A New Year Treat From Worcester42ers

For your delectation, find below six sensational Ghoulish Christmas Stories sent in by Worcester42ers as we passed on a Christmas spoken word event (it was too close to the big day). Join me in thanking all contributers. The stories appear in the order that they were received.

Settle back and enjoy reading 🙂

42Worcester Christmas Stories 2018

Fireside—Seraphim Bryant

He lent against the fireplace, the cool of the mantelpiece against his forearms, the heat from the fire burning his shins.

Desmond was waiting. The smell of an ancient wood burning was deep and dark in the cabin, dark like the hallow it had been taken from. Strangely it smelled like Christmas. He ran his tongue over the cracked tooth in his mouth and felt the sharpness, then he tasted the metallic blood. Desmond would never see her again. How he had come to love her was still a mystery. Thank God he might never see her again. Yet, bitter tears of loss fell from Desmond, and the pain he inflicted upon himself felt justified.

The cabin that sat at the edge of Yew Tree Hollow had been left to Desmond by an uncle. The area remained a wonderful source of joy in his youth. Long summers hunting whitetail deer and lake fishing for walleye and all manner of trout.

He had seen her only once before he owned the cabin, the previous winter while ice fishing with Uncle Sid, before Sid passed on. They’d sat for hours by that hole in the ice, Sid complaining that all the game and fish had been scared off by something, that the tourism had slowly declined to nothing because of this mystery predator. Desmond hadn’t cared to listen; bitterly cold and bored he lied about needing to go pee. Stood in the evergreen hollow dark with yew and pines the smell of amber sap grew strong around him. At first, there was a feeling of natural fear, then of limb-stilling awe. Humans, he supposed where not accustomed to being prey, so the feeling of being hunted was new. Lucky for him, it seemed she took pity. It could hardly have seemed fair to kill a man while he was exposed and relieving himself. The golden fur from around her neck that caught on a branch was the only evidence the whole moment was not explained away as a dream.

In the first week of the cabin being his, Desmond had purchased all new hunting gear and beer enough to drown some grief. On arriving the cabin was a mess, far from its former ‘man-cave’ glory of youthful summers. So, for a time Desmond was not hunting, but doing woodland inspired DIY. Thankfully, he was a builder by trade, so this didn’t present a problem, more the inconvenience of a lack of appropriate tools. Logs cut, split, smoothed, and pegs made, the cabin was back to its rustic charm. With only 48 hours left of his holiday Desmond wandered the trail with a beer and his rifle, he was not truly hunting, more following his feet. He followed them right off the path…

In the darkest of coppices he ever could have imagined, a never before seen by man space, the earth at his feet was as soft as a bed. The smell of deep gummy sap caused his eyes to water. He saw odd crimson berries on a yew tree that was almost black, rather than dark green in colour like its surroundings. It was torment and beauty. She was there. Slipping out of her golden bearskin into nakedness. Without words, they drifted into one flesh, warm, dark, and soft.

Desmond woke cold and naked. His rifle broken beside him, his mate missing, but at least he was in one piece for which he was grateful. He wandered back onto the trail the way he had left, by accident. His head and heart swimming, it was as if he were intoxicated by unknown poison. Back at the cabin, Desmond had to sweat out the fever in his flesh, pulling his blanket around him, boiling water on the fireplace and almost sitting in the fire willing it to consume him.

Time allowed the sick, fevered madness to pass. Desmond removed the scorched blanket, ate soup from the can, made coffee from the boiled water and got dressed. Sitting on the porch in sunset looking from the lake into the mountain, Desmond would have concluded it all a dream. Yet, she came out of the forest towards him. On all fours her dark eyes searching his form for the flesh she had tasted. The coffee cup fell from his hand, he was again under her spell. Once more drifting into one singularity. The sound of windows smashing and wooden structures creaking with strain, but unyielding filled his ears. Desmond’s head, heart, and flesh though were all in her, his pain, and his joy was hers.

Dawn’s light fell over his cold naked form lying in the cabin doorway. This time she’d left her mark. Amongst the shattered and broken, a symbol was carved by a bear claw into the lintel above him. Desmond found some clothes and took a closer examination of her mark. Yes, he had seen this before, in many parts of Yew Tree Hollow and in the hallow coppice. She was claiming her territory, owning her space. Desmond had little doubt, if left unchecked, she would be a tyrannical queen, magic and madness her weapons of choice. Nature knows that any diseased tree must be burnt to the root to save the forest.

Desmond built a fire.

Looking skyward Desmond put his axe under his coat. At noon he ventured into the hollow. He hoped the sunlight would help him. In such light, the shadow at the foot of the mountain was the only refuge for dark things. He had been right, he found that hallowed coppice. Sleeping lay his mate, his pure love. Her beauty hid that dark soul well. Golden fur and red berries the only signs of life in that charcoal coloured scene. There, like a thumb smudge in the picture was her symbol, and there too those belonging to the evil ones before her, carved into that black yew tree, its smoky barked trunk surrounded by thick deep green bows. Desmond crawled through to the trunk bit by bit. Kneeling at what he prayed was the base he raised the axe. Taking his last breath of sanity, he hacked. He hacked and did not stop.

She roused, he hacked. She roared, he hacked. Smells poisonous and air so thin it had almost no life to give encircled him. He broke through that trunk, and he dragged the tree away without direction in his head, just hoping. Her bulk crashed through the undergrowth. Desmond had to constantly keep the tree between them. She destroyed all else in her way. The mighty paws felled limbs off trees, she must have desired to do the same to Desmond. Tripping and blundering but not daring to stop he pushed on towards the fire. Daylight, his only protector was almost powerless against her rage. Even though her form could not hold she did not stop pursuing him. Roars turned into screams, screams into painful shrieks as Desmond dragged the tree onto the bonfire and it burnt.

By God didn’t it burn.

She fled as he turned ready to receive death, her eyes on him as she shrank into darkness another time.

Deep night approaches now, and Desmond is burning the last of that yew tree within the cabin…He is still waiting for her.

Seraphim Bryant © 2018

What I Did On My Holidays—Roz Levens

‘What is that smell?’

