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