If you’re not asleep, Daniel’s mother had said, then Santa Claus won’t come and you’ll have no presents.
To five-year old Daniel Joseph’s mind, that was just simply unimaginable. No presents? Just because he wasn’t asleep when the jolly red-suited man arrived? It just wasn’t fair! What if he was curled up in bed, pretending to be asleep? Would Santa know? Would he grumble and shrug and disappear back up the chimney with a noise like fizzy lemonade frothing from a bottle top?
Daniel lay beneath his Disney Cars duvet and agonised about this. It was Christmas Eve now; and he’d been tucked up in bed for the last two hours; but sleep wouldn’t come. In fact, he wasn't even a bit tired. He began to fret. He thought about all of the wonderful things he’d written down in a letter addressed to Santa at the North Pole. If he didn’t wake in the morning to find a brand new Hotwheels race-track under the tree, then he would probably just explode into dust! He’d also asked for some Doctor Who toys and a Gross-Out magic set. What if he didn’t get any of those things because he hadn’t been asleep?
Daniel turned over and lay on his other side. Perhaps that would help. He was facing the wall now with his posters of cartoon characters peering down at him through the gloom. In the dark, their eyes seemed to lose any innocent charm they had during the day, and take on something else; something sinister and creepy. Daniel squeezed his eyes shut and tried to count sheep instead. His bedroom was far too quiet. He didn’t like it. On some nights he would hear a creak near his wardrobe, as if somebody was standing by it, shifting their weight on the floorboards. On those occasions he would sit up and shout for his Mommy, because it always scared him. Tonight, however, there were no sounds at all. Somehow, no sounds were worse than creaking noises. It was as if the whole house was holding its breath; waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus.
Claws, he thought. Why did Santa need claws, anyway? Was it to help him climb up and down the chimney? In his mind, Daniel saw a fat man wearing red crawling down the stack with razor-sharp claws digging into the sooty bricks; sliding along on his belly with eyes glowing like hot pound-coins.
He shivered under the duvet and pulled it closer around him. He tried to think of something else; something not quite so horrible, but it was impossible now. Did Santa drag his toy-sack out after him with those long and terrible clawed-fingers; and did he open it with a cold and hateful smile on his lips? Did he slowly reach inside and scrabble around, whilst from within the sack something would issue a muffled scream of horror and pain as clawed fingers closed around it? As if watching a movie now, Daniel saw this anti-Santa remove a trashing puppy from the sack. It was making strangled yelps and its head was rolling and its small paws running on thin air. Santa’s smile became wider, exposing two rows of vampire teeth. He was looking right at Daniel now, fixing his furnace eyes on Daniel’s. He lifted the struggling puppy up like a prize trophy.
His fanged mouth opened wider, like an unhinged trapdoor.
No! Daniel shouted, but really didn’t. He only thought the word, for he was frozen to the spot; mortified at the scene playing out in front of him.
In went the puppy; headfirst. Santa bit down straight away and twisted his head aside, ripping apart flesh and bone with ease. Blood sprayed outwards and spattered his red suit and the carpet at his booted feet. Daniel recoiled in horror, his knees feeling like jelly. Santa stood there chewing the puppy’s head and making awful crunching noises before swallowing with a revolting gulp.
Daniel turned and ran. Behind him, he heard Santa giving chase. ‘What’s the matter, boy?’ his voice boomed out. It sounded happy, just like it should, but Daniel could tell it was a hungry voice; one that wasn’t happy with just the taste of puppy-meat. ‘Santa wants a hug, boy! Come on here and GIVE ME A BIIIIIG HUUUUG!’
Daniel woke with a sharp jolt. He sat up in bed, muddled and confused. His bedroom was still dark and there wasn’t any light leaking in though the gaps in his curtains yet, so it was still very late – or very early.
Daniel breathed out and swallowed hard. What a horrible dream! Usually, if he had a nightmare, he would shout for his Mommy or Daddy and they would come in and soothe him, but something – he wasn’t quite sure what – kept his tongue in check and his mouth firmly shut. He sat in bed, and listened.
Only silence. No creaking noises by his wardrobe. But wait . . . yes, there was a sound. It was faint, so quiet that in other circumstances he would have missed it, but with his senses on over-drive his ears picked it up.
A scratching. It wasn’t coming from his bedroom, though. It seemed further away than that. Coming from above. Daniel strained his ears. Another sound now: a dragging noise, like something fat squeezing down a narrow shaft.
Daniel threw himself back under the duvet. What if it was the Santa from his dream? He held his breath and listened now to the mad thud of his heart. The shuffling, sliding noise grew louder as it travelled the length of the chimney-breast in Daniel’s bedroom. It gradually faded, however, as whoever was in there headed down towards the living room.
