Happy Holidays one and all!

It doesn’t matter if you’re celebrating Christmas, Pancha Ganapati, Hanukkah, Yule, Newtonmas, the Feast of Winter Veil, Hogswatch, Decemberween, or any other random holiday that falls on today we hope you have a good one! For those who aren’t celebrating, we at least hope that you’re able to find some joy in today in whatever you do.

It has almost been another full year of ‘Trembling With Fear’ at the Horror Tree which will mark our second of this endeavor to bring you more fiction.

We have a LOT of fiction to include in this one and some great drabbles at the bottom. Take your time, read through them all, and please let the authors know what you thought about their work! 

As two wise young men once said…
Be excellent to each other!

Stuart Conover

Editor, Horror Tree

Bear Bells and Tigers and Elves

“Everything will be okay,” I tell Ruth. We huddle together on the lean-to floor and watch raindrops flash through our headlamp beams.

“Sorry for waking everyone.” Ruth hands me the empty cup. “When he didn’t come back, I panicked.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I tear open another coffee packet and pour hot water. The bourbon, I stir in with my finger. Tired hikers do so love hysterical, 2:00 a.m. wake-up calls, I don’t say.

“I think a bear took him.” She says this matter-of-factly as the creases in her face deepen under the dim light.

I hand her back the cup, and my eyes fall to her feet. She has on Birkenstocks with tiny, silver bells sewn onto the straps. Her husband wears a similar pair. If nothing else, the bells make him easier to find.

“Outside of parks,” I say, “I haven’t seen one bear on the trail this year.” Hunted bears, like the ones living in these woods, tend to be very human-shy.

A tear leaks down her cheek. I feel bad for her and try again. “I’m sure your husband just turned the wrong way. At worst, he’ll be a little embarrassed when they find him.”

“Ben! Where are you?” Jill’s voice comes from nearby. She and her boyfriend, Ben, are searching while I sit with Ruth.

Light zigzags across the shelter clearing as footsteps approach. Jill ducks beneath the overhang and shakes back the hood of her poncho. Her pink, beanie hat sparkles with droplets.

“Didn’t see him,” she says between breaths. “We looked up and down the trail. Ben’s searching the creek now.” She signals me with her eyes. “I’m going to check on him. Want to come?”

Something is amiss. I stand and zip up my rain jacket.

“I’ll wait here.” Ruth reaches behind and brings out—a handgun. “Please take this with you, even if we aren’t in a park.”

 “Thanks, but I’d probably shoot my own foot.”I laugh and try to make light of the firearm. More and more hikers carry them, I know, but seeing one is a shock.

“I won’t shoot mine.” Jill snatches the gun and checks that it is loaded before she tucks it somewhere under her poncho.

“Oh, and if you’re worried about me,” Ruth says, “don’t be.” She rummages through the backpack at the head end of her husband’s empty sleeping bag and holds up yet another gun. “See? Backup.”

“We’re loaded for bear, then,” I mutter and follow Jill out into the rain. We stop at the signpost, and I cross my arms over my chest. “Okay, his and hers bear bells and guns? You know you’re only feeding into her paranoia—”

“I wanted to show you this.” Jill points to something on the ground. “It’s the same color as Ruth’s husband’s shirt.”

I pick up the torn strip of blue fabric and hold it to my light. Rose-tinted water drips from one end.

Jill cups her mouth with both hands and shouts down the hill, “Ben!”

The patter of raindrops on leaves is all we hear in reply.

###

The creek is a brown torrent, swollen with runoff, roaring. A sign here cautions hikers to treat the water before drinking it, but I do not see Ben anywhere. I start to ask Jill if she is sure he came this way when the first gunshot echoes down the ravine. Three more follow, fast.

“Ruth, what happened?” I shout uphill, in the direction of the shots and the shelter.

Jill grips my arm and pulls my attention back to the stream. “My God,” she whispers. “Is that really a tiger?”

I realize then we are not seeing the same things.

As a young girl, I walked to and from elementary school, often alone. Whenever the ground was dry enough or frozen hard, I would cut through a large, empty lot to shave a few minutes off the journey.

One year, a temporary dump sprang up in the field, and this somehow became the resting place for the town’s discarded, main street Christmas decorations. A sad, weathered, and broken assortment of life-sized, plastic elves and reindeer lay abandoned on the piles of bent shopping carts, old tires, and garbage bags. One, particular elf, its face chipped and cracked into a maniacal leer, frightened me and haunted my dreams for years.

That elf is what I see crouched over Ben and a mound of bloody rags on the opposite bank of the stream. Its half-obliterated face twists into a toothy grin when it notices me. The elf drops its night-capped head and begins tearing at Ben’s chest.

The night explodes next to my ear. Jill stands a yard away—her feet apart, arms out straight, firing. Every muzzle flash freezes a different tableau: bear, tiger, elf—each one ripping chunks from poor Ben. Finally, the roar of gunfire ceases with a click. Jill hurls the empty gun, and the thing, an elf once more, lashes back with a candy cane-striped bullwhip. It wraps around Jill’s neck, and the elf jerks her off her feet and into the stream before I can act. I grab her ankles and pull until she is free. We both fly backwards.

“Come on!” I shake her legs, but let them fall when I see the flashes of light in the water. Still strapped to the beanie atop her head, Jill’s headlamp sweeps overhanging branches, fallen logs, and rocks as it tumbles downstream.

The elf laughs and crawls across the bloody creek. I turn and run. At the signpost, I head for the shelter and the sound of jingling bells.

“Ruth! Get ready,” I shout. “Something’s coming!”

I break into the clearing and halt. Branches snap behind me, but my legs do not move. One, last bubble of hope bursts, and a cold finality settles in. Ruth is not in front of the shelter, bear-belled and armed. Waiting there instead, is a shiny, red sleigh.

David G. Young

The author lives in North Florida and does hike some, though never with bells.

Christmas at Nana’s

With Christmas dinner ready to serve, Nana called the family to the table.

The presents had been opened; fragments of wrapping paper had already lodged themselves between the sofa cushions and underneath the coffee table. Any initial excitement of the day had long since waned, and now it was time for Nana’s family to eat dinner then head home.

Nana’s grandkids Ashley and Logan, at nine and eleven years old, were playing Lego Jurassic World on their newly acquired Playstation 4. Their attention and eyes were glued to the TV screen in front of them, and the focused silence between them was accented periodically with a ‘yeah!’ or ‘you suck!’ shouted from one or the other.

Their parents, Nicole and Brian, were at opposite ends of a long green chesterfield, tapping and thumbing away on their cellphones. Nicole had an almost-empty glass of Pinot Grigio balanced between her knees. Brian absentmindedly picked up his bottle of Heineken, brought it to his lips, tilted the bottle and finding it empty, looked at it and placed it back on the side table.

“Kids! Come on! Go wash your hands and get to the table!” Nana yelled as she wiped her hands on her apron. “Dinner’s ready!”

Ashley and Logan ascended to the next level in their game; all of their concentration was taken with building and slaughtering their way through the game’s dinosaur world.

Brian was keying away at his phone, responding to a workmate’s meme about some long-ago holiday tradition. Hah, spending quality time with family, he reflected, how times have changed. No singing Christmas carols, no going to church for midnight service. Now, Boxing Day was much more fun.

Meanwhile, Nicole chewed at a hangnail while she watched a compilation video of kittens falling off assorted beds, shelves, windowsills. She held up her glass and decided she could wait for dinner to have another drink, that is, if dinner was almost ready.

Nana walked back into the kitchen, selected an old-fashioned glass from the cupboard, and poured herself two fingers of Scotch, neat. She took a sip, paused, and then shot back the contents. Ahh, she sighed. That was just what she needed to get through this unappreciated meal with her ungrateful, spoiled family.

She’d been in the kitchen for what seemed like a dog’s year, roasting the turkey, preparing the stuffing, mashing potatoes, baking Brussels sprouts and green beans and squash. She was exhausted, but dinner was the day’s climax and afterwards, everyone would head home and she’d have her house to herself again.

“OK, that’s it,” she said, again raising her voice. “Get to the table right now!”

“I hate you,” grimaced Ashley through gritted teeth. “You cheat!”

“No, I’m just better than you, like I always am!” squealed Logan. “I’m gonna beat your ass again!”

“Language…” warned Brian as his fingers and thumbs continued tapping.

Nana refilled her glass, this time with three fingers of Scotch. She parked herself on a stool at the side of the kitchen counter, and stared out at the dining room table. Set with good dishes, real linens, the family silverware. No one ever used silver anymore. I wonder what it might be worth, she mused, probably nothing these days. The kids won’t want it. I won’t give it to them anyway.

Every year, she thought. Every damned holiday dinner, we go through this bloody charade of happy families, so why don’t they just stay the hell home if they don’t want to eat Christmas dinner with their Nana? Why did she bother feeding them? They were rude and unthankful.

She remembered what it was like when her son Brian was small, when toys were soldiers and tanks and cowboys and guns. Kids were well-behaved back then; they were scared of their parents, and that was a good thing. Now they don’t even talk to one another. Now they don’t even listen. And neither do their parents. She shook her head. She was quietly furious.

