Christmas Takeover 22: Michael Bray: With These Hands

With These Hands

A Story by Michael Bray
5,788 words

Helen was dead.

Brixton felt the scream coming from deep in his core and unleashed it into the warm December Tobago night. He had been thrown clear of the car when it had rolled and escaped with a few cuts to his hands and face. Some might call it a miracle until they saw the pulpy mess that still sat in the passenger seat of the mangled Mercedes. He struggled to believe that the lifeless pulped meat was once his wife. A woman he had loved, a woman who he had shown his innermost self, the one normally hidden away from people he knew. He sat in the road, vaguely aware of the growing crowds, locals mostly, their rusty, old-fashioned cars abandoned as they surveyed the scene. It was a clear night, and glass shimmered on the ground, miniature diamonds of artificial light surrounding his dead wife and the remains of their hire car. He stood up, unable to believe the contrast in their fortunes and hating the bitter cruelty of the trick God had played on them. Christmas abroad, a way to repair the fractured foundations of the relationship. He looked into the car, blonde hair split, brains exposed to the humid night, and was dimly aware there would be none of that. No bickering, no compromises to find common ground. She was now a shell, a lifeless thing made of flesh. A puppet without strings, a marionette without its master. Everything that she had been was now gone. He clenched his fists, looked up into the cloudless star littered sky and screamed again.


“What happened?”

Brixton looked across the table, locking eyes with the police officer. His name was Peters, and he was a large man, narrow sloping shoulders giving him an apish appearance. His skin was dark, eyes curious and unsympathetic. Brixton glanced at the man’s hands and the gold wedding ring on his finger. He, at least, would go home to someone at the end of his shift. For him, it would be business as usual.

“Mr Brixton?” Peters repeated

He blinked, and tried to focus his attention on the officer and his questions. There was a noise, an annoying buzzing irritating him. He glanced at the strip light overhead, the foggy ghosts of long dead flies inhabiting its outer casing. “We were on holiday,” he croaked, forcing his attention back to the officer. “Christmas in the sun. We thought it would be good to leave the cold of home behind.”

“We recovered your passports from the car. You’re English?”

Brixton nodded.

“Mr Brixton, I need you to verbally respond for the benefit of the recording.”

He glanced at the tape recorder on the table, then at the Peters, who was unreadable. “Yes, sorry. We – I’m from England. Both of us are. Were. This is so hard.”

“I understand how difficult this is, but I need to know what happened, Mr Brixton.”

“I know you do. I’m trying.”

It wasn’t the answer expected of him, but it was the best he could manage. He knew that he would have to discuss it, and as much as he was desperate to put it off, knew it would only work for a while.

“We were arguing,” he said, placing his hands flat on the table, marvelling again that the few grazes and scratches were his only injuries from the crash.

“Go on,” Peters said, shifting position.

“We’d been out for a meal on the other side of the island. We’d been having problems at home, and this was supposed to be us getting back on track. Funny thing is, she didn’t even want to come here. She wanted to stay closer to home, go to the coast maybe. It’s all-“

“Mr Brixton.”

Brixton stopped speaking and stared at Peters, trying to make him understand how difficult it was for him. “Sorry, I’m getting side-tracked.”

“I understand. Please, tell me what happened with the accident.”

Brixton cleared his throat, and then stared at his hands. Unable to handle looking at how little pain he suffered from the crash, he moved them under the table out of sight. “We were arguing. I get jealous, paranoid sometimes. Anyway, I thought she had been having an affair with a guy she knows at work. That was why we came out here. A last ditch attempt to fix things. Anyway, I was sure she had been looking at this guy in the restaurant. I lost it and we were asked to leave.”

“Which restaurant?”

“I can’t remember the name. Does it matter?”

“We need to know. For the investigation.”

“I wasn’t drinking if that’s what you wanted to check. I didn’t have a drop.”

“We know. We tested you at the crash site. Do you not remember?”

Brixton frowned and looked at the table top. “Of course. Sorry, I forgot.”

“We can get the details of the location later. What I want to know is what happened that caused you to crash.” The officer said, still calm and patient.

“We had argued in the restaurant about her looking at this guy. We were asked to leave, and the argument continued in the car on the way back to the hotel. It got heated. She was screaming at me, I was screaming at her. I suppose I must have been speeding. Maybe because I was angry. Anyway, I lost control of the car on a bend. It happened too fast for me to react. I felt it start to flip over, then…nothing. Next thing I remember I was lying in the dirt surrounded by people.”

“Is there anything else you can tell me?”

“I don’t know what else I’m expected to say,” Brixton muttered. “Will I go to jail?”

Peters shook his head. “No. You were sober, of sound mind to drive. This looks like nothing but a tragic accident. You are free to go Mr Brixton.”

Brixton made no effort to move. He stared at Peters, trying to force out the words.

“Was there something else?”

“Can I see her?”

For the first time, Peters looked uncomfortable. He shifted position and looked at the clock on the wall. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mr Brixton.”

“Please, I just… I need to see her.”

“Don’t put yourself through it. Perhaps it would be better to remember your wife the way she was?”

“I can’t,” he choked on the words, and felt the hot sting of tears. “Whenever I think about her, all I can see is her sitting the wreck, all broken. That’s not her.”

“Mr Brixton-”

“I can’t remember her. Don’t you understand what I’m saying? I don’t remember what she looks like.” He wiped the palms of his hands under his eyes and stared at Peters.

“I understand, Mr Brixton. But trust me when I tell you I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s better for you to remember your wife as she was in life, not in death.”

“Are you saying I can’t see her?”

“Legally I can’t stop you, Mr Brixton. All I can do is offer advice. Will you please get some rest first? Go to the mortuary tomorrow? Much better to do such things with a clear head.”

Brixton considered for a moment, turning his attention inward. He was exhausted. The problem was, he couldn’t imagine where sleep might come from. “Okay,” he said, slumping in his seat. “I’ll go tomorrow.”

“Good idea. Would you like me to have someone take you to your hotel?”

Brixton shook his head. “No, I’ll walk for a while then get a taxi.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes. I’m sure. Can I go now?” Brixton said. He couldn’t breathe, was too hot, and didn’t enjoy being so close to Peters. He hated the shifty way his eyes moved like he was always looking for a lie.

“Go ahead, Mr Brixton. We will need to speak with you again before you leave. Are you happy for me to hold on to your passport until we speak again?”

Brixton was hardly listening. He was only concerned with getting out of that tiny room. “That’s fine. I’m here for another two weeks anyway, or at least, I was supposed to be. I don’t know what will happen now, or where I’ll go.”

“It takes time, Mr Brixton. Horrible things like this do get better. I know it’s a cliché, but it is true. Go get some rest.”

Brixton was hardly aware of anything as he was led out of the police station. He stood outside on the pavement, the harsh white glow of the lights inside at his back throwing his shadow into a waif-like skeleton across the road ahead of him. It was a warm sticky night, and even though it was late, people still went about their business. People whose lives hadn’t been destroyed in one crazy incident. He started to walk, aimless and without purpose. Staring at his feet and trying to untangle the knots in his brain. He didn’t return to his hotel but found himself on the beach staring at the pale white moon and listening to the gentle lap of the ocean on sand. It should have been beautiful, but for him, such things would always be associated with horror.

He didn’t remember moving, but when he next became aware of his surroundings he was standing outside a low yellow building with cracked and peeling paint. A tired door with a grubby window pane between him and the dark and shadow-shrouded space beyond. He stared at it, the ghost of his reflection staring back at him with just as little idea about what to do or where he was.

“Are you all right?”

Brixton blinked and looked at the boy beside him. He was in his mid-teens, dark skinned and skinny. He had kind eyes and an old faded scar on his right cheek.

“I’m fine,” Brixton said or thought. He still wasn’t sure.

“The mortuary is closed, sir.”

“I know.”

Brixton sensed the boy’s confusion and felt obliged to elaborate. “My wife is in there.”

“From the crash earlier?”

Brixton looked at the boy. His gaze was met without fear.

“Yes. How did you know about that?”

“Everyone knows, sir. This is a small island. Also, my father owns this business. He attended the accident earlier.”

“What’s your name kid?”

“My name is Kendon, sir. Can I ask you why you are standing out here at night? I thought you were a robber, not that there is anything to steal inside.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not here to rob anything. It’s just… This is the only place I feel close to her. I just wish I could tell her how sorry I am. How much I regret being so paranoid and causing the crash.”

“Guilt is not an easy thing to live with.”

Brixton looked at the boy. He seemed too young to deliver such a statement. “Not much I can do about it now.”

“What if I said I could help you?”

Despite the stifling heat, a chill swelled inside Brixton. He stared at Kendon, who was looking right back at him.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you have money?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“Just answer,” Kendon said.

“I do.”

Kendon nodded. “Bring five hundred American dollars here tomorrow night. Midnight.”

“Now it sounds like you’re trying to rob me.”

Kendon shrugged. “I’m not. I’m trying to help you.”

“Five hundred American is what, three grand over here?”

“That’s the price. If you want my help, that’s what it will cost.” Kenyon was flat and calm as he said it.

“To do what?” Brixton said, wondering why he was still even having the conversation.

“You will find out if you come back. It’s up to you.”

“Midnight tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Kendon repeated. “Bring the money and I will help you.”

There were questions that Brixton wanted to ask, but before he could, Kendon slinked away into the night, gone like some kind of apparition.


There was no sleep. He had sat in his hotel room, surrounded by Helen’s things, constant reminders that she was gone. The lipstick on the dresser would never be used again. The new clothes she had bought for the holiday which were still in her suitcase would never be worn. Brixton had sat on the bed, watching night fade into day, and then back to night. He made the decision that he would meet Kendon sometime before dawn. The money didn’t matter to him, nothing mattered to him. Already Helen was fading from his memory, she was becoming distant, a ghost from his past. Whenever he tried to think of her, all he could see was the bloody mop of blonde hair slumped in the passenger seat of their mangled rental car. He reached the mortuary just before midnight. As it had been the previous night, it was shrouded in darkness. A flicker of something in his belly, nervousness, or maybe even fear almost deterred him and caused him to turn back when Kendon appeared from the side of the building.

“Did you bring the money?” he asked, looking beyond Brixton towards the street. Unlike the previous calm demeanour, Kendon was tense and appeared nervous.

“I did.” Brixton pulled the bundle of notes from the oversized pocket of his shorts and handed them over. Kendon counted it, then shoved the notes into his own pocket.

“Wait here,” He said, then moved back into the shadows behind the building.

Brixton waited, dimly aware that if this had been some kind of scam, he had fallen for it. He was psyching himself up to follow Kendon into the shadowy darkness beyond the building when he reappeared.

“Come on. This way,” he said, then retreated into the dark. Brixton looked back at the streets, and then followed Kendon into the dark. He followed the teenager down the alleyway, past dumpsters piled high with garbage. They came to a recessed door at the rear of the building. Kendon knocked on it and waited. The door opened, spilling a dim yellow light out into the alley. A man came out, tall and slender, and obviously some kind of relation to Kendon.

“This is my brother, Richard,” Kendon said.

Brixton held out a hand, but Richard kept his own in his pockets. He looked at the offered appendage then turned to his brother. “Come on, inside.”

Brixton followed the two brothers into the back door of the mortuary. As it was closed and locked behind him, he wondered if he had just made a huge mistake.

The back of the mortuary was a workspace office. A dull yellow lamp cast an eerie glow around the room. In one corner, an old wood desk, its surface pitted and stained from years of use, held a computer, its screen dark. In the opposite corner, a Christmas tree laden with lights and tinsel which seemed out of place in such a building devoted to death. Separated from the front of the building by a heavy cloth curtain, the back office was also the functional area of the mortuary. A row of rectangular drawers was set against one wall, a familiar sight to anyone who has ever watched a police television drama. In the middle of the room sat a stainless steel table, its bed recessed, a drainage hole at its foot leading down into the floor. Brixton stared at it, then at the two men.

