A ruling majority of radio dials were fixed on holiday classics. Lampposts had been outfitted with wreaths and vintage incandescence. The wind was richly colored with the scent of hot cocoa and cookies and fire smoke clashing with the snow-cold burn of winter.
Meanwhile, Crown Pointe Mall bore the song of holiday angst.
It wasn’t the cheery note of film and television and storybook depiction, the false narrative of good will and religious zeal that’s shoved on mankind since birth. It was a contorted song of madness; a cacophony of tired children and angry parents and all sounds in between, coursing just beneath the squeal and strike of heels that ushered Henry Weber to the edge of sanity.
Lunch ran long and he was late to post, but he didn’t care. Lunch had run late too, by two hours, so he dared mention of it. Henry settled back into the chair, crushed red velvet trimmed in gaudy plastic, spray painted gold and nicked away in jagged lines. The lukewarm course of Chinese food rolled softly in his bowels, grease-soured. He fingered the strap at the nape of his neck, running gloved nails underneath elastic, raking an elusive itch from sweat-damp flesh. Children pressed their faces to the gate. They all filed in like cattle, clamoring to whisper nonsense wishes into his indifferent ear. However, it wasn’t the children he did this for. Certainly wasn’t the money.
It was the mothers.
Those pretty young things that pranced about, smiling sweetly, teasing with their eyes, their bodies. Behind the beard, he salivated. Lust concealed, Henry marauded as a familiar childhood friend, the gentle soul, a wolf amongst the sheep in this season of giving.
Little more than four days prior, he’d arrived with no more than a gym bag of essentials and the clothes upon his back, living out of one of those pay-by-the-week shit shacks with burlap walls and an incontinent AC unit that either keeps the room arctic cold or not cold enough, always pissing rust water all over the carpet mid-shift from overexertion. The place wasn’t even the cheapest in town, but lack of ID requirement and the resulting anonymity was well worth coughing up the additional sixty bucks. Security was scant, and the 70’s-era cinderblock structure remained true-to-form, lacking any measure of surveillance hardware. He never made his moves close to home or work, but security footage made him uneasy, traceable, and lack thereof bolstered his confidence that much more, his comings, goings utterly private.
It was perfect.
The attendant, a chinless, lazy-faced kid with thoughtless eyes removed the gate, ushering forward the first few children and their parents. A boy ascended Henry’s leg, roosting high, shoulders slumped. Henry thought he looked too old to be there, maybe eleven or twelve, the kind of pussyfied kid he used to beat the snot out of around age eight or nine, force-feeding shit sandwiches made from oak leaves and dog turds. The recollection summoned a kind of morbid glee that added a flavor of authenticity to the round of joyful insincerities the position demanded.
He drew a breath, then released, smiled.
“Wanna tell Santa what you have in mind for Christmas this year?” Henry folded over slightly, inspecting the boy. The child’s red lips and pale skin were the stuff of package-kept dolls.
The boy looked up, studying Henry’s face; stretched-out beard, bloodshot eyes, sleepless glass behind white locks. His answer came a thin, uncertain wisp of silk, upturned like a question.
“Trampoline?” Henry glanced up at the waiting mother, having belted out the word for her awareness. A smirk played on her face. She nodded her approval. “Santa’s gonna do his best on that. That all you got for me?”
“Arright. Up we go. Grab yourself a treat from that there bucket.”
The boy smiled, stepped down, exiting left. Henry watched the woman as she took her child and left the platform. He watched the flexion of her legs beneath the denim. Absently, he moved his tongue across his lips, tasted grease, salty sweet between them. His disrobed her where she stood, the woman oblivious to his touch of sight as she grappled with the small boy’s coat, and he imagined what fun they’d have later in the event their paths should cross again. She wouldn’t see him, but the suit. They all saw the suit, the fairytale, dismissing the reality of the man who lay beneath. Plain old Henry Weber, permitted closer than his scarred face and tattooed flesh would otherwise permit.
