This year, I made an egregious mistake. It was one of those decisions that I knew was bad at the time I was making it, and part of me was screaming at me that I was being an idiot, but I still went ahead with it anyway. I don’t make those kinds of mistakes often. When I do, though, damn, they come back to bite me every single time.
At the beginning of December, a friend of mine came to me with a request. He’s the manager of the only local mall within thirty miles that is still operating. While there aren’t many stores that remain open there, the one time that things get even slightly busy is around Christmas. There’s something about the holiday season that makes people want to walk into a big open building so that they can rummage around in small claustrophobic stores, I guess. It’s the only time of year that the various retailers that lease store space manage to make more than a minuscule profit.
To help get everyone into the holiday spirit, the mall is decorated with all the usual holiday cheer. As much as I just kind of crap over malls in my last paragraph, I have to say that there really is something magical about them during the holiday season. I have found memories as a kid walking under giant wreaths and ornaments that hung from the ceiling. Christmas music would play gently through the building and lights would twinkle in seemingly every corner. Both the shoppers and the store employees seemed nicer at that time of year.
The big centerpiece to every mall at Christmas time was, of course, Santa Claus. There would be a spot in the center of the building that would be decorated to look like a workshop or a winter wonderland, and that would be where Santa would be located. It seems silly to think back on it as an adult, but it really was a big deal as a kid. There was the big guy himself, ready to take a picture with you and to get your present list right from the horse’s mouth.
It wasn’t really Santa, of course. It was some guy that had been hired to play the part. I think all kids know that, or at least suspect it. It weirdly doesn’t matter, though, does it? It was still one of the highlights of the Christmas season.
That brings me back to the favor my friend asked of me. The Santa actor that he had hired had needed to back out due to a family emergency, and he hadn’t been able to find a replacement. He had happened to bump into my wife Anne at the grocery store, though, and while they had caught up she had happened to mention that I had most of December off thanks to accumulated vacation time that I had needed to use before the new year.
I’m guessing that you can see the answer that he came up with when he put two and two together.
I politely turned him down. Putting aside the fact that the pay that was offered was awful, I just didn’t want to do it. My idea of vacation was relaxing and doing the absolute bare minimum, not sitting in an uncomfortable chair all day while children coughed and sneezed all over me. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.
It was Anne that convinced me to agree. At first she was completely onboard with my position, but when she found out that the job also came with a significant discount at all the stores in the mall she flipped to the other side of the argument. We needed new furniture now that our Great Dane was out of that annoying puppy phase where they chew everything within reach. With the discount we would be able to afford that immediately rather than needing to wait for our tax return the following February.
That was how my much-anticipated and much-needed vacation turned into an endless procession of greedy children and stressed parents.
Somehow, I managed to make it through the three weeks with my sanity intact. I was close to stepping off that cliff a few times, but each time I talked myself out of it at the last minute. The last hour of my final shift on Christmas Eve felt like it lasted years.
It didn’t help that I had been forced to take some medication to help me get through it. One of the hundreds of children with runny noses had passed their cold onto me, and I was determined not to have more than the sniffles by Christmas morning. To accomplish this, I drank a grove’s worth of orange juice and took cold medication at regular intervals.
On my final break of the day, I had gone to take a dose of the medication and found that the packet was empty. I had hurried over to the pharmacy next to the mall and bought more. They didn’t have the brand that I typically used, so I had been forced to buy a different one.
Apparently I should have taken a moment to read the package a bit closer, because it turned out that I had grabbed the nighttime version instead of the non-drowsy pills. I found this out immediately after I had taken them. I had stared at the label for a few moments before coming to the conclusion that it would be fine. How bad could it be, right?
During that last hour, I nearly fell asleep on multiple occasions. One minute I would be listening to a kid’s wish list of toys, and the next my head would be snapping back after drifting off for a few seconds. The further into the hour I got, the more often it happened.
Even when I wasn’t falling asleep, I was completely zoned out. I felt like I was existing in a fog. Everything became automatic: wait for the kid to rattle of their list, hand them a candy cane, and send them on their way with a quick “Merry Christmas”.
WIth about ten minutes left in my shift, I started seeing things. More accurately, I started seeing something. Sometimes when I looked out beyond the small Santa’s Village set, I would see an odd figure off in the distance. I couldn’t make it out very well, but it was tall, gray, and it seemed to have quite a long neck. It moved in and out of the crowd of shoppers, stopping every so often to examine someone closer before moving on.
