Christmas Takeover 31: Jay Wilburn: Decorating Day

Decorating Day

A Story by Jay Wilburn
3,177 words

He had to brace his boot against the mailman’s face to get the blade of the ax to come loose from its skull. He was careful to hold the tool as he had been taught in Boy Scouts a lifetime ago, with his finger’s along the metal side so that he didn’t accidentally chop his leg and infect himself with the mailman’s blood. The Scout Master had not mentioned mailmen’s blood or infection, but the concept was the same.

He stood still in the woods a moment longer, straddling the body and holding the ax, as he listened to see if anyone else had been alerted to the sound of mailman murder. The leaves lay silent and the animals were on their way to other places. He kicked the postman’s body before going to retrieve the firewood. He couldn’t be sure if this was the one that had killed Leo. Judging the distance from where his son had died to this remote mountainside, it seemed unlikely, but one never could tell. If he killed enough mailmen, he might get the right one someday.

He grabbed up the rope noosed around the cut logs next to the scarred stump and dragged a path through the leaves toward his cabin. If any police or curious hikers followed the trail, he’d be ready for them too. He was far beyond burying the bodies now.

The end of the wrapped logs caught the dead man’s shoe, causing the whole corpse to shudder in the bed of crisp leaves. He paused again, looking back to be sure the victim hadn’t decided to get up again for some more fall fun. He smiled as the blank eyes stared up at him from both sides of the divided forehead.

“You know where to find me, if you change your mind, brother,” he told the body, as he dragged his firewood down the slope.

He had to use the ax on three more skulls once he got back to the cabin. None of them were mailmen and they probably had not been hikers either. The woman still wore one high heel dress shoe strapped tightly around her broken ankle.

He drove the blade of the gory ax into the block in front of the cabin. He almost never split his wood around the cabin anymore, as it always seemed to bring the hungry dead around in an endless parade. He would put the ax away later. Today was going to be busy.

This close to the cabin, he decided to drag the bodies to the cliff on the edge of the property and dump them over. He peered over the edge at the pile. The infected decayed a bit faster once their brains were stirred up a little, but they still decomposed slowly. Even bacteria didn’t want anything to do with them. If they weren’t skeletons by spring, he would burn them at the base of the cliff.

Back in the cabin, he pulled the last of the Dutch ovens out of the broad mouth of the fireplace. Most of his gear he stole from stores and other cabins, but his best pots had come off the walls of a Country themed restaurant three exits up on the highway. They were from the 19th century and were being used as decorations.

He scooped out the cornbread and put it on the table next to the beans, corn, mashed potatoes, gravy, and sweet potato casserole. The food was framed in the middle of seven complete settings of good china, crystal glasses, and real silver utensils polished clean the night before.

Lastly, he returned to the fireplace with a platter and worked the goose off the spit. The skin was seared black on one side, but he knew from experience that the meat underneath would be sweet and delicious.

Turkey would have been more traditional for Thanksgiving and there were plenty of them in the woods. He had turkey several times during the year. Sometimes, they walked right by the cabin in slow moving flocks. He would draw back his bow and down one right from his bedroom window. Today, he wanted a bird with more meat on its frame.

He missed cranberry sauce this year. He used his last can last year and the nearest fresh cranberries were probably on unpicked bushes a few hundred miles away.

He pulled out his chair at the head of the table and poured himself a glass of well water. The familiar scratching at the door started again. The sound of the passionless, broken nails against the wood did not terrify him anymore like it once did. Before Thanksgiving lunch was over, it would turn to the padding of blue and grey palms. Then, it would be the pounding of dozens of dead fists before the meal was over. He would have to get up at least once to stoke the fire and shoot the zombies before he finished eating.

He folded his hands to pray, but before the blessing he looked around at the six empty chairs at the table. The chair next to him would have been Leo’s, but his youngest son never sat in it. They were packing to escape the plague when Leo broke away from his mother’s grip as the garage door opened. The mailman was not there to deliver letters that day. He had several dry bite marks around his face and neck. He had lifted little Leo to his mouth before the family could get to him. By the time he had fumbled the shovel off the wall and got outside, Caleb, their oldest son, had shoved the zombie down the driveway. It had gotten up and started after another neighbor who was running from her house, holding her throat.

Leo was gone, but would wake up and come after his mother soon enough. It took him and all four of his remaining children to keep Leo’s mom from running right into his snapping teeth. She never forgave him for using the shovel on Leo and not the mailman.

He looked at the chair on his right, which also never had an occupant. It had never occurred to him until that moment that his surviving family had always sat on the other end of the table from him. On the way to the cabin, the car had been pinned in by zombies in a traffic jam. The wheels had spun in both directions, but the dead weight had held them in their metal coffin. Caleb had been the one to take action again. He had bailed out of the sunroof with Jackson’s baseball bat. Jackson had tried to follow Caleb, but their mom had wrapped herself around their second oldest son and kept him from leaving. Jackson would eventually forgive her for that.

Caleb had beat them away from the front of the car and ran ahead, drawing them off the sides of the car and out of the open lane. With his wife still screaming, he had moved the car forward through the space his son had opened and stopped.

Caleb had made it halfway back to the car before the mob brought him down. He had jumped out with no weapon to go after his son and then froze as he watched the zombies crawl over one another. They were like ants as pieces of his son were pulled out bit by bit. Jackson had pulled his father back to the car.

He had celebrated the first Thanksgiving and Christmas after the world ended in the cabin with his wife and three surviving children.

He looked back at another empty chair on the left. Jackson had been bitten pulling his father out of the arms of a bloated zombie in hunter-orange coveralls. He had landed hard on the gravel knocking all the wind out of his lungs while Jackson had continued the struggle. The time he had taken to drag himself back to his feet would cost his family dearly. He had removed the fat monster’s head about ten seconds too late. Jackson had told his father to let his mother know that he forgave her for not letting him go after Caleb and that she should forgive dad for Leo and now Jackson himself. She wouldn’t. She would cry herself to sleep every night for the rest of her life, starting the day he came back from the supply run alone with Jackson’s message. He never told her that he couldn’t bring himself to kill Jackson. His son had to do the job himself. There would be more opportunity to practice later.

He looked back and forth between the two chairs on the far corners of the table. After two weeks, following the day Jackson killed himself, Karen and Marty snuck out of the cabin to play. Their mother had forbidden them to set foot outside ever again and he had not fought her on it. He forgave the last two kids for finally escaping their prison, but he would not forgive himself for letting Elizabeth make them feel like they had to escape to see the sunshine again.