Over the following hour, child after child mounted his leg. Spoiled, inconsiderate brats, most of them. Moms and dads stood by in stupid adoration, marked by misplaced pride, assuming it was a shared contagion.
In all honesty, Henry hated children. Despised them. A festering disgust rooted in and cultivated from his own horrific childhood. These weak, coddled larvae, wriggling and whining and pacified by the grant of every wish and desire that crossed their downturned, ungrateful lips. These products of Mayberry normalcy stood representative of all things he never had in life and never would have, their enabling parents equally infuriating. Especially the women, those hoity-toity small-town Stepford wife knock-offs with their plastic smiles and sugared tongues and upturned noses. For them, he was the bringer of joy, of worldly gifts. Rough, unspoken pleasures west of Mayberry where the air smelled not of cookies and candles but of cigarettes and dampness, cheap motels and gin and sex. All those things their eyes and minds consumed in private longing, he brought to fruition. His gift to them, to himself.
The line had thinned in time, having dwindled down to ten or so. Most of the real lookers had come and gone, the remaining fives and sixes eye candy enough. Solid sevens if they didn’t turn around, show their faces. He lifted the cuff, checked the time.
A little girl stepped near, roughly five-years-old. She was alone. Her golden hair was neatly trimmed, carefully curled, the gleam of natural light held captive on its edge. She stood several feet away, a red dress dangling round her slight ankles. Beyond the glass-paned ceiling, the winter sun was smoldering cold and small, filing high behind the sooty tufts of sky as daylight lifted.
“Hi, sweetheart. Wanna come sit on Santa’s lap, tell me what’s on your list this year?”
The child nodded, smiled tight-lipped. There was a faceted glint of green eyes in the light, strange and cat-like. She approached his leg and scrambled high, edging near. Her density defied a creature so small, compressing flesh and bone and scattering nerves.
Henry winced, his breath cut short. “There… there we go.” He smiled through the pain. “So, talk to me, sweetheart. What is it you would like for Christmas?”
The child leaned in and spoke, her voice soft and wet like rotted wood. “I know you, Henry. Who you are, where you go, what you do.”
The words fell cold and heavy, and his flesh recoiled at their touch like plastic on the flame. His vocals failed him as he met her eyes, sunken, artificial.
“Things you say, you feel. Thoughts you think.”
She smiled, perfect teeth on bleeding gums, Easter pink.
“I saw you with Tabitha Moore, what you did to her, where you placed her. You thought no one was watching, didn’t you? Thought nobody saw you in the darkness.” Her voice plunged, a bottomless timbre. “But the darkness lives too, Henry. It has eyes of its own.”
He was frozen, unable to move, to speak, to turn away from her. She held his gaze, her breath like burning leaves within his sinuses.
“They’ve found her, Henry. Two weeks now. And tomorrow they’ll find Patrice Marshall. The day after that, Jenny Cooper, pulled from the earth, inspected, tethered to you.”
His soul squirmed, aching, breathless.
“You enjoyed them all, didn’t you? Oh, what fun you had!” clapped the child. She laughed, the sound an arid grind of bone-on-bone. “Like a boy on Christmas morning, each one a special gift. Special gifts for a very, very special boy.” Her eyes sprung wide, lit up green and black at once. “But I have special gifts for you too, Henry. I also like to play, to share with friends.” She touched his face, tiny digits mapping every rigid, existence-beaten contour as the hand crossed leisurely from right to left.
The outer world then fell away, and he was suddenly alone now in the darkness with the child. Her smoldering breath consumed the void and seared his eyes, his lungs.
“We can sit, sit for hours, Henry. Days, years. I can share their suffering with you, serve it slow, by the spoonful, watch you savor its many flavors, textures, experiences beyond all human comprehension. A sensory feast, Henry. Taste their fear, drink their sorrow, smell their loss. I can’t wait to have you, to break bread with you.”
