The smell of turkey wafted through the house and almost overwhelmed the scent of the fresh pine tree in the living room covered in the same decorations that were put up every year at Christmas. Bobby was looking at the lap top his parents had given him for Christmas.
He tried to ignore the uncles and his father sitting there while his mother and aunts were in the kitchen. They had cleared the table and were scraping the plates before putting them into the dishwasher.
Except for the smell of the meal already eaten, and gifts still under the tree waiting to be opened, it was like every other Sunday, when, Uncle Jed came to Sunday dinner at their house. His father’s older two brothers came, too, along with their wives. Uncle Jed wasn’t married anymore – hadn’t been for a long time, in fact. So long Bobby could barely remember what she looked like. Uncle George’s wife Margaret never had dinner at her house. Bobby overheard his mother once tell his father it was because Margaret didn’t want to clean that dirty house enough to entertain. She for one wouldn’t want to eat there, either, so she was willing to entertain her husband’s family. Uncle Herman’s wife Louise used a walker and sometimes a wheelchair so no one expected her to put on a dinner for the Foster family. There were no cousins Bobby’s age and the only cousin, who rarely came, was Bill, about five years older than Bobby. He never seemed to enjoy the family dinners and conversation, and probably only came to help his mother Aunt Louise, but today Bill came because it was Christmas.
The house was decorated in every room. His mother loved decorating for every holiday, but especially today. Today was a little different because the women put off talking and gossiping in the kitchen until everyone had opened their Christmas presents. Bobby’s parents had already given him their present, a laptop, and he’d given each of his parents theirs this morning after breakfast.
It didn’t take long to distribute and open presents. Most of Bobby’s and Bill’s gifts from the aunts and uncles were gift cards. The women got things for the kitchen or something to wear like a sweater or robe, and the men mostly got socks, gloves and flannel shirts.
Once all the gifts were opened and the torn wrapping paper put in a bag to be tossed out, the women went to the kitchen to wash the dishes that couldn’t go in the dishwasher and talk and laugh. The pies would be cut later.
Just like every other Sunday when the family met, after dinner the men sat around joking, laughing and telling stories. That is they did when they weren’t watching a baseball or football game. On those days they did their joking and laughing during commercials. Bobby would rather have gone to his room to read or spend time in the kitchen with his mother and aunts while they talked women talk. But his father insisted he stay with the men.
Uncle Jed, whose whole name was Jedidiah, was the one who kept his brothers laughing. He told jokes and stories that were funny, although Bobby wondered why a church deacon would tell some of the jokes he did. Uncle Jed’s brothers thought they were funny even if Bobby didn’t. He wondered if it was because he hated Uncle Jed. Bobby never noticed Bill laughing, either. Today he was looking at his phone and reading or texting something on it. Once he looked up from his phone and stared at him. Bobby wondered what he was thinking. He looked at his laptop, but he was still trying to learn how to operate it. Mostly Bobby was having trouble concentrating because what he dreaded most is when Uncle Jed would stand up, stretch, look at him and say, “Let’s go out and get some fresh air, Bobby. Get in a little walk, I could sure use it.” Uncle Jed was the heaviest of the four brothers so they always laughed about it and told him it would take more than a slow walk to take off those pounds.
Bobby always said something like he didn’t feel like it, and Uncle Jed would coax him with some joke and ruffle his hair, and then his dad would always say something like “Go on, Bobby. Show Uncle Jed your new bike.” Or some such thing similar to that.
Today was different. Bobby was nervous, but he had a plan he’d been working on when several weeks ago he’d heard the brothers teasing Uncle Jed about his fear of rats. Jed had laughed and shuddered and said, “I can’t help it. Those critters are so creepy and evil.”
So Bobby walked through the snow to the barn silently with Uncle Jed. His heart was beating so loud he wondered if Uncle Jed could hear it. Uncle Jed talked on about nothing in particular reaching out to ruffle Bobby’s hair every so often. He didn’t seem to notice when Bobby cringed. He never did. When they got to the old barn, full of cobwebs, old musty bales of hay and a tractor that hadn’t been driven in years and years, Uncle Jed went straight to the small tack room where the equipment and feed for horses used to be kept. He switched on the light to the room and walked in expecting Bobby to follow. Instead, Bobby gave him a shove and slammed the door shut and locked it before Uncle Jed could turn around. And then Bobby turned out the light.
“What the hell, Bobby?” He shouted. “Open that door and quit playing games.”
Bobby ignored him and went to one of the old horse stalls and brought out a large bird cage. In it were eight hungry rats. He’d been catching them in a Have-a-Heart trap and fed them until four or five days ago. They should be quite hungry by now. He carried the cage to a little hole he’d cut our near the floor, positioned the cage so the door lined up with the hole. Then using the string attached, he pulled up the door and one by one the rats ran through the hole into the room.
Bobby turned on the light and listened to the piercing screams coming from in there with a smile on his face.
“Better put that cage away.” Bobby heard and turned to see Bill standing there smiling at him. For a moment he panicked and then realized Bill hated Uncle Jed, too.
“Did he?” Bobby stammered as he looked at his cousin.
“Yes, he did and I always hated him.”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Bobby asked.
“Why didn’t you?”
Bobby shrugged. “Everyone likes him so much I didn’t think they’d believe me.”
They listened as the screams ended, and then put the bird cage back in the musty stall and put an old tarp over it. Then they moved a musty bale of hay in front of the hole.
“Should we check on him?” Bobby asked.
“I suppose so,” Bill said.
When they opened the door, Uncle Jeb was lying on the floor with rats crawling all over him. Bill took a broom and shooed them out of the stall and then checked Uncle Jed’s pulse. He looked at Bobby. “He’ll never bother you or any other young boy again.”
He went to a water tub outside the barn and wet a rag to wipe off the handle on the door, and then turned to Bobby and smiled. “Let’s go for a long walk to the woods and beyond before discovering his body. Okay?”
|A picture of my barn from the edge of my woods.|
Bobby grinned. “Yes, lets.”
Together they walked to the woods with lightened steps.
“You know, Bill, this is the best Christmas I’ve ever had,” Bobby said smiling.
Bill grinned. “Yeah! It’s totally cool. You’re one awesome kid to think up something like that.”
Bobby looked at his older cousin and felt like turning cartwheels. “Race you to the house for pumpkin pie with ice cream,” he said.
“You’re on, kid!” Together they took off running to the house.
When they came in laughing and panting, Bobby’s mother asked where Uncle Jed was.
Bill and Bobby looked at each other.
“Didn’t he come back to the house?” Bill asked. “We went for a walk and he said he didn’t want to walk in the snow.”
After Uncle Jed was found and taken away in an ambulance to the morgue, the adults sat around and talked about what had happened to Jed. Sores like small bites were noticed on his arms and face, and they discussed that, but wondered if that was what killed him.
Bill went back to looking at his phone and Bobby at his new laptop, but every so often they would look at each other and bite back the smiles they wanted to share.
When a Christmas carol came on the radio – “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening, in the lane snow is glistening, what a beautiful sight, I’m happy tonight walking in the winter wonderland.” It was all Bobby could do to keep from singing along.