Christmas Takeover 26: Christa Carmen: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

A Story by Christa Carmen
4,511 words

An eight-foot demon with curving horns and hooves the size of dinner plates clomped down Fair Street to thunderous applause. Following in the creature’s wake were smaller, goatish imps, their muzzles stretched into lecherous sneers, the tips of their teeth tinged red with blood.

Annie Pichler turned to Chiao Chin and made devil horns atop her own head, the tips of her crimson fingernails reflecting the nearby streetlights. “This is nuts,” she shouted over the din. “What enlightened city official thought a Krampus parade was a good idea? The bars are going to be full of assholes in goat masks tonight asking intoxicated women if they’ve been naughty or nice.”

Chiao pursed her lips and shook her head. “Can you stop overanalyzing everything? This is supposed to be fun. At the very least, in no time at all, we can be two of those intoxicated women getting hit on in bars.” She laughed and smacked Annie lightly in the shoulder.

Annie’s expression turned sly. “Why wait?” She fished a flask from the depths of her purse, which she tipped toward Chiao in an understated toast. She took a generous swig, and then another, until Chiao looked nervously to where two on-duty officers stood, watching the parade.

“Maybe because there are signs all over, declaring this a dry event.”

“Booze is a great cure for paranoia,” Annie said, holding the flask out to her friend.

She frowned. “What’s in it?”

“Obstler,” Annie said.

Chiao scrunched up her face.

“Austrian schnapps,” Annie clarified. “My grandmother sends me two bottles a year, one for Christmas, one for my birthday. It doesn’t matter that those two occasions are six days apart, she sends them as reliably as the phases of the moon. Subsequently, each December, the ‘fruit-brandy-from-the-Old-Country’ section of my liquor cabinet undergoes ample restoration.”

A Krampus costume that took two people to man stomped past. Chiao watched with interest, then suppressed a shriek as a demonic elf lunged at her from beside a giant, mutilated teddy bear. The elf cackled and skipped gleefully on his way, rubbing his hands and scanning the crowd for his next unsuspecting victim.

Chiao shuddered and wrapped her arms around her peacoat-clad torso. “Okay, so, Grandma Pichler’s idea of love is to outfit you with Austrian liquor. Still, it’s a Thursday night, and you’re not normally a pregamer, so which is it? Trouble in paradise, or trouble at the Lilith Center?”

Annie pulled a cigarette from the pack in the front pocket of her bag and lit it. She took two long drags before answering, the smoke unfurling from her nostrils like steam from a departing train. “Things with Lionel are fine.” She took another drag. “Great, even. And Lilith Center is good. I acquired several new housing locations, and Lionel said our director’s pleased with the progress I’ve made.”

Chiao watched the parade participants go by another moment then turned to Annie and held out her hand. “Give me some of that,” she said.

Annie raised an eyebrow but handed it to her, amused. Chiao took a tentative swig, then a bolder, longer one, her face contorting at the apricot taste, struggling to get the spirit down. A moment later, she handed the flask to Annie, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

“So, you decided getting drunk now is a good idea after all?” Annie asked with a smirk.

Chiao blinked watering eyes. “More like every time we talk about your job, I’m overcome by an intense urge to consume the nearest alcoholic beverage. I don’t know how you do it. And, no offense, Annie, but I don’t know how you do it. You, of all people. If someone told me, or any of the Alpha Delta Pi sisters back in college, that you’d end up working for an organization that funnels women out of sex trafficking rings and into safe houses across the country, I don’t think any of us would have believed it.”

Annie gave her a stony look. “Shit, Chiao, tell me how you really feel.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the rising blare of demented Christmas music. A maniacally decorated parade float featuring a white-furred, grinning Krampus paused before their section of the crowd. Krampus’ antics were supplemented by an intoxicated Santa Claus dancing wildly and throwing middle fingers at the reindeer flanking the float below.

Chiao refocused her attention on Annie. “I’m not saying we don’t think you’re a good person,” she continued, “I’m just saying… well, I’d have been a hell of a lot less surprised if you’d ended up partner at a big-time firm. You went to the one of the best law schools in the country and graduated summa cum laude, for Christ’s sake. I just hope you didn’t take this job to make Lionel happy. If you guys broke up, would you wake up one morning feeling that your entire career had been derailed?”

Chiao looked like she expected Annie to be further offended by this confession, but Annie merely narrowed her eyes and cocked her head. “Of course, Lionel has something to do with it. I wouldn’t have even known about Lilith Center if we hadn’t started dating. But I’m not doing this work because of him. I’m doing it because I’m good at it. I’m good at juggling the moving parts, at getting the victims out of shitty situations and into new, better ones.”

“Of course, you’re good at it,” Chiao proclaimed, “but you would have been good at anything you tried.” Her features softened. “As long as you’re happy, your friends are happy. Just don’t lose sight of your long-term career goals, that’s all.”

A demonic Nutcracker weaving its way through the crowd snapped the teeth of its wooden mask shut behind Chiao’s ear. Chiao let out a little scream. “Jesus,” she said, moving closer to Annie, keen to change the subject, “they’re really committed to bringing these creepy-ass legends to life.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” Annie said. “They’re the same bozos we see each morning on the subway, but ballsier because they’re in costume.”

Chiao wasn’t convinced. “They’re figures rooted in centuries’-old beliefs. There’s a reason they’ve persisted for so long.” Without warning, she squealed and grabbed Annie’s arm. “Jesus Christ, what the hell are those?”

Annie craned her head, squinting against her mounting drunkenness and the glare of floodlights. When she finally caught a glimpse of the approaching Yuletide creatures, a chill ran up her spine. “I have no idea,” she said tonelessly. “They look like… plague doctors, or something, with masks like the skeletons of birds.” The float inched closer, halting when it drew even with the medical building, the awning of which Annie and Chiao stood beneath.

There were five of them in total, dressed more-or-less the same. They wore long, flowing skirts in a variety of colors, sweaters, and grandmotherly kerchiefs, with strange straw slippers on their feet and mittens covering their hands. The skirts were of the coarsest fabric, and several of them were patched, and the kerchiefs wrapped around their heads draped generously down their backs. But it was the masks that drew Annie’s eye the most, far simpler than any they’d seen, long, white beaks of hoary linen, featureless yet harsh. As the creatures moved about the float, the masks opened and closed like gasping fish, and with each closing of those awful beaks, Annie felt the resulting clap in her bones.

The creatures carried wicker baskets on their backs; from several of these baskets protruded the mangled limbs of dolls. Three of the creatures held grossly oversized tools in their hands, prompting Annie to want to check the side of her flask for the words ‘DRINK ME.’ The tallest, huddled in the front left corner, wore a violet skirt and dishwater-grey sweater. Its slippers were mismatched—one red, one navy—and its kerchief, mustard yellow. It did not menace the crowd with its large, sharp clippers so much as it mimed shearing some unseen thing. Annie was reminded of the glinting clippers her mother had used to trim the hedges, a memory she had not recalled in years.

The second creature handling a tool wore a patchwork skirt of random patterns. Its sweater was mauve with large white buttons and its scarf was vibrant red. This creature’s scarf was tied further back on its head than the others, making it all the more obvious the creature had no facial features of which to speak. It held in its mittened hands a broom made of twigs and swept invisible debris onto the street.

The final creature to wield a weapon—for that’s how Annie had begun to think of the trio’s tools—wore a floral skirt and an olive-green sweater. Its massive wooden scissors slashed at the air like a dangerous bird, and once, the creature turned so quickly, a dangling leg from its basket lodged between the scissors’ blades.

The hollow claps of the masks weren’t the only noises the creatures made. At first, Annie thought she was too far away to make out their words, thought them to be singing or chanting some Christmas carol or poem. But when the din of the crowd ebbed, Annie could discern what it was they said, a single syllable, meaningless—at least to her ears—repetitive, unnerving:

“Ga…Ga… Ga… Ga…,” they intoned, over and over again, not in any sort of pattern or in unison; there was no method to the chant. The creatures croaked their respective ‘Ga’s’ at their own discretion, resulting in an eerie cacophony, an otherworldly chorus.

