Trembling With Fear Christmas 2020 Edition

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and all that jazz! (Or bah humbug for those who can’t stand the season.)

Today, our present to you is a fresh batch of sinister stories to unwrap and read at your leisure. It could be after opening actual presents with your family (who you’re hopefully living with and not breaking social distance to be with) to being cozied up under the covers while stuck in quarantine. It could be a bonus treat for after Christmas itself. No matter when you’re reading this, I believe you’ll find something to enjoy.

Celebrating the season or not, I hope each of you has a happy holiday week! If you’re stuck alone for the holidays and need someone to talk to, be sure to reach out to any of us on social media and we’ll be happy to have a brief fireside chat! (Well, maybe around a fire on YouTube as most of us don’t have fireplaces in our houses… Wait, how is Santa getting in?!)

Sincerely your friendly neighborhood editor and chief,
Stuart Conover

Stuart Conover

Editor, Horror Tree

Christmas in Resurrection Cemetery by Kevin M. Folliard

Midnight church bells stir Mary Bregovy’s spirit. 

She sits atop a snow-caked tombstone, her gown a glowing gossamer. Flurries drift through her and bury headstones in a pale carpet. 

Mary listens to hymns carried on polar winds from warm congregations, where Chicagoland residents sing “Silent Night.”

She recalls holding a hymnal in one hand, Mother gripping the other. She sees Mother’s hot cocoa eyes, hears her honeyed voice. Thoughts of Mother’s velvety church ensemble—a crimson poinsettia pinned to her hat—give way to her mourner’s veil.

She wonders if Mother lingers half in the world too. Or if time settled her soul enough for Heaven’s gates.

Mary pines for a warm dance hall like the one she left the night of her accident. 

A brass band. A highball.

She dreams of her father at the piano in their cozy southside home.

Coffee and eggnog. 

Paczki and apple tart.

Colorful packages beneath a star-speckled tree.

Mary sheds no tears for lost pleasures. Instead she follows the whisper of distant carolers and glides past the barren branches of slumbering oaks. The blizzard falls harder, but Mary cannot get any colder. 

Beneath the howling North wind, she recites “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” stirring the hearts of dance partners long decayed in frozen ground. 

She finds a soul so old that even if Mary could wipe the snow away the marker would be too worn to read. She kneels, reaches—fingers icy as permafrost—until she meets his grip.

She pulls her half-gone gentleman from the earth, and helps him stand tall. Worms wriggle in mud caked between his ancient bones. He knows little of who he was, but thanks to decay, he can’t help but smile.

Though she wishes her date covered in muscle and skin, pumping with the hot blood of man, she settles for knobby, rotted joints, and the tattered remains of his finery. She slides her arms around sharp shoulder blades. Skeletal hands grip the small of her back. 

They sway and swirl.

Their feet make no noise, leave not one footprint in God’s snow.

Kevin M. Folliard

Kevin M. Folliard is a Chicagoland writer whose fiction has been collected by The Horror Tree, Flame Tree Publishing, The Dread Machine, and more. His recent publications include “Halfway to Forgotten,” featured on The No Sleep Podcast; the Short Sharp Shocks! novella “Tower of Raven”; and his 2020 horror anthology The Misery King’s Closet. Kevin currently resides in La Grange, IL, where he enjoys his day job as an academic writing advisor and active membership in the La Grange and Brookfield Writers Groups. When not writing or working, he’s usually reading Stephen King, playing Super Mario Maker, or traveling the U.S.A. 

Christmas Presence by DJ Tyrer

There were white sandy beaches instead of drifts of snow – not that it ever seemed to snow at Christmas – and palm trees leaning drunkenly out over the sea in place of conifers draped with tinsel. Tracy was glad that the Seychelles were nothing like the idealized Christmas of her childhood, was glad to be free of the festivity.

She gave a languid stretch and savoured the sensation of the sun upon her skin, lovely and warm.

Tracy fancied another rum and coke.

The sand was soft and warm beneath her bare feet as she rolled off of the sun-lounger and walked back up the beach to the hut that was their holiday home.

Doug was inside, standing by the television. He turned at the soft sound of her entry.

“What ya doing?” she asked him with a grin, then her expression froze and she let out a gasp of horror. “What the hell is that?”

She pointed at the TV. Draped upon it was some ersatz holly, cheap green plastic leaves and unrealistic berries. Only their spherical shape and the outline of the leaves were at all realistic, and then not much.

“What the hell is that?” she repeated.

Doug chuckled. “What do you think it is, love? It’s holly, innit? A little bit of Christmas to decorate the place for the holiday. Couldn’t let it pass uncelebrated, could we?”

“Yes, we could, you jackass!” She pushed past him and snatched the plastic decorations from the top of the TV and tossed them into the bin. “That’s exactly why we’re here and not at home. I told you I didn’t want to celebrate Christmas.”

“Hey, hey, hey. Sorry, honey. I just thought you meant you didn’t want a traditional Christmas – you know, turkey and all the trimmings, carols round the fire, all that. Not no Christmas at all.”

“Well, that’s what I meant and now, you’ve gone and ruined it.”

“Oh, come on, it’s just a bit of holly. It’s not even real, at that.”

“Well, leave it, don’t mention it again. I want to enjoy this holiday.”

“I thought we’d exchange presents a little later…” he added lamely.

“I don’t want a present – and, I haven’t bought you one, either. Drop it.”

“But, why? Who the hell doesn’t want to celebrate Christmas?”

“Seriously, won’t you let it go?”

“Sorry, I just don’t understand…”

“Look, something bad happened at Christmas last year, and I don’t want to be reminded of it.”

“Oh. Has this got something to do with your parents and that compensation payout?”

“Nailed it in one, Einstein.” Tracy sighed. “I don’t want to talk about it. Please, let it go.”

“Okay,” he said slowly, nodding, expression still perplexed.

“Good. Now, I want a drink and I’m going to go catch a few more rays.”

“Pour me one, too, love.”

“Sure, whatever.” She made two drinks and took hers outside, Doug trailing after her.

