A catacomb Christmas

In this holiday fiction, a young girl imagines an underground world beneath Sacramento that’s almost as scary as the one above

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

People say you can’t have love without trust, but Sara found out different. After her parents divorced, her father would pop back into their lives in a way that seemed whimsical but really had to do with his being flush at the moment. He’d whisk Sara and her brother, Spence, off to one of his spots along the Sacramento River, where he felt they could have a good time while he wet his whistle, thus killing two birds with one stone.

Sara was extra alert on these visits, an anxious tugging going on in her chest between the thrill of being with her father and the worry of keeping him on track long enough to make it safely home. Of course, she and Spence always swore to their mother that Dil wasn’t drinking, because that would have been the end of it.

The Christmas he lost Sara in his favorite bar, The Maltworm, started out differently.

This time, her father, Dil, drew a beat-up wallet from his hip pocket when he got to their mother’s and slid out what he proudly announced as “two Jacksons”—one for Sara and one for Spence—slapping them face up on the table. At 7 years old, Sara had never had $20 to herself before.

“Is it mine?” she asked.

“Merry Christmas,” said Dil. “That Jackson’s newly minted.”

Her heart spun. The Jackson curled into the bottom of her velvet-tapestry purse like a crisp fall leaf. The purse drew shut with a soft green sash, and the glass beads lacing the front made her feel old beyond her years. Dil was working construction in the capital city, and that’s where they’d spend Christmas. Spence, who was two years older and so mysteriously knew such things, said Sacramento had a second city buried deep beneath its streets. Catacombs, he explained, that formed an underground web of haunted, dank tunnels leading to iron-doored rooms where opium smokers used to hide.

Sara wanted to see this catacomb city and imagined, from her brother’s descriptions, the opium dens presided over by Chinese men in long, intricately patterned, hand-sewn robes, reeking of musky smoke that seeped from the mouths of carved dragon statues they kept burning in their temples.

When Dil overheard all this, his blue eyes crackled, and he knocked back his baseball cap, sending curly black hair tumbling down his forehead. He gave her what their mother called his bowl-you-over grin.

“That’s a good one, Short Stuff,” Dil said. “Chinamen under the streets. Ha ha! You can tell whoppers better than your old man.”

Sara had never thought of comparing Dil’s stories to hers before. As far as she was concerned, hers were based on truth. Dil just said things like “See you next week, Short Stuff” and then never showed.

Chastised, she reached into the darkness of the velvet-tapestry purse and smoothed her crisp Jackson. When she buried her face inside the velvet, the money seemed to have taken on the scent of Chinese dragon smoke: incense. She lifted the bill and traced the busy, fluted patterns along its edges. Mr. Jackson’s eyes looked grave in his disembodied head. The Chinese asked the gods for favors and burned their paper money in sacrifice, Spence said. Sara didn’t want to burn her 20, though. She wanted a stuffed koala bear for Christmas.

To Sara’s disappointment, Dil drove them to the river, where his friend from the framing crew waited with a boat. The boat loomed up out of the fog, moored to a rotting wooden dock that moaned and sank as they walked across it.

“Are we having Christmas here?” she asked, shivering in the wet air.

“No, stupid,” said Spence.

“Why not?” said Dil. “Look, here comes your first present.” And she tipped her head to see a big white ghost bird flying from the mist, dangly legged on a whump of wings. “Egret,” Dil said, jumping in the boat and reaching for her, his nicked and leathered hands circling her waist, his chin hairs poking when he hugged her. “Snowy egret.”

A cold, rank fish smell floated out. Tall, shaggy trees let go the last of their rattly leaves and sent them scooting and twirling over the brown river water. The boat rocked side to side when first Spence and then Dil’s friend, Larry, dropped on. Larry had donned a Santa hat for the occasion, long-jawed and droopy-eyed beneath the felt; he looked to Sara like the cartoon dog, Scooby-Doo.

“You’re not Santa,” said Sara. “I know that.”

Spence rolled his eyes. “She’s only 7,” he apologized.

Larry grinned and shouted instructions for untying the lines. He cranked the engine, and Dil pulled out glasses and bottles from the ice chest to make what he called Rob Roys.