Annie felt the skin beneath her sweater rise in gooseflesh at the sound. She tipped the flask to her lips but was dismayed to find it empty. “Hey,” she called to Chiao, who’d somehow moved several feet away from her as they’d watched the bird-masked crones. She held the flask upside down and shook it for good measure. “What do you say we get out of here? Lionel’s probably out already, and I’ve seen enough of these stupid costumes.”

Chiao looked about to protest, then shrugged. “Sure, let’s go.”

They moved quickly through the still-rapt crowd and headed down Washington Street, the welcoming glow of the bars ahead like a beacon in the night.

Annie had never been to the Bockshorn prior to getting together with Lionel, but since they’d started dating one year ago, it had quickly become their spot. Granted, it was Lionel’s spot with everyone else he knew as well, so Annie was not surprised, upon entering, to see him surrounded by hangers-on.

“I’ll get us some drinks,” Annie said to Chiao when the other woman pointed toward the restroom. At the bar, she ordered a glass of schnapps—no sense diverging from what worked—and a dry martini for Chiao, then made her way to a table at the other side of the room and waited to catch Lionel’s eye.

When he saw her after a moment’s time, his expression shifted from merriment to fear. A tall blond man strode up and handed Lionel a shot, which he downed without hesitation. “Be right back, Steve,” he said, pushing the blond man aside, “I’ve got to say hello to my girl.”

Annie stood in preparation for his approach, and Lionel kissed her on the cheek. “Where’s Chiao?” he asked, scanning the bar over Annie’s head.

“She’s in the bathroom. We only have a minute.”

Lionel led her past a bank of pool tables at the back, and Annie tried to walk casually, her gaze on the jukebox ahead. When they’d situated themselves as far back in the dark corner as the room would allow, Lionel leaned down and kissed her hard, first with passion, then rather desperately.

Annie allowed the kiss to go on for several moments then pulled away and blotted her lips. “We don’t have time for this. Tell me now, Lionel, what did Jonathan say?”

Lionel’s eyebrows furrowed, clouding his handsome face. “He still thinks it was some sort of unfortunate mix-up, some miscommunication or wires that were crossed. But he’s trying to get the women you sent there returned, and if that happens, we might not be able to cover our tracks.”

Anger rose like a wave in a tempest and Annie scowled and gripped Lionel’s hands. “I don’t understand. The new houses are foolproof. The managers know how to document false intakes. If it was the hotel we sent them to that brought attention to the rerouting, it’s your crisis to fix, not mine.”

“All right, all right, come down, Annie, like I said, for now Jonathan still thinks it was a mistake. To be honest, I’m a bit more worried about the two hundred other women we’ve rerouted than the two in some hotel in Texas.”

Annie was about to respond, about to say she was pretty goddamn certain that their past and present indiscretions were equally vital to keep hidden, when she heard Chiao calling her name.

“Over here,” Annie called, then dug her nails into the palms of Lionel’s hands. “It’s almost New Year’s,” she growled. “Do whatever you have to do to fix this.” Then she spun to face Chiao, straightened the hem of her sweater, and affected a lightheartedness she did not feel.

“Sorry,” she sing-songed. “We were just on our way back over. The drinks are on that table there. I got you the usual, a dry martini, but if you want it drier, I’ll get you some more olive juice.”

“I’m terrible,” Chiao cried, “barging in on your reunion. I’m so sorry, Lionel, what a way to say hello.”

“Hello yourself, Chiao, and you’re quite forgiven.” He put an arm around each woman as they walked to the table Annie had secured. As was always the case, Lionel’s entourage soon flocked to his side. Annie went to work drowning her worries, and found that by her fourth glass of schnapps, she was able to relax, even enjoy herself a little.

“How was the Krampus Crawl?” one of Lionel’s friends asked. Annie thought his name might be Todd. “We wanted to go, but Washington Street was already closed, so we decided to get annihilated instead.”

Annie sipped her drink and smiled a lazy, crooked smile, before remembering the clap of the creatures’ beaks. In her hesitation, Chiao slid forward in her seat and enthusiastically addressed the maybe-Todd. “It was so creepy,” she slurred.

So much for it being a Thursday night. Chiao was as drunk as she was.

“The costumes were insane,” Chiao continued. “Like nothing I’ve ever seen. Furry Krampuses, maniac Santas, Abominable Snowmen, animal-faced demons, and trolls.”

“The worst were the beaked things,” Annie said, before realizing she’d spoken at all. When the collective eye of the group fixed her in its sight, she wished she could take back her words, or better yet, disappear. “I mean, it was stupid, really. Idiot frat boys in costumes. An excuse to get out and about in the dead of December, I guess.”

“The beaked things,” a woman Annie had never seen before said, “were they dressed like old women, featureless, said only, ‘Ga?’ ”

Annie shivered, remembering the giant wooden scissors. “Yes, those were them.” She observed the woman more closely: tall boots, jacket trimmed in fur, long auburn hair and dangling earrings. “You were at the parade as well?”

“No, but I know the creatures of which you speak. My grandmother was from Gastein and when I was a little girl, she’d frighten me and my sister into doing our chores for fear of the Schnabelperchten.”

“Schnabel-what?” Chiao said disbelievingly.

“The Schnabelperchten,” the woman repeated. “Offshoots of the witch goddess Perchta. Perchta, like Krampus, makes her rounds on winter nights to reward and punish accordingly. The Perchten, or, Schnabelperchten, specifically, are a horde of birdlike creatures who enforce Perchta’s interest in tidy housekeeping. They move in groups of four or five, chanting their ‘Ga, Ga, Ga’s.’ Their beaks are inspired by Perchta’s prominent nose and are usually made of linen and twigs.”

“Yes,” Chiao said, her hair falling in front of her face as she nodded, “the noises their beaks made gave me the creeps.” She paused and pushed her hair back, thinking. “What’s with those packs on their backs? And the giant tools?”

The woman’s eyes moved from Chiao to Annie, and Annie couldn’t help feeling as if her gaze lingered too long. “The Schnabelperchten inspect homes for tidiness, though sometimes make ‘accidental’ messes themselves. They sweep and clip and trim and tidy, and the packs on their backs are to remind children that, like Krampus, the Schnabelperchten may abduct those who fail in their duties.

“Worse, however, than the possibility of abduction, the Schnabelperchten are known to employ Perchta’s favorite method of punishment. They use scissors to slit open and gut their victims, while the shears and broom remove ropes of intestines from the open cavity.”

“Jesus,” Lionel said, sounding more disgusted than engrossed. “It’s Christmas, not Halloween. Why would anyone pass along such a horrible legend? Why are you sharing this story at all?”

“Then what?” Chiao asked, morbid curiosity getting the better of her. Lionel shot her a look that went unnoticed.

“They fill the hole with tow and shavings, straw, dirt, pebbles, and any other assorted garbage they can find. Then the whole grisly mess is sewn up with a needle made of iron, and the Schnabelperchten move along to their next house.”

Annie couldn’t listen to this drivel another minute. “I don’t know who the hell you are,” she said, concentrating hard on every word, “but my grandmother was Austrian too. She never filled her grandchildren’s heads with such nonsense. Disembowelment and death because of a dirty house? A little extreme, don’t you think?”

The woman stared as if she could see into Annie’s very soul, and Annie forced herself not to squirm.

“There is more to being dirty than keeping a dirty house,” the woman said. Her voice was matter-of-fact, her eyes, unblinking.

Annie stood and placed a hand on Lionel’s shoulder. “I’m getting a drink. Chiao, Lionel, care to join?”

She stormed from the table without waiting for a response, but halfway to the bar, realized how drunk she really was. Lionel’s detailing of their situation, of the fact that the women in Texas might still be viewed as a mistake, echoed in her mind. She needed to be on her toes tomorrow, attentive and alert. Going into the office dehydrated and fuzzyheaded .

“Another schnapps?” the bartender asked.

“Actually, I’d like to square up.”

