Free Press Christmas Story: Mr. Solum

The annual Christmas Tale from our Christmas Story section

A long time ago, on the hill overlooking 100 Mile House, before the old ski hill was built and subsequently decommissioned, there was a house. It did not look anything like an ordinary house. The house was one wood cabin with another wood cabin built on top, another on top of that and a final one on top of that. In total, four cabins had been stacked into a great big tower.

The roof of the top cabin came into a great big point, like the canopy of a pointy pine. The tower wasn’t straight in the slightest. Each cabin in the column somehow managed to lean slightly away from the neighbours, as though they didn’t like each other all that much.

The wood on the cabins had nearly gone black and looked like a smear of coal in contrast to the fresh white winter snow. The great big creepy tower never even had any Christmas lights. Nobody ever heard any Christmas music coming from “it,” as everybody called it, managing to pronounce the emphasis. Through one of the dark gloomy windows, with great difficulty, a brave individual might just be able to make out a Christmas tree, though it was hard to say if it was really a Christmas tree at all as it never had any decorations or lights. There were never any presents underneath, and it didn’t even have a star.

In the winter, for about an hour starting at noon with the sun low in the sky, the tower stood tall enough to cast a dark shadow over Birch Avenue, the main shopping street.

The dark and gloomy residence belonged to Mr. Solum. Mr. Solum was famous in the small forest community. Or, perhaps, notorious was a more apt description. When the shadow of his dwelling fell, shopkeepers quickly locked their doors and closed their blinds. The whole busy bustling street full of Christmas shoppers would empty out. Neither adult nor child nor dog nor cat would be seen out in the street. Even the few winter birds that remained flew away for a sunnier spot. Nobody was quite sure how it had started, but it had been going on like this for more than 40 years.

Everyone knew that when the clock struck 12 and the shadow fell, Mr. Solum would come down. He had a great long beard, scraggly and unkempt. His hair was somehow even longer and dishevelled. Much like the sinister appearance of his tower, Mr. Solum’s hair was nearly pitch black and contrasted sharply against the pale white look of his face. Unlike the snow, which had a glistening and sparkling shine, Mr. Solum’s skin was dull, and almost a bit grey, like that of a corpse. He was so gaunt that his skin looked uncomfortably stretched across his bones. Nobody, for as long as they could remember, had ever seen Mr. Solum smile. His clothes looked old and ragged, like a big black cloak.

Once, six years ago, Steve, who owned the local hardware store, had lost track of the time. He had just managed to slam the door shut as Mr. Solum was coming down the street. He had stood outside the store peering inside for 15 minutes. For Steve, it had been the longest and most terrifying moment of his life. Through the small window in the door, he could see Mr. Solum frowning. His mouth had been open with a faint glint of yellow light peering into the store off of the last few remaining teeth.

After the 15 minutes, he’d continued down to the end of the street where he stopped, as usual, let out a grunt, as usual, turned around and started heading back his feet dragging on the ground the metal of his snow cleats making an awful screeching sound as he went by. When Mr. Solum had gone and the shadow had passed, the entire town had gone down to the hardware store and found Steve sitting frozen on the ground in the fetal position. It took three years before people stopped teasing him about it.

On this particular day, Amica Novella had just moved into town and opened a little book store. Amica had obviously noticed the great looming tower but on account of a cow getting loose, falling through the ice at the 100 Mile Marsh and getting into a tussle with a beaver, who’d considered the intrusion less than welcome, the whole town had been distracted. Nobody had made sure to warn her of Mr. Solum, like they usually would when someone new moved in, or told her to make sure her door was shut and her lights were off during the shadow.

Like clockwork, the shadow came in and down came Mr. Solum. Windows slammed, doors banged and lights dimmed. Mrs. Booth, who worked as a barber near the newly opened bookstore, noticed the open door and the bright light shining inside. She wanted to do something – anything – but she knew she was too late. The screeching of Mr. Solum’s snow cleats was already echoing down the deserted street. As Mr. Solum came by, she shut the tiny gap in the curtains she had been peeking through, her heart racing, and closed her eyes for good measure.

As everyone sheltered in place, word quickly spread of what had happened. A nervous fervour started moving through the village. When at last the shadow passed, everybody ran over to the book store. Nobody had any idea what Mr. Solum might do to an actual person if he ran into them. Not a single person thought it could be anything good.

“What do you he’ll have done to her?” said one.

“Do you expect she’s still alive?” said another.

“I would die, if he didn’t already kill me,” said a third.

Murmurs and whispers moved through the crowd as they gathered outside the bookstore and Steve mustered up the courage to go inside.

When he came back out his face looked horrified and pale.

“She’s gone,” he said. “There’s not a single trace of her.”