‘I can’t smell anything. You’re imagining it.’

‘I’m not, I don’t know how you can’t smell it.’

They’d had a lousy Christmas. Rick’s parents had been to stay, and his mother had found silent fault with everything Gemma had done.

‘Bread sauce, how lovely. Oh, brown bread! How very…innovative. Do I detect a hint of garlic in these potatoes? I won’t have any, thank you dear. I’m sure they’re delicious, but they won’t agree with me. My goodness, what a lot of colours on your Christmas tree! All the joys of childhood. I tend to stick to red and gold, myself.’

She’d been offended that Gemma didn’t want to go to midnight mass.

‘But we always go, dear. It’s about the spirit of Christmas. It’s what we Christians do.’

Silently, Gemma thought that if this bloody woman just looked at herself for once instead of judging everyone else, she’d see just what certain Christians did—disparagingly, sarcastically, viciously belittling everyone around her—but mostly focusing on Gemma. The Christmas dinner that everybody else had ‘yummied up’ was pushed around her plate, barely tasted. Later, in a stage whisper, she’d asked if there were any Rennies in the flat to help with her chronic indigestion.

Washing up, Gemma and Rick had had a hissed row.

‘Your bloody mother is driving me insane!’

‘She doesn’t mean it.’

‘She bloody does. She couldn’t say anything nice if her life depended upon it.’

‘It’s just her manner.’

‘Well it’s about time she got used to the fact that I’m here for good. I’m not going anywhere and she better get bloody used to it.’

Rick had slid his arms around her waist.

‘She’ll be different when we get married.’

‘Why should a ring make any difference? She hates me; she always has and she always will. I’ve taken her precious little boy away and made him do rude things in the trouser department…’

She turned in his arms to kiss him just as Camilla came through the door.

‘Richard, I can’t make your strange TV change channels. Do you have any batteries for the remote? Oh.’ Gemma watched Camilla’s face curve into a sneer.

‘I’m terribly sorry if I’m interrupting you.’

Sighing, Rick turned to his mother.

‘The remote is fine, Mum. What did you want to watch?’

When the central heating broke down on Boxing Day, Camilla had created a fuss.

‘What do you mean, nobody will come out today?’

‘It’s Boxing Day, Mum. They’ll charge double. And it’s Sunday—we’ll probably pay extra for that too.’

‘Ridiculous. Doesn’t your father’s comfort mean more to you than just a few pounds?’

Trevor, Rick’s dad, had protested feebly that he was fine, that he would put another sweater on.

‘That’s not the issue, Trevor, is it? Whether or not you can wrap up warm. I’m cold. I’m sure Jennifer is cold—’

‘Gemma,’ said Gemma forcefully.

‘I’m sorry dear?’

‘My name is Gemma. Not Jennifer, not Jenny, not Janice, not Emma. You know that. You’re deliberately trying to belittle me.’

‘Calm down, dear, you’re getting hysterical. It will be the cold getting to you.’

Rick was frightened that Gemma would punch his mother. Hastily he stood between them.

‘Let’s have a nice hot cup of tea, shall we? I’m sure we don’t need to get upset.’

‘No, thanks.’ Gemma grabbed her coat. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk. I need some fresh air.’

‘Gem—’

‘I’ll see you later.’

Camilla’s grim smile of satisfaction told Gemma everything she needed to know. She stamped down the stairs. Bloody, bloody, bloody, bloody, bloody woman! If that old bitch thought she was going to drive her away, she was wrong. Finding herself outside Wetherspoons, Gemma went in and ordered a large vodka and tonic.

‘Bad day, love?’The barman was sympathetic.

‘You don’t know the half of it.’

‘Mother-in-law trouble?’

Gemma stopped, mid-slurp. ‘How did you know?’

He laughed. ‘Look around you.’ The bar was full of lone women, grim faced and tense, most with two or three empty glasses next to their full ones. ‘It’s the time of year, I reckon. If you could harness the hate in this room, you could explode Donald Trump into a million pieces’

Gemma sniffed. ‘It doesn’t get rid of the old bitch, though, does it?’

Her phone pinged. A text from Rick. ‘Where are you? Are you OK?’

She debated ignoring it, but the message repeated itself.

‘I’m fine. I’m in Wetherspoons. I may be some time.’

Two minutes later, Rick sat in the chair opposite, and put his pint and another vodka on the table.

‘You didn’t have to come out.’

‘I did. You’re quite right. We had a bit of a heated discussion.’

‘Ah.’

There was a silence. Rick took a deep swig of his pint. ‘Dad’s having a look at the heating and then they’re going.’

‘Oh Rick—’ Despite herself Gemma was overcome with remorse. ‘I didn’t mean you had to throw them out.’

‘No, don’t fret. It was Dad. I’ve never seen him so angry. He sent her to pack and she just went, like a child. He said to give you his love, and tell you that you’d done a fine job.’

Gemma stared into her glass. ‘I should have just ignored her.’

‘She’s difficult to ignore when she gets one on her.’

‘Yes but I’m better than that. I should have risen above it.’

‘You’re not a bloody saint, Gemma. Shall I get a menu?’

They ate scampi and chips and dragged out a couple of hours.

‘Don’t you want to see them off? Say goodbye?’

‘Nope.’

‘But you shouldn’t part angry. It’s Christmas…’

‘She shouldn’t have been such a cow.’

 

When they got back to the flat, Trevor and Camilla had gone. The heating was blasting out and the boiler was working again, if noisier than normal. On the table was a note and a cheque.

‘Think I fixed your problem. Thanks for everything. Take Gemma away somewhere nice for a little while. Love you, Dad.’

The cheque was for £5,000.

‘Bloody hell.’

‘Good on him!’ Rick texted ‘thanks’ and a thumbs up. It came back as not delivered. ‘They’ll be in a dead spot.’ He put the phone down and kissed Gemma. ‘Fancy going somewhere nice for New Year to reward you for your virtue?’ He waved the cheque.

‘Shouldn’t we save it towards the wedding?’

‘Hell no. Let’s have the honeymoon first!’

