The alarm was horribly loud in his left ear, a persistent high pitched beep forcing him from his dreamless, alcohol-soaked slumber into a hangover-heavy wakefulness. Jim groaned, rolling away from the insistent machine and negligently silencing it with a lucky swipe of his arm. His head felt thick and fuzzy, his tongue dry and his stomach on the verge of rebellion.
Jim opened his eyes and peered at the sliver of cold morning light showing through the curtains as half-recalled memories danced across his mind. A crowd of his friends in the pub. Reindeer jumpers and a sexy elf serving behind the bar –
Oh, god. It’s Christmas morning.
Wild panic stabbed through him and he turned to his side. Sandra was missing. The empty space beside him was cold; she’d been gone a while. It had been his turn last night, he remembered that clearly; he’d made her the promise as he’d headed out. Wrapping his scarf around his neck he’d stepped to the door, giving her a smile and saying that, of course, he wouldn’t forget. How could he? Christmas Eve was the most vitally important night of the year, a basic trip out with friends wouldn’t change that.
But they’d had a couple of drinks, then Harry had suggested a couple more. He’d barely realized he’d had so much until he stood up to head home and almost fallen over. They’d sung some songs on the way back, passed each other drunken warnings about not forgetting to put out the carrots and whiskey, and he’d stumbled in fully intending to do so. But then his memory was a blank.
Did I put them out?
What if he’d forgotten? Sandra was missing…
Ripping the duvet off he clambered out of bed and hurried to check on Owen. The kid was sleeping soundly, which considering it was Christmas was unusual. He must finally be growing up, which at the age of eight was well overdue. In years past he’d bounded out of bed at the crack of dawn, thrilled with the excitement of presents and determined to make every second of the day a test of his parents’ patience.
Jim’s heart began to calm its manic pounding at the sight of his son. He hadn’t been taken. He sagged against the door-frame for a moment, recovering his composure and trying to ignore the throbbing headache rattling his skull. Slowly, he closed the door and stepped back into the hall, enjoying the flood of relief which momentarily washed away some of the guilt.
Sandra was in the kitchen, huddled in her fluffy white dressing gown and nursing a cup of coffee. She looked terrible. Pale and haunted, her dark hair hung lankly around her shoulders and her eyes stared unseeing at a point far away.
“Morning hun,” he ventured tentatively, reaching for the kettle, “Merry Christmas.”
Her glazed eyes moved to his, her expression bleak.
“Merry Christmas? That’s what you say to me?”
“I’m sorry, honey. I’m so, so sorry.” He hesitated, torn between wanting to fill the kettle and not wanting to seem insincere. He shuffled his feet.
“You’re sorry,” she repeated flatly, turning back to her coffee. “You have no idea what I went through. I woke up, you were there, snoring away in your clothes.” She gave him an accusing, angry glare.
“Good thing I decided to check that you’d done what you said you’d do, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said meekly, looking down at his feet and feeling thoroughly miserable.
“But you hadn’t.”
“No.” What else was there to say?
“Jesus, Jim. How could you be so reckless?”
It would be no excuse to say he had been drunk. No excuse that it was Christmas Eve and he’d been with the friends he only got to see once a year. It wouldn’t help to remind her that she could have just as easily put out the whiskey and carrots, that there was no reason it had to be him every damn time.
No reason why she was allowed to shirk the responsibility year after year, just so that she had a reason to tell him not to be out late. That is, besides her jealousy that he had friends that weren’t her.
He settled on just saying he was sorry again and turning away to fill the kettle. To his relief, she said nothing more about it.
“So, how’s it look out there? You catch the news yet?”
She sighed, a resigned, miserable sigh. “I didn’t have to. There’s a news crew outside the Thompsons’. Looks like they forgot.”
Jim turned, the kettle forgotten. The Thompsons weren’t really friends of theirs but they were decent people; they got together every now and then for a drink, to discuss their kids or the school, that kind of thing. To think that they were gone, taken by the demon for the crime of forgetting to placate its bizarre demands, was horrifying.
“Jesus,” he breathed.
“Could’ve been us,” Sandra said. It wasn’t accusatory, just factual. Her face was that of a person who’d just been pulled back from the edge of a cliff; ashen and wan, her eyes wide and staring as though she could see her narrowly avoided fate playing out before her.
He crossed the kitchen and hugged her, feeling a new kind of guilt when she hugged him back tightly and sobbed into his t-shirt. They stood that way for a while, neither one moving, their minds playing out the horror of what could have been, until Owen came bouncing into the kitchen clutching the bag of presents he’d found at the end of his bed.
“Mummy! Daddy! Father Christmas came!” he enthused in that way only very small children can, dragging the sack over.
