~3500 words, approx 20 min reading time
In the dimension where Laura unfortunately finds herself, it is always almost Christmas.
And she’s thinking about Kathy-with-a-K, because that’s just about the only fucking thing to do in Almost-Christmas. Now, Kathy would have thought this dimension was the tits, because she loved–no, sorry, loves, gotta get that right–the leadup to things. Kathy feels it in the air, the crackle, the buildup, feels it in her teeth, the way they ache right before a date, or a flight, or Christmas.
And Kathy, because she’s a corny bitch who loves the Hallmark Channel, not even ironically, would probably say the only thing better than Almost-Christmas is Always-Christmas.
To which Laura would tell her to shut the fuck up. Or she would, if Kathy-with-a-K still had ears to hear with, or a mouth to laugh at Laura’s crabbiness with. She would, if everything that was–or maybe still is–Kathy-with-a-K hasn’t in all likelihood been torn off clean by the space-time abyss.
Laura can’t think about that for too long, though. Mostly because it’s her fault, and if she lets the guilt in it’s gonna rip her apart into even more pieces than Kathy’s in. It’s gonna spaghettify her like when you fall into a black hole and the pressure tugs your body apart into strings.
And then her stomach lurches, and she wants to stop the car only she fucking can’t, she can’t stop, not ever, the neurons in her brain won’t even reach her foot to get it off the gas pedal, let alone hit the brakes, and it’s so hot in here, heat pumped way up, and she’s sweating under this dumb green mistletoe sweater, and God, God, it’s all ruined, all of it, all of–
Okay. Okay. Laura spins back into her body, which is still here. So that’s a good start.
To continue that good start, she decides to start a fake argument with the theoretical idea of Kathy saying that Always-Christmas is a swell place to be. Because, well, it’s something to do.
The thing about Always-Christmas (which, if anyone was wondering, is a dimension about ten paces down the hall, up the stairs, around the stained glass window with the cursed window seat that sucks you into oblivion if you sit on it wrong, and nine doors down), is it sucks ass.
Always-Christmas is a whir of gluttony. Every minute a tense exchange with your aunt’s second husband (he can’t seem to stop jabbing Nana’s fruitcake with his fork and grumbling “heh, not the only fruitcake in the room,” because the other men are helping the womenfolk clean up). And over there, the whole day, always–even when it seems for a second like it’s not going to this time–eventually gets taken up in something lost. Some fundamental joy you are unable to regain.
And it’s all just proof that deep down, as you smile through the unnameable discomfort, you are broken. Always have been.
Laura knows all this about Always-Christmas because the radio hosts like to pipe in every now and then and tell her about it.
And then they like to say Hey, kid, see? It could always be worse! You should be glad to be trapped in this shithole dimension instead. And now for a word from our sponsors.
And, okay, that all sucks a whole bunch, Laura agrees. Sure. But she also feels they’re just bringing that up to discredit her very real qualms with her current environs, where for the last, fuck, five hours? ten? eighteen? seventy-two? she has been driving through a snowy local highway with the windshield wipers doing double duty.
Here, the radio mostly plays “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”. Plus other songs about family members having eerie interactions with Christmas properties that only exist in this dimension, like “Uncle Ray Ate Three Platters of Holiday Cookies and Now He’s on the Ground Writhing”, which has admittedly been stuck in her head for hours.
What’s really disturbing is that she does have an Uncle Ray, and he once did do just that during a mental breakdown from some drug (though no one would tell her which one).
She can still remember the horror in his eyes though, like he was seeing God and God was angry.
But, fuck, this song is really good, you know?
Point is, she is headed somewhere and she doesn’t know where, but her body knows all the turns.
She gets the feeling she’s on a dark road, though. The snowy static brings a feeling that it’s neither day nor night, just a glowy dim, and the ice never builds up much underfoot, just a steady crunch of wet snow beneath the car tires, like crushed nuts dissolved in mostly melted ice cream. It’s pleasant.
Except she can only get the fuzzy sense that it’s pleasant, that she’s on a dark road, that she’ll be arriving soon. This calm certainty only comes when she’s zoning out, in that half-conscious state of long drives when your brain goes on cruise control. But every so often you flash into awareness, and then there’s the panic, cause you don’t remember having crossed the border from Wyoming into Colorado, but nonetheless you’re here and there are weed dispensaries everywhere.
Laura snaps to attention, is suddenly aware of her hands on the steering wheel, and her panic is quick and hard and makes her want to bite down on her tongue. When she is even a little aware of her surroundings, she suddenly can’t remember any of the turns and maybe she never knew the way at all. Can’t feel the tar under her tires, even. And when she looks out into the road stretched before her, she realizes there’s nothing there. The snowy static is actually just pure static, old rabbit ears TV static with no snow involved, and she knows then that nothing is real.