She slammed her empty glass on the counter, and pulled her arthritis-achy body to standing. With some difficulty, she marched out to the living room.

“Did you hear me?” she shouted. Her face was flushed. “Dinner’s ready!”

With breath-taking speed, she grabbed Brian’s cellphone. Then Nicole’s. It happened so quickly, their jaws dropped in shock. The kids turned from the TV, their eyes the size of saucers. “Nana, you’re scaring us!” exclaimed Ashley. “What are you doing?”

She reached over and grabbed the cords to the console, ripping them away from the stunned kids. With cellphones, cords and consoles cradled in her arms, she walked to the kitchen. Everyone leapt from their stupors and followed Nana.

They stood dumbfounded, gaping as Nana ceremoniously dumped their toys into the greasy pool of sink water.

“There!” Nana exclaimed, brushing her palms together. “Now, maybe we can finally sit down to dinner!”

“OK, Nana, we’re sorry,” Logan muttered, still stunned and a little frightened by what had transpired.

“Mother, that was completely unnecessary,” muttered Brian, knowing that it was the only way she would have gotten their attention.

In otherwise stunned silence, the four headed to the dining room table as Nana pushed them from behind. Each took their appointed seat; Brian at the head, kids on one side, Nicole on the other, and finally Nana at the other end.

“Now,” Nana said. “Brian, you can carve the turkey. And let’s get these vegetables passed around before they get any colder.”

Brian picked up the carving knife and fork, and began to break the crispy, glistening skin, carving into the juicy meat. His hands jerked back in horror. Large, wriggling white maggots crawled from the bird’s cavity, squelching through the yellowed flesh. They fell from the knife to his plate, and continued their rolling pursuit, from the table to his lap. Before Brian could scream, Ashley dropped the bowl of Brussels sprouts. The little green-brained vegetables were covered in the blue fur of mould and stunk of earth and death. Broken glass and fetid, syrupy sprouts littered the table. Meanwhile, Nicole had removed the lid from the potatoes and gagged, then vomited onto her plate. What was once potatoes was now decaying matter, putrid and rotting in the serving bowl.

Logan, witnessing the chaos, shrieked in terror, which broke the dreadful silence. The kids and grandkids knocked over their chairs and ran for the door, screaming and wailing into the night.

Nana remained at the end of the table, a small resigned grin curling at the corner of her mouth. “That, my dear children, will teach you to come when you’re called.”

Cat Kenwell

Cat Kenwell is an author and mediator living in Barrie, Canada. After 30 successful years in corporate communications, she sustained a brain injury, lost her job and joined the circus. She is currently writing a book on her experiences with post-concussion syndrome.

Website: www.catherinekenwell.com

Eve, Christmas

            As I strolled with my family through downtown in all its glimmer and shine from holiday lights and good cheer, an elderly hunchbacked man approached. He held out his hand and I, instinctively, held out mine. He dropped a glass ball into my palm.

            It was a snow globe with a snowman and smiling children inside.

            “gift special very a is This,” he said.

            “Huh?” I said, as he straightened his back and walked away.

            I put the snow globe in my chest pocket, turned on my heels, and walked back home to unwind in front of the fire while my wife and son continued on to carol at the church. Back at the house, the fireplace logs unburned, became whole again, and then the flames extinguished. Wrapping paper moved across the floor and unwrinkled. Gifts hopped into boxes and rewrapped themselves. Stockings filled.

            I stood up in surprise but found myself taking down ornaments a few moments later. I unraveled the lights from the tree. Decorations found their way into bins. The tree greened, needles softened, and that Douglas fir smell from weeks ago filled the room.

            I went to the garage and put on my boots, too small at first, but then fitting perfectly. My gloves and hat were next. They were initially snug but then felt fine. I crossed the street— looking both ways first—to the park. A snowman stood in the center while children ran around in a snowball fight. Everyone was there: my brother, sisters, cousins, even the neighbor kid who died in 1984. We caught snowballs as snot unfroze on my face and tears of happiness seeped back into my eyes.

            “!presents open and in come to time It’s,” Mother yelled from the porch.

            I had made it back to the first Christmas Eve I could remember. But something was not entirely quite right.

            Things slowed down, and they no longer appeared to rewind. The snowball fight continued, but now in a forward direction.

            Everyone looked healthy and happy, just as I remembered them, except the neighbor kid. His face was mangled and torn. He behaved as if nothing was wrong, but his purple-and-blue face stuck out to me like a sore thumb. No one else seemed to notice.

            His name was Billy, and he had died in a car wreck later that evening, Even though time had unwound, it seemed that Billy’s misfortune had not.

            The snowball fight came to a close, and everyone wandered home. I walked up to Billy. Sure enough, his face was a twisted mass and caked with blood. One eyeball was slightly dislodged, making him look more like a cartoon character than a person.

            “Billy,” I said, “What’s wrong with you?”

            “We slid off the road during the ice storm on Christmas Eve.”

            “Yes, I remember you dying. Your parents never recovered from that; they moved to Florida after they buried you.”

            Billy gazed back at me with his sad, torn face. Terrifying as he looked, I did not fear him.

            “Are you in pain?” I continued.

            “Not anymore, and I wasn’t much at the time. It was a quick death when we rolled off the road. Ma and Pa survived, thank God.”

            “What are you doing here?”

            “I’m here to guide you,” he said.

            “Where?”

            “Where do you think?”

            “Mother just called me in to open presents.”

            “We can go take a look if you like, but that’s not where we’re headed.”

            Billy started to worry me, so I said goodbye and walked back across the street to my house. Billy followed from a distance.

            When I reached our porch, I peered through the front-door window and saw my family gathered in the living room opening presents. Billy stood behind me on the sidewalk, watching with bloodshot eyes nestled in his purple face.

            I wondered over to the living-room window, and I saw myself as a child inside laughing and tearing open gifts. Everyone was enjoying the night, just as I had remembered. As I came closer to the glass, the lights from our tree blinked and I saw my reflection. The side of my face was dripping.

            I jumped, and my heart skipped a beat. Peering back into the window I saw, between the flashing lights, that my face was damaged and my skull was crushed on one side. I could also see Billy still on the sidewalk, motioning me towards him.

            I walked back to him. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.

            “People say that when you die, your whole life flashes before you,” Billy said. “That’s not entirely true. You flash back through your life, but only to the point when you met the first person you knew who died.”

            “Why?”

            “I don’t make the rules. I just know I’m here to show you the way. Come with me.”

            Billy and I walked through the snow, out of our neighborhood, down to High Street, and into downtown where I had been earlier that evening. We walked through the glimmer and shine from holiday lights and good cheer, back to where the man had held out his hand, past the last shops on High, to the end of town, and all the way to Rosewood Cemetery.

            “I’m dead, aren’t I?” I asked Billy when we reached the cemetery gates.

            “Yes, you were attacked by a guy feigning as an old, handicapped man.”

            “The hunchback! I remember him handing me a globe.”

            “That’s what you saw after he struck you with a lead pipe.”

            “How do you know this?”

            “As I mentioned, I’m the first person you knew who died, so I’ve been watching and waiting to help you.”

            Billy guided me into the cemetery to a freshly dug grave. He told me to hop in, and with teary eyes, I did.

            “Billy,” I said, “will I ever get out of here?”

            “When it’s your turn to guide. When the people who knew you as the first person to die, die themselves.”

            “This is confusing, Billy. My wife and son were with me earlier, but they continued on to carol. At least I thought that’s what happened. My son was very young when I died. Will I see them again someday?”

            He did not answer.

            “Billy? Did they make it?” I said.

            “Billy?” I repeated, louder.

            Silence lingered through the cemetery as falling snow covered our footsteps. I rose from my grave and set out to find my family.

Michael Carter

Michael Carter is a short fiction and creative nonfiction writer. He’s also a full-time ghostwriter in the legal profession. He studied Roman Law at the University of Oxford, Magdalen College, and he holds a minor in Classical Studies from the University of Washington. When he’s not writing, he enjoys fly fishing, cast-iron cooking, and spending time with his family. He’s online at www.michaelcarter.ink and @mcmichaelcarter.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – one Christmas Eve

The dead-eyed squirrel stares at me from its glass case, poised on its perch for eternity. We exchange looks. I blink first. Score one –  to the squirrel. Turning away I lock the cabinet doors and click off the overhead lights. The shadows rush in to swallow the taxidermists’ trophies.

Keighley Castle Museum is closing early as it’s Christmas Eve. Everyone’s packing up or getting ready to hit the shops, or go to the pub or meet up with their partners and children. The usual stuff. Me, I’m in no hurry. There’s no one waiting. Not any more.

“Bye. Merry Christmas.”

“See you. Happy Christmas!”

Varied voices shout their goodbyes. I avoid my colleagues’ eyes, mutter along and smile. It’s what people expect at this time of year. Happiness writ all over you. Tinsel and trauma don’t go together.

Annette, my best friend at work, pauses at my office door. Worry lines wrinkle her forehead. “Any plans for Christmas this year, Luce?” She bends her head to the right. Like the seagull in case fifteen, I think. Both are beady-eyed and inquisitive.

“Yeah, well you know. The usual,” I answer, keeping my head down, feeling my eyes fill up.