“Take a seat,” Richard said, pointing to the desk in the corner.

Brixton did as he was told, his legs feeling heavy. Richard took a small stool and set it in front of him. Brixton noticed that he was wearing gloves, which he found strange considering the heat.

Richard sat down, his face a flickering mass of shadows in the dim light. “My brother tells me you recently lost your wife.”

“Yes,” Brixton said.

“He also said you had certain regrets. Things you wished to communicate to the deceased but were unable to in life.”

Brixton nodded, his eyes drawn to the gloves on Richards’ hands. Everything else in the room seemed to fit apart from those. They had no place there.

“I can help you achieve this. I can pass on those messages.”

Brixton sighed. “Look, no offence, but if you’re some kind of spiritualist, you can forget it and give me my money back. This isn’t what I had in mind.”

“No this is nothing like that.”

There was a calm assurance about Richard that made him willing to listen for a little longer.

“So what is it?”

Richard leaned closer, banishing some of the shadows from his face. “I have a gift. A real gift. Something that has been passed down through my family.”

“What kind of gift?” Brixton asked, unable to ignore the change in atmosphere within the room.

Richard said nothing. He removed his gloves and held his palms up to Brixton. “I can communicate with the dead by touch.”

Brixton stood. “I’ve heard enough. People like you should know better than to prey on people who are grieving. It’s sick.”

Richard seemed unaffected. He didn’t argue or try to fight. “Please, sit down. I understand belief isn’t something you can take on faith. A demonstration perhaps.”

Brixton sat down, still angry but also curious. “What kind of demonstration?”

“A question. Something specific. Something only your wife would know the answer to. If I could get the answer to such a question, perhaps then you would believe in my gift.”

“All right, I’ll play along,” Brixton said.

There were a lot of things he wanted to ask her. Things that still nibbled away at him. Questions like if she had really had an affair if she had been unfaithful to him. For the purpose of this, he wanted to think of something trivial. Something minor. He knew all about mediums and the way they would cold read their targets. Although he wasn’t certain it was the same scam, he wanted to be sure. Something came to him, something that nobody else in that room other than him could know.

“All right,” Brixton said. “As a test. During our flight over here, something happened on the plane. What was it?”

Richard nodded and got off the stool. He seemed different somehow. Taller, longer. He walked to the drawers at the back wall. Brixton knew what they contained. He knew his wife was in one of them. Richard stopped beside one of them and stood, hands folded in front of him. “Come closer please,” he said.

Suddenly he wanted no part of it. He wanted nothing to do with whatever Richards’s gift may be, however, he was still curious enough to go along with things for now. He stood and crossed the room, his legs heavy yet feeling like they would give out at any time. He stood in front of Richard, the steel drawer between them.

“To do what I have to do, I need to put my hands on the body of the deceased. It will not be intrusive; I need only touch an arm. I need your permission to do so.”

“Why, I don’t understand what you’re saying to me.”

Richard spoke patiently, like a man who has had to explain this same procedure countless times before. “To connect the world of the living with the dead, it becomes necessary to form a physical bond. I am a conduit, a bridge between the two worlds. I channel this through my hands.”

“And you can ask them anything?” Brixton asked, unsure why he was so willing to believe such craziness.

“There are different levels. It depends on how willing the person is to divulge the information. A question such as yours can be answered by a simple touch. Some questions require a deeper reading, which is something, as a rule, I do not do. For your purposes, none of that will be necessary. I just need your permission to proceed.”

Brixton looked at the steel drawer in the wall that stood between them, then at Richard. His throat was dry. He glanced at the Christmas tree in the corner of the office, then looked away. He couldn’t bear to think about it just yet.

“Okay, you have my permission.”

Richard nodded. “I’m going to open the drawer now. Please do not be alarmed. I did the best I could to fix her after the crash.”

Brixton didn’t reply. He was staring at the drawer, dull steel reflecting the hazy reds and greens of the lights of the Christmas tree. Every sense was alive, every emotion fighting for dominance. He watched as Richard slid the drawer open, revealing the purple body bag beneath. Brixton drew breath. He couldn’t see her yet, but to know he was in such proximity to his dead wife made him feel nauseous. He closed his eyes and saw flashes of her bloody mangled face, which forced him to open them again. Richard had stepped away from the drawer. He was holding his hands up, palms out. It made Brixton think of a surgeon washing up before going to the operating theatre. Kendon moved in front of his brother and unzipped the top of the bag.

“Are you sure you are ready to see?” he asked, looking across at Brixton, who could muster up only enough energy to nod.

Kendon returned his attention back to the bag and pulled it back, resting the cloth just above the chest area of the body.

Brixton inhaled, then forgot to breathe out. He stared as the reality of the situation hit him. There were no mistakes, no confusion. His wife was dead.

Despite the horrors he had pictured in his head from the last time he had seen her in the wreck, Kendon and Richard had done an incredible job of presenting her as she was in life. She looked almost peaceful, eyes closed, skin pale. They had even managed to repair the ugly crack in her skull, and although it was still misshaped, she was still recognisable. The only major difference was her hair. It was brushed back away from her face and looked different. He was about to ask why then realised it was because they had washed it. Probably to get rid of the blood and brains.

“Are you ready to proceed?”

Brixton looked at Richard. Something in him had changed. He was physically the same, yet somehow seemed bigger, more intimidating. Brixton nodded.

Kendon moved out of his brother’s way and took his place beside Brixton. “Don’t worry, he knows what he’s doing.”

Brixton couldn’t answer even if he wanted to. He was both mesmerised and appalled, horrified and intrigued. The yin-yang of emotions screamed around his brain looking for an outlet he could not provide.

Richard stepped forward, hands still held out in front of him. “Tell me again your question.”

Brixton tried to speak, his dead tongue and dry mouth making such a simple thing difficult. “When we were flying out here to start our holiday, something happened on the plane. What was it?”

Richard stepped to the edge of the table. He put one hand on Helen’s forehead, the other on her shoulder, the contrast between the two skin tones something Brixton knew would never leave his memory. He watched as Richard closed his eyes and began to mouth words, his lips moving silently. Brixton looked at his wife. She was a shell, a thing on a table. As he looked at her, he found more new reasons to hate himself. He was about to call the whole thing off when Richard spoke.

“There was a man on the plane in the seats in front of you. He was a large man and was snoring. She says you were both laughing at him as it reminded you of her uncle.”

Until that point, Brixton didn’t believe any of it could be true, but as Richard said the words, he felt his body weaken from the feet up. His legs buckled, and he would have fallen if not for Kendon grabbing his arm and leading him to the office chair.

“It’s okay,” Kendon said as he helped him to sit. “This happens all the time. When people realise this isn’t a game.”

Brixton looked at Richard, then at his wife and finally at Kendon. “What do I do now?”

“My brother has made the connection. Now you speak. She will hear your words through him.”

He looked at the table again. His pale wife’s body unmoving, Richard with his hands on her, eyes closed and waiting. Now that the time had come, he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“You must do it quickly,” Kendon said. “The connection can’t be held for long. To do so will cause the spirit to return to the body permanently and be trapped forever.”

“I… I don’t know what to say.”

“Yes you do, or you wouldn’t be here. Tell her now what it was you wanted to say in death.”

Brixton cleared his throat, and then looked at her, pale face in profile from where he sat. “I’m sorry,” he said, eyes stinging. “I’m sorry for doubting you, I’m sorry for saying those things I said. I’m sorry for not telling you I loved you before you died. I’m sorry for being a bad husband. I want you to know I didn’t mean any of it.”

He waited and watched. Richard opened his eyes and looked at Brixton. “She says you shouldn’t feel bad about the accident. She says you are to go on with your life and remember how things were before everything changed. She says she is also sorry. She says there are things she should have told you. Things you ought to have known she wished she had said.”

“What things, what kind of things?” Brixton said.

He frowned, and shifted position, now placing a hand on each of her shoulders. “She said it doesn’t matter now. She loves you and that’s all that matters.”

“I want to know. Tell me what it is.” Brixton said, unable to control his anger. He watched as Richard moved again, this time pulling one of her arms out of the side of the bag. He lifted it to his face, smelling it, pressing his cheek against it. Brixton tried to stand, but Kendon put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. Both of them watched, waiting for the answer. Richard lowered her arm, opened his eyes and took his hands off her.

“It is done. Finished.”

“What do you mean finished? She didn’t answer my question?”

Richard went to the sink and started to wash his hands. “Trust me, Mr Brixton. Some things are better left unsaid. Sometimes, the secrets of the dead are better left that way.”

“What secrets? What did she tell you?” he was angry and upset as half-forgotten suspicions and accusations started to creep back into his mind.

Richard finished washing, and squirted some antibacterial gel on his hands, rubbing it into the skin. “Our time here is done Mr Brixton. I agreed to let you speak to your wife and tell her how you feel. It is not my place to get involved with other matters of your life.”

“But you know don’t you? You know?”

Richard once again pulled on his gloves. “I can relay only what they tell me. The dead bury their secrets deep. I am not one to go digging for them.”

“But you could?” Brixton said as Kendon returned to the body and sealed it back into its bag then closed the drawer.

“Please, say no more about it. We are done here.”

“She was hiding something. I’ve known it for a while, she denied it but… she wants me to know.”

“Anything your wife wanted you to know would have been said.”

“I’ll pay you. I have more money. Lots of it.”

“I don’t want your money. I just want you to leave.”

“You have no right to hold this back from me. She was my wife. I deserve to know. I-”

“Mr Brixton!”

The room fell silent as Richard approached. He crouched beside the office chair, eyes locked on Brixton, voice a low rumble. “You do not understand how this works. No idea what you’re talking about. Find out you say. You demand to know, you say. Do you know what that would entail?”

Brixton shook his head.

“I’ll tell you what it would entail. For many years, I worked for the government. They would bring me people, bad people, and it was my job to extract from them what they knew. They were unwilling to divulge this information even in death, so I would have to dig deep and extract that information. Do you want me to have to do that to your wife? To tear her apart and find out what you want to know? Do you want her to suffer again even in death?”

“No, of course not, I just…”

“Then let this go, Mr Brixton. There has already been enough pain and suffering. The past should remain so. You now need to concentrate on moving forward with your life. The gift I have with my hands can also be a curse. Sometimes not knowing is better.”

“I was just-”

“Please just go.”

Kendon put a hand on Brixton’s shoulder. “Come on, I’ll show you out.”

Brixton let himself be led out of the same door he came in, too dazed and confused to fight it.


Christmas didn’t apply to those in the death trade. For Kendon and his family, it meant working every day, including Christmas day. Kendon unlocked the door to the low yellow building and flicked on the lights. Rows of display coffins lined each wall, priced according to how luxurious they were. Kendon walked through the silent room of death beds and went through the curtain at the back of the building, almost falling over the Christmas tree, which was on its side. He grunted and reached for the light switch, flicking it on and illuminating the room.

The first thing he saw was the bag. It was screwed up in the corner by the back door, which was splintered and ajar. The remains of the woman were on the table, a snake of innards on the floor, chunks of flesh littering the ground around it. Her eyes had been plucked out, leaving just two glaring hollows. Kendon took a step back and bumped into his brother, who was coming in the opposite direction. The two of them stared at the mess in the room, open-mouthed and disbelieving.

“I wanted to know.”

They both turned towards the noise. Brixton was sitting in the office chair, his arms and clothing covered with blood. There was a three-quarters empty bottle of scotch cradled against his body. His eyes were wild, stubble face pale and gaunt. “You should have just told me. How could I go on and not know who she cheated on me with?”

Richard put a hand on his brother’s shoulder and stepped into the room. Kendon went the other way, back into the front office to call the police.

“I told you to let it go, Mr Brixton,” Richard said, calm despite the destruction.