Cheerful Felix

Cheerful Felix, as everyone knew him, had lived in 100 Mile House his entire life. Little did anyone know, that what made Cheerful Felix cheerful was a girl named June, though the two were so inseparable that almost nobody in town would have been surprised about it. He had known June since going to daycare with her.

They had played house together building a little hut out of sticks and leaves in the sandbox. They should have listened better to June’s dad, a real estate agent, who they always heard say “location, location, location” whenever he was on the phone; which was always. Though somehow he never seemed to be able to actually close a deal. Their sandbox location left much to be desired as the vacuuming was endless.

When they’d grown a little bit older and they’d both learned to bicycle, they’d race each other down the street. After a long day of racing, they’d both be exhausted but Cheerful Felix would nonetheless grab her handlebars while peddling and push her all the way home.

June, named somewhat ironically, absolutely loved winter and snow. Together, year after year, they’d build the biggest snowman possible. The snowmen got to be so large, that they’d find large branches to use as fortification between the massive balls of snow to hold them in place. The balls were so large, that they had to build a ramp to get the second one on top of the first one and the third on top of the second. By the end, it took a whole week to build one, with small saucers for buttons and eyes and a great big traffic cone for a nose.

June’s dad had always been very poor, so Christmas was never a big occasion for her. So Cheerful Felix and June would find a big spruce tree outside in the woods. They’d sit in front of it, hand in hand, and screw their eyes shut, breathing in the deep scent of the forest. As the cold, clear air blew by, the wind kissing their cheeks till they ‘blushed,’ Cheerful Felix would describe every type of Christmas tree decoration he could think of: bright, colourful lights, tinsel glistening in all directions, little handmade and vibrant red-breasted robins, little reindeer made out of felt and small crocheted elves. Delicately frosted balls of every colour glistened and were as fine as china. Sugarplums so plump and jolly you’d be tempted to take a bite. Golden trumpets glistening and you could almost hear the wind play them; a sound June and Felix could hear with the whole of their hearts, even if not with their ears. A hundred garlands would loop around their tree, one of every colour and some of colours not invented yet. On top of it all, he told her, sat the largest silver sparkling star anyone had ever seen. Felix relayed all this to June every year, watching the sparkle of the imaginary silver star twinkle in the corner of her eye and, every year, he would come up with new ornaments and more lights. The tree certainly got bigger every year too.

Sitting there under that tree was always the highlight of the year for June. It was the highlight of the year for Cheerful Felix too.

At age 25, Cheerful Felix and June got married in the middle of winter. June carried a bouquet of poinsettias, her veil as delicate as the snowflakes drifting down. Aside from June’s dad and a few friends they’d created an entire audience of snowmen to bear witness.

After three years of living in a little cabin together, they found themselves, at Christmas, sitting in front of a large undecorated spruce tree once again. This year among all the other ornaments Cheerful Felix described, he mentioned multiple chubby little naked babies in diapers hanging in the tree. It was hardly a subtle hint but a few years passed and still no babies had appeared.

When they were out in the woods at Christmas walking to their tree, June fell down. There was no branch, no stone or root sticking out over which she tripped. She just fell and never got back up again. At the hospital, doctors spoke to Felix for nearly an hour but he didn’t hear a single word they had said.

Felix went home and just sat there. Some friends came and knocked but Felix didn’t open the door. Some time went by, and fewer friends knocked, but still, Felix didn’t open the door. He just sat there. It seemed as though he sat there for years. His clean-shaven face donned some stubble, then a beard. His short hair was not short at all anymore and now reached down to his shoulders.

When Felix finally did get up, he started taking down his cabin log by log. One at a time, he dragged them into the woods towards the tree that he and June had sat around every Christmas. Right there, he started rebuilding his cabin – but it wasn’t nearly high enough to reach to the top of the tree. When he ran out of logs from his original cabin, he felled trees and peeled logs and he just kept going. Once he had built it twice as tall, it was still nowhere near tall enough. So he started adding more. As he was dragging log after log through the thick bushes, branches poked and prodded. They grabbed for his shirt, his coat and his pants. They ripped, tore and shredded. But Felix paid his tattered clothes no mind. He did not stop until the cabins encompassed the entire tree.

When Felix was done, he went inside, sat in his chair, closed his eyes and started describing all the decorations on the tree. While he was sitting there in his chair, describing all the non-existing ornaments, Felix felt as though June was sitting there right beside him, the only thing he was missing was a hand to hold. Afterwards, Felix felt cheerful for the first time in years when there was a knock on the door.

