A Story by Tim Waggoner
Jessica had one bad habit: she always ran late in the morning. She was on time for everything else the rest of the day – never missed a meeting at work, never showed up late for drinks or dinner with friends. But whatever the first thing she had to do in the morning was, she was late for it. Always. She’d tried all kinds of things to break this habit. She went to bed early, set multiple alarms on her phone, got up early, drank stronger coffee in the morning, exercised, ate a good breakfast . . . But nothing helped. It was like her brain was unable to adjust to living by the clock until she was out in the world and doing things.
Today was no exception. She worked as a financial advisor, and she had an appointment with a client at nine a.m. Her Lexus’ dashboard clock told her it was 9:18, and she wasn’t even halfway to work yet. Lila – her supervisor – was going to kill her. Lila had lost patience with her tardiness and she’d taken to recording the precise time of her arrival each day. Jessica thought Lila was creating a paper trail so she’d have the documentation necessary to fire her. But Lila had it in for her for personal reasons, too. She resented the fact that clients preferred to work with her, which was only natural considering what a tight-ass, humorless bitch Lila was.
Rush hour traffic was bad enough, but it didn’t help that today was December 24th, Christmas Eve. The traffic was a nightmare, the streets clogged with vehicles as people rushed around making last minute preparations for tomorrow or heading for the airport to catch a flight to visit family in some other part of the country. Why the hell did people wait until the day before the holiday to get shit done? Why didn’t they –
Jessica saw the crimson flare of brake lights ahead of her, and she jammed her foot down on her own brakes. But she’d been going too fast, had been riding the ass of the car ahead of her, and the front end of her Lexus collided with the back end of the other vehicle with a jarring whump.
Shit! she thought. Shit, shit, shit!
She put her car in park and activated the hazard lights. She checked the rearview mirror to make sure the traffic was giving her car a wide enough berth so she wouldn’t be hit the instant she got out of the car. It looked safe enough, so she opened the door and stepped out into the cold morning air. It was a gray day – cloud cover, but no snow – and a sharp, biting wind was blowing from the east. Jessica wore a light jacket. She hated the way she looked in bulky winter coats, but now she wished she’d dressed for practicality instead of vanity. The wind hit her exposed skin like tiny daggers of ice, and she would’ve killed for a nice thick parka right then.
The car she’d hit was a big beast of a vehicle, a Cadillac, maybe, but there was no metal logo affixed to the back of the car to indicate its make. Maybe the logo had been knocked off in the collision? The vehicle was black, blacker than black, so dark that it seemed to swallow light instead of reflect it. The blackness seemed to pull at her, to demand she keep her gaze fixed on it, to step closer, touch it . . . She took a step forward, raised her hand, but then she realized what she was doing. She squeezed her eyes shut, dropped her arm, and gave her head a quick shake to clear it. When she opened her eyes, the blackness of the car still pulled at her, but not as strongly as before, and she was able to resist it. Shivering – only partially due to the cold – she stepped to the front of the vehicle to assess the damage.
She hadn’t been driving too fast, or else her car’s airbags would’ve activated, and she expected the damage to her Lexus to be relatively minimal. So she was shocked to see the entire front end of her vehicle had been pushed in, as if she’d hit a brick wall going sixty miles per hour.
Fuck, she thought. She’d had the car less than a year. Sure, it had been “certified pre-owned” instead of brand new, but it had been new to her, a symbol of how hard she’d worked and how much she’d accomplished. And now it looked as if that symbol was totaled.
Merry goddamned Christmas, Jessica.
She looked at the black car then and saw that it didn’t have so much as a scratch on it. What the hell was the thing made of? Granite?
She heard a car door open, and she turned to see a man getting out of the front passenger side of the big black car. He was tall and thin, with stick-like limbs that seemed longer than they should’ve been. His head was oddly shaped – kind of like a light bulb with an unkempt mass of dingy gray hair on top – and his neck was so thick Jessica didn’t see how it could possibly support his head. His features were overlarge and prominent – eyes, nose, mouth, and ears bigger than they should’ve been – and he had a mustache and goatee that were the same dishwater-gray as his hair. He was dressed in what she thought of as a mortician’s suit: black jacket, white shirt, black tie, black slacks, black shoes. His clothing wasn’t as dark as his vehicle’s paint job, but it was close.
