The Devil You Know

Inspired By: Ghostly Prompts For The Christmas Season

One Christmas, well it was actually on Christmas Eve, my family’s turkey dinner almost went cold because my Great Aunt ,Patience MacDowell, was late for dinner.

In the mid 1970,there were no cellphones, emails and texts did not exist and on top of it all everything shut down on Christmas Eve by late afternoon. So if you had car problems you were in trouble and if you weren’t near a phone that was attached to a wall,  there was no way for anyone to know where you were or if anything had happened to you.

That’s what happened to Aunt Patience. Her car died less then a mile away from my Aunt’s  Penny’s House and just as my Grandpa, who had somehow been elected to go out and look for Aunt Patience  because she not answering her phone-  was about to head out into the dark and snowy night when the doorbell chimed.

” Thank God. ” my Grandma tossed back the  last of her sherry. She had been sitting near the huge picture window that ran the length of the living room. You could see the Puget Sound from that window, but at this time of the year all you could see was inky blackness.

I’m pretty sure Grandma wasn’t thanking God that the person ringing the door bell was Aunt Patience and not a Policeman with ‘bad news’ and that Aunt Patience had made it through a snow storm to Aunt Penny’s house  safe and sound. There were at least two dozen of us at my Aunt’s Christmas Eve party that night and when that bell rang we treated it like a dinner bell. We enthusiastically made our way from the living room where we had been nibbling on  cookies and nuts.  We were hungry for turkey and warm food with a crunch.

Despite the fact that we were starving,  we remembered to tell Aunt Penny  how lovely the table looked as we entered her dining room and how good everything smelled before we dove into our seats.

Good manners mattered to us- most of the time.

Photographer Unknown

I took my place at the end of the table where the kids sat and Aunt Patience said to my cousin Percy as they passed by me,  ” Car trouble. I suppose you could say that. I wasn’t even a half mile away and it just died. I had to walk the rest of the way. WALK. ” she said loud enough to drown out the conversations going on around the table.

I think some of the adults told her how glad they were sure made it in time to be able to warm up with the help of a wonderful meal and Aunt Patience agreed- but I was sitting down the table from her and when she saw me looking at her I saw her fingers were crossed.

We ate our dinner and then we finished our deserts and as we made our way to the living room to snack on the remains of the cookies and nuts and drink that we had worked on as we were waiting for Aunt Patience I heard Aunt Patience say, ” It was a long cold walk did I mention that? ”

” Only about a million times. ” one of my Uncles said loud enough for everyone to hear but not quite loud enough to be considered combative.

” I think I forgot to mention I had company on my very cold and dark walk. ”

” Who? ” I asked.

Aunt Patience stopped and turned towards me.

” You mean what.

I looked into my Aunt’s face. She nodded just a little and I took a sharp little breath.

It was story time- and it wasn’t going to be one of those stories that my Aunts and Uncles made up for fun  because creeping people out who were so  stuffed with rich food that they were bound to have nightmares all night long  was their idea of fun.

This was a true story  and those stories are the best kind.

Everyone behind us heard what she said and so did everyone behind us. I pushed passed Aunt Patience to the living room. I got a seat next to the fire place and I waited for her to take her place on the couch next to the little table where the bourbon balls and wine were waiting for the adults.

Even though I hurried I was still the last person to take my seat.

By the time we were all comfortable the fire place in the living room was filled with red and orange light, the logs inside of it crackled and popped. My Uncle Lionel pulled the drapes closed to keep the cold out and my Mom turned off the bright lamps. Three of my little cousins and my brother and sister encouraged my Aunt Penny’s Saint Bernard Nicky to a place near the fire place and after he laid down they sat on the floor next to him and then they stretched out along side of him and used his giant body as a pillow.

I hated being 12 right then. I’d have given anything to have stretched out on the floor with that giant dog, but I was at this time a ‘young lady’ and young ladies in our family didn’t hang onto giant dogs when someone told a spooky story.

Aunt Patience took a little plate from the side table. She put a few candies on it and then she took her seat.

She eyeballed the room and when she saw that she had our undivided attention she began with-

“I was almost here when the snow stopped flying and wouldn’t you know it? My car shut down. It hadn’t made as much as one odd sound before it gave up the ghost.. I was gliding down the street like one of those ice skaters on those horrible glittery Christmas cards when. Poof. I just stopped right there and I guess you know where I stopped- because where else would my car stop on an unlit street piled high with snow? Where else would I end up but right in front of the Bellman’s House?”

