Estimated reading time — 41 minutes
Author’s Note: For those of you who might be curious, this is intended as a companion piece to The Perfectly Behaved Boy, a story that was published on this site two years ago. However, this tale was written so that it will stand on its own, with no prior knowledge of this universe needed by the reader.
Some of our most lasting memories are associated with Christmastime. I can clearly remember receiving a red tricycle when I was four. I can still smell the roast goose my mother made for our Yuletide dinner when I was six. I recall fondly that when I was nine, my father let me climb up a ladder to place the star atop the tree. And when I was eleven, a dead man terrorized me on Christmas Eve. When I was twelve, he came back. This is the story of that man.
As a child, I lived with my parents in Biltfort Manor, a home that dated back to 1897. It’s probably the nicest house you’ll ever see. I could go on and on about how beautiful it is, but the splendor of the home isn’t important to this story. What you really need to know is that there’s a feature on the grounds that, as far as I know, isn’t replicated any other place. You see, a few years after the manor was built, the Biltfort family started a tradition that still carries on to this day; they planted their Christmas tree outside the manor house when Christmas was over. The trick to doing this successfully is that you have to get a tree with its root ball still intact. This first tree, the “1901” tree, is rooted right next to the house. About twenty feet away from that tree is – you guessed it – the “1902” tree. As the years went by, each new tree was planted a little bit further away. The effect is that as someone pulls off the main highway, they’ll follow a line of evenly spaced pine trees that get older and grander as they get closer to the manor. Some of the trees are quite huge. The Biltforts owned the manor through two generations, finally selling it in 1952. The new owners fell in love with the Christmas tree tradition and continued on with it. My family bought the home in the late 70s, and we too kept up with the tradition.
I loved staring out the car window at the line of trees every time my parents and I drove up to the house. Each one had its own history and unique personality. When I was feeling bored, I’d go outside and run alongside them. Sometimes, I’d even use a stopwatch to see how long it took me to make it to the farthest tree and back (three and a half minutes, by the way). It was during one of those runs that I first noticed something was amiss; there was a twice-as-large gap between two of the pines. It was as if another tree should’ve been there, but wasn’t. From the road it wasn’t really obvious because the treetops grew together so thickly, but it was noticeable from close up if you were paying attention. Most people probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to the apparently missing tree, but to me it was a mystery in my very own front yard, and I dwelled on it all day long, wondering what possibly could’ve happened to it.
Fueled by my curiosity, I counted the number of trees between the house and the missing pine – I got fifty-seven, which meant that “1958” was unaccounted for. I pointed it out to my father later that evening. He took a walk with me before sunset and confirmed that yes, a tree did, in fact, appear to be absent.
“I wonder what happened to it,” I said as I stood in the exact spot where it should’ve been.
“I dunno, Champ. Maybe it got sick and died.”
I laughed at that. “Trees don’t get sick!”
“Sure they do. Lots of things can make a tree sick. Or maybe it even got hit by lightning.”
“Well, I want to know for sure!” I demanded. As the words came from my mouth, I felt a sudden chill pass through my body. It started at my feet and worked its way up. I shuddered, not knowing why I was doing so.
My father didn’t seem to notice. “I don’t know if we’ll ever know for sure, Charlie. Sometimes that’s just how it is.” The sun was starting to set, so together we walked back to the manor house.
The mystery bothered me for months, right up until Christmas Eve – and that’s where this story really begins. It was late when the dead man arrived, several hours after my parents and I had enjoyed our Christmas Eve feast. I was trying to fall asleep when I noticed, by the pale green light of my digital clock, that someone was suddenly standing at the foot of my bed. I had no idea how he’d gotten inside.
My heart nearly tore out of my chest. I feigned sleep in the hope that the man wouldn’t hurt me, but he wasn’t deceived. “You can get out of bed,” he said with a drawl.
My eyes peeked open, but my body didn’t move.
“Get up!” he insisted as he violently pulled my comforter from the bed with his dirt-encrusted hands. I sat up shakily, all the while planning to run off to my parents’ bedroom once the opportunity presented itself.
“Don’t think about goin’ runnin’ to your parents now,” the man said. He wasn’t very tall, but his dark, stabbing eyes peered past his greasy long hair and made him more menacing than any giant could’ve ever been. “Yeah, that’s right. I’m in your head. I know exactly what you’re thinkin’.” He grabbed my shirt and lifted me to my feet. “What do you want for Christmas?” he asked.
Fear drove away my ability to speak.
“Fine, don’t tell me,” the man said with a laugh. “I already know what you asked for.”
I reflexively ran through my Christmas list in my mind… an Atari, a basketball, a race track…
“Boy, you ain’t gettin’ an Atari from me,” he twanged. “But you want to know about that missing Christmas tree out front, don’t you?”
Still holding onto my shirt, the man walked me out of the room. He didn’t even flinch when I screamed out for my parents. To my dismay, they didn’t respond, which didn’t seem to surprise him at all. I later figured that he’d used some sort of charm that kept them asleep, though I know they would’ve fought tooth-and-nail to help me if they could’ve.
We made it outside to the front of the manor, where an unfamiliar car was parked. I can’t tell you the make or model, but it was a shiny white muscle car straight from the 1970s. He left me standing there as he went around to the driver’s side and stepped in.
He looked over at me through the side window. “Get in,” he demanded. The passenger door opened on its own.
I shook my head slowly as I backed away. Only a minute earlier I’d been resting snug in my bed, yet there I stood in the cold outdoors being given directions by a violent man. Everything was happening so fast.
“Boy,” the man drawled, “if I have to get back out of this car to collect you I’m going to cut your fuckin’ tongue out.”
I took another step backwards and slipped on slush and gravel, landing square on my ass. Inside the car, the man reached into his waistband and pulled out a switchblade that opened in a single, fluid movement. I turned and tried to stand, but my feet slipped out from under me and I fell back to the earth. I heard his door open and in only a few seconds he was upon me.
“Now you’ve pissed me off, kid!” He jammed his fingers into my mouth and pinched my tongue. I shook my head ferociously, unsuccessfully trying to free myself. He made a fist with his other hand and punched the side of my head. “I’m just gonna keep clockin’ you if you don’t relax,” he spat out.
Stunned into obedience, I stopped shaking my head. The man pinched his fingers down hard and pulled my tongue past my lips, further than I ever realized it could extend. The knife glinted in the moonlight as he raised it up and started slicing into the side of my exposed tongue like it was a piece of veal melting under steely pressure. If you’ve ever bitten your tongue before, multiply that pain by a thousand and you’ll know how I felt in that moment. Just as I thought I was about to lose my tongue forever, the man stopped mid-slice and threw the knife to the ground in anger. It sizzled as it landed in the snow.
