By Steve Stred
Originally published on Kendall Reviews December 2018.
“Poppa? Is it true if I’m a good boy, Father Christmas will bring me a gift?”
He looked down at his small son, seeing the excitement burning through his eyes.
“Some say,” he replied, continuing to pull the sled through the snow.
“Momma said I’ve been awfully helpful. Does that count?”
He didn’t reply. He remained focused on the task at hand. The wound on his leg was throbbing, the cold wind biting into the exposed skin. Maybe if I would have bandaged it better, he thought, we just didn’t have the time.
“WHAT?” He yelled back in fury, immediately regretting it when he turned and saw his boy’s face. No longer smiling, his eyes filling with salty tears.
He stopped pulling the sled, unhooked the harness from his shoulders and knelt down to get eye-to-eye with the boy.
“I’m sorry son. What was your question?” He tried to smile, stroked his boy’s cheek with his thick-gloved hand.
Sniffing, his son kept his eyes pointed towards the ground. Out of fear? Out of shame for crying?
“Son. I’m sorry I yelled. It’s ok to cry, you hear me? What was your question? Hurry though please, we must keep moving.”
He nodded his head and lifted his eyes to meet his fathers.
“Poppa. Can Father Christmas bring Momma back?”
He sighed loudly, shoulders slumping hearing the boy’s question.
“I wish he could. Father Christmas is a magical figure, but I think even that’s beyond his abilities. Now come, we must go,” he said as he looked around at the forest. The sun was dipping lower. Soon the night would descend, the creatures awaken.
Jari stood and hoisted the harness back over his shoulders. His body was growing tired, but he couldn’t give up, couldn’t stop. If he did it would mean certain death for both of them.
“You can do it Poppa!” His son eagerly cheered him on, and feeling the hope in the young man’s words, Jari felt some energy rise up. He started to take small steps through the snow, getting the sled to move. Once it moved the task was far easier.
The cabin was close. He estimated that they had a half-hour until they would arrive. He also estimated they had less than twenty minutes of daylight left. He moved as fast as he could, pulling the sled through deeper and deeper snow. He couldn’t dwell on the distance or how fast the sun was setting. He had to keep strong, for himself and more importantly, for his son.
Jari set his eyes on the horizon before him. He mentally chanted to himself; Left – Right – Left – Right. If he kept moving his legs, driving his knees up and out while leaning forward, the sled would follow and the distance would be covered.
Behind them, the noises started.
He heard his son now begging for his father to ‘please, please Poppa, get us home.’
Listening to the fear in the boy’s voice was enough to end a weaker man. Not Jari. Not today.
No, on this day, he would be triumphant. The night beasts could come and try to kill them, but Jari wasn’t having it. They may have taken his wife weeks ago, when she strayed too far from the cabin, too late in the day.
He pulled the sled and moved as quickly as he could, all the while remembering. Remembering the flurries dancing around, how crisp the air was. He could feel the wind biting into his cheeks as he screamed for her to run. Run, he bellowed as her dress was whipped around her body, the wind doing its damnedest to hold her back, keep her from safety.
As she struggled to make it back to his outstretched hands he spotted the eyes first. The beast was bounding through the snow as though it wasn’t three feet deep in most places. Its massive frame covering the distance faster than something that big should. Jari could see its pinned back ears, its focused eyes staring straight at its target; his wife.
Run, he howled, please run, he cried to the moon above, hoping for some sort of saviour to swoop down. He was rooted at the end of the porch, knowing full well if he took one step onto the snow, their son would end up an orphan.
Looking over at the beast, the creature descended from the hell of night, and Jari saw the rippling muscle pumping and flexing as the monstrosity closed in. Jari knew now, it was too late. He dropped to his knees in sorrow, arms never wavering, reaching for his love. When she knew it was beyond hope, she stopped and smiled at him. Then the beast ripped her away, leaving a dark pool of blood behind.
Jari used the final image of her, of her glowing, smiling face to propel him forward.
