A Story by Christine Morgan
It started last Christmas, that must have been it. Weirdest thing that ever happened to me in my life – or so I thought at the time.
Now, this Christmas, I know a little better.
My name’s Belle, Clayton Belle, and I always hated this time of year.
I blame it on my folks. Sure, everybody blames their problems on their folks, but you should have seen mine.
My dad’s name was Jim Belle, but from after Halloween until round about New Year’s, he told everyone to call him Jingle. Dressed in red and green every chance he got. Decorated the house like you wouldn’t believe. My mom was just as bad, and she had no excuse… her given name was Carol.
They wanted me to swap “Clay” for, can you guess? Sleigh. No joke. I tell you, it was enough to drive a kid crazy. Here I was trying to be normal…
That was why, as soon as I was old enough to get out on my own, I gave up on Christmas. No, that’s putting it too lightly… I went out of my way to avoid the whole thing.
Maybe that’s why it happened. Maybe it was some strange message, some sort of off-the-wall Christmas revenge. Like in the story about Scrooge, except I didn’t get three ghosts. Didn’t even get one.
What’d I get? Some little freak with rabies…
I’d done pretty good at getting away from it all. I’d finally saved up enough to move out of the apartment into a house, tiny but my own. I had a telecommuting job, which spared me the yearly hassle of office parties, Secret Santas, holiday music over the intercom, and all that.
So, for the first time in years, I was expecting a nice, stress-free December.
Then it happened. Christmas Eve.
That was when I heard the bells.
Jingle-jingle-jingle, clanging and grating on my nerves, bringing back all my tension like it had never been away.
I shot to my feet, fists curled. If this was the preface to a spontaneous outbreak of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” from trespassing carolers, I was going to blast them with the hose and 20-degree temperatures be damned!
Stalking to the door, I yanked it open. But already, the sound was receding, dwindling into the distance… and even then I remember thinking that it almost seemed to be receding upward… but of course I didn’t give that idea a moment’s serious consideration.
The people across the street were the Jaimesons. I’d seen them come home a week or so ago with a tree lashed to the roof of their car, but they were good about it, and kept their stuff private. If they wanted to be as looney as my parents in the privacy of their own home, that was their business, and they didn’t try to inflict it on the rest of us.
But now, something was hanging on their door. Even at midnight, every house on the street dark and sleeping, I couldn’t miss it. The full moon and the snow conspired to make it almost as bright as day, and the wreath that now hung on the Jaimeson’s door was twinkling with tiny red and white bulbs, like holly berries amid the shiny green leaves.
And there was something on the porch… from here, it was a bump of scarlet and white in an uncertain shape.
I couldn’t help it… anger set in. Some nerve the Jaimesons had, sneaking out in the night to put up that wreath, thinking no one would notice. Before I fully knew I meant to, I was striding down my walk, slippers crunching through the crust of the snow. I crossed the icy street and marched up their lawn, driving deep tracks. They’d see, they’d know, but I didn’t care.
The crumpled shape was recognizable now, a stocking. A plush cranberry-red velvet stocking with a ruff of white fur. It was lumpy… it was moving.
A nasty spear of fright jumped through me before I realized that the movement was due to nothing more than a toy, a child’s wind-up toy that had been jogged by the fall to the porch.
I could see it easily in my mind – Hank Jaimeson in full Santa regalia, smuggling in the sacks of goodies he’d had hidden in the garage, but dropping a stocking as he paused to put the wreath on the door.
My intent was to pull it down and pitch it, maybe onto the roof, maybe into the bushes, I don’t know. But as I reached for it, I heard a high mewling sound from inside the stocking.
My first thought was that it was a kitten, that old Hank had gotten his daughters a kitty but didn’t notice when it fell from his bag.
My second thought was that it would serve them right, a nice gruesome Christmas surprise to find frozen solid on the stoop.
But I may have been a Scrooge, I may have been a Grinch, I may have been a sour old jerk, but I wasn’t a total bastard. Couldn’t leave an innocent kitten to freeze to death in the night.
I bent down and scooped up the stocking. It squirmed in my grasp, and yes, there was something warm, something alive, in there.
“Hey, kitty-kitty,” I said.
I reached in, meaning to pet the soft bundle of fur.
