Grandma doesn’t know we’re here. She’s dreaming about Neil Diamond.
Juney got the key from the knife drawer when Grandma wasn’t looking. We were there to run the steam cleaner on the carpets. She pays us, but it takes two to handle the big ancient thing, and she wants it done twice a month for some reason. The cobwebs in the rooms are like inverted snow that’s waiting for some sort of inverted Santa who isn’t coming either. Probably.
Grown-up movies always have mean characters say there’s no Santa and then some white hat or Cindy Lou Who shuts them up. But Dad’s the Easter Bunny and Mom’s the Tooth Fairy (caught them red handed) and either the red team or the blue team is lying about the election.
Adults lie. Old Santa is as real as Pokemon.
So this is what we do.
We creep into her house and we go looking for the stash. If all the presents are from parents and grandparents they have to hide them somewhere, right? Dad runs too tight a ship. It’s gotta be Grandma.
We’ve done the math and mapped her place and it can only be one spot. That weird crawlspace under the stairs with the perfect hinges and the (“bang, bang”) hardware-store fasteners.
But we pry it open and nothing.
Juney mutters “Shit,” and I don’t even squirm because I know I’m right. The fat man’s dead a thousand years, and there’s no way he was ever magic. Or made deer fly or compressed himself down chimneys or twisted time.
There’s a hissing sound. We turn.
The branches of the tree are moving where they were silent before.
There’s a gigantic package there, with both our names on it—“Juney + Della Thompson”—so big we can read it from there.
I grab a corner and tug. The paper comes loose.
Inky black, like my eyes are closed in a coal mine.
But smooth. Slick. Terrible.
It rises up like a photo negative of fire. Engulfs us.
There’s an “oh, oh, oh” as Inverted Santa disappears into the cobwebs.
Douglas Gwilym is an author and editor who has been known to compose a weird-fiction rock opera or two. He edited four years of the themed annual Triangulation (now in its 18th incarnation) and edits the upcoming Good Dark Fun, is an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and has taught at Alpha Young Writers workshop. See him read classics of the proto-Weird on YouTube and check out his stories at LampLight, Novel Noctule, Penumbric, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, or listen at Bloody Disgusting’s Creepy podcast and Tales to Terrify.