Most kids enjoyed Christmas morning—at least those who believed in Santa Claus—but I dreaded it. Oh, I loved the smell of Mom's baking wafting from the kitchen—the ham, the puddings, the little dainty cakes and goodies. And Dad whistled as he worked on the tree lights; one or two had always gone out by then. Jeremy and Susan usually burst from bed and scampered like mice toward the tree and the presents piled high underneath. The frenzy began without fanfare. Mom would join Dad on the couch, sipping coffee, and observe with delight as wrapping and ribbons confettied into the air amidst squeals of "I wanted just that!" and "Oh, thank you, thank you!"
But I held back.
They must have thought me a strange child back then, for I would stand in the doorway, my lanky fourteen years riding up the frame like a sapling grown without roots, watching. Mom's eyes occasionally would look my way and I'd read a shred of worry. I'd smile a little to reassure her, but she wasn't fooled.
All I saw was the presence, just beyond the living room where all the light and merriment glowed. Just beyond lay the darkness. With the arrival of Her.
Breakfast was muffins and coffee and, if we were very good, a sample of a treat intended for the company later in the day. That's when all the goodies were laid out on Great Grandma's trestle table built for twelve, and twelve there would be. The best linens, the best china, the best food. And Her.
My parents knew what she did to us, and they didn't care. They seemed to think it was funny, but I didn't. It had been going on since I was four, and the ten years between had done nothing to quell my horror. How could my parents allow it? Why did they not protect me?
"She" was Aunt Elise. When I was very young, I didn't understand how beautiful she was, but as I reached my teens, it began to dawn on me. Which made what she did all the worse.
Even when I was very young, when she arrived and whirled through the front door like a movie star wrapped in Estee Lauder and the white wind of social elevation, she'd ruffle my hair, which spiked up like arrogant quills of its own accord, and say "How's it going, Nerdy Boy?" I hated that. I didn't know what a "nerdy boy" was, but I could tell it was someone not normal. Someone different. As soon as I could escape, I'd go back to my room and bury my nose in my chemistry set for comfort.
But at some point, I'd have to return, at Mom's insistence, to join the family for dinner, then the after-dinner gift exchange. My stomach roiled like the contents of a boiling flask and I longed to analyze the metallic taste in my mouth. But for the time being, I would do my best to smile, or at least not frown, and join in the festivities.
After dinner, at some obscure point while the children were amused or distracted with opening yet more gifts and the adults all giggled at us while drinking after-dinner toddies, Aunt Elise would prepare to attack. Like a feral animal, I had learned to slice my eye to the side and notice while she discreetly removed her lipstick from her purse and loaded up her lips. The adults pretended not to notice. This was special lipstick, I was sure, reserved for just these occasions. It was thick, dark red, and plumped her lips to a size beyond affectation. She had to lay it on quite thick to do what she intended, because she'd be using it in multiples. At times, if I watched her sideways, I could see the evil twinkle of delight in her eyes. Sometimes Mom had the same twinkle.
Then she would attack.
"Give your old Aunt Elise a big ol' smooch!" she'd holler, and spring from the couch like a mountain lion. There was always a moment of shock, even though I knew it was coming, where my feet refused to run and I stood slack-jawed, dropping whatever gift I was holding. Then the slow-motion run would begin. Those lips, those hideous, plumped-beyond-the-bounds-of-normal-human- development lips, red and dripping, coming my way with a pucker. They grew to a size that filled my mind, my eyes, my heart, the void of the universe, and the dread that I could not escape would give me nightmares for weeks.
Sometimes I thought I had escaped and she'd get Susan or Jeremy first. They giggled with the fun of it and squirmed under her grasp. Susan's petticoats would rustle as Aunt Elise held her in a firm grip and planted two or three "Christmas kisses" on her buffed cheek. Jeremy, didn't squirm quite as much, but he'd say "Awwww," smile, then run off to the bath to wash away the sign.
But I, I ran with the fear of death, which made capturing me even more fun for her, I bet. When at last she would pin me down, and I was hoarse from screaming, she'd lay one, two, or three of the debasing marks upon my cheek. If I were sufficiently squirming, she might land it on my nose or forehead. But there it would be, amidst howls of laughter from the adults, their drunken faces flushed and teeth bared in wide mouths as they rocked back and forth in their chairs and toasted each other and my aunt.
Then, so no one would feel left out, she'd retire to the bath, reapply her lipstick and as each adult left, she'd give each of them a demure, if enblazened, kiss.
That was until last Christmas.
I'd learned a few things as a nerdy boy. And although I feared saying "no" and making a scene, I'd learned how to say "no" in other ways.
So last Christmas I was the first.
I let her catch me and plant her kisses. I didn't even fight. She gave me a puzzled look that showed disappointment, though she tried to act as though it was fun, for the other adults. Then, as she went on to my brother and sister, I slipped from the room with her purse.
After extracting her lipstick and dipping it in a solution from my chemistry set, I returned the lipstick and purse to the living room, where she was just finishing up with Jeremy.
Later, as the adults left, she gave each of them a Christmas kiss. And, later that night, each of them died.
The only thing I regretted was that the lipstick she had previously applied was so thick it prevented the poison from reaching her own skin, so she lived on, to terrorize other children, no doubt.