They spent the afternoon bobbing around in the mist, ostensibly waiting for Christmas dinner to bite, and listening to Larry and Dil shoot the breeze. Sara and Spence pretended to be gold seekers shipping up the Delta from San Francisco in the 1800s. He was a gambler, and she a Chinese peasant, sold into slavery to save her family from starvation. Cocooned in the fog, the slip-slap of water against the boat sides melted with the clinking of the Rob Roy glasses and the occasional boat shapes sliding past. As a slave, Sara kept secret Chinese money in her purse, so she might one day buy her freedom, and it felt good to actually have the reassurance of the Jackson aboard as Dil’s voice grew happier and happier.

They got off the boat and drove into the city too late to see any catacombs under the streets, even if there were any. Dil, slung low behind the wheel of his battered Ford truck, had grown sentimental. “Look at these pretty lights, Short Stuff,” he said. “Spence, you keep an eye peeled for The Maltworm. I want a nice big Christmas celebration with my kids.”

Dil was fond of dark, let-down places from another age, where kids were still allowed at the tables beyond the bar. He liked tall, leather stools and marbled mirrors and laid-back, congenial bartenders, who invariably knew his name. Not that this was hard to do. You met Dil and knew his life history in 10 minutes flat, their mother always said. He had the gift of gab.

The Maltworm’s green plastic tree was decorated with tiny golden horns and angels. “That’s our tree tonight,” said Dil, squeezing them through the crowd to a table near it. “You still got your Jacksons?”

“I got mine,” said Spence.

Sara felt her purse and nodded. “Me, too.”

“Good,” said Dil, waving to the bartender. “After Christmas, you kids can buy yourselves whatever you want.”

Spence nudged his sister as they sat down. “Look,” he said, “old brick walls. That means we’re on top of the buried town.”

“Honest?” Sara studied the black, polished floor. It did seem thin, like the skin of a drum, as if other feet were walking beneath her own. And under the music and shouts and the clatter of dishes in The Maltworm, she thought she heard fainter voices and vague, subterranean shufflings. She pulled her purse onto her lap.

The bartender called out, “Hello, Dil,” in a wary voice that made Dil raise both hands, palms up, and call back, “Not to worry, man. I’m flush tonight.” To prove it, he ordered them steak sandwiches with fries, another Rob Roy and 7Ups with grenadine. While they ate, Sara listened to the sounds beneath the sounds from the catacombs and imagined the tunnels stretching out from her in all directions, like the spokes of a wheel.

After they ate, when the waitress came by to cock her hip at Dil and collect the bill, he pulled nearly all the money from his wallet and left it on the tip tray. He ordered another Rob Roy. He’d grown more sentimental. Sara and Spence were restless and begged to leave, so he gave them coins to play Christmas songs on the jukebox, while he rolled dice at the bar. His jokes wound through numerous thwonks of the dice cup and another Rob Roy, and Sara and Spence watched the crowd thin.

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

Excluded from the bar, they pulled chairs to the window to study the toy store across the street, its window framed in frost paint and Christmas lights. Tomorrow was Christmas, and they each had their Jacksons. They made lists of the trading cards, games and Lego sets they imagined their Jacksons could buy in there, and Sara bet Spence that one of the catacomb tunnels led directly there from The Maltworm.

Suddenly, Dil stumbled up, looking hangdog. “Hey, you two,” he said. “Guess what? I lost the round.” He flashed his bowl-you-over grin. “How about handing those Jacksons back?” he said. “Make your old man a loan.”

Sara looked at Dil and then at Spence. Her face grew warm, as if the winter sun that had finally leaked through the fog this afternoon was still pressing its hand on her cheeks. She gripped the satin cord of the velvet-tapestry purse. The battle in her chest, which raged whenever she was with Dil, went on the march. Whole armies thundered over the fields of her rib cage.

She shook her head no.

“Come on, Short Stuff,” Dil pleaded. “Where’s your Christmas spirit?”

She gripped the purse tighter. “You said it was mine.”

“Hell.” Dil frowned. “You’re just like your mother.”

This alarmed her. She shot a pleading look at Spence. But it was clear in that moment that no battle raged in her brother’s heart.