Tracy drifted in and out of a pleasant doze, while he read on his Kindle.

A sudden chill woke her and she sat up and looked around.

Night had fallen, the light of a thin sliver of moon shining silvery upon the sands.

Her breath clouded as she let it slowly out.

Tracy knew it could be chilly at night in the tropics, in comparison with the heat of the day, at least, but should it be this cold?

She shivered and reached for her towel and wrapped it about herself like a blanket.

If the sand had been snow, she could have almost imagined she was back home.

Horrific images rose unbidden in her mind. Just a year ago, yet they felt as if they belonged to another life. She didn’t want to imagine she was back home. She swore at the thought her escape from her memories hadn’t worked.

But, then, could anyone truly escape their past?

She stood and winced. The sand was cold like ice beneath her bare soles.

Something was definitely wrong.

Heart hammering, she jogged back up the beach to their hut.

At least the wooden verandah didn’t feel icy. She burst in through the open front.

“Doug? Doug, you awake?”

He wasn’t in the main room. The bathroom door was shut.

“Doug, you in there?” she called, hesitating to draw near.

Her breath continued to fog before her.

“Doug, I’m scared.”

The bathroom door opened. Doug stepped into the room. He had on his beach robe.

Tracy swore. “You startled me, you jerk.”

He gave a low chuckle.

“It’s not funny. And, don’t laugh like that – it… it’s horrible.”

He chuckled again.

The sound took her back, reminded her of that night.

A serial killer, the police had said. Not his first victims.

Her parents had been skinned alive. An insane ritual, the police told her. They hadn’t believed what she told them, had paid her off, kept the details from the press.

“Please…” she whined. “Don’t laugh like that.”

Doug stepped a little closer. Something was wrong. Although he was grinning, the expression was lopsided and strange, as if his skin was too loose.

His skin…

Her hands flew to her mouth as she swore. The lips that twitched in the darkness were slick and moved within an open space like a gaping mouth.

She reached out for the light-switch, hoping the electric glare would dispel the nightmare.

It wasn’t her boyfriend. Well, no more than his face, ill-fitting and loose.

He – it – continued to grin and, as it did so, it slipped the robe off. Underneath, the figure – not Doug – not Doug – wore a red coat like Santa did. Only, this coat was slick like wet rubber.

Her mind flashed back to a Christmas night years before, her father’s presence at the foot of her bed, dressed like Santa, a sack slung upon his back. Her father, but not, a slick red coat made from skin turned inside out, a sack of flesh filled with bones…

It was happening again!

Her eyes flicked towards the open bathroom door. Doug was still in there, she knew it. In her mind’s eye, she saw a bath wet with blood, his skinless corpse slumped in it…

She looked at the figure that wore his skin.

“You…” she groaned.

It grinned wider, bloody, fleshless lips within the open mouth of her boyfriend’s face.

It stepped towards her. She took a step backwards. Blood dripped from its coat of skin as it moved.

“What are you?” she asked. “What do you want with me? What did my family do?”

“Skin,” it said, voice soft and moist.

Tracy had read the legends of Krampus and other Christmas demons, the dark side of the festive season, of shamans who wore bloody skins in ceremonies to reach strange and dark realms of spirit, all the hints that offered no answers, had tried to convince herself that it all meant nothing, that she’d imagined what she’d seen, that the police were right.

She had hoped to avoid Christmas, escape the memories, the triggers.

Escape it

But, even here, far from the northern winter, it had found her, come for her.

“Please,” she moaned. “No…”

It stepped nearer. There was a knife in its hand, old and long and stained.

Tracy turned and ran.

She tripped and fell, face down on the sand.

The sand was cold beneath her skin.

Soft chill kisses brushed her back.

Tracy screamed: It was snowing!

Behind her, she heard footsteps crunching nearer across the frozen sand.

There was no escape. Everywhere in the world, it was Christmas, and Santa could deliver his presence anywhere he wished in the twinkling of an eye.

How she had hoped it were nothing more than a fairy story.

The knife slashed and she screamed again.

Her final cry. Her last Christmas.

DJ Tyrer

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing, was placed second in the 2019 ‘Dead of Winter’ horror story competition, 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 CallHinnom MagazineParABnormalKzineRavenwood Quarterly, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor).

DJ Tyrer’s Facebook author page is at https://www.facebook.com/DJTyrerwriter/
DJ Tyrer‘s website is at https://djtyrer.blogspot.co.uk/
The Atlantean Publishing website is at https://atlanteanpublishing.wordpress.com/

Enzymes by Neil James Hudson

I eat Christmas dinner alone. I have no decorations, no tree. Cards, fewer each year, are piled up on the mantlepiece, ready for recycling. The few presents I received were sent to charity unopened. The screens stay off. I turn the carol singers away; they remind me of Karaline all those years ago. But I cook the dinner. A traditional turkey, from a grade 1 factory, one that has suffered particularly from bad reactions in the past. Enough enzymes to kill an elephant; I should find it indigestible at best.

Every year I have the same ritual. I remove the meat from the oven, let it cool a little. Then I take out the knife. I study its blade, admiring how easily it cuts through flesh, and imagine it cutting through mine. But I apply it instead to the cooked meat in front of me, carving off a few burnt slices. I transfer them to my plate without enthusiasm. They look artificial and unappetizing. 

I offer up a prayer, a prayer for Christmas Day. “Let it poison me,” I say out loud. “Let it kill me.”

Then I eat.

#

When Karaline told me she loved me, I knew things had to come to an end. I’d got what I wanted from her, and it was time to run.

I’d always been honest with her. Even then, on that afternoon, I told her again. “I’m not boyfriend material. And I’m certainly not good enough for you. I’ll only let you down.”

If it weren’t for her eyes, I wouldn’t have stayed with her for so long. But they were so sexy, far more so than her breasts or legs. It was funny to think that she didn’t even know; to her, they were just something to look out with. To me, they were snares. She snared me now, as she said, “I know you. You’re better than that.”

