For the first time, in what seemed an eternity, Jenavieve was anxious. She could hear faint echoes of Melvin barking, and smelled gas. All she could remember was their cloud shrouded porch, where she, Martha and Frank spent their afterlife. It was always Christmas morning and there was always hot chocolate. But today, something was different. What is a Melvin? Jenavieve thought and why should I care if it’s barking? And what does gas smell like anyway? She wrinkled her nose, answering her own question, but wondering how she could identify something she knew nothing about. Martha was suddenly next to her, sipping from her mug. Melvin is the dog next door, dear. Mr. Farmer’s Chihuahua. Jenavieve heard Martha speak, even though she was drinking her hot chocolate. Damn annoying too, as I remember. Frank chimed in without moving his lips. He was sitting in the chair next to Martha, which had been empty just seconds before. He was whittling some winged creature out a piece of wood. Jenavieve was beginning to think it wasn’t a bird, but an angel. Now dear, be kind to dumb animals. She added with a wicked smile. Like I was kind to you all those years ago. Frank laughed, and feigned like she had stabbed him, cringing in pain. Mercy and forgiveness, dear one, he replied affectionately and kissed Martha on the cheek. It was an old, familiar exchange between them, whether living or dead. Martha and Frank turned as one and looked at her, and she knew something was wrong. She started to look behind her, back towards the house. The old, familiar dread filled her and she stopped, unable to look. Memory is back that way, a small voice warned her. And I don’t want to remember she thought vehemently. Here there were no secrets and no thoughts unheard, and Martha told her, You must, for Lucas’s sake.
Lucas, Jenavieve thought remembering his name. Shattered fragments of their life together crashed against her mind. They wounded her even as they reminded, leaving broken memories like lacerations. We are ghosts, Frank said calmly. We have only the smallest tether to our old lives, only enough so our most loved ones can find us after. Jenavieve began to think or ask after what but Frank answered first. “Death,” he said moving his mouth, as though the word demanded a proper utterance. “We are wraiths most times, barely wisps of smoke or stirrings of wind. But Christmas Day we have power. Just like the stories, we can change things.” It was Martha’s voice she heard now, not a memory of her voice created to identify her words in Jenavieve’s mind. The clouds were thinning, and she could begin to see the old neighborhood surrounding the house. “But if he kills himself, you will never be together again.” Frank warned. “We are running out of time dear. Even ghosts are limited by time.” Martha offered her hand to Jenavieve. Suicide Jenavieve thought, suddenly frantic. “Turn around and look. If we hurry, we can save him.”
Jenavieve turned, remembering Lucas clapping in the classroom. She remembered the white rose on red velvet. She remembered headlights suddenly blinding her, as a car came out of nowhere and ran a red light, crashing into her. She remembered waking up from the womb of death, on Martha’s back porch, with Lucas’ anguished cry as they told him she was dead like a baby’s first screams. Jenavieve took Martha’s hand and the three of them turned together. Lucas was sitting in the kitchen. He held up his mug, and then the house exploded. Jenavieve shouted an inarticulate denial, and the fire froze. Broken pieces of wood and glass hung in the air for several seconds, then flew back into place. As the house reconstructed itself as if it was being rewinded, and the fire was sucked back inside. She is powerful Frank thought. Love always is, Martha reminded him.
Lucas was lifted up by the explosion, and thrown through the window. He was suddenly frozen in midair, thrown halfway through the window and surrounded by flames. With his bones breaking from the window frame as he crashed through it, and his body pierced by jagged glass, blood spurted from him like crimson ice flows. Is this my hell? He thought, forever frozen in this agony? Then he heard Jenavieve’s voice in the roaring flames, and he was again sitting at the table with his hot chocolate. Don’t you love me? Jenavieve’s voice screamed, tormented. With a wave of nausea and distortion of location, he was now in front of the fire place. He blew out the match instead of lighting the fire, and set the box of matches on the mantle. Don’t you love us? Lucas picked up the photos from the fireplace, and walked around the house putting them back where they went, moving as if in reverse. If you kill yourself, we can never be together again. Do you understand? Her voice was softer now, the way he remembered and missed. Lucas sat on the edge of the bed, wishing Jenavieve was with him. For a second she was, or at least a shade of her. A ghost of her face floated in motes of dust swirling in sunlight that streamed through the bedroom window. Isn’t a lifetime of sorrow, worth an eternity together? Please be strong for me.
And then she was gone.
Melvin was at the fence by the Steinman place, barking furiously at something in the yard. Karl Farmer looked up from his newspaper and saw nothing or no one in the yard or on the porch. He got up and opened the screen door of his back porch, grumbling at the pain in his knees. “Come on Melvin. No one’s there.” Melvin suddenly whined, and ran inside the house as if something had scared him. “What the hell,” Karl wondered, turning and followed Melvin’s retreat through the porch into the house through his doggy door. He recoiled and almost fell backwards through the half open door. Frank Steinman was sitting in his chair. “I smell gas next door. Don’t you Karl?” he said. Karl blinked and Frank was gone. He breathed slowly, thinking about what he had seen. He had read somewhere that your mind will play tricks on you, even making you see old friends or loved ones, as a way of your subconscious telling you things you had not noticed. He couldn’t have possibly seen a ghost. “Honey,” he yelled, “Call 911. I smell gas next door.”
