Ho Ho Hollow
A Story by Mark Cassell
“Mum,” Kitt said from behind her, “I’ve got a stomach ache.”
Rachel peered over a shoulder.
From her chair at the dining-room table, she saw her son looking at her. Lanky for a ten-year old, he stood framed in the doorway with sleeves halfway up his skinny forearms. Perhaps they should’ve bought him a new coat rather than all those presents. A glance into the lounge reminded her of the mess to clear up: wrapping paper and toys everywhere. Her and James’s gifts were neatly stacked beside the sofa from which they’d earlier watched the chaos unfold.
“You’re dripping snow on the carpet,” she told him. “Take off your coat.”
His face, rosy from the cold, didn’t change as he slunk back into the kitchen. The sound of his shuffling feet was almost in time with James’s vegetable chopping.
“At least you took off your boots,” she called after him.
Coloured Lego bricks of varying shapes and sizes covered the table, several obscuring the instruction booklet and surrounding the half-complete model. Indeed, much like the toys scattered in the other room, this was another present he’d played with for not even five minutes. Most, after tearing open the wrapping paper, he’d simply given a once-over; some, barely a cursory glance. Every year, it was the same. Flo seemed to be following in his ways. As it was, she often copied him, a trait Rachel knew was common in all younger siblings.
She found the Lego brick she’d been searching for, attached it to the part Kitt had already completed, and glanced at the photo on the box. What she had so far in her hands, she guessed, would be a section of car engine. She recalled the 70s when Lego models were basic vehicles. But now, they were impressive, intricate, and with so many moving parts. Back then, it was pretty much only the wheels that moved. As a kid, she’d marvelled at how her older brother would construct them. She wondered if she had copied him as much as Flo copied Kitt.
In just a few hours, her brother and his children would come crashing through their front door, presents in hand… more chaos… more wrapping paper to tidy later. And, besides… all that packaging – seriously, was all that packaging necessary?
Tea. She wanted a cup of tea, but as she stepped into the kitchen, the smell of brandy and cinnamon warmed her nostrils. When she saw the saucepan of mulled wine steaming on the stove, she knew she had no intention of putting the kettle on to make a cuppa.
Yeah, she wanted some mulled wine.
James didn’t look round as he said, “I’m looking forward to this.”
He dragged a bunch of carrots across the work surface, and with nimble fingers, he began chopping them into even slices. She often marvelled at how he never cut himself. He was a fine cook – indeed, modesty aside, she wasn’t too bad herself – and he seemed to enjoy it more than she did.
“Kitt…” He still hadn’t removed his jacket. “Where’s your sister?”
“Out in the Hollow.”
The Hollow, as they’d named it after moving to their country house during the summer, was a bomb crater in the woodland which backed onto their garden. It was one of many overgrown scars from the Second World War. Rachel had once been trapped in a conversation with a local elderly woman who insisted some German pilots hadn’t wanted to reach London and so deliberately dropped their payloads onto empty countryside. She was unsure how much faith to have in the woman’s knowledge, but it was admirable to be positive about a piece of history that was otherwise devastating.
Positivity, however, was at a low level in Rachel’s reserve and she was, sadly, dreading her brother’s troops invading her home.
She placed the red Lego brick she hadn’t realised she still held onto the worktop. “Why don’t you both come in now?”
“I’m in,” Kitt said. He’d unzipped his coat and was now rubbing his stomach.
“Yes, but your sister’s not.” She reached up and opened the cupboard for some glasses. “Besides, your cousins’ll be here soon.”
“I don’t feel well.” In truth, the boy didn’t look himself. Maybe he’d caught a chill. After all, it was cold out there: the sky was white, and the snow was coming down in impressive flurries. However, ever since he’d turned ten he’d become a bit of a whinge-bag.
“Okay.” She took two glasses from the shelf and placed them down on the counter. “I’ll make some hot chocolate while you go get Flo, and by the time you’re back, it’ll be ready to drink.”
James glanced at her. “Mulled wine for me.” He looked at the glasses in front of her and grinned. “Good call.”
She watched Kitt continue to rub his stomach. Perhaps he really was ill. “What do you say, sweetie?”
“Deal?” she prodded.
His eyes drifted from her, to the window and beyond, to where his sister was probably still playing in the den.
