One contrary wheel wobbled erratically as Thomas Moon pushed against the weighted shopping cart. He looked down at the mountain of Christmas presents and imagined his poor wallet gasping for air and fainting in a huff. He smiled as his wife, Christine, waddled up to the cart carrying what seemed to be enough rolls of wrapping paper to cover roughly two and a half football fields.
“You sure that’s enough paper?” he asked, mockingly. “There might still be a few trees left in the rainforest.”
“Hardy-har,” she replied, a lopsided grin breaking across her face. She stuffed the wrapping paper rolls into the overburdened cart and leaned close to her husband’s ear.
“Keep talking, funny man,” she whispered, “And you might not get your special Christmas gift. One I got at that little store in the mall. You know, the one that sells all those lacy, skimpy things?”
“And shutting up now,” said Thomas, with a large, toothy grin. “And merry Christmas to me.”
“I think this is everything,” said Christine. “No, wait. We haven’t gotten my mother anything yet.”
“How about a first-class ticket to the North Pole?” replied Thomas.
“I thought you were shutting up,” said Christine. “Be nice when we go over to my parents.”
“I’m always nice,” said Thomas, “but your mother hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you,” said Christine.
“The woman begged you not to marry me,” he replied. “On our wedding day. In the church.”
“I remember, I remember,” she said. “But that was ten years ago.”
“And she still hates me,” replied Thomas. “I’ve never been good enough.”
“Well, duh,” said Christine, jokingly. “After all, I am the high princess who settled for a dirty commoner far beneath her station.”
Thomas swept her up into his arms.
“Oh, when we get home I’m going to show you just how dirty this commoner can be.”
She kissed him and whispered into his ear, “Who says we’re waiting until we get home?”
“What?” he asked.
She replied, still whispering, “You’re going to wheel this buggy to the checkout line while I go get the crockpot my mother has been hinting at for six months. Then we’re parking somewhere out of the way and you’re fucking my brains out in the backseat like we’re horny teenagers. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, taking off for the front of the store like he’d won a timed shopping spree and the clock was almost up.
Getting everything into the back of the SUV was like playing a high-level game of Tetris. After loading and unloading and reloading, twisting and turning and stacking the back gate finally closed and latched. Only the wrapping paper rolls remained in the cart and Christine slid them onto the back seat.
Thomas pulled off onto the dark, dead-end side road. The wrapping paper was precariously balanced on the mound of presents in the back as Christine balanced herself atop Thomas in the back seat. Eventually, as the SUV began to rock, the rolls of paper toppled onto them in a shower of silver bells, red-nosed reindeer, green wreaths and white snowmen.
* * * * * *
Jeffrey, eight years of age, and his brother Michael, also eight years of age (although he claimed eldest by seventeen minutes), scooped the final two handfuls of snow onto the ball of their snowman’s head. Michael took two shiny, semi-circular rocks he had dug from beneath the snow atop the driveway and pressed them into the head. Jeffrey shoved in a pilfered-from-the-fridge carrot just below them.
“You think Santa will bring us some new games?” Jeffrey asked his brother.
“Paulie Jenkins says Santa isn’t real,” replied Michael.
“Paulie Jenkins can’t even tie his own shoes,” said Jeffrey. “He’s real. Mom and Dad say so.”
“Maybe,” said Michael. “I’m gonna find out.”
“How?” asked Jeffrey.
“Tonight, after Mom and Dad go to bed,” began Michael, “I’m gonna sneak back downstairs. I’m gonna wait up and see.”
“You’re gonna make Santa mad,” said Jeffrey. “He’s not gonna leave you anything.”
“We’ll see,” replied Michael.
“You’ll see,” said Jeffrey. “I’m not taking the chance.”
“Fine, you big baby,” said Michael.
“I might be a baby,” replied Jeffrey, “but I’ll be a baby with Christmas gifts.”
The two brothers turned towards the house as the screen door squeaked open and Christine’s voice echoed across the yard. “Time to come in!”
The stockings were hung by the five-brick, wall-hanging gas heater with care, the tree lights were on and the cookies and milk were half gone so it looked like Santa had just been there. Thomas placed the final gift beneath the tree and stepped back. He looked out across the shimmering sea of bright, multicolored paper bathed in the dull light of the Christmas tree. He smiled as the designs printed on the paper brought back sweet back seat memories. He closed his eyes, imagining the curve of Christine’s breasts as they bounced in the dim moonlight.
“All done?” Christine asked quietly, breaking the spell of memory.
“Just put down the last one,” he replied, his voice low to keep from waking Jeffrey and Michael.
“Let’s hit the sack,” she said. “I’m exhausted and the boys will be up early.”
“No special Christmas present?” he asked, making sad puppy eyes.
