Eliza never thought she’d have romance at Christmas. Nothing from her twenty-eight years had given her reason to believe otherwise. But still, when she watched those Hallmark Christmas movies, she couldn’t help but wonder if it would someday happen to her…
Snow drifted down outside the office window, making everything look more like a snow globe than a completely ordinary city street. It was mid-afternoon in late November and the sun was already starting to set somewhere beyond the thick blanket of clouds.
The smell of peppermint and chocolate drifted from a steaming mug on the desk. Eliza sat in her desk chair, wrapped in a fuzzy knit shawl, stirring her hot chocolate unconsciously with a candy cane. It melted slowly, infusing the hot chocolate with a pleasant peppermint flavour. With her other hand she was scrolling through an article she was editing for the magazine.
It was for the first issue of the new year and needed to be done soon, but Eliza found her eyes wandering to the window. The snow was so pretty, coming down in large fluffy flakes. She allowed herself a moment to imagine she was at a ski chalet in the mountains, surrounded by snow-covered pine trees and never-ending wilderness.
Just her and peace and quiet.
A honking car on the street below broke her from her reverie. She checked her watch quickly and flipped the lid of her laptop down. With a sigh and a stretch, she got up from her desk. Leaving her shawl on the back of the chair for tomorrow, she wrapped herself in a red plaid wool peacoat and a red wool scarf to match. She adjusted her scarf so it just about covered her chin—no frostbite for her, thank you very much.
Outside, the winter wind nipped at her cheeks. In the air around her, the snowflakes twirled on the breeze like tiny ballet dancers.
Standing just outside her office, Eliza imagined the life that might’ve been if she’d stayed in dance class as her mom had wanted. A life that would’ve involved rehearsal for the Nutcracker, no doubt. For nearly fifteen years, her life was dance shoes and tutus until the competition had become too much and Eliza had her first panic attack. It took another year of therapy to convince her mother she needed to quit dancing.
In that time, she’d channelled her feelings into writing and found a passion there. Thus, her path changed, and she hung up her pointe shoes and attended a writing program. One undergrad in writing and a Master’s in editing later, she found herself working at this literary magazine. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. There was hard work and plenty of tears. But that wasn’t a very romantic time of her life, so Eliza liked to simply luxuriate in the present.
The bustling city didn’t seem very festive on the surface—all hurrying commuters and people trying to get home for dinner, cars honking at each other, and dirty slushy snow piled next to the road. But, Eliza saw things differently.
She saw the guy selling hotdogs in a Santa hat and the twinkly lights and Christmas trees in the shop windows. Somewhere in the distance, a busker was singing “Last Christmas.” Amongst the snow, it seemed like all was merry and bright.
Was there any place better to relish in the joy of the present than a bookstore? In Eliza’s opinion, there wasn’t. Luckily, there was one just down the street. In a matter of minutes, she reached Parchment & Ink.
The bookstore was a quilted blanket found in an antique wooden box in the attic, smelling of years past and untold stories. It was a patchwork of shelving with every genre imaginable stuffed into them. The books overflowed their shelves and piled on the floor in literary stalagmites. Two friendly and fluffy brown tabby cats either weaved their way in and out between customers’ legs or lounged amongst the books watching everyone with keen green eyes. Their names were Viola and Sebastian—after the Shakespeare play. Eliza once thought she’d figured out which cat was which but still found herself mixing up the two.
It was the only place she felt truly at home outside of her apartment.
Today, soft jazzy Christmas tunes played from a small speaker near the counter next to a cider-scented candle. Many customers at this time of day were those whose need for books exceeded their need for a meal or the comfort of their own home. Eliza’s kind of people.
The middle-aged woman behind the counter waved at her enthusiastically before pulling her long black hair into a pony tale. The name tag on her shirt read Cecelia.
If Eliza imagined “growing up,” she imagined she would be a woman like Cecelia. She didn’t fear age—wouldn’t let anyone in her presence fear it either— and let her streaks of silver hair grow without interference. Cecilia wore vintage band t-shirts and had taught herself how to play guitar after her husband had left her for his assistant.
“The man is a walking cliché,” she’d explained to Eliza one day after the divorce papers had been signed. “But it’s finally given me the freedom to do things for myself.”
