Author's note: The following story was an entry in The Shadow Swimmer Holiday Horror Story Contest where it won first place.
The doors to the homeless shelter shut in ten minutes, but Caleb needed another drink. It was Christmas Eve 1970, and he was wandering the streets of Eureka, California in a tattered and filthy Santa suit, crimson hat perched atop his head, dirty beard pulled down around his neck, a streak of vomit running down his left leg.
When the Salvation Army gave him the costume, days ago—how many now? Three? Four?—it had been brand new and shiny clean, but he had gone AWOL as soon as he had begged up enough money for a good drunk. He couldn’t believe how easy it was to get money begging in a Santa Suit during the holidays, especially when people thought they were giving to the Salvation Army. Too bad, he thought, that the racket had to end tonight. Fuck it, he was headed to the nearest bar and had a pocket full of money.
Bells on bob-tail ring, making spirits bright. Oh what fun it is to sing a sleighing song tonight.
Finally managing to make eye contact with the simian faced bartender who was absent-mindedly pushing a dishtowel up and down a pint glass, Caleb waved a fiver in the air, a wry smile of what the fuck? on his face. Red and green Christmas tree lights flickered over the bottles and mirrors and off in the corner the Ghost of Christmas Past grinned its horrid smile. The bartender nodded acknowledgment and strutted over.
“Yeah? Whaddya want?”
“Beer and a whiskey.”
“What kinda beer? What kinda whiskey?”
The bartender got him his drinks, took the twenty, and left his change in front of him on the bar.
Sipping the bitter medicine, Caleb noticed a woman a few stools down trying to draw his attention, a jet of blue smoke issuing from her cherry-red lips as she raised and lowered her thickly-penciled eyebrows. He could tell she had done her best to look good tonight: lots of eye makeup, newer, hipper-looking clothes, but he could see the age in her face, recognized her need like a bad smell. Battered, needy women gave off a stink of desperation he’d learned to recognize over the years. Those years since he’d been back from the war. He’d had his fair share of these types. Always good for a warm bed and a hot meal, but too crazy to spend any real time with.
“Hey there, Santa. Buy a girl a drink?”
“Sure thing, honey.” Caleb glanced at the barkeep. “Give the lady what she wants.”
She slid down next to him as the grim faced bartender mixed a rum and coke, speared a lime with a tiny sword and dropped it in the glass. “I’ve always had a thing for Santa,” she whispered. “Coming in late at night to punish the naughty and reward the nice.”
“Yeah, and what are you, darling? Naughty or nice?”
“I’ve always thought I was a little of both.”
“Ha. What’s your name, baby?”
“Sandra. They call me Sandy around here. But I think of myself as Sandra.”
“All right, Sandra. What’s your story?”
“Just a local girl, been in the same place too long. What about you, Santa? Don’t you gotta lot of work to do tonight?”
Caleb laughed, that deep, reassuring laugh he’d mastered over the years, to put people—women especially—at ease. They talked for a while. Then Caleb ordered a pitcher of beer and a couple more shots and they moved to a corner booth. Sandra talked on and on, chain smoking Salems while he drank his beer and sipped his whiskey, watching as the room began to spin in slow, psychedelic and nauseating circles.
“You’re awful quiet.”
“I’ve been told that before.”
“How’d you get them scars on your neck?”
Caleb put his hand to his neck, let it drift down to the dirty fake beard, and pulled the knotted grey and black mess of hair over to cover his throat. And that wicked Ghost of Christmas Past with sunken eyes and yellow teeth whispered, “Tell her.” And so Caleb did.
“In the war.”
“You were over in ‘Nam, huh?”
“Yeah, two tours.”
“And then what? You come back to have these damn hippies spiting at you? I feel for you, sweetie. My daddy died in France fighting Nazis. Now my brother is in the Navy while this country goes to shit. You got these bastards like that dirty Abbey Hoffman saying to steal everything. And this Charlie Manson Family killing movie stars.” She laughed, shook her head and sipped her drink. “It’s enough to make you sick.”
They grew quiet. “So, you going to tell me about those scars, or what?”
“Well, I was a Kootchie Kootie. A tunnel rat. You know what that is?”
“Oh, yeah. You were one of those guys that go down in those gook holes?”
“Sure was. Infantry. 1st Reconnaissance Squadron.” He sighed, not wanting to get into it, but once he started it was hard to stop. “I was working three clicks west of Duc Pho in the Quang Ngai province. I was down in a tunnel. Just me, my .45 and a flash light. Looking out for booby traps and rats and spiders, and this animal. . . it came out of nowhere. Fucking attacked me. Just latched onto my shoulder and wouldn’t let go.”
