Family Ties I
by Christopher W Gamsby
Herbert Taggart was an ordinary man. He worked as an accountant, making other people rich by turning dollars into pennies for the government and turning pennies into dollars for his employer's investors. His wife Julie gave him two beautiful children, Alex and Jenny. His little family lived in a 3 bedroom house in the suburbs of Metropolitan City. He was living the American dream, and he knew he was lucky. Life's only lingering emptiness was that his parents and grandmother died years ago and he missed them all terribly. Their deaths also scared him for practical reasons.
They died of a mysterious degenerative disease. His grandmother died close to 20 years ago, his mother 15 years ago and his father 10 years ago. Since so many close relatives died of the same mysterious affliction, he was afraid the malady was genetic. One day he might wither away as well, but he was terrified that his children could suffer the same fate. Julie assured him that doctors were confident they died of an acute toxin, but fear wasn't always rational and the feeling lingered. Christmas was coming along with all its strange traditions to distract him from his problems.
Herbert felt relief knowing that he was getting a reprieve from worry while decorating the house and Christmas tree. He was in the attic retrieving ornaments, lights, and stars to adorn a fir tree his family would select that evening. His devotion to Christmas was ironic because many years ago, a long lost great grandmother was executed for witchcraft. His family was unable to shake the accusation for generations. His bloodline was finally accepted after the world became apathetic towards evil and the devil.
Herbert found the first box of ornaments nestled under outgrown child clothing and unseasonal summer goods. Herbert lifted the box with a groan and struggled to the far end of the landing and down the stairs. He dropped the box on the hallway floor. Herbert retrieved six more boxes in just the same manner and stacked them evenly through the hall. He returned to the attic to ensure he didn't miss a single trinket and there were no more sizable boxes of Christmas items. Old furniture blocked his way forward and he pushed away a dusty couch. A small box of silver orbs laid in the grime beneath.
Herbert pulled the box from the filth and more closely inspected the orbs' writing. Handwritten names of recent family members and long lost family adorned the shining silver surfaces. The balls seemed to glow despite the attics poor lighting. 12 balls held family member's names and 6 were blank. There was an orb with 'Herbert', 'William', his father, 'Glenda', his mother' and 'Beatrice', his grandmother. He picked up his grandmother's orb to inspect the scribbles. He brought the ornament to his face. A sharp prick pierced his thumb and he reflexively dropped the silver glass ball.
It shattered on the floor and a green liquid oozed from the shards. An amber smoke rose into the air. Herbert panicked and searched for a way to extinguish the catching fire. A voice rang out from behind his back.
Herbert froze, not only in surprise at hearing anyone speak, but because the voice was unforgettable.
Herbert faced the voice emanating through the acrid vapor. A vestige of his descended grandmother hid behind the dancing smoke which calmed and froze into her solid shape. Disbelief stifled any articulate speech, but a singular word slipped away.
His grandmother laughed and gently smiled which eased the tension constricting his chest.
“It's magic Herbie. They were right about our ancestors, but the magic is wonderful! It's not evil or of the devil.”
The whole conversation was inconceivable, in-spite of Herbert's wish that it was real.
“How? How can you be here?”
“It's easy Herbie. You see those silver balls? If you take an empty one and leave it near someone, you love. The orb will adsorb their essence. If you want to see them again, smash the orb, and they'll return! Make sure to write their name down, so in the long years to come, you know which essence you are releasing.”
Herbie's heart raced with the exciting idea of his children seeing him if his worst fears came true. If something happened to the children or his wife, he could see them again, at least once more. Julie's voice came from downstairs.
“Herbie? Are you done yet? Dinner is almost ready!”
Herbert pouted, but his grandmother smiled and pointed toward the orbs.
“It's OK Herbie. I'm glad to see you are well. Go to your family, and I will see you again when the time is right.”