Instead, my fingers found skin.
And an unbelievable explosion of pain.
It was like a spring-loaded beartrap of needles, sinking into the tender web between my thumb and index finger.
I screamed or cursed, or both mingled, and flung the stocking away from me. It flew off into the snow, but the biter held on, dangling at the end of my arm. My flailing motions made it clamp down tighter, and now rockets of pain were shooting up my arm to my head, where they burst like the Fourth of July – a holiday I’ve never had a problem with.
But I did have a problem with what I was seeing. A major one.
An elf was battened onto my hand.
An elf, yes, that’s what I said.
He was about eighteen inches high, maybe two feet, it was hard to tell. Built like one of those pudgy little gnome you sometimes see on the lawns of people who should know better, but light as a feather. He was wearing short pants (winter-white), a red vest, and those dorky curled-up shoes with bells on the toes. If he’d had a hat, it had fallen off, because his pine-green hair was blowing free around a set of ears that would have made Mr. Spock blush.
His eyes were the huge winsome adorable eyes of a cartoon character, but no cartoon character’s eyes had ever glittered with such a hard and flat hatred. A snarl, muffled by his mouthful of my hand, issued from the back of his throat.
screamed again, this time more in horror than pain, though there was still pain, plenty of it. With my other hand, I grabbed him around his potbellied middle and tried to tear him loose.
It didn’t work. Those fangs were embedded like a snake’s. But abruptly, the elf let go of his own accord. He scrambled up my arm, headed for my face.
My third scream broke decibel records. I reeled and staggered, trying to knock this deranged thing off of me. The backs of my legs hit the Jaimesons’ planter and I toppled over backward, feet flying. My breath was jarred out of me in a huge frosty cloud.
The crazed elf skittered onto my chest, his impish face twisted in pure madness. I didn’t know what he was going to do, and suddenly had a bizarre vision, one that might have been funny if it hadn’t been so hideous – my disembodied head impaled on the top of a Christmas tree in place of a star.
The Jaimesons’ door banged open, throwing a fan of light onto the snow. The elf hissed and was gone, springing from my chest in a bound that carried him into the concealing bushes.
The next thing I knew, Hank Jaimeson was there, in a robe, his eyes puffed from sleep and wide with shock. His wife and kids crowded into the doorway, all babbling at once.
Calls were made, to the police and to an ambulance. I was taken to the hospital because they thought I was having some sort of a breakdown. They had to think that, because I wasn’t wounded. The bite-mark on my hand was gone, except for a semi-circle of tiny white scars that almost looked like snowflakes.
I did some time under observation, and more time in court-ordered therapy. The consensus was that I must have snapped under the holiday strain. When I finally got home, the neighbors treated me with caution and even more distance than before.
The Jaimesons moved out that spring, the whole turn of events having been so traumatizing for their kids – waking to my panicked screams on Christmas gave little Amber Jaimeson nightmares for weeks.
But eventually, things got back to normal. Or so I thought.
I was fine until around October.
That was when I started to feel restless. Itchy, almost. Impatient, dissatisfied. I didn’t know what I wanted, but something was missing. Something I needed.
A few days after Halloween, as I was lugging the shells of my jack-o-lanterns out to the trash, I caught myself humming.
Humming a Christmas carol.
Appalled, I stopped then and there with my feet buried in a drift of leaves and a slightly mushy pumpkin sagging in my grip. I silently asked myself if I’d really been doing that, but I’d heard me. I could even Name That Tune – it had been “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
About a week later, I saw that they’d stocked the shelves in the dairy section of the local market with the first eggnog of the season, and my heart took an unprecedented and distinctly unwelcome leap of joy.
When I got home from my errands and started unloading my groceries, I found a carton of eggnog.
I wasted no time but raced right back to the market. The cashier who’d checked out my purchases was still there, and I stormed up to her, not sure if I meant to apologize for taking the eggnog by mistake or to berate her for mixing it in with my order.
But she told me that I had bought it, and had even remarked on how glad I was that they finally had some in the store. And that when she had replied with something to the effect of how it seemed the holiday season started earlier and earlier every year, I’d said ‘good!’
I had no recollection of that at all, and would have never said such a thing! Not me! Not Clayton Belle!
