by Joriah Wood
“Oh come, all ye faithful…” James led into the verse, strumming his guitar, and the rest of the carolers from Calvary Church joined in. They walked down the hall, slow enough to let their voices carry, pausing at each doorway to look in at the patients and offer smiles between verses. Nurses hurried by, giving the group of carolers a wide berth, smiling as they passed. Christmas Eve at St. Joseph Memorial Hospital might be bleak for the sick and infirm here, but the caroler group delivered some Christmas cheer to those who couldn’t be home.
James glanced down at Donny. The boy’s lips were moving, but just barely, as their last song ended. Playing the last chord, James put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, and Donny looked up at him.
“What’s on your mind, kiddo?”
“Mr. Landry?” The head nurse approached, holding a clipboard at her chest like a shield. She smiled. “It’s about to be quiet time, so will your group be done soon?”
“We just finished. Thanks again for letting us come.”
“It’s absolutely our pleasure, thanks again for setting this up! I’m sure you’ve really brightened the spirits on this floor.” She looked at the group as they all mumbled their appreciation for being allowed to reach out, but James barely heard her. Donny’s shoulders slumped, and he chewed his lip, deep in thought.
James steered his son out the door. The night air was crisp, but there was no wind—a beautiful sweater-evening in the Midwest. Their footsteps crunched through the snow that had fallen earlier that afternoon, though the sky was clear now.
Neither of them spoke until after James stowed his guitar in the trunk and they were in the car, engine running, heat pumping. James wanted to ask, but he knew his patience would pay off.
“Dad, is Santa real?”
There it was. James smiled.
“Of course he is. Why do you ask?”
“Because...it doesn’t make sense.”
The silent night was heavy as they passed rows of gaily lit houses.
“Have kids at school been putting lies into your head again?”
“Dad...no. You know I don’t pay attention to them. It’s just...the other things. Like, how does he know what everyone is doing, at all times?”
“Good question. How does God know?”
“You don’t mean that Santa Claus is like God, do you?”
James laughed. “Who’s to say? But if one can be omniscient, why can’t the other?”
Another minute passed as Donny contemplated this. James could see the child’s wheels spinning as they hit the outskirts of town, turning on to the county road that would take them to their cabin.
“So what about the chimney? Getting down and back up. Fitting inside it. How can he do that if he’s so fat?”
“Magic, Donny. Magic isn’t something that we understand, but…”
“Dad, that’s just a made-up answer because you don’t know the real answer!”
“Hey, listen. Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Do you understand how airplanes fly?”
“No, but I could find that out.”
“Touché, so maybe that was a poor example. That’s where faith comes in, though. Sometimes we just have to believe, whether we can prove it or not.”
James flicked on the brights as they twisted along the road to the cabin.
“Yeah, but all the kids in the world? And he doesn’t get them confused?”
“That’s why he keeps lists, buddy. He’s not a robot.”
They rode the rest of the way home in silence as Donny stared out the window.
Donny stood in his PJ’s, looking at the lit-up Christmas tree in all its splendor.
“Drink your milk and get to bed, kiddo. You know he won’t show up if you’re awake. He sees you…”
“...when I’m sleeping, I know. Isn’t that a bit creepy?”
“No, not at all. If he couldn’t tell when you were sleeping, how would he know when it was safe to come down the chimney and deliver the presents?”
James steered Donny to his bedroom.
“What about the milk and cookies, Dad?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be sure to leave them out.”
Donny climbed into bed and James tucked the covers around him.
“See you in the morning, buddy. It’s going to be a magical night tonight.”
Donny smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
James flipped the switch and closed the door to Donny’s room.
He padded down the hall toward the multicolored glow from the front room. He removed the plate of cookies from the refrigerator in the nearby kitchen, cookies he’d baked up earlier in the day. He poured a glass of milk and walked the treat over to the table nearest the Christmas tree.
James dimmed the lights in the den and unfolded the blanket from the back of the couch, lying down there. He waited until, in the quiet, he could hear Donny’s breathing fall into a familiar deep, slow rhythm. With one last glance at the chimney, James closed his eyes.
It was the early hours of the morning when James heard a faint rustling at the top of the chimney. His heart pounded as he strained to hear—was it birds, again? The scuffling continued down the chimney, and then he heard it plainly—the thump of boots hitting the floor in the living room.
