Holly Jolly Highjinks

Short Fiction by Kelly Turner

“You guys, over here.” Angela, the fastest-walking sister and family ringmaster, breaks into a jog. Late morning on the first day of Winter Break, the snow at Tuk’s is already packed from the early birds. Angela closes her eyes and offers a silent thank you. Her pant legs will be dry at the seasonal sister summit. Damp legs would undermine her fragile composure.

Unlike its spruce and fir neighbors, the apple tree is full and green on top, slender on bottom. Angela reaches a mittened hand for the single fruit dangling from the lowest branch.

Jeanne arrives behind her, catching her breath. “Weird. White apple.” Jeanne reaches for the apple. “Let me see that.”

“Not so fast.” Angela raises an arm. “Let Daphne catch up.”

“Keep dreaming, little sisters.” Daphne never lets a slight pass. Her silver spiked hair glistens in the strong sun. Jacket tied around her waist, she’s stripped down to a tank top, tanning her bronze decolletage. “Right here the whole time.” She pounds her hot pink cane twice, her gavel since the Harley skidded off the highway three years ago. Some retirement celebration. “Out of season.” Daphne frowns, suspicious.

“Just this one, huh?” Angela snaps the stem, polishing the apple with her mitten.

“Pick a white apple?” Daphne tugs heavily on Angela’s sleeve. “That’s four years fruit rot.” Daphne releases Angela’s jacket and cranes her head, beady eyes surveilling Tuk’s tree farm. Ruddy-cheeked teenagers in festive knit hats trail handsome men in thick sweaters. Toddlers sit atop the shoulders of the handsome men, who find faults with each tree. Smooth-haired women in abundant scarves lead the way, documenting the others. “Anyone see you?”

“Not a fruit orchard, Daphne.” Angela shakes her head. “But a good scolding gets me in the holiday spirit.” She sweeps hair out of her face. She had her roots touched up last week. She wants to look fresh, but not trying-too-hard, for the seasonal sister summit. Her sisters don’t care if they get together or not. For Angela, it’s never mattered more.

Jeanne grabs the apple. Her bite reveals pink flesh under the white skin. “Don’t give us that old hippie nonsense. We—” she gestures between herself and Angela—“live in the conventional world of squares.”

Angela raises an eyebrow. “I concede the ‘squares’ part. Conventional?” Jeanne, like always, is dressed like a beekeeper—covered head to toe in UV-protected clothing. Angela hasn’t seen her sister’s legs in 20 years. 

“We don’t believe in—” Jeanne continues “—Huh?” She lists forward, her eyes trained on a spruce trunk. “What’s that?” She points, drops into a squat and braces herself against the ground, peering closer. “Something ran under there. On two legs.” She sits back on her haunches, rests her chin on her closed fist. “Elf?”

“No elves here,” Angela says. “Elves aren’t real.”

“What about Elf on the Shelf? That’s real.” Jeanne pushes herself up from the ground. She takes a second bite and draws the apple into focus. With a twinkle, its pink flesh becomes yellow. “Something strange here.” She extends the fruit toward her sisters. “You two see?”

“Enough.” Angela claps her hands. “We’ll miss our lunch reservation.” She gently lowers Jeanne’s arm. “Elf on the Shelf is a behavior modification strategy.” She turns, marching away. “Creepy, too. Let’s keep moving.”

Daphne shrugs. “I’m open to elves.” She taps the pink cane to the ground before setting off after Angela.

Angela stops at a Fraser Fir. “Ladies? Do we—” Before she can finish, the tree begins vibrating.

“Tree’s buzzing.” Daphne says.

“Bees?” Jeanne says.

Angela’s hands rise to her hips. Her breath quickens, she fights the tell-tale wobble. For nearly sixty years, “the wobble” has bubbled up when her sisters conspire against her. “Whatever you two are doing, whoever you’re in cahoots with—” She takes in the live action snow globe surrounding them. Well-dressed, fully moisturized people cavort among the trees. Which teenagers did her sisters bribe? Daphne’s idea, surely. “Give me a break, will you?” Her voice cracks. They think she’s ridiculous. The seasonal sister summit means so much. Especially this year. It’s everything. All three sisters together. And not at a bedside, a graveside, or a lawyer’s office. She crosses her arms, tucking her hands under her jacket. Silly, mustering holiday cheer. She knew better.

Jeanne lifts two fingers, “Scouts honor, sis. We’re not doing any—” The vibrating gains intensity. The sisters exchange glances. Parents chase children. Teenagers follow parents.

“We the only ones who see this?” Daphne asks.

Before her sisters answer, red baubles spring from the branches, dancing back and forth. A tiny wooden staircase winds upward from the earth. The sisters stand motionless, mouths agape. Each wonders if this is how it started when their father had his stroke. None can believe it’s been less than a year. Last Christmas, they delivered the tree to their childhood home. Fifty-five years their parents lived in that house. This year, someone’s turned the old house into a “breathing studio.” They’ll take the tree to Angela’s condo. Fully ascended, the stairway stills. A parade of tiny, four-limbed creatures— elves, you’d really have to say—ascend the staircase. A dozen, give or take. Pointy ears, striped pants — the whole shebang. The elves hum a tune, their pitch so high the sisters can’t make out the words. The elves join hands and circle the tree, now buzzing, jiggling and vibrating in time. The boldness of a surreal scene that cannot be, after a year of anguish that should not have been: poor prognoses, treatment-resistance, long-shots not realized. Transported from their grief, their numbness, collective and individual, the sisters are mesmerized. Christmas-tree shoppers mull around them, united in holiday generosity of ignoring three middle-aged women staring at the snow, tears streaming down their faces.

A few songs in—three?, five? no sister could say—an elf breaks from the group, approaching Jeanne. The elf stands on the tips of royal blue felt shoes to pluck the white apple from her hand. “Not a curse,” it says, holding the now vibrating apple in two hands. The skin from the bite Jeanne took wrinkles itself back together, a wave receding into the ocean. “Quite the opposite. Unlocks our magic. You wouldn’t believe how uncomfortable some people are about a little magic.”

The elf resumes its place among the others. The tiny, other worldly carollers descend the wooden staircase, as it disappears into the earth. No jiggling, no buzzing.

Snatches of Christmas tree scrutiny bring Angela back to the world she knows: gratitude for dry legs and sisters who indulge her. She wipes the tears away with both hands. “Well,” she says to her sisters, her eyes wet. “Spruce?”

Kelly is an emerging writer whose work has appeared in The Dillydoun Review. I work as a scientific funding consultant for a public health institute in Zurich, Switzerland. I live in Houston, Texas, with my partner and two kids.

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