Except the fact that “Silver Bells” is playing on the radio.
The radio has a good old fashioned crinkle, just thick enough to give the song body, but thin enough you can still listen, and it’s almost Christmas, that’s real as well, and Aunt Cathy (Cathy-with-a-C) is going to make disparaging comments about the mushroom loaf Laura’s bringing to family dinner, and will thrust her own Pyrex full of animal flesh insisting: “Look this isn’t even meat! It’s just ham, can’t you have a little piece? Jesus won’t know!”
For a second Laura thinks Aunt Cathy’s voice is being projected out of the car radio, or at least the shock jocks are imitating it? But no, it’s still “Silver Bells” fading back into “Uncle Ray”.
Laura doesn’t know how long she’s been driving (eighteen thousand hours and fifteen million nanoseconds is her best guess), but she does know that the toys she ordered for her nephews aren’t there yet. Even though Amazon said they’d been delivered several days ago, and when she called, the customer service rep, an Australian woman whose accent made Laura irrationally angry, said sorry, there’s nothing she can do, we’re getting really close to Christmas after all. And Laura said yes, but I need these now, and the lady said, and what’s so special about that? Doesn’t everyone want their presents?
Laura knows her nephews will hate her for this–she says nephews, really they’re her second cousins. But, being eight, and indistinguishable both in their sticky faces and ridiculous post-millennium names and being related to her, they feel like nephews. The moment it’s clear Laura doesn’t have presents for them, she’s sure, Aunt Cathy and Uncle Ray will bring out their presents for their sons. An extravaganza of Nerf guns and Nintendo Switches and tubs of make-your-own-slime and a new Easy Bake Oven and those glow-in-the-dark stars that stick to your ceiling, and the boys will love them. And then no one will talk to her all night. Which is maybe a blessing.
For just a second, swerving back to her fake argument with Kathy-with-a-K, she wishes she were in the dimension where it’s always Christmas, because that one gets to end, at least in theory.
In Always-Christmas, you go to sleep at the end of the day. It’s an uneasy contentment, like maybe it all is just like you remembered. Maybe nothing is wrong with you after all. Because look, didn’t you have a nice time when you look at it from the tail end?
Of course, you then wake up what feels like seconds later from a stampede of children in footie pajamas barrelling down the stairs, shouting, no, bellowing, battle-cry-ing, caterwauling: “Christmas! It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!” and you hate them and your eyes burn.
But still, a moment of rest.
There’s no dozing in Almost-Christmas. Just driving, skin getting hot from the broken car radiator, worrying if the oven will heat the appetizers evenly, and wondering when the family is going to bring up Kathy-with-a-K and if they’ll blame Laura with their eyes when they do.
Laura tries to make out practice rounds of answers for when it inevitably comes. She braces herself, she has nothing but time–
“She chose to go herself,” Laura will say. (Sure, you tell yourself that, kid, the radio shock jock says).
“I couldn’t have stopped her. If I had, she’d have hated me and I’d have deserved it,” Laura will tell them.
She’ll say: “You can’t bring her back by hating me and I’m getting real tired of your shit, Aunt Cathy.”
She’ll say: “Oh my god okay. Braxton, Jasxn, Tymmyçee, fine I’ll tell you what happened to your sister, okay? She got sucked up into the fourth strand of the space time continuum on a windy day. And she smiled at me as she went in, even waved! And her hair was blowing all around her, and the vortex just lifted her right up like a hover-something, like she wanted to go. Like how on True Blood vampire Eric got lifted out of Sookie’s house by magic when she rescinded her invitation, but it was all soft and floating and sad, because he respected her choice, only this wasn’t sad, this was triumphant, I mean–she wanted to go! Okay? and I wasn’t about to keep her here!!”
(Is his name really Tymmyçee? the radio host asks. With the ç and everything?)
“Honestly your guess is as good as mine,” Laura responds, but the radio host is gone, and then it’s just the chorus of “Uncle Ray”, and Laura sings along again, even though she doesn’t want to, but that sort of thing really doesn’t seem to be her choice anymore.
Oh he’s writhing writhing writhing by the Christ-mas-Tree,
And we’re wond-er-ing if we should call an E-M-T.
Kathy would get a kick out of this song, Laura knows.
Kathy-with-a-K was born three months after Laura. The eldest and, at the time only, child, of Cathy and Ray. Laura’s best friend for twenty years running. And then horribly misplaced when Laura fell in with the spacetime crowd, and started playing around with dimensions and trying to listen to the unholy (or very holy, depending on who you ask) pulse of time.
