Christmas in Kingsport Part 1 - Kingsport and a Party
CoC 1-6e Dreamlands Jazz Age
Monday, December 12, 2016
(After playing the Call of Cthulhu scenario “Christmas in Kingsport” by Oscar Rios Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. with Ashton LeBlanc and Collin Townsend.)
Snow was falling over the seaport town of Kingsport on Christmas Eve of 1927. The town’s winding streets were covered with ribbons of white. Smoke rose from the chimneys, the smells of chestnuts, cookies, and roast good filled the air and, once again, the family was gathering at the house of Great Aunt Norma. It was Christmas Eve but none of the children were really excited. Christmas in Kingsport meant only one thing to the cousins and that was boredom.
Six families were visiting Great Aunt Norma’s house. There were six cousins from the families who were all about the same age. They had all come to Kingsport by train or trolley from the surrounding cities and towns.
Gertrude “Gerdie” Pope was a cute little 11-year-old girl from Dunwich. She had very pale skin and platinum blonde, curly hair, and piercing blue eyes. She was a strange little girl whom many people thought was crazy but she was really just confused sometimes, or so she thought. During the warmer parts of the year, she wandered around the hills and valleys of Dunwich until dark. Once in a while, she’d be somewhere new, a place she’d never been before, but she remembered it somehow, not as it looked normally, but with glowing lights and magic, streets, towers, and shops. She had sometimes gotten the urge to dig and found strange things: old clay pots or pieces of statue, and sometimes the pretty coins she still carried in a handkerchief at all times. Though the writing was strange, she could clearly read it. She carried five of the strange coins and sometimes showed them to others.
She wasn’t the first person born in Dunwich with her features, the elders said. It cropped up once in a while, usually in someone “touched.”
She sometimes thought of herself as Solinia and had to remind herself she was Gertrude Pope. She knew she had been someone else once before, long ago, and she would be someone else again. The strange flashes of memory weren’t so bad when she wasn’t in Dunwich and she was presently in Kingsport with her parents for Christmas!
Gordon Brewster was also from Dunwich. Twelve years old he was a blue-eyed, dark haired little boy. He was strong and fit and large for his age. He knew Dunwich was good country if one was willing to work it. His family had been there a long time, going back to when the village was first settled. He’d taken his place beside his father and brothers working the family farm, earning extra money by cutting firewood for the neighbors with the axe that was always with him.
When he was eight, kids around Dunwich started to go missing. His parents kept him close to home or weeks. Eventually one of the kids got away from the folks doing it. Polly-Ann had been missing for a week before she turned up at the Brewster farm. She had been all beaten up and covered with scratches. She didn’t talk, just rocked back and forth, screaming if anyone touched her. Soon after that, folks showed up with shotguns, rifles, and hunting dogs. They set off to follow her trail back to where she’d come from.
After her parents took her home, Gordon had gotten his squirrel hunting rifle and ran after the others when his ma wasn’t looking. He caught up to them as they were setting fire to the cabin of one the neighbors. The members of the Gardner family had already been shot dead by the time he go there. They were horrible to look at in the light with faces and limbs twisted, hunch backs, and sharp teeth. They looked like monsters. His father spotted him hiding nearby and ordered him to stay close after smacking him for being there.
The men found the remains of the missing children under the chicken coop. There were only bones left and they had been gnawed on after the flesh had been butchered from them. Gordon didn’t remember anything after that. They told him later he seized up and didn’t come out of it for three months. He tried not to think about it.
He had not looked forward to visiting Great Aunt Norma and, though his folks had forbidden it, he had snuck his wood axe into his luggage to bring with him.
Alice Sanders was one of the oldest of them at 13. She was from Innsmouth and had light hair and very large blue eyes. She’d always loved living on the water and had always been fascinated by the sea. Her family’s business was fishing and she’d been working on the docks with them since she was eight years old. She’d always been told her father died before she was born, but she was starting to think that might not have been true. Her mother kept things from her, telling her not to worry about it for the moment and enjoy her childhood while it lasted. Alice always told her she was already a teenager and had a right to know what was going on. Her mother promised to tell her everything “when her friend comes.”
Her favorite member of the family was her Aunt Margie. When Alice was 11, a man grabbed her and pulled her into an alley, tearing her clothes and touching her. He was drunk and she could smell the alcohol. He covered her mouth so she couldn’t scream, but she had her fish-gutting knife in her pocket. She grabbed it and there was a lot of blood. He let her go but she couldn’t move and he fell at her feet. There was so much blood. Aunt Margie had found her, taken the knife away from her, and dragged the man’s body to her uncle’s boat. She told Alice she had done the right thing but not to tell anyone what happened. She covered Alice with her coat, took her to her house and washed her up. She told Alice she was a good girl and that her father would be proud of her. Then she gave her a switchblade knife and told her to always keep it with her. The next day, she told Alice it was all taken care of and not to worry about it. Sometimes Alice wondered if she was a bad person because she’d never felt guilty and was glad the man was dead.
