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There was once a very well behaved eight year old boy named Miles. He did all the things that good children are supposed to do, nearly all the time. He ate all his vegetables, unless they were carrots. He completed all of his school assignments, except for that one time he forgot to finish his homework. He was always nice to his friends, unless you count that one time when he yelled at his schoolmate, Tony. And he never spoke back to his parents or got mad at them, with very rare exceptions. Yes, he was nearly perfect, and he was a joy for his parents to raise, almost all the time.
That boy existed more than thirty years ago, and in a manner of speaking, he still exists. That boy? He’s me, and he will always be part of who I am. I can remember every transgression I made as a child, not only because there were so few of them, but because they ended up shaping my life in a way you could never imagine.
Of all my misdeeds, the one that stands out most vividly is the very last time I yelled at my parents. The funny thing is, even though I can remember being mad, and I can remember every word I said, I don’t recall exactly why I was upset. When I try to think of the reason, it’s like looking at a blank sheet of paper in my mind. I can tell you that it wasn’t anything that my adult self would find consequential, but I know it felt important at the time. It was two days before Christmas, and the words I spoke felt foreign as they came out of my mouth, probably because I’d never said anything quite like it before.
“Go away! I don’t want you to be here anymore! I don’t want you to talk to me ever again!”
I could see the hurt in my parents’ eyes as I unleashed my tirade towards them. Even now, I’m surprised at what a profound effect the words from my eight year old self had on them. Their dismay was mixed with obvious shock upon hearing me lash out. My mother had a look on her face that was confused, sad, and angry all at the same time. Father was harder to read, but I knew he wasn’t happy. Sadly, the looks on their faces are among the last memories I have of my parents. Their distraught scowls are burned in my mind; two visages that are now a permanent part of my psyche.
By the time that Christmas Eve came around, all had been forgiven. Whatever the issue had been, it was resolved. My mother cooked a special ham dinner, and we had a roaring fire going. The house was warm and extra comfortable, and in the hours after dinner, I sat and sipped from a mug of hot cocoa with peppermint. I no longer believed in Santa Claus, but that didn’t stop me from feeling a natural yuletide excitement. I fell asleep that night staring at the dazzling lights and shiny ornaments that clung to our Christmas tree. I vaguely remember my father carrying me to my bedroom and giving me a little kiss on my forehead.
I awoke later that night to the feeling of someone poking their finger into my back.
“Wake up, kid.”
It was a voice I’d never heard before, a man’s voice, with a slight drawl. My eyes opened widely as I instinctively rolled out of bed in an outright panic. I fell to the floor and screamed for my father.
I was trapped in a corner of my bedroom. I could see the man’s silhouetted figure looming clearly in front of me. A small red glow came from a cigarette in his hand. I froze in fear of this stranger who had invaded my home.
The man spoke to me again, “Quiet down, he can’t hear you right now anyhow.”
He put his cigarette to his lips and inhaled deeply. As he did, his face was illuminated by the red glow, and I could see his deep-set eyes, his dirty fingers, and his long black hair.
“But kid, I can hear you. I can hear you better than anybody, in ways you can’t even understand.” He pointed at the side of his forehead as he spoke.
I didn’t reply, but even through my fear, I couldn’t help but wonder who the man was.
He nodded, as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. “So, you’d like to know who I am. Well, I’m the guy who’s tuned into your mind. I’m the guy that’s been around for a long time. And most importantly, I’m the guy who gives kids what they ask for.”
He looked straight into my eyes, invading my mind and reading my thoughts. “No kid, I ain’t Santa.” He was agitated. “You stupid? Do I really look like that fat fucker? No man, I’m much better. I don’t judge, and I don’t discriminate. I give kids what they ask for. The good kids, and the bad kids.”
I finally found the courage to speak, even though he seemed to have no trouble answering my questions before I even asked them. “I- I didn’t ask for anything.” My voice trembled as I spoke.