“Goddamn it!” he screamed. “Just look what you made me do!” The blood ran freely from my mouth. The man reached into his back pocket and threw an oily white rag at my face. “Clean yourself up!”
I ran a trembling finger up to inspect the incision point on my tongue, and considering how much it hurt, I was surprised to find that he hadn’t cut nearly as deep as I’d thought and my tongue was still mostly attached. The man walked back to the car and let himself in. He didn’t have to say another word, he just stared at me with a venomous glare that dared me to take another step away. I obediently stepped inside and closed the passenger-side door. The low rumble of the idling engine suddenly became much louder. I heard the dirt and gravel kick out from underneath the rear tires as I was pushed back into the seat by the force of the car accelerating.
“Don’t be gettin’ no blood on my upholstery,” the man said as he stared straight ahead.
“Thuck you, ath-hole,” I shot back defiantly as the tears from my eyes ran down and mixed with the blood from my mouth. Nonetheless, I made sure to sop up all the blood with the rag.
The car vibrated as a thick fog enveloped us, and the road that we’d been driving on began to slowly transform from a modern asphalt highway into a rutty byway that I didn’t recognize. I got the feeling that wherever we were going, it wasn’t a place that was accessible to just any driver.
The car shook as it took the bumps in front of it. The man didn’t slow down; in fact, he sped up, making the ride as uncomfortable as possible for me. Soon, a small building, framed in moonlight and dirty snow, appeared in the distance. As we got closer, I saw gray paint peeling from its clapboard siding. A shabby tin roof covered the structure. The only entrance was a garage door that opened as we approached.
As the car pulled into the structure I took in my surroundings. This garage was far larger on the inside than it looked on the outside. Grease covered the walls and grimy tools lay haphazardly on the floor. The only light came from a single overhead lamp and a smudgy window that let a little moonlight seep through.
The man pulled inside and revved the engine before killing it. “God damn it!” he yelled as he punched the steering wheel. I didn’t know why he was mad. “Don’t leave this car,” he demanded of me as he stepped out and walked toward a small room that was built into the corner of the garage. The man entered and closed the door behind him.
I did as he had demanded and stayed in my seat, bleeding in silence. Soon the rag became saturated with blood, and I was faced with an undesirable choice – leave the car against the man’s instructions or get blood on the seats, also against the man’s instructions. I glanced around at the interior of the car, and oddly enough, it was in showroom condition. Hesitantly, I opened the door. It was well greased and moved silently. I stepped outside just as the rag absorbed its last possible drop. The next drop landed on the floor of the garage.
A new voice spoke out to me from the dark. “That looks painful.” The overhead light made a cone of illumination in the dusty room, but the voice had come from just beyond the lighted area. “It’s okay, you can come closer.” The new voice was far less aggressive than the voice of the man who’d cut my tongue.
I waited to let my eyes fully adjust to the conditions, and eventually I was able to make out the shape of a person sitting on the ground. The new person sighed at my reluctance to go to him. “All right, hold on a minute, I’ll come to you.” I heard the clanking of chains as the form stood up.
A dragging sound, specifically metal being scraped over concrete, filled the room. As he drew nearer to the light, I could see that an automobile engine, attached to him by chains, was trailing behind him. He huffed as he pulled his burden. The cacophonic sound of clanging links and scraping metal made me cringe. The chains were wrapped around his body and secured with several cast-iron padlocks. They extended a few feet out to where they were bolted to the engine block. This man, a wretch, wasn’t going anywhere fast.
“Did he do that to you?” He pointed to my bloody mouth.
“Yeth,” I affirmed.
The wretch in front of me laughed. “Well, it looks like he fucked up, then.” He pulled closer to me and studied my face. “That’s a lot of blood. He ain’t allowed to do that to the kids.”
We studied each other for a moment. His face was smudged with grease and he wore blue coveralls. He looked like he might have been about twenty, but they were twenty hard years.
“What’d you do that got him so pissed off?” the wretch asked me. “He usually doesn’t make mistakes like that.”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Hmmm, something got him outta sorts.” The wretch stroked the stubble on his face. “What’s your name?”
“Tharley Morrithon.” The pain and swelling in my tongue made it nearly impossible to speak.
“You said Charley Morrison?”
“Uh huh,” I uttered with a nod.
He pondered some more. “The name don’t sound important. Where do you live, Charlie?”
“Ah-ha!” he shrieked. “That’s it! That’s what’s got him so outta sorts. He had to go back there.”
I stared blankly at the wretch, waiting for an explanation.
“You see, guys like Corbin,” he pointed to the office where the man had disappeared, “they don’t like visiting places that remind them of when they were alive.”
Corbin. The man’s name was Corbin. I pondered whether it was a first name or last name.
The wretch kept babbling. “After the state put him in the hot chair in seventy-four, he became something of a new man… became a disciple of the Rule Maker.”
“Whoth the Rule Makther?”
The poor wretch seemed desperate for friendly conversation. “You know, I’ve been here ten years and I haven’t totally figured that out for myself. Best I can tell, he’s some sort of demon. I don’t even know what his name is, I just call him the Rule Maker because it seems like he lays out all sorts of rules for Corbin to follow. All I know for sure is that he sends Corbin out every Christmas Eve to destroy the lives of certain kids. He sees the same ones over and over. They’ve got some sort of master plan but I don’t know what it is.”
From inside the office, a booming voice spoke out in an inhuman language that sounded to me like chain saws and car crashes. The walls of the garage shook and my teeth rattled inside my head.
The wretch paused to listen to the voice, then spoke when it was quiet again. “That’s the Rule Maker. I ain’t ever actually seen him. Anyway, those two really get off on messin’ up kids’ lives. Just to give you an example of what they do, one kid asked for his parents to go away, so Corbin cut their goddamn heads off and took them. Then he fuckin’ gave the heads back the next year, just ‘cause the kid said he missed them.” The wretch looked around suspiciously to make sure they were still alone. “This shit is planned out, man, and it’s totally fucked up.”
“Like I said, I don’t know how or why he picks his kids. All I know for sure is that he’s not actually supposed to hurt them directly. It’s the Rule Maker’s number one rule. He’s jus’ supposed to screw with ‘em… take their wishes and twist them around.”
More of the booming voice came from the room, and Corbin could be heard arguing back in the same indecipherable language.
“Man, the Rule Maker’s pissed,” the wretch said with an almost gleeful laugh. “Whatever Corbin had planned for you, it’s going to be totally different now. He’s going to have to make amends for what he did to you.”
The voice of the Rule Maker exploded again. For a moment, it felt as if the whole building was going to collapse around me. When it stopped, Corbin yelled back in English, “No, I don’t want to give her up! She’s my first kil…” He was cut off by a scream from the Rule Maker that was so loud that cracks formed along the dirty window and paint chips fell from the ceiling above.