“I thought I might be able to do what you did. I remember you saying you had to look deep. I tried and nothing happened.”

Richard showed Brixton his gloved hands. “Like I told you, these are sometimes a curse. Not all gifts are ones which are wanted, Mr Brixton. Sometimes they can cause more damage.”

Brixton took a swig from his bottle, then glared at Richard. “You should have just told me. None of this would have happened if you had just confirmed what I already knew. She’d been acting odd for weeks. I needed this for closure.”

“Your wife wasn’t being unfaithful to you, Mr Brixton. She told me that willingly. She had done nothing to go against the vows of your marriage.”

“Lies. Everyone lies.”

“The dead cannot lie, not to me at least. I see through it. Everything I see is the truth.”

“You didn’t know her. She was up to something, I know it. It’s like an itch, one that won’t go away no matter how much you scratch it. Don’t you stand there and tell me she wasn’t lying. You have no right to protect her. Look at what you made me do.” He began to weep and took another drink.

Richard looked around the room and the parts of Helen which were scattered within it. He turned back to Brixton. “Your wife wasn’t being unfaithful to you, Mr Brixton. She was acting strangely because she was pregnant and wasn’t sure how to tell you.”

Brixton couldn’t breathe. He blinked and stared at Richard. “What did you just say?”

“She was carrying your child. That was why she suggested the holiday. She was going to tell you here.”

“But… I didn’t know. If I’d known sooner… I’d have been different.”

Voices filtered through from the front of the mortuary. Peters with his voice loud and booming as he came closer.

Richard crouched by the chair and laid a gloved hand on top of Brixton’s bloody one. “You see now when I tell you that some secrets are better left with the dead? There are some things that knowledge makes worse. I wish you had listened to me, Mr Brixton. I truly do.”

Richard stood and let Peters and his men into the room. Brixton didn’t fight as he was handcuffed and led away. He deserved it. He glanced over his shoulder as he was taken through the curtain. He saw Richard, gloved hands clasped in front of him, Kendon at his side. Behind them, the remains of his wife ravaged and violated at his own hand. It came to him then that somewhere in the room, was also likely the tiny nugget that was his unborn child which he had discarded in his frenzy and quest for answers.

He stepped on something that crunched underfoot, snapping his attention back to the present. He stared at the plastic star which had fallen from the Christmas tree, its glitter-covered surface now in broken pieces. He knew this time of the year would never again be one for celebration or joy. It would always be the day the man he had been had died along with his wife. Something in his mind snapped. He felt it break. It was then that he started to scream. He didn’t think he would ever be able to stop.

Michael Bray is a bestselling author/screenwriter of more than twelve novels and numerous short stories. Influenced from an early age by the suspense horror of authors such as Stephen King, Richard Laymon, Shaun Hutson, James Herbert, and Brian Lumley, along with TV shows like Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone. His work touches on the psychological side of horror, teasing the reader’s nerves and willing them to keep turning the pages. Several of his titles have been translated into multiple languages including a major bookstore distribution deal in Japan and his biggest selling title, Whisper, has, on numerous occasions topped the overall horror charts for Amazon titles in both the UK and US with thousands of copies sold.

His work has been featured in anthologies alongside such horror greats as Clive Barker, Adam Nevill, Shaun Hutson, Brian Lumley, Paul Tremblay, Ramsay Campbell, Ray Bradbury and many others and he continues to be an active and popular member of the horror/suspense genre.

A feature film written by Bray based on his co-written novel MONSTER starring Tracy Shaw (Coronation Street), Daniele Harold (EastEnders), and Rod Glenn (American Assassin/World War Z) was shot in January 2018 whilst another of his titles, MEAT is currently with a leading Los Angeles based production company with a view to production in 2019.

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Christmas Takeover 21: Rebekkah Ford: The Elf on the Shelf

The Elf on the Shelf

A Story by Rebekkah Ford
4,589 words

Our backyard was nothing but dirt and a few pathetic bushes that were good at catching garbage. I picked out a couple of Mountain Dew cans and a Snickers wrapper that were between the branches, trying not to prick my fingers.

Why couldn’t people throw away their trash? It was so annoying.

The air was a bit chilly for Arizona weather in December. I could almost see my breath. I shivered, regretting not wearing a jacket over my sweatshirt hoodie.

Looking up at the enormous tree that gave our tiny shit-hole house some nice shade, a feeling of gratefulness came over me and the annoyance vanished. At least we had this beautiful tree to hang out under or climb when things got a bit rough.

I went to the side of the house and dumped the trash into the tin garbage can. As I headed to the back door, something red beneath the bushes I was just at caught my eye, causing me to go back over there. Bending to examine it, I noticed two long red legs. A child’s toy I guessed. I wondered if it was my sister Avery’s toy. Clasping my fingers around the legs, I tugged them towards me.

“An Elf on A Shelf,” I said to myself a bit surprised. I licked the tip of my thumb and rubbed the dirt off his pale face and big blue eyes. They seemed to sparkle in the sunlight as if there was mischief brewing behind them. “I don’t think I’m supposed to touch you. Don’t you lose your magic if I do so? As if magic really exists.” Avery’s friends had an elf like this, and she’d been wanting one for a couple of years now. I couldn’t wait to show her.

“What’s behind your back?” Avery asked when I entered the kitchen. She had a heaping tablespoon of peanut butter in her hand. The sides of her shoulder-length dark hair were pulled back with purple butterfly barrettes, and her brown eyes were filled with curiosity. In the background, I could Bugs Bunny talking to Elmer Fudd. We couldn’t afford cable so we had old VCR tapes to watch and entertain us, even though I could pretty much say each line in every one of them.

I kneeled so I was eye level with her. “Do you still want An Elf on A Shelf?”

“It’s The Elf on the Shelf,” she corrected. I swear there was a thirty-year-old editor in her six-year-old body.

“Sorry, I mean—”

She gasped. “Is there one behind your back?”

“Yup.” I nodded with a grin and showed her.

She squealed and jumped up and down, but then she stopped, and a look of horror entered her freckled face. “You can’t touch him!” Tears filled her eyes, and her bottom lip quivered. “He’ll lose his magic,” she cried. “He won’t be able to talk to Santa Claus for me.” She set the spoon down on the counter and sat at the kitchen table and wept. You would have thought she lost her best friend with how upset she was.

I sat in the chair next to her. “I’m sure he still has his magic.”

“No, he doesn’t. Now Santa is going to ignore us like he always does.”

It broke my heart to see her so distraught and at the same time, it made me angry at our mom for not giving us a father. Sixteen years ago, when I was born, she had no idea who my father was. Ten years later, she repeated the same damn mistake – at a drunken party, swapping partners at what I called an Orgy-Fest. Just the other day, in a fit of anger, I threw that in her face and basically called her a whore. She was stunned as if I slapped her across the face. Without saying a word, she walked out of the house and drove away. I instantly felt bad and bawled myself to sleep. Thankfully, Miss Avery was at a friend’s house that night.

I rose and tugged on the back of Avery’s T-shirt. “Come with me. I’ll show you he still has his magic.”

She sniffed and followed me to my bedroom.

I turned on my desktop, set the elf down and typed in The Elf on the Shelf. I clicked on Wikipedia and scrolled down while reading it until I found what I was looking for.

“It says right here that the magic might disappear if the scout elf is touched.” I locked eyes with her. “Might,” I emphasized. I pointed to him. He was lying on his side next to my keyboard. “I bet you money, he still has his magic.”

Her mouth formed an O-shape. “You’re going to give me your dollars if you’re wrong?”

“I sure am, and it’s the money I’ve been saving to buy my dream car with.” I imagined myself driving a classic convertible white VW bug, my light brown hair blowing in the wind. The popular kids at school would be so jealous, and I’d ignore them. I pushed that pleasant fiction aside and raised my eyebrows and touched my chest with my fingertip. “So, I’m totally serious here, Avery.”

She wiped the tears from her face and sniffed again. “You are. You’ve been saving forever.”

It did seem like forever. I’d been saving up for well over a year now with my babysitting money and cleaning houses in our neighborhood. I’d love to work at a Starbucks or a movie theatre, but I had no way of getting there.

“I have,” I finally said. “But Avery, don’t touch him. Okay?”

She held her hands up as if she were surrendering. “I won’t.” She looked around my room. “Where should we put him?”

Grabbing him, I headed out of my room. “Not here.” I went to the living room and sat him on a bookcase next to our TV. “Here’s a perfect spot for him, and this will be the last time I touch him.”

Avery grinned and nodded.

The front door opened, and Mom walked in. “What are you girls up to?” She had her Denny’s uniform on and smelled like fried food. She looked fried herself. Strands of dark hair were falling out of the bun on top of her head, framing her heart-shaped face.

Avery jumped up and down in a fit of excitement and told Mom everything while Mom set her purse on the floor. She kicked off her shoes, sat on the couch, and proceeded to rub her feet as she listened to my baby sister run her mouth.

“Peyton said if the elf lost his magic, I can have her dollars. The ones she’s saving for a car. Do you remember?”

Mom glanced at me. A guilty expression flickered across her face. Her attention went back to Avery. “I do, which is the perfect time for me to tell you, girls, something that I’ve been working on.”

That’s unexpected. The last time she had something important to say was when . . . she was pregnant with Avery.

Sonofabitch!

My face burned, and my mind immediately raced with ugly thoughts about my mother.

“Peyton,” Mom said, her voice raised enough to get me to look at her. “I’m not pregnant.”

The heat subsided from my cheeks, my chest felt lighter, and a sigh of relief whooshed out of me.

“I had my tubes tied after I gave birth to Avery. You know that.”

I thought about it. Oh yeah, she did. “I forgot,” I mumbled, not looking at her. Instead, I stared at the Charlie Brown tabletop Christmas tree in the corner of the room. Most of the ornaments were from the Dollar Tree, a few were homemade or given to us.

“What’s your news?” Avery asked, plopping down on Mom’s lap.

“A gal in my AA meeting offered me a job that pays really well.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Should you be hanging out with other alcoholics outside the group?”

“She’s been clean for six years, Peyton.” There was a bit of annoyance in her tone. She covered Avery’s ears and whispered, “I’m not going to fuck up this opportunity. I promise.”

I glanced away and thought I saw movement out the corner of my eye where the elf sat. He looked the same as he did when I placed him there. “Okay, what type of job is it and how much does it pay?”

Avery moved her head, and Mom dropped her hands into her lap. “I’ll be trained in as a dental assistant. If I do well, they’ll pay for me to be a dental hygienist, if I agree to work for them for three years after I’m done with my schooling.” She paused and despite looking a bit haggard from a long day of serving food to the public, a renewed energy took over her. Avery must have felt it because she slipped off Mom’s lap and looked at her. The corners of Mom’s mouth turned into a bright smile. “Do you know how much hygienist get paid an hour?” She was practically bouncing in her seat.

“No, I don’t.” I wasn’t sure if cleaning people’s mouths would be a job I’d want to do.

“Twenty-seven to forty-six dollars an hour!”

My mouth flopped open. “Are you serious?”

She stood and placed her hands on my shoulders. “I am, and I’ll work hard so I can give us the life we deserve. I swear to you I will.” She hugged me tightly. “I love you and Avery more than anything. I’ve been a shitty mom. I’ll do my best to make it up to you two.”

I hated to admit it, but I was skeptical. I didn’t believe it. But why then did my eyes filled with tears?


The next morning as I was walking by Avery’s bedroom, I heard her talking. At first, I thought she was reading aloud. I leaned my ear next to her door, smiling at the thought she was reading to her stuffed animals. I used to do that when I was her age and would make up words that I couldn’t read, which resulted in telling my own little story.

“Tell Santa that I want a pink, sparkly bicycle with a white basket in front. Also, a helmet that matches my bike and—”

I opened the door. “Who are you talking to?”

