I wrote this for a Christmas themed edition of a horror ‘zine I’m fond of. They didn’t buy the story but I thought it was pretty good anyway. Have a read and get into the spirit.
The Night Before
Every door was closed, the windows down tight and struggling hard to keep out the chill from the frigid Christmas eve night swirling around outside. In the mountains to the east, the plateau on the west, the whole of Tennessee was covered in layers of frosty white snow giving the season a majestic look that was fabled in song and story around the region. Unfortunately, I lived in the Cumberland valley and by the time the winter weather had arrived to my quiet little hamlet outside of Nashville, what I was left with were sheets of frozen rain forming puddles and black ice wherever they could pool. There was no such thing as a Tender Tennessee Christmas where I came from. A wood burning stove in the living room worked wonders to keep the cold at bay and, thanks to the pot of hot buttered rum simmering on top, filled the air in the heavy, warming aromas of winter.
It was the first year I hadn’t seen a Christmas tree in my living room, the first year without stockings or presents or any real decorations on the lawn or in the home. Without Julie and Sam, my wife and daughter, the holiday was void of any cheer for me. It was the perpetual seasonal deluge that had washed the car off the embankment the week after Thanksgiving last year. The water had filled the cab of the car and drowned them both as they struggled to free themselves from the wreckage. I shook my head at the memory and poured myself another cup of rum. Sitting down in the big recliner facing the television I debated a while about taking the clicker and seeing what was on. I knew the answer, though: a bunch of holly jolly families sitting around enjoying the love and company they shared for one another. Yeah, that’s exactly what I want to watch. The radio wouldn’t be any better.
After a few minutes of silence, I decided that anything would be better than being alone with my thoughts. Flipping the channels I came across Dr. Gangrene’s Christmas Movie Murderthon and watched a psychotic Santa battling demon possessed elves. No sappy songs. No loving families. Just B movie monsters and a homeless junkie Saint Nick slaughtering monsters with a candy cane sword. So engrossed by the Christmas colored carnage flickering across the screen, I barely noticed the knocking at the door. It started as a light rapping at first but, by the time I managed to pry myself out of the recliner and make it to the door, had become a desperate pounding. I unlocked the deadbolt, opened it, and caught the woman as she collapsed into my home.
“Shut it.” She cried. “Shut it quick.”
I slammed the door and locked it. The woman was small, wrapped up in a red cape and a coat and soaking wet from the torrential rain beating down on the tin roof above us. Her hair was white, matted to her head by the water dripping from her hood and her face was bloody and bruised. I carried her into the living room and laid her down beside the stove where the floor was warm and stable. I slid a pillow under her head and offered her a cup of rum. Her eyes, dark brown and wide, darted from side to side staring up at the ceiling and walls.
“He’s going to find me here,” she said frantically. “He knows where I’ve been sleeping. He knows that I’m awake.”
“Does he know if I’ve been bad or good?” I asked, chuckling. “Cause I’ve tried to be good for goodness sake.”
“Do you think this is a fucking joke?” Apparently, my sense of humor was lost on her.
“A stranger shows up beat to hell on my front door on Christmas eve talking nonsense. No, I’m pretty sure this is a as far from a joke as we can get. So what is it? Old man beating on you? Some guy run you off the side of the road? I’ve got a phone you can use if you need to call the police.”
“The cops can’t help us.” she whispered. “No one can help us. We just have to make it until the morning.”
“That’s all well and good but you look like you had the hell beat out of you. Let me take you to the doctor.”
“No.” She shrieked, leaping up and grabbing me at my shoulders. “I can’t go back out there. Not tonight.”
“Then at least let me call someone. I’ve got a buddy up the road who’s a paramedic. Let him come check you out.”
I grabbed the phone off the wall and dialed the number. There was no tone. I jiggled the cord, tapped the receiver up and down on the hook a few times to try and get a line. Nothing. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my cell phone. The battery was dead.
“Well, that won’t work.” I said to myself. “How about I find you something dry to put on and then you explain to me what’s going on?”
I walked down the short hall into the bedroom, hesitating a moment as I stopped at the closet door. I hadn’t opened it in a year. Not since I moved all my things out. Not since I found the blue dress that Julie loved, the one I had buried her in. Hand trembling I opened the door and grabbed the first thing I came across. It happened to be an oversized sleep shirt on a hanger with a pair of sweatpants. Sighing my relief I walked back out into the living room. I handed the woman the clothes and pointed down the hall.
“Bathroom’s on the left.” I told her. “I’ll throw your clothes in the dryer. In the meantime, you can wear these. Look like they should be a decent fit.”
