“He Came Upon A Midnight Clear” By Michael Arruda

Cover art for my short story collection FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, which contains the short story "He Came Upon A Midnight Clear."

Cover art for my short story collection FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, which contains the short story “He Came Upon A Midnight Clear.”

Here’s a look at my Christmas-themed ghost story, “He Came Upon A Midnight Clear.”  This story was originally published in 2001 in THE ETERNAL NIGHT CHRONICLE. 

It’s also one of the 15 stories contained in my 2013 short story collection, FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, available as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.com and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4294076.

 

Enjoy!

 

Thanks for reading!

 

—Michael

HE CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR

 By

MICHAEL ARRUDA

My great-aunt Georgie passed away last night.  She was 81.  I’ve never really been close to any of my relatives, especially the older ones, but Georgie I loved.  There was an incident— back in 1978— Christmas Eve.  Circumstances beyond my sister’s and my control had taken us out of our home that holiday and placed us in the enormous ancient house of our crazy aunt Georgie.  Crazy we called her.  At least we used to call her that.  Before.

***

            “Would you kids like some eggnog?”  the gray haired woman with the beaming cheeks and glowing red nose asked, snug as she was in her brightly colored red and green Christmas sweater.

            “Yes, please,” the children said, nearly in unison, their voices low and hardly enthusiastic.

            The woman crossed in front of the crackling fire, leaving the children alone in the toasty living room.

            Outside the snow fell.  Giant white globs accelerating to the ground like a raid of miniature paratroopers. The sky from which they fell glowed orange.

            With his nose pressed against the window, the boy watched the invasion with indifference.

            The woman returned to the room with two glasses filled with thick eggnog.  “Here you go, Teri.  And here you go, Todd.”

            “Thank you, auntie,” said 11 year-old Teri.

            Her younger brother said nothing.  He turned from the window, took the glass, and sulked in the corner.

            He sipped the sweet beverage and looked around the room, which was full of all things Christmas. An elaborate Nativity scene to the left of the fireplace, an illuminated Christmas tree to the right, Christmas cards on the mantelpiece, a three foot plastic Santa which in years past was outside and lit but had since stopped working stood in the far left-hand corner of the room, all kinds of holiday knickknacks in every spot possible.

            His mother always said that great-aunt Georgie’s decorations were tacky, but he didn’t think so.  He loved them.

            Usually.

            But not this year.

            “I hate it here!  I want to go home!” the eight year-old exclaimed.

            “Todd!”  Teri said, stomping her foot.

            “What?”  he shot back.

            “It’s okay,” great-aunt Georgie said calmly.  “I understand.  It’s Christmas Eve.  Boys and girls belong with their mommies and daddies, not with a crazy old lady.”

            “Well, my mommy and daddy hate each other!”  Todd said.

            “Todd, mommy said—.” .

            “I don’t care what mommy said!  They hate each other!  Now they’re not even living together!”

            “Well, maybe that’ll change tonight. Your mom’s gone to see your dad, right?”  Georgie asked.

            “Yes,” Teri answered.

            “It’s always the same!”  Todd exclaimed.  “He leaves, she begs him to come back, he comes back, they fight, and he leaves again.  This time he said he’s never coming back!”

            “Do you believe him?”  Georgie asked.

            “Would you come back?”  Todd said.  “You’re only home a few hours a night and on Sundays, and all you do is fight with your wife and shout at your kids who can’t seem to do anything right!  Would you come back?”

            “It’s not like that!”  Teri said.  “Dad’s tired.  He works all week.  He’d like to have some time to himself, and you know how mom is, always wanting to do things together!  He doesn’t get that time!”

            “He gets time.  He just wants all of it for himself!  What about me?”  Todd asked.  “When do I get what I want?  When do I get to go to a movie with dad or something?  Or to the zoo?  Dad doesn’t take me anywhere!”

            “Yes, a marriage is anything but simple,” Georgie said, plopping herself into her favorite rocking chair by the fire and sipping eggnog from her mug.  “When it works, there is nothing more precious in the world, and when it doesn’t, there’s nothing uglier.  Throw children into the mix, and it’s tough.  You have to be willing to sacrifice to have a successful family.”

            The elderly woman smiled at her great niece, who was seated across from her in another wooden rocking chair.  An empty soft chair was situated even closer to the fireplace.

