Presence – a holiday story


She was the last to arrive and she knew it. She was always last, every year, no matter what she did, how she did it, or when. She could get up earlier, could eat breakfast faster, could unwrap things without taking them out of their packaging but it never mattered – she would always be last. It was just something the other two girls could count on, and, she supposed, that was how it was meant to be. She smiled and pulled the coat up tighter against her chin and wiggled her behind to test for the weight of the backpack she wore and that it was still there.

The snow, which had been but a whisper when she awoke was now a scream and it was hard to see where she was going, the sidewalk lost beneath the powder. Luckily she had remembered her hat or her long black hair would be flying in the wind behind her, a great and tangled sea creature looking for prey. It was still early, even for a holiday, so most of the street was still asleep, or buried in foot high wrapping paper. Her parents hadn’t been keen on getting up at six in the morning today but it was only once a year and she was an only child so, it wasn’t that bad. Worth it, they whispered, when they saw how happy she was when she opened her presents. And she was happy too, to spend time with them on that most special of mornings, but as much as she enjoyed the gifts, and the lights, and her family, and everything else, she loved her time with her best friends the most. The girls. Her smile, which had almost blown out from the wind, ignited again and she hurried her pace.

She was still ten blocks away from the bridge when Mrs. Kendricks and Gunter, her German Sheppard moseyed by her and honked. Mrs. Kendricks was the only person on the streets though and, as heavy as the snow was coming down, it wasn’t surprising. It had seemed as if the trip took far longer than usual but she made it to the end of the sidewalk and let out a long sigh as she looked ahead and saw the hill, now covered in heavy, wet snow, but as soon as she took the hill her journey would be done and she’d be at the bridge. She could have cut through a couple yards and picked up the road from there and taken that to the bridge but this was a faster route, to her at least, and she liked the way the houses looked all covered with snow. She looked up at the steep incline that faced her and took a deep breath and jumped off the curb that encircled the turn around where her street ended and started trudging up the hill. Amy lifted her head after a few steps up the hill and clapped her hands together and let out a laugh that echoed against the snow – just beyond where she stood was a path that had been made into the snow, a path that lead over the hill and surely to the bridge. The girls strike again! Yes, she was late, but it had its advantages sometimes.

Heartened by the friendship of the other girls, Amy pushed forward through the snow, her feet starting to get soaked through the boots and the bottom of her dress dampening as well. The wind kicked up but within feet she was on the small trail and laughed her way up the hill. As soon as she was atop the hill she saw the smoke from the small fire that Kara and Paula had going and, as she hurried her pace, she knew she’d catch the smell of coffee brewing the closer she got. She wasn’t wrong, though what she caught was the smell of chocolate and her stomach gurgled its approval. She gave a call and Kara and Paula, huddled over their small fire beneath the bridge, stood and waved at Amy as she approached. As soon as they caught sight of Amy both girls laughed until tears were running down their cheeks, forcing color into Amy’s face until she realized that they were laughing because they too were a bit overdressed for a simple meeting under a bridge. Amy loved this time of year above all others. This was their time. This was for the girls. But each year was hard, and even beneath her smile there was the trepidation that this day brought with it hand in hand. Things were not as hard for Amy though as this wasn’t her year, but it didn’t make the trek any easier, or the day. Much as she loved this day, she hated it too, though secretly.

“Well, aren’t we all a little fancy today?” Kara, the oldest of the three, asked.

Amy smiled.

“Well, I figured it was Christmas and all.”

Paula nudged Kara.

“Yeah, we were just trying to impress you, ya know.”

“Yeah, what she said!” Said Kara.

“And I was trying to impress the two of you, so I guess we’re all even, huh?”

All three girls nodded to one another and Kara put a hand out to Amy to help her down the decline and beneath the bridge. The girls had been coming to the bridge since the summer Kara had moved to town, and Amy and Paula had heard of the place years before that. A couple, she pregnant and he the suspected father, had killed themselves beneath the bridge, on the other side of the river. Some said the river and this area were haunted now but the girls had always felt safe here. They had always felt peace. Above them, around them there was so much chaos, so much change, and here there was only the three of them and nothing else. Here time froze and it was wonderful.