“Not tonight,” she said. “Tomorrow night. After all the madness is over.”
“I’m holding you to that,” he said.
Michael sat up in bed as he heard his parents’ door close. He itched to spring from the bed and rush down the stairs but he stopped himself. He looked over at Jeffrey, sound asleep, a thin line of drool creeping from his mouth and dampening his pillow. Michael thought of waking him but decided against it. Let him believe in stupid old Santa if he wanted. Michael waited fifteen minutes. He hoped that was long enough to make sure his parents were in bed and maybe even asleep. Then he slipped from his bed and tiptoed across the room. The bedroom door creaked as he opened it and he grimaced. Michael looked back. Jeffrey was still drooling on his pillow. Michael made his way down the hall, past his parents’ room at the top of the stairs. He crept down, praying the stairs would stay silent and not creak.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped silently off of the final stair and into the living room. He smiled joyfully at the sight of the gifts beneath the tree. They seemed to fill half the room. His eyes scanned across them, then stopped in the middle. Michael did not know why, but his heart beat faster. The air around him seemed to chill and goose pimples broke out over his skin.
It was just a box, and Michael couldn’t explain why looking at it made him feel the way it did. The box stood out amongst the other gifts, as it was wrapped like no other gift beneath the tree. Where the paper adorning the other gifts were colored bright and mottled with the hieroglyphs of Christmas time, this paper was jet black. A black so deep it seemed to swallow, instead of reflect, the dim colored light cast by the Christmas tree bulbs. The box was about three feet tall and a red ribbon wrapped around the sides and came together in a bow on top. Micheal had never seen a red so…. well, red. That was the only way his mind could describe it.
He approached the box, his mind blank but his legs moving just the same, as if it were drawing him to it, as if it wished to swallow him like it sucked up the light.
And then it did.
Thomas awoke with a jerk. He could have sworn he heard something, something that sounded like one the boys had begun crying out, and then stopped abruptly. He glanced at the clock. 1:00 AM. Christine stirred beside him.
“Whats’amatter?” she mumbled.
“Think the boys may be up,” he said softly.
“A’ready?” she replied, still half-asleep.
“Heard something downstairs,” he said.
“Alright,” she said, shaking the sleep from her mind. “Might as well get it over with.”
“I guess,” he said. “We can always go back to bed.” They pulled themselves from beneath their warm covers, slipped on housecoats and slippers, and made their way downstairs.
“Guess I was wrong,” said Thomas. He searched the room with his eyes but found no trace of the boys.
“Guess so,” said Christine. “Wait, what is that?” She pointed towards the gifts.
Thomas looked at the box. “What?” he said. “It’s just a gift.”
“I didn’t buy any black wrapping paper, did you?”
“No,” he replied. It dawned on him that the present wasn’t familiar. He had placed every gift beneath the tree personally. All except that one.
“Where did that come from?” he asked.
Christine didn’t answer. She was approaching the dark gift, her body stiff, arm outstretched, almost as if she were entranced. And then she touched it.
Christine squealed as she touched the gift and Thomas rushed to her side. He stopped in shock.
Christine’s hand had sunk into the dark paper. She tried to pull away but the present pulled back, dragging her arm in as if it were a pit of tar. Thomas grabbed his wife and pulled, but the darkness dragged her ever deeper. Then, with an unnatural strength, something on the other side pulled them both into the blackness.
* * * * * *
Thomas thought it was one of the strangest dreams he’d ever had. Then he opened his eyes and wondered why he was lying in snow. Had he been sleepwalking? Why wasn’t he colder? He sat up and wondered if he was still dreaming. Snow covered the ground as far as he could see. That was pretty much all he could see. Darkness surrounded him and stretched into the distance.
“It’s not a dream, you know,” came a voice from behind him. Thomas looked toward the voice and then scrambled to his feet to back away from its owner.
The man, if the word applied, was short. Just maybe five feet tall. He was dressed in a red fur coat the color of dried blood. It was dirty and ragged and reached to the knee. Brown pants adorned the legs, also dirty, and moth-eaten. Its feet, hands and face were uncovered, but a pointed red cap sat atop its head, dirty as the rest of the ensemble. It was the face that made Thomas recoil.
Its skin was wrinkled and scabrous, the color of old pus. The skin of the hands and feet matched. The lined face held two bloodshot eyes, the pupils dark as soot. Its nose was long and curved down to a point as sharp as a razor. The ears were long and pointed. The finger and toenails were long and claw-like.
“I-I’m still asleep,” muttered Thomas.
“Didn’t you hear me?” said the creature before him. “It’s not a dream. Someone’s been naughty. Very naughty. I can smell your sins. I can taste them in the air. A dream? No, no. Let me prove it to you.”
