It’s a story as old as time: a father’s desire to create a special Christmas memory leads to a tragic chimney accident. Yes, we thought it was strange that Dad missed the frenzy of gift-unwrapping. Yes, we noticed the smoke from our cozy fire backing up into the room as though the flue were closed (but it wasn’t). Yes, we thought we heard a sort of muffled screaming. But then we’d always suspected the old house was haunted.
It wasn’t. Not then.
I guess it took Dad long enough to die that he got sort of bitter about it. Jimmy and I were just kids, engrossed in the gimme-gimmes, which I think should have given us a pass. Mom… honestly she’s just not that bright. I mean, neither was Dad. Obviously.
Ghost-Dad started haunting us as soon as the decorations came down, which was right before his funeral. Mom swore we would never celebrate Christmas again. We shoved the lights and ornaments into boxes in the attic, dragged the tree into the backyard, dressed in our family portrait clothes, and then there he was, all hovery and see-through and still dressed as Santa. Jimmy ran right for him, tackling for a hug, but sailed through the apparition and bonked his head on a doorknob instead. He wailed and wailed and we were late for the funeral, and Mom made me hold the ice pack over Jimmy’s giant goose egg.
Ghost-Dad was a real jerk. He would pull the rug under our feet at the top of the stairs. He’d make the light switches shock us. He was the reason our garbage disposal never worked: one time it “jammed,” and when Mom reached in to clear it, it started up again. She only lost the tip of her ring finger, but we never trusted the sink monster again.
Jimmy had it worst. Ghost-Dad could make him fall for the trap almost every time. He’d go in for a hug and come out bruised or bleeding.
Mom and I started fighting about Christmas in November. I understood that she had painful memories — we all did — but didn’t she understand that it was Christmas? We were still kids, and we needed presents, decorations, cookies, all of it… with the possible exception of a visit from Santa.
I took it upon myself to sneak the holiday into the house. I went up to the attic, a task made much more daunting by Ghost-Dad, who wouldn’t allow the light to stay on, or a flashlight to work, or even a candle to stay lit. I felt his malign presence as I struggled to stay on the little causeway of plywood and not fall through the ceiling. I reached a box I suspected contained Christmas stuff, opening one dusty flap and pulling out the first thing my fingers found, a cool sphere.
Immediately the lights came on, and with a moan the likes of which I hadn’t heard since last Christmas, Ghost-Dad was gone. I held a shiny red ornament, paperclip hanger still attached. With the box open, I located the other boxes, dragging them toward the pull-down stairs. With the box closed the lights went out again, and my feet were pulled out from under me, and down into the house I fell.
Nothing was broken. None of my bones, anyway. One box of Christmas had tumbled down with me, and I found myself surrounded by shattered glass and tangled string lights. But Ghost-Dad was gone again.
After I cleaned up the mess, Ghost-Dad returned. But I’d been thinking in the meantime, formulating a theory. Jimmy took one wobbly step toward Ghost-Dad before he remembered what I’d told him to do. He pulled out the Santa hat I’d given him and put it on his head.
Before Ghost-Dad dissolved, he screamed and covered his eyes in terror. Yep, Ghost-Dad was afraid of Christmas.
A demonstration convinced Mom to let us celebrate, and we did so in relative peace. Ghost-Dad didn’t bother us, but our memories of Real-Dad did. We missed him, maybe for the first time. Our presents to him had been packed up with the rest of Christmas, and there they still were, wrapped and ready. We put them under the tree, where they remained through the whole sad holiday.
New Year’s came and went and our decorations stayed up. Then Valentine’s Day. I think we were all afraid to take them down. Jimmy wore his Santa hat almost all the time, and Mom had to steal it from him in the night to wash it every now and again.
When the tree was fully dead we threw it out. We un-decked the halls as much as we dared, leaving a garland here and a stocking there to ward off Ghost-Dad. It worked.
But those three presents weighed on me until one summer day I covered up all the decorations. I held my gift to Dad in my hands, obscuring its reindeer paper, until Ghost-Dad appeared, still wearing his Santa costume.
“I want to show you something,” I told him. He rattled the windowpanes. “Still mad, I guess. I get that. I’m sorry we didn’t save you. But look, I made you a present.” I unwrapped the paper and crumpled it up, then opened the little box.
It was a lame present, one of those things we did in school every year, but I hadn’t had any better ideas. An ornament made of our family portrait, decorated with glitter and ribbon and love.
The curtains blew in an unearthly breeze, then settled down. Ghost-Dad took the ornament out of my hand and hovered it to the mantel. He smiled and climbed right up the chimney.
We still keep a few candy-cane candles and sprigs of holly on side tables, but I don’t think we’d see Ghost-Dad even without them.
Emily C. Skaftun lives in Seattle with her husband and their child, a cat who thinks he’s a tiger. When she’s not teaching or writing, she dabbles in roller derby and flying trapeze. Emily has an MFA in Creative Writing and is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, and FLURB.