“Fine! I’ll do it!” Corbin shouted in anger and resignation.
The door to the office opened and Corbin backed out slowly. He genuflected as he passed through the doorway, and his angry stare began to fade from his face. “It will be done,” he stated into the room with a returning calmness. He closed the door behind him. Turning, he noticed me and the wretch. “Stop talkin’ to him before I cut your hand off,” he said to my new acquaintance.
“Yes, sir!” The wretch snapped up and saluted.
“Get back in the car,” Corbin demanded of me.
Not wanting to further upset Corbin, I jumped into the passenger side of the car while the garage door began to roll up. In the mirror I could see the wretch lift his arm up and wave goodbye to me. Before the door was even completely open, the car peeled out and sped from the building, clearing the bottom of the door by only a hair. The last I saw of the wretch, he was standing dejected-looking amid a cloud of rubbery smoke.
The car tore over a fog-enshrouded road while its headlights reflected backwards and created a glowing white aura around it. The engine protested and growled as Corbin shifted into the highest gear. I couldn’t see more than five feet out the window, but Corbin only went faster. I looked at the speedometer… 120… 130… 140.
My head felt woozy and heavy. I laid my head back against the headrest and shut my eyes. The pitch of the engine went higher and higher until it faded away completely.
I came to. Had I been unconscious? The night was clear, with no sign of fog. I saw dirty snow banked up along the edges of the road and the car was traveling at a relatively sane speed. We drove for several more minutes in silence until Corbin slammed on the brakes and skidded along the asphalt.
He turned and glowered at me. “Here’s the deal, if you can save the girl, you can save yourself.”
“What girl?” I asked with the sudden awareness that my mouth no longer hurt. I stuck my tongue out and felt along its side. I could feel a lump of scar tissue, but it was otherwise healed.
“You’ll figure out who she is soon enough.” He reached over me and opened my door. “This is your one chance. Save her and you’ll never see me again. If you don’t, I’ll be comin’ back for you.”
I stepped out of the car, confused about my mission. As soon as my second foot hit the asphalt, the car drove off with its rear wheels spitting pebbles at my face. Soon, I was alone. I took in my surroundings. The road I was standing on snaked through the woods. The moonlight reflected off the snow, providing me with at least a little bit of light. One of the nearby hills looked familiar, like something I’d seen around my home. I walked that direction and crested it within minutes. From the peak, I found myself looking down on Biltmore Manor. Yet, something seemed off about it as I approached. The cars parked in the manor’s roundabout driveway didn’t belong to my parents; they were classic cars that I didn’t recognize. As I trudged through the slushy snow and drew closer, small details came into view that confirmed that something wasn’t quite right. The curtains in the windows were the wrong color. Plants and hedges were different, and the Christmas trees, the ones that were all in a magnificent line, seemed to be smaller from when I’d last seen them.
The front door opened and a well-dressed couple emerged onto the front stoop. The woman, who was holding some neatly wrapped gifts, descended down the stairs, followed by the man. They were deep in conversation as they went to one of the cars and opened the trunk.
“Hello?” I shouted to the couple. They both cocked their heads as if they heard something, like I might have been shouting at them from a mile away, though I was actually fairly close.
“Did you hear that?” the woman asked the man.
The man shrugged his shoulders. A moment later, a boy, who was maybe a couple of years younger than me, emerged from the front door and ran to the couple. “Shut the door,” the man said to the child, “and make sure it’s locked.” The child ran back up the porch stairs to make sure the house was secured.
“Can you help me?” I asked with uncertainty.
They gave no response. The three of them loaded into the car, and I could hear bits and pieces of their conversation as they did so. They fretted about being late for whatever gathering they were going to, and the boy sang a Christmas song to himself.
Their conversation was meaningless to me, that is, until I heard the woman mention HIS name – Corbin. I froze and listened intently. “… so I put Corbin to work today, mostly some gardening out back, but I also had him dig a hole to plant the Christmas tree.”
“Already?” asked the man who I assumed to be her husband. “It’s barely Christmas Eve. Why the rush?”
“Have you seen the tree lately?” she asked. “It’s dry. If we wait too much longer there won’t be a tree left to put in the ground, and we won’t be breaking fifty-plus years of tradition on my watch.”
The man nodded and spoke his agreement. “I suppose it’s starting to get a little dry, and maybe a little unsafe.” The car started up and the family drove off without ever acknowledging my presence.
Through the window, I could see into the parlor, which was festively decorated with a Christmas tree and lights that were strung all over the room. I noticed with increasing unease that they were drastically different from the decorations my family had put up. I walked around the house, looking in every window that I could manage, and in each instance, the furniture and decorations were all different from what was supposed to be there.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation, but I decided there would be little to gain by standing around outside. I had a task – a mission even. I had to push onward. I went to a side door and tried the handle to see if it was unlocked, but I found myself unable to grip it. As I clamped my hand down, the doorknob felt soft, like it was made of dough, and my hand actually sank into its rubbery surface. I gasped and pulled my hand back. I collected myself and I put my hand out again, this time pushing on the door itself. As before, the door, which should have been rock-solid, felt like dough that my hand could pass through. I put my arm all the way in, then kept pushing. In a few moments, my shoulder was through as well. I took a deep breath and then thrust my leg through. I was half inside and half out, which was an extremely odd sensation. I continued on, pushing my head, and then the rest of my body, into the home. I was fully inside. I turned and looked at the door I had just gone through. It was solid as ever.
I explored the house, confused and angry that it wasn’t how it was supposed to be. On the kitchen wall, I finally saw it, a calendar – it was from 1958. I had already guessed that I was out of my own time, but that confirmed it. I continued exploring, looking for the “her” who I was supposed to save. I walked up the stairs, and oddly enough they supported my feet just fine, without getting all rubbery. There was nobody upstairs, the family, and any staff, were obviously gone for the night. When I looked out the window at the end of the hallway, I saw a small cozy structure that appeared to be a bunkhouse. A light could be seen through the window, and a shadow moved across the floor. The bunkhouse wasn’t something I’d ever seen before – it didn’t exist in my time period. As the manor was clearly empty, I left and headed over to the unfamiliar building.
As I approached, I could see that the bunkhouse was not kept up nearly as well as the manor house. “Hello?” I spoke as I peered into a window. I could see that it was a two-room structure, with the front room doubling as a workshop and being used to store all sorts of tools, but the room also showed signs that someone had taken up residence there, with an icebox and a couch along the wall.
In the corner, I could see the back of a man who appeared to be fixing a lawnmower. His shaggy hair fell over his shoulders. In my heart, I already knew who it was, Corbin. I heard the wretch’s words sound through my head, “You see, guys like Corbin, they don’t like visiting places that remind them of when they were alive.” It was clear that thirty years before my time, Corbin had worked as a handyman at Biltfort Manor and lived on grounds.
