Here’s a tale of a man who nearly drowns himself in the holiday spirit.
A small example of the toll the holidays can take, wrapped in a bloody pastry of guilt and a one night stand.
Remember: Santa’s watching, boy and ghouls…
I call this one…
by Brian Bogart
Originally published on Kendall Reviews December 2018.
Carl Davidson wanted Christmas to be perfect this year. Maybe then, the guilt from cheating on his wife would fade away.
If he was lucky, it would vanish without much notice- similar to the strands of auburn hair that were no more than ghostly wisps haunting the top of his round head.
He didn’t normally enjoy the festiveness and fanfare that this time of year was known for, but it didn’t stop him from spending a fair portion of his last three paychecks on holiday decorations and gifts. If he was a more honest man, he would admit that no amount of blinking lights and gingerbread could make up for his indiscretion.
But Carl was a liar and overcompensation was a liar’s game; his wife Molly and his daughter Nina held all the cards. He just prayed that no one would call his bluff.
Molly was working late tonight, despite the Christmas Eve party which they had planned for over a month.
Jerry and Lisa from down the street and their son were the first to show, followed by Gary from next door. Gary was divorced and wouldn’t have the kids for Christmas, thanks to his ex-wife and her lawyer. Gary was a good drinking buddy, but this year Carl kept a bit of distance. He still liked the man enough, but looking at Gary was a chilling hint of what the future could hold. Granted, his neighbor was more of a “ladies man” than Carl would ever be. Plus, he had cheated on his wife so many times it seemed to be Gary’s part-time job. Divorce was an inevitability for them and probably should have been years before.
Gary was like the Ghost of Christmas Future, staring him in the face with dull and bloodshot eyes. There was wisdom in that stare, but the truth hit like the frosty aftermath of an errant snowstorm.
A few of the neighborhood children and some of their parents had stopped by uninvited, but that was okay. The look of awe on their faces when they saw the full-sized sleigh, two enormous candy canes protruding from the lawn on either side of the driveway and the electronic reindeer (complete with a blinking nose for Rudolph) was worth the hassle of a few more guests to entertain and mouths to feed. It was a small price to pay to be the envy of the entire block.
The mock-up of The North Pole was not his idea, though he wished he could take credit. They were courtesy of a small upstart company that specialized in catering and unique party ideas.
He had originally thought the price was a bit expensive, but when they arrived and he saw the burly man playing good ole Saint Nick- he knew it was worth every penny. Santa had even brought three elves of his own.
This company was very dedicated.
Hell, he was beginning to forget that all of the surrounding holiday cheer was courtesy of his guilt. Last year’s drunken fling with an inexperienced intern began to slip away with every sip of homemade eggnog.
The man in the Santa outfit sat beside the Christmas tree, hoisting his burlap sack off of his broad shoulders with relative ease as he did. His cheeks were round and rosy, flushed three shades lighter than the long velvet coat itself. The fur-lined outfit shimmered with each movement, highlighted by the flashing florescence of the colored lights and the glimmer of gold and silver tinsel weaved around the tree’s branches.
He brushed the flakes of snow from his gloves and pointed at the children and then his sack, which bulged with apparent gifts and boxes of all sizes. Some of the younger children squealed when he did, including his own six-year-old daughter. Carl felt almost as excited when he saw the smile on her round face, beaming from beneath her fair-haired bangs.
Santa smiled back and then gave a knowing nod to Carl. One of his bright blue eyes disappeared beneath his bushy eyebrows as he winked. It the most authentic Santa Claus wink he had ever seen outside of a holiday children’s movie. The laugh that followed was so perfect it could have been prerecorded, a guttural chuckle that bellowed forth from the girth of his round belly. Every child was watching to see if it jiggled like jelly. It may have been a trick of the flickering flames from the fireplace, but Carl swore that it did.
The elves were just as believable.
