The Boy Who Never Died
A Short Story by Andrew Freudenberg
Santa pulled the gift from the sack and sighed. The thing looked complicated and expensive. He had little experience or interest where money was concerned, just a vague notion of its stranglehold on the lives of the living. It was clear to him that this mortal child was near the top of the food chain, his parents either predators or the children of such. These things, however, were largely obscure to him, the symbols of wealth almost invisible to his inhuman gaze. Of course the sack knew all about the ways of the world, and produced the present that it deemed appropriate for the moment. It was one of the ways in which fulfilling the terms of his curse was possible, and for that he hated it.
The things that the sack produced had changed over the years, but their meaningless remained the same. Small human figurines, wheeled models, building bricks and, more recently, intricate boxes that hummed with some kind of innate energy.
It mattered nothing to him what came forth, he knew well enough that these things bought joy to the children that he visited, and that this was a part of his punishment. The gifts were perfectly chosen to maximize their pleasure, and therefore his disgust. That he was the enabler of this joy filled him with such darkness that he had to force back the urge to strike the little sleepers, to tear their soft bodies to shreds. As great as the pleasure might be if he allowed himself to surrender to such urges, it would certainly be extremely short lived, and the end of him.
Once back in the sledge, sweating and gasping for breath, he threw the hated cloth aside. The reindeer growled and pawed, looking back at him to convey their eternal contempt with yellowed gazes. Like him they had once been creatures of the inferno, what the transient called demons. Like him they had undergone the most foul of transmutations. By blade and the application of both banal and magical ministrations, they had been twisted and squeezed into their present forms. The pain had been both exquisite and practically unbearable.
Did he not hate his tormentors so intensely, he might have admired their skills. For supposed creatures of the light they were remarkably sadistic. At least he didn’t have to endure four spindly legs and the stink of the stable, but it was a small mercy. He did, however, have to force himself to clamber up and down narrow chimneys as he entered people’s homes. The lard-ridden body that he had been given was not designed for such acrobatics, nor were the thick red clothes that had been stitched to his pasty flesh. Jagged edges and hot bricks scraped the skin from his face and tore through the material to get to his body. Sometimes the fires were still burning, and the soles of his feet were blackened scar tissue.
The sledge itself had also undergone change in its time. Once it had been part of a mighty weapon, a studded war club that had been a legend for the fear it inspired. Millions had fallen to its blows over the centuries, dousing it in a rarified essence of death and pain. To see it sliced up and reformed as this gaudy vehicle was a constant reminder of his fall. Its screams as they hacked it apart had been pitiful.
A razor wind cut across them as they rose into the sky, accompanied by a cacophony of clanking chains and groaning boards. Santa frowned as they roared over the monochrome city, wishing that he could lose himself in the shadows below, rather than remain a prisoner above.
“I was once a great warrior,” he screamed to nobody but himself.
As if in answer his nose filled with the smell of Christmas. The stench of pine, the reek of cooked bird, and the abominable stink of fig pudding. His ears filled with the screech of hymns, sickly sweet and nauseating in their insincerity. Snow began to gently fall. Santa looked up into the heavens, entirely sure that he could hear the echoes of angelic laughter from above.
“Oh, how I hate you all.”
When the great armies of Hell had marched forth into battle with the angelic hordes he had pictured several possible outcomes, both of which had been perfectly acceptable to him.
The first, obviously, was that they would stand laughing over the decimated corpses of their enemies, weapons held high in the ruins of heaven. Rivers of blood would have run all around them. His master would have taken the head of the creator and thrown it into the abyss to rot.
The second was that he would have died with his bloodied weapon in hand, a glorious death in the heat of war. He had never considered this third possibility, but then he was not in possession of a twisted imagination equal to the bloody Nazarene and his followers. No martyr’s death for him, no dark heroes end. Instead, this bizarre eternity, this timeless reality, locked into pathetic servitude and humiliation at the hands of those for whom his hatred knew no bounds. Still, nothing infuriated him more than the accursed sack and its infinite gifts.
At the end of every cycle there came a shadow of respite as he visited the last name on his list. It was a mere drip of satisfaction in an ocean of discontent but it was something at least, a beacon in the darkness.
Standing alone in the barren wastes of a dying moor stood a large grey house. A high stone wall blocked it from the outside world, not that there was anyone to see it apart from a few scrawny blackbirds and a couple of emaciated sheep. The sledge landed on its slate roof, perching there in that unnatural manner that it had.
“Here we are again.”
Santa rubbed his tattered gloves together as he climbed out. His reindeer snorted and regarded him with sullen expressions. At some point over the years the chimney had collapsed internally, but he was still able to reach an attic room with a small fireplace. He squeezed himself out over the rusting grate and onto the dusty floor. Breathing hard he stood up and listened.
This was a peculiar house. It wasn’t a family home; it was a place of evil doings and misery. Now, Santa wasn’t unfamiliar with the stench of despair; the human world had grief aplenty, but this place though, this place, it was something different. He sensed that there was an oddity about its inhabitants, an otherness that he couldn’t quite categorize. They were neither angels nor demons, but they carried with them a stench of other that he couldn’t quite place. Faint screams and groans reached him, along with the creaking and moaning of the building itself. Someone shouted, another howled. It was all most unusual.
Creeping down the stairs in the dim light, he kept his wits about him. Here there was always someone or something awake. He moved carefully in the gloom, retracing his steps and concealing himself if he suspected that he might be discovered. As he passed he couldn’t resist peering through the keyholes or gaps left by any door that wasn’t closed properly.
