Winter’s here and he’s coming in with a Siberian blast of air ‘so cold the dogs are sticking to the sidewalks‘ this weekend.
Every year I plan on doing more with this blog. Every year I seem to start off strong. Every year I stray from the goal and wander off into some other realm. Maybe 2023 will be the year I get my crap back together and can focus on reaching out more. I’m not going to dwell too much on what 2022 brought – or didn’t bring – but I will say I am very proud and happy that it was the year I was able to FINALLY gather together my collection of short stories and make them available for all the world to read. Not Your Grandma’s Fairy Tales was my first foray into the realm of twisted fairy tales but it will not be my last. I’m already working on more. I also saw one of my short stories selected and published in the anthology Old Scratch: Demon Tales & Devil Hells put out by Crimson Pinnacle Press. I’m proud of that, too.
But, that’s NOT what I’m here to talk about today. No. Today, I’m going to share a story about a certain cold and stormy Christmas Eve night and what awaited three young brothers when they dared step out into The Cold.
© 2019 – Pamela Morris
Wind howled outside the window, rattling the panes and whipping the snow into little tornadoes down by the barn. It was Christmas Eve. There was talk on TV that Santa might not be able to get through.
Myles remained hopeful. Santa was magical. He could do anything. He’d not let subzero temperatures and gale force winds get in his way. Besides, something had awoken Myles only moments ago and even as he lie there, tucked beside his younger brother with whom he shared a bed, he could hear movement outside. Over the gusting wind, there was a tapping sound.
Myles inched his way out from under the heavy blankets. The hardwood floor pressed frigid against his bare feet. He tip-toed passed his brother Ryan, sleeping soundly in his own bed, crept to the frosty window, and pulled back the curtains. He couldn’t see anything, but the tapping was louder. It mixed with the sounds of something digging in the snow. He’d seen plenty of deer do that in the winter looking for food.
Myles unlocked the window latch and strained against the frozen pane. It wasn’t going to budge, not a bit. He needed something to pry it with, remembered the screwdriver Ryan had been using earlier that day, and nabbed it from his brother’s beside table.
The window only needed to open a little bit, just so he could peek out and see what was making that noise. He jammed the flat end of the tool into the crack, hit it twice with the heel of his hand and levered it down. The ice on the other side protested briefly before it yielded with the hard crack of something frozen snapping apart. The raw metallic breath of winter bit into his face and stung his lungs.
A shadow fluttered on the other side of the opaque glass followed by the strange, soft shuffling creak of what Myles thought must be Santa’s boots in the frigid snow.
“Close the window, stupid!” Ryan snarled from across the room.
“Yeah, shut it!” six-year-old Kyle whined from under a heap of blankets. “You want me to get moan-yah?” Kyle already had the sniffles.
“But, Santa …”
“Screw Santa,” Ryan, who was ten, the eldest and therefore wisest of the brothers, snapped. “Close it before we freeze to death.”
It was highly unlikely the three of them would do that. Gramps kept the wood stove stoked high and hot. If they left their bedroom door open the room stayed toasty warm. It was only because of Christmas Eve that the door had been shut tonight, creating the chill. As soon as Santa was done out there, the door would be open. That’s what Grammy had told them.
They’d been living with their grandparents for almost a year. It had been touch and go for about a week while Child Protective Services sorted out who was best able to take care of them after the plane crash. They all missed their mom and dad, but at least they had Gramps and Grammy and that, as Grammy liked to say, was a blessing.
Gramps coughed and hacked from the other room. It was a small, single-story house with two bedrooms, one bath, and an open concept kitchen, dining, and living room. Their father, an only child, had been raised in this house. His old bedroom was now theirs.
“You should see the doctor about that cough,” Grammy’s muffled voice stated from the other side of the door.
“Bah. It’s just a damn cold,” Gramps grumbled. His chair squawked as he kicked up the footrest. “Doctors’ll kill ya. Cain’t help me no better than this here cup of warm brandy will.”
With a reluctant sigh, Myles squinted against the cold wind blowing through the three-inch gap at the bottom of the window. All he could make out was the side of the big Maple tree being pelted with snow. The white fence by the road was already half-buried.