A year before, Aunt Margie got sick. The family said she was going to “go away” to get better. But after that, her house was deserted. Sometimes when Alice passed it, she saw someone in the attic, staring down at her. Sometimes at night, she saw a light up there. She’d been thinking about breaking into the house to see who was up there. But she thought she knew what she’d find. Aunt Margie wouldn’t have left without saying goodbye.
She wasn’t expecting to have any fun at Christmas as she didn’t like wearing dresses and certainly didn’t enjoy going to church.
Edward Derby was 12 years old and from Arkham. He was a small boy with brown hair, glasses, and large front teeth. He wasn’t very strong but he was probably the smartest of the cousins. His father was an ancient history professor at Miskatonic University and since Edward was old enough to walk, he’d been able to read. Two years before, he’d discovered his father kept certain books locked in his desk. Instead of asking him about it, Edward made a copy of the key and snuck into the library when his father was at work. He found some rare books: a Latin one called Othuum Omnicia, and two in English: The Secret Watcher and Marvels of Science. It took Edward more than a year, but he managed to read all three without being caught.
What he read fascinated him. They told of another world hidden just below reality and illuminated secrets most men would run screaming from. Edward applied himself in school, learning Latin, astronomy, and physics. While other boys were building soapbox racers, he was reading any occult books he could sneak out of the library.
He had a theory. Certain angles, in certain places had power. These powers could be heightened by the positions of the starts, making it possible to open gateways between various times, places, and maybe even realms of existence. He knew that with enough time, he could figure it all out. Part of him was eager for that while part of him feared what might lay behind the doorways. From what he’d read, some of them appeared to have been carefully constructed and shut, as if barriers were in place to stop travel from one side to the other.
He was sure he’d have plenty of time to ponder the mysteries of the universe while he was being bored at Christmas. Great aunt Norma’s house always smelled like old lady and she never let any of the children talk or play. Normally he didn’t mind sitting around and reading but it was Christmas!
Donald Sutton was 11 years old and the only cousin of their age from Kingsport. He was a small boy with short brown hair. He was quick and smart. Both his parents were artists who owned their own gallery in Kingsport and he hoped to follow in their footsteps one day. He was seldom without his sketchbook and was told he had a remarkable gift for one of so young an age. He was a rather sensitive person and able to see things in a way few others could.
Sometimes he saw things, people mostly, who were dead. He guessed they were ghosts and he’d always been able to see them. It didn’t happen every day but usually at least a couple times a week. Mostly he ignored them but, once in a while, he’d give them a nod to acknowledge their presence. They usually kept to themselves … except for Simon.
Simon seemed to never be far away. He was a nine-year-old boy who died in a carriage accident a long time ago. He’d been hanging around with Donald since he was six and they talked almost every day. Simon looked out for Donald by giving him advice or warning him if a bully was planning something mean. He’d always been a good friend and Donald guessed he was just lonely. When people caught him talking to Simon, he just told them the boy was his imaginary friend. That excuse wasn’t working as well lately, though. He asked Simon to be more careful when he talked to him. He didn’t want to get caught talking to himself again. He’d overheard his parents talking about it and they were worried, thinking he needed some “real” friends.
The family would be spending a few days with stuffy old Great Aunt Norma, but he’d rather have been at home. The only reason anyone in the family listened to her was because her husband left her lots of money and everyone was hoping to be in her will.
George Weedon was a 13-year-old boy from Arkham and the last of the cousins their age. He was a strong kid and very much into sports of all kinds. There was nothing he enjoyed more than a good game. Baseball and football were his favorites and he hoped to be a pitcher or a quarterback one day. There was snow on the ground in December, however, and so his usual sports were on hold. It was time for ice skating and sledding though. His father always pushed him to do better, try harder, and be the best. It certainly wasn’t easy to try harder when he was already giving it all he’d got.
Sometimes he dreamed about his father, screaming at him as he struck out with the bases load. In the dream, his father had called him worthless and weak, making everyone laugh at him. Sometimes in those dreams he just stood there. Other times he dreamt of showing his father how hard he could swing that bat.
He thanked goodness for his mother, though. If it weren’t for her, he’d be lost. She was always there, telling him she’d be proud of him and love him whether he came in first or dead last. When he pushed himself, it was for her, not for his father. When he made it to the majors, it would be for her.
Arkham wasn’t a big city but he liked it well enough. Moving about town on his paper route, he’d glimpsed things out of the corner of his eye though. There were storm drains he’d never get too close to, abandoned houses he stayed out of, and things he just didn’t talk about. People said the college had lots of spooky old books and things professors brought back from Egypt and the Amazon that were cursed. Sometimes at night, when the air was still, he could hear things whispering and moving about in the graveyard across the street from his house.
He thought Kingsport was nice with its twisting streets and hills. It would be great for sledding if he had a sled and wasn’t going to Great Aunt Norma’s house.
