Yellow Mama Archives II

Rick McQuiston

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Zeigler, Martin
Zimmerman, Thomas
Zumpe, Lee Clark

Santa’s Playtime

Rick McQuiston

 

            Rick stared out the window into his backyard. His eye caught the occasional snowflake as it drifted down from the cold night sky. If it were under different circumstances it would have been beautiful.

          But it wasn't beautiful. It was terrifying.

          Rick stared into the night. More than once he saw something dart by, but he could never get a good look at it. He thought how it looked something like an elf: small hunched-over creature with pointy ears and a malicious grin, but he couldn't be sure.

          Closing the blinds, Rick sauntered into the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. He was surprised he still had an appetite. He did, however, have to fight back the terrible images in his mind of Mrs. Shelldack being sucked into a giant red bag.

          A red bag, just like the one Santa Claus used for all the presents.

          After two bites of his sandwich, Rick was startled by a sharp rap on the side of the house. For an instant he thought it was Luke, his buddy who lived a few doors down. He would frequently knock on windows or the siding of the house when he would stop by.

          But then reality reared its ugly head and reminded Rick that it couldn't possibly be Luke. Luke had been mauled to death by a group of reindeer. And he had seen it too. One minute he was there, and the next...

          And to make matters worse, he could have sworn that one of the beasts had a red nose.

          Rudolph?

          Rick pulled a steak knife out of the drawer and waved it in his trembling hand as he held it out in front of him. "I... I'm armed," he croaked.  "I'll call the police."

          The sound abruptly stopped and Rick was left alone with his imagination, which in many ways was worse. He saw something slide past the window then, something that wore a red hat with white trim.

Rick’s mind raced for an explanation for what was happening. Every time he turned on the TV or radio, hoping for any information from the authorities, all that was on were Christmas commercials or specials. If he tried to use his cell phone, all he heard was Christmas music. White Christmas and Jingle Bells were but a few of the tunes he heard over the phone’s tiny speaker.

In short, he was trapped. And worse than that, he didn’t even know how or by what.

The colorful blinking lights stretched across the window. Something pulled the wire taut, jiggling the bulbs ever so slightly. Whatever it was, it kept out of sight.

Rick couldn’t help but wonder who, or what, was responsible.

And then he knew.

A hand appeared. Although it was more like a mitten than a hand, a giant black mitten the size of a basketball. It twisted the strand of lights deep within its folds as if positioning them to be in just the right location.

Rick shuddered when he saw the arm of the thing. He swallowed hard, trying to keep from heaving.

Snow! The arm was made of snow!

Moonlight reflected off the tiny frozen flakes, revealing a thick appendage that moved as if it were flesh and bone. And when the thing the arm was attached to stepped forward, Rick nearly passed out.

It was a snowman! A real, honest-to-God snowman! It wore a black top hat, had lumps of coal for eyes, and a corncob pipe jutting out of its impossibly wide mouth.

The snowman looked directly at Rick and smiled. Jagged Christmas light bulbs made up its teeth, and each and every one glistened with wet snow.

The music was next. The familiar Christmas jingle Frosty the Snowman rang through the chilled night from an unknown source. It was distinct and clear.

"’Frosty the Snowman …’"

Then came the inevitable: an arm through the window.

Rick shielded his face from the onslaught of flying glass. Several large pieces hit him in the face, but he wasn’t hurt so he shrugged them off.

"Happy Birthday!" a warm, familiar voice said.

Rick screamed and slammed the steak-knife down into the arm as it reached into the house for him. It eagerly stretched its impossible length toward him, only recoiling when the blade sliced into its icy flesh. It then pulled back out of the window.

Rick caught a glimpse of the huge snowman, Frosty the Snowman, lumbering away from the house. It disappeared into a row of bushes near the property line.

Thinking fast, Rick yanked a cutting board out from beneath the sink and wedged it into the opening. It didn’t completely cover the hole but stopped most of the December wind from coming through. The Christmas lights still dangled in the night, swaying in the cold breeze, and Rick wanted desperately to pull them down but didn’t dare reach outside. God only knew what might try to grab him if he did.

"All right,” he mumbled to himself, "you need to get a hold of yourself.” He set the knife down and ran his hands through his thinning hair. "There’s no way those things outside are really what they look like. Elves? Santa’s reindeer? Frosty the Snowman?"

