I styled this tale in the old English tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas eve and/or Christmas night. The stories were usually meant to creep in on you and slowly get under your skin. The Christmas Ghost Stories were not typically visceral or gory and they often relayed a larger social message. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens was a story that came about because of this tradition. I rushed to get this story posted before the holiday so I didn’t go over it as much as I would have liked to. So, if you see any mistakes or type-o’s be sure to let me know so I can correct them. Thanks.
This is a little longer in length than the stories I have posted here in the past, so give yourself at least a 10 minute window to read this.
Anyways, this is my gift to you on this holiday. Enjoy
It was seventeen years ago, when we lost Uncle Bernie. His passing had changed the whole dynamic of the family and our holiday celebrations were never the same. The strange circumstances regarding his death and the haunting aspects of that year’s holiday bring chills to my spine and an unsettled feeling to my soul. Even now, so many years later and an adult, I get the willies as the Christmas Holiday grows nearer.
I picked up my cellphone, checked for messages and turned the sound off. Noting that I had gathered the attention of everyone at the table, I had no choice but to continue relaying the story of Uncle Bernie’s disappearance though I was loathed to do so.
Every year, on Christmas day, after opening our presents, we had to get dressed and prepared for our trip. We bundled up and packed the holiday fruitcake for the long ride from Long Island to upstate, NY. Our family jumped into my dad’s Dodge Durango for our yearly Christmas pilgrimage to Aunt Tilly’s. It seemed unfair to me and my sister Brianna, that we had to leave our fun behind shortly after opening Christmas gifts, but Mom allowed us to take two items each for the trip, provided they would fit in the trunk with the rest of the celebratory items.
An early morning snowfall had slowed traffic to a crawl and the George Washington Bridge resembled a drive-in theater. Despite the four-wheel drive, it was slow moving through the icy mountain roads. Plow trucks kept the snow from piling up, but Route 17 still resembled an ice skating rink. It was nearly days’ end when we turned onto the extended driveway leading to our holiday destination. We were the last family to get to Aunt Tilly’s.
It was truly a perfect winter scene, a Currier and Ives painting come to life for the Christmas holiday. Aunt Tilly’s country home, a medium-sized Victorian, with a decorated porch and snow covered peaks, waited warmly at the end of the long snow shoveled path. The home was decorated elegantly with white and blue twinkle lights, red ribbons, and gold bells. A large wreath with gold balls adorned the front door. A ten-foot blue spruce in the front yard was decorated likewise, donning white lights, red bows and giant gold ornaments. The snow that had fallen earlier in the day reflected the lights and colors in the waning daylight. After Uncle Frank had passed away, Aunt Tilly hired a crew to decorate the home for the holiday every year. As we exited the vehicle, a small tuft of smoke billowed from the chimney and a golden orange fire in the fireplace was in view through the large bay window adjacent to the front door.
The party was in full swing as we greeted everyone, Uncle Bernie, Uncle Nash and Aunt Barbara, Cousin Jimmy and his fiancé, Kim, and of course Aunt Tilly. After the greetings, we went to our guest room to unpack and settle in. Mom and Dad were talking and I was at the age where I was interested in the talk of adults. Mom was saying to Dad, “I saw Aunt Tilly give Uncle Bernie money, about two-hundred dollars.” My ten-year-old curiosity got the best of me and I butted in.
“Why did Aunt Tilly give Uncle Bern money?”
“Why don’t you mind your own beeswax,” was my father’s response. My Mom was a bit more diplomatic.
“We don’t won’t to repeat that, Peter.”
“Because Uncle Bern is very private and very proud and he wouldn’t want everyone to know that he needed to borrow money. Do you understand?”
I said, yes, but I really didn’t see why there was a big deal. I understood when I was older, but at the time I didn’t. Soon after, we went back downstairs for Christmas dinner and that year I stayed at the table for all the adult talk afterward. Some of it I understood and laughed along with the adults. Some of it I didn’t understand, but I do remember the discussion that led up to Uncle Bern’s sudden outburst.
‘Well, what do you suppose we do, what would be a fair tax rate to you Nash?” My Dad was saying.
“Nothin’,” Uncle Nash yelled. He was loud and boisterous and his voice filled the dining-room. “…that’s what we should be paying for taxes, nothin! Bunch a money grubbing lazy scum collecting welfare and unemployment, eating up all my profits.”
“You do realize that taxes go into building roads and infrastructure which enables people to get to your stores.”
“There would be roads, I’d build them myself, ha, ha. All the roads would lead right to the front door of my store.”
“And what about garbage collection?” Cousin Jimmy asked.
“Don’t need that either. I have three trucks, can haul my own garbage to the dump.”
“Well that’s great Nash, but not everyone is as lucky as you…” my Mom was saying but got cut off by Uncle Nash.
