Story Rating: 18+

Genre: Fiction, Holiday, Dark Urban Fantasy with elements of horror, the supernatural, and dark humor

Another Boring Disclaimer: This story is a work of dark fiction. Names, descriptions, entities, and incidents included in this story came entirely from my (Kayla Cook’s) imagination and any resemblances between them and those in the real world are purely coincidental. The mentions of Stephen King and his Langoliers did not come from my imagination, though. But the llama they help describe is a product of my own mind. If you're looking for a Christmas story to make you feel cuddly inside, you may want to look somewhere else. Unless . . . you're like me.

For those interested in reading a Trigger Warning that contains what some may consider a *spoiler* read between the llamas. If you’d rather not, skip over the two lines of llamas and enjoy. Or, you know, don't.

                 🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙                    

                    *Trigger Warning SPOILER*             

         This work includes disturbing themes, including those of homicide and domestic abuse. 

     There is also mild gore and profanity.

🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙🦙

 

 


 

A Somnus Christmas

 A Twisted Christmas Story by Kayla Cook

Introducing Somnus

 

When I open my eyes, I think I see someone looming over me. He or she is wearing a mask, but I imagine their face is split by a sadistic grin. I expect my heart to clench or a scream to tear from my throat, but instead I lay motionless and silent, numb other than a slowly swelling sense of confusion. I blink and the person is gone. There’s only the moon hovering over me now, uncovered and feverishly trying to illuminate the night. I catch a glimpse of argent clouds congregating over the horizon, but other than that, the sky is clear and still. Well, almost still. I realize I’m rocking back and forth.

I’m floating.

“Nice night for a swim, eh?” a thin but masculine voice croaks from somewhere above me. It sounds as if it’s coming from far away. I could be imagining it. Even if I’m not, I don’t have the strength or the will to reply, so I just continue to float there, letting the water bear my burden. The sound of the water lapping against me seems to be telling me to forget. The wind whispers to me, telling me to sleep . . .

“Really? After all the trouble we went through to bring you back?” the same voice rasps.

At this, my eyes fly back open.

Bring me back?

Words bubble up, but too many try to trip out of my mouth at once and they wind up choking me. Something cold and slimy wriggles in my throat, working its way into my mouth. Panic shatters the numbness. I thrash around in an attempt to turn myself over as something pushes at my lips from the inside. My knees knock against rock and earth as my hands scrabble against dirty ice. I can’t breathe. I can’t—

Blackened water and mud sloshes out of my mouth onto the frozen river bank. A fish flops out into the puddle of filth. I collapse onto my side and gasp in several ragged breaths. Through the sound of my own pounding heart, I can hear the rushing of the river now, the sound of the wind in the branches. The crunch of footsteps in frozen snow makes me jump, but I’m too exhausted to do more than tip my head back.

A dark figure leans over me. I’m assuming it’s a man because of the form just visible under the red cloak, but his face is shrouded by a fur-rimmed hood. Two eyes sparkle through the shadow cast by the hood. They shine like stars, bright but also cold, distant, and ancient.

“Dahlia McGregor?” the figure intones. His voice is different than the other one I heard. It’s deeper and rougher, and it has a British accent.

“W-who?” I sputter hoarsely, only half aware of what the man said.

“Oh dear, I believe we summoned the wrong one,” the voice from before drawls. I whip my head back to find the biggest crow I’ve ever seen perched atop a pile of dead branches. His eyes glint silver as he cocks his head at me. “I told you there was more than one body in that river and you needed to focus harder, but you never listen to me. Why should you? I’m just an angel, after all. Don’t mind me.”

“Fallen angel,” the cloaked man corrects harshly.

The crow huffs and croaks, “I’m not fallen, I’ve just been demoted.”

“Regardless, I thought you could help me, Somnus. Raising the dead isn’t my forte.”

“It isn’t mine, either, Nick,” the crow sneers, bristling. “My power lies in dreams, remember? Just because I’m an angel of death and vengeance doesn’t mean I’m equipped to start a zombie apocalypse. That’s Phil’s department. But I agreed to help you because I was bored and it sounded simple enough. I forgot that nothing is simple with you. You were drinking eggnog before this, weren’t you?”

 “What the hell is going on?” I exclaim, or try to. My voice is too hoarse to rise above a grating whisper, but it’s enough to cut into their argument.