Once he opened the door, there was a mailman there. However, at the sight of the once again Cheerful Felix, he let out a scream, dropped his package and ran. Felix, who had been oblivious to his own appearance, looked in the mirror beside the door. Having broken his glasses during the build, he couldn’t see quite clearly. However, having been struck with branch after branch, his face was cut and bleeding. Small drops were running down his face and curdling to a thick paste in his now lengthy black beard. His lack of sleep meant that he had big black bags underneath his eyes and with the addition of some dirt, it looked like there weren’t any eyes there at all. Just some great big holes staring creepily out of the shadow of the house. His clothes were covered in dirt making them black and nasty. Here and there the gashes were so large you could see his starved, pale and bony body underneath. When he picked up the package, it read, “To Mr. Solum at the top of the hill above 100 Mile House.”

Despite the incident with the mailman, he was feeling better than he had in years. For the first time since June had passed, he felt as though he could connect with her and be close to her once again. He decided that it was time to go and get cleaned up and rejoin the world. However, with no running water at the cabin or clean clothes he would have to go to town to get cleaned up. As he started heading down the hill, having only just completed his tower of cabins, the clock struck 12 and a dark shadow fell over the town as it blocked the sun. He’d already had a hard time seeing without his glasses but now it was even more difficult.

The mailman had run back into town warning everyone of the great big ghoulish creature that had taken up residence at the top of the hill. Initially, some dismissed the wild claims and rumours that were spreading but on his way into town, being unable to see clearly, he tripped over and accidentally hurt a young child. Before he knew what had happened the child had run off screaming. The child made it back into town before him. Now, with not one but two witnesses and one “attack,” and the child covered in blood, nobody was willing to take any chances. Doors slammed, windows shut, lights turned off and curtains closed.

At first, some peeked through small gaps to see if the rumours were really true. However, in the shadowy darkness they could only get faint glimpses. Once he knocked on the barber’s door, being absolutely baffled by all the stores being closed on a Wednesday, nobody even dared peek anymore. He went down the street, knocked on a few more doors, then positively banged on the door at the clothing store, being quite frustrated nobody seemed to want to help him or sell him what he needed. Eventually, he decided to go back up to his house. When the residents came out, they found bloody handprints on the doors he’d banged on and small drips along the path he had walked.

The same thing happened the next day and the day after that and on and on for so long that Mr. Solum’s teeth had started going bad, not being able to get any dental care. He once tripped and cut his leg, developing a limp without any medical care. While the blood had disappeared, Mr. Solum had slowly grown more creepy and terrifying until every person in 100 Mile House had grown-up in fear of Mr. Solum.

No more Mr. Solum

Amica, not being from the area, had never heard of the legend of Mr. Solum. When, on her first day in her new bookstore, Mr. Solum walked in, she didn’t see a great big terrifying ghoul. Instead, she saw a friendly old man in need of help who was happy to see a kind person. Though cheerful at finally having a person to talk to in over 40 years, she could tell there was a deep sadness and loneliness behind his eyes.

Felix and Amica talked in the bookstore for 30 minutes before they left. The entire time the whole town was dead-silent.

She took Felix home and let him use her shower. While he was having a shower, she went into town to get him new clothes but to her surprise, she found it abandoned. It wasn’t just a matter of closed doors and shut curtains. No, quite to the contrary. Nearly every door had been left open, lights were on and the sun was out. She went into the clothing store but there was nobody there. She picked up a pair of pants, a clean shirt and shoes and left the money for it on the counter.

When she got back, Felix was done showering. She gave him the clean, new clothes and he got dressed. She put him down in a chair, grabbed a pair of scissors and started cutting. His long raggedy hair came off in great big chunks, one after another. With it being freshly cleaned, she combed the now silvery looking hair back. She started to do his beard next, however, he protested that he could do it himself. When he came out of the bathroom he looked like a handsome older gentleman. The two of them had dinner together. He slept in her spare bedroom that night.

The next day, he got up earlier than he had in a long time. After a good night’s sleep in a warm bed and a hot meal the night before, he felt better than he had in months. His limp seemed better too. It was 9 a.m. when he set foot onto Birch Avenue and found it bustling with Christmas shoppers. Little kids were running around playing tag on the sidewalk. Felix was absolutely stunned. He stood there for an hour simply watching everything that was going on. Some people nodded to him. Others said “hello” or “good morning” with a smile.

Eventually, warm rays of sunshine managed to thaw Felix loose from his frozen position. When he got a move on, he walked to the dentist. His bad teeth were the last marking that the handsome older gentleman had ever been known as the terrible Mr. Solum. He was at the dentist, who luckily had no appointments at all for that morning, for a few hours. When he came out, bright sunshine gleamed off of his new smile. He noticed the hands on the big standing clock in front of the community hall indicated 12:15 p.m. Yet it was still light out. There was no great shadow throwing everything into darkness and the street was possibly even busier than it had been when he’d first gotten there. Felix looked up, his great big tower of cabins was gone. After a brief moment, he started to cry.

