This is a dark one. What happens when incredibly bad luck follows someone for their entire life? I wrote this during one caffeine-fueled evening for a class. Five thousand words between 11 PM and 3:30 AM.
To date, the fastest story I’ve ever written.
R. B. Wood
THE GLASS BAUBLE
It was during a blizzard that I placed the glass bauble containing the soul of my fiancée Laura on our family Christmas tree.
Just hours before, I’d been sitting alone in our over-priced studio apartment in Boston’s South End. I had been passing time alternatively watching the roaches scurrying about their business amongst the stained and unpacked dusty boxes that littered the living room, and the snow that drifted down between the dumpsters and abandoned cars outside our building. Clumps of matted white crystals fell, barely visible through the greasy yellowed glass where I’d set up a cheap folding chair. A lifetime ago I would have been excited at the prospect of a few snowed-in days sharing a good book with my future wife. Perhaps we’d have put some Sinatra on the record player and enjoy a glass of rum with just enough eggnog mixed in to call the booze “festive.”
Happy Christmas Eve to us.
I sighed and poured myself another shot, flicking a roach onto the floor. It scurried away from me, making a beeline for the dark safety underneath another box marked “kitchen pots.” I stepped on the insect and took pleasure in hearing a distinctive “crunch” as its shell split under the weight of my boot.
Lights on the street below had been glowing for hours due to the sun-stealing storm, the lamps painting the blizzard in an electric rainbow of good cheer. The bright trappings and colored lights of the winter holidays were nothing more than a pretty lie sold to the gullible. There was a hiss-popping sound from the stereo speakers—the old record had finished hours ago and I had neither the energy nor the interest to switch the turntable off.
Laura had been missing for six months. I sat on the folding chair in the apartment we had picked out last summer, surrounded by old boxes still filled with the unimportant bric-à-brac of our lives “before.” The shadows of that December afternoon lengthened, finally engulfing me. I swirled a tumbler of rum for the hundredth time before finally emptying it in one deliberate motion. The darkness brought forth the ugly reality the voices taunted me with. There was a soft knock at the apartment door. I ignored it at first, but it quickly escalated to an insistent rapping.
“What?” I finally called.
“It’s Hector,” replied a slightly muffled, accented voice. “I have your medicine from the farmacia and my wife made you dinner. May I come in?”
I grunted. Perhaps Hector heard me and assumed I had agreed to the interruption. Or perhaps he planned on coming in anyway. Either way, I heard the rattle of keys in the lock and then my landlord entered our apartment.
He was a squat, little man with a salt and pepper mustache and a comb-over that fought a losing battle with his receding hairline. He held two things—a white bag with a pharmacy logo—and a large, clear, Tupperware container filled with enchiladas. My stomach growled audibly.
Hector put the food and the pills on the dusty, moving box nearest me—this one, in Laura’s handwriting, was labeled “books.” Another cockroach scuttled across the cardboard—perhaps sensing a holiday treat for him and his six-legged companions. I let this one live. Hector ignored the vermin, focusing his gaze on me instead.
I said nothing.
Hector cleared his throat, then said nervously, “First, your parents. Now, señora Laura is missing. Eat, take your medicine. Tomorrow, maybe we can talk about the back rent, sí?”
Hector backed out of the room as fast as he could. The door closed behind him with a click.
“You know he’s trying to poison you,” said a female voice. Right on time.
I nodded. The vinyl record continued to pop and hiss, unabashed.
The figure moved from my periphery to stand in front of me, hands on her hips. She was an older woman, wearing a lime green dress that went just below the knee with a matching low-heeled pair of shoes. The pink pillbox hat she wore was an accessory as ever-present as her wigs and always clashed with the colors of her accompanying ensemble. I ignored her for as long as I could, but this was a game she played better than I ever could.
Finally, I looked up at her.
“I’m not in the mood, Gran.”
She tutted. I hated it when she tutted.
“Nonsense, grandson. It’s Christmas! Time for family. Yours is waiting for you.”
“Laura is gone.”
