Alec Kerley and the Haunted Christmas
The world was white; snow and ice spread over the flat and harvested wheat fields and grasslands like creeping death, and jagged icicles hung from the barbed-wire fence beside the road. Mini snow devils whirled across the empty two-lane highway in mad pirouettes before the minivan as it carefully made its way across the icy tundra, well below the posted speed limit. Alec studied the frost on the outside of the window beside him, then focused on the white flakes beyond, fluttering down from the overcast, pasty sky and swirling around the vehicle, engulfing it like fog.
An a cappella version of Carol of the Bells, sung by a children’s choir, flowed gently from the speaker at the floor. The tune melded with the wintry weather outside to effectively set the tone for the season: Christmas, now just two weeks away.
“I know, Rita,” Mrs. Gonzalez, way up in front, said in an exasperated tone as she leaned forward and stared out the windshield, clutching the steering wheel with one hand and holding her smartphone to her ear with the other. “Well, I don’t see it… I don’t think so… oh, hold on!” She glanced at Mrs. Edgar next to her. “Did you see a turn anywhere back there, Evelyn?”
Mrs. Edgar pursed her lips and shook her head. “Nope.” Her meaty arms were crossed before her in a dubious fashion.
“UNO!” Ethan Elvis Edgar shouted, elbowing Alec and slapping the card onto the van’s removable table, which stood in the midst of the back seats. He shoved his arms into the air triumphantly. One oversized shirt collar stood out from his neck like an airplane wing.
Mrs. Edgar shot a look back at her son. “Ethan! Quiet down!”
Alec glanced over at his little friend. The two of them, along with Alec’s best friend Ken Gonzalez, were stuffed into the very back bench seat in the van, shoulder to shoulder; a little too close for comfort, especially because Ethan liked to wiggle in his seat in a little dance every time he thought he was on the verge of winning the game.
“Ethan. Chill, dude,” karate jock Ken mumbled as he played his card.
Across the table sat freckled Emily Doyle and raven-tressed Sarah Gonzalez, facing them. After Emily took her turn, Sarah raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really?” She stretched her arm out, ceremoniously laid down a wild card, and beamed at Ethan. “Let’s just change the color, shall we? Let’s go with red.”
Ethan slapped a hand over his heart and effected a pained expression. “Don’t be cruel, baby!” The eleven-year-old was obsessed with his namesake, Elvis Presley.
“Wait a minute, slow down,” Mrs. Edgar said. She pointed. “There it is.”
Mrs. Gonzalez squealed. “Oh! We found it!”
The van slowed to a near-stop, then turned onto a frozen country road that was hardly more than a billowy-white path. Skeletal trees reached toward Alec’s window, leaning and swaying in violent gusts of wind.
“Are you still with us, Alec?”
Alec glanced at Sarah. Tall and athletic, with long black hair, her chocolate-brown eyes twinkled. He focused on the cards on the table and played a red. “Yeah, sorry.”
Ethan pushed his disorderly brown mop of bangs up and wiggled his eyebrows at Sarah, then pounded his hand on the table, dropping his last card. “BAM! I’m out! Whaaaat?”
Sarah scowled. “You got lucky.”
Ken broke out laughing and pointed at his sister. “Yer jes mad ’cause yer used tuh winnin’ all the time.”
Ethan threw his hands up and wiggled again. “A little less conversation, a little more action, baby!”
“You’re breaking up, Rita!” Mrs. Gonzalez shouted into her phone. “I— I can’t hear you. I think I’m losing reception.” A moment later she looked over at Mrs. Edgar. “The call dropped.” She glanced at her phone. “I have no signal out here.”
“Great. We’ve left civilization,” Ken mumbled.
“We did that a long time ago.” Emily pushed a lock of shoulder length khaki hair behind her ear as she peered outside.
Alec jumped at a loud scraping sound beside him. A bare tree branch grated against his window in a long, teeth-gritting wail. His heart leapt when he realized the van was nearly in the ditch.
“I can’t get any traction here!” Mrs. Gonzalez blurted, anxiously twisting the steering wheel.
“We’re all gonna diiiieee!” Ethan screeched.
Mrs. Edgar shot him a look. “We are not. Stop that.”
The van made its way back to the middle of the snowy road and plodded ahead. Alec felt like he had a rock in his stomach as the anticipation of their arrival increased.
No. Not anticipation.
He looked at Sarah. “What does this house look like?”
“Ya mean the ghost house?” Ken chimed in.
Alec swallowed and nodded. Ethan’s eyes grew wide as he pulled the crucifix on his necklace out from under his shirt and held it before him like a shield.
Sarah shrugged. “Old. Two story. It’s an old farmhouse.”
“When was the last time you were there?” Emily asked.
“Years ago,” Sarah said. “I barely remember it.”
“Did you ever see any ghosts?” Ethan said, sinking lower in his seat. At eleven years old, he was a year younger than the rest of them, and his short stature made him seem even younger, especially when he was scared.