My goal was somewhere inside of that bunkhouse, I was sure of it. I entered the same way I’d entered the Manor, by stepping through a closed door. Corbin didn’t seem to hear me, until he did. The clicking of the ratchet he was using stopped cold and he perked his head up. “Who’s there?” he asked. I stood still. Turning and looking in my direction, he spoke louder, “I said who’s there?”
He couldn’t see me. I took the opportunity to study his face. It was definitely the same man who’d cut my tongue and then brought me here, but he looked much younger, more vibrant. His face was fuller and his teeth weren’t nearly as nasty.
“What do you want here?” He spoke in my direction, but his gaze fell somewhat to my left.
He fetched a pack of cigarettes from the tabletop next to him and took a moment to light one.
“You’re the one who brought me here,” I said. He cocked his head, but it was obvious that he couldn’t make out what I was saying. I must’ve sounded like a fly or a gnat to him.
A light thumping sound came from the back room. Corbin instantly decided there was nothing of interest in front of him and shouted toward the thumping. “Damn it girl, you best not be makin’ noise!” He walked to the door and kicked it open. Inside, I could see a girl sitting on the floor. She was chained to the bedpost, and she looked miserable in a ratty gray dress and old slippers. I guessed she was probably about twelve or thirteen years old. The girl shivered in fright. It was her, the one I was expected to save.
Corbin reached back and slapped her. “I said shut up!” he screamed as the poor thing winced in pain. Without another word, he walked out, slamming the door shut behind him. By then I had walked into the bedroom; it was just me and her. She waited a minute after he left, then reached under the bed and pulled out a metal file. She looked at the door to make sure Corbin wasn’t coming back any time soon, then slowly started rubbing the file against one of the links of her chain. She’d already created a large divot, even though the file was dull. She must’ve been working on it for days. At least the dullness made for quiet work.
The poor girl was filthy and ragged. Black circles ringed her eyes. She paused from her filing and looked up, sensing something in the room with her.
“Hello?” she whispered.
“Can you hear me?” I whispered back.
“Yes, I can hear you. Where are you?”
“I’m right in front of you,” I said.
I hadn’t meant to scare the girl, but it was understandable when she jumped back in fear. She banged into the bed, pushing it backwards. She shot a fearful look at the door, hoping that Corbin wouldn’t come barging back inside. From the other room, the sound of a ratchet turning stopped for what seemed like an hour, but soon the clicking picked up again.
“I won’t hurt you,” I told the girl. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Magda.”
“I’m Charlie,” I told her. She reached out her hand to where I was sitting, and I felt its coldness as her fingers passed through my face.
She shivered. “I can feel you!” She managed a small smile.
“What are you doing here?” I asked her.
She told me her story in whispers and gestures. Corbin had purchased her from her father a couple of months earlier, who himself had kept her locked up in a cabin for several years. She recounted some happy memories from her early childhood, when her mother was still alive, but the second half of her existence had been one of misery. As she told it, nobody except her father and Corbin even knew she existed anymore. She was happy to have someone to talk to, even someone she couldn’t see. At one point she stood up and walked to the closest corner of the room, which was just about as far as her chain would allow. She lifted a small slab of rock which concealed a hiding place under the foundation of the bunkhouse. She reached into the secret vault and showed me her single treasure, a small doll she had created out of various items and tidbits she’d found lying around. “This is Perla,” she told me as she held the doll up proudly before cradling it like a baby. I could see that Perla was made from scraps of burlap that were tied together with bits of twine. Her insides were formed by twigs that stuck out from beyond the fabric, and her head was made from a closed pinecone. It was a pathetic doll, but it clearly meant everything to Magda.
“You see,” Magda explained, “this stuff was left over after Corbin pulled the Christmas tree inside here so he could trim it and get it ready for the big house.” She smiled for the first time as she spoke about it. “I grabbed these things when he wasn’t looking.”
“Why don’t you tell anybody you’re here?” I asked her. “Why don’t you yell when you hear someone walking by outside?”
“The boy,” she said, “he told me he’ll kill the boy if I make any noise.”
I thought back to the child who’d left with his parents earlier. “He’s gone right now. I think they went to a Christmas party.”
That seemed to reinvigorate her. She carefully put Perla back into her hiding spot. “You’ll be safe here,” she said to the doll. She took her seat on the floor and picked up her file, which she began moving back and forth against the chain with determination.
“I’m leaving tonight,” she said as she filed. “I’m going to wait for Santa in the big house and have him take me away from here, up to the North Pole where people will be nice.”
“I don’t know if Santa can help you, Magda.” Her face fell at those words. “But I can.” She smiled.
Together we came up with a plan. I would try to draw Corbin outside by making noise. Once he was distracted, Magda would sneak away and run into the manor where she would use the phone to call for the police. “Just dial zero and the operator will connect you,” I instructed her. “Don’t wait for Santa.”
Needing only a few more minutes, Magda finally succeeded in cutting through the chain and was able to free herself from its bitter grip.
I moved back into the main room, where Corbin was still working on his damn lawnmower. Using every last ounce of breath, I yelled his name. “Corbin!” He jerked his head up. “I’m over here!” I yelled.
“The fuck is goin’ on here tonight?” His agitation was evident as he stood fully upright. “Who is that?”
“I’m outside!” I shouted as I began pushing myself through the outer wall. He took a step toward the front door, then thought better of it and moved to the bedroom. He flung the door open, only to see Magda appear to be sleeping on the floor still wrapped in her chain.
Leaving the girl where she lay, he stomped back across the bunkhouse and shoved open the front door, which nearly came off its hinges. His head swiveled both ways as he poked it out and looked for the source of the distraction.
Moving a little farther outside, I shouted again, “Over here!” I could see Corbin’s ears twitch as he tried to understand what he was hearing. He took a tentative step out of the building, but didn’t appear willing to move any farther. I screamed for him to come find me. He shuddered momentarily, then a heated sneer grew on his face.
“Whatever son of a bitch is out there, you best run.” He pulled a switchblade from his pocket and opened it with a click. He stepped away from the bunkhouse, closer to me. Behind him, I could see Magda slowly stepping out of the bedroom. Her slight frame worked to her advantage as she glided silently across the floor. I kept calling to Corbin, who had taken about ten steps out of the bunkhouse. It took Magda only a few more seconds until she was standing in the doorway behind him. The sneer dropped from Corbin’s face, replaced with a baffled stare as he scratched the back of his head. Magda wavered on the stoop, unsure if she should continue on or not; she began to shake. I was already screaming as loud as I could at Corbin, but it was having less effect with each passing moment.
