Santa Claus is Coming

black-christmas-house

Bathroom – 1988

I lay in the empty bathtub, beside the bloody knife, the porcelain chilling my shivering skin. My hands cover my face, catching warm tears from one eye and hot blood from the other’s vacant socket. I wish that Santa Claus would stop singing.

You’d better watch out. You’d better not cry…

The blood on my skin congeals, sticky like a thin layer of strawberry jam. Mine? Mark’s? Probably both. I want to turn on the water, to retrieve the soap from the wire basket screwed into the wall. Why are the screws different? One Phillips head, one flat. One rounded, one smooth. One old, one new. Old, new, round, smooth…

Santa Claus is coming to town…

The tick-tock of the cuckoo clock taunts me from the opposite wall. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. No, not the clock. Footsteps. Slow, methodical footsteps approach, Mark risen from the dead, terrible and skinless, his post mortem desecrated face like some horrible anatomy poster. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Or perhaps the reaper, another demon sent to claim my sinful soul. Tick. No demon. Tock. Not Mark. Tick. My heartbeat. Thu-thump. My heart beats a guilt-ridden memorial to another heart, newly still. Mark’s. Thu-thump. My friend. Thu-thump. My victim.

 He sees you when you’re sleeping…

The clock watches me. The mismatched screws watch me. Straeon Manor knows what I did. It blames me. The old mansion creaks in the December wind. The ancient wood and brick moan mournfully for their dead master. The drains gurgle, hungry for the blood of his murderer. The plastic Santa Claus sits in his tiny rocking chair next to the Christmas tree outside the door, rocking and singing his delightful dirge, pleading.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake…

He knows. They all know. They all saw.

Mark had invited me home for Christmas. His parents traveled to France for the holidays. Apparently seeing the Eifel Tower during a snowfall held a higher priority than seeing their son whom they packed away in the Berkley creative writing program. He had been ditched to spend Christmas alone at Straeon Manor.

Santa Claus is coming to town…

I met Mark in English 143, a class on short fiction. He wrote surreal post-modernist fiction with so little structure you sometimes wondered if he simply strung together random words out of the 1848 edition of Webster’s dictionary. I wrote post-Victorian literary horror that alternated between failed attempts at Lovecraftian prose and half-ass rip-offs of Edgar Allen Poe. We hated each other’s writing, and made no secret of it.

I accused Mark of being the literary equivalent of magnetic refrigerator poetry. He said I had the potential to be a popular writer, as long as the reader was born before 1926. I pointed out that the number of surviving nonagenarians was probably still higher than the number of people who would ever comprehend the garbage he wrote.

You better not cry. You better not pout, I’m telling you why…

Despite it all, we became good friends outside of the classroom.  Mark taunted me with Straeon Manor. He described it as a true Victorian haunted house. Tall, dark, and beautifully tragic, like something from an Algernon Blackwood story.  I imagined its creaks and moans longingly. I pictured Gothic paintings lining the hallway walls and heavy black doors that seemed to open and close by themselves during damp August nights. When Mark invited me to spend Christmas with him at Straeon Manor, rather than back home in Eustis, Nebraska’s sausage capital, I immediately accepted.

Santa Claus is coming to town…

We had sat around the Christmas tree getting wasted on Mark’s indica mendo grape bubba kush and his dad’s twenty-five year-old bottle of Glenlivet. Mark’s mom was big into Christmas. Every piece of trim in the massive house glowed with twinkly lights. Noisy holiday trinkets sat crammed in corners. Table-top towns glowed with warm miniature celebrations. Ceramic carol singers crooned Silent Night, as tiny steam engines circled, whistles chirping brightly. Our dazed, chemically-enhanced laughter accompanied Santa as he sang from his rocking chair, his rosy cheeks glowing brightly.

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake…

It wasn’t exactly the dark, haunted corridors I had expected, but it beat making seven-layer salad in a cramped Nebraska kitchen. The antique grandfather clock in the entryway toned midnight. Mark raised his glass of scotch.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

“And a Happy New Year,” I added, raising my own glass in reply. We drank down the scotch.

“Hey, I’ve got something special,” Mark said. “Think of it as a Christmas morning surprise.”

He produced a plastic bag from his pocket. It held a fine, white powder.

“Coke?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Powdered sugar,” I suggested. “We are baking cookies for the weed.”