Amy took a seat on the blanket Paula’s great-grandmother had made her when she was still a baby and she felt the cold as soon as she was down so she moved to a crouching position like the other two were in and took off her backpack. Kara had her oversized winter coat on, a hand-me-down from her sister Emily, who had inherited it from their eldest sister Mary, who was off at college now. Paula had her dad’s Army coat on, the hole in the shoulder, where his father had been shot, always calling your eye to it, no matter how many times you’ve looked. Both girls looked ridiculous in their shabby coats and special occasion skirts but Amy thought they were beautiful. She suddenly wished she’d brought her camera.

“Amy, any smokes?”

Amy shook her head.

“Rats. I need a smoke. Mary and her newest boyfriend are in town and Emily is acting like an utter ‘tard and god, mom and dad are barely able to control their annual holiday divorce talks.”

“Sorry Kara. My dad is trying to give up again, you know, for the new year and junk, so there aren’t any around now.” Amy shrugged.

“It’s for the best, Amy. Dearest Kara needs to stop smoking too. Not good for the skin, ya know. I mean, it says it in all the magazines. Anyway, I have hot chocolate – what could be better? Got some from Ricky yesterday. Isn’t he the sweetest?”

Kara and Amy giggled. Ricky was an older boy that Paula had a crush on that bordered obsession but it seemed to be paying off after all those months of work. The girls had to admit though, he was pretty cute.

“Well then, don’t tease the girl, pour her a glass of the cocoa – harlot.”

All three girls doubled over with laughter and it was only that which kept them warm as the temperatures dipped even lower and the wind picked up again. Once in a while a car or truck would pass overhead and shake the bridge and startle the girls into laughter again. After the three had had their cocoa they exchanged stories of their Christmas mornings their minds turned to what they were there to do. The girls cleaned up the mess from the cocoa and moved the blanket to the edge beneath the bridge and were hanging their feet over the small cliff that lead down to the water below. The river was a lie, looking peaceful and easy when all three girls knew that if any of them fell into it they’d be dead before they hit the bend a quarter mile upstream. The river, its edges crowned in ice, was a liar, and each girl knew well the stories that supported this, the most recent involving an old man who had gone after his dog into the water, hoping to save it but losing himself in the bargain. Both man and dog appeared on the banks of the river three weeks later, the man’s arms around the dog and both looking peaceful in death.

Amy shivered and the other two girls did as well, as if from the same thoughts.

Amy looked at Kara in her oversized coat and pink dress and the big winter boots beneath and she was beautiful. She was beautiful because she didn’t know it yet. Her face was just starting a long war with acne and her hair showed the ravages of hard water but it was there, beneath the surface and waiting to bloom. Amy turned her eyes to Paula, who had the bag she had brought with her open and was pulling something free of it. Paula, the youngest of them. Paula with the sad, dark eyes. Paula who was more interested in boys than anything else, even herself. Amy felt her eyes getting wet and made a loud, awkward cough and wiped her face, sad but not sure why. It just felt like with every passing year the three of them were getting further and further out to sea and farther away from one another. Amy’s chest started hurting and her eyes welled again.

“I think it’s time. Are we ready?” Paula asked.

Amy and Kara looked at one another, then to Paula and nodded.

None of them likes this part of them coming here but this was why they were here. This was why they came here every Christmas. They were here because someone had to do this.

They had to do this.

Every year it was a different girl and this year was Kara’s year. It was her time.

Things turned suddenly serious.

“I, Paula, of this tribe of three, give this tool to Kara – may she wield it well and true.”

Paula handed Kara an old hammer the girls had found along the side of the road the summer before they’d started coming here, its body stained with a half dozen colors of paint and its head rusted and bent. For some reason Amy had picked the hammer up that July day and had held onto it, as if knowing what it might become to them. Kara took the hammer and she and Paula bowed their heads to one another and leaned forward and kissed one another upon the cheek. Paula raised the hammer to her brow, then brought it down and kissed it softly.

“To the past, to the present, and to the future of all do I offer this simple sacrifice.”

