The 12 Terrors of Christmas

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Terror Two The Price of a Christmas Wish

I absolutely hated child abduction cases at Christmastime. I could better handle a grisly, bloody murder than the tears of some mother sitting beside a bedecked tree full underneath to bursting with the missing kid’s Christmas presents.

“But you believe you’ll find him before Christmas, right?”

“Ma’am, I assure you; my men are doing everything within their power to find Holden.”

“Oh no, it’s not Holden; his name is Colden. He was supposed to be a twin—two boys. We were going to name them Colby and Holden, but Holden was stillborn…so, so w-we combined the…” Her voice started to break into pieces as the sobs took over. When she recovered, she insisted, “Please…I can’t lose my other boy too.”

Her sobs held a power, raw and terrible. As did the portrait of her little family hanging over the fireplace, also ready and waiting for Christmas Eve with its embellishment of bright red stockings, the names in green glitter scrawl looping across the white fur atop each. The boy stared at me from his place in the picture with eyes black as Christmas coal. They seemed to beg, imploring me to find him. I blinked a couple of times. Must’ve been a trick of the advent candle flames burning on either side.

“You said the boy’s five?” Just like my own son.

“Yes. Oh my god, who would do something like this? Take a little child from their family right before Christmas?”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am; truly, I am.” I felt my obligation to her, to her son, rise in my gut like a bad batch of Chinese takeout, summoning me to action. “Where is your husband, Mrs. Tomlin? Could he have anything to add that might help us? He was with the boy when he was taken, correct?”

“Yes. He’s still at the office. He spoke with another detective already, but he can’t bear to talk about what happened. He believes he’s responsible. They were at Columbus Circle, Detective Talbot…Christmas shopping…” The last two words she spoke released a new deluge of tears, calling forth images my boy, safe at home watching A Charlie Brown Christmas with his pretty mother, behind my eyes. Almost as if she knew what I was thinking, Mrs. Tomlin asked, “You have a little boy, don’t you, Detective?”

I nodded to confirm. “Mallory.”

“You’d want him home for Christmas; wouldn’t you? To find his presents under the tree on Christmas morning and bake cookies… I didn’t even have his picture made with Santa yet.” The poor woman broke into tears once again, and I knew the interview was over. These were tears she wouldn’t be able to recover from anytime soon.

I felt the extreme need to cover her hand with my own. “Mrs. Tomlin, I promise you; I’ll do everything in my power to find your son. I won’t rest until I bring him home.”

*************************************************************

Tristana was waiting for me when I finally made it home that night… Well, to be honest, the hour was approaching morning. I’d personally led the search inside the dense woods in the park surrounding the shopping center. Our efforts hadn’t all been for naught. We’d found the boy’s grey and white scarf—unmistakable to me since his mother had described the length of yarn, knitted by her own hand, in great detail. Finding that bit of the boy, twisted amongst the branches of a tall magnolia, at just shy of 11:00 PM had kept me going full tilt until 3:00. Currently, the clock read 4:00 AM, and I felt as though I couldn’t do much besides crawl, using my last bit of strength, into our bed.

“Did you find him?” Tristana whispered into the steam billowing over her cup of tea. I knew this one really hit home for her. She was thinking what it would be like if Mallory had gone missing at this time of year. The red rimming her green eyes gave her away at first glance.

“We found an important clue,” I assured her, drawing her into the feigned safety of my arms as she rose from her seat at the table.

“I thought we could take Mallory to have his picture made with Santa tomorrow?” She wanted to remain inside the safety of our little Christmas routine bubble; I indulged her.

“Of course. I’d like that. We’ll go right after breakfast.” I yawned widely.

She smiled the smile which had consoled me since our first study session for a looming physics exam during my sophomore year in college. “How about we make that right after brunch?”

*************************************************************

That night had marked the sixth day of December…and time seemed to fast-forward to the fourteenth. I’d framed the picture of my own child, beaming with joy while seated on Santa’s knee, but at that point, I didn’t know if the Tomlin’s would ever have theirs taken. The scarf had turned out to be a dead end—not a hair, stray fiber or scrap of DNA to be found on its surface—and I’d become more desperate to find the missing child with each passing day. The closest I’d come to tracking him down had been during the nightmare I’d had on the night of the thirteenth.

Inside my darkened dream-world, the lost scarf twisted past me in the wind, winding its way past my head to snake its way back into the branches of the tree where we’d found it. Only this time, the magnolia had been in full bloom, each buxom white blossom dripping crimson as if someone had upended the tree by the roots and dipped it in an impossibly-large vat of blood. And the blood had rained down in large, fat drops to land and pool on the ground as if the earth below refused to accept it. The pools had found their way into the network of rivulets carved into the surrounding parched soil so that the space upon which I stood became surrounded by a network of racing, intermingling mini-rivers of blood. Though they all separated before changing course and joining together again, each, eventually, found a common goal. The boy. Colden.