Trailfinders had a New Year sale. They had gone to Koh Lanta for a week. Now, back home, Coventry seemed even bleaker, even greyer, even colder than before. The heating was still working though, even if it was noisy. Gemma shivered and turned the thermostat up. Rick switched on the news.

‘Concern is growing for a couple from Dewsbury who have not been seen for over a week.’ Gemma looked up. Rick looked concerned. ‘Trevor and Camilla Parker will last seen on Christmas Eve by their neighbours. Their car was found in Kenilworth, over 90 miles away, on Boxing Day. No sign has been found of either of them since.’

There was a knock at the door.

‘Mr Richard Parker?’ Rick nodded. ‘West Midlands police. Can we come in?’

Rick explained about their being away, and only just finding out about the disappearances. About just hearing the news.

‘And they left here when?’

‘Just about lunchtime on Boxing Day.’

‘Were they in good spirits?’

‘Well actually, there’d been a bit of a row. The heating has broken down and Mum had made a bit of a fuss—we went to the pub.’

‘You all went to the pub?’

‘No, just me and Gemma. Dad managed to fix the boiler and they had gone by the time we got back.’

‘I see.’ Clearly, he didn’t believe that anyone would just part like that at Christmas. ‘I’ll need you both to come down to the station and make a statement.’

‘Of course.’

 

Two days went by. Three days. There was still no sign. Rick and Gemma had been interviewed again. The phone rang constantly. The search widened.

On January the seventh the heating died again. Rick phoned the insurance company. They said they’d send an engineer as soon as possible but they were very busy this time of year. Gemma put on all the clothes she could and sat on the sofa under a duvet watching ‘Homes under the Hammer.’ Rick tried again to call his father’s phone. There was still no response.

The doorbell rang.

‘God, I hope that’s the heating engineer.’

Rick shot her a steely look.

‘Well, I’m sorry, but I’m really cold. I’m sure your mum and dad will be fine. They might just have gone away, mightn’t they? We did. And their neighbours hadn’t even known that they were coming to stay with us for Christmas—your mum doesn’t exactly instil friendship and confidences in people, does she? I expect he’s taken her away to get over her disappointing Christmas.’

She turned back to the TV. Inwardly, she thought it was a good job they had had the honeymoon first. At this rate it was unlikely there would be a wedding.

 

The engineer apologized for his lateness, assured them that he would fix whatever it was, got out his diagnostic computer screen.

‘Ah.’ He shook his head. ‘Blocked flue, I think—it was lucky you went away—the carbon monoxide build-up from these things can be deadly.’ He looked around the room and his gaze settled on the boarded-up chimney with the gas fire in front of it. ‘A bird’s nest has come down the chimney, I expect. We get a lot of build up over the years without realising—especially in converted houses like this. Lived here long?’

’18 months.’

‘Ever had the chimney swept?’

‘No. Why should we? We don’t have a fire.’

‘You have that.’ The engineer indicated the now dead ‘living flame’ fire.

‘I didn’t realise…’

‘Nobody does, mate, nobody does. Still, no harm done. Easily fixed. I’ll get the rods from my van.’

Gemma looked at Rick. ‘That’s good then. Good job your dad gave us money to go away. We could have been killed.’

‘Yes…’

Rick seemed distracted. He looked at the fire. ‘Does the wallpaper seem ripped to you?’

On the TV the man on ‘Homes under the Hammer’ had made seven grand.

‘Maybe we should do that.’

‘What?’

‘Buy old properties and do them up. Sell them on fast. You and your dad could do that couldn’t you? You’re both practical, good at seeing past obstacles.’

‘Maybe.’

He was still staring at the fire. The engineer returned, spending some time putting down dustsheets.

‘It might make quite a mess, I’m afraid,’ he warned Gemma. ‘You never know how much stuff is stuck in there.’

As he pulled the fire away from the chimney, a blonde suede shoe fell onto the rug. The engineer frowned. ‘Odd, that,’ he said. ‘Sometimes people used to put old shoes in chimneys for luck, but this looks new.’ He peered up the chimney. ‘Something is blocking it for sure.’

He reached for his rods. Rick looked at Gemma, his face a sickly yellow.

‘What is that smell?’

A second shoe, this time still attached to a foot, dropped into the hearth.

‘Christ!’ The engineer jerked backwards. ‘Ring the police!’

‘Why? What is it?’ Gemma couldn’t see past the engineer. Rick had gone a ghastly white and was retching.

‘Well, let’s just say it’s not fucking Santa Claus in there, is it, love?’

Roz Levens © 2018

You Can Go Home Again—Georgie Bull

I wake up in a strange bed, in a strange room. This is not my bedroom. This is not my house.

An old man is sitting in the armchair, facing away from me. His pale, spotted hand rests on the arm. I can see the fabric of the chair through it. ‘Hello?’

He doesn’t reply. He can’t hear me.

The door creaks open and a young girl walks in. I recognise her face, though I cannot recall her name or how I know her. She is dressed like a nurse.

‘Merry Christmas!’ she says cheerfully, then strides across the room and opens the curtains. The room is flooded with light. I blink and the man is gone.

‘How are you today, Anita?’

She knows my name, so she must know me. ‘What’s your name?’

‘I’m Ellie.’

‘There was a man in here, Ellie. Just now. He was sat there.’ I point to the armchair.

‘You must have been dreaming.’

‘He’s hiding. Check the wardrobe.’

Ellie checks the wardrobe, then under the bed. ‘There’s no one here, darling.’

I clutch the blankets. It’s cold in here. So, so cold. ‘I’m so frightened.’

Ellie sits on the end of the bed. ‘There’s no need to be frightened. You’re safe here.’

‘I don’t even know where I am.’

‘You’re at Bright Star Care Home.’

‘A care home? But I’m not barmy, am I?’

Ellie smiles and pats my hand. ‘You’re not barmy, Anita. You just need a bit of extra help.’

‘Help with what?’

‘Daily activities.’

I wonder what happened to my home. Does it even exist any more?

‘Are you ready to get washed and dressed, Anita? Your son is coming to pick you up to take you to church.’

I hate getting washed and dressed. The water always goes cold.

‘I just want to go home.’