“Oh, baby. You was attacked by an animal down in one of those tunnels?”
“Yeah. But when I killed it, when I shot it . . . ” He couldn’t tell her the rest. He couldn’t tell her how after he had shot that thing, the muzzle blast a blinding light, the report deafening, after he had filled that monster full of holes and watched it drop, it had looked just like a little girl. Just a tiny, raven-haired girl, all shot up and bloody, when moments ago it had been a beast: a mess of lurching fangs and drool.
His mouth moved up and down silently. He couldn’t say anything. Then, with an incredible effort, what he had managed to say was, “I think I brought something back with me. I . . . I . . . I don’t know.”
“You brought something back with you? You mean like that agent orange stuff, honey?”
“No, something different. Something, something. . .”
“What? In your head?”
He wanted to say, no, something in my blood: I brought back something in my blood that makes me a monster; but instead, he just nodded yes, his face a knot, visibly fighting to not break down in tears.
“Oh, baby, oh, baby, I understand.”
The room was twirling now at a breakneck speed. He was going to be sick. He pulled away from her and vomited on the floor.
“Son of a bitch!” the bartender shouted. “Who’s going to clean that up?”
Caleb hung over the edge of the booth, retching and dry heaving.
“Fuck you, Sam. He’s a veteran! He fought for this country, got attacked down in one of them gook holes. What the fuck you ever done?”
“I don’t care if he was on the beach at Normandy. Get him the fuck out of here!”
“You’re a piece of work. A real piece of work, know that, Sam? Where’s your sense of Christmas spirit?”
The bartender stomped up to her, eyes bulging, an accusing finger extended. “Get your cheap-whore ass out of here, bitch, and take your Santa Claus friend with you. Got me?” he grabbed her face in his hand and jerked her chin up so that he could look her in the eye. “This bar ain’t no place for you any more, Sandy. You make my customers sick. Everyone who’s wanted to has fucked you, and none of them’s too proud of it either. You'se don’t belong here. Find some other place to haunt, you cheap skank.” With that he tossed her head aside and stormed back behind the bar.
We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
Sandra walked Caleb back to the motel room she rented by the month, holding him up the whole way while he leaned against her mumbling and pointing to ghosts she could not see. Once they were back at her room she helped him out of his Santa outfit and got him into the tub. In the heat of the steamy water he regained a semblance of consciousness, came back to himself. When he looked up he saw her through the mist, leaning in the doorway, staring at him. She had changed and was now wearing nothing but a silk kimono. He had to admit she didn’t look that bad.
“How you feeling, Santa?”
“Good. I feel . . .” he paused, unsure what to say, how he actually felt. “Good.”
She knelt down beside the tub, ran her finger over the surface of the water. “Thirsty?” she asked, holding up a tumbler of Scotch and water.
“As a matter of fact, I am.”
Taking the glass into his hands, he took a sip. Handing it back to her she gave him a penetrating stare that he found hard to decipher and then leaned in to kiss him. She tasted of whiskey, cigarettes and peppermint. But it was good, the way she gently ran her tongue over his upper lip before she pulled away, and Caleb felt himself growing aroused.
“Now that you’re all cleaned up, why don’t we get you to bed.”
“Sounds good, baby.”
“Dry yourself off. I’ll be waiting.” With that she disappeared out the door.
He got up from the tub and dried himself the best he could with the cheap, tiny towels the motel provided. When he entered the room she was already on the bed, prone on her back and naked. She may have had a butter face but her body was to die for, and she knew how to flaunt it. He started towards her but she held up her hand, palm out toward him, and exclaimed, “Stop right there, mister. The Santa suit. Put it on.”
He gave her a questioning half grimace and then smiled. “You serious?”
“I told you: I gotta thing for Santa.”
Smirking, he pulled on the dirty jacket and set the conical hat atop his head. “Better?”
“Oh, yeah, baby. I’ve been so naughty. I need to be punished.”
With that she burst out in playful laughter, turned over onto all fours, and stuck her ass into the air, whispering over her shoulder, “Come and get it, Santa.”
He approached the bed and, still standing, he pulled himself into her. She let out a deep moan and he began to move, slowly. He was still drunk as hell and the room was spinning slightly but he could feel that primal urge within to rock and rotate. He began to lunge faster, and faster, and then, suddenly, it was happening again.