Daniel withdrew his head from beneath the covers. He’d never been more awake! What now? If Santa steps out into the living room and senses that he’s in bed but wide awake then that’ll be the end of that, and he’d have no toys to play with in the morning!
Maybe he should go down there and explain? Yes, that would probably help. He should go down there and say sorry; tell Santa that he couldn’t sleep yet, but he would once he knew his presents were safe!?
Daniel tossed aside the duvet and swung his feet to the carpet. He’d need to hurry though, because Santa didn’t have time to hang about chatting; not with the whole world eagerly waiting for him!
He hurried across to his bedroom door and gently opened it. He paused. Fragments of his nightmare came dancing back. What if he actually did bite the head off a struggling puppy? He wavered for a moment, unaware his eyes were darting side to side. Well, if he did that, then he would call for his Daddy! And Daddy would say, No Santa! That’s not allowed in this house!
Daniel peered out into the dark corridor. The door to his parents’ bedroom was open ajar, and from within he could hear the rasp of his dad snoring, like a saw-blade scraping against wood.
Tiptoeing out, he moved towards the stairs with scarcely a sound. He hesitated on the landing, squinting his eyes in an effort to penetrate the enveloping gloom.
From downstairs there came a sound.
First a scrape.
Then a thump.
Now silence. Daniel, nervous and clammy, stood rigid with one hand clamped on to the rail. There came another flurry of noises from below; a dragging, a muffled bump; and then – to Daniel’s utter confusion – a wet grunting that reminded the small boy of an angry pig.
He frowned. Did Santa grunt like a pig, then? He never made that sound on TV or anything; so why was he making it now? Daniel listened more keenly, his mind whirling with questions and doubt. Perhaps Santa was annoyed that Daniel wasn’t asleep! Perhaps it made him so mad, he started grunting?
No more noises came. Daniel wondered if Santa had finished delivering his toys and moved on to the next house. Or, more likely, he hadn’t left anything at all because he hadn’t been asleep!
He was hurrying down the dark stairs before he knew what was what. At the bottom he hooked a sharp left and, bare footed, dashed towards the open living room door. He entered, and stopped. Even though the ceiling light was switched off the room was bathed in a soft green glow. It wasn’t coming from the Christmas tree fairy-lights either, nor was it the TV screen. All of those things were switched off too. It seemed to radiate from the big man who stood in the middle of the room. He was like a giant from a storybook; or one of those massive wrestlers that Daddy watched on Sky. Daniel could only stand, slack-jawed, and gape up at him in wonder.
The man was dressed in long green robes. They pooled around his feet and seemed to curl away like thick roots on some weird alien tree. He was so tall that his head almost touched the ceiling, and he was forced to stoop. That head was like a huge boulder covered in dense and fuzzy hair. But it was only as Daniel’s eyes adjusted to the strange light that he noticed it wasn’t hair at all – but green moss; like the stuff that grew around the windows of Daddy’s shed. And yet this huge, towering figure had a moss beard and shaggy moss hair. It wore a woven braid of twigs and hooked thorns, just like a king would wear a crown. Two glittering eyes peered out at Daniel like highly polished rubies, and the sight of them caused his scalp to prickle and his bladder to feel horribly full. Beneath those eyes was a pig-like snout that quivered and glistened wetly; the nostrils flaring as the figure sniffed at the air.
In one hand it gripped a large hessian sack, whilst its other hand (which had claws, just like in his dream) was in the process of picking up his Mommy’s fine crystal drinking glasses. Without a care, the huge man crammed the glasses inside the sack and then yanked open a drawer on the dresser. It tossed aside all of the junk and came out holding a silver pendant. It was a special pendant, as well. It belonged to Mommy; had a black and white photo of her grand-parents stuck inside of it!
This isn’t Santa, Daniel’s mind screamed, no way! He would never steal like this! And Santa dresses in red . . . not green, like a rotting tree-trunk!
Although he was shaking with terror, despite wanting to run away and hide under the stairs, Daniel suddenly found his voice: He balled his small hands into fists and yelled, ‘Not yours!’
The giant figure stopped what it was doing and glared down at the boy. It made a defiant snorting-grunt and took a threatening step towards him. Daniel backed off, shaking in his pyjamas as if he’d been doused in icy water. Those shiny red eyes glowed brighter, hungrier than before. In those fleeting moments Daniel knew he’d made a terrible mistake; one that was about to cost him dearly. The giant threw the pendant into the sack, and then reached out its clawed hand towards him; fingers hooked, ready to grab.
And then something happened that very almost threw the small boy off his feet. There was a strange whoosing noise that seemed to suck all of the air from the room, and the floor heaved, sending him staggering for balance. The giant also jerked forwards, and let loose a wild snort of rage.
