The Ornament


Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

For as long as I could remember, Uncle Ed’s tree had been the physical manifestation of the word Christmas. I remembered my parents taking me to see the big tree in Union Square one year when I was little, and being confused by the uniform, frankly unornamental baubles adorning it. I tugged on my mom’s sleeve and asked her why their tree was so boring. She explained to me that it wasn’t that their tree was boring but that Uncle Ed’s tree was special.

His tree was adorned with objects random, inexplicable, and fascinating. A Hello Kitty keychain, a silver hair clip, a pair of tortoise shell sunglasses, a fake gold watch. Uncle Ed would collect urban flotsam from his travels as a pharmaceutical rep, glue a piece of yarn to the top of it and add to his collection of ornaments. As I’d gotten older, most of the magic had leaked out of the Christmas season, but Uncle Ed’s tree had remained special.

Every year there were a couple new ones, each stranger and more comical than the last. He would referee as the cousins combed the branches trying to find every last new addition. Being the one to find a new ornament was closest I got nowadays to that “kid on Christmas morning” feeling.

And I really needed that feeling this year. The past few months had been one thing after another. First my girlfriend had dumped me, saying I’d been “distant” and “inattentive.” Rather vague reasoning in my opinion but she’d seemed angry enough that I hadn’t tried to plead my case. Then my typical A’s had started slipping to B’s and then landed with a thud at a C average for the semester. That had gone over with my parents about as well as I had expected which was…not very.

When I’d totaled my car in a fender bender it had almost pushed me over the edge. I hadn’t been drunk or on my phone or anything. I’d just been deep in thought. My best friend Melody was one of the first friends I’d made in college; after getting bids for the same sorority we’d bonded over our shared love of swimming. We’d both been pretty serious about it in high school and when we were first getting to know each other we’d compared awards. She’d gotten more accolades for freestyle, while I’d excelled at butterfly, but overall, it was clear that the trophies and medals painstakingly arranged in the display case in her room far outnumbered mine.

We’d drifted apart in the last few months though. Melody had gotten a boyfriend and, as often happens in new relationships, she’d become utterly consumed by the honeymoon phase. That was the reason why no one had noticed she’d gone missing at first. All of us in the sorority had assumed, while rolling our eyes, that she was blowing us off for her boyfriend. Her boyfriend on the other hand had been wracking his brain for what misstep he’d made that had earned him the silent treatment. It wasn’t until 4 days later that one of our “sisters” had run into him on campus and finally put the pieces together.

As of today, no one has heard a word from her in more than 6 weeks. None of us had any inkling of where she would have gone or what could have happened to her, but after this long we knew it probably wasn’t good.

So, I needed this break. And now that I was pulling up to my aunt and uncles’ house, the familiar feeling of safety and family and Christmas was finally washing over me. I was more than ready to spend Christmas Eve feeling like a kid again. And sitting in the backseat of my parents sedan, I definitely did.

Before my dad could even knock the door was flung open, and we were all pulled into crushing bear hugs by various members of our very enthusiastic extended family. We had barely shrugged off our coats when we found ourselves being ushered into the living room. As the last party to get there, our arrival meant one thing: the ornament hunt could commence.

We turned the corner from the foyer and there it was; illuminated by strands and strands of Christmas lights, adorned with what was by this point decades of eclectic ornaments, each utterly unique, with its own story to tell. It loomed 10 feet tall in their cavernous living room and I watched my uncle’s face glow with pride as we all admired it.

“Alright kids, have at it.”

We raced over, reveling in the friendly competition. Jillian was the first to find a new addition, and we all crowded over to see. It was a ballpoint pen, printed with the words Theresa’s Diner.

Madison found the second. We were all very impressed—it was a single Bluetooth headphone, no bigger than a piece of popcorn, like it had just fallen out of someone’s ear. In fact, as Fernando so kindly pointed out, it still had a bit of earwax in it.

We searched feverishly for the third, but after 5 minutes we were struggling. Fernando plucked a Target gift card from one of the higher up branches and excitedly asked if it was new.

“Nope, picked that one up in Fairville in 2014.”

A minute later Madison peaked her head out from behind the tree and waved around the left shoe of a pair of yellow sandals.

“Not that one either. Grenton, 2017.”

Then, tucked away in the branches, only about three feet off the ground, I spotted an ornament that stopped me in my tracks. Not just because I thought it was new, but because seeing it brought a rush of emotion that I wasn’t expecting. I carefully extracted the makeshift ornament from the branches. It was a swimming medal.

“I got it guys!” I said. But my voice wavered, making the enthusiasm sound as unconvincing as it felt. They all crowded around so we could admire the final addition. Jillian remarked on Uncle Ed’s creative genius in picking a high school swimming award and he inclined his head in a mock bow. They were laughing, congratulating me on my find but as badly as I wanted to share in the merriment, there was a knot in the pit of my stomach that I couldn’t ignore.

The queasiness didn’t leave all evening and was still there as I settled into my spot on the living room couch—another benefit of being the last to arrive—and tried to fall asleep. The tree that had once been such a source of joy, was now a specter. It hovered before me, silhouetted menacingly against the living room window.

