The 12 Terrors of Christmas

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Terror Four Snow Legions in the Time of Cowardice

Her name was Lamia. What a weird effin’ name for a kid, right? Weird in Western Pennsylvania, anyway.

I only started paying attention to little Lamia because we lived on the most boring street in the most boring town in America. Moon, Pennsylvania. Where nothing even remotely exciting happened…ever. Which is why my curious nature buzzed a warning at me, like a hive full of bees, when I noticed the little tot darting into the thick, dark clump of woods behind my house.

My house was the very last one on Whispering Woods Drive, situated at dead center and oddly-solitary, in the cul-de-sac signaling the dead stop to our quiet little neighborhood—the rest of the houses on my street boasted only decent-sized yards, while ours sprawled to either side of our sizeable abode.

Okay…I did have to admit there was one cool feature about our street—the legends, the ghost stories. Apparently, our little corner of the USA hadn’t been named Whispering Woods by some doofus horror-movie-loving developer. Everyone who lived in Moon Township knew the stories, passed down and even part of the curriculum in the public school for as long as everyone living could remember. The Iroquois who’d lived and hunted in the dense woods surrounding my subdivision had called them that, passing along their stories about ghostly voices and disappearing tribe members to one of the first settlers, Andrew Montour, who just happened to be an interpreter for the newly-arriving English folk. My history teacher had told us Montour passed along the Indians’ ghost stories to anyone who would listen, but he’d also happened to have quite the fondness for rum, which had made pretty much everyone who’d known him quick to dismiss anything coming out of his mouth to be drunken horseshit. But then, as more people settled in the area, clearing away the trees and building their houses and barns, more ghost stories surfaced.

Several of Moon’s first inhabitants had left behind journals describing filmy apparitions and unexplained noises. A few of those people had disappeared—permanently—too, which proved, I guessed, that the spirits didn’t just have it in for the Natives. We even got to read some of the entries from those journals in class, making me actually look forward to going to school for a short while.

I was beginning to sound like a history geek there before, I know, but I’m really just a paranormal junkie. Love horror movies and all those ghost hunter shows on TV. I never really got into reading; books always seemed to put me to sleep, but I found myself devouring those journal tidbits a few months ago and going through some sort of weird withdrawal once we’d finished up with all of them. I’d signed up for an Audible account shortly after, and my mother had been so excited by the idea of me reading a book of any kind, she’d never turned down my requests for extra credits. I was just finishing up Lullaby of the Dead by Lynn Lamb the first time I’d noticed Lamia sneaking into the line of trees at the edge of our backyard.

The date was December 1st, twenty-two long, boring days before school let out for Christmas break, and it was snowing like hell. I’d never admit it to anyone, but I was slightly creeped out by the murderous details in the story I’d just been listening to. For some reason, watching little Lamia creep off into the woods alone disturbed me even further. I yanked the red-and-white Beats earbuds—an early present from my dad, who was equally proud of my Audible habit—from my ears only to find myself surrounded by the eerie soundlessness which always seemed to accompany a heavy snowfall. I felt like all the normal noises had been sucked away from the air around me, completely.

All I could hear as I continued toward the spot where Lamia had disappeared was the soft groan of my boots sinking into the thick carpet of icy fluff beneath me. “Hey, Kid!” I called out, but she ran on as if she hadn’t heard me, the snow muffling my voice as it had all other sound in our little corner of the world. She hadn’t turned her head in response or even slowed the pace of her run a tick. When I reached the line of trees, I hesitated. Must’ve been the dread the story I’d been listening to had inspired, I told myself, but I was angry in the space it took my heart to pump out another beat.

“Shit, really?” I mumbled under my breath. “That kid’s not even old enough to go to school, and she ran in there like she was the one born with the nuts… Awwww, to hell with it.” I slid the backpack from my shoulder so that I could enter the woods as unhindered as possible and dove in. I’d never admit I did so with my eyes closed.

As the squeak of the snow under my feet became the only sound—I’d lovingly packed my precious earbuds into a special pocket reserved only for them—echoing softly off the damp-dark tree trunks, I tried to brush off that tickle of fear which had begun to climb each individual vertebrae in my back like a lizard inching along a palm frond. After all, I’d always wished to see something scary, gone in search of ghosts on more than one occasion. Always hoped to find some kind of proof to turn all those journal entries into truth. So many of the early settlers had written accounts of seeing or hearing things that didn’t belong in the realm of the living. How could so many of them have been wrong? But as much as I’d searched the woods ringing the whole of Whispering Woods Drive, and even the deserted, burnt-out shell of the Henderson place which stood waiting for the insurance money to come through so they could rebuild, I’d never seen a whisper of vapor, never heard so much as a whisper that couldn’t be explained away by the logical or mundane thing which had made the sound. Of course, everyone in Moon had seemed to stop writing about ghosts, abruptly, in 1890. Our history teacher had told us this happened because that had been the real beginning of scientific advancement, bringing about all the means to discover those logical explanations I mentioned previously to explain away all the strange things they couldn’t before. The end of superstition giving way to the birth of rationale. Still, I’d always hoped…

It was the weird smell which stopped me in my tracks. Earthy…savory…familiar. My mother burned sage incense often in our home; it was one of her favorite scents. It had irked me for years because I’d just known she was chasing all the ghosts away with the smoke even though several people on the internet were of the opinion you could only use a sage smudging stick to cleanse a house. I’d seen where one person commented on Yahoo Answers that three or four incense sticks bound together could be used in place of one, so I’d tried to console myself with the fact my mother only burned one at a time.

Before I laid eyes on her, I heard her. It was really bizarre to hear a child chanting…like something out of a ChildrenoftheCorn-esque horror movie.

“Air, fire, water, earth. Cleanse, dismiss, dispel.” She repeated the prayer over and over, and I must’ve listened to it twenty times before I calmed enough to peek out from behind the large tree trunk I’d been resting my back against. Lamia held an actual smudge stick… I’d seen enough of them on the internet and my favorite shows to know what one looked like.

“You little bitch…” I growled under my breath. No wonder I’d never seen so much as a parlor trick performed by a poltergeist. Between Lamia and my sage-burning mother, no self-respecting ghost would come within a mile of Whispering Woods Drive. But what had Lamia seen or heard that would prompt a four-year-old to ghostbust the woods surrounding her home?

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On Saturday, after I’d been following little Lamia for six days, the wee snot changed up her game plan. It was nineteen days until Christmas and snowing harder than it had during the school week. Monday and Tuesday had been the only days we’d even gone to school, the snow gifting us some extended Christmas vacation. The white stuff accumulated from the entire week had to be at least three feet—but that wasn’t close to record-breaking for Moon, PA, especially since most of our snow fell during the month of December every year anyway. I’d followed her, not only when she’d entered the woods from my backyard, but also at various points throughout the neighborhood. She seemed to be intent on cleansing every square foot inside those trees. I’d noted the time on the first day and hung around outside her house a half hour earlier to see if she would emerge, intent on trespassing again. She’d done as I expected, but that time her point of entry was located further up the street, beginning at the point at which she’d stopped on the day before. She’d systematically covered the entirety of the woods enclosing our neighborhood that way.

Instead of cleansing the woods of spirits as she had on the days before, she began to play in the snow. Making snow angels, to be exact, in one of the areas she’d cleansed previously, lying down in a large clearing at the center of the woods. The spot was oddly-shaped, the trees retreating in widow’s peaks at five points I counted around the perimeter again to be sure. Weren’t meadows usually circular shaped?

Wow. I didn’t feel like such a little puss after observing her behavior. The kid couldn’t even play in the woods without spending days chasing away imagined ghosts. I’d followed her every afternoon, about an hour before the sun set, always determined to burst from my hiding spot and insist she stop her ghost-banishing efforts. Stop and let the ghosts of Christmas Whenevers return. I had to wonder if every neighbor up and down the street had been spooked enough by the old stories to burn sage for all the years of my young life, keeping any previously-recorded ghosts at bay. I suddenly felt cheated, robbed of supernatural opportunity. And here was that freak kid, with her dark hair sticking out in every direction from under her blood-red toque, eyes black as pitch, chasing away any opportunity I might have to witness a real paranormal event. Maybe even capture the attention of Zak Bagan and his Ghost Adventures crew with evidence I might record with the ever-ready camera in my phone. And here she was, six days later, making freakin’ snow angels. Had she simply been trying all this time to make her play spot safe? Did this mean she could’ve seen something?