Aunt Norma had been a widow for longer than any of the cousins had been alive. Well into her later years, Great Aunt Norma was very rich and set in her ways. In her house, the old saying that children should be seen and not heard was strictly enforced. The family gatherings she hosted in the massive Georgian mansion her husband left her were always dull affairs. Her idea of a party was sitting around talking with the family, children quietly sitting nearby in their most uncomfortable clothing. That would be followed by a rather formal dinner sitting in the hardest chairs anyone ever made. Next would be a long midnight mass at The Congregational Church in Kingsport, an ordeal in and of itself. Christmas morning would have none of the frantic gift opening at first light, as Old Norma liked to sleep well past ten.
Yes, there was nothing like Christmas in Kingsport.
As the children and their families arrived, one by one, at the old mansion on Plum Street on the west side of Kingsport, their smiles were forced as they greeted their Great Aunt Norma. But suddenly the holiday gloom that gripped all of them suddenly melted away. With a cry of “Where are my little cousins?” the magic of Christmas fell upon each of them. It was Cousin Melba, throwing her arms around each of them and pressing firm kisses onto their cheeks.
Melba was 19, six years older than any of them. She was beautiful, with brown hair, blue eyes, and soft features. She had babysat each of them on many occasions and they all had found memories of her telling stories, playing hide and seek, and bringing joy to the dull Kingsport gatherings. Times with Melba were always fun.
Melba lived with Great Aunt Norma and was something of a black sheep of the family. She studied art, learned to drive, and got a job working as a telephone operator, all over the objections of her guardian. The family viewed her as “odd” and said she was “too much of a dreamer with her head in the clouds” but to the six young cousins, she was perfect.
When she came rushing forward, some of the family openly gasped when they saw her long hair now gone. She’d cut it very short with it barely covering her ears.
After greetings were exchanged, she snuck all of the children off to the side.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered to them with a smile. “I’m busting us out of here! I can’t stand these things and I am sure you can’t either. Go ask your parents if they’ll let you come out with me. There’s a great hill nearby and I know where we can get sleds. Oh, and we’ll be ‘late’ for dinner too. I know this great café we can go to and I just got paid so it’s my treat. We’ll do some caroling on the way back here and then bake some Christmas cookies. If you’re all really good, I’ve got a special surprise planned for tonight. I’m throwing a party, a secret one, and you can all come too. How’s that sound?”
It sounded to the children like this Christmas was going to be a special one, a magical one that they’d never forget.
* * *
Gordon went upstairs where his parents were still unpacking their meager belongings.
“What is it, boy?” his father said. “Have you unpacked?”
“Yes sir,” Gordon said.
“That’s good. You’re going to have to put on your good clothes.”
“I know they itch, but you gotta put them one.”
“Since we were on the train so long, can I go and play with the others outside?”
His father gave him a long look.
“I mean, it’s been such a long train ride …” Gordon went on. “I mean, I’m not used to such cramped conditions. I mean … living on the farm.”
“Well,” his father said. “All right. Get that out of your system right now. But make sure you’re back here. Just go outside. Don’t go far. You know Aunt Norma’s going to have supper for us in a couple hours.”
“All right. Be good.”
Gordon fled the room, getting his hair tousled by his mother as he went by.
“Stop it ma!” he cried out.
* * *
Gerdie knew her parent liked Melba but didn’t see the girl as a good role-model for their daughter, who many people in Dunwich already thought of as odd. She wasn’t sure of their reaction to her asking permission to spend the day with the girl.
“Mom, can I please go play outside?” she asked.
He mother, unpacking, looked down at the girl.
“Well,” she finally said. “I suppose. For 20 minutes. Be good. Don’t get too dirty. And then you’ll have to get changed. I bought that dress just for today.”
Gerdie knew the dress her mother had purchased mail order through the Sears Roebuck catalogue. It was a “Christmas Dress” and was red and green with little hanging gold balls on it. It was tight and uncomfortable and she couldn’t sit down in it because it showed everyone her underwear. She hated it.
She quickly left the room.
“Don’t get too dirty!” her mother called after her. “No roughhousing.”
“Okay mom!” Gerdie called back.
She ran downstairs.
* * *
The other children were all able to get permission to go aside from George and Donald. Gordon saw Melba intercede for George, telling his parents the children were such a handful and she just wanted to get them out of their parents’ hair for a little while. Gerdie saw Donald turned down by his parents. Melba tried to intercede on his behalf but his parents were strict, telling them he needed to get into his fancy clothes as they were going to go downstairs and visit with Aunt Norma. Donald was not happy about that but Melba took the young artist aside and whispered to him to sneak out the back door and meet them at the corner.
“Let’s bust outta this chicken shack!” George said to them.
“What are you talking about, George?” Alice asked.
“It’s called a coop, dummy!” Gordon said. “City slicker.”
“I can call it a shack if it want!” George said. “Shut up, Gordie.”
He punched the other boy on the arm.
The five children and Melba left the house by the front door, bundled up against the cold. Snow lay on the ground and it was a very pretty day. It was also very cold and they each saw their breaths hanging in the air. Only a few people were out on Plum Street but they walked to the corner of Division Street, only a few dozen yards from Aunt Norma’s house on that same corner, and found Donald waiting.