Each time I saw it, the sight of it would cause me to jerk slightly and my mind would temporarily cut through the fog. I would blink a few times, and when I focused my eyes again the figure would be gone. After the first few times of this I swore to never spend a dime on cold medication again. Obviously it had quite the effect on me.
Finally, mercifully, my shift was over. At that point I knew that it wasn’t safe for me to drive home. I didn’t want to risk the medication knocking me out while I was on the road. As I watched the last of the shoppers filing out of the mall doors, I called Anne and explained what was going on. She immediately volunteered to come pick me up, telling me that we could come back and get my car the next day.
It was going to take her a while to get me, however. The snow was really coming down outside, and the roads weren’t in great condition. I told her to take her time and hung up.
My next call was to the friend that managed the mall. He wasn’t actually at the mall, of course. Only a madman would be working at a mall on Christmas Eve, after all.
When he picked up, I told him what was happening. He told me that, while all the mall staff including the two security guards were leaving, I was welcome to stay inside until Anne got there to pick me up. He had an extra key in his office, and I would just need to use it to unlock the front door and re-lock it behind me when I left. That way I wouldn’t have to stand out in the freezing cold while I waited. I gladly took him up on his offer.
I went behind the chair that I sat on when I was meeting children and retrieved my backpack. As I did so, one of the guards came up to me and told me that the manager had let him know what was going on. He asked if I wanted him to wait with me, but I told him that wasn’t necessary. There was no point in him missing time with his family.
Instead of immediately going to the hallway housing the mall staff offices, I went into one of the bathrooms and took off my Santa beard and hat. I hadn’t bothered to bring a full change of clothes because I obviously hadn’t known that I was going to be stuck in the mall after closing, but I certainly wasn’t going to wear more of the costume than I needed to while I waited. When I finished, I went back out of the bathroom with a yawn.
I hadn’t been in there for more than a few minutes, but by the time I emerged the mall was empty. All the stores were closed, the music was no longer playing over the speakers, and the overhead lights were dimmed. I looked around uneasily. If I was being honest with myself, it was a little creepy.
Unease quickly reverted to exhaustion, however. The medication was really kicking in now, and I yawned again as I shook my head in an effort to clear it. That effort was in vain. It had been too long of a day and I had taken too much of the medicine for something as simple as a head shake to work.
I slung my backpack over my shoulders and started towards the manager’s office. The best course of action was to retrieve the keys, sit down on one of the benches near the mall entrance, and wait for Anne. Fighting off sleep until she arrived would be tricky, but maybe I could set an alarm on my phone just in case.
Through my mental haze I heard a sound. At least I thought that I did. It was so quiet that I wasn’t sure if I really did. I frowned. I wasn’t even sure what it had sounded like. I ignored it and continued on.
I heard the sound again but kept going. I was bound to hear odd sounds that I normally wouldn’t now that the mall was closed. After all, there were the noises of people shopping to cover up the sounds that all older buildings made. It was just some pipe moving warm air through it for the heaters or something settling as the night grew colder outside. Nothing to worry about. Besides, I was too tired to worry about such things.
I passed by the mall’s movie theater. It was only a few stores down from the office hallway. I glanced at the posters displaying the current films being played. I made a face. The entire lineup was surprisingly bad with the exception of a special screening of Scrooged. That one got a pass.
I turned my attention forward just in time to see long fingers begin to curl around the edge of the office hallway. I was so tired that it took me almost double the time it normally would to react. Stopping in my tracks, I watched as a second set did the same thing just above the first three. All of the fingers ended in points that extended two to three feet.
As I stood there uncomprehendingly, a hideous face stretched out from behind the wall. Its eyes had no lids, and the yellowish orbs with black centers seemed to strain out from the sockets. Its mouth was pulled back in a smile, its lips cracked and broken. A disgusting black liquid flowed out of its mouth and poured onto the floor.
“Merry Christmas,” the monster said in a scratchy voice.
I cried out in surprise as fear gripped me. I stumbled backwards and fell to the ground, landing on my bottom with a thud. All feelings of being tired were suddenly gone.
So was the creature. I stopped in mid-shout as it disappeared. It didn’t pull back into the hallway or otherwise move out of view. One moment it was there, and the next it wasn’t.
I sat on the ground for a few moments, looking around in confusion while waiting for my heartrate to return to something resembling normal. I had no idea what had just happened.
I thought back to the medication that I had taken. It had to have been some sort of hallucination brought on by the drug. Maybe I was allergic to it. I nodded to myself. That made sense. In fact, I thought that I had read on the box that hallucinations were a known side effect if too much was taken in a single dose. I didn’t think that I had taken too many of the pills, but it was certainly possible.
