“They’re watching me. I can feel it,” I said, picking at the corded edge of the sofa cushion.
The cloudy sky dribbled dim light through the windowpane. Thin white grills carved the glass into a grid. The gentle patter of the rain should have soothed me, yet my anxiety clenched around my heart like a fist.
“Who is watching you, Noel?” My therapist did not look up from his pad as he spoke.
Dr. Morris squeezed his bulk into a wingback chair, the deep crimson of the back encapsulating him, wrapping around him like a mouth. Cropped, wiry white curls spiraled up from his dark scalp and square jaw. I told myself that he could not look like Santa because he was not white like the infamous figure on Coke ads and wrapping paper and figurines, yet when his eyes crinkled at the corner, my chest still seized.
I told myself Santa wasn’t real as I inhaled and again as I exhaled.
“You know who.” My voice pulled taut as I tugged at the edge of the cushion. “We have talked about it a thousand times.”
Dr. Morris took a measured, patient breath. The same he always did before he repeated himself. “Yes, but you need to name them. When you name something, you encapsulate the thing, take some of its power.” Leaning forward, he peered through me with wide pupils like chunks of coal.
I wilted under his gentle scrutiny. The name swelled in my throat, near suffocating me.
“Elves. Always the elves.” I forced the name past my teeth, closing my eyes yet seeing the small, glowing eyes as I spoke.
“The elves your mother told you about when you were growing up. The ones who watched you.”
“The ones I saw. The ones who have been watching me. All the time.” I spoke softly, so they couldn’t hear me.
Glancing to the window, I scanned the bottom of the pane. Not breathing until I made sure I did not see their small glowing eyes. Only rain streaking slow down the glass.
Red. The eyes would be glowing red.
“But we have discussed this.” Clutching his yellow pad in front of his chest, he glanced down at his notes and back at me.
My gaze lingered on the window. “Elves are not real,” I murmured, reciting the empty words. “Elves are not real,” I lied.
Saying it, naming them did not encapsulate anything. It did not calm me. My pulse throbbed hard enough for sweat to prickle along my hair. The fear climbed over my skin then cinched to bind me. It compressed my lungs as I tried to smile thin and keep still.
“I can see this conversation makes you very… uncomfortable.” He wedged himself back into his chair.
“No, it’s fine. I know.”
“Do you know?” His hand found his chin to briefly twirl through the white hair. “Then why are we back here again, discussing being watched?”
I am being watched. Taking a deep breath, I pressed my sweaty palms along my pant legs. “Even though I know that, the feelings remain.”
He exhaled hard. “Oh, that’s perfectly natural.” He flicked his hand toward me at the wrist, a flippant gesture. “Considering your history with your mother and the holiday, I know Christmas is challenging for you. Our cognitive thoughts are often different from our emotions. The two do not operate in parallel. You may know something in your mind, but that doesn’t convince your heart.”
I nodded, because what he said about Christmas was true. However, my mind and heart were in alignment on this. No one else believed me. No one had ever believed me.
When my mother told me about the elves, I was seven years old. As we sat at the table with Thanksgiving leftovers for breakfast, I shoveled cranberries into my mouth and regaled her with my long Christmas list. Grimacing a smile, my mother tapped her fork on her untouched plate.
In a flat voice, she told me that Santa would only bring me all those things if I was good and that he had little elves watching me all year to report back. I laughed at first, but then the idea burrowed into my brain, sprouting roots and branching through me. When she looked at me with wide and dead eyes, I knew she was telling me the truth.
But I didn’t see them until the next year. By the time I glimpsed their tiny, glowing red eyes, I had nearly forgotten about the elves. I was doubting Santa himself by that point.
“Have you seen the elves this year?” My mother slurred, the ice cubes in her glass clinking in a familiar song.
“There’s no such things as elves.” I baited her, examining her reaction from the corner of my eye for confirmation that I was right.
My mother’s scoff tumbled into a chuckle as her fingers fumbled over the figurines she was attempting to set up. They tipped and rolled under her intoxicated touch. A fat Santa with a round belly and huge grin. Identical reindeer in different inflight poses, one with a red nose. Then the stout, jovial elves looking like trolls.