‘You are going home. After church.’

Ellie fills a bowl with water from the sink and grabs two flannels and two little towels. She helps me to sit up in bed and swing my legs around so that I’m on the edge. We struggle together to take my nightie off. I can’t hold my arms up for very long, the effort is exhausting.

I look at the wall as she washes me. I hate my sagging breasts, my bulging stomach, my swollen, scaly legs.

She struggles to dress me, and I can’t help her. My poor old body is stiff and useless.

‘Will my husband George be coming too?’

Ellie frowns. ‘No, but you’ll see him later.’

‘Not likely, dear. He’s six-feet under.’

She sighs. ‘Then why did you ask if he was coming?’

‘To see if you people are lying to me. And you are.’

She pulls my shoes over my swollen feet and starts to tie the laces, annoyingly slowly.

‘Get away! I can tie my own laces for God’s sake.’

Ellie moves away, and I try to tie the laces. My fat, clumsy fingers won’t grip them. I try and try. It’s like I don’t have control over my own hands any more.

I feel like crying. I have been tying my own laces since I started school. What on earth has happened to me?

‘I can’t do it,’ I say.

Ellie’s face is full of pity. I hate it when people look at me like that.

She finishes tying my laces, then brings over a big metal machine. I stand on the machine, and she rolls me over to the armchair.

‘Would you like a cup of tea before you go?’ she asks.

‘Will you have one with me, dear? I’m so lonely.’

‘Sorry darling, I’m really busy. You won’t be lonely today. You’re going home.’

She leaves, and I am on my own again. I spend most of my days alone. I always do the same thing. Read the newspaper. Watch TV. I hate it. This is not a life. People tell me when to get up, when to eat, when to go to bed. If my legs worked properly, I could run away and escape this place. I want to be outside, to feel the air on my face. To feel like I’m still alive, like I’m still a part of this world. I hate this place. At least today, I can go home again.

The old man is back. He is sitting on my bed. I recognise him now. I have waited so long to see him again, but his eyes frighten me. They should be a warm brown, but they are pale and clouded over. He doesn’t blink, just stares straight ahead with those horrid eyes.

‘George?’

Tiny white pinpricks of snow dot the blanket over my lap and tickle my face as we leave church. I remember when I was younger; the service was always full of friends and neighbours. Service was almost empty today. It’s sad that people don’t go to church any more. I didn’t recognise any faces, not even the Vicar. He has changed too.

My son Mark pushes me along the narrow gravel path to the cemetery. I used to push him down this path in his pram when he was a baby. Isn’t it funny how things change?

We stop at George’s grave. I used to visit him every Sunday after church. Now I can only make it every two weeks. I rely on Mark to take me. The care home doesn’t have enough staff for someone to take me.

The flowers on George’s grave have shrivelled and died. Mark picks up the old bouquet and replaces it with the one I bought today.

George stands beside his grave. His milky-white eyes are fixed on me. A withered bunch of flowers falls to pieces in his hands.

‘I’m sorry about the flowers,’ I whisper. ‘It’s not because I forget. I can’t come as often now. I’ve never forgotten you.’

George only stares at me.

I feel a hand on my shoulder. Mark is looking at me, concerned. ‘Are you all right, Mum?’

He can’t see George. I wonder why it’s only me who can see him. Maybe I am barmy.

‘I’m fine,’ I say.

When I came here by myself, I used to stay for hours and I talked out loud to George. I know it sounds silly, but sometimes the wind would rustle the grass or the sun would shine a little brighter and I would know that he had heard me. Now I always feel a little guilty for lingering much longer than it takes to change the flowers. I’m taking up my son’s time. His family are waiting for him, especially today.

Mark pulls his coat tighter around himself. I don’t want him to get cold.

‘Merry Christmas, George,’ I say quietly, and then we leave. I had so much more to say.

There is something I do every Christmas, after dinner. I sit outside on the wooden porch, where I can see the lake. I used to sip a little glass of brandy, but I can’t drink any more with all my medication, so I have a cup of tea. The little china mug warms my hands. It’s still snowing, and my face is going numb from the cold, but I do this every year, rain or snow.

Mark sits next to me, a brandy in one hand, and the other rests lightly on mine.

I was twenty-two when George and I bought this house. On our first Christmas here, the lake was iced over. We went out, in our nice clothes and hiking boots, drunk and full of cheer, and danced on the frozen lake. They whisper the word ‘Dementia’, it has stolen most of my precious memories, but I thank God every day that it hasn’t taken this one.

I ask Mark to leave me alone for a few minutes. He’s reluctant, but I need some time to be alone, to remember.

I close my eyes, and I can see George in front of me, as he was that night—with that mop of sandy hair, dressed in his favourite waistcoat. We are dancing on the lake. I see my hands in his—a young woman’s hands. I watch fat flakes of snow land in his hair until it turns white. I remember that this was the moment I was sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, that there would never be anyone else. And there wasn’t.

Someone is calling my name.

I open my eyes and George is standing in front of me, smiling. Twenty-two year-old George. His eyes are warm and brown, just as they should be.

‘Hello, George. It’s been a long time.’

‘Too long.’

There are tears in my eyes. ‘You have no idea.’

‘You look beautiful, Anita.’

I smile. ‘Liar.’

He holds out his hand. ‘Will you dance with me?’

‘Oh, George.’ I push the blanket off of my hideous swollen legs. ‘I can’t walk.’

He takes my hand, and somehow I am walking. I can’t feel the ground beneath my feet. It feels like I am floating. I’m so surprised that I drop the teacup, and hear it smash.

We reach the lake. My lips stretch into the widest smile, and tears run down my cheeks. Ever since George passed away, I have prayed to be able to go back to this moment.

I remember the steps, the steps we made up that night, pulling them from somewhere deep in my memory. We are dancing on the ice. George’s hands are warm and his cheeks are pink from laughing.

I glance at my feet, to marvel, to make a new memory, and those boots. I recognise those boots. My old hiking boots. The first pair I ever bought.

I stop. My legs are thin and womanly again. The ugly scales have gone. The skirt of a red dress falls to my knees. I let go of George’s hands and hold mine in front of me. Smooth, unblemished, the hands of a young woman.