As she was paying her tab, Chiao appeared by her side. “Annie, are you okay? That woman was such a weirdo, she just disappeared after you left. I asked Lionel if he knew who she was, and when we looked up, she was gone.”

“She’s as crazy as those bird people chanting ‘Ga’ at the parade. Who gets off on scaring innocent people like that? Anyway, Chiao, I’m heading out. Tell Lionel for me, okay?”

“Tell Lionel what?” Lionel asked, sidling up to Chiao. Annie swallowed a sigh. Lionel would try to escort her home, and she wanted to be alone. “It’s been a long night,” she said with as much finality as she could muster, “I have… a lot to deal with at work tomorrow.”

To her surprise, Lionel nodded. “I understand. Text me when you get up in the morning, okay?”

Annie agreed, kissed him goodbye, and favored Chiao with a quick embrace.

“You sure you don’t want to stay a little longer,” Chiao asked. “We can share an Uber home.” Annie’s phone buzzed in her hand. “Can’t,” she said, and headed for the door, “My Uber’s already here.”

The ride to her apartment was cold but quick, and she tipped the driver accordingly for skimping on the heat. At the door of her apartment, a swish sounded from somewhere behind her on the street, but when Annie spun around, there was nothing but shadows and the first fat drops of rain. She turned her key in the lock and pushed her way inside, wanting nothing more than to wash her face and slip between the sheets.

She’d changed into sweats and, with a water bottle in each hand, was preparing to make her exodus down the hall, when the muted swish reached her ears again, this time from the other side of her door.

A spike of adrenaline shot through her veins. “Is someone there?” Annie called. A prolonged swiiiiiish was her response. “Who is it?” she choked out, her voice quavering in the empty house. Annie took a shaky breath and held it.

She was chiding herself for her foolishness and stepping again toward the hall when an answer to her question came from behind the door. “Ga…”

Annie’s blood turned to ice, then exploded with heat, her righteous anger at Lionel’s nerve creating tunnel vision. She flew to the door and pulled it open without checking the sidelight window; as she regarded what stood before her, she’d never hated herself more for her impetuousness.

The Schnabelperchten from the parade were huddled on her porch, their sharp beaks like pointing fingers. The three with tools were at the forefront of the grouping, and with a single jab of the scissors, forced their way inside.

Before Annie could speak, before she could react, before she could think of where she’d left her phone, the Schnabelperchten began their feverish inspection, spreading over her home like bats filling a cave.

“You can’t be in here,” Annie said, not recognizing the shrillness of her voice. “If you don’t get out of my house right now, I’m calling the police.”

None of the five paid her any mind, moving methodically, delving into every crook and crack. Food was swept from refrigerator shelves, mail pulled from its slot, bottles of schnapps were tossed to the floor, reduced to shards of glass glinting from liquid amber pools. In what couldn’t have been more than a minute, Annie’s perfect home was destroyed, the effort employed by the creatures to achieve this result as little as elbowing a dollhouse off its ledge.

Annie tried to protest, to demand they stop, to threaten them again with the police. It took a moment to realize her words were being drowned out, that the chorus of ‘Ga’s’ had become all-consuming. One of the Schnabelperchten must have slipped upstairs unnoticed, for she saw it reappear on the landing. It held in its mittened hands a nondescript folder; Annie’s protests turned to ash in her mouth.

They formed a circle at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for the more industrious of their group to proceed. When the creature with Annie’s folder reached the ground, they turned and approached Annie with the synchronism of dancers.

“Ga… Ga… Ga… Ga…” Their chant fell in time with their slippers.

“Please,” Annie said, tears springing from her eyes. “Please, my house was clean. You were the ones that made it dirty. You were the ones that made the mess.”

The Schnabelperchten with the folder was ushered to the front, where it removed a document despite its mittens. It held the typewritten letter up, but Annie vehemently shook her head. “No,” she said, “you don’t understand. That was a joke, a onetime thing.” Blindly, she stepped back, but collided with the wall, and her tears fell faster still.

“It wasn’t my idea, you don’t understand. The whole thing was Lionel’s fault.” This entreaty, too, was met with only ‘Ga’s,’ and another page extracted from the folder. This time, the Schnabelperchten offered the paper to Annie, indicating it wanted her to read it.

She didn’t have to. Annie knew what it was. A list of all the nonexistent safe houses she’d established, phony destinations to send the foreign, victimized women she was supposed to help. Women who believed they were being rescued, liberated, from months—or years—of hell.

The second page of that document would be a list of businesses, private homes, inns, and hotels, entities that would buy the trafficked women for a price that Annie and Lionel split. It’d been Annie’s idea to make a profit off the women rather than sending them on to secure homes. She reasoned that working—regardless of the jobs being less than minimum wage, or in some cases, nothing but room and board—as hotel maids or personal cleaners was a far cry from drug running and prostitution and had gotten Lionel to buy into her plan with little more than this rationale.

Annie had only used one of her charges to clean her own home on a single occasion, informing the exhausted, non-English speaking woman of her intention via a letter she’d composed using Google Translate. This was the first document the Schnabelperchten had confronted her with, another file she’d been too careless to erase. Sure, Annie had led the woman to believe it was a job interview of sorts, then sold her to an offshoot of Hyatt Hotels. She’d only discovered months later she’d sent the woman to a separate state than that in which her children resided, but what was done was done; there was nothing Annie could do.

Annie felt the night’s unending schnapps roiling in her stomach and placed both hands against the wall to steady herself. “We already got caught,” she pleaded. “My boyfriend told me tonight. We’re going to be confronted tomorrow, we’ll have to own up to it all, and I’ll be forced to bring the operation to an end. If you leave, I’ll clean up everything, the house, the center, my life. I’ll make it like it never happened. I’ll make everything okay.”

“Ga… Ga… Ga… Ga…” The creatures advanced on her several steps.

“This isn’t happening,” Annie whispered. Then louder, angrier, accusatorily, “You aren’t real. You’re characters from a children’s storybook. Someone sent you into scaring me straight.”

The Schnabelperchten with the scissors moved so swiftly, Annie didn’t have time to flinch let alone move away. The blades met in the middle, slicing through muscle and flesh, so smoothly she felt no pain. As she watched, helpless, the creature with the mustard yellow scarf approached, its clippers aimed at those insides already cascading to the floor.

The Schnabelperchten with the broom crumbled up the evidence of her misdeeds, fluffing it into worthy stuffing. Her last coherent thought before darkness pressed on the edges of her vision was the unfairness of being found with proof of her guilt inside her mangled body.

“Please, she croaked, “she said you’d fill me up with sticks and stones. Please take those damning pages with you.”

The Schnabelperchten removed a needle of iron from its pack, and carefully prepared the incriminating document with its thread.

Annie summoned every last ounce of her strength: “Please!”

She should have expected their response:

“Ga… Ga… Ga… Ga…”

To Annie, it sounded like ‘God.’


Christa Carmen’s work has been featured in anthologies, ezines, and podcasts such as Fireside Fiction, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Outpost 28, and Tales to Terrify. Her debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, is available now from Unnerving, and won the 2018 Indie Horror Book Award for Best Debut Collection. Christa lives in Rhode Island with her husband and their bluetick beagle. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, a master’s degree from Boston College in counseling psychology, and is an MFA candidate at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program, of the University of Southern Maine. You can find her online at her website.

Christmas Takeover 25 Pt 2: M. Ennenbach: Thanksgiving at the North Pole

M. Ennenbach is the author of our second Christmas Day story, and I know I know… it’s technically a Thanksgiving Day story, but here’s the thing… When I went to write my schedule for the Christmas Takeover, I decided to try something differently. I put everyone’s name in a bucket and pulled it out and, interestingly enough, two of my favorite newer-to-me authors were selected out of the bucket for today, so that’s how we’ve ended up with a Thanksgiving story on Christmas haha.

Thanksgiving at the North Pole

A Story by M. Ennenbach
1,686 words

“Fuck me.”

“Gladly my dear.”

“Funny. I need help here. You have another funny quip or you feel like getting off of your lazy ass and actually helping for once?”

“If I have a choice…”

“Never mind then. I can do it by myself.”

