Rod Granger cleared his throat, a craggy, broken sound, and I topped off my drink – a few fingers of scotch with a splash of soda. I needed it for what was next. I shuffled past the ravaged table, all gristle and bone, and into the den. I settled onto an ottoman in the corner of the room, my brother and niece at my feet.
Some families might read The Night Before Christmas, maybe sing a little while Daddy plays the piano, but not us, oh no. Every year we congregated around Rod Granger and let him regale us with the tale of how he found his mother cold and dead on Christmas morning, seventy years ago. Every year it was the same – the slow climb up the stairs, the mother, dead in her bed, and the desperate run to the neighbors, crying for help, for someone to save her. It was a morbid tale, but it had been worn smooth with the years, no longer bit. The kids didn’t cry anymore.
Why we let him do it, I’m not sure. Could have been sympathy, could have been some dark joke, an excuse to get drunk, but we let him do it all the same.
Rod wiped his mouth with the back of a weathered hand, folded them neatly in his lap. “I had to wait to open my presents,” he said. “I was just sitting there, staring at all that bright paper, waiting.”
My lips moved involuntarily, miming along with Rod. I knew every word, every break for breath. I wondered if he rehearsed in the mirror or if it just rolled out of him, fully formed.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. I was only seven, you see. And I was meant to wait for my mother to wake up, but I couldn’t. That paper – it called to me.”
Lights twinkled on the mantle behind Rod’s head and a pair of magnetic skaters danced across their plastic lake. Someone coughed.
“So I crept up the stairs and down the hall. My mother’s room was at the end, and I could see from the crack beneath the door that it was dark; she still had her curtains drawn.”
I took a sip of my drink, winced at the sharpness of it.
“It wasn’t like her to sleep in, but Christmas isn’t a normal morning, is it? So I didn’t think much of it when I nudged the door open, found her sleeping. She was laying on her back.”
My uncle Ralph waggled his eyebrows at me from across the room, raised his glass.
“But she wasn’t sleeping,” he said, voice low. “I touched her arm and it was cold, stiff. I opened my mouth to scream and – and -”
I lowered my drink. It wasn’t like Rod to stumble.
“And her mouth opened, so wide and dark.”
No. That’s not how it went. That’s not how it goes.
“And that maw kept growing, kept opening.”
I set my drink on the floor.