February fucking sucks.
Actually, this February is the only one that’s ever been really bad. Usually, February means Mom, Dad, my sister Cassie and I skulking through Miami International at 6am, luggage in tow, barely anyone around to soak up the morning sun and smell of too much coffee, to catch a flight to the land of lake effect snow, Syracuse. It’s such a stark difference, going from the beaches of Miami to a city that looks like it’s covered in sludgy marshmallow. My grandparents don’t live in Syracuse, exactly; they still live one rent-a-Volvo away in Pelopidas, a small town in a large valley that keeps the strange tradition of naming towns in the glacier emptied valleys of central NY after Greek and Roman politicians and cities.
This February though, the warmth of my Grandparent’s house, all pine and down comforters, christened by cold and snow, usually a welcome change during February break, feels less like it looks in movies and more like how it looks in people’s crappy Facebook pictures. Grandpa died in November, which meant I got one more trip to New York last year. It had already snowed, but we still stood outside in the cemetery said our goodbyes as they lowered his casket down into the ground, quarter-sized lumps of wet snow pelting our heads and intruding on our frozen grief. We stuck around for a few more days, my aunt and uncle and cousins piled into the house filled with cold cuts and baked ziti that no one in our family had bought but had still somehow materialized on every inch of every counter, just to make sure that Grandma would be okay. She insisted she would be, but I know that the loneliness would set in once we left.
Our trip to New York was always the bright spot in a barren post-Christmas landscape. Christmas break never seems to last long enough, and dragging myself back from days spent in front of a Legend of Zelda marathon instead of slogging though brain scorchingly boring high school classes is always far too difficult. January brings a welcome day off or two, but February break was always what kept me going, the thought of seeing Grandma and Grandpa for our ‘Second Christmas’, spending time in front of a roaring fire to gain back the warmth lost from Grandpa and I exploring the valleys that surround their house, is what kept me awake and tuned in on a week to week basis. After dinner, Grandpa would build said fire and, from his ancient celadon and moss patched chair, tell us stories of his time in the Pacific during World War II, how he and Grandma met in San Diego during his extended stay in the Navy, or the strange people he met as owner of the local theatre he opened when he and Grandma moved back to his hometown. He had met so many celebrities; Johnny Carson, Eartha Kit, Boris Karloff; even the Who.
His strangest story by a wide margin, however, was of the snow monster that lived atop the high peaked hill behind the house. He told the same story, of the time he was young and his Border Collie ran off after a raccoon and up the hill. Through the thick pines he chased the dog, calling after it until he found himself flat on his back in the snow, cold and out of breath. Over him loomed a terrifying creature, covered in green lichen with yellowing teeth and watery eyes. It let loose a broken roar and sent grandpa fleeing through the trees back home where he found the dog already at the door, pawing to get inside.
Frequent internet searches tell me the locals constantly report strange happenings in the town but no other sightings. The strangest thing about this creature was that every February, when we would have our make-up Christmas, Grandpa would, on ‘Christmas Eve’, forgo It’s A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street or even my dad’s favorite, A Muppet Christmas Carol and instead put on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, all the while pointing to the green monster on the television screen and, over Boris Karloff’s crooning voice, insist, “That’s him! That’s the monster on the hill!”
Our rent-a-car pulls up to Grandma’s house late Friday evening. It’s not a long flight from Miami to Syracuse, but we always leave as soon as Cassie and I are done with school and never end up getting there before 11.
The usual Christmas lights were not on the house, which should have been my first clue, but I thought maybe they just weren’t on. We step out of the car and into the slush, me frantically packing my Ipod away while Dad grabs luggage from the trunk, and we bound into a frenzy of hugs from Grandma.
The house was alarmingly different, not only because Grandpa’s larger than life presence was missing, but because there was no Christmas. No tree, no lights, no garland on the stairs or stockings by the fireplace.
Grandma sighs as we fumble into the living room. “I thought everyone was getting too old for all the decoration and fanfare,” she said.
