Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
The woman didn’t think she believed in love at first sight until she met him. It was New Year’s Eve, and she was on her first vacation in four years, running away from the heartbreak of another failed relationship, another Christmas alone. Sitting alone at a pub in Scotland, the man slid into the seat next to her and asked if he could buy her a drink.
He apologized right after, said he didn’t mean to disturb her, and that she could say no if she wanted. But there was something about his demeanor and the way he shifted nervously in his seat that made her say yes. He had smiled at that, and she found it endearing the way it tugged at the corners of his eyes and made them crinkle.
She fell in love over the course of that first drink, and when he invited her to join him on a tour of Europe, she surprised the both of them when she said yes yet again. What followed was the whirlwind romance she was promised as a child watching princesses get swept off their feet. It didn’t matter that he was twice her age – and it didn’t hurt that he was wealthier than she ever dreamed possible.
Two months later, they were married at the courthouse, and then off to his home to spend the rest of their lives together.
They swept through the door, all smiles and laughter, excited to finally be home. Once they got inside, though, the woman stopped short. She couldn’t help but gawk; everywhere she looked was white marble, antique rugs, and filigree-framed artwork… but what truly took her breath away was the Christmas tree standing in the center of the foyer. It had to have been at least 15 feet tall, with innumerable gleaming ornaments weighing down its branches.
The man smiled, apologetic and a little flustered, and said he hadn’t been back to take all the decorations down before they met. Christmas was his favorite season, and he hoped she didn’t mind a little belated holiday cheer.
She didn’t – in fact, she loved it. She couldn’t wait to see the rest of his home – which, she realized with a flutter in her stomach, was her home now, too.
The man took her by the hand and led on with a tour. The home, he explained, had been in his family for generations and was well over a hundred years old. The woman fell in awe of its size. It reminded her of the castles she would read about in fairytales. Fitting, she thought, for a charming prince.
After a dizzying tour of the home, they were back in the foyer, grabbing their luggage and ready to settle in. And that’s when she noticed, sitting at the top of the tree… was an angel.
It was quite ordinary. So ordinary, in fact, that it stood out like a sore thumb among the abundant opulence. It was clearly store-bought, with a tacky faux velvet dress and a pale porcelain face that wore a gaudy blush.
Yet its most striking detail, the one that caught the woman in a daze, were its eyes. They were bright, almost clear blue, and piercing. They were cast down as though the angel were praying, and when the woman met her gaze, she could have sworn that the angel was looking at her.
It was so jarring, that she couldn’t help but stare. And then, so subtly, her head started to spin. The corners of her vision were darkening, and the woman began to sway, stumbling backwards as though the world was tilting over.
Thankfully, she did not fall, as her stumble was enough to break the unnerving trance. The woman regained her composure, almost embarrassed, but ready to wave it away as nothing more than fatigue from two months of gallivanting around Europe. But when she looked over to her new husband, the lighthearted excuse died on her lips.
For the first time, the man regarded her with a cold, distant look. He seemed almost… tired. And old. And… something else she couldn’t quite name, but whatever it was, it kept her where she stood until he snapped out of it.
It must be all the traveling, she thought. But unlike their luggage, she was not so keen to unpack the thought. Never, in all their travels had the man seemed ever so drained. But perhaps it was only time for their trips to take their toll. A few days at home, she decided, were well overdue.
However, once they had everything put away and were settled (by the fire) with wine, the man, suddenly, stood up. Abruptly, he announced that he was tired and going to “turn in for the evening.” And before she could even respond, he kissed her cheek and walked out of the room, wine still in hand.
The woman sat in stunned silence. She had barely a moment in private with him and now, she was alone in a big, empty house, that still felt barely like her own. Seeking some distraction, she pulled out her phone. But she forgot to ask him for the Wi-Fi password; and for all the extravagance the house had to offer, she hadn’t seen a single TV or screen anywhere. That would have to change, she thought.