He had come back from chopping wood to Elizabeth calling his name for the first time in two weeks. He had her stay at the cabin, while he tried to pick up their trail. He had found it and followed it to Marty walking around, holding his sister’s bloody sweater in his one remaining arm. He had put down his last remaining son and followed the trail of more than one walker in a wide curve back to the cabin.

A swarm of zombies had gathered around the door of the family cabin, pounding on it. Two of them had fresh blood on their mouths. He had lured them away from the cabin so that he could get clean shots off without accidentally sending a bullet into the home.

He had to call Elizabeth for a half hour before she would finally let him back inside. Karen had been there and was already unconscious from the sickness in her wounds. Elizabeth had slapped him twice, before saying, “Please, finish it outside the cabin. Do it quick before she turns. Bury them, but do it where I will never see the graves. Never!”

He had. He still walked out there once a year to lay out wild flowers. Karen and Marty were the last two bodies he ever buried.

He looked at the empty chair across from him at the end of the table. Shadows floated over the floor and walls through the shaft of sunlight from the window behind him. Shuffling feet made their way up the front steps of the cabin.

When he came back from burying the children, the cabin had been empty. He had looked around until dark and had stood watch through the first night in case Elizabeth came back.

The next morning, he had startled awake, in the very chair he sat in for Thanksgiving, to the sound of pounding fists at the door. He had jumped up and nearly threw open the door before he realized there were zombies on the other side and not his wife. Once he had blasted their heads and started dragging the first one toward the cliff, he had spotted Elizabeth hanging by her neck from a rope tossed over a limb above the edge of the drop off. She had apparently hung there through the night. Two more zombies had been standing at the edge, reaching for her. One had fallen off in the attempt before he got there and he had pushed the other over after the first. Without a word, he had cut the line and let his wife’s body fall to the growing pile of bodies below and then rolled the zombie he had been dragging off on top of her. Then, he had put his knife away and went to get another body.

The following spring, he had gone around to the base of the cliff and found that his wife had been the only skeleton in the pile of dispatched zombies. He had set the pile on fire and went back to start another fire for his dinner. The second Thanksgiving in the cabin and every one after that had been a table for one.

Finally, he closed his eyes and said, “Dear Lord, thank you for your many blessings. I thank you that, in your mysterious and awful wisdom, you have seen fit to allow me, your unworthy servant, to live for another holiday season. Thank you again that you allowed my dear wife to die without becoming a zombie like our children. Forgive her for taking her life in the same manner as Judas. Forgive me for not having the courage to kill Jackson when he asked me to thereby forcing him to do it himself. Please allow them to sit together around your Great Table this Thanksgiving Day. Thank you that I have far more food on my table than I could ever eat. Forgive me for coveting cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and ice. Thank you that I only have one plate and glass to wash.”

“Thank you that I was able to learn how to make my own bullets. Again, bless this food and forgive me for having to yell over those dead souls banging on my door. Thank you that my grandfather used oak and my father replaced the hardware with steel.”

“Thank you for your Son that died for me and was resurrected. I know how hard that was for you, Lord. I had five children die with two sons ‘resurrected,’ but who’s counting? Amen and Amen.”

He filled his plate before getting up and walking around to the door. He fished through the umbrella holder next to his father’s steel hinges. There was an assault rifle, a sawed off shotgun, a .22 rifle, and an umbrella. He had other guns on racks around the house, but these were his doorstep weapons.

He picked up the assault rifle and rested it on his shoulder. He reached up to the metal plate he had installed at eye level in the door. He teasingly referred to it as the mail slot. Only the mailmen didn’t deliver in this slot; he delivered out. He slid it open as dead fingers clawed through the narrow slit. He pushed the barrel of the rifle through at the heads that were too inhuman to know to duck and he declared, “Sorry, brothers, this is a family event. I didn’t send out any extra invitations this year.”

He dragged the decorations out of the storage shed on a tarp around to the front of the house. Decorating Day always made him wish the cabin had an attic. He hoisted the warped box with the pieces of the eight-foot tree in it. It had lights attached, but the generator had been bone dry for years. He hadn’t even bothered to remove the light bulbs in the cabin sockets. There were hundreds of pines around the area that could have served as a live tree, but he hated to sweep up the needles. As he tried to get the tree straight in the base in the front window by the remains of Thanksgiving dinner, he heard a dead visitor shamble through the open door.

He was getting sloppy. He decided to hurry and tighten the last screw in the base. The zombie woman grabbed his ankles and slid him out from under it like an oversized present. She opened her maw and ducked toward the meaty side of his calf. He managed to hook the tree skirt and throw it over her head just in time. She moved from side to side trying to get free, but held tight to his leg. He got hold of the small section for the top of the tree and drove it up into the general direction of the concealed head. The hollow aluminum shaft made a “pong” sound as it popped through. There was a pause before the veiled zombie crumpled into the floor. Thank goodness the skirt was already red although the spreading stain around the treetop was more black than red.

By the time he got up, another zombie in a soiled tuxedo entered the dining room. He lifted the star out of the box and shook it to test its weight. He was tempted to fling it at the skull just above the crooked bowtie, but decided against it. He looked at the silver forks on the table as the formal zombie came around the half wall by the door. Lastly, he pulled the treetop out of the first visitor. Stick with what works, he thought.

“Merry Christmas, brother.”

He had trouble getting the wire loops over the nails outside, hanging the wreaths, even when zombies weren’t shaking his ladder. He left the nails up all year, but he had a hammer on top of the ladder anyway. He hoisted the hammer after he took another moment to straighten the ribbon on the bedroom window’s wreath. As his ladder shook, he regretted how high the windows were in the cabin. When he finally looked down at the hands that couldn’t quite reach the sill, he was thankful again. He then started raining down hammer blows on the dead dirty ladder shakers.

Then, after three attempts, he managed to get the nativity scene up without the zombies stomping through the middle of it.

Next, before putting up the rest of the garland, he stacked the bodies on the tarp and dragged them slowly down toward the cliff.

He finally drove the last plastic candy cane into the ground just before sunset. As he stepped back to admire his work, he realized he had been humming “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for quite some time. He stopped and mentally added, “Still able to hum Christmas Carols” to his list of things for which he was thankful. He nodded with satisfaction in the dying light just as he heard the gravel at the end of the drive crunch under approaching feet.

When he turned around, he swore he was looking at Caleb’s scarred body coming after him in the long shadows of the trees. Then, he realized it was another mailman. This one was wearing the wide brimmed hat, the heavy mail sack over his shoulder, and had a Christmas card gripped and crumpled in its veined hand. He blinked in shock and the illusion was gone. The lone creature was wearing a blue coat, but the mailbag, the hat, and the Christmas card were gone. He blinked a couple more times, but the mailbag never came back. He flexed his hands inside his work gloves and jerked the ax free of the block. He started down the driveway with the ax over his shoulder. He called out as he went, “Save yourself the trouble, brother. I’ll meet you at the mailbox to deliver your Holiday Cheer!”

