Christmas Presence

I shuffle through the square, unnoticed, unneeded, irrelevant. I’ve bumped elbows tonight with the elite of the town: the council of elders who run this place – the ones who’ve been here from the beginning, and who think they know everything that happens here. They don’t. They don’t know me… even when I run into them headlong.

Mayor Eby stares crazily into space as usual, nodding blankly as his secretary goes over the evening’s agenda. No one knows her name, but I do. Rumor has it in his younger years, they were an item. I happen to know for a fact that’s how she made him her puppet. His mind has long-since been drained, like…like a sink– No, a toilet. That drains. Anyway, all he’s good for is a signature and the occasional public appearance.

There is something else only I notice: Lilith. Behind the gazebo, gesturing from the secretary to Sandra, who will report everything as she wants it to appear in the paper – not as it really happened. Everybody will believe the paper as always, because nobody will remember details on their own. It’s part of the curse of this place that no one else really knows about. They can’t affect me; they don’t even know I’m here. I’ll blog the truth later. ‘Course, nobody’s gonna read it.

There are children chasing each other through the streets; they all seem to know each other from school, and they have no idea about the undercurrents of suspicion that their parents are all freaking out about. They’re probably safe tonight, since the whole town is here. But still their parents watch all nervous-like. There are just too many disappearances in this town for anyone to ever really feel safe.

Tamara entertains the little ones: Cassie, the Linder boys, Kylie’s brood, and the others; they all love her and she’s always first choice for babysitter in town. She’s grown into quite the little “mother” since her best friends, Paul and Timmy… well, y’know.

Caitlin hurries past me, yelling for Tam to wait up for her. As she bumps my arm she slows, bewildered, and looks at me. “Excuse me… Sir?” She looks around as if she’s seen something, and it’s no longer there before she shrugs and continues on. Wait… if she can see me, then am I actually… dead? Even the ghosts and the spirits don’t normally notice me. I call after her, but the moment has passed, and I’m no longer there.

I watch her like a moron, before I’m distracted again by more people. There’s a whole bunch of the usual holiday excitement as my former boss and colleague untangles miles of tiny lights to put all over the tree. That used to be my job, before I… disappeared. I wander over to lend a hand. He’ll wonder later how they untangled themselves.

As I step toward the tree, I trip over Bella who is, as usual, not paying attention. She doesn’t even flinch as her fingers fly over the face of her phone, no doubt stuck in about a half a dozen conversations at once. I have to laugh. The man no one sees and the girl who sees nothing ‘cept her phone. Wonder what would happen if I tried to text her?

“Hey, Bella!”

Shaking my head, I look up just in time to see Bella staring up at Chance from under the sprig of mistletoe hanging off the pool cue he carries with him. Chance smirks and points up at it. Way to be obvious, douchebag. Everyone shakes their heads and Bella looks at him like he’s a worm.

They stare at each other for a moment, and then… as if she suddenly remembers something, Bella’s face changes. She’s plotting something, I can tell. She slides up to him and stretches on her tiptoes. With a look of determination, she puts her hand behind his neck and plants a kiss firmly on his lips. They stare at one another for a moment before she giggles abruptly and runs back to her fake friends on her phone.

“Pick your chin up, Chance,” Father Joe laughs and straightens the crooked mistletoe for him with a twinkle in his eye.

The spinster from the edge of town who also saw the whole thing chimes in with a wink, “Don’t let that one get away; she’s special.”

Chance gulps and hurries off after Bella, waving at Ash and his band setting up in the gazebo. I watch her run through the crowd, seeing her face change as she reads the different messages. When she gets to the streetlamp, I watch her stumble a bit and shivers, then runs off without really noticing.

“WHERE DID SHE GO?!?” Oh, joy. Rachel’s voice works on my very last nerve every time I hear it. “Honestly, I don’t know how we expect anything else of Bella!” Her whole attitude of I’m-better-than-you would kill me if I didn’t know she had every reason to feel superior. No one knows how much power she holds – not even she does.

“You’re still sore that she missed the evil wedding?” Lisa snorts, stuffing another cookie into her mouth as the two girls brush past me. How that girl stays looking as sexy as she does with the way she constantly eats, I will never understand. Maybe some things in Gap will always be a mystery.

Rachel, of course, has a response. Nice eloquent one: “SHUT UP, LISE! This has nothing to do with Frank! This is about Bella! She’s such a…”

Lisa’s eyeroll is classic. I’d have pointed the direction their little sister had gone, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, so I just let them go.

Chaos builds and the square is filling. The air fills up with the smells of spiced cider, hot chocolate, popcorn, and gingerbread. Well, and massive amounts of B.O. Take a shower, people. Everyone is here tonight, and Charly’s Snack Shack is serving up the traditional holiday treats. Gwen and Elizabeth meet up with Crystal and Lucy before joining the gossip of the town medical staff. They share news of how business is changing, who’s here, and who’s not since last year. Looks like the lighting ceremony is about to begin.

The band plays. They’re not bad for a bunch of high school drop-outs, and holiday cheer – and alcohol, I’m sure – leads everyone to applaud. It’s in that last second, as Lilith and the secretary drone on and on from the platform, that I make my decision. I step up to the tree – in full view of everyone, if they’d just notice – and loosen just one of the tediously-tested lights. If no one will notice me, at least this will be one effect of my existence that nobody will miss. I’m not trying to spoil their fun, y’know… just trying to feel like I’m part of this, somehow.

The crowd’s getting really excited now, and the mayor steps up for his only purpose: to switch on the lights. He can’t even do that right tonight; he throws the switch… and everyone groans as nothing happens.

“Hi, Keith.” The voice stops me in my tracks and I look around bewildered. “Up here.”

Sitting on the street lamp that Bella tripped under earlier, Timmy dangles his legs and aimlessly swings them in and out of the light. Few have noticed him either, and those who have seen him have said nothing. Even among this group he is now considered an outcast — something no longer quite human, not entirely dead, yet not officially undead either.

“You… can see me?”

“Yep. I see everything, including that.” He chuckles and then points seriously toward the shadows on the other side of the park where Stephanie Linder and the chief of police argue with one another.

“I think, perhaps, it’s time for us to compare notes, yes? Looks like we both could use an ally.”

I swat at a lightning bug zipping across my face before realizing it is winter, and that my “lightning bug” is one of what appears to be hundreds of fairies, flying into the tree to replace the missing lights. Will anyone remember tomorrow that the bulbs even went out? Not if Sandra doesn’t report it.

The ceremony continues to the Luminary part. As the candles are passed around and lit, I watch as each face of family and friends that live in the Gap glows. As the center of town is filled with light, the darkness is pushed back just enough to see the ghosts on the edge of the crowd.

Tonight we are unified, as this moment flows through all of us and illuminates the town square – just for tonight.

Author: Nean Burkholder

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