The noises had stopped. Maybe it hadn’t been Santa at all. He’d not come with Gramps and Grammy still awake. Myles pushed the window back down, returned the latch to its locked position, and pulled the curtains shut.
Shivering, he crawled back under the blankets. He’d just have to wait it out and hope for the best. Santa wouldn’t let him down. Santa knew how hard it was for him and his brothers not to fight. Surely, he’d forgive them for anything bad they’d done under the circumstances.
Myles closed his eyes, relaxing as the warmth of his and his brother’s body heat mingled to push away the cold.
Outside, the wind continued to whistle and moan around the corners of the house, garage, and barn. Something flapped in the wintery darkness beyond the window; probably just a blue tarp that had come loose; Myles couldn’t help but imagine something else.
Flying reindeer don’t have wings, though, do they? No. It was just a tarp. Myles resisted the urge to get back out of bed. He wanted to see what was going on out there. At the very least he wanted to open the bedroom door just a little bit to let some heat in. But he mustn’t. The longer he was awake, the longer it would take for Santa to get here, and the longer the bedroom door would stay closed. It was best to tough it out.
Myles pulled the blankets up and over his head.
“Myles! Wake up!” Someone was nudging his shoulder and whispering in his ear. “Myles.” Kyle.
“What?” Myles mumbled back.
“I gotta pee.”
He rolled away, curling deeper into the warm pocket between the sheets. “Get up and go then.”
“Come with me.”
“It’s too scary alone. Something’s out there.”
Myles opened his eyes, suddenly very awake. He swallowed, listened over the too loud throbbing of his own heartbeat.
There it was, the same tapping and scraping and shifting of something just outside the outer bedroom wall, only now it was closer. It wasn’t on the other side at all. It was in it.
“Hear it?” Kyle’s voice trembled.
Myles nodded, “Uh-huh. Probably just a mouse.”
“It sounds a lot bigger than a mouse,” Kyle said.
Myles agreed but didn’t admit it.
“Come with me,” Kyle repeated. “I gotta pee bad.”
Better to take him than have him pee the bed. “All right. Let’s go.”
Pushing back the blankets, he quickly realized he could see his breath and that their bedroom door remained closed. Myles swung his attention towards the window thinking maybe it hadn’t latched shut. The curtains hung motionless and tightly drawn. The pane and sash were pressed together. The lock was securely in place.
Kyle squirmed in place, holding one hand against his crotch as he waited by the door. “Myles, c’mon.”
Shuddering with the chill of the room and a fear he’d never confess to in the moment, Myles pulled the door open.
Warmth trickled in. As Kyle scampered down the short hallway to the bathroom, Myles stood in the soft glow of twinkling white Christmas tree lights. Wrapped gifts had appeared under the tree he, his brothers, and Gramps had searched for, cut down, and dragged home a week before. Grammy had been waiting with foamy mugs of hot chocolate and a box full of decorations on their return. By nightfall, the tree had been decorated and the chill of pulling it through knee-deep snow had faded into forgetfulness.
The tips of icy teeth nibbled at Myles’ fingers and toes. The room was considerably warmer than theirs, but not as warm as it should be. A draft whispered around his bare ankles.
Myles peeked into his grandparents’ bedroom, his eyes adjusting to the dim light until he could see their bed. It was empty. He crossed the threshold, “Gramps? Grammy?” while trembling fingers searched for the light switch, switched it on.
Grammy’s wide eyes and silently screaming mouth gaped back at him from her rocking chair – both frozen open in an expression of pure terror. Blankets had been wrapped around her body and over her head. The toes of her slippers stuck out from the bottom. Her face, lips rigid and touched with the blue-gray hue of death; her eyes, cast over like frosted windows, stared blankly at the opposite wall.
Myles stumbled back into the hallway, unable to breathe.
Something knocked outside the window, scratching at the thick frost on the glass so hard Myles could clearly see the shuddering gashes it left behind. A deep and forlorn howl rose, taking with it the hairs on the back of his neck and up his arms.
