You better watch out
There’s the sound of hooves on the roof and something sliding down the chimney. Jemimah isn’t in bed, she’s waited up to see, but she’s starting to wish she hadn’t.
The digital readout on the clock read 12:01, and even as she watched it ticked over to read 12:02. The microwave timer must be fast, she thinks, because surely Santa should have come by midnight. Everyone knew midnight was the witching hour, and if Santa wasn’t a witch he was undoubtedly magical and so it made sense that he would come at midnight. Jemimah pouted and tapped at the display, as if that would fix it.
Maybe what Sally whispered at school was true…
No! Jemimah shook her head, caramel hair flying wildly in the dark. No, it couldn’t possibly be true. She knew Santa was real. Of course he was. He was just… Not here. Yet. Maybe he had a lot of presents to deliver.
In her eleven year old heart, the seed of doubt began to spread its insidious roots into the cracks in her belief. As much as she struggled, it seemed to whisper inside her head, a rising tide the threatened to overwhelm her. Her heart ached, and she bowed her head and trudged towards the lounge room. Her be-socked feet scuffed against the thick carpet and Jemimah spared only a brief, desultory glance at the twinkling lights and sparkling ornaments on the Christmas tree. They had seemed magical, only half an hour ago when she had crept through a living room speckled with gently moving points of light and the air was thick with the smell of pine needles and happiness. Now the magic was gone, and all she could smell was pine resin.
She had just reached the top of the stairs, eyes beginning to prickle with tears of frustration and disappointment, when she heard it. Above her, the clatter of something on the roof. Something hard. Like… hooves.
Her breath caught in her throat, a bubble of relieved, desperate happiness.
He was real!
She didn’t think she could get back into the kitchen in time, and she didn’t want him to see her. Mum and dad had always said that good girls should be in bed, sleeping, on Christmas Eve, and she didn’t want to be a naughty girl, because of course then she wouldn’t get any presents in her stocking. So she couldn’t risk being caught out running to the kitchen.
Her feet pattered softly down the stairs.
But she could just peek around the door frame. She had left it open behind her, and if she just poked her head around a little way she could see without him seeing her. It was perfect.
Jemimah felt her heart pounding as she crouched by the door to the lounge. She heard something slithering, a soft scraping kind of noise, and she peeked around the frame. A thin trickle of soot was falling from the chimney. Trying not to squeak from excitement, Jemimah pulled her head back around the door. Her breathing was ragged and fast, but she was so close. She would see him, and it would all be true! She could tell everyone at school, and Sally would stop sneering at her.
The slithering noise got louder; there was an awful lot of soot in the chimney. Maybe she could ask mum and dad to clean it before next year; she thought Santa would appreciate it.
Straining her ears, hardly daring to breath in case she missed a single sound, Jemimah listened intently.
The silence grew.
Maybe… maybe he knew she was awake. Maybe he had left. Didn’t Santa see everything? And she was being naughty, not listening to her parents. It was almost too awful to contemplate, that Santa might leave before she had seen him.
There was a silken scratching noise. Jemimah nearly squeaked in surprise; her nerves had been so taught that even this tiny sound was enough to make her jumpy. But it was just Santa filling their stockings – and the fireplace was directly opposite the door. It was the best time for her to look, when his back was to her.
Taking a deep breath, Jemimah looked.
A shifting, writhing shadow in roughly the shape of a man.
Too long limbs, fingers that bent too many times.
Tattered red cloth swirling through the depths of the shadows.
She thought it was cloth.
Tinkling fairy lights, strung on the tree.
Black, coal, deeper and darker than the most dreadful nightmare.
Stark white fronds of hair, swimming around the figure like there was water surrounding it.
The flickering orange light of the fire.
Eyes like pitch, lighting up with dreadful crimson light.
Strands of sticky, gelatinous shadow creeping towards her.
Red. Red. Red.
The hall carpet, dark. Everything had gone dark; the starlight and the moonlight had vanished, leaving only shadows.
Thud thud thud
Behind her, something slithered and crashed along the hallway. She cornered hard on the stairs, eyes closed tight, trusting memory to guide her up the steps, refusing to see what was coming closer and closer with every breath.
Thud thud thud thud thud
Her left arm tingled; something dark had grabbed her. Jemimah shrieked and thrashed, turned to see a mouth opening wide, showing too many teeth. There was no face to hold it; the gaping maw filled her vision. It filled the entire world as her heart strained so hard she thought it would explode and her arm went totally numb. Coldness spiked through her chest from her arm as the mouth leaned closer and closer.
There was a brilliant light above her; Jemimah opened her eyes to the concerned faces of her parents and some doctors in starched green scrubs. The words seemed blurred out, fuzzy, but she heard ‘idiopathic myocardial infarction’ and wondered what it meant. Had someone saved her from Santa? Had he… left her? Let her live?
A monitor beeped loudly as she thought of the horrible mouth, of the whispering strands of white hair that cloaked a figure of red and shadow.
Her parents took her home, and they told her she had just been very sick. She had nearly died. Well, she knew that. It wasn’t because she had been sick though, but they refused to believe her. They said she had been at the top of the stairs, and they had heard the thump when she fell over.
Jemimah frowned. But she hadn’t made it up the stairs. She’d only gotten halfway up before… Before Santa had caught her.
Her mum said her heart had stopped.
Her dad said they’d rushed her to hospital.
She told them someone had been chasing her. Her heart had been thundering in her ears. She had tasted something coppery in her mouth.
They said that hallucinations were common in near death experiences. It was all just a bad dream. Don’t worry about it.
Jemimah nodded. It was easier to think about it like that. A bad dream. A nightmare.
It wasn’t real.
She smiled as she unwrapped her presents, and did her best to ignore the dark smears on her stocking. She had just dropped it into some dirt, sometime. Or… or it had always been a bit dirty, and she’d never noticed. The long white hairs tangled on the tree were just spiders’ webs, mum always said they were always a nuisance.
It had just been a bad dream.