Saturday, December 7, 2013

That Old Christmas Spirit: A Heartwarming Yuletide Nightmare

Author's note: This is an old story I wrote back in the days of Clockwork Storybook. We wrote a lot of Christmas stories during our run, of varied quality, but I really like this one, still. It sums up most of my feelings about Christmas nicely. It was literally inspired by a dream I had, and it scared the hell out of me at the time. I tried to make the "off the rails" part of the story just like my dream. You can let me know if I succeeded or not. Hope you enjoy it! 

“Santa Claus, Daddy!” Martin Hartsfield tugged frantically on his father’s arm, to no avail. He leaned into the task of attempting to steer the grown-up away from the Old World Sausage Shoppe and into the North Pole Pavilion of Guildcrest Mall.
“Marty, calm down!” Joseph Hartsfield’s tone was rougher than he’d intended, but Christ, that kid was driving him nuts.
“But Daaaad...” whined Marty, the nasal tone raking down Joseph’s spine.
“Son,” said Joseph, as he leaned down and turned the six-year old around to face him, “do you remember our deal?”
Marty’s expression went from petulant to thoughtful.
“What we talked about on the way here? If you’re good and quiet and help me out tonight, we’ll go see the Christmas lights.”
“Yeahbut, Dad, that’s Santa Claus over there!” Clearly this changed the deal in Marty’s eyes.
Joseph didn’t even glance over his son’s shoulder. “Did you see the line over there? Son, the mall will be closed before you can even get to talk to him.”
“Marty, I promise, we’ll come back later, when it’s not so crowded.” Say, in June, Joseph thought. “Now, if you want to see the Christmas lights tonight, then you’ll be a big kid and help me out, okay?”
“Aw, but Daaaad...”
“Okay,” said Joseph, standing up, “here are your choices: keep quiet and help me out, then we’ll go see the Christmas lights, or keep whining and go home with nothing. What’s it going to be, son?”
Marty hung his head. “Aw, I guess I’ll be quiet.”
“Good,” Joseph said. They resumed walking. “While you’re being quiet, why don’t you tell me what you’re going to ask Santa for this Christmas?”
Marty’s eyes lit up. The Santa incident now forgotten, he started in on his list, rapid fire. “I want a Gameboy with the Pokemon Gold, and an Action Man with the blow gun thing, and Spyro for the Xbox...”
Joseph let him chatter away while he gnashed his teeth at the whole thing. Christmas was for the kids now, not the adults. He surveyed the mall, bedecked to overflowing with silver and gold tinsel, red and green wreathes. Every single store had some overt way to signify that it was indeed Christmas, and all of your shopping needs could be taken care of in one fell swoop if you would just come inside. Joseph hunched his shoulders and stuck his hands in his pockets, feeling grinchy. It had been like this since early November, for Christ’s sake! As if anyone needed any reminders. 

Marty knew, that was for sure. Last year, he had started in on the family during Thanksgiving. This year, two weeks before. Joseph looked down at his son, who was describing the features on the Harry Potter Severus Snape action figure in great detail and thought it was damned unfair that the kids should enjoy Christmas so much at the expense of their parent’s sanity.
When Joseph was a boy, living in Nod Hill with his folks, Christmas had seemed like the most magical time of the year. Around the Hartsfield house, it was an understood secret that Joseph was a little different. There was the time, he remembered, when they thought he’d been kidnapped and spent twenty minutes frantically looking for him before the neighbor across the street spotted him, shivering and crying, on the roof. How had he gotten up there, they had asked. Little Joseph replied, the same way Santa did, through the chimney. They eventually pulled it out of him that he was making sure that the way was clear for Santa so he wouldn’t get stuck. He laid his finger beside his nose and gave a nod, and the next thing he knew, he was on the roof.
The year after that, the Hartsfield house was once more the source of neighborhood strife when all of the children came home crying that Frosty the Snowman had chased them down the street. When the parents went outside to investigate, they found some large, irregular piles of snow and a very confused Joseph standing in the street, holding a battered plastic top hat. All of the kids swore up and down that the snowman came to life when Joseph put the hat on top of its head, never mind that the weather was clear and fifty-five degrees.
