Monday, December 6, 2010

Saint Nick

This is a special guest post by Amy Gunn

There has always been a Rose in my family, for as far back as any of us can remember. It’s one of those family names that keeps cropping up, and it’s almost like we don’t even have a choice in the matter anymore. The firstborn daughter is always named Rose.

My life had always been completely ordinary before Nick. It had been early December when we met; I was just finishing up my first semester as a freshman in college. I hadn’t dated a lot through high school, so when Nick came along and swept me off my feet I was positive that it was true love.

We met at a party. It wasn’t one of those cool parties that you see in movies or anything; it was actually pretty boring. People were sitting around, some of them holding hands, and everyone was listening to loud music. Okay, now that description just made it sound even cooler than it was. The loud music was classical music, since it was a symphony Christmas party. Yeah, I was the embodiment of the phrase “band geek.” Anyway, Nick introduced himself to me with Bolero blaring in the background, and it was love at first sight, at least for my part. I had never seen him around before, but I was in the woodwinds and he told me he was in percussion, so that sort of made sense to me.

Nick was a looker, so I couldn’t believe he was even talking to me. He was over six feet tall with glossy blond hair that had just the right amount of wave in it, and his eyes were a piercing color of electric blue. He was like the Ken doll of college sophomores.

I left the party with him that night and never looked back. I don’t remember where we went – which is weird I guess – but we went someplace and talked until it was almost getting light outside. The knowledge that I had been picked up by this totally amazing guy sort of filtered down to everything else in my life to make it all seep pretty great.

We saw a lot of each other over the next couple of weeks. I’m sure my dorm roommate wondered where I was spending all of my spare time, but we were all pretty stressed about finals so maybe she didn’t even notice. I’m not sure what Nick and I did those nights; more talking, I guess. But suddenly I had my happy thought to get me through finals, of which I’d been terrified since I started school that fall.

Nick was always giving me presents. Every morning when I woke up I’d find things resting on the foot of my bed. I wondered how much he had paid my roommate to put them there, but somehow I never got around to asking her. Once there was a nice pair of earrings that I swear had real diamonds in them, but it was mostly little things, like candy and a note that said “sweets for the sweet” or something equally corny. I loved corny, so it made me fall for him even more.

I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but sometime after Nick found out I was going home for Christmas at the end of finals week, we were suddenly planning to make the trip together. I had never brought a guy home with me before, so this was a big step for me. I decided to keep him as a surprise for my family, although I wasn’t sure why. Nick was like the best thing to ever happen to me, but I didn’t want to share him just yet.

The last day of finals was just a few days before Christmas. Somehow I survived everything, and then it was finally time to get off campus and head for home. My parents lived a couple hundred miles away from the school. It was close enough that I could visit them without breaking the bank, but also far enough away that I felt like I could have a little space.

We both crammed into my ancient Volkswagon Rabbit. I had family Christmas gifts packed into the hatchback next to my dirty laundry and suitcase. Nick had packed pretty light; I couldn’t even see any of his stuff under the mountain of my own. He was great company. I don’t remember much about the trip home except that I was enjoying spending the time with him.

The trip seemed to take no time at all, but then there we were, suddenly driving down the street I had grown up on and I could see the familiar white house with the swing on the front porch. I was getting a little anxious, but in an excited sort of way. I parked a couple houses down, because I wanted our arrival to be a surprise to my family, who weren’t actually expecting me – let alone Nick – until late that night or the next day.

Nick was helping me pull my luggage out of the back of the car. There was a dizzying instant where I blinked and the tiniest fraction of a moment passed before I reopened my eyes, and when I looked at him again there was another gift perched on top of my duffel bag.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Open it,” Nick replied, smiling. He was closing the top of the one bag he always seemed to have with him. I wondered for a moment if this was the only piece of luggage he had brought with him, but then I got distracted by the gift under my nose. I opened it and was shocked to see a necklace that matched the diamond earrings he had given me before (which I was wearing, of course). “Nick,” I argued, shaking my head, “I can’t believe you got this for me. It’s too much!” But my fingers were itching to pull it out of its box and put it on.

Nick’s teeth still gleamed behind his smile, “It’s just a little something to remind you of me,” he shrugged, “do you want me to put it on for you?”

There was weight and some deeper meaning to his question that I didn’t quite catch, but my feeling of guilt disappeared and I just nodded. Something flashed in Nick’s eyes as I watched him pull the necklace out of the box. Triumph? I figured he was just pleased I was accepting his gift after all.