Jay Wilburn is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. His Dead Song Legend series follows music collectors during the zombie apocalypse. The Great Interruption follows and apocalypse of a different sort. He has coauthored The Enemy Held Near and A Yard Full of Bones with Armand Rosamilia. Follow his many dark thoughts at his website, his YouTube channel, and on Twitter.

Christmas Takeover 30: Tim Waggoner: The Anti-Claus

The Anti-Claus

A Story by Tim Waggoner
3,403 words

Jessica had one bad habit: she always ran late in the morning. She was on time for everything else the rest of the day – never missed a meeting at work, never showed up late for drinks or dinner with friends. But whatever the first thing she had to do in the morning was, she was late for it. Always. She’d tried all kinds of things to break this habit. She went to bed early, set multiple alarms on her phone, got up early, drank stronger coffee in the morning, exercised, ate a good breakfast . . . But nothing helped. It was like her brain was unable to adjust to living by the clock until she was out in the world and doing things.

Today was no exception. She worked as a financial advisor, and she had an appointment with a client at nine a.m. Her Lexus’ dashboard clock told her it was 9:18, and she wasn’t even halfway to work yet. Lila – her supervisor – was going to kill her. Lila had lost patience with her tardiness and she’d taken to recording the precise time of her arrival each day. Jessica thought Lila was creating a paper trail so she’d have the documentation necessary to fire her. But Lila had it in for her for personal reasons, too. She resented the fact that clients preferred to work with her, which was only natural considering what a tight-ass, humorless bitch Lila was.

Rush hour traffic was bad enough, but it didn’t help that today was December 24th, Christmas Eve. The traffic was a nightmare, the streets clogged with vehicles as people rushed around making last minute preparations for tomorrow or heading for the airport to catch a flight to visit family in some other part of the country. Why the hell did people wait until the day before the holiday to get shit done? Why didn’t they –

Jessica saw the crimson flare of brake lights ahead of her, and she jammed her foot down on her own brakes. But she’d been going too fast, had been riding the ass of the car ahead of her, and the front end of her Lexus collided with the back end of the other vehicle with a jarring whump.

Shit! she thought. Shit, shit, shit!

She put her car in park and activated the hazard lights. She checked the rearview mirror to make sure the traffic was giving her car a wide enough berth so she wouldn’t be hit the instant she got out of the car. It looked safe enough, so she opened the door and stepped out into the cold morning air. It was a gray day – cloud cover, but no snow – and a sharp, biting wind was blowing from the east. Jessica wore a light jacket. She hated the way she looked in bulky winter coats, but now she wished she’d dressed for practicality instead of vanity. The wind hit her exposed skin like tiny daggers of ice, and she would’ve killed for a nice thick parka right then.

The car she’d hit was a big beast of a vehicle, a Cadillac, maybe, but there was no metal logo affixed to the back of the car to indicate its make. Maybe the logo had been knocked off in the collision? The vehicle was black, blacker than black, so dark that it seemed to swallow light instead of reflect it. The blackness seemed to pull at her, to demand she keep her gaze fixed on it, to step closer, touch it . . . She took a step forward, raised her hand, but then she realized what she was doing. She squeezed her eyes shut, dropped her arm, and gave her head a quick shake to clear it. When she opened her eyes, the blackness of the car still pulled at her, but not as strongly as before, and she was able to resist it. Shivering – only partially due to the cold – she stepped to the front of the vehicle to assess the damage.

She hadn’t been driving too fast, or else her car’s airbags would’ve activated, and she expected the damage to her Lexus to be relatively minimal. So she was shocked to see the entire front end of her vehicle had been pushed in, as if she’d hit a brick wall going sixty miles per hour.

Fuck, she thought. She’d had the car less than a year. Sure, it had been “certified pre-owned” instead of brand new, but it had been new to her, a symbol of how hard she’d worked and how much she’d accomplished. And now it looked as if that symbol was totaled.

Merry goddamned Christmas, Jessica.

She looked at the black car then and saw that it didn’t have so much as a scratch on it. What the hell was the thing made of? Granite?

She heard a car door open, and she turned to see a man getting out of the front passenger side of the big black car. He was tall and thin, with stick-like limbs that seemed longer than they should’ve been. His head was oddly shaped – kind of like a light bulb with an unkempt mass of dingy gray hair on top – and his neck was so thick Jessica didn’t see how it could possibly support his head. His features were overlarge and prominent – eyes, nose, mouth, and ears bigger than they should’ve been – and he had a mustache and goatee that were the same dishwater-gray as his hair. He was dressed in what she thought of as a mortician’s suit: black jacket, white shirt, black tie, black slacks, black shoes. His clothing wasn’t as dark as his vehicle’s paint job, but it was close.

He started toward her, moving with a surprising grace for a man who was all straight lines and angles, and his light bulb-shaped face broke into a smile, as if he was about to greet a long-lost friend instead of the driver of the car that had rear-ended his vehicle.

“Are you injured?” the man asked as he reached her.

She’d expected his voice to be as strange as the rest of him, but it was a pleasant baritone, the sort of voice a radio or TV announcer might possess.

“No, I’m fine.”

He pursed his lips as if in disappointment.

“Ah, well. Maybe next time.”

She couldn’t believe what he’d said, thought she’d surely misheard, but he continued before she could say anything,

“I apologize for my driver braking so abruptly. His eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and he thought he saw an animal dash across the road in front of us. He has a . . . reluctance to kill an innocent creature.”

He chuckled, as if amused by the notion. He then turned his gaze to the crumpled front end of her Lexus.

“My, my, my. This looks rather serious.”

He bent to examine the front end of her car. After several seconds, he straightened and smiled.

“You can’t drive for shit, can you?”

Jessica’s mouth dropped open in shock. This was followed by quick, hot anger.

“I’m not the one who slammed on the brakes in heavy morning traffic,” she said.

Ignoring her, the man examined his vehicle. He ran long, thin fingers across its trunk, and she thought she heard soft clicking sounds as they moved, as if his hand were a crab skittering across the metal.

“I think you may have actually scratched the paint. You must’ve hit us harder than I thought.” He looked at her, smile widening, revealing crooked, yellow teeth. “Good for you!”

He clapped his hands together as if the slight damage to his car delighted him.

It was then she realized his vehicle had no license plate. She hadn’t noticed in the post-accident confusion, and at first she thought the plate must’ve been knocked off by the impact of her Lexus striking his car. But she didn’t see any place where a plate had been attached to the vehicle. Did that mean it had never had one?

The man rubbed his crab hands together.