The one good thing to come out of the divorce was that Cecilia got full control of the bookstore, and it became even more of a haven for writers, artists, and readers alike.
“Hi, Cecilia, how are you?” Eliza said, dodging past a pre-teen sitting next to a pile of teen fantasy.
“Oh, same old! Life is good! The books are good!”
Cecilia always seemed to speak in exclamation marks and her vivacious nature always drew people to her.
“That’s good to hear,” Eliza said with a smile before disappearing into the stacks. “Will you be coming for dinner on Friday?”
“You know it, Lizzie girl!”
This woman was the closest thing Eliza had to a mother, as both of her parents had died in a tragic car accident the day before her twenty-fifth birthday. Cecilia had taken Eliza under her wing and comforted her in her grief. The bookstore had kept her afloat in the ocean of her pain.
This time of year was always hard, but with Cecilia, the bookstore, and her friends, she got through okay. Even on a good day, she was never one to deprive herself of the company of a new friend. Even if it was only made of paper.
She wound her way through the labyrinth of bookshelves and around book piles. Her favourite thing about the bookstore was its infinite nature. Logically, there had to be an end, but when she was in the middle of it there didn’t seem to be.
There were a couple of people traversing the maze, but Eliza didn’t pay them much attention as she scanned the shelves for something in particular. As she grew closer, her fingers brushed against the book spines. Along and along, until…
Another hand brushed against hers to get at the book she had been just about to grab herself. The hand, which now held the book she desperately wanted, belonged to a person—a man, specifically—wearing a maroon sweater and a charming smile. Waves of black hair fell about his forehead and over his right eye. His eyes were a deep blue-grey, like a November storm, but they sparkled with a certain mischief that softened the effect. He had just the right amount of effortlessly scruffy stubble.
“Sorry, were you after this one?” this stranger asked.
“Yes, I was, actually.”
Eliza stepped back and crossed her arms over her chest. She felt oddly possessive of the book, in her bookstore. What right did this roguish charming-looking fellow have to come here and take her books? He was dressed smartly in his sweater and dark grey slacks and looked like he belonged in a store like this, but she’d never seen him before.
He looked down at the book and Eliza couldn’t help but notice his long black lashes. He smiled to himself as if he was very pleased that it was this particular book that was the cause of their altercation.
“You have good taste,” he said, looking back at her. “But, I’ll have to offer my sincerest apologies. This seems to be the last copy.”
“I should say you have good taste, considering the bookstore you chose to pillage.”
“Pillage?” He said, his lips turning up into a smirk. “Is that what they’re calling lawful transactions of goods for money these days?”
“It’s what I call taking the last copy.” Without stopping herself, she also blurted out, “In my bookstore.”
His eyebrows raised. “Your bookstore? Are you the owner?”
Eliza felt her cheeks turn scarlet as she managed to stammer her way through an explanation. “No, I—uh—just know the owner. She’s like a mother to me.”
“Yes, of course, ownership by proxy. Though, does that count when you’re not blood-related?”
“Maybe not,” Eliza admitted, feeling herself deflate. “I guess I’ll have to admit defeat. You did get to it first.”
“You put up an honourable fight,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Gerard.”
“Eliza,” she responded, slipping her hand into his. It was warm and strong and somehow comforting.
“Well, Eliza, maybe I’ll see you here again.”
There was a hesitation when he let go of her hand, so slight that she thought she might’ve imagined it. She was flustered, grumpy, and didn’t know what to say so she let him go. But, as she walked away she wondered if maybe he had been flirting with her.
It was prosperous, though. These types of things—meeting a guy in a bookstore—never amounted to anything, only reserved for books and movies, so it wasn’t worth another thought. She regretted losing the book, but there were always more to be had. Goodbye book and goodbye mysterious gentleman. Despite what he said, she doubted she would ever see him again.
That is until she saw a small wrapped package on her desk the next morning. The paper was a delicate shade of red with a gold shimmering pattern without any tag.
She looked around as if she could see who might’ve left it on her desk. Of course, not one but her coworkers were around. She made eye contact with one, an older lady by the name of Belinda with a sharp blonde bob and the sharpest eye for grammar Eliza had ever seen. Belinda gave her a knowing look but said nothing.