I had to hold my breath to keep from squealing when he put it around my neck. It felt heavier than it had looked in the box, and somehow when I looked into Nick’s eyes again I knew that something had changed in our relationship forever. I couldn’t help but wonder if a diamond ring might someday follow this gift.

The rest of the day went by in a blur. Nick was a huge hit – especially with my mom – and things couldn’t have been better. My little brother Trevor didn’t seem to care much for Nick at first, but then Nick went to his little magic bag and suddenly there was a gift there for Trevor as well. Nick was like that – always thinking about others. Things went better with Trevor after that.

The next day was Christmas Eve – the day my extended family got together for a huge dinner. I was excited they were all going to meet my new boyfriend. I helped my mom get ready for the dinner – even though I was a terrible cook – partly because I wanted to impress Nick by doing something all homey, but also because I wanted everything to turn out perfect this year. Nick stayed out of the way but was always there just within sight when I started to wonder where he had disappeared to. Then it was time for people to start showing up. I didn’t want Nick to feel
overwhelmed by my large family, so I took him back onto the covered porch in the back
of the house, and the place started to fill up.

He stood there staring into the trees in the backyard, and I thought he seemed tense. “Hey,” I greeted him, walking over to put my hand in his.

“Hey,” he said, grinning when I took his hand. “Sorry, I don’t really do crowds,” he confessed. “I thought this was just going to be you and your family.”

Okay, now I felt really guilty. “Sorry,” I apologized, “but this sort of is my family.” I gestured weakly toward the back door. I realized just then that I had no idea what sort of family background Nick was coming from. He had never been interested in talking about himself and it hadn’t seemed odd to me before that moment. I heard the knob turn as someone on the inside of the house was coming out, and I felt Nick stiffen next to me. I looked over at him curiously, squeezing his hand just in case that weird look on his face was discomfort at being subjected to my extended family. I turned back to the house to find my grandmother standing in the open doorway staring at the two of us with her mouth hanging open.

“Hi grandma,” I said, thinking she was just overreacting at seeing our clasped hands. She didn’t look at me; just continued to stare at Nick.

“You!” she finally said after a quick moment, pointing a long, gnarled finger at him. “You are not welcome here.”

I sucked in a deep breath, nearly swallowing my own tongue. “Grandma!” I choked in disbelief. I turned to Nick, hoping that my muddled brain could come up with an acceptable apology, but I realized he was still smiling.

“Hello, Rose,” he said, calling her by her first name. I was confused, thinking at first that he was talking to me, but he was still watching her. Neither one of them was paying me any attention.

“You are NOT welcome here, Nicholas,” she said again. How did she know his name? This was getting weirder all the time. Nick was still grinning, not troubled by her rudeness.

“Rose, Rose, Rose,” he said again, still sounding pleasant, “I said I would be back; you just hoped I would forget. But you should know I never forget to call in a debt.” His words sounded cruel, but I had no idea what he was talking about.

“What?” I finally said out loud, flabbergasted. “What’s going on, Grandma?” I looked back over at her, pleading. Somehow even though Nick was talking to my gran like she was an old rival, it didn’t occur to me to wonder about him. Looking back, I realize this was pretty ridiculous, but it didn’t seem like it at the time. Grandma was the only part of the equation that didn’t make any sense at the time.

“No, Nicholas,” she said bitterly, spitting his name out, “You’re wrong.” She ignored my question completely. “I knew you’d be back, though I must admit I thought it would be sooner.” I thought she chuckled, but it was so soft I wondered in the next instant if I had imagined it.

Nick flinched a little, but I had no idea why her words had bothered him. “I’m here now, Rose – dear one –” he smiled cruelly as the pet name rolled off his tongue, “and you’re too late to save this one.”

And then I realized he was pointing at me. I started to feel weird; the world was swimming, everything covered in a haze. Then the necklace Nick had given me earlier felt like it was burning into the sensitive skin of my throat.

“Take it off,” I begged, reaching out towards Nick, but when I fell to my knees he didn’t reach to help me. My hands were clawing at the necklace, but I couldn’t find a clasp to open and remove it. I heard an awful rasping noise but I was so distracted by trying to take off the necklace I
didn’t realize at first that I was hearing my own breathing.

