Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in the December HWA NY Galactic Terrors Reading Series. When James Chambers initally asked me to read, he wanted to know if I had any Christmas-themed horror stories. I only had one -- "The Anti-Claus" -- and I planned on reading it. Then several days before the reading, Jim sent an email with details of the reading, including the fact that the readings were supposed to be ten minutes in length. I realized "The Anti-Claus" was too long, so rather than abridge it or read an excerpt, I decided to write a new story. I wrote it the afternoon before the reading, making sure to keep it short enough that it would fit the ten-minute slot. People seemed to like the story well enough, so I thought I'd share it here for you to read. Happy Holidays!
If you'd like to listen to me read the story, you can do so here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RvjF--x8uc
And if you'd like to read "The Anti-Claus" (which I posted last year) you can do so here: http://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/2020/12/the-anti-claus.html
DO YOU FEAR WHAT I FEAR?
BY TIM WAGGONER
“Mommy, Santa’s real, isn’t he?”
You gaze upon the Christmas tree – antique glass-spun ornaments, blinking multicolored lights, gold garland, silver tinsel, mound of presents beneath. You’re so caught up in the beauty of the sight, are luxuriating in it, that it takes you several seconds to realize that Lucas has spoken. You look down at your son and put a hand on his shoulder. Lucas is wearing the new pajamas he got last night – a Christmas-Eve tradition from when you were a child. His PJ’s are red and dotted with tiny white snowmen, the cloth soft and warm to your touch.
You smile. “Whatever would make you ask such a thing?”
“Some kids at school were talking about it at lunch the other day. They said believing in Santa is babyish, and that everybody knows moms and dads are really the ones who give the presents.”
His eyes beg you to tell him what he wants to hear.
Your smile falters. When you were Lucas’ age, or near to it, you asked your mother the same question.
I guess you’re old enough to know the truth now, your mother said. You feel your jaw clench in anger, and you force yourself to relax. This is Christmas morning, after all, a time for happy feelings only.
“Of course Santa’s real,” you say. “Never doubt it.”
Lucas grins. “Can I start passing out presents now?”
It’s tradition in your family that no one starts opening presents until everyone has theirs, and then you take turns opening them one by one. Lucas loves to be the present-passer-outer, not only because he gets to handle all the presents, but so he can make the process go faster.
“Sure,” you say.
Lucas whoops, runs to the tree, sits down, and grabs the first present closest to him.
“This one’s Dad’s . . .” He pushes it aside, grabs another. “This one’s Mom’s . . . Yay! Here’s one of mine!”
As Lucus continues sorting presents, your husband comes over and slips an arm around your waist.
“I love seeing him excited like this,” Kenny says. Like you, he’s wearing a robe – Christmas-red like Lucas’ PJ’s – and he’s also wearing a Santa hat, just as he does every year. He holds a coffee mug with a cartoon reindeer on the side, and he brings it to his lips and takes a sip. He grins then. “Almost as much as I love seeing you get excited.”
Your mug has a cartoon Santa struggling to stuff himself down a chimney. You added eggnog-flavored creamer to your coffee, and when you take a sip, you sigh with pleasure.
It’s true. When it comes to Christmas, you always make sure to do it up right. The outside of your house is festooned with Christmas lights. A fire crackles in the fireplace, and Christmas stockings hang from the hearth. On the mantle, a scented candle burns, filling the air with the delicious scent of apple cinnamon, alongside it several nutcrackers and an Elf on the Shelf. The TV is tuned to a station that plays nonstop Christmas music, and there are holiday-scented soaps in each of the bathrooms. Tins of Christmas cookies sit on the kitchen counter, along with homemade fudge and packages of candy canes. Later, after you’ve finished opening presents, you’ll put the ham in the oven and start working on the side dishes while Lucas plays happily – and no doubt noisily – with his Christmas loot.
Life doesn’t get any better than this. This is exactly how Christmas should be – perfect in every detail.
You hear a soft cracking sound, like glass breaking, and Lucus cries out.
He raises his right hand, looks at the back of it, then holds it out to you.
“Mommy? What happened?”
You pull away from Kenny and hurry over to your son. You put your mug on the coffee table, kneel, take Lucas’ wrist, and bring his hand close to your face to examine it. A thin line runs from the base of his pinky all the way to his thumb. At first you think he’s somehow cut himself, but there’s no blood. You press your index finger against the line – no, the crack – near his thumb. You’re careful not to press too hard, but the skin gives way beneath your finger anyway, fragile as eggshell. Lucas cries out again, yanks his hand away from you, and cradles it to his chest. He fixes you with an accusing glare.