“I am just kidding. Calm down, we have tons of time. You always wait until the very end to start panic mode. Every year. What do you need me to do?”

“The elves are only working at ninety nine percent optimal speed. The reindeer have not tried on the new harnesses and my goddamned internet connection is slower than Krampus after a a second bottle of his nerve tonic.”

“So every thing is going just like normal?”

“Look, I love you. You are my wife and partner but sometimes I want to throttle you. Just a little.”

“Sometimes I want that too. Maybe you just need a little break to stuff my stocking.”

“Not right now, we are on a deadline here. And what the fuck is Rudolph doing? I swear if it weren’t for that shiny red nose I would put him down. With the advances in tech over the years he is not nearly as important as he likes to march around and act.”

“Leave Rudy alone you big bully. Did you see that? Jennifer just hit her brother. Again.”

“He deserved it. He has been calling her names all day. He thinks he is sneaky. He will know just how sneaky when he gets coal. Again. One more year and he goes in Krampus’s wicker basket.”

“Five years running and he still doesn’t understand you see everything.”

“Some of these kids never learn. Doug stole another issue of his dad’s reading material and blamed the mailman. He is going to go blind if he keeps doing that. Surprised his hands aren’t covered in hair by now.”

“I will head down and let the elves know they are behind production.”


“Yes dear, again. And then the reindeer will get fitted for the sleigh.”

“Next year we are going to get in touch with that Musk guy. We could retire the deer and use electric engines. There are enough solar panels that I could get him to put reactive pads on the sleigh and we could charge as I make deliveries.”

“What about in Africa? Or the more isolated areas in Asia?”

“Hybrid? Maybe give him a glimpse into the thermal tech we use to power the factory. If half of the elves used a quarter of their fucking brains we could have solved this years ago.”

“Years ago the kids around the world still wanted toys. Now it is all about electronics and cell phones.”

“Don’t get me started. Spent how much to renovate the production lines, to get up to speed on electronics instead of rocking horses and dolls. Surprised we haven’t had to install those suicide nets like in China.”

“The elves enjoy their work. And soldering is just as much an art as painting toys.”

“I guess. But where is the joy in it? Making a device that is basically already obsolete by the time it is unwrapped. Remember those goddamned Furbys? Demonic little shits.”

“Our business is happy kids, not telling them what they want or need.”

“Maybe their parents should be telling them less watching other people play games and more playing with toys.”

“You realize when you get like this it is impossible to have a reasonable talk, right?”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know. Eat those cookies I brought down for you. Take a break and watch the newest Mr Robot, the season is almost done already.”

“Elliot is on my nice list. Angela was but recently…”

“Darlene seems to be coming around though.”

“True. You’re right.”

“What was that?”

“I said you are right my love. I do need a break.”

“Well Mr Claus, it seems you are capable of learning after all this time.”

“Whatever. I am going to my study. One episode and then it is back to it.”

“I will see to the others dear. I love you.”

“I love you too Mrs Claus.”

“Presley, Martin, Rachael and Sherwin, I need a word with you.”

“Yes Mrs Claus.”

“We all know today is Thanksgiving in America.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“We also know how my dear husband gets at this time every year.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“So why in the fuck are we at ninety nine percent efficiency? Can someone explain why we would be running any less than optimally on this day?”

“Bad peanut brittle. Nearly ten percent of the workforce has been racing to the latrines.”

“Bad peanut brittle. You want me to explain to Santa that ten percent of you ate bad peanut brittle and because of that production is suffering?”

“It is the truth ma’am.”

“So the giant party last night had nothing to do with it? The fact that someone raided our pantry and stole all the powdered sugar is just a coincidence?”

“Well, see…”

“I told them it was a bad idea. No one ever listens to me ma’am.”

“No one like an ass kisser Sherwin. Rachael, is there any correlation between the sick elves and those that partook of the powdered sugar?”

“Possibly ma’am. I wouldn’t know. I was sound asleep by eight fifteen.”

“So you claim ignorance?”

“Umm, yes Mrs Claus.”

“Presley, let the workforce know until all the backlog is filled the cocoa will be sugar and marshmallow free.”

“But Mrs Claus!”

“Shall I explain to my husband that his production manager came to a meeting with powdered sugar all over his nose? Do you think sugar free cocoa will be his response? Remember last year when he caught Beauregard with pixie sticks? Has anyone seen him since?”

“My apologies ma’am. I understand Mrs Claus. We will work through the night until we hit our numbers. Though there is a problem with some of the chips out of India.”

“And I am hearing about this now.”

“I just found out myself. The failure rate has gone from two to four percent.”

“Still acceptable.”

“Yes but that has caused a back up in the screen department. We have had to go back and double check the last two weeks inventory.”


“It looks worse than it is. Just wanted you to know before it gets overblown.”

“Noted. Now get your magical asses back to work before my husband decides to come down himself.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“And someone call down to the stables, let them know I am on my way. And let them know my mood. Not time for fuckery today, not on Thanksgiving.”

“Consider it down Mrs Claus.”

“Dante, my friend. How are you today?”

“Doing well Mrs Claus.”

“Then explain to me why in the fuck the harnesses have not been properly fitted yet if you will.”

“But they have! We double checked them this very morning.”

“So then my husband is lying about it? What ever could he gain from that?”

“Did I say this morning? It was probably closer to noon now that I think about it.”

“Oh. So were they or weren’t they fitted today?”

“We can do it again if you would like to check them yourself ma’am.”

“Dante, if I wanted to get jerked off I would be in the den with my husband not down here where it frankly reeks of shit and sugar.”

“That is not, umm, I mean to say… yes ma’am. I apologize.”

“God damn it Dante, what day is this?”

“Let’s see the twenty third. Oh. Thanksgiving.”

“And who freaks out every year on Thanksgiving?”

“Santa does.”

“And why is that?”

“We have a month until the big night.”

“So when he asks if the harnesses have been fitted correctly what do we do?”

“We double check them and send our report in promptly.”

“And what the fuck is Rudolph doing?”

“He is upset with the other reindeer. He has been moping and sniffing glue all morning in his stall. Typical drama king, he gets worse as we get closer to the big night.”

“And why is he allowed to mope?”

“He leads the sleigh? A sense of entitlement? Who can understand why a reindeeer stuck in teen angst does anything?”

“No. Because you let him fucking mope and act like this is his big production.”

“He has become impossible ever since that claymation special and song.”

“Then teach him how important he is. Show him the sketches of the LED modules for the front of the sleigh.”

“Are you sure?”

“Dante, did I fucking stutter?”

“No you did not Mrs Claus. It will be handled.”

“Good. I expect a report sent in within the hour. And Rudolph to be on his best behavior. Santa is talking about Musk again. You know what happens then?”

“We are rendered obsolete.”

“And what happens to elves and deer that are rendered obsolete.”

“We are turned into coal for bad children.”

“You are this close to that. Do not make me regret sticking up for you.”

“Yes ma’am. Thank you very much ma’am.”

“Just do your fucking job and we will all make it through another season.”

“Yes Mrs Claus, my apologies. We will send the report directly to Santa asap.”

“See that you do.”

“How was your show dear?”

“Amazing. They keep me right at the edge of my seat. Brilliant as always. I need to send them something special this year.”

“You should dear. The elves have been spoken to. And the reindeer have been fitted.”

“And Rudolph?”

“He is learning an extra special lesson on knowing ones place.”

“Ho ho ho! Thank you my love. I couldn’t do this without you.”

“Does that mean you have a special treat for me?”

“And what does Mrs Claus want?”

“Let’s start with a candy cane, a special one…”

“Ho Ho Ho! A thanksgiving miracle indeed. And then some stocking stuffing.”

“And look at where I have hung the mistletoe.”

“You are being awfully naughty with it on your belly button ring like that. But rules are rules.”