“I didn’t.” Sarah looked at her brother. “But it always felt a little weird there.”
Ken nodded in agreement. “It was always spooky. Shadows tha’ seemed t’crowd ya, random cold spots in the house, weird sounds in the middle of the night.”
“So why are we going to a hell house?” Ethan squeaked.
“Ethan!” Mrs. Edgar huffed.
Emily’s face lit up. “I think it’s exciting!” She had always been an avid fan of all things scary and, though their recent experiences with monsters had made her much more cautious, her curiosity seemed unabated. She grinned at Ken, who returned her smile.
“Tha’s the spirit,” he said.
“Because my sister said it’s gotten a lot worse, Ethan,” Mrs. Gonzalez said. “So I want your mother to come with me to check it out, since that’s what she does for a living. Besides, I haven’t seen Rita and Carl for a long time.”
“My mom’s not a ghost hunter,” Ethan shot back.
“No, but I’m a monster hunter, Ethan.” Mrs. Edgar glared at him. “And you watch your tone with Rosa.”
Monster hunter. How Alec was tired of hearing that term. Since his rude awakening to the truth that his dad worked for a secret government monster-hunting agency called S.T.O.K.E.R., the Strategic Operation for Key Entities Response, his world had been turned upside down. To top it off, he’d learned that his best friend’s dad, Mr. Gonzalez, was also employed there. It was through S.T.O.K.E.R. that they had met and befriended the Edgar family: Ethan and his parents, who both worked for the agency.
So when Mrs. Gonzalez’s sister had complained to her about the increase in unexplained activity at their old farmhouse, and while Alec’s dad and Mr. Gonzalez were out of town on an investigation, it only seemed natural for Mrs. Gonzalez to ask Ethan’s mom to come study the situation and see if there was anything she could do to help. Ken and Sarah had asked Alec and the others to come along for the weekend. Strength in numbers.
Alec stared at the gloom outside. The cold within the van had clinched his feet and was creeping up his ankles like a snake.
“I think we’re getting close,” Mrs. Gonzalez said. A moment later she added, “There it is!”
Alec swallowed against the dryness in his throat and leaned forward to gaze out the windshield. The ice-covered, dead trees on either side of the narrow road formed a white tunnel, at the end of which a dark mass was beginning to form.
As they drew closer, the bottom of an ancient gray two-story house with a wide front porch came into view. Then the trees gave way to a large yard and the entire house was revealed. A tall brick fireplace stood at one end of the house, which had an old tin roof that was covered in orange rust. Two antique wooden rocking chairs sat on the porch.
What appeared to be a separate white garage was to the left of the house; a rickety red barn stood beyond. A barbed wire fence was off to the right of the yard, guarding an empty pasture. Another forest hugged the property behind the barn.
The van slowly followed a circle drive, crunching through the snow. It eased to a stop directly in front of the house, then the engine stopped.
“Everyone out,” Mrs. Edgar announced. “Don’t forget your bags.”
Ken leaned forward to peer at Alec around Ethan. He rolled his eyes. “Here we go.”
Alec nodded somberly.
It took a minute for them to pile outside, lugging their gym bags full of clothes and bathroom supplies. The frigid air took Alec’s breath away for a minute and stung his cheeks. The huge house towered over them as they trudged toward the front porch.
“Is it just me,” Emily whispered to him, “or has it gotten darker just since we got here?”
Alec considered the sky. A charcoal hue had replaced the white of the clouds and seemed to grip the house in a deathly embrace. He looked at Emily and whispered, “It has.”
The steps groaned under their weight as they climbed onto the porch. Alec realized the farmhouse looked gray because much of the paint had long ago flaked off the clapboard siding, exposing the wood underneath to the elements.
“Um, g—guys?” Sarah stammered, pointing at the empty rocking chair beside the front door. Alec locked his eyes on the chair and froze.
It was rocking.
By itself. No one in it. Just. Rocking. Slowly, steadily… creaking back and forth, back and forth, as if someone were sitting in the chair.
The hair on the back of Alec’s neck stood on end. Great puffs of white floated about him as he breathed in and out quickly. Everyone stood silent.
Mrs. Gonzalez regarded Mrs. Edgar. “Maybe the wind?”
Mrs. Edgar’s eyes darted from the chair to the dead bushes in front of the porch, which were still. “What wind?”
Alec started suddenly when a loud voice called out, “HELLLLOOOO there!” A heavyset man with a stocking cap and full salt-and-pepper beard skulked around the corner of the house, waving.
Mrs. Gonzalez threw her hands in the air and said, “Carl! It’s so good to see you!”
The porch shook as the big man mounted the stairs and pulled Mrs. Gonzalez into a bear-hug. Alec looked back at the ancient rocking chair, which now sat silent and motionless.
“Hey! Lemme surprise Rita,” the farmer said, arching an eyebrow. “I’ll go inside first and then you knock and I’ll say come in.”