I decided she must have been having fun at my expense, and put it out of my mind. I planned to dump the eggnog down the sink and forget the whole matter.
I drank it instead.
I didn’t mean to… I just took the carton out of the fridge – and only then did it occur to me to wonder why I hadn’t returned it to the store and gotten my money back – and opened it.
And the scent hit me in a great rolling wave of creamy, nutmeggy temptation… and before I knew what was happening, I was guzzling it straight from the carton with such gulping greed that overflows were running in rills down my chin.
I leaned over the sink, nauseated and afraid, wondering if I was going to bring it back up. But it stayed, a thick liquid weight in my stomach, and I imagined I could feel it spreading out in there, sending out tendrils of itself, into my veins, coating my organs, being carried to every cell of my body.
Another week passed, and I was cranky all the time, missing something, needing something, not knowing what it was. Little things kept happening, distressing little things. Nothing big, nothing like the Great Eggnog Experience, but upsetting ones all the same.
Being at the drugstore, having to walk down the seasonal aisle to reach the pharmacy, and lingering over the cards and garlands that had begun to creep in among the turkeys and harvest decorations.
Shopping a catalog for some new clothes and only realizing when my order arrived that some of the things I’d bought were eerily familiar – winter-white pants, a red cardigan vest. And a green knitted cap, where had that come from?
Waking in the middle of the night with the most terrible craving for cookies, not just any cookies but specific kinds. I had to have the butter-shortbread ones crusted with colored sugar… I had to have gingerbread.
Then things started getting worse.
I bought a box of candy canes and ate them all in the car, the entire sticky red-and-white dozen of them, until my tongue and lips were bright pink and the taste of sweet mint seemed to permeate my entire being.
I found myself taking long aimless drives around town to look at the holiday lights and decorations… I even went to the mall and stood amid a smiling crowd as little kids waited for their turns on Santa’s lap.
I was humming again, and then singing low, and finally singing aloud, whenever I heard the carols… and I knew every single word.
I had been flipping channels and happened across a Christmas movie, the one about the boy who wanted a BB-gun. And, telling myself that nothing else good was on, wound up watching it. And then, worst of all, realizing it was a marathon, 24 hours of that same movie, and I stayed up all night watching it and fell asleep in my chair and woke up and kept watching it, until noon the next day.
The day it all came crashing down on me, I was at the park. It was December 22nd and I’d gone for a long brisk walk, hoping that the cold air and exercise would snap me out of this constant state of alternating trance and terror.
A woman said ‘Merry Christmas!’ to me, and I said it right back at her.
She passed without looking back, which was good, because my expression would have horrified her. It horrified me and I didn’t even have to see it; I could feel it. That was the first time those words had passed my lips in almost twenty years, but I hadn’t just been saying them.
I’d meant them!
I uttered a rusty screech and ran for home. Something was happening to me… I had to get help… there had to be something they could do…
I reached my yard and the strength ran right out of me like water through a sieve.
Lights sparkled along the eaves and around the windows of my house. More lights, string after string of them, wrapped the fence and the tree in the front yard. A red ribbon had been wound around the post that supported the mailbox, giving it an effect that could be construed as barber-pole but I knew better! A plastic reindeer with a red lightbulb for a nose stood beside the walk, and a wreath hung on the door.
It was the wreath that pushed me over, because it was practically identical to the one that had been on the Jaimesons’ door last year. Their house had sold but the current owners were spending the winter in Arizona with their grandkids, and thus hadn’t seen the terrible thing that had taken place across the street.
Someone had decorated my house!
No… I had done it. And couldn’t remember doing it.
Haltingly, scared to death of what I might find inside, I went up to the door. The wreath seemed to stare at me like a big round eye, laugh at me like a big round mouth.
I wanted to rip it down, rip all of it down. What would people think if they saw this? What would they say?
I steeled myself and plunged inside.
If I could have drawn breath, it would have been last year’s business all over again, for I would have screamed and screamed until the neighbors called 911. But my breath was stolen from me by the sight of the interior of my house.
It was a nightmare made real. That’s all I’ll say. I can’t bear to describe how tall the tree was, how many garlands festooned the stairway banister, what horrors awaited me on the mantle. I can’t stand to think of the candles, the presents, the three-tiered tray of cookies and fudge and divinity.
