one is going to be mine. And this one? Guess whose name will be on that someday.” She looked to her daughter, who was staring blankly at the bulbs.

Teresa set them aside, and finally her daughter looked up. Her lower lip was quivering just the slightest bit. “Mom. Don’t put us there.”

Teresa had no choice but to laugh. “Honey, everyone in our family gets a bulb. It’s nothing bad. It’s a tradition. It’s something we have connecting us to them.”

Alice stared at her mother. It looked like she wanted to argue, but she didn’t say anything.

“Now then. Would you like to help me hang them on the tree?” Teresa asked. Her daughter still sat silently, so she brought the first few bulbs over to the tree and started to hang them. “This one says ‘Albert.’ Albert was one of my mother’s uncles. This one’s Lawrence. To be honest, Alice, I don’t even know who that is, but we can look him up in the albums later. And this one, the one that says Pauline, that was my mother’s mother. You know what that makes her, Alice? Your--”

The sound of shattering glass exploded behind her, and Teresa spun in shock to see her daughter standing over the shards of a bulb. A cloud of blueish dust was settling among the broken pieces, and Teresa gasped. “Alice,” she said, rushing over. “Why did you do that?”

But Alice wouldn’t answer.

Later that night Teresa tucked her daughter into bed. The punishment for the incident had been severe: a week with no television, including tonight. Alice had missed out on her Christmas Eve movie.

“Hi, Hon,” Teresa said. She’d cried earlier after sending Alice to her room, and she hated herself for it. The bulbs, for all their sentimental attachment, were just things. Objects, not people. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Alice nodded, but she was lying. Teresa could always tell when her daughter wasn’t honest with her. “Sweetie. If you’re up for talking about it, I’d like to know why you broke the ornament. Was it an accident?”

Alice shook her head.

“I didn’t think so. Now, you know the ornaments are important to me, don’t you?”

Alice nodded.

“So then. What happened?”

Alice bit her lower lip. Then she looked her mother in the eye. “I heard them,” she whispered. “Couldn’t you hear them?”

“Hear who, Dear?”

At first Alice didn’t say anything. Her eyes darted around the room, as if she expected something else to appear. Then, after enough time had passed, she said, “It’s not just the names.”

“What names? The names on the bulbs? Honey, those are people who are related to you. They’re... they’re family.”

“I know,” Alice said. “They need help.”

“No one needs your help. You’re imagining things.”

Alice shook her head again. “They’re trapped,” she said, before burying her head beneath the sheets.

After tucking Alice in, her mother retreated back downstairs. She poured herself a scotch, and collapsed on the couch, where she could look at the tree. The ornaments were all on it now, hanging beautifully, reflecting the multi-colored lights and tinsel. She caught sight of the one with her mother’s name on it, and for the briefest of instants thought she saw her face. She smiled, marveling at the magic of Christmas and memory, and she thought back on the woman who’d raised her. She wondered if she’d given her anywhere near as much trouble as Alice gave her.

“Not likely,” she laughed, finishing off her scotch. Then she retrieved her daughter’s presents from the closet, dumped half a pound of candy into the stockings, and headed up to bed.

She woke abruptly, unsure what had startled her, but sure something was wrong. A moment later, she heard a crash, and then another. She leapt out of bed, ran out of her bedroom and started down the stairs. The room was partially illuminated by the Christmas lights, but was otherwise dark. “Alice!” she screamed. “Stop!”

Her daughter was standing at the foot of the tree, surrounded by shards of glass from a half-dozen shattered bulbs. She was barefoot and cut - there were streaks of blood along the floor.

Alice saw her mother and frantically pulled the next bulb down then dashed it against the floor. It exploded outward, leaving a blue puff of dust behind. Teresa charged the stairs while her daughter pulled down two more and hurled them beside the last. One broke; the other didn’t. Alice didn’t hesitate: she stomped down hard on the one that remained. She cringed as she stepped away, blood dripping from her foot, but she kept going, grabbing another and dashing it against the hardwood.

Teresa spun around the post at the end of the banister. But then she stopped. And the blood rushed from her face as the cloud of dust from the bulb her daughter just smashed rose up and passed in front of her face. Teresa fell back, clutching a hand to her mouth as the cloud disappeared in front of her.

She fell against the coatrack and watched as her daughter pulled down the remaining bulbs, one by one, and destroyed them. She watched the blue clouds spill out of the broken shells and drift through the room. Some faded through walls or ceilings; others just vanished into the air itself.

She wanted to laugh. Or cry. Or scream.

If she’d looked closer earlier, would she have seen? She’d thought it dust. Some remnant left over from their construction decades before. She’d barely given it a moment’s consideration.

But it wasn’t dust. Dust didn’t move like that. And dust certainly didn’t have a face.

When it was done, she crawled towards her daughter, who limped towards her. When they met, Teresa lifted Alice up, so she wouldn’t keep walking on her cut feet. Teresa was crying now, and she brushed Alice’s hair away from her face. The girl was clearly in pain, but mainly she just looked relieved. Teresa stuttered, but Alice interrupted her.

“They’re free now. They’ve been trapped for a long, long time, but they’re now they’re free.”

Teresa looked at the shards in stunned silence. When she’d hung them, she’d always felt a connection to her family. Like her mother had been there. Like Christmas was magic and could make anything happen.

Maybe Christmas was magic. But not all magic is good.