I decided right there I needed to talk to the little girl. To know exactly why she was cleansing the woods before prancing through the snow like this spot was her own personal playground. I raised a finger, set on demanding an explanation, a “Hey, Kid,” traveling up my throat…but then she rose.

And that was when I saw that the packed snow where her small body had lain appeared impossibly dark. My eyes flicked up…because I was expecting to find a tall pine casting its shadow over the spot she’d vacated. Only, I’d failed to remember there was no sun… It was still snowing like hell.

By lowering my gaze, I discovered the kid-shaped indentation had filled with murky darkness, like some fiendish child had colored it in with a bleeding Sharpie. The inky clouds within merged together to become whole—and solid—and a black shape rose from the once-white snow, leaving behind bare, frozen ground. Gray curls of smoke followed the rising ‘angel,’ suggesting the grass had been burnt away along with the snow.

Lamia was already pumping her arms and legs aggressively as she lay close by in the snow, creating another creature identical to the one she’d just set loose in the air. I stared in utter disbelief at the sight before me, refusing to believe even as my eyes told me the truth of what they saw. Somehow, little Lamia had summoned some sort of creature—one like I’d never seen before, and I’d watched a shit-ton of horror movies. All I could think of to compare the thing’s features to was the theory that demons and angels had decided to start hooking up and producing offspring—and this thing served as the product of their unholy union.

The face was beautiful—angelic—but the only part of its body that could be considered so. Large aquamarine eyes stood out against the starkness of porcelain skin—the only clean-looking, white surface on the creature—as did the garnet-colored lips. In glaring contrast, oily black hair hung limply from the bulbous head, coiling and twisting near the ends to form shapes that reminded me of the links of chains. The strands even rattled when the monster threw back its head and took flight. Enabling its rise were the filthy wings sprouting from its back. They dripped grime along their bottom edges from the heavy links of chain biting through the ebony membrane making up the expanse of each unfolding wing in a dozen or more places. I wondered how the thing could gain any altitude, weighed down as it was by the trailing lengths.

The body centered between those insubstantial wings had lithe far-reaching limbs attached…tricking the eye into believing the creatures were long and lean even though they stood no taller than Lamia herself. The arms and legs were wiry but well-muscled as if the monster had some great burden to bear…maybe simply the chains dipping into the wind from its wings or the links wrapping along the length of its torso, essentially serving to clothe it—he or she? Couldn’t tell—in a way that made it look more prisoner than executioner. The chains dangled, some so much that they trailed along the ground, even as it floated several feet off above the Earth, making the snow hiss and steam where the greasy links touched down or slithered along. Skin as gray as that of some long-dead human peeked out from between the links and gaps in the chain lengths, smooth and ashy all the way to the elbows and knees where skin became scale. Black shiny overlap repeating itself all the way to the tips of clawed hands and feet. Actually, the claws on the feet were more like the super-sized talons of a mutant eagle. Thick and menacing, they looked to me like they were destined to snatch up unsuspecting prey. Like the scales, these were also black as coal, dripping the same inky fluid from their tips into the snow…making the white fluff steam and melt away just as the chains did.

By the time I’d examined every detail of the impossible being which had risen from the snow, Lamia had called forth two more. Flying too close to one another, the chains of two of the monsters, whipping through the razorblade wind, tangled themselves up with the dark links of another. The high-pitched screams echoing off the trees as they fought, scraping and clawing at each other, made the bones inside my head ache, and I was sure they would shatter to allow penetration of my brain matter if the pair didn’t shut the eff up in the next few seconds. When I was able to force my eyes open again, I could see both bled from a hundred cuts and gouges. A strange purplish-red fluid oozed from the wounds. What did my art teacher call that shade? Oh yeah, wine.

After Lamia raised her fourth horror, she turned on them and spoke in a language I didn’t understand, but the way she shook her tiny index finger told me she was scolding the beasts. To my far greater astonishment, the whole group snapped to attention, like the world’s most menacing soldiers, obeying a child who wasn’t even old enough to read at a first-grade level.

I continued to watch because I was too terrified to run away for fear the monsters, Lamia included, might discover me. I didn’t even breathe any more than was absolutely necessary. Yep, I’d sunk to a new low. A seventeen-year-old guy in prime condition scared out of his mind by a toddler. *That toddler commands her own little army of demons,* my brain reminded me, allowing me to feel slightly better about myself. But not about the situation. Each creature dipped low, clanking their chains as they hovered before the little girl and pressed a pointed ear to her lips. Each took flight after she’d whispered god-knows-what to them, the last parting its set of perfect, red lips to reveal upper and lower rows of teeth like metal spikes, ruining the supermodel perfection of the pale, human-mockery of a face. I couldn’t help but imagine how much it would hurt to have those teeth sunk into any of the soft, fleshy parts of my body. I melted to the ground which felt to be about the same temperature as my chilled blood and waited for them all to fly off to whatever evil mission she’d sent them to carry out.

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

“How horrible.” My mom was shaking her head as she lay her cell phone down on the kitchen island.

“Huh? What? What’s horrible?” I had to wonder if someone else had caught sight of those demons as they’d flown free of the woods that afternoon.

“You know the Carsons down the street?”

Well, I had never really gotten to know them. I knew their son, Braeden, was a colossal prick, the worst bully at our school. I got to witness his handiwork, firsthand, every morning on the bus. Once, he’d taken a Kindergartener’s Halloween pin, a cartoon-creepy owl, off her coat and stuck her in the top of the head with it. I’d been so tempted to stand up and at least say something, but anyone with a brain knew that if you tried to interfere, you’d end up on Braeden’s list for the next round of abuse. I preferred to fly under the radar. Hey, I’ll be the first to admit it; I’m no hero.

Anyhoo…I answered her with a yes.

“That was Braeden’s mom. She said he’s gone missing. He went over to Brad Johnson’s to go sledding and never came home. When she called Brad’s house to check on him, they said he’d left to walk home over an hour ago. She’s checking with everyone else on our street to see if anyone’s seen him.”

I felt my eyes turn to marbles like they’d lost all their moisture, and I couldn’t even summon enough effort from my likewise-frozen body to blink. *One of those things got him.* It was the same part of my mind that had whispered to me earlier in the woods.

“Well?” My mom was standing with her hand cocked on her hip like a pistol ready to fire, glaring at me like I’d brought home a bad grade.

“Well…what?” What had I done?

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Vaughn! Have. You. Seen. Braeden?”

“Oh…yeah…sorry.” I stopped to really think about it. “Nope, not since we rode the bus home from school Tuesday.”

“Now, think about it. Are you sure?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, Mom, I’m sure. It’s not like I was friends with that bully.”

“Oh, is he?” I’d only told her so about a dozen times. “Well, I hope he never did anything mean to you.”

“Nope. I always stayed out of his way…which is probably why there’s no chance of me seeing him when we’re not in school.”

“Well, if you do happen to see him when you go out to play in the snow, keep an eye out for him. His mother’s worried.”

“God, Mom, I don’t go out to play in the snow; I’m seventeen, remember? I’m going up to my room to read.” A book was always the perfect excuse. It always guaranteed my immediate escape. In truth, I wanted time to think. Could my first instinct have been right? When I’d had the thought about one of those…those…snow-demons carrying off Braeden the Terrible it had just felt right. Like I knew it was a fact, a certainty at the center of my…heart, body, soul? Somewhere important in there.

As soon as I’d closed my bedroom door, I landed in front of my laptop. Maybe I could find a few more details if the story had broken with the online news sites. I actually found more details than my fragile state of mind was ready for.