There were three in total, each one slightly taller than the next. The shortest one was a bit on the plump side. The other two walked on thin, matchstick legs and knobby knees that jutted awkwardly to the sides when they walked. He guessed by their stance and gait that they were probably “little people” and not kids like he had first thought. It looked as though their elf costumes were trying to swallow them whole, striped leggings and all. The tallest one seemed to be in charge, possibly because he towered over them by nearly six inches. He rummaged through the sack and passed the presents to the others, pointing at each of the children as he did.
There was an odd, cartoon-like quality to their features. Their large eyes seemed devoid of life except when they blinked and the flesh tone makeup they wore clashed with the pink rouge of their cheeks when they grinned. They spoke in high-pitched voices, which suggested they were also talented voice actors. Either that, or they were huffing helium when no one was looking. They appeared near-identical, too. It was like staring into the blank expression of a row of nutcracker dolls.
Carl imagined a nightmarish workshop full of the little buggers, an emotionless army toiling away in the dead of night. That thought caused the muscles in his neck to tense as an unexpected tremor attempted to sneak up his spine.
“Wow, Carl. You’ve really outdone yourself.”
Gary stood behind him, holding a bottle of rum in his hand. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in weeks or bothered to brush his teeth. His breath was an odd combination of alcohol and gingerbread. He put his scrawny hand on Carl’s shoulder and patted him on the back.
“Thanks, Gary. Yeah, I’m usually not much for the holidays, but sometimes you have to do something nice. I mean- look at Nina’s face! I haven’t seen her this happy in ages, not since Disney World when she was four. Shit, she doesn’t remember much from that trip- but this? This might actually stick with her.”
“She does look happy,” Gary said. “All the kids do. Even the older ones who probably don’t believe much in Santa are enjoying themselves. Wish at least one of my own could have seen all this. Mary’s gonna shit a brick when I send them the videos. She doesn’t talk much to me when I call but at least she puts the older one on the phone as a middleman. She shouldn’t do that to him- but he’s a trooper. Pretty good mediator, too. Don’t wanna tell Mary that, though- she’ll be hitting me up for a full law school tuition before he even learns to shave properly, ya know?”
“You mind sending me some of those videos in the morning? Molly’s still working and then getting a few things for the stockings on the way home. There’s no telling how late she’s going to be.”
“If you let me take the rest of this bottle home- definitely. I’ll edit it up real nice, too. Make it as seamless as possible. What do ya say?”
“Sure. Just try not to drown your sorrows too much. I know you miss the kids. Just remember that they’ll miss you even more if you get stuck inside a bottle. One can lead to another and then another and next thing you know- they’ll be grown. You don’t need that kind of relationship with them. Holidays can be rough sometimes but don’t throw away the future ones because of one shitty one. And no driving, either.”
Carl never turned around to look at the man. He didn’t need to. The silence that separated them spoke volumes and he was positive that another glance into Gary’s eyes was the last thing he wanted this Christmas Eve. When Gary finally spoke, there was a warble in his voice that bordered on a sob. It was a stubborn man’s modest attempt to mask tears that were biding their time.
“Yeah. You’re a good friend, Carl. All this shit’s my own doing anyway. I’ll see you and Molly in the afternoon tomorrow. I picked up a little something for Nina. It ain’t much, so don’t worry. Like I said last week, you’re always welcome to bowl with me and the fellas on Wednesdays. I keep mentioning it to Molly, too. Maybe Santa will get you a bowling ball for Christmas? We could always use another for the league.”
Carl fought back the urge to roll his eyes and smiled instead.
“Maybe one day. Merry Christmas, bud.”
Gary never responded, but he heard the front door close behind him a moment later. Carl let out a sigh and dropped his head. It occurred to him that sometimes you really didn’t get to pick your friends. They find you, regardless of whether you need them or even want them. Maybe one day soon he would be able to come clean with Molly. If he did, maybe he would be able to see Gary in the same way the poor man obviously saw him.