In desperation, I began cussing and swearing. Instantly he turned back and faced my position, as if he could intrinsically tell that someone was cursing his name. The sneer returned to his face, and he boldly stepped closer, though he was still unable to see me. Magda took the opportunity and left the bunkhouse, and with feathery footsteps, she noiselessly moved toward the manor. Only a few seconds later, Corbin lost all interest in what I was doing and turned back around, barely missing the sight of Magda disappearing around the corner of the Manor.
I followed Magda, praying that she’d quickly call the police like we’d planned. I felt a moment of anxiety when I saw that she’d left footprints in the slushy snow that peppered the ground. I moved faster, knowing that she wouldn’t have too much time before Corbin came to look for her. Her path led to the opposite side of the Manor, where she had used a rock to break the window into the library. I was impressed with her resolve. I passed through the wall into the library and called to her but got no response. I moved to the kitchen, where I’d earlier seen the phone, but I couldn’t find her. I continued on my way through the house until I made it to the parlor. The Christmas tree was aglow with lights and bulbs and garland. Beautiful gifts were wrapped at its base. Kneeled in front of it was Magda.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked as I entered. The blues and reds and greens from the lights colored her face and made her look a little less pathetic.
“C’mon,” I insisted, “we need to call the police.”
Magda looked at the fireplace. “Santa will be here any minute, and he’ll save us both!”
“No, he won’t. Santa’s not coming.”
“My momma told me all about him. I already made a wish for him to take me away.”
I noticed movement in the darkness outside the window. “Magda, we don’t have much time.” Emerging from shadows, I could see Corbin’s outline coming toward the house. He was following the path in the snow that had been created minutes earlier by Magda.
“Hurry!” I yelled at her.
Magda shot up, and any fantasies she had about Santa taking her away were momentarily put aside. “What do I do?” she asked in a panic.
“The kitchen! Go to the phone!”
Magda followed my voice as I led her to the kitchen. At that same moment, we heard Corbin kicking in the library glass, making the hole in the window big enough for him to climb through.
Magda found the phone along the wall. “I’ve never used one before.” It was a rotary phone, which I was vaguely familiar with.
“Put your finger in the zero hole, and spin the dial.
She did as I told her and put the handset to her face. “I hear it ringing!”
The sound of Corbin stomping around echoed through the halls as he tromped through the house. “Where you at, you little bitch?”
“There’s no time!” Magda shrieked as she dropped the handset and ran toward the parlor. The sound of the phone hitting the floor attracted Corbin, who entered the kitchen from the south door as Magda left through the other side.
I followed Magda down the hallway. “Hide!” I shouted to her. “I’ll try to distract him!” I ran back toward Corbin and screamed at him, trying to draw him upstairs, but he was determined and paid no attention to whatever noise I was making. He passed right through me. I had no choice but to follow him into the parlor, where we both scanned the room for Magda. She was hiding.
Without saying a word, Corbin walked quickly behind the settee, where a set of floor-length curtains graced either side of the window. He pushed each one aside with his sinewy arm but failed to find her. He looked under the table and behind the Christmas tree. “Now c’mon, girl. Get yourself out here and I won’t hurt you.”
There was no movement in the room. He moved to a corner he hadn’t yet inspected. A set of billowy curtains matched the ones from the other side, but these ones were closed. There was a slight bulge in the middle, one that might be hiding a person. Corbin pulled back his fist and punched it through the curtain, only to have his hand connect with something too solid to be human. “Damn it!” he screamed as he shook his hand back and forth in pain. He moved the curtain aside to see what he’d hit, and found a large ceramic Santa statue that had been placed in the window. He pulled it to the floor in anger and started kicking it.
Along the floor, I noticed some oversized cabinets that were part of a larger bookshelf unit. One of the doors moved slightly, revealing Magda’s hiding place to me. I knew it wouldn’t be long before Corbin checked there.
I yelled to her, “Run now! He’s distracted!” She responded immediately, pushing the door open and climbing out from the tight space while Corbin continued his angry tirade on the ceramic Santa, smashing its face with his foot. She ran much faster than her malnourished frame would’ve suggested – almost fast enough to make it out of the room, but Corbin, who saw her dart away from the corner of his eye, was much faster. He caught up to her right as she passed through the threshold and forcefully yanked her backwards by her hair. She fell to the ground and skidded to the center of the room.
Corbin, the monster, walked up and kicked her. “Now get over here,” he said as he picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. Magda, refusing to give up, bit the back of his arm, drawing blood that ran down her face. He slammed her to the ground in pain, and with his next motion, he withdrew his switchblade and opened it up.
“You don’t ever do that!” he yelled at her. “Now stand up.”
Coughing from the blow of landing on the ground, Magda slowly rose to her feet. His free hand shot out and grabbed her by the throat, and with his other hand, he thrust his blade deep into her belly. He pulled his hand back and stabbed her again. Blood oozed from her wounds and dripped to the carpet below. Spatters landed on the walls and nearly blended in with the seasonal decorations.
“Bitch.” He let her fall to the ground where a red puddle formed around her dying body.
I kneeled next to her and tried to hold her hand, but they simply passed through one another. “I’m here,” I told her. “You’re not alone.”
“I’m glad you’re with me,” she rasped. Corbin looked at her as if she was insane. I stayed next to Magda as her breaths came with increasingly longer gaps between them. Finally, she breathed no more.
Corbin seemed anxious as he gazed at both the body and the bloody room around him. I could sense that he was trying to figure out a way to erase the mess he’d created, and soon he began nodding his head as if he’d thought of a solution. With little effort, he scooped up Magda’s corpse and walked her out of the room. I stayed behind, devastated by what I’d seen.
I soon found that I was immobilized. With my failure, whatever power of movement I’d been granted had ceased. Slowly, the room around me began to fade from my vision. One of the last things I remember seeing was Corbin coming back inside and looking at all the blood. He took off his shirt and tried to soak some of it up, but there was no way he could’ve cleaned it all. He stared at the Christmas tree and felt its dry branches. He left momentarily and returned with a bottle of clear liquor, which he splashed over the tree and the surrounding floor. The liquor proved its potency when he lit the tree – it flamed up without hesitation. He stepped back from the fire he had created and watched it grow. The flames crept up the walls and devoured the blood spatters. The pool of blood on the floor began sizzling and smoking under the heat. Corbin left the room and I heard a car start up. A deep, powerful engine growled out into the night, and soon it faded away.
For my part, I was amid the flames. It was quite a peculiar feeling, as I could feel the heat without any of the accompanying pain that it should’ve caused. Despite the light created by the fire, my vision continued to grow darker and darker. Soon I could see nothing at all, and I could only hear the sound of the flames lapping their way up the curtains that once hid the porcelain Santa. Then, I was gone from that place.