“Let’s go!” he said. “C’mon! Let’s go!”
He looked nervously at the house before they were off, crossing to the Central Hill Neighborhood via Division Street. They went down Carter Street to High Street. The streets there were steep, sometimes becoming stairways. She took them past Central Hill Cemetery along High Street where it met Burke Street.
“We’re going to the house of my friend Sir Lucas,” Melba told them.
She knocked on the door of an older, Georgian home in good repair with twinkling Christmas lights around the door. The man who answered was probably about fifty with gray around his temples and a twinkle in his eye. He was happy to see Melba and eager to meet her cousins, inviting them in for cookies.
“What we really need are some sleds,” Melba told him. “Do you have some we can borrow Sir Lucas?”
The man grinned, retrieving a key and tossing it to the girl.
“Help yourself to anything you need,” he said.
Melba thanked him.
“You’ll be at my party later, right?” she asked him.
“On my honor, I would not miss it for the world, my lady,” he said.
She smiled at him as he closed the door. She led the children around the side of the house to a garage, using the key to open the side door. Inside were lots of child-related gear: bikes, toys, and wagons, as well as five sleds and a two-person toboggan. Gordon spotted several old candles that were scraped on the sides and he recognized the markings. They had been used to wax the skis on the sleds so they would go faster on the snow. He grabbed the candles and worked on one of the sleds. When Harold, George, and Edward saw, they got to work on sleds of their own. Not wanted to be outdone, Melba and the girls prepared the last sled for speed.
“Mine’s gonna be the fastest!” George said.
“No, mine is!” Donald replied.
They finally gathered the sleds and Melba led them up to the top of Central Hill on Hill Street beside the cemetery. A dozen or so other children were there on a variety of sleds, taking turns making runs down the icy, snow-covered street.
The children spent several hours sledding down the hill, all of them having great fun.
“Gordie, race me!” Gerdie said.
“The hospital is at the top of the hill,” Melba quipped. “Just make a right and go a block, in case anyone breaks their neck when sledding.”
Gordon beat Gerdie in a race down the hill. He gave the girl a pat and then went to challenge George.
“I’m gonna get you George,” he said.
“No way,” George replied. “I’m the best!”
He beat George handily as well.
“I am the sleighing champion!” Gordon cried out.
George challenged the boy to a rematch.
Melba had carried up the toboggan and the children took turns riding down the hill with their beautiful cousin. She was so much fun and her quips and jokes constantly kept her and the younger cousins in giggles the entire time.
After they had all had their fill of sledding, around 2 p.m. that afternoon, all of them were cold and exhausted.
“I think you’ve had enough,” Melba said. “Let’s take the sleds back.”
They took the sleds to Sir Lucas’ garage and put them back where they found them. Melba locked the garage up and returned the key.
“Come on!” she told them. “We’re off!”
She led them back up the hill, this time taking them all the way to the Congregational Hospital where there was a trolley stop. The electric trolley soon arrived and they boarded the single-truck machine. The motorman was about 30, dressed in a company uniform, and seemed dour at first. When he saw Melba, however, he brightened instantly. She paid for all of the children. She introduced the motorman to her cousins, introducing him as “my general, a dear friend.” He asked each of the children where they were from and what they wanted for Christmas.
“I don’t know,” Gordon, suddenly feeling shy, said.
Donald told the man he wanted more art supplies and paint. George said he wanted a football. Edward wanted a Latin/English dictionary. Alice wanted the newest dime novel from a romance author of the time.
“How about you, buddy?” the motorman said to Gordon. “Have you thought about what you want yet?”
“Yeah, I want a cleaning kit for my squirrel gun,” Gordon said.
“That sounds great,” the motorman said. “I’m sure you’ll get it.”
He turned to Gerdie.
“What’s your name, little girl?” he asked.
“Gerdie,” she said.
“What do you want?”
“I want a tiny shovel.”
“A tiny shovel?”
“I love digging.”
“Oh. Okay. Digging’s fun.”
The children all took their seats and Melba and the General whispered quietly to one another before she joined them, the trolley merrily driving through town.
“Do you hear that?” Edward said to Gerdie.
“What, the whispers?” Gerdie said.
“Yeah, what they were saying.”
“What?” Gordon said.
“The General asked if we’re travelers?” Edward said. “And Melba said ‘No, not yet.’”
“I’m a traveler,” Gerdie said.
“And he said ‘Not yet?’” Edward went on. “And she said ‘I’m bringing them to the party later.’ Think there’ll be sweets?”
“I’m a traveler,” Gerdie said again.
Gordon patted her on the head.
“That’s nice,” he said.
The trolley wound its way to South Shore, that district of Kingsport on the south side of the bay that was largely residential though dotted here and there by small, tourist-oriented businesses. The area had public marinas filled with sailboats and yachts pulled out of the water for the winter. The houses mostly consisted of early 18th century Federal styles, Gothic edifices, and later Greek revival buildings. The area was marked by large, stately homes with gabled and hipped roofs, some with stately columned porticoes. The street was paved and in good repair.