Gran smiled, showing yellow-black crooked teeth. “Of course she isn’t. She’s right here!” Gran held up a round, red Christmas bauble—delicate and beautiful. It spun slowly, grasped in her claw-like hands.
“See? Just like all the others.”
“No,” I murmured. I was tired—so very tired. I tried to look away from Gran. But she played this game better than I did.
“The family is waiting, boy.”
She vanished, dropping the glass ornament. I caught it an inch or so off the floor.
“Dammit,” I muttered to nobody. Shadows danced to the multicolored onslaught from the street, all to the rhythm of the hiss-pops coming from the stereo. I grabbed my car keys.
A new girl had moved into the sleepy seaside town of Ogunquit, Maine that spring. The first time I saw her at Petersen’s Grocery, I fell in love. Well, as much in love as a boy of ten who had yet to experience his first kiss could be. Little blonde ringlets cascaded around her face, her blue eyes the color of a robin’s egg. She wore a green dress that made her look like one of those fancy dolls for sale in the toy aisle of Petersen’s—you know, before they replaced the good stuff with overpriced crap for the tourists.
Her skin reminded me of the freshest glass of milk—smooth, creamy and white. Perfect. I longed to taste it and was shocked at the thought. Her little black Mary Jane’s…
“Mama! That boy is staring at me!”
It took me the better part of half a minute to realize she was talking about me.
“Hush, now Carolyn. He just likes you, is all.”
While the voice of my heart’s desire was shrill and high-pitched, her mother’s was softer, and had what I’d eventually learn to be a southern drawl. Later, I would pretend that Carolyn spoke with her mother’s silken tones.
“Hi!” I squeaked. “You’re the Taylors, right? You bought the old Littlefield place.”
‘What a bright young man! Why yes, I’m Mrs. Taylor. And you are…?”
I jumped. I hadn’t heard Gran approach from behind the fresh fruit aisle.
I had only enough time to give Carolyn a pleading look before I was dragged out of Petersen’s by my ear. Goodbye, my ladylove!
A month later, Carolyn, wearing that same green dress, gave me my first kiss while we were walking along the Marginal Way. It was summer now, and the coastal walk to Perkin’s Cove was a popular morning exercise spot for the vacationers and scads of ancient “wrinklies” staying in the various motels and summer rental homes along the cliff face. The sun pelted down on us, while the cool sea breeze made our skin tingle. Or maybe that was the kiss.
We sat in our hidey-hole—an outcropping of rocks hidden from the main path and only large enough for a couple of kids. It was surrounded by honeysuckle and lavender and smelled a little like I guessed heaven might.
I wiped a tear from one cheek. I’d just finished telling Carolyn about why I lived with Gran. How my parents had been arrested; how they’d gotten out of jail just to die in a car crash on the way home. I’d never told that story to anyone before.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?” Carolyn asked me, suddenly. I felt my face flush, heat rising from neck to settle in my cheeks. She asked the question very casually, but I could tell by her eyes that the question excited her. Her eyes had changed color—more of a seafoam green. They always changed color when she was excited about something.
The silence had gone long—a frown began to mar her pretty face. If I didn’t act fast, a tantrum would be next.
“Umm…yeah. Sorta.” I was blushing furiously now and I looked away from Caroline, focusing on a pair of seagulls in the distance lazily drifting on the breeze. “I’ve kissed my Gran goodnight and stuff.”
I looked back at Caroline and could tell at once she was disappointed in my answer.
“God, boys are stupid. Mama told me all about it after I caught Uncle Ray kissing her just before we moved.” She then proceeded to go into detail about her Uncle Ray, and why she and her mom had to move. To be honest, I didn’t pay attention to the story—I was too distracted with the thought of kissing her. What if I wasn’t any good at it?
“…and I wanted to try it. With you. Do you want to? Kiss, I mean.”
Before I could say anything, she kissed me. Her lips were soft and wet. I was terrified. I squirmed and told her to stop. She laughed.