It was daylight. I was lying in the snow not too far from the manor. It was immediately evident that I was back in my own time. My father’s car was out front, and the parlor, which I had last seen consumed in flame, was intact and proudly displaying our Christmas tree through the window. I got up and stumbled back inside, finding my parents safe in their bed. I vowed that I would put the events of the previous evening out of my mind and try to enjoy my Christmas as best I could, even as I moved my tongue along the side of my mouth and felt a lump of scar tissue bulging from the side.
* * * * * *
By springtime, I had mostly succeeded in trying to put the memories of that past Christmas out of my mind. It helped to find distractions; school, friends – that sort of thing really helped keep me focused in the present, and made it easier to convince myself that the whole thing had just been one terrible dream. According to the wretch, Corbin visited his charges annually, but I felt that if I could simply forget what had happened, then somehow the whole damn thing would simply stop.
Following the established tradition, our family’s Christmas tree had been firmly planted in the ground, and it was beginning to sprout new needles. The line of trees was now that much longer, and I challenged myself to run the new distance in record time. On a warm April day, I set my stopwatch and started off on my run. I flew past the teens, twenties, and thirties at a terrific speed, but by the late forties, my lungs were burning. “Pace yourself,” I thought. I settled into a slower gait while glancing at the stopwatch on my wrist. When I looked up again, I saw her – Magda, standing quietly among the trees. She looked just as I’d last seen her, with her ratty dress and unkempt hair lying stuck against her face. Her skin was gray, almost like she was pulled from a black and white TV show. She was trying to speak, but whatever words she was trying to make, they left her mouth silently.
“Hello,” I said with cautious surprise. The sight of her made my already racing heart go just a little bit faster. She was a miserable, heartbreaking picture, but I felt no fear at that moment, only sadness and remorse. “It’s me, Charlie.” She’d never actually seen me before then.
She shook her head and looked down at the ground. I approached her with my hand out, trying to make her at ease. When she looked back up, it appeared as if her facial features were beginning to distort. Her head tilted to the sky and her mouth opened impossibly wide. Her forehead and chin melted into her neck, which in turn melted into her torso. I could still see her tongue and her teeth through the large hole that had been her mouth. As she continued to recede into the earth, her whole body turned into a black tar, and after a few more moments of me staring in awe, the tar absorbed completely into the earth, leaving a dead spot on the grass.
So much for trying to forget about Christmas… I fell back onto the ground, no longer concerned about making a new personal record. Images flitted through my mind – I saw Magda in her worn dress, holding onto Perla. I saw Corbin angrily gripping his steering wheel while he sped along an ethereal highway.
Later that day I walked behind the Manor to the spot where the bunkhouse had once been. It was far enough from the main house that the gardeners felt little need to maintain it full time, and it had reverted to a mostly natural state. I walked among the bushes and sedges that grew there. I had never noticed, but much of the bunkhouse’s cement foundation was still in place. It’d been broken up and parts of had been it carried away, but if one knew what to look for, the building’s footprint was still visible under a tangle of vines and low-slung branches.
Pushing through the growth, I walked to where the bedroom would’ve been. I scanned the ground, looking for… there it was! – the small hole in the foundation where Magda had hidden Perla. It was still covered by a slab of cement. I kneeled down and brushed the dirt from around the slab, then lifted it carefully and put it aside. A breath of dust escaped from the opening. After a cautious pause, I reached into the darkness. My hand brushed up against a scrap of material, which I grasped between my fingers and pulled out. I looked at what was in my hands – Perla hadn’t aged well, though it was still recognizable as the doll Magda had created. I held it carefully, with both hands, to prevent it from falling apart.
Once I’d obtained Magda’s treasure I had no real idea of what to do with it. The existence of Perla essentially confirmed that my adventures with Magda and Corbin hadn’t been some sort of ongoing dream or fantasy, which set me in a mild panic for the remainder of the day. That night, I ended up storing the doll in the top drawer of my dresser, which is where it stayed – until the next time I saw Magda, that is.
It was probably a couple of months later, sometime in June, when her specter showed up in my bedroom. I’d been asleep when a bitterly cold wind woke me. I cursed at the open window and pulled the blanket up high to my chin when I saw her. Just like the time before, she was grayish in hue. Moonlight filtered in and lit my room just enough to see her. Like the time before, I felt no fear. Her mouth opened and closed, though the only thing I could hear was the rustling of the cold breeze that blew through my room. Slowly, she lifted a finger to my top dresser drawer and pointed.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked her.
She continued pointing at the dresser until little bits of her started falling off. First her finger detached and hit the floor, where it disappeared in a smoky mist. The rest of her arm broke into pieces and followed suit, then her head simply rolled off and hit the ground. It too disappeared. The rest of her deteriorated into pieces. Soon, there was nothing left.
I took to carrying Perla in my pocket wherever I went. It was bulky and uncomfortable, but it seemed like Magda had gone out of her way to send a message to me, though I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. Still, I felt that it would be wise to keep Perla close.
Many times I contemplated telling my parents about what’d happened. They loved me and were very devoted to my care, but I had the fundamental understanding that there was really nothing they could do for me, even if they believed my story, which they wouldn’t. However, I did have an interesting conversation with my father about the missing 1958 Christmas tree. He had been in town talking with some long-time residents, and they told him that nearly half the manor had burned down at some point during the fifties. “The fire started with the Christmas tree, apparently,” he explained to me. He glanced around at the room we were sitting in. “They did a marvelous job matching the new construction to the old,” he said. I agreed with him. “So it looks like that’s your answer about the missing tree. It got destroyed before they ever got a chance to put it in the ground. I’m guessing that they left a gap there as a memorial to the lost tree, kind of like a gloomy placeholder for the Christmas that wasn’t,” he surmised.
“Yeah, I know,” I said quietly.
When school started that fall, a couple of times a week I would stop by the library on my way home and look through the old microfiches of the local newspapers, hoping to find a mention of Magda, or any missing girl for that matter. I had no luck. It was almost like she never existed. I did find information on Corbin; his last name was Montreau, and just like the wretch had told me, he had been put to death in the electric chair in 1974 after being convicted for a string of murders dating from 1960. The police and prosecutors never even knew about Magda, his first victim.
More months passed. I didn’t see Magda in that intervening time, though I could feel her presence around me. My unease grew as Christmas drew nearer and my memories of Corbin came into sharper focus, but the knowledge that Magda was around helped somewhat. I threw myself into my schoolwork and chores, trying my best to keep occupied.
On December 24th I went to church with my parents. I prayed for salvation, forgiveness, and everything in-between. I wasn’t sure if it would help, but I knew it wouldn’t hurt. My parents let me open a couple of gifts before they went to sleep, but the rest were saved for Christmas itself. I made sure to cherish the moment, not really knowing what fate awaited me and my family that night.