Fuck. No. No. No. It was happening again. He could feel himself beginning to change as he thrust against her. A part of him wanted to run away, to bolt through the door and into the night so that he wouldn’t hurt her. But another part of him wanted this. It felt good. It felt so fucking good to let go and let the animal inside him take over. Still pounding, Sandra moaning beneath him, he watched in wonder as his fingers—tightly gripping her bony hips—became claws and a thick mat of fur began to weave itself up his arms. Thrusting against her with all his might he lifted his face and began to howl as his mouth filled with sharp, gleaming fangs.
Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus lane!
Margaret Ashton was the manager of the Lone Pine motel. She had been across the street visiting with her daughter and grandson in their two-story, cookie-cutter house, and she was just walking back to the motel office when she heard the screaming in room 308. It was that cheap-tramp Sandy’s room. Margaret had been waiting for an excuse to evict her and marched up to the door, ready to throw her out, Christmas Eve or not. But as she grew closer and heard the urgency to the screams, the gut-wrenching terror of the squeals, she grew hesitant and stopped. Suddenly, without warning, the window shattered, showering her with glass and splintered wood. She fell back and slipped to the ground, watching in utter disbelief as the craziest thing she had ever seen in her life of fifty-six years came tumbling down atop her. It was a wolf. A huge monster of a wolf, with a snarling mouth of fangs dripping blood and drool. And it was wearing a red coat lined in white fur with a Santa cap perched atop its head.
From his bedroom window her grandson Tommy watched the entire thing.
Later that night homicide detectives would interview the little boy. Tearfully he would relate how he had seen his grandmother ripped to shreds by some kind of beast in a Santa suit. One of the uniformed officers standing idly in the background would then turn to his partner and whisper under his breath, “Looks like grandma got run over by a werewolf, walking home from his house Christmas Eve.”
God, the Easter Bunny, and the Ghost of Christmas Present watched as two-year-old Annabelle toddled out the door of her street-level apartment and onto the sidewalk, a thumb stuck in her mouth and dragging a Barbie doll along by the hair. God looked like the guy from the Dos Equis commercials: an incredibly good looking older gentleman with white hair, perfectly coifed, and a nicely trimmed beard, in a tuxedo. The Ghost of Christmas Present looked extremely bored and kept yawning. The Easter Bunny was an out-of-work writer who needed a shave, dressed in a pink bunny outfit.
“Cute kid,” the Easter Bunny commented.
“I wouldn’t get too attached,” the Ghost of Christmas Present replied, disinterestedly stifling a yawn.
Annabelle’s parents were fighting again and they could all hear their voices echoing out from the apartment.
“Just how many Quaaludes did you take? You can’t even look at me. Jesus, wake up, bitch, I’m talking to you.”
“Fuck off, Henry. You always were a bore.”
“You dumb cunt. I oughta slap the stupid right offa your face.”
When the wolf came galloping down the middle of the street in its blood soaked Santa suit the Easter Bunny turned to God and said, “You gotta be putting me on, man.”
God rolled his eyes.
The wolf grabbed the baby in its mouth and threw the child upward into the night sky where she hung suspended in the moonlight for a moment, tiny arms and legs kicking, and then tumbled down, landing on the street with a thud. The beast leapt at her, sinking its fangs into her neck and thrashing its head side to side until the tiny figure ceased to struggle and lay limp in its mouth.
“It’s probably for the best,” the Ghost of Christmas Past said.
“What? Why?” the Easter Bunny asked, scratching at the stubble on his face.
“You want to tell him, God? Or should I?”
God gestured with his hands, as if to say, “Go ahead. It’s all you.”
“If Annabelle had lived through this night, after being molested by her stepfather and stepbrother, she would have become a heroin addict by fourteen and a prostitute by fifteen. She then would have gotten picked up by a notorious serial killer who after raping her for days would finally kill her by trying to give her a lobotomy with a cordless drill. Her life taken like this, quickly and mercifully, is a blessing, a thing of joy. A Christmas miracle.”
“Is this true?” the Easter Bunny asked God.
God grinned and nodded.
“You don’t say much, do you?” the Easter Bunny asked God.
God just shrugged.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la la la la la. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la la la la la.
Father Mulligan was cleaning up after midnight mass when he heard the click-clack of claws on the wooden floor. He paused, chalice in one hand, ciborium in the other, and listened.
“Hello?” he called out, his voice echoing throughout the empty chapel. “Who’s there?”
Beneath the pounding of blood in his ears he distinctly heard panting, like that of a large animal. “Hello?”
Deep in the dark recess of the hall something stirred, moved, and then came slinking out of the shadows: a large creature walking on all fours, its eyes alight and flickering like yellow flames. The beast came forward slowly down the aisle, Santa hat drooping down one side of its head, a dead baby hung limply in its mouth. The wolf approached the altar and came so close that the priest could smell it, a feral odor of blood and musk. It spit the baby to the floor where it landed with a horrible smack.
