“Right, that’s it; I’ve got his room ready. Just how he left it.”
Jim despaired as his wife came down the stairs. He took the vacuum cleaner from her and returned it to its cupboard.
“Oh, no! Don’t you start!” she breezed past him. “I haven’t time for your negativity. I have to make his favourite biscuits.”
Jim sighed. Every year it was the same. He knew and she knew those biscuits would go uneaten and eventually be put out for the birds. It would be the same this year and every year henceforward. Their son would not be home for Christmas.
While the biscuits were cooking, Rosie checked the travel information websites, looking for news of road closures, train cancellations, delayed flights, anything that might account for her son’s postponed arrival.
“Rosie, love,” Jim gently closed the laptop. “You have to stop this. You have to move on. He’s not coming home. Ever.”
Rosie shook her head, eyes brimming. “It’s going to be different this year! I know it is! He will come back, he will! I’ve been told he will.”
Jim frowned. “What do you mean, you’ve been told?”
“While I was shopping in town today, I went to the Christmas market. And I saw a little stall at the end of a row. I thought it was empty but a woman appeared and beckoned me to come with her behind the shutters. I thought, hey up, something’s dodgy but then she said his name – she said Steven’s name! – so of course I went with her and she told me she had a message for me – for us – from Steven. And that message is he is coming back for Christmas! Oh, isn’t it wonderful?”
It was Jim’s turn to shake his head. “And much did it cost you, this supposed message?”
Rosie shrugged. “It’s not about the money. It’s what she said. Steven is coming home at last!”
Jim ran a hand down his face. Damn that gypsy fortune teller or whoever she was! Preying on my poor, grieving wife! Steven won’t be coming home. That was the unassailable truth of it. Steven is dead, and I should know, Jim wailed inwardly, because I killed him.
Oh, I didn’t mean to. It was purely accidental. An argument that got overheated. I lashed out. I didn’t expect – and, oh God, I’m so sorry, Steven, I’m so sorry, Rosie – our beautiful boy.
There was a knock at the door.
Rosie jumped up with excitement. Could it be…
Jim hurried to the hall, to get to the front door before she could.
It couldn’t be Steven, it couldn’t be! Jim had driven hundreds of miles to bury the body in a remote forest. There was no way on Earth…
There was another knock at the door.
“Go on, then!” Rosie swatted at him. “Let him in.”
Jim blocked the door. “No. No, love. It’s not him; it can’t be.”
“That woman said –”
“I don’t care what that woman said. She was lying to you. Taking advantage. It’s not Steven. It can’t be!”
“Well, open the door and we’ll see about that.”
The knocking continued, becoming louder and more insistent. Jim’s stomach sank and his legs trembled.
Behind him, the letterbox rattled. Blue-grey fingers poked through and a voice, harsh and croaky but still recognisably their son’s said, “Hello, Mum. Merry Christmas! Hello, Dad. We need to talk.”