They disembarked from the trolley and Melba led them along the wharfs to a small eatery called The White Pier Café.
“I’m starved!” she exclaimed. “Sledding always makes me hungry.”
The White Pier Café proved to be a small eatery and coffee shop right on the shore. Outside was a deck with several tables. Inside was a long, curved counter and a few booths. Melba led them to a large booth, greeting most of the customers and employees by name. Some of the patrons discussed art and others talked literature as they sipped their coffee.
Melba ordered soft drinks, soup, and sandwiches with sides of chips and a pickle for each of the children. She ordered herself a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee. The food was good and the servings plentiful. Gerdie gave Gordon her pickle, as did Alice. The boy smiled. He loved pickles.
The waitress was a lovely, dark-haired woman of about 23. Melba introduced her at Gypsy. She had a short haircut and was very pretty wearing a lovely plaid dress with an apron over it and a coin changer in the front.
“Oh, you have coins too!” Gerdie said when she saw the device.
“Yes, I do!” the pretty girl said with a smile. “I have to have coins to give out change. Do you have coins?”
“Yeah,” Gerdie said, taking out her handkerchief. “This coin here.”
She pulled out and held up one of the ancient gold coins she’d found in her exploration of Dunwich. The strange coin had a hand with an eye on the palm on one side and a faceless helmet on the other. Odd writing ran around the side of each face.
“Oh, that’s pretty,” Gypsy said, taking the coin and looking at it. “Where did you find this? Wow! I’ve never seen a coin like that before.”
She handed it back to the little girl, who smiled and blushed at the attention.
Melba stepped away with Gypsy and the two of them whispered for a minute. Gerdie, Edward, and Donald all overhead the conversation.
“Will you be performing later?” Melba asked Gypsy.
“At your house?” Gypsy said.
Melba nodded yes with a sweet smile.
“I’d love to,” Gypsy said. “I’d never miss one of ‘The White Maiden’s’ parties.”
The two women hugged and Melba came back to the table.
Melba ordered them all slices of chocolate cake for dessert.
“Can I get my hair cut like yours, Cousin Melba?” Gerdie asked while she ate the delicious cake.
Melba put a hand to her chest and smiled, tears welling in her eyes. She gave Gerdie a big hug.
“You’ll have to ask your mommy,” she said.
All told, they spent almost two hours there eating, relaxing, and listening to the radio. It was nice and warm and toasty. It was starting to get dark around 4:30 p.m. when Melba took the children to catch another trolley at the same place they’d gotten off before. The driver was a different man.
They got off the Trolley several blocks from Aunt Norma’s house.
“You moochers tapped out my berries,” she complained with a smile.
They had spent all of her money.
“I know how we can make some quick cash on the rest of the way home,” she said. “How are you all at singing?”
She then started to sing Christmas Carols, stopping in the front yards of some of the houses on the way back. They ended up stopping at six houses. At the fourth house, some of the residents came out to hear them sing. They threw some coins at the children and gave them candy canes. At the next house, the residents came out and listened, also throwing coins and giving all of the children gingerbread men. At the last house the people not only gave them some money but also provided them with cups of hot cocoa.
“These aren’t special coins, though,” Gerdie said.
Melba collected the money from all of the children to pay her back, a little bit, for her generosity that day.
Once back at the mansion, the children’s parents were very angry. They were told to get into their formal clothing and Melba got a stern talking to from her guardian about missing the holiday dinner and keeping her cousins out so long.
“We just lost track of time Aunt Norma,” she told her. “It won’t happen again.”
Dinner was already over so, after getting into dry clothing, Melba gathered the children into the kitchen. There, they baked lots of Christmas cookies with her while the adults sat around the living room talking. The cookies they made were shaped like trees, snowmen, and reindeer. Melba let them eat some of the cookie dough, having some herself. She poured out eggnog and make hot cocoa as well. Everything went very smoothly with the children having a wonderful time.
Gerdie was standing by the window, looking at the birds that she thought she could see there, when she saw an automobile pull up beside the house. She recognized her Uncle Wally, who she thought was still in Europe. Uncle Wally was George’s father’s brother. He was the youngest of their uncles, being in his late twenties, and was a friendly, funny man who was decorated for bravery in the Great War. Ever since then, he’d spent about six months out of every year overseas. A longtime bachelor, he had been criticized by the family for not settling down with some nice woman and becoming respectable.
“Cousin Melba!” Gerdie cried out. “It’s Uncle Wally!”
Melba came to the window and looked out with a bright smile.
“It is Uncle Wally!” Melba said. “He made it back in time for Christmas! Oh … oh my. He has a woman on his arm!”
Uncle Wally had opened the door of his hard topped motorcar and helped out a pretty young blonde woman in fashionable clothing.
“Maybe she’s European,” Gerdie said.