With nothing left to do, she sought put her feelings of rejection to bed. But on her way to the master bedroom, she passed the foyer with the Christmas tree. And why it still drew her eyes, she didn’t know, but when it did… she stopped short.
The angel was gone.
She blinked, and looked again, sure that she had only missed it… but it still wasn’t there. Her first thought was that it might have fallen. But no porcelain shards were strewn across the floor. Maybe the man took it down? Had he noticed her reaction and felt some concern? Whatever the reason, she thought, it could likely wait until morning.
But sleep did not come easily. She tossed and turned for hours, pulled back from the brink of sleep again and again by the unfamiliar creaks and groans of the house.
And when she finally found some rest, she was met with an unkindly dream. Piercing blue eyes stalked through her nightmares, following her, chasing her! She ran and ran, slowing down, coming and closer and closer, nearly it’s grasp until!
She awoke with a start.
Heart pounding in her chest, the woman wrestled with her breath. Just a nightmare, she told herself. But her racing pulse was not convinced.
She rolled over, checking on her husband, hoping she didn’t wake him… but he wasn’t there. She waited in the dark for him to return but the only thing that came was the soft sound of music…
It was so quiet it seemed only but fragment of her dream. But curious, she got up, and poking her head into the dark hallway, the sound was unmistakable. She crept out, following her ears into the living room.
The lights were dim, but when she peered inside, she saw her husband, back turned, and almost… swaying to the song. She didn’t know whether to call out to him but before she could decide, he turn just slightly… and there, waltzing in his arms, was the angel.
His voice was low, humming softly in tune as he cradled the ornament so delicately. And then he looked down at it with a tender fondness that made her stomach lurch.
She recalled all the moments they shared, the times when he looked at her in the very same way.
Her heart fluttered a beat out of tempo with her thoughts.
She desperately reached for some sane explanation. She wanted to walk up to him, demand an answer, for him to explain himself so they could go back to the way they had been, back before they came into this strange, strange home… But the words would not leave her throat, and for fear of him seeing her spying, she turned away and padded silently back to bed.
It was after this moment when everything changed. For the first time in their relationship, she realized that for as much as she divulged to this man, her husband, she knew too little of him. Did he have a family? What were his hobbies? And where did he work?
So certain she was that she loved this man, that she never questioned who he was.
Her spiral continued. And even when the door to the bedroom creaked open and the man crawled under the covers next to her, she lay deathly still, listening to the breathing of this man – this stranger – as she fought with what to do.
Somehow, sleep found her again, and when she awoke for the second time that day, the sun was high in the sky. Like before, she was alone. But after the events of last night, it was a welcomed peace.
Eventually, she resolved to confront the man. She made her way down into the kitchen, passing with unease the angel now perched atop the tree. Yet the man was nowhere to be found. On the counter he left a note saying he “had work to get done,” and that he’d “be back later today.”
But the day wore on, and so too, did her patience. Her cell phone reception was spotty at best, and the note gave her no indication for when the man would return, so she took to exploring the house and rehearsing different ways to bring up whatever she had witnessed the night before.
Along the way, she came into the living room, where she aimlessly eyed the many paintings and books. And there, on a shelf, tucked away, was a collection of scrapbooks.
She cautioned a glance over her shoulder, then quickly grabbed the first binder. This one was new, likely more recent, and opening to the first she saw him. Pages full of her husband; sometimes alone, sometimes with other people, on what looked like vacations or business trips. He was smiling in all of them, that same dazzling smile that warmed her face.
But on the third page, she found a photo of him… with another woman. He had his arm around her, left hand clasped with hers, heads leaning on one another. It could have been a platonic photo, had it not been for the gold bands around their left ring fingers.
She flipped to the next page.
There he was, with the same woman, this time smiling with a group of friends. She didn’t miss the way his arm snaked around the other woman’s waist, how her body was pressed against his.
She turned the page again.
Her eyes were drawn to a brightly-colored Christmas card – and there they were, standing in front of the tree, with that same wretched angel looking down at them.