“Sure you did. You wanted your parents to go away. I heard that loud and clear. Loud and clear. Not very nice of you. I’d say that makes you a bad little boy. But don’t worry, like I said, I don’t discriminate.”
“But I don’t want them to go away…”
He shook his head. “You said it, you meant it at the time. I heard it. I don’t hear all the kids, just some of them. And I hear you loudest of all.”
Tears began streaming down my face, but their presence didn’t seem to change the visitor’s demeanor towards me.
“Well kid, I just wanted to meet you, and see whose voice has been screaming in my head the past few days.” He turned and started walking towards the door. “I gotta get started. It’s time to give you your gift, and get a gift for myself too. Merry fucking Christmas, kid.”
He flicked his cigarette into the corner of my bedroom as he passed through the doorway, repeating himself as he walked down the hallway in the direction of my parents’ bedroom. “Merry fucking Christmas.”
The door to my bedroom shut, even though the man himself had made no effort to close it.
I screamed aloud for my mother and father. To this day I still have no idea if they heard me. I wish I could tell you that I bravely ran out of my bedroom to warn them, but I just sat huddled in the corner, crying and afraid. I listened intently for sounds of a struggle, or for my parents yelling, but I couldn’t hear anything.
Hours passed, and I could see the outside sky turn from black to gray, then to orange. I waited for my mother and father to find me. The orange sky turned blue as the day wore on, but they never came. An absolute silence hung over the house, yet still I sat there. It was well into the afternoon when I finally left my room. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever. I tiptoed slowly to my door and opened it only a few inches. Looking out from inside my room, the house appeared normal. Everything that I could see was in its place. I pulled the door open all the way, almost expecting the man from the night before to jump out at me, but that didn’t happen.
My voice broke the silence, “Mom? Dad?”
Trying my best to stay quiet, I walked slowly down the hallway towards my parents’ bedroom. Their door was ajar.
I put my hand on their door.
I pushed it open and looked inside.
I don’t actually remember what I saw. To be clear, I’m perfectly aware of the fate that befell my parents, based on what was told to me later on. But I have no memory of the actual sight that I witnessed during that one awful moment. It’s a traumatic event that my sane mind has blocked out. Even today, when I recreate the events of that night in my dreams, the scene fades to white as I push the door open. My next memory is of me laying down in the street directly outside of my house, screaming and flailing my arms wildly. The Porter family, who lived next door, witnessed my distress through their living room window.
Mr. Porter exited his house and rushed over to me, he could tell something was seriously wrong.
“They’re dead!” It was all I could say. I repeated it again and again.
Mrs. Porter followed closely behind her husband and comforted me as he went to check inside my house. A minute later, he exited and promptly vomited in the bushes.
Nobody ever told me the whole story of what they found in that bedroom, at least not directly. It was explained to me that a very bad person had broken into my house and murdered my parents, even though I already knew as much. What was held back from me at the time the fact that they’d been decapitated. The cuts were clean, almost surgical. Both bodies were laying on the bed as if they’d been asleep when it happened. The worst part was that their heads were missing, not to be found anywhere. Their bodies were sliced open, and strange symbols were drawn on the wall in blood. Other than the carnage itself, absolutely no physical evidence was discovered at the scene. Not one fingerprint, stray hair, or footprint was left behind. Nothing.
The police listened to my story once I was ready to talk. I found out later I was considered to be an unreliable witness, mostly because the details of my story didn’t mesh with the lack of physical evidence.
A specially trained detective, and my new therapist, sat down with me to review what I’d told the police earlier. “The man, he wasn’t wearing gloves?”
I shook my head no. I clearly remembered the cigarette in his hand, and there was no glove.
“And he threw the cigarette on the ground when he was done smoking it?”
I nodded yes.
“And he closed your door when he left your room?”
I shook my head no, then thought about it, and nodded my head yes. I wasn’t really sure.
