Ghosts of Christmas Past
By Major Houlihan
Abbie Carmichael is five. She wakes at six on a crisp, chilly Christmas morning in Houston, Texas to a sleeping house. She slips out of bed and pads down the carpeted stairs to the family room to discover that Santa Claus had indeed been very generous to her and her brother, Stevie. She gasps in awe at the many wrapped packages resting under the gargantuan Christmas pine wedged in the far corner of the room. The papers are metallic green and red and the presents sparkle and reflect the blinking lights of the tree.
She tiptoes to the fireplace and notices cookie crumbs on the dish she left out for Santa. Clearly Santa does like Nutter Butters. Uncle Jerry was wrong, she thinks to herself.
Filled with Christmas spirit, Abbie pirouettes around the family room in her flannel Holly Hobbie nightgown and fuzzy white booties as jingling carols play maniacally in her head. She resists the urge to dive straight into the Christmas bounty and shred each gift one by one; even at her young age she understands the potential for punishment. She knows Mom wants to make this Christmas a special one.
So she waits, parked cross-legged in front of the tree and staring at each box, each cylindrical-shaped object, and all four bulging stockings hanging from the fireplace. The fire is not lit but Abbie can feel the warmth from the room anyway, and she stares, hoping that the power of X-ray vision will come to her and reveal what booty lies underneath the paper and ribbons.
One by one the rest of the family wakes and stumbles downstairs. Abbie's mother flips pancakes while Stevie burbles and runs in a circle around the kitchen. Abbie's face reddens from anticipation and frustration -- her mother wants to wait to open presents. Uncle Jerry and Grandma are supposed to join them before church, and Abbie's mother wants the entire family together to share in the joy of the season.
So Abbie waits, scraping her fork in maple syrup puddles on her plate and drawing distorted, sticky images: a happy face, an airplane, a tree. Stevie decides to help and stands at the kitchen table on tiptoes, but he is unable to reach. He screeches.
An hour passes. Abbie bounces around the living room, her father scolds her. The presents are not going anywhere, he tells her, just be patient. Mom wants her own mother and brother to be there for Christmas, just as Abbie has her mother and brother with her now. Abbie pouts, but finally slouches on the couch next her father, drinking in his aftershave and trying to read the funnies from underneath his elbow. Abbie's mother paces the kitchen in her new blue floral print dress, wringing her hands and wondering aloud what is keeping Jerry and Grandma.
Another thirty minutes later, the phone rings. Abbie's mother answers with a trembling hand as Abbie and Stevie huddle on the floor in their Sunday clothes playing guessing games with the presents. Abbie sees her mother clutch her chest and shake her head. The woman is whimpering loudly and shaking, grasping the wall phone receiver with a white hand, drained of blood. The news on the other line is not good, Abbie thinks, but she is too distracted with entertaining her brother to inquire of her mother's sudden change in behavior.
Abbie and Stevie are suited up quickly for the cold and thrust into the family station wagon. Christmas is forgotten, as are the presents, church, baby Jesus and anything festive as Abbie's father barrels down Interstate 10 toward Methodist Hospital. Upon arrival, the family is ushered into a waiting room, cold and stale with dirty white walls decorated with seascape paintings and public service announcement posters. Abbie sits in a molded orange plastic chair next to her crying mother, who absently bounces an oblivious Stevie on her knee.
They sit for twenty minutes before a grim-faced doctor approaches with the news that Jerry's car was struck sidelong in an intersection by another car out of control in the icy streets. Jerry and Grandma are alive, but critical. Abbie listens as the doctor drones on about the accident, using words she does not understand like amputation and concussion. Eventually her mind drifts away into a medley of Christmas carols and she stares at the limp red and silver tinsel garlands draped about the halls.
Abbie is fourteen. She is the vice-president of the Hillcrest United Methodist Church's youth organization, and is thus involved in the church's annual Christmas festivities. She is chosen by the youth director to portray Mary in the Living Nativity, alongside Billy Wilkes as Joseph.
Ramona and Robin, the Hooper twins, are selected as shepherds, but not without much consternation among the purists in the Christmas activities planning committee. There were no female shepherds in the time of our Savior, some argue, but when Mrs. Hooper, the church's resident feminist, demands proof, the committee relents. Mrs. Hooper buys her daughters brand new leather sandals to wear for an occasion, an early Yuletide gift to commemorate this victory for women's liberation.