She blinked in surprise and pointed to her left. “I was talking to the elf.” She looked and frowned. “Where did he go?” In a fit of excitement, she jumped to her feet. “He went to the North Pole to tell Santa what I want for Christmas!”

“The elf was talking to you?” I could hear the doubt in my voice. Avery might be taking this whole elf thing a bit far. Then a thought occurred to me, and my heart sank. She was telling this toy elf what she wanted for Christmas, thinking he’d tell Santa, and then on Christmas day, which was two days away, she’d expect to get those presents. When she didn’t, she’d be crushed and think something was wrong with her.

She nodded as if she had a bobblehead on her shoulders. “He did. His name is Mr. Jingles. He still has his magic so you don’t have to give me dollars. You were right!” She laughed and twirled around. “This is going to be the best Christmas ever!”

I stopped her and held her hands in mine. “Avery, please don’t get your hopes up. That elf—”

“Mr. Jingles,” she corrected with a grin. She was missing two front teeth, and her child-like wonder endeared me so that the rough edges in my tone softened.

“Sorry. Mr. Jingles. He may not be reliable enough to get your message sent to Santa Claus.”

“He doesn’t like you,” she confessed. “He told me he didn’t like you because you don’t believe in magic, and he didn’t like the way you looked at him last night.”

I released her hands and laughed. “What?”

“That’s what he told me,” she said, shrugging.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “What did you say?”

“I told him you didn’t mean to upset him, and you’re the best sister ever.”

I hugged her. “Thank you, Munchkin. I love you.” I tickled her side, causing her to giggle and pull away. “Let’s go have some breakfast.”

When we entered the kitchen, I groaned at the mess before us. Flour covered the entire counter, and there were little footprints across it. The cupboard door above was open. The spices and baking ingredients inside were knocked over.

I pointed to the front of the counter, which was also covered in the white powdery stuff. “Did you do this?”

“No, Mr. Jingles did. He was probably going to make us pancakes.”

Mom must have before she went to work early this morning. It made sense. She wanted to entertain Avery, so she made it look like the elf was up to no good.

I sighed. “You’re probably right. Help me clean up his mess, and then I’ll make us some pancakes.”

“Okay.” Avery grabbed a washcloth off the sink while I picked up the torn bag of flour, wondering if this elf on the shelf game was worth the trouble.


“What’s for dinner?” Avery asked Mom. I was at the kitchen table drawing in my sketchbook. I looked up and Mr. Jingles was leaning against the toaster with his arms folded against his chest and his ankles crossed. “I’m hungry,” Avery added.

Mom was unwrapping a pound of hamburger. “Hamburger Helper Cheeseburger Macaroni.”

“Yay! That’s my favorite.”

I turned my attention to Avery and Mom. “Did either one of you put the elf there?”

Mom glanced over her shoulder at me. “Where?”

Avery gasped and looked at Mom. “You’re not supposed to touch him! Pleeeease tell me you didn’t touch him,” she whined.

I pointed to the toaster and then popped out of my seat, nearly falling over. “He was there less than a minute ago.”

WTF?

“Did you touch him?” Avery demanded.

“No,” Mom said.

“Mom, Mr. Jingles was there. I saw him.” Chills broke across my skin. The damn thing was alive. But how could that be? Magic didn’t exist.

“He has a name now?” Mom laughed.

“He told me his name,” Avery said.

My face felt cold from the blood draining from it. The room spun.

“Peyton, are you okay?” Mom asked, concerned. “You look like you’re going to faint.”

I sat back down in the chair and took a drink of water in an attempt to calm myself. I cleared my throat. “That elf is alive.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mom said, turning back to the stove and placing the hamburger on the skillet. A sizzling sound filled the room. “You must have been seeing things.”

“We need to get rid of him.”

“No!” Avery squealed, causing Mom and I to jump. “He’s my friend.”

I left the room with Avery chasing after me, begging me not to get rid of him. To keep the peace, I told her Mom was probably right, that I was seeing things. The elf was fine. No harm would be done to him, even though secretly I was hoping to catch him and see if he was real or not. Because to be honest, I had a hard time wrapping my head around a child’s toy being alive. I needed more evidence and was determined to get it.


“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve,” Avery said to me in a sing-song voice as I tucked her into bed. She yawned and hugged her teddy bear to her chest.

“It is,” I confirmed. “And guess what I did?”

“What?” She kept blinking to force herself to stay awake.

“I bought us matching PJs, soap to make a bubble bath, and hot chocolate we can drink while we watch your favorite Christmas movie we have on tape.”

A sleepy smile crossed her face. “See? I told you this would be the best Christmas ever.”

I kissed her cheek. “Every day is what you make of it.”

She closed her eyes. “I love you, Peyton.”

“I love you, too, Munchkin.”

When I stepped outside her room and softly closed her door, something red and white darted across the hallway into the bathroom.

Mr. Jingles?

My heart raced, and I was suddenly hyper-aware of my surroundings. The carpet felt soft against my bare feet as I slowly edged my way to the bathroom. The sound of the clock ticking in the living room, a car driving down our street, and a dog barking in the distance amplified in my ears.

I should have a weapon, but it was too late. I reached the bathroom, pushed the door open with my foot, reached around the corner, and flicked the light on. There was toilet paper everywhere as if someone deliberately tped the bathroom. A flash of red and white dashed by my feet, stepping on my baby toe.

I hopped up on the other foot and grabbed the injured one. “Ow!”

A car pulled into our driveway. Mom was home. If I showed her the bathroom and told her what I saw, she might believe me. Maybe.

I met her at the front door. She had an arm full of packages that were wrapped in Christmas paper with shiny gold bows perfectly placed on top.

“Help me with these, please.” She unloaded some of them in my arms and went back outside.

“Where do you want me to put these?” I asked when she came back with more presents and a large holiday bag filled with what looked like candy and baked goods.

“The walk-in closet in my bedroom.”

“Where did you get the money for all of these gifts?” We placed them in a dark corner of her closet.

“Since I’ll be quitting Denny’s, my boss was kind enough to allow me to cash in my vacation pay. I used that money to give you and Avery a Christmas you deserve.”

“Wow,” is all I could say, but then I remembered the elf. “I need to show you something.”

“What?” She followed me to the bathroom and gave me a dumbfounded look when she saw it covered in toilet paper. “Did you do this?”

“No.”

“Then who—”

“The elf,” I said in a high whisper, not wanting to wake Avery up. “Mr. Jingles.”

Mom rolled her eyes. “Clean this up. It isn’t funny.”

“Do you see me laughing? I’m not making this shit up. He’s alive.”

“There are better ways to get my attention.”

“What about the disaster you left in the kitchen this morning. I had to clean it up. Thanks a lot. Maybe you should clean this mess.” I knew I was being snotty to her, but I didn’t care.

Her eyebrows pulled together. “What mess?”

I told her about it, and she didn’t know what I was talking about. She seriously didn’t know, which raised the hair on my arms.

“If you didn’t do, then the damn elf did,” I stressed.

She shook her head and raised her hand to shut me up. “I had a long day. I don’t want to hear it. We can spend more time together once I switch jobs and actually have normal working hours.”

I gritted my teeth. “This is not about you not paying attention to me.”

“Whatever.” She walked away, leaving me to clean up the bathroom and wondering what the hell I was going to do.

That night I slept with my light on and didn’t see Mr. Jingles. I thought I heard him a couple of times and was jarred awake. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep and was looking forward to Christmas being over with.


Avery came out of the bathroom, wet hair combed, and in her Cat in The Hat PJS, the same ones I had on. She sat on the couch beside me smelling like lavender from the bubble bath she just had. I took mine first so I could prepare everything while she was washing up. Mom had popped popcorn on the stove and poured melted butter on it, then salted the batch. A big bowl of it was on the coffee table, along with the hot chocolate I made for all three of us.

“I feel left out,” Mom said, standing in the middle of the room, eyeing our PJs.

Guilt tugged at my heart. I should have bought her one as well, but to be honest, I didn’t want to spend the money. It was my car fund money and at the time I wasn’t sure if she’d even be home on Christmas Eve.

“Sorry, Mom,” I said. “I didn’t have enough cash on me.”

She waved it off as if it was no big deal. “It’s okay. I’ll go put my own pajamas on. Don’t start the movie without me.”

“We won’t,” Avery said.

I gingerly handed a cup of hot chocolate to her. “Be careful. It’s hot.” She held it with both hands and slowly sipped it. “Mmmm, this is super yummy.”

I took a sip of mine. The hot chocolatey taste coated my tongue and mouth in a delightfully smooth texture that had me making pleasurable sounds as well. I bought this hot chocolate at a specialty shop and paid more than I wanted to, but now I was glad I did. It was totally worth it.

“What movie are we watching?” Mom asked, wearing her flannel Snoopy PJs.

Avery laughed. “You know what we’re watching, silly.”

Mom playfully slapped her forehead. “How could I forget? We’re watching The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”

“Duh!” Avery said, making me laugh.

Mom slipped the VCR tape in and sat beside me. I handed a mug to her, and when she tried the hot chocolate, she closed her eyes and made the same yummy sounds we did. Yup, it was worth spending the extra money for this treat.

After we watched the cartoon, which was only a half-hour long, we then watched Home Alone. Both Avery and Mom fell asleep towards the end. I told them to both go to bed, I’d clean up. Mom thanked me, kissed our cheeks and headed to her room. I tucked Avery in who basically slept walked to her bed. While I was in the hallway, I heard some movement in the kitchen. Mom must have decided to get a drink . . . or, wait. We needed to put the presents out. I totally had forgotten about it.

Shit!

When I entered the kitchen, Mr. Jingles was standing on the counter, up to some mischief I was sure. His blues eyes widened in surprise.

I pointed to him. “You! How can you be real?” My brain shifted out of place, then back again. I was rooted in my spot, unable to move. My pulse throbbed on the side of my neck.

His expression turned hateful. His mouth opened, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.

“I can’t believe you’re real and why you hate me so much,” I said. When I moved forward to go grab him, he ran and jumped off the counter.

Mom let out a little yelp.

“Mom?”

“I think we have a mouse in our house,” Mom said as she entered the kitchen from the south side of the house.

“It’s not a mouse. It’s that damn elf! Where did he go?” I moved passed her, and she grabbed my arm, stopping me.

“Please not tonight, Peyton. We need to get the presents out so Avery will have a wonderful day tomorrow.”

“Fine.” She was right. I needed to think of Avery first. Maybe the elf will leave us alone and disappear in the morning. One could only hope. But I knew I was going to sleep with my light on again, and if I saw Mr. Jingles, I’d do my best to catch him.

After two hours of setting everything up around our Charlie Brown tree, I was exhausted. Everything looked amazing compared to our normal Salvation Army and Dollar Tree gifts. I was actually excited and was looking forward to Christmas. Mom was even going to make her homemade lasagna for Christmas dinner.

I said goodnight to her and went to bed. I kept the light on but was unable to stay awake. Hours later I was jarred out of sleep when something crashed across my bedroom where my desk was. I sat up and blinked several times to adjust my vision. Mr. Jingles was standing on my desk, intently watching me. He didn’t have a hateful look on his face like he had earlier, but his expression was questionable. I wanted to get out of bed and catch him, but I knew he’d be too fast.

“What do you want?”

He jumped off the desk. The quick pitter-patter of his feet, heading towards my bed, had me looking in that direction. Then the edge of my blanket tugged away from me.

“Quit!” I yanked it back. The next thing I knew, Mr. Jingles was right in front of me. I slapped a hand on my chest and shrank back. His eyes were blazing with anger. “What? What did I do wrong?”

“You don’t believe in magic,” he said in a raspy voice. “People like you are what makes it difficult for magical beings like myself to be seen by others. We can’t do our jobs when there are too many skeptics in this world!”

“I used to believe,” I confessed. “But I stopped once I got tired of being let down by myself and others.”

