Last Christmas was my first with my new girlfriend, Fran. Her family was never religious so she had never celebrated the holidays growing up. I was nervous to bring her home as I would be with any new girlfriend, but she fit right in as she did in every social situation. But each time I witnessed her enchanting a room, it was a feat to behold. Fran would catch their gazes within seconds. They’d skip across the floor toward her, hopelessly eager. Each time she works her magic I grow ever more attracted to her, even a year and a half into our relationship. My parents proved just as susceptible as any to her red-lipped whitened smile and attentive ear. I’ve never asked them if they liked her. I don’t have to.
On the drive over to Wisconsin, I prepared Fran for the visit though I knew she didn’t need it. It wouldn’t matter if I introduced her to the devil himself, she’d find a way to spell-bind him in her vibrant web of words. I told her about my father, stone-cold and easily distracted. He’d catch a glimpse of a snowflake mid-conversation and his lips would trail off behind his eyes out the window. He was at his best talking about the Chicago Blackhawks or the latest cars. Other than that, his knowledge and attention span were quite limited. I was never sure if he could read well enough to learn about additional subjects, or if his stubbornness was the true barrier. And then there is my mother. She can be over-bearing and eager to please, but she certainly means well. “They sound like a perfect match,” Fran said. I suppose she was right. They were each other’s yin and yang, but you couldn’t tell which was which. As attentively as Fran listened, I could tell she wasn’t taking mental notes. She would remember what I said, but didn’t need to. She would mesmerize my parents as she knew best nonetheless.
We arrived in our matching Christmas sweaters. Fran had insisted upon it. They were mostly red with white lettering, consisting of a patchwork of strange geometric patterns, jingle bells and bolded capitalized letters reading “WISCONSIN BADGERS”. I protested until I was on the verge of whining like a five-year-old, but eventually relented. Her reasoning was sound and to the point: “it’ll be cute.”
We stood in the sub-zero temperatures on the stoop of my parent’s home, the house I grew up in. It was always strange for me coming back. No matter how much I’d changed since I lived there, each time I visited I was overcome with some kind of angsty, tight-stomached high school sensation – like every traumatic elementary school experience rolled together in an emotional snowball at terminal velocity into my chest. So there I awkwardly stood, forgetting how to properly hold my shoulders while Fran stood next to me, giddy as the snow fell upon her fluffy brown coat. I reached out with my thick wool gloved fingers and pressed the doorbell. It’s muffled rhythmic tones broke through the whipping wind around us just enough to reach my ear. A few moments later, the door swung open with nearly as much excitement as my mother behind it. She sported an apron with a cartoonish Christmas tree centered perfectly on a snowy background. An elf stood upon its toes reaching for the top of the tree with a golden star in hand. I could only see the apron for a moment before my mother’s arms wrapped around Fran’s back, squeezed her tight, and squealed. Fran’s eyes were pushed close by her ear-to-ear smile. “Welcome, Fran. We’ve heard so much about you. I’m so excited to finally meet you.” I silently laughed, watching the two women I love connect instantaneously.
My father trudged into the doorway a distance behind my mom. The sight drew a sly smile out of his cold expression when he caught it above his glasses. I nodded to him and him to I. As my mother and Fran spoke to each other in an indecipherably high-pitch, I wondered if my father ever had a deep emotional connection with anyone in his life. My mom reluctantly released Fran, still grasping her elbows. Her green-tinted mascara glittered around her focused eyes as Fran recalled the harrowing traffic in much brighter terms than I had experienced. My father inched his way closer to the door, his very soul sensing a conversation remotely related to cars. Although it was with subconscious reasoning at the time, I looked back towards my mother at her apron. That elf’s eyes shimmered with specs of blue glitter centered in otherwise bright white sclera. The star hardly met the summit of the tree despite that elf’s best efforts, but it didn’t bother him. His expression was of bliss and somewhat unsettling. But I couldn’t yet pinpoint why.
“Come on in. No need to stand in the doorway. It’s freezing out,” my mother exclaimed.
