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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dark festive wishes . . .

Well, folks, it's almost Xmas, and to celebrate the release of my new Xmas-related novel, Fearful Festivities, here's a very short and very nasty story which inspired a section of the novel. If you like this dark tale, you'll certainly love the longer work. So, with apologies in advance, here's a guy who enjoys a rather harried festive holiday . . .

Just For You
Gary Fry

The box was delivered to his flat on Christmas Eve.
Mrs Jenkins – the old lady who lived on the ground floor; one of the few people in his life he’d yet to offend – had obviously signed the courier’s paperwork and left the box in the lobby for him to find after returning from the DHSS.
It was square, waist-high and the length of an adult’s arm. God knows how he managed to get it upstairs to his flat. Since the divorce and losing his job, he hadn’t exactly been following a healthy diet, and already the effects were telling. His hangover seemed to be rendering the box double its weight; surely it was actually no heavier than a…child.
He crushed that thought in its mutinous cradle, and then proceeded to shuffle the delivery into his single room. Of course he hadn’t read the address label yet – that was another process that would bring back too much of his treacherous past.
Once he’d set the box in the middle of his mismanaged hovel, he went to the window to close the curtains against a snowy sky. Everything seemed to be against him today: the woman behind the benefits counter had reminded him of his mother; the driver of the bus home had been not unlike his father. However, by avoiding the high streets and its clusters of giddy shoppers, he at least hadn’t seen any little girls…
     He poured himself a supermarket-brand scotch, a double-double, and then squatted in front of the box. Feeble light from his cheap bulbs cast a supernatural sheen upon the taped-down lids of the thing. But here was the label; it bore familiar spiky handwriting. And at once, with the power of alcohol unleashing so many emotional recollections, he was back at home.
“Ha! Billy can’t spell ‘Claus’, Mummy! Look, he’s spelt it C-L-A-W-S! As if Santa’s an animal!”
“He is, and he’s coming for you tonight,” replied Billy with audible spite. “He’ll crawl in through your bedroom window and do horrible things to you.”
“I’ll do them to both of you if you don’t stop squabbling,” said Daddy from his armchair, and it was left to Mummy to calm everyone down.
She offered Billy a sympathetic look – it was the two of them alone who’d dealt with his problem at school – and then switched her gaze to Helen.
“Don’t tease your brother,” Mummy said, before stooping from the couch to pick up the letter Billy had been struggling with. “That’s pretty good so far,” she added, having read it at a glance. “Now let’s see if you can finish it by yourself.”
“That’s not fair!” replied Helen, gripping her own letter, which would be as immaculate as her schoolwork always was. “He said a nasty thing to me, too. I’m…I’m scared to go upstairs now.”
“Don’t be silly, Helen,” said Daddy once he’d poked his head from behind his evening newspaper. “And turn that fire down! I know it’s cold, but money doesn’t grow on trees!”
Billy’s sister did as she’d been bidden – the bars on the electric grill lost a little of their fierce expression – and then turned back to confront her younger brother.
“I might be scared, but at least I’m not dis…dis…dyspeptic.”
Mummy laughed involuntarily, and the stark silence after this noise was more noticeable because the fire wasn’t hissing as loudly now. The ensuing shuffling sound must have been just echoes of their activity in the cooling lounge. It was ice-cold outside, true Christmas Eve weather. Surely only a lunatic would be out tonight.
“I think it’s time for bed, you two,” Daddy announced quite suddenly. “Santa Claus won’t come if you’re still awake.”
“I haven’t even finished my letter to him yet.”
“Billy, if we wait for that, he won’t come till we’re both Mummy and Daddy’s age!”
“Helen, please,” Mummy cut in, and then addressed the boy. “Billy, come along, hurry up. If you want to leave your letter with your sister’s, then you’ll have to be quick. I’ll help if you like.”
“But it won’t work that way, Mummy!” Helen told them. “Whatever you ask for has got to be a secret.”
Billy knew that his sister was trying to make this task as difficult as possible for him. She understood that he suffered from something called ‘dyslexia’, even if she couldn’t even say it properly. And he hated her for this – not always and forever; no, not that badly. But just then, he thought he’d like to make her at least cry a bit.
