The clattering on the rooftop followed by the clomping of heavy boots confirms it. After a flurry of grunting and neighing and the stamping of cloven hooves, the commotion on the roof falls silent. I must give the man credit. Sweet-faced and dolled up in red, white and black, the apple-cheeked hypocrite has trained them well. The team of massive, horned beasts cower at his every whim.
I narrow my eyes. He claimed he’d chosen me on a whim all those years ago. But it was righteous rage which had drawn me to him this holiday eve. That, and the voiceless cry of
a child awakened in the dead of night by the shattering terror of a nightmare.
Huddling wide-eyed in the shadows cast by the multicoloured lights, that same boy, Ryan, watches me from across the room. Pine scents the air, and white-powdered garlands twist around banisters and snake along the edges of the door frames. In the far corner hulks the tree, gorgeously decked from the bottom up with all manner of holiday cheer, right to the garish star on top. It’s Christmas Eve and the fact fills me with more dread than joy.
Feeling for the child, I glide across the floor. Streaks of ice linger on the wood slats behind me. “Are you ready?”
The boy nods, dark hair flipping over a dark-brown eye. Even now, I’m amazed me he can see me. Very few can and, even then, doing so requires the help of a special ‘gift’. Ryan can’t speak, but he can see.
The clattering on the roof starts up again. The boy reaches for me but I back away. Ice crusts my slippered feet, spreading into glistening circles on the floor. “No, you can’t.” When he cocks his head to the side, I reach for the window and press my fingers against the glass. Frost blossoms from the tips, spreading outward in an etched, white coat. Ryan’s eyes widen with excitement and glee, but the trickle of ash suddenly dusting down from the chimney snares his attention, erasing the smile from his face.
“You remember the plan?” I ask him. “Don’t accept anything from him. Nothing at all, you understand?”
Ryan nods before dashing off to his spot.
Everything is ready. The plate of cookies and the tall glass of milk by the fireplace, the fire itself nothing but softly glowing embers in the grate. Christmas music plays softly over the radio. And snowflakes, fat as cotton balls, flutter past the windows outside.
He lands on the grate in a burst of soot and ash, cursing the closeness of the shaft. Squatting, he eases his rotund body out of the chimney and into the room. Oblivious to my child-sized spectre standing nearby, he brushes the soot off his coat and then stops to stretch the knots from his back.
He must smell the candy, for his beady black eyes flick towards the little table. Spying the milk and cookies, old St. Nick smacks his lips, readjusts his floppy red hat and hurries over only to slip and fall on the carefully concealed ice patches on the floor.
“Hello, Nick,” I coo, cutting off the string of curses spewing from his mouth. “Such bad language from someone who claims to adore children. One would think it’s bad for your image.” I kneel beside him, letting my hand hover over his rotund belly. Then heeding temptation’s call, I lay a finger on his coat.
“You!” He spits the word at me. Looking down, he grimaces and shrinks from my touch where a melting ice patch darkens the red velvet. “I thought I’d taken care of you ages ago!”
“Oh, no. One’s mistakes just don’t ‘disappear’. They hang around, waiting for the chance to come back and bite you in the ass!”
“You’re not a mistake! You’re a menace!”
“If that’s what I am, then you made it so! I never asked for it!”
“Oh, but you did, you little devil. The moment you accepted my gift, you were mine.” He points with a finger. “Just like Ryan over by the tree. Children never refuse my presents.” Shifting, he pulls a beautifully wrapped package from behind his back. “Come here, son. Old St. Nick has something for you.”
Ryan looks at me and then at the gift. I shake my head vigorously.
Seeing he had the boy’s attention, Nick sits up and jiggles the box so it rattles. “Come now, boy. Don’t you want something from dear old Santa Claus? Aren’t you curious about what’s inside?”
We’d gone over the plan a few times but I should have known the lure of a gift from the man in red would be too much. Eyes fixed on the shiny wrapping paper, Ryan steps into the glow of the flickering lights and, arms outstretched like a sleepwalker, advances.
“You never could stop them from coming to me,” Nick says. “Children are all the same: easy as hell to trick.”
“How many have you swapped? How many parents have found gifts under the tree in place of their children?”
“Everyone likes my gifts.”
“No gift can replace a child!”
Nick laughs, a great booming trill. “How many? Lots! And like you, the stupid sprites run amok, filling the world with blankets of snow, bathing it in white!”
Ryan’s now only a few feet away. Nick yanks the box out of reach, replacing it with the open mouth of his great, big sack. Grabbing Ryan by the arm, he starts jamming him inside.
Ryan’s thoughts call to me. “Ja—!“
“Frost!” Nick screams. He drops the boy and the sack to grab his midsection. “How dare you!”
He charges, coming on like a red and black battering ram but I easily dodge his attack. Dancing around him like an imp, I poke him with a finger, laughing at the white patches forming on his coat, then poking some more, egged on by his irritated grunts. Finally, breathing hard, Nick quits lumbering around.
“You think saving one boy will make a damned bit of difference? I’ve been swapping for generations! If not this one, then the next–!”
“Not if I can help it, fat man!”
Nick gasps and goes pale. He looks at his chest, sees the flowers of blood forming on the white fur trim and pooling on the floor. I withdraw the ice knives, the red-coated icicles extending from my fingers gleaming in the fire and flickering lights. From the wounds, frost crackles across Nick’s body, freezing him solid.
I punch his face. He shatters. Santa-sicles slide across the hardwood floor.
At a slight touch from me, Ryan snaps out of the trance. Seeing the Santa pieces strewn about his feet, he smiles.
“You’re safe now, kid. How about you go on off to bed?” Waving a hand over him, I add, “And while you’re at it, forget about everything you’ve seen tonight.”
Ryan blinks. He stares as though seeing me for the first time until his eyelids droop and fatigue pulls at his face. Yawning, he heads for the stairs.
I walk over to the cookies, kicking aside the red, white and black chunks in the way. In three long gulps, I down the glass of milk.
And grinning, I bite into the thick layer of sugar frosting, savouring the sweet, sweet taste of revenge.
To learn more about Dyane Forde, visit Meet the Writers page.