Fran nodded while blowing into her shaking hands. Fran rushed inside and I rolled both suitcases behind us. My father shuffled out of the way. He offered a smile to Fran on the way in, imperceptible to most, but she caught it. She stopped in her tracks and opened her arms diagonally. “Hello Mr. Baker, I’m Fran. I’m so excited to meet you.” There she was: the magician I love. My father couldn’t help but smile, but grunted something I couldn’t quite hear. Fran somehow heard what he mumbled. “Absolutely. You have such a nice house, I love it.”
He nodded and chuckled under his breath. His head slowly swiveled as if it was the first time he examined his own house. He said something akin to “yeah, thank you”, but once again I couldn’t hear.
My mother led Fran on into the kitchen. Since I was sure they’d be fine without me, I headed upstairs by myself with our suitcases. It was quiet up there when I was alone. The wind howled, testing the strength of my parents’ old windows. Faint sounds of muffled but lively conversation rose from below. I cautiously made my way towards my childhood bedroom. It was just as I’d left it. My 2003 Chicago Blackhawks poster still hung proudly beside the window. The old birch bookcase was filled with anything from Clifford to the Lord of the Rings, with a myriad of random objects strewn across the top of it. My blue checkered sheets still covered the king-size bed, neatly tucked at each corner. There was just one thing different about the room, one oddity from the last time I visited. I shoved the suitcase handles down one after the other and approached my old desk. The floor creaked beneath my feet with every muscle movement in my feet. It reminded me of my fruitless attempts to go back downstairs and stay up past my bedtime when I was young.
Upon that desk was the doll-faced symbol of a Christmas tradition the Baker family had: The Elf on the Shelf. I know it’s not a unique tradition, but it always held a special place in my heart. In my older years I understood the grueling creativity my mother put into that elf’s placement each December morning before I woke up. The story says a number of scouting elves go out to children’s homes to monitor their behavior. Each night the elf would report back to Santa, then fly back to each child’s house and hide in a new location. When I woke up, I’d frantically look for him pretending to be the world’s youngest great detective.
But I haven’t seen that elf in years. I wasn’t more than thirteen when the elf made that Christmas box in the garage his permanent home. The elf sat perfectly straight with his white-gloved hands folded neatly on his lap. His velvety-red jumpsuit perfectly fit his form, down to the ends of his footless legs. The elf’s juvenile face was pointed to his left. Those large light blue eyes sat upon his red blushed cheeks above his constricted smile. One of the rules I didn’t mention was you’re not allowed to touch the elf. A silly rule of course, but as it sat on my desk at twenty-five years old, I still respected the rule somewhere deep within. I looked into the doll’s sideways eyes and nodded with a heave of forced amusement.
When I headed downstairs, the elf still lingered in my mind. I internally recalled all the different spots he hid in and tried to recall my greatest childhood memories. It was at that point I realized I couldn’t remember the specifics of more than a few.
I rounded the corner of the staircase toward the kitchen. Fran and my mother both jabbered away to each other while my father’s gaze drifted longingly out the window at the thick falling sheets of snow. What a mysterious man. I wondered what was on his mind, if anything. I sat at the table next to him, not wanting to interrupt the conversation. I looked out at the snow with my father. “Supposed to be twenty inches tonight,” I said.
He grunted with a “huh” so I repeated myself. “Oh yeah twenty inches. Crazy. You’ll have to stay a few nights, can’t drive in this.”
I nodded, having nothing else to add. My mother and Fran made their way to the table, each carrying separate plates of food. They placed them in the center of the table, both smiling beautifully. “Eat up,” my mother said.
They sat alongside us and each grabbed a plate of food from the collective pile of sliced turkey and sweet potatoes in the middle. My mother’s apron hung from the oven door. It drooped just enough for me to see the elf’s glittery eyes staring back at me. “Mom,” I began, not breaking away from the haunting apron. “Do you remember the Elf on the Shelf?”
“Why of course,” she jittered, then turned towards Fran. “When Jacob was young, Carl and I would take this little elf doll and hide it around the house in the days leading up to Christmas.”
“That sounds adorable,” Fran said.