Even though he stood some distance away from me, I recognized his pale, frightened features, a sharply contrasted centerpiece within the dark frame of his hair like crow’s feathers—save for his matching eyes. The innocent set to his expression demanded justice, a justice I swore in that sleeping moment to deliver. Before my horrified eyes, the little rivers filled past capacity, allowing them to rise up and touch the boy. At first, the red fingers only sidled along his shoes, but it didn’t take long for their reach to extend, like circling vines, to stain his jeans and shirt and splash lines of scarlet across his nose and cheeks. The streams continued to run up and over the child, defying every known law of gravity, until he was soaked and dripping, appearing to have stepped from the frame of a horror movie.

I woke with a start that yanked Tristana from sleep as well. “What is it, Devlin? Nightmare?”

“The worst. I saw that missing kid… Doused in blood from head to toe.” I left out the part about the spoiled purity of the magnolia tree. It didn’t seem relevant in the whole scheme of things anyway, just some random creation from my psyche.

“You’re going to find him, Honey. Alive.” But even an optimist like Tristana uttered that last word without a hint of belief behind it.

“It’s been more than a week. You know the statistics…”

I’d wandered into an area of rocky terrain over which my wife would not follow. “I think I heard Mallory.” She rose and left our bedroom before another word could escape to pursue her.

I couldn’t blame her. I, too, deeply desired the luxury of focusing solely on buying Mallory’s Christmas presents, watching every canned Christmas special known to man while he snuggled into my chest and seeing his eyes light up as he sprinkled red and green sugar over freshly-baked gingerbread men and women. But I couldn’t be blessed with such good fortune. Because we weren’t the only family in the world. And because Mrs. Tomlin loved Colden just as much as we loved Mallory. Wished she could be sharing all the same special holiday memories with her son as we were lucky enough to share with ours. Because I had once been fortunate enough for a detective who cared enough, worked hard enough, to bring my sister home after a bad man had taken her, carried her away from her own birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese—I strove to repay that debt of gratitude every day. If men like me rested, all the stolen children would remain just that…stolen.

I had eleven days. Well, ten if I wanted Colden to sleep in his own bed on Christmas Eve. Even with a son of my own to consider, I couldn’t think of a single thing I wanted more.

*************************************************************

I didn’t meet my self-imposed deadline. Christmas Eve descended upon us, and Mallory had insisted on going back to the mall to ask Santa for something he’d forgotten to include on his list when he’d had his picture taken more than a week ago. I couldn’t help it; I felt annoyed. Even though I knew he was only five. Even though I knew this was the most exciting time of year for any kid. There was my son asking for a toy fire engine or that stuffed T-Rex he’d seen at Toys “R” Us a couple of days ago, when poor Colden wouldn’t even experience the simple pleasure of hearing his dad read Twas the Night Before Christmas as he drifted off to dream of what Santa might bring, while lying in his bed at home.

“Go on; get up there,” I couldn’t help growling with more than a touch of agitation to my tone. Poor Mallory looked back at me with nothing but love—mixed with honest confusion—in his large sage-colored eyes. Guilt swarmed up inside me, making me realize I needed to deal with my own adult failings and let my son be a kid while he still could. Hopeful I could at least make amends to my child, I snuck around to the other side of Santa’s throne while he struggled his way onto the red velvet lap, so I would be sure to hear Mallory’s request. After I took him home to his mother, I’d find whatever it was he wanted if it took me the rest of the evening.

“Well, hello again! We met last week; didn’t we?” I could understand why he remembered Mallory’s face stood out from the sea of others he saw every day. He may have been my son, but he was a very memorable child. He’d taken more than half a share of genetics from his mother by all appearances, with his golden hair and oversized green eyes. And those eyes were a perfect medium to reflect his kind and loving soul. I’d seen him offer some of his favorite toys to friends from school who had nothing to play with. That generosity of his lit his eyes at all times, making him extraordinary, remarkable.

“Yes, Santa. But I forgot to ask you for the most important present.” I was confused, knowing he was hoping to find a telescope under the tree more than anything else, and I had one wrapped and ready to place with the other presents after we’d tucked him in. I could remember being five, though. When you were that little, it was easy to confuse whether you’d asked for the thing you most desired and letting Santa know about said thing was critical.

“Oh, and what would that be? It may be a little late for my elves to make something special in the workshop, you know.”