“Are you quite sure you’re not Dahlia McGregor?” the man asks. I just stare blankly at him, not sure what to do. “What’s your name, then?”

“Brooke Winters.”

The crow, Somnus, guffaws.

“Now that’s irony for you. It’s winter now and Brooke was killed and dumped in a brook. Love it.”

“Really, Somnus?” the man groans.

“Oh, but there’s something else, isn’t there? After all, reindeer chop here isn’t the shiniest ornament on the tree but things like this are usually more than the mistakes they seem to be,” Somnus croons, ignoring the other. “Do you know Dahlia?”

“Listen, I have no idea where I am or how I’m here. I don’t know who you are—”

“Oh, we haven’t introduced ourselves,” the man in the cloak exclaims. “How rude. I’m St. Nicholas. This is Somnus.”

“Santa?” I mumble, disbelieving.

“Nick is fine.”

“Why do you sound British? I thought you were Scandinavian or something.”

“I’m not any nationality, but I like this accent. Anyway, is that really what’s important at the moment?”

“Where am I? Why am I here? How am I here? Last thing I remember is . . . ” My voice trails off as my eyes drift toward my shirt, or what’s left of it. Through the tears in the fabric, I see blue skin marred by blackish gouges that are just starting to leak red as new blood is pumped through my body. But this isn’t my body. It can’t be. My sore throat suddenly constricts. No, this isn’t happening. This isn’t—

A blood-stained mouse urgently pushes its way out of one of the gouges in my torso, which I realize are actually places where animals must have nibbled on me. I shriek as it scampers off.

“Ohmigosh,” I pant, holding my head. “I’m dead. I’m—”

“Just calm down. The worst is over,” Somnus chuckles.

“I wouldn’t say that. We don’t know why she’s here instead of Dahlia,” Nick mutters.

“But I’m dead—”

“Just be glad you were drowned instead of dismembered. That would be really awkward. We need you to tell us if you know Dahlia,” Somnus presses, leaning down so far that his beak almost touches my discolored nose. A kind of fog settles over my mind, dampening my panic. Somnus repeats himself as I start to settle down. “Do you know Dahlia?”

“N-no,” I stutter.

“Do you know Grace, her daughter?”

“No.”

“How about Connor McGregor?”

That rings a bell. Connor. Connor McGregor . . . I roll the name around in my head but nothing comes of it. I’m sure I knew him, or at least knew of him, but I can’t place him. Every time I think I’ve latched onto the memory, it falls away, leaving me with that feeling you get when you’re walking up a flight of stairs in the dark and think there’s one more stair than there is.

“I don’t know,” I finally sigh.

“Well, this is already done, so we have to make the best of it. You like kids?”

“I guess. Never had any but always wanted one.”

“Great. Well, there’s a kid who needs your help. Once you help her, you can rest. Sound good?”

“Um—”

“So, here’s the deal . . . ” Nick sighs as he settles himself onto a rock beside me and throws his hood back. Under any other circumstances, I would have burst out laughing. His hair is cut to form a mullet. His long white beard is braided into two sections and dyed red and green at the tips. This confirms it. I’m only dreaming. None of this is real. Soon I’ll wake up—

“No, you’re not dreaming. Stop trying to trick yourself,” Somnus scolds me. To Nick he hisses, “Nick, what did you do to your hair?”

“I spend how many centuries with the same style and I’m not allowed to change it up some?” Nick huffs, rolling his eyes. “Anyway, Brooke, what I was going to say is that there’s this girl named Grace. She’s in grave danger. I received a Christmas wish from her that she’d be able to hug her mother again because she never got to say goodbye to her. Her mom’s name was Dahlia. Her dad’s dead, but she lives with her uncle, Connor. According to Dahlia, she was murdered by her brother—”

“If she’s dead, how did she tell you that?”

“She came to me as a spirit, what do you think? As I was saying, she told me she was murdered by Connor. Apparently, the reason is something to do with him wanting to be the sole beneficiary of their parents’ will. Instead, they wrote Grace into their late daughter’s place. They’re still alive but ailing, so Connor is running out of time. Grace is next to die. Dahlia’s watched over Grace since her murder, but she doesn’t have the power to effectively thwart Connor. Dahlia appeared to me soon after I received Grace’s wish and asked me to grant it by bringing her back to life so she could protect her daughter. Problem is, I don’t have the power to do that. Still, Dahlia haunted me until I decided to do a coin toss. Heads she’d get her wish, tails she wouldn’t. Wound up being heads. I still had no idea how to grant the wish until around Halloween when I was binge watching horror movies and some zombie films popped up. Then I decided to enlist an angel of death to help me,” Nick explains, gesturing toward Somnus.