“Never stop believing,” he said, his expression softening. “You too have magic within you.”

“There you are!” I looked up and there standing in my doorway was Santa Claus. No shit. I couldn’t believe it. “We’ve been looking all over for you.” He entered my room and plucked Mr. Jingles off my bed. He pulled his other hand out of his pocket and handed me a bar wrapped in blue and gold paper. “Here you go, Peyton. Mrs. Claus makes these chocolate bars every Christmas. Enjoy.” When he smiled, the corners of his kind blue eyes crinkled. Then he and Mr. Jingles vanished, leaving me speechless.

“Omigod!” Avery squealed, causing me to bolt off my bed.

I ran to the living room, my heart racing. “What’s wrong.” I stopped when I entered the room. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a huge Christmas tree with twinkling lights and pretty ornaments. Beneath it was shiny and colorful presents that I didn’t recognize. Avery was petting the sparkly pink bike she told Mr. Jingles she wanted.

“Wow,” I said. “There is magic in this world. You just have to believe.”

“I believed enough for the both of us,” Avery said, hugging my side. “I told you this would be the best Christmas ever.”

She was right, but not because of the material items in front of us. It was because we were taught to believe good things could happen if you had a positive attitude, if you believed in yourself, and believed you could create the life you wanted like Mom was now finally going to do.

That was the greatest gift ever.

No material possession could ever top it.

I hugged Avery back. “You were right, Munchkin. You were definitely right.”

THE END

Rebekkah Ford is an award-winning author who writes paranormal romance and fantasy novels. When her parents were married, they were the directors of the UFO Investigators League, they also had taken on some paranormal cases as well. The way Rebekkah grew up aids her in her paranormal storytelling and probably the reason why she’s fascinated with the unknown.

Rebekkah is also a blogger and freelance writer. She writes versatile and in-depth articles on various topics.

Fun Fact: Rebekkah and her husband converted a cargo van into a camper and plans to travel the U.S. full-time, writing and videotaping their journey as digital nomads. Rebekkah is not only an author, but she’s also an explorer in search of adventure, new discoveries, and to live life minimally and deliberately. She’s a YouTuber (Dare to Live channel) and believes we weren’t born to just pay bills and die. The core message on her and her husband’s channel and website (Exploring Rabbit Holes) is FREEDOM.

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Christmas Takeover 20: Joanna Koch: Santa’s Eyeball

Santa’s Eyeball

A Story by Jaonna Koch
1,592 words

Lily looked at her eggs. The eggs looked back.

They shook when he laughed…

Her brothers thundered down the stairs. Two eggs sunny side up jiggled at Lily in time with the twins’ festive descent. They looked at her like yellow googly eyes on a slimy white face.

“I’m going to ride the Polar Whirlwind ten times!”

“No way. You have to take Lily on the Baby Reindeer Sleigh.”

“Mom, don’t make me waste my allowance on kiddie rides with her!”

“She still believes in Santa Claus, don’t you, Lily?”

The table rattled as the twins cavorted into their chairs. Two viscous aureoles accused Lily, unblinking.

He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows… he knows

“No I don’t.” Lily stabbed one of the eyes on her plate to stop the wiggling. “I’m not a baby, either.” The dry crust of triangular toast burst open an invisible membrane holding back the quivering yolk. Gelatinous gold spread out and left a white crater of empty albumin. Lily gouged the second eye and smiled in triumph at the leaky sockets.

You better not cry, she thought and stuck out her tongue at her runny eggs, and then at her brothers for good measure.

Sadie, their mom, sat down with a fresh cup of coffee. “I feel so bad for poor old Santa when you kids rag on him like that. I’m just glad your father and I aren’t the ones getting bags of coal this year. We still believe in him, don’t we?”

Her husband failed to transition from phone to family. The twins sniggered. Sadie covered his confused silence with a helpful prompt. “We believe in Santa like reasonable people, don’t we, Jim?”

Jim caught on. “Oh, yeah. Heck yeah.”

“I suppose we don’t need to drag a bunch of mean-spirited doubters all the way to Elf Land for nothing. Let’s drop the kids at my sister’s. We’ll have Santa all to ourselves.”

Lily was thrilled. She dreaded seeing Santa every year. It was bad enough how he was always watching, making lists, and checking them twice with invisible, omniscient eyes. Face to face with him she felt terrified and exposed.

“Well, hot dog, that sounds like a date.” Jim winked at his wife. “Just you and me, out on the town. Grown-ups only.”

Scandalized, the twins abandoned their pessimistic stance.

“I believe in Santa. I never said I didn’t!”

“Lily’s the one who said it. Please, please, take us with you.”

Lily disdained their fickle shift. She knew they were lying. Worse, they were ruing her chance to escape Santa. Lily’s mom noticed her silence and conspired behind her coffee cup while Jim fielded the twins’ uproar. “You don’t have to pretend you don’t believe in Santa Claus, hon. Look at those boys. You’re more grown up than the two of them put together no matter what. Why don’t you finish your breakfast and put on your pretty new dress?”

Lily’s nibbled crusts stuck in the thick ochre sludge. “I’m not really hungry.”

“Okay, hon. Did you want some more juice?”

“No, thank you,” Lily said, and took her plate and silverware to the sink. She was a big girl, not a baby. She didn’t need her mom to clean up after her. And she had a plan for that miniature fruit fork she snatched from the table without anyone noticing. It would fit in her pocket perfectly after she washed and dried it.

You better watch out, you better not cry

Lily hummed the song as hot water melted the remains of coagulated eggs off her plate. She believed in Santa Claus, all right. She took the fork to her room and got ready to meet him.


Lily was glad she didn’t let her family drag her to Elf Land unarmed. The place was crawling with people, swarming like someone stepped on an ant hill that erupted with people instead of ants. People of all shapes and sizes, wearing jolly dazed smiles, red and white hats with clattering bells, jingle-jangling earrings and bracelets, and a wide variety of abhorrent crocheted tops. The Helpers, as management insisted they refer to the staff, practically danced with jauntiness and insistent grins as they performed servile, repetitive tasks.

The whole place trilled with holiday gaiety. Except for that one elf.

At least, Lily thought he must be an elf. He wore the green boots with toes that curled up on the ends and the askew pointed green cap. But he didn’t dance. He skulked. Lily kept catching him smiling strangely at her. Not the normal, vacuous smile of a Helper or guest; an oily, slippery leer. She’d spy him looking at her, turn to tell her mother, and when she turned again, he was gone.

“Of course people are looking at you, honey. You’re the most beautiful girl here.” Sadie held her daughter’s hand and followed the map to meet Santa. She stopped short. They couldn’t even see the photo booth from where they stood at the back of the line. “Oh, my. Look at all this.”

“I don’t really want to see Santa. It’s okay if you don’t want to wait, mom.”

“Nonsense!”

“I’m not a baby anymore.”

“That’s true, honey. You’re growing up so fast.” Sadie smoothed the irritation out of her voice. She wondered why they didn’t have multiple Santas to get the job done more efficiently. The kids would never know. The photo booth was private anyway. “Let’s get your picture with Santa this one last time, okay? You look so pretty in your new dress. I bet if you tell him exactly what you want, you’ll get it, too.”

Lily checked her pocket for the fruit fork with her free hand. She nodded up at her mother. She was rewarded with a warm smile.

Lily loved her mother’s smile.

Hours seemed to pass. The line moved like a river of mud. Tinsel laughter trickled from the shore while the line lagged. The suspicious elf slipped in and out of the crowd like an eel. Lily glimpsed him more often as they moved to the head of the line. When it was Lily’s turn to enter Santa’s private quarters, the eel-elf stepped up and took her hand to lead her inside.

Lily held on to her mother. The elf grinned furiously. His lukewarm hand tugged on her like a moist rope.

Sadie tried to shake Lily loose. “Go ahead, honey. Don’t be scared.”

A burly man stepped out of line several paces back. “Look lady, if you can’t control your kid, mine is more than willing to–”

“Excuse you.” Lily’s mom shot the man a stern glare. “Be patient. These are our children. We each wait our turn.”

“Lady, I been being patient, and all I’m saying is your kid better move it or lose it.”

Murmurs and nods rippled down the line.

“I’m not scared.” Lily didn’t like the man making her mom a target. She let go and slid through the heavy curtains into Santa’s chamber. She fingered the fruit fork pressed in her pocket.

Inside, the photo booth spun with fake snow, walls decked in red and white stripes, and a huge tree with multicolored lights. Silence sparkled. The angry crowd echoes didn’t pass through the curtains. Lily heard the sound of real snow outside, the tiny chitter of ice hitting the roof.

In the center, Santa sat on a white and gold throne. The oily elf led Lily near. She forgot about his soft, damp fingers and peekaboo leer. Santa looked like a sleeping mountain. Never had Lily met a man of such girth. The elf gestured toward the mountain’s lap. Lily thought the figure might be a giant plush statue. It wasn’t until she clambered up that she noticed the sonorous suggestion of a snore.

Santa glowed and pulsed. His suite was more viscous than velvet. Round red baubles rolled from his pockets as Lily upset his stasis. They clung like anemones and drained away color where they stuck. Feeling her breath go black and white, Lily gasped. Baubles bound her to Santa’s lap.

The oily elf slithered behind the camera, his spindly stockings completing the points of a pentagram with the legs of the tripod. He cloaked his head under the back of the box and held up a flash tray set to ignite. “Smile.”

Lily frowned.

“You better not pout.”

Without further warning, the eel-like elf triggered the flash. A pyrotechnic blast blinded Lily for an instant. While she recovered her vision, all the round ornaments on the tree winked open and watched. The red anemones rolled upward and gaped. Santa sputtered and blinked. He bubbled and chortled with glee, one eye crusted shut with gluey magma. His good eye opened and shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.

He laughed and laughed at Lily’s scowl. The bulging globe juddered loosely in the socket as he shook. Lily bounced on his lap, not amused. Santa’s hilarity escalated to tears. His eyeball streamed with thick, yellow rheum. Lily spit the ichor away as it spattered her face and dress.

She grabbed the fork from her pocket. The orb wiggled free, lidless and sticky, trailing an elastic optic nerve. The liquid-coated membrane of Santa’s eyeball touched Lily’s cheek.

The eyeball crawled up and squished against her eye, rolling around her iris like it was trying to get inside. Lily saw the world inverted through the back of the foreign lens.

She plunged the fork, fast and deep.

Author Joanna Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Her short fiction has been published in journals and anthologies such as Synth, Honey & Sulphur, and In Darkness Delight: Masters of Midnight. Look for her novella, The Couvade, coming soon. Consumer her monstrous musings at Horrorsong.

The compromise to do specific projects without giving up your own editing business seems wise, but only if it pays well enough and gives you a credential to flout. Then again, if you’re making it work now and living comfortably, why give up autonomy? A difficult decision. Do you mind my asking what horror authors I might be familiar with who you’ve edited for? Yes, I’m shopping a little bit. May want to try getting together a collection in the next year or two.

The Couvade

Christmas Takeover 19: Scott M. Baker: Deck the Malls with Bowels of Holly

Deck the Malls with Bowels of Holly

A Story by Scott M. Baker
5,301 words

No one expected to see Santa Claus leaning against the mall’s dumpster, puffing on a cheap cigar he held in one hand while taking a swig of whiskey from a 200 ml bottle of Jack Daniels clutched in the other. A bleached-blonde soccer mom decked out in a fur-trimmed leather jacket drove past in her Mercedes SUV, covering her daughter’s eyes so the little girl could not see while flashing him a look that was equal parts haughtiness and disillusionment. Jack placed the cigar between his teeth and used his free hand to tip his Santa’s hat to her. The soccer mom crinkled her face in disgust and sped away.