There was a sudden blur of movement behind the giant. Something – something red – came sweeping out of the open fireplace and into the living room. It seemed to fly erratically around in the air, leaving behind it a sparkling, glittering trail of red dust. The towering giant recoiled from it, dropping his hessian sack to the floor. The strange red orb flew in circles a few times and then settled in mid-air; about five feet from the carpet.
Daniel watched it, awe struck. The giant also watched it with baleful, glittery eyes.
Slowly, gradually, the orb began to swell; to expand and elongate. Its red colour became more vivid and here and there it was punctuated by fluffy white trim.
It grew legs, arms, shoulders and a head. A beard, whiter than snow. A rotund belly and a thick black belt with a sliver buckle. A cheery face morphed into view next, topped off with a floppy red hat and pom-pom. Unlike the eyes of the green giant, the new arrival had bright blue eyes and laughter-lines in his pink skin.
‘Daniel,’ he said. He wasn’t looking at Daniel, though. No. He was looking at the giant, unblinking. ‘Daniel – I want you to turn away for me, please. Don’t look round until I tell you to.’
The small boy glanced from one figure to the other, his hands still fisted tight.
Santa – the real actual Santa – spoke again, ‘Do I as I say, Daniel. Quickly now!’
The giant growled and leaned forward, as if preparing to lunge in at Santa.
‘Daniel! Look away! Now!’ Santa cried.
Daniel turned just as the two figures in the living room collided with each other with a hefty crack. There was a series of grunts and snarls; thumping noises that sounded like pummelling fists, followed by the crash of something heavy being thrown into the dresser. How Mommy and Daddy didn’t wake up was beyond Daniel, but they didn’t. The small boy stood with his back to the living room and could only listen to the struggle going on.
He heard the green giant squeal and snort, as if in pain. Santa muttered something that didn’t sound English, and the giant squealed again.
Another hefty crash rang out and more strange words were spoken by Santa. Daniel suddenly felt the air all around him become highly charged with static; making the hair on his head tingle and stand on end. There was an abrupt crackle-whoosh and something that looked like a thick green cloud shot past him and streaked towards the front door. Out through the letterbox it went, like dust being sucked into a vacuum cleaner.
Silence ruled once again.
‘You may turn round now, Daniel. It is safe. The Holly King has gone.’ Santa sounded out of breath, and not so boomy-voiced.
Daniel turned slowly and looked up at him. Santa was leaning against the doorframe to the living room. His red tunic had several slash marks across it, and his floppy hat was sat skew-whiff on his head. But still those blue eyes shone with inner warmth and love. ‘There there,’ he said, smiling, ‘you have nothing to fear now, my boy. He will not come back.’
Santa must have seen the questions dancing within Daniel’s wide eyes, because he smiled wider and said, ‘The Holly King is . . . well, he’s a sort of a half-brother of mine. He never used to mean any harm in days gone by, but over the years he’s become very twisted; very dark natured. Really, he is only looking after his own people who still live in the forests here about.’
‘By stealing?’ Daniel found he could speak without fear now. He felt so safe and comfortable that it was like talking to a much loved family member.
Santa sighed and spread his arms. ‘Yes, sadly. He feels that he must protect them during the harsh winter months. He used to be content with taking food – fish, bread, that kind of thing, but as human nature advances, so must he.’
‘But he tried to take me!’
Santa nodded and lowered his eyes for a moment, as if ashamed. ‘He did, yes. He has become so selfish and mean that I actually feel sorry for him. He used to be so clever – so wise. It is a shame. You should pity him, too.’
‘I’m sorry I’m not asleep,’ Daniel said, steering the subject away from The Holly King. That green giant scared him and he wanted to forget all about him.
Santa grinned and ruffled his hair playfully. ‘Apologise no more, Daniel. Time is frozen and hardly a second has passed since I arrived. Return to bed and go with love in your heart.’
‘But you’re hurt . . .’ Daniel pointed to the claw marks across Santa’s tunic.
Santa shook his head and ushered the boy towards the stairs. ‘Hush now. Speak no more and never worry about things you cannot change. You will sleep and wake knowing nothing of this night . . . sleep, sleep. . .’
Daniel felt his body being gently propelled up the staircase, as if he were a feather on the breeze. His eyes felt so heavy he could hardly keep them open. He seemed to float through the very fabric of his bedroom door and glide smoothly into bed. The covers were tucked up to his chin and warmth enveloped his entire body. He slept.
Below, a bright red orb did one silent circuit of the living room. The objects in The Holly King’s hessian sack were returned to their rightful place before the sack itself vanished into thin air. The orb spiralled once around the Christmas tree and laid its gifts. And then, in a flash, it went back into the fireplace and up the chimney; with a noise like fizzy lemonade frothing from a bottle top.