I lashed out with my foot and kicked her full in the chest. She fell backward with nothing more than a sigh. Her head didn’t even make a sound when it hit a rock and split open, blood and pinkish-grey bits mixed with shards of white bone staining the sweet-smelling lavender dark red.
Her eyes stayed open, still the color of excitement. I watched her for almost an hour, fascinated by the color and the metallic smell of her blood. I was just beginning to panic—what was I going to tell Gran? Mrs. Taylor? —when Carolyn blinked and sat up. Her blonde ringlets, now scarlet and matted fell flat against her shoulders. She gave me that tantrum look.
“You killed me,” she said—her voice sounding more like her mother. “You killed me and I didn’t even get to have my first real kiss.”
“I’m sorry,” I said but didn’t mean it. She’d laughed at me.
“S’ok. So what now?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, you have to get rid of me…or else you’re gonna go to jail,” she answered in that sweet southern voice.
My eyes welled up with tears. I didn’t want to go to jail like mama and papa had.
Carolyn put her hand on my shoulder. “Oh, don’t worry. You can just toss me off the cliff when the tide is a little higher. Then run back to the beach and get mama. We should practice what you’ll say and stuff. And tears. You’ll need loads of tears.”
I thought for a moment. It was a good idea. “Might work,” I said scratching my chin. “Thanks.”
“You have to do something for me first,” she said slyly.
“Um…what?” I asked.
“Remember when I said I wanted to kiss?” She asked slowly, a wicked smile twitching on her face. “You have to kiss me first.
“Yuck. No way. Now that you’re dead…yuck!”
She kicked at me with a bloody foot. “You owe me!”
She was right. I did.
The snow was coming down as hard as I’d ever seen. I was in my car, crawling up the highway heading north to Maine, where you just knew the storm would be even worse.
Sitting on the passenger seat next to old sandwich wrappers, moldy french fries and some unused ketchup packets, sat Laura. The red glass bauble was protected from my rubbish by a perfectly white cotton handkerchief.
“We’ll be there soon, love,” I whispered, soothingly. Or at least I tried to sound soothing. The words came out wet sounding, and phlegmy.
Only a few cars were braving the road in the storm. There was a tow truck with flashing lights making the snow dance and twirl like a couple dancing the most sensual tango, trying to right an expensive-looking SUV. A city plow was stuck in the median, with a second plow sitting near it—for moral support, I guessed. Neither was going anywhere.
Slowly—oh so very slowly—I drove with only the steady thump-whump of the windshield wipers to keep me company. And Laura, of course. But she was being very considerate and keeping silent so that my attention could stay on the road ahead.
“Why are you going so slow, boy?”
I sighed. Driving with Gran in the car was always stressful—she was the one who taught me to drive, after all. I shifted my hands to the ten and twelve positions automatically, flexing my fingers—she would use a switch on my hands when they weren’t in position. I could still see the hair-like scars on my knuckles when I made a fist.
“Gran,” I sighed. “There is a foot and a half of snow on the ground. Did you not see the city plows stuck on the side of the road back there?”
“Well, you shouldn’t be in the center lane, driving this slow,” she changed the subject. I looked at her in the rearview mirror. Her gnarled hands with blackened fingernails were adjusting her pillbox hat as she sat back. “And your car is disgusting. It smells like a sewer in here. What have I told you about a clean car, young man?”
Before I could say “a clean car is a sign of a well organized and fastidious mind,” Gran had answered her own question and continued on her tirade.
“Remember my car? It was a classic—in perfect shape. Not a lick of rust on my old Impala, was there, boy? Mr. Petersen offered to buy it from me once. He said he’d never seen one in such good shape. But you ruined that for me, didn’t you boy?”
The white, plastic steering wheel of the 1957 Impala felt massive in my teenage hands. Gran had never let me sit in the driver’s seat before now. Hell, I wasn’t even allowed to sit on the front bench seat. But today was my sixteenth birthday and Gran had promised to teach me to drive.
The fall colors had just begun to burst forth on the maples—always the first to turn on our property. The crisp air and the brown leaves that litter the grass hinted that winter wasn’t too far away, but the warmth from the sun reminded winter that summer wasn’t quite done with Maine yet. It was the perfect day to take the first step toward my escape from this place, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
“Did you wash your hands? You better not be sitting in my car with dirty hands, boy!”