“M-maybe,” Melba said. “All right. You stay here. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
She headed out of the kitchen. Gerdie started to follow her but Gordon grabbed the little girl by the arm.
“Let’s wait and follow from a distance,” he said.
Gerdie looked at the boy, confused, but waited. She hadn’t heard Melba tell her to stay in the kitchen. After a few seconds, the two crept out and peeked into the front parlor.
Uncle Wally entered the living room and was warmly greeted by the family. He introduced the woman with him as Gretchen Weedon, his wife. Gretchen greeted the family, wishing them all a Merry Christmas in a thick Austrian accent. The room went quiet.
“She is European,” Gerdie whispered to Gordon.
Wally’s parents, George’s grandparents, said “You never mentioned anything about getting married!” The family then gave Gretchen a lukewarm reception. At that, Wally got angry and an argument started with his parents.
Melba, meanwhile, hugged Gretchen, congratulating her and interrupting Uncle Wally to congratulate him, and then asking if it was okay for her to take Gretchen to the kitchen to meet her little nieces, nephews, and cousins. Wally gratefully said yes to that and Melba hustled Gretchen towards the kitchen as Wally and his parents started having a rather heated exchange.
Gerdie and Gordon slipped into the kitchen just before Melba and Gretchen. She gave the two of them a wink.
“Don’t think I didn’t see you, you eavesdroppers,” she said with a smile.
Gordon put on his best innocent face.
Melba introduced all of the children to Gretchen. She was very pretty and spoke in a very thick accent. She was very friendly and greeted each one of them with a hug.
“Oh!” she said to Gordon. “Could you go out to the motorcar? There is a basket in the back. Could you get the basket?”
“Yes ma’am,” Gordon said.
“Thank you! Thank you!” she said with a grateful smile that lit up the room.
Gordon ran out of the kitchen while Gerdie gave the woman a Christmas cookie.
Gretchen talked quietly to Melba but all of the children overheard her tell the girl her father had angrily disowned her for wedding an American and was still very hurt by it. She conveyed her regret that her presence at the house had caused her husband problems within his own family. She noted that she missed her father very much and regretted the last words between them as being filled with anger.
Then Gordon was back with the large, heavy basket. It was covered in festive Christmas pattered cloth and filled with small wrapped gifts. Gretchen handed a gift to Melba and each of the children and told them to open them. They did so and found within were beautiful hats, scarves, and gloves for each of them, each covered with Christmas scenes. Gretchen told them she had knitted them on the ocean voyage from Europe.
Gretchen helped to make more cookies and chatted with Melba and the children, getting to know them. Conversation drifted to what Christmas Eve was like in Austria.
“On Christmas Eve when I was little, my father would tuck my brother and I in,” Gretchen told them. “He’d sit with us until we were asleep, telling us stories about Baby Jesus, Santa Klaus, and the Krampus. We’d get so scared when he told us about the last, but it was a fun kind of scared. You don’t have Krampus in America, do you? You’re lucky then.
“The Krampus are monsters that travel with Santa Klaus on Christmas Eve night. They are tall and furry, with hideous faces and long, curved horns. They always carry a large sack too. When Santa comes to a house with naughty children, he doesn’t leave them any gifts. If they have been very bad that year, the Krampus take them. They shove the child into the sack and haul them away, where they are never seen again. It’s said the Krampus have a mighty Christmas Day feast of all the children they’ve collected the night before.”
“Well, America must not have any naughty children,” Gerdie said.
Gretchen laughed. It was like music.
“Maybe they do not have naughty children here,” she said, smiling. “Maybe you are all very good.”
“Maybe that’s why people in Germany are mean,” Gerdie said.
A little while later, Wally came into the kitchen to greet his cousins, nieces, and nephews with hugs and thanked Melba for rescuing Gretchen from “the angry mob.” He then escorted his pretty young wife back out to mingle with her new family. In a short time, coffee, tea, and hot cocoa were served and a tray of freshly baked Christmas cookies was set out.
At 10:30 p.m., the family set out for the Congregational Church of Kingsport for midnight mass. As they left the house, each of the children’s parents instructed them to wear the gifts their new Aunt Gretchen so generously made for them. The long mass proved difficult for the, by now, exhausted children. They were seated with their parents during mass and unable to speak to one another.
The building dated back to the middle of the 19th century when the congregation abandoned the decaying original building on Central Hill. It was an impressive building with bells that tolled every half hour. The congregation was led by the smiling, knowledgeable Reverend Noah Ashton, a friendly, balding, stout man. Gerdie liked the statues of the angels in the building. At least the ones she saw.
At one point during the service, Edward burst out laughing. He was reprimanded by his parents and many people turned to glare at him.
After mass, the children and their families headed for home. On the walk, Edward told the others what he found so funny during the service.
“Melba was making faces at me during mass!” the boy said.
“Shoot, I wish I’d seen it!” Gordon said.
“I know! It was great. It was so funny. And then I got in trouble and, when I looked over again, she was just mocking me!”
He imitated Melba frowning and shaking her head at the boy.
