“The Christmas Closet” is a coming-of-age Christmas story. But that doesn’t mean its all about Christmas – or that it even takes place entirely during the Christmas season.
Think back to when you were a kid. Remember how you marked time? You kept track of important dates and times. Christmas – certainly – the ‘most important date on the Kid’s calendar’ to paraphrase that perennial favorite “A Christmas Story”, was at the top of the list. But other dates are important too. “The Christmas Closet” explores that theme, by starting on the last day of summer. It examines the excitement and fear of the first day at a new school, and it incorporates both Trampas’ and Jenny’s birthdays – perhaps the second most important date in a kids calendar. Thanksgiving is in there, but also that special holiday that every kid looks forward to with ghoulish delight. Halloween.
With All Hallows Eve nearly upon us, I thought I’d post an excerpt from Chapter 15, one of my favorites from the novel. It also inspired the photo I shot for the back cover of the book, utilizing a local Victorian mansion as a stand-in for the house in the story.
The Christmas Closet – Available via Amazon.Com, Barnes and Noble
It was a perfect full moon. The sort of crystal ball moon that loomed so large and clear, it made the night sky glow like a Maxfield Parrish painting. It rose behind the Morgan Mansion, casting the façade in darkness.
On the street in front of the house, shadows darted in and out of hiding. A low moan drifted on the air. The sound came again, louder this time, as it rose in pitch. Two figures stumbled along the sidewalk, lurching and reaching forward, their hollowed eyes rolling in their heads. A tiny princess and superhero screamed in fright, and darted away from the staggering zombies.
“Dude, did you see those kids run?” Marcus chided Sam.
“Yeah, but they didn’t drop their candy. Man, I still say we should just grab some sacks and head out,” Sam suggested. He scratched at his face, certain the makeup was causing him to break out.
“No way, we’re too old for trick or treating. Let’s head over to the community center. They’re supposed to have a band and a haunted house.” Mention of the haunted house caused the pair to look up at the Morgan Mansion.
The old cast-iron gate was chained and padlocked. No one knew who last held the key. The lock itself was from an era unfamiliar to anyone on the block. The full moon projected the dark outline of the cupola across the yard, shading the overgrown brick path leading up to the rickety old front porch. The looming presence of the old Victorian mansion stimulated the boys’ imaginations. They pressed their faces against the gate. A stiff breeze blew dry leaves across the lawn, causing a creaking groan to emanate from the rickety porch supports.
“Aieee!” a Banshee’s howl pierced the night. The boys screamed in unison and spun around to face their terror.
Jenny stood behind them, dressed in black, her face whitewashed into vampire makeup, with a streak of blood artfully painted on one corner of her ruby lips.
“Jesus, Jay! You scared the crap out of me!” Sam laughed.
Jenny smiled with wicked delight. “Did I?”
“Not me. I wasn’t scared. I knew you were there,” Marcus said. Jenny and Sam rolled their eyes. Just then, a spotlight hit the trio.
Two younger children, swinging their sacks of treats walked by, followed by a mother carrying a flashlight. She paused to regard the older kids, and then swung the light up at the old mansion. “You kids stay away from that house, now.”
“Yes ma’am. We will.” they mumbled assurances. After the woman and children had passed, Marcus turned back to the gate and looked at the house.
“That’s a great idea! Let’s break into a real haunted house!” He was already examining the lock and chains on the gate.
“No, that’s a dumb idea. Let’s just go to the party,” Sam replied. He tugged on Marcus’s tattered zombie suit coat and was shrugged off in response.
“We’re supposed to wait for Trampas,” Jenny offered.
“Screw him. Let’s go!” Marcus dared them. “Are you guys afraid?”
“No, I’m not afraid. I mean, not of ghosts, or monsters or anything. But, you know, we could get arrested for trespassing or—”
“Chicken!” chided Marcus.
Jenny tried to derail the challenge. “Come on, let’s go swing by Trampas’s house and then go to the party.”
“Why?” Marcus sneered. “You got a hot date with your boyfriend or something?”
“You want another kick in the face or something?” Jenny bowed up in front of the older boy.
“Hey, guys. GUYS!” interrupted Sam. “I think I saw something in there.” He pointed through the gate at the house.
“What?” Marcus spoke to Sam over his shoulder as he eyed Jenny. He was a little afraid to turn his back on her. And there was something strangely alluring about her makeup.
Jenny broke her staring contest with Marcus. “A ghost?” she asked Sam.
“I don’t know. Like somebody was inside the house, looking out maybe.”
Marcus turned back to Sam. “Bullshit. You didn’t see nuthin. The windows are all boarded up.”
“No…I think on the porch, in front of the windows.”
“Come on, let’s go to the party,” Jenny tried in vain to refocus their attention.
“Y’all are a bunch of chicken shits,” Marcus pronounced. Grabbing the iron gate, he jammed one foot into a cross bar. He hoisted himself up to the edge of the gate, and swung one leg over the top, then the other. Marcus dropped down to the path on the other side. “Chicken—both of you,” he taunted. “Go to your baby party. Go stick your hands in jello and pretend it’s brains. I’m going real ghost hunting.”
“You’re as stupid as you look,” Jenny announced with astonishment.
“Go on baby. Go find your fairy boyfriend,” Marcus pressed his face against the gate.
“That’s it!” Jenny lost it. She scaled the fence like a possessed vampire, leaping from the top to confront Marcus.
“Guys, guys!” Sam shouted, as he looked about the street.
Marcus took a step back, moving out of Jenny’s kicking range. Sam was having more difficulty scaling the gate. “Wait up, guys,” he huffed.
One of the gate spikes snagged the tatters on his zombie jeans and ripped the pant leg clear off, dropping him unceremoniously on his head.
“Crap!” he shouted.
Jenny stifled a laugh, but Marcus didn’t bother. Sam pulled the tattered pant leg off the gate and tried to replace it like a sock on his left leg. Jenny finally laughed aloud.
“Leave it, doofus,” Marcus instructed. He turned his attention up the path. “Okay. So, uh…let’s see.”
“There’s nobody inside,” Jenny insisted.
“How can you be sure?” asked Sam.
“Well let’s just go see.” Marcus began to stride boldly up the walkway. The other two kids followed him. Moonlight made their shadows dance on the old laid-brick pathway. As they neared the porch, they entered the deep shadows.
“What if somebody sees us?” whispered Sam.
“Nobody will see us on the porch,” hissed Jenny. “I can’t even see us.” The three stepped carefully up onto the old wooden steps.
The porch creaked and groaned as they approached the door. They huddled together to look at the padlock hanging from an old, rusted-iron hasp.
“Locked, see?” whispered Sam. “Nobody inside. Now let’s go.” His voice was full of tension.
Marcus put a hand on the old lock and gave it a solid jerk. The hasp ripped off the door and remained dangling on the lock in the boy’s hand.
“Oh shit,” was all Jenny could manage.
“Hey! Now we can go inside,” Marcus said.
“Okay, now we’re breaking and entering,” groaned Sam. “Let’s just leave before things get bad. We’ve gone far enough.”
Marcus pushed on the old front door. It swung slowly in, with a creak that would satisfy any horror fan. The three kids crowded closely together, peering into the gloom. Marcus stood in front, Jenny to his right, with Sam on tiptoes behind the both of them.