Christmas was coming again, which meant it was getting darker and colder and lonelier. The sun would peep out for maybe an hour or two every morning, then it would roll over and fall back asleep, leaving everything grey and dismal and raw. As night fell on this miserable December evening, a light misty rain also started falling. By morning, it would coat everything in a hard, shiny crust of ice.
Mella Lardlee was a lifelong resident of the small harbor town of Mystic, Connecticut. She sat numbly in her adjustable recliner watching her TV shows as her little ratty Maltese dog Lulu sat at her feet. It was only 6PM but was already dark outside. She’d just finished eating a TV dinner—Swanson’s turkey with gravy and stuffing—and a slice of sponge cake. Like always, after finishing she put the tinfoil tray down on the carpet and let Lulu lick it clean.
Mella was a small woman with swollen ankles and thinning grey hair. Prematurely grey, actually. After tossing the TV dinner tray in her kitchen’s plastic wastebasket, she came back to her recliner, popped opened a bottle of room-temperature Scotch, and poured a few shots into an empty glass.
On the other side of the room was her Christmas tree, which she’d decorated two days after Thanksgiving. She hoped—weakly—that this holiday season would be the first one in ten years where the tree didn’t burn to the ground before Christmas Day.
Some years she’d be asleep when it happened; other years she’d be painfully awake. On those occasions she’d watch, helpless but mesmerized as the flames ate through every pine needle and branch, as they melted every plastic ornament and devoured all the tinsel and garland.
What was weird—and what she was afraid to talk about, even to her priest—was that it never burned anything else in the house, only the tree. It never harmed the gifts beneath the tree. Never left smoke marks on the ceiling. None of her neighbors ever smelled smoke or called the fire department. And even though the tree always had Christmas lights on it, there was never any electrical fire.
The neighbors could never understand why, year after year, she’d throw out a perfectly good tree before Christmas. Didn’t people usually wait until after Christmas to do it? The first few times they’d asked Mella about it, she was baffled. They’re seriously asking about why I’d throw out this oversized burnt matchstick? But after a few years, she figured they were just joking—every year she’d drag out the charred husk of what was formerly a Christmas tree, and every year they’d make the same dumb joke about a “perfectly good tree.”
On this Christmas, just like every one for the past ten years, Mella found herself both alone and lonely. Prior to the tragedy that ruined her life, her legal name was Mella Werblin—the wife of notorious longshoreman and union thug Bradley “Tex” Werblin and their three children—Biff, Bunny, and Bradley Werblin, Jr., AKA “Li’l Tex.” But after her family was taken away from her in that tragic pre-Christmas car accident, the Werblin surname felt too painful for Mella to bear any more—it was too heavy of a millstone to wear around her neck—so she switched back to her maiden name, which was Lardlee.
She spoke to her sister, Leola Lardlee, maybe once a year. Leola was her only surviving family member. Leola, who had moved to the West Coast in the late 1980s, had never married. The rumor in their hometown was that Leola had an affinity for other women, and everyone politely let it rest there without getting graphic or asking too many stupid questions. Mella had heard the lurid rumors about her sister, and she tried her best to ignore them.
Ever since the night the rest of her family died as she drove them home from a Christmas party, Mella had lived on Tex’s union pension and a life-insurance policy he’d taken out a few years before the car crash that would kill every member of the Werblin family except Mella.
Dead. All of them wiped out with one careless attempted adjustment of her rearview mirror while she should have been watching the road. They all went to heaven, while she escaped with a few bruised ribs and lifelong sciatica running down her left leg—hence the painkillers she’d gobble and wash down with Scotch.
Every year since she saw her family buried, Mella’s life proceeded with numb predictability just like the four seasons. And now it was winter again. First the really dark months, then the really cold months. The soft wheezing of the space heaters. The artificial smell of a ‘pumpkin pie and waffles’ scented candle. Watching TV, going to the store, coming home, unloading the groceries, eating, and then watching more TV. Watching her shows and drinking her drinks and swallowing her pills.
And every year, as some vain gesture that she wasn’t going to let it all destroy her from the inside out, she’d buy another Christmas tree, a freshly cut pine—a small one, because she couldn’t hoist anything bigger. And she’d decorate it. And under the tree, as a gesture of her undying love, she’d place the gifts that her husband and kids never got to open on that horrible, horrible Christmas. And every year the tree would spontaneously combust and she’d have to drag it out to the curb again. Every year, that tree became her cross to bear.
Whenever she’d talk to Leola, she never told her about the burnt Christmas trees. Then again, she never told her a lot of things. She never told Leola—or anyone else—that she was high on three Vicodin and five shots of Scotch the night of the car accident. She never told anyone what the dying screams of her husband and three children sounded like. She never told anyone why she refused to talk to police and instead asked to see a lawyer.
She never told anyone this because no one ever asked. They tiptoed around the subject because they figured she’d lost her family and had suffered enough.
Mella felt a sudden warmth, heard a crackling sound, and her eyes darted across the room. The tree was on fire again. That fire was hypnotizing; terrifying, but she couldn’t look away. So she sat there and watched it burn. So did Lulu.
After a few more shows and a few more shots, the tree’s last embers had stopped glowing. Mella picked up Lulu and marched off to bed. It was too late and she was too tired; she’d drag it out to the curb in the morning. And if anyone asked her why she was throwing away another perfectly good tree, she wouldn’t say anything. If she told them the truth, they’d think she was crazy.