My sister had invited me to spend Christmas with them in Augusta. I’d planned to leave on Monday, but that would have meant not seeing Sabrina for several days. Which seemed, um, hurtful maybe, considering the current state of our “relationship.” Not to mention that I wanted to see her. So I dropped by for breakfast early Tuesday morning on my way out of town.
Her smile when I walked in made it all worthwhile.
“You’re here awfully early, Mr. Whittaker. And you’re not going out to you island, unless you’ve started dressing up for her. And I’d guess you’re not heading off to fix things up with your voodoo lady—she doesn’t seem like the first-thing-in-the-morning type. If I had me a deck of those cards, I could probably tell for sure. But I’m guessing you’re heading home for Christmas.”
“I’d be impressed except you’ve already demonstrated that you can read my mind. What am I having for breakfast, by the way?”
“Blueberry pancakes with country ham, of course.”
“Of course. I’m actually going to my sister’s in Augusta. You should spend Christmas around a kid, and he’s the only one readily available.” As I said that I realized that I hadn’t gotten anything for Sabrina’s kids, but it was too late now—I’d have to pick up something on my trip. “What does Christmas at your house look like?”
“Wanda closes on Christmas, so I get the whole day off. Usually we go to church with Mama and sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve. None of that communist bull hockey about opening presents on Christmas Eve for this family. Of course, that means up no later than 6 on a day off, but it’s OK. It’s only once a year, and who wants to sleep in on Christmas? I swear I’m as excited as the kids are. I always get them something we can play with after the presents are all opened. This year I found this new game where you build stuff out of rickety blocks and then try to knock them down with rubber band guns. Mama comes over and makes our traditional Christmas dinner, which is chicken-fried steak with gravy and mashed potatoes and green beans.”
“That sounds like a great tradition. One your kids will tell their kids about thirty years from now. Sorry I’m already committed to going to my sister’s, or I’d crash the party and just show up for chicken-fried steak.”
“Damn the luck. And I suppose shooting rubber bands is one of your secret talents, too.”
“Dead-eye Rick, they used to call me in grade school.”
When I finally got on the road, I had a belly full of Wanda’s goodness and a soul full of Sabrina’s wit. Not to mention enough coffee that I had to stop twice.
I called Adeline from the road to wish her a merry Christmas and bring her up to date on the Ghosts of Avalon.
“Tell me the whole thing, not just the summary,” she insisted. And so I did. A play-by-play from the moment Chai looked up from dinner and spotted the first ghost up until the time I went to bed. Including my thoughts and feelings as well as what I thought Chai’s had been.
Adeline was quiet for a long time after I stopped talking. “That’s a funny thing. Hearing you talk about the figures standing around the circle just resonates with me somehow. I think that was exactly what I was feeling when I knelt at the altar: the presence of others. And not necessarily hostile, just cold. Like I didn’t belong there. But maybe it was just that they couldn’t communicate with me and so it came off as cold. Hmmm.”
“I didn’t see any sign they actually knew we were there.”
“Maybe you appeared as ghosts wherever they were also. But if that’s true, they would have noticed you and reacted. So maybe not.”
“And the other thing is, there haven’t been any apparitions any other time I’ve been there. Only on Midwinter. So if you were feeling their presence, it was still different somehow.”
We chewed it over another twenty minutes without arriving at any conclusions. I’d run out of things to say after two and would have signed off, but she was the boss. Finally I used the excuse that traffic was getting heavy in order to quit going over the same ground.
* * *
Justin was the perfect age for Christmas. Full of wide-eyed wonder at everything; not old enough yet to be greedy nor to have the first doubt that Santa was real. Christmas was a miracle created just for him. Plus at four you start to get real toys that are fun for your uncle to play with too. Well, maybe a little young. But whatever, we had a blast.
Maggie and I had been close as kids before drifting apart during high school, and hadn’t spent all that much time together since. But I floated the never-serious proposal of chicken fried steak for Christmas dinner and she wanted to know where the hell I’d come up with such a silly idea. Then one thing led to another, and I ended up telling her about Sabrina. During the course of the follow-up conversation I slipped up and mentioned the name “Chai” and then we were off to the inquisition.
“You’re mooning over one woman and sleeping with another one? Doesn’t that seem a little, um, what’s the word, inconsiderate?”
“Well, Sabrina’s got a boyfriend that she’s sleeping with, too. Why is it inconsiderate?”
“Because she obviously wants to break up with him but when she fantasizes about leaving him and ending up with you, it doesn’t help the process because you’re committed to someone else.”
“So I should stop seeing Chai so Sabrina can have fantasies about me and that’ll ultimately lead her to break up with JD? That’s just wrong on so many levels, Maggie. First of all, I’m not committed to Chai, and Sabrina knows it. Plus she should break up with JD because he’s an abusive bastard who treats her like shit, not because I’m there as an alternative.” Maggie was shaking her head in a way that clearly said, you’re an idiot, little brother. “Don’t tell me women really think like that.”
“You obviously have no idea how women think.”
“If what you’re saying is 50% accurate, they should be working on a genetic mutation to fix the problem. That’s the craziest thing I ever heard.”
I ended up making chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes with gravy for lunch the day after Christmas—Boxing Day, as our British cousins celebrate it. Then I shopped for gifts for Sabrina’s kids before I left Augusta. So it was almost eight by the time I made it back to the cottage. The idea of putting my feet up with a martini and a good book sounded like heaven.
The shaker was empty and I was deciding if I wanted a light meal, just a touch of dessert, or nothing at all when a car door slammed outside, followed in short order by somebody pounding on my front door.
“Open up, you bastard. We need to get some things straight between us.”
“Rick, don’t open the door.” Sabrina’s voice was easily recognizable, even over the commotion.
“Shut up, bitch. This ain’t got nothing to do with you, this is between me and him.”
“Dial 911 and keep the door locked.”
“I said, ‘shut up!’” This was followed by a cry from Sabrina.
I recalled Lucas’ advice about the only good way to deal with JD was to shoot him in the back with an unmarked pistol. But I didn’t have a pistol. I didn’t even have a baseball bat, which seemed more appropriate for the occasion. Well, I couldn’t just stay inside if he was going to take it out on Sabrina.
I grabbed my phone and dialed 911 as she’d suggested, then laid it down on the counter. If emergency service out here in the boonies was anything like in Charleston, they could trace the location of the call, and maybe even hear what was happening over the open line. Then a quick look around to see if there was a weapon of any sort. The gin bottle was the only thing that looked even halfway useful. There were knives in the drawer, but knives got people killed. So I snatched up the bottle and threw open the door.