posted by Leann Sweeney

This is a short story I wrote a long time ago, but I thought I'd pull it out of the vault for Christmas. I hope it speaks to at least one of you. Happy Holidays everyone.

Featured Story: Dying Embers by Leann Sweeney
Wicked ice glittered in the dark as winter’s harsh promise echoed through the trees that Christmas Eve. Wind-blown snow stung my cheeks as the five of us tottered and slid toward the car. We were moving on to the next leg of our Christmas visits, my mother the last one in line on the sidewalk as we came out of my aunt's house.

I was already sitting in the car when she tripped and fell. For an awful instant we stared at her sprawled on the sidewalk, our entire family frozen like some grotesque ice sculpture.

Then she lifted her head to get up, but her hands kept slipping, and I could see first one shiny, black drop of blood and then another, blending with the dirty slush beneath her.

I climbed over my sister and got out of the car to help her, but my father, who had hurried around from the driver's side, grabbed my shoulder and stopped me.

"Get back in the car, Amanda," he said.

My mother had made it to her knees by then and as I withdrew, I saw him roughly lift her up by one elbow. She was cupping her chin as she struggled into the front seat and a trickle of blood glistened where it snuck between her fingers. She pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed at the jagged cut, her usually dull brown eyes alive with pain.

"The cleaners will charge and an arm and a leg to get blood out of that coat," my father said, as he slid behind the wheel.

"I think I need stitches," said my mother, her voice thick with all the spiked eggnog she'd had to drink after dinner.

My brother Nat, who was sitting on my left, pressed his nose against the window and pounded his fist against the door. "Can't we go to Uncle Stan's first? You said I could play with Darren."

"We're not going to Stan's--or to any emergency room. We're going home." The angry white circle surrounding my father's lips took on the green tint of the dashboard lights as he started the engine. "How would I explain that my lush of a wife tripped over her own feet?"

My little sister buried her head in my arm and I could feel her shoulders shake with familiar, silent sobs. Being five, Kelly still thought tears useful, or at least unstoppable. Being twelve, I knew better.

We drove the short distance from our aunt's house, my brother pushing the door lock up and down ... up and down ... my sister sniffing and clutching my arm. As we pulled up to our house, the Christmas tree flashing in the window made me feel like we'd all told a gigantic lie. Could it really fool the outside world into believing that the people who lived in this house were like everyone else?

Under the porch light, I noticed the blood-soaked Kleenex had left red-brown stains on my mother's fingers. She stumbled over the doorstep as she followed my father inside, and the three of us trailed after them like prisoners of war, recaptured after a near escape.

I lifted Kelly to my hip and she rested her golden head against my neck, planting the forbidden thumb in her mouth. My father exploded, his rage filling the room like black, choking smoke.

"It's a good thing no one saw you!" he shouted. He lit his cigarette with shaky hands while my mother lowered herself onto the sofa.

We three edged toward the stairs, taking a path along the wall, as far from the bitterness as possible. I smelled the burned match as we passed the first landing, so I climbed faster, before the odor of Kools could attach to my hair. Nat went into his room and I could hear him rat-a-tatting his make-believe machine gun as Kelly and I continued up to the attic.

The triangular window in our makeshift bedroom framed a few wandering snowflakes in the starless night as my parents’ raised voices drifted up. I was thankful walls and distance softened them.

After I undressed Kelly, she tucked Gordon Bear close to her chin as she curled in bed facing the wall. I lay down beside her, wishing a stuffed toy could ease the heaviness in my chest, but I knew only sleep would bring relief.

"Will Santa come, Amanda? Won't he be afraid of Mommy and Daddy yelling?" asked Kelly.

"Of course he'll come. He doesn't care about parents’ arguments. He comes for the kids." I fingered one of her curls and wrapped an arm around her. I needed to believe my own words, but hope failed to rescue me that night.

I pulled my pillow over my ears and slipped into sleep, after praying they would give up their argument long enough to put at least one of Kelly's wishes under the tree ... and something for Nat ... anything to make it seem like someone else's Christmas.

It could have been minutes or hours later when I opened my eyes. What had awakened me?

I sat up and immediately felt the chill. Through the window, I saw that the snow had been replaced by dazzling stars in a clearing sky, and I moved away from Kelly's warmth, breathing in the frigid attic air. I tiptoed to the stairs and saw the glow of a light bending the corner and casting shadows up the narrow hallway. I heard no voices raised in trouble--only sweet silence.

I slowly descended and warmth embraced me as I approached the living room. But what was that strange odor? Not cigarettes. No ... it smelled like burning wood.

How odd, since we never used our fireplace. Too much to clean up, my mother always said. But when I reached the entry to the living room, I saw a woman sitting near the hearth, her face reflecting the orange and yellow flames.

A stranger.

It seemed as if I were gliding a few inches above the floor as I approached her. She offered a welcoming smile and her hand reached out to me.

"I've been waiting for you. She had music in her voice ... magic in her eyes.

"For me?" My own voice sounded small, as if it wasn't coming from inside my head.