Attempting to encircle Santa with the elves, her haphazard placement instead made the North Pole look like a battlefield. As I watched her, I knew all her sloppy decorations and preparations would be wasted. Like every year.
Her face suddenly sharpened, came into focus as she leveled her eyes through me. “Oh, there are elves, Noel.” The curling edges vanished from her voice, making her almost sound like a stranger.
Her eyes burrowed into me, their severity making my skin itch. Then she flicked her gaze at the elven figures. All six stood upright and at attention. All six faced me. Gasping, I recoiled and bumped into the wall behind me. Simultaneously, with a soft porcelain crack, all the elves snapped their faces up to me, and their eyes glowed red.
The scream billowed out of my throat as I tried to press through the wall. My mother’s laughter chased my scrabble up the stairs.
“I told you they were real!” She shouted before I could slam my door shut.
Panting and shaking, I pinned myself into the door and slid down into a crouch. My heaving diaphragm assaulted my thighs as I clutched myself. There was no Santa. All the kids at school had said it; it was unanimous. And if there was no Santa, there were no elves. Yet each time I blinked, I saw those tiny red eyes.
The tears stung my face when I planted my head on my knees, listening to my own brewing sobs accumulate in my lap. Even then, I knew the tears were not for the elves. They were for my mother, the stumbling version and whatever sharpness had just seized her. Her elves just uncorked them from my eyes.
The wave crashed over me and receded. Breathing slow, I lifted my face. When my eyes met the window, six sets of tiny glowing eyes fixed on me through the glass. I screamed again, but my mother never came.
The next morning, the elven eyes greeted me when I woke myself up to get ready for school. They followed me to the windowpanes of my classrooms. They appeared between tree trunks on my walk home.
For the first few months, I told my mother, even begged for her help. She only said, “I told you.” Eventually, I stopped telling her, then stopped even talking to her at all.
Somehow, even then, I knew I couldn’t tell anyone else, that while my mother believed too much, the rest would not believe me at all. I saw the elves so often that I nearly went blind to them, like saying a word so much the syllables fall apart in your mouth. Yet, each time, my chest still contracted in fear to remind me of their menace.
In college, I made the mistake of getting too drunk and telling the entire party about my life-long stalkers. I was rewarded with elf gifts from each of my roommates that year, wrapped in their mocking laughter. My first long-term partner said I mumbled about elves in my sleep before I woke up screaming.
At my mother’s burial, I saw all the eyes peeking from behind distant tombstones. For once, in that moment, they were almost a comfort.
When I had stumbled onto a night road fleeing their reflection in every storefront window, a black SUV blared its horn and slammed into me. I woke up in a narcotic haze, tugging against the soft restraints around my wrists. The nurse said I had flown into a violent rage, shrieking about the elves that were out to get me. I had broken one orderly’s nose in the process.
Even there, the red glowing eyes glared at me through the high hospital window.
And there, I met Dr. Morris.
“Noel, we have talked about this.” Dr. Morris’s voice snapped me back to the present on his stiff green couch. I jolted and immediately glared at the window. Still a vacant pane. “You do not have to celebrate Christmas. You do not have to decorate or participate in any way. You can change your name if you truly want to separate yourself from you mother’s fixation.”
I rubbed my hands over my face, pressing my fingers into my eyes until I saw stars. Stars that appeared red and glowing.
I snapped my eyelids open. I could feel them before I could see them. The touch of their stare was tactile, penetrating. The elves were at the window, lined up along the bottom of the pane, their noses flattened against the glass. I could see the miniature plumes of steam from their greedy pants. Stifling the gasp in my throat, my body went rigid, nearly rising off the cushion.
Pretend you don’t see them. Pretend they are not there.
“What’s wrong?” Dr. Morris straightened and followed my gaze, turning in his chair toward the window.
The elves ducked down before he could glimpse them. As they always did.
The tears returned to my eyes, leaving me swimming in that overwhelming helpless feeling. He was going to have me committed if I did not wrangle myself back under control. Then I would be trapped in one room, where they could always see me, where they could creep ever closer.
