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June 24, 2024

Winter Land

By Lydia Manx

The snowflake slowly drifted into my view. I was huddled inside and looking through the double-paned glass. I wondered how distorted the extra pane made that flake. It was huge. I figured it was at least three inches across if not larger. I never was good with judging sizes. Hell, I wasn't very good at much of anything. I just drifted through life much like that damn individual frozen bit of water. My edges weren't as sharp. If you asked my sister she'd say I wasn't sharp at all.

The lights went out in a distant house just at the edge of my vision and the candles flickering behind me just served to remind me I really had to pay my electric bill. They were constantly turning it off for nonpayment of bills. I paid my bills -- just not to their brutal quick monthly demands. I mean I do pay the obscene charges when I remember and otherwise the utilities companies just have to wait until I get back from my travels and then I get everything hooked back up again. Phones were always the first to go followed closely by the electricity and gas. Thankfully, the water company wasn't as fast on the draw once I left a nice sized deposit. Frustrating at times but I'd learned to live with it.

It's not the ideal set up but it's the best I can do some months. Years -- whatever. I hated that my sister was right about me. I was such a loser. She had so much and all I had wasn't the same. No husband, children, mortgage and two-car garage to accompany the other status symbols that seemed to mean so much. Didn't even have electricity most months of the year. Was wickedly hard to keep up with the modern times when you were forever having to steal electricity from local coffee shops to charge your cell phone and laptop. But I had learned to adapt.

No, all I had was a small house on the edge of town and a ghost.

Yeah, you read that right. I have a ghost or a ghost has me. No, this isn't some sexy love story like Hollywood likes to tempt us with, but rather me having a haunted house with a bitchy old man ghost. He wasn't some cuddly, misunderstood soul looking for his lost love, but a nasty old man who died inside the house I bought for such a steal with my carefully saved money. Thus I didn't have a mortgage but a ghost. The real estate agent forgot to mention it when handing me the keys and telling me that the trees needed to be trimmed in back before the city fined me for it. Not so nice, but she wasn't nice -- just a real estate agent in a hungry market with cash poor buyers. Times were tough, I kept reminding myself whenever I bumped into that damned ghost. And since my ghost had some serious comments about the witch of an agent, I knew she'd met him. He didn't just call her a witch. He had some salty phrases about her.

As if I'd summoned him with my thoughts he appeared in the reflection of the glass pane.

"Heh-heh, you thinking about that bitch Carol, aren't ya now?" His voice was not melodic or rumbling but nasal and oddly congested sounding. I think he'd had asthma when alive. Never thought to ask him because he lied. I hadn't realized ghosts could lie but then I hadn't figured ghosts were real until I bought this cursed house.

"Yes, I was. What of it?" I growled and mentally wished him back to hell. He wasn't going anywhere and definitely not offering me any clues how to get him there. I was pretty sure that hell was his final destination, so I didn't really blame him for not telling me how to send him there.

One night I'd have to ask him his name. He had yet to tell me. My research at the library didn't give me any clues. The real estate agent, Carol, hadn't failed to disclose any murders in the sale because there weren't any on record. I know because I checked out every possible avenue once I saw the damn ghost. I spent hours on the Internet searching on my address and the local area history for the past hundred years or so. Maybe the specter was from before that time; I don't know any more. I didn't much care some days.

It wasn't one of my carefree nights. Tonight was going to be stressful since my sister called last night to announce she was going to 'pop in' for a little 'chat' around seven. Which pretty much meant she expected to be fed, heard and obeyed. Two out of three was all I'd have time and energy for this time. Feeding her normally was a pain because she had all these food issues and naturally not the same ones every time. According to my current notes she was only eating carrots, cabbage and chicken. Free-range chicken, organic carrots and heaven only knows how she expected the cabbage. I didn't ask because I didn't much care. I was calling the current food craze her "C food" diet. She wasn't overly amused but then I rarely amused her so it was no biggy.

The extent of my laying out of food was cheese, crackers and carrot sticks. I figured it was close right? The damn ghost was following me around as I shoved the signs of disorder under the rug. Not actually underneath the carpet but into the closets and cupboards. The good thing was that the few flickering candles in the corners seemed to be warm and comforting. I was glad I thought to get a thickly-insulated ice chest back when winter began. I put the perishables out in the chest and could fake having a fridge. But I wasn't willing to cook some raw chicken from the cooler because with my luck my sister would fall ill and be forced to stay. The little things counted.

I lit one of my larger multi-tiered candelabras and figured if nothing else it looked neat on the mantle. The boughs of cedar and firs I'd scattered with some pinecones gave the hearth a winter flavor. Then I did the work necessary to set my fire perfectly. Once the roaring fire was banked properly I sat back on the sofa and wondered what the hell she was coming over to see me about this time. I wished the electricity was on but I well knew that there wasn't much I could do so late in the day.