There were a lot of incidents like that over the years, and as Joseph got older, the punishments for such shenanigans got more severe. By the time he was eight years old, he no longer believed in Santa Claus, and the incidents had stopped altogether. The stories became household lore, told and re-told to visiting family members and close friends, each time with variations, until Joseph was convinced that his parents were simply pulling his leg. He was twenty-nine years old and a father himself, it was hard to remember if those things really happened or were just the distorted memories of his childish fancy. Kids will believe anything you tell them. He had gotten in big trouble with Tammy, his wife, when he told Marty last summer that if you planted Skittles in the back yard and watered them, they turned into Skittles trees. He shook his head in wonder. Those memories had all seemed so real. But, he reasoned, he had at one time believed in Santa Claus, too. Time and imagination play weird tricks on a person. Perhaps, he thought, if you believe in something strong enough, it invariably comes true. Or seems to be true. He couldn’t quite get his head around what he was thinking.
His cell phone interrupted his reverie. “Hello?” he said, which was silly, because he knew damn good and well who was calling.
“Joe? Honey, where are you?” It was Tammy. She sounded upset.
“At Guildcrest, Tam. Remember? I have to pick up gifts for the Cormans and something for Terry and Shannon.”
“Is Marty being good?”
“Is that Mommy?”
“Yes,” Joseph said to both of them. Marty, sensing that Joseph was distracted, took the opportunity to press his nose against the window of Humboldt Hobbies to admire the elaborate model train running through a picturesque miniature winter village. “He’s fine, everyone’s here, what’s wrong?”
“I figured you’d be home by now, is all. It’s a mess on the roads.”
“I know, we’re almost done now, give us thirty, forty-five minutes, okay?”
“Does Marty have homework tonight?”
“He did it at daycare.”
“Okay, please hurry, but don’t kill yourself.”
“Will do. Bye.”
Joseph hung up and wondered how any wife stayed sane before the invention of the cell phone. He turned to disengage his son from the window where the train to Christmas Town ran, oblivious to the world of the grown-ups.
Joseph made one more stop to the Body and Bath store, buying several nice, impersonal gift boxes for the various obligatory gift-exchanges on his list. Toward the end, Marty started whining again, and for once, Joseph was in agreement with him. They were both relieved when they stepped out of the canned warmth and artificial good cheer of the mall into the cold, sober, overcast San Cibola winter night.
“Daddy, now can we go see the lights?” asked Marty, scrambling ahead, weaving between the cement columns.
“Yeah, son, we can. But it’ll be real quick, okay? Then we’ll come back when Mommy can go with us and see all of them.” The last part went right by Marty, who started hopping up and down like a gibbon, singing, “Chiss-mas Liiiights, Chriss-mas Liiiights, We’re gonna see th’ Chriss-mas Liiiights...”
That sustained them both to the car, whereupon Joseph cried "Enough!" and Marty simply lowered his voice to a breathy whisper. Joseph put the presents in the truck and briefly considered putting Marty in there as well. Once the child was safely strapped into the front seat, Joseph turned out of the parking lot into slow moving traffic. Marty twitched impatiently, but Joseph could care less; he was thrilled to have crossed off a few names from his Christmas list and emerge from the mall unscathed. To keep Marty from freaking out, he turned on the AM station that played nothing but Christmas music. They caught the last strains of ‘Silent Night’ before the music segued right into Burl Ives’ ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’. In spite of himself, Joseph sang along.
The drive from Riverside to the Rue Livre was a short one, but traffic going to the Parade of Lights was very stop-and-start and it was only the presence of his son and Dean Martin singing ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ that kept Joseph relatively calm. Every year the chamber of Commerce in conjunction with local businesses took over the winding road that bisected the Arbor Lane Park and set up a variety of impressive Christmas displays with lights, animatronics, and oh yes, advertising. Some of the displays were built like stationary parade floats, while others were life-size dioramas of various Christmas tableaus.