There was no help for it, she’d have to unwrap it and hope for a clue inside. Though, that wasn’t necessary. Inside was the book.
There was a hand-written note inside, as well, tucked in the first pages on a little scrap of paper. It read: The look on your face was too much to bear. Congratulations, you win.
Eliza frowned and smiled then frowned again. The audacity of this man was something she’d never experienced before because no one in real life would behave like this. She stared down at the note with suspicion as her hands gently caressed her book—returned to her at last.
Did he have any expectations of her? There was no phone number on the note, so maybe it was just some friendly gesture. Did this type of thing even happen anymore? Or at all? It seemed just as likely as meeting a man in a bookstore.
This conundrum played around in her mind all day, leaving her distracted and unable to do much of anything besides write mindless drivel.
When she got out at the end of the day, she couldn’t quite tell if she was surprised or not to see Gerard standing next to the resident coffee stand with two cups in his hands. When he saw her, a smile spread across his face. A dimple appeared in one cheek. It was much too much charm for one man and entirely unfair to be directed at her.
“I guessed you might like a hot chocolate. I asked for the peppermint kind,” he said as she approached.
He held it out to her, though she didn’t immediately take it.
“It’s not poisoned,” he laughed as she took it. “I’m not that much of a sore loser.”
The warmth was nice in her hands and she watched as he took a drink from his cup. “So festive,” he said slowly.
“What are you doing here?”
The smile on his face fell just a little bit—clearly, he wasn’t used to women not immediately falling at his feet.
“What do you—“
“I mean, what do you want from me?”
He looked taken aback. “I’m sorry if I’ve done something to offend you. I was hoping for nothing more than your company if even only for a brief moment.”
“You—I—Who talks like that?” Eliza blurted, feeling suddenly flustered. “You can’t be for real.”
“I assure you, I most certainly am real,” he said, looking as if he was trying not to laugh. “Honestly, Eliza, I could tell you loved that bookstore more than anything and that look on your face when you realized you had lost out on a particular book…” He laughed for a moment. “It’s been a long time since I’ve found anyone as passionate about books as I am. If I was too forward or aggressive, I sincerely apologize.”
Eliza felt herself relax a little. “I didn’t expect to find that book on my desk this morning.”
“The owner–Cecilia was her name, wasn’t it?–noticed our conversation. When I told her I felt bad as I was paying, she casually mentioned where you worked. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“I guess you’ll know better now,” Eliza said, finally taking a sip of her hot chocolate. The soft and fresh peppermint tip-toed across her tongue and warmed her heart—just a little.”
“Oh, I certainly do. Note to self: don’t stalk women you’d like to ask out.”
They both laughed. Snow began softly falling around them.
“You want to ask me out?” Eliza asked. She didn’t know whether it was the sparkle in his eyes or just the magic of the season, but she felt her suspicions melt away. She wanted him to ask her out.
“Very much so.”
“Would walking me home count?”
“Definitely not,” he said, standing up straighter. “But, it will give us enough time to decide where we’d like to go.”
So he walked her back to her apartment building. If Eliza hadn’t been enchanted by him when they first met, she certainly was by the time they made it to her building’s door. The conversation flowed naturally between them as they spoke about their shared love of literature and the city. Gerard laughed easily and Eliza felt as if she could tell him anything. He worked for his father’s company–some fancy finance thing Eliza had almost no interest in–but was waiting for the right moment to take off and make his own way.
“I love my father and I’m grateful for the opportunities he’s given me, but I can’t stay in his shadow forever. The trouble is, I’m not sure what I’m passionate enough about.”
“Books?” Eliza suggested innocently. This seemed to be a weighty topic and Eliza didn’t want to step too deep where she wasn’t welcome.
“How does one make a living with books?” Gerard posited, shooting her a teasing smile. “I’m not a writer, like you, and I’m not business savvy. Books are a dying business, tragically.”
Eliza wasn’t completely sure what to say, but Gerard graciously changed topics and they moved on to happier things. As Eliza watched him speak, she noticed a freckle on the left side of his neck just above where his grey woollen scarf was wrapped. She thought to herself–a completely innocent thought, of course–that she’d like to get to know that freckle more intimately.