The best he could muster were a few half-assed words of wisdom that probably fell on deaf ears. At least they had that in common. He assured himself that his drunken one night stand was not similar to Gary’s multitude of affairs. He swallowed that lie as easily as the last sip of eggnog in his glass.
He walked into the kitchen and poured himself another. When the eggnog was finished, he began drinking straight from the bottle. Carl was pretty good at dishing advice, just not following it.
Santa’s helpers led the children in a few a cappella versions of Christmas songs while the fat man in the Kris Kringle outfit stroked his woolly beard and chuckled.
He locked eyes with Carl.
His face was no longer whimsical and warm. His eyes were as cold and uncaring as the Devil’s own. The smile hidden beneath his whiskers was now clearly visible. It was a grin three sizes too large for the frame of his face and rotting, jagged teeth jutting downwards in unnatural angles. Spittle nested at the corners of his lips, frothing and pooling into his beard as he began to laugh.
The beard itself shifted before Carl’s eyes. What was earlier combed and well-groomed, now sprawled from his chin and cheeks in wild and uncombed strands.
This Santa’s appearance had more in common with the look of a crazed woodsman or perhaps even an angry god.
The scent of ginger filled the room, sickeningly sweet. The aroma seemed to make the very air around them dense and heavy. The colored bulbs adorning the tree flickered in rapid succession. Carl’s vision dimmed as the strobe effect of blinking red, gold and blues gave way to the contrasting darkness behind his own eyelids.
“Daddy? Daddy, wake up.”
Nina’s voice seemed so distant. Soft, yet full of concern. The shadows swirled and swam, his muddled head fighting for clarity. It was like his head was dunked in water. Groggy, he fought against the disorientation and began to open his eyes. He did not have to.
They were forced open.
His upper and lower eyelids snapped open violently. The cold air jabbed at his eyes like tiny pinpricks. The blurred outline of small fingers crowded the corners of his vision. He tried to blink, but the fingers did not flinch or give. His arms were useless and numb. The aching dullness made his attempt to pull the hands from his face pointless, but it did succeed in making someone laugh. Someone who wasn’t his daughter.
“Oh, Daddy! Daddy, daddy. Daddy. You must not try to move so quickly. It’s for the best.”
Multiple high-pitched giggles filled his head, followed by hushed whispers that swelled and subsided on either side.
“What did you expect. He is naughty, after all.”
His vision cleared fully, as if on command. The stinging sensations in his eyes were replaced with a pounding throb in his skull, matching the rapid thundering of his heart against his chest.
Standing before him were the three elves. The shorter ones were prancing in a circle around the tallest, who stood wearing his daughter’s favorite jumper. The elf licked his painted lips, his arms were wrapped tightly around himself, rocking back and forth. It was reminiscent of a madman’s fevered attempts to escape a straitjacket.
Carl lurched from the couch, his legs and feet trying to fight the wobbliness in his limbs. The elves took a few steps back, shaking their head. He teetered for a moment, reaching out for them. If he could just reach one of the little fuckers-
He lunged, falling forward before he could finish the thought. He knew the glass coffee table in the front room would not break his fall, but magnify it. He braced for the impact and the inevitable broken glass as the world around him tipped sideways.
When his eyes opened again, he was no longer in his living room. No coffee table. No broken glass. Just hard, tiled floor underneath him and the smell of hazelnut coffee brewing in the distance.
He was sprawled face down, inside of his office building.
He stood, wondering if he had cracked his head on the way down. That would make the most sense. That, or he was dreaming.
To his left, was the familiar electronic whir and beeping of his copying machine. It didn’t do much for his headache. The device stopped and started again, increasing in volume and intensity each time. He forced himself to his feet, slamming his fist against the top of it. A hazy blue light emanated from the closed lid. Multiple sheets of printing paper launched from the bottom of the machine at Carl, as if in protest.