Babert’s Furniture, for example, featured Santa and Mrs. Claus sitting and rocking in a fully furnished living room set, lights blazing merrily, with a huge wreath in the corner that said, “Santa buys his relaxation at Babert’s!” On the other side of the road was the annual display from the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, a life-size sleigh and eight reindeer, all made out of Coke cans, with an oversized can of 7-Up sitting in the sleigh, holding the reins. Right next to the aluminum nightmare was a full-sized model of a child’s train, with Santa eternally handing packages to elves while Mrs. Claus looked on. The attached sign said, “Merry X-Mas from Humboldt Hobbies.”
Marty oohed and ahhed while Joseph’s stomach slowly knotted itself. Some of the displays were just outlandish; there was no other word for them. There were more animatronics this year, primarily because that’s what the kids all loved. These people ought to be ashamed of themselves, sucking the soul out the holidays, he thought, bubbling over with indignation. Here was his own son, stuck to the window of his Ford Escort, fogging up the glass and snotting all over the door and ogling robots dressed up like Jesus. Then Joseph realized that he was just as guilty for bringing his son here in the first place. “Okay. Marty, we’re getting out of here,” he said, adding before his son could raise any protest, “your mother’s waiting on us and we need to eat supper. We’ll come back later, okay?”
“Oh, okay,” said Marty. “I’m hungry.”
“Me too, kiddo.” Joseph put on his blinker and slowly eased out of the line of cars and into the left-hand lane. It was faster, but not by much, and Joseph found out as he reached the exit of the Trail of Lights that he could only turn right when he needed to turn left. Cursing, he pulled quickly out into the traffic and slid over into the left-hand lane on the cross street and made the first turn he could into the residential streets that bordered Arbor Lane Park. I’ll make the block, he thought. That’ll be faster than fighting the gawkers.
Unfortunately, even on the residential street, the electronic cheer of the park spilled over onto various lawns. The effort was more subdued, of course, for who could compete with Coca-Cola? But the effect was much the same. Lit-up candy canes lined one lawn, a plastic glowing Nativity spread out over another. “Jesus,” Joseph muttered.
“Where, Daddy?” said Marty, missing the point completely.
“Over there, son.” Joseph nodded to the Nativity scene. Marty dutifully gazed at the spectacle. Joseph wanted to laugh, but he was too worked up. Maybe Tam would appreciate it later, assuming, of course, she was still talking to him when he got home.
Lord, give me strength, he thought, as he caught sight of the next yard. Apparently, animatronics weren’t only for the rich and powerful, because there was Santa, loading an actual sleigh with two reindeer attached to it. Even the reindeer were moving, pawing the earth in mechanical impatience. Shit, that’s pretty sophisticated, he thought, slowing down and peering closer at the scene.
Even from a distance, Joseph could see the metal understructure and joints in various places. The fur covering that stretched over their frames looked ratty and moth-eaten. Through accident or a trick of the light, the reindeer looked like they were frowning. Both of their heads tilted up and swiveled in his direction in that stop-motion jerky way and Joseph could swear that they were looking at him. No, that’s silly, he thought, glancing at the mechanical Santa Claus. Santa’s head was also now turned and appeared to be following the car. Santa’s face looked like partially melted wax, the metal jaw glinting in the moonlight. The robot’s grin was sinister.
Some strange fear gripped Joseph’s heart. He spared a glance at his son and was relieved to see Marty still looking out the opposite side of the car. When he looked back at the robot Santa again, he had leapt into the sleigh, no longer moving with jerky mechanical precision. Both Claus and the reindeer were looking at him now and grinning. Santa produced a long horsewhip and cracked it twice, like twin pistol shots in the night air. Joseph stepped on the gas, his heart beating fast.
“Did we backfire, Daddy?” Marty asked that every time he heard a bang.
"No son,” Joseph said, turning up the radio. ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ filled the car. He accelerated and stared into his rear view mirror. Two more sharp cracks sounded behind them, and then the reindeer vaulted into the street, followed by the sleigh, with Santa frantically cracking the whip. The sleigh skidded to one side from the sharp turn, throwing off blue sparks, and then righted itself behind the mechanical deer. Their eyes glowed a fierce red, blinking like taillights, and Joseph could hear Claus laughing behind them, his Ho Ho Ho’s ringing hollow and metallic through the neighborhood.