             “Todd, why don’t you come sit with us?”  Georgie asked.  “The fire will make you feel better, honey.”

            “I like it here by the window.”

            “Suit yourself. Yes, the fine art of marriage.  I’ve had experience with both ends of the spectrum.  Your uncle Trevor— you remember your uncle Trevor, don’t you, Teri?”

            “Yes.  I remember playing games with him when I was like three or something.  He was really nice.”

            “He’s the devil!”  Georgie said.  “He left me after 23 years of marriage!  Twenty-three years!  Selfish bastard!  Excuse me,” Georgie smiled again.  “But your uncle Sal.   Now he was the genuine article.”

            “Uncle Sal?”  Teri asked.

            “Yes, you didn’t know your great auntie Georgie was married twice.  First to your uncle Sal, and then to the devil!  Selfish bastard!  Yes, Sal and I were high school sweethearts.  We were married right after we graduated, in 1938.  Four years later, he was in Europe, fighting in the war.”

            Her voice tapered into silence.

            A silence that turned Todd from the window.

            “What happened to him?”  Teri asked.  “Was he— did he come home from the war?”

            The elderly woman looked with sadness upon her niece.

            “I don’t tell this story often.  It’s rather unsettling.  Perhaps I should stop.”

            “No,” came Todd’s voice from the window, turning the women’s heads.  “Tell us.  I want to know what happened.”

            “Well,” Georgie began, placing her mug of eggnog upon the table next to her rocker.  “If you insist.  Believe it or not, it was Christmas Eve.  I had gone to my parents’ house.  They had a gathering there every Christmas Eve.  The whole family was there, except for the young men, of course.  They were all in the military.  When it got close to midnight, I decided to go home.  I wanted to sleep in my own bed.  I wanted to dream of Sal.  My parents only lived a few blocks away from my house, so it wasn’t a long walk.

            “About a block from the house, I noticed a man on the sidewalk up ahead walking towards me.  I thought nothing of it because in those days lots of people were out walking on Christmas Eve.  When people visited friends and relatives, they walked back then.  They didn’t drive.  Anyway, as he got closer, I could tell he was wearing a military uniform.  I was excited because I thought maybe a ship had come in.  Maybe my Sal would be amongst the group that had returned home for the holidays.

            “I was all set to ask him where he had come from when— I nearly fainted.  It was Sal.  My Sal!  I ran to him, and he was all smiles.  We hugged and kissed, and he felt so warm.  I actually felt his body.  I’ve never forgotten that.  We talked, and we walked towards our house. I finally asked him, ‘Sal, what are you doing here?  You didn’t tell me.’  And he smiled and said he didn’t know ahead of time that he was coming.  I was so excited I couldn’t believe it.  Sal was home!  On Christmas Eve, no less!

            “We reached the bottom steps of the front porch, and he stopped.  ‘Aren’t you coming in?’ I asked.  ‘No,’ he said.  ‘What?’ I asked him.  And then he told me he couldn’t stay.  That he had only come to see me and kiss me one last time.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  He might have said I’m back from the moon, and I wouldn’t have noticed, I was just so happy to see him.  I missed him so much.  He kissed me again on the forehead and told me to go inside and that he would see me again later.  I thought he meant he had to stay on the base. Everything was so secretive back then.  I turned and climbed the steps but before going inside I turned again to watch Sal go, and I thought about running after him to kiss him yet again.

            “There was a bright streetlight about a block from the house.  I saw Sal approach the streetlight, and then— and this is the God’s honest truth— I saw him disappear into a fine mist, a mist that rose like smoke into the bright light above the street, and then there was nothing.

            “December 24, 1943.  The same day my Sal was killed halfway across the world.”

            Teri gasped.

            Todd stepped towards the empty soft chair by the fire.  “Was he a ghost?  Did you see a ghost?”

            Georgie looked carefully at both children.  She bit her upper lip.  “I don’t know what I saw, but I do know it was Sal.  Since Sal couldn’t have been there, then, yes, I believe I saw a ghost.”

            Todd sat in the seat.  “Awesome!”

            “Please understand that this is a story I don’t like to tell often.  People will think I’m— well, people don’t generally believe in ghosts.”