I got back to my feet and ran a hand over my face. As the adrenaline faded, I began to feel even more tired than I had been just minutes earlier. I sighed as I took a step towards the hallway.
The creature was back, and this time its entire body had emerged from the hallway. It was extremely tall and towered over me, and its arms and legs were thin to the point of being emaciated. It looked down at me with that same grin as it extended its needle-like fingers towards me.
“Merry Christmas,” it repeated in that same raspy voice.
It didn’t disappear when I screamed this time. It seemed to waver slightly as my fear spiked, appearing for a moment like a heat mirage coming off of hot asphalt, but that only lasted for a less than a second as it resolidified. I noticed that my head didn’t clear the way that it had when I had first seen the creature. The medication was really taking hold now.
It started to move forward. It moved slowly and methodically, but I got the feeling that it would be capable of going faster if it needed to. Not knowing what else to do, I turned and ran.
I didn’t know where I was running to. I didn’t have a plan in mind. All that I knew was that I needed to put some distance between myself and this… this thing. I could hear it pursuing, but I didn’t look back.
I came to the doors at the front of the mall. Grabbing one of the handles, I pulled as hard as I could. The door refused to budge. I mentally kicked myself as I belatedly remembered that I’d have to unlock them before I could leave.
Swearing loudly, I turned back around. The key was somewhere in the mall manager office. That office was, in turn, back the way that I had come. Between me and it was the monster that was chasing me.
Before I had time to form any kind of plan, even a bad one, the creature came into the entryway. Black liquid sloshed out of both sides of its mouth as its head moved from side to side.
A part of me didn’t want to keep running. There was a tiny voice inside of my head that said to just give up, that I was too tired to keep going. There was no way that this was real anyway. It was just some horrible hallucination brought on by a bad reaction to cold medication.
The rest of me told that part to shut the fuck up. This was definitely happening, and while I was indeed hazy from the medication, I knew that my head was clear enough that I wasn’t just making this up. This was real.
“Merry Christmas,” it rasped.
It seemed to be the only thing that the creature could say. I wondered if that was because it had heard the shoppers repeat the phrase so often during the time it has spent in the mall. I reminded myself that the words the evil killer monster was saying didn’t matter nearly as much as getting away from the evil killer monster.
It was coming towards me along the right side of the entryway. I moved in the opposite direction and started running back into the mall. I had only taken a few steps when my legs began to ache. I wasn’t exactly in the best shape of my life to begin with, and both the initial running I had done and the medication I was on weren’t helping matters. I continued on as best as I could.
I had crossed about a dozen yards when my boot slipped on a wet spot on the floor. Maybe it was from a spilled drink, or maybe it was snow brought in by a shopper that had melted. Whatever the case, my heel skidded across the surface and my weight came down on the leg awkwardly. Pain immediately flared from it, and once again I found myself colliding with the tile.
I managed to get back to my feet, but I wasn’t able to put much weight onto the injured leg. I looked over my shoulder and found that the creature was closing the distance between us. Gritting my teeth, I stumped ahead as quickly as I could. I knew that it wasn’t fast enough, though, and I wasn’t going to make it back to the office hallway before it caught up to me. I rounded the corner and for a brief period of time I was out of the creature’s sight.
All of the stores were closed and had metal gates pulled down in front of them. They weren’t going to offer any safety. I looked around in a panic, and finally my eyes fell on Santa’s Village. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
I half-walked, half-dragged myself past the archway and white picket fence. Following the fake path, I went around the side of the stage to a small wooden house that had been constructed. It had a working door with a lock, but the windows were just painted on as opposed to being real. In theory it was there to offer a quiet sitting area during scheduled breaks. In practice, the working locks and no windows had made it a favorite makeout spot for one of the elves and her boyfriend. I hurried inside and shut the door behind me, sliding the lock into place.
It was a flimsy lock, and an even flimsier structure. There was no way that it would stop the creature from getting to me. The only hope that I had was that it didn’t find me.
I heard it approaching Santa’s Village. I was breathing heavily, so I placed a hand over my mouth to hopefully muffle the sound. Forcing myself to stay still, I listened as best I could through the beating of my own pulse in my ears.
“Merry Christmas,” the creature called out from some distance away in an almost confused tone.
I felt a momentary hope. It didn’t know where I was. Maybe it would just move on.