"Don't you know who I am?" she asked.

"No." But she did seem familiar.

"You summoned me, didn't you?"

"I don't remember." Suddenly, I felt a quiver of fear in my stomach. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe I was the wrong girl. Then the sadness of the evening flooded back and as the sting of tears burned my eyes, I willed them back by biting my lip.

"You beckoned me, Amanda. From that place in time before you find sleep." Her mouth softened and her crimson lips eased into a smile.

"I guess I must have called you, if you came," I whispered, afraid to speak louder, afraid any small sound might make her disappear.

"Come here." She patted her lap and floated her hand toward me again.

As before, I felt as if I had wings on my heels, and they were lifting me ... carrying me to her. Then I was in her lap, my twelve year-old legs, skinny and long, not even touching the floor as they should have.

She was dressed in ruby velvet, her lace collar rippling beneath my fingers as I traced the curves across her chest. Her hand, ivory-smooth, stroked my arm.

"Tell me what you wish for," she whispered. "What do you want more than anything?"

"A family like other people's." How easily the impossible words spilled out.

"But you already have a mother and father ... and a sister and brother, don't you?"

"But my mother ... she gets drunk a lot and my father is always yelling." A tear slipped unexpectedly down my cheek and I watched in horror as it splashed onto her dress, darkening and spreading. Soon another escaped before I could stop it. I swiped at my eyes. "I'm sorry," I mumbled, struggling to leave her lap before I caused more damage, but she held me tight and drew me closer.

"Only the one who sees the invisible can do the impossible. Do you know what that means, Amanda?"

A blush warmed my face. "No," I answered.

She tightened her arms, folding me in, pressing me close. "It's time, you know."

"Time for what? Time for you to leave?"

She shook her head. "You're a smart girl. You'll figure it out."

My eyes felt heavy and I put my ear next to her heart. Listening to the slow, steady rhythm, I was soon asleep.

I awoke the next morning to the sun streaking through the tiny window, filling the attic with morning promise. I was lying on my back and watching Kelly stretch her chubby arms above her head.

Her eyes widened with excitement as she remembered this was Christmas day. "Can we see what Santa brought?"

"Sure," I said. "But put on your slippers. It's cold this morning." Then I remembered. If the fire was still burning, then­ The fire?

I recalled its warmth, when I talked to the lady in the velvet dress. I shook my head to clear the images. It seemed so real, and unlike most of my dreams, I knew this one wouldn't fade quickly because I could still feel her with me, this ... this Christmas spirit.

We stopped and woke Nat on our way down, then peeked in on our parents. They both were sleeping, my father's snores filling their bedroom.

When we reached the living room, I saw that although last night had ended in an argument, my mother and father had managed to keep Santa alive one more year. Kelly giggled with delight at the doll with yellow ringlets like her own and Nat played a new version of war with his latest plastic gun. And I found the journal I had asked for, its fabric cover wild with roses.

The mantle clock chimed nine times and I wondered how long they would sleep. Every year it seemed later, but then every year she drank more eggnog.

Then the sound of the doorbell startled me. I pulled my robe tighter as I went to answer, peering through the peephole to see my Aunt Grace, her arms loaded with packages. I opened the door and apologized for my still-sleeping parents. I was the family expert at apologies, after all.

"That's okay, Amanda. I'm early," she said. "Uncle Ned dropped me off and went for firewood. I had no doubts the three of you would be up, that's for sure." She placed the stack of presents on the sofa, as she glanced at Kelly, who was busily changing her new doll's clothes.

"I don't care what your mother says. We're having a fire today." Then her eyes disappeared in the wrinkles of a smile.

Familiar eyes.

"Did Santa bring what you wanted?" she asked, messing my hair.

Music in her voice.

"I think maybe he did, Aunt Grace." I nodded. Now I understood. "Do you have time to talk about something? It's kind of a problem I have."

Her eyebrows moved together. "That's a serious face, Amanda. What could a twelve-year-old be worried about on Christmas morning?"

I wasn’t supposed to tell. I knew I shouldn’t. The unspoken rules were the ones you never broke. I could feel my heart pounding fast and my mouth seemed so dry.

"You look like you've seen a ghost. Come on, Amanda. I’ll make coffee and we can chat." Aunt Grace took my hand and started to lead me to the kitchen. As we walked past my brother and sister, who were lost in toys and games, I took a deep breath, searching for the courage to speak the first sentence.

When I told her about whiskey bottles in the laundry basket, would she think I was lying? When I told her I had seen my father push my mother against a wall in anger, would she make excuses for him? Would she pat my hand and say 'don't tell anyone else, dear?' Or would she say 'let's not spoil Christmas with this unpleasantness?'

Maybe it could wait. I could talk to her another time.

But as we paused by the fireplace, what I saw grabbed and held me for a second. I blinked, then squeezed Aunt Grace's hand, knowing that the lady in velvet was right. It was time. Time to do the impossible. I glanced back for one last look, still amazed at what I saw smoldering on the blackened brick.

The dying embers.

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