The great cabin tower

When Amica disappeared with Mr. Solum, the villagers had stood outside the bookstore for quite some time, debating what to do. Eventually, they decided that someone should go look for her. However, they had all been so scared of Mr. Solum, that nobody had been willing to go while others got to stay behind safely in the village. So, as a compromise, they had decided that everyone should go. Every single person in town grabbed something to defend themselves.

Some were carrying a baseball bat, a few had a gun and one person, most of the better options having been taken, even brought a pitchfork. The whole gathering began to struggle and surge up the hill. As they were making their way up the hill, all manner of speculation started on what they might find, each suggestion more terrible than the last. However, once they made it to the tower they found it empty. Inside, they found very little. All there was was a large tree, still firmly rooted in the ground, a chair and an old picture of a young woman.

They started searching everywhere. Surely that couldn’t be all? Why weren’t there any signs of a terrible creature living there? Where had Amica and Mr. Solum gone? Eventually, with that many people in the great tower of oddly stacked cabins, many of them poking and prodding for any sign that might give some explanation what had happened, the whole thing started shaking.

Everyone ran out as quickly as they could. Hardware owner Steve, who had been the only one in the very top and smallest cabin and which was barely large enough for one person, just narrowly made it out before the whole contraption collapsed in a great big cloud of snow, dust, and timber.

When it cleared up, all that was left standing was the great big tree. The mighty spruce rather remarkably appeared nearly untouched by the whole ordeal, if a bit starved for sunlight. After much confusion over all the unanswered questions, the villagers collectively decided that there was nothing left to do but to go home.

Speculation about what had happened to Amica and Mr. Solum was bantered about until late in the night.

A great many people gathered when Rose, who owned the clothing store, found the money Amica had left behind. However, once again, after a bit of discussion, they decided that there was nothing left to do but to go home.

When the next day came around, and there was no sign of the tower or Mr. Solum, there seemed to be a consensus that the whole ordeal was well and truly done with.

The old man

When Felix stood there crying in the street, the tears that ran down his cheeks were not just tears of sadness. While certainly there was some, those sparkling silver drops were also shed in relief, as he knew his days of being the terrible Mr. Solum were over. Never again would he have to walk down the street being feared by everyone. Never again would people hide or shudder when he came by. On the one hand, he had regained a community. However, he also felt sad because he had, in fact, lost the only place where he felt he could still connect with June.

As he stood there on the sidewalk, people started coming up to him to make sure he was okay. He started telling them the entire story. He told them about June and their Christmas tree tradition and about how, even though he had been lonely for so long, his beautiful tree had helped keep the memory of his partner alive for so long. He told them about how he and June used to make the most absurdly large snowmen together and how they had made an entire audience of snowmen for their wedding. He told the village about how Amica had helped him, and about how none of them even recognized him now.

By the time Felix was done telling his story, the entire village had gathered as they all sat listening to him. You could have heard a pin drop. When Felix was finished, Steve got up, grabbed Felix’s hand and turned towards the tree high up on the hill and closed his eyes. Then another person got up and grabbed Felix’s other hand. Soon enough everybody in the whole village had formed one massive chain, all holding hands, facing any number of trees high up on the hill. All had their eyes closed.

And so, Felix started describing all the ornaments on the trees. It was the best description Felix had ever made. He described a whole forest, with lights twinkling in all kinds of colours, joyous patterns each more daring than the last. He spoke of great big sparkling glass balls, frosted ones with scenes inside, moving as they twisted. He told tales of stunning birds, he told them there was music with voices singing the most beautiful Christmas carols; he shared the jingle bells ringing and the sleighs gliding around and warm fires roaring and mistletoe growing overhead. The scent of chestnuts and sugarplums wafted on the breeze, even though half the villagers had never encountered either before. The tinkling of bells and the brass bugle of a trumpet hinted at the edge of people’s ears. Thick and twinkling garland swung in the breeze, snowflakes swirling around the trees as though all the world was a snow globe.

When Felix stopped speaking, they all stood there with their eyes closed admiring it all. When they finally opened their eyes, Felix was gone. It was as though he had disappeared into thin air. There was not a trace.

However, rather than confusion or worry, without speaking there seemed to be a unanimous consensus that Felix had gone to spend Christmas with June. In his departure, he had left them all with an incredibly valuable lesson. He’d also given them an incredible gift. Whenever anyone of them looked up at the trees on the ridge, they didn’t just see trees, they saw the most beautifully decorated Christmas anyone had ever seen.

And so, in honour of Felix and June, that winter, they lined the entire street with snowmen both big and small.

– The End –

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