“And now you’ve summoned me instead of her?” I gasp.

“Shit happens. Do you want to save this kid or not?”

“I don’t even know these people.”

“I think you know more of them than you remember right now,” Somnus croaks. “And I’m not going through the trouble of summoning someone else, so if you don’t do it, the kid dies. Worst case scenario if you go through with this and save the kid is that, well, you save a kid and have something to feel good about.”

“Besides, it’s Christmas, or it will be in forty minutes. You have a chance right now to be some kid’s Christmas miracle. You going to give that up?” Nick adds.

“Well, when you put it like that . . .”

“Excellent!” Nick says, clapping. “Then up you go. We don’t have time to sit around.”

“Are you going to drop me off in your sleigh or something?”

“I don’t have a sleigh.”

“Then how do you deliver presents?”

“I don’t. The parents take care of the presents. I take care of other wishes—the less material kind. I can give you a lift in my Beetle, Rudy, though.”

Nick pushes himself up from the rock and heads through the sparse trees toward an abandoned parking lot a stone’s throw away from the riverbank.  I have no idea how I’ll be able to help Grace, but I have no choice except to follow Nick. Standing turns out to be a challenge. I fall down several times before I manage to stay up long enough to shuffle over to a tree for support. I’m painfully aware of Somnus watching me the whole time. He must be getting a kick out of my troubles. Sure enough, when I glare back at him, I find his eyes glowing with amusement. What Nick said about him being a fallen angel echoes through my mind, making me shudder.

“If you’re an angel, why are you a crow?” I ask before I can stop myself. I don’t know if it’s the need to needle him or pure curiosity, but the question seems to have no effect on him whatsoever.

“Not all angels look like humans with wings,” he replies cryptically.

“Are you coming or not?” Nick calls from behind the dented door of a red Volkswagen.

Somnus flaps off the pile of branches to bank into the car. With a sigh, I follow as quickly as possible. My legs get stronger the more I use them, but all my joints are so stiff that every step is agonizing. I find out that my depth perception is off, as I almost run right into the handicap sign marking the space beside Nick’s Beetle. I finally make it to the passenger door. My arm crunches as I strain to open it. By the time I fall into the vehicle, I’m gasping for breath. I feel as if I’ve fallen down several flights of stairs. The car rocks as Nick squeezes in and wrestles the seat belt around himself. A reindeer bobble-head sways erratically with each movement, prompting Somnus to edge as far away from it as possible, putting him right in front of me.

“Safety first!” Nick says after finally wrangling the seat belt into submission. He rests his hand against the ignition as he stares meaningfully at me. Confused, I glance from him to my own seat belt.

Surely not.

“Please tell me you’re joking.” Somnus’s voice drips with disdain. I can’t totally disagree with him. I’m already dead, aren’t I? Still, there’s no point arguing, so I click my seat belt into place.

“This is Illinois. It’s the rules of the road,” Nick points out with a shrug.

“There are also rules governing the amount of weight allowed on certain roads. If you read those, you probably wouldn’t drive anywhere,” Somnus retorts, eyes glinting cruelly as he adjusts himself on the dash.

“Shut it. I don’t want to get pulled over.”

The bickering persists as Nick adjusts his mirrors and slowly backs out of the space. One talon of Somnus’s left foot starts tapping impatiently against the dash. His feathers bristle more with each passing second until finally he snaps, “Could you possibly go any slower? Do you have any idea how many souls are on the brink of release at this very moment? I have quotas to meet, you know. Take the candy cane out of your ass and drive! A glacier could have passed us by now.”

“I have to be extra careful because I’m driving a red vehicle. Cops are more likely to pull over a red vehicle than they are others,” Nick explains daintily.

“You’re driving a Volkswagen, not a Ferrari!” Somnus exclaims, throwing his wings up.

“Rudy can pack a punch, too, you know.”

“No, I don’t know,” Somnus quips. “Why don’t you show me?”

“Nice try,” Nick mutters, finally making it to the outlet.