“Daddy, I hear Santa Claus!” shouted Marty, twisting around in his seat.
“Marty, sit down and stay in your seatbelt!” Joseph shouted. Behind them, the reindeer galloped, their sharp hooves not even touching the street. Santa’s mouth stayed open, jaw locked, as the wind tore at his tattered coat and hat. “Ho HO HOOOO!” he boomed from hidden speakers.
“It is Santa Claus!” said Marty, looking over the seat. “Goddammit, son, sit down right!” The reindeer were gaining steadily. Santa leaned into the wind, his long wispy beard whipping around his face. Twin green eyes like Christmas lights shone in empty sockets. Marty forced himself to look at the street ahead of him, which was thankfully deserted. The needle on his speedometer was trembling at fifty and climbing. The reindeer continued to gain on the car.
“Is Santa chasing us?” said Marty, shouting over the radio.
“I don’t know, son,” said Joseph, “but we’re getting away just in case.”
The reindeer had drawn up even with the car now. Joseph watched in horrified fascination as the fur covering on each reindeer billowed and tore and finally flew off them in tattered strips, leaving metal skeletons underneath. They were little more than baroque rockets now, with vestigial legs clacking in wild circles. Joseph was standing on the gas, but Santa continued to gain, drawing up even with the driver’s side window.
The waxy covering on the monster’s face had blended into the metal understructure until it was impossible to distinguish where one stopped and the other started. Most of the padding was gone from the suit and it flapped loosely as Santa urged more speed out of the rockets pulling the sleigh. He slapped the reins with one hand and cracked the whip with the other, grinning and cackling in chaotic abandon. When he looked into the car, Joseph recoiled from the death’s head visage and swerved away, almost hitting a station wagon parked in the street.
For a few frantic seconds, Joseph could do nothing more than drive and try to keep control of the car. Marty was crying, and Joseph wanted to. When at last the wheels were all pointing forward, Joseph spared another glance to his left just in time to see the monster’s arm draw back the whip. He tensed as the whip snapped and a spider web of cracks flourished and obscured his view of the sleigh. He was still slightly ahead of Santa, however, so he wrenched the wheel over to the left, sharply, and was relieved to see the reindeer veer away and up onto the sidewalk. Joseph punched the accelerator again.
“Meeeeeery Chrisssstmaaaas!” screamed Santa from across the street. Joseph watched, horrified, as the reindeer’s sides opened and yellow-white flame vomited forth. The sleigh surged forward, pulling away from the car. For just a second, Joseph felt relief course through him. Maybe he wasn’t chasing them after all, he thought, but the moment of elation wilted when he saw the sleigh veer out into the street a hundred yards in front of them, the rails kicking up more sparks. The reindeer and sleigh stopped short and Santa turned and faced them, arms out wide, his open mouth a hungry yawn.
“That’s not Santa Claus!” shrieked Marty.
Joseph saw that the sleigh and reindeer took up both lanes in the street. There was nothing for it but to hit the curb and try to blow around them. He checked both sides of the street and what little nerve he still possessed disintegrated as he saw thick lines of trees in either yard.
Joseph stepped on the brakes and felt the seat belts grab and hold him, cutting off his breath. Marty, he thought, as he turned the out of control car to the left, can’t let Marty get hurt. As the car’s front end hit the curb, it popped up like a motorcycle doing a wheelie and Joseph bit his tongue hard. For an instant, all he could see was the night sky, twinkling above him, the moon a half-circle pinned to the black cloth overhead. Then the tree bobbed back into view and there was a shuddering impact, followed by the release of carbon dioxide and something slapped into his face and stunned him.
Joseph sat in the quiet stillness of the demolished car, seeing only gray. The tree was gone. No, not gone. He was looking at the airbag. His whole face was sore. Jesus, Marty!
