By Fiona Dodwell
Christmas Eve, Present Day
Outside, beyond the warmth of the place he called home, the air was crisp with a sharp, uninviting chill. Snow fell in light drifts, dancing and twinkling as the street lamps shone against their tiny surfaces. It made them look, to him, like distant stars across the darkening night.
Toby Arnold peered out, eyes squinting at the view beyond his bedroom window, and took in a deep breath. Anticipation. Anxiety. He always felt this way at Christmas time. It brought back memories, like a coffin being pulled from the ground. All earth and ashes, wiped away, ready to bring the dread back home. And that’s what it truly was – it was dread.
Toby withdrew his hand, letting the curtains fall back into place, sealing the night outside and heading back over to the bed. That vast, empty space that should be shared with his wife.
His ex-wife, who had taken his daughter and moved to the other side of the world.
Yes, that was another thing that was destroyed because of what happened all those years ago, on that one Christmas he would never forget, that time he would never be allowed to forget.
Toby slipped beneath the covers and pulled the thick, red duvet up to his chin. Enjoying the warmth, he slid further down and then closed over his eyes, trying to find the tug of much-needed sleep. The memories, though, they stirred beneath the surface, like sharks rising from the depths of still water. That irresistible pull toward what happened then, bringing a heaviness that not only kept him awake, but kept him playing the memories over and over in his mind, like repeated scenes from an old horror movie. A penny dreadful, but one grounded in cold, hard reality.
Christmas Eve 1955
Toby Arnold was seven years old the first time he saw Santa Claus, and it was the real Santa Claus, not the over-dressed, fake-bearded hired staff that store chains used over the Christmas season. This was the real thing, so horribly, vividly different from any of the depictions he had seen in any book, film or poster in his entire, short life on earth. The expectation existed then, that when your childhood hero presented himself, he would be red and cheerful with cold- kissed cheeks and a wide grin, the ho-ho-ho of a million childhood dreams abundant and enticing.
The reality, when it actually came, was something different altogether.
His mother and father, full from their evening meal, were waiting for the approach of twelve, to drive over to St Peter’s Church on the corner of Thymes Street for midnight mass. Not Catholic, not in any way religious at all, Toby’s parents reserved their visits to church for the holiday seasons, when to keep a polite and respectable face amongst their peers meant to attend church when it apparently mattered: Easter, Christmas, and the occasional baptism and wedding.
They were good people, though; Toby knew and understood at least this much, even at the age of seven. He had asked them to take him to church, and despite the occasion, they decided to leave without him, instead paying Casey Chalmers the double-rate babysitting fee for the next two hours of their absence.
According to them, midnight mass was too late for a young boy. And besides, they had said with sly smiles, it would be a risk if Santa was to fly by early. Would he not think the family gone, away on holiday, if he was to come and find the place empty of all life? Would he leave, without dropping off the promised gifts Toby was eagerly waiting for?
That had been enough for the young boy’s pleas to die down. He couldn’t risk that. He agreed to stay home, and listen out for the bells of Santa’s sleighs as they travelled across town and to each and every home.
His bedroom was dressed in shadows, the curtains parted ever so slightly, allowing in the moons illumination. Toby had brushed his teeth, pulled on his blue and green dinosaur pyjamas and switched off the bedside lamp, before climbing into bed.
The door was closed, but from downstairs he could hear Casey Chalmers on the phone, talking animatedly to her boyfriend. Running up his mother’s bill – that much he was sure of. He knew it had to be her boyfriend on the line, because her words would not fit a relationship of any other kind. She giggled, she spoke about a night out together, she muttered words about missing him. Beyond that, Christmas carols swam into the night from the stereo his mother had left on, the volume low but not so low that he couldn’t catch the words as they drifted towards him…Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.
He wondered how late his parents would be, and then his thoughts turned to Santa Claus himself. Father Christmas. The one person he considered to be his hero, his inspiration. And how could he not be? The man who lived forever, who made toys all year round, who could fly through the night sky and know the thoughts and wishes of every person the world over. That was somebody who mattered. Every kid’s dream.