But the priest didn’t run. He stood his ground, murmuring prayers beneath his breath. He knew why the beast was there, why this spawn of evil had come. It was here to punish him. Punish him for the things he had done to all those little boys. So many. First in Ireland when he had just been doing what had been done to him when he was an altar boy. Then, after coming to America, in Philadelphia, where for years the urban darkness of poverty and city life had let him run rampant. Not yet here in California, where he had been sent quickly by the diocese so as not to cause a scandal. But he had his eyes on a few of the boys in his congregation. Some of the poorer ones who he thought wouldn’t tell.
Seeing the monster here was a blessing and death would be a mercy. He fell to his knees, kissed his stole, and lifted his neck to the beast. But instead of taking him by the throat, the beast spun him around by the shoulders so that the priest fell face first to the floor. With one quick jerking motion the monster shredded the priest’s pants and mounted him. The priest cried out in pain and surprise as the wolf forcibly entered him and warm blood began to trickle down his leg.
God, the Easter Bunny and the Ghost of Christmas Present stood at the back of the chapel watching. The Easter Bunny had taken off his hood of rabbit ears and was puffing on an e-cigarette and furiously tapping away on an iPad mini. “Been blogging about this whole thing, and, yeah, a lot of people see that as offensive. I mean, what the fuck? You got a werewolf dressed like Santa Claus raping a child molesting priest on Christmas Eve?”
The Ghost of Christmas Present laughed heartily. “Well, I hate to say I told you so, but . . .”
“You got nothing to say about this, God?” the Easter Bunny asked, momentarily looking away from his iPad.
God tilted his head to the left, his thin lips bending into a sad frown, and, raising his eyebrows in an, “Oh, well,” manner, shrugged again.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let Earth receive her king!
Gravy Brain Jane was out of her mind on LSD and had nowhere to go. She had a thousand tabs of purple sunshine on her but the connect had never shown and wasn’t answering the phone. Exasperated and befuddled, her vision a swirling cyclone of light and darkness, she stumbled from the Greyhound Station to a small clearing in a copse of woods. She sat leaning against a tree, the branches dripping and melting around her, the sky a miasma of spiraling stars and galaxies. She giggled and mumbled, “No sense makes sense,” to herself.
Charlie had sent a message from prison that she should deliver the acid here. If Charlie said it would work out, it would work out. She was sure of that. She had thought the other passengers on the bus would have been startled and scared by the X that Sandy and Squeaky had helped her burn into her forehead with hot bobby pins, but no one had noticed at all.
The Easter Bunny, who wasn’t even wearing his rabbit outfit anymore, and was now just dressed in his usual black jeans and t-shirt, was pacing back and forth irritably. He turned to the Ghost of Christmas Present and asked, slightly argumentatively, “Well, where’s God?”
“Oh, he couldn’t make it. Had a concert to catch.”
“A concert? What are you talking about?”
“Well, it was Skynard and you know how he loves Free Bird.”
Gravy Brain Jane giggled when she saw the beast slowly creeping towards her. She had been taught to love coyotes when the family was in the desert of Death Valley. Back on the ranch Charlie had taught them to break down the final walls society imposed on them by having them fellate the stray dogs.
“Hey there, beautiful,” she said. The wolf just stared at her with its unblinking yellow eyes.
From their glimmer and spark she knew just what the creature wanted. It wanted what all men want and she had been taught the ways of a free love society. Giggling she squirmed from her panties and lifted her skirt with a vacant grin. She knew that in love there is no wrong. That submission is a gift and that you should never learn not to love. Charlie had taught her well.
She spread her legs, exposing herself, and the beast crept up to her and lowered its snout to her and began to lap at her in quick, greedy, licks. She gripped his ears tight, her head thrown back, and thought about how groovy and sexy it was to be pleasured by the beast, to have death and life so close, to lay your hands upon the monster and be free in love. As she bucked and lurched and felt herself climax she thought about how the Son of Man had taught her that death is only another orgasm, that everything in the universe is in and out and in and out in a cosmic orgy, babies coming out, galaxies sinking into black holes, knives plunging in, blood pouring out. Wow! Talk about the Big Bang!
The beast crawled atop her and slipped itself into her. When it shuddered and released itself inside her she knew within her heart that she would be with child. This was a happy moment. A glorious moment in time. Another Christmas miracle. Oh, joyous night. She would name this child Stewart, Stewart Kirby, after her grandfather.
Afterwards, the beast lay against her, spent. She stroked its fur with her nails and gently kissed its blood drenched snout. In this way the beast kept the girl warm through the coldest hours of the night.