I tried to force me eyes to close, to will the tension out of my shoulders—but I couldn’t. Not until I untangled the question still sitting in my stomach. I threw off the covers, and quietly creaked across the hardwood floor. I had to see that ornament again. I had to be closer to this this object that had so suddenly and so vividly brought Melody back into my world.

I searched through the branches for the second time, but rather than the bubbly anticipation of that evening, this scavenger hunt was filled only with apprehension. I had to turn my phone flashlight on to find it, but there it was, still hidden in the back of the tree. I pulled it off, but this time something I hadn’t noticed in the earlier frenzy grazed my fingertips. There was a raised pattern on the back, like it was printed with something…

I flipped it over and read the words.

“St. Anne High School

1st place 400m Freestyle


St. Anne High School. Why did that sound so familiar? I bit the inside of my cheek, thinking hard. A memory tickled the back of my mind…something Melody had said about Catholic school and scratchy wool uniforms.

Art by Fabio Ramacci

I had hoped my reexamination of the medal would disprove my suspicions but even though the connection was flimsy, the knot of questions churning in my stomach only coiled tighter.

I thought back to that evening. I heard Uncle Ed’s voice echoing in my head.

“Nope, picked that one up in Fairville in 2014”

The gift card! Frantically, I circled the tree, searching.  And then I spotted it, in the higher branches. On my tip toes I was able to grab it. The front was nondescript, just the generic Target logo. I flipped it over and scrawled on the back in crowded Sharpie I found exactly what I was looking for:

“Happy Birthday Sophie, here’s 50 bucks to your favorite place. XOXO, Mom”


I felt guilty—more than guilty…distraught—at the thoughts now running through my mind but at the very least I had to prove myself wrong. I opened google on my phone and typed in “Fairville 2014 Sophie”

The results were a barrage.

“Young woman goes missing from her job at local daycare.”

Sophie Forester, 24, was last seen as she went on her lunch break at a local daycare. Her supervisor contacted law enforcement after Forester left for her 30 minute break and never returned.

Then an article from a few months later:

“Mother pleads for the safe return of her missing daughter”

 In a press statement Thursday, Katherine Forester stated that she would not stop searching for her daughter Sophie, who has been missing for just over 5 months.

Then a couple weeks after that:

“The body of a young woman who went missing from her job at a daycare in April was found Saturday by a hiker. The medical examiner ruled the cause of her death to be a homicide, details have yet to be released.”

My heart thudded sluggishly in my chest. No. No, this was not right. Maybe it was just a coincidence. Maybe her wallet had fallen out of her purse while some stranger—who was not my uncle Ed—abducted her.

I felt like my legs might go out from under me. I gently placed the medal and the gift card on the floor, side by side. If I was going to let myself indulge this ridiculous theory, I had to do everything I could be sure. What was the other ornament he’d mentioned earlier? He’d said he picked it up in Grenton in 2017. Was it a sock or something? No—a sandal. It was easy to pick out from amongst the foliage, the vibrant yellow was impossible to miss, and I snatched it from the branches.

This time I knew what to look for. I typed in “Grenton 2017 missing woman.”

The first article that popped up was from August of that year.

“The body of a young woman was found Thursday on the side of Butterfield Road in Grenton. Her cause of death has yet to be determined and police have asked for help in determining her identity.”

I pressed the back button on my phone, hoping the next headline would say “Killer caught in case of murdered Jane Doe” with a mugshot of someone who was not my uncle Ed. But that’s not what it said. It said, “Jane Doe identified as Andie Blum, 27, of Grenton.”

As I scrolled, images of a strawberry blonde, freckled young woman sped past with the impersonal captions of a news article capitalizing on her tragedy.

Then one photo stopped me dead in my tracks. She looked younger in it—high school aged. It was a cheesy senior portrait, a beaming teen leaning awkwardly against a brick wall. And on her feet was a yellow pair of sandals, the left half of which I was holding.

The photo blurred as my hands started to shake.

I went back to the search page again and scrolled further. “Vehicle of suspect in a Grenton slaying revealed in security footage.” I had barely processed the words before I clicked on the article. “Cameras from a nearby business showed a man driving away in a blue older model Dodge Ram.”

I froze. Slowly I raised my gaze from my phone and looked out through the front window towards the driveway. Sitting there, barely visible in the moonlight, was my uncle’s pride and joy: his deep blue 1997 Dodge Ram.

The thousand explanations that had been ricocheting through my mind went silent. These were not ornaments, these were trophies. This was not a whimsical Christmas tradition, this was the obsession of a very sick man. My hand fell to my side and the sandal slipped out of my fingers, thudding dully on the ground. My breathing sped up, getting shallower with each inhale. The tears started before I could think to stop them.

Then I was shocked out of my panic by a blinding light.

I whipped around, suddenly face to face with my uncle, hand on the light switch. He looked wary, almost worried when he saw the tears on my face. Then I followed his eyes as they scanned the room and registered the array of ornaments on the floor and my phone, open to an article about a woman whose shoe lay between us. Our eyes met. For a split second I saw something flash across his face. The floor creaked as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Then he relaxed his posture and pasted a toothy grin on his face—one that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“What are you doing up so late? You had better be very, very careful, or Santa’s going to put you on the naughty list…”