I felt even more like a heel when Mallory answered. “Oh, I know, Santa. Mommy said they’re almost ready to take a break and enjoy some hot chocolate and gingerbread. I don’t want to bother your elves. It’s just… Daddy is a policeman, and he’s been looking for this little boy who got taken away by a bad man. Mommy said you know when I’m bad and even when I’m sleeping, so I thought, since you know so much about kids, you might be able to help my daddy find him. Then, he can be with his mommy and daddy for Christmas too.”

I felt the tears assault my eyes with a sting like the prick of a pin. The shame of the earlier annoyance I’d felt toward my sweet son ate away at my insides like a swarm of hungry fire ants.

“He’s five like me. I know he has dark hair and eyes… Maybe my daddy has the picture of him. He usually carries it everywhere…” Sweet and intuitive, that boy of mine.

I hurried around the corner, making my presence known, swiping at an eye with the edge of my sleeve.

“Why are you crying, Daddy?”

“Daddy was petting Rudolph and got some of his fur in his eye. Mal, you run over there and get your candy cane from Santa’s elf. Daddy’s going to show that picture of Colden to Santa, okay?”

His lips planted a sweet spot of warmth on my cheek as he passed. “Yeah! That’s his name. Colden. Thanks a lot, Daddy. That will help Santa find him; I’m sure of it!”

Santa’s voice followed him, shaky with emotion. “I’m sure it will, young man. You have yourself a Merry Christmas, and I’ll make sure there’s something extra special under the tree for you tomorrow morning.”

His small sneakers took pause. “Just help my Daddy and Colden, Santa. I want that more than anything.”

Santa turned back to me, his own eyes swimming. “Fine boy you’ve got there.”

I grinned as much as the current flux of my emotional state allowed. “Yes, he’s already a finer man than I’ll ever be, Santa.”

*************************************************************

On the ride home, it seemed as though Mallory’s generous nature had set some real Christmas magic into motion.

As my eyes wandered to the reflection of his serene little face in the rearview mirror for what must have been the fortieth time in ten minutes, prompted by awe and wonder, “Detective Talbot?” sounded from the Bluetooth police radio in my unmarked squad car. The excited edge to the dispatcher’s voice momentarily stirred the hope which had been lying dormant in my heart.

I dropped the earpiece I usually wore at all times while in the car, which was deftly captured by my amazing son’s pudgy little fingers as it flipped out of my hand in my haste to retrieve it and flew over my shoulder.

“Thanks, Little Man. Paul? Are you there? Paul, what is it?”

“It’s him, Detective Talbot.”

“Colden?” His sudden appearance on that particular night seemed too much to hope for.

“Yes, Sir!” the young voice responded with pride. “Homeless guy spotted him in the park, had seen the reward poster. Said the kid was with some huge guy in a whacked-out Santa suit. Had chains hanging off it or something…”

“Paul, I don’t care what the guy’s wearing. What area of the park? Central Park is a very big place.”

“Sorry, Detective! Of course…let me see. Report from 911 says he saw them walking through the wooded area near Cleopatra’s Needle under the…”

“Magnolia trees.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Paul, I’m on my way. Please, call my wife and let her know I’m following a new lead.”

“Sir?”

“I’ve got Mallory with me, Paul. So get someone down at the scene to secure him while I go after this…” I eyeballed my son in the rearview again. “…this bad guy.”

“Consider it done, Sir.”

I flipped on my flashing blue light and siren but didn’t dare increase my speed over the city limit. The streets were becoming more and more deserted as night had fallen, so we reached the park in just under nine minutes, anyway. After parking at the center of a cluster of cruisers, I held the door open for Hank, a fellow officer standing nearby, to fill the void I’d just left behind. A hulking tower of a man, but gentle as a newborn lamb, he was one of the few people in the world I trusted with Mallory.

He peered into the back seat, the dark skin around his eyes crinkling as a result of his welcoming smile. “Well, just look who I get to hang out with on Christmas Eve. How are we tonight, Mr. Mallory?”

“Hi, Hank! Daddy’s going to go get Colden back.”

“I know he is, and I’m going to stay right here with you until he comes back, okay?”

“Don’t let him out of your sight, Hank.”

“Devlin, you know I won’t. Now, go bring that boy home.”

“I’m not coming back til I do,” I called loud enough for his ears over my shoulder. I didn’t want to make Mallory worry he might miss Santa…even though I knew in my heart such a worry would never enter my boy’s mind.

*************************************************************

Along with the small group of officers accompanying me, I’d moved deep inside the cluster of trees after I caught sight of them. Paul had been right. We had to be dealing with a child abductor who’d suffered some kind of psychotic break. The filthy Santa coat drug the ground, further adding to the grime caked across its matted surface. The reach of the waxy half-moon in the sky above sifted down through the trees to glint off the rusty chains draping the impossibly-massive figure moving amidst them with his captive in tow. The young boy tripped along behind the man, who must’ve stood seven feet tall. When Colden stumbled upon his too-short-for-the-pace legs, the monstrous figure tugged him forward roughly, seemingly immune to his pitiful cries of pain as his small body scraped over rock and root.

