Juliette: A Christmas Ghost Story
The Oakleys were a family of myth-makers. Their exploits were never written of by poets or sung of in lullabies, but they were myths and every Oakley knew them all by heart. Passed down through the generations like chromosomes, cancers, and sins. The good ones were exaggerated, expounded upon, and eventually became part of Oakley lore. And, like most family legends - or legends of any kind - these tales usually had some basis in fact, except what did happened was often disregarded in favour of what should have happened. It made for better storytelling.
And Juliette Oakley, who had taken on the task of starting a family record of these myths, considered herself a storyteller. But she considered herself a family historian first. She was careful to stick to the facts, which, to her surprise, ended up being controversial among her two brothers and three sisters as well as her sole surviving aunt, Mindy, who was still sharp as ever at 103 years old.
Aside from being controversial, the facts also had the unfortunate habit of deflating most of the more outrageous family stories. There was the time her uncle Alex was supposed to have fought off a lion with his bare hands before scrambling to his rifle and saving two frightened Tanzanian children by shooting the beast between the eyes. That was the family legend, told with pride and vigor over countless family gatherings. In truth, Uncle Alex did bag himself a lion in the early twenties, but it was at a safari where wealthy people paid exorbitant prices to mow down exotic big game. And according to his best friend Jim, Alex had missed three times before finally getting in the fatal head-shot.
Another one: A second cousin of Juliette's was said to have been part of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's expedition to became the first to conquer Everest. After painstaking investigation, Juliette discovered that not only had this second cousin never been to Nepal or China, he had never in his life left North America.
But, there was one family legend that no amount of investigation could seem to discredit. And, unlike the other stories, it wasn't one that was spoken about openly. Just about every Oakley knew of the stories, but no one knew exactly what to make of them.
Juliette had first heard about the ghost of her great grandfather when she was a little girl. As a child, she knew nothing about her great grandfather, Jonathon. She assumed she had a great grandfather, she understood that was how things worked, but she never gave the subject much thought. Not until she and her cousin Ben were playing in her grandparent's yard during a family reunion. It was in 1947. She was eleven, he was thirteen.
She could no longer recall what game they had been playing, only that they had been running around the century old elm tree in the back yard. He stopped in the middle of running, turned to her with a very matter of fact expression and said,
"My dad's dead. He killed himself. With a gun."
She knew this already, didn't know too many details, didn't quite grasp the concept of suicide, but her parents had spoken to her about it. Being a child with a malleable child's brain, she wasn't thrown off by this startling declaration.
"I know," she said. There was a pensive silence between them and then she added, "It's sad. I'm sorry that it happened."
"It's okay," Ben said, "It's not your fault." He looked straight ahead with a vacancy that troubled her.
"My mom says suicide runs in our family." He said. Again, in a very matter of fact manner.
"Are you afraid you'll catch it?" Juliette said. She wasn't trying to be cruel, only curious.
"Mom says if I think bad thoughts I should pray. She said no one can save me but Jesus. My dad was a sinner. He let the devil into his heart."
"Oh," Juliette said. "Do you want to play hopscotch? I brought my chalk from home."
But Ben didn't answer. He just stared at his feet. He seemed to be upsetting himself.
"Our great grandfather killed himself too." Ben said. "His name was Jonathon, and he hanged himself from this tree."
"This one? Really?" she said with her face scrunched up in doubt, "why would he do that? Why would he do that to such a beautiful tree?"
"Because, it's like you said, he caught the disease. And that's not all. People who kill themselves don't go to Heaven. They either go to Hell or they become ghosts. He became a ghost and he appears before every Oakley before they're going to die, you know. My dad saw him, just before he died."
Juliette started to shiver. This was going to give her nightmares.
"Ben Oakley, you're just trying to scare me!" She said, folding her arms as though she could shield herself with a scowl.
"It's true. Ask Grandma."
Juliette did not ask her grandma. She tried to ignore what Ben had said, to forget it, but it never left her. It became one of those defining memories that may come off as insignificant, but pops into a person's head constantly throughout their life. She knew without a doubt, even then, that she would think of that conversation on her deathbed.
