He stood at the window, looking out at the night as it began to snow. His neighbours had gone to town with their decorations this year: several cheap plastic Santas, a scattering of gaudy neon angels, festive greetings spelled out in lights across the roofs. It was horrible. He hated it. Why the hell did they all think it was necessary to celebrate such an ugly time of year?
He had his reasons, of course, but he’d never tell them. He never let on to anyone that his mother had killed herself early one Christmas morning when he was eleven years old. How she’d gone in the bath and slashed her wrists with a razorblade while he opened his presents downstairs. How he’d gone up to the bathroom over an hour later, thrilled with what she’d given him, and found her floating face-up and grinning in the red-tinged water.
Oh, no. He never told anyone that.
Why should they care, anyway? To them, he was just some old, weird guy who lived at the end of the street; shouting at kids when they played football in the road outside his house, staring irritably at people as they passed by. Never smiling. Never speaking. Just hating, hating, hating. Loathing the entire world for what it had done to him, to his mother.
And despising Christmas most of all.
He sat down and tried to watch television, but the only programmes he could find were about or related to the goddamned festive season. He would have given anything for a good thriller, or a documentary about children dying of starvation in Africa. Something nasty like that, just to wash away the bad taste of goodwill from his mouth.
Max wasn’t an evil man, he was just dissatisfied. Nothing and nobody he encountered ever seemed to give him what he wanted, and if pressed he’d struggle to even say what that was.
Just like ninety percent of the population, then, he thought. Grouping himself into a representative percentage made him feel slightly better. Solid information always did that. Max had no time for idle, unfounded inaccuracies.
He sighed. Got up. Went through into the kitchen. He wasn’t hungry, so he decided to go to bed. Climbing the stairs, he was aware of how old he’d become. His legs ached, his arms were stiff, and his eyesight was failing. He thought again of his mother, of that red-hued bathwater, and the inane smile on her face as she lay there, cold and still and neglectful.
In his room, he was disgusted to be able to hear next door’s television. Christmas carols; children singing along. He banged on the wall, but the noise continued. He took off his clothes, put on his pyjamas, and climbed into bed, seething with rage.
“Bastards,” he muttered, wriggling down under the covers.
He woke up in the dark, not even aware that he’d been to sleep. The room was silent. No light filtered in through the curtained windows. Max sat up. There was something wrong. It wasn’t usually this dark; this quiet. There was a main road nearby, and he could normally hear the endless drone of night-time traffic.
He got out of bed and realised what had woken him: he needed to urinate. Sighing, he crossed the room and opened the door. The landing was pitch-black. He reached for the light switch, but the light failed to come on.
“Bugger,” he said, into the darkness. “There’s always something…”
He made his way to the bathroom on instinct. He’d lived here all his life, so knew the way by heart. That familiarity was something else he hated.
Reaching out, he pushed open the bathroom door. His penis ached when he urinated. He was falling apart; even his body hated him.
Just as he tucked himself away, the lights came on outside, illuminating the landing. Light spilled through the open doorway, and as he turned, just as his gaze skimmed across the bathtub, he knew what he was going to see.
The bathtub was filled to the brim with blood-red water. Pinkish bubbles decorated the surface like nightmare frog spawn. Despite having just used the toilet, he felt warm piss leaking from his crotch and down his inside leg. His mouth moved, but no sound came out. He reached out his hands, felt his legs buckle, and fell to his knees on the bathroom floor.
Something broke the reddened surface of the water. But instead of his mother’s face, he saw a solitary Christmas bauble bobbing to the surface. Then another and another… several of the things, rising like weird underwater creatures coming up for air. Then, as he watched in mute terror, a thin, clawed hand appeared and grasped the edge of the tub, and whatever was attached to it began to haul its way out of the water.
Max closed his eyes, but was too afraid to not see what had come for him, so he opened them again. The figure that confronted him was long and obscenely thin, like a giant, elongated tapeworm. It had hands and arms, but it certainly wasn’t human. Bizarrely, Max was reminded of those strange plastic ‘Fortune Fish’, the ones from Christmas crackers. He’d always hated the way they’d curl up on his warm palm to supposedly predict the future… only he didn’t have a future, not now. These days, his future was behind him.
Madly, he recalled how those fortune-telling fish had worked, trying desperately to grab hold of reality. He’d looked it up in his science books when he was a child. He could even recall the description. The fish were made from sodium polyacrylate, also known as ‘waterlock’: a polymer with the chemical formula [-CH2-CH-]n, it could absorb as much as 200 to 300 times its mass in water…. Sodium polyacrylate would grab and hold any water molecules it touched, changing the shape of the molecule. As the molecules changed shape, so would the fish.
These were random, usually comforting thoughts; alas, he realised, it would take more than simple facts and figures to combat a monster.
But the thing that swayed before him was more than just a monster: it was the representation of everything Max had ever felt threatened by – and on its soft, lolling, featureless head perched a tiny red Santa hat with a fluffy white cotton trim.
It opened its mouth and hissed; a fine spray of warm fluid arced across the small room and moistened Max’s face. He shook his head in denial, but knew that he was powerless against such a vision – and he always had been, ever since his mother opened up her veins to show him the true nature of this hideous time of year.
As the festive-thing stumbled out of the bathtub, splashing bloody water onto the white floor tiles with the unnatural motion of its flailing, flapping bauble-strung lower torso, Max was filled with a terrible insight:
Max might indeed hate Christmas, but Christmas hated Max even more.
ILLUSTRATED BY LEE DAVIS
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