 

I look behind me. An old woman is watching us from the porch. She is in a wheelchair. A blanket has fallen from her lap. Pieces of broken china lie at her feet. Her eyes are a chilling pale blue. There are little specks of ice on her cheeks. Frozen tears. She hasn’t been happy, that woman, not for a long time.

‘Am I dead?’

I feel nothing. Not fear, not sadness, not regret.

Mark comes back out on to the porch. I don’t want him to find my body. He’ll be so sad.

‘Is it too late to go back?’ I ask George.

‘Not if you really want to.’

I take George’s hand. I don’t want to go back to my prison of a life. I don’t want to go back to the pain, and the loneliness. I want to stay with George.

Mark is knelt by my body, shaking my shoulder. He stops, and buries his head in his hands.

I’m sorry.

‘I’m worried about him,’ I say.

George squeezes my hand. ‘He’ll be all right.’

‘Where do we go from here?’

‘Wherever you want.’

‘I would like to go home.’

‘You can go home again. Just as it was. Just as you remember it, when we lived in it together.’

I call out to Mark. He raises his head and looks at us. I wave, and so does George. See, we’re fine. We’re together again.

I wonder if he recognises us now that we look so young again. He looks at us for a long time, then waves back, and then I’m confident that he’ll be OK.

Slowly, my son and my body fade away. The doors to the porch open, and a warm golden light spills over the porch, over the snow, all the way to our feet.

I hold on tighter to George’s hand and walk towards the door, following the light that is guiding us home.

Georgie Bull © 2018

One December Night—Kevin Brooke

With her hands pressed against the wall behind her, Daisy crept from the kitchen and peered towards the front door. On the other side of the frosted glass, a group of heads bobbed and weaved, the green of their clothing clearly visible in the street lamps outside.

‘I think I can see her,’ she heard one of them whisper.

‘Go around the back,’ said another.

‘Climb on the roof.’

Thirteen-year-old Daisy slipped her fingers across the switch and turned off the lights in the hallway. The sound of feet barely registered on the carpet as she ran upstairs and pulled the curtains closed. Her hands resting on her brown dress, she sat on the top step and listened to the tapping of feet on the roof tiles. It had been three years since their previous visit and she thought she’d escaped the Elves.

So did her parents.

‘I think it’s safe to leave you alone this December,’ her father had told her earlier that evening. ‘For a few hours, anyway.’

Yet here they were. The little green people with the pointed hats and the smiling faces were harassing her once again.

‘This window is open,’ shouted a high-pitched voice. ‘Let’s go and find her.’

Daisy ran into the bedroom and opened the curtain to see the bulging eyes of an Elf looking back through the glass. She grabbed the handle of the window and pulled it towards her with as much strength as she could muster. The Elf pulled it back, his long-nailed fingers squeezing around the angles of the window frame.

‘No!’ Daisy cried, ramming her shoulder into the window. ‘Go away!’

The green fingers retreated, accompanied by a squeal and Daisy locked the window tight. She drew the curtains and sat back on the bed.

‘We want you to come with us,’ said a voice from outside the window. ‘It is where you belong.’

Daisy placed her hands over her ears. Adopted as a baby, she’d always struggled with the notion of belonging, particularly during Christmas-time. Sometimes, she’d wake up from a dream in which she’d be surrounded by a man in a big red suit and a woman with a kindly looking face looking down on her.

‘Do you know who my real parents were?’ she once asked her mother one frosty December morning.

‘We are your real parents,’ her mother replied in a tone that was as cold as the temperature outside. ‘We are the ones who have fed you, looked after you, and kept you from the evilness of having fun.’

‘But surely they must be somewhere. They might even be looking for me.’

Daisy could still feel the pain from the effects of her mother’s open palm slapping against her cheek, alongside the words that she was to hear on many occasions.

‘You should learn to be more grateful young lady.’

She could also remember coming home from school a few days later. ‘I’ve been chosen to be an Elf in the school play,’ she’d cried.

Her enthusiasm was quickly dampened by her father. ‘No daughter of mine will ever dress in the colours of the mischievous Elves.’

Daisy was never allowed to go anywhere near the school again. The family house was sold and, at the age of seven, she was forced to start a new life in a strange town over a hundred miles away.

‘From now on,’ her mother told her. ‘Christmas is cancelled.’

Daisy tried to push the memory away and lowered her hands from her ears to hear the sound of scampering feet and the jingle of bells.

‘Oh no you don’t,’ she said, racing into the bathroom.

With a tug of the light cord, she went inside to find that the shower curtain was closed, its purple drape hanging low to the floor. She looked down to see the toes of a pair of green shoes beneath it.

‘Leave my house, now,’ she said, pulling back the curtain to find a pair shoes that had been placed side by side, the owner having disappeared.

She stood for a moment, pondering what to do next. As she looked around the room, she noticed that everything had been moved. The towels had fallen from the rails, the bin was on its side and the bottles from the rack of toiletries were strewn across the floor. Even the mat was upside down. She turned it over to find a small footprint on the other side. Daisy picked up one of the shoes from the bottom of the shower and placed it above the footprint to find a perfect match.

‘Father was right,’ she cried, ‘you are all mischievous and evil.’

As soon as she finished the sentence, however, she could feel a smile beginning to curl at the sides of her mouth. She quickly pushed it to one side and ran from the bathroom and into the spare room.

‘Come on, you can come out!’ she shouted, as she opened each and every cupboard door. ‘I know you’re in here somewhere.’

She dived to the floor and looked under the bed, only to find a pile of unopened presents in colourful wrapping paper. Once again, a smile appeared at the sides of her mouth. The problem was though, that any thoughts of fun and laugher had become alien and it melted away as quickly as it arrived. Instead, she went downstairs and into the kitchen where she found a row of stockings hanging from the wall that were filled to the brim with gifts that were tied with colourful bows. After lowering the presents into a black bin bag, Daisy glanced along the hall and headed into the living room.

‘I know where you are,’ she said, clasping the handle to the door, as her smile grew into something she could no longer control.