The ghost kept talking but I'd tuned him out after complaining about the real estate agent. He did tend to repeat himself, and usually I was happy to banter with him about his repetitive performances and make him go away by pointing out he was just an annoying record stuck in the same groove. A mere memory of what he'd been. A shadow of his former self as it were and I liked to remind him of that. He hated that and usually disappeared quickly when I started that bit. My sister made me nuts, though, and tonight I wasn't willing to play with him.

Something caught my ear.

Something new.

"Back it up, ghost boy. What do you mean?" He said something I heard through his usual razzle-dazzle bullshit.

"So you weren't listening to me?" he whined.

Resisting any smartass comments for the moment, I admitted, "No, I was somewhat distracted by my sister's imminent arrival. Forgive me!"

I really need to work on my tone. His upper lip lifted in a sneer before he guffawed. I hadn't realized what a guffaw was until the ghost stumbled into my life. Not a happy sound but rudely mocking with a touch of arrogance. I was so happy I kept him amused -- not. I waited for the wheezing cough to die off. He probably well deserved his death. Once his merriment died off he clapped his hands together and said, "I said, 'With winter coming you better pick the offering before the choice isn't yours to make.' Is that clear enough?"

Gulping, I looked through him to see my sister walking into my home. She never knocked, just made liberal use of the key I'd mistakenly given her for emergencies. So far I was the only one that seemed to see the ghost so I shut up and waited for the inevitable.

"God, Rosalind, look at you," Cordelia was as single minded as ever. Never was she going to call me Rosie and nobody would ever call her anything but Cordelia. Delia is a lovely name you get from Cordelia, I tried it once. Only once and the results were not pretty. I still had the scars on my knees from her shoving me into the manual lawnmower. Those blades were damn sharp and they only had to do a few stitches. But I never called her Delia again. Ever.

"Why should I look at myself?" I growled.

"Have you even looked in a mirror lately? Oh, Rosalind, what the hell is wrong with your hair?" I put a hand automatically up to my head to see if it had fallen out without my notice. Nope, still there. She really tried to get under my skin. She hadn't even cleared the entry hall and was already ticking me off.

"Dunno, Cordelia, I seem to have the required set of eyes, ears, nose and lips -- so my hair means what exactly?" Yep, I was being bitchy. She brought that out in me. After all she was my sister. It was a natural battlefield that only family understood.

"Well, Rosalind, why don't you want to be presentable? You won't find a man looking like some ruffian begging change on the street corner. For God's sake, you went to private schools and an extremely prestigious college. You look like some street beggar." Yep, that's my sister. She doesn't bother to pull punches but simply dives for the jugular and sees what she can hit. Nothing like family to bring you back to basics. I truly hated this.

"Why don't you come into the living room and relax?" I was trying to be nice. The ghost was chuckling and dancing just on the edges of the room. Since Cordelia didn't turn I knew she didn't see him. Damn it. I really wanted someone to see the spirit before I gave in and just figured I was losing my mind.

The various candles around the living room flickered and Cordelia sauntered in slowly with the ghost trailing her. The candelabra on the mantle place glowed warmly along with the fireplace heating the room to toasty tolerable warmth. So far Cordelia hadn't commented on the lack of electricity. She probably didn't have a clue. I hated that she was also completely unaware of the ghost. But then she never really concerned herself with anything not directly related to her life. I shouldn't have been overly surprised.

The evergreen pine sprigs I'd placed on the mantle scented the living room and the blaze in the fireplace seemed to create a nice niche of comfort. I knew better than thinking it would make Cordelia soften. She was here for a reason and holiday joy wasn't in her make up. Winter was my season not hers. She liked summer, the Fourth of July, and her birthday that landed in the middle of August. We laughed that summer was ending once she turned another year older. Once the pumpkin frosted, it was my time. We'd grown up laughing over that. But once we'd grown up the laughter had dropped off. She rarely had much to say to me other than criticism and complaints.

Cordelia was a serious soul without much in the way of a heart, as far as I knew. Since she was the older sister, she was always busy bossing me around telling me how I was doing something wrong. I grew used to it over the years and learned to lie really well.


"Rosalind, here it is just a week from Christmas and you have yet to tell me what you want this year. I already emailed you the wish list for the kids and I wish you'd let me know what you bought so we don't duplicate. That is so upsetting to the children." Cordelia nagged me while pacing. Her children didn't still believe in Santa or anything but themselves. They were what were currently being referred to as 'tweens' -- the time between childhood and teenagers. They were typical self-involved creatures that had their own language and words. I got along with them but knew that their wish list was composed to appease their mom more than any real needs or desires they had for gifts. More than once I'd 'lost' their lists and bought what I wanted. It was harder to do with the email lists but I still managed.