He closed over his eyes. If he could just sleep right now, then morning would come quicker, wasn’t that what his mum said at night, if he was excited about something? “Fall asleep as quick as you can, then tomorrow will come in the blink of an eye!”
Sleep would not come, though.
Not now. He was too excited.
He was looking forward to the robot building kit he was sure Santa would bring. He was unbearably desperate to see the bundle of board games he was expecting to receive. Would he get the ones he asked for? Would his friends at school get what they asked for?
Toby pursed his lips, his chubby hands clasped together, as if in prayer.
Please Santa, hurry up!
He heard a loud bang from downstairs, the stereo abruptly falling silent. The scratch of the record player as it swung from the vinyl. Then, a noise like falling, like tumbling. A thud.
Casey’s voice, producing words that were so wild and panicked that he couldn’t even make them out. What was she shouting? What was happening down there?
Toby felt the flesh on his arms and back crawl with goosebumps and he whimpered as the house fell silent. He clutched at his duvet and hunkered down, listening, his ears straining. Had Casey had an accident? Something very bad had happened, he felt certain of it. The air had turned colder, the shadows of his room suddenly appeared sinister to him, as if they were cloaking a thousand watchful eyes.
The house was filled with a deadly, irrevocable silence.
Toby released the breath he realised he’d been holding and then lifted his head. He looked around the room: everything was still. Then, he heard it. Soft footsteps on the hallway stairs, creeping closer, moving slowly.
Toby shuddered, his hands clutching at the edge of the duvet tightly and he squirmed, his mouth turned down, his eyes wide.
Who was it? His parents hadn’t returned yet – he hadn’t heard their car arrive back. Was it Casey, after all, coming up to say sorry for making a noise? Was she playing a mean trick on him?
It wouldn’t be the first time. He remembered a few months back, she’d hidden in his wardrobe
and jumped out when he returned to his room from the bath. Back then, he wasn’t used to her
playful ways – he sulked all night, unhappily pouting and not answering any of her questions.
The footsteps became louder as they ascended the stairs and he winced, frightened, suddenly wishing he’d dashed for the wardrobe himself, to hide in, or pushed himself under the bed. Whoever it was, they were coming. They were close.
Peering toward the door, his eyes found the gap between the floor and the edge of the door – he could see two thick, wide shadows beneath. The outline of feet.
Somebody was standing right outside his bedroom.
Toby let out an involuntary yelp and then lifted one hand across his mouth, to stop himself.
There came three, loud raps on the door. Slowly, steadily.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Toby shuddered and then, seeking out every inch of bravery he could muster, he cleared his throat and then called out. “Who is there?” He ducked back under the cover, like a tortoise wincing into his shell, only his eyes visible beneath the blanket.
“Ho, ho, ho, Toby Arnold! It’s Santa Claus. I’ve come to see you!”
Toby smiled momentarily, but his joy flickered and faded fast. This was not the jolly, sing-song voice of the Santa on television. The voice was thick and low, it almost rippled, as if whoever was speaking was beneath water. The voice sounded wet.
Toby saw the feet beneath the doorway shift slightly, and then the voice returned. That grovel of a voice that crumbled and wheezed. “I’m a-coming-in-to-seeeeeee-you, my Toby,” the voice rang out, and then a laugh.
Toby immediately thought of his Aunt Meetall, who had smoked a pack of cigarettes a day since she was 15. Her voice always sounded crackly and damaged. Toby smiled. It was probably just his dad, playing a trick on him. It had to be. Maybe they just parked the car up the road, so he wouldn’t hear them return after midnight mass –
Knock. Knock. Knock. “TOBY!” The voice boomed. The whole room seemed to shudder and vibrate, the voice seemed unnaturally loud.
Toby knew then, more than anything he understood in the world, that this was no joke. This was real.
He pulled the blanket away from him and sat up onto the edge of his bed. He looked over at the chest of drawers to the right of the door and decided the only thing to do was pull the drawers across the doorway, to stop whoever it was getting inside, stop him getting to him.
Toby climbed out of bed, the cold night air hitting with a bite. He stepped over as quietly as he could. He was almost in reach of the drawers when the bedroom door swung open with a loud creak.