In the first room two naked men were suspended from the ceiling by chains attached to their ankles. A woman clad head to toe in black rubber shouted abuse as she whipped them with a riding crop. Gags that had been stuffed into their mouths muffled their cries. Santa smirked and moved on.
The second room contained two twirling unfortunates, joined at the tops of their heads. Judging by the patchwork of raw squares on their torsos, skin had been grafted across their skulls in order to bond them together. Occasionally their spinning would stop and they would simply pull and shove at each other, seemingly desperate to be separated again. Santa tugged his beard and wondered once more what the reasoning behind it could be. It could have been some kind of ritual or dance, he supposed, but it seemed more likely that it was a punishment. They had been in that room for the last twenty-eight years. Once or twice he had looked in and they had been fast asleep, forming a right angle on the floor.
Santa looked down over the balcony to the entrance hall at the bottom of the stairs. There was a very dead looking Christmas tree, with half a dozen cracked baubles and tinsel that was little more than string. A gas lamp flickered. Nobody was about.
With trepidation he crept down the threadbare stair carpet, glancing from side to side. When cursed with his task, by the bloody seraphs, they had promised a hefty consequence should mortals ever see him. A drunken father had caught him coming out of the fireplace early in his present delivering career, and his keepers had more than kept their promise. He was extraordinarily careful never to allow it to happen again.
The flagstones in the foyer seemed to make an incredible noise, his footsteps echoing around the empty space. The kitchen was to his left and he rushed towards the double doors. They began to open as he approached. Quickly he flung himself behind them, pressing his burly frame to the wall. A crow-faced man in a butler’s uniform emerged, carrying a silver tray with a red tinged drink on it. The servant crossed to the other side and pushed it open, releasing wafts of conversation and music. As he went in, and the door closed behind him, it faded away again leaving Santa alone, apart from the thundering of his panicked heart.
“I’ll soon be there”, he whispered, “It’ll be my moment again soon.”
The kitchen was a large open space with several rows of ovens and grills. Sticking his head around the door, Santa Claus could see a Chef in the far corner. He was stirring a huge pot with one hand and swigging from a bottle with the other. A tiny transistor radio was blasting out hymns, the melodies straining to be heard amidst the static. The cook hummed along to them, swaying as he did so.
Dropping to all fours, Santa crawled into the room. The smell hit him like a tidal wave, swamping his senses and leaving him drooling. He licked his lips. One didn’t serve for centuries in hell without becoming very familiar with that particular aroma. There were always bodies burning, roasting corpses that filled the air with their essence. That stink and the reek of sulphur and fetid decay had been his everyday companions. The craving to taste that forbidden flesh was so strong that he had to bite his lip. Even if his current feeble body could have digested it, he doubted that it would have gone without a hefty price.
He edged along the kitchen units, hidden from sight. Fragrances continued to torment him. His expertise was far enough advanced that he could pick out the perfume of a smoldering liver or a steaming heart. He could tell the age of the meat and even whether it had come from a man or a woman. How he missed its flavor and its texture.
Shaking his head and pushing his desires aside, he focused instead on the prize to come., how he would get one over on that accursed sack, just even for a moment. A few seconds was enough to sustain him for another year. A sudden clatter gave him pause, but it was just the Chef dropping his spoon. He carried on.
At the end of the row was an archway that led to some narrow steps. Swiftly passing through it, Santa tiptoed down them. At the bottom was a metal door. Slowly he pushed it open and entered the room.
A filthy faced little boy lay twitching and unconscious on a low bed, a dirty blanket pulled up to his chin. His face was pale and sunken, and his breath rattled and shook. Occasionally he muttered something incomprehensible or simply groaned in pain. Santa Claus had to resist applauding and instead simply grinned.
For fifty years or more he had visited this place. The boy had always been here in his bed, always with the same pallid near to death appearance. He had never aged and showed no sign of doing so in the future. He was someone’s prisoner, someone’s experiment. He was the boy who never died.
“So… once more it’s time.”
Santa pulled the sack from a deep pocket and placed it on the floor in front of him and cackled.
“So sack… fail for me once more.”
He glanced at the piled up presents in each corner of the room. They were unopened, untouched, of no use or interest to this unnatural child. He was busy in his suffering, unable to escape from his unnaturally long stay on this mortal coil. The sack produced more and more intricate offerings year-by-year, desperate in its attempts to impress. It was hopeless and beautiful.
He leant down to reach into the sack but froze halfway there.
At first the green fumes were gaseous and loosely formed, rising up from the hessian in a mushroom plume. Then they began to tighten, wrapping themselves into an intricately knotted chain. They curved from side to side like a snake rising from a basket. Santa could almost hear it hiss.
It extended, making its way up and forwards toward the sleeping boy. It slithered over the surface of the blanket up towards his face.
It glided up over his lips, and into his nostrils. Eventually it disappeared from sight. The adolescent blinked and his eyes sprang open. They were a bright blue. He smiled and then his eyes closed again slowly. He took one deep breath, exhaled, and then his chest was still. He was at peace.
Santa looked down at the unmoving sack then at the child, then back at the sack again. His jaw fell open in disbelief as he realized that there were no victories left in his life. The damn bag had finally succeeded. A stab of pain burst across his chest. He clutched at himself and gasped for air. After a while the discomfort passed and he was able to snatch the sack back up from the ground.
“Merry Christmas”, he muttered, “Merry bloody Christmas.”
Andrew Freudenberg is an English author with a German name. He was born in France.
Despite always having a strong love for the written word, he spent a large part of his 20’s dabbling in the global techno scene. He loves heavy metal.
A number of his stories have appeared in anthologies. My Dead & Blackened Heart will be his first solo collection.
He currently lives in the South West of England with his Ninja wife and three sons.