The sight tore at my heart, and the rookie beside me muttered, “Detective, we gotta move. That poor kid…”

“Okay, okay…just follow my lead.” The two of us crept forward, slowly moving into the halo of light pooling at the foot of the tree under which the pair had disappeared. The shadowy reaches outside the illuminated circle swallowed them both up, hiding them from sight. Not a good situation—we were sitting ducks while our predator remained invisible to our eyes. I dove forward into the shadows to gain a trace of advantage.

“Stop right there!” I called in my most authoritative tone. “Don’t you move!”

“Let the boy go,” my fellow officer added, his voice bereft of the ringing confidence mine carried. “No one has to get hurt.”

*Oh, but someone must.* The gruff voice, heavy with dark intonation, didn’t sound in the air around us. It seemed to originate from inside my head. I turned my eyes to my impromptu partner, his gun shaking in his hands, but he gave no indication he’d heard the words as well. His eyes remained locked on the hulking figure who dangled the boy in front of his body, gripping the lapels of Colden’s coat while the poor kind kicked frantically, wailed pitifully.

*This has to happen, Detective.* The growling string of words bounced and echoed off the bones inside my head once again.

That time, I had to question the existence of the voice aloud. “Did you hear that?” I asked the kid beside me.

“What?” If possible, he looked even more distressed, horrified by the idea of being forced to take his eyes off the monster before us so he could focus on what I was saying. “Hear what?”

“You didn’t hear anyone…around us…speaking?”

*He cannot hear me, Devlin.* At that moment, the head of our child abductor turned. His features were entirely hidden within the massive hood trimmed in sooty fur which hinted at being white once upon a time. Strands of long, matted hair streamed out on either side like perverse renderings of mutant starfish. In the dark space where one might find a pair of eyes, two blood-red embers smoldered. The eerie light they cast seemed to dribble and drip to the ground, snaking through the dirt so that the crimson fingers could claw their way up the trunk and out each skeletal stretch of bare magnolia branch. Before my eyes, the barren tree burst into full bloom, fat white blossoms exploding along the tree’s arms with a sound like the popping of corn.

“Mike…” I reached out to shake him gently by his upper arm. “…are you seeing this?” But he didn’t answer me, didn’t even turn his head toward me. He didn’t blink an eye…or move in any other way. I shook him harder, but he stood as rigid as if he’d transformed into a life-sized action figure.

*Do not bother with him. He cannot hear nor see you. I have frozen him inside his own little pocket of time and space.* As his unspoken words echoed through my skull, the blossoms around him began to shine as if they were, in actuality, flower-shaped Christmas lights. Each and every one became infused with the scarlet glow, the blush spreading to darken their snowy-white flesh until it dribbled from each petal’s edge. I blinked, disbelieving, even as the tree bled out onto the snow-covered ground right before my eyes, the plump crimson drops sizzling on impact.

My mind felt as though it were stretching…filling in some empty, meaningless expanse of uncharted horizon as I tried to make sense of the unexplainable playing out all around—and within—me. *Am I dreaming?* I asked the internal workings of my own mind.

*Wrong answer,” the gruff voice informed from within. One of the blood droplets—*Oh, god, it smells just like blood*--fell onto the back of my gloveless hand where it sizzled just as had upon the snow, burning with an intensity that convinced me of my state of wakefulness immediately. Though I shook my hand violently and bent to clean my skin in the snow, the blood left behind a misshapen star I could tell would scar, to forever remind me of that Christmas Eve…although I felt certain I needed no prompting to call the night to mind. The memory would forever haunt me—in ways I would’ve never imagined.

*How do I convince him to release the boy?* I was doing the math in my head. My partner stood immobilized by some method not of our world, and even without such an insane factor coming into play, this guy…*This thing,*my mind whispered…had a foot and at least a hundred pounds on me easy. He must’ve lived at the gym. *Demons possess no need to frequent the gym…*

“Let him go!” The shrill voice sounded behind me, and I could hear a much deeper one calling from the distance behind it. My eyes closed in a split-second of defeat and utter terror when I heard Hank shouting, “Mallory! Come back here, now!”

My beautiful, kind, golden boy ran into the blood-spattered half-oval beneath the macabre canopy—I’d suddenly stepped into the production of my own personal horror movie. “Mallory, NO!”

