MY WORST, YET BEST CHRISTMAS EVER
Christmas holds a very frightening, yet special memory for me. I will never forget one particular December when I was given the most valuable gift of all...my life.
I had just turned fifteen, and it was two days before Christmas Eve. We lived in Utah at the time, and the December snow was new and fluffy. My father had decided to take my mother and five other siblings out to the movies. This was an unusual occurrence, because my Catholic parents are very religious, and they never went to movies during Christmas week. But Dad decided he just HAD to see THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY with Julie Andrews. Holiday or not, he was going.
I wasn't feeling well, and was left lying on the couch with a blanket. The tree lights were blinking in the dark, there were lovely Christmas carols on the radio, and stacks of presents encircled the tree. Except for the snoring of Jade, my German Shepherd, the house was peaceful. I should have enjoyed the holiday mood, but I didn't. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself when I heard a noise just feet away from me.
Someone was out back, and removing the screen to our window! My sick stomach felt even sicker. Terrified, I listened as the intruder started removing the louvers to the bottom half of the window.
The nearest police station was a half hour away, and a phone call would be useless. I quickly realized that the only chance I had was to open the back door and let the dog out. Jade was not a barker, but he DID hate strangers, and wasn't afraid to use his teeth on them. Unfortunately, the back door was right next to the windows. I must have stared at that door for an eternity while I silently counted those five louvers being removed. I knew it would be too late when he reached the last one and climbed inside. He was using a knife to open those louvers. What if he had a gun? What would he do if he saw me?
I would HAVE to open the door before he came in. I crept off the couch, the dog at my side. Closing my eyes because I was too frightened to look, I prayed to God for strength, then yanked opened the door, let out the dog, and slammed it shut, locked again.
I raced to the kitchen to hide under the sink. In that dark place with the garbage, potatoes, and dishwasher soap, I shook with fear. Why did I get sick? Why wasn't I at the movies with everyone else? I fervently wished that I owned a dog that barked like other dogs, because I didn't know what was happening. Jade could be dead, the man could be in the house... Anything could be happening.
Finally I heard a tiny scratching sound. It was my dog's family signal to be let back in. I finally mustered up enough courage to leave my hiding place and open the door. There, in the newly fallen pristine snow, were my dog's paw prints. And alongside of them were the fresh footprints of a man's boots.
He was gone, and I was safe. Our intruder was never caught, but it didn't matter. I survived. In the process, I realized that I alone was responsible for my own well‑being. I'd fought for myself--and won.
Every Christmas I think of that day. That memory is still just as fresh now as when it happened decades years ago. And while I thank God for my own special present then; the gift of my life, I also grieve for what I lost. That evening marked my transition from innocence to adulthood. Ironically, on a holiday for children that celebrates one very special child--I stopped being a child.
That was the price I had to pay on Christ's birthday so long ago. And even though I celebrate every December with family and friends and church, even though I'm thankful for all the many blessings I've received, deep down inside a tiny part of me sighs.
And wishes there had been some other way...
See Jade's picture on "January Calendar Dogs."
See author & her dog Smokey last Christmas @ bottom of page.
October is special month to me. My baby brother's birthday, my anniversary, and my birthday, which I share with my grandson, and Halloween are all within this one special month! All the places and street names, including the landscape and descriptions, really exist in Southern California. We can be just as spooky here as Salem, Massachusetts! Although there are no dogs in it, please enjoy my short Halloween story, illustrated by my very own ghost dog STRIKER (end of story) as my Halloween "trick or treat" to you!
COLD GRAVE ROAD
Does a loser-ville town infect its residents?
Or do the losers infect the town with their own personal brand of horror?
A visit from a dying artist puts everything into perspective…
The name on the sign said, “Cole Grade Road,” but none of the locals called it that. Originally labeled “Coal Grade Road” after the ancient train refueling stop, the mapmaker had goofed, much as the city of “Name?” had become “Nome, Alaska” to another error-prone cartographer. The Realtor warned the young woman who moved into the death stretch that the locals called it “Cold Grave Road” for a reason.
Cole Grade lay in the dust and chaparral of the sparsely settled southern California desert among other whimsical street names such as “Disney” and “Gopher Canyon.” A straight shot to the inner canyons, it traveled past where mouse met gopher and battled for fruit on "Strawberry Hill" and beyond, where rattlers triumphed over both near "Old Snake Road."
Cole Grade Road had become Cold Grave Road more than a century ago. Those who settled along its once-dirt, now two-lane choppy asphalt had nothing but trouble. The original inhabitants were the first to die fighting over water rights. Those Native Americans weren’t thrilled to share their meager supply with the White man, nor did they appreciate the train-tracks during the gold rush cutting through already overtaxed desert resources.
The train employees died next, thanks to arrows, lances, and later, bullets. When the grape-growers from Italy disembarked from the trains with big plans for the Southern California soil and climate, they discovered that rattlers patrolled the arbors with an ardent passion that matched the Italians’ for wine making.
Add desert heat, thirsty Native Americans, livestock, fouled, diseased waters, rabid coyotes, and Cole Grade stacked up the casualties. When a group of early rancheros died from either strawberry allergies or tainted fruit—no one knew which in those days—Cole Grade Road finally earned its morbid label.
Years ago, some local teen with a can of black spray paint defaced the first brown aluminum sign to read, “Warning -- Cold Grave Road,” and on the last, “We tried to warn you.” The city founders refused to spend money correcting what everyone knew to be true, and left the two spray-painted signs to fade in the desert sun, as everything and everyone else faded with it.