The spacetime cult kids hang out in most small towns. It’s an easy thing to fall into instead of school, instead of a job that sears skull with boredom, instead of blowing your brains out. When she was young, Laura thought it was just her town, but road tripping through the West she could see them hanging out in clusters, at a gas station or corner pizza parlor or abandoned kiddie play place, and then she knew it was all over. There must be some inertia that called folks to it.
Laura was never much for school, but Kathy was. And when Kathy started spending all her time at the community college, and then moved two hours away to state college, Laura found that she’d never bothered to make any other friends, and everyone left in town was mostly insufferable. Except for the spacetime kids, who were too weird and tranquil to be much a bother. She hung out with them a few times and they seemed like any other stoners to be honest, and being stoned was a pretty good way to get through being in Wyoming, Laura decided.
They all hung out mostly in what used to be a pool hall but closed down years ago for some sort of tax fraud and nobody had ever bought up the property.
And the lot of them were all chilling there one day, Laura lying across the aged felt of a billiards table, when one of them said: “I think she’s ready?”
Honestly, Laura didn’t expect it to be much. She didn’t expect to be taken in, because she was better than them, really, wasn’t she? Better than them, and just here on a whim.
But still, she did want to see what all the fuss was about. Just a glimpse couldn’t hurt.
They were always talking about the yawning maw of space, the way time crinkled in your ears and the fabric of dimensions snuck under your nails, all to make your finger bones tingle.
One of them summoned the portal, which seemed to involve a lot of waving your arms and whispering sibilant syllables. Laura kept her face a mask of nonchalant derision lest she be accused of caring, but really her feet were on pins and needles and the blood was rushing to her face and fuck, maybe this was a little cool?
And then the portal appeared, a great whooshing, and the friend who’d summoned it kept chanting, to keep it at bay so it wouldn’t expand and swallow them all into the spacetime continuum, and another friend grabbed Laura’s arms, fingers tight around her flesh, and brought her close. They placed her ear to the cusp of the vortex, and Laura gasped, fell to the ground. Came up in a fit of hysterical laughter that felt almost like an orgasm, ripping through her, grinning crazy.
For days Laura did nothing but listen to the voice of time.
Her phone died, and Kathy’s calls went straight to voicemail again and again and again. And Kathy is, was–no, is–not the kind of person who sits around and waits. So on the weekend Kathy drove back to town in her beat-up Ford, tracked down the address of the pool hall and marched into the windowless room to drag Laura out of there.
The vortex was open when she came in–Laura was the one summoning it that day. Her first time chanting, probably too early in the process to take that on, but the kids she’d fallen in with weren’t exactly scrupulous or careful practitioners.
Laura gasped when she saw Kathy but she knew enough to know she had to keep chanting, or something was going to go very, very wrong.
She stumbled over some of the words anyway and the portal got bigger than it was supposed to. Inch by inch, like water spilling across paper, making it thin enough to rip.
Laura’s friends saw, eyes wide, and backed up slowly, but Kathy, never to be deterred by any space nonsense and especially not when her cousin was in danger, stormed right up to Laura. Laura tried to shake Kathy’s hand off, but Kathy was always stronger. She pulled at Laura to leave, yanking at her shoulder and her sleeves and her wrist, until both girls were knocked off their feet, and this thing was picking up, like wind, but not. And one of Kathy’s jacket buttons got torn clean off by it, sucked up into the vortex.
“Shut it down Laura, fucking shut it down!” one of the others shouted at her, and Laura tried to remember the right words. (God she should have written them down, she thinks about this constantly in Almost-Christmas.) She said something, but it was the wrong something, and the vortex surged again.
Laura’s mind was all caught up in Kathy at that moment, see. So, when the portal billowed, it shot a blast of spacetime, all glowy and viscous and quick, right into Kathy-with-a-K’s cranium.
Laura gasped, and in her shock remembered the right words to close the portal.
But it was too late–Kathy had heard the voice of time. Not only that, it had been downloaded right into her skull.
So, that was it.
It wasn’t long. A few weeks maybe. They were out in the big fields behind Kathy’s parents’ ranch where they had played their whole lives, and Laura was afraid to ask Kathy a question, afraid of the silence on her, the calm, because Kathy was–is–was a firecracker, a loud and mouthy one. So they were just sitting, ripping up grass and tying it together and not speaking, and then they came, it came, the whirl, whorl, the wind.
Laura looked over and Kathy wasn’t chanting, not even under her breath. But maybe once the abyss has been inside you you don’t need all that rigamarole to summon it.
Kathy, who was sitting criss-cross applesauce on the ground, looked up slowly, with a smile of someone who sees the friend they’ve been waiting for arriving across the hotel lobby.
And, very calmly, she went into it.
Laura sent herself away, afterward. Self-exile. She’d learned enough about the fabric of things (not as much as Kathy, she’d picked it up so quick!). But enough.