Billy Wilkes is a dreamy, doe-eyed wire of a boy, and both Ramona and Abbie are ecstatically in love with him. Both, however, are too shy to say as much to the handsome Billy or anyone else, yet Ramona believes her rival has the upper hand in obtaining the boy's affections. She despises Abbie Carmichael for her dark, exotic eyes and the fact that her breasts are blooming more rapidly than her own. The fact that Abbie is going to be Mary truly infuriates the freckled-face girl, so much that she grinds her teeth in anger and accidentally cuts her lips against her braces when she purses them shut. This she blames on Abbie, too. She vows revenge.
Abbie is excited this year to play such an important role in the Christmas pageant. She studies the Gospel of Luke and memorizes every pertinent verse, imaging herself as Mary kneeling and cooing over her newborn Son. How happy she must have been, Abbie thinks, and honored, knowing that of all the women in the world, God chose her to be the mother of His Son, an ark to carry the New Covenant.
Of all the young girls at Hillcrest, she was chosen to portray Mary. Abbie promises God not to let Him down, that she will try her best not to tarnish the image of His beloved servant.
Abbie is nervous. Aside from the obvious pressure to accurately represent such a Biblical figure, she has the added burden of being showcased by her enthused parents. Abbie's mother snaps photographs at every opportunity: Abbie in front of the house in her pale blue Mary mantle, Abbie with Dad and Stevie, Abbie with Mom and Stevie, Abbie and Stevie together on the living room sofa. When Uncle Jerry, limbless from his knees downward and cranking the wheels of his chair by hand, and Grandma arrive, Mom's trigger finger goes into overdrive. Abbie rolls her eyes, she does not want to be late for final dress rehearsal and begs to be released from the irritating poppoppop of the flashbulbs. Just one more with Uncle Jerry, Mom says, as Abbie is perched on her uncle's lap and paraded around the living room.
Abbie brings her own old Cabbage Patch doll to church to serve as the infant Jesus. Since she is unsure of what "swaddling clothes" are supposed to look like, she chooses instead to wrap the doll in a small flannel blanket and surrenders it to the prop manager. She then joins Billy, Ramona, Robin, and the other Nativity participants in front of the manger setting, really a plywood skeleton covered in pine needles and straw, to pose for yet more photos, this time for a special insert to be included in the church bulletin. The manger is then moved off of the church hall stage so the youth choir may take their marks and begin the program.
The youth choir sings. Abbie's family swoons with pride as Stevie warbles a solo during "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Flashbulbs illuminate the dark pocket of the audience.
The stage is now set for the story of the First Christmas. The stage curtains open to reveal Abbie and Billy hovering over a feeding trough wherein lies the infant. A voice offstage narrates the scene as Ramona and Robin lumber onstage hauling armfuls of stuffed animals. In the audience Uncle Jerry chuckles to his mother that he did not remember Snoopy being present at Jesus's birth. Mrs. Hooper bats him on the arm with a program.
Abbie peels back the blankets and prepares the lift the doll; she wants to make the scene as realistic as possible. Suddenly she frowns, for the doll in the trough is not hers, but one with a plastic molded face with pink lips pursed around a tiny hole meant, she assumes, for inserting a toy drinking bottle. The doll is devoid of clothes. Abbie lifts the doll high in the air, confused and searching for a clue as to the doll's owner. She does not notice the plastic loop attached to the doll's back by a thin string, and when Ramona Hooper suddenly lurches toward the doll, Abbie is speechless. She knows this action is not part of the script.
Ramona tugs on the drawstring, nearly yanking the doll out of Abbie's hands. Abbie manages to maintain her grasp and hisses at Ramona to return to her mark -- Ramona is ruining the play. As Ramona retreats, Abbie hears another voice: a squealing, cartoon voice that announces uh oh, baby eat too much. It is then that a thin stream of water gushes forth from the opening in the doll's mouth and sprays Abbie right in the face.