He walked to the fire place, where the box of matches still sat. There was also a picture that should have been in a box in his closet. It had been a picture he could not bear to keep out, one taken on their wedding day. It was sitting on the mantle like it belonged there, and Lucas had to admit, it did. There was a message scrawled in the dust on the mantle next to the picture, traced in a familiar handwriting. After reading it, Lucas had to sit down because he was suddenly weak and shaking. He cried for hours, and fell asleep on the couch. When he awoke, he searched the house for an old Polaroid camera Martha had kept around, refusing to get a newer one. He remembered fondly how she had loved taking pictures with it, shaking the photo as the image slowly appeared. Lucas took a picture of the message. He sat the camera and the developing photo down on the couch. Then he began the slow process of trying to remember how to live his life. He started by dusting the mantle and the rest of the house.
From that day forward, Lucas was a changed man. He lived his life for others, giving everyone else all the love he could muster. He kept none for himself, for his love was dead. Lucas held junkies convulsing with withdrawals as they begged for a fix. He held them, and assured them it would get better. Sometimes it actually did, for the ones who truly wanted healing. He cried with homosexual and lesbian teenagers as they told him about how their parents hated them, and the beatings the other kids sometimes gave them, or the name calling. He told them to be proud of who and what they were, and that someday they would be accepted. And slowly, they began to be. He worked with minorities just trying to make a living and a life of their own, in a world that seemed to want to judge them on skin color or religion instead of their actions. He tried to let them know he was sincere, not helping them for politics or pity. To most it was obvious. To others too disillusioned to care anymore, he was just another white man giving a handout. Either way, he helped them all he could. He told bullied kids that they were important and loved, and that suicide was not the answer. He knew from experience, and these were the most fulfilling. For every bullied kid he kept from attempting suicide, he felt like he saved a little piece of himself. He filled his empty heart with the joy helping others, a worthy substitute for one man’s short life span. There was always a sadness in his eyes, a vacancy that could not be filled. However, few people noticed, and that was the way Lucas preferred it. He never had a relationship or married again, and lived alone the rest of his life. People would always comment about a folded photograph he always kept in a shirt pocket. He often took it out and looked at it briefly, before returning it to his pocket. They always would ask each other what was shown in the picture, but no one knew for sure. Most assumed it was a picture of Jenavieve, but no one ever got the courage to ask Lucas. No one would know until the day Lucas died for the final time.
Every Christmas that he lived after that fateful year, Lucas left a white rose on red velvet on Jenavieve’s grave. Lucas died on December twenty third at the ripe old age of one hundred and one.
Hoping he would die near the Christmas holidays, Lucas had arranged everything in advance just in case. Per his wishes, they had his funeral on Christmas day. Many may have thought it morbidly inappropriate, but he at least had the good sense to schedule his funeral for late afternoon. Thousands attended anyway, glad to endure a little inconvenience to honor a man who had helped so many. They buried him next to Jenavieve, as they had always been. By each other’s side.
Mr. Charles Reeds of Reeds Funeral Home smiled as he navigated the scattered groups of people that lingered after Lucas’s funeral. He eavesdropped a little, listening to the conversations. Several were concerning the folded up picture Lucas had always kept to himself. He smiled because he and Lucas shared a secret. Charles had promised Lucas as they had been preparing him for the coffin, never to tell a single living soul. He did not know why, he had just felt obligated. Charles, as a funeral director, had a responsibility to all of the deceased that came into his funeral home, but this had been different. Going through Lucas’ clothes, he had found the folded up picture that had caused much speculation during his lifetime. He had cried a little after seeing it, and reading the message it contained. He had folded it back up and returned it to Lucas. He didn’t put it back into Lucas’ shirt pocket, but instead closed it up in Lucas’ hand like something precious. Charles promised never to reveal what he had seen to anyone. Charles Reeds was a man of his word, and never spoke of the picture again, though sometimes when he was depressed he would think of it and be comforted.
Lucas sat down next to Jenavieve on the cloud-shrouded porch. A young man again, he took her hand and kissed it. Jenavieve beamed, and put her head on his shoulder, like she had long ago. Frank shook his hand in welcome, and Martha handed him a mug of hot chocolate. Lucas sat the hot chocolate down on a side table, and turning to Jenavieve, kissed her deeply. He kissed her for a long time, no longer needing to breathe. Merry Christmas Lucas and Jenavieve thought as one. Merry Christmas indeed Frank and Martha replied in unison, and gave each other a long peck of their own
The picture was old and faded at the creases, stained here and there with tear drops. It was a picture of a note Jenavieve had left behind for Lucas after preventing his suicide, written in her flowing handwriting that he knew so well. The scrawled message from a ghost empowered with the Christmas Spirit. In the coffin, it soon went the way of the worm along with his body, but here is what she had written:
My love, my life.
I see now that winter never really goes away, nor Christmas. Life is always bitterly cold, and spring, summer and autumn are just figments of the weather. The winter of humanity seems never to be broken. Though fading, the giving and charity of Christmas also remains. That selflessness also exists eternally, like a small bit of Yule log kept in the heart for warmth against the cold. I know my death has turned your heart to ash and frozen your soul, but you must endure if we are to be together again. If you cannot find love, then be love. Taking your life is never the answer, no matter how desperate your sadness becomes. If you cannot fill my void, then fill others. Their happiness will be like an echo of my voice, a lingering memory of my caress. Let the joy of others keep you warm until Eternity unites us again.
Utterly and devotedly in love with you forever, Jenavieve