Myles retreated until his back hit the wall behind him, limbs trembling for greater reasons than the chill wind that swept around him.
The toilet flushed down the hall.
Kyle emerged, yawning and rubbing an eye with the knuckles of one fist.
He stopped dead when he saw Myles. “What’s the matter?” Kyle peeked into the bedroom and let out a shriek.
Outside, something let out a scream of its own and wrapped itself around the house, rattling all the old windows at the same time. Myles wanted to believe it was the wind.
From the direction of the kitchen something heavy crashed, releasing an icy blast of air that rushed across the room. Sparkles of snow danced across the worn linoleum floor and flipped the pages of the wall calendar hanging next to the refrigerator.
“What happened to Grammy? Where’s Gramps?” Kyle, who now clung to his older brother’s side, was on the verge of bawling. Myles wasn’t far behind.
“I don’t know,” he stammered.
Ryan emerged from their bedroom visibly annoyed. “What’s …” he blinked, rubbing at one eye with his fingertips. “What’s going on?”
Kyle pointed towards the open doorway that led into his grandparent’s bedroom.
Ryan strode over and stopped at the threshold, going no further than the others had. He didn’t move for what felt like forever. “Grammy?” he whispered. “Where’s Gramps?” Ryan finally added.
“Don’t know,” Myles gulped in reply.
Ryan found the nerve to reach out and close the bedroom door before turning away from the nightmare image of their grandmother.
Another gust of winter exhaled through the house, rustling the papers on the kitchen table and rocking the wall calendar. Ryan hurried in that direction. Myles, with his clinging baby brother in tow, followed.
The kitchen door hung wide open. Beyond, something had pushed its way through the deepening snow. It had to have been Gramps.
Ryan must have shared the assumption. He stood at the doorway, bracing himself against the frame. “GRAMPS!” he shouted against the blustering wind.
The wind roared back, reached in with icicle claws and cut them to the bone with cold.
“GRAMPS! ARE YOU OUT THERE?!” Ryan yelled against the assault, his face wet with melting snow spray.
Gramps didn’t answer. If he did, they couldn’t hear him.
With all the strength he could muster from his thin, ten-year-old arms, Ryan forced the door shut and made sure it was latched. Something in the treetops cried out in protest.
“What do we do?” Myles asked.
“First, we need to put more wood in the stove. You two do that and I’ll call 9-1-1.”
Myles nodded but didn’t move. “What about Grammy?”
Ryan bit his lip. “I don’t think we can do anything about Grammy,” his voice squeaked.
“Something scared her,” Kyle shivered, not yet willing to surrender his hold on Myles. Myles was perfectly okay with that. “And something got Gramps.”
“Nothing got Gramps,” Ryan snapped. “He’s – he’s probably just out in the garage, trying to get the car started or something, to get Grammy to the hospital.”
“Why didn’t he answer you?” Kyle trembled.
“Cuz he didn’t hear me is all, now go put more wood in the stove,” he ordered.
Gramps had shown all the boys how to tend to the woodstove, how to adjust the bottom and top vents so it would burn just right, low and slow and steady all night long. Now, as Myles stood there looking at it, he saw both were open a lot more than they should have been. It was as if Gramps had been about to load the old cast-iron piece up for the night. There was a thick bed of coals on the bottom, but even they wouldn’t last much longer without more fuel. He and Kyle set to work, doing what they’d been taught until Ryan padded back to them looking somber.
“Phone’s dead,” he said. “Can’t call anyone.”
“If Gramps is in the garage, he’ll be back in soon,” Myles tried to sound sure of that.
“Yeah,” Ryan agreed. “He’ll be back in soon, I think.”
The two older boys made eye contact, each seeing the fear and doubt in the other’s gaze.
“Yeah,” Myles said as he swallowed down the hard lump in his throat.
As they waited for their grandfather’s return, the boys put on socks, slippers and robes and huddled around the growing warmth of the woodstove. Thirty minutes ticked by, then an hour.
“He should be back by now,” Myles whispered, no longer cold but still shivering deep inside.
“Something got him,” Kyle whimpered. “Something got him just like it got Grammy.”
