I reached the diner without incident. I unlocked the Expedition and climbed inside, started the engine, and cranked the heater full-blast. Then I sat behind the wheel for a few moments, trying to defrost. I didn’t think I’d ever be warm again. I closed my eyes for a moment, just listened to the engine running, to the heater whooshing hot air.
So this was Christmas Eve. Evil elves and a creepy Stephen King town. Fun.
Last year, I’d spent Christmas Eve in my warm bed with my boyfriend David next to me. We watched A Christmas Story marathon on TBS and drank egg nog and had a few adult moments.
This year, I’d screwed things up right after Thanksgiving and had exerted zero effort to patch things up. If I checked my cell phone, I’d probably find at least three missed calls from him.
I opened my eyes and sighed, turned down the heater a bit. The big problem with us was, he was okay with me being a werewolf and I wasn’t okay with him being okay with it.
Never mind that. Get moving. Get the SUV back, get these people out of here alive.
I drove back as fast as I felt was safe. The Ford slipped a few times in the street despite my carefulness; once, I went on the sidewalk and narrowly missed a street lamp. I eventually made it back to the house to find the elves still at the window. Good. They weren’t inside the house killing people. Good. Let them freeze their rotten little asses off–
Wait. Wait a frickin’ minute. Either the public school system had majorly failed me, or I really was counting eleven elves out there.
Yeah. I was counting eleven elves.
“No,” I muttered. “Come on. I killed it. Twice.”
I shut off the vehicle and slid out. Shut the door so it didn’t make much noise. The elves were still focused on the window. It was dead quiet out here, I knew they had to have heard me. I jumped the gate, rather than open it. Last time, it had squeaked. Feet landing in the snow was loud. Their ears twitched. I waited, counted one-two-three, started moving again on three. The elves still didn’t move.
One of the elves turned around. Grinned at me. I started up the walkway, waiting for it to move at me. It stayed still, though. It kept grinning at me, which was freaky.
I knocked on the door. Luke opened it a crack. “Holy god, you made it back–”
“Shh. Let me inside.”
I squeezed inside, locked the door behind me. The curtain was drawn across the window. I opened it a bit. The elves were lined up at the glass, their breaths fogging the glass. Mine waved at me. I dropped the curtain closed.
I debated telling them that the elves were immortal, then decided to just say that I managed to outrun mine.
It was nine-thirty. Two and a half hours or so until this was over. The fat guy was sitting against the wall next to the fireplace, with the guy in the A&M jacket, Bradley, watching him. He had his arm around his girlfriend. The parents were clustered on the huge leather sofa by the fish tank. Someone had raided the kitchen; there were bags of different kinds of chips piled on the coffee table, along with bottles of Cokes and Dr. Peppers. I grabbed a Dr. Pepper and chugged it. My belly rumbled. I grimaced. In all the excitement, I’d managed to ignore it, but I was hungry.
I did not want to be a hungry werewolf. I went into the kitchen. Big space. State of the art appliances. The refrigerator was the size of a small pickup truck. I opened it up, found a package of New York strip steaks. I glanced around the fridge door. The first floor was one big open space. I had a good view of the living room. No one was paying attention to me. I stayed behind the door and ripped open the cellophane. I tore off a chunk of steak with my serrated front teeth and devoured it. It barely hit my stomach before I was shoveling in the rest of the steak.
I finished the pack and buried it deep in the trash can under the sink. I washed my hands and face. Felt a lot better with some food in my belly. All we had to do now was sit tight until midnight. Then get the hell out.
I knew it wouldn’t be that easy, though. The villagers would not be pleased that we’d managed to avoid their death squad. We had weapons, at least, and maybe I should go house to house and slaughter as many of them as I could before midnight, even the odds a bit–
I closed my eyes for a moment. Opened them when the image of my befurred, clawed hands tearing into some faceless man’s throat came at me.
I am not doing that.
I splashed cold water on my face.
I am not doing that.
I repeated it. Again. And again. And again. Until Luke came into the kitchen and asked me what the plan was.
“Get everyone into the SUV and drive to the diner. Off-load everybody and make sure we all make it to the highway.”
“You think it’ll be that easy? I keep seein’ a load of townspeople armed with assault rifles convergin’ on this place come Christmas morning.”
“I do too, but what else can we do? According to Wilson, this place shuts down an hour after that. I don’t see much of a choice. The elves have us trapped in here. We can’t just get out and ki–uh, burn down their houses or whatever.”
Luke pulled out his phone. “Still no signal. I been hitting 911 just in case.”
I checked mine. Seven missed calls. All from David. Seven voicemail messages. The last call had been right before I’d pulled over for those two old assholes. I wondered how many I’d missed. If I’d get them back once I made it out of here. I put the phone back in my pocket. “I don’t have a signal either.”