Annette hovers a few moments longer. Then, even she gives up. “O- Kay. Well good luck with that then.”

She doesn’t approve or believe. But I’m an adult. It’s my business how I spend my off-duty time. I hear feet shuffle and the outer doors click shut. Silence bleeds into the air. I stroll around the acres of empty galleries, switching off the occasional forgotten light, until the only one glowing is my desk lamp.

It is time. I am alone. Except for the stuffed animals. They’re not the ones who can hurt me. Here I go. Again. Taking a deep breath, I open my bottom desk drawer and pull out my precious purchase. Its varnish is peeling from the worn wood. I recall the antique dealer’s spiel.

“Those Edwardians loved a good séance, dearie. Had the Ouija board out as often as the sherry.”

Carefully, I position the board in the middle of my desk. Now is the time to make my dearest Christmas wish come true.

Zoning out and taking deeper and deeper breaths, I spread my fingers across the board, balancing it. I try to focus my thoughts on his face, which is gazing at me from the photograph on my desk. I note how his curls touch his eyebrows, how the laughter lines crinkle round his eyes. I observe the scar on his chin, which I remember he rubbed when stressed. I remember too how he got the scar. I frown at that memory; push it away.

Around me the darkness nibbles at the edges of the lamp’s light.  I am ready. I know he will come. He always does, but he never stays. He teases with his transience. Perhaps this year, I pray, it will be different. 

The pain starts, making me gasp; first in my fingertips. Next, the throbbing spreads up the length of my arms. My ribs ache. It is, I know, a sign I am making the connection. I try to think of this pain as an electrical discharge, born of two energies touching. Eyes watering, wheezing, my hair prickles over my body. I can bear it, I tell myself. My beloved has borne so much more, for years.

Something light strokes the nape of my neck. I don’t turn around. Not yet. I know who is there. My arm muscles are hurting. The darkness in the corners of the office stir and deepen. I wheeze, twitch, breathe out and watch my breath expel as mist. My skin is stinging. Under my fingers the Ouija board moves, spelling out individual letters on the paper I have spread out,   ‘c    O  m    e       t    O        m    e         m   y        l    O     v      e.’

It is always the same message. I sense pressure on my lips, then I taste blood. I let the droplets fall onto the desk blotter, where they spread forming eyes, a nose and a mouth. If I stare long enough at the blood blot, I am sure I will see his face.

This Christmas though the feelings are more intense. No – it is hurting too much. Pain is blossoming through me – exploding. My toes and fingertips are numbing. Licking my lips, I taste iron-flavoured saliva. I hear blood thudding in my ears and feel it hurtling through my veins. I can’t . . . take . . . much more. I am at my limit. How far will he push me?

“Stephen, you’re hurting me.” I beg him. “Please stop.”

I am pleading. Just like when I was a child. Disloyal thoughts come to mind. Stephen never knew when to stop, not for anyone or anything. It was all a game to him.

This Christmas Eve, his fatal anniversary –  it’s my body at risk. Perhaps, Annette was right. I’ve been too fervent in pursuing his memory. No –  his resurrection. I believed I was prepared to make any sacrifice. But I am not. I want to live.

I see Stephen taking shape on the opposite side of my desk. A murky extenuated figure, framed by static, hovering in the air. We stare at each other. Although its ‘eyes’ have no pupils, or perhaps they are nothing but? I am confused. Our fingertips are nearly touching. We are sucking in each other’s breath. His is icy cold; mine warm.

Stephen is the same, but not the same. My memory must be at fault. ‘It’ has his familiar smile. The one which teased me, laughed at me, encouraged me and led me into trouble. I would always follow wherever he led.

 “You’re like a Labrador, you silly girl. Way too loyal.” Mum’s words rush back. Over the years she tended my cuts and mopped my tears, but how much did she guess? Did she know how far I followed Stephen? How there were never any boundaries between us? How I could not say ‘no’ to him?

Right now, I’m not feeling triumphant, just terrified. Whatever has returned is wearing Stephen’s face, but its sooty digits are grabbing at my innards – through my flesh. I can feel them writhing inside me; oily tentacles. A warm trickle flows from my nose. I lick it up. I have to conserve my body fluids. Give nothing away. 

“I love you Stephen. But you’ve got to stop.” I’m panicked.

This monstrosity I’ve called up has my brother’s features, albeit smeary as if moulded from wet clay, but is it truly Stephen? What has he become in the years he’s been lost to me? I cannot conjure love for this being. Instead it has used my love as a doorway to return. This realisation has come too late. Darkness closes over me; a warm welcoming wave which removes all pain. He is consuming me. We are one now. I am lost.

                                                       * * *

Annette knows she’s drawn the short straw this Christmas, in agreeing to open up the museum shop at the fag end of December. Sighing, she unlocks the front door. Once inside, she puts the kettle on, then the radio for company, before she makes the rounds. Everything seems secure, except – she pauses. Unsure and hesitating, for something out of place catches her attention. Lucy’s bulky, winter coat hanging in the cloakroom.

Annette feels a ripple of unease. She wanders the museum’s galleries calling, “Lucy? Luce. Are you here? Do you want a cuppa, love?”

No one answers; carols chirp from the radio – ‘Comfort and joy.’ Yet Annette is not alone. She senses a presence close by. She huddles closer to the walls, rubbing her arms where  goosebumps have popped up.

“Lucy, are you here?”

The door to Lucy’s office is ajar. Annette peers inside, but goes no further. She can see Lucy’s Ouija board, lying as if tossed away. Her friend’s usually immaculate desk is chaotic, choked with spilled pens, paper clips and fluttering post-it notes. The computer keyboard hangs, dangling by its flex, as though strangling to death.

There is a Ribena like stain on Lucy’s old fashioned blotter. The chair’s tipped over. Its back is smashed and the splinters are lying everywhere in jagged shards.

Reluctantly, Annette takes a step inside, then another. Only a sense of duty forces her on. When she steps beyond the desk she comes upon Lucy, or what’s left of her friend, now more a broken doll with her legs splayed and her clothing ripped to shreds. She’s lying face up and her eyes are open but they are filmed over.

She’s blind, thinks Annette. She can’t see me. Her ‘Beano’ mug drops and spills its contents. Some of the liquid splashes onto the dead girl’s face; she does not flinch.

“Luce, I’m so sorry.” Annette chokes back bile.

Lucy’s lips and chin are smeared with blood and part of her scalp shows nakedly, where tufts of hair have been ripped out. Who could do this? She looks desecrated. Unconsciously Annette reaches for the gold crucifix hanging round her neck. It’s ice cold to her touch. She shivers and her breath mists from her mouth. Why is it so cold in here?

Gazing at the chaos before her, Annette spots the only object standing upright and untouched. A photograph, in a silver plated frame. Bloody Stephen. Lucy’s older brother. A good-looking confident man, in his early twenties, smirks at the room and her.

Annette knew Stephen had died in a car accident, one Christmas Eve, near the family home. Lucy hadn’t wanted to say much more, so Annette, curious as to her friend’s sudden reticence, had done her own research.

‘DRUNK DRIVER IN DEATH CRASH’ or ‘CITY TRADER SWAPS HIGH LIFE FOR AFTERLIFE’ shrieked the headlines. ‘Stephen’, she’d read, ‘while high on booze and pills, had smashed into another car. He had killed himself and the other vehicle’s occupants who had been an elderly retired couple, active in charity work and well-respected locally.’ The contrast between the deceased parties lifestyles was made much of in the tabloid press.

In the months following the crash, Lucy had purchased ‘that bloody board’ (as Annette dubbed the Ouija) and visited clairvoyants, (‘leeches, all of them’) of varying degrees of flakiness.

“Next time, Annie, Stephen will speak to me. You’ll see.” This was Lucy’s mantra.

Eyeing the scene in the office, Annette hopes it’s an ordinary case of breaking and entering. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, but still .  . .  what happened here? Could Lucy have raised the dead?

 Kneeling beside Lucy’s wrecked corpse, Annette tidies her friend’s hair, tears falling on her waxy face. In the staff room the radio tinkles out, ‘Silent night, holy night.’

Oh piss off. I hate Christmas.

Lucy’s words echo in her head. “I loved Stephen, followed him everywhere, Annie. He was so daring. Such fun. You didn’t know what he was like. He made me feel so special. He loved me like no one else.”

Annette pushes the photograph off the desk in a fit of anger. As it slides into free-fall, she hears it crack against the desk’s edge, shattering the glass and fracturing Stephen’s smile.

“Take that! You smug bastard!” She can’t stop shivering, so she tugs her cardigan tighter round her. Why is it so damn cold? She checks the radiators, yes –  blasting out heat. Time to make the 999 call. God, what am I going to say to them?

Behind her a shadow rises, leaking from Lucy’s corpse and becoming its own entity. Stretching, lengthening, bleeding darkness into the air, it moves inexorably towards Annette. Slow, steady, determined, it flows across the room. The desk lamp pops and expires. Annette turns in surprise and at the last moment, sensing something alien and hostile, glances above her head.

At that moment, as a liquid wave, it drops down, saturating her figure and coating her with the essence of itself. Annette drops to the ground, as if felled by an axe. The shadow consumes her body.