The sound shook the house, causing light fixtures to swing and plaster to crack. Something had landed on the roof and was dragging across it in a steady, madness- inducing rhythm.

Rick snatched the knife back up and began to pace throughout his house. He followed the trail of whatever was on his roof as best he could, bumping into walls and furniture as he moved along. He could hear what sounded like hooves scampering back and forth, punctuated by thick grunts and a heavy thud as someone landed on the roof.

The insane notion that Santa Claus himself had landed on his roof tried to worm its way into Rick’s head. He tried to dismiss it, but the fact that there was indeed someone on his house would not let him.

The steps plodded across the roof. They seemed to be without purpose, occasionally pausing only to shuffle along again at varying speeds.

Unsure what to do, Rick found himself withdrawing into a dark corner of his living room. He abandoned his attempt to follow the footsteps on the roof; they were very erratic. If he holed up and waited for help, then he might survive the night. He couldn’t begin to guess what still awaited him outside (or up above).

When he first heard it, Rick couldn’t believe his ears. After all the madness and terror he already experienced, this one very well might have taken the prize. Trembling, Rick stood up and stumbled over to the nearest window. He parted the curtains an inch, then two.

The pine tree towered over his house. It was easily twenty feet tall, perhaps more, and moved by some unseen motion beneath its bristling branches. It swayed in the cold breeze as it lumbered toward Rick’s house, a series of brightly-lit lights dotting its dense hide.

Rick watched, open-mouthed, as the beast glided across the street, carving a messy swath through the fallen snow. With the ease of someone brushing aside a strand of hair, the tree swatted his car, causing it to careen thirty feet down the road before rolling over into a culvert ditch. Instantly, plumes of black smoke spiraled up into the night.

"You’ve got to be kidding me," Rick moaned.

But the tree was no joke. It was alive.

The sounds from the roof increased. Footsteps scampered in all directions. Cloven hooves shuffled back and forth. Drywall cracked, raining dust down into the house.

Realizing he needed something better to protect himself with, Rick ran into his bedroom. He pulled open the closet door and yanked down a large shoebox from the top shelf. Inside was his handgun. He whipped it out and slid a cartridge into the handle.

Turning around, he listened intently for any sign of danger. He knew it was all around him, threatening to crash through a door or window at any moment, but since he had his gun, he felt relatively safe.

Stepping so cautiously that he hardly made a sound, Rick tiptoed to the bedroom door. A sour odor permeated the house, and with it a sense of foreboding that was as stark as a punch in the gut.

"Ho, ho, ho,” a deep voice said from the living room. It rang throughout the house, punctuating the painful silence like bullets in a wall. "Merry Christmas."

Rick steadied his gun. He inched toward the door. His heart threatened to burst through his chest. His breathing became labored.

"Meeeerrrrry Christmas."

The smell gradually changed from sour to sweet. A faint aroma of pine cones and candy wafted through the house.

Rick was as confused as he was scared. Something was in his house, and he didn’t know what it was or how it got in. He decided to do the only thing he could do: confront it.

It would have been bad enough if Santa Claus himself was standing in his living room. That alone would have been enough to crack the fragile state of his psyche. But what he saw was far worse.

The room was crowded with an eclectic assortment of Christmas-themed creatures. There were elves, grimacing, hateful things with pointy ears and clawed hands, and beastly reindeer complete with bell-lined red straps and twisted antlers scraping against the walls. There was a snowman, Frosty the Snowman if Rick had to guess, flexing his white arms in grisly anticipation of getting a hold of someone. And even Mrs. Claus herself, plump and jolly, but with an uncanny undertone of malevolence to her demeanor. She was harboring evil thoughts and would most certainly act upon them if given the chance. Outside the window, Rick could see the huge pine tree lurking. Bright strands of Christmas lights were still draped across its branches, and more than once it brushed up against the side of the house.

Without thinking, Rick raised his gun and pulled the trigger. He almost laughed when the only thing that shot out of the barrel were chunks of cookies. The pieces crumbled and fell to the floor. Milk then dribbled out of the gun and pooled onto the cookies, creating a soggy mess.

"That’s a shame," a voice said from somewhere in the room, "I was looking forward to my milk and cookies."

Rick wanted to turn and run out of the house, but couldn’t. The tree (and God only knew what else) would be waiting for him if he did. And that would be if he could get past the things inside the house.

"Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas."