He started toward her, moving with a surprising grace for a man who was all straight lines and angles, and his light bulb-shaped face broke into a smile, as if he was about to greet a long-lost friend instead of the driver of the car that had rear-ended his vehicle.
“Are you injured?” the man asked as he reached her.
She’d expected his voice to be as strange as the rest of him, but it was a pleasant baritone, the sort of voice a radio or TV announcer might possess.
“No, I’m fine.”
He pursed his lips as if in disappointment.
“Ah, well. Maybe next time.”
She couldn’t believe what he’d said, thought she’d surely misheard, but he continued before she could say anything,
“I apologize for my driver braking so abruptly. His eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and he thought he saw an animal dash across the road in front of us. He has a . . . reluctance to kill an innocent creature.”
He chuckled, as if amused by the notion. He then turned his gaze to the crumpled front end of her Lexus.
“My, my, my. This looks rather serious.”
He bent to examine the front end of her car. After several seconds, he straightened and smiled.
“You can’t drive for shit, can you?”
Jessica’s mouth dropped open in shock. This was followed by quick, hot anger.
“I’m not the one who slammed on the brakes in heavy morning traffic,” she said.
Ignoring her, the man examined his vehicle. He ran long, thin fingers across its trunk, and she thought she heard soft clicking sounds as they moved, as if his hand were a crab skittering across the metal.
“I think you may have actually scratched the paint. You must’ve hit us harder than I thought.” He looked at her, smile widening, revealing crooked, yellow teeth. “Good for you!”
He clapped his hands together as if the slight damage to his car delighted him.
It was then she realized his vehicle had no license plate. She hadn’t noticed in the post-accident confusion, and at first she thought the plate must’ve been knocked off by the impact of her Lexus striking his car. But she didn’t see any place where a plate had been attached to the vehicle. Did that mean it had never had one?
The man rubbed his crab hands together.
“So . . . what would you like me to take?”
Jessica stared at him, unable to process his words. She understood them, of course, but she had no idea what they meant.
“I . . .” She frowned. “What?”
The man released a breathy bark of a sound, which she thought might be a laugh.
“My apologies! I should introduce myself. My name is Arland Merriman, and I am the Anti-Claus.”
He extended one of his skeletal hands for her to shake, but when she made no move to touch it, he lowered his hand and continued speaking as if nothing had happened.
“Please don’t feel awkward for never having hear of me. I don’t enjoy the fame of my opposite number.” He leaned forward, as if to impart a secret. “It’s all part of the ‘anti’ thing, you know. He’s famous, I’m anonymous. But don’t worry. I like it that way.”
Jessica was beginning to regret getting out of her car, and she definitely regretted leaving her phone in her purse on the passenger seat. Whoever this odd man was, it was clear there was something wrong with him mentally, and she wanted to call the police.
Merriman went on.
“My opposite has a list and checks it twice, but I only visit with those I meet by chance. Like someone who rams into the back of my car on Deprivation Day.”
She looked at him blankly.
“You know it as Christmas Eve. But it’s a special day all its own, I assure you. After midnight, my opposite will begin bringing so-called gifts to the deserving people of the world. Usually useless junk that no one really needs, but which inject a small amount of temporary joy into their otherwise meaningless, empty lives. The universe exists in a state of carefully maintained balance. So if my opposite gives . . .”
He stressed this last word, urging her to complete the thought. She didn’t think she could speak, but she was surprised to hear herself say, “You take.”
“Exactly!” He grinned in delight. “And where my opposite selects what to give you, I give you a choice of what you want to lose.”
He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, withdrew what looked like a business card, and held it out for Jessica to take. She didn’t move at first, so Merriman took hold of her wrist. She expected his fingers to be ice-cold, but his touch burned and she drew in a hissing breath of pain. Of course he’s the opposite of cold, she thought. He’s the Anti-Claus. He lifted her hand and deposited the card on her palm. She was grateful when he let go of her wrist. The skin still hurt, but it no longer felt as if her flesh was on fire.