The detective took notes as I talked. He nodded his head pleasantly, but even then I could see the strange look on his face when I told him that the man had read my thoughts. The one thing I never told the police was that two days before the murders, I’d asked for my parents to be gone.
The sketch artist came by afterwards. He started off by drawing some Smurfs for me, then he slowly began working me up to the task of remembering what the murderer looked like. I appreciated his effort. When he was done, the picture looked somewhat like how I remembered the man, but not exactly.
I was taken in by my mother’s sister, Aunt Janine, and her husband, my uncle Anton. As unlucky as I had been with the deaths of my parents, I have to say that I was nearly as lucky to have those two in my life. Other than my parents, they were probably the best people in the world who I could’ve lived with. Looking back at the events in my life, I have to say that today I miss them every bit as much as I miss my parents. Janine worked as an office manager, but she took a leave of absence in the first few months after the murders so that she could be home to support me. Anton worked for a home security firm. He was the kind of man who always had a smile on his face, so much so that it would be impossible for a person to even imagine him angry. He made instant connections with people, and he had a confidence about him that made people want to seek his approval, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Janine and Anton didn’t have any children of their own, and they’d always been very generous towards me. I knew them well, so it was easy for me to slip into their lives. I put a huge effort into making sure that I gave them no trouble, and I asked them for nothing. My conversation with the murderer was never too far from my thoughts, and I could hear an amalgamation of his comments ring though my mind daily, “I give kids what they ask for. The good kids, and the bad kids.” I didn’t know what the good kids were given by this man, but I understood all too clearly what happened to the bad children.
It was two months before I felt like I was ready to go back to school. Janine and Anton, and even the school administration, were very helpful and understanding throughout the whole process. My classmates welcomed me back with smiles and words of encouragement. It’s often said that children can be cruel, but I think it’s even more true that they can be sweet and supportive. I really can’t emphasize enough how much returning to all my friends helped me along in the healing process. My anxiety began to ebb, and my therapist proclaimed that it was a major milestone for me.
Despite the progress in my psychological healing, there were always several thoughts that I couldn’t rid myself of. The first was the guilt that I felt about asking for my parents to go away. I knew full well that the murder of my parents was in no way my fault, but there was always that nagging voice that wouldn’t let it drop. I’d asked for them to be taken away, and that’s exactly what had happened. The second thought was that the murderer would return again the following Christmas. Initially, all the adults assured me that he would be arrested quickly. Then, when that didn’t happen, I was promised that there was no way he could ever get his hands on me, and that I was safe. They made sure that I was never left alone, and when Janine went back to work, she only did so part-time so that she could pick me up when school let out. I also had difficulty with the more unbelievable aspects of what happened that night. I tried to convince myself, on a daily basis, that the murderer was just a normal man, and that my memory of those fantastical elements was merely my own imagination betraying me. But just like the guilt I felt, the troubling thought, that this man was more than just a man, didn’t subside entirely.
For victims of trauma, anniversaries can often trigger symptoms like depression and fear. For me, Christmas was the anniversary of my worst memory. As the summer ended, Janine and Anton, along with my therapist, decided early on that Christmas wouldn’t be celebrated in our household that year. Nobody felt that I’d be ready for it, and they were right. Since we knew that Christmas was going to be an ordinary day for us, Janine and Anton made sure to throw me a huge birthday party in October of that year, when I turned nine. It seemed like most of the community turned out. We had a bounce house, ponies, and even a magician. Everyone, including me, had a great day. It was probably the first time in ten months that I’d grinned. Sure, there had been smiles up to that point, but I’m referring to the type of grin where your teeth show and the elation on your face can’t be mistaken.