“Indeed they are, now about that sweet treat…”

M. Ennenbach is a lot of things. Part time dreamer. Full time poet. Scribbler of tales. An Illinois yankee in DFW, but don’t hold any of that against him. A proud father of two that he loves more than life itself. His stories are written from a place of raw emotion, stripped pieces of the man himself spun into powerful trips through nightmare and daydream. Sometimes bleak, at others hilarious but always unique glimpses of another realm; his words will take you on a journey. His first collection, Notches, is available on Amazon and Death’s Head Press with more on the way.

Christmas Takeover 25 Pt 1: Chris Miller: Naughty Claus

Merry Christmas… from my family to you. Today, since it is such a special day, I offer you TWO Christmas Takeover stories from TWO really awesome authors with a lot of talent. This first one, Naughty Claus, is from Chris Miller.

Naughty Claus

A Story by Chris Miller
2,267 words

Caleb’s mother kissed him goodnight as his father stood by his bedside, beaming a smile of pride.

“Good night, baby,” his mother said as she rose next to his father.

“You go on to sleep right away now, you hear?” his father said, a humorous look on his face, his finger waving. “Santa’s going to be along any time now, and if you’re awake, well…”

He trailed off, shrugging.

“I know, I know,” Caleb said, nodding furiously, a deadly serious look upon his face. “If we’re awake on Christmas Eve, Santa won’t leave us any presents!”

“That’s right, pal!” his father said, giving him an affectionate squeeze on his shoulder. “Now, off to sleep.”

As his mother reached for the lamp next to his bed, Caleb asked, “You have to make sure Rachel goes to sleep, too! Tell her she can’t get up like she does all the—”

“Yes, yes,” his father placated him, waving his hands before him like a pair of palm branches. “We’re going to her next, don’t you worry.”

Caleb smiled—relieved now—and pulled his comforter up to his chin as the light was switched off. The soft glow of the moon filtered in through the crusted snow and ice outside his window causing shadows to dance across his walls. He could imagine Santa out there now, riding his sleigh, slipping down chimney’s and delivering joy the world over. At eight years old, Caleb had already begun to hear the awful rumors that Santa Claus wasn’t actually real, but he dismissed these claims outright. His parents had never lied to him, he was sure of it, and they said Santa was a real as they were. So, he had to be real.

He closed his eyes against the glow of the moon, his face nearly split in half with a smile as he heard his parents saying good night to his sister Rachel. He hoped she would listen and not get up. It would ruin everything if Santa didn’t leave them any presents because she broke the rules about getting to bed on Christmas Eve.

The door to Rachel’s room shut in the hallway with a quiet click, and Caleb peeked one eye open just a sliver. His own door hung open a quarter of the way, and he could see his mother coming down the hall, his father close behind.

“Finally,” his father was saying, a long sigh chasing the word. “Now we can get a fucking drink.”

“Richard!” his mother said, spinning around to face him. “Caleb might still be awake.”

“Are you kidding me?” his dad said. “Janie, honey, that boy’s so terrified of Santa not stopping by, he probably knocked himself out with a hammer as soon as we left the room, for Christ’s sake.”

“Well,” his mother said, resigning to his reasoning, “maybe you’re right.”

Caleb kept his body still in the dark room, his right eye the only giveaway that he was awake as he watched his parents interacting in the hall outside his door.

“You’re goddamn right I’m right,” his dad said. “So, let’s get those drinks, what do you say? Then I’ll show you why they call me Big Dick.”

Caleb’s mom was laughing softly now, her hand on his dad’s chest.

“Oh, I have an inkling as to why the call you that. Maybe, if you’re really nice, I’ll show you why I’m so…anal.”

Now they were both laughing as they moved on past the door and down the stairs.

“Ooh, you’re so naughty!” Caleb heard his dad say as their footfalls descended the stairs.

He had no idea what they were talking about. He’d heard his dad’s friends call him Dick plenty of times. Dick was short for Richard, after all. That’s what his mom had told him. And he had some faint memory of his father griping at his mother about how anal she was with the ‘damn hangers’. But what was shocking were the dirty words his dad had said. He’d never heard him talk like that before. Caleb had heard those words at school from some of the older kids, but never from his parents. Did they know those were bad words?

He didn’t know, but decided he’d let them know after presents and breakfast tomorrow. He didn’t want his dad to get in trouble for saying bad words.

Caleb rolled over and went to sleep. He dreamt of presents.

The white light reflecting off snow-covered rooftops lighted on his face and woke Caleb. He sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes and sluffing off sleep. Little crusty particles fell from the corners of his eyes as he did—eye-boogers is what these were called by the other kids at school—and then he was swinging his feet off the bed. He checked his clock and saw it was 7 A.M. Time to get up, get his sister, and get to opening presents. He couldn’t wait to see what Santa had brought them in the night. He’d awoke at one point in the night and thought he’d heard Santa down there, though he couldn’t be sure. Santa had seemed to be grunting loudly and making sharp “Ah-ah!” sounds now and then. It had almost sounded like two people, but Caleb knew Santa worked alone. He hadn’t wanted to make Santa angry, so he’d forced himself back to sleep.

He rushed down the hall and flung open Rachel’s door to wake her up. But she was already standing there, rubbing her eyes.

“Is it time for presents?” she asked through a yawn.

“Yeah! Come on!”

They both rushed down the hall and descended the stairs, their footfalls thumping loudly as they went. Their excited breathing heaved in and out loudly as they went.

“Mom!” Caleb cried out as they neared the ground floor. “Dad! Come on, let’s see what Santa—”

He stopped. Rachel was a second behind him and she ran face first into his back, right between his shoulders, causing him to stumble into the living room another step before righting himself. Then she was frozen next to him. Their jaws were twin, gaping yaws, reaching nearly to their waists. At least it felt like it. Caleb couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He was at first terrified, finding such a sight in his dad’s chair by the Christmas tree. But his fear quickly diminished as his young brain soaked in and began to process the information.

It was Santa Claus. He was sitting there in his big red suit, his white beard spilling down over his chest in wavy disregard. He held the glass of milk Caleb and Rachel had set out with the cookies before bed, and Santa was dunking a chocolate chip cookie into the glass. As he stuffed the dripping cookie into his mouth, his eyes flicked up as if he were only now noticing them, even though they’d been bounding loudly and shouting as they’d come down the stairs.

He took a big bite.

“Hey there, kiddies!” Santa said in a jolly tone, bits of cookie visible in his open mouth, his cheeks rosy with good cheer. “Caught me getting my snack!”

“Wh-wha—” was all Caleb could muster. Rachel continued reaching for the floor with her chin.

“You kids were my last stop of the night, and I thought I’d rest up a bit before heading back to the Pole,” Santa went on, taking another bite and eliminating the cookie. “Fine cookies, these are, I sure do appreciate you kids leaving these out for me!”

Caleb continued to stare in amazement, searching for his voice. Finally, he found it.

“Y-you’re really here?” he said in a wavering voice.

“Ho-ho-ho!” Santa bellowed gleefully, throwing his head back in laughter. “You see me sitting here, don’t ya?”

His voice was deep but soft, almost gentle. The voice of a loving grandfather. The light spilled in behind Santa, the white sheen of sunlight partially silhouetting him.

“Don’t snow much around here,” Santa went on absently. “It’s always nice to have a white Christmas, don’t ya think, kiddies?”

There were more ‘ho-ho-hos’ of laughter as Caleb and Rachel inched into the room. Where were their parents? How had they not heard all this commotion? Caleb wanted them to see Santa here, too. He couldn’t wait to tell the older kids at school about this. Their lies about Santa not being real were totally bogus, and he meant to set them straight.

“Snow is beautiful,” Rachel said through her missing teeth. It came out Snow is bootifall.

“It sure is, little lady,” Santa said smiling and leaning forward in the chair. “You should see my house, snow as faaaaar as the eye can see. You’re both welcome to visit any time. Mrs. Claus makes the best hot chocolate you ever did taste. You kiddies like hot chocolate?”

They both nodded emphatically, their eyes bright and wide.

“I’ll bet you do, ho-ho-ho!”

Then Santa’s cheery-red face grew serious.

“Have you kiddies been nice?” he asked in a flat tone. “Or have you been naughty?”