She looked down at the card and saw it was blank. She turned it over and saw it was also blank on the other side.
“You have until midnight – when my day ends and his begins – to decide what you’d like me to remove from your life. The only rules are that it must belong to you and you must write the name of it on this card. Either side will do.”
The unreality of this encounter was getting to her, and although on some level of her mind, she knew what was happening was absolutely, undeniably real, she needed to believe that Merriman was crazy, or that this was some kind of elaborate prank. Anything, just so long as she could tell herself that there was no such thing as the Anti-Claus and that the card he’d given her was just a plain, ordinary blank piece of cardstock, nothing more.”
She looked into his oversized eyes, which were the same color as his hair and beard, the same color as the overcast sky above, and smiled as if she was in on the joke and intended to play along.
“What happens if midnight comes and I haven’t written anything on the card?”
Merriman’s smile – already wider than a normal person’s – stretched even further until the tender skin at the corners of his mouth split and blood trickled forth.
“Then I choose something of yours to take. And believe me, you don’t want that to happen.”
Jessica’s smile faded and despite her attempt to make herself believe this was nothing but a bizarre practical joke, she felt a hot flush pass through her body. Not a chill, not from the Anti-Claus.
The driver’s door of the large black car opened and a figure emerged. The driver wore a chauffer’s uniform, but while his body appeared human, his head was that of a stag. It lolled to the side, antlers broken and short, tongue protruding from the side of a blood-flecked mouth, eyes milky white.
Like roadkill, she thought. Her stomach lurched, and she thought she was going to vomit.
The driver walked to Merriman, head flopping bonelessly as he came. When he reached his employer, he raised his arm and with the opposite hand – which possessed a hoof instead of fingers – he tapped the face of the wristwatch he wore.
“Ah, yes. Thanks for the reminder, Hobart.”
The hideous thing turned and headed back to the car without saying a word. Jessica was profoundly thankful the creature hadn’t spoken. She didn’t want to hear what sort of voice would issue from the thing’s throat.
“I’m afraid I must take my leave,” Merriman said. “I have many other cards to pass out before midnight, after all. I wish you a most lamentable Deprivation Day, Jessica.” He nodded goodbye, turned, and started walking toward his vehicle. When he reached the front passenger door, he opened it and started to climb inside. But then he stopped and turned back to look at her. “Remember to fill out your card. If you don’t, I’ll be paying you a visit later.”
He grinned so wide this time that the skin of his face tore from the edges of his mouth all the way to his ears. Blood flowed from the wounds, but she could still see his teeth. All of them.
Jessica watched the blacker-than-black car drive away, its engine eerily silent. She then returned to her Lexus, got in, gripped the steering wheel, and sat for several moments, breath coming in rapid huh-huh-huh-huhs, heart keeping time with the rhythm. When she’d calmed down a little, she turned off the car’s hazard lights. She’d left the engine running as she’d spoken to Merriman, and she put the Lexus in gear and started driving forward. The engine didn’t sound good, and the steering was wonky, but the car moved, and that was all she cared about now.
She’d put the blank card on the passenger seat when she’d gotten in, and she glanced at it quickly, as if to make sure it was still there, still real. It was. She reached over, picked it up, and slipped it into her purse.
If she didn’t want Merriman to pay her visit later tonight, she had to write something on the card. Something she wanted to be rid of. She didn’t bother telling herself that Merriman and his grotesque driver hadn’t been real, that they’d been hallucinations, that she’d gone crazy. The damage to her car was real enough, and even if Merriman wasn’t the Anti-Claus and no harm would come to her if she didn’t write something on the card, she wasn’t going to chance it. She’d do anything to avoid seeing Merriman and his deer-headed driver again.
Could she write something innocuous on the card? There was a bland painting in the reception area where she worked, a water tower surrounded by bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds. She didn’t like the thing, hated having to look at it whenever she passed through the reception area. Maybe if she wrote Ugly-ass water tower painting in Reception on the card, it wouldn’t be hanging on the wall when she returned to the office after Christmas. She wouldn’t have to see Merriman again, and the workplace would be improved, at least for her.