Jack placed the Santa hat back on his head and removed the cigar from between his teeth, but not before taking a deep puff. He blew the smoke in the direction the soccer mom had driven off. To Hell with her. Jack had met a lot of people like that in his life, the pampered elite who were arrogant and judgmental. To them, hardship was when the local wine shop ran out of brie. Let them live his life, and then we’d see how well they made out.

Four years ago he never would have guessed his life would have turned out like this. As a major in the Special Forces, he was a few years shy of putting in his twenty and cashing in on an early retirement when an IED outside of Baghdad went off next to his Humvee, shattering his right leg. A year of therapy left him with a limp and an addiction to pain meds, both of which earned him a discharge from the Army. He broke his addiction to the pills by climbing into a whiskey bottle, and spent the better part of the next two years bouncing in and out of rehab until he finally got his life into some semblance of order. By then, his resume and reputation left much to be desired. He was forced to take any odd job he could get, which was how he wound up as the mall Santa. At least he made enough to pay the rent on his run-down studio apartment, even if it meant he had to take a few shots of whiskey every now and then to dull the pain in his leg from having whiny little brats sit on and kick it all day.

Jack took another swig of whiskey before replacing the cap and sliding the bottle into the fur-trimmed pocket of his Santa suit. He shifted the padding in his pants and jacket, grateful that he needed padding. It would have sucked if the mall hired him merely because he filled the suit. He might have a little more around the waist than he wanted, but other than that he was in good physical shape

The door to the employee entrance opened. Jack grabbed his cigar and prepared to toss it into the dumpster, afraid it might be Bert, the megalomaniacal security guard who ran his mall like a third-rate dictatorship. Thankfully, his friend Sammy stepped out. Sammy worked at the Christmas Village ushering kids to and from Santa. He had a way with kids. They related to him, mostly because Sammy was a midget. A little person, Jack corrected himself. Too bad mall management wasn’t as sensitive. The Ice Princess dressed Sammy in an elf costume and paraded him around the display like he was one of the decorations. Though Sammy never admitted it, he was humiliated by the treatment, and probably would have quit if he could have found work elsewhere.

Sammy pointed to Jack’s cigar. “Those’ll stunt your growth.”

“How many did you smoke as a kid?”

“Ha ha,” Sammy replied good-naturedly. “I’m surprised you haven’t taken over for Jimmy Fallon yet.”

Sammy leaned against the dumpster, yanked off his elf cap, and wiped his palm across his forehead. It glistened with sweat.

“Are you okay?” asked Jack.

“I’m running a fever and feel like crap. I think I got an infection from one of the reindeer.”

“When?”

“Earlier this morning. The big one with the antlers is a mean bastard. It bit me and the other reindeer in the pen.” To emphasize his point, Sammy shoved up his sleeve and pulled aside a large white bandage stained with blood. Underneath sat a nasty-looking bite that cut deep into the skin. Yellow pus oozed from around the edges. Bluish-black skin surrounded the wound, which gave off the sickeningly-sweet odor of rot.

“That looks serious. You need to get to the emergency room.”

“Not until after my shift.” Sammy replaced the bandage and pulled down his sleeve. “If I leave now, the Ice Princess will can my ass for sure.”

Jack wanted to argue, but he knew Sammy was right. The Ice Princess, their less-than-affectionate nickname for Holly Landers, the mall manager, showed nothing but contempt for those under her, Sammy in particular. If he left early to go to the hospital, she probably would use it as an excuse to fire him.

“There’s only a few hours left to the shift. Try to stick it out. But if you get worse, you got to promise me you’ll take off early and head to the hospital.”

“If I get any worse you’ll be picking me up off the floor.”

“Where did they get vicious reindeer?”

Sammy leaned against the dumpster for support. “I overheard the Ice Princess telling Bert she got a good deal on them from a farm up state. I know now why she got them so cheap.”

The back door opened again. This time Meghan appeared. She was the Christmas Village photographer, a young woman in her mid-twenties with shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair. Jack could not help but notice how sexy she looked in her green mini-skirt elf costume and red nylons. She refused to wear the pointy shoes with bells on the toes and opted instead for black heels, which the Ice Princess accepted once she discovered that the slightly-fetish look brought more fathers to Christmas Village and, by consequence, more money.

Meghan greeted them with a smile warm enough to melt snow. “I hate to bother you, but Miss Landers is hanging around the village asking where you guys are.”

“What a…” Jack checked himself, not wanting to swear around Meghan.

“Don’t worry. I told her you just gone on break. She’ll never be the wiser.”

“Thanks. We’ll be there in a minute.”

Meghan flashed Jack a flirtatious grin and headed back inside. He watched her behind as it jiggled beneath the elf skirt, wishing he was twenty years younger. Jack tapped his half-smoked cigar against the dumpster several time to make sure all the loose ash fell off, and then slid it into a carrying case he kept in his pants pocket.

He turned to Sammy. “Ready?”

Sammy pushed himself off the dumpster and staggered to the door. “I feel like I’m gonna puke.”

“If you do, just tell the kids it’s eggnog.”

As the two approached Christmas Village, Jack admired the work that had gone into organizing the display. The village filled the first floor atrium across from the main entrance, nestled up against the glass-enclosed elevators that led to the second-level food court. His throne, an old preacher’s chair, sat atop a raised platform covered with fake snow. To the left stood a fifteen-foot live Christmas tree strung with colored lights and decorated with large red and green glass ornaments. To the right, a propane tank fed the flames behind faux logs in a fireplace. Curved metal poles painted to look like candy canes and linked together by a garland-wrapped chain prevented the kids from getting too close to the fireplace. Directly opposite the platform on the other side of the atrium sat a plastic igloo and half a dozen animatronic penguins, which had nothing to do with Christmas but did cash in on everyone’s love of penguins. To the right of the village, a maze of velvet ropes herded nearly twenty kids and their parents who patiently waited for Santa. Off to the left stood the pen holding the five reindeer, a twenty-foot square area closed off by a heavy log fence. The buck with the large antlers stood near the front of the pen, swaying unsteadily. Behind it, four does walked around lethargically. Jack knew nothing about animals, but even he could tell they were not feeling good.

What upset him more than the condition of the reindeer was the presence of the Ice Princess. She stood with Meghan by the camera, arms tightly folded across her chest, her frosty glare fixed on the two men. Dressed in a dark pants suit and sporting a short, professional hair style, she might have been passably attractive if her face wasn’t frozen in a perpetual frown. As Jack and Sammy approached, she stepped over to confront them.

“Where were you two?” she huffed through the clenched teeth of her forced smile.

“Taking our break.” Jack tried to sound as disarming as possible.

“You’re entitled to fifteen minutes. You were gone for nearly twenty.” The Ice Princess leaned forward and sniffed. She grimaced. “What’s that smell?”

“Cigar smoke.”

“That suit’s coming out of your paycheck if we can’t get the stink out of it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

At that moment, Bert pulled up on his Segway. He skidded to a halt by the group, the sudden stop causing the beer belly that strained against his uniform shirt to jiggle like a bowl full of Jell-O. “You wanted to see me, Holly?”

“That’s Miss Landers, to you.”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

“I don’t want to give the parents any reason to file a lawsuit against the mall, so guard those unruly beasts and make sure they don’t bite anyone.”

Bert grinned, revealing a mouth full of yellow teeth. “I assume you mean the reindeer, and not Santa and his elf.”

“Ha. Ha.” This time, Sammy did not sound amused. “Did your mother tell you that joke was funny?”

The smile drained from Bert’s face. “Blow me, Munchkin.”

“That’s what I said to your mother last night.”

“Enough,” the Ice Princess hissed through clenched teeth. “Just get back to work. All of you.”

Bert sneered at Sammy before whipping his Segway around and driving over to stand guard by the reindeer pen. Jack and Sammy headed for the platform. They were greeted by a round of cheers and applause by their young fans. Jack bellowed a hearty “Ho, ho, ho” and waved. A minute later, seated in his chair, Sammy ushered over to him a six-year-old with auburn locks who beamed as she approached.

The next fifteen minutes passed without incident. The Ice Princess hung around, keeping a watchful and distrustful eye on Jack and Sammy when not telling Meghan how to take photos. Bert circled back and forth in front of the reindeer pen as if guarding a federal penitentiary. Jack had finished talking to a boy who requested the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto and Sammy was ushering him away all Hell broke loose.

The buck let out an anguished mewl and toppled over, its head twisted on the floor at an obscene angle, black fluid leaking from its mouth. The does backed away, moving to the corner to get as far away as possible. Bert jumped off his Segway and raced over to the gate, unlatched it, and entered the pen. He knelt down beside the carcass and placed a hand against its neck.

Sensing a growing uneasiness among the children and parents still waiting in line, Jack tried to take control and calm everyone down. He stood up, held his belly, and forced a hearty laugh.

“Ho, ho, ho. Nothing to worry about, kids. My reindeer is tired after pulling my sleigh. He’s just taking a nap.”

“Nope,” Bert blurted out loud enough for everyone to hear. “It’s dead.”

Parents gasped and children cried. One little girl looked up at her mother, her lips quivering as she asked if Rudolph would be okay.

“No, no, no.” Jack waved his hands dismissively. “He’s just joking. My reindeer is resting, that’s all.”

“He’s right,” said the young mother to the little girl who had asked if Rudolph would be okay. She pointed to the pen. “See. The reindeer’s moving.”

Jack turned to look. Sure enough, the buck’s legs spasmed, lightly at first, then more forcefully. It flopped around for a second before struggling to its feet, eventually standing upright on wobbly legs. Bert moved away a few feet to give it room to maneuver, backing up against the pen.

The Ice Princess stepped up to the outer side of the pen. “You idiot. I thought you said that thing was dead.”

“It was. It didn’t have a pulse and was cold to the tou—“

The buck spun its head toward Bert, attracted by the sound of his voice. The once dark brown eyes were now light gray and lifeless. It bared its teeth, snarled, and lunged. Before Bert could react, the buck latched its mouth over his face and bit deep, stopping only when its teeth ground into his skull. It tugged at the flesh. Blood spurted from around the reindeer’s teeth and poured from its mouth. Bert howled, as much in terror as in pain, most of his cries muffled down the reindeer’s throat.

Some of the parents already had scooped up their children and were dashing for the safety of the mall entrance. Most stood motionless from shock, too transfixed by the sight to move. Jack had no idea what was going on, although he knew enough to realize they all were in danger.

“Sammy!” he yelled. “Get these people out of here!”

“S-ure th-thing.” Sammy turned to the crowd gathered behind him in the rope maze and shuffled toward them. He took two steps, wobbled, and fell forward. His face made a horrible crack as it hit the floor.

Before Jack could react, the sound of more bodies dropping to the floor caught his attention. He turned to the pen as the four does, all of which had been bitten by the buck, collapsed one at a time.

Meghan took control of the situation, racing up to the maze full of parents and children. She clapped her hands in the air to get their attention.

“You have to get out of here now. Please move in an orderly manner toward—“

No one waited for Meghan to finish. Shock gave way to universal panic as everyone rushed for the exit at the same time. Children were knocked down. Parents tripped over the velvet ropes, collapsing the maze, which caused even more people to get entangled. Meghan tried to maintain order, but no one would listen.

Jack ripped off his beard and Santa’s cap, and began stripping out of his padded jacket. Shit, he thought to himself. This can’t get much worse.

He had no idea how wrong he was.

The Ice Princess leaned over the pen and pulled the can of pepper spray from Bert’s belt just as the buck yanked its head back. Bert’s skin slid off his skull like a mask. He fell to the ground and placed his hands over his face, whimpering into the palms. Blood gushed between his fingers. As Bert rolled around in agony, the buck chewed the skin and swallowed. Bits of flesh and gore dangled from its jaw.

“Don’t screw with me and my mall, fleabag.” Leaning over the pen, the Ice Princess raised the can of pepper spray and squirted a stream directly into the buck’s face. It mewled in pain and thrashed around, shaking its head wildly to get rid of the liquid. When it finally stopped, the buck fixed its gaze on the Ice Princess and sneered.