“Nice!” the both exclaimed in unison. Caleb’s breath had caught in his throat.

Now the smile returned to Santa’s face.

“Good!” he boomed cheerfully. “Well then, what say you open your presents, eh? I’ve got a few doozies here just for you!”

Caleb and Rachel both cracked smiles so wide it hurt, but they didn’t fight them. They ran towards the tree and Santa in the chair as he pulled a large red bag out from beside him and sat it down before them. He pulled out four presents, two for each of them. The paper they were wrapped in were bright, dazzling shades of red and blue and silver, with glittery bows adorning them all.

“Now, open these here first,” Santa said, handing over a pair of presents.

They tore into them with fury. Paper flew through the air like confetti and rained down all around them. Santa sat there, laughing loudly as ripped open the boxes.

Caleb had a Batman LEGO set he’d asked for specifically in the letter he’d written to Santa. His jaw fell open and he said ‘thank you’ somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-seven times within the space of two seconds.

Santa laughed all the more. “You’re welcome, Caleb!”

Rachel got the precise American Girl doll she’d asked for and similarly shared her thanks.

“Alright, kiddies,” Santa went on, handing over the other two presents. “These here are the big ones! You didn’t ask for them, but I sure think you need them.”

Confetti littered the air once more. Caleb noticed this new present was much heavier than the one with the LEGO set. He’d had to leave it on the floor instead of his lap, but that didn’t matter. He wondered what it could be as he got the bow and paper out of the way and tore open the box at the same time Rachel opened hers.

They both froze, the excited smiles still adorning their faces, but beginning to melt away like ice in rising temperatures. What Caleb was seeing simply couldn’t be. Santa had been right, he had not asked for this. But he hadn’t wanted it either. He couldn’t imagine how Santa could possibly think he needed this.

Rachel began screaming, the high-pitched shrill only a six-year-old girl can achieve. Caleb felt a similar sound building up from his stomach. Santa was laughing somewhere before them, though Caleb could not wrench his eyes away from the terrible present in front of him.

Their parents’s severed heads stared out at them from the boxes, eyes glazed and gray, tongues lolling out hideously. Blood smattered the inside of the boxes and there was an acrid odor now smarting Caleb’s nostrils.

Rachel was up and running for their parents’s bedroom. He was aware of the absurdity of this, as if there were anything in there that could do them any good, but Caleb found himself right on her heels all the same.

“Found ‘em being naughty, ho-ho-ho!” Santa boomed from behind them as they fled. “Ain’t that nice?”

Fresh guffaws of laughter issued from Santa as they burst into their parents’s room. Fresh screams of horror exploded from the children as they took in the sight.

Their parents’s bodies were on the bed, naked, their mother’s bent over on hands and knees. Their father’s headless corpse was locked in place behind her, his lap against her butt, hands gripped in a tight lock on her hips.

Blood was everywhere. It looked as though it had been slung about in strings and ropes, and it looked as though a bucket of the stuff had been dumped all over his parents and their bed.

Caleb and Rachel turned back out of their parents’s room and stopped as they saw Santa stalking towards them. He held something at his side, but Caleb couldn’t tell what it was at first with the light of the icy morning spilling in behind the jolly fat man.

“Naughty, naughty, naughty!” Santa said, chuckling all the way. “You know, it’s my job to check who’s been naughty or nice!”

Caleb couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Rachel seemed to be similarly transfixed.

Santa moved in closer, revealing what was in his hand. A large, red axe.

It dripped with blood.

“And let me tell you,” Santa said, all cheer draining from his face and voice alike, “You’ve all been naughty little fuckers!”

Their screams lasted only a moment.

Chris Miller is a native Texan who has been writing from an early age, but only started publishing in 2017. Since the release of his first novel, A Murder of Saints, he has released a novella – Trespass – another novel – The Hard Goodbye – a single short story – Flushed – and has been inducted into multiple anthologies, including the acclaimed And Hell Followed from Death’s Head Press, where his story “Behind Blue Eyes” appears alongside stories from Wrath James White, Jeff Strand, and The Sisters of Slaughter, just to name a few. He has another new novel coming soon, the first part of a trilogy of horror, and will be featured in more anthologies throughout the year. He is happily married to the love of his life, Aliana, and they have three beautiful children.

Christmas Takeover 24: Linda D. Addison: The Christmas Ghost

The Christmas Ghost

A Story by Linda D. Addison
824 words

Once upon a time, there was a very different ghost. His name was Klaus and he lived in Halloween Village. He knew he was different from the beginning, but he tried to fit in with everyone else. So, when Halloween came, he put on his scariest best: a bright red suit, chains with loud bells, and a big, red floppy hat, and his blackest, shiniest boots.

He brushed his white beard out until it filled the air like a cloud and painted red circles on his cheeks. When he was done, he looked at himself and decided no other ghost could look scarier, so he went to the meeting place where all ghosts gathered for the Night of Haunting.

Klaus stood proudly in line with the other ghosts waiting for the Queen of Halloween to inspect each of one. The smallest ghosts were first in line and the Queen patted each on their head, if they had one. Each ghost she patted jumped in the air with a blood-curdling scream and flew into the night to begin their work.

Even though the other ghosts pointed at Klaus and snickered behind their hands, if they had them, he stood proud and straight, ignoring them and waiting for the Queen. He was one of the last ghost because he was one of the biggest.

Finally, he stood in front of the Queen. She looked Klaus up and down with her six eyes, her snake fingers gingerly touched Klaus’ beard and plucked at the bells around his large waist.

“You certainly are the most unique ghost I’ve seen this year,” the Queen said in a scratchy, screechy voice. “But you don’t look quite scary enough. You are big and the red is a nice contrast from the usual black and gray, but I like my red a little runnier. Let’s hear your scream.”

Klaus took a big breath and with everything in him let out a loud, “HO-HO-HO!!!”

The Queen stepped back as if she had been hit and her face twisted with pain, her mouth contorted into a wide circle. The other ghosts moved away, they’d never seen her like this. Finally, she burped a strange sound that no one had ever heard her make and her mouth settled into a grimace.

“You made me laugh, you made me happy. What kind of sound is that for a ghost? GET OUT, GET OUT NOW!! Leave our presence and never come back!” The Queen turned away, covering her face with a rotting shroud. The other ghosts turned their backs to Klaus.

Klaus walked away with his head down, back to his house. He gathered the things he made in his spare time in a large bag and threw them into the back of his old sled. He hooked his pet, Rudy, to the front of the sled and took off into the night to find a new place to live.

Everywhere he went, the air was filled with ghosts. By now, the word was out about him, and each ghost turned their back to him. Klaus went to the end of the earth, the place where no one lived, the North Pole. There, he found an old, deserted cottage to live in. He curled up on the dirt floor, and went to sleep to try to forget about his failure.

Finally, Rudy woke him by licking his face. Klaus knew he had slept a long time, because Rudy was much bigger and apparently had made friends, because there were others of his kind gathered around the cottage.

Klaus decided to take a ride a see if the other ghosts had changed their minds about him. He took his bag of things, hooked up Rudy and his friends to the sled and took off into the night.

The air was quiet. There were no ghosts, anywhere. Klaus thought maybe they hiding in the homes of the humans, so he crept down the chimneys, tip-toeing through their homes while they slept, but there were no ghosts. Here and there, he got hungry, and would take a cookie or a piece of cake. He didn’t want to steal, so he left one of the things he made in place of the eaten food.

Finally, after checking each town, he ended up back at Halloween Village. The gate was locked and all the houses were dark. Obviously, he was too late or too early for the Night of Haunting. He shook the gate, but it wouldn’t open. Then he saw the sign that said, “Keep out—that means you, Klaus!”

With sadness in his heart, he climbed into the sled and went back to his cottage at the North Pole. Each year after that Klaus rode his sled to give out the things he made in his spare time and eat the food humans left for him. It was his way of dealing with rejection.