As he fiddled with a pen and the half-written letter (‘Deer Santa Claws, Waht I want four Xmas is’ was as far as he’d got), he tried to buy some time by asking, “What I don’t see is how Santa can get into our house anyway.”
“What do you mean?” asked Daddy, perhaps because he worked with houses all day and he was now interested.
“Well, we don’t even have a chimney,” Billy added, and hoped the comment would make one or both of his parents proud of him.
But then Helen typically spoilt it all. “Hey, maybe you’re right: maybe he does come in through the window.” She turned to Mummy. “I wouldn’t like that! I mean, I know he likes children, but…but…"
“Scaredy cat.”
“Shut up, Billy! I hate you!”
Daddy had finally had enough of them. “Right, that’s it! Billy, finish your letter, and then both of you go to bed!”
At the moment Billy hated his sister right back. In fact he was so shocked and hurt by Daddy’s violent exclamation that the only way he could think of getting rid of these feelings was to write down something nasty. So he did.
To ‘Deer Santa Claws, Waht I want four Xmas is’, he added, ‘four you to mayke Helen go’ – but then he hesitated.
“Mummy, how do you spell ‘away’?”
“How do you mean? ‘Away’ as in ‘go away’ or ‘a way’ as in a path to take?”
“The first one,” Billy replied.
Suddenly Helen was singing, “Hey, you, go away, come back another day…"
And Billy couldn’t decide whether she was referring to him or to Santa Claus. All he knew was that her constant repetition of this line broke his concentration, making him more determined to finish what he’d started. Indeed, as Mummy spelt out the word he needed, he carved it satisfyingly onto the sheet, before folding and adding it to the other.
Now, ready for bed, he could tolerate his sister’s irritating goading. And as they traipsed upstairs to their separate bedrooms, he thought: Christmas is a time for wishes to come true
The handwriting on the box’s label was of course Helen’s.
In all the years since her disappearance, he’d committed to memory as much of her as he could: the way she’d moved her small body, the things she’d said a lot, and other stuff such as this – her handwriting.
He’d been seven-years-old when it had happened. Perhaps the many developmental changes that accompanied growing up had distorted his recollections, making him remember things that had never been the case; maybe this handwriting wasn’t hers, after all.
However, now he saw in his mind’s eye her tiny form rising from the carpet in front of that old electric fire they’d had in their home, and it was surely more than the snow tapping against his window here in the flat that caused him to hear delicate, singsong words in his head: “Hey, you, go away, come back another day...”
He glanced at the box.
The past wasn’t done with him yet.
The following morning – Christmas Day – Helen hadn’t come downstairs to open her presents. Santa had been; there on the lounge carpet, between the couch and Daddy’s armchair, were two stacks of gifts, one papered in blue (for Billy), and the other in pink (for his sister).
But even after both of his parents had joined him, Helen didn’t appear.
Mummy had said something like, “I’ll go and rouse her. Maybe all the excitement last night made her tired… But it’s most unlike her – she’s normally the first up among us.”
Billy had been too excited to pay the problem much attention. He’d ripped open the largest of his several boxes and removed a miniature toolset just like Daddy’s bigger one at work.
“Now you can get practising,” Daddy had told him. “God knows, when you grow up you’ll need a trade. Houses and cars and families don’t pay for themselves, you know.”
And that was when Mummy had screamed from upstairs.
The two of them had rushed to join her, before seeing what had prompted her terrified exclamation. Helen’s bed was empty, the sheets drawn back in a confused huddle. It was also cold in the girl’s bedroom...and soon apparent why: the window was open; snow had gusted inside, a little spray of it settled on the inner sill.
Daddy had rushed back downstairs to call the police, while Mummy had collapsed in a heap on the landing's floor. Only Billy had remained in his sister’s room, the better to edge across the carpet and see what was wrong with the window frame.
There’d been scratch-marks in the wood, as if someone had prised it open in a brutal manner. And then all he could think about was what had happened the night before: Helen’s fear, his own question about how Santa managed to get into a house without a chimney, and finally, worst of all, his incorrect spelling of the big man’s surname: CLAWS.
Billy had looked again at the gouges in the frame…and fallen away in a dead faint.
After he’d located a knife among the detritus on his flat’s floor, he started to cut the tape that held down the box’s lid.