She'd yet to sit down since I found her breaking into my house. Mentally I slapped myself for the unkind thought. More than once I regretted that I'd given her the key. Granted, most folks would've knocked at least before using a key. She had told me she was coming over and she never showed up unannounced. Heaven forbid I didn't have the proper "C" named food -- or whatever odd diet she was following that day. I looked at the carrot sticks, crackers and cheese on a plate sitting on the side table and wondered if she drank coffee or cranberry juice nowadays. I was pretty sure I still had juice boxes somewhere in the garage; I wasn't so sure I would be willing to risk making coffee for her since I didn't have any cream. Certain things were guaranteed -- if I made coffee Cordelia would demand cream. I didn't have any milk products stored other than cheese. Cheese was more stable than milk outside in the ice chest.

My brain made a leap and I tried to not laugh. She was only eating foods with the same first initial as her name. Nope, my sister wasn't too narcissistic compared to, say a megalomaniac of some tyrant-run country. But she was my older sister so I faked concern.

"Well, you're safe. I didn't shop yet. So knock yourself out. Buy the whole list for the kids. I'll figure out something they don't already have." The look on my sister's face made me think I'd just committed some grave offense. Again.

"Rosalind, you haven't done any Christmas shopping yet? Don't you realize it's just seven days away?" The horror on her face was pretty impressive. If I didn't know what we were talking about and saw her expression I'd think she had just been told about some tragedy involving painful maiming and a slow death, not simply my inability to shop in November for Christmas in December. But to her it was some aberration from her world she never wanted to witness. That was tough, because I was her sister, not one of the children to boss around so she didn't get much choice about how I ran my life. Besides I did what was needed not wanted. Cordelia had lots of wants versus needs.

"A week or seven days whatever comes first. Yeah, I know the concept. But, Cordelia, it's not like I won't get the kids gifts. Have I ever missed Christmas?" She was starting to tick me off. The pacing alone was worth a smack. The ghost agreed as I saw him pacing behind her making grand gestures and rolling his eyes mocking her disarray with a finely tuned humor. There was no way I was going to respond to him because Cordelia would lose it if I began talking to unseen folks while she was standing there.

"You arrived an hour late last year with the gifts in bags not even wrapped! They are only kids once." Cordelia was prone to histrionics. It wasn't like I hadn't bought them something last year. Besides the kids loved what I'd got them. I mean if the excited squeals and dramatic jumping up and down was any indication of their emotions. Also it wasn't like Cordelia was denying her kids anything. They had more computer games, toys and stuffed animals than a local toy store. I knew it for a fact since I had actually gone down to see if I could find something to give them not on the 'list' and noticed that nearly everything in the town's store they already owned. Kids still liked cash didn't they? I hated being an aunt some days.

"Well?" she snarled. I hadn't answered her. The ghost was making even more dire motions behind Cordelia. I was steadfastly ignoring him and her. Together the two of them were both pushing all the wrong buttons.

Distracted by their presence, I went over to the fireplace and stirred the embers and added some new wood. I looked at the glow and wondered what was going on with my sister. I didn't even bother looking at the still-moving ghost. One thing at a time was the best way to handle the situation. The flames danced and crackled. I put the fireplace screen back and turned slowly to Cordelia, "Why are you here? You don't give a damn what I get the kids. If they aren't 'worthy' you'll simply re-gift them. And if I did well with my choices for presents you will dismiss them in some way then toss them into some closet out of the way."

That stopped her cold. I knew. She'd always figured I was clueless about her methods. No, that wasn't true, I just didn't bother to argue with her usual blathering or game playing. I didn't have to win every battle with her anymore. There was plenty in my world to keep me busy without adding into the traumas she inflicted for whatever reasons.

The ghost stalled behind her and dramatically traced his finger across his throat.

I don't know what I'd been thinking. I must have been slow or something but all of a sudden everything he'd said earlier chased through my head and I figured it out. If I didn't pick an 'offering' winter would pick one for me. My house ghost was pointing out that Cordelia was ripe. Damn. It wasn't the best of choices but it was something to consider. I shook my head at my wayward thoughts and tried to focus. The ghost was showing me that the powers that be were considering Cordelia as an offering. That wasn't welcome news.

"Fine, Cordelia, I will get the kids something tonight. Remember this is the age of the Internet and instant gratification. They'll like what I pick!" Okay, so I was hard selling it, but I needed to get my sister out of the house before something ugly happened. She still had that look on her face like she'd swallowed something bitter. She was working over the fact I knew about the games she'd been playing.

She was ignoring my obvious hints of getting up and heading towards the front door. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up and an icy chill ran down my spine. It wasn't because my sister was quiet, but that was odd, but because the ghost had disappeared. The damn cranky old specter rarely left once he'd shown up because he had nothing else to do I always figured. And he liked to bug me.