When the fiend reached for him, his paw??? broke free from the sleeve of the ratty coat, narrow claws like skewers thrusting their way out toward my son, and I reacted on autopilot. A succession of rapid-fire bullets broke the peace of the Eve, but they fell, as impotent as the rookie at my side, without traveling more than a few inches beyond my pistol’s barrel. The next slice of awareness came with the crunch of my shoulder against tree, one a frightening distance away from the spot where my child was standing. When my eyes wandered to the right to focus on a large object, out of place under one of the path’s lampposts, I realized Hank had been rendered inert in the same impractical manner as Mike.

“Please,” I called out in a last-ditch effort. “Just let my boy walk over here to me. I only wanted to bring that other boy home to his mother for Christmas. Can’t you do that? Let those kids go home to celebrate Christmas? Please…” I knew I’d never beat this guy in a fight, much less move close enough to flick him playfully on the arm. All I could hope for was some shred of decency he might carry inside that gargantuan frame of his…and it was a scrap of hope left weak by all the holes of doubt the job-weary cop in me had punched through it. Hell, as I clumsily gained my feet, I realized I couldn’t even move my injured arm. In my own way, I’d been rendered just as harmless as my backup.

*Believe me; you do not want this one to go home to his mother.* A laugh that sounded more like a snarl ripped its way through the space between my ears.

“What? Is that some kind of threat? Let me guess; you want to play some twisted game where you let me take Colden, and you take my son instead, right?” I’d borne witness to this kind of manipulation before, and the last thread from that scrap of hope fell away from me as I realized I must be dealing with a psychopath…*Or a truly evil creature from another realm He did stop your bullets telekinetically.* My brain just wouldn’t shut up.

*I have no interest in your boy. I only seek balance.*

“Balance? What you’re doing is evil. Taking a child from his family, especially at this time of year. And I can sense with every instinct I have that you mean to do him harm…”

*Oh yes, I do. And you should thank me.*

I felt my eyes bug in disbelief at his words. “Thank you? You’re even more far gone…” I fought to bring my temper under control, so I could at least try to bargain with whomever…*whatever*…this was conjuring up my absolute worst Christmas Eve ever—hell, more like the worst night of my life in general.

The grip of the incapacitating horror tightened, constricting my body further, when Mallory leapt toward Colden, securing his tiny hand around the other boy’s and attempting to drag him free from his abductor.

Mallory must have shed his mittens in the car. Colden’s little fingers locked around the skin of Mallory’s bare hand, and Mallory’s small form stiffened like he’d grabbed a live wire instead of another human boy. Each strand of fine blonde hair stood on end, and his limbs splayed out from his body in the most unnatural way. His eyes lost their color as the irises rolled upward to drain toward the back of his head.

“Stop it! What are you doing to my son…?” I screamed, the last couple of words losing the force thrown behind them as the change being visited upon the abducted boy bled into my child. Colden’s pallid face darkened to sooty ash, his eyes becoming antithesis to the white inside Mallory’s sockets. They glinted just as cold, just as dark, as the surface of coal. Ebony streaked across his cheeks, reaching up from his forehead to touch his dark hairline, like poisonous fingers of lightning. The creature—I accepted that was what he’d become—poured his hateful malice into the child he still grasped…and that toxin found its way to my Mallory, using Colden as a conduit. I was powerless to stop his assault, finding the rest of my body as immobile as my shattered arm. The words I’d planned to shout next clogged my throat, choking me, refusing either to find their way out or slide away and die inside my chest, unspoken.

I expected Mallory’s purity to become lost in the darkness infiltrating the other boy at any moment, but instead, the two boys’ hands fell away from each other. Mallory’s whole body slumped earthward in relief, and I hoped he might turn and run to me…even if I were incapable of protecting him. But he didn’t. He stood his ground and turned his green-again eyes on their tormentor. “Please, let him live,” he said, barely loud enough for me to hear.

The monster clothed in the mockery of Father Christmas inclined his head in a curious manner, peering at my son as the wrathful glow in his eyes faded away like the last remnants of a dying campfire. He chose to speak aloud then, and I wondered if Mallory employed some form of magic to keep the beast out of his head.

“But how could you want such a thing?”

“Because he’s a good boy. One of the best I’ve ever known.”

This voice was golden, musical, like the sound of a Christmas choir. A similar glow edged the man who stepped from behind the magnolia, wafting out and away from him to fry into red vapor the last of the gore raining from the blossoms—all restored to their former white glory with a snap of the man’s fingers. Help had arrived, but it donned pristine scarlet and white instead of service blues.

The anti-Santa raised his razor-tipped appendage in menacing greeting, but his counterpart dismissed the threat with only the innocuous wave of a red-and-gold-mittened hand. “You know the rules,” he said sternly to the denizen, who then stood just as frozen into place as every officer on the scene. He bent so as to focus his eyes on Mallory’s. “And you know the rules too? You understand you can’t alter your wish in any way…at any time now or in the future?”