Ramona doubles over with raucous laughter, landing on her rear and causing her shepherd's robes to fly up past her bare knees so that her shorts are visible. Soon Robin, too, and even Billy are giggling. Ramona's prank is an infectious virus -- the audience looks on shocked at first, then slowly a few guilty titters break the silence among the darkened seating area.
One parent covers her mouth in an attempt to disguise her amusement as a bad cough, but soon the laughter is too much for her shaking fingers to hide. Even Abbie's parents are appalled at first, especially as Uncle Jerry thrashes his head back with a loud whoop. Mrs. Hooper howls right along with him. Soon the entire church hall is alive with laughter.
Except for Abbie. Abbie wipes her dampened face against the flowing sleeve of her mantle, unsure if she is drying away water or tears.
Abbie is eighteen. She is huddled in a corner of the compact dorm room she shares with her roommate Billie Jo. Billie Jo is halfway to Colorado with three other sorority sisters to celebrate the holiday season on snowy, packed slopes. Abbie is alone, crying.
She is wearing a Longhorns football sweatshirt and tight ash gray stirrup pants, hugging her knees and staring at her side of the room, suddenly shy as two-dimensional images of favored rock stars smile down at her. A colorful banner declaring that Delta Delta Delta sorority loves their little sister Abbie droops from two white pushpins securing it high on the wall over Abbie's desk. Abbie remembers receiving the banner at her initiation, and how it made her smile. Abbie does not want to smile anymore.
She rubs her arms, though she is not cold. The heat will remain working in all the dorm rooms until early the next morning, when all residents are expected to vacate for the Christmas holidays. Abbie is waiting in her room for her brother Steven, who will call from the downstairs lobby when he arrives to take her back to Houston. She does not want to go home. She does not want to do anything.
You wanted it and you know it, you bitch, her mind echoes, only not in her voice. She hears the male voice pounding in her ears all the time now -- as she studies, as she watches television in the common room with her friends, and as she sleeps. Nighttime is especially bad for Abbie, as the voice is accompanied by images. In her dreams she floats over her own prone, bruised body as callused hands grope her, probe her, rape her. She sees fangs bared and gnawing at her neck as her insides are invaded and hammered like plywood. The dreams always ends the same way, with Abbie, bathed in sweat, waking into a mournful howl, irking her perplexed roommate.
Abbie struggles to stand. Her head pounds and her heart aches. Outside her door other girls are bounding down the hallway, singing cheerfully and kissing Christmas wishes on ruddy cheeks. Abbie ignores the curious taps on her door and hopes everybody believes she is already gone. Abbie wants to be gone, not just from school or from Austin, but far gone. She wants to fade to black. Over and out.
She finds a pair of scissors on Billie Joe's desk and opens the blades. One, two, three, she slides a sharp edge against her wrist but the skin does not break. Jumping is out, as her room is on the second floor, and the thought of slamming her head against a hard surface does not appeal to Abbie. She already feels pain, and she does not want to experience any more in order to reach her goal.
Pills. Poison. Her vanity yields a half-empty bottle of Midol and a flattened tube of cold sore ointment. The cloudy, thick gel smells oily and waters Abbie's eyes. Billie Joe has left nothing lethal behind as well.
She catches a glimpse of herself on the wall mirror. Her eyes are rubbed raw and her hair is rumpled and snagged like black tumbleweed. Abbie looks at her reflection and starts to smile; she looks awful, and decides that no way can she die and be discovered looking so badly, dressed like a slob. She is almost finished with her hair and makeup when the phone rings.
Steven tells her that Grandma and Uncle Jerry and Aunt Marie are already at the house, and that Mom baked favorite Abbie's favorite dessert for Christmas dinner. Abbie nods and watches Austin fly past out the window of her brother's Camaro. Chocolate cheesecake tastes much better than ointment.
Abbie is twenty-six. She is sipping a cup of rainbow sherbet fruit punch in the break room of the New York City police department's 27th precinct on Christmas Eve. The room is packed with people -- detectives, precinct staff and their respective spouses and children. Abbie notices that the enclosure is too small to hold the party, as people spill out into other areas. They dance around the desks to holiday music blaring from a distant radio and feed Christmas cookies to the drunks in the holding cells. Children weave through the forest of grown-ups, squealing with newfound friends and anxiously awaiting the arrival of old St. Nick, who, Abbie learns, is really one of the detectives in Santa drag. Detective Lennie Briscoe, the precinct's former Santa for the past three years, expresses his relief at not drawing the short straw again. Abbie smiles and tries to picture the acerbic middle-aged cop ho-ho-hoing and shaking like a bowl full of jelly. WC Fields might have made a more convincing Santa Claus.