Even the bathroom wasn’t safe, because the shower curtain, the towels, even the toilet-lid cover, had been replaced by new ones in a poinsettia pattern. But despite that, the bathroom was still the least objectionable place in the house, and it was there that I collapsed in a dead faint.
I woke over twenty-four hours later to unbelievable pain in my hand and arm. Dimly sure that I must have been laying on them, I pushed myself up and looked.
The scars… the tiny semicircle of snowflake-shaped scars… they had faded nearly to invisibility over the year but now they were back. Standing out in vivid relief, almost seeming to wax and wane in time with the throbbing I felt in every nerve.
And yet, even with the throbbing, even with an ache that seemed to burrow into my bones, I felt full of a hectic, wild energy. Mania, almost. No, not almost… it was mania. I wanted to do something, had to get up and get moving, but I didn’t know what.
I tried to rise, shakily got as far as the sink, and caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror.
But at first, I didn’t know it was me… I had never in my life worn a silly little pointy cap with a bell on the end.
I cried out, thinking it was a stranger, an intruder, that I’d surprised in my home. My reflection reacted along with me and then I knew, but that knowing was untempered with relief.
I looked… different. It wasn’t just because of the cap.
My hair looked wrong. Longer.
My eyes were huge, but I attributed that to shock and fear.
I didn’t want to see any more, and fell back onto the bathmat.
The ache intensified. I could hear the radio playing in the other room, tuned to the nonstop holiday music station.
I felt as if I was being crushed, slowly crushed under an impossible weight. I imagined I could hear my bones crunching, feel myself being squashed, compressed. An appalling, stretchy sensation tugged at my ears.
A dark corner of my mind knew then what was happening to me, but the rest of my mind rejected it. Ignoring the pain and the horrendous things that were going on in my body, I got up to splash cold water on my face…
And couldn’t reach the sink.
I was standing, but I was on eye-level with the cabinet where I kept the cleanser and spare rolls of tissue.
Very, very slowly and very much against my will, I looked down at myself.
Yes, I was standing… assuming those were my feet in the curly-toed shoes about eighteen inches below my head. Assuming that was my torso I was seeing, pooching out into a potbelly.
A wavery, uncertain noise came from my throat. I started to bring up my hands, to explore my head, but paused and let them drop. I had to see.
With strenuous effort, I clambered onto the toilet, and from there onto the counter. I edged out around the basin, keeping my eyes on my shoes – my horrible curly-toed shoes – until I was there.
Then I looked.
An elf looked back at me.
It had my blond hair, only grown long and silky. My brown eyes, cartoon-character cute. My features… changed and made sharper, fairer, more… elfin.
I opened my mouth to finally voice the scream that would rouse the neighborhood, maybe even the town. But before I could finish drawing my breath, my gaze fell on what was also shown in the mirror, the reflection of my dining room beyond the half-open bathroom door.
The table was covered with things. With tools, and paint-pots, and lengths of wood, and stuffing, and wheels. Half-finished toys were scattered all over the table, and a box of finished ones rested underneath. The mania that had been surging in me now came roaring up full-force.
Because time was short! Time was so very short! Tomorrow was Christmas Eve!
Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and I was behind in my work!
I yipped in alarm, sprang down from the sink in a sprightly hop, and rushed to my workbench.
And I knew, as I picked up my paintbrush to apply rouge-spots to the cheeks of a dolly, what I was. I knew what would happen to me this time every year, not ruled by the phases of the moon but by the seasons, when the change would set in.
Helpless to resist, caught in the grips of the dreadful transformation, compelled by my hungers and driven to do unspeakable things… with no folklore, no gypsy woman, no one to help me or tell me how to break the curse…
The terrible curse of the were-elf!
Christine Morgan grew up in the high desert and moved to a cool rainy coast as soon as she could. Though anything but the outdoorsy type, she loves trees and water … preferably viewed through a cozy window or from the deck of a cruise ship. Alaska, Norway, Scotland, and Germany/Austria are her vacation destinations of choice. Seeing the Northern Lights in person is on her bucket list. She’s currently three cats toward her eventual fate as a crazy cat lady; yes, she does talk to them, but don’t worry, she draws the line at knitting them little sweaters (because she can’t knit).