But I could free myself from a snare, and there were plenty more eyes like that in the world. I was ready for some new ones, and I was well practised in ending relationships. I’d done it twice while I was with Karaline.

It was her idea that we should spend Christmas together, and I couldn’t resist breaking the news to her then. I’ve always had a sense of occasion. I offered to share the cooking, which she firmly declined, having suffered it before. I reminded her that I needed grade 3 meat.

It was funny to think what a favour the meat farms had done to me. As natural meat died out and factory meat became an everyday essential, people were slow to discover that they could only digest the meat from particular companies. Those companies were shut down once the authorities realized, but it was too late – the enzymes in our digestive systems had been adapted to particular brands. Other companies arose to replace the old ones, and I guessed that if you looked at who owned them, and who owned the owners, you wouldn’t have to go too far up the tree until you found the same people.

Karaline and I could sit at the same table, but we couldn’t eat the same food.

She put everything into that dinner. I was almost tempted to stay, just for the food. But she’d used the l-word, uttered the phrase that told me to get out before it was too late,pushed it too far, and it was time to leave. “I want to do something,” I said. “To commit. To show how I feel.”

She looked at me as if I was about to get the ring out. “What?”

“I want to eat some of your food.”

Looking back, I don’t know why I always had to end it this way. I always thought I wanted to punish them, for being so dumb as to fall for me in the first place. But I also wondered if I were trying to close the door behind me, make sure there was no chance of coming back.

“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You know the enzymes have permanently affected your digestive system. You’ll get ill. Stomach cramps at best; you might make yourself  sick, or have a worse allergic reaction.”

“I know. But I want to do it. I want to do everything with you. Including eat the same food.” I hesitated, tried to look as if I was plucking up the courage. Then, before she could stop me, I jabbed my fork onto her plate, snatched some of her meat and put it into my mouth. She watched, astonished, as I chewed and swallowed.

“In that case….” she said.

“Oh no Karaline, you don’t have to. It was just something I wanted.”

“No. We both do it.” I watched as she stabbed a piece on my plate. I had already cut it off to make it easier for her.

“Please don’t,” I said, as she swallowed the meat that she would find indigestible. It was that simple. I didn’t force her. I never did. I stood up.

“Oh, there was something I was going to mention,” I said. “I seem to be immune to the enzymes.” She was already looking ill. I smiled. “I warned you I wasn’t good enough for you. I think it’s time we called it a day.”

I looked for the shock of betrayal in her eyes. I loved these moments, collected them like love letters. But she had gone bright red, and was clutching at her throat. I thought it best to leave before she threw up over the table.

“You should have talked to my exes. Enjoy your dinner.”

I expected her to run to the toilet, cursing me as the spasms hit her. I frowned. “You might want to see a doctor once you’ve recovered.”

She was reacting much worse than I’d seen before. I’d only intended to make her sick, but her face actually seemed to have gone blue.

“Karaline, you’re not breathing. Please try to take a deep breath.”

It was only a few more seconds before I called for the ambulance. I couldn’t have known, I told myself, I couldn’t have known she’d react this badly. I knew I could be cruel, but I wasn’t that cruel. She was slumped over the table; I nearly dropped her as I laid her on the floor. The man on the phone told me how to give her chest compressions, and I obeyed. I felt a rib crack beneath my hands, and pushed harder.

I was exhausted when the paramedics arrived. I slumped against the wall, and could only watch helplessly as they tried to save her life. And failed.

#

The meat tastes foul in my mouth as I swallow it, hoping for the same fate.

I told the police everything, about how I was responsible. They didn’t accept it. She had acted of her own free will, and I was charged with nothing.

“I’m sorry,” I say quietly, wishing I had known then what I now understand. I eat as much as I can manage. Each morsel sits uncomfortably in my stomach; but it slides down and stays there.

Why was I the one who escaped? Why was I not made a prisoner of a single factory farm, when Karaline was so easy a victim?

Poison me, I say to each forkful that I force into my gullet. Make me ill. Kill me.

There are no ill effects. I close my eyes, but all I can see is Karaline looking back up at me, her emotions impossible to read through the physical effects of her reaction. I open them again, but cannot see for my tears.

“I love you too,” I say, but there is no one there.

Neil James Hudson

Neil James Hudson is a UK-based writer who has published around fifty stories in zines such as The First Line and On The Premises, as well as anthologies for Third Flatiron and Circlet Press. He lives in the middle of nowhere on the North York moors but spends much of his time in York, where he works as a charity shop manager and has just been awarded a distinction in the York St John University Creative Writing MA programme. Further information can be found on his website at www.neiljameshudson.net.
 

Stalking in a Winter Wonderland by Drake Dalton

Look, let’s get one thing out of the way. I don’t enjoy feasting on unsuspecting couples who are taking romantic, Christmas Eve strolls through Central Park. It’s just that it’s so easy.  While they’re busy ooohing and ahhing at lights and decorations, I am trying to decide which pair will be the most appetizing for my final meal of the year. Before you ask, no. We don’t feed every night. Vamps have evolved to feed less as to draw the least amount of attention. How else do you think thousands of us can survive in New York City? Let’s just say, I hope they don’t decide to drain The Lake one day. Gonna be a hell of a shock. I’ve been stalking around Central Park for the past 75 Christmases or so. That’s at least 150 I’ve dumped in there. Could be less, I’m sure there were a few loners here and there. People tend to get sad around the holidays and walk around town to lift their spirits. I’m not the only one who does this, by the way. And don’t start giving me shit for ruining Christmas for families. I need it to survive. Plus, it’s not like anyone cared when my family went through the same thing 75 years ago. While I have you here, I’ll spin a tale of Yuletide terror like they did before Hallmark and Macy’s got involved. Name’s Nick, by the way. And no, the irony is not lost on me. 

