M. R. Sellars
In the bleak midwinter
“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us. Is that so, Spirit?”
3:26 PM – December 22, 1975
US Highway 136
Midway between Mais and Hulis Townships
Merrie Frances Callahan’s ten-year-old brain felt like it was going to explode at any moment. She knew it couldn’t really, but it still felt like it. But even if it could, she imagined the blow-up probably wouldn’t happen until sometime after she threw up. Of course, the way she felt right now, that might well be coming soon enough.
Her stomach was aching, as if something was trapped inside her and trying to claw its way out. Her head pounded, and her mouth tasted like sour milk, just as it had for most of the afternoon. It hadn’t helped either that Sister Regina had made her eat lunch, whether she had the appetite for it or not. But that was Sister Regina for you. She wouldn’t believe you were sick unless you threw up right in front of her, and sometimes not even then.
“Do as you’re told and keep your mouth shut, or else,” was what she would always say.
The or else part was never pleasant where any of the nuns at Immaculate Conception were concerned, but when Sister Regina said it, you definitely listened. Sister Conran was even worse than her, but not by much.
Knowing this, Merrie only dared to object once, which as it turned out was one time too many given Sister Regina’s reaction. After that, she did exactly as she was told, without complaint, even though every bite of her lunch had made her want to puke.
“It would be your fault…”
The painful words continued tumbling around inside her head, stopping mid somersault to jeer at her whenever she so much as blinked. For that very reason she tried not to. She simply stared straight ahead, watching quietly through the windshield of the car, until finally and without fail, the dry air would force her eyelids to flutter, no matter how hard she tried to stop them.
“It would be your fault…”
Normally she loved words. Reading was her best and favorite subject. In fact, she had even won the fifth grade spelling bee last month, beating out that stuck-up Johnny Seitz on the word COMMEMORATE; and it was one from the eighth grade vocabulary list.
But these words were different. These words she hated. She hated them very much, as well as the words that came along with them. She hated those even more. But just as she couldn’t stop herself from blinking, no matter how hard she tried to forget the painful words, they just wouldn’t go away.
Merrie listened to the hum of the tires against the pavement as it blended with the low whoosh of the air from the heater vents in front of her. She concentrated on the drone, allowing it to pour into her ears in hopes that it would fill her head and force the hurtful words out.
Much to her disappointment, it didn’t, but before long its soothing lull caused her to give in to the dry air. She closed her eyes, then breathed deep while trying to think of something happy. For most anyone else, that would be easy. After all, it would be Christmas in just a couple of days. However, that didn’t cheer her up at all. In fact, it just made the bad feelings worse and the pain in the pit of her stomach even more terrible.
Behind her, strapped into the back seat, Merrie’s younger sister Becca began singing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Well, she was really only singing part of it. Her version was just repeating one or two lines of the chorus and then throwing in extra words whenever she felt like it. However, since she was barely five, she was doing okay and she was even almost staying on key. Unfortunately, the cheerful noise wasn’t helping Merrie’s mood any more than her own constant thoughts of the coming holiday.
She heard her name and then felt a light brush against her arm. The unexpected sensation was like an electric shock and it made her jump. In that brief moment of fear, she shrank away from the touch, pressing herself into the cold, vinyl upholstery of the inner car door.
“I’m sorry, honey.” Her mother’s concerned voice drifted into her ears. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“That’s okay,” Merrie replied.
“Why so jumpy?”
Merrie shrugged inside her coat. “I dunno.”
“You’ve been awfully quiet since we left the school. Are you feeling all right?”
Merrie allowed herself to slump back down into the seat as she mumbled, “I’m okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“I just kinda have a headache. That’s all.”
Elizabeth Callahan picked her glove from her fingers with her teeth, while leaving the other hand on the steering wheel in order to keep the vehicle aimed along the two-lane stretch of blacktop.
Spitting the glove onto the bench seat between them she said, “Lean over this way for a second.”
Once Merrie complied, she reached over and pressed the back of her bared hand against her daughter’s forehead.
“Are you feeling sick, sweetheart?”
“Maybe a little,” Merrie replied. “I just… I just have a headache.”
“Well… You don’t feel like you have a fever,” her mother announced. “But you do look a little flushed. Is it just a headache? There’s a flu going around.”
“My stomach doesn’t feel very good either.”
“I sure hope you aren’t coming down with something,” Elizabeth said while she carefully manipulated the glove back onto her hand. Eventually she offered, “Do you think maybe it was just too much excitement at your class party today?”
“Maybe,” Merrie replied, agreeing easily. “That’s when I started getting the headache. There really was a lot going on.”
It seemed like as good an excuse as any, and if her Mom came up with it, even better. She’d be more likely to believe it that way, and maybe she would stop asking questions if Merrie just played along.
“I bet you ate a lot of candy too.”
“Yeah.” Merrie lied. She didn’t want to, but her mother was still prying and it was just easier this way.
What she really needed was for her to stop digging because if she didn’t, then she might accidentally tell her what happened; and if she did, then… Well… Merrie didn’t even want to think about it, but she just couldn’t make herself think about anything else.
“Did you at least have fun?” Elizabeth prodded.
“Oh, I meant to ask earlier… Did you get to help with the younger kids and S-A-N-T-A like you wanted?”
Merrie felt her stomach twist into a hard knot. This was exactly the kind of thing she had been afraid her mother would ask. Fortunately, her sister gave her an unexpected reprieve.
“SANTA! SANTA!” Becca chirped from the back seat, abandoning the never-ending song in favor of her mother’s mention of the Jolly Man himself. “Santa Claus!”