Gingerly, she pulled out the card and turned it over. In cheesy, cursive letters, it read, “Merry Christmas from the Wallace’s!”
The woman stared at that card for a long time.
He hadn’t told her he’d been married before.
Each page she turned to was more of the same, chronicling their happy life together. The other woman was clearly a bit older than he was, but every bright smile, every loving gaze, told her that this was a pair who meant the world to each other.
But that love – that happy life – was apparently not something he felt worth sharing with his new wife.
There were at least a dozen scrapbooks on the shelf, so once she was done with the first, she pushed it aside and pulled out another. But to her surprise, her husband was not present in any of the photos. Instead, the album was filled with pictures of the previous wife beside a different man. She was younger in these, the man older, but with just as big a smile.
And, of course, more Christmas cards, each in front of the tree with the angel watching over them. And on the back of each one read, Merry Christmas from the Wallace’s.
The third album was more of the same, but with the second man and a different woman. And the fourth, swapped again. The pattern repeated for what the woman guessed were decades, alternating between every album. But the one constant among them, the one thing that didn’t change no matter who was in the photos, were the annual pictures taken in that house, in front of that tree, with that angel watching over it all.
The woman was never one to feel for an inanimate object. But sitting in the middle of the living room, photo albums strewn around her and no idea when her husband would be home, she couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do than watch that porcelain smile shatter into a million pieces.
And so, she found herself dragging a chair from the dining room to the front of the house, its wooden legs screeching across the marble floors. She stopped before the tree, positioned her chair, and stepped up high. The chair creaked as she reached up, her eyes fighting with those miserable blues. There was nothing, nothing she wanted more than to get it out of this house – the house that was supposed to be hers, with the man she thought was hers.
Maybe it could still work out. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe there was an explanation for whatever it was she stumbled across in those photos, but in that moment, she didn’t care.
A strange dizziness forced her chair to wobble, but she brushed it off. Reaching higher, eyes locked with the angel, she felt her knees buckle. She tried get down. She tried to look away… but the angel held her gaze, even as she crashed to the floor.
She came to right as the front door opened. The man stepped inside, and rushed to her, asking if she was alright. She blinked, trying to reorient herself. At first, she thought she was alright – there was no pain, no pulsing headache despite being sure she’d hit her head.
But it was only when she fully came to that she realized she was looking down… at herself.
She blinked again. Or rather, her body blinked, and then the woman that was her looked down her hands, marveling. Then her eyes looked up at her with a knowing smile, one that seemed out of place.
The man asked again if she felt alright.
And then, she heard her own voice say she’d never felt better. At this, the man smiled, that same adoring smile the woman once loved, as he stepped forward and swept her off her feet. They laughed and held each other so tenderly that it made the woman – the real woman, trapped at the top of the tree – want to scream. But she couldn’t scream. Nor cry. Nor move. She was stuck, she realized with a churn to her non-existent stomach, in the angel.
And then, the merry couple looked at her, and smiled. The thing in her body mentioned taking her down, and the man obliged, stepping up onto the chair and plucking her from the tree. Suddenly, they were going upstairs, to a room she didn’t recognize. There was ancient padlock on the door, and from his pocket, the man produced a key. It clicked with a heavy thud, and as the door creaked open, she met a scene that would have ripped a scream from her throat… had she been able to.
The room was lined with shelves, and standing shoulder to shoulder in an endless row… were tiny, porcelain angels. There were too many for her to count, the ones further back were covered in dust, practically disintegrating, eaten by moths and time.
And yet, beyond them, were more, figures packed in boxes. Their empty eyes stared at nothing, hands folded in prayer as they waited for their turn to house whatever cursed creature hid within the woman’s body.
The man placed her on the shelf, then left, closing the door with that same heavy thud.
She sat in the darkness, without muscles to move, without eyes to cry. And, now alone, she heard the notes of a familiar song float up to the attic, along with the laughter of the man she thought she loved and the woman he cursed her for.