And it turned out, Ben Oakley had not been fibbing. She was probably right that he was only trying to scare her, but her great grandfather Jonathon did hang himself on the big elm tree in the back yard. And there was a startling record of family members reporting visits from Jonathon Oakley's ghost just days, or sometimes hours, before they died.
The first such incident happened in 1900, two years after the suicide of Jonathon Oakley. According to the still existing diary of Jonathon's sister Mabel, her eldest sibling Victor arrived at her door one morning in a cold sweat. His hair and clothes were disheveled and his skin was as white as an ivory statue. She shooed her children off so that they wouldn't be frightened by their uncle's horrific appearance.
Once he got her alone, he claimed that he had been visited the previous night by Jonathon. He said that he woke up in the middle of the night to Johnathon sitting on the edge of his bed, looking down at his hands, which were folded on his lap. Victor said he tried to speak to Jonathon but his brother would not answer, would not even acknowledge his presence.
Mabel did her best to calm Victor down, and when he finally seemed over the worst of it he left to return home. But halfway through his walk, he passed a tavern and happened upon a street brawl. Before he could navigate his way out he was sucker-punched, once, by an unknown assailant, and fell to the ground, hit his head on the walkway, and died instantly.
Juliette was unable to verify it, but family legend claimed that when Mabel was on her deathbed, delirious with fever, she sat up, pointed to the corner of the room and spoke her her last words, "There he is, my brother Jonathon! He's come to take me! Come to take me home!"
There are stories involving just about every deceased family member receiving a visit from Jonathon. Some were more credible than others, but none of them could be entirely disproven.
And then in 1974, when she was thirty eight and her cousin Ben was forty, Juliette had her own second hand experience with the ghost when Ben telephoned her in the middle of the night in early February.
"I'm going to die soon."
He had never grown out of making matter of fact, startling declarations.
"What are you talking about? It's 3:30 in the morning."
"I was just paid a visit by great grandfather Jonathon. Not five minutes ago. He was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of my room. There was a pile of clothes on the chair, but somehow, he sat through the clothes. He rocked back and forth, looking at his lap. I said something to him, I don't remember what, but he didn't acknowledge me. Next thing I know, he's gone, vanished out of thin air. The chair kept rocking for a minute or so and then that stopped too. It's exactly like the stories. I'm going to die soon."
"Maybe it was just a bad dream," she said, but she wasn't even convincing herself. She felt like that little girl all over again, scowling, folding her arms and saying You're just trying to scare me.
"We both know that's not what it was," he said.
"Well, are you sick or something? Is that what it is? Maybe you're just worried and it's manifesting itself as--"
"Are you even listening to me?" his voice was hushed but he said it with the force of a shout.
"Okay," She said in a soothing tone, "It's going to be okay. I can come over if you want. I'll make us some coffee and we can stay up, talk, and eventually you'll fall asleep and when you wake up, you'll feel better."
There was a click on the other end. She knew he was tired of her not taking him seriously, but he had no idea how seriously she actually took it. It frightened her too much to even consider it a reality.
Ben died of a massive surprise heart attack. He had passed his last checkup a month before, which included blood work and a ECG, with flying colours, but his heart exploded like an over-inflated balloon. The coroner placed the time of death at about fifteen minutes after Juliette had spoken to him on the phone.
And most recently, in 2008, Juliette's great niece Olivia had told her parent's over Skype that she'd had a dream about being visited by a young man dressed in 1800s attire who looked a lot like her father, Jonathan Oakley the third. She said he didn't say anything or do very much, but the dream creeped her out so much that she slept with the lights on in her dorm room for almost a week, until her roommate yelled at her, telling her to grow up. It had seemed like a insignificant anecdote until Olivia died on the highway coming home for Christmas. There was a three car pile up. Everyone involved walked away except for Olivia. she was only 20 years old. The Oakleys, like most families, collected tragedies just as readily as they did tall tales.
By then, Juliette had long accepted the stories of her great grandfather's ghost as fact. She knew that one day their paths would cross, and when he made his next appearance on Christmas eve of 2016, she wasn't the least bit surprised to find that he had come for her.