It had taken three hours of PS3 to bring me to the state of shaky calm I was currently grasping at with both hands. After Googling the details of Braeden’s disappearance, all peace of mind flew from me as those creatures had from Whispering Woods. My neighbor hadn’t been the only one to disappear after the sun had set. There had been three other kids who’d gone missing, ranging in age from five to seventeen. Four demons, four missing kids. A girl named Amber had disappeared two hours after Braeden in a place called Belleville in Ontario. There had also been two other boys. A twelve-year-old named Kilian had been taken in close-by Harrisburg and some kid with a weird name…Holden…no, Colden. His father had lost sight of him at a big shopping center in New York City, but hours had passed, and he still hadn’t been found. One of the sites had drawn lines on a map between the cities. I chose to ignore the fact it had looked a little—okay a lot—like an upside-down cross…

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

I didn’t have the nerve to follow Lamia out into those woods for more than a solid week…during which time it continued to snow, burying Moon in record numbers of heavy frozen mush. In fact, I found myself falling into a completely new, uncharacteristic behavior pattern. Instead of tuning in to Ghost Adventures or The Dead Files, I found myself watching every Adam Sandler comedy known to man…well, at least known to Netflix. I think I watched The Ridiculous 6 at least eight times. I even helped my mom decorate the Christmas tree in an attempt to normalize my mood. She looked at me in the same way I was sure I had those rising demons when I’d told her I wanted to help out. But we’d settled into it, just like the days before I’d aged beyond ten, hanging all the ornaments I’d made when I was a little kid. Only this time, all the snowflakes deepened to black before my eyes, and the angel on top of the tree threw down chains to clink and rattle among the branches. I finally plead tired and retreated to my room like my ass was on fire. I’d kept an eye on the news three or four times a day, but none of those missing kids had been found yet.

Eventually, my morbid curiosity got the best of me. The Ghost Adventures crew had visited the Villisca Axe Murder House, an episode which begged every cell inside me to watch. The week-long separation from the terrible scene I’d witnessed in the woods had painted over the horrible memories, beginning to lend a dreamlike quality to my recall. Almost making me question whether I’d seen what I knew, deep down inside, I’d seen. It would’ve been so much better if I could’ve dismissed the whole day as a bad dream or just a product of my overactive imagination. At any rate, the desperate need to lighten my mood and separate myself from the paranormal finally lifted. After watching the episode, I felt like I’d remembered who I really was again.

In fact, I felt angry. Mostly with myself for letting a four-year-old scare me away after I’d watched supernatural creatures appear before me, creatures I’d always wished to see with my own eyes. I should’ve been elated instead of hiding inside my house all week. I mean, I’d been waiting to see something like that my whole life. Still…I remembered the numbing fear I’d felt—hey, it was natural to have a healthy sense of fear; no one should judge me—enough to try and research what I’d seen out in those woods on the net.

What I really set out to find was a story about someone who’d spotted creatures at least somewhat similar to those I’d watched rise from the snow the previous weekend. My research ended up pointing to details I hadn’t paid close attention to before. Like the lack of journal entries after 1890. Well, to rephrase, recorded sightings of ghosts in the area had come to a grinding halt when for decades previous there had been some sort of activity reported at least once every few days. After a few other searches into Moon’s history, I decided to talk to my mother. She was pretty good friends with Lamia’s mom.

“Mom, can I ask you something?” I waited until dinner to bring up Lamia’s family, so there would be a few distractions to focus on if the need arose.

“Sure, Vaughn. What is it, Honey?”

“How long have you known the Karbaroses?”

“Agathias? Why are you asking about her?”

“I just saw her kid in our backyard the other day and wondered what she was doing here.” I shrugged my shoulders and hoped the stress I felt in all my limbs hadn’t traveled up to grip at my facial expression.

My mother laughed. “Oh Vaughn, you don’t need to worry about Lamia. I’ve been friends with her mother since we were girls. We grew up together.”

“But do you know when her family came here? I mean like immigrated. They’re Greek, right?”

“Oh yeah, she makes the best souvlaki I ever put in my mouth. She’s very traditional in her cooking…and with other things.”

I felt my brows draw together. “What kinds of other things?”

“You know. They do the Name Day celebration and Clean Monday, fly the kites and such…”

“And they’ve been doing so since…?”

“Really, Vaughn? I think her great-great-whatever grandmother came to America, to Pennsylvania, when she was five. Ummm, I think in 1890 was what Aggy said.”

“1890? You’re sure?”

“I think so… Vaughn, why do you care? Is this for some school project or something?”

“Something like that, yeah…a genealogy thing.”

“Well, then, your great-great-great grandfather…”

“Great, Mom, thanks. Why don’t you send it to me in an email, okay?” I pushed back from the table and took the stairs two at a time up to my room before either of my parents could notice the tremors in my hands or voice.

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The facts were falling into place like well-laid Jenga pieces. All of the ghosts inhabiting Moon had stopped making themselves known to humans after Lamia’s ancestors had come to town. Such a thing couldn’t be coincidence, could it? Arming myself with my Google shovel, I readied myself for an all-night, deep-dig, jumping up from my seat to brew an uncharacteristic cup of coffee—a beverage I found tolerable after adding a shitload of cream and sugar—when my eyes threatened to close at 3:00 AM.

For one thing, I couldn’t find much mention of other Karbaroses living in the US. There seemed to have been a couple of them, part of one family unit, living in Ohio in 1887 according to the census results on Ancestry.com—close enough to make the move to Moon by 1890 with ease. But the name was definitely uncommon, almost like they’d made it up and it had no real history or lineage behind it.

After completing a few searches, I noticed Google suggesting an alternate word to me each time I typed in “Karbaros.” Did you mean: kerberos, the search engine asked me. Did I? I clicked on the word to see what I could learn and didn’t find much of anything that sounded useful. When I added the word Greek to my search, however, I discovered something that unsettled my nervous stomach more than the acidic coffee.

It seemed that Kerberos was the Greek form of the Latin Cerberus—the hound of Hades in their mythology. I did some reading up on Cerberus, learning that his parents were some pretty rough characters. His dad, Typhon, had been a dragon, but not your run-of-the-mill, ordinary dragon. This hound’s dear ol’ dad had 100 heads and 100 wings to go along with them so he could fly to every corner of the world and smite everything in sight. His mom, Echidna, was a man-eating monster herself, her top half consisting of hot chick, with said hotness ruined by the gigantic length of snake coil replacing her legs and feet. I shrugged my shoulders as I read, failing to understand how a dragon and snake could produce a hound for offspring…even if said hound shared some of their characteristics. Besides, mama had a snake tail where other relevant…parts…should be found, so the mechanics of the whole thing escaped me… But snakes did reproduce… I started to do a Google search about how the whole snake hook-up thing worked but realized I was getting sidetracked. I quickly focused my search on stories about the Greek Kerberos, alternating my search terms over and over and clicking through links to find alternate mythos and little-known legends passed around by small circles who’d kept the stories closely-guarded for centuries—until the age of the internet.

After sifting through blog posts, Wikipedia pages and even some really twisted fanfiction, I came across a story that struck a violent chord with me. The coffee became a sour mix of bile and stomach acid threatening to crawl up my throat as my scalp prickled with a feeling like icicle fingers raking slowly through my hair. The hour had nearly reached 5:00, but I didn’t feel my fried eyes blink once as I read my screen, simultaneously fascinated, creeped out and annoyed—by the lack of grammar and spelling—by a comment my search had picked up at the bottom of a blog post announcing the possible release of a horror movie about the Cerberus.

This would be so cool! My whole fam moved to californa from zagorochoria in greece one of the really small villages. When I was little my yia-yia used to tell me this creepy story about the cerebus and she sware it was true. Like there was this fam and they used to live there a long time ago like b4 there were cars and stuff and everyone else in the village chased them away. They all had to like run away to America and other countries becuz nobody in the village wanted them there becuz they was evil. My yia-yia said they was the children of cerebus. That like the hound in hell fell in love with one of the lesser hounds or something and they had babees that got sent to earth becuz they was innocent being just babees and all and cerebus didn’t want them to have to live in hell. So even tho they got out of hell they still had to do evil on earth, help out demons and shit like that. Otherwise they woulda had to stay in hell. I mean she said they was really real. I mean like can u imagine having to help demons do bad shit to people ur whole life and then all ur kids and grandkids and their kids having to do it to for like forever? I mean I know its just a story but that would really suck. – meditergurl666

Okay, I had to admit I never would’ve found her comment with its enlightening story if I hadn’t misspelled Cerberus myself on that one search.

But could it really be true? Could Lamia’s family be enslaved by demonic forces which existed on the same plane with humans? Before I’d seen what took place in the woods, believing some little kid was helping out a demon—believing in demons period—might have been a hard sell, even though I had to admit the Ghost Adventures episodes at Bobby Mackey’s had swayed my opinion on the subject significantly. Could the virtually-unknown story I’d read explain what I’d seen?

I tried to find something on Google about the specific members of Lamia’s family and any possible association with demons but came up empty. What I did find was the very disturbing meaning behind little Lamia’s name at the top of the page on Google. “Greek Meaning: The name Lamia is a Greek baby name. In Greek the meaning of the name Lamia is: An evil spirit who abducts and murders children.”