Enough to slip into the cracks between dimensions and fling herself into the worst one she could think of in that moment, a fitting punishment, where it is always just before Christmas.
Laura turns up “Silver Bells” and sinks into herself as she drives. She turns the wipers on and off for fun. She messes with the heat. She checks the gas but can never seem to get a good read on the fuel gauge–her eyes go fuzzy the second she tries to look right on it. She turns her brights on and off and on and off, because what’s the point, why not, no harm in the endless wasteland of highways in cosmic Colorado-or-maybe-Wyoming.
She wishes she could go. She can’t focus long enough to even think about calling a portal, that’s part of the haze of Almost-Christmas. It wasn’t her fault, she knows that now. Or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe, though, if she wants to be gentle with herself about something, just for a second? Maybe it was a good thing. Kathy seemed so joyful, so at peace, like the evangelicals who don’t approach you even, just wait in their corner of the train station with their little pamphlets and their little table and their skirts, because they know their God will bring them all the followers they need, that’s enough, the Word will flow out. And Kathy got something out of it that Laura never did or could, and even if it was Laura’s fault, that’s no reason to be stuck here, in this infernal and unending nothing of a place, and she is so fucking tired of “Silver Bells.”
It’s Christmas time in the city
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring
Soon it will be Christmas Day
Soon it will be Christmas Day
But no, it won’t and she wants to go home, to Boulder, which is where she imagines home as when she pictures living Not-in-Wyoming, and smoke a fat blunt and watch that lady on the internet make pastry horns, and god fucking damn it this sucks ass.
She flashes the brights again, and gasps, hard and harsh:
“Hey asshole! You can’t just flash your brights in the street like that, you’re gonna BLIND SOMEONE.”
She looks up, and the street is still nothing, a dizzying nothing, she can’t look at it without wanting to vomit in that way where there’s no vomit in you to come out, and if there were that’s not the point.
When she looks at the source of the sound, though, her headache clears.
‘Cause there, in a red Corvette with the top rolled down because of course, is Kathy, the K in her name sharp as the lines on the old car, and she is smiling, and beeps again, a real ornery honk and says:
“Hey asshole, you wanna turn them off now?”
She is parked, and Laura is parked too now, she guesses. And Laura’s smiling, her cheeks hurt from smiling so much, bitten round apples achey and sore, like she’s been smiling a while, maybe it’s been a while.
And God, it’s Kathy and Laura could howl, so she does, she howls, and she laughs and runs out of the car, but Kathy honks again, so Laura sprints back in, opens it (and wonders for second, does this car have keys?) turns the brights off, and sprints to Kathy. The snow feels maybe like something under her feet, and she is afraid of slipping, but she doesn’t, maybe the snow is nothing under her feet, but Kathy is here, really. And Laura hugs her, clutches tight. Kathy clutches back.
“Hey freak, you want to get out of here? I hear two dimensions over it’s two days after Christmas and the house is full of leftovers and the company is gone and everything is on sale.”
Jaime Marvin is a writer and tarot reader based in Brooklyn, New York. She has previously published poetry in Sublunary Review and Q/A. You can find her thinking too much about vampires and taking accidental four-hour walks (or, occasionally, at jaime-marvin.com).
Author of “Silver Bells”
What inspired you to write this story?
A few years ago, I started doing a story exchange with my friend Lily Watson (who’s an astounding writer whose work I can’t recommend enough) called Telephone. It’s based on the party game. We’d write stories back and forth, with each story inspired by a line or an idea or even just a vibe from the story that preceded it. The story of Lily’s that fed into this one was about a bunch of interdimensional beings who are just trying to go to a Billie Eilish concert but get waylaid by an apocalypse; which came out from a story of mine about Long Island teens trying to cope with the apocalypse with witchcraft; which was from a story of hers about Alaskan teens who are slightly concerned with the apocalypse but much more concerned with the growing deer population; which came from a story of mine that was mostly about rabbits and also tangentially about American Girl Dolls? And so on.
The short answer, though, is I just wanted to make my best friend laugh.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
Another one of the reasons I wrote this story in particular was Lily pointing out that all my Telephone stories ended on basically the most depressing note possible. So this was me toying with the concept of happy endings. That maybe, sometimes, things really do work out alright. Sometimes Christmas gets to end and the house gets to be quiet and the fridge is full of leftovers and everything is on sale. Sometimes you mess up on a cosmic scale and the people you love will still love you. Sometimes the world is awful and about to end, but then it suddenly isn’t. That’s a feeling I’d like to make more space for, and I hope readers can make space for it too, where they can.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
This story is the proud recipient of so many rounds of edits I don’t even remember the number, and three magazine rejections!
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
It only feels right to use one Telephone story to plug another — which is to say everyone should go read “Lungs” by Lily Watson in Fiyah Mag, Issue #19.