The aspens, having shed the last of their leaves, waded through a sea of decaying foliage. When afternoon melted to dusk they would stand still and phantasmic in the dimness, poking up through the ground like the remains of some monstrous skeleton. It was four o’clock and something in the kitchen was boiling over.
“Oh, Ruthie!” cried Meg, wresting the troublesome child away from the stove and gripping her shoulders. Ruth, eyed her mother vacantly as she castigated her. “You could burn yourself! Or worse!” Perhaps because of her tendency to trail an ever-growing horde of loud, unlikeable and, more often than not, distastefully sticky children, Meg was not a favourite at gatherings such as these. But such was the cost of Thanksgiving: for the food and a chance to stay rent-free at the family’s old house in the Catskills, acceptable company had to be sacrificed. Meg’s sister Anne watched from across the room, where she leaned against the doorframe, glowering irritably.
“Are you going to turn down the heat?” she snapped. Meg frowned back.
“Yes. God, Anne.” Her sister shrugged and picked at her fingernail polish, which was flaking off in grains of dark blue all over her hands.
“Huh. It’s already off,” she remarked, brow crinkling. “Could’ve sworn it was just on. The potato water was boiling, right?”
“I don’t know. You’re probably just going senile.”
“Please, I’m three years older than you.” Pushing the child out the door with a vague suggestion to go play, Meg wiped her hands of some imperceptible grime and joined Anne in the doorway. She slumped against the wall and released a deep sigh.
“Sad about Opa?”
“Hm? Oh, a little, I suppose. Surprised, mainly. First big death in the family since before Gil was born.” Gil was the oldest of the three, and at that moment sitting on the porch in a rocking chair and attempting to get his laptop to work. Although he was by then known in the family for his aptitude with up-to-date technology, a part of him missed the days when he could take out his distress on a malfunctioning desktop that could endure a bit of banging. For mysterious reasons, the porch seemed to have the best internet connection, and even there it was faulty at best. His frustration had built to the point that it was almost a relief when one of his nieces interrupted his work.
“Uncle Gil?” His laptop slapped shut, seemingly of its own volition.
“Rachel!” he exclaimed, his enthusiasm a bit too overacted to be convincing, “I was hoping you’d turn up.” He waggled a finger at her and chuckled through gritted teeth. “Always… Always underfoot, aren’t you?” He extended an arm to ruffle her hair, but she evaded his reach and plopped herself down on the top stair.
“Will you play with me?” He laughed again, as if she were telling a phenomenal joke.
“I don’t think so, kid. I’ve got work to do. Why don’t you go play in the woods, all right? Just be home in time for dinner.” He was already typing in his password again. She stood up in high dudgeon and glared witheringly at him.
“My name is Ruth,” she informed him before marching off into the trees. Clad in nothing but socks, her feet were quickly soaked by the moisture that bubbled up from the carpet of damp leaves. Beneath, the rotting darkness crawled with beetles and citadels of ants which rose and fell in a day. It struck her that it was uncomfortably chilly, but spite and the idea that they might all regret having brushed her off steered her deeper into the forest.
Oma stormed into the kitchen. When the old woman stormed, thunder seemed to roll and crackle in her wake, which was unfortunate seeing as it was not a terribly uncommon occurrence. The two women standing over the boiling potatoes started at the harsh timbre of her voice.
“I don’t know what my son was thinking when he remarried that woman or how thick her imbecile blood runs in you two, but do try to get a hold on yourselves,” she crowed. She pushed them away from the stove and jabbed sharply at the skinned potatoes with a wooden spoon. They bobbed dispassionately. “And now they’re overcooked. Must I do everything in this household for anything to be done properly?”
“Oma, they’ve only been on for twenty—” The matron cut Meg off with a wave of her hand.
“Just set the table,” she grunted. They both scurried off to the next room, equally yielding to their grandmother’s command. “And try not to mess that up, too!” she shouted after them.
As the family converged at the dining table for Thanksgiving dinner, the atmosphere of ambient hostility swelled in a terrible, drawn-out crescendo. Meg’s innumerable children couldn’t be kept track of or kept still, much to Anne’s conspicuously conveyed disgust. Gil’s girlfriend was visibly nauseated with nerves, and he made no attempt to set her at ease; his sisters and parents took turns casting suspicious glances at her. As per tradition, Oma insisted on serving, but refused to fill her daughter-in-law’s plate, causing her son to threaten their leaving before desert. Just as their squabbling gave way to a bitter turmoil of dyspeptic voices, a crashing sound from above silenced them all.
“What was that?” asked Gil’s girlfriend meekly after a moment of startled quiet. Another few seconds passed before anyone dared speak.
“That was Opa’s study,” replied Oma. Gil huffed.
“Opa hated people going in there. I thought you said you got rid of the key, Oma.”
“I did,” she said slowly. There was another crash then, somewhat more insistent, from another room.
“What was that?” asked Gil’s girlfriend again, voice climbing in pitch. Meg stood up so quickly that her chair skidded back across the floor.
“That’s the room Ruthie was staying in. Where’s Ruth?” Not a second had passed before they were all on their feet, yelling her name. So quickly did they scatter that none but Anne, who kept leaning back in her chair with her arms crossed, noticed when a soggy child quietly let herself back into the foyer and peel off her socks.
“So, you came back,” observed Anne dryly. Ruth’s eyes widened slightly at the realisation she’d been seen.
“Opa told me I had to.”
“He did, huh?” She wasn’t laughing, though her mouth was bent into a crooked smile; her tone occupied some vague space between indulgence and credence. The child’s frown deepened.
“He also said you should be nicer to each other,” she said. Looking embarrassed, Anne sidled over to give the child a brief side hug before retreating into the dining room.
“You should tell that to everyone else.”
If there was a shift in the family’s behaviour that night, they would have vehemently denied it. Nonetheless, watching through the window, outside in a cold that troubled him no more, a certain ghost decided that his work was done.