My parents went to sleep early, but they let me stay up. “But not too late,” my father warned. “Santa won’t stop here if you’re still awake when he passes by.” He winked while I forced a laugh.
The house became eerily quiet. I sat in the parlor next to our grand, decorated tree. The fireplace kept me warm as I settled into my father’s leather chair. The old manor creaked and groaned as the night cooled. I grabbed a blanket off the couch and pulled it up to my chin. I waited in silence. I might have dozed off, so I’m not sure what time it was when I heard the low rumbling of an engine. I perked my head up. “It’s really happening,” I thought.
The sound grew louder as its source drew nearer. The headlights illuminated the room and cast morbid looking shadows along the wall. The car came to a stop right outside the parlor window, but the engine kept going. It revved, then revved even louder.
I completely lost my nerve at that point. I’d sworn to myself that I would meet Corbin head-on and not try to run. But in that moment, listening to the engine scream, and feeling heat from his headlights, I threw my blanket off and ran upstairs to my parents’ room.
I got to their door and slammed into it as I turned the knob. It might as well have been a block wall – it didn’t budge. No matter how hard I tried, it wouldn’t open. Outside, I could hear Corbin kill the engine. The complete silence that followed was punctuated by the car door opening and then closing, followed by gravelly footsteps coming up to the house.
I could hear nothing from the other side of my parents’ door. I said a prayer that they were okay and then walked down the hallway toward the stairs. I poked my head over the banister and stared down. Some firelight from the parlor flickered beneath me, but for the most part, I was looking straight into darkness.
Corbin’s voice fractured the still air. “You can come down now.”
I waited at the top of the stairs.
“Don’t piss me off again, boy. I’m in the kitchen.”
I walked down the stairs with wobbly legs that could barely support me. I felt like I weighed a thousand pounds.
He was in the kitchen going through our refrigerator. “You didn’t leave out any milk and cookies,” he said with a wicked laugh. He came out from behind the refrigerator door holding a turkey leg, which he pointed in the direction of the table. “Sit down,” he said right before taking a bite. In his other hand, he had a gallon of milk, which he took a swig from as soon as he swallowed his first bite of turkey.
We both sat at the table, directly across from one another.
“So you failed, kid.” He took another bite of turkey before speaking again. “You had a chance to save Mary and you wasted it. You changed virtually nothin’ that happened that night… almost like you weren’t there at all. She died the same way.”
“Her name’s Magda,” I corrected.
“It don’t matter much. It certainly don’t change the fact that she’s still a dead little bitch.”
I tried to stare him down, but I was shaking too much to maintain eye contact. Instead, my eyes moved to the floor.
Corbin glanced around the room. “Never cared for this house much.” He put the milk bottle to his lips and drank the whole thing, nearly an entire gallon. He belched loudly and spoke again, “I don’t like this place at all. I don’t like being here and I certainly don’t like you. The problem is, I don’t choose who calls out to me. Either I hear your thoughts or I don’t. And if I hear you, you’re basically fucked.”
Corbin dropped the turkey leg to the floor and pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. A flame came from his finger and lit it. He took a long drag and continued. “I don’t fancy coming back here year after year, but as long as you’re alive I gotta do it. You see, I can’t physically hurt a kid I visit, at least not while he’s still young, but I can kill his family, I can kill his friends – heck, I can even kill his dog and take all of his favorite little things. Year after year, I come back, each time taking a little more. I think my buddy at the garage might’ve explained it to you.” He stared across the table at me until I could feel his glare penetrate to the back of my skull. “I’m gonna make you a deal. We can just end it this year.”
“How do we do that?” I thought.
“You ask for your protections to be removed.” He said it slowly and seriously, before perking up and speaking again. “So that’s it, you ask for it, and then I gut you like a little piggy, and the rest of your family stays safe.”
“I don’t want to be gutted like a pig.”
“Of course you don’t. Nobody does. That’s what makes it so goddamn fun. But I’ll tell you what, if you don’t agree to this, I’ll make sure that you wish you had.” He pointed upstairs to my parents’ bedroom. “Remember when you wished that you could beat your father at basketball?”
I thought back months earlier when my father and I had gone to the park and played one-on-one. I’d made such a wish after he’d defeated me handily. I guess I’d reached the age where he no longer felt it was required to let me win.
Corbin let the memory sink in, then started up, “Well you won’t have any trouble beating your father after I rip his fucking arms off. And remember when you wished for a little brother or sister?”
I nodded yes.
“Good, I’m glad you remember. Let’s just say I’ll take care of that too. Only, it won’t be your daddy makin’ the deposit.” He glared at me. “And that’s just the beginning. They’ll wind up dead, sooner or later, as will everyone you know or care about. That is, after I’ve had my fun with them.”
“Okay, just kill me,” I thought.
“No, you have to say it out loud.”
“Kill m-” I trailed off, unable to say it completely.
“Say it!” he screamed.
“Kill me!” I finally blurted out with tears beginning to flow down my cheeks.
He relaxed back into his chair and took a drag from his cigarette. “Well?” he said.
I didn’t know what he wanted.
“At least try to make this interesting for me. I already make the trip out here, you know.” He took another drag of his cigarette and flicked it to the ground. “You stupid? Run.”
I stood up and slowly backed out of the kitchen. Corbin went back to the refrigerator and began rooting around. “Run,” he said with his head hidden behind the refrigerator door.
I took his advice and darted through the kitchen doorway and down the hallway. I paused to consider which way I should go, my gut instinct told me upstairs, but as my foot hit the first step I saw her – Magda, standing silently before me. Her arm rose up and she pointed her finger in the direction of the front door. I quickly decided that hiding in the nearby woods would be best. I shot out the front entrance and down the steps.
As I turned and headed towards a wooded area at the edge of the property, I heard a crashing of glass behind me. I twisted around and saw the refrigerator, which had been thrown through the kitchen window, smashing into the ground. Corbin poked out from the shattered window and laughed. “There wasn’t anything good to eat in there anyway.” He effortlessly hopped out the window and landed on the ground.
I doubled my pace, running over the lawn to the wood-line at the edge of the property. Once under the cover of the trees, I slowed down to catch my breath. I looked back, but I couldn’t see my tormentor until I heard a rustling in the tree above me. Looking up, I saw a smiling Corbin standing on one of its branches. I took off running again, farther and farther away from the house, for what seemed to be an eternal uphill sprint.
I fell down exhausted. The cold night air was torturing my lungs and I was beginning to think that any effort to escape was probably futile. As I lay panting on the ground, I saw Magda once again. Her mouth was opening and closing, and like the time before, her finger rose up and pointed. I brushed myself off and looked to where she was directing me. It was back from where I’d come. “I just came from there,” I protested.