“So . . . what would you like me to take?”

Jessica stared at him, unable to process his words. She understood them, of course, but she had no idea what they meant.

“I . . .” She frowned. “What?”

The man released a breathy bark of a sound, which she thought might be a laugh.

“My apologies! I should introduce myself. My name is Arland Merriman, and I am the Anti-Claus.”

He extended one of his skeletal hands for her to shake, but when she made no move to touch it, he lowered his hand and continued speaking as if nothing had happened.

“Please don’t feel awkward for never having hear of me. I don’t enjoy the fame of my opposite number.” He leaned forward, as if to impart a secret. “It’s all part of the ‘anti’ thing, you know. He’s famous, I’m anonymous. But don’t worry. I like it that way.”

Jessica was beginning to regret getting out of her car, and she definitely regretted leaving her phone in her purse on the passenger seat. Whoever this odd man was, it was clear there was something wrong with him mentally, and she wanted to call the police.

Merriman went on.

“My opposite has a list and checks it twice, but I only visit with those I meet by chance. Like someone who rams into the back of my car on Deprivation Day.”

She looked at him blankly.

“You know it as Christmas Eve. But it’s a special day all its own, I assure you. After midnight, my opposite will begin bringing so-called gifts to the deserving people of the world. Usually useless junk that no one really needs, but which inject a small amount of temporary joy into their otherwise meaningless, empty lives. The universe exists in a state of carefully maintained balance. So if my opposite gives . . .”

He stressed this last word, urging her to complete the thought. She didn’t think she could speak, but she was surprised to hear herself say, “You take.”

“Exactly!” He grinned in delight. “And where my opposite selects what to give you, I give you a choice of what you want to lose.”

He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, withdrew what looked like a business card, and held it out for Jessica to take. She didn’t move at first, so Merriman took hold of her wrist. She expected his fingers to be ice-cold, but his touch burned and she drew in a hissing breath of pain. Of course he’s the opposite of cold, she thought. He’s the Anti-Claus. He lifted her hand and deposited the card on her palm. She was grateful when he let go of her wrist. The skin still hurt, but it no longer felt as if her flesh was on fire.

She looked down at the card and saw it was blank. She turned it over and saw it was also blank on the other side.

“You have until midnight – when my day ends and his begins – to decide what you’d like me to remove from your life. The only rules are that it must belong to you and you must write the name of it on this card. Either side will do.”

The unreality of this encounter was getting to her, and although on some level of her mind, she knew what was happening was absolutely, undeniably real, she needed to believe that Merriman was crazy, or that this was some kind of elaborate prank. Anything, just so long as she could tell herself that there was no such thing as the Anti-Claus and that the card he’d given her was just a plain, ordinary blank piece of cardstock, nothing more.”

She looked into his oversized eyes, which were the same color as his hair and beard, the same color as the overcast sky above, and smiled as if she was in on the joke and intended to play along.

“What happens if midnight comes and I haven’t written anything on the card?”

Merriman’s smile – already wider than a normal person’s – stretched even further until the tender skin at the corners of his mouth split and blood trickled forth.

“Then I choose something of yours to take. And believe me, you don’t want that to happen.”

Jessica’s smile faded and despite her attempt to make herself believe this was nothing but a bizarre practical joke, she felt a hot flush pass through her body. Not a chill, not from the Anti-Claus.

The driver’s door of the large black car opened and a figure emerged. The driver wore a chauffer’s uniform, but while his body appeared human, his head was that of a stag. It lolled to the side, antlers broken and short, tongue protruding from the side of a blood-flecked mouth, eyes milky white.

Like roadkill, she thought. Her stomach lurched, and she thought she was going to vomit.

The driver walked to Merriman, head flopping bonelessly as he came. When he reached his employer, he raised his arm and with the opposite hand – which possessed a hoof instead of fingers – he tapped the face of the wristwatch he wore.

“Ah, yes. Thanks for the reminder, Hobart.”

The hideous thing turned and headed back to the car without saying a word. Jessica was profoundly thankful the creature hadn’t spoken. She didn’t want to hear what sort of voice would issue from the thing’s throat.

“I’m afraid I must take my leave,” Merriman said. “I have many other cards to pass out before midnight, after all. I wish you a most lamentable Deprivation Day, Jessica.” He nodded goodbye, turned, and started walking toward his vehicle. When he reached the front passenger door, he opened it and started to climb inside. But then he stopped and turned back to look at her. “Remember to fill out your card. If you don’t, I’ll be paying you a visit later.”

He grinned so wide this time that the skin of his face tore from the edges of his mouth all the way to his ears. Blood flowed from the wounds, but she could still see his teeth. All of them.

Jessica watched the blacker-than-black car drive away, its engine eerily silent. She then returned to her Lexus, got in, gripped the steering wheel, and sat for several moments, breath coming in rapid huh-huh-huh-huhs, heart keeping time with the rhythm. When she’d calmed down a little, she turned off the car’s hazard lights. She’d left the engine running as she’d spoken to Merriman, and she put the Lexus in gear and started driving forward. The engine didn’t sound good, and the steering was wonky, but the car moved, and that was all she cared about now.

She’d put the blank card on the passenger seat when she’d gotten in, and she glanced at it quickly, as if to make sure it was still there, still real. It was. She reached over, picked it up, and slipped it into her purse.

If she didn’t want Merriman to pay her visit later tonight, she had to write something on the card. Something she wanted to be rid of. She didn’t bother telling herself that Merriman and his grotesque driver hadn’t been real, that they’d been hallucinations, that she’d gone crazy. The damage to her car was real enough, and even if Merriman wasn’t the Anti-Claus and no harm would come to her if she didn’t write something on the card, she wasn’t going to chance it. She’d do anything to avoid seeing Merriman and his deer-headed driver again.

Could she write something innocuous on the card? There was a bland painting in the reception area where she worked, a water tower surrounded by bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds. She didn’t like the thing, hated having to look at it whenever she passed through the reception area. Maybe if she wrote Ugly-ass water tower painting in Reception on the card, it wouldn’t be hanging on the wall when she returned to the office after Christmas. She wouldn’t have to see Merriman again, and the workplace would be improved, at least for her.

No, that wouldn’t work. Merriman had said that whatever she chose had to belong to her. She didn’t own the painting. It belonged to the office.

She wracked her brain, trying to come up with something to write on the card, but she couldn’t think of anything. She feared there was some sort of catch to what Merriman had told her, that if she didn’t choose something important enough, he’d come to visit her anyway. Say she wrote My old toaster on the card. She could imagine Merriman coming to her apartment sometime before midnight. He’d knock, she’d open the door, and he’d say something like A toaster? It’s called Deprivation Day, Jessica. Do you think losing a toaster really qualifies as you being deprived?

