From within the branches of a heavily decorated pine tree, the ugliest Christmas ornament ever created twinkled at me.
Its shape resembled a jolly Santa Claus head, but the black paint of its eyes had dripped down its rosy cheeks. A smile far too wide stretched across its face with the wicked gleam of the Cheshire cat. What had possessed me to purchase such a hideous trinket boggled my mind.
A mere hour before, I had decided to walk through the Westport Christmas Bazaar on my way home from the library. I had not intended to buy anything, but before I knew it, my wallet was a couple pounds lighter.
What worried me more was that I could not recall the moments between arriving at the
bazaar booth and purchasing the ornament. With a mental shake, I chalked the blackout up to stress. I had been frantically studying for a make-up exam happening after the holiday break. Much to my mom’s despair, I rarely made it home from university. I was not going to let some unimportant decoration take away the holiday spirit.
It was Christmas Eve Day and the house was a flurry of activity. Mom was baking up a storm for tomorrow, while she belted out Christmas carols playing on the radio. I smiled as she forgot words and sang out of tune. She was coated in flour and Mom seemed to ignore the rest on the floor.
“Daniel! You finally decided to join us!” Mom proclaimed upon seeing me in the kitchen doorway.
I lowered my head with a slight acknowledgement to her words. Guilt tugged at me.
“Please check on Jackie. She is supposed to be putting up the Christmas lights,” Mom ordered.
Confused, I asked, “Where is Dad? He usually puts up the lights.”
“The church needed help hauling the donated winter clothes to the homeless shelter,” Mom said as she slapped bread dough to the beat of Drummer Boy. “He’ll be back soon.”
I nodded, and nicked two frosted sugar cookies as I slipped through the back door.
I found my little sister, Jackie, sitting next to a box of neglected Christmas lights. She didn’t notice me, too intent on the game she was playing on her phone. I took a bite of my own cookie while I held the other in front of her face. She pulled back with a start.
“Daniel! Did you take Mom’s cookies?” Jackie asked, despite the obvious answer. “You are going to be in trouble when she finds out.” The danger didn’t stop her from gleefully biting into the contraband.
“You’re supposed to be putting up the lights,” I said, wiping away the last of the cookie from my face.
Jackie sighed and her shoulders sagged. “Siobhan invited all of us to her house to watch Christmas movies. Mom says I can’t go.” Jackie pouted in the direction of the kitchen. “It’s so unfair! Everyone is there except me!” Jackie angrily kicked at a rock by her feet.
I smiled, amused by her outburst. Jackie was in middle school and her friends were her world. I ruffled her hair in a way I know she hated. She batted my hand away while I said, “Come on, Jackie. I will help you with the lights and maybe together we can convince Mom to let you go to Siobhan’s house.”
Her eyes brightened at the idea and readily agreed. Christmas Eve went by without a hitch. Mom completed all her holiday preparations, Jackie got to spend a heavily negotiated hour at Siobhan’s, and Dad returned home in time for Christmas Eve dinner.
After all the lights in the house were out and everyone was asleep, the sound of Christmas music woke me. I half sat up in bed to hear better. The music was distorted, as if a toy was running low on battery.
The lyrics slow, deep and broken gave an eerie tone to an otherwise cheerful song.
“He sees you when you’re sleeping … He knows when you’re awake …”
The sound grew louder, as if it was moving closer to my room. I was baffled at what could possibly be the source. I jumped with a sharp intake of breath as the final lyrics whispered directly into my ear.
“…Santa Claus is coming … to town …”
I blinked wildly into the darkness, searching for whatever must be there.
“Jackie, stop it! It isn’t funny!” I hissed.
My words were met with silence.
“Mom? Dad?” I asked the darkness, my voice wavering with apprehension.
My eyes immediately spotted when two bright lights appeared near the end of my bed.