He clawed the bag out of his face and reached for his son. Marty was enveloped under the airbag, head lolling to one side. God, don’t let him be dead, please. He heard the metal twist and groan in protest as something opened his ruined car door. He lifted his son’s head. Marty’s face was bruised and bloody. Something disengaged his seat belt. He felt for a pulse, but he really didn’t know what he was looking for. The wind caressed Joseph’s face and made the cuts sting. “Marty, come on,” he said, “wake up Marty.”
All at once, he was outside the car and hanging in midair, gasping for breath. Santa held him aloft with one hand, and Joseph held onto his cold hard wrist to keep from choking in his grasp. Santa was staring at him with those green Christmas light eyes, and his breath smelled of oil and copper. He smelled of money. “Ho HO HOOOOO!” he bellowed, belching hot air onto Joseph’s face. “MEEEERY CHRISSSTMAAAS!”
“Please,” said Joseph, “my son. Don’t hurt my son...”
Claus canted his head at the car, then returned his gaze to Joseph. “AND WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR CHRISTMAS THIS YEAR, JOSEPH?” The fingers around Joseph’s throat began to tighten. “WHATEVER YOU BUY, BE SURE TO USE YOUR VISA CARD. IT’S EVERYWHERE YOU WANT IT TO BE.”
“What?” Joseph gasped. He lashed out with his legs, kicking as hard as he could. One of the kicks connected and he felt agonizing pain lance through his lower half as all of his toes broke on Santa’s metal frame.
 “AND WHAT GOES BETTER WITH CHRISTMAS THAN ICE COLD COCA COLA? MAKE THIS HOLIDAY SPECIAL!” The fingers continued to crush Joseph’s windpipe. He was blacking out. Claus threw back his head and laughed.
“Marty...” Joseph mumbled through the pain.
“Go away!” said a shrill voice behind Santa. “You’re not Santa Claus!”
Santa turned his head. Marty was standing beside the car, tears running down his face to mingle with the blood trickling out of his nose.
“You’re a big scary monster!” Marty shouted. He picked up a rock and heaved it at Claus. It connected and rebounded with a flat bell-like sound off of the robot skeleton. “You’re NOT Santa Claus!”
Joseph felt the grip loosen. “Not Santa Claus...” he whispered through his raw throat.
Marty threw another rock. “Leave my daddy alone!”
“Ho HO HOOOOO!” screamed Santa. He was no longer smiling. The lights in his eyes dimmed.
“Marty,” Joseph rasped, “this isn’t Santa Claus. Santa is good and kind.”
And just like that, Joseph was on the ground. He ignored the pain and said, “Tell him again, Marty.”
Marty frowned and glared. “You’re not Santa Claus.” He said it with finality and assurance.
Santa turned around, his back to Joseph, to face the boy. He took one shaky step and then collapsed into a heap of scrap metal and moldy cloth.
Marty ran over, crying. “Daddy, don’t die,” he sobbed.
Marty sat up as best he could and held his son and made shh-ing sounds in his ear. “It’s okay, son, I’m all right.”
When Marty could speak again, he tilted his head up to look at Joseph. “What was that, Daddy?”
Marty looked down at his son, his son who loved Christmas as much as he did when he was a boy, and marveled at how much they resembled each other. “It was...I guess...everything that can be bad about Christmas.”
“Christmas can be bad?”
“Some people can make it bad. But you don’t have to make Christmas bad if you don’t want to.”
His son shook his head comically from side to side. “I don’t never want to make Christmas bad. Christmas will always be good.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” Joseph said. “Now, I want you to be a big guy and help me out, okay? I can’t turn over, so can you pull the cell phone out of my pocket for me?”
Marty looked down at the pocket where the cell phone was and before Joseph could blink, the cell phone was in his son’s hands. Had he really seen that? “Here you go, Dad.”
He took the phone from his son. This wasn’t his imagination. Not anymore. Like father, like son. Marty looked at the ruins of the Santa Claus suit and thought of the snowman he’d inadvertently brought to life when he was his son’s age and thanked God that Marty’s faith was stronger than his own cynicism.
Smiling at his son, Joseph autodialed his wife.

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