“Seriously, Kitt, go get your—”
His face slackened, a whiteness – no, a blueness – tinted his cheeks. Traceries of veins raced beneath his skin. His eyes, the whites themselves, turned a cold blue. Ice formed across his cheeks, crackling, and spreading fast to cover his whole face. Even his hair suddenly frosted. Clothes, too: they whitened as though he’d been stuffed in a freezer for days.
The sound of crackling intensified.
Rachel staggered forwards, knocking the Lego brick onto the floor. It skittered across the tiles.
James had now turned, eyes wide, knuckles whitening as they gripped the knife.
“Kitt…” she whispered.
His body stiffened. More crackling, sharp, from inside his body like fracturing ice. His skin, his hands, his face, white as the sky, cracked in places. A deep crevice zigzagged upwards from beneath his collar, shooting along his jaw and up his cheek and across his brow.
He stood there. Frozen.
Fragile as glass, he shattered. Exploded.
Hundreds of multi-coloured ice crystals, twinkling in the kitchen light, shot in every direction. It sounded like a dozen windows cracking at once. In whites and crimsons and purples and blues, their son’s body vanished in an icy haze. It was like a bomb had gone off in the middle of an iceberg. Several shards stung Rachel’s cheeks.
Her scream filled the kitchen as Kitt became nothing more than hundreds of ice crystals scattered around the kitchen.
Still clutching the knife, James backed off, retched and spewed. It spattered the worktop, and as it dribbled down the apron she’d bought him for Christmas, she noticed she’d not removed the price tag.
A hundred thoughts collided in her suddenly small brain. Dizziness pressed down on her. What was left of Kitt absurdly made her think of the time she’d dropped the ice cube tray and the cubes had scattered across the tiles.
James stepped forward and reached out for where Kitt had stood. He then backed up… his foot shot out in front of him. Vomit flicked in the air, and for a crazy second, it was as though he ran on the spot.
He fell – face down – onto the knife he still held.
Blood pumped from his chest as he scrambled sideways, then slumped, and kicked the glinting ice crystals. They made the same sound as the Lego brick a moment ago.
“James!” She leapt towards him and dropped to her knees beside his shuddering body.
His moans, strong at first, weakened… softening, quietening. He jerked and a slice of carrot shot across the floor, bounced off a crystal, and skidded through a small heap of snow to rest against one of Kitt’s boots. One more twitch, another… then he stopped. His head flopped to the side.
She pulled him into her arms, stroking his face. His dead eyes stared past her head. A dark pool soaked her trousers, warm, now spreading beneath them both. She screamed and her agony tore through the house. A glance out through the glass of the back door, into the relentless snow and out to the bottom of their garden, she remembered Flo. The Hollow.
Tears prickled her eyes as much as darkness crept into her periphery. Somehow… somehow she pushed both aside.
Flo. She had to get Flo.
On her feet, not realising she’d stood, she glanced down at James. His blood had now spread to blend in with the crystals that had once been their son. With one boot on, one off, she reached for the backdoor, gripping it with slippery fingers.
James couldn’t be dead, could he? Can’t be possible. And Kitt. What happened to Kitt? She staggered back towards her husband, refusing to believe any of this. The sole of her Wellington boot squeaked, slipping in the blood, and she stumbled into the dishwasher, causing it to rattle.
Leaving red handprints up the front of the appliance, she put on her boots properly.
Back to the door, after fumbling the handle, she was soon outside, the air freezing her lungs. A quick look over her shoulder brought into view James’s legs amid the glinting crystals, and she considered going back to get a coat.
But… the Hollow – she had to get to the Hollow.
Already, Kitt’s footprints had vanished.
Snow filled the sky, coming down in flurries. It stung her face as she started to run up the pathway, every footfall crunching. In what felt like hours, she made it to the gate at the bottom of their garden – the one James had purposefully cut into the fence to allow access to the woodland behind, so the kids could play in the Hollow. Acres spread out behind their property, where even the Estate Agents couldn’t tell them who owned it. All of it so remote, it was never to be a problem.
Something red flashed up ahead, someone darting between tree trunks and winter-dead foliage… then nothing. Perhaps she hadn’t seen anyone. But, then again, no… she knew she saw him – yet it was ridiculous who she saw. This wasn’t happening! And it was at that moment, despite the freezing snow buffeting her, she knew she was dreaming… she had to be… surely.
Father Christmas. Or at least someone dressed like him.