The End

Linda D. Addison, award-winning author of four collections, including How to Recognize A Demon Has Become Your Friend, the first African-American recipient of the HWA Bram Stoker Award, received the 2016 HWA Mentor of the Year Award and the 2018 HWA Lifetime Achievement Award. Check out her latest poetry in The Place of Broken Things, writen with Alessandro Manzetti (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2019). She is excited about the 2020 release of a film (inspired by my poem of same name) Mourning Meal, by producer and director Jamal Hodge.

Christmas Takeover 23: JG Faherty: Yule Cat

Yule Cat

A Story by JG Faherty
3,008 words
Originally published in Appalachian Winter Hauntings, 2009

Excitement hovered over the town of Fox Run in much the same way the snow-filled clouds had done all week. The day seemed ordinary enough, but children and adults alike knew differently.

Tonight would be special.

All day long, women bustled about in kitchens, grandmothers and mothers and daughters, cooking and baking the feasts for that night. The savory, grease-laden scents of fried ham, roast lamb, and hamborgarhyryggur – smoked pork rack – competed with the heavenly aromas of fresh-baked breads and desserts. For those with a sweet tooth, plates stacked high with jelly-covered pancakes and twisted fried dough – lummer and kleinur – sat on tables and counters, wherever there was room.

It was the traditional Yule feast, part of the celebration of the winter solstice.

The longest night of the year.

The night when ghosts ride the winds and the Yule Cat roams in search of lazy humans to eat.

“Aw, Grandpa, that’s just a silly old tale to scare little kids,” Jacob Anders said, as his grandfather finished his annual telling of the Yule story.

“Don’t talk to your Farfar like that,” Grandma Anders said, her thin face pulled tight in one of her mock-serious scowls. She worked hard to keep up her brusque appearance to the rest of the family, only occasionally letting her old-country veneer slip, as she’d done earlier when she let Jacob and his older sister Erika lick the spoons after she iced the traditional Yule cake.

Like most of Fox Run’s residents, the Anders had emigrated from Scandinavia, eventually settling in Western Pennsylvania, where the Appalachians provided the same backdrop as the Kölen of their homeland.

Although they’d celebrated Yule at their grandparents’ since before they could remember, this year was the first year Jacob and Erika’s parents weren’t with them. They’d dropped the children off the day before, with kisses and hugs and promises to return in four days loaded with gifts from their cruise.

For Jacob and Erika, the four days loomed over them in much the same way as the mountains loomed over Fox Run. Their grandparents’ house wasn’t exactly child friendly. They had no cable TV, no video games, and cell phone service was spotty on the best of days.

His temper frayed by boredom, Jacob, who’d always been overly energetic, even for a nine-year-old, made a face. “It’s the same old boring story every year. Why can’t we go into town and do something? Maybe see a movie?”

“Because Yule is for being with family.” Grandma Anders shook a bony finger at him. “Children today have forgotten the old ways. They think only of themselves.”

“Ja.” Grandpa Anders sucked on his empty pipe. He’d given up tobacco years before, but never the habit of clenching the pipe between his teeth while sitting by the fire. “And those are the ones who get no presents from Jule-nissen later tonight.”

“Grandpa, we don’t believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny. What makes you think we’re gonna believe in an elf who rides a talking goat and leaves gifts for children?” Jacob laughed, but his grandparents didn’t smile.

“Ah. No talking to children today.” Grandpa Anders got up and shook his head. “Goodnight, then. If you think the tales of your ancestors are such…foof…” he said, waving his hand at them, “perhaps you should stay up and watch for the Jule-nissen yourself.”

“Maybe I will.”

“Jacob, hush.” Erika gave her brother a poke. Normally she wouldn’t care, but with her parents gone she felt responsible for her brother, and she didn’t want him being rude.

“I think perhaps bed is a good idea for all of us,” Grandma Anders said, taking her tea cup into the kitchen.

“No way! It’s not even nine o’clock yet. We never go to bed this early at home.”

“You’re not at home, young man.” Grandma Anders glared at him, giving him what the children secretly called her ‘stink eye.’ It meant she’d reached the point where she’d put up with no more nonsense. “So off to bed. Now!” She clapped her hands twice, the sudden sound like branches snapping under the weight of too much ice.


“C’mon, Jacob. I think you had too much sugar tonight.” Erika grabbed him by the arm.

“Lemme go!” He yanked himself from her grasp and stormed down the hall to the guest bedroom they were sharing.

“I’m sorry, Grandma,” Erika said.

Grandma Anders patted her shoulder and planted a soft, whiskery kiss on her cheek. “Don’t fret, child. Someday he will learn the truth.”

Jacob and Erika lay awake in their room. Upstairs, the grumbling, wheezing sounds emanating from their grandparents’ bedroom told them Mormor and Farfar Anders were fast asleep.

“I’m hungry,” Jakob whispered.

“No, you’re not. You had two plates for dinner, and at least three desserts, plus the one I saw you sneak while everyone was sitting by the fire.”

“Fine. Then I’m thirsty.”

Erika sighed. “What you are is bored and a brat. Go to sleep.” She wished she could do the same. She’d been trying to doze off for over an hour. But too much sugar and a day of doing nothing but helping in the kitchen had her wide awake.

“Did you hear that?” Jakob asked.

“All I hear is you talking.”


She started to scold him for being such a pain, and then stopped.

Because she did hear it.

A low, distant moaning, winter-cold and ethereal as the wind. A dozen voices; a hundred. A thousand, perhaps, all sighing at once, all lamenting a sadness older than time but not forgotten.

Jacob climbed out of bed and went to the window. His body was a gray shadow among all the others in the room. When he pulled the white lace curtain aside, he revealed a scene that was almost alien, as the snow, so white it almost glowed, hid the ordinary beneath weird mounds and featureless plains.

“Don’t!” Erika couldn’t explain it, but she felt something deep in her bones.

Danger waited outside.

As usual, Jacob didn’t listen. He pressed his face to the glass and peered out.

“I don’t see anything,” he whispered.

Against her better judgment, Erika joined him at the window, barely noticing the chill of the floor against her bare feet.

Jacob’s breath left twin ovals of fog on the frigid glass as he pushed closer to look up and down the street.

Shaped like a heart, Erika thought, and that scared her just as much as the distant susserations of grief.

Outside, nothing seemed different than any other night. The houses were dark. Like the hard-working towns around it, Fox Run rose early and went to bed early.

Just when Erika thought her chattering teeth might wake her grandparents, new sounds joined the mourning dirge. A triumphant cry, accompanied by the bellow of a horn and the baying of hounds.

“Something’s happening!” Before Erika could stop him, Jacob dashed from room. For a moment she stood frozen by indecision. Then she heard the slam of the back door and the spell holding her in place broke like an ice dagger snapping from the gutter.

Pausing just long enough to put on boots and grab her coat from the hook by the back door, she hurried outside and spotted Jacob already running down the road.

“Jacob, stop! Come back!” He didn’t, so despite the glacial air that threatened to freeze her blood and stop her heart, Erika ran after him.

It took three blocks to catch up with Jacob, and by the time she did, her face burned and tiny icicles of snot crusted her nose and upper lip.

“I’m gonna kill you when we get back,” she said, grabbing a fistful of his coat.

“Quiet!” He put a finger to his lips. “It’s almost here.”

Since the sounds were no louder, Erika wanted to ask him how he knew, but then she understood. He felt it, and she could, too.

A heartbeat later, the source of the supernatural noise appeared. Swirling towers of mist, so many she couldn’t count them, appeared out of nowhere and sailed down the road as fast as racing cars. As they swept past, she glimpsed faces, twisted and horrible. The moaning of the apparitions vibrated her teeth like a dentist’s drill. Next to her, Jacob pressed his hands over his ears.

The line of spirits – for she knew that’s what they were – seemed to go on forever, but it was only seconds before they were past, and the reason for their wailing became apparent.

Behind them came more ghosts, mounted on ephemeral horses and surrounded by massive hounds with glowing red eyes. Leading the pack was a giant of a man wearing the antlered skull of a colossal deer as a helmet. It was his exultant war cries that had the other spirits fleeing, as he led his phantom troop in pursuit.

Ten heartbeats later, the streets lay empty again.