She took the hanger and walked off.
Outside, I could hear water sloshing as the rain continued to beat down on the house. Through the window trees danced side to side in the wind, their gnarled branches clutching and releasing in skeletal fists shaking at the sky. There was something else, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it was just my guest’s panic, the overwhelming sense of something amiss thanks to her mysterious arrival and cryptic non-explanations? Maybe I was just depressed and trying to distract myself with an imagined memory? Maybe I’d had too much rum? I shook the thoughts entirely, closed the blinds, and finished my mug. From the bathroom, I heard the shower begin to run.
“Yeah, sure, why not?” I said to myself, sinking into my recliner. “Come into my house, soak the floors, freak me out, and take a shower. Anything else I can do to help?”
I barely noticed as I drifted off to sleep.
The room was cold when I woke up. The fire had died down to embers and the December chill had crept into the house and my bones. I quickly jumped up and grabbed what was left of the firewood sitting in the bin beside the stove. The television was static, white snow crackling a blizzard across the screen. The rum was lukewarm in the pot making my early morning freeze even worse. I was hoping that maybe my visitor was all a part of some bad dream as I looked around and found myself as completely alone as I had been when I started the evening. As alone as I’d been for over a year now.
I stepped in a puddle as I moved into the hallway.
“Hey, you okay in there?” I asked, knocking on the bathroom door. She didn’t answer. There was a thick, copper smell coming from behind the door.
“Seriously, you need to say something or I’m coming in.”
I opened the door. The fluorescent light over the sink was flickering in time with a candle I’d left burning. The floor was damp, her clothes piled up by the toilet still oozing in the rain and mud from their soggy depths. The shower curtain was pulled around the tub and the water was still running. The heat had gone out of it and there was no steam rising from inside. My breath was fogging as I reached to open it.
You’re not going to like what you find, I thought.
Even so, I opened the curtain.
The tub was empty, the water spraying down swirling a mix of mud and blood and grime in a circle around a clogged drain. I turned off the tap, smacked the light fixture until it was steady, and stepped cautiously into the hall.
“Hello.” I called, ignoring every bit of logic and reason I’d gleaned from years of watching scary movies. “Ma’am. Are you still here?”
Creeping down the hall, I noticed a light coming from my daughter’s room. Like the closet in my bedroom, it was a door that had been closed for over a year, a light that hadn’t shined since the funeral. I could hear her voice, Sam’s voice, and her laughter as I reached for the handle.
“Why did you leave us?” Sam’s voice warbled from the bedroom as I grabbed the doorknob. “It was so cold.”
“Samantha?” I opened the door.
The woman was standing in the middle of the room, her skin ashen, wearing the sleep shirt and sweatpants I’d laid out for her. Her face was chalk white, the veins rippling purple lightning across the porcelain of her neck and jaw. Her eyes were colorless, hollow as she stood with outstretched arms.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said in my little girl’s voice. “The water was everywhere.”
“Look, I don’t know what sick sort of game you’re playing at but you’ve got exactly five seconds before I beat your ass and put you out in the cold.”
“Do you want to know the worst part,” she continued, undaunted. “It wasn’t being trapped with the water rising up to my head. It wasn’t watching mommy kick and struggle before she drowned. It was what they did to us after. It’s what the men in the morgue did when they cut away my wet clothes and threw them in a bag on the floor.”
She reached up to the neck of the shirt and ripped it down the middle. Her chest was open, the ribs broken and peeled out to reveal the completely hollowed out inner core of her being. The musty, stale air in the room was suddenly full of blood and bile and the stink of rancid meat wafting from the gaping wound.
“They cut me, daddy. They cut me open and scooped me out like a Jack-o-lantern. Why did you let them do this to me?”
I slammed the door and took off down the hall. The floor was slick and I slid into the living room and crashed against the wall. I staggered up to my feet and, shaking, looked down the short, dark hallway.
“You’re still asleep,” I told myself. “You’re having a nightmare. Maybe it was the rum? Bad batch or something? This isn’t real. This isn’t happening to me.”
“Oh, it’s happening to you, Carl.”
I looked across the room at the television. The blizzard of static had cleared away. The funeral home where I’d had the visitation was tracking across the screen like a worn out VHS tape. The woman was standing between the two caskets, Julie and Sam sitting lifelessly at either side of her.
“There was never anyone chasing you, was there?”
She smiled sardonically and raised her arms. The last remnants of her internal organs slopped out into the floor as she began to laugh.