That Christmas eve, the town of Gallow's Hill was bulldozed by a nor'easter. The morning began with grey skies and that dull, almost sulfur smell that gathers in the air before a storm. By early afternoon the first few snow flakes tumbled lazily downward. An hour or so after that, the wind began to pick up and the snow intensified. Then the town was pummeled hour after hour by blinding flurries and whiplash winds. Juliette's house, which once belonged to her grandparents, and her great grandparents before that, lost power at 5:30 pm. Just as it was getting dark.
Juliette had been in the kitchen, staring out the window at the big elm tree as she washed the dishes from their meager feast. Though the house was large, two stories, five bedrooms, the Oakley family was now fractured all over the world, and so it was just Juliette and the young family who lived on her street, the Petersons; Helen, her husband Bob and their little girl Jillian. They were a kind-hearted family and, having observed Juliette's solitary lifestyle, made an effort to spend time with her on every holiday. Juliette was glad to have them, and the dinner had been a welcome distraction, but once they had gone home for the evening, the house went right back to feeling cold and empty.
The Christmases of her youth and young adulthood were full of bustling activity, crowded with seldom seen relatives of at least four generations, large, elaborate meals, flowing drinks, sledding, sleigh rides, caroling, and a years worth of laughter. But now, her Freddy was seven years gone, as well as her two sisters and her brother (all to cancer), and her niece Olivia, not to mention her cousin Ben. And those were just the tip of the iceberg. Add to the deaths, both timely and untimely, the fact that she and her daughter Cynthia hadn't spoken in almost two decades and it became clear that there was very little love in the Oakley family to spread at present.
Her Freddy had been so good-natured, so amiable, that while he was alive, their Christmases still featured plenty of visiting well wishers. Most of the family that was in town made an appearance on Christmas day, popping in to give presents and wish the couple a merry Christmas - except for Cynthia, who had dropped her last name and changed her first name to Tegan. She never visited or called. She didn't even show up to Freddy's funeral - but after Freddy died, the visiting stopped. Juliette spent three Christmases completely alone until the Petersons moved into the neighbourhood and began inserting themselves into her life.
And as Juliette, soapy plate and dishrag in hand, watched the wind push and tug at the old elm tree where her great grandfather had ended his life, she wondered when he would come for her. A decade or two ago, back when she had things to lose, the idea would have scared her out of her wits, but now, thinking about it was something of a relief. Although her allotted time had not yet run out, the good times had long since passed.
She put her attention back on the dishes and the lights flickered once, twice, and then the power went out. She sighed and put the soapy dish and rag back in the sink. She flicked her hands a few times, flinging water into the sink, and started working her way down the counter,guiding herself with her hands. She reached a corner and followed it until she arrived in front of the junk drawer. She flung it open and felt around until her hand found the flashlight. She turned it on and went to build a fire. The temperature outside was just above zero, but would start to fall fast.
With the help of the flashlight beam, she walked through the kitchen, and the dining room, into the living room. She pushed her easy chair from its spot in the corner to directly in front of the fireplace and then got to work building a fire. Once she got it going, she walked back to the kitchen and the junk drawer and dug around until she found the portable, hand crank powered radio. She took it back with her to her seat in front of the fireplace. She turned the crank, it revved and vibrated satisfyingly as it spun. Her arm started to hurt, but she kept going, working through the pain. It was better to give it a lot of juice so you didn't have to re-power it every five minutes. She finally stopped when her whole right arm started to go numb. She thumbed on the radio. The fire crackled and danced before her, and she basked in the heat it gave off.
The local station was playing an awful modern pop song. It didn't sound very local at all, but at this hour on Christmas eve, all of the DJs would be home with their families and the broadcast was programmed top 40. This song seemed to have lyrics about Christmas but there was also rapping and lewd references to sex. Juliette scoffed and changed the station. The next station was the rock and roll station. Juliette stayed on that station long enough to recognize it as the rock and roll station and then moved on.