“It was funny, I guess,” Edward went on. “It was funny. I was about to fall asleep.”
They returned to the mansion and were sent to bed by 12:45 a.m. Melba whispered to each of them:
“Get right to sleep. I’ll come get you so we can go to the party.”
The children, so tired from the long day, fell asleep with ease.
* * *
Each of the children was woken up just as they had fallen asleep by the door to their various rooms opening. Melba was there. She collected each of them and instructed them to go downstairs quietly. They found their regular clothing already laid out and waiting for them in the living room, along with their coats, footwear, and new scarves, gloves, and hats. Once they were all changed, she led them out into the dark Kingsport night. It seemed like the entire town was asleep as they walked to the docks.
Within moments of reaching the docks, the children noticed a white ship with masts and rows of oars sailing smoothly towards them. As the ship arrived, they saw a tall, robed man with a beard on deck. He waved them towards the ship as a bridge of moonbeams extended from the deck to the dock.
“There’s our ride,” Melba said with a sigh. “Everybody stay close. Everybody stay close.”
She quickly hustled the children onto the White Ship and introduced the man on the deck as “The Captain.” He greeted Melba as “The White Maiden” and asked her what course to set.
“Towards Celephais,” she replied. “My ship will meet us outside the harbor to take us to Serannian.”
The White Ship turned and sailed out of Kingsport Harbor. They soon found themselves on the open ocean with the sun rising. Melba’s clothing suddenly changed in a long white gown, a white fur coat and hat, with a tall white staff at her side.
“Okay, listen up, because I only want to go over this once,” she said to them. “You are asleep, all of you. Me too. This is a dream; all of it. A dream. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. This place, this ship, this whole world is real. I found this place when I was about your age and I’ve been coming here ever since. I figured you were old enough to see this place for yourself, call it a gift, the greatest gift I can give you. Here, anything is possible. This is the Dreamlands.
“I’ve had lots of adventures here; I’ve made great friends and built a name for myself. Here, in the Dreamlands, I am known as ‘The White Maiden,’ a rich noblewoman of a country called Serannian. I have a castle there, called Mitzividor, where I’m holding my annual Solstice Ball. This year, you are my guests. You’ll like Serannian. The whole country is floating on a cloud.
“Now, there are some rules. You can get hurt here, you can even die here, so don’t think you can do whatever you want without consequences. If you die here, you’ll suffer a horrible nightmare and wake up. Unfortunately, you’ll never be able to return to the Dreamlands or ever dream again.
“Things here tend to be from about 500 years ago. So, you won’t find any cars or flashlights or telephones, no radio and forget all about guns. Think camels and carts, sailing ships and oil lamps, bows and swords. If you make something that doesn’t belong here, it’ll change into something that does. I’ll get to ‘making things’ in a minute.
“You’ll meet lots of people here; most of them were born here and know little if anything about what they call ‘The Waking World.’ You’ll be able to tell the natives: they tend to be shorter. There are lots of people like us; visitors, adventurers, and tourists who are all asleep somewhere in The Waking World. You met a few fellow Dreamers earlier today; you’ll meet them again soon.
“Now, lastly, and most important, you can change things. It’s not easy and it can be difficult depending on what you want to do, but it is possible. Don’t worry; I’m going to teach you how to do it. It can be something simple, like changing a peach to a pear. It can also be something harder, like making a reindeer appear out of nothing. It’s easier to change something than make something and living things are harder than objects. Let’s get started. Hand me that rope.”
Gerdie handed the girl a long piece of rope
“This is much better than my dreams,” Gerdie said.
Melba cut the rope into five-foot pieces and then gave one to each of the children. She concentrated and changed her rope first into a stick, and then into a spear, which she handed to one of the sailors, saying “Merry Christmas!”
“What?” the sailor replied, looking confused.
“My gift to you,” she said.
He kissed the girl’s hand, graciously thanking her. Then she turned back to the children.
“Now you try,” she said. “Make the rope turn into a stick. You have to focus. Believe you can do it. Let go of all logic and science. Those things aren’t real here.”
She spent the rest of the day with the children, helping them as best she could. None of them had much success that first day but Melba encouraged them not to give up.
She also told the children they could use their ability to shape dreams to wake up and escape the Dreamlands, at least until they wanted to return.
“That’s okay,” she said. “We’ll keep practicing.”
They were all fed on the White Ship and given the use of a large cabin to sleep in at night.
“Time here and the waking world are different,” Melba explained at dinner that night. “We could be here for a year, return back to our world, and wake up to find it’s only the next morning. Don’t worry. No one will miss us.”
* * *
They spent three days on the White Ship. The children continued to practice their dreaming skills. Both Gerdie and Gordon were especially persistent. Gordon wanted his axe and Gerdie wanted a little shovel like the one she wanted for Christmas.
Gerdie was the first to change one of the pieces of rope into a stick on the second day. The other cousins were all envious but it pushed them into trying even harder. Melba was very proud of her and gave the girl a big hug.
“That’s how it works!” she said.
