Chuck’s challenge for the week: Holiday Horror.
At first I was delighted by this challenge, but now I feel horrible about what I’ve written. I guess even in my jaded, irreverent heart, there are still some things that you just shouldn’t mess with.
That said, Santa takes a dark turn in this one. Spoiler Alert. It ain’t pretty.
All in One Night
By every rubric, Bucky Burkhalter was a naughty kid of the highest degree.
When the other kids cleaned up their act, starting after Halloween when parents began dropping Santa’s name, Bucky redoubled his efforts. He terrorized his teachers by leaving upturned tacks in their chairs and erasing their blackboards when they were out of the room. He harried his classmates with endless wedgies, noogies, spitballs to the back of the head, and slammings against lockers. He trapped stray cats in the neighborhood and tortured them, twisting their ears and lopping off the ends of their tails.
Bucky’s mom stayed later and later at work, and his dad stopped coming home at all. Which meant more time alone for Bucky to practice his reign of terror.
On Christmas Eve, while the other kids lay in their beds dreaming of sleds and wagons and video game systems, Bucky roamed the streets throwing eggs at cars, yanking icicle lights off of houses, and depositing dog turds in mailboxes. He arrived home just before midnight and found the lights on in the house. Mom was passed out upstairs, one hand still limply cradling a half-drunk bottle of Kentucky whiskey. Dad was gone for the fourth night in a row. But as he crept in through the rickety screen door and padded across the peeling linoleum to steal a beer from the fridge, Bucky’s heart froze in his throat. He smelled something. Through the haze of stale cigarette smoke and the lingering air of mildew and despair, the impossible aroma of cookies and peppermint tickled his nostrils. Somebody was here.
Bucky ducked back outside, wrapped his sweaty, stubby fingers around the Louisville Slugger he’d stolen from Bradley Allen, and stole into the house ready to swing for the fences. His mom didn’t cook. More likely some insufferable grandparent had come by to “rescue” him, like his dad’s mom had tried to do a year ago. (Mom threw a knife at her and then called the cops.) Stopping at the hallway to the living room, Bucky took a deep breath. Whoever it was was in there. Had a fire going. He stole a glance, but all he could see was a pair of big, shiny black boots propped up on the ottoman–dad’s threadbare, puce-colored armchair was turned away from the door, obscuring his view.
“You can come in, Bucky,” came a voice as deep and hearty as a bowl of beef stew on a cold night. “And you might as well put down that bat, too.”
Gobsmacked, Bucky let the bat fall from his fingers and wandered, dreamlike, into the room.
It was his living room, all right. Same old dusty room. Bare wooden floor. Frayed rug in front of the fireplace that hadn’t been used in ages, though now a fire crackled merrily there, throwing a jubilant light across the depressing furniture. Bucky gave the chair a wide berth as he passed it, and couldn’t keep his mouth from dropping open as he beheld the man in a bright red suit sitting there, sipping from a mug with his white-gloved hands, the froth of some steaming beverage caking his prodigious mustache under his ruddy cheeks.
It was every kid’s dream, even Bucky’s, and even though every instinct in his head told him that this was all wrong–this wasn’t supposed to happen, you aren’t just supposed to walk into your living room and see Santa Claus–he went all gibbery and started fawning anyway
“Santa Claus? It’s really you?”
“Sure as snow,” the old man replied with a wink.
“What are you–” Bucky started to ask, but realized that he was probably in trouble. He’d been a bit naughty lately. He chafed at the word “naughty” in his mind but couldn’t help thinking it anyway. This was Santa. He clammed up.
Santa seemed to sense his disquiet. He offered Bucky a plate from the side table, mounded high with the most aromatic chocolate chip cookies he’d ever smelled. “Help yourself, son.”
Gratefully, Bucky stuffed a cookie in his mouth and chewed. It tasted even better than it smelled, and his teeth grew sticky with chocolate.
With a grandfatherly smile, Santa sat back and folded his hands across his belly. “Now, then. I imagine by now you’ve done some thinking, and you must know that you’re on the naughty list.”
Bucky’s eyes darted around the room. The cookie felt like it had turned to cement in his mouth; he swallowed it down like a pill and gave a somber nod, his head inclined toward the floor.
Santa huffed out his mustache and removed his spectacles, folding them in one gloved hand. “I see everything, you know. Got it all up here.” With his other hand he tapped at his temple, just below the fuzzy band of his hat. “Mind like a trap, even after all these years.”
Bucky grinned a little, the corners of his freckly cheeks pulling up, even though he felt stupid and ashamed. Santa was real, really real, and he’d been bad. Worse than bad. He’d been awful.