In the center of the room was where the elves were most concentrated. They roiled and squirmed like worms after a thunderstorm. Something then began to lift up beneath them. They struggled to get out of the way, but mostly just fell by the wayside.

First, a hat, a red hat with white trim and a white ball on its tip. Then a face, a jovial face that belonged on a Christmas card or television commercial, not in someone’s living room.

Santa stood up, the last few elves tumbling off his prodigious body. He raised a gloved hand and straightened the enormous black belt that circled his waist. His eyes twinkled with a cold fire.

"Santa?" was all Rick managed to say when he opened his mouth. He immediately felt foolish.

"Live and in person."

"B… but how? How could any of you be real?"

Mrs. Claus stepped forward. She kicked a small elf out of the way. The creature growled as it smacked into a wall. "We are as real as you are," she said in a grandmotherly voice. "But we only get to play once every twenty years."

Santa raised a hand to his wife and she quickly fell silent.

"What did she mean…play?" Rick asked, although he didn't really want an answer.

Santa moved forward. His heavy black boots were still wet with melting snow. "Just what she said. Every twenty years I let my workers run loose, you know, have a little fun. And everyone, and everything, is included. Not just my elves and the wife, but Christmas trees, snowmen, and even decorations. Everything."

The conviction that Santa spoke with chilled Rick to the bone. He could hardly believe that he was talking to Saint Nick as it was, much less being threatened by him.

Santa smiled so wide it looked as if his beard would fall off. Blood-encrusted teeth ground against one another in his mouth. He burrowed through the sea of elves and assorted presents and decorations, and came to within three feet of where Rick stood. He glanced around the room. "You see, everyone needs to let off a little steam. If they don't, things could get ugly." A strand of Christmas lights wrapped around Rick's ankles then, binding him tight. Another strand secured his arms to his sides. "We work all year long, every year, and all around the world too." His tiny nose twitched. His face tightened. "So, my friend, you are the unlucky recipient of our playtime."

"W…what do you mean recipient?"

"The outlet to let off that steam I mentioned."

"But you’re Santa Claus. You can't hurt anyone."

Santa pondered Rick's words for a moment. He ran a mitten through his beard. Behind him, the elves, Mrs. Claus, and Frosty were becoming agitated, but they stood their ground. "I've been watching mankind for a long time, and one thing I've learned is that there's good in everyone." He stepped up to Rick, nearly knocking him over with his bulk. "And there's also evil in everyone."

Rick felt nauseated. The sour-sweet smell was making his stomach turn. And Santa's breath was rank with it.

Mrs. Claus nudged up beside her famous husband. Her normally happy appearance was twisted into a feral expression of hunger. Frosty stood right behind her, an equally disturbing look on his round, white face. The elves jostled for position throughout the room.

Santa placed his hands on his huge belly and let out a hearty laugh. "Okay, everybody," he wheezed, "it's playtime!"


Testing the Waters

Rick McQuiston

          Preston switched on the radio. Normally he didn't like distractions while he was driving, but given the present circumstances, he just couldn't resist the primal urge, like everybody else had, to hear any update on the pandemic.

          He fumbled with the radio for a few seconds before settling on a generic news station. A few gentle twists on the volume knob and the monotone droning of a man's voice quickly became coherent through the car's speakers.

          “The latest study suggests that the Pro1967D Pandemic has been spreading at an alarming rate. The pathogen, being both air and water-borne, has thus far eluded virtually every effort to curb its spread. The CDC has recently announced that the virus, a derivative of the flesh-eating strain Heights-02Sterling, named after its supposed point of origin, is now capable of infecting animals as well. Dogs, cats, and any other domesticated breeds should be handled with care and caution and probably tested if any symptoms like clouded-over eyes or nervous twitching of the extremities, such as the hands, occur.

          In addition, the president held a press conference...”

          Preston sighed with disgust and switched the radio off. As the pandemic increased its lethal grip on the world, he found himself becoming more or less desensitized to all around him. As each day passed, he cared less and less for other people, for animals, and even for himself.

          Coming to a gradual stop, he rested his arm on the armrest and cupped his chin in a sweaty hand. His mind was a tempest, a swirling maelstrom that was barely contained within his skull.

          “Pro-1967D,” he mumbled under his breath. “Sounds like some sort of vitamin supplement.”