Mrs. Gonzalez grinned and nodded, clapping her hands excitedly. Carl held a finger to his lips, then disappeared inside and closed the door.
“So, what was causing the chair to move, Mom?” Sarah whispered.
Mrs. Gonzalez appraised the rocking chair, then glanced at Mrs. Edgar. “Evelyn?”
“I’m sure there was a natural explanation for its movement,” Mrs. Edgar replied. “There must have been a slight amount of wind that I couldn’t detect.”
Mrs. Gonzalez nodded and smiled at Sarah. She turned and knocked. Carl’s voice within the house responded, “Come in.” Mrs. Gonzalez beamed as she turned the metal knob and pushed on the door. It wouldn’t budge. Her body shook as she jerked and shoved at the door. “Ooohh, it’s stuck.”
“I got this, Mom,” Ken declared.
He stepped to the door and gave it a shove, then reared his leg back to give the door a good kick just before his mother shouted, “Kenneth! Don’t you dare!”
“Here, let me try,” Mrs. Edgar said, stepping close. She turned and pushed on the handle, leaning her tall frame against the door. Her braided red hair trailed down the middle of her black coat like a horse’s tail.
The voice within the house spoke again. “I said, come in.”
“Oh, Carl, you locked the door,” Mrs. Gonzalez yelled.
“Rosa? Is that you?” a woman’s voice called.
“Yes, Rita, it’s me! But the door won’t open.”
The door suddenly jerked out of Mrs. Edgar’s hand, opening inward, causing Mrs. Edgar to tumble forward, nearly knocking Carl to the floor.
“It wasn’t locked,” Carl said, helping her right herself.
Alec and Ken exchanged bewildered glances.
“Well, it was stuck,” Mrs. Gonzalez answered.
“Rosa, it didn’t stick at all. Glided right open for me,” Carl said.
Mrs. Edgar shrugged. “Maybe we turned the handle the wrong way.”
Carl shook his head. “Doesn’t matter which way you turn it. Maybe some ice made it stick.”
Mrs. Gonzalez nodded quickly. “That must have been it.”
A short and pudgy woman whose appearance mirrored Mrs. Gonzalez pushed Carl out of the way. “Rosa! Oh, I have missed you, my sweet sister!” She held her arms open wide as Mrs. Gonzalez stepped inside and hugged her. Then the woman peaked over Mrs. Gonzalez’s shoulder and grinned at them. “What sweet-looking children!” Her eyes locked on Alec. “Look at you, such blonde curly hair. You look like an angel.”
Ken elbowed Alec, smirking.
“You all better get in here or you’ll catch the death of cold,” Rita said. The two women broke apart as the rest of the group slowly entered the house.
The scent of dusty old furniture and stale air mingled with cooking food immediately confronted Alec. The entryway was large and dark and wide open. A carpeted, winding staircase circled up to the second floor to their right. Farther back the entryway opened into what must have been the kitchen. Dim sunlight shone through the kitchen windows in dirty streaks.
“Rita, this is my friend Evelyn Edgar,” Mrs. Gonzalez said, turning to Mrs. Edgar.
Rita took Mrs. Edgar’s hand and gazed up. “Well, any friend of my sister’s is a friend of mine.”
“Hello, it’s so nice to meet you,” Mrs. Edgar returned, smiling.
“And you remember Sarah and Kenneth,” Mrs. Gonzalez continued.
Ethan visibly jumped when Rita squealed her delight at seeing her niece and nephew again.
“Oooohhh, look how big you’ve grown,” she shouted, holding her arms open.
Sarah stepped forward. “Hi, Aunt Ri—”
The house shook with the sound of a loud WHAM!
Alec flinched. “What was that?”
Ken crouched and raised his hands in a karate pose, glancing around warily. “Dunno!”
“The front door,” Emily said, pointing. “It slammed shut.”
Alec stared at the door. There was no one near it.
Ethan put his hands on his hips and glared at his mother. “Did the wind do that, too?!”
Rita locked eyes with Mrs. Gonzalez. “That’s the kind of thing I was telling you about.” Mrs. Gonzalez, who appeared visibly shaken, patted her sister’s hand.
Ken sprinted to the door and yanked at the knob. “It won’t open! We’re locked in!”
Carl strode over and grasped the handle. “Well, it won’t budge for me, either, now. Lemme just…” He commenced fiddling with the knob mechanism.
“Come on!” Ken shouted.
“Just a minute…” Carl mumbled.
Mrs. Gonzalez placed a hand over her heart. “Dios mio, ayúdame!”
The door swung open, causing Carl to fall to the floor. “Hey! Got it!”
Alec looked at Ken. “What did your mom just say? The door opened right after she said it.”
Ken bunched up his mouth. “She said, ‘My God, help me.’”
Sarah stepped close to Alec, staring at the front door. “It’s going to be a long weekend,” she whispered.
© 2016 by Douglas L. Tanner