Just as she was imagining all the ways she might go about it, they arrived at her door. It wasn’t a particularly interesting door, but it was hers nonetheless.
“This is me,” Eliza said ruefully. If she was being perfectly honest, she enjoyed their time together more than she expected. Something deep inside stirred with something that could be considered, but what was the worst that could happen?
He looked at her with a look that told her he was feeling vaguely similar. “Can I see you again?”
Eliza hid her vast relief with a gentle nod.
After they exchanged phone numbers, they went their separate ways; Eliza into her apartment and Gerard to wherever he had come from… though Eliza found herself very curious.
She wouldn’t have to wait long, though. Soon enough they were seeing each other almost every day. Gerard planned a romantic date night, but as it was blizzarding they settled for a movie in his townhouse while he cooked dinner.
He was a fantastic cook and had surprisingly good taste in furniture and movies. At least in Eliza’s humble opinion.
The two of them were quickly and deeply enamoured with each other. How could they not as they walked hand-in-hand amongst the snow and Christmas lights? They had been doomed the moment they met in the bookstore.
“Would you like to come with me to my family’s ski chalet for Christmas?”
They were having a lunch date almost exactly a week before Christmas and Gerard was looking at her with his deep storm-coloured eyes as if there was a chance she’d say no. Honestly, it took Eliza by surprise. They’d been enjoying their time together, but Eliza didn’t imagine that he’d want her to spend Christmas with his family so soon.
“You don’t need to look so terrified,” Gerard said with a chuckle. “I figured you might want to spend Christmas away from the city for once. Maybe enjoy the peace and quiet in the mountains.”
She almost laughed, thinking about the daydream she had of a ski chalet on the day she’d met Gerard. Either way, it sounded like perfection. She could almost imagine the snow-capped mountains and the forest as far as the eye could see. Then she imagined Gerard’s parents. From what she heard, they were loving and supportive, but how would they react when their eldest son brought a girl he met less than a month ago to stay with them at Christmas?
“Are you sure I wouldn’t impose?”
“Of course not!” He reached over the table and clasped her hands in his. “I want you there. At this point, I can’t imagine being there without you.”
“Nobody talks like that,” Eliza said teasingly, squeezing his hands.
“I do when I’m with you,” Gerard said with a sly grin.
And that is how Eliza found herself with an arm full of red and white roses as a thank-you gift, standing in front of what amounted to a small mansion perched on the edge of a mountain in the middle of a blizzard. Mere hours before, Eliza had been on the phone with Cecilia, reassuring her that she would be fine leaving the city for the holidays.
“Are you sure?” Cecilia asked. “You don’t know these people at all.”
“It’ll be alright,” Eliza said, trying not to sound as if she was convincing herself as well. “Gerard has told me over and over they’re excited to have me.”
“If you say so,” Cecelia said, sounding dubious. “I will miss your shortbread cookies, though.”
The winds whipped her hair around her face, despite her knitted hat, and slashed across her face like icy knives. Snow swirled around her like a cyclone of white and flew off the tops of the swaying evergreen trees. She’d never seen so many in her entire life.
It was intimidating and harsh and beautiful.
The chalet itself was a log cabin expanded to epic proportions. Eliza counted four chimneys, two sun-porches, and a partridge in a pear tree. It was grand and rustic and lavish and cozy. Someone had even hung red and white Christmas lights from all the eves, around all the large windows, and the double door at the front. Two huge wreaths of greenery and red berries were hanging from the doors.
Even in the cold and snow, which should’ve made her miserable, Eliza could be nothing but impressed.
“I guess it’s a little…” Gerard started.
“I was going to say ‘grandiose’.”
Eliza laughed as they joined hands and walked to the door. “That is true, but it’s also elegant and so charming.”
Gerard opened the door for them and led Eliza into a warmth she hadn’t felt in a long time. They walked right into a grand entrance, which looked more like a great room with towering ceilings of exposed wooden beams and golden chandeliers. A huge fir tree decorated with red and gold ornaments stood next to the grand staircase leading off upstairs. As Gerard shut the door, the sound of lashing winds died away and left only the distant ethereal notes of piano Christmas music. The harsh cold and wet smell of the winter night was replaced by the scent of something cooking with onions, rosemary, and sage.