Carefully looking at the plate of food I had set off to the side she began picking at the offerings. I then knew she wasn't going anywhere when she said, "This is really nice."

My sister never complimented me on anything unless she wanted something.

Delicately nibbling she wanly smiled up over a carrot stick.

"You always could see right through me."

Naturally, that was the perfect entry line for the ghost. He appeared between us and shook his head. I wondered if Cordelia would be able to hear the spirit, and that's why he never talked when she was visiting. There was one less person to annoy me. Too bad it took Cordelia to shut him up. Any wonder I let my work pull me away from my home for so long?

As the fire sputtered, I remembered the lack of electricity and mentally made a note to finally break down and buy a generator after the next check was deposited. Traveling so much I was happy that direct deposits still worked even if my bill paying was spotty. Another thing on my list of things do. I shook my head.

"No, Rosalind, you knew I wasn't here about the children's Christmas gifts and even put out my foods! I don't deserve you as a sister!" Cordelia was laying it on thick. Whatever she wanted was huge. I couldn't remember the last time she was this nice.

The ghost was hopping up and down trying to get me to look at him. I knew what he was trying to tell me, but it didn't look like she was going to leave very soon. I was surprised my sister didn't notice him. Watching the semi-transparent shade jumping with my sister behind him was disturbing to say the least especially with my sister shooting puppy dog eyes at me. His angry glare and her sad eyes kept flickering over each other in an odd way.

"Spit it out already, Cordelia, I need to get some shopping done and then to bed. I have a ton of things to do tomorrow," the electricity being the first on the list. The chill in the house would be horrible once the fire died down. I had slept in front of the fire on more than one night when storms kept me housebound.

A spark of anger lit her eyes and she gave up on the pleading look.

"Fine, it's Aunt Geraldine. She's coming for a visit. And is expecting to stay at my place. There isn't any room. Remember I told you that I was redoing the spare room into an office for Neil? Well, naturally," she trailed off. Aunt Geraldine wasn't even my aunt. She was Neil's aunt. Cordelia's husband Neil was as obnoxious as my sister but the aunt was nice enough the few times we'd talked.

Horror filled my brain. I knew what she wanted. A knock on the door and Cordelia few to open it. I was stunned to see the small woman on the doorstep brushing off a powdering of snow.

"Cordelia, please go get my bags. It's too cold for me to stay in the car much longer. And your cell phone kept making that little chirping noise so I finally figured out how to open it up." Her mitten-clad hand held up the slim pricey pink phone. I could hear my brother-in-law's voice shouting. He was good at that. He was a lawyer after all and it was part of his necessary job skills from what I could tell.

"I am not speaking to Neil for the obvious reasons. Putting a desk into my room. The nerve. He's out of the will for sure this time." I watched Cordelia snatch her cell phone with a shaking hand. Aunt Geraldine wasn't kidding and Cordelia launched out of the house hissing at Neil on the phone.

"Sorry to be dumped on you, Rosalind, my dear. Your idiot sister thought she could just drop me off at the nearest hotel during Christmas week. As for my stupid nephew, if he thinks he's getting anything from me he's more delusional than his mother." Aunt Geraldine regally sailed inside then stopped dead.

"Rosalind, why ever do you have a ghost? They are horrid creatures and really bring the beauty of your home down." She waved her hand dismissively while chiding me for the ghost. Like it was some ornamentation I'd mistakenly chosen to accent the end tables.

My jaw dropped as both Aunt Geraldine and the ghost stood nose to nose.

"And you, why are you bothering my niece?" Interesting to hear her refer to me as family. I was still happy to realize that I wasn't crazy and she could see the ghost also.

Eye wide he stammered, "Didn't mean to bother her. She can see me. So can you!"

"Yes, but you aren't supposed to be here, now are you?" The arch tones were pretty impressive.

"Rosalind, did you light these candles?" The mitten pointed to the candelabra.

Keeping the 'duh' sound out of my voice I said, "Yes, ma'am."

"Good, then this should work."

She chanted something in what sounded like Latin to me and quickly bid the ghost to be gone in English. He shrieked and disappeared.

Cordelia walked in with two pieces of luggage in her hands while my eyes were glued to the spot where the ghost had been standing.

"So thanks! I'll see you both Christmas Eve." She dropped the bags and ran.

I hadn't said a word.

"Rosalind, it looks like we need to talk about your house!" Aunt Geraldine was smiling.

"The ghost is gone?" Stunned, I looked at her.

"Of course, I guess we need to talk about more than just the house. This will be a lovely Christmas for a change. Let's go sit by the fire, my dear." Astonished, I followed her to the hearth wondering what had just happened. This definitely was going to be an interesting year.

Article © Lydia Manx. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-12-24
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