It looks wrong. Incongruous, even. To see the snow outside, wet and stuck to the pines, but not Christmas inside is a spirit breaker. I feel what little anticipation I had built up deflate a little. I flop on the floor next to Grandpa’s chair and pick at a hole in my jeans.
My mom nods. “How are you mom? How’s the house doing?” she asks.
“Oh, it’s quiet. The deer will not stop eating the trees out back. Gus Spirilios -you remember John’s son? He came over and put those mesh things around the trees to discourage them but they keep coming back. Does anyone want coffee? Anyone hungry? Cassie?”
From the couch, my sister shakes her head no and pats the cushion. “Come here Grandma,” she beckons.
“I’m going to bed,” I mumble, and Grandma insists on giving me a hug and a kiss before I head upstairs and crawl under the flannel sheets.
I wake up the next morning to the sound of my mom opening the bedroom door.
“It’s 10:30,” she says. I mumble a strong nothing and close my eyes again after she descends down the stairs. “Let him sleep!” I hear my Grandma urge.
“It’s almost noon!” My mother cries an hour and a half later. She bursts into the room and opens the blinds, which, true to their name, blind me with the reflected light of a valley’s worth of snow covered peaks.
I pull the covers over my head and fume silently for a moment, pressing my head into the pillow. The bed is as warm and welcoming as I remember it always being.
I forcibly remove myself from the embrace of the down and flannel and flop down the stairs to stomach a bowl of cereal while the rest of my family sits in the living room and talks. Usually, Grandma has some fresh Christmas cookies I can steal after breakfast, but these too are absent.
“I didn’t even bother with a tree this year,” I can hear my Grandma explain.
“It’s okay, we don’t need one,” my Dad says.
“So what did you do instead on Christmas Eve instead of buying a tree?” Mom asks.
Cassie interjects: “People are always like, who buys a tree Christmas Eve? And I would tell them how my Grandma and Grandpa would do that just for us.”
She’s right; they would always wait until Christmas Eve and keep the tree up until we came and visited. Grandpa would jokingly decorate it as a President’s Day tree and a Martin Luther King Jr. tree while they waited for February.
I head upstairs and start to layer up on clothing, putting one pair of socks on, then long underwear, then another pair over that. I grab my heaviest hoodie and return downstairs. I put on my gloves, hat, boots and heavy coat that I keep here in New York. I waddle into the living room like an engorged penguin.
“Where are you going?” My mom asks.
“Outside.” I say, crossing to the sliding door that leads to the back porch and into the valley beyond.
“You can’t go outside!” My mom protests.
“Why not?” I ask.
“It’s too cold out there.”
“I’ve got layers, mom.”
“Well, still. There’s too much snow.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s the point. It’s not like we get a bunch of snow in Florida.”
“Why do you want to go outside?” She asks pointedly. My sister stirs uncomfortably and I feel my cheeks get hot.
“He can go outside if he wants!” My Grandma says.
My mom shakes her head and turns to my Grandma. “Mom, it’s too cold outside. Aren’t you a little too old to go out and play in the snow?” She asks disparagingly.
“I’m not going out to build a freaking snowman and make snow angels while I wait for Santa to read my letter,” I spit sarcastically. “I just want to go outside.”
“Why are you such a pain in the ass?” Cassie asks.
“Cassie.” My dad warns.
“Stay inside. Come on.” My mom urges.
“I don’t understand why I can’t go outside. It’s just outside.”
“Because you don’t need to go outside!”
“No one needs to do anything! I’m not going because I need to, that’s not the point! And I’m not a pain in the ass. I’ll be back soon, for Christ’s sake it’s only right outside!
“Fine! Go!” My mom shrieks.
“THAT’S WHAT I WATNED TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE!” I scream and it feels good to scream, to make some noise in a house that feels like an abandoned amusement park. I open the sliding glass door and a cold wind slices through and into the house. I leave it open for a moment, to remind my mom exactly where I’m going before stepping through the doorway and out into the quiet, white and green world.