“You can have mine,” he piped up, in a voice that said he and Dil had formed a regiment that Sara could never hope to join. He’d already brought his Jackson from his pocket.

“That’s my boy!” said Dil. And he hauled Spence to the bar, where a wink to the bartender helped include her brother in the next round of dice, as if he’d suddenly grown up.

Sara sank down in her chair, fretting the beads on her purse. She glared at the plastic tree. She kicked the black, polished floor with her toes. She dug her fingers into the brick joints at her back. She hated Rob Roys. They’d made Dil forget it was Christmas. And now he’d taken one of the Jacksons back. Spence’s Christmas money! She ranted on in her head like this until she sounded like her mother, even to herself. Finally, she dropped her cheek against the velvet-tapestry purse and shut her eyes.

She’d fallen asleep. When she awoke, a waitress was staring at her like she was an overdue bill. The waitress had a gun-moll face and wore a fascinating amount of black eyeliner. The upper lids were drawn so thick she seemed to be leering at Sara from a dark cave, out of which great black wings flew toward her temples.

“Where is he? Where’s your dad?” She shook Sara so hard Sara nearly fell off the chair. Sara sat up and looked around, confused. Dil and Spence were gone.

They’d left her!

“Where do you live?” The waitress acted as if Sara was dumb as a post. She started feeling very small and stupid, sitting in that hard chair in a strange city in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve.

“I don’t know,” Sara said. The trouble was that she knew Dil was taking them to his hotel; she just didn’t know which one. She wanted to stay put until he remembered and came back for her, but the waitress, whose name was Geraldine, said nothing doing.

“We’ll leave a note on the door. You’re coming home with me.”

Outside, the fog had crawled from the river and scooped out the city, leaving a silvery mist in its place. The lighted toy-store window receded in the mist, as if it had been let go and was floating away. In a park across the street, the shadowy trees wavered thinly, looking oxygen-starved. Sara could have been under the streets, in the buried town, it felt so spooky.

Geraldine said her apartment wasn’t far. She took Sara’s hand just like Sara’s mother would do to cross the street, but her mother didn’t have pointy nails that dug into Sara’s palm. Sara looped the velvet-tapestry purse over one arm, and it bumped softly at her side. She glanced back once at The Maltworm to make sure the note was still on the door. They headed into the park’s dark maw, where the trees were not really trees at all, but the dark, sad ghosts of the dead Chinese whose bones had never returned home, their spirits forever doomed to wander in a foreign land.

Sara no longer wished to see the catacombs. She was so glad to survive the park that Geraldine’s apartment looked good, even if Geraldine did live above a store with Oriental vases and a carved jade Buddha in the window. They mounted some dusty, creaky stairs to get there, their shoes tap-tapping while Geraldine warned her not to make a sound, since children weren’t allowed.

The remarkable thing about Geraldine’s apartment was the shelf of storybook dolls above the couch. Sara had never known a grown woman to have dolls before. They weren’t like regular dolls, either. They had bright, intelligent eyes with moving lids and black lashes. Their hair fitted like a wig. And their cheeks were scarlet, as if they’d been out running. The girl dolls wore red, orange or pink ruffled dresses with little fur capes and hats. The boys wore satin dinner jackets or smart tuxedos and tails. Each doll had genuine, delicate, black high-heeled shoes, black patent-leather loafers or lace-up boots on their feet. The whole thing was wreathed in Christmas lights to rival the toy-store window.

“Don’t touch,” said Geraldine, who disappeared into the bathroom to count her tip money. Sara sat on the couch, holding tight to her purse. She just had to wait. Any minute, Dil would sober up, find that note and come after her.

Geraldine emerged from the bathroom. She moved a table and yanked a knob, and a bed fell out of the wall. The bed thudded down, a mattress on metal legs. “You can sleep in here with me,” she said.

Sara’s stomach reached up and grabbed her throat. She shook her head no. Anyone could see that the gap that bed left in the wall hid a secret passage down into the catacombs. After all, Geraldine lived right over a Chinese store! Sara would be asleep in that bed, and it would fold up and swallow her. And it wasn’t hard to make the leap from being trapped in the catacombs to being returned as a doll on Geraldine’s shelf. She probably stole a child every Christmas!

