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Company for the Holidays

"There's nobody else, Aunt Phyllida," my niece Alice said over the phone. "You have to take Sam for Christmas."
"I can't. I absolutely, positively can't," I said. I set down the golden candleholder I was carrying and glanced around my living room. The windows were covered in black velvet curtains, and every surface bore at least one layer of midnight cloth. I had cleaned the fireplace and laid new wood in it. Shadows loved fire.
"He's been at my house for three days, and if he stays any longer, he'll ruin Christmas. Rob and I have been planning this holiday for months, Aunt Phyllida. The girls were so excited about it until Sam came. I can't stand it. We need a good holiday after what happened with Rob's mom."
Rob's mother had died just after Thanksgiving. I hadn't been invited to the funeral. They all thought I was eccentric, and they were right. Couldn't trust me to behave at family events. That's what they thought. They had no idea who I was, what I wanted, who I knew, or who visited me.
"Your family deserves relief from the grief," I said. "Still, I don't think I should have a child in my house over the holiday." Christmas wasn't the problem. It was the winter solstice, which was tonight. I couldn't have a twelve-year-old kid in my house during the Festival of Darks, when shadows came to celebrate the longest night. I didn't think children could survive that intense onslaught of dark energy. It took someone over fifty to host the ceremony. I'd been hosting ShadowFest for ten years, and every year it took a toll on me, though I'd grown out of most of my harshest, most devouring fears. A twelve-year-old would be full of fears--not just the dire fears of childhood, but with the onset of the hormonal teen years, all those social issues to be afraid of. The shadows loved to feed fears and harvest terrors.
"You're the last relative Sam's got," said Alice. "He's already stayed with Aunt Lily and Uncle Tem and Aunt Harriet for various holidays. He's worn out his welcome at all the cousins' houses. My kids think he's creepy and wrong, and Elsa said he spooked her kids, too. It's like that with everybody. You don't have kids to screw up."
"Rub it in." My sisters and brother had given me hella grief about my inability to marry and produce children. All except my favorite sister, Abby, Sam's mother, who had died way too young.
I had last seen Sam when he was eight, at his mother's funeral. He was a small, pale, red-headed boy who didn't look like he would hurt a flea on a fly. He had Abby's gentle nature, I had thought. "Where does he live now?"
"Boarding school. They close over winter break."
"Boarding school," I muttered. For a twelve-year-old? Who did that? We had a large extended family. Why hadn't someone adopted Sam?
"He's been kicked out of two boarding schools already. This is the one for kid criminals."
"What does he do that's so wrong?"
"Nothing anyone can put their finger on. He's just... not right."
"And you want me to take him in."
"You have that guest room with window bars. You could lock him in there for two weeks."
"I could not," I said. I didn't like locking people up. Although I had set up one of my guest rooms to contain special guests, the ones who shouldn't wander during their visits.... Maybe I could lock the kid up for ShadowFest, anyway.
"Come on, Aunt Phyllida. You've got that big house. Don't you rattle around in there all alone? And on Christmas? Give the kid a break and get yourself some company. It's not like you're allergic to people. You have us all over for the Fourth of July barbecue every year."
"But I'm expecting you then."
"Expect Sam now. I'm bringing him over. I won't take no for an answer."
Sam was still small, pale, and red-headed, only a few inches taller than he'd been at eight. He stared at the porch while Alice glared at me and handed me a battered suitcase. She gave him a one-armed hug and stomped off the porch.
"Come in," I said, and opened the door wider.
He glanced up at me. Glowing amber eyes, furtive. Then he looked away. "Are you sure?"
"What do you mean?"
He hunched his shoulders. "Nobody wants me."
I sighed. "All god's critters got a place in the choir. Come on in and let's get you settled."
Upstairs, he looked at the guest room, then went to the windows and peered at the bars. "Is this jail?"
"Only for tonight. I'm having a party I don't think you should come to. You can move to a different room tomorrow."
"Great," he said and sat on the bed.
I put his suitcase on top of the dresser. "Come on down and look around. You got a tablet or a laptop?"
"No," he said.
"I don't have a television. How do you entertain yourself?"
He shrugged. "I read."
"Good. I have books. You can pick a bunch to keep you company. My guests won't arrive until nightfall. When did you last eat?"
"I'll make you some toast or something. What did you do to scare Alice's kids?"
He shrugged. "Nothing. I told them about Krampus."
"Really." I led him downstairs and into the kitchen.
"Why's the living room all black?" he asked.
Why had I forgotten to close the door between the kitchen and the living room? "It's for tonight's party."
"Are the guests dead?" He sounded more interested than afraid.
"Not so much dead as noncorporeal."
"They don't have bodies?"
I smiled. I liked a kid with a big vocabulary. "That's right."
"You know people who don't have bodies?" he whispered. "So do I."
"Oh?" I got down the cookie jar and offered him the soft, chewy ginger cookies I'd made that morning--not what I was planning to give him. Shadows loved spicy smells, so I usually whipped up a few things for their enjoyment. They didn't actually eat physical food, but I ended up throwing away the cookies afterward; they devoured the savor.
"Mostly ghosts," said Sam, and bit into a cookie.
"Really. Would you like to come to a party of shadows?" If he was spooking every kid he ran into, maybe he already knew how to handle his fears.
His eyes kindled. He nodded.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 26th, 2016
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