          His words slipped from his mouth and hung in the stuffy air of the car. Somehow he remembered saying something just like it seven years earlier. Back then, and it was still fresh in his mind, another disease had spread across the continent. Dubbed Secul-CV85, it was similar to malaria, but with a dash of cancer-like venom tossed in for good measure. It resisted the best efforts from the top minds in the country to stop it for nearly 12 months, and by the time it relinquished its hold on the US it had killed more than 15 million people.

          And before that, 14 years ago by his recollection, another scourge had had its way with the people of his home state of Michigan. Originating in the dank suburbs of Detroit, apparently from an abandoned house used by drug dealers, the disease escaped its dire confines and wreaked havoc with frightening speed. Ovid Flu, as it was dubbed by the media, in reference to the street the house was located on, became something of an icon in the annals of pathogens. It killed indiscriminately, slicing through racial, gender, and age barriers with relative impunity. No one was safe, regardless of their social or financial status in life.

          The disease did, however, seem to remain within the state. Not one case of Ovid Flu was reported outside of Michigan. In fact, there were even reports about people who were infected with the disease, and after traveling to another state for one reason or another (different treatment options, family or job obligations, etc.), became healthy again. No trace of the pathogen was detected in their bodies. The doctors could not explain it, which led some (most notably religious zealots and the like) to explain it was an act from God Himself.

          The streetlight switched from red to green, momentarily pulling Preston away from his thoughts. He removed his foot from the brake and slid it over to the gas pedal, firmly pressing it down. The custom-designed, gold-plated Rolls-Royce Phantom immediately responded then by lurching forward, the 12-cylinder 6.75-liter motor filling his ears with its smooth, perfectly-honed roar.

          Preston loved his new toy. Even in the midst of a global crisis where people were dying from a disease that resisted attempts to treat it with seemingly-supernatural ability he still loved driving his Rolls-Royce.

          Supernatural. The word stuck in his head after all other thoughts had left.

          Supernatural.

          Preston felt a trace of sorrow creep into his conscience. When he had accidentally summoned the creature, a result of foolish tampering with the talisman he found while on a hike in the mountains, he had no idea what he had unleashed. One minute he was simply minding his own business, taking in all Nature had to offer, and the next he was facing the diminutive figure that swirled with a collage of nauseating colors and sported a visage that alternated between blinding evil and warm empathy, the latter heavily underlined by the former. Its tiny arms, no longer than a man's finger, swayed at its sides like a pair of wet noodles, and its clawed feet clicked on the sun-baked stone, creating a disturbing sound reminiscent of a chorus of drunk tap dancers.

          “Greetings, young gentleman,” the creature said in a polite tone. “I bid you a gracious welcome.”

          Preston found himself rooted to where he stood. Any fear he felt was diluted substantially by simple fascination and curiosity. He was standing before a supernatural phenomenon.

          The creature then started rambling on and on about how mankind had ruined the world, all the while black spittle spiraling out of the corners of its oversized mouth.

          Preston caught glimpses of green-stained serrated teeth, too many to fit comfortably within the maw.

          Its words, however, struck a nerve in him. He couldn't deny it. Mankind was ruining the world, there was no doubt about it, and this stark revelation, having hardened his heart to his fellow man, cushioned what the creature said next.

          It was a proposition. It offered Preston anything he wanted, except for wishes that would interfere with its main goal, if he would do one thing: simply wish for the end of the world. It then went on to explain that it was not a demon, that demons in fact did not exist except in man's own mind, but was a harbinger of sorts, an entity who had watched mankind since the first Homo Sapiens had entertained a reasonably coherent thought, and from that first thought it had waited, tallying up the number of dark impulses, however inconsequential, until the one that tipped the scales, so to speak, in its favor.

          Preston had to admit that the notion of ending mankind did appeal to him to a small degree. As long as he remained alive and unharmed he could do anything he wanted, have anything he wanted, be anybody he wanted. He had no family, no friends, no interests in anyone's well-being outside of his own, so his conscience really didn't factor into the situation.

Plus, there was the chance that the creature was pulling his leg. It couldn't have been more than a foot tall and probably weighed less than a plump rat, so he did doubt it was capable of a display of such power.

          But then before he could answer, the creature waived a sinuous hand above its head, displacing the air as if it radiated intense heat. Its eyes bulged outward, nearly splitting open, and tiny wisps of green smoke streamed from its tensed fingertips.

          It had readily agreed to Preston's condition, having probed his mind for the answer it so hungrily sought.