It was around December 1945. America and the Allies had just defeated fascism. Oddly enough, the war was a great time for the children of the night (we can come out in the daylight, just not for long. Ignore the movies). No one looked twice if there was a drained body near a battlefield. Or so I’m told. But how cool would that be? You get to kill a Nazi, slowly drain him of his blood, AND get a meal out of it. That wasn’t a bullet that killed Hitler, either. The way it was told to me, a Jewish vamp had been stalking him for years, making his way into his inner circle. Once the end was in sight, he led him down into a bunker. Nighty night, you evil fuck. That’s the thing about blood. It all tastes the same, no matter if you’re an evil, murdering bigot or not. But I’d like to think that him draining Hitler was a little sweeter. Hell, I wish I could’ve been there. 

December 1945 was a great time to be in New York City. There were parties everywhere. I was working the night shift as an elevator operator at some fancy apartment building. You can’t even imagine the shit I’d see walking through. Some of New York’s richest and most famous stumbling in the building late at night, still celebrating the Allies’ win and Christmas all together. One night, some guy I’d seen a few times brought in a huge group. I didn’t know his name, just assumed he was a trust fund baby blowing through his daddy’s riches and fucking everything he could find. It wasn’t hard to come up with some sad-sack story of you saving your sergeant’s hide during some battle and having some girl ready to eat out of the palm of your hand. I’m not proud of it. It’s just the way it was. Just as the guy and his friends are walking past, he tells me, “Come up when your shift is over.19th floor.” I wasn’t making a ton of dough so it wasn’t a hard decision to make. Free booze, free food? The only elevator ride I enjoyed taking was that night. 

I knocked on the door. The man yelled a quick, “Come in!” You wouldn’t believe this apartment. Even by today’s standards, it was immaculate. He had it decorated to the brim with Christmas stuff. Bing Crosby softly sang “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” in the background. It looked like most of the guests had bailed. The ones still there were passed out in different places. 

“Who do I hafta screw to get a drink around here?”

“Well, it looks like everyone else has visions of sugarplums right about now, so that leaves me.”

The man came around the corner with a glass in his hand and what looked like red wine spilled on his shirt. 

“The name’s Jakob. I’m glad you took me up on the invitation. I apologize my other guests aren’t night owls.” 

I could tell he was a highly educated man, but I couldn’t place the accent. 

“I’m Nick. Most people in this building pretend I don’t exist once I hit the button for their floor.” 

“Being unnoticeable has its charms.”

I couldn’t stop looking around the apartment. I only dreamed of such a luxury. 

Sleighbells ring, are you listenin’? 

Replaying the memory now, I should’ve seen the signs. Had I not been totally struck by the opulence, I may have noticed the guests weren’t passed out from the booze. They all lay prostrate, some on top of others. What I had mistaken for red wine on his shirt, also pooled around those guests. 

“Martini?” He was pouring a drink into a glass.

“Sure, I’ll take whatever you got. I’m not picky.” 

But you can do the job when you’re in town.

He was beside me in what I can only describe as how a bulb from a camera flashes. His hot breath was on my neck. The smell of pennies hit me. 

“Thanks. So what do you do in order to stay in an apartment like this?”

“Real estate. Mostly commercial. Since the war has ended, business has been picking up. This place isn’t mine. Just a space that is on the market. Technically, I’m a squatter.”

Gone away is the bluebird.

As he said this, he moved behind me. I felt the pinprick in my neck. Two punctures. You know how it goes, I’m sure. 

Here to stay is the new bird.

#

I woke up days later. The bodies of the guests had been removed. I felt like I had been through ten rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson. I didn’t see or hear Jakob. I finally forced myself up. There was a note on the counter. 

“Nick,

I’m sorry to leave you. Our kind cannot stay together too long in one place. The apartment is taken care of for one year. Use it as you wish. Your job is not in jeopardy. I explained to your boss that you had a stomach bug and would be back at work in a few days. I’m sure you have a lot of questions, and I will answer them in the future. For now, I left you a few volumes of, well, let’s call it an instruction manual. No need to worry about food. I’ve left plenty bottled in the wine cabinet. It takes getting used to, but trust me, having a supply will be helpful. Meet me next Christmas Eve in Central Park. There’s a man who runs a carriage operation. You know, the ones couples pay too much for a storybook sleigh ride in the snow. I hope to see you then. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. 

Respectfully yours,

Jakob”

Our kind? You can imagine, I had a thousand thoughts going through my head. He was right about one thing, I felt like shit. Stomach flu or not, something had me. After reading the letter a few times, I checked in the wine cabinet. Bottles and bottles of blood were stored. Taking his advice, I grabbed a corkscrew and opened one. The martini glass from the previous night still sat on the counter. I poured a glass. “Bottoms up,” I spoke to no one as I turned it back. “Jesus fucking Christ, is this blood?” No matter how disgusting it was, I instantly felt rejuvenated. I can’t explain it. It’s like what you today would call a Red Bull, only a thousand times more potent.  I saw the “instruction manual” Jakob mentioned in his letter. I found a chair by the window that looked out over Manhattan. “Learning to live with Vampirism in a Modern World, Vol. 4”. I cracked open the book, took a sip, and spotted Central Park in the distance. “Cheers, Jakob. See you next year.”

The year flew by. When you’re immortal (to an extent), time has a different speed. It’s hard to explain. I was still able to keep my job since it was the night shift. I pretty much stuck to the surrounding block. I had plenty of food that Jakob left me. Luckily, that meant I didn’t have to hunt. That part still turned me off. I read through the guidebook several times. It opened my eyes to a whole new world. According to this, it’s estimated that the USA has around five million vamps, mostly in big cities. There are rules around creating new vampires. For instance, you can only create three during your lifetime. Your body can’t take it, it’s like an evolutionary thing that keeps the numbers in check. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be long before someone made an army and there’d be a huge human-vamp conflict. But human interests are generally vamp interests. That’s why so many chose the Allies’ side. 

Christmas was quickly approaching. I’d be lying if I wasn’t constantly thinking of meeting Jakob in Central Park. I still had no idea who he was, or why he wanted to meet me. It would be my first time venturing out in a year. I was ready to explore the city as a new person. 