The entire family was waiting in the great room entrance to greet them. They were a row of three–mother, father, and younger brother–wearing matching grey sweaters with ruby-coloured poinsettias on their chests and friendly smiles on their faces. Eliza couldn’t deny she saw the family resemblance; in fact, Gerard looked like a younger version of his father.
“You made it,” Gerard’s mother said, splitting from the group to come to hug Eliza and her son. “Eliza, we are so happy to have you for Christmas.”
“Thank you so much for welcoming me. These are for you.” Eliza said, handing the bouquet of red and white roses mixed with bunches of holly branches. In the snowstorm, the roses had been dusted with snow, outlining the red roses with frosty white.
“These are beautiful,” Gerard’s mother said smiling.
She pulled back for a moment and looked at Eliza as if she were assessing the young woman. It made Eliza’s stomach turn uncomfortably, but it gave her a chance to take in the family.
Gerard’s mother was a stately woman with her dark salt-and-pepper hair pulled back and piled on top of her head and pinned with glittering snowflakes. It was somehow regal and understated at the same time. She was only slightly taller than Eliza herself but seemed to carry herself with much more grace. Her slender nose was dotted with freckles, and her perfume reminded Eliza of the designer stores she’d only ever walked past in the city.
His father looked so much like his son, except for a few key features. His hair was streaked with silver and he was clean-shaven, and he wore silver wire-framed glasses. A scar slashed through his right eyebrow, which gave him a somewhat sinister appearance, but his eyes were warm and lacked the mischief of his son’s.
Gerard’s younger brother, Matthew, looked more like his mother. They had the same sharp sloping nose and striking blue eyes. He was more freckled, which gave him a boyish look. He didn’t look much younger, especially because he was taller than anyone else in the family. Where his family was all dark hair and stately frames, he was light blond and lanky.
“My name is Marie, please make yourself at home,” Gerard’s mother said warmly before taking Eliza’s arm. “I’ll show you to your room.”
Eliza looked back over her shoulder at Gerard but he was already laughing and hugging his brother and father. She caught the eye of Matthew, who looked at her almost apologetically–as if he knew how it felt to be overwhelmed by a strange environment and a house of strangers.
“Don’t worry, Lizzie–is it okay if I call you Lizzie?–I’ll have one of the men bring your bags.”
Marie took her through the chalet. It was bigger than it looked from the outside and there were so many layers of rooms and hallways. Eliza was only able to catch quick glimpses of the rest of the place, but it screamed craftsmanship and detail. She wasn’t sure how, but it looked simultaneously modern but ancient–as if many generations had lived there before. Marie took her past the kitchen and dining room–a huge live-wood table sat in the middle of the room set with five plates–before moving onto a long narrow hallway. One wall was entirely windows, looking out into the stormy winter night, and the other was lined with closed doors. All except for the one at the end.
On the open door there hung a simple wreath made of red alder berries. Through the door, Eliza could see a large fluffy bed with a red knit blanket and one pillow in the middle.
It made sense that Eliza would be in her own room, considering she and Gerard hadn’t been seeing each other that long. In the typical fashion of these places, the bedroom was decorated with white walls and light grey furniture. The room itself looked bigger than her entire apartment and the bed especially looked tantalizing. The frame was made out of what looked to be mahogany and, if it wasn’t antique, it was made to look like something out of the 1800s.
Marie stood at the door and watched Eliza admire the room with her hands clasped in front of her.
“Do you like the room?”
“Oh yes,” Eliza said, “it’s beautiful. The whole place is beautiful.”
Gerard’s mother looked pleased. “Wonderful. I do hope you enjoy your stay with us. It’s been too long sing Gerard has brought someone so lovely home for the holidays.”
“Has he brought many?”
Marie waved her hand dismissively. “Please don’t misunderstand me. I only meant you are a refreshing presence and we look forward to including you in tomorrow’s Christmas Eve festivities.”