I crunch through the most striking contrast between where I’ve grown up and where my Grandpa grew up, following the trail into the evergreens that he made years and years ago. It’s still well worn and well marked and I intend to keep it that way. I replay my mom’s biting words in my head, kicking up snow and punching my way through low hanging branches. I fume and fumble through the woods, not paying attention to where I’m going, stepping out of my way to kick at smaller trees in frustration. Snow whips around me as I head farther up the hill and, as I realize with a wash of cold sweat, well off the path. The world expands in a sickening lurch. My vision, once focused on the feet in front of me and how they could express my anger, now unravels outward up and all around me. The silence of snow meets my ears. My ever expanding vision is accompanied by ever expanding panic. The forest seems too large and too quiet; too damn depressingly empty around me. I try to keep calm, but my natural response to this seems to be to run faster and faster until I’m even more lost than I was before.
I stop walking and make a full 360 turn. Nothing looks familiar to me. I take a deep breath and fumble with my scarf and hat, trying to let some excess heat I’d built up out. It feels like I’m hiding a small star in my coat, threatening to burst and turn my stomach into some sort of black hole, primed and ready to feast on infinite quantities of white, wet snow.
I walk back the way I came, breaking into half a run. The path is completely gone, replaced in front of me by a sloping hill that, thanks to my quickening pace, I slip on, tumbling down in a violent storm of snow, dirt, pine branches and despondent curses. My cartoon tumble stops finally and I come to rest in front of a small clearing that looks out to another valley filled with houses. I desperately search to see if any look familiar before realizing that of course I wouldn’t know any of the houses and even if I did, what would I do next? Ask for a ride back to my Grandma’s house? I’d have no idea how to get back.
A crack splits the sky and rings sharply through the trees. It’s an incredibly familiar sound that I realize, with a fuzzy, nervous clarity, is the sound of a gun. I drop to the ground and stay there, trying to make myself smaller while frantically working out what kind of danger I’m in.
“Shit, kid! I thought you were a deer!”
I look up and see a man dressed in hunting gear, a long rifle in hand now pointed at the sky for safety. I mumble an apology and he helps me up.
“You okay?” he asks. His face is red and splotchy under a heavy mountain of layers. I nod and start to brush myself off.
“What are you doing out here? This is a designated hunting space, don’t you know that?”
“No, sorry. I’m not from here. I’m visiting my grandpar- my grandma. I got lost on the path.”
“Oooooooh yup, that’d explain it. Come on, I’ll take you back to the Nature Center. Do you have a phone?”
I shake my head no. I left my cell phone by my bed this morning.
“You can call for a ride from there,” he chuckles.
“Thanks.” I say, not wanting to go home but ready to get out of the snow. We trudge down the mountain, dodging pine trees until they thin out. The hunter, who, thorough talk of snowfall this month and diseases that are killing the trees, sneaks in that his name is Rudy, manages to also tell me about the sudden emergence of far more deer in this area. He talks all the way to the nature center, which is a large, wooden structure, designed to look rustic and alpine but offset by modern looking doors and windows. . We walk through an enormous set of glass doors that open automatically before walking through a second set and into an open room. I get the feeling that I’m walking into a snowy Jurassic Park. A full Mastodon skeleton greets me, set next to an ornate staircase in the middle of the room that runs to the second floor. Angled skylights grace the ceiling, letting bright, snow-white light inside in gluttonous quantities.
Rudy takes me to the Director of the Nature Center, an older, skinny man named Xander. “Short for Alexander,” he tells me, shaking my hand.
Rudy claps me on the shoulder and says goodbye.
“I’m gonna see if I can get at least one before sunset,” he says jovially.
Xander looks at the clock. “You’ve only got a couple more hours!” He calls to the man’s back. Rudy raises a hand in acknowledgment and laughs. I still can’t get used to the sun setting at 4:30 here, but these guys have known it all their life.
