Hey, everybody. Every year, for some time now, I’ve written a new Christmas short story as my “card” to my friends and family. (And don’t forget, you can download all those previous stories for free from Smashwords.com!) But now, in this age of social networking, podcasting, MyFacing and Tweetbooking, I’ve expanded my scope to bring these tales to everyone out there. And this year you’ve got two ways to take it in. You can read it right here at Evertime Realms, or you can download the audio version. How’s that for convenience?
This year’s short story is a tale of love, understanding, and what happens when the two may not go together. Please enjoy Turn Right at the Sign… and Merry Christmas!
It had become a ubiquitous sight in New Orleans over the past few years – the yellow signs with a big black arrow, always accompanied by a short word or initials. Mark remembered several of them he’d seen as he drove around the city or the outlying areas. The tax breaks and incentives the state and city offered had turned Louisiana into the third biggest state in film and television production, and guessing what each set of initials stood for had become one of the regular pastimes of locals. “BD” was for some cable TV show that was filming down there, for example. “CE2” was the sequel to a horror flick that Carrie had found particularly scary. “VEX” surprised him when he found out what it was – he didn’t think it would be possible to film a western in the moist Louisiana climate.
The signs he and Carrie saw on Christmas Eve had the legend “2NDC,” floating over a black arrow that urged them forward. The cast and crews of these films, usually from out of town, used the signs as a guide to the set, but locals just loved playing the game.
“2-N-D-C. Second… Second Coming?” Carrie suggested.
“Second Christmas,” Mark countered. It was a tradition with them, to drive around town on Christmas Eve looking at the decorations set up in the houses and businesses all over the region. Invariably, though, their drive wound up turning into a minor argument. Carrie was perfectly happy following the road wherever it happened to lead, but if Mark didn’t know exactly where he was at all times, he got terribly uncomfortable. Last summer, Carrie had driven halfway to Mississippi, and driven Mark halfway insane because she had no destination in mind. He didn’t know it, but she hoped the GPS she was giving him for Christmas would quell some of those terrors.
“Second Class?” she threw out.
“Are you still hungry?”
“A bit, yes.”
They drove quietly for a few moments, headlights cutting through the cold air, occasionally sending up a spray of water as they drove through a puddle. It was New Orleans, where it rarely snowed, although there had been more frequent scatterings of powder in the last five years than Mark remembered when he was growing up. That wouldn’t be happening tonight, though. It was cold for New Orleans, but still only down into the 40s, and there was no precipitation forecast until the day before New Year’s Eve.
“Second Chance?” Mark suggested.
“Oooh, I like that one.”
The next sign they approached was different. Still yellow, but the thick black arrow, instead of pointing forward, now directed a right turn. “Follow the sign,” Carrie said. “Let’s see what it is.”
“On Christmas Eve? They aren’t going to be out there tonight.”
“So? That doesn’t mean there won’t be anything to see.”
“I don’t know that part of town, Carrie. It’ll be closed off anyway.”
The car coasted past the sign and Mark immediately felt the temperature drop. She was mad, he could tell, but what was he supposed to do? Go wandering down God-Knows-What Boulevard and cruise past slowly? This was New Orleans. That was a good way to get yourself killed.
“You never want to do anything new!” she snapped. “This happens every time!”
“I just don’t think it’s safe.”
“So what? Do you think life is safe? God, Mark, take a chance once in a while.”
“Hey, I take chances.”
“Oh yeah? What was the last one you took?”
He almost said, “ Asking you out,” but decided against it. For one thing, he didn’t think she was in the mood for him to be sweet. The other problem was that had happened over two years ago, and wouldn’t exactly be conducive to proving his point.
“Why is it such a big deal? We’re going to be in Uncle Teddy’s neighborhood soon, they always have a hell of a lightshow.”
“And they’ll have a hell of a lightshow 20 minutes from now. Damn it, Mark, I just want to look. Is that so wrong?”
He hated when she got like this, and when he spun the wheel and tuned around at the next intersection it was all he could do not to snap “Here! Are you happy now?” at her. They drove in silence back to where the sign had indicated, and this time Mark made the turn into an unfamiliar street. This didn’t relieve the tension, of course, he could still feel Carrie sitting there, mad at him, but it wasn’t getting any worse.
