Simon’s uncle gritted his teeth, grunting as he hauled the deer’s carcass across the threshold, uncaring of the snow that blew in from the storm outside, or even the streaks of blood that trailed behind the slain doe. Howard stared dumbly, without any emotional response.
At twelve, Simon was older than his cousin Howard by five years, and marvelled at the lack of repulsion in the boy. Seeing the lifeless animal with its sightless eyes and warm blood still trickling from the lung-shot made Simon ill, and his twisted expression would have betrayed the fact had any been paying attention. Simon’s aunt – Howard’s mother – gloomily sat in the ratty recliner beside the woodstove, soaking in the heat as she took her brandy in long, sloppy gulps.
This was Simon’s first Christmas spent with his extended family, and he realised now why his parents had never taken him for visits with his father’s sister’s family. Since his parents had been taken away for holding, to await sentencing – something to do with a botched liquor store robbery, or so Simon had gathered in snippets from his aunt and uncle’s conversations over the past few days since the social workers had dumped him in their rural abode – there was simply no choice in the matter.
The plastic Christmas tree with its haphazard string of lights and the warmth of the fire offered some semblance of holiday cheer, but at the core of this scene there was nothing so sacred, with his aunt becoming increasingly drunk and sombre, his uncle dragging the second kill he’d gotten in two days’ time through the basement door, the carcass bump-bump-bumping its way down the wooden steps, as his very odd cousin beheld the procession, slack-jawed and silent.
“Santa comes more than once a year to my house,” Howard said as he tucked in to the lower bunk.
“Why’d Uncle Matt send us to bed so early?” Simon asked, frustrated as he reminded himself again that if his parents hadn’t been taken away, he’d be watching Christmas specials late into the night rather than being confined to this rickety bunk bed, sharing the cramped and musty room with his strange little cousin.
“Because when Santa comes, nobody can be around.”
Simon scoffed. Still kicking around the Santa thing. He wouldn’t have expected his pitiful extended family to be as imaginative as to even bother with the fairytale. “More like Uncle Matt doesn’t want us to be in his way while he lights up his drugs,” he said bitterly, remembering his parents’ former habits. At least his parents didn’t close him up in his room when they were partying.
“Whatever,” Howard said. “I hear Santa moving and laughing when he’s here, sometimes I see his reindeers’ shadows in the snow. He don’t always bring presents, but dad says he just likes to come by every once in a while.”
Simon could only scoff again, but then his brow furrowed as he had a thought, and sat up in his bunk. “But seeing as this is the real Christmas, he’ll bring presents tonight, right?”
“Of course!” Howard said. “Even an idiot should know that.”
“Check it out,” Simon said, restless, climbing down the ladder, “I’m gonna go find where your parents hide the presents. You don’t have an attic; I know where they put the presents. I’ll get one, show it to you, and you can get past this Santa baloney.”
“Better not let dad see you out there or he’ll pitch a fit,” Howard said, though with little concern.
Simon tried the doorknob, and found that it was locked. “What? Why is the door locked—from the outside? Why . . . ?”
“They always gotta lock it when Santa comes,” Howard said, as though it should be obvious. “Why do you think they made sure we both went pee before we got in here?”
Simon growled, remembering how he used to pop the lock on his parents’ bedroom door when he wanted to dig through dad’s grownup magazines. He found a toothpick amidst the junk on top of Howard’s dresser and inserted it through the hole on the reversed knob, and immediately got the expected pop as the lock released. He opened the door and stepped out into the hallway.
Peering into the living room, just past the closed basement door, he saw that the tree hadn’t yet been lined with presents. The woodstove still burned, but his aunt and uncle were nowhere to be seen. Had they gone off to bed already? No matter, it would only make it easier to sneak down to the basement unnoticed.
He opened the door and flipped on the light. As he came to the bottom of the stairs, turning past the partition, he saw the two does lying sprawled on the floor. The unheated basement served as a primitive freezer. Simon noticed a circular stone slab set in the middle of the basement floor like a crude manhole, center to the carcasses. He stepped over, past the slab, making for the clutter of boxes on the far side of the basement to begin his search.
No sooner had he come to the stacks of boxes than the sound of stone grinding concrete filled the space, sending a shock through his body as he leaped behind the boxes, heart pounding as he tucked himself further back and out of sight, peering through a space between the stacks as the slab was lifted up and away, set aside by willowy arms that clutched the heavy cover with hideous hands set with elongated claws for fingers.
The bulbous-eyed creature with the dog-faced snout that rose up through portal, draped by ragged black garments, hissing gleefully as it gazed down upon the carcasses, poured black nightmare through Simon’s eyes, filling his soul and staining it permanently.
Another creature rose halfway out through the portal, chuffing, grinning, staring through those colourless, blind fish eyeballs as the former creature hefted down one carcass, and then the other. Their howls of satisfaction echoed long after the slab had been pulled back into place, leaving only frozen bloodstains in their wake, vibrating up from the chambers beneath the earth and resonating in Simon’s guts.
* * *
Six years later, Simon still had no recollection of what had happened following the scene he’d witnessed in the basement, but somehow he’d managed to make his way back up to bed. He would never speak of his experience, but had ever since sought the solace of light, if only to keep down the nightmare reality that he had ingested on that night.
After high school graduation he’d moved from his cousin’s home to an apartment in the city, and quickly found work in a mall department store, apprenticing in the decorations department. Christmas was his favourite time of year, and he never once denied the existence of Santa Claus.