That hope was dashed as I heard it collide with the archway at the start of the path. That was followed by the sound of wood splitting and splintering. The creature might not know exactly where I was, but it had decided to investigate Santa’s Village. I thought back to the times when I had seen it off the distance towards the end of my shift. I had thought that those sightings were just my tired mind playing tricks on me at the time. That obviously wasn’t the case. I wondered if it had seen me during those flashes as well.
There were other noises as the creature continued its way towards me, most of which sounded like it was carving a path of destruction through the various Christmas decorations. It was drawing closer to where I was hiding. I was starting to panic, but I just barely managed to keep control of myself and stay silent.
I felt the creature reach the house. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I could feel its large body hulking over the flimsy structure. When it didn’t move away, I knew that I was caught. Somehow it had worked out where I was.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when there was a light knocking at the door.
“Merry Christmas,” the creature said.
I looked around for anything that I could use as a weapon, but the only thing that I saw was a condom wrapper. Despite the danger I was in, I shuddered at the thought that the elf had been stuffing her boyfriend’s stocking just mere feet from where I was sitting.
I was brought back to the here and now when one of the creature’s fingers punctured the door. It slid through easily, as if the wood offered no resistance whatsoever. It slid down and sliced through the lock, cutting it in two and causing the door to swing open. I pressed my body as far as it would go against the back wall as the creature’s nightmarish face came into view.
It stared at me for a long moment before casually flipping the entire structure over on its side. Completely exposed, I screamed as one of its hands wrapped around me and lifted me off of my feet. I struggled, of course, but I was no match for the creature’s overwhelming strength. It was going to kill me, and there was nothing that I could do about it.
To my surprise, the monster didn’t end me right then and there. Instead, it carried me over to the stage and set me down on it. It then proceeded to point at the chair with one of its claws.
It wanted me to sit down.
Completely clueless as to what was happening, I did as it instructed. Once I was seated, the creature stepped up onto the stage next to me and examined me closely. It bobbed its head up and down a few times; it was apparently satisfied at what it was seeing.
“Merry Christmas,” it rasped.
“What…” I attempted to say, my voice breaking. I cleared my throat and tried again. “What do you want?”
It leaned in closer to me. “Merry Christmas.”
It used the point of one finger to tap the red coat I was wearing. I stared at it in confusion for a pair of heartbeats before I realized what it wanted.
“You want me to be Santa?” I asked.
The big head nodded before it pointed to its own chest.
“And you…” I thought it through. “You want to tell me what you want for Christmas?”
Again the creature nodded, and the hideous smile grew broader. This was completely surreal, and I started to consider the hallucination theory once again despite the pain in my leg and the smell of its horrid breath filling my nostrils.
“Yeah, okay,” I stammered out. “What… What do you want for Christmas?”
The creature didn’t reply. Instead, it straightened up and pointed at the small house I had been hiding in that was now residing on top of three reindeer statues. It once again pointed at itself before again indicating the house. I furrowed my brow as I worked my way through what it was trying to tell me.
“Home,” I said as I suddenly got it. “You want to go home?”
The creature nodded for a third time. This time, though, it was a much slower motion, and although it continued to smile there seemed to be something melancholy about it.
I thought that I understood what was happening. It had indeed been watching me as I spoke with the children throughout the day. It must have thought that I was capable of making their wishes come true. Now it was asking me for something in hopes that I could make it happen. I felt a pang of sympathy as I stared up at the creature.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I told it, feeling strangely guilty as I lied. “It will take some time, but I’ll get you home.”
The creature’s whole demeanor changed. The grin became happy, and it let out an oddly hollow sound that I took to be its version of a laugh. It turned away and walked in the opposite direction of the office hallway towards the food court.
“Merry Christmas,” it called out before moving out of sight.
Half an hour later, I was sitting in Anne’s car in the parking lot of the pharmacy next to the mall as she went inside to get an ice pack for my leg. She had immediately asked what happened when she saw me, and I had told her the truth. I had slipped on a wet patch of floor. Sure, I left out the part about the tall monster, but it was still technically the truth.
I turned my head towards the mall, attempting to process what had happened. I had thought that I was going to die in there, and that wasn’t a feeling that I was going to forget any time soon. More than that, though, I wondered about the monster. Where had it come from? Why had I only been able to see it when I was tired? And the question that ran through my head more than any of the others: why couldn’t it go home?
There was a movement at one of the mall doors. I could barely see it through the falling snow, but I had definitely seen it. I turned my head to look directly at it. Standing behind one of the doors, its body hunched over so that it could see through the glass, was the creature. I was no longer afraid of it, and I truly hoped that one day it found the way home that it seemed so desperate to find.
“Merry Christmas,” I whispered.