They hovered in mid-air, about six feet from the floor. My blood pounded and my hands were white, clenching at my blanket. I had drawn my body into a tight ball. I watched as a thin white line appeared under the red lights. Slowly it grew in length and width until it formed a sickening smile.
I shrieked in fear. The smile and eyes moved around to the side of my bed. The music was gone and all I could hear was the ragged, quick breaths of my own terror-filled body.
The face leaned closer to mine. My hands flew up to cover my eyes, but I couldn’t resist peaking through my fingers. When the mouth was mere centimeters from me it stopped.
My nose filled with the smell of sour milk, the back of my hands felt the brush of its freezing breath; my ears rang with the hollow sound, “… Ho, Ho, Ho …”
At last, my overwhelmed senses could take no more and everything went black.
“Wake up, Denny! It’s Christmas!”
I woke to the impatient shoves of a five-year-old and light streaming through the window. I blinked in confusion at the child, my foggy mind unable to identify who she was.
“Denny!” The child implored with another shove, her eyes bright with excitement.
Denny? The only person who had ever called me that was Jackie before she learned how to say my actual name.
I squinted and looked closely. I could see the tell-tale mole in her hairline.
“Jackie!” I exclaimed, my eyes wide and eyebrows raised in surprise. My voice cracked at the end of her name. The little girl let out a dramatic sigh.
“Denny! Santa came!” She huffed and ran from the room.
I rubbed my hands over my face. My thoughts whirling with the idea that I had just seen the five-year-old version of my sister.
‘This had to be a dream!’ I thought.
My hands stilled as the realization that my face felt far too smooth. I jumped from the bed and peered into the mirror on the wall. The face looking back at me lacked any hint of facial hair and braces lined my teeth.
My eyes spun around the room, taking in the movie posters and Nintendo PlayStation. This was my adolescent bedroom and I was an adolescent.
My family’s happy voices interrupted my spiraling thoughts. I followed them to the living room, where little Jackie was already tearing into her presents. She squealed happily, as she uncovered a baby doll.
Mom was lounging on the couch in her pajamas. Dad passed me, juggling cups of eggnog for everyone.
I remembered this Christmas! Dad was going to spill all the eggnog on Mom. We would spend the rest of the holiday laughing and teasing him! Every Christmas after this one, Mom would serve the eggnog and joke it was Dads turn to be drenched. This was one of my favorite Christmas memories!
I smiled as Dad did indeed trip on one of the presents. Eggnog splattered onto Moms hair, chest, and lap.
As I waited for Moms shock to turn to laughter, the sound of a sleigh bell came from the tree. My head turned and I felt my breath leave my chest. The hideous Santa head ornament from the bazaar hanged from the tree branches.
A dark form with red eyes and a sickeningly wide smile stepped out from the Christmas trees shadow. It glided across the room to my Moms side. None in the room seemed aware of its presence except me.
The dark shape touched Mom and instead of laughter that would make this moment a cherished memory, a shriek of rage came from her lips. Her face twisted in anger, she yelled, “How could you be so stupid! You useless man!”
The dark form moved to my Dad’s side and gently touched his back.
Dad’s face mirrored Mom’s and he angrily replied, “I’m useless? You were the one doing nothing but sitting around like the lazy lump you are!”
Mom jumped to her feet, roaring. The insults continued to volley back and forth. Jackie began to cry from her place on the floor.
I watched helplessly as Mom gathered her purse and jacket.
“The sight of you makes me sick! I never want to see you again!” she yelled, slamming the front door behind her.
“Good riddance!” Dad shouted, throwing one of the cups that had held eggnog at the closed door.
The sound of glass shattering pulled me from my dumbfounded trance. One thought echoed in my mind.
“This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. This can NOT be happening!” I ran to the closed door, heedless to the glass cutting into my bare feet. If I could reach mom this would all be fine.
The door swung open, but instead of the house steps, I saw the flashing lights of the police. I was standing outside in the middle of the Westport Christmas Bazaar. A crowd of people stood with their backs to me. I pushed my way through, hearing shocked whispers.