Nauseated, sick to her stomach, a few strands of bile escape from Annette’s mouth, falling onto the grey carpet pile. She does not notice. She tries to crawl to the main office, but her body doesn’t want to respond. She feels so tired, so cold. There is a void within her opening up. An abyss of despair.

Where’s the damn phone? What the hell is wrong? Why is everything getting blurry? It hurts to breathe. She pants shallowly like a dog. Her back feels as if a great pressure is forcing her down. The darkness, shape shifting, clings to her shoulder blades. It digs deeper into her flesh, excavating to her skeleton.

As she senses the brutal invasion into her marrow, Annette throws back her head. Her scalp rips off, torn by unseen hands and black blood trickles into her eyes. She cannot move, but is pinned to the ground like a butterfly in a shadow box. There are some on display in Gallery 8a of the museum.

The last dregs of her sight disappear. Totally blind, she tries to lift her arms in order to drag herself along. She cannot get a grip on anything. Throwing back her head she wails like an animal and when she hears the sound, she does not know who has made it.

                                                  * * *

  The radio plays on, a medley of Christmas favourites, to an unimpressed crowd. The stuffed exhibits, with no life energy to drain, pose in their cases – safe. There’s no open door or window, well not yet. But the holidays are nearly over.  A new year is coming. ‘Stephen’ does not know the number of hours in a day, or days in a week, but he can sense the changes from day to night. He is sated. He can wait. Escape is imminent.

Alyson Faye

Alyson lives in West Yorkshire with her family and 3 rescue cats. She teaches creative
writing classes, writes noir Flash Fiction and ghost stories. She is one of the writers in
‘Women in Horror Annual 2’, in Raging Aardvark’s ‘Twisted Tales’, her stories can be
downloaded at www.alfiedog.com as well as being available on various sites like
zeroflash/Tubeflash/101 words/three drops from a cauldron. Her debut collection,
‘Badlands’, is due out soon from indie publisher Chapel Town Books.
You can find out more on her blog- www.alysonfayewordpress.wordpress.com
or at her amazon author page http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B01NBYSLRT
Her twitter handle is @AlysonFaye2.

It Takes A Villiage

Where my house stands, a boy was killed. I don’t know how long ago. He never speaks at night, only cries and moans from the corner of the bedroom. My husband didn’t believe me until I forced him to lay awake, still and quiet, so the boy wouldn’t know he was there. Now he wants to sell the house.

I can’t do that. Who would help the boy?

My husband doesn’t think it’s healthy for me to worry about the wailing child. He doesn’t understand. The boy was killed, but he’s still here. I have to help him.

It isn’t as if I like the sounds. He keeps me up all night. I’ve sat in front of his corner, screaming and begging for him to stop, but that only scares him. I think he’s been screamed at before. The crying began one early December night, and he’s only grown worse since then. I can’t enjoy Christmas knowing he suffers. Won’t someone help him?

We ask town experts and historians, but they find nothing in the police archives. I try to tell them this isn’t about the house. The house only stands where the boy was killed. I want to know about the land. Frozen over, they say it’s too hard to investigate. Too hard, but I’m supposed to go on listening to that poor dead boy.

Now it’s only days before Christmas. My husband finally relents, hires men to break open the floor and dig under the house. I think he’s going to leave me. Merry Christmas to us.

The earth is hard beneath the house, true, but it gives way when the diggers reach the hidden room. It’s a natural cavern, they say. Only caverns don’t have wooden walls. Where my house stands, there was another house, long ago sunken into an angry river.

Someone once wrote on these walls, telling the story of a fairy’s grave and the curses that await any who dig here. My husband threatens to leave me if we don’t stop now, but I can’t. I can’t stop myself and I can’t stop him.

It’s the first day of winter. I ring in the Yuletide with an empty bed and the wailing in the corner.

The diggers are gone. My husband isn’t here to pay them, and besides, they have families of their own. It’s on me to dig the past. The more I uncover beneath my house, on the story goes. A fairy once snatched a boy off somewhere to eat and left a changeling in his crib. Dig no more, lest the same happen to me. But I have no children of my own, only the dead boy in my bedroom.

Besides, I don’t believe in fairies.

There’s a narrow tunnel along what was once the river bed. Dirt turns my nails brittle and finds its way between my lips. Good thing my husband isn’t here to see. I must look like a haggard witch has crawled out of the earth. This is old land. There must have been a witch here sometime.

Above, the boy goes on wailing. When I look up, I think I see him, a pale face with the blackest eyes. When I climb above ground, he’s gone. Still, the wailing will not end.

I find the place where the shore used to be. Yes, there was a witch of sorts here. She was a lonely, desperate woman, mother to a sick child. I feel her footprints, her hands in the earth, the things she touched and tasted and smelled. My eyes are her eyes the further I crawl along the buried waterway.

Her son wailed day and night, unable to speak no matter how many winters had passed. The townspeople told her what he was, but it took a long time for her to listen. Changeling, they said. Her boy was gone, either a servant in the wooded realms or dead to an unfair banquet. They believed things like that in those days.

My hands grasp a cold cylinder, a hunk of iron, and I realize the days beneath the house weren’t lost to the dark ages, but maybe a century or so ago. Besides the iron, I find the bones. Ribs, limbs, a skull. In the narrow passage, I clutch the boy against my chest and feel everything that happened to him.

It was the townspeople coming that convinced the lonely woman. Christmas Eve, they told her. Holy night, the birth of their savior. Surely there was no holier time to be forgiven for the murder of a fairy creature.

She relented. No, worse than that. She led them. How many does it take to kill a child?

They whipped the boy, chased him into the icy creek. He shivered, teeth chattering, his skin turning blue, when they came at him with the iron and broke his bones. They went on beating him. If they hurt him enough, surely he would reveal his true shape. No one had ever taught him to swim, but his thrashing somehow kept him afloat.

His mother must have known what they were really doing. She waded into the water and held the freezing boy against her. He still couldn’t speak, only made his noises. She lowered him toward the water, under the water, began screaming, didn’t stop until he quit thrashing, his lips parted, his eyes frozen open, all the breath gone out of him.

And he did reveal his true shape. A scared, special child who couldn’t help how he was. Murderers, all of them, they buried him in the shore. Sometime later, the water drew down the house. I like to think his wailing called his home into the river where he died, much as I can stand to think about his death at all.

I pull the bones upstairs and call the police. No one wants to come to my house on Christmas Eve, but they come anyway. I’ll carve a stone for the boy myself, nameless, if no one else will.

Now I sit on my bed and watch the clock turn from Christmas Eve to Christmas midnight, my thoughts on fairies and changelings and the boy. No wailing from him tonight. The corner of the bedroom is empty and dark.

Not everything is normal again. The far side of my bed is cold as the winter wind. I can’t sleep yet, not with this soil under my nails and this loneliness in my heart. Instead, I watch through the window as snow falls on the land of a murderous creek and wonder how many of my neighbors are descended from the townspeople, how many of their great grandparents had blood on their hands, cast red into the snow. How many of them are owed a wailing nightmare in their bedrooms at night?

Where my house stands, a boy was killed. Soon, everyone will know.

 

Hailey Piper

Hailey Piper was born obsessed with monsters, ghosts, and all things that go bump in the night.  Today she lives with her wife in Maryland and writes horror stories to feed that obsession. Her work has appeared in Trickster’s Treats, Five on the Fifth, and the anthology Thuggish Itch: Devilish.

Twitter: @HaileyPiperSays

Site: http://www.haileypiper.com

Making Spirits Bright

It was December 24th once again; the happiest time of year for Saint Nicholas and his elves. And as the population of Earth grew, so did the number of children in it – good and bad. This undoubtedly made his job more difficult as the years went by. But as the number of kids grew, Santa’s global route had to be adjusted constantly to accommodate them. But old St. Nick was up to the task. Modern GPS and inertial guidance technology allowed old St. Nick to enthusiastically join the twenty-first century.

It was bitter cold in the North Pole this night – as it was wont to be in the home of Santa’s palace and workshop. Indeed, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and of course Rudolph, were chomping at the bit, ready for the new route. What did it matter if most folks no longer believed in him? He was real, regardless. Even the Easter Bunny said so. Yes, all the children of the world were so anxious.

And 9,700 miles away, one particular boy was also ‘chomping at the bit’, as it were. He’d been waiting an awfully long time for old Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Santa Claus, to fly over his home, too. And now he would. Was Otto Krake a ‘good boy’? Hmmmm, that was debatable – a subjective term at best. He had been a good boy at one time; normal Midwest upbringing, and all that. But it all changed that one Christmas. And tonight would be a very different one, indeed.

And in a dense polar fog and light snow, Santa’s team was finally up, up, and away! Over China, over Russia, passed Latvia and Germany, and a long leg to the land down under; over the Hawaiian Islands, and up into the Canadian wilderness. On to South America, and then to the African continent. He was everywhere. For he had to be. The children were so anxious, all snug in their beds, as Clement Moore penned. Was Otto Krake anxious? Well, that might be too warmhearted a term. More like – cunning. And snug in his bed? Define ‘bed’.