“I’m not sure I know you,” Xander says leading to me to a sort of large, open cubicle where his desk resides. The skeleton of the Mastodon looms overhead as if to say, we’re all here because the ice age, am I right? He sits at his desk and I have to suppress a bit of a laugh because he looks like a man in a Boy Scout uniform or like a Park Ranger from a Hanna Barbera cartoon. He even wears the wide-brimmed hat and an orange and white checkered ascot. He moves with the grace of an old movie star.
“I’m visiting my Grandma from Florida,” I say. He asks my name and when I tell him my name and my Grandma’s name, his features depress themselves into sorrow.
“Your Grandpa and I go way back,” he says and sighs. “I was heartbroken when he passed. I think I remember seeing you at the funereal, now that I think about it.”
“I miss him,” I say, and Xander nods knowingly.
“Did he ever tell you,” he says dreamily, taking off his ranger hat and setting it on the desk, “About the time the snow monsters on the hill came down and tried to steal Christmas?”
I narrow my eyes and sit down.
“There used to be two monsters, you know, but back in…oh let’s see, this was ’41…there had been more and more sightings of the creatures. Then, and I’m not kidding, Christmas Eve, they came down the hill and snuck through town in the middle of the night. They smashed their way into houses and stole presents and even stole the lights we put up on the big tree outside of town hall. But! Your Grandpa and I, we were up late with Phil Cazzarelli and John Spirilios, both dead now too, over at John’s house, oh about quarter mile down the road from here, and the monsters tried to break in. As soon as they saw us they turned and ran.
John grabbed his Dad’s hunting rifle and Phil grabbed a net and I grabbed flashlights and we chased them down. Your Grandpa kept shouting about not hurting them, about wanting to talk to them, but John and Phil didn’t care. The two monsters split up, so Phil and John followed the one. Phil almost caught it with the net, but a Spruce tree cut the thing when he threw it too high. But John, now John never missed a shot when we went out hunting, even when it was dark. And when we hit the clearing up by Drucker Pond, he shot the thing square in the back.
Well, the monster was on the other side when John shot it, so before we got around the other side of the pond, the other one comes crashing through the trees, roaring like a gorilla. John could’ve shot it, but none of us wanted to stick around after we heard that thing scream. We got down the hill back to John’s place but your Grandpa was nowhere to be found. So we start calling his name and finally he pops out of the trees about twenty yards away. He caches up to us, all out of breath, and says that he called after the thing, asked it to wait, but it just scooped up the body of the other monster and walked back up the hill.
So we start to head back when your Grandpa pulls out this little box and says he found it buried in the construction site that was all set to become this very nature center. We get back to John’s house and open it up and inside is, well…”
Xander reaches into the top drawer of his desk and pulls out an oversize, ornate bronze key. Lines of silver glyphs are carved into the surface and, as he holds it up in the light, I can make out an inscription:
“Your grandfather kept that key as proof of the night we encountered the monsters. He was fixated on the idea that the key belonged to the monster, that he wanted it back. We told him he was nuts, it was just an odd key buried somewhere, but he wouldn’t listen. He took the key with him when he joined the Navy, where his CO was a Princeton Grad with a degree in Linguistics. Even he couldn’t tell what the inscription on the key were.”
Xander leans back in his chair and heaves a sigh as dense as the forest.
“Your Grandfather came by for a visit a few months ago. He gave me this key, but I think you should have it.”
“He gave it to you.” I respond, my taking the key an opposition to what I’m saying.
“I don’t know what this key is or what is does, but your Grandfather seemed to think he knew. Whatever it’s for doesn’t matter anymore, what matters is that you can carry a little piece of him with you.”