James's pulse raced, but he didn’t move a muscle. He heard footsteps cross the floor, and he could feel a gaze on him, but he breathed deep and didn’t stir. His eyes remained closed, not forced, but relaxed, as he matched the rhythm of Donny’s breathing in the other room.
The footsteps moved away from him, closer to the tree and the Christmas treats. James heard the glass of milk scrape the table as it was lifted. He heard the cookies snap. James's own family recipe for ginger snaps provided a perfect alarm.
James sat up.
“Surprise, Santa Claus.”
Santa Claus turned, his mouth hanging open, and when he tried to speak he instead began to cough. James watched as the jolly man, dressed in his traditional red suit with white trim, doubled over, unable to catch his breath.
“How do you like the cookies? They’re a variation on a classic recipe.” James circled the couch so he could stand over Santa, who was down on one knee, gasping for breath. “You might have noticed that I added some ingredients. My own personal touch.”
James put one foot on Santa’s side and gave him a push, sending the large man tumbling over the presents and into the tree. Santa’s face was round and jolly, though his cheeks were probably more red from coughing than from cheer at the moment.
“What...why?” Santa struggled to speak between gasps for breath.
“I have to admit, I’m thrilled to see you. And my research paid off—that much cyanide would have killed anyone else in moments, but you’re already recovering. It’s amazing.”
Santa tried to roll away from the presents, but James planted his foot on the big man’s throat.
“Let’s cut to the chase. I’m interested in seeing the lists—naughty and nice. I need the bag of toys. The sleigh, you can just tell me how that works. I’m not actually very interested in the sleigh.”
Santa grimaced at the weight on his throat. “James, I don’t understand. The lists? You’ve always been on the Nice list. What’s this about?”
The man’s voice was full, even as he still rasped for breath, and James was in awe of how jolly he sounded—even in this predicament. Still, he detected a hint of fear. Fear is good—it means he stands to lose something.
“This is about us, Santa. This is about you, with your magical lists, your omniscience, your magic. And it’s about me. You know, I never stopped believing in you? Even when my friends did, and they called me stupid. But I didn’t stop. And I’ve been good, so good, for my entire life.”
“I know, James. I know that.” Santa’s hands wrapped around James's ankle, trying to move it, but he held it fast.
“And I need to know how this all works. I need to see the lists, I need to know that all this belief wasn’t in vain. I’m tired of faking the good life. I’m ready to start living the good life.”
James removed his foot from Santa’s throat as he scanned the presents, looking for the long box in the green foil with the orange bow. He found it and kicked it underneath Santa’s right arm. He offered his hand to help the large man up, but as Santa took it, James pushed his arm against the green box, collapsing the cardboard.
There was a sharp SNAP followed by Santa’s scream as the bear trap ripped through the thin cardboard box and bit into his arm.
“Can’t have you leaving before I get my answers. It’s a bit barbaric, but if you work with me, we should be finished in time for you to finish your rounds.”
Santa winced but stayed focused on James. His pain tolerance was admirable.
“James, Jim, this makes little sense…”
“Because my plan was perfect. You’ve always fascinated me, Santa...Kris. Can I call you Kris?”
Santa stopped struggling for a moment to stare at James in disbelief.
“You may,” he said through gritted teeth.
“So Kris,” James said, stepping over the big man and grinning as he squatted down by the sack of toys. “Do us both a favor, because you’ve got a lot to do tonight. Tell me how this works, and quickly. I need some information from you, and you can be on your merry way.”
Santa rolled on to his side to better see James, his eyes narrowing.
“How what works, precisely?”
“I told you, I want to see the lists. Are they in the bag? How does the bag work?”
“Reach into the bag and think about Donny.”
James froze, then smiled at Santa. “Of course you know Donny. You’re Santa. He’s been a good boy this year, hasn’t he?” James reached into the bag, rummaged around, and produced a skateboard with a bow on it. He flipped it around to read the tag.
“To Donny, Love Dad. You even adjust the tags?”
“Tags and memories, James.”
“Oh, you can alter memories!” James shook his head. “Of course, of course you can. That makes so much sense. You’ll have to tell me how you do that, too.”
“Let me go, James. I’ve got a lot to do tonight, and you don’t want kids to wake up to no presents, do you?”
James hefted Santa’s magic bag of toys over his shoulder, then walked over to where Santa had propped himself up. James squatted down, his face inches from Santa’s, so close he could smell the man’s peppermint-scented breath.
“Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t give two shits about the little kids, or their toys. I’ve planned this for far too long, I’ve worked too hard. Do you know how difficult it is to stay up for hours with your eyes closed, breathing deep, mimicking sleep but staying awake? Bodies don’t like to do that.”
James stepped over Santa and stepped on his arm, pushing it deeper into the trap, the steel teeth ripping flesh as his arm moved. Santa cried out in pain.
“Now tell me where the lists are. I need to check in on some people.”
“They’re in the bag, James.” Santa let his head fall back to the floor. “Please don’t do this. I don’t think you understand the forces at play.”
James reached into the bag and pulled out a heavy present, wrapped in a metallic blue paper. “I know they have to be books, not scrolls. You’d never find the right name if you used a scroll.” He tore the paper from the book, cursed, and tossed it into the fireplace.
“Who asks for a dictionary for Christmas?”
He turned his icy gaze to Santa Claus.
“The list. Now.”
Santa rubbed his eyes as he sighed. James smiled.
“Blitzen and Comet.”
James nodded, and he reached into the bag again, thinking about Santa’s two famous reindeer. He quickly removed two heavy tomes, both identical leather-bound tomes save for the gold-embossed writing on the covers. The first read “Good” and the second, “Naughty.”
James opened Good. “I assume I just think about…”
“Yes,” Santa interjected. James glanced at the trapped man. He had rolled to his side again and was prodding at the bloody wounds on his right arm, a red stain creeping up the fingers of his white glove.
James found his name. He hastily scanned, turning pages as he did. Sure enough, there were records of everything good he had done this year, culminating with the caroling at the hospital earlier this evening.
“It’s accurate…” he mumbled under his breath as he pushed the book aside, reaching instead for the Naughty list.
James retrieved a folded piece of paper from his vest pocket and unfolded it. Twenty names, twenty powerful and influential people—all of whom also happened to be rich—and staked their lives and fortunes on their reputation. James opened the Naughty list and found the first name, scanning hastily before settling on something.
“This should do it. I imagine someone would pay a hefty sum of money to make sure this information never got out.” He smiled and began copying dates and details from the Naughty list.
James finished his notes on the first victim and looked up, triumphant, but surprised to see the change in the weather. What had been a clear, starry night was now a blizzard, with heavy snowflakes coating the ground at a rate that James wasn’t sure he’d ever seen before. Frost circled the edges of the paneled windows. James shivered.
Santa’s eyes were half-open, and he looked tired. Maybe even a bit sad. James shook his head before moving on to the next name on the list.
He was halfway through copying the juiciest bits when the lights flickered. Of course, the weight of the fast-falling snow might drag down the power lines. James set down his pen and walked over to the fireplace.
“Since you’re already here,” he said, “I don’t think we need to worry about anyone else using this entrance.” He lit the fireplace, then found a few candles and set them on the counter by the lists, just in case. Santa wasn’t even struggling anymore. He was lying on the floor, his eyes closed, his bloody glove resting on his stomach, over a tattered piece of parchment.
“What is that?” he asked, and Santa struggled to raise his head.
“I tried to warn you, James,” he mumbled.
James strode over and kicked the festive man in the side. Santa coughed and his hand fell away, causing the parchment to tumble to the floor. James scooped it up.
“What is this?” he asked again, landing another kick to Santa’s ribs. “Tell me, old man. What am I holding?”
He turned it over. He saw a handful of names, but what he saw at the bottom of the parchment froze the blood in his veins. Written in blood, in shaky handwriting, with a finger: James Landry.
James grabbed Santa by the beard and pulled his head up, holding the bloodied parchment in front of his face.
“What is this?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he shook Santa’s head by the beard.
Santa coughed, and his brow furrowed as he tried to focus on the script in front of him.
“You left me...no choice,” he said, his words coming in quick gasps.
“No choice for what?” James threw the list to the ground and brought his fist back to strike Santa, but something smashed hard into the roof as the lights blinked out.
“He’s here. Your fire won’t keep him away.” Santa coughed again. “I’m sorry, James.”
James let go of Santa’s beard and his head fell to the floor, the Spirit of Christmas almost totally out of strength.
He could hear the jingling of bells on the roof, tinkling in time to the ponderous, heavy footfalls as whatever was up there stepped across the roof. He knew it couldn’t be the reindeer; it was a singular being, not a group of them. He was glad he slipped a little something into Donny’s bedtime drink, else the boy would no doubt be out here and getting in everyone’s way.