“What are the chances of this happening?”
“He hasn’t come to the bazaar in years!”
“Can you imagine dying on Christmas Eve Day?”
At the center of the crowd I saw myself. My hair was white and thin. My face full of wrinkles and my eyes empty. My body was suspended in mid-air by a decorative reindeer’s antler, piercing straight through my chest. Blood oozed down the lawn ornaments metal body to the crimson pool on the white snow.
At the end of the bloody antler, hanged the hideous ornament with the Cheshire cat smile.
I was witnessing my own death. I couldn’t stand the horror that I would die in such a way. I turned from the gruesome sight. The people and the bazaar were gone. All that stood in front of me was the dark form with red eyes.
“No!” I screamed at it, “leave me alone! You aren’t real!”
It continued to smile and everything went black again with the sound of sleigh bells in the air.
This time when I woke, there were no happy voices or music. After a quick assessment of my room and face, I appeared to be back in the present. Nevertheless, I was cautious moving from my room to the living room.
Immediately I knew something was wrong.
The house lacked any hint of Christmas. It felt empty, devoid of life. I spotted Dad at the kitchen table drinking coffee while reading the newspaper.
Jackie came toward me carrying a bowl of cereal and an energy drink. At first I was happy to see she was at her proper age, until I saw the scars on her wrist. She moved to walk passed me to get to her room.
Impulsively, I grabbed her arms in alarm.
“Jackie, what happened?” I asked, unable to take my eyes from the pale lines.
“Don’t touch me!” Jackie growled and pulled away. Some of her cereal sloshed to the floor. She hurried to her room and kicked the door closed.
I turn my gaze to Dad, who had never stopped reading his paper.
“Dad?” I asked hesitantly. He grunted in reply, absentmindedly.
“Dad… where is Mom?”
I hoped his answer would not confirm the eggnog nightmare.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Dad snapped bitterly, “you were there when she left.”
I stumbled away from him, bracing myself on the wall. My eyes whirled around the room, searching for the dark form.
“Where are you?” I called out, “where are you hiding?”
“Daniel?” Dad had turned to look at me when I yelled, his face full of concern. I firmly believed that this was all a dream and didn’t bother to explain myself.
I rampaged through the house, looking for the dark form. Anger built inside of me. I was tired of these nightmares.
I froze when my eyes landed on the windowsill of the living room. In the same place Mom would have put the Christmas tree, the black eyes of the ornament stared back at me.
I gritted my teeth and didn’t hesitate as I reached for it. My rage made me barely aware of the sound of sleigh bells. I hurled the ornament across the room. Bellowing my pain as it left my hand. It shattered easily when it hit the floor.
I panted and shook with my fists at my side. Trying to regain control of my emotions, I told myself, ‘it’s over now. When I wake up again everything will be normal.’
I moved sluggishly to my room. Brushing passed my Dad, whose questioning words fell on deaf ears. I fell onto my bed and shut my eyes tight, willing myself to sleep so that the dream would end.
I groggily opened my eyes a few hours later. My phone said it was still Christmas Day.
I vaulted from my bed and slammed my door open. My thoughts raced as I tore down the hallway. I thought of my Mom singing off key in the kitchen. I thought of my sister unscarred and happy.
Those thoughts died when I was met with the same empty house. Mom was absent from the family photos. Dad was sleeping on the couch surrounded by empty beer bottles. The only sign of Jackie was the harsh sound of metal music coming from her room.
“No, no, no, no, no!” I chanted, moving to the living room.
The shattered remains of the ornament still laid on the floor. My breathing was ragged. I could barely comprehend what was happening. I fell to my knees. Tears coursed down my cheeks. My mind fractured and my world narrowed. I wrapped my arms around myself and began to rock back and forth.
“… Ho, Ho, Ho …” an eerie voice, whispered.
Author: Ciera Gray