The nausea became a tidal wave in my throat as I raced frantically for the bathroom. Just what kind of demon was Lamia aiding and abetting?

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

I waited until the 16th to step outside again, making endless excuses about needing to research the series of strange events more thoroughly. I couldn’t find any other connections or even come close to figuring out what kind of demonic association Lamia or her family might’ve been cursed with. Their family name must have been obscure, because I could find no other references to Karbaroses…well, with my limited searches on Google anyway. It’s not like I was a hacker or anything, so my resource sites were severely limited. Once I’d exhausted them all, I ventured out again, berating myself with my best internal badass voice for being such a coward for so long as I trudged through the nearly-waist-deep snow.

I waited in my usual spot inside a small pocket within the thick shrubbery on demon spawn’s adjoining neighbor’s property. I’d followed her enough to know she ventured out to either clean or contaminate the woods at the same time every day. The time I would’ve been getting ready to escape the joy-incited chaos of the school bus ride home. At least she was an evil creature of habit.

Except on that day. And the day after. And the day after that. It was a week before Christmas, and there had been no sign of Lamia. Was she worried further snow-angel-demon-creature summoning would knock her off the nice list? I hated to tell her, but she’d have been lucky to get coal alone from St. Nick. She was fortunate he didn’t deliver other, more physically-damaging forms of punishment to naughty kids after the scene I’d witnessed in the woods earlier. There weren’t enough good deeds available to deliver her back into Santa’s good graces in my opinion.

Another thought rose up through my brain, just like those…things…had risen through the evergreen and bare-as-bones branches of the trees in the woods, as I’d stood shivering from the soak of the snow melting into my jeans at the end of an hour on the third day. What if Lamia hadn’t shown herself these past few days because she had accomplished whatever evil plan she’d set in motion? Her part was finished? She’d loosed those creatures; the four kids had disappeared—I knew those two things happening so close together hadn’t been a coincidence—but why? Had those demons she’d roused killed those poor kids—Braeden included—and then made their way back down to whatever hell they’d escaped from? Were those things like the antithesis to Santa’s elves or something?

When my phone dinged out the arrival of a text from my mom, I realized how numb my body had gone from the waist down. Fostering a fleeting hope that the smokin’ wife I was destined to marry someday wouldn’t want kids, I forced my frozen feet to slowly stomp their way through the ginormous spread of snow-covered terrain before me.

Vaughn where are you? I want you home before dark and dinner’s almost ready

K? mom Hadn’t I told her a thousand times I could see her name at the top of the screen? She still had to finish every text with ‘mom.’

I thought my fingers might fall off during the few seconds I took to peel my gloves off and text her back. The pins and needles exploding their way across the tops of my feet and up the lengths of my legs felt like they might shoot out from my eyeballs with the force of their escape, but the needling agony was no match for the fear seeping from every pore as twilight staked a claim on the winter sky. Unconsciously ducking my head as I lurched along, I couldn’t stop searching the space above my head for grimy talons like butcher knives until I was safely locked behind the forest-green of my own front door.

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“I know it’s a week before Christmas, but I have an early present for you if you want it,” my mom teased, wrapping spaghetti around her fork with a flourish.

I chuckled knowingly. My parents, especially my mother, always spoiled me on Christmas. One early gift before Christmas wouldn’t hurt the present-overload effect of the actual day. In fact, most previous years I’d been offered at least two pre-25th gifts. “When have you ever known me to turn down an early Christmas present?” I curled the left corner of my mouth up to form that unbalanced smile which could usually convince her to give me almost anything my heart desired.

“Great. I’ll go grab it out of my room once we’re finished with dinner. Or did you want to wait until your father comes home?” Dad hardly ever ate dinner with us. Sales guys lived to schmooze, and he ate most of his dinners out with clients.

“Nah, we don’t have to wait for him.” My statement seemed to make her happy, and I was glad for it. If I were ever forced to pick sides, my mother would most definitely come out on top. She was, hands-down, the most generous with me of the two, especially in the time department. A trickle of guilt eased its way down my spine in a chilly slither. “Oh…with the snow and all…I never got to do my shopping.” I knew full well she’d been picking things up for me since July.

“Oh, Honey, you know I don’t care about all that material stuff. I really just enjoy watching you open your stuff on Christmas morning. I think all you men wait until the last minute, so I’m not surprised.” She winked a green eye identical to my own at me and patted my hand

Whew. And the guilt was sucked away so effortlessly. Regardless of what she said, I knew her love for ‘material stuff’ would resurface with a vengeance when my dad presented her with that small velvet box from Tiffany’s which had become an annual tradition. I supposed it wasn’t that big a deal she let me off the hook for presents. My dad did enough wearing through the magnetic stripe on his Amex, to make up for never being around, for the both of us.

I wolfed down the rest of the roast and potatoes on my plate, anxious to get my hands on my mother’s pre-Christmas offering. *Maybe it’s a new laptop.* The thought skittered briefly through my imagination; although, I knew such an extravagant gift would almost certainly be reserved for Christmas morning.

“Hmmmm, somebody’s excited.” My mother rose from the table to retrieve the whatever-it-was as I scarfed down the last forkfuls of my dinner.

When she returned, Mom carried a book-shaped package in one hand. Uh-oh. Had I mistakenly given my parents the assumption I now enjoyed reading paper books too? As I opened my mouth to clarify that my love of literature extended only to audiobooks, she prevented me from speaking by doing so herself.

“I just know you’re going to love this, Vaughn. I found it in one of Grandpa’s boxes. I finally felt up to digging out some of his Christmas decorations this year…” Her voice fell away as it thickened with grief. Her dad had passed away right after the holidays almost two years ago. That night was the first she’d spoken of being able to go through any of his things. She’d even hired a moving company to pack all the personal items up and stow them away in the attic. His house remained empty, with only the furniture to keep the spaces inside the walls company, as she “just wasn’t ready to sell the place yet.” My mom had grown up there, his only child. She’d become the focal point of his life after her mother had run off when my mom was only three. To say they had been close was an understatement.

“I know he meant for you to have this,” she choked out.

Her behavior begged some sort of comfort from me, but the renewed excitement over what might be inside the red-and-green wrap pulsated against the insides of my ears—Grandpa had been a ghost-hunting junkie like me. He’d even promised to share a few secrets, secrets I thought had been lost to me forever…until now.

“Come on, Mom; don’t feel sad. It’s almost Christmas, and Grandpa would want you to be happy.” And to give me that present he left for me.

She finally handed it over. “Oh, you’re right. “ She flicked away a runaway tear with the edge of her index finger. “I just miss him so much still.”

“Yeah, I do too.” I really did. I felt my own grief begin to stir inside a deep recess of my mind and shifted my focus to the rectangle in my hand. “Hey, I really wanna see what this is.” I grinned at her again, trying to chase away the somber air the room had taken on.

She attempted a laugh that sounded strange in its failure. “Go ahead; open it.”

I could barely contain myself but forced my hands to work gently. Just as I had started to suspect—secrets. The journal was so old that the flaking dark-brown leather required two pieces of twine, tied both horizontally and vertically, to keep all its guts inside. I gingerly undid the loose knots so I could peek at the contents.

“Who was Lewis Bower?”

“He was your great-great-great-great grandfather, and this was his journal. He started writing in it in 1880 when he was twenty-one years old. He left it for his son, who gave it to his son and so on until your grandfather ended up with it. That journal was your grandpa’s most treasured possession. He loved that supernatural stuff like you do, and I think Lewis mentions something about seeing ghosts in there somewhere.”

I could feel each hair stand at attention on the back of my neck. “Really?”

“That’s what Dad told me.” She looked like she might start crying again, which brought on the strong urge to escape to my room.

“Thanks so much, Mom! You don’t know what this means to me.”

“Well, he left a note on the thing, telling me you should have it.”

I hated the sadness in her eyes, the tears welling there. And she was dampening my excitement a tad with her display of renewed grief. Honestly…it had been almost two years. I just wasn’t much good at consoling others, especially crying females. “Did you read it?” I asked in an attempt to divert her attention away from her thoughts of loss.