            “I do,” Todd said.  “Did you ever see him again?  Did the ghost of uncle Sal ever come back?”

            “I’m afraid, that’ll have to be a story for another night,” Georgie said, looking up at the antique clock on the wall.  “It’s getting late.  You children ought to think about getting ready for bed.”

            “Oh, auntie!  I’m not tired!”  Todd said.  “I want to know!  Did Uncle Sal’s ghost ever come back?”

            The woman sighed. “Children are so hard to say no to!  There are times, especially on Christmas Eve, when I feel his presence, and in my dreams I see him often, looking just the way he did all those years ago, in his uniform, as handsome and strong as ever, but as far as his spirit coming back to me the way it did that night— you’ll have to wait until morning to find out!”

            “Oh, auntie!”  Todd groaned.

            “Off to bed!”  Georgie smiled.  “It’s Christmas.  You know who’s coming tonight!”

            “Like we still believe in Santa!”  Todd scoffed.  “But I believe in ghosts, and I can’t wait to hear the rest of the story in the morning!”

            The boy bounded down the hall towards the bathroom to brush his teeth.

            His sister rose from her rocker and looked her great aunt in the eye.  “You made up that story just to take his mind off my mom and dad, didn’t you?”

            “I never make up stories,” Georgie winked.

            “Yeah, right!  Thank you, auntie,” Teri smiled, leaning over and kissing her aunt on the forehead.  “Good night!”

            “Good night, and sleep well.”

***

            Voices.

            His aunt was talking to someone.

            Uncle Sal’s ghost!

            Todd looked to the bed next to him.

            In the darkness, he couldn’t see his sister, but he could hear her rhythmic breathing.  She was fast asleep.

            Todd threw off the blankets and walked softly towards the door.  He did not want to wake Teri, for she’d yell at him for being awake, and the awful sound of her loud voice would certainly frighten the ghost away, and this was the last thing Todd wanted to do.

            The bedroom was on the first floor adjacent to the living room.  Auntie Georgie kept this particular room for guests rather than the extra bedroom upstairs because it was warmest.  The door was closed, but it had a nice wide keyhole, the perfect size for Todd’s little eye to peer through.

            Todd placed his eye against the hole and looked through.  Bingo!  There was Auntie Georgie still sitting in the rocker by the fireplace, her back to Todd.

            He looked to the left, to the wooden rocker his sister had been sitting in earlier in the evening.

            Sitting in the rocker now was a man.

            Todd’s mouth fell agape, and he almost blew the whole thing by crying out, but his hand shot to his face and covered his mouth.

            “So you’re Mary’s nephew?”  Georgie asked.  “I haven’t seen you since you were wee high!”

            Todd frowned.  That wasn’t the ghost of his Uncle Sal!  It was some other guy, some ugly dude with dark hair, bushy sideburns, and an Adam’s apple the size of a Ping-Pong ball!

            “What’s he got in there?  A toad?”  Todd wondered.

            “I haven’t been here since I was wee high,” the man smiled.  “I’ve been away for a while.  Working in the Midwest, and before that— overseas.  I was overseas.”

            The man’s voice didn’t match his body.  It was soft and high, like a tenor’s, while he was coarse and rough and big.  His legs were long, extended in front of him, nearly touching Georgie’s feet.  His face was angular and hard, with a nose that could have been used as a weapon.

            “My aunt and uncle were on their way over with me, but they got a phone call from their daughter in California, so I decided to go on ahead.  I went for a nice walk around your neighborhood.  I thought they would have been here by now.”

            Georgie shook her head.  “No, they haven’t been by.  You’re my first visitor tonight other than my niece and her two children.  I’m sure they’ll be here soon.  Can I get you something to drink?”

            “No, thank you.  I had quite a bit already at my Aunt Mary’s house.”

            Todd didn’t like the way the man was looking at his aunt.  It was the way his dad looked whenever he was about to blow up at his mom.  That moody look that said, “I’m pissed off, and you’re only pissing me off more by being here!”

            This man was upset about something.  He was going to blow up.  Todd could feel it.

            “Have you ever noticed that— ,” the man leaned forward.  “—evil— is most prevalent during the holiest of times?  Like Christmas?”

            Todd’s little heart started doing jumping jacks.