On Christmas Eve, I woke up just before the sun was disappearing over New Jersey. I had a new suit and hat that I had planned to wear just for this evening. The snow had started to fall and began coating the city in a layer of white. The streets and storefronts were decorated with the sights and sounds of the season. Each window filled with its own display of Santa, elves, trees, and animatronic carolers holding candles. Street musicians played their own renditions of Christmas tunes. Even after all these years, there is no better place on Earth this time of year than New York City. It sounds cliche, but it’s true. Even the touristy things like the tree in Rockafeller Center still warm my cold heart. Who says vampires can’t be sentimental? 

I walked the entire way to Central Park. I had cabin fever from the past year and was taking it all in. Once I was there, I immediately spotted the carriage worker. I walked over to him. 

“You must be Nick. Jakob should be here shortly. Go ahead and hop in.”

“Thanks. You know, I’ve never taken a carriage ride through Central Park.”

“Well, can’t get much better than snow on Christmas Eve for your first.”

 

I spotted Jakob walking towards us. A grin washed across his face. 

“I see you survived your first year. I knew you’d make it just fine. That’s why I chose you.”

“I don’t understand. I had no idea who you were until that night.”

“Call it vamp intuition. Now, I see you’ve already met Abraham. He’s not like us, but we’ve come to a bit of an agreement. A business partnership. Every Christmas Eve, he picks up unsuspecting couples out to enjoy all that Central Park has to offer for their Norman Rockwell ideas. He takes them for a ride out by The Lake. That’s where we will come in. Tonight, you finally learn to hunt. Your instincts have had a chance to grow over the past year. You just need to let them guide you with a little help from me.”

“We’re picking off innocent lovers out for a stroll in a winter wonderland?” 

“Get that type of thinking out of your head. You won’t last another year if you think of them as innocent. Does the wolf think of the calf this way? No, because it means survival.” 

We were dropped off by The Lake and waited in the cold. Not long after, Abraham returned with two turtledoves sitting in the back of the carriage, hand in hand. 

“Alright, follow my lead. Don’t think about what you’re doing or you’ll fuck it all up. It needs to be quick and painless. I’m not that much of a monster. Abraham will stop, point out something across the way to get their attention. That’s when we pounce. Understand?”

I guess I did. My mind kind of just shifted gears. My senses felt honed in and things slowed down. I could hear their hearts beating, no doubt a little faster as the romantic scenery was taking its toll on them. Abraham pulled back on the reins. “If you’ll look out that way, you’ll see…”

Jakob moved with a quickness that took me back to last Christmas. 

He sings a love song, as we go along…

That was about 75 years ago. A lot has changed since then. But the one thing that remains true is the fact that lovesick couples will still pay a good amount of money to be pulled around in Central Park on Christmas Eve on a long-gone form of transportation. And lovesick Vampires will still, after 75 years, meet up and wait for those unsuspecting lovebirds to come around the corner and be told, “If you’ll look out that way, you’ll see…” 

Jakob and I filled our glasses with the last drops of our Christmas feast. I still kept the martini glass from our first night together. We looked out over the snow-capped trees, the frozen lake, and the Christmas lights that adorned the park. This was the only night out of the year we were together. It had stayed a tradition after our first hunt. We tapped our glasses and said, “Cheers!” We took it all in. We knew these were the last moments before we had to wait another 364 days. It really made you appreciate the Christmas season. We didn’t need gifts. Just a carriage, an infatuated young couple, and a driver who didn’t ask questions. 

Jakob pulled out his phone and started playing a Christmas playlist. “This song was playing the night we met. In my apartment, you remember?” 

“How could I ever forget? Merry Christmas, Jakob.”

“Merry Christmas, Nick.” 

We’ll frolic and play, the Eskimo way…

Drake Dalton

Drake Dalton is a new writer and currently a 4th-grade language arts teacher in Marietta, GA. He is an avid reader and has been wanting to write for some time. The coronavirus pandemic has finally given him the push he needed to start submitting stories. 

The Christmas Tradition by Connie Lee

The words ‘Stop and put your hands behind your head’ echoed through Gregory Lowe just as they did through the frozen, still air of that dark December night last year. No matter how many times he yelled, the tall suspect with the bellowing hump that had been terrorizing Serenity Falls refused to put down his sewing shears, or what was left of the man he had been turning inside out. 

The snow turned a muddy crimson as the suspect, James Garrett, threw out the parts he didn’t want of his former lover. Greg could only see what seemed to be part of a liver and chipped bones that had spilled onto the snow in front of Garrett’s home. He pulled out his gun and shot over and over, but he must’ve missed more than once because before he knew it, he had been hit head on and tackled down onto the cold cement. 

Garrett, who had a good 50 pounds over Greg, managed to hold him down as he squirmed with his head in pain. All he heard was “I didn’t mean to do it! Luna told me that he was cheating on me!” as red and blue flashing lights surrounded them both. The reinforcement was able to drag Garrett off Greg but he only had one question before getting back up.

“Before I lose my mind again, who the hell is this weirdo talking about? Who’s Luna?”

Sheriff Samuels grabbed Greg’s hands and slowly helped him up off the ground. 

“Not who: it. Luna’s his goddamn cat,” the Sheriff said as he stared over at Garrett, who was now in the back of a deputy’s car. “He said that the cat told him that his boyfriend was going to leave him, so he deserved to die or some crap like that. It’s bull.”

Greg watched as his fellow officers walked in and out of Garrett’s house, collecting what they could so they’d be able to feed the newspapers as much dirty laundry about this case as they could. Soon, he saw one of them carry out a crate, in it two eyes shining blue and green against the moonlight.

“What’ll happen to her?” Greg asked.

“Probably just give her up to the pound. Who’ll want it? Isn’t there a saying for animals that have seen bad things? Bad luck or somethin’ like that,” replied the Sheriff. 

“Nah, don’t think so. It ain’t right to just leave her behind.”

“Then take her, kid. I don’t care! It’ll be one less thing I have to handle with that creep’s nonsense.” 

The Sheriff walked off in a huff, signaling one of his cops to give Greg the crate.

“Let him take it. He can give it to that wife of his for Christmas.”