“No, I just found the journal late this afternoon.” A tiny voice inside me argued that I should offer the treasure up to her first for perusal, that doing so might ease her sorrow, make her feel closer to her deceased father. *Oh god, I really don’t wanna do that.* “Go on, Vaughn. I know you’re dying to get up to your room and read the thing. All that supernatural mumbo-jumbo is of no interest to me. Don’t worry about me; I just want you to enjoy your gift.”

Whew again. Plucked from the tip of the hook once more. A shaky sigh of relief hissed through my trembling lips, excitement whirling like a storm funnel in my gut. “Thanks, Mom. Really, so much.” The words brought a bit of the happy back to her expression, and the tiny twitch of guilt tickling at the base of my skull disappeared completely.

“I did also find Grandpa’s Christmas tree ornaments. Maybe we could add them to our tree together later?”

“Sure, Mom. Anything you want.” Happy to be so mostly-painlessly freed from the emotional powder keg in our dining room, I bounded up the staircase, hoping beyond unrealistic hope there would be something between those yellowed pages to tell me what the hell was really going on in my neighborhood—and the rest of the neighboring world.

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

Most of the journal entries were in bad need of a skipping over. Eleven years of tedious notes about crop growth, farm- animal births, what kind of mood the “missus” was in or how well (or badly) the children had behaved on certain days. Most of the entries were, thankfully, short when it came to those humdrum aspects of everyday life. My distant relative had attended school in London, so at least his vocabulary and grammar were tolerable. My patience with the less-exciting runs of thought was rewarded, however, by juicy tidbits like these:

May 23, 1882 – Hard to believe little Jack is 2 years old now. But I have become vexed by the fact that some entity seems to be at him. The lad will point to spaces occupied by nothing other than air. An unexplained bout of crying will be accompanied by red marks on his limbs which become nasty bruises in a few hours, always when neither Betsy nor I have been close enough to touch the poor babe. His behavior leads me to suspect whether the strange apparitions I have caught glimpses of in the wood might be other than tricks of the eye or manifestations of bizarre weather. Perhaps the disturbances of sound on many nights past may have been fashioned by creatures other than wild animals as I once believed.

February 5, 1884 – I can no longer deny the presence of spirits who haunt the wood surrounding our home. I have seen full-bodied apparitions with mine own eyes, and only last night, one such spoke to me in a voice I could hear clearly with mine own ears. Though his form was in appearance filmy, lacking in any real material substance, I could yet discern, by all manner of his outward appearance, that he had in life served as an Iroquois chieftain. He was clothed in the savage scarcity of garments composed of animal skins and decorative pieces made from claw and bone. The long, dark hair hung in plaits, his head adorned by a simple headdress from which three large eagle feathers sprouted. He spoke only this: She is coming.

January 5, 1886 – Martha Bledes has been missing from our township now a week hence. It pains me to say there are few in our little town of Moon who miss her, for it has been rumored that Miss Bledes served Satan as a witch in the foul master of Hell’s employ. Several children have fallen sick or lost their lives in ill-fated accidents when Miss Bledes was observed to be in close proximity. I am unsure myself whether such unfortunate coincidence might be enough to condemn the poor woman. Mr. Montour claims he laid witness to her fate—at the hands of one of the wandering spirits within the wood, and during the evening church services of all times. I cannot say that I find a scant of truth to his words, for what manner of unworldly thing would dare to make its presence known so close to our house of worship and at the hour during which so many lifted their voices in prayer and praise to Almighty God? Montour swears the spirits linger to protect the righteous living, stealing away the souls of those who wish to further evil in our world and claimed to have observed Miss Bledes in the act of casting some sort of dark magic spell as witches are known to perform. When Montour interrupted the hour of worship, we all found him to be smelling of rum and his speech to be roughly formed, like one who has consumed a great quantity of the devil’s brew. His obvious intoxication did not lend much credit to his story, but even after a week’s time has passed by and the man has remained steadfastly sober, he maintains that a group of the Native spirits dragged Miss Bledes away, forcing her onto the ice atop Moon Lake where she fell through and was lost beneath the surface. Montour’s reputation, sadly, offers no merit to his tale. And the spring thaw will come in no time expedient enough to lend him any credibility for many months.

November 11, 1889 – I know several weeks have passed since last I made an entry to this journal. It is an accounting for my Jack and Anna, now aged nine and seven years, so that my children might know their father’s heart a little better. My father has now passed beyond the veil on the 4th day of September, and thereafter, I found no inspiration to add lines to this book as they would only convey dark passages to serve as representation of my grief and sorrow. I take up my pen now because my dear Jack has come to me professing to have seen the ghost of my recently departed father. Jack asserts that his grandfather continues to watch over and protect him from ’the evil things which run rampant in our world.’ Those were Jack’s own words. I did not brand my son a liar, and neither did I dismiss his claims which some might find outlandish and unbelievable. I have seen too much with mine own eyes. But I dare not recount them too often. Not even here in this relatively safe space where my thoughts take up residence. Only a fortnight ago, Andrew Montour was hauled away in chains to the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. None dare to utter claims of ghost sightings since the man was taken away. I wish to call no brand of dishonor down upon my family or my name. When someday you do read this, my fondly loved Jack, do know your father always believed your accounts regarding your interactions with the spirit world.

June 23, 1890 – It seems we have some new neighbors, the Karbaroses. They arrived from Boston a few months previous, and I do not believe I have ever witnessed such misfortune befall a family during my lifetime. Both Ambrosio Karbaroses and his wife, Anastasia, both appear to be descended from hearty stock, yet five of their six children have perished since their arrival six months ago. All five babes were lost in the wood, and only three of those progeny’s bodies were recovered. Two of those appeared to have been attacked by either a wolf or bear roaming the forest, while the smallest boy fell from the heights of a pine tree to which one could never imagine he might be able to climb. Their one remaining daughter, Cassia, remains closely guarded and has yet to be seen outside the family’s dwelling since her youngest brother’s body was found. The trio refuses even to attend weekly church services, which some brand as blasphemy. My other neighbors say that the Karbaroses bring down God’s misery upon their own heads, but I pray I am not so quick to judge. After all, does the Holy Bible not teach us that none, other than God and the man himself know that which dwells within a man’s own heart?

August 10, 1890 – For the first time in Moon’s history, its citizens are actively pursuing the banishment of the many ghosts rumored to haunt the township, the movement driven in full force by Mrs. Karbaroses herself. The woman swears the spirits killed her children. I, myself, wonder whether such a theory could be true. But I must also wonder why HER children…why so nearly all of them? No other families in Moon have suffered such a catastrophic loss to their numbers. The woman has grown a garden full of sage and insists on the entire village traipsing through the wood while waving about a burning lot of the dried plants. She claims this will help to cleanse the area of trapped spirits, pushing them to move on toward the afterlife where all of them truly belong. Does this include the soul of my father, with whom my son yet converses on a daily basis? In nearly a year, his spirit has brought harm to no one I know. Will the comfort he has brought to my child disappear when he is ushered away forever with the rest of our honored dead? I believe I will refrain from cleansing mine own property for the time being.

December 1, 1890 – A curious thing happened today. I observed little Cassia traversing the path which does cross my property and leads into the wood. I followed the child and found her in the clearing burning bundles of sage and uttering some strange collection of verses in her mother tongue. I grew angry when I realized what she was doing, irrationally so. I stepped out from the cover of the pine tree behind which I had hidden myself, and I daresay, I took her in hand. I shook her soundly by the arm and demanded an explanation for her trespass. One might imagine a four-year-old would be frightened to the point of hysterics by calling down such wrath from an unfamiliar elder, but the little girl appeared unshaken in the least. She bared her teeth like a rabid beast and possessed the audacity to raise her voice to me. “You shall not deter me!” I now believe even more strongly that there is much more amiss with this new family who has entered our midst. I have grown more determined now than ever that none of them shall set foot again on my property, nor will I allow them to drive away the spirit who has acted as both friend and benefactor to my dear son.

