Fiction: The Christmas Thief

Day five of 25 Christmas Eves brings us a short horror/fantasy piece. Hope you enjoy.

By Erin L. Snyder

I know you’re not going to believe any of this. And I know I should be keeping my mouth shut, asking for an attorney or something. I’ll probably wish I had, come tomorrow. But right now... it’s all I can do not to pull my hair out. I got to tell someone what happened tonight, and, well, you’re the one asking.

So, Merry Christmas. Here goes.

I got the idea for the suit off some old TV show. I couldn’t tell which if I cared: it was something I saw when I was a kid, and it stuck with me. Guy dresses up like Santa, busts into a house, and cleans the place out. If a kid wakes up and sees the guy, “No worries, son. It’s me, Kris Kringle. There’s a light on the DVD player that doesn’t work on one side.” Send the brat to bed, and I’m gone before anyone’s the wiser.

Yeah, it’s a lousy thing to do to a family at Christmas. But I guess I’m just a lousy guy at heart. But... look. I’ve got a code, right. The thing I like about this is it means you’re never in a position where you got to threaten a kid. Cause that’s not okay. Yeah, I’ve swiped some stuff. But I figure, the houses I’m hitting, they can swallow the loss. And I’ve never hurt anyone doing this, not really.

I’ve... look. I know you don’t care about why I do this stuff. All you want to know is what happened tonight. I know what you think I am, but... you’re wrong. I didn’t hurt that kid. I didn’t even... look. I don’t know if he’s ever going to be able to talk about this. But if you just show him my picture or something, I don’t think he’ll freak out. I know how this sounds. Seriously, I do. But it’s the truth: I saved that kid’s life tonight.

All right. I know you don’t buy a word of it. But this next part’s easier to swallow. I broke into that house on Rocky Brook to swipe some electronics. You could tell at a glance those people have money. Hell, look at the cars in the driveway. You could see they celebrated. I mean, that whole street’s decked out with lights, but they had that sleigh on the roof and the candy canes along the walkway. No sign of a dog, either, so I’m thinking, perfect place to hit up, right? I come by about one in the morning and get to work.

The alarm’s a joke, but then most are. And get this - they didn’t even lock the back door. I spent a solid minute trying to pick it before I just turned the handle. No one thinks anything bad can happen on Christmas Eve. Jesus. It almost seems funny now. Nothing bad.

Anyway, once I’m in, I have a look around. Last thing you want is to get blindsided by someone tripping over you while you’re working. Good way to get yourself killed.

At first I don’t see anyone. I certainly don’t hear a soul.

Hell, I’m already in the living room when I see her. Scares me half to death! This woman, lying on the couch, completely still. I’ve seen a lot of people passed out, but this... this is something else. First thing crosses my mind, I’ve stumbled across a stiff. Then I realize she’s breathing. But real soft. So, I’m thinking she’s stoned or something. I mean, rich folks are into that stuff, too. Right about now, I’m thinking I got it made. I mean, even if she does wake up, she’s not going to call you guys if she’s a coke head or something.

I head right over to the blue-ray player and get to work. A few seconds later, that’s in my sack. Next, I grab an iPad and a couple MP3 players out of the study. There’s a purse in the dining room, so I grab that, along with some candlesticks that look like they might be worth something. I’m just about ready to bounce, when I hear a noise by the back door.

I go for the one hiding place I think I can reach: the closet. I slip in between some coats as fast as I can. I don’t have time to close the door. By the time I’m in, I can hear that whatever’s here is in the room.

It’s a hard one to call. If the light goes on, I know I’m busted. I mean, maybe I can fight my way out, but that’s my only option. If they leave the light off, I should be fine, long as they don’t look too close or try to hang up their coat.

I hear the footsteps before I hear the voice. I’ll tell you about the footsteps first. At first I thought they were dancing shoes or something. They hit the floor like a hammer. And they hit the floor... wrong, I guess you could say. They remind me of something, but I can’t place it, not just yet.

