When Gareth Rhinecombe, years later, was reminded of the modest house, the first thing that came to him was the silence. It had added an extra layer of despair over the already unsettling experience, something the Elephante was not accustomed to. As an investigator and aide to the king of Brightvale, Gareth usually would enter into situations forcing him to act as mediator between two disputing parties, something he was particularly adept at.
But this time was different. Being Christmastime, most of the other investigators were spending time with their families, leaving Gareth to manage all claims that might arise over the holiday. So far the claims had been fairly peaceful—a missing petpet that had turned up huddled in the snow beyond the vegetable patch and a minor dispute between two neighbors involving a broken window. But as Gareth was working his way through a third mug of hot cocoa in the investigator’s office, a strange claim was brought to him—a haunting had been reported on the outskirts of the city. The peculiarity came not from the possibility of a ghost (for that was rather mundane in today’s world), but rather due to the timing of the claim. Hauntings usually cropped up in the autumn, he knew, although most of them turned out to be false alarms, what with all the Halloween nonsense getting into people’s heads.
So the prim yellow Elephante, acting as any responsible investigator would, made his way through the rather thick layer of snow to the house on the opposite side of the city. Before he left, he tidied his already-neat black suit, standard for all investigators, for he knew that first impressions were always important, especially in cases requiring him to be the voice of reason. And if he knew anything, it was that haunting cases usually required quite a voice of reason.
As he was making the journey, he did not notice the crushing silence; only afterwards as he considered the events of the day did he realize how powerful it truly was. No, as he cautiously worked through the snow-covered paths, Gareth was dreaming longingly of the mug of cocoa awaiting him back at the office—his only comfort on an otherwise lonely holiday.
He stood at the gate to the house, fully taking in the sight before him. His eyes were drawn to the crumbling pillars first, which he realized had caused the roof to sag to the left. Strands of Christmas lights hung off the roof haphazardly, and Gareth could only make out two or three bulbs that were still working. But what caused the most unease for the Elephante were the numerous snowless patches in the yard; snow was falling swiftly at this point, yet these areas remained a dreadful brown color. The whole image was unsettling.
Gareth struggled with the half-broken gate, eventually just stepping over it into the yard. He stood at the foot of the stairs leading to the front door, wiped the slight accumulation of snow off his suit, and began climbing the stairs, taking care not to slip.
The smell of cinnamon permeated through the cheerful house, dancing romantically with the warmth from the fireplace. A warm glow emanated not only from the hearth but the figure in front of it, a slender brown Xweetok. She could not help but smile as she stared out the bay window at her snow-covered lawn and thought of the events to come on this, her favorite day of the year.
A buzzer sounded from the kitchen, and she hopped up suddenly, hurrying for the oven. Cracking it slightly, she peeked in and was greeted by a blast of cinnamon. She sighed deeply and nodded, pulling the cookies from the oven. These would be delicious, she knew. A perfect conclusion to what would be a perfect evening.
She snuck a glance at the clock above the oven. Two o’clock. Perfect timing to begin her main course, and only a few more hours until he arrived. Catherine could hardly wait.
Gareth tapped the door lightly, though he didn’t expect anyone to answer. No one could live in this dilapidation. Uncertainly, he twisted the bronze handle and pushed inwards, only to wince from the dreadful wailing the door made as it swung open. It pierced the silence, Gareth would note later, and that made it all the more frightening. Dust rose from its home on every inch of the hardwood floors surrounding the front door. It clouded his vision and his thoughts.
Once it settled, Gareth stared at the scene before him. It was as if Halloween and Christmas had collided; remove the stockings and mistletoe and you’d have the perfect haunted house. Shattered windows, broken chairs, objects simply strewn about—how did a home get to be this way? Gareth had never seen anything like it. Christmas decorations were in place, but they were broken and untended to. It was obvious no one had lived in this house for years. So why now, years after what seemed to be some unfortunate event on some unhappy Christmas, was Gareth called to this home? There was obviously no haunting. What purpose would he serve here?
Hours later, Catherine was fully entrenched in dinner preparations. The Xweetok set the table for two while humming a carol quietly, taking care to place an extra napkin by his setting. She smiled fondly as she remembered how clumsy of an eater he was—once, when they were children, he had tipped his entire plate, gravy and all, into his lap. They had giggled about it for hours. Secretly Catherine hoped a similar occurrence would happen tonight, if only for old time’s sake.
And for the first time in the course of the day, Catherine let a slight nagging doubt creep up from within. She paused, closing her eyes. The doubt had washed up at numerous times leading up to this most important day, but she would not—she could not—let it get to her today. Today she was infallible; today she would not crumble, she told herself. Until now. Suddenly the silence she imposed on herself was ripped apart by a terrible fear of disappointment.
When he arrived, would he be able to relax? Would he remember old time’s sake, as she hoped he would, or would the experiences he’d endured plague him?
Worst of all, she feared being the cause of that journey down the slippery slope. If she said the wrong thing... it would mean disaster. Perhaps it would be best if she remained as silent as possible while he was here.
He trod lightly through the dust, trying his best to keep it out of his nose, for he knew that would only cause more damage if he were to sneeze. Something about this somber sight made Gareth feel unwelcome, and so he consciously tried to keep it as it was when he arrived. Stepping over a withered sprig of mistletoe, he gasped slightly at the sight before him.
Shards of glass in all shades were strewn all over the wooden floors of a living room. He followed the spread of glass to an enormous overturned fir tree, which had been dead for quite some time. Its branches were browned, and even the tinsel stretched over its limbs had lost its glimmer. More than anything in this house, the sight of the destroyed tree was what broke Gareth’s heart.
It felt like Gareth spent an eternity staring at the overturned tree. He could not look away. For the Elephante, it embodied everything wrong with this house. The whole scene, with the dead branches, the lackluster tinsel, the shattered ornaments, and the unseated star that should have rested on top, tore him up. Add to that the complete silence and Gareth felt crushed under the weight of it all.
He had not come. Why hadn’t Catherine considered this possibility? She was foolish to think that he would come, so soon after returning from what he had described as a living nightmare. It was absurd for her to think he would want to celebrate such a joyous holiday when he still suffered from insomnia, still seemed pale and tense. She was a fool, plain and simple.
She threw the cookies in the fire. She could not bear to think of them any longer, to smell what had become a nauseating stench of cinnamon. In her distress she caught the sleeve of her dress on an ornament and it smashed on the floor. She regarded it for a moment before calmly, without a hint of emotion, pulling the ornaments off one-by-one, letting them shatter on the floor. When all that remained on the tree was the tinsel, she yanked the entire tree to the ground, where it landed with an immense crash.
He did not want to become this tree, he realized. Gareth did not want Christmas to be some withered scene of what it once was. He recalled the amazement the holiday had instilled in him as a child. What had happened? Where along the way did Gareth lose this feeling? He could not pinpoint an answer. These sorts of things, he reasoned, did not happen overnight. It was a process. A series of choices that led to where he stood at this moment—in a deserted house on Christmas eve, alone.
With newfound determination, Gareth Rhinecombe walked swiftly out the front door, down the stairs, over the frozen gate, and down the path. As he was walking, he paused for a moment and looked up. He was suddenly aware he could hear the lightly falling snow.