December 6, 1890 – I have earlier in the week hired a group of men from the surrounding farms to help me patrol my property, including its surrounding wood. I fully intend to keep Cassia and her parents off my land. I even went so far as to purchase four of the rare Blue Paul Terriers from Mr. MacArthur. Given their ferocity and exceptional tracking skills, I believe they will find trespassers in places we men would be too slow to discover. I refuse to allow these outsiders to dictate any use of my own land to me—even where such use is by the spirits of the dead. Mrs. Karbaroses herself came to my door early in the morning imploring me to allow either she or Cassia to cleanse the wood. The woman was driven first to tears and then into a mad fit of fury when I refused. She even tried to strike a compromise with me, stating that she would leave the rest of my property be as long as I allowed her access to the star-shaped meadow at the center of our stand of wood. In the end, one of the men had to fetch the sheriff, who dragged the woman away kicking and screaming, insisting she must cleanse the area of which she had spoken that very day. I railed at her, swearing she would never set foot upon a single blade of grass belonging to my family for as long as I lived. My Jack ran to me just after I’d closed the door, begging me to keep “that horrible woman and her terrible daughter away.” What he said next turned my blood as cold as the layers and layers of snow which have fallen this month, as it never has fallen in years past. “Grandfather told me only the spirits of those once human could hold at bay the horrors which ascend from the bowels of the Earth—those who have never held and could never be granted human form.” We will remain out in full force tonight until the sun rises on the morrow, lest some horror befall us should these ungodly creatures succeed in summoning whatever evil I believe they seek to call forth.

There was only one last entry after that one, and it had clearly been written by someone else. The handwriting flowed across the page. I suppose flowery was the best way to describe the perfectly-curling letters.

December 13, 1890 – This will be the last entry into this journal. My dear husband passed away into death a week ago, and I had not the heart to open this accounting of our lives together he left behind until now. After revisiting the many memories contained within these pages, I feel the obligation falls to me to record the circumstances of his last moments here, along with the other entries he kept so faithfully and without fail from the first day of our marriage going forward. I bear the weight of my grief as though it were an iron suit of armor like the knights of old used to don. As unbearable as my sorrow may feel to my own heart, I must find the strength to behave as normally as possible, for the household must continue to run, and it will fall to me to console and care for the children. Both of them loved their father so, and they will need the love of their mother now more than ever, so I cannot succumb to my grief. In the spring, I must find some honest, hard-working, God-fearing men to farm the land. Perhaps, my brother will move with his family from Virginia… But after the violence carried out here and the blood spilled into the soil around us, I doubt any of my family would desire to make their homes or raise their families on this land, and I will surely find no buyer though I wish I could sell everything and move far away with the children.

But I digress from recounting the details of my beloved Lewis’ death. I know I do so because they are of such gruesome context. Half of the men in my husband’s patrol were sleeping in the barn, in preparation for relieving the others taking the first watch on the night of December 6th. Lewis had told me at supper that our neighbor, Mrs. Karbaroses, had demanded access to the clearing at the center of our wood, and he felt with great conviction that she intended to commit some unholy act of atrocity there, perhaps forever tainting the land our family’s home and livelihood thrives upon. One lad from the second watch’s group awoke, only to discover the moon had fallen far past the point it should have in the sky and roused the other men. Mr. Garner took out his pocket watch, realizing they had all slept more than two hours past the time the other men should have come to seek relief.

It was their shouting when they found the others which woke me. Every single man down to the last of that first watch…even the poor hounds…all were found slaughtered, some of their numbers ripped to pieces. My own Lewis was hung upside down, his feet and hands nailed to the trunk of a tree, his throat and abdomen cut, entrails spilling… I wish I had allowed the others to hold me back so that I had never borne witness to such violence, such sacrilege! My dreams are haunted by the remembrance every night, and no matter how I busy myself during the day, the image will not flee my mind and offer me a moment’s peace. My kind husband, my children’s loving father met far too cruel a fate.

Even though my husband feared the presence of the Karbaroses should they gain access to the wood, no one imagines that the family could be the responsible party behind the murders. A woman and small child would be no match in strength against five grown men and four well-trained dogs. The wounds appear to have been inflicted by wolves, bears or some other type of savage beast. While it is true no beast could possess the dexterity to nail a grown man to a tree, the entire village agrees that Mr. Karbaroses alone could not have placed my husband in the position where he was found on the tree…and most definitely not at such a great height from the forest floor. And whatever vile creature committed such heinous acts, they did so in utter silence. No one can understand why neither the screams of the dying men, the howls of the butchered dogs nor the din of the vicious acts being carried out were heard by any who lay well within earshot. What manner of beast murdered these men and animals so soundlessly?

I am sorry my dear husband to tell such a savage tale here at the end of the accounting of so much joyous life. I only pray you have found peace on the other side of the veil and hope with my entire heart to find you there once I come to the end of my story as well. Farewell for now… Your loving and ever-faithful wife, Betsy Bower

I could barely gather the pages back together and secure the binding with its twine—my hands were shaking that fiercely. I thought back to the day I’d come so close to demanding of Lamia to stop cleansing the woods. I didn’t make it to the bathroom that time. I wasn’t even worrying about how I might clean the vomit out of my laptop keyboard. There were other thoughts filling my mind…like how I would be able to tell Betsy with horrific accuracy exactly what manner of beast…beasts…had murdered her husband.

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After reading those journals, I thought I had all the answers. As it turned out…not quite.

There was more insanity to discover courtesy of my pint-sized, demon-summoning neighbor, Lamia. After that night, you’d bet your ass I didn’t set foot outside the house again for fear one of her scaly snow-demons would descend upon me and rip me to shreds. What if one of them had seen me hiding behind that tree watching? Or maybe they’d caught sight of me spying on their preschool master’s house. None of the missing children had been found, so it could be the foul creatures were biding their time torturing and, eventually, murdering that set of victims before they were free to come after me.

On the 23rd, the snow stopped its relentless assault for an entire day. The snow plows and salt trucks had been running non-stop, which meant winter warriors like my dad were safe from the horror of missing a single day at the office in the previous weeks. On this first snowfall-free day, my dad suggested we go Christmas shopping—my mom must have ratted me out. I’d been hoping to save my shopping money for an SB7 Spirit Box, so I could up my game during my attempts to contact any of the lingering spirits who hadn’t been chased away by that little devil spawn.

My hope at present was that I could find something really cool with a clearance price tag for both parents. Which was too much to hope for. I could probably kiss that spirit box goodbye for a few months unless I wanted to double up on the chores…and I didn’t. Why did I have to worry with presents when Mom and Dad would just end up spoiling each other like they always did anyway? My thoughts ran around in grumbly circles inside my head as I climbed begrudgingly into my dad’s Lexus RX 350. We spent so little time together that the short ride to the mall seemed to last for hours.

“How’s school, Champ?” I hated it when he called me champ.

“Wouldn’t know. Haven’t been in three weeks.”

“That’s right.” He remained undaunted by my boredom-laced tone. “So, what are you going to get for Mom?”

“I have noooooo idea.”

“Well, you just wait until you see what she has for you. Make sure you get her something nice.” I glanced over, more interested then. After all, she’d already come through in a big way with the journal—even if it had scared me shitless. Maybe she had already gotten me the SB7? My mood brightened considerably, and I felt a tad more filled with Christmas spirit. Yeah, Mom was really good to me. If I wanted to cheap out on anyone it might as well be Dad.

It only took twenty minutes for me to find a soft, fuzzy cashmere sweater in pink—my mother’s favorite color to wear. The buttons at the top were pearl, and the price was right. The department store was having a pre-Christmas sale on almost everything, so I still had enough left to pick up something decent for my dad. He wore a tie every day, so I meandered over to the men’s section and picked out the least obnoxious design I could find—a strip of silky fabric with alternating stripes in shades of blue and purple—and handed over the balance of my hard-earned allowance. That spirit box had better be under the tree on Christmas Morning, or I’d be pissed.

When I met back up with the old man, I noticed he gripped the handles of the telltale light-blue bag from that fancy jewelry store on the second floor. I thought of the baby pink of my present for Mom and hoped he’d gotten a pretty necklace that would go good with the sweater. I almost asked to see what he’d scored, but the thought of the unwanted abundance of conversation that would follow that course of action made me keep my curiosity to myself. I’d find out what was inside that bag in less than the span of two days anyway.

“Do you want to eat dinner here, Champ? We could get something to go to take home to your mom.”

“Nah, I just wanna go home, okay?”

“Sure, Son. Whatever you want.”

