Yes, I know that Christmas is still a-ways off. I started this serial last year, and mayhaps should have waited for a more appropriate time to post it. It is I feel, not a Christmas story so much as a supernatural mystery that is currently occurring over the holiday season. I reference past installments so the reader need not start at the beginning . . . None the less – I hope you enjoy this very early present from me to you . . . (Note – those who do want to start at the beginning will find the other 2 parts under “Short Stories” Just scroll through to find them –
Joanne relaxed in the quiet comfort of the crowded restaurant. Sylvan’s always managed to be noisy and yet somehow serene. There was nothing to do except make conversation and stare at the odd, vintage knick- knacks lined up on shelves nearly hidden by the shadows on the ceiling.
The menu offered every kind of food imaginable, from local favorites, to the exotic and trendy. Joanne always ordered vegan, not that she was a vegan. Saying the word just made her feel hip and sophisticated.
Her parents laughed and joked with each other. This was supposed to be family time but Joanne made no attempt to join the conversation.
Mere hours ago something had stepped – uninvited – into her life.
That something preoccupied her constantly.
Joanne feared her secret might slip if she answered too many of her father’s questions. He was just trying to seem interested in the affairs of an average teenage girl. Joanne could use some advice but hers wasn’t a problem an adult could understand. Heck, hers wasn’t a problem anyone could understand.
Right now she wanted to lose herself in the drone of happy people and the promise of great food, but the jingle bells ring of her mother’s phone brought it all back.
“Joanne?” Mother’s voice was full of concern. “Mr. Bellows says he found your bike smashed to pieces near his drive way. Honey, what happened?”
Joanne told her parents what they wanted to hear. The rain had caught her as she checked the mail. She had run home and forgotten her bike. A car must have struck it. She was given the usual lecture about not going out in rainstorms no matter how much you wanted those Christmas cards (and the cash they contained). Neither one of them seemed to care about the expensive bike she had ruined and were just glad their daughter wasn’t road kill.
Joanne’s problems would rest for the time being, allowing her to enjoy a truly spectacular plate of rice pilaf and the complementary bowl of fried bananas.
They were on their way home when Joanne’s good friend David decided to call. “What the hell Jo! We thought some pervert had gotten you. What were you thinking just leaving that bike in the road and not telling anyone?” Joanne sighed. “My parents already beat me over the head with that, it won’t happen again.” David snorted. “Understood. By the way I wrote to that website.”
Joanne kept a death grip on the phone.
Three days ago David had shown Joanne a website that sold Items reputed to be cursed.
An ancient stuffed cat made of burlap had caught Joanne’s attention. Joanne had made no attempt to buy the thing, yet four hours ago it arrived in a battered, unmarked box.
At first it seemed David was playing a prank. Joanne had forced him to take the creepy thing back, though he claimed the site had just made a mistake. David named it Marvin and had teased her with it until she left his house, hoping to never see the thing again.
Joanne had stopped at her neighbor hood mail box on the way home from David’s.
Joanne had been startled to see the cat resting on a post as if waiting for her.
She ran, just as a truck struck the mail box and smashed her bike.
Joanne had then tucked the cat under her coat and raced home, Not sure of what else to do with a thing that had apparently saved her life.
It was still resting on her bed as far as she knew, having thankfully not followed her to Sylvan’s.
David had promised to contact the site where Joanne had first seen the Burlap cat, if only to prove she was just being paranoid.
What David had to say now, however, did nothing to dismiss her fears.
“The site answered me almost right away. They swear they had nothing like that for sale. I told them what happened and they loved the story. They want the cat Joanne. They said they would give you fifty bucks for it.”
David sounded excited but Joanne was confused. Many thoughts raced through her mind. Would selling the cat really be the end of it? Would the thing be angered somehow? Was it right to simply get rid of a thing after it had seemingly prevented her death?”
Joanne still feared the cat greatly. She would do without hit and runs and burlap cats if she could.
David shouted. “Hello!” “Augh!” barked Joanne. He whispered. “Sorry, but you weren’t answering. So how about it? All the money can be yours. I’m reaping a small fortune this Christmas.” Joanne couldn’t answer. It had all come at her so fast. What she needed was time to think. She ended the call. There was a text but she ignored it. Joanne eventually had to turn off her phone.
David rang the doorbell later that night. Joanne was in her bedroom staring into the cats one black, button eye. Her mother answered the door saying, “Jo it’s David!” Joanne still contemplated the cat. There came a soft knock on her bedroom door. “JO!” said David. “We need to talk.”