Greg took the crate and shined his flashlight inside. The shining bulbs belonged to a tiny body, covered in white and gray stripes, with a black spot right on the tip of its nose.

He knew he was never going to let it go now as the cat started purring and sighed. “You’re coming home with us. Forget this life – you’re getting a second chance.”

“Greg! Earth to Greg! Where the hell are ya again?”

Greg shook his head and himself back to his recliner in his living room. Jumping up, he could feel the dampness on his back as his wife’s snapping fingers suddenly came into focus, scaring the now-named Sherita off his lap.

“Dammit, take the damn cat off you, Greg. I need your help already. This god damn angel won’t stay on top of the tree.”

Still half asleep, Greg jumped up and went over to the tree and plopped the angel on the top branch without caring if it was still slightly crooked. He knew if he didn’t do it now, he’d have to hear about how there was no excuse for why he wasn’t being a great husband during the holidays.

Evelyn, Greg’s wife, sighed with her usual disgust as she watched the angel slowly tip to its left side. “Thank God we don’t have kids. If you can’t even take care of us, there’s no way in hell we’d be able to buy toys every Christmas.”

Greg laughed shortly and ran his hand through his dark hair as the Boston in Evelyn’s words showed up again to give the daily verdict of what a screw-up he had been. At 35, he had more decorations on his police uniform than they ever had in their home. He had never wanted to be a cop but when he met Evelyn 10 years ago, got married within eight months, and he knew that he had to step it up because he wanted kids, turkey-filled holidays, the whole shebang.

Instead, they now had a wry striped cat whose eyes followed Evelyn’s every move as it listened to every foul statement that came out of her mouth.

“I’m glad too,” Greg said finally as he picked up the irritated Sherita, imagining for a moment that their tree would come crashing down on his wife. 

He wasn’t about to give Evelyn more satisfaction by showing that her words were now packed away with many other of her constant sayings that have been eating away at his stomach lining for much longer than his booze addiction has.

Luckily for Greg’s stomach, he was forced to choose the constant criticism over a drink or two – or his usual many more – if he still wanted to be a Serenity Falls cop. 

This time last year, he gladly took the leave as a ‘time to heal,’ knowing that this could’ve been his way out, but that would’ve never gone over well with Evelyn. He would be sitting at home, ‘wasting away, sleeping in the recliner’ according to her, and all he did was bring home a cat that she liked for about a week before it turned into a statue every time she came into the room.

He also loathed himself for being scared. Greg didn’t want to be one of the guys that were talked about in the office: the ne’er-doer’s who lost their wife, their job, and their will to keep up. In reality, he knew that with her constantly bringing up his past mistakes and the lack of a future, there were no amount of kids or things he could provide to Evelyn that would keep her happy. 

Evelyn even took the authority to name Sherita: a mix of her mother’s name, Rita, and her grandma’s Sherry. Normally, this would’ve excited him to see her put love into something she would’ve normally never paid attention to but she made it clear that this was her Christmas present to herself for Greg being gone most days that December. Even if the name stuck around while Evelyn’s sudden cat fondness didn’t, Greg knew from the cat’s jagged tabby stripes and notched ear that she was his, and that whatever happened in James Garrett’s home, Sherita was his piece of Christmas good luck to finally start anew.

“Yeah, yeah. You should be glad I even let you sleep this much while it smells like cat piss here and I’m still washing your clothes AND decorating. What have you done? Nada!” 

Evelyn’s voice rang through his ears as she wrapped some cheap tinsel she found across their tree.

Normally, his grogginess wouldn’t have stopped him from giving a quick quip back but he was back to where he kept finding himself more and more: driven by the brief snippets that would run through his brain while he was asleep.

After rescuing Sherita and making the choice to quit his addiction, Greg’s dreams had started changing. Being a cop, he wasn’t unfamiliar with a nightmare here and there but they became more frequent, sometimes being more violent and realistic than others. It didn’t take him long to notice that they started revolving around one specific person: Evelyn.

He assumed his body was going through emotional withdrawal from alcohol every time it happened, especially with them fighting more than ever. On the sixth night after he quit, Greg dreamt about the Garrett case. He was back in the snow, feeling the same pain in his head. Only that time, it was Evelyn hovering above him with the skin of Garret’s dead lover in her hands. All he could see was the Christmas lights reflecting greens, blues, reds, and yellows off of her sallow face while the blood froze black down her arms. She stretched the skin as much as she could in front of him, gashes oozing the icy fluids of what once made them whole.

“YOU could’ve stopped this! HE died because of you!” She kept screaming over and over to Greg.

He was able to jerk himself awake but instead of feeling across the bed to see if Evelyn was still asleep, he felt around to the tickling movement around his neck. Greg turned over to see Sherita’s glowing eyes staring at him in the dark and her low purrs vibrating into his cheekbone, covering up what remained of his wife’s pulsating voice long enough for him to forget that there was anyone next to him in the bed at all that night. 

A few months later, Greg’s dreams had caught up with him again, but had now spilled over into daylight. During the day, he had created enough of a routine to distract himself from the drinks he had been missing but this still didn’t do any favors for the dread that was always bubbling at his feet. He’d bang away at nails on their walls and would tighten all the screws twice, hoping that the noise would overpower the voice he was hearing around every corner, waiting to tell him what a waste he was.

For a while, this had been enough. He’d nap peacefully in his recliner next to his favorite window after keeping himself busy but the few hours he’d set aside had turned into 20-minute intervals of barely-there sleep, only to be pushed awake again by the images of Evelyn’s face slowly rotting away. 

With each dream came flashes of her walking after Greg, the flesh of her face coming off in more pieces every time. At one point within them, she had finally caught up with him and grabbed him by the hands, forcing him to remove what was left. He saw himself trying to turn away but knew this time was different. Her grip on him was so strong and so determined that all he had to do was wipe his hand across her cheek and off came the muscle and tissue, damp with decay.