The next station that came in sounded a little more reasonable. She wasn't sure what station it was. At her age it was hard to keep such trivial things straight. As she listened, she came to realize that it was Bing Crosby singing I'll be Home for Christmas. She had loved Bing, Frank, Dino, and Sammy Davis Jr as a young girl, and it was exactly what she wanted to hear. The nostalgic wave that washed over her made her forget her loneliness for a moment. Until the musical break was over and Bing went back to singing about being home for Christmas. Juliette was struck with a thought: Mabel Oakley's supposed last words:
There he is, my brother Jonathon! he's come to take me! Come to take me home!
Take me home.
Home for Christmas.
She realized that Bing was singing different lyrics than the ones she knew. He was singing Mabel's last words, still to the tune of I'll be Home for Christmas.
There he is,
my brother Jonathon!
he's come to take me!
Come to take me home!
Take me home.
She gasped and dropped the radio from her lap.
I'm going to die soon.
I was just paid a visit by great grandfather Jonathon.
Not five minutes ago.
He was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of my room.
Now, Bing was singing what her cousin Ben had told her during their last phone conversation. And Juliette realized, I am going to see my great grandfather's ghost tonight and then I am going to die. In other words, I'll be home for Christmas.
The song ended and the DJ came on. He spoke in a canny, exaggerated cadence like an announcer from the early days of radio.
You're listening to HOHOHO, the only station where that warm festive glow lasts all year long. That was Bing Crosby's new twist on an old classic. Think of it as the Oakley Curse Remix. And that one goes out to all you still living Oakleys out there! How does it feel to be the only family more doomed than the Kennedys? This just in, my producers tell me that Juliette Oakley of Gallow's Hill might be on that special list this year!
Juliette stood up and shone the flashlight next to the fireplace. Once it was in sight, she grabbed the poker and turned back to the radio.
Now here's Nat King Cole with Oakleys Roasting on an Open Fire.
She lifted the poker over her head with both hands and then brought it down on the radio, impaling the speaker. Still the radio went on.
If you want to call in to wish Juliette a merry Christmas, you'd better act now! She doesn't have much time. Hurry, while supplies last!
Juliette brought the poker down again, breaking the radio wide open this time. Without stopping to inspect the damage, she delivered four more blows in rapid succession. When she stopped, the radio was reduced to chunks of plastic and bits of wire. The phantom station had silenced.
Behind her, the fire was dying down. The shadows in the room were growing. Juliette calmly walked over to the fireplace, opened the door and put another log in. Leaving the door open, she returned to where the broken radio lay. She bent down and gathered the bits of plastic, metal, and wire, and threw them in. The fire accepted them greedily.
She already knew she would be seeing Jonathon's ghost tonight, but she did not know whether or not that meant she would live to see the sun rise on Christmas morning. In all honesty, she hoped she wouldn't have to. Another Christmas alone sounded exhausting. Both emotionally and physically, for she still carried on with several of her and Freddy's old traditions.
She still woke up at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning, first bringing the day's wood in from the basement an armload at a time. These days, it required at least a dozen trips. She still made a hearty breakfast for two of bacon, eggs, hashbrowned potatoes, coffee, and freshly squeezed orange juice. And that was just as the sun was rising. The thought of going through all that fuss and heartbreak again just made her feel tired.
Without reservation, she felt ready to go. But she also had a notion that she was being played with, perhaps by a mischievous spirit or spirits with nothing better to do. Now, the sound of church bells filled her dimly lit living room. The nearest church with a bell was a fifteen minute drive into town, and even if there had been one next door, Juliette would not have found comfort, because the sound of the church-bells, dulled by static as though played on an old Victrola, was coming from the air vents in the fireplace.
She put the poker back next to the fireplace and turned her back to it. The church bells rang twelve. With the flashlight beam trained ahead of her, she went through the entryway to the family room. It was a room seldom used aside from holidays and family gatherings. Which these days was very seldom indeed. In the corner was the Christmas tree, which Juliette had painstakingly decorated as close to her dead husband's specifications as she could remember. She doubted if she would ever get it just right. The power was still off, but the lights on the tree were illuminated. And, stranger still, there was a present underneath. Quickly, but with caution, she walked over to the tree, knelt down and examined the present. It was a large box, perhaps the size of a bedside table, wrapped in red paper with a shiny green ribbon around it, clasped on top by a frilly bow. Attached to the bow was a white paper tag. Written on it was: To, Juliette. Love always, Freddy.
