Authors’ Note: It’s only fair that we travel back into Mal’s past at Fic-mas, too. This story finds Mal and her father on the road, not too long before they eventually make their way to Vermont in the events of Always Darkest. It’s a holiday steeped in tradition for the Sinclair family, and Mal decides to add a new one to the mix. Well, new for them.
Mal hummed along to the Christmas music her dad had put on repeat while he worked to set up their camper for their current stay. She’d offered to help, but he waved her off, saying she’d done all the heavy lifting to get them booked at the last minute. He seemed to be enjoying himself anyway. He was singing along at the top of his lungs as he went in and out their door. She wished she could sing like he could, and she usually sang along unselfconsciously even though she was pretty sure she was tone deaf. She was more immersed in her reading than the music though.
She’d sort of hoped they could maybe take a break from the RV and have a real Christmas this year, but the silver show in Scottsdale offered an incredible opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in one spot and move a large amount of her dad’s merchandise without working too hard for it.
They’d talked about spending the holiday at the campground in Oregon. There had been snow on the ground, a holiday play about to start its annual run at the local theater, and a big tree lighting planned at the RV park.
Sure, it had gotten kind of crowded and she’d noticed a few people she thought were a little sketchy, but it had sounded like a really nice holiday. Maybe not as nice as renting a house for a couple of weeks, or visiting Grand-mère and Grand-père Sinclair, but pleasant.
She didn’t say anything about it when he asked if she minded making the trek to Arizona though. She’d been surprised by her dad’s request for her to call and book them a spot at the exposition. But, she supposed it gave her something to do. She’d finished her homeschooling work for the semester over Thanksgiving.
She didn’t think the desert Southwest was especially Christmassy, but the parts of town they’d passed through on the way to the RV park were decorated. And there was a neat little church she’d found online for them to go to Midnight Mass at later. She’d probably insist on helping if Dad wasn’t finished pretty soon. But, for now, she was engaged in the Christmas tradition she’d only learned about a few weeks ago.
Ari came back inside to pull on a sweatshirt. Mal remembered that for a place that could get crazy cook-an-egg-on-your-dashboard hot at times, once the sun started to dip, it got chilly fast. She glanced up from what she was doing. “Hey, Dad. You sure I can’t help?”
He grinned and shook his head. “I’m all set, honey. What’re you up to?”
She held up her iPad (the wildly extravagant gift he’d given her for her sixteenth birthday over the summer). “A little reading.”
“I thought you were all finished with school until after the New Year.”
She laughed. “I am! This is for fun.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a teenager in all of human history who spends as much time with her nose in a book as my daughter,” he said with an affectionate headshake. “Let me guess … Medical textbook?”
“Nope! I’m engaged in a full-on holiday tradition.”
“You’re reading Christmas stories?”
“Sort of. I’m reading Stephen King. Lisey’s Story.”
He frowned. “Stephen King writes Christmas stories?”
“Well, this is a love story, about Lisey and her husband Scott. It’s really sweet.”
“You don’t usually read love stories anymore.”
“I like them sometimes,” she shrugged.
“Is it a Christmas romance? Because that doesn’t sound like any Stephen King you’ve ever described to me.”
“Well, no. But it works. Scott’s dead.”
“That’s Christmassy?” he asked incredulously.
“Well, it’s sort of a ghost story. That’s totally Christmassy.”
One of Ari’s bushy black eyebrows climbed. “Since when?”
“Since before Christmas was actually Christmas. Like since forever. People have been telling ghost stories for this time of year since ancient times. But it got really popular again for a while in Victorian England. It was sort of a middle finger to Crommwell’s policies and a spit in the eye of the Industrial Revolution. I love that.”
“I have an even better question now. Since when did my daughter become such a diligent history student?”
“Oh, history still bores the bejesuses out of me. Almost worse than Latin. But it was in the Literature curriculum I just finished up. As far as holiday traditions go, I thought it was pretty cool.”
“It still doesn’t sound very festive. Maybe you could find a ghost story about Christmas?”
“I’ve got the whole internet at my fingertips and you won’t let me help you, so … Sure. I’ll give it a shot.”
When Ari returned from a supply run, Mal was engrossed in the story she’d found.
“Find a Christmas story?”
“You don’t usually go monosyllabic even when you’re reading. It must be a good one.”
She looked up from her tablet. “Yeah, really good. Super spooky.”
Ari chuckled. “So you did find a Christmas ghost story.”
“Who’s the author?”
“It’s another Stephen King one.”
“Does this one at least happen over the holidays?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “It’s actually about a club that meets and tells scary stories and saves their very best ones for Christmas. The narrator in this one tells a Christmas story for Christmas. I’m just about finished and it’s really good.”