The key feels cool in my hand and I swear that as I stare at it, it gives off a high, clear tone, like someone running a wet finger on the rim of a wine glass. It’s strange to think that this is something my Grandfather took with him everywhere, at least for a small part of his life. It was with him when he served in the Navy in World War II, when he met my Grandma in San Diego after the War. He even took it back to New York when he came back and bought the theatre.
And through this, the inescapable thought that this key never really belonged to him crashes lazily around my brain. There is something more to this key; whatever innate sense Grandpa had was right.
“Let’s call your folks, shall we?” Xander says as he pulls out an old school rolodex. He dials a number on his phone and waits as it rings. “I’m glad to have met you,” he says to me as the phone rings, “Sharing stories of your Grandfather was as much a treat for me as I’m sure it was for you. Maybe while we wait I’ll tell you about the time he and your Grandma and I drove all the way to Rochester to see Perry Como- Hello?”
When I hear my Grandma’s voice on the other line I decide to run for it. Now might not be the time for this but there is something in this key, something unfinished that my Grandpa surely would have wanted me to do. I hear Xander call after me, but I’m faster and he gets tied up in trying to explain what’s happening on the phone and trying to put the phone down and chase me. I speed through the enormous glass doors and tear around the building, not knowing where I’m going but sure that somehow, I’ll get there. All the while, the inscription on the key floating in front of my field of vision, like the afterglow of sparklers on the Fourth of July; the more they burn my eyes the more they resolve themselves clearly into a word, one I can’t believe is churning in my head, one I need an answer to.
I can tell it’s getting darker, but I bumble frantically through the snow. The key acts like some sort of diving rod, singing louder if I head in what I can only assume is the right direction and staying quiet if I make a wrong turn. Soon, the tallest hill in the valley resolves itself from the dense canopy of trees and the key adds a second tone, one that harmonizes with the first and creates the illusion that I have a tiny choir in my hands.
The hill gets steep as I march closer to the sky, which does its part by darkening ominously as I get closer. When the key sings a third tone and an angelic chord sounds from my hands, I know I must be close. Sure enough, there is an outcropping of rocks that forms a cave. Squinting, I can see the dim light of a fire somewhere deep inside. Every bone inside me screams not to go in, to do anything else, to roll down the damn hill and see where I end up, but I know I have to go in. I didn’t come this far not to.
The cave splits into two paths only a short way in. In one direction, the key practically sings an ‘Amen’ to me; the other, murderous silence.
I take the right path and follow the squandered light from something deep inside. Strange groans join my humming friend and soon the mumbling of a voice pricks my ears. I reach the end of what I hadn’t noticed was a sloping hill as it resolves itself into an atrium of sorts, a high walled portion of the cave. In front of me is a sheer wall about 10 feet high with an ornate wooden staircase leading up.
Part of me wants to believe that I’ll meet not the monster up there but I’ll discover that it’s just some old farmer named Old Man Biggs or Farmer Smith in a mask who, Scooby-Doo style, will reveal to me that he found some valuable substance here in the cave and he’s only scaring people away because they want to take his cow land away.
The top of the staircase is behind me now, and I’m in what appears to be some vile imitation of a living room. The cave is almost dome shaped here, like a birdcage with a blanket thrown over top. A beautiful red Persian rug offsets the cave floor. The far end of the wall holds a fireplace carved of stone, more of a hearth than anything else. Torches line the walls and spill flickering light onto a couch and matching love seat. An enormous desk, overflowing with books and papers sits against the farthest wall. On top of it, bookshelves line the walls. Another, more crude staircase leads to some unknown portion of the room. To my right, a door twice the size of me sits, made of stone the color of graves, detailed carvings of elk and pine trees forming an upside down U shape around it.
A green blur shocks me from my right side and a roar, somewhere between a car engine and a polar bear, blasts my eardrums. My brain desperately tries to make sense of the sound as it turns me around and pushes me to the ground at the base of the loveseat.