A tear squeezed itself out of Bucky’s evil little eyes, and in a flash Santa popped up from the chair, knelt by the boy, and caught it on a gloved finger. “Hey, there. Listen to me, son. I know you’ve had a rough time of it. Your mother and father have been on my list for years, and, well, they’ll probably stay that way. And you, just a kid. Mom’s drunk herself half to death upstairs and your dad’s… well. He’s not here, is he? And you didn’t know what to do about it, and you lashed out. Isn’t that right?”
Bucky was choking back sobs now, tears staining his cheeks. He nodded, mute.
The old man clucked his tongue, stood, and taking Bucky by the shoulders, straightened him up to look him in the eye. “Let’s go for a ride, eh?” And, wrapping his arm around Bucky, walked him toward the fireplace. Bucky gave Santa one nervous look, but Santa just chuckled, ducked into the fireplace, and with a whoosh they were standing on the roof, surrounded by a gaggle of reindeer, lazily pawing at the uneven shingles.
And the sleigh. Oh, the sleigh. Fire-engine red and almost glowing in the moonlight, Bucky couldn’t help but run toward it. He stopped, laying one hand upon its edge, and cast a glance back at Santa, who gave him that grandfatherly grin again and motioned with his hand. Go ahead. It was all the encouragement Bucky needed. He clambered into the smooth, leathery seat. The sleigh seemed to purr as he did so, as if it had been waiting for him. The reindeer whickered nervously, and Santa hopped in beside him, taking the reins in his hand.
“Your house was my last stop in town,” Santa explained with a twinkle in his eye. “We’re off. Hyah!” And with a crack of the reins, the reindeer soared off into the night, tugging the sleigh along in their wake. The cold wind whistled in Bucky’s hair, and the lights of town dwindled to pinpricks in the dark.
For a while, Santa said nothing. Billy thought he saw the old man’s eyes watering, but thought it must have been the wind.
“Santa, can I ask you something?”
Santa looked at the boy and wiped at his eyes. “Sure, son. We have some time.”
“How do you visit all the houses in the world, all in one night?”
Santa exhaled heavily, and fixed his gaze on the bouncing flanks of the reindeer.
“It’s magic, right?”
At that, Santa chuckled. “Of a sort, Bucky. Magic of a sort.”
“Is it the reindeer?”
The old man shook his head. “The reindeer are very dear to me, and they have a magic of their own. And the elves have magic, too. Even I have a bit of magic. Flying, seeing into the hearts of children… those are neat little magic tricks. But to visit every house in the world in just one night?” Santa stared at Bucky now, his eyes suddenly cold and far away. “No, that’s outside the bounds of the laws of this world. That requires another kind of magic altogether.”
Santa got quiet again, and Bucky felt himself growing nervous. If Santa was uneasy about something, shouldn’t he be worried?
Almost to himself, Santa began to mumble. “…hate it when they do this. Why do they have to ask…” Then with frightening urgency, Santa grabbed Bucky by the arm. “Look. I want you to know something. It’s not your fault you’re on the naughty list. Your parents gave you a raw deal, and nobody in your life has thought twice about you for a long, long time. But I’m not here to save you.”
Bucky yanked his arm away, and Santa let him go, but there was nothing else Bucky could do, nowhere for him to go. All around them was the emptiness of the endless night, and the ground, thousands of feet below. “I’m sorry, Bucky,” Santa continued, and now there were definitely tears creeping into his eyes. “I really am. But magic has a price, and this sleigh is driven by the worst magic I’ve ever known.”
The wind seemed to go quiet, then, as Santa pulled on a lever set in the floor of the sleigh. A trapdoor opened under Bucky’s feet: a gap through which Bucky felt he should have seen the lights of land far below, but which only contained a blackness blacker than the inside of his eyelids. A horrid chorus of disembodied, agonized voices issued from the hole. For an instant, Bucky thought about jumping out of the sleigh and taking his chances with the fall, but before he could move, a thick, grasping tentacle lanced out of the void within the sleigh and entangled his ankle in a death grip. He screamed and grabbed onto Santa’s arm.
“I’m sorry, Bucky,” Santa cried. “It takes one every year. I give toys to all the rest of the children in the world to make up for it.”
Bucky’s fingernails sought purchase on Santa’s red velveteen sleeve, snarling and snagging the fabric. He’d have to have his wife mend it again. But the beast had the boy now, dragging him slowly into the void in the heart of the sleigh. With a howl, the boy disappeared and the hatch hissed shut, and all was silence in the stratosphere but for the tinkling of the sleigh bells on the reindeer harness.
Santa dabbed at his eyes and ground his teeth as time and space twisted themselves around the sleigh. “On, Dasher!” he called, as the sleigh streaked through the night.