The road was particularly dark around here. There was a heavy blanket of trees overhead and no moon or starlight was trickling through. There were no street lamps here either, and no houses bedecked in Christmas lights. It was as total a darkness as Mark had ever driven through.
“I’m freezing,” Carrie said, breaking the silence. Without saying a word, Mark reached down and turned up the heater. Warm air blew across his knuckles, clutching the steering wheel, and next to him Carrie settled a little.
“What’s that?” Mark asked, seeing a structure to their right. She shrugged, and they both leaned over to look. It was a pair of white Roman columns flanking either side of a gate. As they approached it, the tree cover overhead broke and they could make out what it was. The gates opened the way to a cemetery. Moonlight cast a dim blue pallor across acres of headstones and statues, with several mausoleums in clear view. Carrie, who had lived in Indiana until she came to Tulane to go to college, had been surprised when she got here and realized in this part of the country, the water table was too high for traditional burial. She loved the New Orleans cemeteries, just an extension of what made the city so unique.
“See? If we hadn’t taken the turn, we never would have seen this old cemetery. Oh, look at that angel statue. It’s beautiful.”
“Are you even looking?”
“Of course.” He wasn’t, though, his eyes were trained firmly on the road. There were no white lines here, and he had to look carefully to see where the pavement ended and the water began. It had been raining for weeks, and the ditch here was still swelling over its lips. There was no shoulder to speak of on this road.
They watched the cemetery coast by, white columns separating the sections of black wrought iron that made up the gates, the rolling tombs beyond. Another statue, a saint of some sort, dropped Carrie’s jaw. “Mark, have you ever seen anything like that before?”
She scowled at him. “Mark, look!”
Sighing, surrendering, Mark glanced up at the statue. It was beautiful, he had to admit, with the beams of moonlight flickering through the cloud cover and shining on its face. The same moonlight touched Carrie’s face as well – her slim nose, her rounded eyes like a doll, her lips glistening – and she was beautiful.
The apology was cut short as he turned his attention back to the road just in time to see something darting through his headlights. It was big, way bigger than a rabbit or an armadillo… a deer, maybe? It wasn’t out of the question in an area like this. Whatever it was, it made him hit the brakes of the car. He slammed them too hard for this sort of rain-slick road, and it began to skid. Carrie screamed, which didn’t help things in the slightest, and the back end of the car started to slide to the right, spraying ditch water into the air. The back of the car slumped into the muddy water and the front rose up. The whole thing rolled onto its side so fast that Mark completely lost his senses, and when he heard the crunching sound coming from behind, he blacked out.
* * *
When he could see again, he had no idea how much later it was – a minute, an hour? There was no way to tell. He hurt everywhere, and a bruised feeling across his neck indicated where the seat belt must have cut into him as the car flipped. His eyes opened to a cold night sky, ripe with more stars than Mark had ever seen before.
No, not stars, he realized. Stars didn’t move. He was looking up into a snowfall.
The flakes drifted down towards him, lighting on his face and hands and, he assumed, on the rest of his body as well. He just couldn’t feel them through his clothes. The feel on his face was remarkable, though, like being lightly brushed by feathers made of ice. He almost never saw it, but he loved the snow.
He sat up, finally realizing he was no longer in the car. He must have been thrown free during the crash somehow. He was sitting in maybe a half-inch of snow, and he wondered just how long he’d been out. He pushed himself to his feet, looking around. He was in the cemetery. Had he actually been thrown over the fence? He rushed to the iron bars, looking out to the car. It was sticking up out of the ditch, the roof and hood crunched and the back end underwater. Seeing it like that chilled him, but not as much as the further realization that he didn’t know where Carrie was. He looked across the area where he’d landed for any other sign of where she could be. There was no sign of blood in the snow, not even where he landed somehow, but neither were there any tracks. He couldn’t see, from this angle, if she was still in the car, but it was the only thing that made any sense.
“Carrie! CARRIE!” He screamed at the car, hoping for any sign of movement, any sign of life, but there was nothing. In his life, he didn’t think he had ever felt such an all-encompassing terror as he did in that moment. He grabbed at the bars, tried to pull himself up, but his ungloved hands slipped right through them. He and the metal were both wet from the snow, and there was no way to pull himself over.
“The gate,” he said. “Where’s the gate…”
“If you’re looking for the girl, she’s not there.”