“I know I can’t. But he…”

The malevolent creature threw its head back to utter laughter devoid of happiness or mirth. “Kid, you bake a beautiful pie and fill it with rot… Damned thing ain’t ever gonna taste good.”

Mallory thrust out his little chin in defiance. “You’re wrong. Good always wins over bad.”

“Not always, Kid. There’s always gotta be…”The rest of his words came to an untimely halt in his throat as mine had moments before.

“So, Mallory, what’s it to be then?”

“Santa, that’s still my Christmas wish.”

“Nooooooo!” The beast stomped a foot, and I took note of the shape—a massive, rounded black shell. As his head fell back in fury, a twisting length of ebony horn escaped the filthy edge of his hood. When the creature lowered his shaggy head to lunge at his shining counterpart, Santa’s luminosity stretched forth—elongated fingers which melted the bony appendage down toward the monster’s skull, singeing the coarse fur and burning away cloth and flesh as liquefied horn streamed down the bulging sleeve of his coat. With one last howl of agony and a puff of black vapor, the walking nightmare disappeared, sucked away into the frozen ground beneath him.

The golden light tinged with blue shifted to reach out to me, touching my eyes like the first rays of a crowning moon. A new voice filled my head, but this one was full of that pale light…though, I could’ve sworn I detected an edge of darkness to the sound. “I will not make you forget, like I must your fellow officers, because I want you always to remember what a special boy you have. Enjoy and treasure your time with him…the greatest gift…” I fell backward and away, bathed in swirls of blue and gold.

*************************************************************

Taking Colden home to his mother had to be the most gratifying moment of my career. I hated admitting the fact, but most of the time we didn’t get to save child abduction victims. Mallory and I stood hand-in-mittened-hand as the child leapt into his mother’s arms once she’d opened the Christmas-light-framed door—she’d never given up hope.

“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” Colden hugged her as tightly to his body as she did him to her own. “Now we can do it all together. It’ll all happen now!”

“That’s right, Baby Boy. I don’t care if we have to stay up all night. We’re going to decorate Christmas cookies, watch all your favorite Christmas movies…and I got you some presents to wrap up for Daddy.” The words all came out broken, choked out between sobs.

Colden’s daddy was home from the office that time and stepped out from around his wife. “Thank you so much, Detective.” I felt strange because he was shaking my hand instead of embracing his son. He hadn’t even glanced once in his direction… The ludicrousness of it all prompted me to scoop Mallory up into my arms and remind the trio it was Christmas Eve, and I needed to get my own son home. My phone buzzed like an angry bee in my coat pocket again, reminding me I hadn’t updated Tristana on the reason why we were so uncharacteristically-late getting home…and on the most significant night of the year.

Colden stopped us on the snow-scattered stone walkway, his hand wrapped around Mallory’s arm. Apparently, the boy knew who had truly been responsible for his miraculous release. “Thank you,” he said, locking his eyes on Mallory’s. “Now, everything can happen the way it’s s’posed to.”

I felt Mallory shudder in my arms. I realized then just how much the temperature had dropped. The little guy had to be freezing. “Daddy, can we please go home now?”

“Sure, Little Man. I’m sure your mom’s wondering where we are.” I looked down one last time at Colden. Out of the festive reach of the multicolored lights, the deep brown of his eyes poured forth the illusion of utter darkness…and suddenly, I was in just as big a hurry to be on our way home.

“M-m-merry Christmas, Colden,” I stammered out in farewell.

*************************************************************

As the years passed, I kept tabs on Colden, even though I didn’t lay eyes on the boy again for twelve years. I’d meant several times to go see him and his family, but some excuse for passing on that option always tickled the forefront of my mind, as if some latent instinct were urging me to stay away. And on the occasion I next encountered him in the flesh, there wasn’t much cause for celebration. Ironically, right before Christmas, his parents had both been slaughtered during a horrific home invasion.

Colden had come home from a night of shopping with a friend to find pieces of his father’s dismembered body among the violated presents under the tree. The thieves had ripped through the packages, taking the big ticket items away with them, leaving the living room a mess of bloodstained, Santa-and-snowflake-patterned paper, the emptied boxes repurposed to hold all manner of gore. His mother, who’d been making gingerbread cookies, had been suffocated by a throatful of the dough she’d just begun to roll flat along the kitchen island counter. The entire spicy mass of it had been forced into her mouth and up her nostrils—with such malice, the assailant had broken the bony ridge—the smell of baking flesh and hair assaulting Colden’s own nose when he arrived home. The psychopaths—there was evidence to suggest a pair had teamed up to carry out the heinous crime—had left the poor boy’s mother inside the preheated oven from the crown of her head down to her shoulders. I’d raced to the scene when I heard the call come across the scanner, arriving just in time to wish I’d never seen the globs of ruby-tinged cookie dough splattered across the speckled floor of the appliance as they freed her lifeless body. One side of her head and the flat of a cheek had been marred by angry striping inflicted by the hot wire rack she’d been resting upon. Her lifeless eyes called forth the memory of the merriment they’d held on the night I’d returned her son to her.