“Yes, Gran!” I called back, rolling my eyes. She’d been calling me that for nine years. I hated it when she called me “boy.” It reminded me of Carolyn, not that she could have known the truth about that, of course.
“Did you just roll your eyes at me? You are so going to get it, you little shit. Why did I ever take you in after your parents died? On the day they got out of jail, too. I’m a softie, that’s why…”
I have no idea how she’d known I’d rolled my eyes. She was yelling at me from the screened three-season porch. I quickly wiped my hands on my jeans and then used my untucked t-shirt to wipe the steering wheel clean. Heh. I hadn’t even washed my hands before lunch, let alone now. Suck it, you old bat.
“C’mon, Gran,” I called back after her scolding faded away. “You promised!”
I jumped when the passenger door opened. I hadn’t seen her come off the porch. How had she made it to the car through the fallen leaves without making a sound?
Gran gave me a cold look and struggled to get into the car. Her arthritis didn’t enjoy the change of seasons nearly as much as I did. She knocked her pink pillbox hat askew.
“Don’t make me regret this, boy,” she grumbled and stopped fussing long enough to stare down at my lap.
“What?’ I asked, nervously. She wouldn’t break this promise too, would she? I bit my lower lip and looked at her. I felt like my heart had stopped.
Gran moved faster than an old hag like her should have been able. Suddenly, my hands—which I’d just placed back on the steering wheel—stung. Something had hit me across the knuckles.
“Ow! Gran!” I yanked my hands off the steering wheel. Blood welled up from a couple of my knuckles. A stick was shoved into my face.
“A switch,” said Gran, smugly. “You know what a switch is, boy?”
I shook my head, blinking away tears.
“Seatbelt.” She said with a smirk. “Put it on. It’s the law.”
I fumbled with the old-fashioned clasp, finally snapping it into place. I kept my head low, so she couldn’t see my tears.
“It’s what I’m going to use on you every time you do something stupid while driving my car. Hurts, doesn’t it?
I nodded and sniffed.
“Good. Remember that. Now, let’s learn how to drive, boy!”
For a week, Gran took me out every afternoon after lessons, and I drove her car. And every day I returned with red, bleeding knuckles. It was on a Friday when the accident happened.
We were driving on Shore Road and had just passed the Petersen’s place when I’d gotten an itch on my nose. I did what anyone would have done. I took my hand from the “two” position on the wheel and…scratched my nose.
Crack! Gran had hit me with the switch. But this time, it had been across my face. Blinded for a moment, I lost control of the car.
Shore Road is a windy road, just barely wide enough for two cars, let alone Gran’s Impala and the garbage truck traveling toward us in the opposite lane.
The sound of the impact was incredible—like a bomb going off, but without the fire. I was wearing my seatbelt, so I only got banged up a little. Gran, however, had grown up in different time—so of course, she hadn’t been wearing hers.
Safety glass hadn’t been perfected in the year Gran’s car was built. And, in point of fact, up until the 1960s only tempered glass was used inside windows. Supposedly, this was done to allow first responders easy access to accident victims. But in reality, it had been a cost-cutting measure. Mr. Petersen explained it to me at Gran’s wake.
I remember her impaled on glass, blood bubbling from her lips. She reminded me of Carolyn.
My hand must have hit the windshield wiper switch on the steering column, as the wipers struggled to move against Gran’s body. I remembered that, too.
“I asked you a question, boy,” Gran repeated, adjusting her hat for the second time.
I looked away from the review mirror back toward the snow whipping past the windshield. We were crossing the bridge into Maine now. I couldn’t see any road signs, of course. The snow was falling so heavily that it all but obscured any highway markings.
I sighed again. “Yes, Gran,” I finally replied.