I look up and meet a set of yellowing eyes, wet and sharp. The creature has a sort of white fur that barely peeks out through a strangling amount of pale green lichen. It looks almost fuzzy in the dim light, the lichen covering it from head to toe, as if a tree came to life. It has a wide, pear shaped body, with thick legs and thin, taught arms that can’t be more than just muscle and skin and fur. A thin neck supports an almost otter-like head, complete with whiskers but without ears. It has canine teeth in its top jaw and horse-like flattened teeth on the bottom row. It roars at me again, pinning me against a chair.
“Please!” I sputter, “Please, I only wanna talk. And I know you can talk. No creature has a couch and a desk filled with books that can’t talk.” I unleash more anger than I want to in this statement, mad at myself for being here and running away but mad too, at this monster for thinking me so dumb as to think I see it as another wild beast.
The monster clamps its mouth and narrows its eyes, straightening itself. It has a fat, flush nose with almond shaped nostrils, which flare menacingly at me for a moment. The lichen that covers its body is a darker green in some places and almost white in others.
“Forgive me,” he says in a voice completely not fitting the beast that it comes from. He sounds like Noel Coward reciting his thesis, like Stephen Fry reading the encyclopedia.
“You’re the Grinch,” I say, and it sounds just as dumb coming out of my mouth as it sounded in my head.
“Would you like something? Some port, perhaps?” he asks.
“Nothing takes the chill out of your bones like a little port,” he says, crossing to a refined looking bar and pouring two glasses. “Come, please, hang your coat and sit.”
I stand and do as he asks, accepting the port that he offers. He sits in the loveseat and takes a sip. I follow suit. The port really is warming, even if it does taste like someone put their cigar out in a cherry.
“Thank you,” I say, giving him a slight toast. “I’m sorry for barging in. I didn’t think you’d… well…”
“You didn’t think I’d welcome you, let alone wish to talk?” he offers.
I nod. “I expected… Well, I don’t know what I expected. I guess I thought you’d try to rip me apart and eat me. Anyone who’s met you seems to get that greeting.”
“My dear boy, there is a wide margin between entering with a ‘Hello’ on your lips and entering with a gun in your hands.”
A moment of silence passes. The Grinch seems content to sit and enjoy his port. I have too many questions to ask, so I settle for nothing for a moment.
I find one. “How did you get all of this in here? The couch and stuff, I mean.”
He polishes off his port and stands to refill his glass. “This is only a small part of a larger cave which I used to call home. Many years ago, I lived in another world, one of many of my people. We lived in the caves above another race of people, the Suntermilactarianistvunderststs.”
“The who?” I ask. He gives me an ironic smile.
“Funny you say that. They called their village Who-Ville,” he pronounces the word in such a strange way, more like Hyuo-Fil, that it takes me a moment to understand he said Who-Ville.
He continues: “Every winter, my people and I would carry on a tradition that spanned centuries, wherein which we would sneak down to the town and interrupt their Winter Festival. It was always in good fun, you see. Their mayor would pretend to take offense, we would destroy a few things, steal gifts and eat their food, until finally the smallest child of their people would make an offering to us. Then the party would commence in splendid fashion.
It was a reenacting of the first meeting of our people, before any contact had been made. It looked as though my people would destroy their village entirely, when one of the children made a peace offering. From then on, our two races formed a symbiosis.
In return for this act and for a share of their crops the rest of the year, we protected their village from all manner of fearsome creatures that would otherwise see them as a fast meal.
One year, I lead the procession down and into the village, but no gay horns or tempting feasts greeted us. There was no Winter Festival. The Mayor’s wife had been dragged off and mutilated by a pack of Rtrs the night before,” I open my mouth to ask what a Rtr is, but The Grinch waves my question away.
“You did not protect her! The mayor shouted at me. I attempted to explain that we did our best, but accidents happen. They had before. But this particular mayor, a young one who had previously shown disdain for our traditions, rebuked me. He and a group of his strongest, armed for battle, offered us an ultimatum: Stay or Die.
