The smell of freshly baked cookies filled the air of my family’s rustic home. “Rustic” may be too generous of a descriptor for the house. In actuality, it better resembled the home that a backwoods murderer would store bodies in, what with my father’s proclivity to leave our doors unlocked, and the constant aroma of chopped wood (the wood was indeed chopped frequently in the basement) that could surely cover the stench of a corpse. Still, our house had log siding and sat on the edge of a forest and a field, so I suppose the term “rustic” was applicable to a point.
My mom was playing her Anne Murray Christmas album in her CD clock radio. It was the type that could be mounted underneath a cabinet. I had scrounged together what chore money I could and bought it for her the previous year. I was seven and upstairs vacuuming dog hair, in a futile attempt, since there always seemed to be a permanent one-inch layer of fur on all of our carpets. This might not have been surprising had we been one of those families that rallies together to raise a team of sled dogs or if we were a halfway house for wayward pets. Since we only owned one dog, and he wasn’t particularly active either, I found the amount of dog hair disturbing.
My oldest brother, Jaime, had gone hunting with my father and Matt, my other older brother, was invited to tag along with them, leaving me abandoned at home with my mother and her fucking Anne Murray CD that seemingly played on repeat in our house from Black Friday to New Year’s. Jaime was always my father’s go-to hunting companion, given his athletic ability proven by years on the school baseball team and his genuine enthusiasm for shooting a gun. Matt, on the other hand, may not have been athletic, but he always proposed camping as a summer activity when our parents asked what we wanted to do on vacation, so he was considered outdoorsy. My not being asked to join them wasn’t too surprising, given that invitations were rare to begin with, and when I was asked, I’d say my features were far too delicate—my ankles specifically—to be traipsing around the wilderness in search of an unsuspecting animal to ravage.
However, the alternative was staying at home, helping my mother cook, and maybe watching The Sound of Music, a movie she chose so frequently for our “family movie nights” that by the time I was six I had hoped the Nazis would catch up to the Von Trapps before they ever climbed that damn mountain, let alone every mountain. Granted, I enjoyed watching movies with her and dipping my fingers into whatever batter she was swirling as her personal taste-tester and, to a certain extent, cleaning the house, and while I certainly preferred this option to hunting—which was little more than an early morning jaunt along the trails through the woods across the street from our house, and occasionally being hushed by my father if he thought he heard an animal—that didn’t mean not having my father wake me by asking if I wanted to come with them hurt any less.
“Adam!” my mother called. “Come here!”
I hopped down the stairs, sliding my hand along the railing wrapped in a string of garland and rainbow lights. The bottom steps still smelled faintly of Matt’s vomit. He had thrown up the week before and my mother had let him skip school. I hated how just because he projectile vomited down the stairs (the spew going so far as to splatter droplets on the front door) he was allowed to skip school, yet when I tried feigning similar symptoms soon after, I was forced to go. At the time I assumed it was just because I was a better student. I figured my mother thought I would get more out of classes since I was smarter. I didn’t take no for an answer that morning and when my mother dropped me off at my grandfather’s, since she had to go to work and he’d make sure I got on the bus, I walked home and snuck in through a window. Later that evening, when confronted about my absence, I told her that my grandfather said I looked sick and should go home. His senility always made him my reliable scapegoat.
My mother pulled the metal sheet out of the oven and set it on top of the stove.
“Can you hand me the spatula?” she asked.
I sifted through the utensil drawer that always seemed to be in disarray, as if moments earlier a fight had broken out in the kitchen and the victim violently reached around in the drawer thinking any weapon would do. I grabbed the red spatula and gave it to her.
“Your father will be home soon,” she said, lifting the cookies onto the cooling racks. “Before he gets back, grab the plastic tote of decorations from the attic.”
I knew exactly where the decorations were stored due to my snooping misadventures throughout the years. Accordingly, I leapt down the cellar stairs and made my way to the garage. Above the garage is our “attic,” which is nothing more than an extra floor that is used to store a lamp in the shape of a baseball glove (the light bulb holder was the baseball), a phone in the shape of a duck (it quacked when it rang), and a letter holder in the shape of deer antlers (our cousin Carol was clearly a fan of As-Seen-on-TV gifts).