“We’ll be home, soon boy. I remember how you killed me in my old Impala…”
My mind drifted, as it always did when Gran was in the throes of one of her scoldings. Besides, I needed to really concentrate now. This far from Boston, there were far fewer lights. The headlights on the car were nearly useless; the beams could only penetrate a dozen or so feet in this storm. It made all the snow look like we were traveling through hyperspace. I snorted at the thought.
“Dude!” called a voice from the back seat. “You almost made a Star Wars reference! Dork!”
I laughed. Peter Madison now sat where Gran had been. He had long hair, a beard that was barely more than scruff, and a face filled with perpetual acne. He was wearing his trademark flannel shirt, ruffled, unbuttoned and untucked, with a black Alicia Keys tee-shirt underneath. Torn jeans and black biker boots completed the image. He smiled and waved to me.
“Sup, dude? Wanna hit?”
Peter was the biggest Star Wars biker nerd I’d ever known. I’d had my first beer with him, smoked my first joint with him, and learned to ride a Harley with him.
In short, he was my best friend.
There was a brief flash from his lighter—a real, honest to God Zippo with the imprint of a naked girl on it with the words, “Handle with Care” etched on the back—and then he inhaled, closing his eyes.
He held the smoke for a moment or two, then exhaled. The familiar pungent aroma of weed wafting around me whispered temptations I hadn’t heard in a long time.
“Why the hell not?” I reached into the back seat and took the offered joint.
Peter absently flicked the lighter on and off a few times while we got high. After what seemed an eternity, he asked, “Why you back here, man?”
“Family Christmas,” I said simply. “Introducing the wife.”
“That’s cool, man.”
I was high as all fuck.
Peter and I sat atop my beat-up Corolla. We were in the parking lot of Petersen’s Grocery, drinking beer and smoking. It was winter in Ogunquit, what else were we gonna do?
“Man, it’s cold!” said Peter. The bastard wasn’t even slurring his words. I, on the other hand, was watching the winter stars circle lazily overhead while trying not to throw up. “We totally need a bonfire, dude!”
“We’re in a parking lot, man,” I said, carefully enunciating each word. “I don’t think old man Petersen’s gonna be happy if you light his place up.”
Peter rolled off the hood of the car and peered at me with bloodshot eyes.
“Over by the store, man,” he said, breath coming out in a plume of winter fug and weed. “Pallets, man. We can build a pyre like Luke did for Darth Vader at the end of…”
“Shit, Peter. Not everything has to relate to Star Wars!” I was going to be sick for sure. Peter’d probably look at the vomit and say it looked like some alien from Tatooine or some other obscure dork Star Wars thing.
“Dork.” I said. But he’d already made his way over to the neatly stacked pile of pallets. He looked over at me.
“On your own!” I called, waving my hand vaguely. “Dork.” I finished. And that’s when the booze—aided and abetted by the spins caused by the weed—brought back up my dinner.
By the time I’d been able to clean myself up, Peter had a roaring fire blazing in the middle of the parking lot. I had to hand it to him; it certainly made the cold January night a lot warmer.
He stood next to me, all proud of his pyre. He flicked his Zippo a couple of times in appreciation.
“Can’t you picture Darth Vader’s mask melting right off his dark Sith face!” He blurted gleefully. And then those teddy bear Ewoks danced around, like this…
Peter started to hop from one foot to the other. I noticed he was moving closer to the fire.
“Hey man!” I shouted. “You’re too close…”
He didn’t even notice when his flannel shirt caught fire. I tried to get to him, I really did. But the world seemed to be moving in slow motion.
Peter screamed and tried to take off his shirt. He flailed around; tongues of flame jumping from his shirt to his hair. His screams turned wild, animalistic as he tripped and fell right on top of the bonfire.
I watched his face melt off as his struggling slowed, then stopped altogether.
I could never eat barbeque after that.
The snow continued to fall as I pulled up to Gran’s house. The car got stuck halfway down the unpaved driveway, so with difficulty in the large drift, I opened the door and started to trudge toward our old place. I could see in the old picture window, the lights of our Christmas tree.