“Nothing got him,” Ryan’s voice squeaked.
Myles swallowed hard. “We should check,” he said. “He could have fallen on the ice or something.”
Myles saw horror in his older brother’s eyes. “Yeah,” Ryan admitted slowly. “Maybe we should at least check. Just to make sure. But I’m sure he’s fine. He just can’t get the car started ‘cuz it’s so cold.”
They got dressed as if heading out for a fun-filled day of sledding and snowballs fights, but the grim, black and white starkness of the landscape beyond was anything but playful.
The wind screamed in their faces as they trudged out. Ryan was first and carried a flashlight; Kyle followed close behind. Myles made sure to close the door behind them. They marched with their heads down, pushing their way through the blowing depths of snow.
The path Gramps had made was already drifting in. Had they waited another hour, there would have been no sign of it. The brothers plodded along, bent forward against the cold and wind. The dim light offered by the jittering flashlight was of little help, but they knew the way. Though it felt like miles, the garage wasn’t far, barely thirty feet from the kitchen door.
“Shit,” Myles heard Ryan cuss over the roar of the wind as he came to a sudden halt.
Eyes stinging with tears brought on by the cold, Myles dared look up.
The garage door was open. Lights were on inside. Gramps’ car sat in its place surrounded by pegboard walls full of neatly-placed tools. As for Gramps, he lay in the driveway flat on his back; eyes closed, the snow shovel not far away. Snow had accumulated on his exposed face.
“Gramps!” the boys shouted in near perfect unison, their pace doubling until they reached the old man and fell to their knees by his side. “Gramps? You okay? Gramps! Wake up, wake up!”
Kyle picked up the pipe that had fallen from between their grandfather’s frozen lips, clutching it tight his small mitten-covered hands. “Gramps?” shuddered from between his chattering teeth.
A sudden gust of wind roared around the corner of the garage like the wintery exhale of a snow dragon, creating a short but powerful squall that made it impossible to see beyond their tiny circle of bodies. The boys crouched into their fallen guardian’s sprawled form.
A heavy, throaty growl erupted from the other side of the house. Whatever it was, it was in the backyard. The sound intensified, moaning out a terrifying, guttural wail that ended with the unmistakable noise of very large, very sharp, gnashing teeth.
“It’s coming,” Myles, eyes wide and staring at the wavering movements he could just see above the house’s roofline, moving right to left.
The ground shook.
“We should get him into the garage,” Ryan shouted over the chaotic sounds of creaking limbs and winter’s snarling breath. His face had gone as white as the storm around them. “Myles, grab his other arm! Kyle, get his feet!”
They sprang into action, pivoting their grandfather’s body, dragging it inch by agonizingly slow inch, cleared the open door, leaned him against the vehicles back fender. Ryan yanked the door down, letting it slam shut with a weighted, reassuring thud. Gramps’ head flopped lifelessly to the side.
Safe. Out of the snow. Out of the wind. Out of sight of whatever was out there stalking them.
“Gramps!” Kyle practically sat on the old man’s lap, shaking his shoulders. “Grampy! Grampa! C’mon, get up. Wake up!”
“He’s dead,” Ryan’s tone came out hollow.
“Don’t say that. He’s not!” their baby brother retorted. “He’s not dead!” Tears burned lines down the boy’s already rosy cheeks.
Myles pushed his own urge to cry aside. “What do we do? We should turn off the lights.” He looked towards the row of windows along the top of the garage door. From inside, all he could see was the blackness of night and whirling, whipping pellets of sleet. “That thing’s out there,” he added.
“What thing?” Ryan looked up from his attempts to calm his littlest brother.
“The thing I heard,” Myles explained. “It woke me up. I heard it walking around and digging in the snow. Something made a shadow on the bedroom window, too. I thought it was Santa and the reindeer,” he managed a dry swallow, “but I don’t think that’s what it was. You heard it, too, just now. It’s out there, behind the house.”
Kyle started to wail all over again. “It’s gonna kill us next!” he sobbed. “Don’t let it kill us, Ryan.”