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

When we arrived back at the house, my dad failed to notice the toddler-sized footprints—ones which, strangely, remained on top of the snow instead of sinking into it—leading away from our house and into the woods in the otherwise undisturbed snow. Lamia was up to her old tricks. But why go back to the woods after taking such a long break? I wasn’t sure what she could be doing. Summoning more nightmare creatures? Part of me argued strongly against following her into the trees, but the other half was dying to solve the mystery. Was she going to have the creatures bring the kids back to the place where she’d summoned those horrid demons with the faces of angels? I caught sight of her coat, a black blotch against the pale backdrop of snow. I ran up the walkway, leaping onto the front porch and tearing the door open with the violence of my need to get indoors. *Way to run away in terror from a five-year-old,* the snarky, ghost-hunter inside me sneered inside my head.

That internal commentary left me fuming in my bed half the night. Some ghost hunter I’d make. Zak Bagans would laugh in my face. Hell, he’d probably pitch an entire show to his producers featuring only a clip of me running away from the sight of little Lamia and into my house at breakneck speed over and over again; he’d find me so ridiculous. I started a Ghost Adventures marathon at 3:00 AM, watching the most intense episodes and realizing just how cowardly I was behaving. Zak and the crew faced down demons… I ran from five-year-old girls. *Five-year-old girls who summon demons,* the wussier half of me insisted.

The voice that was riding high on Bagans inspiration took over. *You are going back into those woods tomorrow to find out what Lamia’s up to now if she comes back into the yard. Maybe you could even save those kids if she had those things bring them back to her.* I knew that last part was highly improbable. I would remain focused on staying hidden and bearing witness so I could live to tell the tale. Like I always say, I’m no hero.

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

Since the next day was Christmas Eve, there were more than a few distractions preventing me from keeping a close eye out for the preschooler from Hell. I wrapped the sweater and tie, after which my mother asked me to help her hang a few last-minute decorations, stir some bubbly stuff on the stove and cut out a few cookies—she and my father were having a few people over as they did every Christmas Eve. I did my fair share of grumbling and insisting I had other important things to do, but it was actually while I was standing at the kitchen sink washing a few dishes that I caught sight of the little demon spawn trekking through the heavily-falling snow toward the entrance to our woods leading to the oddly-shaped clearing. I waited until she’d disappeared between the trees before I snuck out the back door as quietly as I could. The hour had just reached noon, but the snowstorm had darkened the day so that the hour more closely resembled one of early evening.

*Do you remember what happened to Lewis Bower? You wanna get torn limb from limb?* I shuddered at the thought, but paranormal hunter spoke more forcefully, driving my steps forward. *You might have the chance to solve the mystery, get the other piece to the demonic puzzle. I bet Ghost Adventures would want to interview you.*

I crept among the tree trunks, carefully following the miniature footprints—my own steps sinking deep and giving me a real workout—before they disappeared under fresh snowfall. I already knew where her tracks would lead me. In her tiny fist, she carried a large glass vial. The liquid inside was as red as the stockings hanging over our fireplace. When she reached the center of the treeless space, she uncorked the cylindrical container and poured its scarlet contents out onto the delicate white stacks of fluff...and they liquid steamed like lava running over a glacier…and smelled like pennies. Inside the circle she made, she drew a crude liquefied star. Her short legs in their black snow pants made sounds like sandpaper friction when she ran to four of the five points so oddly formed by the shape of the tree line. At each point stood scraggly, leafless trees that definitely weren’t of the pine variety. I remembered that they sprouted large white blossoms throughout their branches in the spring, but I didn’t know the name for those kinds of trees.

Lamia poured her own special brand of fertilizer at the base of each of those trees…and they began to pulse. It was not a sound, more like a vibration in the surrounding air. I felt each one. With each pulse, a fat white flower burst into being. When the branches were filled with blossoms, Lamia went back to stand at the center of her demented artwork (was that blood she’d poured over the snow? It sure smelled like it). In her shrill, little-girl voice she began to speak rhythmically in a language I couldn’t understand:

Prochoríste Krampus

Edó i klísi mou

Krínete ta paidiá éna kai óla

Eíte átaktoi, óchi tóso oraíoi

Timoría káthe kakó antipróedros

Spíti stin kólasi gia na katoikísoun mésa

Epanaférete xaná tin isorropía sti Gi.

Realizing just how much I needed to glean the meaning behind the words she spoke, I clicked open the translator app on my phone and held the device up as close to the chanting child as I dared without reaching too far around the tree trunk to fall into her sightline. The words my iPhone spit back at me stole all stability from my legs.

Come forth Krampus

Here my call

Judge the children one and all

Be they naughty, not so nice

Punish each evil vice

Home to Hell to dwell within

Restore the balance on Earth again.

After she’d repeated the group of phrases six times, the flowers covering the branches, which had stretched bare arms skyward only a moment before, shivered and flexed, like each was completing a morning stretch. As each round shape burst outward, the petals simultaneously flared with crimson…and dripped? Yes, the bright color was dripping from each onto the snow, sending a loud hiss and curls of steam into the air and filling me with a strong sense of déjà vu.

*Oh yeah, those creatures…* The slick, oily liquid—like liquid evil—dripping off their claws and wings had hissed against the surface of the snow in exactly the same way.

Although I found the sight of the dripping blossoms disturbing, the panic building inside me exploded into full-blown terror when I saw the large black knothole in each tree’s trunk—how could five separate trees have identical knotholes?—swirl and yawn wide and empty, as if each tree’s belly of darkness were swallowing the solid centers whole.

Out of the newly-created murk lined up directly with Lamia, something was emerging. A long blur of white, red and brown was followed by a chunk of black. The swirl of colors circled the clearing several times before they slowed enough to take shape. The collection of figures belonged to a different holiday—they’d arrived a couple of months too late.

I would’ve dubbed the figure before me as the Anti-Santa, and he was the most terrifying creature I’d ever laid eyes on. The sleigh in which the monster sat—Christ, he was sitting and appeared that tall?—looked to be made of wrought iron. The metal dripped an oily substance which, again, reminded me of those flying demons Lamia had summoned. The sudden, fright-laden worry that they might appear and shred me to ribbons had me searching the air overhead while I listened hard for the beat of wings accompanied by the sharp clank of chains.

The ear-splitting wails of the creatures pulling the gothic version of Santa’s sleigh tugged my attention back to the clearing where they stomped their bony, bloodied hooves in the downy winter around them, tainting the sparkling white surface with smudges of ruby and onyx. The team of…undead?...zombie?...reindeer must’ve ascended straight from the depths of hell. Largely skeletal in composition, the remaining meat and muscle hung in slack flaps of decaying flesh along their bones, like putrid laundry from the most gruesome brand of clothesline. Each mouth was filled with a complement of teeth better suited to a wolf…or a bear…or a shark. Yeah, a shark. There were no flattened molars or straight-edged incisors. Each tooth’s tip came to a deadly point, almost as though someone…or something…had filed them into such dagger-like shapes. The stench of their rotted state invaded my head even though they had touched down at the farthest end of the clearing from me, and the wind was blowing in the opposite direction, toward them.

My attention diverted once again when the gigantic figure who’d been riding in the sleigh shifted and stood. *Holy shit, is he seven feet tall… Maybe eight?*

The grime-caked cowl was massive; the material concealing his head entirely from view, but claw-tipped hands—were those hands?—ventured from the sleeves of his coat. The appendages were covered in matted, filthy fur and dangled beneath fur-ringed cuffs I imagined might’ve long, long ago been clean and white. The ground grumbled with each step the denizen—I learned that word from good ol’ Zak—took in his oddly hesitant gait. I thought he might be wounded until my eyes focused on his feet and found the reason behind his stomp-drag, stomp-drag. One foot was indeed a foot, just like one of mine, but its mate was not another humany-type foot. The shaggy brown fur straggled down to fall over the oily charcoal surface of a massive hoof. Not kidding, a hoof. Cloven even. *What the hell??*

I watched the nightmarish scene play out before my disbelieving eyes, this great beast dressed up in a soiled Santa suit shuffling his way over to Lamia, who grinned up—waaaaaay up—at him devilishly. Her eyes had taken on the appearance of freshly-poured tar; there was no white left to them at all, her face and snowsuit speckled with flecks of gory back-splatter. A mark of the same shape I’d traced on the Google map when I’d tracked the missing kids blazed, the color of a hot ember, in the flat space between her eyes—the upside down cross—the way my several-times-great grandfather had been found positioned at the time of his death.

A…paw?...three times the size of the evil tyke’s head landed there, and he petted her lovingly, loosing a great number of raven-colored strands from her twin braids. The girl disappeared inside the folds of the thing’s coat a moment later, I assumed, to embrace him.