Then, with a high-pitched shriek, her voice broke through, “Save ussssss!”
I looked again at where she was pointing. Her finger wasn’t aimed at the manor house like I had originally thought, it was aimed at the row of Christmas trees that were well on the other side of the property.
I started running again, making my way to where she’d directed me. Corbin’s voice boomed from behind, “Getting tired yet?” He followed that with a frenzied laugh that resonated through the woods.
I ran as fast and as hard as I could until I tasted bile coming up from my throat. For all my effort, Corbin was never far from me, taunting me and laughing. My eyes filled with tears, dirt and sweat, making it nearly impossible to see where I was. I tried to wipe them clean with my sleeve, but that only rubbed the dirt in.
Magda’s shrill scream howled out once again. “Charlie!” I stumbled toward the direction of the voice and finally collapsed in despair. The sound of crunching snow told me my pursuer was closing in. In a final act of desperation, I had the thought that maybe Perla could be used as some sort of protective talisman. I grabbed it from my pocket and held it up in front of me as Corbin approached. I lost all hope when I saw the burlap that was Perla’s skin begin to fall apart in my hands. The twigs that formed the doll’s body snapped as I tried to hold on. Corbin just looked at me and laughed. “You think a fuckin’ doll is gonna help you?” He kept stepping toward me unabated. The doll was worthless.
His arm shot out and he grabbed my shirt, using it to lift me from the ground. “You’re a pathetic little shit,” he said as I heard his switchblade open. My sight grew dimmer until I only saw darkness. “It’s time for you to die, you little fucker.” I faded out of consciousness and my body went limp.
* * * * * *
“Okay, so then what happened?” my son asked in anticipation. I was telling him the same story I just told you, though for him I cleaned up the language.
“Well, I’m not sure exactly,” I responded.
“What do you mean you’re not sure? Where did that man Corbin go?”
I looked at my son’s face, which was lit by the few remnants of early evening sunlight that filtered through the window of my study. I could see his brow furrow as he tried to make sense of what he’d just heard. He was just about the same age as I was when Corbin first came to me. He looked out the window to the grounds of Biltmore Manor. Our second-floor vantage point gave us a spectacular view.
“I don’t know where he went exactly. I guess he returned to his garage. All I know for sure is that I woke up the next morning in the same spot where he left me. I brushed off the snow and dirt and crawled back to the house. I never saw him or Magda again.”
“And grandma and grandpa were okay?”
“Yeah, they were fine.” My parents, who’d lived happy lives, passed away naturally many years later. They were never even aware of what’d happened.
“Why didn’t he kill you?”
“I’m not really sure.” I continued to study my son’s face to gauge his reaction to what I was telling him. I didn’t want him to get too disturbed by what he was hearing. I suppose it may seem weird that I was telling my young son a real-life horror story, on Christmas Eve of all nights, but I did have some good reasons. First, it was therapeutic to finally tell someone what’d happened all those years ago. He was at the right age where he’d still believe me, but was old enough to rationalize it away if he wanted to. Second, I wanted to make sure that Corbin hadn’t ever come to visit him, and judging by how he responded to what I was telling him, he’d thankfully never met the man. Finally, I told him the story because he asked me about the 1958 tree. And to be clear, my son didn’t ask me why it was missing, as I had once asked, instead he asked why it was so big.
I continued with my story. “So that spot where I woke up Christmas morning, the spot that Magda lured me to, can you guess where it was?”
“It was where the 1958 tree is. Right?”
“Yep!” I said. “When I passed out I dropped Perla in that exact spot. And do you remember what her head was made out of?”
The cogs and wheels in his brain turned. “A pine cone?”
I nodded yes. “That next spring, I noticed a new tree growing. By the time the next Christmas came along, it was already over ten feet tall.
My son, who was much more logical than I ever was, took issue. “Trees don’t grow that fast! And you didn’t even plant it correctly, you just dropped a thirty-year-old pine cone in the snow!”
“I know all that,” I said in agreement. “I can’t totally explain it. All I know for sure is that the tree kept growing at a tremendous rate. After a few years, it was as big as the trees that had been there for decades. Now, it’s the biggest tree out of all of them, by far.”
My son scratched his head in contemplation as he looked out the large picture window. The fading sunlight painted the snowy ground gold and allowed the Christmas trees to silhouette themselves against the sky. The fireplace crackled behind us and the festive lights along the eaves turned on automatically and illuminated the house.
“I bet Magda’s buried under that tree,” my son concluded.
I was speechless. What’s the expression? Out of the mouths of babes? He was right. Sometimes the truth is so obvious that you can’t help but miss it if you’re looking too close. You never see the full picture if you spend all your time looking at the individual brush strokes, but all of a sudden, everything made perfect sense. I was almost embarrassed at the fact that I never figured it out for myself. Corbin, knowing that his employers would be returning that night, needed a place to quickly dispose of the body, and what better place than a hole that he’d already started digging and would no longer be needing?
“Dad?” my son prodded, bringing me out of my deep thought.
“I think you’re right, son.”
“Whoa,” he said in awe.
For thirty years I’d believed I’d failed Magda, but I finally realized that when I dropped Perla in that exact spot, I’d actually given her spirit the means to make her mark on the world. She was the girl who nobody knew existed – the girl whose entire life was erased without leaving even the slightest mark behind. The tree served as a living grave-marker that was grander than anything that could be carved from stone. It was a way for her to be remembered, a way for her to avoid being removed from history completely. The entire time, her spirit had been pushing that tree up towards the heavens, that’s why it was so big. I never saved her life, but whatever it was that I managed to do, it somehow saved her soul. I can’t say that I completely understand how it worked out this way, but I know in my heart that I’m right.
“Should we have her moved to a cemetery?” my son asked, again breaking me out of my thought.
“No, I think she’s finally happy where she is.” I put my hand on his shoulder as we both stared out to Magda’s tree. “You know what? I don’t think my job is done. We have some time before your mom gets home, do you want to go down there with me and put a few ornaments on that tree?”
“We’ll have to bring a ladder,” my son replied with a serious tone, “but we should do it. Magda will like that, I think.”
“She will. I’m sure of it. And next year,” I said, “we’ll hire a crane to decorate the whole thing with thousands of lights. We’ll make it a new tradition. It will be the grandest Christmas tree in the state, maybe even the world.”
“Cool!” he said in excitement as we left the study. On our way out of the house, we stopped by the parlor, where my son pulled an armload of ornaments off of our tree. I took only one, a little figurine of Santa, and with that, we headed outside to spread some long overdue Christmas cheer.
Check out author Thomas O.’s debut collection of short scary stories, The Seer of Possibilities and Other Disturbing Tales, and his recent release, Three Truths and Other Unsettling Tales, both volumes now available on Amazon.com.
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