The Realtor swore to the prospective tenant that the place was jinxed, and took care to point out the big “RIP” someone had spray-painted in black on the cracked cement driveway.
“You won’t drag me into court,” The Realtor warned. “I’m giving you full disclosure. Run, don’t walk, to your car and let me find you someplace else to rent. If you want to live, that is. This place is bad news.”
The woman actually smiled, despite the oppressive heat, depressing atmosphere, and compressed, shabby house. “I’ve got cancer, and haven’t the guts to off myself. If this place kills me faster, great. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. I haven’t the strength or the money to sue anyone. Now give me the papers to sign.”
The Realtor, a lousy salesman because of his honesty, tried once more to talk her out of it, this time with his cell phone's recorder going, “For both our protection. It's haunted.” But in the end she had her way. The young woman with the cancer—no one found out exactly what kind it was—moved into the sad façade of what had never been a happy home.
The surrounding cow, horse, grape, fruit, and flower raisers kept curious eyes on her. People either left quickly or died suddenly, for fear and death cursed the single house on Cold Grave. The local bar had long maintained a break-the-lease gambling pool for anyone foolish enough to live there after the realator's warning to any prospective tenant. This time, the point spread on a tenant move-out date had to factor in the cancer. This made the betting more interesting, and the dumpy little bar with its fly-specked windows made enough money to actually paint the outside, and fix the cracked pipes in the men’s room. Much to everyone’s surprise and the bar-owner’s delight, she hadn’t yet left or died. So the bar started a second pool, and the curious crossed their fingers for their share of the money, waited, and watched the newcomer.
Pale and gaunt, the tenant put gas in her rusting car, purchased a few groceries, and, to the dismay of the curious, had her medication delivered by courier. Supposedly she’d had a promising career as some kind of artist until cancer and chemo had taken away her hair, her strength, and her future.
Everyone knew California was full of would-be artists with promise, but never before had one come to Cold Grave to die. The few people in the excuse for a town were torn between sympathy and envy—sympathy because not to be so wasn’t polite—and envy, for a fast death, even a cancerous one, seemed preferable to the slow death of boredom they were stuck with.
That boredom changed one Sunday. First a cattle trucker, then a grocer, noticed the addition of new paint to the old billboard on Cold Grave Road. A combination of grinning, traditional Halloween characters mixed among grim, realistic images of cancer-ridden people repelled yet fascinated all viewers with its artistry.
And it certainly was art. Even the most obtuse could see the genius in it. More images appeared. Scenes of death by snake, death by heat, or death by arrow covered older, graffiti-covered buildings and old signs along Cold Grave. A painting of a tombstone with snow and attached icicles appeared on another billboard, the icicles formed from the IVs hanging above, and dripping either green pus or chemo chemicals...no one was sure which there, either…to freeze as they hit the granite slab.
Her art, the Cold Grave art, continued. A grim scene on the side of the abandoned barn depicted where hundreds of hoof-and-mouth infected dairy cows had been shot and burned. The strawberry field’s abandoned wooden roadside stand writhed with life-size images of suffocating ranch hands with fruit-induced rashes and closed windpipes. Road kill from skunk to possum to coyote to desert lizards pets had their last images reproduced in vivid red on unconventional canvases beneath the sun.
Death adorned the road everywhere one looked, so much so that the bar nervously refunded everyone’s bets on the second death-pool, and the city politicians, all three of them, actually held their first meeting in years where a quorum was present…but decided nothing. Someone not in politics decided to deface one of the paintings, ended up in the hospital with a burst appendix, then ended down in the hospital morgue.
Superstition and fear overtook the inhabitants, and they left the art—and the artist—alone. Months went by, then her six-month lease was due to expire. New art stopped appearing. Soon after that, the artist decided not to renew. According to The Realtor, she packed her bags and filled her portfolio with carefully taken photos documenting her work.
Before she drove away, she told The Realtor that her cancer was gone; miraculously vanished without a trace. The doctors didn’t believe it at first, nor did she, but the tests and her robust appearance proclaimed otherwise. She was going back to finish her art major at the university.
Oh, and by the way, she said, if “this sick town” had nothing better to do with their money than host “even sicker” pools, they might consider contributing to the nearest cancer ward for children.
The Realtor walked her to her car, marveling that such a now-beautiful woman could have painted such morbid scenes. She smiled, and said the inhabitants of the town themselves had painted the town with death. She’d merely reproduced it. That’s why Cold Grave couldn’t kill her. She’d given the road the dying part of herself, and the healthy part remained free to go home.
The listeners at the local bar that night shook their heads. “Insane artist,” some mumbled. “Must be the pain killers,” others said. Or “Illegal drugs,” a few of the more unkind added. “She’s in denial,” the local know-it-all asserted. The Realtor got tired of answering questions over and over and got roaring drunk for the first time since his own college days.
In the morning, Cole Grade Road, where mice and gophers battled King Rattler in the strawberry fields under a blazing hot sun that peeled and ruined both paint and lives, remained Cold Grave Road…
To all but the foolish--or the very wise.
Remember, dog owners. Rattlesnakes are often found by dogs poking their noses into holes and hidey spaces. Our stable owner's dog was bitten on the nose, but luckily he survived. His nose was swollen to 3x its normal size. It took two months for the swelling to go down and heal enough so he could stop mouth breathing. Watch out for these snakes, especially during the spring, when they come out to breed!