“It’s alright.” the woman said. “You’re going to be with your family very soon.”
She began to push her pallid, bloody arms through the screen. I grabbed my mug from the top of the stove and lobbed it at the television screen. The glass erupted in a shower of sparks and splinters before it went dark. Her arms flickered and disappeared.
“See, it’s that temper, Carl,” Julie said from inside the throat of the monster woman standing in the hallway in front of my daughter’s bedroom door. “That’s why I left you. That’s why I had the accident. You drove me off that bridge. You made me kill us.”
“Screw you.” I shouted.
The front door banged against the wall behind me as I ran barefoot onto the porch and out across the slush and half frozen puddles forming in the gravel driveway. I didn’t care. My feet were bleeding by the time I finally slid up to the road but I didn’t look back, couldn’t look back. That woman, that thing, would be chasing after me. Her hollow, soulless eyes were boring a hole through the back of my head with every step I took. I skidded across the slick asphalt, the black ice that had formed over the double yellow lines and slid off the other side down the rough embankment. Rolling through frozen grass and mud, brambles and broken sticks I bounced until I finally stopped face first in a large puddle.
My head and ribs were on fire. I had some broken bones from the fall. I could feel them knifing me in my left side as I staggered up to my feet and immediately collapsed against a tree. I leaned my head against the bark and closed my eyes.
“This is not happening,” I told myself. “This cannot be happening to me.”
An engine revved in the darkness, echoed through the gnarled branches of dead trees. Headlights flashed bright in front of me and immediately began to cartwheel over and over through the night. There was a crash, crunching metal and shattering glass all culminating in a chorus of panicked voices shouting in the distance. Pulling myself up on a low hanging branch I stumbled off towards the shouting. As I walked, the rain began to slack up and the night gradually faded into morning. By the time I reached the car it was brighter than midday and clear. The car was upside down, steam billowing up from the engine block as the wheels continued to lazily spin. The outside was rusted; the roof compacted and crunched down until it was nearly level with the top of the doors. The screaming had stopped.
Hands grabbed me from behind, pulled me back into the darkness and rain and horror I had been trying to escape. I turned around to find the woman standing there, staring at me with hollow eyes bleeding from the corners. Arms had sprouted from the chasmic wound in her torso, claws gouging into my skin as they held me in place.
“We lay there for days,” she growled in Sam’s tiny voice. “The fish picked at my eyes. It was so cold. Why did you leave us there like that?”
“Please stop this,” I sobbed. “I tried to find you. I drove all over hell’s half acre trying to find you.”
“She never should have been driving,” the thing continued. “She was sick. You could have stopped her.”
“I couldn’t.” I said.
“You made this happen. You did this to us.”
“She drove you off into the creek. I couldn’t have stopped her. I didn’t want her to leave. I didn’t want her to take you from me. I’m sorry, Sammy.”
I closed my eyes as the claws dug deeper into my sides, as the bony spines of razor fine fingers tore through the muscle and scraped along my broken ribs. The foul breath of bloody meat and open bowel belched in my face as the small hands pulled me into the gaping wound, to the maw that would swallow me whole.
And then it stopped.
I was standing on my front porch, bone dry and unscathed. At the edge of the driveway, the woman was standing there, watching me from a safe distance. Her arms, all of them, were folded over as she stared through me with those dark eyes.
“Sometimes bad things happen to good people.” The voice was deep, heavy with a familiar Southern accent and a sort of soothing charm to it. “Sometimes, though, good people aren’t quite as good as they seem.”
“What’s happening to me?” I asked, focusing on the thing in the driveway.
“A whole year in mourning,” the man said, stepping up beside me. He was tall and slim, pale and well put together with slick black hair and eyes that almost glowed. He was wearing a red suit with a green shirt and a red and white striped tie and had this air about him, this bravado that made him seem like some ambulance chasing lawyer on those late night commercials. “You’ve been beating yourself up for something that wasn’t your fault. You’ve been taking the blame for someone else’s mistakes.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Look at her.” He said. “Look at that face. Imagine that those eyes are blue. Imagine that her hair is strawberry blonde.”
“Julie.” I whispered.
“She ate herself from the inside out,” he continued. “She soaked up all the grief, all the anger, until there was nothing left. She let the monsters inside her head eat her alive and she took your daughter with her.”
“It’s not like that. She was so sick.”
“She was sick.” he said. “But you tried to get her help for it. You fought with her about counseling and medication. You took her to doctors and therapists. She chose to eat herself alive and, when that wasn’t enough, she let it swallow your daughter.”