” The Hell you say. ” my Dad said from his place on the loveseat where he was sitting with my Mom.

” I didn’t, ” Aunt Patience said ” but yes. The Hell it was.”

“Forty years ago on Christmas Eve, sometime after the Bellman’s all went to bed we all heard that they all died in their sleep. The next morning when Grandma Bellman and her sister Florence showed up to help her daughter in law Twila with the days cooking and to help keep an eye on the kids ( there were six of them, four boys and two girls ) the Bellman’s were gone.

“There  was a gas leak and they all died in there sleep with their Christmas tree all lit up and all their presents under the tree and their stockings stuffed with fruit and candy and little presents hanging from the mantlepiece. It was a sad sight unless you count- wait  Penny, your friend Francie lived next door, she saw them take the bodies out didn’t she? ”

Aunt Penny nodded. ” She had nightmares about that until the day she died. ”

Aunt Patience went on. ” But do you know what Mrs Campbell told Penny’s friend? She said she saw the dog and cat- Billy and Wiley sitting at the end of the driveway. She said that when the last of the Bellmans were removed from the house Bell and Wiley walked off in the opposite direction and nobody ever saw them again.”

” Well. ” Aunt Patience said. ” I saw them last night when I walked by the Bellman’s house. They were sitting there at the end of the driveway covered with a little snow and I was going to stop and see if I could check the dog’s collar and see if  the dog that looked exactly like  hadBilly’s name engraved on the tag and if  the cat that I thought looked like Wiley was wearing those little bells that Florence made her wear to scare away the birds when I  felt someone walk up behind me.”

I popped  the cookie I had been holding up to my mouth and I  started to chew it. Slowly.

” It was a tall man, he had a dark black beard and he was wearing one of those old fashioned top hats. There was a red ribbon tied above the brim that was holding a little bunch of Santalales studded with bone white berries just above his ear. He smiled one of those big toothy smiles that people who think a lot of their looks flash.  Now as a rule I don’t trust people who smile at you in front of a house where a bunch of people died under questionable circumstances and their pets show up forty years later looking the way any normal cat and dog would be looking.”

” So I nodded as he came up to my side and I started to walk and before I knew it he was walking right next to me. Of course I had to keep my eye on him at this point. My Mother didn’t raise a fool. He was looking straight ahead. ”

The snow, as you know was brittle- it was getting colder and colder and after a little ways he says to me, ” Was that your car back there? ”

The snow was crunching and groaning underfoot and I said, ” No. ”

” Then I slid a little, ” Aunt Patience said in wide eyed surprise.

” Like it or not you were distracted, ” Uncle Percy said. ” You’re as sure footed as a goat, we all know that. ”

Aunt Patience fluffed the row of fluffy curly bangs that hung against her forehead. ” Well. Yes. That’s true.

It was true. That’s why no one seemed to worry much about Aunt Patience struggling through the snow. We were hungry. That’s why Grandpa went to find her.

” Anyway, I dropped my scarf. The nice silk one that Lyall gave last Christmas. ”

She better have picked it up. I babysat an army of bratty kids to afford that scarf. Plus, I had even made her a very nice card to go with it. It was a cross stitch card and I had even sewn little seed pearls around the edges.

” When I turned back and looked down do you know what I saw?”

No one did.

” I saw a tracks in the snow. Little tiny footprints that stopped just behind us. They were hoof prints and they were filled with ice and just a little steam. ”

I reached for another cookie.

” Well. That’s all I really saw. Those tracks  stopped just behind us. Then heard a car and Freddie pulled up.  The man in the top hat winked at me and he walked away from us and I heard rustling in the bushes and then I heard the tinkling of little bells and figured Billy and Wiley were following him.”

My little cousins and my brother and sister started with the questions the minute Aunt Patience picked up her little glass of sherry.

” Who was he? What was he? Why were the Bellman’s pets with him? Why was he wearing mistletoe in his hat? ”

When they were done I asked her, because the question for reasons of it’s own had stuck in my head and whirled around and around like a yo-yo dancing at the end of it’s string: ” Did he really not leave any tracks in the snow? ”

Aunt Patience crossed her ankles and her tiny black hooves clicked together. ” Not a single one. ”

Photo A.M. Moscoso

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