Paula hefted the hammer up high and pulled her backpack so that it was beside her. The three of them, legs hanging over the cliff and against the cold dirt, were still despite the cold, their breath coming in small puffs. Paula pulled a beautiful crystal fairy from the bag and it took everything she had for Amy not to let out a gasp. Paula had wanted that fairy since she first saw it at the mall back in April and now here it was in her hand and being offered to the altar. Paula had tried all summer to save up enough money to buy the fairy but hadn’t been able to do it, always forgetting she was saving money until she had spent it all. She had asked for it for Christmas but hadn’t expected it, not really. It was a shock to see it, and worse, to see it here.

Amy’s heart sank.

She knew all too well what Paula was going through, as did Kara. This was their fourth year doing this and each year there was a sacrifice, and it was never easy; it wasn’t easy but it must be done.

Kara laid a black brick in Paula’s lap and nodded. The brick was the altar and had been found by Kara beneath the bridge, on the side where the couple had killed themselves. Paula laid the small figure on the brick and took the hammer and closed her eyes. This happened every year and Amy wondered when it happen that the girl wouldn’t be able to go through with it. This wasn’t that day though and Paula took a deep breath, took the hammer in both hands and brought it down and shattered it. Paula let out a sob and closed her eyes against the tears. With eyes closed Paula swept the remnants of the figure away with a mitten and Amy watched as the particles mixed with the falling snow and was lost to the river below. Paula let out another sob and Amy knew that Kara, like she, wanted nothing more than to comfort their friend but this was what they were here to do. This was the sacrifice.

“May this small token pay our way into tomorrow. May it pay for that which we did yesterday. May it keep us safe this in this moment.”

Paula took in a deep breath and slowly let it out and then handed the brick and hammer to Amy.

“I yield these tools to Amy to keep, to watch over, and to protect. May they be well protected and safe. May this next year be a boon to us all.” Having said the words, she released the hammer and brick and Amy took them, nodded, then put them away into the backpack.

“What, what did you give the sacrifice to? I mean, if you don’t mind.”

Amy held her breath. They never, never spoke of what the sacrifice was to, whether the past, present, or future. It was between the person making the sacrifice and whatever they made it to. There was a quiet moment and as the three girls sat a truck rumbled overhead and startled a squeal from them. Finally Paula looked up from the river and at Kara.

“The baby. I gave the sacrifice to the baby. For what it will never have. For what it will never know.”

All three girls looked across the river to the other side of the bridge where there was a small, modest memorial that the girls had built for the unborn child that had died when its parents had killed themselves. Kara and Amy nodded in silent agreement and that was all that needed to be said. Amy felt tears again, something she felt often under this bridge. She remembered coming here in the fall with Kendall Graham, a boy in her grade who had moved away but was in town to see his sister, who was getting married. She had brought him down here and they had kissed and afterward she had cried for hours. Cried at having betrayed their secret place, and having betrayed her friends, and having betrayed the baby that never was.

She thought of what she had in her bag, of the doll she had brought, the last doll she would ever have, and what would be her sacrifice this year. She had begged for it from her mother for weeks and her mother had finally given in and she had gotten it that morning. It was beautiful. A little porcelain thing that was hand painted and had a stunning velvet dress on. She loved it at first sight. She loved it but she owed a debt.

She owed a sacrifice.

She didn’t know why – why they had started this tradition, and why she felt the need to do one this year, on an off year for her – but she knew it was right.

It was right.

She would wait for the girls to leave before she came back, and would sacrifice the doll to the child across the river.

For the girls.

For herself.

For the past, present, and future.

Because it was right.

There was more silence and the snow, which had finally stopped, blew in on them and extinguished the fire. Paula suddenly let out a large burp that echoed beneath the bridge and forced laughter from all three girls and suddenly it was ok again. The ceremony was over. The girls bundled up again, folded up the blanket, made sure the fire was out, and started out for their homes again. They made small talk about what they were all doing for New Year’s, who they thought was cute at school, and what day they wanted to go to the mall to spend their Christmas money.

It was good again.

And while they were slipping further out to sea with every day, for now they were friends. The best of friends. There was that. There was this.

And Amy smiled, though beneath it she knew that she would return later, alone, and would continue to return every year at this time, with or without the other girls. Would return because sacrifices must be made.

Prices must be paid for the things we had, have, and want.

Because even if we ignore them, prices must be paid.

There must be sacrifices

It was was right.

For the past, for the present, and for the future.

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