Colleen Houck

“I took hold of that scourge -filled ship and crushed it between my limbs, hurtling it into the second sun, the red one that gave me strength. But I was too late." Terraformer

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  • The Ghost of Christmas Past

    January 14, 2014

    The Ghost of Christmas Past



    I woke to the smell of hot buttery biscuits and kicked off my covers.  My room was nippy because dad liked to turn the thermostat down at night to save money.  Crunching the numbers, he said it would save us two hundred dollars per year.  Dad figured that we had plenty of warm blankets to snuggle in anyway, which was true, but it sure gave me a shock every morning when I first touched my bare feet to the wooden floors.  Quickly, I slipped my feet into some thick furry socks and wrapped my heavy robe around my body, then headed downstairs.

    Passing the living room, I saw our tree was lit and a mound of brightly wrapped presents was spread under its branches.  The tree was on the shorter side, fuller on the bottom, a bit skinny on the top, and mostly bare in the back.

    Every Thanksgiving after pie we climbed into the car and drove to the local U-Cut Christmas tree farm.  When I was only five years old, dad picked out a beautiful tree and had knelt down to saw the trunk when I started crying. I’d found a misshapen one a few rows over and made such a fuss about it being rejected that he bought that one instead.  Since that time we always sought out the saddest tree at the farm and brought it home.

    I’d cut this tree down myself as my father held the trunk steady.  It was the first time he’d let me do it and even though he had to saw the bottom straight again before tying it on top of our car, he claimed he was very proud of my efforts.  Mom and I decorated it with all her hand-me-down ornaments and together we turned a sad looking tree into something quite charming.  The gaps were filled with twinkling lights and clipped on snowflakes.

    Entering the kitchen, I found my grandmother stirring her famous gravy in a huge skillet.  Her biscuits were cooling on the counter.  I was quiet but she still knew I was there.

    Without even turning around, she said, “There’s my girl.  Did I wake you?”

    I pecked her soft cheek and caught the faint scent of her perfume—sweet pea, her favorite flower, was the fragrance.

    “I smelled breakfast,” I explained.  “Are mom and dad up yet?”

    “No,” she replied.  “They were awake late wrapping presents.”

    I nodded and yawned.  “What time did you get up?”

    “Oh four-thirty or so.”

    “You should’ve slept longer, grandma.”

    She tapped the wooden spoon on the side of the skillet and reached for a package of bacon.  “There’s plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead.  I want to live while I’m living.”



    “That’s hardly a good topic of conversation for Christmas.”

    “Why? Death is a part of life.  Besides it’s fun to shock people.  It’s one of the few pleasures I have left.  The only good thing about getting old is being able to say whatever I want whenever I want to.  My body may be headed downhill but I still have my sense of humor.”

    “I don’t know,” I said as I put my hand on my hip, “I suspect that’s going too.”

    She laughed heartily in the way only my grandmother could and patted my cheek fondly.

    “At least when I go, I’ll be happy to know I’ve passed on my genes for sarcasm.  Your father never gets my jokes.  He just frowns and says, ‘Now, mother.’”

    “Yeah, no worries there.  I’ll keep the tradition alive for you.”

    “That’s my girl.  Now you make the cocoa while I start on the bacon.”

    Soon the bacon was sizzling and I was stirring a pot of homemade cocoa.  As grandma whipped the eggs with a frenzy, she asked, “So how’s school going?  Do you like being in high school?”

    “I guess.  I don’t have many friends there.”

    My only friend in middle school had moved to another state during the summer and the truth was that I felt lost in the new high school that had over two thousand students.  I didn’t have classes with anyone I knew.

    “I’m sure you’ll make friends easily,” she said.

    As I stirred my cocoa, I bit my lip and thought that it wasn’t too likely.  I’d already been in school an entire semester and I sat in the back of every class.  The only one who noticed I was even there was my math teacher.  I aced all his tests.  He once spoke to me in the hall and suggested I might like to teach math someday.  Other than him and the librarian, there weren’t any people interested in talking to me.

    Unless you were into sports, choir, or drama, there just wasn’t a group I could fit into.  Well, except one.  A teacher set up a Shakespeare club that I thought I might like but they only allowed seniors so that was out for a few years.  It didn’t really bother me to be alone though.  Since I wasn’t busy socializing, I got most of my homework done at school.

    Grandma tasted her gravy and pronounced it perfect.  As she removed it from the stove, she asked, “What about boys?  Are there any boys you’re interested in?”

    I blushed furiously and stirred my cocoa faster.  “What do you mean?” I stammered.

    She peered at me shrewdly.  “Kelsey Hayes, you’re going to have to get over your shyness.  You need to let people get to know the funny sweet girl that you are.  And that includes men of the opposite sex.”

    “Grandma, first of all it’s redundant to say ‘men of the opposite sex’.  If the person is a man he is obviously of the opposite sex.  Also at my school there are no men only boys.  Most of which are very immature.  Half of them aren’t interested in girls yet and the other half is only interested in girls who wear short skirts, high heels, and bat their mascara loaded eyelashes.”