He spun around to see a man sitting on one of the tombs. A cigarette dangled from his lips, and the soft ember at the end reflected in his dark eyes. Calling him a man was actually rather generous, he was no more than a boy, couldn’t have been older than 19 by Mark’s estimation. His black hair was plastered to his tight skin, and he wore a purple and gold high school letter jacket buttoned up to the collar. He didn’t wear gloves either. In this part of Louisiana, there was rarely a need for them.
“What did you just say?”
“The girl that was in the car. She’s not there anymore. I saw her a little while ago wandering off.”
“Is she okay? Was she hurt?”
The boy scoffed. “After a crash like that? She wasn’t in top-notch shape.”
“Well which way did she go? Was there anyone to help her? How long was I out?”
“That way,” he said, pointing into the cemetery. “No. And I don’t honestly know about the last one. Time and I have had kind of a falling out.”
Mark tried to shake that off. “Fine, whatever. I’m going to find her.”
“Hey, wait up,” the kid said. He hopped down off the tomb and flicked his cigarette into a snowdrift. “I’ll come with you. It’s been a while since I had anybody to talk to. Name’s David.”
“Mark.” He responded mainly out of habit, but didn’t proffer a hand. He stumbled off in the direction David had indicated, wishing there were footprints for him to follow through the snow. The powder must have filled them as quickly as Carrie left them behind.
“What are you doing out here anyway, kid? You’re going to freeze to death.”
David laughed again. “Let’s say it wasn’t cold when I left.”
“Fine. So why are you still out here?”
“Same reason you are, I suppose. Because of a girl. Rose and I were out for a drive. She wanted to look at Christmas lights. I just wanted to see how fast I could go with the top down. She kept yelling at me to slow down because she couldn’t see anything.”
“Sounds like a sensible girl.”
“Right until she yelled at me to get off the road. Then she grabbed my arm, and…”
* * *
“I told him he was going too fast, but he didn’t listen. Guys never listen.”
“Right,” Carrie replied. “Guys never do.”
Carrie’s experience upon waking up was similar to Mark’s. She was lying in the snow, feeling it fall down upon her face… tickling, but not freezing. She actually enjoyed the sensation for several seconds until she began to wonder just what she was doing there. She was already on her feet, stumbling through the snow and totally lost before she remembered the crash and began to panic about where Mark may be. She was blind, the white pelting her eyes. She wasn’t sure just how long she stumbled around, lost, calling Mark’s name, before there came an answer. But it wasn’t him, it was the girl. She was a teenager, wrapped up in little more than a windbreaker, with bare legs leading down to bobby socks. It seemed odd to Carrie, even then, but she had other things to concern herself with at the moment. The girl introduced herself as Rose, and began to follow Carrie around. She couldn’t quite bring herself to abandon Rose in the snowstorm, but as the girl began to ramble on about how she wouldn’t even be here if her stupid boyfriend hadn’t driven off the road, her sympathies began to evaporate. He wouldn’t slow down, he wouldn’t pay attention, he took all kinds of stupid risks… the girl was sounding like Mark on his worst days. Whoever this David of hers was, he was probably the interesting one in the relationship.
“When did you get here, Rose?”
“I’m not sure… it’s been a while.”
“Well let’s get out of here before we’re both frozen.”
She forged ahead, looking through the snow for Mark, for a gate, for anything other than the rows of white graves that were quickly getting piled upon by the blanket of white snow.
* * *
“Look, kid I’m really sorry that your girl got you stranded here, but don’t you think you should be a little more concerned? For that matter, why haven’t we heard any sirens yet? I know this is kind of a remote road, but with two different car crashes down here in the same night you’d think someone would have called an ambulance by now.”
David stopped in his tracks, looking at Mark incredulously. “Really, man? Are you serious with that?”
“Of course I’m serious! How could you not be worried?”
David shook his head and laughed, walking ahead of Mark. “Wow. I wonder if I was that dense when I first got here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What are you talking about?”
As he followed him, it finally started to dawn on Mark that the young man leading him was leaving no trail of footprints in the fresh-fallen snow.
* * *
“If he could just shut up and listen for once, we’d be safe at home right now… drinking hot chocolate, listening to a Bing Crosby record… we’d be okay.”
“Sure you would, kid,” Carrie said. Bing Crosby? Was the kid serious? What teenagers in 2009 even knew who Bing Crosby was?