Adrenalin flowing, Daisy pulled back the sofa to find a pair of green shoes and some red and white socks lying beside them. She then opened the doors in the wooden cabinet and found a bag filled with a bright green dress and a hat with a bell attached to its pointed end.

‘Why can’t you just leave me alone?’ she shouted, falling into the soft fabric of the sofa.

The trouble was, the thought of the Elves leaving her alone was the exact opposite of what she wanted. The moment of disappointment was soon interrupted by the sound of rustling and scraping in the hall. Daisy looked up to see that the door to the living room had been closed and she lifted herself from the sofa, squeezed the handle and peaked through.

Inside the hallway, colourful decorations and sparkling lights filled the wall, the ceiling and the doorways.

‘But Christmas is cancelled,’ she cried, ‘my parents will lock me in my room without any tea!’

Daisy started to take down the lights, but as she did so, she noticed a different colour was now glowing in the brightness of streetlamps outside. Instead of green, the frosted glass in the door was filled with a mass of red.

The front door opened with a click and Daisy took a step back.

‘Christmas is cancelled,’ she whispered.

The man in a big red suit came towards her, the one she recognised from her dream. Behind him was an Elf. She was older than the others and had a kind, loving expression on her face.

‘We have been looking for you for many years,’ the Elf said, hugging her so tightly, she could barely breathe.

Daisy was about to push her from her grasp, but then allowed herself to be taken away in a moment of recognition.

‘Mother,’ she said.

‘That’s right,’ her mother replied. ‘I’m so sorry for leaving you behind.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Your parents interrupted our visit,’ said her mother. ‘But you have always been an Elf.’

Daisy looked down to see that her dowdy brown dress had been replaced by one of bright green. Her legs were covered in red and white socks and her feet in a pair of green shoes.

‘The clothes from behind the sofa,’ she said, the bell on her hat jingling as she did so.

‘We have a busy few weeks ahead of us,’ Santa Claus said. ‘But you can stay here if you prefer.’

‘Surely I’m too old,’ she said.

‘Only if you want to be,’ her mother replied.

The sound of a car engine and the screeching of brakes caused Daisy to shudder. ‘My parents!’

‘Last chance,’ Santa Claus said.

Daisy the Elf took a long look around the hallway and back at Santa Claus, the Elves and her mother.

‘For the first time,’ she said. ‘I know exactly where I belong.’

As soon as she finished speaking, the decorations fell from the wall and Daisy was lifted through the kitchen door and lowered into a sleigh amongst a sack load of presents.

‘Thank you,’ said Daisy, as the reindeer pointed their noses towards the sky.

Kevin Brooke © 2018

The Fallout—Tim Stavert

Every year we have the romance of watching people sitting by a nice warm fire, handing out presents under the glitter of decorated trees during the season of goodwill, love, peace and understanding, with a feast and drink to warm our souls, before we treat ourselves to sit in front of the television or read a book.

A middle aged couple in their fifties, are sitting in their lounge and reflect on Christmases past. Bert and Julie have been together for a few months and are spending their first Christmas together in their new home after they had experienced broken marriages the year previous, which bought them together.

‘I enjoy a Ghoulish Christmas story during this festive time of year, as many people do, I like to be frightened by the ghosts of Christmas past.’ Julie said as she turned the pages of a new book and twisted her long dark hair around her finger and looked at the streaks of grey breaking through. Her darkened skin reminded her for a moment of her time nursing in the Middle East.

‘Yes! And with creatures creeping out of the woodwork or any dark corner to take you away screaming into the night, during Christmas Eve. Of course, some argue that there are no such things as ghosts and people say it’s only fiction and these stories don’t scare me.’ Bert replied in his soft voice. His thick and long dark brown hair and bushy eyebrows with a shade of grey, had attracted Julie to him when they first met, as a gentle natured person, compare to the psychological and physical abuse she had received from her first husband.

Julie flicked over another page and grimaced. ‘These stories scare children and even some of the sensitive adults, but the most scary stories are those of fact. The signs have already been there in the press and are becoming more apparent as we approach the end of the year. Shall I tell you what I am feeling in my bones?’

‘What have you been feeling Julie?’

‘Well, I’ve been having hallucinations and nightmares, especially over the last few weeks. I see a young mother wearing a veil, sitting down amongst the rubble of her bombed house. She looks up at me with dark and sorrowful eyes, as she suckles her new born child amongst some ruins in the hot sun.’ Julie put her book down on her lap and looked in deep thought as Bert interrupted as usual to put his versions and stories forward.

‘I keep getting visions of rifts during the Christmas period. This I call ‘The Fallout,’ which is usually after guests have overstayed their welcome, with the house in disarray and bodies laying on every bed, across the chairs, sofas and on the floors, tempers shorten, then snap. Also the Christmas office party with the drink flowing and attractions with flirtations, leading to seedy affairs. But this new ‘Fallout’ began at the beginning of December, no one realises or could predict what is happening. I feel it in my bones that something is about to happen. This morning, I felt a chill in the wind, which made me shiver. At first I related it to the time of year, but whatever it was, there appeared a sinister side as I looked up to the darkening skies, when the rain began to fall.’ Bert picked up a newspaper, his eyebrows raised when his eyes focussed on the newspaper headlines with some interest.

Julie looked out through the window at the menacing clouds moving in turmoil, like a dark boiling liquid forming into the face of the woman. Julie thought she was hallucinating again, remembering when she walked from the paper shop earlier and took a quick look at the headlines on the front page of the newspaper. She wondered why the human race was behaving so bitterly towards each other, especially at this time of year. So much political and racial hatred, with discrimination amongst the classes and sexes, let alone the international tensions between the nations, as their leaders behaved like morons and could not even acknowledge one another during the World Summit. Instead of sitting down, learning to compromise, listening to what their countries need, they still keep treating their own citizens with contempt.