One of the last pages fluttered to his feet. Curious, he glanced down at it. The borders of the page were framed with black and white holly and candy canes, the common template his office used this time of year. In the center sat a single word, etched in bold and large print.
The radio on his desk screeched to life.
It felt like a bad joke. Those words, meant to sound defiant and to bolster his confidence, had no effect. Instead, the shrill shriek of static blaring from the speakers caused him to stifle a scream of his own.
“Come, all ye faithful…”
The static from the transmission cleared and the song boomed in the room. The music was wrong; the accompanying bells and whistles chimed in beat with that of a different holiday song. The last note of the melody lingered for too long, becoming a booming percussion of white noise. He turned to the direction of the off-kilter tune, watching as the chair behind his office desk swivelled to face him.
There sat Charlotte Durham, the ginger-haired office intern whom he’d mistakenly slept with last year.
She was wearing the same blue blazer and white satin blouse, with three of the buttons undone down the front. It gave a generous view of her cleavage as she brought a glass of wine to her startling bright red lips. The sparse freckles that littered her nose seemed alive, dancing across her flesh in the overhead halogen lighting. She smelled of vodka and the sweet musk of women’s perfume. It was more overpowering than he recalled. This time, the scent had an underlying hint of bitterness; both real and imagined.
Her over-sized Santa hat fell to the side. The cheap jingle bells stitched unto its tip brought his attention the rest of her face. She looked longingly at him. The drunken glassiness in her gaze was almost as tangible as the mascara and tears that streamed from the corners of her eyes. She leaned back into the chair.
The shortest elf stood in front of her, his head barely reaching her lap. She opened and closed her legs as his gnarled fingers pushed the fabric of her skirt higher onto her hips. She did not seem to be bothered by this, but instead welcoming it.
The other elves emerged from either side of her shoulders. They climbed up and over the back of the chair with ease, moving as fluid as silent predators along the ocean floor. The taller one sniffed at the curls of her hair, grasping bits of it and pulling it towards his face. A hungry noise escaped from his clenched teeth. She moaned in return, letting the wine glass fall to the floor. Tiny shards of glass scattered at her feet as the music in the background ceased.
Carl reached out, taking a step forward. The other elf clasped her neck with one hand and shook his head. With his other, he held his thumb to her throat. The sharp edge of his fingernail pierced the skin on one side of her jugular. The flesh there punctured and bruised. The wound wept across his knuckle as he dragged it across her throat. Her legs quivered underneath her as her hips thrust forward and back. An unnatural gurgle came next. Her building cries of ecstasy were cut short with a gush of red and high-pitched laughter.
Carl tried to look away, but her wide and lifeless eyes refused to let him. Blood trickled from the corners of her open mouth, trailing down to her chin on either side. It gave her face the slack expression of an antique wooden puppet.
Carl prayed that she didn’t try to speak.
The elves vanished as he blinked hot tears away. Charlotte’s head bent forward, her chin resting on her bloodstained blouse. Carl thought he heard the sound of a crackling fireplace, crisp popping noises that engulfed the silence between them. What he was hearing, was something far worse. It was the tendons of her neck giving way to the weight of her head.
It plopped to her lap and rolled forward, before tumbling down. The soft thud of her head landing on the tile was accentuated by the bells on her hat, which jingled all the way.
“Carl! What the hell is going on here? Who is this woman?”
He did not need to turn around. Like Gary earlier that night, the sound in her voice painted pictures he would rather not see. She was asking questions that needed answers- deserved answers- but they sat on the tip of his tongue, useless all the same.
He could see Molly’s beautiful green eyes, judging him. She would be judging Charlotte, too. The last eight years of her life with him. The arguments. Little Nina and every bedtime story and scraped knee.
This would open doors that Carl had carefully boarded shut while no one was looking. Each plank of wood that he hammered silently as they slept and watched movies together. Every breakfast and dinner would be scrutinized and examined, every single moment they shared held up to ten minutes of shame he had been running from for a year. He wondered just how long he would be willing to run.