Unfortunately, the joy of my birthday couldn’t last forever. Inevitably, the signs of Christmas slowly started popping up not long after Halloween passed, and my anxiety started increasing. Though we weren’t going to celebrate it, Christmas would be impossible to ignore. Holiday lights, store displays, television commercials, yuletide songs pumped over public address systems… how can one avoid all those and still function within society? Though those harbingers couldn’t be avoided altogether, Janine and Anton made a concerted effort to minimize my exposure. Instead of letting me watch my TV shows, Anton taught me the game of chess, which we played nightly. For the most part, they avoided taking me to any stores, and kept me home, or close by, as much as possible. Avoiding these triggers probably helped somewhat, but I still couldn’t get rid of the tightening feeling in my chest that I felt every morning when I woke up.
I managed to avoid any sort of breakdown until the 21st of December. Aunt Janine, because she was taking care of me, had herself been staying home an inordinate amount of time. Finally, after our fifth game of rummy in a row, she’d had enough.
She tossed her cards aside. “You know what, Miles? We’ve been cooped up too long. Let’s get out of here. We’ll go get some ice cream. One little trip out won’t hurt. Right?”
I smiled in response. “Okay!” Ice cream sounded good, even in the middle of December.
Aunt Janine, who was talkative by nature, kept the conversation flowing all the way to the ice cream shop. I suppose this was her attempt to keep my focus away from the lights and displays that we passed, and it worked too. Ask a kid questions about his favorite superheroes, and he’s going to fairly preoccupied while he talks about them, even the quiet ones.
We made it into the shop, I ordered a double scoop of chocolate fudge brownie. We sat down to eat our treats, with Aunt Janine still engaging me in conversation. Just for a brief moment, a nearby toy store’s glittering Christmas display caught my eye through the window. They had a life-size poster plastered in their display window. It was a picture of Santa upon a rooftop, posed in a position as if he were just about ready to climb down a chimney. Blazing Christmas lights surrounded the display, and large words spelled out, “What do you want for Christmas?”
I tried to turn away, but the colorful lights clouded my vision, enlarging in their scope until they all combined, finally creating a great white light.
“Miles? Miles?” My aunt’s voice was becoming more and more urgent. I suddenly realized she’d been calling my name for several moments.
The cup of ice cream dropped from my hand. “I… I just want them back.” At that moment, the tears flowed freely. I could think of nothing else. I was hysterical.
Aunt Janine quickly came over to my side of the table.
“Oh my god Miles. I’m so sorry.” She grabbed me and hugged me tightly. I reciprocated, holding onto her as firmly as I could. “This was a bad idea. I’m so sorry sweetie. I’m sorry I brought you out. That was stupid of me. I’m so sorry. I miss them too.”
It took at least fifteen minutes for Aunt Janine to calm me to a point where we could leave the shop. We left our unfinished ice creams behind.
No other incidents happened in the next couple of days, and my interactions with Anton and Janine helped distract me. Finally, it was Christmas Eve. I was quiet all day long, even more so than usual. Anton noticed, and had a talk with me after dinner.
“You okay, buddy?”
I nodded my head yes.
Despite my assurance that I was okay, he could tell I wasn’t. He knew almost exactly what was on my mind.
“Come here, Miles. Let me show you a few things.”
I followed him to the living room window where he moved the curtains aside. “See these windows?” He slapped his hand on the pane to show me how solid it was. “This is the strongest window that they make for residences. My company installed these. They’re unbreakable, and there’s no way someone can open them from the outside.”
I stared at the window, while on the other side, blackness enveloped the house.
He took me over to the door. “See how strong this is? It would take a tank to knock this door down. The back door too. And there’s no other way in.”
He led me over to the alarm control panel that was on the wall. “This is the best system that they make. I installed it myself.”
He kneeled down to my level. “Miles, you’re safe here. Nobody, and I mean nobody can get in here unless we let them in.”
He glanced to the side with his eyes. “And don’t tell your Aunt I showed you this.” He moved his coat aside so that I could see the holstered pistol he was wearing. “Just some added protection. But I won’t even need this.”