Then the creature was gone as if it were never there. The hairs on Thomas’s body stood up straight as he felt hot breath on his neck. He screamed as sharp teeth sank into his shoulder and pulled back from his flesh with a wet smack.
“Still think you’re dreaming?” asked the creature, it’s mouth wet with blood.
“W-What do you w-want?” asked Thomas, “W-w-where am I?” He gripped his wounded shoulder.
“You’re where all the naughty little boys and girls go,” said the creature. “You’re where they come for their punishments. And, oh, what sights I have to show you!”
The creature laughed, a long cackle. A bright light enveloped Thomas and suddenly he was somewhere else.
A car. His car. No, his old car. The one he had in college. His Mustang. Thomas was behind the wheel, foot on the gas. He tried to take it off and hit the breaks but he couldn’t. It was like his foot was welded to the pedal.
“Nice car,” came a voice from the back seat. Thomas looked up to see the creature smiling into the rearview mirror.
“I’ve lost my mind,” said Thomas.
“You wish,” replied the creature. “Lost a lot in this ride, didn’t you? Lost your virginity right back here in this back seat. Lost the pocket knife your father gave you between the seats. Never did find it, did you? Funny, things like that. So close, but so hard to find. Remember why you ditched this ride, Tommy boy?”
“I… I… no,” stammered Thomas.
“Well, maybe this will refresh your memory,” said the creature, pointing out the windshield.
The kid was twelve years old. Riding his bike at night. No reflectors. Thomas screamed and tried in vain to remove his foot from the accelerator as the bike crunched beneath the wheels and the boy rolled up the hood and across the windshield, spider webs of cracks tracing his path. Thomas heard the sickening, wet thunk as the boy impacted the pavement behind him.
“Not gonna stop?” asked the creature. “Just like back then, huh? Nothing like a good old hit-and-run to make the blood pump, right, Tommy boy?”
Tears streamed down his face as Tommy said, “No, no, no, no, please, I was just a kid, just a scared kid. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t see him.”
“Oh, yeah,” said the creature. “It wasn’t your fault at all. It was all that bottle of whiskey and that rail of blow that did it, right?”
“Please,” begged Thomas as he stared through the windshield. His heart froze as he saw more people in the road. Three people in the distance and rapidly growing closer. He tried to steer away from them but his hands were as trapped as his foot. He screamed as the three people connected with the car. He screamed so loud his voice broke as he recognized them. Jeffrey spun from the side of the car to be left a broken heap on the side of the road. Thomas felt Michael pass beneath the wheels with a wet thump. Christine rolled up the hood and smashed headfirst through the windshield. Her head hung through the hole, blood dripping from her long auburn hair. Thomas squeezed his eyes closed and sobbed.
When he opened his eyes again, the car was gone. He now sat at his desk at work. He glanced around at the empty cubicles. Almost empty. Someone stood three cubicles down. He knew that cubicle too well.
“Oh, yes you do,” came the creature’s voice. Had Thomas spoken out loud, or had the creature read his mind? At this point, Thomas didn’t care. He just wanted the nightmare to end. He looked towards the voice. The creature had changed. The gnarled, yellowish face protruded from the wall, clock hands sticking from the sides of the crooked nose. Fleshy numbers surrounded the face.
“You remember this night,” said the creature, “this fantasy come true.”
As the creature spoke the occupant of the cubicle three cubicles down made her way down the aisle.
“Norma,” said Thomas, his voice dry and harsh.
“Hmmm, lovely Norma,” said the creature, “Do you remember how she tasted? The sounds she made? The broken desk lamp you lied about to get replaced?”
Norma stood before him, hair red as fire and a body that should have been hot to the touch. She bent and kissed him, just as she had that night when they were the only ones left at the office. But this time was different. He remembered the kiss as sweet and warm, but this time her tongue forced its way into his mouth. The tongue was slimy and pointed. And didn’t stop. He gagged as it slid down his throat further than any human tongue could possibly go. When she finally pulled back, he heaved and coughed. He tried to rise from his chair but couldn’t, trapped again.
Norma hiked her skirt up around her waist and lifted herself up onto the desk.
Once again, things were a sick caricature of what Thomas remembered. The thin red landing strip of hair above her mound was the same, but that was all. Below it was a gaping, tooth-filled maw. Thomas tried to pull back as not-Norma wrapped her legs over his shoulders and pulled him closer. He screamed again as the teeth ripped into his face, then his neck after they had torn away his jaw. His last sound was a bloody gurgle before the muscles of his heart ruptured.
The creature shuddered in near-orgasmic glee.
* * * * * *
Christine remembered blackness, and snow as far as the eye could see, then waking up at the clinic. A dream, she told herself.