Silent Night. Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright.
Free in the moonlight as snow began to fall, bathed in the stink of congealing human blood, the taste of flesh and woman fresh on its lips and tongue, the lycanthrope ran, the stars above him a smear of spilled milk, the moon a cataract eye aglow in malignancy.
On the First Day of Christmas my true love gave to me. . .
Caleb awoke in the morning naked and freezing, enveloped in the scent of the Douglas fir and redwood. He shivered and looked about. Snow was falling heavily, blanketing the earth in white. Beside him lay his tattered Santa costume, by some miracle the hat still clung to his head.
He glanced above the towering tree tops to the shelter of the sky and saw there a light both majestic and bizarre. Seemingly fake, like a bad special effect from a cheap television show. And in that glaring gleam of white, he saw a black figure descend: The Ghost of Christmas Future who spoke in a deep and sultry voice while extending out a hand, “Do you wish to come with me?”
In his mind all he could hear was Bing Crosby crooning I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, and a million worlds passed before his eyes. Birthday cakes with only a few candles to blow out. His mother’s smile as she tugged on thread, sewing patches on a Cub Scout sash. Playing catch with his dad who bought him that special glove for little league and would oil it with him in the falling sun of the suburban evening. Watching Kennedy’s skull explode on television, Jackie screeching and trying desperately to crawl away. The Howdy Doodie show. Lee Harvey Oswald grimacing in pain and turning as Ruby put a bullet in his side. That gnarled old apple tree in the backyard, how that ancient tree would fill with tiny white blossoms in the spring so that you could not tell how old and bent it really was, its age hidden in its blooming. How those tiny petals fell in early summer, glistening in the amber light, a shimmering rain of flowers cascading down and lying white as snow on the ground. Sweat streaming down his brow as he pushed a lawnmower, that smell of fresh-cut grass, such a vibrant green it made his head hurt. Behind the baseball dugout with Betty Connors on a warm summer night: his first kiss. How she had moved away soon after and he had never seen her again. His draft card: that plain and innocuous envelope of a pale yellow color that they’d all dreaded and all expected. Telling his father, “Guess I’m going to war, pops.” And his father just nodding back stoically. His gal Sally, with her beehive hairdo, who wouldn’t let him fuck her no matter how hard he begged and pleaded, telling her he didn’t want to go to war a virgin. The ancient apple tree in autumn, loaded with ripe fruit. The bumpy ride over the Pacific in a military transport plane. The Vietnamese whore who spread her legs for a single American dollar. Paddy fields burned and incinerated so that no water stood within them and the rice stalks withered. January 1968. Tet: The New Year, a time to worship ancestors. An intricate barrage of hellfire. Medivac choppers stuffed with bloody men and boys. Fire fights, flares illuminating the night, the thunder of mortars and sparks of muzzle flash. A landscape of smoke and exploding ordinances. Those mornings when the bombers flew in and the ground shook like jelly. Seeing men he knew dancing and screaming in flames. Splintered, broken trees, smoke billowing in the distance. The Pickle Switch and canisters of napalm. VC bodies dressed in black lying in horrible piles. A rifle on the ground with a stream of ammunition dripping out of it. “I dare you to pick up that dead man’s gun.” “Yeah, right.” The tunnels. And the idea of winter, just the concept of it in that hot, hot land where all is hidden from you, taken, and there is nothing to believe in or hope for, but you imagine that tree back home nonetheless, barren and without leaves and fruit, draped in snow and frozen. The way the men whispered when they found a dead body, till all you hear is whispers of body, body, body. Then the beast appears who is really only a little girl. How could you have thought that a little girl was a monster? There was no monster, just a little girl, you made everything else up. But now there is a monster, just as sure as there are ghosts, an Easter Bunny and a God. It’s you. You’re the monster. You’re the beast. And you think to yourself, “What have I done? What did I do?” Then, as you face this ultimate truth, the cold takes you. And when would spring come again? Certainly not in this lifetime, and not on this earth. So, “Yes,” you say to the cold and the winter. To the Ghost of Christmas Future who holds nothing forth but death. “Yes. Take me. Just take me away and let me be free.” An affirmation to end the rest of your negations.
And you let go of that aching, awful, agonizing pain of being a man of flesh and blood, the cold slowing down your heart, and give in to death.
And as you slip away, into the embrace of the Ghost of Christmas Future, you wonder, “Was it real? Was any of it real at all?”
And in the heavens a laughing God finally breaks his silence and answers: “There is no such thing as real. It’s all just a dream within a dream.”
Written by HumboldtLycanthrope