Tears surfaced in her eyes. Christmas and the traditions they held had meant so much to Freddy. Every year he had sent her on a scavenger hunt for her gift. He was never to be outdone when it came to elaborate, thoughtful gifts. The first Christmas without him had been so hard. It was a pain that she had fought for years, fought to keep from being swallowed up by it. Christmases with Freddy had been so special, so magical, that Christmases without him were unbearable.
Juliette knew of ghosts. She had long since learned that it wasn't the immaterial kind like great grandfather Jonathon who were truly frightening, it was the ghosts of her past that tortured her ceaselessly. The ghosts buried inside of her. The memories of what she had lost, of the mistakes she had made. They haunted her longer and damaged her sanity worse than any spook, specter, or nightshade could hope to do.
And true to that sentiment, when the lights on the Christmas tree began to swirl and dance, and the walls appeared to be melting in the flickering firelight, she was not afraid. She looked back down at the present. There was a long string coming off the green bow. She pulled it and the ribbon unraveled. She then carefully opened the package. Even as a child, she was not one to tear into packages (That was more her cousin Ben's wheelhouse). Instead, she would ease the tape off, and unfold the wrapping as though the paper were itself some valuable currency. When she was done, a person could take the paper and use it to re-wrap the same gifts.
Under the wrapping, she found a nondescript brown cardboard box. She opened it up. Inside was a smaller, nondescript brown cardboard box. She smirked. Oh Freddy, she thought. She knew where this was headed. She opened that box and inside was a piece of paper.
My sweety you once were and my sweety you'll be again. For we'll spend another Christmas together yet, and it's just around the bend. All you need to do, is, oh so quick and nimbly, meet me right now in front of the old elm tree.
She was bubbling with excitement. It was one of his scavenger hunts! He was always so thoughtful and so much fun! Even if Freddy's limerick clues were full of clunky rhymes, it only added to the fun. She was so overcome with peace and joy that she seemed to forget that her husband was seven years in his grave. Or that the lights in the tree were still dancing, and the walls still melting. Also, a haunting rendition of Silent Night sung by a children's choir, came crackling out of the fireplace vents. She cared about none of this. She picked up the flashlight and walked through the family room and into the hall. From there, she looped back to the kitchen to retrieve her coat and boots.
Outside, the temperature had dropped. She could hear the wind howling like a mad dog as it whipped freezing rain against the house. It sounded like it was raining pebbles. Behind her, in the living room, the fire crackled, and within the fire a choir of emotionless children sang.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
And there was another voice singing along outside. She knew the voice at once. Freddy. To be heard over the storm, he shouted more than sang.
Silent night, holy night.
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing...
Without consciously deciding to do so, Juliette began to twirl like a ballerina and sing along.
Christ the savior is born.
She was all drunken jubilance and eager anticipation. She swung the door to the porch open and twirled down the steps, without putting on her coat or boots. Her nightgown twirled out as she spun.
Christ our savior is born.
The snow pelted her bare arms, legs and face the instant she opened the front door. But she felt no pain. She could hear Freddy's voice in the storm, calling to her now.
"Hurry, Juliette! Hurry!"
For a moment, she was pulled out of her euphoria. Was there concern in his voice? She took a few steps forward and then turned around to look back at the house. What she saw made her blood run colder than the storm ever could. The power was still out but the entire house was illuminated, inside and outside, surrounded by a glowing aura like a house made of radium. And standing in the kitchen, in the very spot she had been doing dishes, was her great grandfather, Jonathon. He was watching her from the window. Having spent years studying the legends as well as his pictures, she recognized him instantly.
His face hung slack and emotionless, which struck her as far more off-putting than if there had been fury in his eyes. Instead, there was nothing, emptiness. He looked about as thoughtful and deliberate as a man in his coffin. But still he stared, unrelenting and dead-eyed, directly at her. It made her shiver all over. As a little girl, Juliette often found herself afraid of photographs, especially older ones, where the subject was looking directly into the camera. It made the person in the photograph appear as though they were looking directly at her. And the eyes, frozen in time, with no life in them, seemed to follow her wherever she went. Great grandfather Jonathon's eyes had this same eerie quality.