And with that, he was given an unsaid promise: he needed to just pluck away, and every awful word and unfair judgement over the years would be gone, and his fears would be free to leave. He picked and sorted through the skin, only to find a blank space left behind. There was no color or bone, but just the vacant gap of a face that would eventually be long forgotten by everyone else, no matter how much resentment had eaten through the cavities when she was alive. 

The dreams had no longer scared Greg as much as the feelings they were stirring up inside but knew he could never speak of them out loud as much as they started consuming him every time Evelyn would walk into the room or even pass by him while he was in his chair. The only thing that brought him the same relief he had now felt in his dreams was when he’d wake up, he’d find Sherita cozy on his lap or cuddled up by his shoulder. Her eyes would turn to him, almost knowing of the terror that Greg would see when his eyes were closed, and they accepted him no matter how he felt. Those same eyes telling him that he could always turn to her for Evelyn was never good enough to begin to understand.

In Sherita, Greg had the confidante that was missing in Evelyn. When he’d see his wife go out the door when she was especially angry, or see her rumbling through their home and trying to take care of 50 chores at once, he’d sit and giggle to himself, knowing that the only other one that knew his secrets let them hang right on their whiskers but a word would never be spoken. 

He knew that if he looked over at Sherita, she could see the tenseness in the air and understood how quickly he now knew he could make it disappear. Her soft mews encouraged that everything Evelyn had ever said about Greg wasn’t true, and that eventually her lies would dissipate along with her face.

“I don’t care what she thinks!” Greg told Sherita one early fall day a couple of months ago as she was perched on top of their fridge, eyes slowly blinking back at him. “Don’t you ever dare tell me that’s why she doesn’t think I’m a man, especially in my own home.”

Sherita silently stared back, watching him rock back and forth in the recliner as he waited for Evelyn to come back from the store.

“Of course, she’s at Luther’s, there’s nowhere else she’d go. It’s almost dinner time.”

He rocked some more.

“She’s been lying to me? What if you’re lying to me?”

The cat observed as the chair started bouncing back faster.

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. You wouldn’t do that to me. You only want the best for me, I just don’t need to sleep anymore!”

Suddenly, Greg heard keys jiggling in the door handle.

“Gregory! What the hell, I’ve been calling your name from the driveway for 10 minutes to help with the bags!” Evelyn rushed in, dropping the plastic bags onto the linoleum floor before they could tip her over.

“You know who I saw at the store? Abbey, Officer Scott’s wife. She was tellin’ me they were wonderin’ about when you were coming back to the office. 

“Oh? And what’d you tell her?” Greg asked,

His ears burned as he listened to her talk about how she felt embarrassed to not have an answer and did him a favor by telling them that he was dabbling in construction to keep his mind busy.

“And get this: Scott is bringing Abbey’s family here for Christmas so they can actually spend their first time in the snow. When was the last time we brought my or your parents here?”

Greg didn’t have to turn around to know how she looked. He’d heard stories like this so many times that he knew she had turned towards him, arms folded with a smirk on her face at the juiciest parts of her gossips, hoping he’d storm towards her to give a reason why he wasn’t doing all the things her friends’ husbands were. 

What Evelyn didn’t realize was that rather than put up a fight, Greg was quietly conspiring with Sherita, who was still laying on top of the fridge, watching everything his wife was doing. He could feel the cat’s contentment of knowing she was right, of knowing that everything she had told him was true as he only saw Evelyn’s liquifying skin in front of his recliner, drowning her voice away as it swallowed her into a blurred puddle.

“You’re right. We have to do it.” Greg said, interrupting more of Evelyn’s story.

“What was that?” Evelyn asked as he mumbled more to himself, falling fast asleep.

***

Now, Greg’s bewilderment was gone and he knew he couldn’t sleep anymore as he continued to watch Evelyn wind the silver tinsel around their tree, each turn telling him that another year had come and gone and he was responsible for the disappointment her blue eyes held as she looked at him, and his beloved tabby cat that so loyally stayed in his arms, her purrs gleefully whispering into his ears that he knows how he could make everything up and become happy again.

“Nada?” Greg asked Evelyn, standing up and placing Sherita in his chair. He went over to the tree, holding the tinsel in place that his wife was too short to reach.

“I’m just sayin’, putting the angel on the tree doesn’t even count as one thing. That’s your obligation and I still had to ask,” Evelyn said shrugging as she clipped an end off with her copper-colored shears, handing them to Greg after.

“What you can do to help me is put the rest of this tinsel up on the mantle and cut off the ends so it’s all even.” 

He did as he was told, realizing what he had obligated to years ago, and as he started hanging up what he could, he caught a glimpse of the faceless woman on the blade of the shears, disappearing as quickly as it came. Greg, turning toward Sherita before smiling at Evelyn as she picked through the rest of their red and green decorations in various boxes, knew she had been inside of him all along.

“Evelyn?” Greg said as he let the rest of the tinsel fall, letting the blades dig into his palm.

“Come over here. Can you help me a sec?”

***

“I swear Sheriff, I only heard the scream. It went on for about 10 seconds and that was it! Are they okay? They’re a sweet young couple.”

Mrs. Marshall, Gregory and Evelyn Lowe’s next-door neighbor, had called 911 after hearing screams coming from inside their apartment. According to her, it seemed as if someone was still there, muddling through their stuff as she kept seeing someone go back and forth from her window.

Sheriff Samuels caught wind of the call immediately, knowing that something had to be wrong as he hadn’t heard much from Greg since his leave. He knew his home life wasn’t the best but as a cop, it wasn’t too strange.

With Deputies O’Connor and Garson, the Sheriff forced Mrs. Marshall to stay and wait in her home where she was safe and knocked down the locked door of the Lowe’s home, the smell of pennies rushing up their noses and the glow of Christmas tree lights blinding them. Grabbing his gun, Sheriff Samuels called, “Come out with your hands up!” and switched up the light switch next to him, illuminating the room and forcing the deputies to step back in shock. 

On the floor was Evelyn – or what the Sheriff could recognize of her. The flesh of her face, arms, and legs had been cut into strips, and hung up like Christmas tinsel across the mantle, with the extras strung about the tree, blood dripping onto the ornaments they surrounded.