I wanted no bloodshed, so we left. I would give the young one time to calm and mourn, then try to establish a fresh, new rapport.
The mayor did not see things my way. He had one of his most deft wizards follow me home. When I was warming myself by the fire that night, he snuck into my cave, closed me in this room, cutting me off from the rest of my home, and sent this room away to another world.”
He points to the cathedral-like door. “I was enraged and alone for quite some time. Everyone I had ever known was gone and I was stuck in this strange, foreign land. I was completely abandoned. Then, one glorious summer evening, my cunning Sister walked through the door. She held a key triumphantly in her hand, beckoning me home.
Unfortunately for us, the key she had fashioned to link me home via that door had been discovered by the Suntermilactarianistvunderststs. They sent the wizard in after us. He put a spell on the both of us and stole the key. Rather than bring it back to our world and risk it being discovered, he decided to hide it here in this world. I can only assume he killed the keymaker upon returning, because no one has come for me since.”
The sound of the fire, burning and popping fills the room. I can feel the key in my pocket, now silent but heavier than ever. I consider giving it to him, but can’t shake the thought that Grandpa never did. There must have been a good reason.
I can’t help it anymore, so I ask: “Do you know that you are the main character in a children’s story?”
The Grinch gestures behind him to his desk. In the dim light, I hadn’t noticed how high the bookshelves stretched to the ceiling, but now that he points it out, I can make out books spanning at least twenty feet high. Ten feet of shelves is made up of an assortment of the same book, in various publications, through the years. I stand and, squinting in the firelight, I can make out How the Grinch Stole Christmas on each and every copy. They come in a myriad of colors, with mostly red, white and green spines. Some are old and dirty, some new.
“I collect them. Whenever I can take a copy from somewhere, I do. From houses, libraries, even the bookstore in town. I sneak into town often for supplies.”
That explains the port.
“How?” I ask, pointing to the books. I need to know how he came to be a character in a book.
“From what I understand, someone told my story to this Dr. Seuss person.”
“Wow.” I say, admiring his collection.
“You didn’t ask what happened to my sister,” he remarks dryly. I can’t quite make out the tone with which he says this. Was it anger? He seems calm, but there is a terrifying ferocity in him. I try to remember not to let the British fop in him lull me into letting my guard down.
“I know what happened to her.” I say, locking eyes with him. He tilts his head up and narrows his eyes.
“I think,” I begin, “I think you knew my Grandpa. He told me stories about you. Earlier today, I learned some friends of his shot your sister when he was young. I also know that he tried to talk to you. Many times. I think you met him. I think that he also came to you with a hello instead of a loaded gun.”
The Grinch sets his drink down and slowly walks to the silent, useless door, staying silent for a while.
“I was inconsolable in regards to my sister,” he pauses, as if expecting an apology. I certainly don’t owe him one. “We were depressed and angry at being trapped here. We thought trying to revive the old tradition, this time with the humans in village down the hill, would cheer us up. We weren’t trying to steal Christmas,” he elongates last two words with a poisonous amount of disdain.
“I paid them back though. I descended from my mountain peak and killed their most beautiful, most fertile girl. I watched and waited and, one night, when she and her lover had parked their car, I flung open the door and dragged her out. The young man she was with begged me not to kill her, to take him instead, but I slashed her chest open and left her to die. That was the third time I saw your Grandpa.”
Grandpa never told me that story. He did tell me his high school sweetheart was killed, but never by the monster. Never ripped apart. My head spins at the image of my Grandpa, looking on as The Grinch tore his first love to shreds. I grab the desk for support.
“My Grandpa wanted to talk to you. He never wanted to kill you.”
“Still. I learned a lesson that night to leave humans alone. Too much unnecessary bloodshed.”
I shift uncomfortably, surreptitiously checking that the key is safe.
“It was your Grandpa, you know, who told my story. He told me that while stationed in a Naval base in San Diego, he met Dr. Seuss. He told him my whole story.”