He closed his eyes, turned around and began to speak.
He was in the living room again. The lights of the Christmas tree, combined with the glare from the streetlamps which peeked between the blinds, cast thin shadows in front of him. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care. And good ole Saint Nicolas was towering there, too.
He seemed massive, not just in weight but height. His hunched shoulders were wider than the expanse of the tree and Carl could see he was silently putting more presents under the tree.
The man did not pause or even flinch. Carl may as well have been yelling at a giant boulder in a Santa suit. He approached the man, his knees making each step seem like a mile. He extended his arm, his hand inching towards his shoulders. He took a deep breath.
“Excuse me, but what are you doing in my house? Don’t make me-”
Santa paused, his arm ratcheting out to the side. His gloved hand pointed to the double window on the opposite side of the living area. Gary’s outside light was still on and Carl could hear the sound of an acoustic guitar playing through the glass. It was not a holiday song and definitely not a happy one.
Mother always told me love would save me from myself
The finger pointed again to the window.
Daddy always said that love would take me straight to hell
Carl walked to the window, placing his hands against the glass. The air around him was devoid of any warmth. His breath frosted the window as he exhaled.
Sometimes they were righteous and sometimes they were oh so wrong
Gary was on his back porch, chugging away at a bottle of liquor. Two empty ones lay tossed to the lawn, alongside a handful of photographs and scattered cigarette butts. He reached with one trembling arm towards the portable stereo, twisting the volume knob. In his other hand was a revolver. His fingers were wrapped so tightly, that the white of his knuckles could be discerned from Carl’s vantage point.
Cause I’m cleaning my gun
I’m cleaning my gun
Carl banged his fists against the glass.
“Don’t do it. Damn it, Gary! Don’t do it!”
Gary looked up towards Carl’s house. A defeated smile rested upon his frail face. Tears glistened in the patches of his uneven stubble. His eyes were soft and murky, the pupils dilated. He raised his hand from the radio, waving at Carl like a shy child caught in the middle of making a mess. He shrugged his shoulders and lifted the gun to his open mouth.
Carl slammed his fist against the window again, hanging his head in shame. He closed his eyes. The gunshot sounded so ineffectual and weak coupled against the mournful crooning of the singer and the guitar chords. The vibration in the panes of glass suggested the opposite.
When heaven or hell takes this life
I’ll be done
I’ll be done
“Daddy! Come down here quick. Santa left you a present!”
Carl opened his eyes. He was in his bedroom now. He sat up in bed, the sheets twisted about his body and tucked awkwardly under his weight. He swung his legs off of the mattress, letting the bedsheet trail behind him as he stood.
A fucking dream, he thought. It had to be a dream.
He could smell fresh coffee brewing. He clumsily made his way down the stairs into the living area. The sizzling of the bacon was almost as welcome as the adoring grin on Nina’s face. She was jumping up and down on the couch. There was a package in her arms. She held it up to him proudly.
“Even though he said last night you were on the naughty list. It looks like he changed his mind. You’re very lucky, Daddy. He doesn’t do that for just anyone. Hardly ever!”
He patted Nina on the head, brushing the bangs from her eyes. She squealed. He peered into the kitchen to witness Molly setting the kitchen table. She looked more lovely today than she had in years, even with her blonde tresses sprouting up into a hilarious case of bed head. Maybe even more so because of it. He laughed.
“Very lucky, kiddo,” Carl said.
“You slept in, I see,” Molly said. “Now, how fair is that? I didn’t get home until midnight and Nina says you were out like a light at nine. Our little girl woke me at 6AM on the dot. You snored like someone hit you over the head with a frying pan, even with her bouncing on the bed. Like the dead.”
“Whatever,” Nina said, shaking her head. “I don’t think the dead snore, Mommy. Dad’s just lazy. Come on, open your present!”
They laughed. It was the first time that he felt they had laughed together all year. Together.