Joanne reluctantly emerged from her place of safety. Like it or not, David was the only person who at least partly understood her situation. He turned on the television when she entered the living room, perhaps to mask the sounds of what would be a very odd conversation.
“Jo this thing was sent to your house not six hours ago and already your like a different person. First, you tell me you don’t want it – that your scared of it. You say your going to leave it at my house, but then you take it with you at the last-minute.”
“Dave” said Joanne. “First off, I’m pretty sure I did leave it at your house. Last I remember, It was sitting there on the coffee table. Since I was already out in the rain I stopped at the mail box. You know that yellow post that protects it from the road? Well, the cat was on top of it. Just like someone took it from you and left it there for me to find.”
David smiled at Joanne the way he smiled at old ladies who swore they had seen ghosts. He was preparing his “are you sure it wasn’t your dog” routine.
“Jo, suppose you did take the cat without realizing it. Suppose you took it out of your pack when you checked the mail. I once searched for hours for a pencil I was holding in my hand. It’s the holidays! Your not thinking about dumb things like reality. Your thinking about that twenty-four hour Skyrim binge you’ve been meaning to run for the past two and half months of school.” He winked. “I know I am.”
Joanne turned away from him. “It was a that.” David crossed his arms behind his head. “You were already keyed up over the way it got here, which I’ll admit, was a little weird, but there’s probably a logical explain – ” Joanne interrupted him. “I ran when I first saw it, that’s when a truck smashed my bike, had it not been for the cat I – I – I ”
There was a very long wait before either of them found words. David went first. “Had it not been for the cat you would not have been out there in the first place. Look Jo, regardless of what I believe, according to you it saved your life, which makes it good? Think Jo, your whole life you’ve never been involved in an accident until now?” Joanne was silent. David went on. “I didn’t know a person’s personality could change as quickly as yours has. The Jo I know would not be cowering in fear of a stuffed animal. If there is any proof something isn’t right with this thing, it’s in the fact the great Jo Jonson doesn’t like it. I say, sell the cat.”
Joanne smiled. “I’ll still have to sleep on it.” David headed for the door. “You are probably still shaken by that brush with the truck. I’d wait for the shock to wear off. I’m meeting some friends at the mall tomorrow. A local band is performing. Just throwing it out there in case you feel like you need to get out of the house. Please watch yourself Jo.”
David left and Joanne returned to her room. She threw herself across her bed, right beside the burlap beast that had her so worried. To think she could fall asleep in the same room with it, Joanne really was the great Jo Jonson.
Early the next morning Shelly and Eric arrived with David, David’s parents, and several small, annoying children who seemed to be even less enthused to be there then Joanne’s older friends. “All aboard the Polar Express!” Shouted David as Joanne shrugged into some fresh clothes.
He was waiting in the living room. Someone outside was furiously pounding a horn. “I thought you said we would be going to see a band!” whined Joanne as she trudged down the stairs. “I Did.” said David. “The Sweet Street Carolers!”
Joanne headed back up the stairs. David followed. “Please Jo, don’t throw me to the preschoolers!” David caught her coat. “There are six children out there who’s parents want keepsake photo’s with Santa. My own folks agreed to take them but plan to spend the whole time shopping. There’s a giant sand box full of real snow for the kids to play in. It’s our job to hang out at the food court and watch them. I know It’s going to be a chore but with you around I’m sure we’ll make the best of it.”
Joanne was a sucker for flattery. She left the house and squeezed into the large van waiting outside. A hyperactive two-year old smacked her with an elf doll until she took it away. David slid in beside her. “My cousin’s a handful so we’ll both be in charge of him.” David handed the doll back to the boy. “You like to run off, don’t you, Randy.” Randy smiled, now seeming to be the picture of innocence.
Shelly was present with a niece and two sisters, one of whom was six and absorbed in a video game.
Joanne didn’t know Shelly very well. She was a relative of David’s and a total buzz kill.
Eric was in charge of his siblings, twins that bickered constantly. He was mostly a fun guy, but his insistence on following Shelly around made him less so.
The mall, a monstrous, castle-like building, was every bit as crowded as Joanne expected it to be. They waited for what felt like hours for the stupid pictures with Santa, only to have Randy start crying at the last-minute. Joanne wondered if this was more about having the perfect Christmas card photo then any real fun for the kids.
The snow pit was a hit though, at least with Randy. The other kids complained of being cold and wet and opted to ride the carousel instead, leaving Jo and David to fend for themselves at the less popular end of the food court.