Still with her back to Bert, Julie continued her political rant. ‘Another day towards the festivities, dare I mention the word ‘goodwill’ as the media have been hyping up towards Christmas since September. With the remembrance of the World Wars in between, I cannot understand Country leaders who gather in unity to remember those who gave their lives. Some of the leaders even have tears in their eyes and emotions running high at places like the Cenotaph with deep regret. Yet the killings still go on despite our unity within Great Britain, with drug, gun, knife and gang culture, law and order out of control, the houses of Westminster are also out of control and all parties refuse to compromise. Also we are not alone as a global crisis continues to undermine the future of this planet, because of irresponsible behaviour by World leaders, scientists, manufacturers putting money before common sense and devastating the planet with uncontrollable pollution. I often think of Halloween twelve days prior, the ghostly moans from the witching hours with our favourite monsters from werewolves, vampires and zombies as comparisons to the more realistic threat, ‘Man’ and his wars.’ Julie said with bitterness.

Bert agreed and put down the newspaper. ‘The threat is there and I keep asking myself, how long have we got and do we need to be involved in this or any other war and should we let them get on with it? Not only by the behaviour of the human race, but the reaction Mother Nature has in store as a result.’

Julie turned around stood aghast and facing Bert, she snapped. ‘What do you mean, these are innocent lives, they need help, you mean to tell me you would leave them to rot in Hell at the mercy of their tyrant leaders?’ Her face looked angry at the fact her lover would suggest such a thing, it was too much to bear and threatened that they would be facing their own fallout if Bert didn’t relent.

‘I was only insinuating that we should get the innocent refugees out and let their armies get on with their war. In an ideal world isn’t a solution better than letting wars to go on?’ Bert replied, trying to calm Julie down.

‘Tell me about it! You seem to have forgotten that I have seen it all before, having the experience of a missionary nurse in Syria over the last ten years. I have learned of the fear, uncertainty, trauma of death, injury and starvation and seen ordinary people watch their loved ones blown up or shot, homes disappear under a pile of rubble, being tormented, tortured and discriminated with nowhere to go, because nobody wants them. The huge numbers of homeless refugees lined the battle scarred streets as I walked past tending to the sick as night fell. That’s where I came across the same young mother, who has remained in my hallucinations and dreams, who looks up like she knows me, begging for food with her thin arms like sticks and dark, haunting eyes.’ Julie held her head in her hands and asked herself, ‘Why?’

Bert got up, sat Julie down on the sofa and held her in his arms. ‘Look Julie, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean any offence, you have been through a bad time, all because man can’t get on with each other and not able to compromise, without realising what horrors Mother Nature will bring in the not so distant future. The nations have been negligent since the industrial revolution. So I think there will one day be more droughts and catastrophes through global warming to worry about besides any wars. I don’t think we have seen or experienced anything yet.’ Bert knew how traumatised Julie was, after hearing that another bomb had killed the mother and child.

Julie looked up at Bert’s compassionate expression. ‘I wake up every morning, wondering why I am having these nightmares. Here I am back in the comfort of my own bed, with central heating and thinking about my guilt for having a cosy life from the outside, where many like that young mother perished.’ Julie sat and continued wiping tears from her eyes.

‘Come on now Julie, tell me all about it, I wish I had known you long before. It seems you have been bottling it up.’ Bert held her hand as she looked at him with some relief, to have this opportunity to get it out of her system.

‘During the night, I wake up as if I am back in the open air in Syria. It’s like a lunar landscape, with the ruins of tower blocks and other buildings quivering in the haze of heat in the distance. I look down at my arms, which are as thin as sticks, my stomach hurts through hunger and I can see my rib cage looking like the rungs on a ladder. I feel the warmth of the sun shining on my face; the reality is upon me as the woman with the veil blocks the sun out for a moment. She is carrying her baby in her arms and hands me a cup of water. My eyes strain for a moment before reopening them and I recognise the woman from the ruins of Syria with her dark eyes, she thanks me for helping her before she fades into the sunlight. I look around, with my clothes in rags and my skin so sore from sunburn. I see the devastation from the fallout, with buildings in ruin, wrecked vehicles in flames and dead bodies lying all over the place, my mind went blank during that night and couldn’t remember all that happened.’

Bert passed her another tissue then got up to make them a cup of tea. Julie followed him into the kitchen and put the heating on.

‘Are you feeling cold as well Julie?’

‘Yes, I’m freezing, I will put the fire on in the lounge as well.’

‘Put the TV on and see if there’s something that can cheer you up a bit.’ Bert said as he put the tea bags in the pot.

Julie turned on the TV and began switching through the channels, until she stopped and started watching a debate about a global fallout of the most powerful countries and watching the World leaders pointing, shouting and swearing at each other. The camera turned onto the presenter. ‘Well it looks final that World War Three has just been declared by the President…’

Then there was blinding flash across the sky and into the room, Bert and Julie shielded their eyes, the TV went blank, the lights went out, leaving them in pitch darkness, with no sound, then there was…nothing.

Tim Stavert © 2018

I Want It Back—A Ghost Story For Christmas—kheldar / David Pamment

Somehow I can’t help feeling that Christmas Eve is the best part of the holiday season. For most of us work is over and the prospect of those two extra days off lies pleasantly before us. The air is resonant with a marvellous feeling of anticipation, while the anti-climax of drink fuelled bickering and unappreciated presents (be they given or received) is nought but a distant echo of Christmas’s past.

Good or bad, I will not be indulging in the festivities this year. No carols or presents, no turkey or eggnog, no Christmas specials or oft repeated movies. Instead I will sit at the bedside of Terry, my eighteen-year-old son, hoping against hope, praying to a God I don’t really believe in, that he will wake from the coma he has been in for the past seven days. The only twinkling lights will be those on the plethora of machines keeping him alive; their sundry beeps the closest I will get to jingle bells. My dear wife Susan has been confined to bed since we got the news but is insistent that one of us at least is with him. So that then is how I will spend Christmas; alone with my son, with my hopes, my prayers, and my regrets.

How did ‘Old Blue Eyes’ put it? ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention’. For my part I have all too many, mercifully most of them small and inconsequential. The regret I feel about my beautiful, beloved boy cannot be so easily brushed aside.