The old Victorian home sat alone in the wintery Maine wood. The cobblestone walkway leading to the front door was buried under two feet of snow, so I had to make the best guess as to the safest path with only the light from that damnable Christmas tree to guide me. The surrounding forest, so lush and inviting during the summer months, now seemed like leafless pallbearers surrounding an 18th-century coffin with a wrap-around porch. The heavy snow deadened all sound, save for my breath that came now in agonizing gasps as I stumbled through the last hip-high drift to reach the house at last.
The solid oak door, with only a few grey moldy paint curls to hint at its original color, opened reluctantly at my touch. Squealing rusted hinges protested loudly at my intrusion. Drifts of snow in the foyer crunched under my feet as I made my way inside.
There. Just ahead. A kaleidoscope of color broke through the stagnant shadows and beckoned to me. The family tree, the centerpiece of every Christmas I could ever remember, waited. The faint, comforting, smells of pine, holly and gingerbread greeted me as I moved into the living room.
The tree stood, as it did every holiday, in front of the picture window—the cracked glass and chipped sill framing the perfect Christmas card. The approving whispers encouraged me to complete the portrait. I nodded enthusiastically.
Little Carolyn Taylor—her green pinecone-shaped ornament reflecting the multicolored chaos, hung serenely amongst the clean-smelling needles. Next to her were mom and dad. So was Gran, of course—the plastic icicle, cold and distant. Even Peter was here—his Star Wars Hallmark ornament swaying slightly on its branch, waving to me.
I reached carefully, gently into my pocket and pulled out the delicate, red glass bauble.
A quiet squeak of a floorboard made me turn from my family nativity. Old Mr. Petersen was there. He was wearing a red and black checkerboard patterned hunter’s cap with the cotton-lined flaps hanging over his ears, and a matching woolen coat. He was covered in a layer of snow that melted steadily, pooling at his booted feet. For as long as I’d known him, old man Petersen had been just that—old. Dark circles surrounded his grey, watery eyes and the sagging skin underneath them gave him the doleful look of a basset hound.
“We found Laura,” he said, simply.
“Out back,” I said quietly.
“Yep. What happened boy?”
I looked back at Laura’s ornament—it gleamed merrily at me. I couldn’t face Mr. Petersen. “We came out here in the summer—six months ago. We came to the house. I told her I didn’t want to live in the city.”
“My daughter didn’t want anything to do with Ogunquit anymore,” he said, his voice breaking. “She wanted the big city.”
“Boston is a shithole,” I spat. “No green anywhere. I told Laura about this place, and what a wonderful home it would be for us…for kids…”
“Boy, this house hasn’t been livable in a decade!” shouted Mr. Petersen. I looked at him now—there were tears in his eyes. I nodded.
“That’s what she said. We were going to live in Boston and that was the end of it. No discussion.”
Mr. Petersen was sobbing now. The lights from the tree seemed to be blinking brighter—blues and reds washed over us.
“Well Gran wouldn’t have it,” I continued. The story came easier now. “And Peter thought I was being jerk and Carolyn was just so jealous…”
“Stop it! They’re dead, boy. Your crazy Gran, your pyro pothead buddy, little Carolyn Taylor—all dead.”
“All here,” I said. Mr. Petersen had to understand. “So, if Laura wouldn’t move back with me…”
“Mr. Petersen?” Called a voice from the porch “Police. We’re coming in.”
Two young men, both with mustaches and both dressed in the winter uniforms of the Maine State police walked in. As soon as they saw me, they drew their weapons. Mr. Petersen held up his hand.
“Go on, boy,” he whispered.
“When my parents died, it was just before Christmas. Gran had me pick out two ornaments—she said that my parent’s soul would live in them forever. It was my happiest memory.”
“Mr. Petersen, we have to take him in,” said one of the cops.
I looked at the red ornament in my hand, then back at Mr. Petersen.
“Your daughter loved the color red,” I said. I turned to the tree and saw it for what it really was. An old, fake, plastic evergreen, missing half of its branches covered in rotted bits of plaster. A few ornaments, my ornaments, could still be seen amongst the branches.
I hung Laura next to the rest of my family.