“That hurt, Mommy!’
“I’m . . . I’m sorry, sweetie.”
Your stomach flips and you fear you’re going to vomit eggnog-flavored coffee. This can’t be happening, can’t be real. People don’t just, just break.
The scent of apple cinnamon grows thicker then, becoming cloying and overwhelming, like rotted fruit. The fire sputters, flares bright, and then dies. Acrid smoke curls from the charred log, and the stink of it burns the back of your throat. The music on the TV slows down, the singer’s voice – Bing Crosby’s, you think – becomes deep and distorted, and the lyrics to the familiar carol change, become sinister. The tree lights begin blinking frantically, their pattern erratic, and then one by one they burst with sharp little pops, until the tree is dark. The garland falls apart, pieces drifting to the floor like autumn leaves, and the tinsel shrivels and turns black. The spun-glass ornaments – which have been in your family for generations – lose their luster, become dull and dingy before crumbling away to nothing. The tree itself turns brown and dry, branches curling inward like the legs of a dying spider. The presents’ wrapping paper fades, tears in numerous places, bows and ribbons fraying. You know that if you go into the kitchen, you’ll find the Christmas treats you made spoiled, the ham in the refrigerator rotten and rank.
This isn’t happening, you tell yourself. I won’t let it happen.
“Let’s open our presents!”
You try to sound happy, enthusiastic – try to sound joyful, goddamn it – but your tone is strained and manic.
You grab the first present you see, not caring if it’s yours or not, and try to unwrap it. But its substance has become soft as a rotting melon, and your fingers break the surface and sink inside. With a cry of disgust, you pull your hands free, fingers now covered with viscous, foul-smelling muck. You shake them hard, trying to get the shit off of you, but it clings stubbornly to your skin.
“Mommy, I’m scared.”
You look at Lucas, see that his face, neck, and hands are fissured with dozens of cracks now. One of his eyes is bisected by a crack, and several of his teeth have fallen out and rest in his lap. He opens his mouth as if to say something else, but before he can speak again, he falls apart. His body collapses in on itself – his pajamas too – with a rustling sound like insect carapaces rubbing together – becoming a pile of shards no thicker or sturdier than the ornaments’ spun glass. No blood, no organs, no skeleton . . . Lucas was absolutely empty inside.
“No,” you say, then louder, “No!”
You feel Kenny’s hand come down lightly on your shoulder.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” he says.
His hand slips away, and you hear the dry rustling of his body falling apart like Lucas’. You glance over your shoulder at the pile of paper-thin shards that was once your husband, and you begin to cry.
When you were a child, you loved Christmas more than anything, but when your mother told you the truth about Santa, something died inside you. Christmas was never the same after that, and what was more, you learned that you couldn’t trust your parents. They lied to you about Santa, and if they could lie about that, what else might they lie to you about? And if they – the two people who were supposed to love you more than anyone in the world – couldn’t be trusted, how could you trust anyone?
The house melts around you like a washed-out painting, and for a moment your vision blurs. When it clears, you’re no longer crying. You’re looking at a small room with four blank walls. The place is furnished with an old couch, an equally old easy chair, a small flatscreen TV set atop a wooden stand – which is playing quite normal-sounding Christmas music – and a coffee table. Your Santa mug rests on its surface, half full of eggnog-flavored coffee. It’s Christmas morning, this is your apartment, and you are alone.
You’ve been that way for most of your life. You had no friends growing up – you never trusted anyone enough to let them get close to you – and you kept to yourself in college for the same reason. After you graduated and starting working at the bank, you tried going on a few dates, but nothing ever came of them. As the years passed, you tried to convince yourself that your mother had done you a favor by telling you about Santa. An ugly truth is better than a pretty illusion, you’d think, but you’ve never been able to bring yourself to fully believe it. And somewhere along the way, you came to realize that your life didn’t have to be empty, not if you didn’t want it to be. Not if you believed. And in the end, isn’t that what Christmas is all about – belief? Problem is, you can get started just fine, but you have trouble keeping it going. Your mother’s voice always breaks through and ruins everything. Sometimes you’re afraid you’ll never be free of your mother’s voice, that you’re fated to always be alone, living within the prison of your own distrust.
“No,” you whisper. “It won’t be like that. I won’t let it.”
You close your eyes tight, furrow your brow, ball your hands into fists, and concentrate.
This time it’ll last. This time it’ll be forever.
After several moments, you hear the sound of a fire crackling, inhale the lovely rich scent of apple cinnamon.
You open your eyes and smile.
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