Herbert's heart sank, but he filled with an inexplicable fervor. Herbert grabbed three orbs and ran to his home office. The only marker at hand was dry erase. He scribbled Alex, Jenny, and Julie on one of each of the balls. Herbert moved to the dining room and placed a ball under his family's chairs. He moved to the kitchen to help his wife finish dinner.
Twenty minutes later the family ate pot roast and mashed potatoes at the table. Alex was almost in his teens and completely aloof to the time his family spent together. As a little boy he couldn't be left alone without crying, but now he huffed and whined every moment spent away from his computer. Jennie was still at a precious age of 10, but she followed her brother in everything. She was becoming disinterested like him. Every few minutes Julie or Herbert needed to tell her to put away the phone. She did for a few minutes before it rang and she was enthralled. Alex gave an exasperated sigh.
“Why does she get her phone but I can't have my laptop?”
“SHUT UP! I need to talk to my boyfriend, or he might not like me!”
Herbert choked on a sip of water.
“No, YOU shut up!”
Herbert began to wonder if he only made up the idea that they were ever cute or got along.
“Both of you stop right NOW.”
Alex and Jenny ate the rest of the meal in silence. Herbert and Julie chatted about the upcoming school break and Herbert's work schedule. After dinner everyone still wanted to find a Christmas tree, so he was grateful he had his children for at least another year. Herbert decided to return the silver orbs to the attic in the night and the family departed for the tree lot.
- - -
Herbert returned to his room feeling proud and satisfied after decorating the family's new tree. He was prepared for a good night's sleep, but strange visions interrupted that peaceful rest. Herbert strolled through an unfamiliar swampy marsh. The afterimage of a woman clad in black silk snuck into the corner of his eye. He shot his gaze to meet her, but she wasn't there. He turned forward, and she floated into the distance. He strained to see her face, but distance and fog obscured her identity. Herbert chased her toward the horizon, but every step he took the woman moved two steps away. The woman carried a shining silver orb.
Herbert chased the apparition for what felt like hours but never came close to catching the spirit. Herbert stopped running, and the spirit faded and disappeared. Herbert panted as his exhaustion overtook his curiosity. He hunched over staring at the ground. The ground darkened and Herbert faced the sky. There was no sun, or moon and Herbert faced the ground again. A shadow darkened in a circle under him. The ground changed into an unforgiving darkness, and a face shot from the muck at his feet. A veil covered the person's mouth, and eyes were conspicuously absent from sunken sockets. Herbert fell back and woke as he hit the ground.
Herbet shot up to sitting upright. The sudden movement stirred Julie who slept next to him. He put his hand on her hip and whispered for her to go to sleep. She obeyed so quickly that in the morning she probably wouldn't even remember waking. Herbert checked the room's corner and a blackened shape came into focus. His grandmother's spirit floated in his bedroom. She smiled and motioned for him to stay quite but he was too dumbfounded to speak. She motioned for him to follow and then floated through the bedroom's far wall.
Herbert swung his legs from the bed and lifted himself. His legs partially buckled and he placed his hand on a nightstand to stop from falling. He followed the spirit from the room to the attic stairs and into the dark abyss. He fumbled for the room's sole light's chord hung from the ceiling near the top of the stairs, and it evaded his grasp. The silver spheres remained luminescent even in night's somber blackness. He abandoned the light and surveyed the room for his grandmother's spirit. Despite watching her enter the attic, he couldn't find a trace.
The orbs continued to glow and call to Herbert. No matter where he searched the attic, his gaze returned to those perfect silver balls, and Herbert walked to the box. 13 silver balls with writing remained in the box. He eyed the orbs and a pang of loneliness seared his soul. He picked up his mother's orb and smashed it on the floor. The silver shell cracked, and smoke billowed into the air. His mother's vestige appeared before him smiling a comforting greeting. Herbert felt light and warmth emanate from his cheeks. The feeling was similar to drinking too much eggnog but more exciting.
“Welcome back mother.”