Because eventually, the years of waiting paid off; and at precisely 3:06 AM, on Christmas morning, Otto looked up and – sure enough – there he was, Saint Nicolas himself! Otto saw him, silhouetted against a full moon on this bitter cold night. St. Nick and his eight tiny reindeer. And Rudolph, with that ridiculous nose. “It won’t help you now, Rudy,” Otto seethed.

So very long, Saint Nick; so very long I’ve waited, he thought. Do you remember the bicycle you promised me if I was good? Of course you do. And I was good. Exceptionally good. And yet, you passed over our little house, like we didn’t even exist. I never got over that, you know. Never recovered from the pain; the loss of being so ignored. I was so sad, I ran out of my house one night, and sat on the railroad tracks. And I cried and cried. But then my tears turned to rage. And then thoughts of revenge. And then I saw it coming. But I guess you know how that ended. But I’ve waited, and I’ve planned. I knew sooner or later you’d come this way again. And now you have. And now you’re here. I’m going to take from you a lot more than you kept from me. And then? Oh my, what fun we’ll have! Get ready, kids!

And Otto Krake looked up from his grave in the rotting cemetery, and spotted the jolly old elf himself. Darting up into the cold night air, he knew exactly what to do, entering and possessing Rudolph – who now had a gleefully sardonic look on his face. And the sleigh abruptly changed course.

“Rudolph! Santa shouted. “What are you doing? Where are we going? Stop! Stop! This is wrong!”

But it was to no avail. Rudolph had new instructions – demonic ones, thanks to Otto. And thirty minutes later, despite everything old St. Nick could do, his sleigh and all the reindeer flew straight into, then out of, Crumpett City’s nuclear reactor. Old St. Nicholas was spirit, of course. He could do anything. But he couldn’t prevent from being doused with a full blast of nuclear radiation. Oh yes, Santa himself and the eight reindeer had a brand new agenda after that – a decidedly evil one; thanks to Otto Krake and his – well – ‘friends’ in low places. There were more than enough demons in hell to go around. And it wasn’t exactly to make spirits ‘bright’ – unless you counted the now nuclear irradiated sleigh and reindeer ‘bright’. Why, people would even say it glowed! If they only knew.

Ninety in Nevada began glowing after old Santa passed overhead- then promptly tried to kill their neighbors. Otto was ecstatic.

Twenty-seven in Tokyo began chowing down on their spouses. Otto was hysterical with laughter.

Sixty-seven in Sydney, looking like demonic fireflies, began dissolving into puddles of red and green holiday pus, when Santa made a low pass. Otto looked down, and could hardly contain his joy. This was the best Christmas ever!

And in France, fifty-nine Parisians looked up to see a snickering St. Nick, and straight-away began poisoning the grapes in all the local vineyards, by urinating irradiated pee on them – then promptly exploded.

And now Rudolph turned back to Santa and shouted- “You know, Santa, now that I think of it, I don’t really want that bicycle anymore. I have a sleigh! So let’s go slay some people!”

And all the reindeer and St, Nick began to howl with demonic laughter, as they sailed over the full moon, heading out to more cities, towns and villages. Lots of homes left. After all – it was Christmas!

So this Christmas, if you happen to gaze heavenward on a cold Christmas eve, looking for jolly old Saint Nicolas – don’t.

 

Jeffrey G. Roberts

Jeffrey is a graduate of Northern Arizona University. He has had short stories published in most genres, and has three novels on Amazon – “The Healer”, “Cherries in Winter”, and “In the Shadow of the House of God”. He resides in Tucson, Arizona. The following are some of his social media links:

Twitter – https://Twitter.com/talejotter

Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20691277-the-healer

My website – http://www.Atalespinner.weebly.com

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/atalespinner, and http://facebook.com/jeffrey.roberts.9887

The Devil’s Appetite

While waiting for the midnight train to Rockford, IL, I met the Devil. I swear I was both sober and lucid. Though I was angry.

I was fleeing a less than jolly Christmas Eve dinner at my sister’s house. All afternoon she had been giving me grief over being unemployed, about the money I had borrowed from our mother. Mom didn’t seem to care too much about the money. Though she reminded me, several times, how devastated my father had been that I’d never made it to his deathbed.

My family never gave much notice that his condition had taken a turn for the worse, or I would have had time to move my shift around and take care of my car problems before they got worse. If I had known, I would have been there with them instead of stranded on the side of I-90 as my dad slipped away.

Not that any of that mattered now. Dad was gone, and if the gas station where I worked hadn’t fired me the week after he died, I would have quit anyway. Minimum wage to clean cappuccino machines, mop floors, and argue with truckers wasn’t cutting it.

And that’s just it. When I look back at that night, I see how everything was wrong in my life. It was a perfect eclipse of misery and rage. And my callous mother, and my bratty sister, and her bratty fatherless twin boys flinging peas at me across the dinner table—they were those final celestial bodies aligning in the sky.

Something broke inside me, and maybe that’s what drew me to the Devil, or him to me.

In any event, I swear, not a drop of alcohol in my blood. And while I’m far from perfect, I’ve never done drugs. I know I’m not crazy. At least not this crazy.

I had time to kill at Chicago’s Union Station before that last train to Rockford. The people you meet at a train station are always characters, but even among that crowd, Satan stuck out. He had a magnetic but unapproachable presence about him, a boldness of color and expression that made him seem to matter more than everything around him.

He sat on one of those long, wooden benches in the station’s Great Hall, arms folded, back straight, observing everything.

He wore a charcoal suit, with a blood red shirt and royal blue tie. His skin had a healthy glow, not ghoulish or pale like a cartoon devil. He was flush like a drunk, with eyes so sober you couldn’t quite bring yourself to meet them. His toothy smile conveyed constant amusement.

Satan’s ears were tipped with elfish points that jutted from oily black hair, and the serrated folds of his widow’s peak. His goatee was shaved in a three-pronged trident that directed your gaze to the hideous smile.

And if you were bold enough to attempt to meet those eyes, if you managed to linger on them for even a moment, they told you with certainty that you were looking at a force of nature, not a man. The eyes were pure, snow-white with translucent rings instead of pupils or irises. They lacked the pinkish corners or edges of a human eye. And like the rest of him, they gave an unearthly blank glow, like a white computer screen, shining outward.

Upon meeting those eyes, horrorstruck, I immediately began to plot my escape from the station. In his presence, my family feud became trivial. The thought of returning to my sister’s house, spending Christmas Day with them and taking all their grief, was preferable to sharing a room—even a large room—with that being.

I was hurrying back up the steps when a grizzled twenty-something halted me. “Hey man, I’m sorry, but my sister and I are trying to get Amtrak tickets, to see our dad for Christmas, and if you could just spare—”

“I have no change, I’m sorry.” I attempted to get around the man.

He moved to block me. “But if you can just—”

“The man apologized,” came a well-spoken, icy voice. The hairs on my neck bristled. A hot palm clasped my shoulder. “He has no money for you. None for a panhandler.”

The young man’s eyes widened, his jaw fell slack and his entire demeanor shrank at the thing looming behind me. “I’m not panhandling,” he whispered.

“Oh?” The Devil cut between us. “My mistake, good sir. What a rude assumption I made.” He flashed his toothy grin. Up close, the Devil’s gleaming eyes seemed bottomless, as if an endless expanse of emptiness were constantly escaping them.

The Devil placed his hands on the would-be-panhandler’s shoulders. “I have an idea.”

The man couldn’t seem to move. He opened his mouth, but no words came.

“Would you like to hear my idea?”

The man shook his head.

My urge to flee tripled. In my head, I screamed at my legs to rush out, get a cab, get home. Run home. Find a quiet cold alley to hide in. Anything.

But I knew somehow that I was part of this situation now, and to leave would somehow insult Satan. Would he follow me? Punish me?

“I’m sorry,” I managed to stutter. “But I really must go.”

“You’re staying,” the Devil decided. “And you, sir.” He straightened the dingy jacket of the panhandler. “You can have any train ticket you wish. I will buy it for you. How does that sound?”

The young man’s face melted into dread.

“Or would you rather have money? That way you can buy your own ticket. As many as you need for as many people as you need. How does one thousand dollars sound?”

A spark ignited the man’s eyes. He nodded. “Yeah sure, man. Whatever you can spare is fine really.”

“On one condition.” The Devil gestured to me. “This man is our witness. One thousand dollars shall be paid from me to you, if and only if, you can match me in an eating competition. If I eat something, you have to eat it. Do we have a deal?”

“Eat something?” The man shook his head. “Like what? Like poison?”

The Devil’s laughter echoed. The other commuters present collectively looked down and away, stared deeper into their phones, tablets, and paperbacks. They were desperately trying not to pay attention to the scene by the stone steps.

“Poison, my boy? Of course not.” The Devil chuckled. “No, something challenging, but safe to eat, for example, a hot pepper is not always pleasant, but it’s not going to kill you. Do you accept the bargain?”

I saw that glint in the boy’s eyes. That moment of doubt colliding with a thief’s lust for a quick thousand bucks. I locked eyes with the panhandler, shook my head, mouthed No!

The young man’s gaze drifted toward the Devil’s outstretched hand. “Okay.” He shook it.

“Splendid.” The Devil headed across the Great Hall. “Follow me. Come along. Both of you.”