For a second, Jim couldn’t summon the parental good cheer he needed, struggling to put the near-miss to the back of his mind and drag up his Daddy-At-Christmas persona. In a way, though it pained him to admit it, he was looking forward to when they no longer had to pretend. When Owen would be old enough to finally learn the truth about the creature that clattered around the house on Christmas Eve, the being that parents across the world conspired to portray as a jolly present-giver in order to avoid discussion of dark truths too terrible for young minds. The perfect, universal lie that sent kids running early to bed on the one night of the year that they were most vulnerable, and kept them in their rooms feigning sleep if they heard any strange sounds during the night. Normally it didn’t bother him but this morning, having come so close to disaster, it was harder than usual to put the necessary spin on the beast that had visited them in the night. Especially when he’d spent so many hours wrapping up all the presents he now had to attribute to a thing that had very nearly murdered them all.
“Wow! Lucky you, honey!” Sandra finally said with a convincingly excited gasp. “Go ahead and take your sack into the living room and we’ll see what he “ Her eyes met Jim’s and mouthed the words ‘get it together’. Owen, oblivious, ran off happily pulling his sack of presents behind him.
Jim nodded and took a deep breath, as Sandra followed their son into the living room.
A few minutes later he was standing by the window, staring at the crowd outside the Thompsons’, making appropriately encouraging responses to his son’s wild cries of happiness and exclamations of what he was going to do with his toys. The news crew was solemn, and behind them the police were taping off the doors and windows of the house. No ambulance had been called. There would be no bodies. There never were.
The news was playing at a dim volume on the TV behind them, but snatches of the report were getting through to him, linking him to the horror outside in flashes of juxtaposition to the joy his son was experiencing inside. The contrast made him feel sick.
“Once again,” the reporter said behind Jim, in that light but strained voice they always used to deliver these reports, the tension only noticeable by adults, “this Christmas has given us the highest number of visitors since records began. Some speculation has focused on our growing population for the figures, but it seems clear that a large proportion of visitors were from newly arrived migrant families. Whilst it is common knowledge that the visitation requirements do differ from country to country, some people just forget to change their Christmas traditions…”
“Daddy?” Owen asked chirpily from behind him. Jim turned to see that the boy was watching the TV with interest.
“Why do some people go to visit Father Christmas and others don’t?”
Sandra caught his eye, giving an almost imperceptible shake of the head. He looked away, wondering if this might be the moment to let the child in on the horrible truth. Was that the responsible thing to do?
“Well,” he said, measuring his words, “if people don’t put out their carrot and whiskey, then they get to go and visit Father Christmas. So it could happen to anyone.”
“Why don’t we go then? I’d like to visit. Can we go next year?”
Jim looked at Sandra. She looked away.
“But we don’t need to go to see Father Christmas, Owen. He comes to us. That’s why Mummy put out the whiskey and the carrot last night.” He pointed to the little plate next to the Christmas tree and the shot glass next to it. The glass was empty, and Jim had absolutely no intention of using either the glass or the plate ever again. A goofy-looking stuffed snowman had fallen across the plate, no doubt knocked by the talons of the beast as it reached for the carrot. Jim shuddered to imagine it, delicately lifting the carrot off the ceramic without leaving a mark.
“When did you do that Mummy?” asked Owen, peering round at his mother over a pile of shredded wrapping paper. “Did you get to see Father Christmas?”
Sandra gave a sickly smile that looked more like a grimace and shook her head.
“No, honey, I just came downstairs last night and put a glass of whiskey next to the carrot your father put out.”
Jim’s heart nearly stopped. He stared at her, wondering if that was meant to be some kind of joke. From somewhere far away he could hear his son babbling, but the words no longer made any sense. Sandra was watching Owen indulgently, shaking her head at something he’d said.
“You didn’t put out a carrot?” he managed to say, just about keeping his voice from rising into a hysterical shriek. She looked up, her face now wearing a similar expression to the one he imagined was on his.
“What?” she said sharply, her eyes falling to the little plate and widening in sudden, awful realization. Jim’s stomach tightened in a cold knot.
Owen seemed to pick up on the sudden tension, his expression curdling like sour milk. He started to breathe in that heavy way, with his shoulders moving, that his parents both knew preceded a tantrum.
Jim looked down, the pieces suddenly falling into place like a horrific nightmare jigsaw. The little stuffed snowman, his long, orange, stuffed nose across the white ceramic plate. His tired wife mistaking it for a carrot… putting out the whiskey and going back to bed…
“Oh, dear god,” he whispered, as a thick voice, deep with hatred and dripping with obscene desire, gurgled at them from within the mound of discarded wrapping paper.
“Ho, ho, ho,” it cackled.
As the colorful wrappings exploded outward, Owen screamed.
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