Colden’s companion from earlier in the evening had appeared to usher his inconsolable buddy back to his apartment, where Colden ended up taking up residence. He also attended the funeral, where I somehow found myself, against my will, avoiding the absolute blackness inside the eyes of the boy I’d saved so many years before, while my lips released words I hoped would bring some sense of comfort.

I wouldn’t see him again until Christmas Eve five years later, when he came to pay my family a visit.

Mallory had just returned home from university, slated to graduate from his Science Education program the following spring after the required semester of student teaching. His generous nature never failing him as he grew, my boy already volunteered for several programs helping kids in the city with learning disabilities, even spending his own money from his part-time job to buy textbooks for kids who couldn’t afford them.

Tristana had gone crazy with the Christmas decorations, treats and an enormous pile of presents to celebrate what Mallory had declared to be his final Christmas living at home. I’d tried to make it in time for dinner, but a last-minute call about a lead on a missing kid kept me away from home until after 9:00, the eerie similarity summoning Colden to appear amongst the jumble of Christmas Day plans congealing inside my thoughts.

Making an internal list of all the special things I planned to do with my family the next day, to make up for missing Christmas Eve dinner, dulled the shock. It took a full minute for my brain to realize the glistening twirl of red across the stark-white walls wasn’t newly-hung tinsel. Our holiday guest stood in the middle of the living room, his fingers entwined in the blood-tinged gold of Mallory’s hair. The massive tree had been topped by the head of my own personal angel, her blood dripping down through the branches like a demented twist on melting snow.

“Col-Col…bu…but w-why?” My internal organs couldn’t have gone colder if Colden had ripped me apart as well and packed my abdominal cavity with the freshly-fallen snow out on the lawn; the loss of the two dearest persons in the world to me was incomprehensible. The world around me had eclipsed into one of fictional horror.

“You brought me back when I never should’ve been allowed to return.” His words severed any conduits of rational thought that had managed to remain intact inside my brain. I’d rescued him. Rescued him from certain death and returned him to his family at Christmas. It must’ve been my muddled expression which drew the tumble of maniacal laughter from his lips. “You always assumed you did a good deed; didn’t you? Well, for me, things turned out very good. You and your boy set destiny back in motion after it had been so rudely interrupted.”

As he finished his sentence, clump-shuffle, clump-shuffle, clump-shuffle sounded from the corner. The shadows in the room were deep since the Christmas tree provided the only light, but still, I couldn’t fathom how the massive figure had remained hidden from my sight until the moment he stepped forward to reveal himself.

“You…” My raspy whisper escaped to carry across the unnatural silence enshrouding our gruesome little company. Colden’s implausible captor from so many years before had returned.

Colden raised his dripping burden, diverting my attention to him instead of the beast emerging from the darkened corner. The unadulterated horror of my son’s last living moment had been captured in his expression—frozen forever in my memory as his very last. My sweet boy hadn’t deserved the pain and violence of such a death… Neither had my unsuspecting wife.

Colden’s voice, as deep and dark as his eyes, tore me away from the grisly play-by-play my imagination, seasoned by years of bearing witness to the worst humanity had to offer the world, was piecing together behind my eyes. “The worst part is, Detective Clueless, that your boy knew. He could see this night would bring about his death, but he chose to save me anyway, hoping his kindness might somehow change the person I was destined to become.”

“No!” I shook my head in disbelief. “Mallory would never make any decision that could end up hurting his mother. Even if he had been willing to take the risk with his own life… I know he would never take a chance with hers.”

“Oh, he couldn’t see that part. Just knew what I’d eventually end up doing to him.” Colden cruelly tossed my son’s head to one side, where it rolled to a stop under the tree, rejoining the other scattered parts of the disjointed whole which used to exist as my son.

“Bastard,” I growled at the hateful young man, my fingers fumbling until they managed to withdraw my service weapon, my grief and shock dissipating as the flames of my anger momentarily burned the more tepid emotions away.

“No reneging on the contract,” The thing accompanying Colden spoke only inside my head as he had done on that night so long ago… I quickly recalled the helplessness of being frozen in place, unable to do something so little as scowl at the evil creatures before me.