He screamed, gasping, his hands covering his mouth, and ran towards the other side of his room, his back to the wall, staring at the Santa thing that was now stepping inside the bedroom.
His profile filled the room, the hallway light flooding in and allowing Toby glimpses of his physique. He was tall, impossibly tall, and wide, so that he almost filled the door frame. His beard looked dark, his eyes round and black, with no colour in them at all. He was bathed in shadows cast from the furniture, but Toby could see his baggy trousers and jumper were green – bright green. There was something else, though: it was covered in red, thick blotches.
Toby groaned, finally letting his hands fall away.
“Ho, ho, ho, Toby! I’m Santa Claus! I’ve come to claim my gift!” He laughed, his belly rising and falling, and he placed a gloved hand across his rotund stomach.
“Wh-who are you?” Toby finally stuttered, finding his voice. His back was still against the wall, his hands now clenched at his sides. His ears strained, listening out for the approach of his dad’s car, but all was silent around him. Where was Casey? Where was she?
The man laughed again and then shook his head. He pouted, almost playfully. “Aren’t you listening, young Toby? Silly, silly Toby! I’m Santa. And I’m here to receive my very own special present…” his voice trailed off, and he took a step further into the room, nearer to the child.
Toby groaned again, shook his head. “Please go. Where is Casey?” The room was filled with an acrid scent, like rotting meat, of something decaying. Toby couldn’t articulate it, but it smelled awful, of something evil.
It was emanating from the intruder.
The man reached a hand out and slapped the light on, whacking the switch with his gloved fist.
Light reached the room and Toby’s eyes settled onto the details of the one who stood before him.
The red stains across his green outfit were splattered across him in wide, thick splodges, in certain places there were fine mists of red. He looked him up and down, noticing the big, black boots and the large black belt across his waist. Then, his eyes landed on the man’s face. The eyes. Those eyes. Black holes of nothingness. They looked like black marbles, there was no iris, no white, only round discs of black. If eyes were the window to the soul, as his dad had once said, then this being before him was nothing but empty skin and bone, no soul at all within.
Toby yelped, felt tears springing to his own eyes.
The man chuckled, taking another step forward.
“If you come downstairs, I’ll show you your present, Toby,” he said, his lips curled into a snarl.
Toby shook his head no.
“Come downstairs…. NOW TOBY!” the man shrieked. As his voice bellowed across the room, books and papers rattled on shelves, the chair in the corner of the room rocked slightly, papers flew from his art desk and landed across the floor.
The room turned icy cold. Those black eyes narrowed sharply on him.
Reluctantly, scared and uncertain about what the man might do – the man, who surely couldn’t be Santa, but who also couldn’t be a normal human – was like no one he had encountered. He was evil. He was like a man-made of the darkest shadows, Toby thought, remembering a demon figure from one of his comic books. Men like this, they were never good. You could never trust them. What choice did he have?
Toby nodded. “Okay. I’ll come down with you,” he said, his voice trembling.
Mum and dad – where are you? His mind raced, his heart thudded wildly in his chest. He felt sick then, his stomach churning.
The man turned, ducking out of the room slowly, and began descending the stairs, two at a time. He was big – no, massive – a terrible, unusual size.
Toby blinked back his tears and followed the man down, his small hand clutching at the bannister. He peered towards the hallway as they reached the lower half of the stairs: no sign of Casey. The front door was closed over, the latch in place. How had the man gotten in? Had Casey let him in? Toby was sure nobody had knocked at the front door.
Maybe he climbed down the chimney, a little voice inside his mind suggested, and Toby shivered, goosebumps slithering across his skin like ants over sticky honey.
They reached the bottom of the steps. The nearer he got to the man, the stronger the rotten smell was – thick and suffocating. Toby retched, raising a hand to his mouth. They arrived at the mouth of the lounge, the archway an open space into the living area, his mum’s favourite room.
He screamed, and felt pee dribbling warmly between his legs and soaking into his pants as he took in the scene before him. Casey was tied to the rocking chair that was usually positioned to the right of their fireplace. She was bound with rope, and her arms, legs and stomach area were covered in thick, red stains of blood. Her eyes were wide, and she was trying to speak, trying to say something, but a huge wad of tape was across her mouth and stifling her words.