And then he’d reach for her with his blazing-hot crablike hands, while behind him in the hall, his driver with the dead deer head – Hobart – would let out a wet, snuffling laugh.

She began trembling then, and she continued to do so the rest of the way to work.

“I’m used to you being late, but this is a personal worst for you.”

Lila Robinson was waiting inside Jessica’s office when she’d arrived. She sat at Jessica’s desk, a small notebook open in front of her. She checked the time on her phone and then, using one of Jessica’s pens, she noted the exact time.

Lila was a petite woman in her late fifties, with short brown hair. She wore a bit too much makeup in a futile attempt to make her look a few years younger. She wore a navy-blue blazer over a white blouse, and while Jessica couldn’t see them at the moment, she knew the woman also wore navy-blue slacks and sensible black shoes. She’d never worn a skirt to the office the entire time Jessica had worked here.

She’d considered calling off sick and going home, but she didn’t want to be alone right now, wanted to be around other people. Now she regretted her choice.

“Sorry. I got into an accident on the way here. Slowed me down.”

Her voice was toneless, matter-of-fact. After seeing Merriman and Hobart, Lila didn’t scare her anymore.

Lila seemed put out by Jessica’s lack of reaction to her words. She threw the pen down on the desk, grabbed the notebook, closed it, stood, came out from behind the desk, and walked over to Jessica until they were practically standing nose to nose.

“I’m sorry you were in an accident.” Lila sounded doubtful, as if she didn’t believe Jessica’s story. “But you could’ve called to let us know. Instead you come strolling in over an hour late. Your client got tired of waiting for you and left. I tried to convince him to speak to another of our advisors, but he declined. ‘I think I’ll take my business elsewhere,’ he said and then left. This is your last warning, Jessica. If you come in late again, for any reason, I will fire you. Do you understand?”

Jessica had heard every word, but she was so preoccupied by her experience with Merriman that she couldn’t bring herself to care. Lila’s face reddened with anger.

“Aren’t you going to say anything? No? I’m your supervisor, Jessica. The least you could do is give me the courtesy of a response.”

Jessica looked at Lila as if noticing her for the first time since entering the office. She smiled slowly.

“You are, aren’t you?”

Lila frowned. “Are what?”

“My supervisor. Mine.”

Lila took a step back from Jessica, as if disturbed by something she saw on the other woman’s face.

“Just remember what I said.”

She walked past Jessica. She paused at the doorway, glanced back briefly, then left.

Jessica, still smiling, put her purse on top of her desk and sat down. She picked up the pen that Lila had used to record her time of arrival, then reached into her purse to withdraw the blank card Merriman had given her. She placed it on the desk in front of her, held it still with the tips of her fingers, and began to write.

Tim Waggoner’s first novel came out in 2001, and since then he’s published over forty novels and five collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins. His novels include Like Death, considered a modern classic in the genre, and the popular Nekropolis series of urban fantasy novels. He’s written tie-in fiction based on Supernatural, Grimm, The X-Files, Alien, Doctor Who, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Transformers, among others, and he’s written novelizations for films such as Kingsman: the Golden Circle and Resident Evil: the Final Chapter. His articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, Writer’s Workshop of Horror, Horror 101, and Where Nightmares Come From. In 2017 he received the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction, and he’s been a finalist multiple times for both the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award. His fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and he’s had several stories selected for inclusion in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. In addition to writing, he’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.

Christmas Takeover 29: Mark Sheldon: You Did It Again

You Did It Again

A Story by Mark Sheldon
2,087 words

Darkness. A voice whispers, “You did it again…”

Anne snapped awake, startled; barely even aware that she had dozed off. She looked out the window to see snow falling in a mad flurry, engulfing the car in a foggy blizzard. She could only just barely make out the ghostly shapes of the mountain forest trees – mere yards away from the frosted glass of her window.

In the front seat, her father was squinting over the steering wheel, struggling to see and stay on the buried mountain road. His glasses were beginning to mist and his curly hair was matted with nervous sweat. Next to him, Anne’s mother fidgeted in her seat, nervously tugging on her blood-red hair.

“Harold, there’s a driveway up ahead!” Anne’s mother shouted, breaking the screeching silence in the car.

“Mary, we don’t need to stop. I’m fine. It’s under control,” Harold defensively replied, unable to disguise the noticeable tremor in his voice.

“Dad, please just stop the car,” Anne pleaded – although she of course did not want to miss Christmas dinner at her grandparents’, she wanted much less to continue traveling in this obviously dangerous weather.

“Harold, now!” Mary desperately attempted to take the wheel from Harold, but he pushed her hands away. As he lost control of the car, he fought with the wheel to regain control, but inevitably skidded into a massive tree trunk in front of the barely-visible driveway.

“Are you happy now? Look what you did!” Harold snapped at his wife.

“Harold, there’s a cabin up there!” Mary exclaimed as she peered through the blizzard up the phantom driveway.

“That’s lovely, but what are we going to do about this Goddamn car?”

“Once the blizzard clears and we get cell phone reception again we can call for a tow truck.”

“A tow truck? Are you out of your effin’ mind? We’re in the middle of nowhere! Do you know how much that will cost?”

“Dad, please! Can we just get to that cabin and then figure out what we’re doing from there?” Anne pleaded from the back seat, both wanting to stop her parents’ arguing and get to the warmth of the cabin.

“All I know is that I’m not paying for a Goddamn tow truck,” Harold grunted as he wrenched his door open and climbed out into the bitter blizzard.

The family trudged through the snow toward the cabin, Harold mumbling grumpily at the back of the line. It was not far from the road to the cabin, but with the blistering winds and the harsh snow, the trek took almost half an hour.

The cabin was old and small. At first glance, one would naturally assume that it was abandoned. Nonetheless, Mary politely asked, “Is anybody here?” before entering. Cobwebs decorated the long-forgotten floors and furniture of the cottage. A small table stood in one corner, and a single chair sat at an angle to the table in the other corner. Against the far wall under the window was a dusty couch. The cushions of the couch were shredded with age, torn as if by the claw of some monstrous hand.

A fireplace stood alone in one corner; old firewood that had once been piled, now was strewn about the floor. A large chopping axe hung above the fireplace.

Anne and Mary hastened to start a fire while Harold moped on the forgotten couch, watching the snow fall on the ground through the window as the afternoon light turned to dusk, and then night.

Time passed. The blizzard digressed to light snowfall. Anne and Mary were sitting by the fireplace; Anne was reading a book and Mary was filling out a crossword puzzle.