Carrie had managed to pick out rows among the tombs, and she was following them now. If she stayed going along a row, she reasoned, eventually she would reach the fence at the edge of the cemetery. Once she found the fence, she could follow that to get to a gate, and hopefully find Mark in the process. She inched along, bending into the wind, trying not to let it slap at her face as she went.
“How long did you say you’ve been here?”
“I told you, I don’t know.”
Time to try something different. Carrie looked back at the girl, who was clutching her arms to her chest, but not in a way that made it seem like she was cold. “What year is it?” she asked.
“What? Are you nuts?”
“Humor me,” Carrie said. “What year is it?”
“It’s 1953,” Rose snapped back. Carrie just nodded, turned around, and marched on.
* * *
“What’s going on here?” Mark shouted. ”Why don’t you have any footprints?”
“You’re pretty dense, aren’t you bucko?” David said. “Take a look around. Where do you think you are?”
For the first time, in the onslaught of snow, Mark started to feel cold.
As they cut through the snow, it was hard to pick out any real movement in the storm. The snow itself was spinning and whipping around, twirling through the air so quickly that Mark couldn’t tell if any motion was the snow itself or something moving through it, but as they marched through the blue-white night, he was certain he could make out something larger, darker against the snow. And right behind it was something else, something smaller, but not quite as substantial. He didn’t really look too hard at the smaller thing, though, because he could tell the larger thing was Carrie-shaped.
He screamed her name and broke into a run. As he said it, she snapped her head towards him and started running too. They both jumped through the snow and dodged graves until finally they had their arms around each other. She was crying, he was too, and neither of them could later remember which had said they were sorry first. In truth, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was they both said it, and they both meant it.
When they broke away, Mark looked up at David, who was glaring at the young girl that had been walking with Carrie. He looked over at her, squinting through the snow. “Rose?” he said.
“Yeah, that’s her.” David reached into his pocket and took out another cigarette.
“Well… what are you waiting for? She’s here! Go to her, man.”
“What have you been telling this guy?” Rose shouted. “Just stay away from me, you creep!”
“Hey, the feeling is mutual!” David tried to blow a smoke ring at her, but the wind whipped it away. “I don’t need you! I never did!”
Mark looked back and forth between the two of them, flummoxed. “I… I don’t understand. I thought they… Aren’t they…”
“Yeah, they are,” Carrie said. “But I don’t think they’re the way you think they are, baby.”
They watched as the teens stared at each other, turned on their heels, and stormed away into the night. Mark’s jaw remained open, not comprehending what he was seeing. She squeezed his arm. “I think ghosts are supposed to learn something. And I don’t think they ever did.”
* * *
The two of them refused to let go of each other, and Mark immediately latched on to Carrie’s very sensible idea of following the rows of graves to the wall. Using the direction he’d been coming from as a guide, they found their way to the car pretty quickly. What they saw when they got there, however, didn’t make any sense at all.
The snow they’d been wandering through seemed to end, abruptly, on the other side of the fence. Outside, there wasn’t so much as a flake of the white stuff. It was very wet, however, and the rain-slick road reflected brightly in the lights of the ambulance and the police cruisers. The car doors had been pried open, and the inhabitants were being removed.
They… Mark and Carrie… were being removed.
Each of them was on a gurney – bloody, beaten, and in as bad shape as Mark had ever seen. They looked at each other, both with a look of confusion on their faces, then Mark looked back behind them.
“We don’t have footprints,” he said.
“Are we… are we…”
They could hear the voices of the police and paramedics softly through the wind, and Mark grabbed Carrie’s hand, pulling her through the bars. The metal was no barrier for them, and the ditch may as well have been filled. Within seconds, they stood beside their own bodies. Carrie finally forced out the question they were both trying not to ask.
“Are we dead?”
Mark shook his head. “I don’t think so. Look.” He pointed to the paramedics working on Carrie, one of them putting a tourniquet on her arm. They were talking, shouting even, but Mark couldn’t understand what they were saying.
“They don’t work this hard for people who are already dead, do they?”
“I guess not.”
They walked around to their respective bodies, letting go of each other for the first time since they saw each other in the storm. He looked at her and smiled. “I love you,” he said.
“I love you too.”
They sat down on the gurneys. They lay down in their bodies.
And until some time later, on the morning of Christmas day, things were black.