Dread sank into my guts as I followed the Devil and the unkempt young man across the hall, between the rows of wooden benches. Other travelers flinched, looked away. A small boy burrowed his dirty face into his mother’s coat as the Devil passed by.

He led us toward the decorative holiday train and a twenty-foot tall Christmas tree lined with gold and silver ornaments. The Devil beckoned us toward the edge of the tree. He pointed into the air, and I noticed a tiny, black claw at the tip of his finger. He tapped his claw onto a gold ornament to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” Then he plucked the gleaming ornament and held it out to the young man.

“We will each eat one golden apple from this tree. If I cannot do it, one thousand dollars for you, my friend. If you cannot do it, but I can . . .”

“That’s not food,” the panhandler said, panic-stricken.

The Devil shrugged. “It’s not poison.”

“It’s glass!”

“People eat glass all the time,” the Devil said. “It’s fairly routine. Have you never been to the freak show?”

“But I’ve never—”

“I’ve never eaten glass either, to be honest. I imagine it’s fairly simple though. Just chew very, very thoroughly.” His smile widened. Those endless white eyes turned toward me. “My friend, were you not witness to our agreement by the steps?”

I slowly nodded.

“There’s no reason to be afraid,” the Devil said. “Because I will go first, and if it cannot be done, you will be absolved from your attempt.” He lifted the golden ball to his lips, opened his mouth wide, revealing extra pointy canines. He bit into the golden ornament.

Glass crunched. A terrible grating sounded as the Devil munched swallowed, and gave a satisfied, “Mmm.” He took another bite.

What color remained in the panhandler’s face drained away.

The Devil broke off another gold shard from the ornament and crushed it between his teeth. He grinded and gnashed the golden glass, chunk by chunk until only a shimmering sliver remained between his fingers. He crushed the final piece in his hand and sprinkled the bits into his mouth.

Then he ate the hook.

He swallowed, sighed, reached for a second glass ornament, and held it out to the panhandler. “Your turn.”

The man’s hand shook as he reached for the ornament, terrified both to accept or to refuse. He held the golden orb. Tears leaked from his eyes. “I won’t be able to.”

The Devil’s voice dropped into a soothing whisper. “You saw how easy it was for me. Do you not trust me?”

“I—I don’t—”

“Please,” I spoke up. “He’ll hurt himself. You’ve won the bargain.”

I instantly regretted my intervention when those white eyes met mine again. “You have sympathy for this thief?”

Don’t lie, I thought. He’ll know you’re lying. I nodded.

“Very well.” The Devil flicked his wrist, and a stack of hundred dollar bills appeared. “Here you are, my friend. I have eaten your golden apple on your behalf, and moved by the mercy of this stranger whom you sought to swindle, I hereby bestow this gift upon you. Do you accept?” He held the money toward the man.

No! I thought. I locked eyes with the panhandler, shook my head. Don’t take it.

Again, the man’s eyes searched between my warning glare and the Devil’s gleaming eyes. I could tell the panhandler was struggling, weighing his greed against the consequences of accepting or rejecting the offer. The panhandler took the money.

“Go on my friend. Purchase your train ticket.”

The man hurried away, clutching the cash. He only made it a few steps when he suddenly stumbled. The hundreds fluttered into the air as he clutched his throat, choked. He gave a scratchy cry and dropped to his knees.

Suddenly all eyes in the Great Hall were upon the panhandler, retching, coughing up blood and golden glass, reaching for help. Security guards rushed toward him. “Call an ambulance!” A small crowd gathered around the man as he slowly hacked up gold shards and struggled for air.

The crowd’s focus was totally on the man, the pool of blood, the money on the floor. Nobody, it seemed, could be bothered to pay attention to the suspicious man who only moments ago had made a big showing of the ornament eating contest. The Devil had completely directed their attention away from him.

He placed his hand on my shoulder, and again, I felt the unnatural heat of his touch. “Come with me, my friend,” he commanded.

The Devil led me away from the scene as emergency responders surrounded the fallen panhandler. He led me out the Great Hall, toward the train platforms.

Run, I told myself. You don’t have to listen to him. You don’t have to follow him. It was easier to think. Harder to do.

The Devil adjusted his gray suit, checked a sterling pocket watch. “Wonderful, we have time.” He led me through sliding glass doors, into cold winter air. He pointed out three late night trains, humming on the tracks. “One of these three trains will derail,” he told me. “I would like you to choose which one.”

I took a long, shaky breath. “I refuse.”

“If you refuse, they will all derail.”

My head spun. “Why are you doing this?” I asked. “Why are you here?”

The Devil’s smile faded. He frowned. “You don’t know?”

“No,” I cried. “And I want to go home. Please don’t make me part of this.”

The Devil sighed. “How nice it must be,” he said. “To have a place to spend a holiday. You see, it’s why I’m so miserable. Why I end up in strange places conducting mischief. You don’t think me evil do you, my friend?”

I didn’t know how to answer that.

“I was once one of the angels, you are aware. You know the stories well.”

I nodded slowly. “Does it bother you to be outcast at this time of year? When they celebrate?”

The Devil scoffed. “Nothing pleases me more than to be apart from it all. Although . . .”

My heart pounded; I forced myself to speak, “Although you resent them. People like me with a place to stay. A family to celebrate.”

The Devil’s eyes fixed onto mine. He was not smiling. I held his gaze for as many seconds as I could. Then I looked at my shoes and muttered. “Perhaps you are not as evil as I fear.”

His hot breath hissed into my ear. “I assure you, my evil eclipses the worst fears of any man.”

For a moment, I shuddered, in such a way that I felt as if my bones were crumbling within me. Then the Devil laughed again. “You must understand, that what you call evil, to me is a profound boredom. Tonight of all nights, I confess, I sicken myself by toying with wandering miscreants. Truly. It is beneath me. Wouldn’t you agree?”

I reluctantly nodded.

“Loneliness, love, bonding, these are nothing to me. But what I wouldn’t give for some substance. Some drama.”

“These trains,” I said. “Let them all arrive safely, please.”

The Devil’s white eyes gleamed. “You ask much of me, my friend. But by now you understand that you must offer something in return.”

“I do,” I said. “Please. Let that man in the hall be okay. Let him keep the money even. Let all those here travel safely.”

“And in return?”

“In return, I beg you, please, spend Christmas Day with my family in my place. I suspect you will have a newfound appreciation for your wandering mischief.”

Kevin M. Folliard

Kevin M. Folliard is a Chicagoland writer whose published fiction includes scary stories collections Christmas Terror Tales and Valentine Terror Tales, and adventure novels such as Matt Palmer and the Komodo Uprising. His work has also been collected by Double Feature Magazine, Flame Tree Publishing, Parsec Ink, and more.

LINKS:

Author Website: http://www.kevinfolliard.com/

Amazon Page: https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-Folliard/e/B0097S7T0A/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

Christmas Terror Tales on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChristmasTerrorTales/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kmfollia/

The Workshop

If they had told me from the outset that they only had six beers for me, I wouldn’t have started drinking in the first place. I’m OK with being sober, but once I’ve got a few in me, well, let’s just say you’d have better luck stopping a freight train. My girlfriend, of all people, should have known this, so she shouldn’t have been surprised at all when I started hunting through kitchen cabinets at her family’s Christmas Eve party looking for anything—cooking wine, little bottles of liqueur from the duty free, rubbing alcohol. They told me they were out of booze, but I was pretty sure they were holding out on me. The truth is, I’d probably been a little too loud, and they decided to cut me off so that I wouldn’t cause a scene. Well, that plan backfired royally. I was plenty pissed off, and after I’d made my feelings known to the assembled aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, I put on my coat and boots and stormed out onto the road, but not before I’d pissed all over the driveway.

The dramatic exit was very satisfying, but then the reality of the situation started to sink in. Quite aside from, very likely, being suddenly single, I still had nothing to drink. I was stuck in some butt-fuck middle-of-nowhere suburb on Christmas Eve. It was around 10 pm, so the liquor stores would all be closed, as would most of the bars. On top of that it was just starting to snow. I walked past many houses with the lights on and lots of cars parked out front. I could see through the windows into the warm rooms where people were drinking with their friends and families. I felt like the little matchstick girl in that Hans Christian Anderson story, only I was stuck outside on account of my own idiocy rather than because of my abusive father, and what I craved most was not to be in the loving bosom of my deceased grandmother, but to get totally shit-faced blackout drunk. With a plan half-formulated, I rolled a cigarette and trudged across a field through knee-deep snow to the main road which led downtown. I was picked up pretty quick after I stuck out my thumb by a couple of guys who were probably heavily motivated by Christmas spirit, and I asked them to drop me off at any bar that was open. Once we got downtown, we cruised down the strip, but all my regular haunts were closed.

My blood alcohol level was getting down to a level where I did not want it to be. My indignation at being cut off was slowly starting to make way for remorse, and I desperately wanted to put off thinking about the blowback from the night’s performance until I woke up the next morning with a pounding hangover.

Just as I was about to give up all hope I spotted a glowing neon Budweiser light in a window a little ways down an alley. Above the door was a sign that simply read ‘the Workshop’. I yelled my thanks to the guys in the car and ran straight at the front door like it was an oasis in the desert.