“Oh yeah,” Eliza said, nodding her head. “Gerard told me you all do so many fun things on Christmas Eve, but he was a little vague on what the activities actually are.”
Marie clapped her hands and grinned. “You will just have to be surprised.” With that, she grabbed the door and began to close it. “I’ll have Gerard bring your bags and dinner will be ready in half an hour. Please make yourself at home.”
Dinner was roast chicken with rosemary, mashed potatoes smothered in butter, and root vegetables. It was simple, as Marie quickly admitted, but it was delicious.
While Gerard looked most like his dad, his talkative nature he inherited from his mother. They spent most of the meal chatting, asking Eliza questions, and making jokes. Gerard’s father made his opinion known when he needed to, but Matthew looked almost sullen most of the time. Eliza couldn’t pinpoint why, as his mother and brother tried to include him in the conversation. It seemed strange, but perhaps that was just how he behaved around strangers.
After dinner, Eliza and Gerard cleaned up and washed the dishes. As the evening went on, she felt the tension and pressure of being in a new place and around new people–whom she was trying desperately to impress–ease.
“Did I do okay?” Eliza asked, drying the last of the glasses.
“Of course. You were fantastic. I’m sorry my mother is so talkative.”
“No, she’s lovely,” Eliza said, feeling her stomach flutter when she saw the smile on Gerard’s face.
She went to bed that night feeling cautiously optimistic about how the next few days would go. Maybe this was something. Eliza closed the door and the quiet set in. There was a sort of comfort to the quiet after such a hectic day of driving and the whirlwind of meeting Gerard’s family.
But, it was sort of eerie as well. She could hear the wind still whipping by outside the curtained windows. Occasionally, some draft above the ceiling of her room moaned and sounded like the cry of someone in pain. The place certainly didn’t have the feel of somewhere one would see a ghost. At least, that’s what Eliza thought until she saw one.
Eliza didn’t remember getting into bed and going to sleep, but she must have or she wouldn’t have awoken in bed to a dark room. There was no bedside clock to tell her the time and she didn’t remember where she’d left her phone. But, it was dark. The storm had quieted at some point, but that just left an obtrusive silence in its wake.
The chalet made no sounds and, despite knowing it was inhabited by four other people, she felt horrifically alone. She didn’t even know where Gerard’s room was.
Out of the darkness and silence came the softest noise. The hint of a whimper.
Eliza held her breath for a moment to listen and the unmistakable sound of someone crying could be heard. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t just pull the covers over her head and try to go back to sleep. Instead, she carefully tiptoed out of bed. She felt around in the dark for some form of light and found the bedside lamp. She fumbled in the dark, trying to turn on the lamp but the switch didn’t work.
Though, she did find a metal candle holder with a candle on her bedside table as well. Next to it was a box of matches. After fumbling around, she managed to light one and held it to the candle. With the warm flickering light of the candle, she padded her way to the door.
She opened it slowly, turning the handle all the way before pulling it open, so it wouldn’t make a sound. The night outside the windows gave no light to the hallway beyond, but Eliza heard the crying more clearly now.
It was close. Behind one of the other doors.
Eliza crept along the hallway, trying to be as quiet as possible. She paused at each door for a moment, listening for the sound.
She tried one of the doors, thinking that may be it. Locked. But the one next door opened.
Inside was just as dark as the rest of the house but as she stepped forward into the room, her candle illuminated a single figure.
The room itself was bare except for a layer of dust that had accumulated on the floor. A certain smell of mould and decay lingered in the air. The crying figure was huddled on the floor with its arms wrapped around its legs, in a sitting fetal position. It wore something long and black, which covered most of its body. Spreading out from beneath them, along the floorboards, was this smear of dark red. There was no other sound, except their soft sobs.
The sobbing stopped. The figure turned its head, revealing the skeletal face of a woman, with the blackened remains of her skin clinging tightly to the bone. Blood-red tears streamed down her sunken cheeks, but there were no eyes in the black holes of her skull. Her stringy dark hair hung about her like a funeral veil.
This woman reached a boney hand towards her, pointing a single finger, and opened her jaw wide.