            “I’ve always thought it strange that evil doesn’t rest on holy days,” the man went on.  “On the contrary, the opposite is true.  Evil is strongest during holy times.  It’s almost as if the devil wants to steal all the attention for himself, as if he wants to ruin the happiness of those who are in their moments of highest expectation, expecting nothing but good times and good cheer.  Little do they know that they are about to enter hell.”

            Todd looked at his aunt.  To his astonishment, she was still rocking, seeming as relaxed as if the stranger had been talking about the weather!

            “You are sad about something, aren’t you?”  Georgie asked.

            The man leaned back and cracked a smile.  He looked surprised by the elder woman’s perceptivity.  “Yes, I am.”

            “What?”

            “I’ve— lost—.”

            “What have you lost?”  Georgie asked, her voice sounding as sincere and caring as if she had known this man all her life.

            “My children,” the man said, his voice breaking with emotion.  “On Christmas Eve, not so long ago, my wife walked out on me, and she took my children.”

            “Why?”

            “Why?  Because she— she’s a— I admit, I had some problems, but I still loved them!  She had no right to do what she did!”

            “I’m so sorry for you.  Have you been able to see your children since that time?”

            The stranger swallowed.  “I saw them.”  His voice trailed off.  “You have children here in the house with you, don’t you?”

            Georgie did not answer.  Todd’s stomach rumbled.

            “I would like to see the children,” the man said.  “I want to look at them.”

            “I think not,” Georgie answered politely.

            “Show me the children!”  the man exclaimed, somehow keeping his voice in a whisper.

            Todd jumped.

            “I think the time has come for you to leave, sir,” Georgie said, instilling her voice with strength.  “My niece and her husband are due back here any moment, so I wouldn’t make any trouble if I were you.”

            The man shook his head.  “Your niece is not due back any time soon.  Nor is she with her husband.”

            Georgie stopped rocking.

            “What do you know about my niece?”  she asked.

            “I know that she’s out there somewhere trying desperately to save her marriage, and that it’s not going to do her any good.  Once the other half makes up its mind, it’s all over.”

            “How do you know this?  That my niece is trying to reconcile with her husband?”

            “I have good ears, madam.”

            “You mean you’ve been eavesdropping?  Trespassing on these grounds?”

            “I’ve been out walking.  Taking in the aura of the evening.  Of this special holy evening, and as I said, I’ve got good ears.”

            “And this house has solid walls and windows.  Your hearing’s not that good.”

            “You had a lengthy conversation with your niece earlier in the evening in the open doorway, did you not?”

            “Yes, I did, but I didn’t see you,” Georgie said.

            “You have a wonderful light display in the side window of your house, just around the corner from your front door.  I was there, looking at it.”

            “You can see it from the street!”  Georgie barked.

            “I did, but it warranted a closer look.  As do sleeping children.  I only want to look at them.  Just show me them sleeping snugly in their beds, let me see their innocent little faces, hear their soft breathing.  That’s all I ask.  Then I’ll be on my way.”

            “You’re not going to take no for an answer, are you?”  Georgie asked.

            The man shook his head.

            “And you only want to look at them?”

            “Yes.”

            “I suppose— there’s no harm in your looking,” Georgie said.  She turned and pointed towards the closed bedroom door.  “They’re in there.”

            The man grinned.

            Todd jumped backwards, his mind swearing every obscenity it knew at his aunt.  He bolted towards his sister’s bed and tugged at her bare foot which was hanging out from underneath the bedclothes.

            Teri kicked and moaned.

            Clang!

            “Ohh!”

            Thud!

            Teri bolted upright.

            “What is it!” she screamed.

            “There’s a man out there with auntie!” Todd screeched.

            “What?”

            “There’s a strange man out there with auntie!”  Todd repeated, on the verge of tears.

            The door to their bedroom flung open.

            The children screamed.

            “Shh!  It’s okay!  It’s me!” said their great-aunt, who was standing in the doorway with a large iron frying pan in her right hand.

            “Did you hit that guy with that?”  Todd asked.

            “Yes.”

            “Hit what guy?  What’s going on?” Teri asked.

            “There’s no time to explain.  Get your coats on.  We’re going next door to Mrs. Martin’s house.  Your coats are out here hanging by the door.  Come on,” the elderly woman urged, stepping to the side, to allow the children to pass in front of her.