She nods to Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, who invited Abbie to stop by, and tries to dodge an oncoming officer bearing mistletoe, but fails. She finds she has kissed more men in this one night than she has in all her life. Lennie says he is not surprised, as many of the guys in the precinct are unmarried and not so stupid as to pass up the opportunity to kiss a pretty woman. The power of mistletoe.
He, too, is unmarried, Lennie reminds the newest assistant district attorney in the homicide division, and Abbie obliges him with a juicy smack on the cheek. One more detective and her dance card will be full, she thinks, but that is not likely to happen. She sees Lennie's partner, Rey Curtis, holed up in one corner with his wife, who looks very uncomfortable. Her body is stiff and unsmiling, even as the young Curtis girls bounce around them with joyous faces. Abbie suspects there is more to the scene, but Lennie is unwilling to offer any gossip on that topic.
Anita asks why isn't the young lawyer in Texas now, and Abbie explains how all of her vacation leave was used on her grandmother's funeral and her brother's wedding. She adds that this will be her first Christmas alone, as her parents have opted to spend the holidays at her uncle's new home in Phoenix. Jerry's daughter Denise is slated to portray Mary at their church's Christmas pageant.
Abbie mingles with more people and nibbles on finger food. She is genuinely enjoying herself this night, despite the fact that she will be going home to an empty apartment to open presents shipped via Federal Express. No turkey basting slowly in her oven, no homemade chocolate cheesecake, no mugging for her father's video camera with Steven and her nieces. Just Abbie. She does not mind, however. It seems to her that in her life, maudlin events at Christmastime have a way of overshadowing happier memories, and she decides that if this Christmas is treated as a normal day, she will not be disappointed.
A sad smile creeps across her face as she thinks of her new boss. Adam Schiff had invited her over to dinner with him and his family for a post-Hanukah celebration. She regrets the lie she told; she does not want to horn in on another family, she knows she would only feel like a participant.
Merry Christmas, says a voice behind her, and Abbie turns around to see the EADA, Jack McCoy smiling at her. He does not have mistletoe.
Anita approaches and welcomes Jack to the party, handing him a drink and apologizing for its lack of alcohol. Abbie is not sure if the remark was said in jest, but she notices a sly grin on the lieutenant's face as she returns to her husband. Abbie is surprised to see Jack at the party, and says as much to him, adding that she expected him to be halfway to his Christmas destination.
Where is that, Jack wants to know. His daughter is at Disney World with some friends this year, he reveals with a sigh, though he brightens with mock enthusiasm when he mentions the mouse ears enclosed in the gift package she sent. His sister's family is with the in-laws, and he is alone with no tree, no yuletide cheer, and a frozen turkey TV dinner in his freezer.
Surely there must be a lady friend, Abbie reasons aloud, and Jack sighs heavily, wishing a shot of bourbon to materialize in his drink. Not anymore, he says. Christmas is just another day to be miserable.
So be miserable with me, Abbie says. Jack is shocked at the suggestion, as he is accustomed only to giving blunt proposals, not receiving them.
Abbie offers him the unopened bottles of wine in her refrigerator and whatever is left in her pantry as Christmas dinner. Gifts are not mandatory, only the company. Jack mulls the offer over for five seconds before accepting.
Lennie overhears the entire conversation. Who's doing what to whom now, he asks, and how does an old cop alone on Christmas Eve get involved? He gratefully accepts Abbie's impromptu invitation and mentions another lonely soul who could use company on a cold New York night. Bring him over, Abbie says, hoping she has enough boxes of elbow macaroni for the occasion.
Finally Rey saunters over to the group, taunting Abbie with the mistletoe. She laughs. The circle of kisses is complete. She invites him and his wife over to the party-in-progress and he quietly declines. Thank you very much, but it's off to the in-laws this year on Staten Island. Rey does not look too happy about his plans and Abbie wonders to herself if this in some way is connected to his wife's behavior.