“Did you see that?” Jacob asked. “What were they?”

“I don’t know.” Erika pulled at him. “Let’s go home before we freeze to death.”

“’Tis not the cold you should be worrying about.”

Erika screamed and Jacob gasped at the unknown voice behind them. Turning, they found themselves face to face with a goat wearing a green jacket. On its back perched a tiny man with a long, pointed beard. Like the goat, the man’s yellow eyes had horizontal pupils, and he wore green clothes as well.

“Jule-nissen.” Jacob’s eyes were wide. “You’re real!”

The elf shook his head. “Yes, but you’ll be nothing but a memory if the Cat gets you.”

“The cat? What cat?”

“The Yule Cat, sonny-boy. He’s been stalking you since you left your house.”

“I didn’t see any–”

“There!” The elf pointed down the street.

Between two houses, a shadow, darker than the sky and impossibly huge, slid across the snow. Before Erika could think of anything to say, a giant tabby cat, taller than a lion and twice as broad, stalked into view, yellowish-green eyes glowing and a hungry smile on its face.

Jacob moaned, and the Cat, even from a hundred yards away, heard. Its ears twitched and it crouched down in the middle of the street, tail whipping back and forth behind it.

“Run,” Erika said.

Jacob stood still, frozen in fear.

“Run!” This time she shouted it. At the same time, the cat sprang forward.

“This way,” the elf called to them, as the goat carried him down a side street.

Jacob and Erika followed. Each step took them further from their grandparents’ house, but they didn’t care. All that mattered was eluding the impossible feline sprinting down the road after them.

The goat led them around a corner and Erika felt a rush of relief as the Cat skidded on the slippery road and missed the turn. Then her relief turned to horror as the Cat sprang out from behind a house and swung a massive paw that sent the goat and its elvin rider tumbling across the icy blacktop. It swung again and Jacob cried out as a white cloud exploded from his chest. Erika screamed, sure the cat had disemboweled her brother and she was watching the air from his lungs freeze as it escaped. Then she saw it was just the front of his down jacket torn open and gushing feathers into the night.

“Get up!” Erika grabbed Jacob and pulled as he kicked his legs in a frantic attempt to get his feet under himself.

The Yule cat took a half-swing at them and hot liquid ran down her legs. She remembered how Mittens, the cat they’d had when she was younger, used to play with field mice and birds the same way, toying with them until it was ready to bite their heads off.

Now she knew how they felt.

“Ho, Yule Cat! Train your eyes this way!”

Erika jumped at the Jule-nissen’s shout. In her worry for Jacob, she’d forgotten about the elf and his goat. She watched in amazement as the diminutive man waved his arms while the goat jumped and danced on its hind legs.

“What are you doing?”

“Saving your lazy hides,” the elf said. “This is your chance. Return to your house. We’ll be fine.”

Erika didn’t argue. Hand in hand, she and Jacob ran as fast as they could, the December air burning their lungs, hearts pounding in time with their feet. They ran without looking back, deathly afraid the Cat might be only a whisker’s length away.

Suddenly Jacob cut sharply to the right. Erika started to shout at him and then realized they’d reached their grandparents’ house. They pounded up the front steps and flung open the door so hard it hit the wall and sent knick-knacks clattering to the floor.

“Who’s there? What’s going on?” Josef Anders appeared at the top of the stairs, his wife close behind him.

“Grandma! Grandpa! It’s after us! The Yule Cat!”

Erika slammed the door shut and twisted the lock. Grandma Anders said something, but Erika couldn’t hear over the sounds of her and Jacob gasping for air.

“Into the living room! Hurry!” Grandpa Anders hurried down the stairs and tugged at their sleeves.

“But we’re safe now. The goat–” The rest of Jacob’s words disappeared in a crash of breaking glass as a pumpkin-sized paw came through the window next to the door.

“There’s no hiding from the Cat,” Grandma Anders shouted. “Only one thing can save you. Come!”

Erika and Jacob followed their grandparents into the living room, where the sweet scent of pine still decorated the air from the Yule log smoldering in the fireplace. Behind them, the Cat let out a fierce yowl at being denied its prey yet again.

Grandma Anders grabbed two small boxes from beneath the Christmas tree. “Here, open these. Quickly now.”

“What?” Erika took the box but could only stare at it. With everything that had happened, the merry green and red wrapping paper seemed unreal.

“Do as your Mormor says.” Grandpa Anders threw an angry scowl at them as he pulled the drapes shut. With his head turned away, he never saw the movement outside the window, never knew the Yule Cat was there until it burst through the glass and knocked him sideways into a bookcase. Shaking shards from its fur, the Cat let out a roar.

“Grandpa!” Jacob cried.

Erika turned to run but her grandmother stopped her by slapping her across the face. “Open the fordømt box!”

Hoping box contained some kind of magic weapon, Erika tore at the paper and cardboard. When she saw what was inside, her hands went limp and the box fell to the floor.

“A shirt?” She sank to her knees, knowing there was no hope left. Hot, fetid breath blew past her face, carrying the stench of rotten meat. Tears ran down Erika’s face as she closed her eyes and waited for the end.

The carrion stink grew stronger and a whimper escaped her throat as something cold and wet bumped ever so lightly against her neck. Then it was gone.

“That’s right, one for the girl and one for the boy, too. Now be gone.”

Erika heard her grandmother’s voice but the words didn’t make sense. She opened her eyes and risked turning her head, just in time to see the Yule Cat climb out through the shattered picture window. Grandpa Anders was leaning against the bookcase, a cut on his forehead dripping blood. Jacob stood near him, his half-opened box in his hands.

Eyes still on the departing feline, Erika asked, “What happened?”

“I can answer that, young miss.”

Erika turned and saw the Jule-nissen atop his goat, right next to Grandma Anders, who didn’t seem at all surprised by their presence.

“’Twas the gifts. A shirt for each of you.”

“On Yule Eve, the Jule-nissen leaves a gift of clothing for all the children,” Jacob said in a soft voice, “except for the lazy ones.”

“And for them?” the elf asked.

“The Yule Cat eats them.”

“So, you did listen to my stories.” Grandpa Anders put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“You really brought us gifts?” Jacob asked.

The goat snorted and the Jule-nissen shook his head. “Not me. You haven’t done anything to deserve them, in my eyes. But lucky for you, someone thought different, and to the Cat, a gift’s a gift.” The elf snapped his fingers and he and his goat disappeared in a burst of golden sparkles.

“Then who…?” Jacob looked confused, but Erika knew exactly where the gifts had come from.

“You knew the tales were true,” she said to her grandmother. “You did it to protect us.”

Grandma Anders gave them the briefest of smiles. “We follow tradition, even if you do not. All families make sure to keep gifts handy in case the Yule Cat appears.”

“You have to be careful on Yule,” Grandpa Anders said.

Jacob nodded. “’Cause of the Yule Cat.”

“Yes, but not just the Cat. ‘Tis also the night of the Hunt, when the spirits of the Oak King arise to drive away the spirits of the Holly King, and put an end to nights growing longer. Get in their way and you’ll become like them, doomed to Hunt forever.”

“The Hunt,” Erika whispered. She shivered, remembering the wailings of the Holly King’s spirits as the Oak King banished them until June.

Grandma Anders noticed her reaction. “Go put on dry clothes. I’ll make hot cocoa.”

After the children left the room, Grandma Anders went into the kitchen, where her husband was already filling a pot with milk.

“Well?” he asked.

“I think from now on they’ll listen when you tell your stories.”

So distant they wouldn’t have heard it if not for the broken window, a child’s voice screamed in pain.

Josef Anders nodded. “Ja. Let us hope so. For their sakes.”

A life-long resident of New York’s haunted Hudson Valley, JG Faherty has been a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award (The Cure, Ghosts in Coronado Bay) and ITW Thriller Award (The Burning Time), and he is the author of 7 novels, 10 novellas, and more than 75 short stories. His next novel, Hellrider, comes out from Flame Tree Press in August of 2019. He grew up enthralled with the horror movies and books of the 60s, 75, 70s, and 80s. Which explains a lot.