            Todd went first.  He stepped through the doorway and screamed.

            The man was standing in the center of the living room, a streak of blood flowing down the right side of his face.

            Georgie thrust herself in front of the children, the frying pan held prominently in her right hand.

            “You come at me again with that frying pan, old woman, and I’ll use it to reshape your face into an omelet!”  the man warned.  For the first time, he laid eyes on Todd and Teri.

            “Ah, the children!  Such sweetness!  Like candy!  Come here, little ones, and give a poor man a hug!”

            “Stay behind me!”  Georgie said to the children.

            “Get out of the way, old woman!”

            “No,” Georgie answered firmly.  “Leave the children be!”

            “I only want to hug them.  To touch them.”

            “The front door is over there!”  Georgie pointed.  “Use it.  Leave my house, now!”

            “My dear woman,” the man said calmly, “you don’t seem to understand.”  He shouted, “I want to see the children!  Do you hear me?  Don’t keep them from me!”

            He spoke calmly again.  “Do you know what we do to mothers who don’t let fathers see their children?  We teach them a lesson.  That’s right.  I can’t have the children, neither can you- or anyone else!”

            Georgie turned and pushed the children into the bedroom.

            “Get out of the house, now!” she screamed to them.  “Through the window!”

            The man screamed and charged.

            Georgie lifted the frying pan, but the man grabbed her fingers and ripped the pan from her hands, flinging it across the room where it smashed with a twang into the bricks around the fireplace.  He wrapped his bony hands around her elderly throat and squeezed mightily, lifting her off her feet, carrying her towards the old rocker.

            Todd and Teri got as far as the window, made eye contact with each other, and did an about-face immediately.  They raced into the living room screaming.

            Teri latched onto the man’s right arm and tried to pull his hand off her aunt’s throat.  The man released Georgie’s throat with his right hand and with the back of the same hand smacked Teri across the face.  She crashed into the wall with a loud yelp.

            Todd punched the stranger in the back and kicked at his heels.  With his left hand still strangling Georgie, the man pivoted his upper body, grabbed Todd by the head and shoved him across the room.  The boy landed on the floor by the front door.

            Todd groaned and rolled onto his side.  When he looked up, his jaw dropped, and he gasped.

            A pair of huge boots were inches from his nose.  The man was standing directly above him.

            Whimpering, Todd looked higher.

            It wasn’t the stranger, but another man.

            A man with a face as friendly as Mister Rogers.  He even smiled.

            He was wearing a uniform.  A military uniform.

            The man’s friendly eyes darted across the room towards the attack, and his face grew grim.

            He looked at Todd once more, and his eyes roved to a spot on the floor by Todd’s left hand.  Todd followed the gaze to the heating vent on the floor by his hand.  Inside the vent, something glistened.

            Todd looked back at the figure, who smiled warmly at him while nodding his head.

            Todd ripped open the grate to the vent and reached inside.  He pulled out a handgun.  He had never used a gun before and wasn’t sure if he could use one now, but the sound of his aunt’s choking told him he had no choice.

            He rose to his feet, took three steps towards the brutal stranger, and aimed the gun.

            “Sir!  Excuse me,” Todd cleared his voice.  “Would you turn around, sir?”

            The man turned his head.  His eyes fell upon the gun.

            “Jesus Christ,” he said.  He looked into Todd’s eyes and saw in the trembling boy a look he had seen so often in the mirror.

            “Bless the beasts and the children!” the man muttered.

            Todd pulled the trigger.

***

            The gun belonged to my uncle Sal.  He had stashed it there long before he had gone to war, the result of an argument with my Aunt Georgie.  She didn’t believe in guns, and didn’t want one in the house.  She had told him to get rid of it.  Apparently, he couldn’t let go and hid it.

            I swear to this day I saw my uncle Sal standing in that living room.  Nobody else did.  But how else would I have known to look inside that heating vent?

            Georgie, you’ve gone on to a better life, I’m sure, a life I’m confident you are sharing right now with a very special man.

            My dad never did reconcile with my mom.  He never came back.  It’s been years, and I still hate him.

            But Sal.  Uncle Sal.  He came back.  Even after he was dead, he came back.

—END—


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