Rey bids Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night. Jack, Lennie and Abbie synchronize their watches.
Jack brings a bottle of scotch and the phone number of a pizzeria open on Christmas Day. Lennie brings a pillow-sized bag of tortilla chips and a handsome guy named Mike Logan, who brings mistletoe. Mike is a fellow officer currently working at another precinct. He and Jack already know each other. Abbie welcomes everyone and surrenders her television remote control. The screen flips between a black and white presentation of It's a Wonderful Life and college football. Very little attention is paid to both programs.
The pizzas arrive after one bottle of pinot noir and midway through the scotch. Everybody gathers around Abbie's coffee table to eat; the men are laughing and talking and joking and trying to impress Abbie with the most adventurous work anecdote. Abbie peels off the greasy pepperoni disks from her share of one pie and eats them separately, grinning at everyone's enthusiasm. Mike begins nearly every sentence with Hey, Lennie, remember the time when...and Abbie smiles sadly at him, realizing how much Mike misses working with his former partner.
The name Claire is spoken, and Jack's face suddenly falls and bows, as if a dark cloud has descended over the living room with the threat of rain. Abbie chews a bite of pizza. Jack's lady friend, she decides. Not anymore.
The cordless phone rings, and Abbie wishes her brother a long-distance Merry Christmas. Before she can say more, Mike snatches the phone away with a playful grin, informing Steven Carmichael that he is about to marry his sister. An impromptu game of keep-away follows, with Jack and Lennie averring Mike's announcement over the phone and preventing Abbie from speaking to her brother. Finally she retreats to her bedroom and talks to Steven from her bedside phone, clearing all misunderstandings with a giggling explanation. She blows him a long-distance kiss and emerges from the bedroom in time to enjoy Lennie's dead-on Jimmy Stewart impersonation.
As night wears on, the bottle are empty of booze and only a hardened trail of mozzarella cheese remains in one flat square box on Abbie's living room floor. Sated and happier than they were when they arrived, Lennie and Mike take their leave. Mike plants a wet kiss on Abbie's mouth and tells her don't be a stranger. Lennie offers a hug and Abbie detects a sort of melancholy in the old man's touch, like a father saying goodbye to his daughter for the last time. I will see you soon, Abbie says, and that appears to brighten Lennie's mood again.
Jack offers to help clean up but Abbie politely declines. It's Christmas, she reminds him, and work can wait. Jack smiles wanly and decides to head home as well, despite Abbie's insistence that she call a cab. She knows Lennie did not drink, thus Mike will be fine, but Jack has no designated driver. I'll be okay, he assures her, heading toward the door.
He turns in the open doorway as Abbie grasps the frame. Oh, by the way, he says, I forgot to give you something. Abbie looks at him sternly, her expression reiterating that gifts were not necessary. She is completely unprepared when Jack lifts the sprig of mistletoe left behind by Mike Logan over her head.
He reaches for her, his fingertips lightly graze Abbie's cheek. She shivers, even though his touch is warm and welcoming. He steps closer to her, his eyes soft and quiet and giving new light to his face. Abbie's eyes instinctively flutter shut as he tilts his down to her, and she parts her lips slightly to receive the kiss.
She loses track of time standing in her doorway, with her arms wrapped around Jack as he caresses her shoulder, then lower to her back, then lower than that. Her knees tremble, her nether regions throb, and she melts right into him, unwilling to let Jack break away. Slowly her head bobs in rhythm with Jack's, breathing deeply in time with him and allowing her lips to be pliant as he explores her mouth.
When they do finally taper away, Abbie glances back at her kitchen clock and discovers fifteen minutes have passed. Abbie invites Jack back inside, but he slowly shakes his head. If I come back inside, I won't leave, he says, though Abbie sees no problem with that.
He kisses her forehead. He'll see her tomorrow, he says, and she reluctantly lets him leave. She watches him disappear down the hall, shrinks back into her apartment, and lingers at the door for a moment in case Jack changes his mind. The knock does not come and she applies the chain, sighing.
She leaves the mess in the living room and heads straight to bed, peeling off her jeans and sweater and diving under the covers. Sugar plum fairies do not dance in her head. She sees herself with Jack, but they are not dancing.