“Nothing,” I snapped. Every muscle remained clenched. I could barely breathe.
“Noel,” he scolded. “What do you see?”
Pinching my face closed, I shook my head. As if I could will it untrue. As if that had ever worked in all these years.
“Noel, tell me what you see. You are safe here.”
I wanted to laugh at how wrong he was. My lip quivered uncontrollably, and I could feel the wag tremble up into my cheeks. It was shaking the tears loose.
If I squeezed hard enough, maybe I could keep my eyes closed. That had never worked before. I was always too scared of what the elves would be doing on the other side of my eyelids.
“Noel.” Dr. Morris’s tone tightened. “Noe—” A wet sound sliced through my name, turning the syllables into gargles. A strange, liquid gasp replaced his words.
My heart hammered, igniting every inch of my skin. As I pried my eyes open, I could feel the air around me. I clasped my hands over my mouth to contain the scream.
The elves crawled over Dr. Morris’s body, scurrying and teaming like insects. They were not the porcelain figures my mother had clumsily loved and eventually shattered in her drunken hazes. Yet those red eyes were the same. The same from that first night and every day that followed.
Their pale, grey skin tugged into harsh wrinkles to carve gruesome visages. Prickly black eyebrows turned down over the glowing eyes, yet wide grins of pointed teeth contradicted their frowns, contorted their faces into something horrifying. Each sported soiled red and green clothes with lopsided and wilted pointy hats. Coarse hairs sprouted long and angry from edges of their shirts and pants.
Even in my deepest nightmares, I had never imagined them this ghastly.
All six of them stared at me, as Dr. Morris’s blood spurted and rained down on them. Their faces were frozen in silent laughter. I did not move. I had no idea what to do. They had never been this close. I had never been without the glass barrier between us.
One elf tore sheets from Dr. Morris’s pad, tossing them to flutter around his twitching feet. Another stuffed small fingers through the wound parting Dr. Morris’s throat. Another joined to help tear and rip the skin, exposing the limp cords and tendons within.
The elf on his chest threw its head back and released a piercing scream. Something between a shriek and laughter. I gripped my ears to muffle it, but it seemed to be blaring directly into my brain. When it stopped, the elf looked at me, almost smiled, and wiggled into Dr. Morris’s mouth.
Dr. Morris’s body settled, slumping heavy in the chair, dripping over the armrests, but his head jerked and cracked from side to side. Squishing and tearing sounds spilled from his hanging lips. As his head jostled, his dead eyes found me, stared into me like the elves always did. My hands clutched the couch cushion, sweating through it, yet I could not move. I was frozen in petrified wonderment.
Dr. Morris’s head stilled, and the sounds changed. The wriggling shifted to more of a tugging. My head tilted as my brain reeled to identify the sounds. The head jerked forward and back, causing the body to convulse in the chair. Then with one hard and sickening pop, Dr. Morris’s right eye disappeared into his skull.
I gaped into the vacancy. The impulse to draw closer and peer into the void tingled on my skin, but I clung to the cushion against it. Time seemed to stop and grow as dark as his bloody eye socket.
In the hideous hole, behind the dangling eyelids and fringe of limp lashes, two red, glowing points replaced his eyeball.
“I told you,” I whispered to Dr. Morris as those burning eyes remained fixed on me.
Boo-graphy: Christina Bergling has been writing since childhood. She has written a variety of styles. A blog from Iraq, software user guides, articles for a numismatist magazine. More than anything, she is a horror author.
Crystal Lake released her latest novel, Followers. Limitless Publishing published her novel The Rest Will Come. HellBound Books published her two novellas, Savages and The Waning. She co-wrote Screechers with Kevin J. Kennedy. She is also featured in numerous anthologies, including Collected Christmas Horror Shorts
(1 and 2), Demonic Wildlife, Colorado’s Emerging Authors, and Graveyard Girls.
Bergling lives with her family in Colorado and spends her non-writing time working in IT, hiking mountains, dancing, and sucking all the marrow out of life.
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