“Lucky nothin’. I got what I got outta’ talent.”
“And your father-in-law handing you an already successful business, no reflection on you Barbara,” my Dad said.
“No, don’t drag me into this. I don’t get involved in my husband’s business.”
“Let me tell you something, I have to claw and scratch to save every dollar from going to taxes. Do you realize my association has sent a quarter million to the lobbyists in DC to fight for us?”
“If you just paid the taxes it would probably cost less.”
“It’s not the money, it’s the principle. When we get the right person in office, someone with balls, he’ll cut out Welfare and Social Security and Medicare and all that freebee nonsense…”
Aunt Tilly finally looked up from her coffee. Her eyes were squinted and she pursed her lips before speaking.
“Nash, I collect Social Security and I’m on Medicare. How do you think I can live here in this house?”
Nash seemed to have talked himself into a sticky corner and he sat there with his mouth open.
“Frank and I worked our whole lives, paying taxes and contributing to our country’s economy. We worked through hard times for spit wages and struggled our whole lives to have a good home. In our sixties, we both got old and sick. Do you think we should just get kicked out of our home and live in the street?”
“Well I’m not talkin’ bout you Aunt Til, I’m talkin’ bout younger people that are able to work,” Nash said.
Uncle Bernie kept his head down for most of the discussion but looked up at this point. He had a sharp focus on Nash and it wasn’t a kindly look.
“Maybe you should think about the situations of all people before flapping your yap.” Aunt Tilly glanced in Bernie’s direction before she continued her thought.
“Sometimes people run into misfortunes and they need a little help. There’s enough money in this country that no American should go hungry.”
Aunt Tilly hoped that would’ve ended the discussion but Nash wasn’t finished. He had one too many in him and he always had to win, whether it was a discussion or an argument, he had to have the final word.
“Well, aside from you boomers who defended this country in World War II, everyone else should be cut off.”
“Nash, shut up,” Uncle Bernie said. He used a low voice but there was a seething rage masked behind his expression. Nash continued as if Bern hadn’t said a thing.
“A bunch of lazy do-nothin’s come-a-callin’ Uncle Nash when the run out of charity, grubbing up all my tax money.”
Bernie turned to Nash again with red cheeks and gritted teeth.
“I said shut your face, Nash!”
Uncle Bernie slammed his fists down on the table.
“Aye, what the hell is your problem?”
“I just want you to shut the fuck up!”
Uncle Bern’s anger was no longer under his control. He jumped up knocking the chair to the floor and stormed out of the room. Aunt Tilly jumped up and ran after him. Nash had his jaw hanging and eyes wide, not understanding the outburst.
“What’s eatin’ him?” He asked.
My Mom explained to Nash in simple terms.
“Bernie has been out of work for a while since his company moved all those jobs overseas. He’s been having trouble finding a job. He’s needed some of the freebee help as you call it.”
Uncle Nash shrugged his shoulders and took a bite out of his Italian cookie.
Everyone startled when the front door slammed. A rush of winter air raced through the rooms scattering a few stray snowflakes with it. A moment later Aunt Tilly came back into the dining room with her head hung low.
“He went out for a walk, in this stormy weather. Maybe you should go apologize, Nash.”
“Ah, let him walk it off. He’ll realize he’s just being over sensitive. Sometimes I swear he must be gay.”
Now my Dad was annoyed and there was a sharpness in his voice that I had heard a few times before, usually when he was disciplining me or my sister.
“He’s not gay, he was married, remember? And even if he was, that doesn’t give you the right to offend him?”
“Aye, I didn’t mean anything by it and besides, he did tell me to shut the fuck up. Doesn’t anyone care about my feelings?”
The party broke up quickly after that, everyone heading to their respective guest rooms with a solemn goodnight. Mom and Dad were in the bed and me and Brianna had set up sleeping bags and air mattresses on each side of it. The TV was on low and my parents were talking quietly in bed. Eventually, the conversation withered and silence settled over the room. I whispered, “Brianna, Brianna”, several times but she didn’t answer. I assumed she was asleep. I could hear the howling wind whipping around the house over the low volume of the TV.
I was having trouble sleeping. The strange house, the storm, the tension at the dinner table. It was all keeping me from settling down. There were never these great divides in the family in the past. Or maybe I just never noticed. I just remembered the holiday celebrations as fun with everyone smiling and having a good time. I texted Bri, hoping she was still awake and would want to text me back. I heard her phone chime and she rustled in her sleeping bag, but she didn’t answer.
At two in the morning, the power went out in the home. The TV pulsed and became dark and the nightlight across the room winked out. The home became silent, like an empty tomb. The wind howled and wailed like a painful mourner, pressing its icy breath against the frosted windows. I looked at my I-phone to see if Bri had texted me; she had not. On the other side of the bed which sat between us, she may as well have been in a different state for the loneliness I felt. I pulled the sleeping bag up to my chin and closed my eyes. There was something unsettling in the night that went beyond the family tensions and escalating storm.