Ryan held Kyle closer and tighter as his eyes smoldered at Myles, “You just shut up! Nothing’s out there. Nothing’s coming to kill us.” But Myles saw the fear and worry etched into his big brother’s eyes. “You’re scaring Kyle so just shut the hell up right now.”
Myles pressed his lips together and glared back.
Kyle’s sobs rose and fell, his whole body shaking.
“We should go back to the house,” Myles suggested. “It’s cold out here and …”
“What about Gramps?!” Kyle sniffed his stuffed-up noise.
“Ain’t nothing we can do for Gramps now,” Ryan said as tenderly as possible. “C’mon. Myles is right. We need to get back to the house. At least it’s warm in there and I’ll make some hot chocolate. Grammy showed me how.”
Above their heads, the roof groaned and shuddered. Something big and sharp dragged and thumped at the thin asphalt shingles.
Myles stared at the stark, open rafters where Gramps stored long pieces of wood, two by fours, and the like. “It’s up there,” his whispered voice breathed out a plume of white mist. Fingernails, he thought, the same ones that had scratched at their bedroom window and left jittery trails in the frost outside.
“We have to get to the house,” Ryan insisted. “It’ll be faster this time. We made a better path.”
“It’s big,” Myles went on. “I saw it moving over the roof of the house.” He couldn’t stop looking up.
Kyle whimpered. “I don’t like it out here.”
“We’re going back to the house,” Ryan assured him. “We’re going to make a run for it.”
Myles pulled his attention from the roof, “We need weapons.” His gaze darted around the garage. Gramps’ sharp and well-used axe rested to the left of the side door. Myles raced over and hauled the axe into his hands. It was heavy, too heavy for him to wield effectively. He twisted his lips in thought. “You see the kindling axe anywhere?” he asked.
His brothers had risen to their feet beside the slumped body of their white-whiskered grandfather. Thank God his eyes were closed.
Kyle pointed towards the wheelbarrow.
On top of a mound of kindling, Gramps’ smaller axe winked. Myles thrust the handle of the larger axe towards his big brother, “You take this one. I’ll get the other,” Myles snatched the second weapon and took a few practice swings. “Perfect.”
The walls of the garage trembled and moaned followed by the sharp scritch-scratch-scritch of whatever was on the roof and the raging groan of another blast of cold air racing around the corners of the structure.
“What if it gets us?” Kyle shook along with the rattling of the garage windows.
“It won’t get us,” Ryan’s back grew straighter, making him a couple inches taller and stronger-looking. “We’ll be back to the kitchen door before it even sees us.”
“Then we wait. Someone will come. We got lots of food and plenty of wood for the fire. It’ll be fine.”
Myles gave a nod and said, “Yeah, it’ll be fine,” but didn’t quite believe it. “Ready?”
His brothers nodded. “Myles you go first,” Ryan offered. “Kyle in the middle and I’ll protect our backs with the big axe.”
Myles wasn’t so sure about being the first to expose himself to the dangers that awaited beyond the door. But, on the bright side, he’d be the first one in the house. He nodded in agreement. “Let’s do this.”
“Don’t look around and don’t do nothing but run straight to the house. Got it?” Kyle nodded. Myles nodded. Ryan exhaled slowly. “Open it.”
Snow flew up from under their heels.
Hearts raced rabbit-fast in their chests.
Lungs inhaled air so frigid it burned.
Fingers squeezed axe handles and Gramps’ rescued pipe.
The wind pushed against them, throwing pellets of ice into their faces, like hundreds of tiny needles, slapping their cheeks with frozen razors and breathing blasts of the Arctic down the backs of their necks. A yowling scream filled the darkness around them.
The pace quickened.
Myles wanted to look back, to see just what lurked on top of the garage roof, but he didn’t dare. It would slow them down.
He grabbed the doorknob, twisted, pulled.
It didn’t budge.
He turned it again and again, yanking desperately to be let in.
“Open the door!” Ryan shoved him aside.
“Open it,” Kyle cried. “Open it, open it!”
“I’m trying,” Ryan bellowed. “It’s stuck. It’s …”
Not stuck. Locked. Locked!