Harold’s snores reverberated against the cabin walls. Annoyed, Anne glanced away from her book and shot her dozing father an evil glance just in time to see something outside running in the snow. The shape flickered in and out of the frame of the window too quickly for Anne to distinguish what it was.

“Mom,” Anne whispered, “there’s something outside.”


“I just saw something running outside – in the snow.”

Mary got up, walked over to the window, and leaned over her snoring husband to look out into the white night. The first beams of morning sunlight were beginning to creep through the trees.

“I don’t see anything out there, Anne…”

“Mom, I know I saw something…”

Underneath Mary, Harold snorted and rolled over in his sleep. Mary took her coat from the back of her chair and walked over to the door to glance out into the early morning.

“Please be careful, Mom,” Anne shakily whispered.

“Don’t worry, sweetie, I’m sure it was nothing to worry about.”

Mary opened the door and stepped out into the bitter air. At first, she saw nothing, but then she noticed something curled up in the snow, about fifteen feet from the porch step. Mary shivered as she stepped off the porch into the knee-deep snow.

As she drew closer to the shivering form in the snow, she saw that it was nothing more than a child – a boy, no older than twelve. She knelt by the boy in the snow; he had a vacant, manic look in his eye.

“You’re going to die,” the boy said in a hoarse croak, a slight smile crossing his lips.

An icy chill shivered down Mary’s spine – and it wasn’t from the cold air.

“Why don’t you come inside, hon?” Mary said, once she had regained her composure. “We’ve got a nice, warm fire that’ll keep you all nice and toasty.”

“A fire won’t save you,” the boy smirked.

Mary shivered again, but nonetheless offered her hand to the boy. To her surprise, he willingly took her hand and followed her, without complaint, back to the cabin.

“Where did he come from?” Anne asked, amazed to see their young visitor.

“I don’t know, but the poor thing must be half-frozen.”

“I’m fine,” the boy vacantly replied.

“What’s your name, hon?” Anne asked, kneeling down to eye-level with the boy.

“I have no name – not anymore.”

“But what about your parents, sweetie? Where are they?” Mary asked, growing more concerned by the second.

“No parents – not anymore.”

“What happened to them?” asked Anne, now feeling the same shiver of the spine that had been haunting her mother ever since discovering the strange boy.

“They changed and I made them go away.”

“But, where do you live?” Mary asked, inching ever closer to the mysterious child – despite the warning in the back of her mind.

“I live in the barn on the hill,” he responded, nodding toward the back of the cabin.

Mary and Anne glanced at each other; they hadn’t noticed a barn, but the blizzard was very thick when they first came to the cabin, so it might have been engulfed in the freezing flurry.

“But…who takes care of you?” Anne inquired, finally asking the question that both she and her mother had been thinking all along.

“I’m taken care of.”

“What the hell is all this commotion about?” Harold barked, waking out of his deep sleep. “Where’d the kid come from?”

“I came from the barn on the hill.”

“The barn on the hi…”

The room almost, but not quite, lit up from the light bulb going off in Harold’s mind.

“Barn? You wouldn’t have any tools in that barn, would ya, kid? Anything that could fix my car?”

“Harold, don’t be ridic – ” Mary started to say, before being cut off by the boy.

“Yes, there are tools,” the boy chipped in, then added quietly, “But I wouldn’t if I were you…”

Apparently, Harold hadn’t heard this last comment for he jumped up from the couch and exclaimed, “Perfect! I can fix the car and we’ll be back on the road in no time! There ain’t no way in hell I’m paying for a Goddamn tow truck.”

“Harold, this is absurd,” Mary protested, but Harold was already out the door. “Anne, stay here and keep an eye on…the boy,” Mary instructed as she ran out the door after her husband.

Anne ran to the window to watch her parents walking around the cabin through the snow, Mary pleading with Harold as she trailed behind him.

“They’re not coming back, you know.”

Anne jumped, startled, for she hadn’t noticed him come up behind her.

“Why do you say that?” she asked, shakily.

“Because…I know what’s out there. You’re all going to die.”

The slight smile on his face sent chills down her spine. These were not things a child should be happy to talk about.

“What’s out there?”

“I can’t tell you. You’ll have to see it for yourself. Just like I did.”

Frustrated, Anne hurried away from the window to sit by the fireplace and tried to read her book, but couldn’t find the will to focus. Frustrated even more, she threw her book on the floor. That was when the distant scream pierced through the walls of the cabin.

“They’re gone now,” the boy said, sadly gleeful.

In a panic, Anne ran for the door, stopped and returned to grab the axe from over the fireplace. As she ran out the door, she heard the boy call after her, “That won’t help you, now!”

She trudged through the snow around the cabin. Sure enough, the cabin was at the base of a small hill, and at the top of the hill was a barn, even older and more abandoned than the cabin. The walls of the cabin seemed to be collapsing in on themselves.

Anne was beginning to climb the hill when suddenly she was tackled to the ground by the boy who, with surprisingly almost super-human strength, wrestled the axe from her and lodged it into a tree stump that was sticking out of the snow like a tombstone in a cemetery.

“You can’t stop it now, you’re already dead!” he mocked at her, as he ran up the hill toward the barn.

Anne picked herself up and chased the boy up the hill. He ran, laughing, into the barn and slammed the door behind him. Moments later, Anne herself wrenched open the barn door and entered, panting from the exertion of running up the hill.

It was almost quiet, except for a reverberating humming coming from the upper level. The boy was nowhere in sight. Sharp, threatening tools hung from the ceiling – this had once been a slaughterhouse.

Ahead, a vibrating light illuminated a ladder leading to the upper level. Anne made her way through the ominous darkness toward the pulsing light. The closer she got to the light, the louder the humming became.

As she reached the base of the ladder, a monstrous carcass fell from above and fell to her feet. It was a beast. The creature was covered with thick, curly hair. Enormous fangs protruded from the creature’s massive snout. Blood and brains leaked and oozed from a wound in the back of the beast’s skull.

“Get her!” the boy’s voice screamed from above.

The sound of a large animal running across the floorboards reverberated from above. Anne turned around and ran toward the barn entrance. She looked behind herself just in time to see a second beast – this one very much alive – jumping to the barn floor. Anne burst out of the barn, slipped and tumbled down the hill through the freezing snow. Her tumble was broken when she collided with a tree stump, sticking out of the snow like a tombstone in a cemetery.

When the stars cleared from her eyes, she saw two things: the beast descending the hill toward her, and the axe sticking out of the stump she had collided with. With an adrenaline rush of survival strength, she grasped the axe, yanked it out of the stump and into the neck of her predator in one full swoop.

The beast let out a hideous shriek and collapsed to the ground.

For the first time, Anne noticed the long, blood red hair of the beast. She looked up the hill to see the boy, smiling down at her. Anne looked back down at the creature as it morphed into the familiar form of her mother.