“Oh, shit!” She took a step backward as the buck lunged, slamming into the pen. The top log flew off, hitting her in the chest with a loud crack and knocking her backwards. She cried out. Putting pressure on her broken ribs, she struggled to get to her feet, wincing in agony with every move. The buck used its front hoofs to knock down the last remaining logs, clearing a path for it to escape.

“Holly, look out!” screamed Jack. Before he could react, a moaning to his left caught his attention. He looked to the base of the platform as Sammy got to his feet, looking dazed and disoriented.

“How ya doing, buddy?”

Sammy spun around to face Jack, focusing on him with dead gray eyes. He raced up the steps of the platform, snarling, his tiny arms reaching out for his meal. Jack waited until Sammy got to within a few feet before kicking out with his right leg, catching the zombie elf in the chest. Bolts of pain shot up his leg, the damaged nerves from his war wound protesting the action. The force of the blow sent Sammy reeling off the platform. He slammed into the floor and slid for several feet, coming to a rest only when he crashed into the overturned rope maze.

Jack looked around for a weapon, but Christmas Village was not what one would consider an armed compound. He finally spotted something he could use. Rushing over to the fireplace, Jack disconnected the chain from one of the metal poles painted like a candy cane and tried to pull it out of the platform. The pole moved only an inch or two. Jack twisted it to loosen the mounting, pausing when he heard snarling again. Sammy staggered back to his feet and raced across the atrium toward him. Jack yanked hard on the pole. It gave a little. He yanked again, this time with all his strength, and the pole broke free. Jack stepped aside and held the candy cane like a baseball bat.

When Sammy came within range, Jack swung the candy cane. It connected with the side of Sammy’s head with a loud crack. His friend spun around and tumbled back down the stairs, rolling head over heels twice before flopping to the ground. The body barely slid to a stop before Sammy started to get back up.

Shit, thought Jack, this was going to tougher than I thought. Shifting the candy cane in his hands, he brandished it by his side as if it were a rifle with a bayonet. Sammy already was half way up the stairs and gaining speed. Jack pulled his arms back.

“Sorry, Sammy.”

As his friend closed to within a few feet, Jack thrust his arms forward, aiming the end of the candy cane right at Sammy’s forehead. The metal end easily punched its way through the skull, scrambling his brain. Sammy twitched on the end of the candy cane for several seconds before going limp. His lids closed over the lifeless eyes. His snarling features softened, finally at peace.

A female scream echoed throughout the atrium. Jack spun around, afraid the cry came from Meghan. Thankfully, he saw her standing at the far end of the village by the penguin display, ushering the last of the terrified parents toward the mall entrance.

The scream had come from the Ice Princess. After being knocked down by the buck, she had gotten to her feet. The buck charged, bowing its head and plunging its antlers into her abdomen. It repeatedly twisted its head from side to side, goring the Ice Princess with all the dexterity of someone using a chain saw on a piñata. She pounded futilely on its head and antlers until her screams became a gurgle. With a strained cough, she spat blood from her mouth and her body went limp. The buck flipped its head, throwing aside the disemboweled mall manager and leaving a five-foot length of intestine and a ruptured stomach dangling off its antlers. Holly’s body hit the floor with a sickening squish. The buck stepped over to her, put its head inside the gouged-out cavity, and started to feed.

Only then did Jack notice that the four does also had risen and were exiting the pen looking for food. The clamor of panicking mall patrons bunched up near the entrance caught their attention. As one, the four reindeer moved off in that direction.

What could have been a slaughter was averted when Meghan spotted the does heading for the entrance. She grabbed one of the animatronic penguins and flung it at the first reindeer, clipping it on the side of the head. It distracted them, but now their attention was focused on her. The four does attacked. Meghan ran for the penguin display, dove to the ground, and scampered on hands and knees into the igloo just as the does reached her. The creatures kicked and head butted the igloo, their snarls drowned out only by Meghan’s cries for help. Being made of thick plastic, the igloo afforded some protection, but for a minute at best. Already chunks of plastic were being torn off by the onslaught.

Jack quickly assessed the situation. He stood exposed here on top of the platform, but as of yet none of the reindeer had noticed him. That was his sole advantage. There was no way he could take on all five of them with a metal candy cane. And he couldn’t waste time trying to find another weapon because Meghan would be zombie reindeer chow long before he got back. So he could either fight a futile, hopeless battle or….

What was he thinking? There was no “or”. He couldn’t leave Meghan and the remaining mall patrons to be devoured by these Christmas nightmares. Running was not an option.

Jack had only one chance, as ridiculously slim as it seemed. Running over to the fireplace, he placed the candy cane on the ground and removed the rear panel to the fireplace, exposing the propane tank. The meter indicated it was more than half full. He wished it could have been more, but this would have to do. He closed the valve on the propane tank, disconnected it, and placed it at his feet. Reaching into his pants pocket, he rummaged around until he found his cigar case, pulled it out, withdrew the cigar, and placed it between his lips.

“Hey, walking wall mounts.”

Five sets of dead eyes turned toward Jack on top of the platform. Jack lit a match and placed it against the tip of the cigar, puffing until the end glowed red. He flicked out the match and tossed it aside.

“It’s time to play some reindeer games.”

The five zombie reindeer let out a collective howl and charged, covering several feet in a matter of seconds. Shit, Jack thought. Fast zombies suck. Grabbing the propane tank and the candy cane, he jumped off the rear of the platform and raced for the bank of glass-enclosed elevators. Behind him, he heard the creatures crashing their way up the front slope of the platform. As he circled around to the elevators and slammed his finger against the UP button, he prayed that at least one of the cars was on the first floor. Thankfully, the doors on the far left slid open.

The buck topped the platform first and slid down the back slope. Jack ducked into the elevator, dropping everything onto the floor and turning to the control panel. He pressed one thumb each against the second floor and CLOSE buttons, jabbing repeatedly. Nothing happened. As Jack watched, the buck reached the floor and looked around, finally spying him. It snarled and rushed toward him, with the does close on his hooves. Just then the doors began their interminably slow slide shut. Jack didn’t know if he would make it. He shoved his thumbs even harder against the buttons and braced himself to be mauled. Thankfully, the doors closed enough that the buck’s antlers slammed against the outside surface, preventing it from getting its head inside. It spat at Jack, filling the interior with the stench of death. The car jerked and traveled up to the second floor.

When the elevator came to a stop, Jack waited until the doors opened before pulling out the EMERGENCY STOP button. Working quickly, he used the end of the candy cane to knock aside the access panel in the elevator’s roof, pushing it aside to clear the opening. He then placed the propane tank in the raer corner of the car and turned the valve to the ON position. Gas hissed into the interior. Stepping to the control panel, Jack pushed in the EMERGENCY STOP button, pressed the button for the first floor, and stepped out. A few seconds later, the doors slid shut and the elevator began its descent. As it did, he wedged the end of the candy cane between the joints of the doors and pried them apart enough for him to reach in with his hands and open them all the way. He leaned out to watch as the elevator stopped on the first floor and listened as the doors slid open. It sounded like a stampede when the five zombie reindeer rushed inside, thrashing around as they searched for their prey. The buck glanced up, catching sight of Jack in the open doorway above. It growled and raised itself on its hind legs as if wanting to climb out and get Jack.

“Ho. Ho. Ho.”

On the last “Ho,” Jack puffed on the cigar and then flicked it down the shaft. It arched through the air like a tiny comet before disappearing through the access hatch.

A moment later, a fireball mushroomed through the hatch as the propane ignited, incinerating the zombie reindeer. Jack dropped to the ground and covered his head as the tank erupted. The floor beneath him shook. The explosion took the path of least resistance, shattering the glass walls into a million shards and venting a fireball out across Christmas Village, ripping Santa’s chair into kindling and blasting apart the giant Christmas tree.

Jack got to his feet and stepped over to the railing, surveying the carnage. All that remained of the platform was the metal struts of its base. The rest lay scattered across the area, pieces of wood and particle board mixed in with charred chunks of zombie reindeer. Pine needles, pieces of wrapping paper, and shattered fragments of ornaments rained down. Except for the settling debris and the crackling of a few scattered fires, everything was pleasantly quiet. Not a creature was stirring, he thought.

Jack suddenly remembered that Meghan was still down there. Running to the stairs opposite the elevators, he rushed down them two at a time, careful not to slip on the holiday flotsam. Below him was the igloo, shredded from the blast and partially melted. There was no way she could have survived that. Even so, he rushed over to the penguin display and dropped to his knees.

“God, Meghan. I’m so sorry.”

Jack flipped over the igloo, surprised to find nothing underneath it.

“Sorry about what?” The sexy voice came from behind him.

Jack looked over his shoulder. Meghan stood three feet behind him.

“Aren’t you dead?” he asked.

Meghan placed both hands on her hips and rested all her weight on her right leg, striking a pose that looked all the more erotic in her short elf skirt. “Normally this would sound like a stupid question, but do I look dead?”

“No.” Jack stood up and took Meghan in his arms, hugging her tightly against him, or at least as tightly as the padded pants would allow. “How’d you survive the blast?”

“When I saw you leading those things away with the propane tank, I knew nothing good could come of it, so I headed for better cover.”

“Thank God you did.” Jack broke the hug, but kept one arm wrapped around Meghan’s waist. He was happy to see that she didn’t protest. The couple headed for the mall entrance.

“You know,” she said. “Since you saved my life, you get to buy me dinner.”

“It’s a date. What would you like?”

“I could go for a nice steak.”

“Great. I know a place that serves venison.”

Meghan wrapped her arm around Jack’s. “Maybe we should go for pizza instead.”

Clint stopped the ambulance a few yards from mall’s main entrance, fighting back a sense of uncertainty about what they would find. The initial dispatch had been unusually vague, saying something about reindeer beating people at a Christmas display, although Kevin swore the dispatcher had said “eating.” Not that neither one made any sense. In any case, it sounded more like a situation for animal control rather than EMTs, and Clint had said as much, only to be ordered to get to the mall pronto. Of course, arriving in time to see swarms of terrified shoppers shoving their way through the exit and scattering across the parking lot did not help assuage his uneasiness. Panicked crowds were never a good sign.

Jumping out of the ambulance and grabbing their gear, Clint and Kevin rushed into the mall. They had to push their way past a couple strolling out arm-in-arm, the man wearing padded Santa pants and the young strawberry blonde dressed in very risqué elf costume. Clint thought it unusual that, amidst the frenzied exodus, these two seemed not to be concerned.

Kevin, on the other hand, noticed the blonde. “Hey, did you see the ass on that one that just walked by?”

“No.” Clint pointed toward the atrium where the charred wreckage of the Christmas Village lay scattered around. “I’m more interested in that.”

“Holy…” Kevin let his words trail off. He broke into a jog, rushing to the scene in case someone was still alive.

Clint followed, though judging by the extent of the destruction, he doubted if anyone could have survived. He stopped by what looked like a pile of dead penguins and scanned the atrium, shaking his head.

“Man, nothing could have survived this.”

“Someone did,” responded Kevin. “Over there.”

Across the atrium, near the remains of what once was a pen or something, a single figure stumbled through the debris, his hands stretched out in front of him, fumbling as if he was blind. His back was to them, so Clint could not tell how badly hurt he was. Given the fact that the man wore a light blue shirt with the tattered remains of a patch on his sleeve and a utility belt that hung at an awkward angle from his hips with half the contents missing, Clint figured he must be mall security.

“Poor guy,” said Kevin. “Probably stayed behind to help get everyone out, and then got caught up in all of this.”

“You check out the rest of the mall. I’ll tend to him.”

Clint crossed over to the security guard. The guard’s hands fell onto the handlebars of a Segway and clutched it tightly. He attempted to climb on, but could not get his feet up high enough. Probably shock. When Clint got to within a few feet of the guard, he called out to him.