A sickness rose in her throat… James, Kitt. Dear God, what was happening? She bit down on her lip and fought the urge to collapse to her knees, to cry, to let the snow take her, freeze her. She remained upright, managing to sprint into the woodland. The snow on the ground thinned the deeper into the woods she went. As she ran, she searched for Father Christmas – for Santa… for the man she’d seen… This was such madness. Kitt had… had exploded! Whatever the cause, she wondered if that man in the red suit had anything to do with it. Kitt had said he felt ill. Poison? Had the imitation Father Christmas poisoned him? Insane. The man—
Rachel interrupted her own thoughts. Flo! He’d better not harm her.
With those thoughts, she sprinted through crispy leaves and snow, kicking it up. Already, she felt damp through her trousers, and James’s blood was freezing her skin. The trees were sparser here, and so the snow was thicker, in the sky as well as on the ground. Finally, she saw where the woodland floor dipped slightly. That was where the crater began – the Hollow.
Where had the man gone? There were no footprints. She could’ve sworn he ran this way. It was snowing heavily, certainly, but not enough to cover his tracks that quickly. Everywhere was a mix of white and subtle streaks of brown where tree trunks and foliage had so far avoided the heavy snow. Her breath clouded the air in front of her and she regretted not getting a coat.
She held up an arm as a feeble shield from the stinging snow.
At the rim of the Hollow, her breath cold and sharp in her throat, she looked down. Below her, in the centre of the crater, was the kids’ den. In the shape of something between a cabin and a tepee, built with James’s carpentry skills, it was a sturdy weave of branches and pallet boards. Snow covered the roof and heaped the sides in drifts.
Still, she saw no sign of Father Christmas.
A short laugh escaped her, and she refused another as it seemed to get lost in the snow. She worried that would bring on a madness she felt was close to overwhelming her, just like the darkness she felt at the edge of her vision. She stumbled down the slope, almost tripping, but snagged herself on the winter skeleton of a tree. Beside her, a startled robin redbreast took flight. The branch it had been standing on wobbled in the wake of its lift-off.
Flo had to be down there… she hoped… she prayed.
Down the embankment she went, taking sideways steps between branches and tangled brambles. The snow was untouched here, too. Again, she wondered about the man she’d seen. Had she even seen him? Whoever he was, and indeed if she’d even seen him, couldn’t be in the den. No footprints, she thought with relief.
But she knew her daughter was in there. She couldn’t be anywhere else.
Rachel slowed her pace, her lungs burning with a strange, cold fire, and her breath plumed about her in great clouds.
“Flo?” Her voice sounded close to hysterical, and, again, she somehow pushed it aside. She reached the paving that hid beneath the smooth snow. “Honey?”
Closer to the door, she saw colours between the snow-coated boards and branches; bright yellow, too. Was that Flo’s coat? Yes, thank God. There she was, sitting inside.
“It’s Mummy, I’m coming in.” Rachel pulled open the door, and it made an arc in the snow. “Flo, honey…”
Her daughter sat cross-legged on the blanket the kids used as a carpet. For a moment, Rachel couldn’t understand what she saw. Food. So many paper plates, piled with food, surrounded her daughter. She wondered at which point during the day her children had taken all the food from the kitchen. Had it been today? Yesterday? Then Rachel realised none of the food was theirs. She didn’t recognise any of it. There was a Christmas pudding and gingerbread men, mince pies, iced biscuits, tree cookies, and a perfectly-made Yule log. The chocolate looked divine.
Flo turned towards her. There was a headless gingerbread man in her pudgy fingers, and through a mouthful, she said, “Mummy, I told Kitt not to eat it.”
A flash of memory: Kitt rubbing his stomach, turning to ice, exploding… She wanted to laugh, to cry, to tell Flo to stop eating, and… she wanted some of that chocolate log. Kitt, James… a shiver ran up her spine, and she crouched to step through the doorway.
She slapped the gingerbread from the girl’s hand.
“Don’t eat anything!” Tears again threatened to overcome her. She bit her lip, feeling her chin quiver.
Shocked, Flo cradled her hand in the other, and declared, “It tastes fine.”
“Kitt—” Her boy’s name caught in her throat.
“He shouldn’t have eaten any of that.” Flo pointed to a plate Rachel hadn’t noticed tucked between the Yule log and Christmas pudding. It was a pie with a smiling elf’s face made from chunks of lumpy pastry. Crudely made, and entirely unappetising. There was a piece missing, and the filling oozed a deep red onto the plate. It glistened, reflecting Flo’s yellow coat.
Again, she thought of Kitt’s exploding body. Again, she bit her lip. This was not the time to lose her cool.