He convulsed inside the red suit, then felt his bladder release, the purr of nerves amid the clash of hot and cold.
The child paused, smiling at him, pink-toothed, hollow-eyed.
His tongue went bitter, palate held beneath the cloak of something dense like cold, refrigerated fat. His teeth began to ache within their sockets, acid at their roots, gnawing nerve and bone. A tear then surfaced, spilling across his cheek and beard. Paralyzed, he groaned into the nothing.
“Fear. How does it taste, Henry?” She traced his lips, her tiny fingers coursing ridge and valley, meeting every past word, breath, deed committed underneath their supple tips, savoring the unsavory. The childlike thing observed him, brow close, utterly attentive.
“It’s my gift to you, Henry. A feast of senses. Touch beyond touch, sight beyond sight, taste beyond taste.”
The reel set into motion, sputtering like a silent film behind closed lids. Memories most lurid, once savored, embraced by new senses with perverse clarity. He arched and vomited, saturating his lap. A clutch of optic nerves now gripped his eyes as every stash of hidden footage seemed to play. His mind pleaded with his tongue, now a flaccid thing, cradled fat and dumb and wordless. Ability to speak deserted him.
He wondered why nobody helped, retrieved the child, the thing perched on his lap. Seconds passed as minutes, minutes passed as hours. He wondered how long he had sat there, time true to sense or shoved off to the sidelines, a life in a blink, enslaved to the moment.
Henry summoned all manner of will and strength and frightened resolve to break the seal, a defecation of word and breath squeezed from his open mouth, nearly unintelligible. “W-w-w-what are you?”
“For you, today, a child.” Its lips grazed his ear, passed across fine hairs, the voice like wind-rushed reeds.
“Y-you’re n-no child.”
“As you’re no Santa, Henry.”
It chuckled, a sound that split three ways on several octaves. “Always the small thinker, Henry. Always aiming just south of the bullseye.”
His face was wet and chilled in the open air. He shivered though his bones burned hot, marrow charred within their casings.
“You asked me a question, Henry. Asked me what is on my list.”
“No. G-god, no.” He wept harder now, shuddering in the dampness.
“It’s now or later, Henry. What’s done is done. They won’t appreciate you when they come for you. They won’t understand you like I do. It’s my gift, Henry. My gift to you in this season of giving.” Its wild eyes glimmered, two sparks in the darkness, excited, eager. Thunder shook the void. The hiss of rain enveloped them. “Early redemption, Henry. My gift. Take my hand. There’s nothing left for you on this side of existence.”
A current of fear and disgust and every conceivable notion of self-preservation roiled up within him, erupting in a single violent thrust that knocked the thing from leg to floor, yanking back the curtain in a restoration of light and sound and all things earthly and familiar.
The creature scrambled to its little girl feet, whites of eyes devoured by the black expansion of its pupils. It snarled, lips sheared back from pink teeth, red gums. Henry pressed his back against the chair. It turned and disappeared into the crowd in a flash of red dress, blonde curls.
Henry’s mind was reeling, time and place a foreign thing as he struggled to discern reality from dream. The crowd had fallen silent, save uncertain murmurs pulsing front-to-rear, the scuffle-hush of parents guiding children from sights sure to wound and scar their fragile minds. He shrank into the seat, his white beard stained beneath the rivulets of blood that spilt from alcoves of his aching eyes. The bitter tang of fear still lingered on his tongue, rich and waxy.
He’d failed to notice the officers in his hysteria, now hefting him up from the seat by arm and hand, ratcheting cuffs to wrists, his lap an amalgamation of urine mixed with vomit. They split the crowd and guided him to custody, a strange reprieve from where he’d been.
Thunder echoed in the grand cathedral. The evening sky above them shifted, turning blackly through the glass. The sound of rainfall filled the space, a scent like burning leaves still hanging in the air.