    “Oh they’re interested.  They just haven’t worked up the courage to do anything about it yet.”

    I shrugged.  “Well, when they do, I won’t be the first person they come to.”

    “And why not, young lady?”

    “Look at me, grandma.  I’m too overweight for them to notice.”

    “What are you talking about? You’re not too overweight.  You’d fit in my wedding gown if I tried it on you and I had a very nice figure back then.”

    “Yeah, well, maybe, but a nice figure in this decade is considered size 0-4.”

    “Now, Kelsey, you listen to me.”  She cupped my chin and turned my face towards hers.  “You are a lovely, smart, interesting, young woman and someday a very lucky man will scoop you up and run away with you.  If the boys in your school aren’t interested now then that’s their loss.  Understand?”

    “Yes, grandma,” I muttered through pursed lips.

    “And if there is a young man who interests you, then there’s nothing wrong with making him understand that.”

    I snickered.  “You mean the way you made grandpa understand?”

    “Exactly.”  Grandma turned back to her eggs with a secretive smile and I knew she was thinking of the man she’d been married to for fifty-three years.

    Grandma had been the daughter of a rancher back in the day and was one of the best calf ropers in the state.  Frustrated with granddad’s slow method of courting, she roped grandpa one day, yanked him off his horse, and told him that if he didn’t propose to her within a week, she’d tie up his limbs and brand him herself.  His answer was to immediately roll to his knees and ask for her hand.  He’d passed on a few years ago.  I knew she missed him.  We all did.

    Mom and dad came down and while dad set the table with our fancy china, mom helped me and grandma bring out the food.  We dined on our Christmas brunch leisurely to sound of soft carols playing in the background, then cleaned up and put away all the dishes.  By the time we headed to the living room to open our presents it was late morning.

    Grandma rocked as dad handed out presents and one by one we opened them.  Each present was treated with great ceremony and only after we all had an opportunity to exclaim over the gift did we move on to the next one.  Dad said he loved my gift which was a fancy top-of-the-line graphing calculator.  I gave mom a signed set of books from her favorite author.  For grandma, I wrapped up a shoebox full of flower seeds and promised I’d come over to help her plant her flower garden in the spring.

    I came away with books, clothes, a chocolate orange, and other standard fare but then my big present was in an envelope.

    “What’s this?” I asked as I ran my finger under the edge.  I took out the piece of paper inside and raised my eyebrows at the homemade gift certificate.

    Dad took mom’s hand and squeezed.  “You know how we always go on a family vacation every year?”

    “Yes.” I answered cautiously.

    “Well, we thought that as your present this Christmas, you could pick where we go and what we do.”

    “You mean…I get to decide everything?”

    “Everything,” they agreed in unison.

    “Even if I want to go out of state?”

    Dad pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose.  “Well, as long as we stay within budget.”

    Mom leaned forward.  “Do you have any ideas?”

    I trailed my fingers across the page.  “I don’t know.  There are so many places I’d like to go so many things I’d like to see.”

    “Well you can pick anything you like.” Mom smiled.  “Europe, China, Hawaii, Alaska, even India, if you want.”

    “Ah, dear,” dad interrupted nervously, “Let’s not get carried away.  The budget isn’t big enough to do something that ambitious.”

    “That’s okay,” I responded excitedly.  I’m sure I can come up with something really amazing!

    “Just remember we need to go during my spring break,” dad warned.

    I nodded vigorously and hugged them both.  “It’s the best present!” I said.  “I promise I’ll plan the greatest vacation ever!”

    That night after watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas with my family, I spent the rest of the evening on my laptop planning out the vacation of a lifetime.


    A few months later I stood alone, a heavy trench coat wrapped around my body, but still, the cold seeped into me.  I couldn’t get warm enough.  I placed a bouquet of sweet peas on the grave of my beloved Grandmother Kate who was buried next to Grandpa Albert, her cowboy sweetheart.  I blew him a kiss since I knew he would bellow in consternation if he knew I was attempting to put flowers on his grave.

    The wet grass made a squeaky sound as I moved along the row until I found the headstones of my parents.  Tears trickled down my face as I placed a white rose on both of their graves.  After spending a few quiet moments with them, I brushed gloved hands against my cheeks, and left, climbing into the car where my foster parents were patiently waiting for me.  Looking back, I always remember that last Christmas as the year I lost everything.






    This entry was posted in Bonus Material, Tiger's Curse.

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    Author Bio
    Colleen Houck

    New York Times Bestselling author Colleen Houck is a lifelong reader whose literary interests include action, adventure, paranormal, science fiction, and romance. When she's not busy writing, she likes to spend time chatting on the phone with one of her six siblings, watching plays, and shopping online. Colleen has lived in Arizona, Idaho, Utah, California, and North Carolina and is now permanently settled in Salem, Oregon with her husband and a huge assortment of plush tigers.