In September of 2003, I lost the man who was everything to me growing up. My grandfather was as close to a father as I would get, and he was probably one of the strongest men I’ve ever known. From late 2001 until his passing, he went through a great many changes in his life, and his strength was sapped beyond repair.
That Christmas was hard on us all. Due to family conflict, we were missing half of the extended family, and the other quarter all had other commitments that day. To go from being a family of about 35, down to myself and the girls, my two brothers and my mom… it was heartbreaking. Memories of Christmases past haunted me like no other day. I could look out the porch window and imagine my grandparent’s old two-story, alive with their four kids, three in-laws, and nine grandchildren. Not to mention the uncle (divorced from my grandfather’s sister, but still part of the family), and their ‘adopted’ son, who’d grown up with their kids after being sent here to recover from polio in the fifties. A lot of what-ifs hovered sadly in my mind that day.
The sadness in my mother’s house was palpable. None of us really wanted to celebrate Christmas, and I’d already celebrated Yule with my circle-mates. A tension gripped us all as though we were going through the motions only because we had to. And that was exactly what we were doing.
Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, my mother nearly had a meltdown over not having the right kind of cranberry sauce. Granted, this could have been the grief and the overall atmosphere, but I doubt it. There was cranberry jelly, and crushed cranberry sauce. We could have made do, and probably would have, but… I volunteered to go over to my grandparent’s to rummage through the pantry and see if there was a can of whole berry sauce there.
It broke my heart to go into that house and remember the few Christmases the family had there. It was my grandfather’s dream home, the one he designed himself, and built himself for the most part. He was in the very walls, literally. He poured his heart and soul into building that house. When I stood in the breezeway, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness of the house, I remembered standing in the old house, the first Christmas that we spent in the new one. I’d snuck out and gone over to the old house and just stood where we should have been eating dinner.
I stood there, somewhere between the old and the new, when a familiar scent caught my attention. Gillette shaving cream and Right Guard antiperspirant. I shrugged it off, and mounted the stairs to the kitchen and dining room. The further I went down the hall, the stronger the smell, and by the time I was at the kitchen, I was nearly in tears. Grandpa.
The cranberry sauce was right there, at the front of the middle shelf. All by itself, away from the canned goods and the dry goods. Just waiting. As I closed the pantry door, I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise, and a shiver run down my spine. I was being watched, and I knew I was alone in the house.
I took a few steps toward the bathroom, but decided I really didn’t want to look in there, not when I could still smell the shaving cream and the Right Guard… only now I could also detect just the faintest whiff of Listerine, as well. I turned right, and zipped down the hallway and down the stairs as quickly as I could – not from fright, but from grief. It hurt, smelling the familiar smells of my grandfather getting ready to go out and about. I stopped, though, when I was able to see across the landing and down the hall.
I had to. The whistling really wasn’t something I could ignore. See, my grandfather had a very distinctive way of whistling when he was happy, or when he was working, or when he was getting presentable. Particularly when he was getting presentable. I even recognized the tune, this time – it sounded very much like he was whistling “I Ain’t Been Long.” I don’t know what it’s real title is, but that’s what we all called it. I listened for several seconds, and finally found my voice.
“Dinner’s almost ready, Grandpa, come on over.”
The whistling stopped, and I left the house. As I started up the steps to the door at mom’s, I turned around to look back at my grandparent’s house. There in his bedroom window, stood Grandpa, looking out and smiling. I waved, and he was gone.
Jodi Lee is publisher and editor in chief of Belfire Press and The New Bedlam Project. Her writing has appeared in several recent anthologies as well as magazines on and offline for the past decade. Having shelved her first novel for the time being, she is currently working on two (or three) novels set in the fictional town of New Bedlam.
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