          And then it was gone, vanishing in the blink of an eye.

          Deciding that he had imagined the whole thing, Preston simply went on his way. And since he couldn't do anything about it, he called out a wish.

          “I want ten million dollars!”

          Instantly, an enormous stack of fresh $100 bills, all tied with bands that had $50,000 stamped on their front, materialized a few feet in front of him.

          Snapping out of his thoughts, Preston drove along the mostly deserted road. He noticed a few people here and there, but they were either in the terrible death throes of the virus or were dead already, their lifeless bodies bloated from the disease.

          He felt sick with himself. He had caused this, he was responsible. He had unleashed the creature to destroy the world.

          And all so he could be rich, and have the fancy car he wanted, and worst of all: remain healthy and alive.

          That was the toughest part for him to deal with, the fact that he would live while everyone else died.

          He came to a stop on the side of the road and shut the engine off. The Military hadn't reached his part of the state yet, so he wasn't worried about it. They only occupied the densely populated areas first instead of bothering with the smaller locales, such as where he was.

          Preston closed his eyes and let his mind wander, the cries of the stricken fading as he drifted into a troubled daydream. But no sooner had it started when it was shattered by something slamming into his car. The jolt was powerful, like a starved lion tearing into a bloody carcass.

          With shock dictating his reaction Preston flung his disoriented gaze to the passenger side of his beloved car and immediately saw the diseased face of a woman, who when healthy would no doubt have been very pretty, smeared against the glass. She looked dead but her violent twitching and rotating clouded-over eyes said otherwise.

          Preston felt sick to his stomach. He had never been this close to someone with Pro1967D before.

          He instinctively pushed himself into his seat in an attempt to put as much distance between himself and the poor woman as he could.

          The woman slid to the ground, her mouth and nose leaving greasy trails on the glass.

          The creature was perched on a large stone next to the shoulder of the road. It looked as it had when he first encountered it, except for some added weight. Despite maintaining its same height it was now undoubtedly heavier, perhaps by as much as 50%. It also wore the same expression as it did before, although now the evil seemed to be in the minority.

          “Greetings, young gentleman. It's good to see you again.”

          Preston found himself staring at the diminutive abomination; words eluded him.

          The creature sensed his hesitancy so it continued.

          “I must say that I finally think I got it right this time.” It hopped off the stone and strode toward Preston's car. “Don't you think? The virus is quite effective, you must admit.” It gestured toward its surroundings with wiry arms. “At this rate mankind will be wiped out within a week, perhaps two. The first batch, I believe they called it the Ovid Flu, was not much more than an experiment. I was testing the waters, so to speak. The second batch, however, proved much more effective. Secul-CV85 was a big improvement over its predecessor. It was much better quality.”

          Preston was pushing himself into his seat so much his back began to hurt.

          The creature reached the car. Standing up to the door, its short stature prevented it from being seen by its lackey so with a slight twist of a finger it raised itself up to Preston's eye level.

          Preston could hardly look at the swirling colors of mankind's destroyer.

          “Not to worry though, young gentleman,” the creature slurred, its pointed nose scraping against the window. You are wealthy in a world of poverty. You are enlightened in a world of ignorance. You are strong in a world of weakness. You are alive and well in a world of sickness and death. Surely you are a lucky man.”

          And with those cryptic words the creature lowered itself. Then with a flick of its sinuous finger dispelled its foul form into sheer nothingness, leaving Preston alone with his tormented thoughts.

          “Alive and well in a world of sickness and death,” he muttered to himself over and over again. “Everyone is dying but I'm alive and well.”

           He started the car, momentarily losing himself in the finely-crafted hum of the motor. He slipped it into gear and the Rolls Royce crept forward, the loose gravel on the  shoulder crunching under its weight.

          “Alive and well. I'm alive and well.”

          The Rolls gained traction on the pitted and cracked asphalt.

          And when Preston looked into the glare of the rear-view mirror and noticed, at the same time his hands began to twitch on the custom-made steering wheel, that his eyes had become clouded over, foggy windows into a damned soul.


Rick McQuiston is a fifty-five-year-old father of two who loves anything horror-related. He's had over 400 publications so far, and written five novels, thirteen anthologies, one book of novellas, and edited an anthology of Michigan authors. He's also a guest author each year at Memphis Junior High School. Currently, he's working on a new novel.

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