Then the voice. Its talking on a cell phone. The accent is, I don’t know, English or something. It’s loud, though, and clear. “Yes, the wine seems to have done the job again. Do thank the herbalist for me. The woman’s downstairs; she should be out for hours. I haven’t seen the father yet. Yes, of course I’ll disengage if he sees me.” He keeps talking as he passes in front of the closet.

What I see... I don’t even know how to explain it. It isn’t... He’s not....

No. I’m sorry. I said I’d tell the story, so I’ll tell it. I’m not going to BS you or say I didn’t get a good enough look or anything. I’m not going to say I don’t know what I saw, because I damn well know exactly what I saw walking by the door of the closet.

It was a demon.

I knew from the first second it passed by that door. It wasn’t a guy in a suit, either. It’s a demon, all covered in fur with these two horns sticking up out of its head. Like goat horns, you know? And it walks on hooves. Its legs didn’t bend like a person’s: it’s all wrong. All different.

“I imagine the boy’s in his room. Yes, I’ll go to the cabin to conduct my work, as planned.” He’s passed the closet in an instant, but I can hear him as he starts up the stairs. “Then off to Indiana, I believe. Yes, a long night indeed. But it’s only once a year. Of course I’ll call if I run into any trouble, but how often does that happen? Thank you again.” He doesn’t say anything after that, but I can hear him continue up. The stairs run right over the closet, so I can hear those hooves strike each step.

I consider running when he reached the top, but I can’t find the courage. I’m thinking he’d hear me for sure. And I can’t escape the idea he’d catch me somehow. Or that I’d reach my car, get inside, look in the rear view mirror, and... yeah. I know. A lifetime of horror movies, right?

So, I’m hiding in the closet, panicking, biting down on my arm so I won’t scream, and then, upstairs, I hear this scream. It’s a child, and it’s only for a second. Then there are more noises, like a short struggle. I’m sitting there in the closet, dressed as Saint Nick, trying to stay still, while the damned Devil’s probably murdering some kid upstairs.

Then I hear those hooves again, but this time they sound heavier, pounding against those steps. When the thing passes in front of the closet again, I can see it’s carrying a sack. And the sack is moving, struggling. But it don’t seem to bother him none. He just carries on, taking his time.

I don’t move an inch for five minutes. But then I remember where I am and what’s going to happen if I stay put. So I lean out, make sure the coast is clear, and head out the way I came. When I reach the back door, I open it with my sleeve, because I can’t stand the thought of touching it after... after... he touched it.

Then I step outside.

I had every intention of going home. But then... I don’t know. I honestly can’t say what makes me stop. Maybe it’s knowing I’m that kid’s only hope. Maybe I’m just more scared if I do nothing and that kid did show up dead, you guys would find me. I mean, I know you guys have ways of doing that. Finding arm hairs or something. I don’t know. Fibers from my suit. I mean, no one really cares about some electronics, but a rich white kid goes missing, you’re not just going to let that go. You’re going call up the CSI guys. Yeah, too much TV. I know.

I don’t know what it is. Honestly, I thought a lot of thoughts standing there in the snow staring at that thing’s footprints heading off into the woods. I’m not trying to sound like I got all heroic. Maybe it was just too much to walk away from, like it would be worse living my entire life wondering than it would be to just follow those footprints.

I don’t know why I go after him, but I do. The trail’s pretty easy to follow, even in the dark. I mean, those prints don’t look like anything else. They’re like horse prints, I guess. What I imagine horse prints look like, anyway. But laid out like a person’s. Just one foot behind the other in a straight line.

Somewhere along the way I drop my own sack containing the take. I’m guessing you guys have found that by now and have it in evidence or something. Anyway, I had no idea how far I’d have to go. Hell, I half expected to follow those tracks forever or freeze out there. But then, all of a sudden, I find I’m standing in front of a cabin. The tracks lead right up to the front door. But then there’s another line going back and forth to a car parked in front. The windows of the car are tinted, so you can’t see inside at all.