As Mary’s blood leaked into the snow, her flowing red hair and the bloodstained snow became indistinguishable – from above it looked as if her hair was growing and spreading out across the snow.

As she died, crying, Mary whispered, “You did it again…”

Mark Sheldon is the author of The Noricin Chronicles and the Sarah Killian series. He has also published a collection of short stories titled Mores From the Maelstrom. He lives in Southern California with his wife Betsy.

Christmas Takeover: Robert Holt: Miracle in Worm Hollow

Miracle in Worm Hollow

A Story by Robert Holt
1,195 words

Curled up in balls to protect from the penetrating cold, the four children looked at the snow drifting in through the hole of their burrow that they had dug for shelter. Gillian caught a snowflake in her palm and looked at the intricate pattern with wide-eyed amazement.

Dillan sat up and smacked her hand. “Get it off you. You don’t know what’s in it. Might be radioactive,” he said.

Gillian lowered her head and snorted out a sob. “Sorry Dill, I wasn’t thinking.”

Dillan sat up and put an arm around her. “Is okay. Is okay, Gillian. We just have to be smart, you know. You remember how Mrs. Heaney said we needed to be smart?”

“Yeah,” said Gail, unable to hold her silence any longer. “Mrs. Heaney went out in the rain, grew toads on her back, and fell over dead. Is that the type of smart we should be taking direction from?”

Gillian was full on bawling now.

“Jesus Christ, Gail. Do you always have to be such a jerk?” Dillan wrapped Gillian in both arms and rocked slowly back and forth.

“Keep your voice down. You’re going to wake up Brandon,” Gail said through her shivering teeth. Her shivers began months ago, before the snow, even before the cold weather. Mrs. Heaney said it was nerves, whatever that means. What the kids knew but did not say was that the shivers were fear. They started when the cannibals had attacked the compound, and she had looked like a Fall leaf in the wind ever since.

Gillian looked down at the muddy and tattered piece of paper she had been carrying since her house had been destroyed by the Antediluvian. Her mouth fell open in shock. Her tears instantly dried and her grief forgotten. “Did I sleep last night Dillan?”

“Yes,” Gail answered. “And you snored.”

“Then we made it. Guys, we made it. Everything is going to be okay now,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” Dillan stopped rocking her and shifted away.

“It’s Christmas. We made it. Now we can get everything we want because Santa will bring it.”

Gail moved in front of Gillian’s eyes to look her face to face. “Are you freaking kidding me? Santa? That is our savior? That is who is going to rescue us?”

“Yes,” said Gillian. “Santa will bring us what we need.”

“Oh hell, oh hell, oh hell,” Dillan said in increasingly frantic tones. The girls turned to him. “Brandon is dead. I think he’s dead.”

The three sat there for a long time in silence. “He’s going to miss Santa then,” Gillian said. Gail started laughing. Dillan started crying.

They wrapped Brandon in a blanket and pulled his body from their shelter once the snow stopped. Gail looked around at the desolate landscape around them. When they dug their hole less than a month ago, this had been a forest. Now there wasn’t even a living tree in sight. The grass had grown though, thick and wild.

Dillan tapped her shoulder as the unspoken warning that it wasn’t safe to be out in the daylight. The cannibals were everywhere, the turkey buzzards had also grown bold towards the living, and the Antediluvian was also still at work at ridding the earth of humans.

The three kids gathered once again in the shelter hole. “We shouldn’t have used our blanket,” Gail said.

“It was Brandon’s blanket,” Gillian said. “He should keep it.”

“He’s dead and doesn’t need it anymore. And I’m cold.”

“He pooped on it,” Dillan said, killing the discussion.

After a while of counting the turkey buzzard calls from Brandon’s final resting place, Gillian grabbed a rock and scratched a bow on it. She handed it to Dillan. “It isn’t much, but I want you to have it.”

Dillan held the rock in his hands for a moment while his smile slowly spread. “Thank you!”

“That’s stupid,” Gail said. She shifted around and scratched at the mud wall revealing a cinch bag. She pulled it out and opened it.

“What is that?” Gillian had inched closer to see what she was doing.

Gail smiled at her, but her shivers made her nose twitch to look like a snarl. “You first.” She took something out of the muddy bag and slid it behind her back. She then pulled the bag shut and handed it to Gillian.

“What is it?” Gillian took the bag.

“Open it. And Merry Christmas,” Gail said.

Gillian opened the bag to see a single triple A battery. She gasped. “This will work with my flashlight,” she said.

Gail nodded. “You need to use it only when we need to. That may be the last one in the world.”

Gillian pulled her small, toy sized flashlight out and inserted the new battery. She flicked it on for just a second, squealed, and threw her arms around Gail.

Gail pulled the bag back and put what was behind her back into it and handed it to Dillan. “Your turn,” She said. “And Merry Christmas.”

Dillan opened the bag and pulled out a hunk of metal. “What is it?”

“I don’t know what it was, but it is heavy and sharp.”

He leaned over to hug Gail. “Why did you wait until now to give this to us?”

“It’s Christmas. And I thought it best to save the battery for a bit. And I was going to try to make something out of the metal thing, but I thought you might be able to as well.”

Dillan ran his thumb across the sharp edge of the metal piece. “I don’t have anything for you two.”

Gillian then let out a giggle, snatched the cinch bag and turned to her own wall. She reached into the mud pulled out something and dropped it into the bag. She held it out triumphantly to Gail. “Merry Christmas!”

Gail smiled and pulled the bag open. She pulled out a partially decayed human finger.

“What the hell is this Gillian?”

“That’s the finger of the big, bald guy that killed your mother. He caught me about three weeks ago while I was in the forest. I don’t know what he was doing, but he stuck his finger in my mouth. I bit it off and ran. He tried to chase me but the blood lured the turkey buzzards. They tore his skin off while I hid in a tree. When I finally got back I realized I still had his finger in my mouth. It was a good thing. If I hadn’t I would have screamed and then the buzzards or the other cannibals or … worse.”

“That’s pretty freaking sick,” Dillan said.

Gail crawled over to Gillian and gave her a big hug. “This was the best present I ever got. Thank you!”

Gail held up the finger, whispered a curse to it, and tossed it out of the opening. A few minutes later there was a rustling in the tall grass. The children shifted together. A puppy emerged with the finger in its mouth and its tail wagging. The children laughed and ran towards the puppy. That night they had a Christmas feast.

Robert Holt is the author of dark fiction and horror, spanning through every form of the written word, from spooky children’s stories to gruesome splatter punk. He lives in St. Louis Missouri.