We went back to the living room. We sat around and waited. Ten o’clock. Ten-thirty. Eleven. Eleven-thirty.
I stood up. Checked the window. Still full of elves. They hadn’t made any noise since I’d been back. With the clock winding down, I’d expected some window-tapping, maybe a rock or two being pitched at the glass.
Fat guy finally spoke. “You’re all gonna die.”
“Shut up,” I said. I had taken the Beretta back from Luke. I checked it again. Still ten bullets.
Wilson stood up. He had the shotgun. “Are you still planning to leave here right before midnight?”
Dad of four spoke up from the couch. “Those things will still be out there.”
I had mentioned leaving right before midnight, hadn’t I? That wouldn’t work, why had I thought that would work? The elves were faster than us, faster than even me. Snapping their necks, bashing their heads into pudding didn’t kill them, so bullets wouldn’t have much of an effect.
I shook my head. “We’ll wait until Christmas morning.”
Fat guy laughed. Bradley kicked him in his considerable gut.
“Stop,” I said. “Just . . . get ready to run for the truck. Kids in first, in the back. Get as far in the back as possible. Parents next. Then you two.” I pointed to the couple. “Then Luke. Wilson, you’re up front with me. We’ll reach the diner–”
“You won’t,” fat guy wheezed from the floor. When Bradley kicked him again, I didn’t tell him to stop.
“We will reach the diner,” I repeated. “Then it’s everyone out and in their cars. Whoever gets out of the parking lot first goes. No fighting. No tailgating. We can’t afford any wrecks. I’ll bring up the rear. Just drive and don’t stop until you reach the highway.”
Now the final minutes dragged. At two minutes to midnight, I lined everyone up at the door. Minus the fat man. He’d curled into the fetal position by the fireplace. Bradley’s last kick had turned his face an interesting shade of dark red.
One minute to go. I clicked off the Beretta’s safety.
Midnight. A bell rang twelve times. I heard a popping noise coming from outside. I pushed aside the curtain with the Beretta. The elves were disappearing. No fade-away, just there one second and then gone the next. Followed by a pop that I guess was air filling in the space where the elf had been.
At the eleventh pop, I opened the door. Coast was clear. For the moment. “Go,” I whispered. The single mom’s girl was first, followed by the boy, then his sister. I unlocked the Expedition from the doorway, followed them to it. I opened the gate, then the truck’s back door. I kept my hand on the gun, kept my head rotating. It had stopped snowing. It felt like it was warming up a bit.
The kids climbed in the very back. The others got inside in the order I’d laid out. I ran around the front of the Expedition. Wilson was climbing inside. I heard his door close, then heard the vehicle start. I’d given him the keys a few seconds earlier, thinking we’d save time that way.
It was idling, everyone was inside, all I had to do was pull a U-turn–and why hadn’t I thought to do that when I’d first brought the truck back, damn it all–and get to the diner and–
My face smacked into something hard. I hit the still-snow covered street on my back. My vision was blurry. Blood was leaking from my nose. I had managed to keep the gun, however, and I brought it up at the same time my vision cleared. I saw a large black hole hovering a few inches from my face. I sniffed. Smelled my blood and gunpowder.
Ah. The black hole was the twin barrels of a shotgun.
I looked past it, to a tall man in brown coveralls. He smiled. He had a Teddy Roosevelt mustache.
“You have made a few people very unhappy this Christmas morning,” he said.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Toss the gun and get up, please.”
“Well, since you said ‘please’.” I chucked the gun to my right. It landed in the middle of the street. I got to my feet. Two men had pulled Wilson from the Expedition. They dragged him to the opposite sidewalk, in front of a house that looked like something out of Gone With the Wind.
Teddy Mustache nudged me to join Wilson. I nodded at the house. “Is that Tara?”
I scanned my opponents. One shotgun. Two burly guys in pajamas and work boots. They looked cold.
“Dan,” Teddy Mustache said. He sighed.
“This is wrong, Bill. Every year, this is wrong.”
“What would you have us do, Dan? Sacrifice our own people?”
“Maybe if everyone just stayed inside and didn’t want anything–”
“You know that’s not right. It’s Christmas. Folks look forward to it all year-long. Your own mother got her health and beauty back. You yourself, that grocery store.”
“I wanted that so we could properly feed ourselves. Otherwise, the kids would gorge themselves on candy.”
Teddy leveled the shotgun at Dan. “And thank you for that. But killing Steve and Frankie James? That wasn’t right. What was your plan after getting out with these people, anyway?”
Wilson swallowed. “I didn’t have one. I didn’t think about that. I just wanted to do the right thing.”
“The right thing, sure.” He fired the shotgun at Wilson’s stomach.
“No!” I moved toward Teddy. One of the pajama guys decked me.