“Oh it sure was. See, the first year I took pride in hiding it anywhere I pleased, but in the later years – I really loved doing it, you know – I’d get creative with it.” Fran’s shoulders danced in anticipation. “So sometimes I’d put a little elf-sized bottle of gin next to him, maybe stick him in a little marshmallow bathtub. It was so much fun, wasn’t it, Jacob?”
As she began to list off a few of the elf’s hiding spots I recalled more about it. My mother had fired off my memories, seemingly all of them, about the elf. As I remembered its hiding spots one after the other I also remembered its eyes. Those large blue, cartoonish eyes. “Yes, so much fun,” I answered. “You got really creative with that elf.” Once I started speaking about the elf, I couldn’t stop – each memory fonder than the last.
“Do you remember that one where you hid the elf deep in the Christmas tree? I couldn’t find it for the life of me. I searched and searched and started making a mess turning over every pillow and cushion in the house before I nearly gave up. If it weren’t for that bright-red jumpsuit I wouldn’t have ever found him.”
Then there was the time I found the elf taped down on the mechanical toy train tracks with a piece of scotch tape over his mouth. He had a long piece of yarn wrapped around his torso, arms bound behind his back. Though his expression was stagnant as a doll’s is, he looked exceedingly worried he wouldn’t make it out of that one. At only seven years-old I fantasized about the Wild West adventure he had the night before that landed him in such a dreadful predicament by the time I’d found him. It looked as if he’d finally crossed the wrong person, robbed the wrong bank. I even wondered why it was the elf could get away with such chaos while he reported my behavior to Santa. At seven years-old, I was able to pick out such blatant hypocrisy. My mother laughed as I described my youthful reactions.
One morning I found the elf in the bathroom straddling the sink’s faucet with a makeshift fishing pole made of string and popsicle stick in hand. Beneath him in the plugged sink were about a dozen soggy goldfish floating and disintegrating. “No wonder he couldn’t catch anything,” I joked.
My mother admitted she hadn’t thought through the amount of time the goldfish would spend in the sink. “I shouldn’t have filled it with water for that one,” she giggled.
Another morning he laid with his arms extended at his sides in a snow angel made of rainbow sprinkles. When I found him in such a state I envied him greatly in a childish sense. I recalled asking my mother why I couldn’t make a snow angel in rainbow sprinkles.
My mother continued laughing. She could hardly control herself. Fran had joined in and even my distant father might have been caught with a smirk creeping onto his lip.
“What was your favorite, Jake?” Fran asked.
“My favorite?” I clarified, though I heard her the first time.
“Yeah, your favorite.”
“Well, that’s a tough one,” I began to think about it more deeply. My father still stared out the window, uninterested and loudly chewing his turkey. I tried to ignore his apathy. “Let’s see. There was the fishing, the train tracks, the time he was surrounded by my army soldier toys. There’s the time he was in a popcorn bag looking like he’d had a rough night.”
But then I remembered why I loved that elf so much. It wasn’t any one of the times I found him around the house in the morning. It was his companionship. When I was young I named him Ernie the Elf.
I didn’t have many friends in elementary school. I was far too shy and unsure of everything I said. Other than that, there wasn’t anything glaringly wrong with me. I tried to talk to some of the more popular kids in school, but would always be turned away at best, mocked at worst. My luck shifted drastically in middle school, but it was sure a tough first five years of school. And in those first five years, I had a single month per year of serenity. My one friend would make himself known and I’d get to spend that one month feeling not so alone.
On December first when I got on the bus each year, I’d make my way to my usual seat and Ernie would be waiting for me. We’d ride the bus together, but of course I’d never touch him. I wouldn’t dare. I used to whisper to him, knowing full-well it might be the only semblance of conversation I’d have all day. When we arrived at school, I’d tell Ernie to have a great day then get off the bus on my own, leaving him behind. He reminded me of my father in a way. He stared out the window at the falling snow with his blue eyes gleaming in eternal bliss. His mouth curled along with those eyes beside his rosy cheeks.