The bar was completely empty, which was just as well, because it was so small it would have been a tight fit if there had been a second patron at the bar. It was dark, illuminated only by some coloured Christmas lights that blinked cheerlessly on and off, and the single neon Budweiser sign in the window. It was sparsely decorated with some standard Irish Pub gimmickry and a couple of old Guinness for Strength prints. Some old-timey Christmas songs were playing on the jukebox. I sat down in the only bar stool and waited for the bartender to make an appearance. At this point I was just happy I had finally found a refuge from my sobriety and a reprieve on my heartache.

After a few minutes, a guy dressed like a shopping mall Santa came out of a small door opposite the entrance that was marked “restroom.” He was drying his hands on a red apron he wore over his Santa suit.

“Nice outfit,” I said.

“Merry Christmas to you, too,” he said. “What’ll it be?”

“Pint of Guinness, and a shot of anything from the bar rail,” I said. “And take one for yourself, if you like.”

“Don’t mind if I do. After all, Christmas comes but once a year, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “And thank god for that.”

He didn’t look like he only indulged once a year. His nose was a bulbous red knob, and he had a beer gut that would put the real Santa Claus to shame.

“Cheers!”

We clinked glasses and shot back what tasted like cheap bourbon. He stuck a pipe in his mouth and lit it up.

“I thought we weren’t supposed to smoke in bars anymore.”

“Well, I doubt the cops will be stopping by tonight, don’t you?” he said.

“In that case, do you mind if I?” I asked, indicating a pouch of rolling tobacco.

“Go right ahead,” he said.

“That’s the first bit of good news I’ve heard all night,” I said. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who uses a pipe for tobacco. You’re really going for the whole Santa image, aren’t you?”

“Well, I might as well,” he said. “After all, I am Santa. I have to admit, though, I didn’t use to smoke a pipe, or wear any of this stuff, but then that poem about me got so damned famous. Once people have an image of you, it’s sometimes easier just to go along with it. I know I should quit smoking; it’s not so good for the wind, and the missus hates the smell of it.”

This guy was either really into character or a complete nut bar.

“Say, if you’re the real Santa, shouldn’t you be out doing Santa stuff right now? Isn’t this supposed to be your busy night?”

“Oh, you mean the presents thing?” he asked. “I had to shut the whole operation down years ago. We were funded by a trust, but it all got too expensive. I couldn’t compete with the Chinese. They pay starvation wages. The elves were all unionized. They wanted dental plans. Those little bastards sit around eating candy all day. Do you have any idea how much it costs to cap thousands of tiny little rotten teeth?”

“But what about the presents?” I asked. “Didn’t people notice that Santa stopped coming?”

“It was remarkably easy. We live in a sceptical age. Kids just assumed it was their parents filling their stockings all along, so when they grew up and had their own kids, they just started filling the stockings themselves. Even the Christians, who have no problem believing in all kinds of magical bullshit, think it’s crazy to believe in this guy after a certain age. I just phased myself out. Another pint, Charlie?”

“I’d love one, thanks, and another whiskey,” I said. “Hang on, did I tell you my name?”

“You didn’t have to. It’s a Santa thing,” he said. “You’ve probably heard I watch everyone and keep lists and whatnot, right? Well that part is true, although since I retired from the gift distribution business, I’ve been spending a lot more time focussing on my naughty list.”

“Is that so?” I said. “Well, I imagine I must have moved a couple of notches up your list tonight, then, huh?”

“You were already pretty high up the list,” said Santa. “It’s a pity. You used to be such a sweet boy. I remember when you were a little kid, you absolutely loved Christmas. Remember how you would cork empty bottles at Christmas and store them in your closet so you could breathe in Christmas air whenever you were sad, because you thought there was something magical in it that made everyone happy?”

“How the hell do you know that?” I asked. I didn’t know what this guy’s angle was, but he was starting to creep me out.

“Well,” he continued. “It turns out it wasn’t the air that made you happy at Christmas; it was the Legos, and as soon as you grew out of them you started hating Christmas; all the things you used to love—the ornaments, the carols, the traditions—they all just served to remind you of how joyless and loveless your life had become.”

“Hey, I thought you were supposed to be Santa, not some kind of Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“You think you’re all grown up now, but you still think you can find happiness in a bottle.”

Suddenly I noticed I was a bit wobbly in a way I didn’t normally get from eight beers and a couple of shots.

“You are everything that is wrong with Christmas,” said Santa, and he wasn’t smiling anymore. “It’s my goddamn holiday, and you ruined it. All you little shits ruined it. As soon as you hit puberty, you start shitting all over the thing you loved. Once you stop getting the shitty plastic toys, it all just becomes a big nuisance. You can’t even play along for one evening to make your girlfriend, who god knows why loves you, happy. You have to piss all over it and ruin it for everybody.”

Santa’s face was turning even redder, and little bits of spittle were flying out of his mouth. One of them landed on my cheek, I pretended not to notice, because I didn’t want to antagonize Santa anymore. After all, he controlled my supply of booze.

“Tell me how you really feel, Santa.” I said. Throughout Santa’s tirade I had been getting progressively more wobbly, and by this point the room was spinning. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to use the restroom.”

“Be my guest,” said Santa, indicating the door at the side of the room he had come out of when I had walked in.

I got off the bar stool and stumbled, steadying myself against the bar.

“Say, what’d you put in those drinks, anyway?” I asked, half-jokingly, but I was not feeling well at all.

“Nothing but Christmas cheer,” said Santa, his pipe gritted between his teeth.

I braced myself against the bar and pulled myself across the tiny room towards the restroom door. I was at the door in three steps. I pulled it open, and an icy chill hit me in the face. It was pitch black inside.

“You… your reshtroooom’sh awful chill…ly,” I said. “And darrrk.” But my own voice sounded like it was coming from down a well. The floor was swaying heavily, and the bar was spinning.

“Light switch is just inside the door on the right,” said Santa.

I reached my hand inside and felt around on the wall until I found the switch. A cold white fluorescent tube flickered on. My eyes were accustomed to the darkness of the bar, and I was temporarily blinded, but after a moment I saw what looked like the interior of a walk-in freezer that was several times the size of the bar itself. From the ceiling, suspended by their ankles, were about a dozen lifeless, naked, human bodies. They were blue and covered in a layer of frost. Judging by the icicles hanging from their noses and genitals, it appeared they had not been dead when they were hung up.

A surge of adrenaline almost sobered me up for a second.

“What the fuck is this, Santa?” I asked.

“I call those Frosties, my snowmen. When I retired from gift distribution, I had to find a new way to keep busy. After all, you’ve got to have a purpose, don’t you? Otherwise you become… well… you.”

I sat down hard on the floor. I could feel I was losing consciousness. Santa’s voice grew more distant.

“It turns out I’m not actually such a jolly old elf after all. That’s mostly just an image. Like I said earlier, it’s sometimes easier just to conform to people’s expectations.”

“What… is… this… place?” I asked.

“It’s a shipping container,” said Santa. “Clever, huh? It’s my own design. The front bit is the bait. A bar that lures in shiftless drunks like you who would rather spend Christmas Eve getting shitfaced alone than be in the warm embrace of their loved ones. The back part is a meat freezer. After you, I’ll have a full load. I’ll hitch up the semi and haul the whole damn thing away. I call it the Polar Express, only you aren’t going to the North Pole. It turns out the Chinese aren’t only number one at making cheap toys; they’re also number one at organ harvesting. I won’t get much for your liver, but the rest of you will fetch a decent price.”

I could tell I had, at best, a few seconds of consciousness left. I struggled to force out a call for help, but it came out as barely a whimper.

“Yell all you want,” said Santa, as he pulled out a switch blade and began cutting my pants off me. “But like I said, I don’t think the cops will be coming by, tonight. You might as well just settle your brain for a long winter’s nap.” My world was already dark, and my hearing was fading fast. The last thing I heard was quite a jolly “Ho, ho, ho.”

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor holds Bachelor of Journalism and Master of Education degrees. He is Canadian but currently lives in Taiwan with his wife and two small children. He teaches English at high schools and universities. He has been published in Kyanite Press. In his free time he runs a literary competition for rejected manuscripts. rejectedmanuscripts.org

A Gift for Mother

“This one is from the both of us,” Nick and Jane said, pushing the large, six foot long box towards their mother.

“What is it?”

“Open it,” Jane said, smiling.

Margret began to peel the paper from the box.

“Mom,” Jane said laughing, “you just take the top off.”

“Oh,” she said, smirking.

Margret lifted the lid. Her smile began to fade as she slowly backed away. “Why would you do this?”

“You always say that the way Dad treats you makes you sad,” said Nick.

“And when we asked you what you wanted for Christmas, you said—’to be happy.’”

 

 

 

Louis Stendhal

Louis Stendhal is a Science Fiction, Mystery and Horror writer from Chattanooga, TN. He currently lives in Twin Falls, ID, with his wife and ten year old son. He also does works of comedy and humor under his real name, Eric Baker.

All That Glitters

He answered the door expecting his publicist to be on his step, smelling of lavender and bearing a nonfat latte, per his request.

But she wasn’t.