“Come on now,” said Geraldine, wheedling. She’d changed into her nightgown, black and frighteningly low-cut. “Get in.”

Sara gaped at a mole on Geraldine’s upper lip, scrubbed into view in the bathroom. “I won’t,” she said.

Geraldine lit a cigarette. She sent a diabolical stream of blue smoke into the room. “You will,” she said.

“I won’t,” said Sara, frozen.

Geraldine eyed her. “Do you know what I’m going through for you?” she said. “And on Christmas Eve, no less? I could catch hell. I could be arrested for kidnapping.”

“I want to go home,” said Sara. Why had she ever left The Maltworm? She longed to run back. But it was too late. She couldn’t remember the way. Her legs felt as heavy as bricks, as if her heart had fallen down to her shoes.

“You heard what I said,” Geraldine warned.

Sara’s world rocked, as if she were back on Larry’s boat. Then she remembered being a peasant with secret money in her purse. She crossed gingerly to the bed. She drew open her purse sash and pulled out her Jackson. She placed it on the mattress between them.

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

Geraldine’s lips parted, and smoke dribbled out. “Twenty bucks?” she breathed. “Where’d a shrimp like you get 20 bucks?” She eyed Sara suspiciously and glanced at her bathroom door.

“Daddy gave it to me for Christmas,” Sara said quickly. “But you can have it.” She left it on the bed and hurried back to the couch.

“Jesus, kid.” Geraldine took another drag on her cigarette. She got off the bed and came over carrying the Jackson, this time the smoke descending from her lips in a waterfall. She rose above Sara, her nightgown scratching Sara’s face. When Sara looked up, Geraldine had taken a storybook doll from the shelf, a blonde in a snow-white cape. The doll’s dress snapped in back, and Geraldine opened the snap, rolled up the Jackson and tucked it inside. She snapped the dress shut and replaced the doll.

“For 20 bucks, you can sleep in the bathtub naked,” said Geraldine. “Goodnight.” She turned off the light.

Sara curled up on the couch and pulled a cushion over her legs for warmth. Above her, the Christmas lights winked over the storybook dolls. She could hear the subterranean voices again, only louder, with the echoes of shuffling feet—a muttering, throbbing cacophony that rose up like ether and encircled her like a wreath. The storybook dolls’ eyes began to quiver. She shuddered. They were looking down at her.

Dil would never come. Sara lay there forever, waiting for his step on the stair, his knock, his cry of “There you are, Short Stuff!” But it was another man who finally came pounding on the door.

“Laura!” the man roared, rattling the knob, “you in there?”

“Laura doesn’t live here!” Geraldine roared back. She switched on the light.

Sara jumped up and ran over to Geraldine but stopped short of the wall bed and stood there trembling. “Who is it?” she whispered.

Geraldine glared at her as if her presence had brought a string of bad luck. “Grab the phone!” She pointed to a table across the room. Sara shook her head. She was stuck on the wasteland of the apartment floor. The man kept pounding. The door shivered. It wasn’t putting up much of a fight; the jamb splintered from the casing.

“Now!” Geraldine’s murderous look made Sara’s heart slam. She ran for the phone, snatched it and ran back.

Geraldine swore and punched in a number. “Laura,” she hissed into the mouthpiece, “call the police. Your old man’s here. He’s breaking down my door!”

The door groaned like a cranky tree in a wind, dropped toward them and stopped, hung up on one pin. A department-store Santa stood where the door used to be, sweat running down his scowling face.

His Santa suit was stained and torn, and beneath his hat, his face bulged oddly, like a bag full of marbles. He looked winded, as if he’d just now dug his way up from the bowels of the earth. He stormed into the room but stopped when he saw Sara. He blinked and stared at Geraldine. Geraldine grabbed Sara and drew her close.

“You’re scaring the kid,” she said coolly.

“I know Laura’s here someplace,” he cried. “You’d better tell me where!”

“Laura lives down the hall, you big ape,” Geraldine said. “You’ve got the wrong apartment.”