After the first day of December, I’d begin finding Ernie in different areas of the school. I’d find him in the back of the room perched next to the window, underneath my desk, on the teacher’s desk, hanging on the American flag pole in front, you name it. Ernie would be somewhere new every day. For all of December and that month only, I’d be excited to attend school. Where would Ernie be next? As I described my time at school with Ernie, my mother’s hearty smile had dropped off her face and my father had pivoted away from the window and towards the table. They didn’t interrupt, but their lack of interjection began to unnerve me. Fran’s giddy expression was still ever-present. If anyone, I still spoke to her, so I continued on.
Then later in the month, Ernie would come home from school with me. I’d find him on the bus on the return journey a couple days in a row. Then later he’d be waiting at the bus stop for me to come home. I adored Ernie. I knew he was just a doll, but he was livelier and more attentive towards me than any real child I went to school with. His childish brown, plastic hair was parted in a perfect manner around his big ears allowing them to ingest every word that rolled off my tongue. He was listening to report to Santa, but at least he was listening at all.
During the last few nights of December as Christmas approached and the wintry cold really set in, Ernie wouldn’t come to school anymore. At that point, school was usually out for the holidays and I spent most of my time reading alone in my room…well, mostly alone. I read my books to Ernie once he started appearing in my room. He sat in his blood-red suit and crooked, jarring hat, that youthful but sinister smile always watching me. He listened to each word roll off my tongue with those wide surveilling ears. His white gloves folded so neatly in his lap while he patiently waited for me to fall asleep. When I was done reading, I’d bid him goodnight and receive a sweet response in my imagination.
And on Christmas Eve each year, I’d awake to Ernie much closer than the rules stated – his arms were wrapped around my neck. I’d giggle at Ernie, thanking him for the hug. Since I couldn’t touch him directly it was always difficult to remove his grasp. There was no Velcro holding Ernie’s hands together, but his grasp was rather unrelenting for a doll. It wasn’t the type of hold I could just brush off. I’d take a blanket and wrap it around his torso. As I pulled and twisted, I would laugh some more in his embrace until his hands separated. I held him in the blanket above my head, staring into his bright eyes. His jagged white collar lined his neck like a lion’s mane and wilted towards mine. His smile was still clenched tight beneath his tiny nose, between his reddened cheeks. Each year that was the last I’d see of Ernie before he would zip back to the north pole until the next December. “Mom, I can’t imagine how much work you put into all that,” I concluded, reaching out my hand to cover hers. “But I want you to know it meant the world to me and made my childhood.”
Fran cooed a high-pitched, “aw” and grasped her chest with both hands. I thought she might start crying.
But my mother’s reaction was quite different to say the least. Her eyes darted back and forth across the table, unable to meet mine. She drew her hand away and tucked it beneath the table. “Mom? What’s wrong?”
She merely shook her head at first, jaw partially ajar. Then she finally made eye-contact with me once she was able to pull herself together. “Jacob…we – we never brought the elf to your school.”
“What?” I began to panic. What did she mean? If my mother never put Ernie on the bus or in school or on my bed, who did? There was no way it was my father. He wouldn’t have anything to do with that elf.
“And…and we certainly never wrapped him around your neck,” my mom continued, now carrying stricken lips and a scrunched nose.
Fran looked between myself and my mother. For the first time it seemed she didn’t know how to handle such a social situation. But neither did I. My legs shook uncontrollably. I stood from the kitchen table with a deep knot wrapped in my stomach, using the chair as support. I heaved in all the air I could with each breath. My head spun recalling the elf in great detail. That tight grasp around my neck wasn’t the product of any type of Velcro and certainly not love. His movements around my school weren’t the product of my mother’s passion toward the tradition.
I looked back towards that apron, those glittering eyes haunting my Christmas Eve, maybe forever. But above him I saw something worse – something I’ll never forget. One of the stove’s burners was still on at full throttle. Luckily nothing had caught fire, but beside the burning gas flame was that…doll. His satanic blue eyes stared out the window at the mounting snow. His devious smile shimmered in the burning stove’s light. His legs were folded and hands grasped together neatly in his lap. I smelled the gas rising from the stove alongside my mother’s waning perfume. And the only sound to be heard was the wind batting against the frail glass, cracking at the siding.