I sneak over to the cabin and peak in a window. I don’t know what I’m expecting to see: maybe something out of a horror movie or Dante or something. But there’s nothing like that. It’s just a cabin, like a hunting lodge or something. The light’s on, and there are trophies of bucks, deer, that kind of thing, all around. It’s got a fireplace, TV, radio, everything you’d expect. It’s just normal.

The sack’s on the table. It’s tied shut and moving. Nearby, there are whips, knives, and a dozen other things I don’t want to think about. The demon, he’s just pacing around, talking into his cell phone again. He starts towards the door, so I dart around the corner, praying he doesn’t notice my footprints.

As soon as he clears the door, I can hear him again.

“--Most disappointed in this oversight. You promised me the gas would be functional. I understand perfectly well what you believed, but I hope you can appreciate that has little bearing on our arrangement. Yes, I know precisely what night this is. Yes. Yes, I see. Yes, I think thirty-percent would constitute a reasonable accommodation for this inconvenience.”

By now, he’s too far for me to hear. I figure this is my only chance, so I run around to the back and try the handle. Much to my relief, it’s unlocked. I move in as quickly as I dare and dart over to the table.

I grab a knife from the table. It’s old and rusty, with a dark layer of dried blood staining the blade and handle. I try not to think too hard on what that means, and I cut the ropes. Then I pull the sack open. The kid inside... I’ve never seen anyone as scared as this kid is. As soon as the sack’s open, I can smell that he’s soiled himself. Hell, I don’t blame him for a minute: if it had been me in there, I’d have shit my pants, too. His eyes are closed, and he’s flailing. His arms and legs are bound, and he’s gagged. All the knots are professional, too.

“Shh!” I say. “It’s not... look, kid. I’m here to rescue you.”

His eyes open, and he sees me. He stops fighting me, but this kid isn’t any less afraid. If anything, I think he’s more terrified.

“I’m going to cut your legs free,” I say, already starting on the ropes. It only takes me a second. I help the kid stand. “This way,” I say, grabbing his arms, which are still tied.

We hurry to the back door and run out. Behind us, through the open door, I hear a howl of rage and fury that’s right out of some old monster movie. We keep running.

I’m not thinking now: neither of us are. We’re tearing through the woods, just trying to get farther and farther away, all the while wondering if that thing is just getting closer.

Eventually, the kid trips, and I stop to help him up. I also cut his arms free, and he pulls off his gag. He looks like he’s half frozen to death, so I hand him my Santa coat. We look around, and can’t see or hear anything. I don’t think we relax much, but we take our bearings and change direction. The kid takes over and leads us back towards his house. We haven’t said a word to each other since the cabin. Eventually, we meet up with my footprints, which makes it easier.

We’re so close we can see the lights in the house up ahead. We’re almost there. But then we realize we’re not alone.

“Good evening,” the voice says. The kid gasps and freezes up. He grabs me, clutching as if I can offer some sort of safety. I hold up the knife, unsure if I should try to fight or just try to kill myself.

The creature steps closer. We can see each other in the moonlight now. He’s far worse like this: his eyes practically light up like a wolf’s, and up close I can see his teeth. There are so many, all of them small and needle-sharp. His tongue’s long and flickers over them like a snake’s. He looks me over and then he laughs. Jesus Christ, that laugh. You ever heard a hyena laugh? That’s as good a description as I can give. It doesn’t do it justice, but... it’s like that. It makes me feel cold in a way the night and snow couldn’t. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s like I’m dead and buried in the ground. All that, just from hearing him laugh.

“Santa Claus! How wonderfully appropriate!” He sighs when he’s finished laughing. “I know you’re not a sibling, because Earl has no brothers or sisters. And there were no relatives in town, nor where any friends expected. Just a quiet night alone for the parents to share a bottle of wine while their darling boy dreamt of Christmas morning. Our research was impeccable.” He scratched his scalp at the base of one of his horns. “There was no DVD player in the living room, was there? I noticed, but dismissed it. You were, where? The attic? One of the closets?”