He could now hear the tree’s bending and cracking behind them, as the darkness enveloped the land behind them. If only I hadn’t slipped. If only that branch hadn’t impaled my leg, we would be home by now, safe inside, he thought. Cursing himself he pushed on, for the moon was beginning to peek over the mountains to his left, appearing to spy on their progress through the clearing. If he faltered now it would be the end of their lives.
“Poppa, please, please get us home,” his son begged. Jari knew that even if they made it back to the cabin, his son would never leave the house again.
“I’m trying! Please keep thinking those good thoughts of Father Christmas bringing you presents. I need all of your positivity to give me strength.”
The shadows were now snaking beside them, the trees elongating, increasing the available land for the creatures to move in closer.
Jari knew he couldn’t look beside him. He knew if he did, what he saw would paralyze him. The creatures would be disembowelling them both before he knew what had happened.
Now he could see the cabin’s porch. The rocking chair out front, where she used to sit.
Smoke still puffed from the chimney, even as the windows began to frost over from the first crust of the night’s cold. Fifty paces left, he thought, now forty-five. He breathed rapidly and felt the burning stitch of the brisk air scald his lungs. He didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was survival, reaching that porch before the darkness did.
Behind him, the creatures were now sprinting. Jari could tell by the increase in the thundering footfalls he heard and felt. He could hear their breath getting louder and louder as they closed the gap. He pumped his arms and looked up, seeing the first twinkling stars in the night sky.
Looking forward he now saw he was twenty paces from the porch.
They were going to do it. They were going to make it. He felt a swelling in his throat, he had to choke back a celebratory cheer. They were going to beat the night, beat the creatures that lurked in the darkness.
Ten paces. Jari knew if he was to look now, the beast he would see would be the one that killed her. He didn’t know why he knew this, he just knew deep in his bones that it would be the one and the same.
Five paces, Jari pumped hard, four paces, his arms trying to use the air as a physical thing to push off of. Three paces and Jari planned how to jump onto the porch, two paces and the shadows filled his peripheral vision. One step and Jari threw himself forward and landed hard on the wood, the impact driving all of the air from his lungs.
Then he felt a hard pull against his body. He tried to stand but couldn’t. Looking back he saw that the beast was pulling on the back of the sled. The sled! He hadn’t pulled it all the way on the porch behind him. His son sat stone-cold, staring at Jari, his little eyes as wide as the moon above.
“Son…” Jari said as the beast ripped the boys head off with one swipe of its immense paw. Then Jari was being dragged off the porch as the beast latched onto his boy’s body and began to whip it back and forth. Jari had to get the harness off if he was going to live.
The strength of the creature was beyond Jari. He was too exhausted now, having spent himself trying to make it back to the cabin. He managed to get one arm out of the harness and was struggling to get the other arm out when he was violently jerked off of the porch and out onto the cold ground.
Movement beside him caught his attention and looking over he was startled.
Shock had disguised the second creature into a red and white blur as it barrelled down on Jari. By the time his vision cleared and he saw the beasts sharp teeth ready to eviscerate him, it was too late. The teeth pierced his face and throat as it gored Jari free from the harness.
As he bled out and the feeling in his limbs disappeared, he watched the cabin grow farther and farther away in the distance, the creature carrying him off into the woods faster than something that large should be able to travel.
Above the moon shone bright, illuminating the remains left behind in front of the cabin, for the scavengers that crept from the darkness to feed on.
Steve Stred writes dark, bleak horror fiction.
Steve is the author of the novels Invisible & The Stranger, the novellas The Girl Who Hid in the Trees, Wagon Buddy, Yuri and Jane: the 816 Chronicles and two collections of short stories; Frostbitten: 12 Hymns of Misery and Left Hand Path: 13 More Tales of Black Magick, and the dark poetry collection Dim the Sun.
On September 1st, 2019 his second collection of dark poetry and drabbles called The Night Crawls In will arrive. This release was specifically created to help fund the 1st Annual LOHF Writers Grant.
Steve is also a voracious reader, reviewing everything he reads and submitting the majority of his reviews to be featured on Kendall Reviews.
Steve Stred is based in Edmonton, AB, Canada and lives with his wife, his son and their dog OJ.
You can follow Steve on Twitter @stevestred
You can visit Steve’s Official website here