I nodded, feeling a little bit safer, but not completely. I still worried, not only for myself, but for Janine and Anton as well. Bedtime approached, and Aunt Janine, with an insight usually reserved for longtime mothers, knew the one thing that might make the night a little easier for me. “Miles, do you want to sleep in our room tonight?” She asked.
“Yes.” I smiled and nodded at the invitation. We would all be able to look out for each other. They’d protect me, and I’d be able to warn them if someone came in.
They put some soft blankets on the ground for me, right next to their bed. It was in a nice, protected spot in the large gap between the bed and the wall. I couldn’t fall asleep for several hours, but I could hear both Janine and Anton begin their nightly slumbers. Their breathing became rhythmic and almost melodic. I listened intently for any noises that might’ve been out of the ordinary, but nothing abnormal sounded out. There was a clock ticking somewhere in the house, and the occasional car passed by outside. Finally, my weariness overpowered my uneasiness, and I began my night’s sleep.
The dream I had that night was unlike any other I’d had before. I was in what appeared to be a large garage, the type where mechanics worked on cars. All around me, automotive parts were spread out along the ground, tires were stacked up, and an old rusted chassis filled the center of the room. Grime dripped from walls. The area was lit by a single overhead lamp. I instantly knew I was dreaming, even though it was the first time I’d experienced a lucid dream. From the corner of the garage, I heard metal clanging. I turned around to face the sound, and out of the darkness, the man who’d taken the lives of my parents emerged.
He spit some phlegm onto the ground and wiped his mouth before addressing me. “Hey kid. Don’t worry. I ain’t gonna hurt you. I’d like to though, I’d really like to be able to shut you up, but it don’t work that way.”
Despite my grimy surroundings, and perhaps because it was just a dream, this didn’t feel like a place of anger and fear. Unlike the year before, I was able to find my voice right away. “Why do you want to shut me up? I hardly ever even speak.”
When you consider some of the other obvious questions, I know it may sound strange that I chose to open with that. Who was this man? And why did he take interest in me? Those were the questions I was really thinking, but my participation in the dream was guided, as if my actions weren’t wholly my own.
The man finally responded. “Hell, you quiet ones are the loudest of all. Y’all never stop thinking. Thought after thought, you kids can’t ever just shut your brains off. Gimme just one loudmouth, those kids never think about anything. Tell you what, if it was up to me, I’d just rip all your fucking heads off and be done with it, but like I said, it don’t work that way. I ain’t allowed to hurt a child.”
I looked around, and came to a slow realization. “This isn’t my dream, is it?”
“That’s a stupid question. You ever dreamed of a place like this? Of course not. This is my dream, kid. I’m parked right outside your house. I just wanted to take a moment to peek in on you.”
My fear of this man, which had been otherwise controlled to this point, slowly began creeping back.
He saw the look of despair spread across my face. “Have you been a good boy this year?” He gave a little chuckle. “Actually, yes. You have been. Do you ‘member what I said last time? I give kids what they ask for, the good ones, and the bad ones.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t ask for anything.” I spoke with a confidence that I didn’t really feel.
“Sure you did. You kids always ask for somethin’. And don’t you worry now, ’cause you’re gonna get it.”
The room, and the man, began to fade away. “See you next year, kid. I get the feelin’ that you and I are going to be part of each other’s lives for a long time.” Those were the last words I heard. Pure whiteness consumed me, and then I slept peacefully.
My eyes opened. Outside the window, I could see the gray sky that signaled the approaching dawn. The house was eerily quiet. Too quiet. I stayed fixed in my bed on the floor, listening for signs of life from my aunt and uncle, but I could only hear my own heartbeat. I wanted to sit up and look over to them, but I was afraid of what I’d find.
The dream had felt so real, I wasn’t sure what to think. I continued to listen. “Please.” I whispered to myself, “Let me hear them breathe.”