I could not exactly tell if I had fallen asleep or hovered in that twilight between wake and snooze but the Eminem ring tone on my I-phone startled me to attention. I felt around in Darkness and found the phone by my side, bringing its cool light to my face. It read ‘no name’ in the window that would identify the caller. The wind subsided for a moment causing the ringtone and vibration to seem extra loud in the room so I pressed the answer bar and brought the phone slowly to my ear. There was static and then I heard the wind through the phone, the sound rising and falling like waves on a snowy sea. The sound was then mimicked from outside the home as if I was hearing the same windblast twice, once through the phone and moments later outside the window as it arrived here several seconds later.
“Hello,” I said into the phone, twice, but no voice returned, only the icy whispering of the polar wind.
Frightened, I ended the call pressing the red bar at the bottom of the screen.
I sat there looking at the screen in disbelief, feeling like I should tell someone about the incident.
That’s when I begot an even steeper startle as Brianna’s phone began to ring. It was a Jonas Brother’s song and sounded ironic and silly calling out through the bedroom at this late hour. Bri woke up this time and sat up. I got to my knees looking over the bed at her face, blue in the light of the screen, as her lazy mouth mumbled into the phone.
“Hello, hello?” She said, the same as I had moments earlier. She listened for a long second and I saw the sleep leave her face, replaced by an inexplicable terror. She disconnected the call and threw the phone away from her before noticing I had been watching.
“Bri, who was it?” I asked.
“No one,” she whispered, “Just the wind of the storm came through.”
“But you look scared, no?”
“Yes. I don’t know why, but it frightened me.”
Then we heard, from outside the room, perhaps down the hall in another guest’s room, another cell phone ring. This one had an actual ‘ring’ like an old-time phone. A moment later another ringtone began over the sound of the first one, a standard crystal chimes tone. In another moment yet another phone began to ring out, this one from the room directly across the hall, Aunt Tilly’s bedroom.
I looked to Brianna and she looked to me.
“Peter, I’m scared,” she said.
I was about to calm her nerves with some lame excuse when my dad’s phone on the night table went off, ringing through the dark.
Brianna let out a scream and both Mom and Dad sat up to investigate the commotion. Dad picked up the phone and said, “Hello,” then listened. A moment later, he hung up without uttering another word.
Shortly, family members had gathered in the hall, concurring that each had received the same strange phone call. Aunt Tilly and my Dad bustled down the hallway to Uncle Bernie’s room only to find the bed still made and not slept in.
“He never came back from his walk,” my Dad said.
“That was more than five hours ago,” Aunt Tilly added. She turned to the family with creased wrinkles and a frown pulling her face in dismay.
“Do you think that was Uncle Bern calling?” Jimmy asked.
My Dad walked to the night table holding up his phone for light. He picked up another phone from the night table.
“Uncle Bernie didn’t take his phone with him.”
“So, that was him calling from someone else’s phone, that’s why it had no identification with the calls,” Uncle Nash said.
Aunt Barbara disagreed. “But, all the phones were ringing at once,” she said.
The family gathered in the kitchen as Aunt Tilly called the police. The Police explained how the roads were cut off and even the plows were stuck in this blizzard. They assured Aunt Tully that Uncle Bern most likely found shelter at a neighbor’s home or a local pub and would be fine. They promised to search as soon as they could get the roads clear enough to get up this way. Uncle Nash made an attempt to go searching for his brother, bragging about his Four-Wheel-Drive Bronco, but the snow was too deep and the truck did little more than rock a few feet in either direction as we watched from the window.
We were snowed in for several days before warm temperatures and some melting allowed the plows to get through. The police came shortly thereafter with the sad news. They had found Uncle Bernie frozen to death, clinging to the tower off of route 17, about a mile down the road.
“What kind of tower was it?” My dad had asked, but had seemed to already know the answer. It was a cell phone signal-booster tower which had been erected a year prior.
There were hushed conversations about the late night calls we had received, but the adults were careful not to talk in front of us kids. We were pretty freaked out by the whole chain of events, regardless. We stayed for Uncle Bernie’s funeral and that was the last time I had seen that side of my family.
I paused my story debating whether I should add the next part to my retelling. I decided to tell my friends gathered here tonight, to instill the impact of the events and their lasting consequences.
Two years ago, after 15 years of getting the calls on Christmas night, Uncle Nash took his own life. The guilt tore him apart from the inside out. Yes, we got the “no name” calls every year since Uncle Bernie passed away, never fail. Didn’t matter if we changed phones, changed numbers, moved…the phones would ring every Christmas night at 2:20 am. I’ll be expecting my annual call tonight. Till this day, they are a reminder not to abandoned our fellow man and to understand the needs of others.