He had come for her, come to collect her, but he seemed to have no love for his job, seemed to have very little invested in it. But she knew he would be relentless anyway.
"You have to hurry, Juliette!" Freddy's voice, coming from within the storm. "Don't go with him, come with me! It's the only way to break the curse!"
She turned to the sound of his voice, but she couldn't see anything farther away than her hand, which was turning purple with frostbite. She turned back to the house. Jonathon was no longer in the window.
"Juliette! Now! Hurry! There isn't much time!"
Juliette turned and ran in the direction of the elm tree, clutching the scavenger hunt clue in her fist. As she took off, she glanced over her shoulder. Jonathon was in the front doorway. The sight of him so close so quickly gave her a start and she had to pivot to keep from losing balance. She glanced down at her feet, she was still on them but they were turning black. Some of the tissue thin skin was torn too. She glanced back over her shoulder and Jonathon was now right behind her. He wasn't running, just standing, but he was almost close enough to grab her. She had an idea that the next time she looked back he would take hold of her throat and drag her back to where he came from, another soul lost to the Oakley Curse. She resolved not to look back.
"You're almost there" yelled Freddy's disembodied voice. "Don't look back, you're almost there!"
The form of a tree began to emerge from the fog and swirling ice pellets. She could hear noises behind her, strange clicking sounds. She resisted the urge to look back. Kept running. Eyes ahead.
The tree had fully materialized now, and there was Freddy standing before it, arms open, a big green bow on his head.
"Oh Freddy," she said as she collapsed into his arms. "You big goof!"
"I suppose it's a little over the top. But you know me," he said with a jovial laugh. " I love Christmas. So what do you think of your gift?" He gestured at the bow on his head, "Hope it's the right size."
She laughed as though he didn't make that joke every Christmas they had shared together, and she kissed him. He kissed her back, passionately.
Safe in Freddy's arms, she turned and Jonathon was gone. She didn't know if she had broken the Oakley curse forever or had only paused it for herself, but she knew she had beaten him. Wherever Jonathon wanted to take her and whatever he wanted to do with her, he had failed. She was still going to be shuffling off the mortal coil, going home for Christmas so to speak, but it would be Freddy chaperoning her.
No family reported Juliette missing as there was no family in the immediate area to miss her. The Petersons went away for the next few days and when they came back to Gallows Hill and noticed Juliette was no longer home, they assumed she had gone visiting family. It wasn't until the big melt in April that she was discovered by a neighbor retrieving his dog who had run into Juliette's back yard and started tugging at something in the snow. At first, the neighbour thought the tattered green ribbon and tufts of hair belonged to a discarded doll, but after brushing away what snow still covered Juliette's frozen, smiling face he realized his mistake.
Juliette's daughter Cynthia, who had skipped Freddy's funeral, did return to Gallow's Hill to bury her mother. She changed her name back from Tegan the following day. While going through her mother's things, she found the family histories that Juliette had compiled and was immediately enthralled. She spent the next few days puttering around her mother's house, putting things in boxes and taking plenty of breaks to obsessively pore over the Oakley family history. It touched something long dormant in her heart.
Within a month, she had quit her job and moved back home to the house she grew up in. She found work in Gallow's Hill and started reaching out to other members of the family with whom she hadn't spoken to in eons. She started by patching up old wounds and divisions and then began pressing them for information, stories, histories. She began to learn stories her mother either hadn't heard of or hadn't documented yet, and Cynthia simply started documenting them herself. Taking the baton her mother had posthumously handed to her. And as Cynthia grew older, new generations came to pass, bringing with them new stories and new experiences, and she compiled it all just as her mother had. Though tragedies still befell the Oakleys as they do all families, no one has ever reported seeing the ghost of Johnathon Oakley since Juliette broke the chain. Although, the story of how she did is one that no Oakley has ever heard.