I don’t say anything. I just hold that knife up and try not to shake.

“Oh well. I really have been growing careless. But there’s little point dwelling on past mistakes. I am running late. So then, moving forward. We’ve established what you are, Mr. Thief. Do you know who I am?”

“I... I know who you are. You’re the devil.”

“The devil? The devil has more important things to do on Christmas Eve than trade words with a burglar. There was a time when the name Krampus had some resonance, you know. Now, I’m barely a footnote in academic discourse. Regardless, I assure you I am not someone you can fend off with that utensil.” He points at the knife with a sharpened fingernail.

“I’ll try if I have to,” I say, trying to sound intimidating. But I don’t question his words for an instant.

“So then, how to proceed? We shall either need to come to some equitable arrangement or finish this barbarously. I suspect the former would be preferable to you. So, I propose this offer. Relinquish your rights to the child and leave. In exchange, I shall not cause you injury or harm in this life. Is that acceptable?”

I know if I give him the kid, anything he does will be pinned on me, but I’d be lying if I say I didn’t consider it.

He sees me hesitate, so he goes on. “If it helps, the child you’re protecting is far from the angel you’ve imagined. He has found his way onto a most exclusive of lists, from which my itinerary is crafted.”

There’s something familiar about how he’s talking. I don’t know if it makes him less scary, but it makes me think I have a chance. So I say something to him I didn’t say to you: I blurt out, “I want a lawyer.”

He laughs again. It’s no less disorienting the second time, and it doesn’t help that it goes on longer than before. “Mr. Thief. We don’t use lawyers from where I’m from. I know, seems a pity, given how plentiful they are. No lawyers, I’m afraid, but we do have laws. Often we follow them; sometimes we don’t. How much pleasure does it give you then, for me to inform you that our law is on your side in this situation?” He grins at me, and I can’t speak. His laugh is nothing to that grin. “But, then, it is Christmas. And I do respect a thief more than most. Besides, you’ve given me a laugh and that alone may be worth the lives of a couple sinners. Especially since I’ve lost too much time to really enjoy myself, anyway. I’m needed elsewhere before the sun rises.”

He comes towards me, and I just stand there. Soon, he’s just a few feet away.

“There is one thing, though. That knife has some special significance to me. It has been in my collection for a very, very long time. I need to ask it be returned.”

Part of me thinks if I hand it over, he’ll turn around and gut me. But looking in his eyes... I know he wouldn’t need the knife. So I turn it around and hand it over, handle first, like he asked.

He grabs it with one hand, then catches my wrist with the other. He’s so fast and so strong, more so than I’d expected, and I expected a lot. I try to pull free, but it’s like I’m pulling against a truck.

He’s smiling again, and I brace myself for the end. But instead he lowers the knife and shakes my hand. “I meant what I said before, Mr. Thief. You’ve done our craft proud this evening, and that has merit in my eyes. So do take care. I wish you the best. And do have yourself a Merry Christmas.”

By then, the kid is long gone. I just wander back the rest of the way in a daze. When I get there, when I see you guys and your flashing lights, and you shout for me to give myself up... you know, I’m grateful. No matter what else it means, at least I’m not alone. I don’t think I could have taken much more of that.

I know you think I’m crazy. But if you can get that kid to talk, if you can ask him if I took him from his bed, I think he’ll do right by me. And if you look behind the house, you’ll find some tracks. Mine and others that’ll look like an animal’s. Follow those, and you’ll find a cabin. Look into it. Who rented it. See where the trail stops. Because I promise you, it will stop cold.

And it’s not just here. All over the country - probably all over the world - if you look hard enough, you’ll find other cases. The way he spoke was so methodical, it was just a routine.

I get how this sounds. And I don’t really care if you believe me. I don’t care if you let me go tomorrow or if I spend my life in jail for something I didn’t do.

Right now, I’m just grateful I get to see Christmas morning. Even if it is from behind bars.