The spirit smiled to her son with creases around her eyes.
“Is something wrong Herbie? Why would you call me?”
“I....don't...know I just wanted to see you again. Is that so wrong?”
The spirit's face turned serious, and she made a playful tisking sound.
“Of course not honey. What did you want to talk about?”
The idea of holding a conversation never occurred to Herbert in his desire to see his loved ones.
“Does Grammie seem strange to you?”
“What do you mean? Did something happen to my mother?”
“Well, I mean first she appears, and then I can't find her, but I saw her, and she disappeared.”
“She is fine Herbie, things for the dead are just confusing, that's all.”
“Really? What do you remember? From your life?”
“I remember everything from when I was alive. Let's not get into the details of death though, it's hard for the living to understand and uncomfortable for us to talk about.”
“Say Mom, why were you so strict when you were alive?”
The question surprised the spirit, but she answered.
“Well, I was strict because I wanted you to be a better person. Do you remember all those Christmases ago when your grandmother bought you that beautiful white sweater and you wore it during desert. You spilled your chocolate ice cream and it was ruined!”
Herbert's face turned beet red from embarrassment.
“I remember and you were so angry.”
“Well, I just wanted to make sure that you didn't do something that silly again. It worked though, right? You didn't spill anything on a precious gift again.”
Herbert sighed in resignation.
“No, I suppose I didn't.”
The pair talked for several hours about Herbert's life and about her life before Herbert's birth. He departed the attic feeling happy for the chance to connect, but a little tired from the protracted time feeling so many emotions at once.
- - -
The next morning Herbert felt exhausted from talking to his mother's shade and battling another bout of nightmares. He barely found the energy to dress himself in a gray pinstripe suit and move to the dining room. His children sat in their usual seats, fighting about some innocuous topic just like every other morning. Alex struck first.
“I told you I'm going to open the first present!”
“I'm going to open it! I'm the girl! I should go first!”
“I'm the oldest, I should go first.”
Jenny gave an exasperated sigh and faced Herbert. She bat her eyes and pouted.
“Daddy, who gets to open the first gift on Christmas.”
Herbert laughed at the blatant attempt to schmooze him.
“A girl should go first of course! So mommy will get to open the first gift!”
Julie laughed and lowered the copy of The Wall Street Journal she was reading.
“You're always so diplomatic.”
Herbert shrugged and both kids gave sour faces. After finishing breakfast, Herbert kissed his wife goodbye and hugged his children before leaving. He sauntered down the street to a train station and caught the express into Metropolitan City. Forty minutes later Herbert arrived in the city and departed the Goldwyn Metro Station. He walked toward the Goreman Law Firm building, where he worked as a bookkeeper and accountant. All kinds of shops and service providers lined the main road, but he felt odd passing this little specialty store.
Herbert never paid much attention to the voodoo, Wiccan, and occult shop before, but as he approached, an unease crept over his body. A homeless lady sat near a cracked open window, and she perked up at his approach. She rose from the ground as he drew closer. She dragged her sweat and urine stained clothes close to Herbert. He gagged when her stench overwhelmed his sense of smell. She fidgeted with her hands, raking them over her face and covering her eyes. She peeked through a crack between her fingers and cried out.
“Stay away! Don't bring those things near me!”
The sudden reproach shocked Herbert, and he couldn't utter a word before she continued.
“Blackened faces circle you, all three cling near! Those eyes, those hollow terrible eyes! Dead empty sockets, searching my soul, taking my life! Stay away. STAY AWAY! Can't you see, those things around you? Those monsters sucking your soul through those disgusting elongated tongues. That hideous acrid green drool swishing around teeth, dripping down your neck! You're cursed! Cursed! Cursed!”
Herbert pushed past the homeless woman, and when his arm accidentally touched her shoulder, she fled. The awkward display disgusted Herbert, and he wondered what caused the outburst. After shaking off the encounter, he continued on to work.
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