Grandma yelled something indistinguishable beneath all the noise I was making and her hand flew up to the skin above her own collar. In an instant that lasted for an eternity, I remembered the pale burn scar I had often noticed around her neck when I was little, and I wondered again why she had always refused to tell me where it had come from. As I watched, suddenly the scar lit up to the hot orange of glowing lava.

My grandma laughed again, and it was exultant. She was ignoring the glowing ring around her neck completely. “I’ve felt you getting close for years and I knew you’d return soon. That was why I brought this with me.” For a split second she held something out in front of her that I couldn’t quite see, and then she reached her hand up over her head and threw whatever it was at Nick.

“No!” Nick screamed, and in the middle of the scream his voice changed to something else – a gurgling that was both inhuman and terrifying. “I will be back,” he gurgled before the noises coming from him stopped altogether. I stared in horror as my boyfriend shrank into a shapeless lump on the back porch. The burning slowly faded away as the world around me came back into focus. I was still crumpled on the floor clutching at my neck. I couldn’t feel the chain wrapped
around it anymore, but I could still feel the pain of it. Something heavy was in one of my clenched fists; I opened it to find the diamond pendant that had hung from the necklace. I
was shivering and I thought I was going to start sobbing at any moment. For some reason I tightened my hold on the pendant like it would save my life, even though a part of me just wanted to throw it as far as I could away from me.

Grandma stepped closer to me and I saw that she was limping. “That’s it, honey,” she said. “Pick yourself up and help these old bones get sat down on that chair.” She pointed to a pair of metal patio chairs several feet away and I got to my feet, letting her hook her elbow through mine as we went to sit down. The metal was cool beneath me and I shivered again. I looked around, dazed.

“What happened to Nick?” My overworked brain still couldn’t wrap itself around anything that had just happened; I was half expecting myself to have a complete meltdown. Grandma sighed and reached up to pat my hand.

“Same as always,” she said sadly. “He’s gone for now; don’t you worry.”

My head was spinning. “What do you mean ‘same as always’?” I asked.

She stared into my face, her mouth tense, and then she nodded. “I guess you’re old enough now – he just proved that. You deserve to know.” She leaned back, her usually excellent posture forgotten as she slumped against the metal back of the chair. I wondered for a second if she would ever be able to get up out of the chair, she looked so frail.

“Nicholas has always been there – at least as long as any of us can remember. They say the first Rose in our family made a deal with the devil – eternal beauty for the price of her soul. She tricked him, though, when he came to collect. Rose had fallen in love right after she made the deal, and she regretted selling her soul like that. Somehow she was able to slip past him and run off with the man she loved. She thought she could hide from Nick. She was right, at least at first.

“She got married and they had a couple of kids, and she mostly forgot about the deal she had made. Then one day when her daughter – another Rose – was all grown up she said she had met the man she was going to marry. Her mother realized that the mystery man was none other than Old Nick himself.

“She was almost too late to save her daughter; she showed up at that last moment when Nicholas was the most vulnerable (he had used up most of his power giving the
daughter nice gifts to seduce her) and Rose saved her daughter.

“Nick wasn’t finished, though; he was patient and kept coming back. No matter how often they moved, every woman born into the family was found and seduced one by one.” Grandma looked down at her hands, clenching and unclenching her fingers.

“I was the last one before you, and I never believed the stories either. My mother came to help free me, but not before I got this,” She was fingering the angry red burn at her throat, and I wondered if it was as painful as it looked. My hand went up to my own throat where I was sure I had a matching burn. She saw my gesture.

“Yes, I was almost too late to help you too, my little Rosie.” She shook her head. “No matter how often you try to convince yourself this never happened, you can’t let yourself forget this day,” she paused, “because there’s another part to it that I haven’t told you yet.”

She went silent and I didn’t think she was going to continue, so I asked “What’s that, Grandma?”

My blood ran cold when she looked up at me again and said “The devil always comes back to claim his own, and he knows that one of these days we won’t quite be fast enough.” I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck. “Each time he gets a little bit closer. Don’t you ever forget, Rosie,” she said again. She was wagging a finger at me, her face stern. “He’s like the family saint: always coming with a smile on his face and gifts to win everyone over. But we can’t forget that Old Nick and Saint Nicholas are one and the same. He’ll go to no end of trouble to claim what he thinks is his own.”

I’ve shoved my memories of that night ten years ago into the far corners of my mind because they were much too terrifying to be real, but today everything changed with the birth of my daughter. Now my whole life revolves around the fear that someday I might be the one who will get there just a little too late to save my Rose from Old Scratch.


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