“Good idea, but no. This is something new, the cutting edge of drug technology. Guaranteed by geniuses of the Berkley chemistry labs to blow your mind.”

For a while, it had been fine. Outside of the burning irritation in my nose after snorting the powder, I felt great, warm. I loved everything. We decided the previously mentioned cookies were a great idea. We baked dozen after dozen in euphoria. We spoke with an auctioneer’s cadence, rattling off forgettable conversations that changed subjects without warning. We baked a dozen cookies, then a dozen more. We baked batch, after batch, after batch. We ran out of eggs and substituted random ingredients. We ran out of milk and tried using water instead. When we ran out of sugar, I substituted salt. We laughed and laughed.

Mark said something. Something mean and hurtful. I don’t know what it was, but he said it. I heard the tone of his voice.

“What did you say to me?” I asked.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Bullshit, you said something.”

“I didn’t say shit.”

“Somebody said something, and I want to know who it was,” I said, sneering.

“Maybe it was the ghosts you are always writing about.”

“Fuck you.”

The conversation turned silent. But still he murmured behind my back, incomprehensible insults spoken to some invisible entity. He joked about ghosts, but who knew the house better than Mark? The house, of course, the house itself. The house plotted. Its creaks and moans were not that of material age, but a horrible transcendent language between dwelling and master. The oven glowed hellish, hotter than a demon’s hearth. We were running out of ingredients. Water didn’t work. But cookies had to be made. A murmur, a chuckle, an inside joke between Mark and the house. My blood. They wanted my blood.

“These cookies suck,” I said. “Let’s go back to the tree.”

“Sure,” Mark said. “Fuck it.”

Mark grabbed his scotch glass and stumbled out of the kitchen. As he turned, I heard him mumble. The house moaned in response. A small hitch in his stumble. He was faking. He wasn’t drunk. I had been poisoned, sedated by my own hand. I fell into his trap. I took a long carving knife from the block and slid it into the back of my pants. I clenched my teeth as the edge scratched the meat of my back, drawing a small amount of blood. The house would not have me.

I followed Mark into the sitting room. He murmured a primitive and horrid language to the rocking chair Santa Claus. Santa winked in reply. The edges of my vision shimmered. Straeon Manor was not crafted from wood and stone, but a speck of cosmic dust sitting upon an illusion, unfixed in time and place, save for the momentary horrors it witnessed.

You’d better not cry. Better not pout. I’m telling you why…

Human remains fertilized the poinsettias in the conservatory. Bodies sweetened the cellar casks. Men, women, children…everyone fell into the manor’s curse, lost, drifting spirits passing as icy drafts through bloodstained hallways. The house shimmered, tearing apart the fragile seams of reality, an ancient relic of horror. The flickering tree laughed. Santa grinned, wolf fangs set in his mouth, salivating for fresh meat.

Santa Claus is coming to town…

I shoved the knife into Mark’s back, the blade skipped off his scapula. I drew it out and plunged again. Mark fell. He turned and tried to scoot away, his eyes wide with terror. I dove upon him. He struggled to get the knife, scratching desperately at my face with sharp nails that seemed to grow six inches. He clutched at the nearest object, the singing rocking chair Santa and, smashed it against my head. The broken plastic sliced my temple. Warm blood drained upon my face. Still, I pushed the knife down.  Mark pushed one of his long nails into my left eye socket. I screamed as my eyeball ruptured and millions of bright stars burst around me, but I would not be thwarted. I drove the knife through Mark’s chest. He aspirated a bloody mist as I yanked the blade free from his sternum. I slit my friend’s throat from ear to ear. Blood rained down.

Mark’s face shimmered, his skin trembling with demon deformity. I tried to peel it off with the knife.  Santa smiled. Mark’s blood burned like acid. I heard a horrible noise. It was my own scream.

I retreated to the bathroom and stripped off the burning clothes. I climbed into the big porcelain tub. The burning ceased.  Still, the singing continued.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good…

There is no way out of this bathroom. They wait for me, the spirits of tragedy that haunt this place. They wait for momentary madness, for my surrender to their ungodly ancient horrors. The room still shimmers. I see through their tricks. I am awake to their dream. Somewhere, through the seams, there is escape, there is peace.

I clutch the knife. Straeon Manor will not have me.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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