David raised his computer case to block a snowball. “I’ll forgive you if you don’t want to talk about it, but you didn’t happen to see who was driving the truck?” Joanne shook her head. “It was a white or gray pick up. The weather was bad so it was hard to tell the exact color. I didn’t get a license plate either. They probably lost control because of the slippery road. They probably didn’t even know I was there anyway.”
David’s eyes shot toward the snow pit, then he sighed and shook his head. “Jo now ya got me seeing that stupid thing.”
It sounded like a joke but Joanne took it seriously. “Where?” David caught her as she left her seat. “That kid over there, see? It’s just a Hello Kitty.” Joanne shook him off and headed for the snow pit.
It was not just a Hello Kitty.
A little girl sat at the entrance to the snow pit, playing with the burlap cat. Joanne used all of her strength to remain calm. “My, that’s a beautiful dolly.” Joanne said to the girl. “May I see it?”
The girl laughed at Joanne and tossed it to another kid.
Joanne had no intention of joining a game of keep away, so she waited at the entrance to the snow pit. Joanne wasn’t sure what would be the best way to handle this, but one thing was certain. She couldn’t let the burlap cat out of her sight.
The cat was eventually passed to Randy, who seemed to want to give it to Joanne. The boy climbed through the snow in his bulky blue coat, but veered past her at the last-minute, disappearing into the crowd.
“Crap” Said David as he appeared beside Joanne. They ran through the throngs of people desperately searching for the missing boy.
Jo soon caught sight of Randy’s red scarf. He was inching along the wall giggling to himself.
They both raced toward him. Randy squeezed under a partition as soon as he was discovered. David grabbed the large canvas wall (on to which a holiday scene had been painted) and dragged it sideways. Joanne secretly hoped security would come running. They could use extra help catching randy.
Behind the canvas wall was an empty space used for storage. Toward the back was a plastic curtain. Randy pushed past it.
David climbed over covered crates with Joanne close behind him. They emerged into the deserted right wing of the mall. The wing was currently under renovation. Thick sheets of plastic covered everything like ice. Dust hung like mist in the air. Randy’s shadow disappeared around a corner.
Joanne and David tried to keep up but by the time they rounded the bend he was gone.
Joanne caught her breath. “Is there a number we can call for security? Have them watch all the doors or something.” David ran into an empty store and emerged empty-handed. “I’ve got a number for the police – but by the time they – ” Joanne left when she heard a noise. David started to dial. Joanne heard the noise again. Both shouted “Randy!” at the top of their lungs. A small voice called, “Just a minute!” They flew toward the source of the sound.
Randy was standing on a tarp-covered bench, picking peeling, white paint off the wall behind it.
“I found a train.” he said, pointing to part of an old poster somewhat exposed by the paint.
“That you Did.” said David. “The painters couldn’t get it off so they painted over it.” David gripped the boy’s shirt. “Next time just ask Santa for a train, and don’t go wandering off!”
They started to walk back.
“Marvin!” Shouted Randy as he reached for the toy he’d left on the bench.
Joanne had completely forgotten, about the burlap cat.
David was frozen, both by the sight of the cat and the fact Randy had chosen the same name for it.
He handed the boy to Jo, and picked up the cat. “Randy where did you find this?” “In the snow.”said the boy, pointing back toward the lobby. Joanne gritted her teeth, hoping the boy wasn’t too attached to his new friend. “Randy someone lost their teddy. I think we should give it back.”
Randy ignored the tattered, stuffed toy in David’s hands, and started to fall asleep. “Okay.” said the boy, oblivious to the trauma he had caused.
David spoke gravely as they reentered the public section of the mall through the canvas partition, the sleeping Randy in tow. It wasn’t like him to be so serious. “Jo if this is some kind of game you are playing with me, confess now and I’ll forgive you. Face it, you are the only one who could have given this to Randy and told him I named it Marvin.”
Joanne didn’t know what to say.
David spoke for both of them.
“Joanne, I’m selling this crazy thing to the crazies, any objections?” Joanne shook her head, though she felt slightly guilty inflicting the cat on someone else. At least the people receiving it might know what they were dealing with. Perhaps it would be happier with some occult collector, so happy it would leave her, and those around her, alone.
Joanne expected to see the cat waiting on her bed when she arrived home. The weight of the world fell off her back when she saw that it wasn’t. David called that night to say that he had shipped it.
Joanne doubted this was the end of it, but a day passed, then another. The fifty dollars arrived and Joanne soon dared to hope.
Christmas morning however, was not as merry as it could have been, for sitting amongst the presents under the tree was – the burlap cat.