And where is the magic? The magic you felt when you were sitting at the top of the staircase in that large, dimly lit room with the high ceiling, staring down through the banisters at the Christmas bells dangling over the fireplace. A fire being absent in the brick pit with dancing reflections glittering all around, but not in, causing the chill from the flurries outside to faintly remind you of their presence, like a covey of tiny teasing ghosts. There was some heat. It came from two orange glowing kerosene heaters that stood in the middle of each end of the big empty room. That’s why the designated spot was the very top step floating above it all, where the heat rose on either side of the staircase. There I was with my toes turned in toward one another and my arms wrapped around my knees.
The room was empty of material things despite a 112 year-old upright piano, an organ, a burgundy ottoman and a matching couch with broken springs — which is a story in itself which we will get to later. But this room was not empty of love, happiness, tragedy or ghosts. It was full of living things and dead-living things. But that made it what it was – frightening and exhilarating and comforting. Yet anything but contradicting. Almost indescribable.
Seven is an awkward age for anyone but especially for an over-exposed mind. I know what over-exposed means and I know that I am that. But if I don’t let myself be, I’ll miss out on the fun around me: hanging out with my only friends who are all about two or three years older than I with their girlfriends and their headphones and their bloody comic books and their sparkly eyeshadows.
My dreams are too big and the journey to achieve them will be much longer than my leash extends. Besides, I am only seven and trapped in an animate two story house where the kerosene heaters are purposely placed almost too closely to the Christmas tree, as though someone is just praying for the homestead to burn down. It would be such a shameful way to die – with a group of people in tacky Christmas sweaters and me in my red velvet dress with this big black ugly bow and itchy white stockings. I hate wearing dresses. Mine has a hole in it from where I snagged it building a fort in the snow earlier with Andy before the rest of the gang arrived. Maybe if I pick at it, the hole will grow so big that mom will let me change into my jeans. My shoes are pretty cute though. Aunt Trina knows shoes better than anyone and she bought these especially for me. Little black trendy platforms with a big buckle across the top like the girls from F.R.I.E.N.D.S wear – rubbery, bouncy, practical. Cute yet I can run as fast as I want and the thick tread at the bottom made it easier to beat Patrick in the tree climbing race. Maybe that’s where I ripped my dress? I don’t remember now. That was before I got into trouble and had to come inside and wash my hands and face. But the top of these stairs is kind of like the top of that dogwood. It’s airy and light. I get a rush up here looking down over everything: the stillness of a party that has yet to happen, but in moments this room will be filled with friends and family hustling around with the turkey, ham, and coconut cream pies and other various side items we eat at Christmas time.
Aunt Sherry will want to let me and the rest of the gang open our presents before we eat and Mema will distract her with a task so she’ll leave the presents alone. Aunt Lisa is probably in the den with everyone else. She’s fixing Stephen’s collar and telling Jimmy to stay out of desert while simultaneously on the phone with Edie, interrogating her why she’s late. That woman can multitask like a boss. Aunt Trina is in the kitchen rolling peanut butter balls which she always dips in molten chocolate and then sprinkles with powdered sugar. She’s bound to leave a few just plain peanut butter for me because they’re my favorite and because I’m deathly allergic to chocolate. If I go down there now, she’ll sneak a few to me before she puts them in the fancy cake plate she brags about finding at the antique store for eleven dollars. The plan is to run back into the big living room and eat them while no one is watching, then go back and ask her for more. She’ll “shew” me out of the kitchen but it will be worth it to make her smile. My mom ran to the store with Aunt Tami to pick up last minute stuff that everyone else forgot, but when she gets back, she’ll talk to me about why I kicked Andy in the shin in front of Louise, his new friend. She won’t be mad anymore once I explain I was only sticking up for myself. She also won’t be mad about my dress but she’ll spend a few minutes reminding me how I’m just like her. She’s 31 years old and still hates wearing dresses. Then she’ll smile, kiss me like a loving mother does, and tell me to go change into something I can play in. Then I’ll rejoin the gang outside in the snow. But I have to wait until she gets back or I’ll ruin it all. Heidi isn’t here yet, but when she does get here, she’ll come find me and yell up the stairs, “Hey Kiddo! What happened, your mama make you come in because you were showing the boys up… or trying to kiss them again?” To which I will reply with a snarky expression. She’ll wrinkle her nose back at me, replying in our secret cousin language. Uncle Tim, in his solid black ball cap with the embroidered bass clef, will poke at me with the grilling spork as I walk past the island that separates the kitchen from the den and he’ll tease that he isn’t going to leave any turkey for me because I’m a butterball already. Uncle Billy is sitting beside my dad on the leather sofa in the den, laughing at the Asian men on the tv singing “fah-rah-rah-rah-rah rah-rah rah rah” and then they’ll mock the syllables together and laugh until the next funny part comes up a few seconds later. Uncle George is in his room either getting ready to socialize or playing pc games. He’ll come out when Mema sounds her dinner bell of “Who is going to say the blessing?” or “The mashed potatoes are almost ready.” She has purple circles under her eyes from staying up all night cooking. They contrast with her bright white, Einstein hair. But she’s still running full steam ahead, giving commands loudly but in her gingerly way. Everyone must work together if we are going to eat on time – “on time” being thirty minutes later than advertised an hour ago.
My gang – they’re all outside playing hard without me until mom gets here. Except for the youngest member. She’s in the baby bouncer – a hooligan in training. It’s my responsibility she grows up to be the best of the bunch.
Despite being ten, younger than most of the kids, Andy is the leader. He calls the shots and gives us our orders. Even the bigger kids in the neighborhood know to do what he says. He’s an excellent rebel. We have so many missions planned for the rest of Christmas break. Today’s mission is to introduce his new friend to the guys and then we’re planning on attacking the Nazi lady next door with yellow snow balls we made out of the spot where the cat peed. Once we’ve made her mad, she’ll start cussing at us and threatening to run us over with her black Suburban. Britnay is Andy’s older sister. She cries a lot but she teaches me all about being a girl. She lets us play in her makeup and listen to pop music when my mom isn’t around. John is our defense. Where Andy is the brain, John is the stealth and muscle. I saw him beat up two boys at once who were picking on me and Michelle on the playground this summer. Tiffany is the giggly blonde of the bunch and John’s older sister. Daphanie is to Scooby Doo as Tiffany is to the Tatum tribe. That’s what we all are – Tatums. I’m technically a Campbell, but my mom is a Tatum, therefore, I identify as a Tatum as though it’s my race, my ethnicity. As though it’s a political party. As though it’s America and I’m a soldier that has dedicated my young life to defending it. It’s not that I don’t love my dad’s side of the family, but as you read on, you’ll learn about how the Tatum family has had its trials and through those trials it became a tribe where they nest their children together to prepare them for the future. I’m one of those children.
I hope we never leave here. This is Christmas and though I recognize a premonition, a distant darkness wanting to ruin everything, as of this moment that force is at bay.
(to be cont. in novel format)