James rushed over to the lists and snatched his, thrusting it into his pocket. He walked around the island and pulled a large knife out of the knife block on the kitchen counter.
“I don’t know what you’ve cooked up, old man, but I’m ready.”
The latch on the front door clicked, and James stood transfixed. He felt the icy wind rushing into the warm house from the unlocked door (he was certain he had locked it, hadn't he?) before a wintry blast hit it so hard the hinges couldn’t hold it to the frame.
The firelight illuminated the thing in the doorway. Wrapped in red robes, tinsel, and thick chains, the goat-hoofed and horned demon standing in the doorway looked like it would have to squat to get through the door.
Frost reached through James's clothes and gripped his bones. He held the knife in front of him as a protective ward, an umbrella under a waterfall.
“I know who you are, and I don’t believe in you,” he shouted, his voice shaking, but Krampus ignored him. Over his shoulder was a thick, heavy-looking worn sack, and in his other hand he held a large walking-stick. James's gaze darted around the cabin’s great room, looking for escape.
Down the hall, past the bedrooms, and through the laundry room—the side door.
Trying to ignore the cold, James willed his limbs to move. He half-ran, half-stumbled his way down the dark hallway, rushing past the bathroom, his room, Donny’s room. His feet felt like blocks of ice, but he focused on each step, afraid to look back at the menacing figure that he was sure was in close pursuit.
At the laundry room, he struggled to wrap his hand around the handle, but the frigid metal burned with cold as he touched it. His skin tore as he struggled to turn the handle, but the sub-zero temperatures in the house made it difficult to control his muscles.
Still, James could taste the freedom beyond this door.
A whipping sound cut through the walkway and James felt something wrap tight around his ankle. He looked down to see twisted strands of red and green tinsel stretched back down the hallway, attached to the hand of the beast. The kitchen knife was still gripped in his left hand—his fist frozen by the penetrating cold, James didn’t know if he could drop it if he wanted to, but he was glad he’d kept it. Kneeling down, he rubbed the knife across the tinsel over and over, eventually hacking at it as he screamed.
“Why won’t you cut?”
He felt warm blood soaking through the cuff of his pants as he hacked at the ornament, cutting away the shiny strands of silver to reveal the steel barbed wire inside.
“No, you can’t have me. Not like this!” James fumbled with the tip of the knife, stabbing through his pants and into his ankle as he tried to get it underneath the barbed-wire, but it was useless. The line jerked taut, and James landed hard on his back, his feet ripped out from under him as he was dragged back down the hall. His frozen, twisted fingers groped for the knife and he found the handle, but even as his brain screamed to retrieve it, his frostbitten fingers wouldn’t close.
James felt himself lift into the air as the giant beast held him aloft, one massive hand wrapped around both of his ankles.
“If you could be so kind, brother…”
Santa’s weak voice startled James, he’d forgotten the man was still there. Still part of this.
James's vision exploded as his body slammed into the wall, his frozen skin splitting as fires erupted in his chest and abdomen around broken bones and cracked ribs.
Gasping for breath, James watched Krampus plod over to Santa Claus, kneel, and release the bear trap with almost no effort.
Santa stood and shook himself, like he was trying to shake cobwebs out of his brain. Krampus raised a finger and pointed it down the hallway, toward Donny's room.
Yes, James thought, remembering the open door behind him. A plan began to form. If Krampus went to collect Donny, James might have enough time to get out the front door and to the car. It was a desperate plan, but it might work.
“No,” Santa said to the silent demon next to him. “Not him. There’s only one name on your list, and that’s the only one you can claim tonight.”
Krampus nodded, and James's heart sank as the demon plodded over to him. He rolled to face the frozen-featured spirit before him. James coughed, and he felt something wet spew from his mouth as he did.
“I’m not...on the naughty...list…”
Santa appeared behind Krampus, staring at James with sadness in his eyes. He rolled up the small parchment and tucked it into his suit.
“No, James. You avoided the naughty list, but I’m afraid your name is on the Naughtiest list. The only mercy you’ll get now...”
Krampus opened his heavy, tattered bag with one hand while he effortlessly lifted James with the other. James tried to scream as he stared into the sack, but his scream became wracking coughs. He had never seen anything so dark, so black, so devoid of presence in his life.
“...is that you won’t be on this list for very long.”