“Okay, sweetheart. Give it here.”
He stood in the archway between the kitchen and front room. Nina passed him the gift box, rubbing her hands together in anticipation. He held it in his hands, gauging the weight of it. It felt heavier than he expected. He looked at the red bow. A small, handwritten tag was taped to the ribbon.
Naughty or Nice?
“You gonna open that damn thing or what?”
It was Gary.
The front door was open and Gary stood there. Carl was surprised that when he looked up, his neighbor was cleanly shaved and showered. And retaining the fullness of his skull, dream or not. He was pointing at his cell phone and grinned.
“Sent you the video from last night. Man, the party was really something else. Glad I caught most of it on my phone. I told their mother that they’re my kids, too- so next year, I get the kids Christmas Eve.”
“Glad to hear it,” Carl said.
“Open it, man,” Gary said. He shook the snow from his jacket as he hung it on the back of the door.
Carl tore into the wrapping and tossed it unto the couch. He lifted the lid to the box and looked inside.
Charlotte Durham’s lifeless eyes stared back.
Her copper hair wrapped around her pale face like a wreathe, complete with leaves of holly and rotting berries. Maggots and worms inched their way from one nostril to the next, spilling out of her dry, cracked lips and resting at the bottom of the container.
He stood there holding the box, glancing at his wife and daughter. Gary approached, his lazy smile melting away into an expression of concern. He reached down into the box.
“What’s the matter? Never seen a bowling ball?”
Gary’s fingers were plunged deep into her eye sockets, his thumb buried into one of her nostrils. He lifted her head for the family to see. Blood trickled down his wrist, rotting flakes of flesh drifting to the carpet. It reminded Carl of a nightmarish version of the scene in Disney’s The Lion King, where the monkey Rafiki presents Simba to the Pride Lands. Carl felt his stomach lurch and closed his eyes.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” Molly asked.
He opened his eyes, biting down on his lower lip to repress the nausea that threatened to climb up his burning throat.
Gary was right. It was a goddamn bowling ball.
“I’m fine. Just drank a bit too much last night.”
It was the last lie he would ever tell Molly, no matter what.
His cell phone ringer buzzed on the front table. He picked it up and opened the messenger app.
We here at HoliDaze Party Planners and Supplies wanted to wish you Merry Christmas. Due to a miscommunication in scheduling, we apologize for the cancellation of your planned Santa visit. We realize your family expected Santa and his elves to make a very special appearance for your daughter this holiday. In the future, we will be better prepared for these kinds of situations. We have refunded the amount to your account and offer you half off any future party plans and/or purchases. Once again, our deepest regrets for the no-show.
“Looks like I just might get a new bowling partner for Christmas, huh?” Gary asked.
“How can I say no? After the New Year, my friend.”
“You mean it, Carl?”
Carl walked into the kitchen. He kissed his wife’s forehead; it was something he had not done since the birth of their daughter. It felt good. It felt like coming home.
He was unsure if she would forgive him, unsure of what next year would hold. Christmas only came once a year, forgiveness sometimes, not at all. What Carl wanted for Christmas was a second chance.
Brian Bogart is an American author, residing in Northern Ireland. His love of genre fiction started at an early age, consuming every horror and fantasy book available. He has been published in various degrees online and contributed a short fiction piece, “TOCSIN”, to The One Million Project (OMP) Thriller Anthology in an effort to raise money for cancer research and the homeless. He loves to share his enthusiasm for the horror genre with others and help promote other authors.
His latest story, alongside many other authors, can be found in the pages of EPIC FANTASY SHORT STORIES, coming soon from Flame Tree Publishing.
Purchase OMP THRILLER here: Amazon UK
Preorder EPIC FANTASY SHORT STORIES anthology here: Flame Tree Press
Kendall Reviews https://kendallreviews.com/tag/brian-bogart/
Official Blog https://www.dreamdarklyblog.wordpress.com