Christmas Takeover: Frazer Lee: Tinsel


A Story by Frazer Lee
1,232 words

Tom’s breath fogged up his window then disappeared like a ghost. He tried again, but no luck – the frost clinging to the outside of the windowpane refused to melt. He wished his parents would just go to bed. He’d been kneeling here on his bed, leaning on the windowsill for what seemed like an eternity. Then – footsteps on the stairs. Action stations.

It was Mum, here to tuck Tom into bed. He lay rigidly still, breathing heavily with his arms by his side. He felt his mother’s shadow falling over him as she leaned in to kiss him softly on the head. Then she grabbed him and tickled him. He let out a loud giggle. How on earth did she do that every time? Anyone else would’ve fallen for it and believed he was asleep, but not Mum with her amazing radar skills.

They shared a laugh about it and she kissed him again and turned off the light. He listened intently as Mum closed the door and went back downstairs to the living room. ‘Must be wrapping my presents right now,’ he thought, his ears conjuring sounds of foil paper and sticky tape.

This was the most crucial part of Christmas Eve for Tom – waiting for Mum, Dad and Big Sis to come to bed. Then he had to leave it for just long enough to make sure they were asleep, without nodding off himself and missing his chance. Still listening intently, he remembered how he’d bungled the job two years ago, when he was just eight. He was older now, and wiser – an expert in nocturnal maneuvers. One day he’d be a secret agent…

Tom awoke with a jolt and shivered. His bedclothes had made a bid for freedom, leaving just his pajamas to protect him. He grabbed his alarm clock, the luminous face teasing him with the time. Four o’clock am. Oh, flipping brilliant, he’d nodded off and been asleep for hours. But there was still time. He’d better move fast and silent, like that amazing ninja he’d seen on the telly.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed, and ever so carefully stood up. Without a sound, he crept over to the door and removed his dressing gown from the door handle. Tom loved his dressing gown – it was fleecy and so cosy, especially good for a nippy night like this. Careful now, this was where it could all go horribly wrong. One false move and he’d wake the whole household. He reached out for the door handle, his arm rehearsing the exact distance he could open the door before it creaked. Slowly, slowly, he pulled the door open, slipped sideways through the gap, grabbed the outside handle and closed the door behind him with the tiniest click.

Heart beating, Tom stood on the dark landing for a few seconds, catching his breath. That was intense, his best ninja move ever. Satisfied he hadn’t woken his folks, he padded gently across the landing towards the stairs. The soft, soundless carpet beneath his feet, he allowed his mind to wander a little. He began thinking of the prize that awaited him at the end of his mission, remembering how wonderful his presents had looked under the tree last year. They’d gleamed in their shiny wrapping paper like treasure, begging him to squeeze them. He’d picked up the biggest first, giving it a gentle rock to hear and feel what was inside. It didn’t take a genius to realize it was the games console he’d wanted. The box had matched the dimensions of the one in the shop exactly – he should know, he’d examined the display case at the supermarket enough times while Mum spent an age at the deli counter. Tom felt a rush of panic. Had he dropped enough hints about the music player? Maybe she hadn’t noticed during her massive quest for breaded products and two-for-one deals on the way to the checkout. Maybe he hadn’t been clear enough about the colour of the headphones – oh no, what a disaster. His pace quickened as he reached the foot of the stairs.

An animal hiss erupted in his ears as he stepped into the hallway. Tom searched the gloom for the source of the din, dropping to his knees to peer under the sideboard. Wild eyes suddenly glared at him from the shadows there, along with more violent hissing. It was Fudge, the family cat. Whispering as loud as he dared, Tom told Fudge to be quiet. The animal shrank back beneath the sideboard with a final exasperated meow. The cat had almost been his undoing, but failure was not an option. He had to go and squeeze and prod at all the parcels bearing his name.

Downstairs was even chillier than his bedroom, cold seeping into the hallway through hidden nooks and crannies. Tom pulled his dressing gown tighter and snuck into the living room. It was pitch black inside, owing to Mum’s annoying habit of switching everything off and unplugging it every night, “to be on the safe side.” This often drove Dad to distraction; especially if he’d set the tellybox to record late night sports shows. An acrid metallic smell filled the room. What had they been wrapping in here? ‘Only one way to find out,’ thought Tom as he edged his way around the perimeter of the room, feeling along the cabinet, then the wall. Finally, he felt the Christmas tree as he brushed against it. Baubles clinked icily as he located the power cord and followed it, crawling across the floor to the power socket in the corner. He felt the cold metal pins in his hand and turning the plug right side up, inserted it into the wall. Something wet dripped on his hand just as he pressed the switch. Something heavy and slick slid across his head.

Tom scrabbled backwards in shock. Looking up, he saw the fairy lights twinkling. But they were red, not clear, as they had been earlier today and all last week since they’d decorated the tree. He stared, mouth agape, as he realized the lights weren’t red after all. Rather, it was what hung around them that gave them their crimson glow.

The Christmas tree was slicked with blood and covered in strands of flesh and hair. Mum’s hair, and his sister’s. He could pick out his Dad’s tattoo on a piece of bloodied skin that dangled above a bauble like a handkerchief. Drooping branches struggled beneath the weight of the innards scattered across them like red tinsel. Ruined organs steamed like butcher’s offal at the hot kiss of the lights. Eyeballs hung there like baubles. He could recognize some of the pieces – he’d seen them in the big pop-up anatomy book at school – a section of intestine here, a tangle of veins there.

Tom scrambled to his feet. Nausea hit him and he vomited stomach bile onto the living room rug. Turning fearfully around, he saw his family lying lifeless on the sofa like grotesque dolls. Their bodies had been torn apart. Flesh ravaged and ribcages exposed like the hulls of broken ships.

The room swam, and Tom sank to his knees, a dry scream dying in his throat.

Then, he saw them.

Cold eyes, watching him from the dark black of the fireplace.

Watching him touch his presents.

Frazer Lee’s debut novel, The Lamplighters, was a Bram Stoker Award® Finalist for ‘Superior Achievement in a First Novel’. His other works include The Jack in the Green, The Skintaker, and the Daniel Gates Adventures series.

One of Frazer’s early short stories received a Geoffrey Ashe Prize from the Library of Avalon, Glastonbury. His short fiction has since appeared in numerous anthologies including the acclaimed Read By Dawn series.

Also a screenwriter and filmmaker, Frazer’s movie credits include the award-winning short horror films On Edge, Red Lines, Simone, The Stay, and the critically acclaimed horror/thriller feature (and Amazon #1 movie novelization) Panic Button.

Frazer lectures in Creative Writing and Screenwriting at Brunel University London and Birkbeck, University of London. He resides with his family in leafy Buckinghamshire, England just across the cemetery from the actual Hammer House of Horror.