The door pin finally let go. The door crashed to the floor, and dust billowed up. A siren wow-wowed in the distance, and the fake Santa hung his hands as if waiting for the cuffs. Then he gathered himself and stormed back into the hall. But he didn’t have the energy to break down another door and came storming back.

“Liar!” he yelled. He crossed to the wall bed and in two strides had snatched Sara from Geraldine. “Tell me where Laura is or say goodbye to your kid,” he said. He smelled like cigars and sour beer. His Santa hat slid sideways, dragging off his cotton-ball hair.

“She’s not my kid.” Geraldine shrugged. “I found her in The Maltworm after my shift.”

Disbelieving, the fake Santa snaked his hand through Sara’s hair and lifted her up until her face was eye level with his. Sara’s teeth knocked together with a mind of their own, but the rest of her couldn’t move. He shook her gently, as if she were some curiosity he’d just come across. Then he yowled and tossed her across the room. She flew like the snowy egret at the river, moving so handily on whumping wings. She stopped flying when she met the couch, but the couch took over and threw itself against the wall, and the wall shuddered, and the storybook dolls leapt out and rained down around her.

The Christmas lights came, too.

“Now you’ve done it,” Geraldine yelped. “You’ve killed her!” Sara thought maybe she meant one of the dolls, since Sara was still alive, but the blonde doll with the white-fur cape was broken on the floor. Her Jackson had popped from the doll’s dress.

Sara squeezed her eyes, waiting for the spinning to stop. Her heart had unhooked and was pounding in her head. She prayed Santa wouldn’t see her Jackson, lying roped in the fallen, twinkling lights.

He didn’t have time. When she opened her eyes, a woman clung to his back, hugging his neck as if she loved him. But his face was as red as his suit from getting choked, and he spun, trying to throw her off.

“Damn you, Laura!” he sputtered. “Let go!”

It was like watching a cowboy ride a bull. They went bucking and kicking around the room. Sara was riveted to what would happen next. But she never found out, because just then Dil showed up. The way things happened, crunched together in time, made Sara believe that Dil had for some reason been in Laura’s apartment. And it comforted her to think he’d known where she was all along.

Later, Dil swore he didn’t know, and he referred to it for years as “the Christmas the catacombs got you.” And in his defense, he did look stunned, standing in the gaping threshold to Geraldine’s, white-faced and rumpled with his cap gone. “Short Stuff,” he cried. “Let’s get out of here!”

“Wait, Daddy.” She wasn’t dizzy anymore, but she still couldn’t move. It was strange, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave. The sirens were practically in the room. Laura and her boyfriend were careening around, and Geraldine was giving Laura instructions on how to poke Santa’s eyes out. Geraldine, in her low-cut nightgown, was so excited she was bouncing on the bed, and what Sara longed for was to see that bed rise up and swallow her.

Dil kept waving to Sara from the doorway. He didn’t seem capable of coming in the room. Sara looked at Geraldine, who wasn’t paying attention. She looked down at the blonde doll, broken on the floor. Her Jackson lay beside the doll. She jumped off the couch, grabbed the Jackson and ran for the door.

She ducked past the bull ride and headed straight for Dil, her velvet-tapestry purse still looped, remarkably, on her arm. When she got to him, Dil caught her up and hugged her hard enough to split her in two.

“You’re safe,” he wailed and smothered her with kisses. “Your mother is going to kill me.”

But of course, Sara never told her mother. She still loved Dil, even if she didn’t trust him. And, although she never quite got over being mad at Spence for leaving her behind, she knew it was only because he loved Dil, too. Besides, he swore he’d fallen asleep himself and that Dil had just been taking turns carrying them to the hotel.

Sara didn’t cry in front of Dil when he found her. But Christmas night, back home at their mother’s, she took off her jeans and discovered a bruise on her shin. It was a big, black and green streak gone soft like a spoiled banana. Seeing that bruise, she started to bawl.

When she stopped bawling, she opened the velvet-tapestry purse and brought her Jackson out. She rubbed it between her hands. The Jackson felt fine and gritty, like sandpaper, and smelled a dense, jungle green. It was too late to spend it on a koala bear now. It seemed best to hang on to it, knowing what she knew: that another town existed, buried deep beneath her own safe ground.