A stranger, reeking of salt and gunpowder, dripped sweat on his welcome mat. He wondered how many times the pistol in her right hand, the one trained to his temple, had been discharged that morning. How many bullets were left?

His gaze flicked to the woman’s left palm, which held a velvet ring box aloft. Inside, a tungsten wedding band glittered.

“Choose,” the woman barked.

The movie star pondered which death would be worse.

Tiffany Michelle Brown

Tiffany Michelle Brown is a native of Phoenix, Arizona, who ran away from the desert to live near sunny San Diego beaches. She earned degrees in English and Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and her work has been published by Camden Park Press, Gypsum Sound Tales, Fabula Argentea, and Dark Alley Press. When she isn’t writing, Tiffany can be found on a yoga mat, sipping whisky, or reading a comic book—sometimes all at once. Follow her adventures at tiffanymichellebrown.wordpress.com.

Christmas Morning

Children rush excitedly to the tree, grabbing presents to unwrap, then pause to stare in rapt delight at the huge one, almost hidden behind the pile.

Mother smiles at Father. “That’s nice.”

He shakes his head. “It’s not from me. Surely you…?”

“No. How odd…”

They stare for a moment, children impatient, then Father says, “Guess we’d better open it.”

Children tear paper away from the box, lift up the lid: The waiting killer strikes in a brutal orgy of hate, blood staining the tree.

He wipes his blade clean on an unwanted tie, muttering, “Never cancel the Christmas bonus.”

DJ Tyrer

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), All The Petty Myths (18th Wall), Steampunk Cthulhu (Chaosium), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), The Mad Visions of al-Hazred (Alban Lake), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hinnom Magazine, Ravenwood Quarterly, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor).

 

DJ Tyrer’s website is at http://djtyrer.blogspot.co.uk/

 

The Atlantean Publishing website is at http://atlanteanpublishing.blogspot.co.uk/

 

 

Christmas Wish

The expectant young child sat upon Santa’s knee.

“For Christmas I wish for my daddy to come back home, I miss him.”

Santa looked up at her mother with despondent eyes.

Christmas morning and the street was lit up from the blue and red lights of the emergency vehicles. Police and Forensics worked busily around the house.

Two detectives stood studiously over a decomposed corpse beneath the Christmas tree.

“He died from a blow to the head,” spoke one of the detectives. “The mother has confessed to his murder but insists he was buried out back almost a year ago.”

Gary Hazlewood

With two novels to his name and when not watching soccer Gary enjoys writing short horror tales. He lives a hectic family life outside of a small town in the north of England.

 

The First Bauble on the Tree

Shelley Pertresky had only just shoved her newly–cut Christmas tree into the shaker when the machine jammed. Shelley waited as the tree farmer tinkered, snow leaking into her boots and cold seeping through her gloves.

At last, she gave up and dragged the tree to her truck, unshaken. If there were a bird or a squirrel still clinging to one of the branches, it would fall off during the drive home.

She would have been right, had it been a bird or a squirrel. But the creature hiding amongst the branches had sharper claws, and a much stronger grip.

Madison McSweeney

Madison McSweeney is a Canadian horror writer and poet. Her works have appeared in a number of outlets, most recently Bikers VS The Undead, Under the Full Moon’s Light, Zombie Punks F*ck Off, Horror Tree, and Rhythm & Bones. She blogs at madisonmcsweeney.com and tweets from @MMcSw13.

Santa’s Here

I heard the footsteps upon my roof that evening.

“He’s here,” I cheered, as I ran down the stairs in excitement.

I waited anxiously as he made his way down the chimney, wondering of the gifts he would bring.

A foot came into view in the fireplace. My heart began to pound with anticipation.

A cloud of soot filled the air as his feet reached the bottom.

As the black dust dissipated, the man stepped into view.

“You’re not Santa,” I said.

He looked down at me with his charred, disfigured face and grinned. “Santa only visits good little boys.”

Eric Baker

Eric Baker is a professional cook and freelance Horror and Comedy writer from Chattanooga, TN. He has had pieces published in both “Trembling With Fear” and “Brownbag Magazine.” He currently lives in Twin Falls, Idaho with his wife and nine-year-old son.

Silly-Billy

“Last time, okay?”

“Gotcha, Mama.”

“I spy with my little eye something…green.”

“Santa.”

“He’s red, silly-billy!”

“Christmas tree! My turn!”

“Nope. I said that was it.”

“Please, Mama! Please-please-please–“

“Ugh. Fine. Go.”

“I spy wiff my little eye somfing …black ‘n greasy.”

“Licorice.”

“Uh-uh.”

“Coal.”

“Nope!”

“Nothing else’s black—whatever. I give up.”

“Centipedes!”

“God, where? On the tree?!?”

“No! The long centipedes on your face.”

“You mean eyebrows?”

“No! The bugs. They crawl out your mouf when you’re mad. Don’t they tickle?”

“I can’t feel…. You really see them?”

“Yep.”

“That’s …terrifying.”

“Nah. Daddy’s Lie Spiders are ter-fying.”

Jeanette Lang

Jeannette Lang is an emerging writer from Pennsylvania who has just recently released her “little terrors” out into the world.

She is developing a website (that should go live in 2019) to showcase her creepy poetry, short fiction, and fiber art.

For now, her fiber art can be viewed and commissioned by visiting Lang’s Little Terrors Facebook page.

Snow Angels

Scalding cider sloshed my fingers when I heard that SHUFF! SHUFF! SHUFF! out my window.

I yanked the curtain to discover sparkling snowfall marred by six small winged impressions.

Coatless, I marched into the cold, snatched the shovel, and smeared away those cursed angels. “Leave me be!”

I returned inside, shivering. Christmas lights sputtered. Bells jangled. Ghostly giggles echoed.

SHUFF! SHUFF! SHUFF!

“Please!” I cried.

The impressions returned, gowns and wings swiped by little arms and legs.

Every December. All winter long.

“I’m sorry!”

Six children I abandoned in that burning school.

Burned but not gone.

I only saved myself.

Kevin M. Folliard

Kevin M. Folliard is a Chicagoland writer whose published fiction includes scary stories collections Christmas Terror Tales and Valentine Terror Tales, and adventure novels such as Matt Palmer and the Komodo Uprising. His work has also been collected by Double Feature Magazine, Flame Tree Publishing, Parsec Ink, and more.

 

LINKS:

 

Author Website: http://www.kevinfolliard.com/

Amazon Page: https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-Folliard/e/B0097S7T0A/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

Christmas Terror Tales on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChristmasTerrorTales/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kmfollia/

Twas the night before…

My eyes, thick with the gumminess of sleep, opened as the incessant pressure in my bladder called to me.

Get up and pee now, it insisted.

I shuffled to the bathroom, idly wondering if we’d wake to a white Christmas or a wet one.

I opened the bathroom door, planning to look outside for snow, but the small room was pitch dark, absolutely no light coming in from outside.

I paused, letting my eyes adjust, and two red windows opened, the shades rising together, which confused me… I’d never seen that before.

And then I realized it… those were eyes.

 

G.A. Miller

G.A. Miller is a new voice in the chorus of horror authors, drawing his ideas from every day, commonplace events that take unforeseen turns down dark corridors, often with horrific consequences.

His work has been published in numerous anthologies from a variety of publishers, and he’s just released his first novella, “Spirit of the Dead”, now available at Amazon.

https://talesfrommiller.com/

http://gamillerdotblog.wordpress.com/

Who

Christmas eve, a year after her death, I dreamt Dianne was sitting at my kitchen table. A white owl, staring adoringly at her like I always used to, pecked at a teacup.

“Aww-take our picture!” Dianne posed as I fiddled with my phone’s camera setting. The owl flapped its wings, knocking the teacup to the tiled floor.

I woke up as it shattered.

On Christmas morning, I tried to post a selfie but selected the wrong image, instead uploading a photo of my kitchen. And in the foreground, surrounded by broken china, a pretty owl looked up into empty space.

 

Jeanette Lang

Jeannette Lang is an emerging writer from Pennsylvania who has just recently released her “little terrors” out into the world.

She is developing a website (that should go live in 2019) to showcase her creepy poetry, short fiction, and fiber art.

For now, her fiber art can be viewed and commissioned by visiting Lang’s Little Terrors Facebook page.

Oh, the weather outside is frightful

The snow had been building for three weeks leading up to Christmas.

A winter wonderland.

It had gotten so bad that the mail had stopped being delivered.

There were going to be a lot of unhappy kids this year.

Jason knew that he wasn’t going to be one of them.

He had stayed home when his parents took his little sister to try and get groceries.

It wasn’t long before he found his presents.

His parents never came home.

They didn’t answer the phone.

Nor did the police.

Jason was starting to get hungry.

At least he had his presents.

Stuart Conover

Happy holidays again one and all! I’m your friendly neighborhood Editor-Man and it has been another amazing year. I’m hoping to up my writing output a bit this year as I’ve had to cut back due to other obligations but hope you enjoy!

You can follow my work at https://www.stuartconover.com

 

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About Stuart Conover

Stuart Conover is a father, husband, published author, blogger, geek, entrepreneur, horror fanatic, and runs a few websites including Horror Tree!

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