My brother said that at night, he could hear the noises too. They were loud, like some sort of jingling going up and down the stairs, he told me. So, one night, right before Christmas, I went to stay with him in his little two bedroom apartment by the railroad.
We started the night off with black and white movies. “This is pretty scary, actually,” I said, sucking on a green bottle of beer, “you know, I don’t think I’ve ever really even watched this. So he kind of dies and goes to hell?” He snorted and jibed me in a Jimmy Stewart voice, “Now this is a very interesting situation! You’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life?” He took his feet off the couch to say, “we used to watch it every year when mom was putting up the tree!” I finished my beer and put it down. “They always argued over everything, I only know the funny quotes. Freaks me out,” I said, “the nightmare version of Bedford Falls.” He looked at his watch and muttered, “It’s 12:15. Merry Christmas buddy.”
I laid next to him on his queen-sized mattress, the covers between us feeling icy and cold. We both looked up at the white ceiling. “I tried to convince them that we could keep it,” he said, “I just need to let the money come in from a few more gigs.” I turned my head and looked out the black window. “Have you heard from them lately?” I asked. “Who?” He said. “The bank,” I responded. “Last I heard, they were putting for-sale signs on the lawn. Said enough time has passed since the funeral that we have to start making some choices.” The blackness through the window shook with a gust of wind, and a dead branch scratched the apartment building. “None of these noises even started until the bank started with the house,” I whispered. “It’s Christmas time. Bad enough mom and dad aren’t around. They can’t just leave us alone?”
He was shaking my right shoulder. “Wake up,” he said. “There. Hear it?” From across the slats in the door and down the narrow stairwell there were sounds of jingle bells coming up through the apartment towards us. “Yeah, that’s them.” I replied. My brother got out of the bed and looked down through the window at the black trees by the railroad. The jingling got louder. “Come on, let’s go,” he said.
We took a ride to the woods and got out of the car. “Stay here,” he said, as he took an ax out of the trunk and walked into the dark. “I have to stand by myself in the cold?” I yelled out. “Stay with the car. If the cops come, tell them you’re just taking a pee,” he called back, and then disappeared.
Ten minutes later he was dragging a tree out of the woods. We put it into the car with the stump sticking out of the trunk window, the tip of it rustling in between us in the front seats. On the car ride, we breathed smoke and Silent Night played on the radio, warbling from a weird, fuzzy frequency. “Put your hat on,” he said. “It’s cold. Plus we don’t want anyone to see us.”
When we got to the house, my brother decided to park across the street in front of the McKay’s because he didn’t want to use our driveway. We didn’t say anything to each other, but, one by one, we took the big white for-sale signs off the crunchy lawn, and threw them into the trunk of the car. Then, my brother locked the car and we walked around the back of the house to the door where my turtle used to live, which we always left unlocked. “Merry Christmas, Rhonda the Turtle,” he said as he slid the door open. We stepped into the drafty foyer, and my brother went out to get the tree. I tried some of the light switches, but all the power was out. In the kitchen drawer there were some old birthday candles, not the multicolored ones, but the big tall kind that my mom’d put on the cake when we were getting too old to count candles. I lit a handful and put them in the empty vases in the living room, making long fingerlike shadows on the walls. My brother came back inside, dragging a trail of green needles behind him. “Go get the thing,” he said. “Where?” I asked. “In the attic, probably.” I ran up the stairs and went into my old bedroom, using my muscle memory to get through the door and up into the attic. In the mess of insulation up there was the thing that mom’d use to put the tree up. When I was a kid, I used to be scared that I’d see clowns up there. Even now, there were white eyes all over everything, in between the cardboard boxes and dust.
My brother fastened some of the knobs on the base of the tree and after putting a little water in the pot, we stopped to take a look at the room. “What time is it?” He asked. “Almost morning,” I said. We sat back in our usual positions, him on the place where the couch used to be, me on the floor by the empty fire. We stared up at the Christmas tree, dark embers from the candlelight illuminating the vacant green protrusions, naked in the shadows of missing ornaments. My brother went into a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, doing his Jimmy Stewart again. “Merry Christmas movie house! Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building and Loan! Merry Christmas Mr. Potter!” I knew enough of the movie to respond, “and Merry Christmas to you, in jail!” We laughed until the mood passed, and at some point in the night, he whispered Merry Christmas to our dead parents, but I was already dozing off into sleep.
When we woke up in the morning, the candles’d burned out and there was ice under the tree. I left town for the weekend, and he had to work some holiday shows at the mall. After that night, neither of us ever heard those bells again.
Photograph by vinbergv