“The Curse of the Creeping Cabinet”
by Tina Ferraro
It’s hard to scream or to run for your life when you’re frozen stiff as a board. Even when the reason you’re frozen is blood-curdling panic.
There I was, Ella Sanderson, still as a statue beside our twinkling tree that Christmas Eve. My eyes were wide, my hands in front of my gaping mouth—and my heart was beating so loudly I could almost hear it. The only light in the room came from strings of colored bulbs on our tree, casting just enough blues and reds and greens to throw bony finger-like shadows on the carpet, make the dangling tinsel look like squiggly worms, and give me a good view of the wooden cabinet against the wall.
The cabinet that Mom got a few months ago from Grandma. After Grandma died.
The cabinet that wasn’t behaving like a regular old piece furniture now, but rocking back and forth.
I didn’t have to be top of my sixth grade class to know wood came from trees. Dead trees. And that dead stuff couldn’t make noises. Not by itself, anyway. So that meant either the wooden cabinet—or something inside—was, well, not dead.
I tried to unfreeze one leg. Nothing. I tried the other.
That’s when I heard the sound. A deep growl rumbling from the cabinet. Like a big old stomach that had been empty too long.
Was it…hungry? Looking to feed? And holy moly, what did dead wood eat, anyway?
Wait—I probably didn’t want to know that answer.
My parents and I had tried hard this December to act as if everything was normal. But how could it be, with Grandma gone? No more meeting her flight at the airport, baking up thumb-jam cookies, or laughing together while watching “Home Alone.” Still, Mom, Dad and I had shopped, listened to Christmas carols, decorated the house—same old, same old.
Except it wasn’t.
Sitting around the tree that Christmas Eve, after our usual baked ham dinner, we followed the tradition of each opening one present (saving the rest for morning). But even though the cell phone cover I’d unwrapped was sparkly and cool, I’d had trouble finding my smile.
Mom must have known why. Probably because she had the same hurt in her heart.
“Let’s tell Grandma’s Christmas Eve story, Ella,” she said, her smile shaky. “Like she would if she were here.”
She passed me the black-and-white photograph from the coffee table of little-girl-Grandma on a snowy day, proudly holding a doll with a straw hat. Grandma had had blonde wavy hair just like mine, only while hers was nearly up in a ribbon in this picture, I always let mine fall anywhere it wanted. That’s why her nickname for me had been Goldilocks.
“Grandma’s family didn’t have a lot of money or electricity,” I started. “So they cut down a tree, and used candles to light it up. Plus, they only got one present. That year, when she was eight or nine, she’d was hoping for a doll she’d seen on Main Street. A pretty one, with blue eyes and a straw hat.”
Mom nodded. “That Christmas Eve, the whole family came to their house. Including Uncle Arne and his daughter, Dot.”
When I was small, I’d laugh about the girl’s name. Dot. Like Polka Dot. Dot.com. Connect the Dots. But Grandma used to speak it very seriously, and soon I understood why. There was nothing fun or funny about Dot. The year of this story, Dot had secretly taken Grandma’s present from under the tree and hidden it, so Grandma would think she didn’t get anything.
“They were serving spiked egg nog to the grown-ups, and Uncle Arne got drunk,” Dad spoke up from his center seat on the couch.
“He fell into the tree. The candles set the place on fire,” I said and drew a quick breath, imagining a room on fire. “Everybody tried to put it out, and in the end, they did. But the tree and all the presents were ruined. Everyone was crying, even Uncle Arne.
“Dot wanted to make her father feel better, to show not everything was lost, and went right over to this cabinet,” I went on as I crawled across the rug and opened the cabinet’s door. Inside was a couple of platters we used for cheese and cookies when we had visitors. “She pulled out Grandma’s present, which she said she had put in there to be funny.” I made a face. “But haha on Dot. Grandma got her doll, and Dot got nothing.”
“Grandma always loved that doll,” Mom added. “But she lost it somehow years later. That’s why the photograph and the cabinet were always so important to her.”
“And ever since that night,” I finished up, “Grandma slept in the living room on Christmas Eve.”
“Protecting the tree,” Mom said.
I nodded. “And the presents!”
Dad’s brow wrinkled. “From another fire?”
Mom shook her head. “Yes, at first. But after they got electricity, it was more like a tradition. Like how we make Swedish pancakes after church on Christmas morning.” She flicked her head toward the wall clock, showing almost eleven. “And make sure we’re all asleep well before midnight.”