Wilson and I hit the sidewalk at the same time. His stomach was a bloody ruin. He was gulping air. I got to my knees. I glared at Teddy.
He was loading the shotgun. “I do believe I’d adjust my attitude if I were you. If you want to leave here.”
“Leave? Yeah, right. I’m getting both barrels next, right?”
He slammed the shotgun shut. “No. Not right. Y’all can leave.”
I glanced at Wilson. He wasn’t gulping air anymore. He was dead. “Yeah, sure.”
“I’m telling the truth. No reason to keep you here.”
“Isn’t there? We fucked up your Christmas.”
Oh god Anderson just shut up, I thought.
“Well now, yes. But that’s happened before. Truth is, it’s a rare year when all our visitors get themselves killed. Last year was a rare one. Lord, but weren’t those people dumb!” He laughed. The pajama guys joined in.
I stood up. Grab his shotgun. Twist it out of his hands. Smash his face in with its stock–I was sure that was what had nailed me–and swing it at the other two.
Teddy stepped aside. He gestured at the SUV. “Go on, miss. Drive safe.”
I took a step off the sidewalk, expecting any minute to hear the shotgun, to feel my guts leaving my body. Would that take me out? Would I die in the snow before my body had a chance to repair the catastrophic damage?
I turned around. “You are really letting us leave. All of us.”
He laid the shotgun on his shoulder like a baseball bat. “I believe that’s what I said.”
“What’s to stop me from telling on you?”
“Won’t do much good. This place is hidden from the world except on Christmas Eve. I’m sure Dan mentioned that.”
“I’m a cop.”
He shrugged. “Okay.”
“I’ll be at the head of that road next year. I’ll make sure no one goes down it. And if I see those two old bastards? I’ll stuff them in the trunk of their car. I’ll do that every year. It’ll be my new Christmas tradition.”
He smiled. “No, you won’t.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because you’ll forget this place. Once you leave here, you’ll forget. So will they. You’ll have some different memories. But we won’t. Our two very nice elderly residents won’t flag you or any of them down next year. If you pull over, they’ll say their son’s on the way to help them. They’ll make sure you’re sent on your way. We never had repeat visitors, miss. Just one of our charms.” He smiled again.
“Then I won’t leave.”
“We don’t want you here.”
I curled my hands into fists. “I’m not letting this happen again next year.”
Teddy Mustache swung the gun off his shoulder. “Leave.”
“If you don’t leave, I’ll kill everyone in that truck.”
Behind him, one of the pajama guys reached into the hedges that ringed the Tara plantation house. He came out holding a Thompson submachine gun. He pointed it at the Expedition.
I heard someone scream. Man, woman, or child, I couldn’t tell. But I raised my hands and took a step backwards. “All right, for Chrissake, put it down. I’ll leave. We’ll leave.”
“Best hurry,” Teddy said. “You’ve only forty minutes. If you don’t make it, we’ll kill you all.”
I got in the truck. Luke said from behind me, “Are they letting us leave? What’s happening? I saw what they did to Da–”
“We’re leaving.” I swung a U-turn. “They’re letting us leave.”
We drove to the diner. The snow was melting, and that made the road even more treacherous. It took us fifteen minutes. I hustled everyone to their vehicles. The Expedition led the way to the highway. I took the tail end, behind Luke’s ancient pickup truck.
We had twenty minutes.
At the ten minute mark, we passed through the smoke. It still smelled like fresh-baked cookies.
Five minutes. I saw a break in the trees. The highway.
Two minutes. Luke’s truck turned to the left. The brake lights flashed. I was still on the road.
“No, come on,” I whispered. “Drive, you stupid asshole, drive–”
He sped up. I turned to the right, slewed onto the highway’s gravel shoulder. I turned around, watched the road vanish. Trees didn’t grow up in front of it or anything like that, it just faded away. There was a space in the trees, but the longer I stared at it, the less I saw it. I finally gave up. I put the car in park and slid out of the car. I pulled out my cell phone and accessed its Memo feature. I wanted to tap a quick note to myself, remember this, be here next year–
I blinked. What. The. Hell.
I stared at the phone’s white screen. I went back to the home screen. I had messages waiting. From David.
Right. Our fight.
I looked around. I was on the side of the road. This place looked like Highway 130. Sure. I’d been heading out of town.
I had a vague memory of a motel room, a few drinks in a bar and grill. Some guy with a mustache trying to pick me up. Me politely declining and heading back to my room with a bottle of Southern Comfort and some limes. Heading back early this morning, grateful that I had no hangover.
No hangover, but no distinct memories, either. I must’ve done a number on my liver.
The back of my neck itched. When I scratched, I had what looked like dried blood under my fingernails. No idea what that was about.
I looked down at the phone again. What the hell, it was Christmas. I speed-dialed his number.
When he picked up, I said, “Merry Christmas.”