That was when I noticed the sound of clink and rattle. More chains, just like those of the other monsters she’d called forth. These hung from the thick leather strip encircling Anti-Santa’s middle, dripped down from the material stretched across his immense shoulders and trailed the ground behind him like some sadistic bridal train. The snow sizzled and popped like rice cereal in milk at their touch—but at that point, I would’ve been shocked had it not. Anti-Santa really needed his demons to oil those chains because they were badly caked with rust…or so I thought until I noticed the red-brown trail they left behind. *Blood. The links are caked with blood.*

After Lamia stepped back to break their embrace, she raised her tiny arm and pointed in the direction of the swirling mass of gloom at the center of the tree to the left of the one from which Anti-Santa had emerged—she commanded this monstrosity too? He nodded from inside the cowl and clomp-shuffled his way back to his macabre sled and team. Because I’d blinked, I very nearly missed seeing the lot of them disappear, as impossibly as they’d come into being, in a direction I would’ve bet any amount of money ended up in Belleville, Ontario. In the span of no more than five minutes, Lamia chanted a different set of words, too few for me to capture with my phone. Anti-Santa roared back through the…god, was that a wormhole?...distorted knothole, fresh blood, bright red instead of deeply-burnt orange, oozing along the metal lengths and dripping from the tips of the slender eight-inch claws.

The terrible creature moved to Lamia’s side once again, where she suckled at his gore-covered claws like a baby animal at its mother’s teats—a very demented, wicked baby animal. When she’d had her fill—thank god, because it took all my will to keep from retching violently and giving away my position—she raised her arm and pointed as she’d done before. Only this time, the beast left his sleigh and decaying team behind, clomp-shuffling along until he disappeared inside the bloody-blossomed tree. I could’ve sworn I heard screaming coming from inside the damned tree, but if I were completely honest, I could’ve been mistaking the tortured howl of the wind through the thick close of branches all around me.

Monster Christmas returned in very little time, splattered in twice the volume of gore, to repeat his bizarre feeding ritual with my evil little neighbor. But when Lamia raised her arm again, I raised my phone at the ready, video camera set to record.

I know anyone reading this account of mine would ask me whether I’d lost my mind; had I realized the potentially-fatal risk I’d been taking? The thought which had played through my mind at that moment, blocking out any other, had been the realization that no one would ever believe my story about the horror transpiring in those woods right before my eyes. It would never matter how much detail I could recall; without hard proof, I’d be branded a lunatic at worst, a liar at best. Hell, I’d be lucky if my parents didn’t shuttle me off to some psychiatric hospital. If I shot video evidence, which would be examined and proven to be undoctored in any way, no one could argue away the truth. Most importantly, I figured I could most likely attract the attention of the Ghost Adventures crew—hell, Zak would probably hire me on immediately as a new member of the crew in the face of such unprecedented paranormal evidence. I’d certainly never heard of anyone laying eyes on such creatures before…

As soon as I tapped the red circle on my screen to begin recording, both Lamia and Anti-Santa snapped their heads around in my direction. *Holy damn. I’m sure I didn’t leave the light on.* I flipped the phone around just to be certain. Nope, the little bulb was dark as death.

*Well, well, well, Vaughn. Are we not a naughty little boy?* The voice was as coarse as sand in swimming trunks. *And it sounded only inside your head, Idiot!* the small piece of remaining functional brain matter informed me. The beast was telepathic too? Had he heard every thought bounding around inside my skull as I’d stood behind the stupid, useless pine tree, believing myself to be hidden from sight?

The cowl moved along with the demon’s truck-tire-sized head as he nodded in response to my internal question, eyes which glowed like hot charcoals the only feature discernable within the great hood.

*I heard you. Dear Lamia has heard you, broadcasting your fear at the volume teenagers listen to death metal. You are loud, Vaughn!* He thrust his throaty chuckle inside my mind then, one as deep and jagged as the walls of a rock quarry. *But we do not mind your being here at all. Nope, not as long as you play no further tricks with this little toy.* As quick as a cobra’s strike, Anti-Santa flicked out the equivalent of an index finger on a human equipped with a claw that effortlessly impaled my iPhone…*My Precious!*…skewering my favorite little rectangle in the world like a chunk of raw meat. My mouth hung agape, silent in the wake of my grief.

Lamia waved her miniature finger back and forth, her voice bringing to mind the light beat of raindrops and echoing inside my skull in the same voiceless fashion. *You should have behaved yourself, Vaughn.*

The rush of warmth across the top of my thigh told me I’d lost control of my bladder. “Are y-y-you g-going to k-k-kill me.” My teeth chattered together so hard I felt sure they would shatter.

“Hmmmm, I do not know. Lamia Dear, should we kill him?” The fiend had chosen to speak that part aloud, and I wondered if he’d done so to add the weight from his gruff voice onto the words.

“He isn’t your usual brand of bad…so, I don’t know…” Her little head was tilted, her eyes rotated heavenward as if she were mulling over some decision of great importance—but the absence of sclera made it impossible to tell what she might be focusing those eyes on.

The brain matter within my skull felt muddled. The terror I felt at the mere suggestion of losing my life was nothing short of crippling. I couldn’t make sense of what Lamia had said in reply. Yes, that was what my struggling synapses chose to fixate on. “U-u-usual brand?” My voice came out sounding stupefied, the same way it had at that party Jason Bowman threw in his basement when his parents took an adults-only vacation—I’d thrown back far more tequila than I should’ve.

Anti-Santa coughed out that hideous laugh of his yet again. “Playing I spy in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to serious consequences, but there are crimes far worse than sticking one’s nose where it does not belong.”

“Wait…” The crystalline haze similar to the whirlwind of snow swirling all around me dissipated with the rush of heated realization. “Those kids. You’re referring to those missing kids; aren’t you? How can kids so young have committed any crimes? Okay, well, maybe Braeden, but that one kid in New York is only five. What crimes could he be guilty of? And since when is bullying a capital offense?”

The eyes sparked and glowed like I’d added tinder to their fire, prompting me to jump backward, but his fur-covered hand whipped the phone free and landed on my shoulder, dwarfing my lanky frame, cutting loose and banishing any hope I’d held for escape. The agony delivered by his vice-like grip rooted me firmly to the spot. “I do not deal in transgressions of the present. Think of me more as an incarnation of…preventative measure.”

“Are you saying you’re killing kids for stuff they might do in the future…”

“I do not deal in ‘mights’ either.” He’d lifted both paws to execute air quotes, but I found my body remained frozen in place, nonetheless. “Don’t worry, Vaughnie-Vaughn-Vaughn; I take only the really evil ones. The ones you do not want hanging around to reach adulthood. The ones predestined with all certainty to deliver death and devastation. Like I always say, you bake a beautiful pie and fill it with rot… Damned thing ain’t ever gonna taste good. Now, what do about you?” He strapped his thumb and forefinger across a chin streaming scraggly strands of red-brown beard which flashed images of billy goats through my mind. I didn’t miss the emergence of the peak of one spiraled ebony horn from the edge of the soiled cowl either.

I willed my body to move away with every cell in my cerebellum, but it was as if my brain weren’t firing out a single command to my muscles. “Listen; you’ve made your point. I’m not going to say anything to anyone about tonight…or anything else I saw. I swear it. Swear it on my life.”

The fiery coals studied me intensely; I felt their burn to the marrow of my bones and the most hidden spaces of my mind. “Oh, I know you will not speak a word, yes, sure as sugarplums. I mean, if you happened to choose such a foolish course of action, who knows what might happen next Christmas? Am I right?”

I felt the color blink off in my face…neck…chest, a feeling like the life-force flickering out in every microscopic bit of me from penthouse to basement. I tried to nod but couldn’t be sure if my head moved in the slightest; I was frozen, a snowman with no neck for his dome to swivel or tilt upon.

“Do not worry your much-too-curious head, Vaughn. You have detained me long enough tonight and there await many other abettors, besides Lamia, with whom I must machinate the balance of fate on this night. But only after I finish my business on the other side of those two gates. I know right here…” He thumped a fur-covered fist against his chest, obviously trying to convince me some sort of organ resembling a heart resided inside. “…you fully intend to guard our little secret. After all…” The heavy hand returned, squeezing as though he might crush my shoulder into a socketful of bone dust, before he, thankfully, began to move away toward his team of zombified reindeer. “…you’re no hero.”


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