Sitting slightly above the room over the garage, connected via three steps and a door, is another room. Beneath a rusted ice auger and a nest of waterfowl decoys lay my mother’s cedar chest. The chest had long been the hiding spot of choice for my parents when concealing Christmas gifts. I knelt in front of the chest, licked my lips, and rubbed my hands together. All season long, I hadn’t snooped for gifts, not once. I came close when one day after school before my mother got home I saw a portion of a plastic bag hanging out of the chest, like a tongue, as if taunting me. But I had resisted.
I always used to snoop with Matt and Jaime. It was a tradition that we upheld while growing up, along with buying stocking stuffers with our grandfather at the gas station down the road, and the three of us sleeping the night before Christmas in a haphazardly constructed bed on the floor of my and Matt’s bedroom. I’d grab every blanket in the house and lay them out, making sure there was enough space for the three of us. We’d sleep there until our excitement made sleep impossible, then wake up, and nearly trip down the stairs so we could rip open our stockings, desperate to find what gift was hidden at the bottom, as if we were nothing more than three unfortunately young heroin addicts searching for syringes in a dumpster behind a hospital.
However, Jaime had stopped snooping a few years before, citing our five-year age difference as an excuse. When I asked Matt if he wanted to venture up to the chest earlier in the month, he had also said that he was too old to snoop. To really drive the point home, he snapped at me when I pressed further and said that this year he simply didn’t feel like it. I couldn’t understand what their ages had to do with the three of us banding together to look for our gifts. Feeling dirty, maybe even ashamed, to go at it alone, I’d so far restrained myself, vowing to be surprised on December 25th.
But then the fact that Matt, Jaime, and my father had left me behind this morning crept to the forefront of my mind, so I figured that one little peek inside the chest couldn’t hurt. I deserved that much.
I twisted the peg so that I could open the latch, and then I gripped the edges of the chest. I closed my eyes, breathed in until my lungs threatened to explode, and lifted.
Right as I was about to open my eyes, I heard the crunch of gravel under tires. I closed the lid and walked over to the window that overlooked the driveway. My father had pulled his pickup truck in. Jaime and Matt spilled out of the passenger’s side door and Jaime ran inside the house.
I left the smaller room with the chest, shut the door behind me, then grabbed the tote of decorations and ambled down the stairs, through the garage, and back into the house. When I entered the basement, I heard Jaime screaming my name. I ran up the stairs, being careful not to lean too much to one side, lest I keel over from the weight of the tote, and saw him standing with my mother in the kitchen. He was out of breath.
“Adam! Hurry! Dad wants to show you something!”
I set the tote on the ground and ran after him. Once in the driveway I slowed my run to a fast walk, so that I didn’t come off as too frantic. I wanted to appear composed and collected, as if I didn’t really care. When I approached where Jaime was standing behind the truck, he held up his hand, telling me to wait just a second. Matt stood a few feet behind him and seemed to be stifling a laugh. My father was leaning halfway into the bed of the truck, moving his arms back and forth, perhaps even struggling with something. It was covered with a cap, so a clear view inside was obscured.
I was excited because I figured they must have come to their senses about how they totally left me behind. They probably had an amazing time in the woods, just the three of them, and now they felt guilty. Waiting for me in the bed of the pickup truck would be a basket of gifts, I imagined. Maybe even that new Mongoose mountain bike I had my eye on in Walmart for the past month. Or maybe, if I was truly lucky, whatever new Pokémon Gameboy game was just released.
Without being asked to, I closed my eyes, sensing that the occasion called for it. After what felt like minutes, Jaime dragged me over to the back of the truck. I heard some rustling noises coming from inside. I felt my father brush against me as he backed up behind me.
“Open your eyes!” Jaime yelled. I did.
“Dad shot Rudolph!”
Splayed out in front of me was a deer carcass. Its body lay stiff, its legs were bent at extreme angles, and its tongue hung limp from its mouth. Its shiny nose was indeed red, but it was from having blood smeared over it rather than from some magical preexisting illuminating condition.
What happened next was a blur, the sort that can only afflict a kid when his entire childhood implodes before his eyes after seeing what he believes to be the bloody corpse of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I wish I could say that I lathered my hand in the pool of blood and then walked, calmly, to the cedar chest and proceeded to streak all of their gifts with it, hopefully staining a sweater or two.
However, it’s more than likely that instead I ran into the house and wailed about this crime to my mother who probably spent the better portion of the next few hours explaining that the deceased deer was not in fact Rudolph.
All that remains clear to me is that just before I ran back inside, I yelled something to the effect of, “Santa’s going to be mad at you!” I was nothing if not intimidating.