Less than two weeks ago all had seemed right with the world; then Terry came home from university. He was not the happy, relaxed, up for anything eighteen-year-old who had left at the start of the term. Instead he was tired and drawn, nervous and introverted. When I asked him what was wrong I expected to hear one of the usual student replies: I had to cram for a test; my evening job tired me out; I’ve been partying hard and long. What I got instead was an unbelievable tale of childish fears made real. This is his confession; I guess it’s mine as well.

In common with many first-year students, Terry was more interested in the students’ union bar than he was in studying. One side effect of this, apart from an almost constant hangover, was a seemingly irresistible urge to appropriate other people’s property. Don’t get me wrong, Terry is in no way criminally minded, it is just that the strangest objects have an uncanny knack of ending up in his room. You know the things I mean: ash trays; traffic cones; street signs; the orange shell of a Belisha beacon; a council litter bin, even a plastic table from a pub garden.

In celebration of Halloween Terry and some of his new friends from the University had gone to a fancy-dress party at one of the local clubs. Returning home, much the worse for wear, they hit upon the unoriginal idea of braving the local churchyard. Once there, Terry was immediately overcome by his magpie streak, deciding a headstone would be a fitting souvenir of the night’s activities. In his defence he only intended to ‘borrow’ the stone for a day or two, but even so his friends, perhaps more sensible but probably less drunk, left him to it. Unable to secure his prize on his own, he scouted around the graves for a more manageable memento.

In an overgrown corner, far from the church itself, he literally stumbled across a small carved statue, almost hidden by the encroaching weeds. Although it struck him as odd that this particular area was markedly less well kept than the rest, he was nevertheless pleased, there being little chance of his ‘theft’ being discovered any time soon. Crouching down he cleared away the tangled flora and pulled the statue free. In the near dark of the graveyard he could discern little of its appearance other than its height, it being about eight inches tall.

Returning to the world outside he stopped under a streetlight to examine his trophy. It was of a kneeling figure with outspread wings; he assumed it to be an angel, but its doubtless angelic face was missing. This appeared to be the only damage and was as weather-stained as the rest; it must have occurred soon after the statue was put in place. Pleased with his night’s work Terry set off home.

Still in sight of the church his drunken fug was suddenly penetrated by the certain knowledge that someone was watching him. Turning quickly, he fancied he caught a glimpse of that someone disappearing into the churchyard. Shrugging aside a distinct feeling of unease he turned his back and continued on his way.

Ten minutes later and almost home that sense of being watched returned. Looking behind him he fancied he saw an indistinct figure melting into an alleyway. Doubtless due to some trick of the light, or of the alcohol he had so recently and diligently imbibed, he could almost have sworn that the figure was glowing. Dismissing this detail as fantasy he was nonetheless convinced he was being followed. The angel, now hidden beneath his battered Halloween costume, suddenly felt a lot heavier. Feeling a little guilty he immediately looked for somewhere to offload his looted treasure. Close to his digs he found the perfect place; an overflowing skip, testament to the university’s over-running building works. Relieved of his burden he stumbled up to his room.

Later that night, Terry had awoken suddenly, unknown fear gnawing deep in his stomach. The room was quite cold, a biting cold that penetrated the body. Furthermore, there was an unmistakeable odour, not the fond reminder of a vindaloo and eight pints, but a cloying, sickly sweet, rotting meat sort of smell. The clock on the bedside table showed 3am but it was something at the end of the bed that grabbed his attention; a figure, six-foot-tall, its features hidden by the silver-grey nimbus surrounding it. As tangible as the cold and the smell was the sense of dread that emanated from this terrifying apparition. Overcome by dreadful fear Terry, for the first time since he was a baby, soiled the bed, his bowels the only part of him still capable of movement

The figure slowly raised its arm, a simple yet menacing gesture. In a dry, rasping voice it whispered, ‘You have it, I want it back.’

With that it vanished, yet Terry just lay there, unable to rouse himself. Hours later his paralysis was finally broken by sudden understanding: ‘The statue! It wants the statue!’ Throwing on some clothes he rushed outside; the skip was gone.

Every night thereafter was the same; ‘It is mine, I want it back.’ Each night the terrifying phantom intoned the same seven words, each night Terry was unable to answer its demand. By the time Terry told me the story this phantom lost property clerk had called on him every night for over six weeks.

To be honest, I’m afraid I was less than sympathetic, telling him it was nothing more than a recurring nightmare, doubtless the product of a guilty conscience. I assured him that a good old family Christmas would soon set him to rights. I actually said, ‘Look on the bright side, at least you’ll have a ghost story to tell on Christmas Eve’. How I rue those careless, thoughtless words.

Shortly thereafter, a week ago tonight in fact, I answered the door to find every parent’s worst nightmare, a policeman waiting on the doorstep. Terry, whom I had presumed to be off visiting pals, had somehow been involved in a bizarre and terrible accident. He had broken into the local landfill site, I can hazard a guess as to why, and while digging through the rubbish he had failed to hear the bulldozer behind him. Spotting him at the last second the driver was powerless; the ‘dozer’s rusted scoop struck Terry full on the head, fracturing his skull and irreversibly damaging the fragile brain beneath.

Ever since I have been plagued by regret, wishing I could turn back the clock, wishing I’d taken his plight more seriously, wishing I’d told someone, wishing I had at least made him speak to our family doctor. It is not only guilt at his accident that plagues me; it is the certain knowledge that the fantastic tale he had told me was true, all of it, every unbelievable detail. How do I know? This is how.

As I mentioned earlier, I have kept vigil at Terry’s hospital bedside ever since he was brought in. On the first night, in the deep, dark quiet of the early hours, I was roused from a fitful doze by the combination of a sudden drop in temperature and the presence of a sickly-sweet aroma. Knowing instantly what I would see standing there but powerless to resist I looked to the end of the bed: a figure, six-foot-tall, its features hidden by the silver-grey nimbus surrounding it. Paralysed by fear I glanced at the clock on the wall; it was 3am. As I watched the figure slowly raised its arm, a simple yet menacing gesture. In a dry, rasping voice it whispered: ‘It is mine, I want it back.’

It has been back every night since, doubtless it will be back again tonight. Even as I speak, the temperature is starting to drop, and the smell of rotting meat is slowly permeating the room…

 

David Pamment © 2018

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