No, that wouldn’t work. Merriman had said that whatever she chose had to belong to her. She didn’t own the painting. It belonged to the office.
She wracked her brain, trying to come up with something to write on the card, but she couldn’t think of anything. She feared there was some sort of catch to what Merriman had told her, that if she didn’t choose something important enough, he’d come to visit her anyway. Say she wrote My old toaster on the card. She could imagine Merriman coming to her apartment sometime before midnight. He’d knock, she’d open the door, and he’d say something like A toaster? It’s called Deprivation Day, Jessica. Do you think losing a toaster really qualifies as you being deprived?
And then he’d reach for her with his blazing-hot crablike hands, while behind him in the hall, his driver with the dead deer head – Hobart – would let out a wet, snuffling laugh.
She began trembling then, and she continued to do so the rest of the way to work.
“I’m used to you being late, but this is a personal worst for you.”
Lila Robinson was waiting inside Jessica’s office when she’d arrived. She sat at Jessica’s desk, a small notebook open in front of her. She checked the time on her phone and then, using one of Jessica’s pens, she noted the exact time.
Lila was a petite woman in her late fifties, with short brown hair. She wore a bit too much makeup in a futile attempt to make her look a few years younger. She wore a navy-blue blazer over a white blouse, and while Jessica couldn’t see them at the moment, she knew the woman also wore navy-blue slacks and sensible black shoes. She’d never worn a skirt to the office the entire time Jessica had worked here.
She’d considered calling off sick and going home, but she didn’t want to be alone right now, wanted to be around other people. Now she regretted her choice.
“Sorry. I got into an accident on the way here. Slowed me down.”
Her voice was toneless, matter-of-fact. After seeing Merriman and Hobart, Lila didn’t scare her anymore.
Lila seemed put out by Jessica’s lack of reaction to her words. She threw the pen down on the desk, grabbed the notebook, closed it, stood, came out from behind the desk, and walked over to Jessica until they were practically standing nose to nose.
“I’m sorry you were in an accident.” Lila sounded doubtful, as if she didn’t believe Jessica’s story. “But you could’ve called to let us know. Instead you come strolling in over an hour late. Your client got tired of waiting for you and left. I tried to convince him to speak to another of our advisors, but he declined. ‘I think I’ll take my business elsewhere,’ he said and then left. This is your last warning, Jessica. If you come in late again, for any reason, I will fire you. Do you understand?”
Jessica had heard every word, but she was so preoccupied by her experience with Merriman that she couldn’t bring herself to care. Lila’s face reddened with anger.
“Aren’t you going to say anything? No? I’m your supervisor, Jessica. The least you could do is give me the courtesy of a response.”
Jessica looked at Lila as if noticing her for the first time since entering the office. She smiled slowly.
“You are, aren’t you?”
Lila frowned. “Are what?”
“My supervisor. Mine.”
Lila took a step back from Jessica, as if disturbed by something she saw on the other woman’s face.
“Just remember what I said.”
She walked past Jessica. She paused at the doorway, glanced back briefly, then left.
Jessica, still smiling, put her purse on top of her desk and sat down. She picked up the pen that Lila had used to record her time of arrival, then reached into her purse to withdraw the blank card Merriman had given her. She placed it on the desk in front of her, held it still with the tips of her fingers, and began to write.
Tim Waggoner’s first novel came out in 2001, and since then he’s published over forty novels and five collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins. His novels include Like Death, considered a modern classic in the genre, and the popular Nekropolis series of urban fantasy novels. He’s written tie-in fiction based on Supernatural, Grimm, The X-Files, Alien, Doctor Who, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Transformers, among others, and he’s written novelizations for films such as Kingsman: the Golden Circle and Resident Evil: the Final Chapter. His articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, Writer’s Workshop of Horror, Horror 101, and Where Nightmares Come From. In 2017 he received the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction, and he’s been a finalist multiple times for both the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award. His fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and he’s had several stories selected for inclusion in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. In addition to writing, he’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.