“Which means you my Grandpa your story.”
“Yes. I remember, only a few years after the incident with my sister and the girl, he came. I chased him out, but he kept coming in, insisting that he only wanted to talk. He said he was to be shipped away to another part of the world to fight a war. Not his own personal war, but his country’s war. I relented, and we talked for a while. When he left, he turned to me and thanked me. I asked him why ever would he thank me, and he told me, If knew you weren’t a monster. I accept that I might die out there in the Ocean, but I couldn’t leave without you knowing that someone in this world cared to hear what you had to say.”
My eyes fill with tears. “He was a great man.”
The Grinch doesn’t seem surprised to hear me talk of him in past tense. “Even now, after all this time, I’d give anything to go back,” he says, despondent. He traces the patterns of glyphs on the door. “I miss my family and my people. I miss my world. It’s too hot here in the summer, too cold in the winter. I’d do anything to make things go back to the way they were.”
He’s moves behind the couch now, talons gripping the fabric tightly.
“I didn’t see your Grandfather again for a long time. Last year, however, he paid me a visit. He told he had something to apologize for. He said that he could not forgive me for killing his love. He said he had something that I needed, that he never gave to me. He said he had given it away. I didn’t deserve it, he told me. When he had come to see me all those years ago, he was so sure he wouldn’t return from the war. Then, he could offer me understanding, but not forgiveness. In seventy years, he said, that had not changed.”
He moves closer to me now, the fire casting wild shadows on his otter-like face. He looks more brown than green in the light, like he’s part of the cave walls.
“I realized later that he meant he had my key. He had my way home. If I hadn’t killed his love, he would’ve given it to me. Of course, I wouldn’t have killed her had his friends not killed my sister.”
“Which they wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t broken into people’s houses and terrorized them!” I protest.
“He had my key. So I came down from my hill and found his house and I asked him where it was. When he didn’t tell me, I killed him.”
My body coils with rage. I want to attack, to cry and bash his stupid face in, but he’s pressing me back towards the cliff face.
“He didn’t have the key, lad. It only follows that he gave it to someone else, someone special, perhaps. Maybe his Grandson?”
“No!” I cry. And I realize, in a sad way, that I’m right. He didn’t give it to me. Grandpa knew I would be in danger if I ever had the key and yet, like an idiot, I walked right to the most dangerous place I could possibly be in.
“I THINK YOU DO!” he roars. I see his arm raise, feel the talons ripping me apart, scattering me to pieces across the floor like a piece of glass, where I reflect the fire one thousand times over as he crushes every part of me to dust.
Instead, I’m shocked to hear my second gunshot of the day. A bullet whizzes above my head and through The Grinch’s arm. He howls in pain, stumbling back into the couch.
“Leave him alone you freak!” the last voice I ever expect to hear shouts. Cassie, my sister and now savior, comes bounding up the stairs and levels a hunting rifle at The Grinch. He rises, but stays where he is.
“Xander told us you had run off. You are a complete idiot, you know that?” she says to me.
“Yes,” I mumble.
“Don’t ever come near my family again.” She says to The Grinch. He growls a ferocious growl. She turns to me. “Come on, Theo.”
I don’t want to turn my back, because I’m scared he’ll come after us, but as I look him in the eye one last time, I see something. It’s sorrow. It’s complete despair, a loss of control; the inability to go back. And I can help him.
“Wait,” I say to Cassie. I pull the key out of my pocket and cross to him. I place it in his hand. “You can go back, but I’m not sure it will be the same. It’s not my choice though, just like it wasn’t my Grandpa’s. It’s yours.”
He grasps the key and his yellow eyes fill with tears. He only nods, looking at the ground instead of at me.
My sister and I turn and leave the cave, carefully navigating our way back down the mountain.
“Thanks.” I say as we walk through the snow. She pulls me into a one armed hug and holds me close as we head back, following the trails my Grandpa had painstakingly made through forest and back to his home.