Santa stepped in, closer to the young teenage girl. He bent low and sniffed, like an animal taking in the scent of prey.
Toby looked around the room. What could he do? Should he throw something? Try to run away? The room was as it always was, except for Casey and her imprisonment to the chair. The fireplace was not lit, mostly his parents used it for show, and only lit up when guests were over for dinner. They’d probably fire it up for Christmas lunch tomorrow, he thought meekly. His eyes scanned the room. The sofa, the bookshelf, the windows that were hidden behind the closed velvet curtains.
Then, he saw it.
The large, ornate mirror which hung on the wall.
It reflected everyone and everything in the room in it – except the man. Except Santa Claus. He was not reflected in the mirror at all, it was as if he didn’t even exist.
Toby gasped, recoiling.
As if he was oblivious to the boy, Santa sniffed at Casey’s hair, her face, then licked her cheek, which was sodden with blood and the stains of her tears. He stood up straight, then, and turned to Toby. “For Christmas this year,” he said, his voice oozing and wheezing, his disc of black eyes fixed to the boy, “you get to make a choice. Who do I get?”
Toby looked at Santa, took a small step back, considered running to the front door when Santa hissed, “Don’t even think about running!”
Toby felt the blood drain from his face, his skin paling. He felt the whack, whack, whack of his heart against his rib cage. Can he read my mind too? Finally he spoke. “I get to choose what?” he asked.
Besides Santa, Casey grunted and tried to communicate, but it was no good – he couldn’t make a word out with whatever was stuffed across the poor girl’s mouth. The wounds beneath her clothes must have been bad, though, Toby estimated, because blood continued to seep through the fabric in several places.
“You, little Toby, get to choose who my present is this year. Is it you, is it your mum, or is it your dad? You decide.” The man chuckled, and his lips, that looked blue and cracked, turned wide into an ugly grin. He licked them, and then pointed towards Casey. “Or, if you give me Casey, I will leave you and your parents alone. If you let her go, then it’ll be you, or your mum and dad. But mark my words, I will be taking one of you,” he rasped. He cackled, threw his head back, and Toby watched as his neck stretched and twisted at an impossible angle.
This thing was not human. This Santa Claus was not the man of magic and stuffed toys.
From outside, Toby heard the noise of a car engine approaching.
Mum and dad. Back from church.
Santa’s head snapped back into normal position, and his dark eyes rested on Toby. “You, your mum, or your dad. Or her. The girl. Which one is mine? What shall it be?”
Santa lifted his hands in the air, and pulled off his thick, dark gloves.
His hands were mottled, grey, and split open in places. Puss oozed across cracked skin, and his nails were long, like claws. The smell emanating from him seemed stronger now, and Toby, repulsed, coughed, covering his mouth and nose with his hand.
The girl, still tied, struggled, her eyes wide and pleading. She shook her head from side to side, her panic visible even despite the restraints holding her back.
From outside, the sound of an approaching car died down and the engine slowed to a stop. Car doors opening, then closing. Voices.
His mum and dad.
Toby looked at Casey and whimpered. “Sorry,” he said, shaking his head.
He turned to Santa and, through eyes filled with tears, nodded. “Yes, take Casey. Leave me and my parents alone!”
The front door opened, and Toby turned towards it.
His mum and dad, coats dusted in flickers of snow, stepped in. Rosey cheeks and broad smiles. “Hey kiddo, why you up so late? What’s wrong?”
Toby felt his heart stall, the rush of panic filling his body. What had he done? He turned back, pointing to the lounge. Stunned, he fell back, dizziness overtaking him: the room was as it
should be, as if nothing had taken place there at all.
The chair was back in its rightful position; the vinyl stereo suddenly blared to life. Silent night, holy night. The lights stopped flickering and settled. The smell had gone.
And so had Casey, along with Santa.
Toby, now on the floor, the smell of his own urine filling his nose, began to sob and wail.
By the time he had changed into fresh clothes, the police had been called and the missing persons report had been filed.
She was never seen again – and neither was the Santa Claus in green.