Ari sat next to her on their couch (that also pulled out to be Mal’s bed). “What’s the narrator’s story about.”
“Well, he’s a doctor and he tells a story about delivering a baby on Christmas night.”
“No wonder you like it. It’s about Christmas with someone in your chosen future profession.”
“Ugh. Except the delivering babies stuff. I have literally no interest in babies. Delivering them or otherwise.”
“You don’t think you’ll ever change your mind about that?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Not likely.” She tapped on her tablet. “Anyway … there’s this terrible accident when the woman is going to the hospital and she gets decapitated.”
“Oh my goodness!”
“But she’s like this amazing, smart, single minded person who won’t let anyone or anything get in the way of her goals….”
“Now I’m really starting to understand why you like it.”
Mal snorted a laugh. “So anyhow, even without a head, she still gives birth to her baby. Right outside.”
Ari pushed himself off the sofa. “Try again. That’s not Christmassy at all.”
Mal looked up when her dad came back through the door. “I found a really good one this time.”
“Yeah. It’s called The Christmas Spirits by somebody named Hendrix.”
“What’s this one about?”
“Um … it’s hard to explain … There’s Nazis–”
Mal laughed. “Okay. That’s probably fair.”
“Tell me you found something other than Nazis.”
“I just started Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.”
“Okay, I know that one. Definitely not a Christmas story.”
“Well, it was first published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843.”
“It’s about the Inquisition, Mal.”
“So, technically it’s about Christians then.” She laughed at the expression her father pulled at that. “Okay. Not a stellar period for the Church to bring up. I get it. I’ll try something a little less torturey.”
Mal and Ari went back and forth throughout the afternoon, with Mal trying to convince him that horror and paranormal stories had a strong place in holiday transition, and him trying to convince her to take a break from her favorite fiction genre and try something a little more uplifting. Both of them enjoyed the banter and it passed the time pleasantly.
When Ari came back inside from his most recent rejection of her reading material, it was fully dark.
She put down her iPad. “I finally found one I think you’re going to really like.”
“I can’t wait to hear about it. But how about you come outside and give me a hand for a minute first.”
Mal hopped up and pulled on a sweatshirt, certain she’d need it now that the sun was fully down. “Of course!”
As soon as he opened the door for her, she knew he hadn’t needed help at all. “Dad! Oh, my gosh!”
Ari grinned as Mal slowly circled around their festively lit and decorated RV. “Merry Christmas, Mal.”
She threw her arms around her dad. “This is amazing! But … this is so much work! You didn’t have to….”
“I know you were looking forward to the holiday up in Oregon. And this might not be quite as nice as all that, but at least we’re going to be parked for a little while. I thought, Mal wanted a tree lighting, so maybe I can get close.”
“This is so much more than a tree!”
“I tried to get us a tree, too. But, nobody who was open had any left.”
“Well, it’s Christmas Eve. I think this is even better than a tree.” She would really have loved a tree, but she didn’t want to say so. He’d worked so hard to make this holiday special, even if they were on the road. At least it wasn’t like some years where they barely parked for the holiday. “I’ve never seen so many lights!”
“I’m glad you like it.” He paused. “We could take a walk around town and look at all the Christmas lights. Or if you think that’ll be too chilly, we could make some rideshare driver’s night and get someone to drive us around while we’re waiting for it to be late enough to head to church.”
Mal shook her head and hugged him again. “Would you get a fire going in the pit?”
“I’ll be right back.”
Mal ducked inside, gathered a few things, including her silly elf hat that her aunt Bethany had sent her before they’d had to leave Oregon, and microwaved some hot beverages. When she got outside her dad already had a cheerful fire going.
“Perfect.” She passed him a travel mug full full of hot cocoa. “Have a seat.”
Ari took a sip and smiled. “And here you say you can’t cook.”
“Even I can’t possibly screw up Swiss Miss, Dad.”
When they were settled in their lawn chairs, Mal lit a candle in the brass holder they usually saved for their holiday dinners.
“What’s all this then?”
“You put up lights for me, I’m going to read to you. A Christmas ghost story.”
“I know you love those stories, honey, but–”
“It’s tradition, Dad. And I know you’re going to love this one.”
Ari shook his head, chuckling fondly. “Alright, but if I have to sleep with every light in the RV on when we get home tonight, you’re not allowed to complain.”
“We’re lighting up most of southern Arizona with these amazing Christmas lights anyway. What’s a few more?”
He laughed and took another drink of hot cocoa. “Alright. I’m game.”
Mal picked up her iPad and cleared her throat. “Marley was dead to begin with.” She lifted her eyes to check his reaction.
He grinned. “This is a tradition I can get behind.”
“Awesome. Now, shhh. And listen to the story.”
He gestured for her to go on.
“Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”