Ryan’s eyes were on fire when he turned back around and growled at his brother. “You locked the damn door, you moron!”
“I didn’t,” Myles stammered. “I didn’t. Not on purpose, I didn’t!”
“We’re locked out!”
Across the road, from the direction of the barn, the same flapping sound Myles had heard earlier rose. Crunching and metallic and leathery at the same time and loud, so very loud. Louder and closer and too dark to see what it was; Myles didn’t want to see. He shoved at his big brother who looked about ready to throat punch him. “It wasn’t on purpose. Go back!” he shouted in Ryan’s face. “Go back to the garage.”
Ryan grabbed Kyle by the arm and yanked him off the porch and back into the thickening snow. “Run,” Myles heard him say over the roaring wind.
Myles raced after them and dared a glance at the garage roof.
He felt his bladder release.
It was up there. It was big and dark. Its thick body covered the entire backside of the roof, crouching. He couldn’t make out any legs, but it had a long neck and was covered in spines with a rack of antlers so massive Myles couldn’t even begin to count all the points. One arm seemed to be reaching out towards him, the tips of its myriad of fingernails shifting with menace.
Then he was tumbling into the garage again, falling against the car, the side door slamming behind him.
“I saw it,” he panted. “I saw it. It’s on the roof.”
“Get in the car,” Ryan commanded.
They all piled into the front seat, huddling and shivering together.
Kyle was crying again. “I’m cold,” he breathed through his mouth, whining.
“Start the door,” Myles said. “We can start the car to get warm.”
“Good idea,” Ryan agreed. “Keys?”
“In the ignition,” Myles noted. “Gramps must have been gonna shovel the drive then warm up the car before going back to get Grammy.”
Ryan reached down to twist the key as they’d seen their grandfather do a million times. Nothing happened. The key turned but the car didn’t start. The engine let out a weak grunt. The gas indicator pointed to E. Ryan tried again, turning the key backwards then forwards. It tried to turn over but only gasped, sputtered, and gave up.
Outside, winter’s demon screamed and thrashed and tore at the shingles, determined to be let in.
The boys shrank down in the front seat.
A sudden and heavy avalanche of snow covered the windshield. Wood cracked and splintered. Nails shrieked as they were pulled out of place.
The last thing Myles remembered seeing was an arm as big around as a bedpost reaching towards them; its fingers, way more than ten, stretched forwards, shattered the windshield, and clawed against his face.
Myles’ scream joined those of his brothers.
Bright, colorful lights pulsed across the garage’s back wall, making the tools twinkle with what might have been Christmas cheer under different circumstances.
“Hello? Boys? Mr. Phillips?” Officer Graham eased his way into the garage. This didn’t look good. The hard knot in his stomach grew even tighter when he saw the body of Albert Phillips propped up next to the car. There was no point in taking a pulse. The old man’s a ghastly blue-gray skin told him all he needed to know.
Officer Graham stepped over the man’s extended legs with a shudder. The massive tree had sliced through the garage roof with ease, crushing the car beneath it as if the vehicle were made of aluminum foil. “Fuck,” he groaned. He didn’t want to look inside, but he had to.
The officer barely made it out of the garage before his Christmas dinner hurled up and out of his throat.
“Mr. and Mrs. Phillips both had heart attacks,” the coroner would report several days later. “He must have been trying to get her to a hospital but shoveling all that snow got the better of him.”
“Christ,” Officer Graham twisted his gloves in his fists. “What about the kids?”
“Well, it wasn’t the tree that killed the boys, at least not entirely,” the doctor said. “They couldn’t get out of the car once the tree fell on it. Poor kids. They must have been terrified.”
“Why do you suppose they were out there at all?” his assistant asked. “It doesn’t make sense the old man would have them out there in the car like that. And why not just call for help?”
“Phone lines may have already been down by then,” the police officer replied.
The medical examiner shook his head and shrugged. “We’ll probably never know, but it was definitely hypothermia that did them in, simple as that.”
“It was damn cold that night,” Graham shivered, remembering the icy bite of the wind.
The medical man frowned. “Damn cold.”
HAPPY HOLIDAYS, EVERYONE!