There would be more of this tomorrow, he reflected; he supposed he should make the effort to visit his ex-wife Wendy’s house and see, if not her and her new bloke, then at least the kids. But what would his reception be after all his unruly recent behaviour, after he’d learned about the man who’d been set free from prison…? 
He continued to slice at the tape. It seemed to give eagerly, as if threatening to unleash more than whatever of its contents had ‘come back’. Indeed, as the cardboard lids soon sprung free, other memories lurched up to envelop him.
A few months after that most terrible Christmas of all, the police had tracked down a man who’d developed a pathology characterised by a penchant for stealing into the bedrooms of little girls, threatening them with a sizeable razorblade, then abducting them, taking them back to his grotty bed-sit, performing God-knew-what heinous acts, and then getting rid of the bodies.
Billy hadn’t learned about any of this until he was a teenager and old enough to understand it. The facts had come to him by gradual increments: at around eight-years-old, an understanding that Santa Claus didn’t exist; by ten, an appreciation that not all adults could be trusted; at twelve, the knowledge that life was quite unmagical; and then during early puberty, the full facts of the case.
His parents, shattered people who’d campaigned long and hard for sterner sentences for such despicable criminals, had shielded Billy from the great majority of the event: media interest, legal developments, even teasing at school. Then they’d just kind of given up, divorcing when he was sixteen.
However, Billy had managed to get on with his life, taking a job in a furniture manufacturing company, before gaining promotion to management in his mid-twenties. Meanwhile, he’d married, had two children, bought a house…and always kept his demons at bay with copious quantities of booze.
It wasn’t that he believed in what he’d imagined as a child. Yes, his sister had disappeared, and for a while he’d felt guilty (that letter), but at a rational level, as his memories had adjusted over years that passed too quickly, he’d understood that Helen had been a victim of a very human crime. No, Santa Claus
didn’t exist, but evil men did, and his sister had suffered the mercifully rare yet grave misfortune of attracting the interest of one of these vile individuals.
Not that the authorities had ever found her body. However, DNA matching that taken from saliva on her toothbrush had confirmed the location of what had almost certainly been her final days: the killer’s bed-sit.
Maybe having kids of his own had tipped Billy over the brink. He hadn’t been able to let them out of sight, had suffocated them, especially after hearing the news that, having served a twenty-year sentence with repentant behaviour, the man who’d caused all the horror had been released. Billy had wanted to rip his face off. This anger had slipped over into his domestic role. He hadn’t told Wendy about his past, no way – in fact, he hadn’t told anyone. And that was probably why his marriage had failed. Wasn’t it? Whatever pain it caused you, life made sense; it did.
Didn’t it?
Billy sat in front of the box, his mind full of spirits in every sense. The whole glass of scotch was gone. His memories pitched and lurched, blended together like potion ingredients. The chill from the window grew intolerable, and Christmas snow whispered busily at its pane.
He set aside the knife and the empty glass. Gripped both lids and tugged. There were two inner flaps; he did the same to these, too.
The thing inside moved before he did. Billy wasn’t the guilty party, but try telling the thing that. Perhaps it still thought like a child. As it rose to its natural height – only as tall as Billy seated on the floor, as tall as a child – he recognised its posture, then its demeanour, and finally its voice.
It was his sister…only it wasn’t. It was dressed in a miniature Santa Claus outfit. In one girlish hand, the figure held a crumpled note – surely Billy’s secret wish from all those years ago – and in the other, it clutched…not razorblades; there were too many of them. In fact, these were the thing’s fingernails – no, its claws.
Then it was saying again, “Come back another day,” though its voice was still muffled, because the pale flesh of the man that Billy knew so well by sight – the pervert; the perpetrator – had been carved off its owner’s skull to make a facemask, through whose ragged sockets a pair of glistening eyeballs were caught in the naked light, a pink-rotted tongue poked like a living thing, and no air whatsoever was passing.
Billy jerked back.
Hey, little brother,” said the Helen-thing as it slashed with its fistful of nightmares, “I can spell ‘the end’ – just for you!

If you enjoyed this story, consider buying my Xmas novel Fearful Festivities, still available with FREE postage anywhere in the world: ORDER HERE

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