“It’s because I’m touched, isn’t it?” Gerdie said with a bright smile.
“Yes, touched in the head,” Gordon quipped, a little upset she had gotten it first.
“Now now,” Melba said.
On the fourth day of their visit to the Dreamlands, they approached land. Soon, a beautiful city of apparently Arabic design could be made out. It was a walled seaside metropolis at the end of a valley.
“That’s Celephais,” Melba explained. “It’s nice, but we aren’t going there this trip. Maybe next time. Do you know that a dreamer, like us, built it? Yep, once there was nothing there until King Kuranes created it, dream by dream, over many years. Nice fellow, that one. Maybe I’ll introduce you one day.”
Soon, a beautiful vessel, all of white, seeming like a Viking longship built to look like a noble swan approached the White Ship. The swan ship pulled alongside the white ship and the moonbeam bridge connected both. Melba transferred to the swan ship with the children, explaining it was her personal vessel and would take them to her home in Serannian.
On the ship were a dozen sailors dressed all in white uniform tunics who warmly greeted “The White Maiden.” There were also a few cats. Melba spoke to them in a mewing language none of the children could understand. Everyone was very polite to the children as the swan ship set out towards the sea once again.
On board were changes of clothing for the children: dresses for the girls and long tunics for the boys. Each of them was very fancy and festive, seemingly like something out of a King Arthur story.
Melba told them it would be a week before they were able to launch to Serannian and bid them to continue practicing shaping the dream world.
* * *
It was eight days later before the swan ship reached a place where the sea seemed to meet the sky. Melba ordered everyone to hold onto something as the ship spread its wings and began gracefully flying into the air. In a few moments, the swan ship leveled out above the clouds, flying towards an enormous floating island upon which a wondrous city was built.
In the time they had travelled, Gordon had finally managed to change the rope into a stick. Gerdie made a little shovel for herself and was very proud of herself. Gordon used his dreaming powers to change his stick into an axe like the one he used at home chop wood.
Melba was very impressed with both children.
The city on Serannian was built primarily of marble and appeared Grecian in design. A high wall set with many cannons surrounded the city. The bay appeared to be a layer of fluffy clouds with many ships sailing across. A lighthouse helped guide ships to port there, both on top of the island and below it. The swan ship landed on the clouds and stopped at a long dock.
Once on shore, the children and the White Maiden were met by a wagon that was drawn by a white hippopotamus. Inside the wagon was an older cat that spoke to Melba in mewing tones as the wagon was drawn through the beautiful city to a large castle of white marble. Festively uniformed guards stood about the castle and the sound of Christmas music played within.
“Welcome to Mitzividor!” Melba said.
Inside, they were taken to the main hall, which was filled with people. All were beautifully dressed and most seemed shorter, people the children guessed were natives to the Dreamlands, but a few seemed to be dreamers. One of them was a man dressed in ornate polished armor who came forward to greet “The White Maiden” and the children. They recognized him as Sir Lucas, the man they met in Kingsport who’d leant them the sleds. He winked at the children with a grin.
Melba also introduced them to several children.
“These were all native Dreamland children,” she said. “They were orphans whom I adopted when their village was attacked by a gug.”
She introduced three boys: Matteo, Diego, and Halfor, as well as three girls: Amaltia, Yolanda, and Serena. All of the children were between the ages of seven and 10 and wore festive and colorful clothing. Melba explained the gugs were giant creatures whose mouths extending up their faces.
“So, like a Krampus?” Gerdie said.
“Krampus are made up,” Melba said. “These are real.”
She explained there were no gugs in Serannian.
What followed was a wonderful party. They spent time with the other children as the White Maiden greeted her guests. The Dreamlands children were very friendly and seemed very happy. Everyone, overall, seemed to have a very good time. Gerdie showed off her shovel to the children and they loved it. The boys loved the axe Gordon had made.
George and Donald pointed out to them the man dressed in a formal military costume armed with a great sword, noting it was the man from the trolley they’d met some days before.
“It’s the General!” Gerdie said, recognizing the man.
“The General!” George said. “That’s right. That’s right. You remember everything.”
Gerdie went over and showed the man her shovel.
“General, General, look at my shovel,” she said.
“That is very nice!” he said. “Very nice!”
He took the shovel from the girl and looked it over.
“Did you make this yourself?” he asked.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“That’s beautiful!” he said.
They were all seated after that and there was a feast with beautiful and exotic delicacies, each tasting better than the last. There were plenty of sweets for Edward, who was thrilled. The White Maiden welcomed everyone to her home during the feast and thanked them for helping her celebrate one of the waking world holidays with her.
After dinner, a dancer was introduced only as “The Gypsy” and the guests applauded loudly. A woman in colorful skirts and coin jewelry took to the floor. She carried a tambourine. The music began and she danced for the hall, entertaining all with her great skills. During her performance, she made sparks and smoke and flowers appear. The children recognized her as the waitress they met at the café in Kingsport.
At the end of her dance, the hall erupted in applause. That ended when the entire room plunged into darkness!