“Hint, hint,” Dad said, flicking his thumb towards the stairs.
Soon enough I was in bed, in my favorite nightshirt and fuzzy sleepsocks. Digging down inside my covers, I told myself I was warm and cozy, and even a little happy. After all, it was almost Christmas. But my good thoughts didn’t keep the backs of my eyeballs from feeling stingy and swollen with the realization we’d just spent our first Christmas Eve without Grandma. She was never coming back. And now there was no one to protect the tree.
Eventually, my feet returned to the hardwood floor. I reasoned I could sleep just as well on the living room couch as in my bed. Tonight, maybe even better. I grabbed my comforter and pulled it around my shoulders, like a long, flowing superhero cape.
Then I tiptoed back down the stairs. I didn’t want to wake my parents. Not that I thought they’d stop me, but I didn’t want to talk about my feelings right now anymore than I wanted to have them.
It was on the bottom stair that I inhaled something, a scent that had no business in our house. We didn’t have a fireplace, and Mom and Dad gave up cigarettes long ago.
After a big, brave breath, I lunged into the living room.
Because while the air around retained a remote smell of smoke, there wasn’t a flame or even spark to be seen. No fire at all.
Then, from across the room came a low, long rumble. My head swerving to the sound, my gaze fixed on the cabinet. It was moving. The cabinet was moving.
I froze dead in my tracks.
Time lost all meaning. I wasn’t sure if I’d been glued to my position in front of the tree for thirty seconds, thirty minutes, or if a whole year had passed and it was next Christmas.
What I did know was that the cabinet had gone still. Stopped lurching and rumbling. Even the aroma of smoke had left the air.
I felt…safe…somehow, and while my legs wanted to make a fast run back up the stairs, my brain won out, grasping for logic as I collapsed down on the couch.
What the heck was that? The ghost of drunk old Uncle Arne? Or mean Dot? Coming back to burn the house down now that Grandma wasn’t here on watch?
Or did the cabinet rock-and-roll like this every year? Was it some sort of tension release, some time-travel thing where all the cabinet’s Christmases repeated in fast motion? Had Grandma sat here every year to watch it creep?
No, that didn’t make much sense. But then, none of this did.
Yawning, I thought I might just sit there for another few minutes, in the hopes the answer came to me…
“Ella,” spoke the all-too-familiar voice. “Can you hear me?”
I nodded, or at least, I thought I did. Problem was, I couldn’t seem to get my eyes to open, let alone get other parts of my body like my neck to work. It was like I was frozen all over again. But in a softer, dreamier way.
“Look in the cabinet, Goldilocks.”
Look in the cabinet? I thought, my lashes fluttering back. Look in the—
I refocused inside the dimly lit room. Okay, so I’d fallen asleep. And since Grandma had been so much on my mind, no surprise she’d appeared in my dream.
But her voice had sounded so real.
Still, I should probably go back to bed. And if Mom and Dad never knew I’d been down here, maybe I could make myself believe none of this happened, too.
I found my feet, crossed towards the doorway.
Then I paused. Might as well peek inside the cabinet. I put my hand on the metal handle, which felt surprisingly warm, like the radiator cover in my bedroom.
Pulling the door back, I bent down on one knee. I leaned in, and yep, there were the serving platters.
Resting below the doll with the straw hat. The doll that had been missing for like fifty years!
Feeling like I’d been hit with water from a fire hose, I poked a gentle finger at the doll’s satiny dress. Nothing happened. I poked harder, then harder. When it continued to act like, well, the lifeless doll it was, I brought the doll out into the tree streaming colored lights.
I stared down into its porcelain face, the empty blue eyes.
I didn’t play with dolls anymore, but felt certain this wasn’t a present to me from Mom and Dad. Or anyone of this world.
It was from Grandma. Floating around above us, she’d managed to locate her doll. And on this special night, she was handing it down to me. To let me know she was all right. That we’d be all right without her.
And perhaps for me to protect it, the way she had always protected the tree.
All I did know, as I pulled the doll close, was that my sadness was gone. And in its place? That oh-so-familiar tingle that only comes from it being the night before Christmas.
Tina Ferraro is a two-time RITA finalist, and author of several novels and short stories for young readers. Just in time for the holidays, her latest release, HALF-LIFE is available in audio, paperback and e-book. Find out more about Tina and her books at her website and on Facebook.
Tina and I hope you enjoyed our holiday stories and wish everyone a very merry holiday season!