“You see, Detective Worthless, I was already set upon my path, and it kind of irked me your boy thought he was special enough to knock me off the rails fate laid out for me before I was even born.”

The demon had left me capable of speech. My tongue and lips turned out to be the only parts of me capable of movement. “You’re psychotic! How could you be so heartless, especially toward people who helped to save you? How could you fall to such a place of evil?”

“Oh, I was born to this.” The way the lights on the tree lit his glowering visage made him resemble a demented clown, escaped from some circus of lunatics. “I’ve been getting away with murder since before I was born. There are no witnesses inside the womb.”

“Holden…your twin,” I realized aloud with revulsion.

“That’s right. He was cramping my style…compromising my life before we’d ever even breathed the free air. And ya know, my dad. It’s like that bastard always knew what I’d done. He hated me from the moment I entered his world. I could always see it in his eyes, the way he resented me. Resented me for being the leftover from his dream of twin sons. You’d almost think he knew I was responsible. The way he avoided me. The way he lived at the office like he did. I couldn’t wait to get my chance to carve that hatred for me right out of his eyeball sockets.”

“Your parents!” I let the truth wash over me in all its putrid glory. Some detective I’d turned out to be.

“Some detective you turned out to be, right?” His chuckle carried across the room, drenched in menace. “One brief conversation with my friend was enough to put me in the clear. But we were telling the truth about being together all night. He helped me finish them off.”

I remembered how genuinely happy his mother had been to get him back on his fifth Christmas Eve. “But your mother…”

“Stayed with my father. Kept me suffering and squirming under his disapproving eye for all those years. Do you know how many times I begged her to take me away? 235 times. I kept count. How could she have really loved me if she allowed that kind of thing to continue? No, she had to go too. And there were so many more before her. I’m sure you have their pictures on your wall down at the station. But your boy, now, that was a toss-up. You see, at first, I was overjoyed. He’d spared me so that everything could happen the way it was supposed to, and at first, that made me so happy I almost made up my mind to spare him. But every time I spilled blood—and it was a lot, Detective Dufus—I couldn’t help but hate the monster inside me who enjoyed it all so much, even though I could never say no to him. And every time, the hate built up inside me for the person, well, the people, who were responsible for my ability to continue with my work. You see, I don’t think I can stop…but the one force who was supposed to stop me, to right all the wrong, was rendered impotent by your son’s Christmas wish. So, really, he’s the one responsible for every life I took. He allowed me to continue…and I could never seem to help myself…”

“You cannot possibly believe your crimes to be anyone’s fault than your own…”

“Shhhhh, Detective Useless.” He appeared to be tall and gangly, but his wiry limbs moved with the stealthy grace of a practiced predator, sidling his body up to mine with ease. He pressed a finger reeking of copper and the beginnings of rot to my lips, causing my stomach to knot in hard pockets of nausea.

“Go ahead and kill me, you filthy murderer,” I managed to say around the impediment placed over my mouth. I was eager to join Tristana and Mallory on whatever plane to which they’d both passed.

“Oh no. I’m not going to put you out of your misery.” He drew his hand back, and I licked my lips without meaning to, the taste of Mallory’s blood…or Tristana’s…or perhaps that of both of them…throwing my stomach into a state of further upheaval. “And thanks to our friend here, who also serves as an enforcer of Christmas contracts, I will leave you to your fruitless search for me, to a wish for revenge never realized.” I protested with my eyes and began to follow with words of the same intent, but Colden rendered me mute by speaking his own. “Rest assured; you’ll never find me. And I’ll continue to take life after life, a living wrecking ball for families such as your own, until I, as a very old man, draw my last breath.” He leaned in close, the tip of his nose nearly brushing my own. “I’ll haunt every moment you have left on this earth, Devlin. You never should’ve tried to save me. It’s your—and your boy’s—great failing to believe I was someone worth saving. You, Sir, are a very poor judge of character…and it has helped deliver you to the tragedy of this moment.”

The tears refused to be held back by any form of dark magic at that point. They coursed down my cheeks in streams, too heavy with heartbreak to take the form of mere droplets, as my mind struggled with the truth. There was no logical motivation behind actions borne of such evil intent, brought to fruition by a human driven into motion by the ravings of his own psychotic mind.

As they passed by my incapacitated body, the foul-smelling creature in the grime-streaked Santa coat dropped his sizeable, fur-covered hand upon my shoulder. The soul inside me felt as though it shrank away from the unwelcome touch, even though my body could not. He spoke aloud to me once more. “You bake a beautiful pie and fill it with rot… Damned thing ain’t ever gonna taste good. You would do well to remember that in the future, Detective. There’s always gotta be…balance.”

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