Wind howled, and through the gap in the branches and boards, snow drifted in. Several flakes landed on the elf pie to instantly dissolve into the pastry and filling.
Rachel’s lip hurt, and the copper taste of blood teased her tongue. Perhaps it even trickled down her chin. A shuffle forwards, and she could finally wrap her arms around Flo. Tight. An embrace. Mother and daughter. A life-thread… Family. Her only family now. Tears welled, blurred her vision. It was like water filled the den, brimming to drown them both. As though that was precisely what was happening, she began to choke and gasp. But they were sobs.
“He’s outside again,” Flo whispered.
Rachel gulped, held back the next sob, and mumbled into the girl’s hair, “Who?”
“I’m scared, mummy.”
With reluctance, she held Flo at arm’s length. “Who are you talking about?” Rachel knew. Of course she knew.
Flo’s eyes widened.
Outside, the sounds of twigs breaking and snow crunching beneath boots made them squeeze one another tighter.
The air froze in Rachel’s throat.
In a roar of snapping wood, exploding splinters and screeching nails, the roof and walls of the den were suddenly ripped away… A blanket that had been bunched in the corner was swept up into the air. Wind and snow buffeted them, and they both squinted into the whiteness.
Through the swirling snow, the toothy grin of a pockmarked and bearded face bore down on them. The rotund man was dressed in a tatty Father Christmas costume. Frost clung to the grubby fibres. A long, arthritic hand jerked towards Flo, one finger extended. The dirt beneath the fingernail hovering in front of the girl’s nose was black.
“You!” His voice was sharp. “I told you… to… eat!”
Flo’s bottom lip quivered.
Rachel shoved her away from him, and stood up straight. Flo cried out amid scattered plates and crumbled food, as Rachel tilted her head back. The man – if she could, in fact, call him that – had to be over eight-feet tall. He reeked of a mixture of cinnamon and sewage.
“Who are you?” she shrieked, her hands shaking. Adrenaline buzzed in her head.
When he grinned, his teeth appeared to lengthen, each as sharp as a pine needle and just as green. His red face was cratered, deeply scarred, oozed pus. He wore the floppy, red and white hat of an average Father Christmas, and his bulky coat was of the same shade of red, its buttons tarnished, rusted. A cold, cobalt blue fire burned in his stare – the same coldness that was in Kitt’s eyes… just before… before he…
“What have you done?” Her shrill voice echoed around the Hollow. Yet again, she realised how close a personal darkness was to taking her away, but she had to stay strong for Flo. It was all about Flo now. They had to get out of there – now!
Breath steamed from gaping nostrils as he stepped back, gloating. As he did so, a plate flicked up crumbs over his tatty leather boot and a tree cookie crumbled into the blanket. He shifted the sack she’d not noticed he held. Covered in frost, just like the rest of him, it was crudely stitched in a patchwork effort that was confusing, and not entirely Christmassy. Each section was different: snowmen, love hearts, candy canes, shamrocks, skulls, pumpkins, eggs, rabbits; there was even a baby in a crib. Those were all she glimpsed, but there were more.
A grey-green filth oozed from in between the stitches, dripping onto the ground. It hissed, dissolving the snow and singeing the twigs. It smouldered when it spattered the blanket. An acrid curl of smoke wafted upwards, only to be snatched up by a sudden snow flurry.
“Flo, honey…” Rachel said, fighting the urge to cower before the gruesome creature. “Come here.” Her hands shook so much more than from the cold that rooted her.
Flo reached up, and with a cold and clammy grip, grabbed Rachel’s hand.
The man’s blue eyes, with a hint of red, locked onto Rachel. Unable to look away, she felt Flo yank her sleeve.
One more step back, and the fake Father Christmas shrugged off the sack. It slumped to the ground between them with a thump.
“What have I done, you ask?” Incredibly, his grin widened still, seeming to split his head in two. Those craters in his skin now leaked a greenish muck.
Rachel moved slightly, and a branch snapped beneath her heel. She felt as though the ground had frozen up and around her boots.
In one movement, his veiny hands untied the frayed rope that fastened the sack. It gaped for a second then fell sideways. Dozens of coloured crystals scattered… and James’s body flopped out.
Her heart corkscrewed into her throat and she cried out.
“Daddy!” Flo’s grip crushed Rachel’s fingers.
Most of the crystals and the majority of her husband’s body remained in the sack. Those icy shards of her son twinkled.