“Hang on, buddy. I’m a paramedic. I’m here to he… Holy shit!”

When the guard turned around at the sound of the voice, Clint saw that his face had been ripped off. He stared into a skull covered in gore and blood. Strands of severed nerve endings dangled out of the sockets. The thing couldn’t see Clint, but it heard him. When Clint squeaked a muffled cry of revulsion, it dove at him, its exposed teeth ripping into the paramedic’s throat.

Scott M. Baker, author of Yeitso, The Vampire Hunters trilogy, and the Rotter World Saga.
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Christmas Takeover 18: A.S. Chambers: Christmas Fear

Christmas Fear

A Story by A.S. Chambers
2,399 words

“You want me to do what?”

I was stood on the deck of my pride and joy, Icarus, fastidiously removing any trace of smear or smudge from the brass safety rail when Suzi dropped the question. I turned, unkinked the knots in my back that seemed to be growing more numerous with each passing winter, placed my hands on my hips and stared at the young woman who stood in front of me, fidgeting.

I’ve known Suzi Maloney since she was knee high. Her mum and dad were old friends of mine from way back. Jack’s been passed away some ten years now, so there’s just Suzi and her mum. Plus, Kendra, Suzi’s sweet little four-year-old bundle of energy and questions. You know the sort of stuff: “What you doing that for? How fast can your boat go? Have you fought pirates? Have you got any liquorice?”

Not the sort of thing that her mum had just asked.

The dark-haired twenty-something was worrying at the edge of the sleeve of her thick parka as I held her with my disapproving stare. I was hoping for an explanation. Instead, she just kept tugging away at a rogue thread that was trying to escape the frayed edge of her coat, her eyes studiously avoiding mine.

I eventually let out a deep sigh, my warm breath fogging in the frigid air. “Suzi?”

This time she indeed looked up and my heart ached as I saw the desperation in her dark eyes. “I said that I need to hire Icarus. Buster has a very important business deal. He needs somewhere private to carry it out.”

“I’ll bet he does,” I growled, and Suzi’s eyes suddenly shot away again. “What is it this time? Timeshares on the Algarve? Holiday homes in Mull?” Those were the usual things that darling Buster was usually pushing. Suzi’s latest paramour was one of those oily jerks who never quite stepped over the fine line of legality, but he definitely danced incredibly close, occasionally kicking a certain amount of sand on it to blur the edges. In the two months that he and Suzi had been dating, I had seen him leave a trail of disgruntled customers chewed up, spat out and empty of pocket with not a thing that they could do about it. He was certainly clever, I’d give him that, but he just stank of dishonesty and deceit.

I folded my arms and leant against my freshly polished safety rail, the cold harbour water lapping down below against the side of my yacht. “Tell me,” I asked, “why on earth do you go for these types? Is it the cars? The flash cash? Seriously, Suzi, didn’t you learn when Kendra’s dad skipped out on you when you were six months pregnant? Why can’t you get yourself a nice lad?”

“Buster is a nice lad,” she protested. “He looks after me. With this deal, he says we’ll be able to put thousands by for Kendra’s uni fund. Plus, we’ll be able to get her something sweet for Christmas, better than the usual tat that I can afford. Imagine the look on her face when she opens something worth having! Not like the battered second-hand garbage I got her last year.”

I shook my head. It was the same old story: the boys would let their eyes wander over Suzi, and they would like what they had seen, so they would get at her through her kid. Promising Kendra the world was guaranteed to make her mother more pliable than a ball of potter’s clay. “So, what’s he planning this time? What luxury property is he selling off now?”

Suzi’s young face suddenly brightened and she rummaged around in her handbag as Christmas shoppers wandered past on the quayside, chattering brightly about their seasonal purchases or other festive crap. “Oh, it’s nothing like that,” the young woman explained, handing over an envelope she pulled out the bottomless depths of her ridiculously large handbag. “Buster’s been able to sign a deal with a bank to let him sell bonds that they back.”

Even before I opened the envelope, Suzi could not have failed to see the utter disbelief on my face. I ripped the envelope open and yanked the piece of paper out from inside. “What the hell is this?” I breathed as my eyes scanned the most godawful piece of fraud that I had ever lain eyes upon. “Seriously, Suzi, have you even looked at this?”

And there, finally, was the flicker of doubt. It crossed her eyes like a gull skimming the prow of Icarus: brief, but definitely noticeable.

I pressed home my advantage.

“Banks don’t let other people sell their merchandise. They keep a very tight rein on those things. They’re not going to want to share the profits.”

“But Buster said…” Her voice drifted off.

“What? That it was a swell idea? That it would be the last scam he would have to pull?” I waved the A4 sheet in front of her. “Come on, Suzi. It’s time to wake up. He’s using you. You need to go to the police. There’s no way he’s doing anything remotely legal here.”

Suzi chewed her bottom lip and my heart sank.

It was a habit that I had seen before from her many times as a kid. Whenever she got caught doing something she knew to be wrong, the lip would get tugged and bitten as the guilt wormed away inside of her.

“Suzi, what is it?”

“Buster said that the bank needed an up-front payment to release the bonds into his business.” I groaned. “How much?”

“It… it was just fifty pounds. He said that it was a guarantee and would be paid back once we had sold the bonds for them. He said it was all above board.”

I turned the letter over in my hand. The thick paper and the cream, embossed envelope felt expensive. Obviously, Buster hadn’t wanted to stump up the cash himself this close to Christmas. Perhaps he was too busy saving up for a flash new car to park under his tree? “Did the money come direct from your bank account?”

She nodded.

There was no way that we could go to the police now.

“Okay, so this is what we do. We need to get him to back off. You tell him that everything should be fine here, but that I need to have a small chat with him over the fine details. Health and safety, you know? Can you do that, sweetie?”

Another silent nod.

“Good girl. Get him back here tonight at six. “I’ll sort this for you.”

I’ll sort this for you.

Those were the last words that I ever heard my old man say.

When I was still a kid of single digits, my Nana, Dad’s mum, lived with us. She was the oldest person that I knew. Her hair was pure white and incredibly thin, her skin wrinkled and she smelt funny. She stayed in bed all day, reading her bible and saying her rosary. I once asked her why she did this and she said that she had nothing else to do at her age, so she might as well make sure that she was right with God when he came for her.

Then, one winter, she fell ill. Seriously ill.

Her skin turned a pale grey and her jaw became slack, dribble running from the edge of her lips. She could hardly talk and obviously my dad was worried.

It was the day before Christmas and there had been a hell of a snow storm the night before. We lived out in the countryside, miles from nowhere. It was one of the perks of Dad being the senior partner in the town’s largest legal practice. However, it meant that our nearest neighbour was only vaguely visible over on the next hill. The phone was out due to the heavy snow having brought down the lines, so we could not call for a doctor or an ambulance. Dad decided that he had to go into town and get help for his mother, so he pulled on his warmest clothes and climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Bending over, kissing her softly on the forehead, he whispered the same words that I would say to a desperate young mother sixty years later.

Then he turned, left the house, drove off in the car and I never saw him again.

He was found dead in a frozen ditch the next day. Christmas Day.

Not only that, but an hour or so after he left the house, there was an almighty scream from Nana’s room. Mum and I hurried up the stairs. I was smaller, faster, so I got their first. What I saw would haunt me for the rest of my life. The elderly woman who had been quietly making peace with her maker was sat upright against the quilted headboard of the bed, her arm stretched out with her fingers splayed wide. Her dead face was set in an horrific, contorted scream of terror.

So, no, I’m not a big fan of the festive season. Whether it brings credit card debt or family anguish, Christmas sucks.

Six o’clock and Suzi arrived dead on the dot with dear old Buster. Suzi’s latest is one of those who has a wide, insincere smile permanently fixed to his orange face. The guy is just awash with teeth, bronzer and expensive cologne. Hell, it was almost Christmas and he looked like he was partying in Bermuda!

“Well, hi there, Harry!” he grinned, his snake eyes not once leaving me. “I believe you’ve agreed to host my little shindig.”

I stroked my rough beard with my gnarled fingers. “About that. Not happening.”

There was the slight hint of surprise in the corner of his eyes, but still that damned smile did not flicker. “Oh? And why would that be? It’ll be a great evening, so much fun.”

“No, Buster,” even saying the stupid name made me feel nauseous, “what will be fun is if you get all your shit together and just get the hell out of here. You’re a fraud and this time you’ve gone too far. How dare you use Suzi like this?”

He chuckled to himself. “Well now, Harry, I don’t see why I should follow you up on your advice.”

“You know who I am. You know who my father was. People respect me, people who matter. You may be able to twist and manipulate the facts to keep you out of legal trouble, but I can make it so that life here is extremely uncomfortable for you.”

There was a pause, then Buster took one step closer to me, his bright blue eyes fixed on my face. “Do you know what’s uncomfortable, Harry? I’ll tell you what’s uncomfortable. Feeling me chowing down on your soul, that’s what.”

Well, this conversation had just taken an unexpected twist.

Buster nodded. “Mmmm… yes, there we go. That sense of unexpected doubt and fear. Delicious. Now, for the last few years I’ve been dining mainly on greed. The modern society are so hard to scare these days, what with their precious internet and darling television. They just don’t get me and my old kind anymore. No, but they get greed and, once it’s been stoked up in them, I’ll quite happily slurp away all that bitter brew.

“But fear… Now fear is something else. It slips off the plate in waves, so sweet, so moist.” His tongue slid across his thick lips which seemed more engorged than they had been just a moment ago. “Yesss… so sweet. It really hits the spot. Just like it did when I appeared to your dear old Nana. I walked up to the side of her bed and peered deep into her frail eyes. Do you know what she saw in mine?

“Nothing.”

“All that reading. All those prayers as those stupid beads clicked away. All for nothing.”

He licked his lips once more and this time there was no mistaking just how plump his fat lips had become. What’s more, his tongue had changed colour from pink to a dark purple. It seemed to snake around his bright, white teeth.

Buster chuckled again, but this time it was more of a sibilant hiss. “Oh, yes. There’s the good stuff. I can smell it all over you. You reek of it. It makes me so hungry…” And, with that, his tongue shot out of his mouth and lashed itself around my neck. I gagged and fell to my knees, my old hands trying desperately to unwrap the muscular noose, but it was wet and slippery so my fingers could gain no purchase. Buster continued to chuckle in his weird sibilant hiss. His eyes faded from blue to orange and I was aware of a green mist beginning to permeate from his tanned skin.

I was also aware of Suzi behind him. She had reached into that abyssal handbag of hers and damn me for lying if she didn’t draw out a knife. I couldn’t tell what sort it was as my vision began to blur, but I could see the sharp blade glint against the twinkling fairy lights of the festively decorated quay.

I reached out towards her as she drew the weapon up and tried to cry out that this was not a good idea, but my words failed as the blade arced down into the meaty shoulder of boyfriend Buster, or whatever the hell he was.

There was a blinding flash and I was aware of a powerful force crumpling me down onto the deck as the tongue released its grip around my neck. I was also aware of a woman’s scream and the sound of Suzi careering over the safety rail into the frigid wintry waters.

I forced my old body to take control of itself and dragged myself past where Buster had once stood. I hauled myself up against the railings and peered down into the black depths. I could not see her. She must have fallen like a stone and plummeted downwards, taking in water as she fell.

I thought about her four-year-old daughter sat at home waiting for her mother to return and I cursed Christmas even more.

Lancaster’s master of the macabre is well known for marking his home town’s place on the horror map of the United Kingdom. His Sam Spallucci books, with their quirky blend of urban fantasy, film noir and dry humour, have gained a cult following over the last few years with fans journeying from around the country to see where reality meets an ever expanding universe of vampires, werewolves, angels and a plethora of other supernatural characters.