The word seemed to come from a place not quite in the room but from the room itself. The sound–dry and cracked like stone dragged across concrete–swallowed her whole and caused her to stumble back into the hall. She dropped the candleholder, which clattered on the ground. Melted wax splattered in a shape, not unlike the bloodstain on the floor.
The figure began to crawl towards her. Dragging itself along the floor with one hand and reaching out to her with another. Her mouth was agape and her tears dripped onto the floor, leaving little red stains as she went.
Eliza sprinted back to her room, the candle left forgotten on the floor and shut the door behind her. She struggled with the lock but managed to turn it into place.
Silence had returned. There was no sound of the figure’s boney body dragging itself along the floor. No more words were spoken from some unholy place. But, Eliza was not comforted.
She stood there in the dark, shaking and trying to breathe again. Her heart continued pounding long after she lay back down, so she stared at the ceiling–despite seeing the gaunt terrible face of the skeletal woman looking back at her. Even behind her eyelids, she saw it.
She must have fallen asleep again at some point because she opened her eyes again and the yellow-white light of a crisp and clear December morning was streaming in. The outside peered through the gap in the curtains, showing itself to be a snowy wonderland.
Eliza got up and went to the window and saw what the storm had left behind; glittering snow which covered the trees in heavy duvets of white powder. It looked truly magical. The surface of the snow was so smooth and perfect. In the trees, birds flitted back and forth and beyond lay the sprawling mountainside.
All of the fright from last night melted away. It must’ve been a dream. The thought gave her some relief, though the dark clouds on the horizon indicated another storm was coming.
The smell of breakfast lured Eliza from her room, still shy as a guest in a strange home, but she was greeted by four warm smiles.
“Happy Christmas Eve! How did you sleep, Lizzie?” Marie asked from behind the counter of the kitchen island, where she was monitoring the progress of toast in a toaster. Gerard’s father was cooking eggs and bacon on the stove.
“I slept well, thank you.”
Matthew turned slightly to look at her from his spot on a bar stool, which was pulled up to the kitchen island. He didn’t say anything but just stared. Eliza tried not to look at him, but she could feel the weight of his gaze on her.
Gerard came and planted the gentlest kiss on her forehead. “You doing okay?”
Eliza simply smiled up at him and nodded.
No one mentioned the candle, which hadn’t been on the floor when Eliza walked by. The hallway looked as if nothing had happened last night. Another reason why it must have been a dream. It had to be.
“Would you like some eggs?”
The day continued in a similar matter, but with all the expected cheer and festive merriment of the holiday. Despite the large and beautifully adorned tree near the front door, the men brought in a smaller fresh tree to be placed by the grand fireplace and decorated.
“This is where the gifts will be tomorrow morning,” Gerard explained cheerfully as he handed her a glittering silver bauble for the tree.
Marie drifted back and forth from the tree decorating to the kitchen again to make cookies. Making it all look effortless and keeping the mood cheery. Laughter always filled the room when she was there.
Despite Eliza’s best efforts, she couldn’t get more than a few words out of Matthew. And, while he seemed cordial enough, Gerard’s father seemed distant too. Eliza figured this was simply because she was somewhat of an interloper in their family traditions.
She tried to stay happy and accepted the hot chocolates filled with marshmallows shaped like Santa, especially when she saw how happy it made Gerard, but she couldn’t help feeling much like an outsider. Even before she’d lost her parents, they never celebrated quite like this; with the music and the decorations and the constant supply of Christmas cookies.
After the tree, it was time to make and decorate gingerbread houses. Gerard and Eliza decorated their own smaller cottage, while the three other family members decorated the larger gingerbread mansion. In the typical manner of brothers, it ended up being a bit of a competition.
As the day grew older, the clouds darkened the world around the chalet. The night seemed to be coming much faster than seemed normal even for a late December day. Stepping away from the warmth and laughter of the family was like being in a different house altogether.
When Eliza excused herself from the after-lunch game of Christmas charades to use the washroom, the rest of the house felt dim and empty in comparison. It didn’t help that the bathroom was in the windowless interior of the chalet and Eliza couldn’t find the light switch. But, she’d almost made it when she heard a sound which made her blood freeze in her veins: the sound of bone scraping across the floor.