“What have I done, indeed!” He laughed and it was more a shriek of delight, the sick bastard.
Flo pulled against Rachel’s hand, but she wouldn’t let her rush to her dad. No way.
“And…” The man booted James’s lifeless body. “I even have a bonus.”
James’s dead eyes stared up to the sky as though watching the drifting flakes. A bitterness rose in Rachel’s throat, choking her, and her mind reeled and warped her vision.
This man, this monster, reached down and picked up one of the crystals. He squinted into it, rolling it between thumb and forefinger. “Beautiful,” he muttered and flicked it back into the sack. That tinkling sound sent nausea flushing through her. Still crouched, he picked up the elf pie. Its filling now bubbled.
Rachel willed her feet to move, and, finally, they shuffled backwards – inches at a time – slowly dragging Flo with her. As before, a dizziness threatened to take her down.
Balancing the plate on his upturned hand, he stood and offered it to Flo.
She shook her head, clamping her lips tight; they turned as white as her cheeks and her tiny nostrils flared.
“I only need one more of you, then I can leave this ridiculous season.”
“Get away from her!” Rachel yelled. One hand squeezed Flo’s hand, while the other dug fingernails into her own palm to force away the darkness.
“Only one more mouth to feed, then I am out of here, away from this selfish season of gift-sharing-loveless-family-nonsense.”
“One more?” Rachel murmured. The dizziness was strengthening, but she had to get Flo away from there.
“Yes.” His eyes shone a deeper red amid the blue.
“Just one more?” she repeated, her voice shaking as much as the rest of her. “Then you’ll leave us?”
“Yes.” He took the plate away from Flo, and tilted his head to look at Rachel.
She straightened her back, lifting her head high. “I’ll eat it,” she whispered.
“Mummy, no,” Flo cried.
Holding that monster’s cold gaze, Rachel hardened her next words.
“If you promise to leave my daughter alone, I’ll—”
Without waiting for her to finish, he rammed the pie towards her. His grin seemed to fill her whole vision.
Without hesitation, she snatched the plate from him and brought the pie to her mouth. It tasted of cinnamon, rotten vegetables, and off-meat. She gobbled, chewed, swallowed, then choked. Tears came, and then body-wracking sobs followed along with the image of James, of Kitt, of Flo… of a Christmas morning that began so normal.
She released Flo and used both hands to shovel the foul stuff into her mouth.
The man in the red suit chuckled.
“The more you eat,” he whispered, “the quicker it’ll be.”
Gagging, she managed to swallow more. Some slopped onto her boots. Most of it went down her throat.
“Mummy.” Flo had backed away and was almost sitting on the splintered remains of the den. A tiny crease had formed in her forehead, and her bottom lip quivered.
Rachel dropped the empty plate. The back of her hands whitened as they frosted. Her lungs filled with freezing air. Then feeling as though her organs had chilled to burning cold, her stomach swelled. A dizziness swept into her blurred vision, a whiteness leaking into her periphery.
So cold! she thought, numbed. But no pain…
As she watched ice crystals form over her sleeve and across her jumper, the freezing sensation intensified. The sound of cracking came from somewhere inside her.
Her skin began to split.
From inside to out, that coldness surged through every inch of her, and perhaps… perhaps she heard Flo call out before a darkness replaced the blinding whiteness… and Rachael shattered into hundreds of ice crystals.
The girl cowered against the splintered remains of the den, her arm covering her face. Wind roared and snow stung her forehead. When she looked around, through a tornado of red and white and multi-coloured ice, she saw the pretend Father Christmas. He flew around her, swooping up and down, circling.
It was like she was trapped in a storm, and it made her dizzy. Her throat hurt from screaming, but she couldn’t hear herself over the shrieking wind.
The man’s ugly patchwork sack gaped open to scoop the crystals. Soon, the colours dissolved into the whorl of snow, and even his red suit blended with the white. She could barely see him now.
Although the man had vanished, his laughter remained close.
“Better go indoors, little girl…” His words shrieked, then faded with a dying wind, “or you’ll freeze to death.”
Mark Cassell can label himself as author, artist, and actor, but his passion is clearly stamped in the written word. As the author of the best-selling Shadow Fabric Mythos, as series of books about demons, devices and deceit, he has a penchant for ignoring typical horror tropes, casting them into the void. Although best known for cosmic horror, he also writes steampunk, sci-fi, and dark fantasy, with work published in numerous reputable anthologies. More about Mark can be found at his website.