Thunder began to rumble under the porch, push out along the driveway until the gravel was swirling in a whirlpool of dirt and mud in the middle of the yard. Lightning began to crackle and erupt in bright purple flashes from the whirling vortex. The woman at the edge where the gravel met the asphalt opened her arms, all her arms, and walked out into the chasm. She walked across the open air and stood at the center of the stone tempest. Inside the gory maw between those alien arms was a black face, a child’s face, twisted into an agonizing, silent scream.
“Now you get a choice.” He handed me a knife and pushed me to the edge of the porch. “Walk out there and take back what is yours. Cut it out of her. Save your soul before she swallows you whole.”
I stepped out into nothing. It was a lot more firm than I expected. Each trepid step towards her I felt bile rising in my throat, the feverish burning lighting every nerve and neuron on fire. The little head inside her body, inside the gaping wound looked up at me. It had all the soft roundness of my daughter’s face but was as cold and dead as she had been the cold December morning when I laid her in the ground.
“You let her kill me,” the face screamed.
“You’re right.” I couldn’t deny it. Julie had needed help, but she didn’t want it. The medication and the therapy were too expensive. She stopped taking them, started pocketing the money into an account when she made up her mind to end her life. At the last minute she decided it would be cruel to make our daughter grow up without a mother, with the questions a five year old girl would be left with after a parent’s death, so she took her. They left for the store one morning and never came home. But I knew. The first time her cell phone went to voicemail. When it got dark outside and no one knew anything about where they were.
“I let you down, sweetheart,” I said to her, to that thing wearing my daughter’s face to torment me. “But it’s all going to be over soon.”
I jabbed the knife up into her face, into Julie’s face and pushed until the bone cracked with a thunderclap between her eyes. Her skull split along a seam until it was as spread and open as her torso, spewing out a geyser of black ink into the void below us. Hands reached up from her throat, black, skeletal hands clawing at the air above us. They were followed by a twisted head, a face like a Picasso painting wrapped around a ball of barbed wire. It screamed an ungodly noise, made my sides ache, my whole body tremble. It leapt from the split skull and into the swirling black ink of the abyss. I fell to the ground with a thud, alone in a puddle of water in my driveway.
The sun split my skull like an axe as it cut through the slats on the shudders and glowed in my eyes. I was in my recliner where I’d been last night, an empty cup that smelled like hot buttered rum dripping its last congealed drops onto my shirt. The stove was still burning hot, fresh wood crackling inside the iron belly. Head still jackhammering, I staggered to my feet and wandered down the hall. There was nothing in the floor, no water leaking from the bathroom or clothes piled up on the linoleum. Sam’s door was cracked, light shining bright through the pink curtains over the windows. Biting my lip, I opened the door and looked inside. The bed was empty, still made the way it had been a year ago but with that thin layer of dust. I left it open, let the stale air escape and dissipate into the house.
The man in the red suit was waiting for me as I shuffled out onto the front porch. He smiled as I sat down beside him on the swing.
“What was all that? Who are you?”
“I think you only want the answer to one of those questions, son.” He said with a chuckle. “See, there are bad things that happen to good people, bad things that happen to bad people, and then there are just things that happen to people and that, friend, is life.”
“So which am I?”
“You’re a man who wrestles with demons,” he continued. “Unfortunately for you, you never bothered to wrestle with any of your own. Little more than rum in that pot last night. You tried to take a ride down that same road. How’d that work out for you?”
The chains holding the swing to the rafters groaned a bit as we started to rock.
“You’ve been hiding from your own demons for a while now. You’ve been running from them, dodging them wherever they show up. You could’ve given in, I reckon. Stood there and let them eat you alive like they did your wife. You could’ve tried to hide out there in the woods but you’d have froze to death. Anything about you would’ve been gone by morning.”
He smiled. It was that toothy, disingenuous grin of a car salesman or a game show host who wasn’t laying it all out, just the parts I wanted to hear.
“You’re saying I saved myself from myself?”
“Sure, if you want to dumb it down. But where’s the poetry in that? Where’s the epiphany that you had a religious experience. You found something that few people ever find in their short, pointless little lives.”
“And what’s that?”
“A second chance.”
He stood up and walked out into the wet grass of the yard.
“So what? Are you an angel? Father Christmas? I mean, what now?”
He flickered and burned away like an old film reel catching fire.
“It’s a second chance.” His voice echoed on the wind. “Just don’t screw it up.”
“Sure,” I said, rocking back in the swing. “Merry Christmas to me.”