Eliza couldn’t move, though the sound seemed to be coming from behind her. Her body seemed to move by itself, turning until she was facing the source of the awful scraping sound.
This time the figure was standing, dragging her bony feet beneath the tattered black robe. Her posture was slouched and crooked like her spine wasn’t quite enough to hold up the rest of her body. The smell of death hit Eliza in a way it hadn’t the night before. She felt stomach bile rise in her throat, but she couldn’t do anything but stare.
A skeletal hand was reaching towards her once again and her jaw was slack and open, from which a horrible sound was being emitted.
Before the ghastly figure could reach Eliza, she turned and her wasted hand now pointed at a plain closet door. She shuffled her gaunt body towards the door and, with a final mournful groan, passed through it.
It wasn’t a dream, after all.
Hesitantly, Eliza opened the door. Behind was only a closet, with nothing but some brooms a mop and cleaning supplies. No ghost.
But, there had to be something in the closet the ghost wanted her to see.
The closet was just big enough for one person and she as she took a step in, the floorboard beneath her foot squeaked and shifted. She lifted her foot and the board slipped back into place. It might’ve just been a loose floorboard–simply a coincidence–or it was a clue.
She knelt and jiggled the board until it lifted. The black chasm beneath frightened her more than she would’ve thought possible. How could this exist under the chalet? Why might’ve been a more appropriate question.
A gaunt hand reached out of the darkness, sending Eliza falling backwards. It grasped at the air before falling forward, and the fingers dragged along the floor before it disappeared back into the hole. Cautiously, Eliza crept forward and peered down into the hole. It didn’t take much looking to find what the spectre has wanted her to see.
Even in the darkness, she could see the bones piled as if it was nothing but rubbish.
Again, Eliza stumbled back, hands grasping at whatever they could find to stabilize her. There was nothing but a smooth hardwood floor. At once she was simultaneously breathing too hard and not at all. Her heart pounded out of her chest as she tried to stand, though her legs trembled. She had to get out.
She pulled herself up off the floor, thinking only one thing: run. Her mind swirled and tilted like a carnival ride, leaving her unable to navigate through the maze of halls. One hand she kept firmly planted on the wall as if the touch of something solid would stabilize her long enough to find the way out.
“Eliza? What’s wrong?”
It was Gerard’s voice. It should’ve been a beacon of light in the dark, but what if…
She’d stumbled her way back into the room where the family had been playing Christmas charades. They all stared at her now, their faces white and knowing.
She couldn’t speak as she continued her mad rush to escape.
Somehow she navigated herself to the front door and wrenched it open. The freezing air caught her and pulled her forward. The storm had come again, closing the space around the chalet to nothing but a violent snow globe. It was an escape, but only from those inside. She was trapped by the treacherous mountainside and the vortex of snow.
She could hardly feel the cold as she trudged forward toward the forest that surrounded the chalet. The snow was almost up to her knees, but nothing but a literal wall of ice would have stopped her. When she hit the line of trees, she felt a moment of comfort, but it passed as quickly as it had come.
Voices called out from the open door. Spots of forest were suddenly illuminated by flashlights. They were trying to find her. But, Eliza would not be found if she could help it. On shaking legs, she moved deeper into the forest. Her eyes searched for somewhere to hide, but it was almost impossible to see through the snow and the approaching darkness. She had to do something.
Farther and farther she went, though she couldn’t be sure how far she was going. She broke through the trees into something of a meadow. The wind calmed for a moment, making it easier to see.
Eliza braced herself on the trunk of a tree to keep from completely collapsing, as she brought air into her lungs as fast as she could.
The voices seemed a little closer and light bounced around amongst the trees. For a moment, the light hit something that wasn’t a tree. In the near darkness and snow, it was hard to make out, but it was indeed the shape of a person standing at the edge of the trees. A light passed over the shape again, enough to confirm the squared shoulders and towering form. In their hands, a knife glinted.
Despite the spots in her vision, Eliza scrambled backwards, merely falling into the snow.
The shouts grew quiet and she could hear the distinct sound of crunching snow as the shadow stalked toward her. A single scream echoed through the trees, but was quickly swallowed by the wind and went unheard by any living soul.