Christmas Eve, Present Day
And that was why the following years were spent in self-imposed isolation. Toby opened his eyes, the memories of that Christmas all those years ago burning into him, like blisters upon skin. He lifted a hand, running it through his dark hair and swallowed, the lump in his throat heavy.
He had spent so long, so much time, trying to tell his family about the Santa Claus that had stolen Casey – poor, sweet Casey – that they’d eventually started taking him to a counsellor. They thought he had imagined much of what he’d seen, what he’d heard. That impossible, invisible-to-the-mirror alien that had worn the skin and name of his childhood idol.
Of course, he couldn’t blame them. They wouldn’t have found this man he had described; he wasn’t human. He had vanished, like smoke melting into air. Just like that, gone.
Toby chewed at his bottom lip, still lying back in his bed. A wind was whipping up outside, beyond the house, and he could see through the small slitted gap of his curtains that snow still fell in quick flurries. Many Christmas’s had past, there was once a time he thought he could be normal, experience the Christmas season like any other, yet in 1978, when he was 23 years old, he had been visited again.
He had been staying at his parents for Christmas, during university break. On Christmas eve, he had awoken to the two dark smudges beneath his door; the shadows of feet beyond in the hallway.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The demand then had been the same as before: I’m back for a present, Toby. Who is it to be – your parents, or you? The choice had been made, in a moment of fear sparked by what he was sure would be his own death: he had chosen them. The two people who had raised him, who had loved him. When he checked their room, moments later, they had simply vanished.
Never to be seen again. That horrific truth smeared itself across his soul like dirt. His guilt, the realisation of what he had done, slowly ate away at his soul each day, until really, there was nothing left of him except an empty shell of ugly memories.
Marrying and having a child, the wife and daughter he mentioned earlier? They were long gone. For every person he met that he cared about, they posed a risk. Another present for Santa Claus to come and claim? He could return at any time, demanding another of those he loved. Toby felt tears stinging at his eyes and he allowed them to fall freely, the drops of water sliding across his cheeks and onto the pillows. He had separated from his wife and child, demanding never to see them again. He had been truly stupid to think it was ever a possibility to have someone in his life. He had no one left.
The guilt sliced into him like a knife into butter. An easy, open wound.
He had chosen others above himself, and what did he have left to show for it? The only real gift in life, he thought solemnly, was to have others in it. To love, to care for, to share with. Yet he now had no one, and it had been his choosing. And maybe, Toby thought, the idea suddenly dawning on him with a vivid clarity, that was what it was all about. Didn’t Santa know the truth of peoples hearts? What was it, that his teacher Sylvia Marlow used to say when he was in 7th grade at school? “Santa only rewards the good children, the bad ones, well, you don’t want to take the risk.”
Had he chosen differently, would they have been spared? Had Santa seen something in his soul, one that marked him firmly and permanently onto the black list? Had his choosing of those around him as an offering to save himself been a test? Maybe. Did Santa only appear as the red, friendly, chuckling figure to the souls who deserved to see him that way?
The idea was pointless, the answer unknowable.
He was alone now, unsafe to be with any other. Left alone to rot in his prison called a home, dreading each year the chiming of church bells, the Christmas hymns and the season’s first snowfall.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Toby’s head jerked up, his heart hammering, his mind frozen. His eyes lowered, drawn to that gap between floor and door. There it was, the two outlines of large feet.
“Ho, ho, ho,” the voice said, crisp and cheerful.
Toby threw back the covers and, not caring now, about what would happen, ran over to the bedroom door. He grabbed the cold handle and twisted it, throwing the door wide open.
Santa. With the black, soulless discs for eyes.
“I’m ready,” Toby said flatly, his hands by his sides, lips trembling. He waited, knowing that he was the last and only gift he could offer, on that Christmas that would now be his last.
Fiona Dodwell has been writing fiction for almost 10 years, with several horror/paranormal titles released under various publishers. Alongside this, she is a freelance writer for various websites and magazines. She has written features for Warner Music, Made In Shoreditch Magazine, Music-news.com and Tremr.
Fiona has studied Psychology, Film Studies, Theology and Health & Social Care.
Her biggest passion is reading dark fiction, as well as creating new stories of her own – the creepier the better!
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