Several minutes passed. I still heard nothing. Tears began streaming down my face, and my pillow became wet. I knew deep inside that eventually I would have to look and see if they were okay. I couldn’t lay on the floor all day, but my gut instinct told me that I didn’t want to witness what was up there. Drawing upon my deepest strengths, I put my hands over my eyes and sat up. Slowly, I moved a single finger away from my teary eye.
There was no blood, no gore. I pulled my hands fully away from my face. I could see uncle Anton’s chest clearly rise and fall. He was sleeping peacefully, and very quietly. Aunt Janine turned in her sleep and mumbled a few nonsense words before resuming her silent rest.
I smiled, then I laughed in relief. I could see no evidence that the man had been there. It was still early, but any sense of sleepiness had been pushed away by my earlier feeling of dread. I stood up and walked over to the mirrored closet door. I looked at my red eyes and wiped them dry, while behind me I could see the reflection of my aunt and uncle sleeping soundly. There was no need to wake them.
I left the room with the intent of getting something to eat, most likely a bowl of cereal. I walked down the hallway and passed by the alarm panel on the wall. All the lights were green. The doors, the windows, they were all secure; nobody could’ve gotten in.
Now fully relaxed, I passed through the living room on my way to the dining area. That’s when I saw it, sitting right on top of the dining room table. I froze in place and looked all around, to see if there was anything else out of place, but everything else was as it should’ve been. I turned again to the table, and stared at the beautifully wrapped gift box that definitely hadn’t been there the night before. It was a large box, maybe about eighteen inches square. The wrapping paper that covered it was bright red, with sparkles all over it. A pretty green bow covered the top.
My aunt and uncle had agreed that we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas that year, yet there sat a gift box atop the dining room table. I wondered if they’d changed their minds. I walked slowly towards the gift, step by step. I stood up on one of the dining room chairs, so that I could see the top of the gift. Whoever had wrapped it had taken their time. The box’s lid was wrapped separately from the box itself. I lifted it up, then I peered inside.
There was no “fade to white” for me that time. No, I saw exactly what was in the box, and simultaneously, three truths occurred to me. The first truth was that the man had been in my house. Despite all the security measures, he’d gotten in and out without raising a single alarm. The second truth was that the man had been right, I’d asked for something without even realizing it. The third truth was the sinking acceptance that his visits would be an annual occurrence.
I stood there on the chair, staring into my parents’ dried out eyes, which were still in their decapitated heads, which were both in the box. I’d said I wanted them back, and the man, however he did it, had heard me, and granted my wish in a manner befitting his evil ways.
The ultimate truth that I learned from that day was that there could be no mess-ups with my behavior, and I could want for nothing. I was being constantly watched, and my mind was being continuously invaded. Bad actions would be severely punished, and even good behavior would lead to its own sick and twisted reward. And that’s the story of how a very well behaved boy became the perfectly behaved boy. And as a perfectly behaved boy, all my desires had to be held in check. Emotionally speaking, I had to become less than human, so that the visitor would have no fuel for the wicked game he played.
Of course, nobody is truly perfect, and there were slip-ups throughout the following years, times when I inadvertently made a wish or asked for something. Those slip-ups were very costly to me, but I don’t care to recount the full extent of them here. I think I’ve given enough of myself for tonight. I’m weary and beaten, but what I will tell you is that after thirty years, I’m no longer afraid to finally say that I want the painful memories to go away. I don’t want them anymore. I even said it aloud, I want the memories to be gone.
It’s cold outside right now, and it’s getting late. I think I’ll make myself a cup of hot cocoa with some peppermint before turning in. That will make me happy. For the first time in ages, I’m calm and at peace. Looking out the window, I can see all the pretty lights on the eaves of the houses. I don’t think I ever really had the chance to appreciate just how festive they make everything look. For a long time I just didn’t care, but now, I’m going to take a few minutes to enjoy them while I can. Good night everyone, and merry Christmas.
Credit: Thomas O.