“Greg! Put your damn hands up!” The Sheriff shouted as he put up his gun.

Greg was facing the tree, decorating what he could before he could get taken away. The Sheriff could see Sherita hiding in the corner behind Greg, hissing at the scene she had become too familiar with.

“God dammit, Greg. Don’t make me do this!”

Greg turned around with the shears, and the Sheriff immediately saw that he had carved out bits of his own face and arms, pieces of pink skin and blood contrasting against his gray Serenity Falls PD sweater he had always worn proudly.

“Sherita thought I didn’t have it in me but I showed her.” Greg said, smiling proudly. “Now Ev will never have to worry about her lies again.”

Connie Lee

Connie Lee is a writer based in Southern California. She’s on a mission to find the real fear within every written piece and to make the weirdest things sparkle. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys good desserts, vintage films, and cats.

Number Seventeen by Erik Handy

“What can this be?” I gently shake the box.

“Be careful!” She holds my hand in place. Her skin’s warmth sends my goosebumps into a frenzy. “You know what it is anyway.”

“Maybe,” I mockingly reply. I take my time unwrapping the box. By its size it could either be shoes or a new addition to our collection.

She didn’t give me shoes.

I didn’t have time to get her one, but our anniversary is just after the first of the year. Enough time to get her two. Should be easy this time of year when people who can’t handle their holiday funk disappear, opting for subtle exits. ‘Tis the season and all that.

“Oh, this is a nice one,” I tell her, pushing the green tissue paper aside..

She beams with pride. “You taught me well.”

I remove the cured human face from the box. Her technique was indeed flawless. The lines she cut were smooth and precise.

“Looks like you can teach me a few things,” I tell her.

The face belonged to a man. His nose must have been long because there’s more than the usual amount of skin where it used to be. His lips are tight, but that’s due to the process we use.

I place my right hand on the cheek. I feel neither cold nor warmth, but the feeling in my heart is enough to keep me smiling.

We go over to the wall, together like lovers should, and hang the face on a thick nail at the end of the line of sixteen.

Erik Handy

Erik Handy grew up on a steady diet of professional wrestling, bad horror movies that went straight to video, and comic books. There were also a lot of video games thrown in the mix. He currently absorbs silence and fish tacos. In his spare time, he works a full-time job he hates. Check out his books at ErikHandy.com.

Missing You During the Holidays by Guy Vollen

Dear Ben,

You might not want to read this, but I hope you will. No one should be alone on Christmas. (I know what you’re thinking, but without Him, we wouldn’t be here, would we?) I trust you’ve enjoyed Jase’s pictures. At least you’re not tearing them up and returning them anymore, so that’s progress. He’s grown like crazy the last couple years and looks more like his mother each day. I think you’d be impressed at what he can do already.

Jase reminds me that for parents, our hopes rest on our children. I’ll admit that when Calis chose you, Beth and I didn’t take it well, and we handled it badly. Frankly, hurtful things were said on both sides. Can we start over, for Jase? No one expects you to get back together with Calis, but she’s gone through some changes and agrees that Jase should have you in his life.

Let’s start with Christmas dinner—there’s a place at the table for you already. Beth’s even roasting a turkey: she’s mighty proud of how she cooks flesh now, and I think you’ll agree she’s getting the hang of it. We’ll make it easy: just knock on the basement door when you’re ready and we’ll unchain you. But please don’t be shocked when you see Cal and Jase. The old blood is starting to run true in them. See you soon.

I don’t expect you to call us “Mom and Dad” so I’ll sign this

Harry and Beth

Guy Vollen

Guy Vollen’s previous publications include “Legendary Wings” in The Lost Worlds of Power, edited by Philip J. Reed of Noiseless Chatter, and “Queen Aura’s Address to the People of Planet Mongo Upon Her Coronation Day” at Defenestration. In addition, he blogs about a variety of topics at Medleyana.com and is a past contributor to the Wichita Eagle and The Solute.

CHRIST! MASS!

Justin let teenage lust lead him to church that yuletide.

Eve, his classroom crush, enticed him, excited that her baby brother was to fill the crib as Jesus. Nativity wasn’t his scene, but mistletoe kisses couldn’t be missed.

Twelve chimes told the time. The family filed into the chapel.

He’d expected candles and incense, but a congregation clothed in flowing cloaks seemed less than festive.

Smiling, Eve indicated the altar: her swaddled sibling lay struggling.

Latin chanting began.

Gasping as a gurning goat-horned priest brandished a flashing blade, Justin realised what was amiss. 

Not midnight mass, but a black one. 

Steven Holding

Steven Holding lives with his family in the United Kingdom. Most recently his work has appeared in the collections OCEANS and ANCIENTS from Black Hare Press and the TWF anthologies TREMBLING WITH FEAR YEAR 3 and MORE TALES FROM THE TREE VOLUME 2. You can follow his work at www.stevenholding.co.uk

Tradition

The village pub was full, as it was every Christmas Eve. Drinks flowed, logs crackled and decorations sparkled in the firelight.

“Time for the carol service!” shouted the landlord at 11 p.m.

Everyone trooped out into the cold night. Outside, the villagers headed to a ruined house. Pat, visiting the village for the first time, was puzzled.

“Why here?”

“House was destroyed by an explosion years ago. Family was killed,” said a local.

Singing had started. It came from the ruined house.

“The family loved to sing carols. They didn’t let death stop them. Seems rude not to join in.”

R.J. Meldrum

R.J. Meldrum is an author and academic.  Born in Scotland, he moved to Ontario, Canada in 2010.  He has had stories published by Sirens Call Publications, Horrified Press, Trembling with Fear, Darkhouse Books, Smoking Pen Press and James Ward Kirk Fiction.  He is an Affiliate Member of the Horror Writers Association.

Facebook profile: https://www.facebook.com/richard.meldrum.79
Website: http://wolfstarpublishing.com/meldrum/
https://twitter.com/RichardJMeldru1

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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