She hadn’t told Thomas. She had made the appointment, talked to the professionals, and now here she was, waiting the few hours for the dilator sticks called laminaria to slowly stretch her cervix open. They didn’t need another child, she told herself. Thomas would agree. They had both always been pro-choice. Then why hadn’t she told him?
“Why indeed?” asked the doctor.
“What?” asked Christine, looking at the doctor. She did a double-take. This wasn’t the doctor who performed her procedure. Performed. Past-tense, thought Christine. What’s going on?
“Someone’s a liar,” said the doctor, pulling down his mask to reveal a yellow, hideous face. “That’s what’s going on.”
“Who are you?” Christine screamed. “What do you want?”
“Your husband asked the same,” said the creature.
“Thomas?” she asked. “What have you done with Thomas?”
“Oh, Thomas is a bit under the weather,” said the creature, trying to hold back a vicious laugh. “Something he ate.”
Christine tried to move but couldn’t. She was strapped to the table, her legs up in stirrups. “Please just let me go, or just tell me what you want, please.”
“What do I want?” asked the creature, “What do I want with my night of freedom? Why, you’re already giving me everything I want. Your pain, your fear, your sin. It’s all so…. delicious.”
Christine had begun to cry.
“Please,” she said, “I have children. Please, just let me go.”
“Oh, I know,” said the creature. “The young ones, sins so sweet, yet so few. So little time to be naughty. Mostly innocent. Like their mother. So few real, juicy sins. Not like your husband. He had a couple whoppers.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked through tears.
“Oh, you didn’t know, of course,” said the creature, “not about the murder….”
“Hmmm, yes, hit-and-run,” said the creature. “Little boy, not much older than your boys. Back in his college days. You were dating then. You remember his Mustang? That night he drove up with a battered and bloody front end?”
“No,” she said. “That…w as a deer. He hit a deer.”
The creature laughed. “No,” it said. “He ran down a little boy. And then he drove to your house, all weepy and in shock and told you it was a deer, and do you remember what you did? How you thought it was so sexy that he was all broken up about a deer?”
“No, please, just…” she said. “Please.”
“How does it feel knowing the first time you fucked your would-be husband, he had just killed a little boy?”
“I…” Christine started, but her voice broke into a scream as pain ripped through her.
“And, of course, you didn’t know about the affair, did you? No clue your husband came home and kissed you after burying his face between another woman’s legs? I wonder, did he even shower after bending her over his desk and before he bent you over your bed?”
Christine sobbed as pain wracked through her.
“Well, well, “ said the creature, “guess it’s time we got this baby out of you, eh?”
Christine screamed again. It felt like something large – something too large to be inside her – was ripping its way out of her. She slumped, sweat covered, as whatever it was finally left her body.
She managed to lift her head as the creature approached, a large, blanket-wrapped bundle in his arms. It’s dirty nails plucked at the blanket, pulling it aside.
Michael’s face peeked from the bundle. Christine screamed as she looked at her son, screamed so long her voice broke and died into a near-soundless croak.
Michael’s face was gaunt, thin and dry, as if all that made the boy alive had been drawn out. His eyes were milky white orbs. Teeth were visible behind his cracked lips. The gums had pulled away from them, leaving them loose and bloody. The desiccated jaw moved.
“Mom?” he asked, his voice like rustling leaves. The skin of Michael’s face cracked as it moved.
“Little Mikey here was the first to touch my box,” said the creature. “I sucked him dry, what little there was. A white lie here, a brotherly punch there.”
Christine tried to speak but could find no words. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks and her jaw worked up and down, useless.
Michael tried to speak again, to ask for her again, but when he did the cracks in his face spread. They stretched out like shattering glass and Christine finally found another scream as she watched her son wither and crumble to dust. As the last of Michael sifted between the creature’s fingers, Christine’s mind broke into pieces and blew away.
* * * * * *
Jeffrey pulled himself out from under his bed covers and hit the floor running. He slid to a stop at the doorway and glanced at his brother’s bed. Empty. He ran down the hall to his parents’ room and pushed open the door. Another empty bed. He ran down the stairs, though he knew that he was never, ever supposed to run on the stairs. The sun crept through the living room windows, the light dancing off the colored gift wrap. He stopped, searching the room for his family. There was no one, just piles of gifts. He expected noise, laughter, the smell of his parents making breakfast. There was nothing. No smell of coffee and bacon, no sound of a brother’s joyous Christmas morn. He looked again at the gifts, two piles on each side of the tree and in the middle… nothing. Just a void, big enough for a box to be.
Jeffrey’s heart began to beat hard, fear running up his body.
“Dad?” he called out. “Mom?”
Credit: R.D. Smithey
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