He flips his turn signal on before lining Rudy up for a left turn. There doesn’t seem to be anyone out. Buildings strung with lights pass by in a blur as we make our way through the town that I can’t recall the name of. Eventually, the buildings turn to houses. A huge park bordered by lit up candy canes races by my window. Lighted snowflakes dangle from the dead branches of silver maples and oaks. I wonder if Grace ever plays here. I bite my lip as an unexpected wave of guilt washes over me. Deep down, I feel I’m somehow responsible for doing something horrible, but I can’t imagine what that might be. Nick’s booming voice suddenly jars me out of my downward spiral.

“Oi, we’re here!”

I lean forward to peer through the windshield. At the end of the cracked concrete driveway Nick has parked in is a seemingly ordinary cookie-cutter home, exactly the same as all the others on the street except for the color, which seems like a dark green. There are no Christmas lights on the house, but a wreath hangs on the door. Most of the houses on the street are dark. By some twist of fate, two of the only lighted houses on the street are planted on either side of the house looming in front of us.

“Show time!” Nick exclaims, throwing his door open.

I groan nervously as I step out into the frigid air. By the time I make it around to the front of the vehicle, Nick has shed his robe to reveal a black leather vest beneath. Black knuckle gloves now cover his meaty hands, one of which holds a crowbar.

“What are you doing?” I wonder. “I thought you wanted me to help Grace.”

“I have a special place in my heart for people who hurt children,” Nick grunts.

“Well, then why didn’t you just do all this yourself?”

“Because I can’t. I took an oath not to knowingly harm any living creature. Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace. I’ve regretted making that oath ever since, but if I break it, I lose my powers. However, once you kill Connor McAsshat in there, that oath won’t apply anymore. I’m sure Somnus won’t mind holding him here for me a bit.”

“Whoa! Wait! Kill him? I can’t kill him. I don’t know how,” I protest, eyes wide.

“Didn’t you learn anything from the one who killed you?” Somnus chides.

“Here, just take this and whack him with it until he stops breathing. Simple,” Nick says, shoving the crowbar into my hands.

“No! I can’t—”

“So, you’re just going abandon an innocent child?” Somnus croaks with a sinister glint in his eyes. “By the time this night is through, you’re going to have to own up to what we both know is creeping around in the shadows of that shallow mind of yours. If you don’t take this opportunity, you’ll never find peace. The trauma of bringing you back to this world made you forget the unique hell you made yourself suffer for the past six months, but if you turn away, you’ll go right back and you’ll have all new regrets to torture yourself with. Which, now that I think about it, is fine by me. I enjoy watching you squirm. Shame for the girl, but humans come and go all the time. Right at this minute, there’s some other unlucky soul clawing their way into this miserable world to fill the spot little Grace is about to vacate. It’s no great loss.”

“That’s a horrible thing to say,” I gasp, though judging by the mocking way the crow cocks his head, he already knows and doesn’t care.

“You’re the one refusing to help her, dearie. I’m just along for the ride. All I can do is watch the horrors you humans create and use my cynicism to mask my pain.”

As soon as Somnus stops speaking, a shrill scream erupts from inside the house. I stumble back against Rudy, almost dropping the crowbar. The scream awakens something inside me, shaking loose a long-buried rage.

“There goes another,” Somnus drones.

“No,” I hiss. “No! I’m coming!”

“Ah, yes, let him know you’re on your way. Murderers deserve a fair shot at defending themselves, after all.”

I wave Somnus’s comment off as I rush toward the door. I mean “rush” very loosely. My body refuses to move at a rate faster than a brisk crawl. Meanwhile, my brain runs a hundred miles an hour, crossing the distance between Rudy and the front door a thousand times before I finally make it there. It’s hard being a zombie.

“She’ll be half-way decomposed by the time you get to her,” Somnus chortles from Rudy’s hood.

“Shut up!” I growl, grabbing the handle of the front door.

Of course, it’s locked.

I know I don’t have the strength to kick or even pry it open, so I hobble to a window and break it. Glass scrapes my skin when I step over the sill. It seems to have led me into the living room. I hear loud thumps in the room above. It sounds like someone’s stomping around. Lighter thumps sound off to my right. They seem to come from what I assume is the kitchen. Is that Grace? Did she manage to elude Connor upstairs and is now trying to hide? The thumps from upstairs gradually make their way downward. I realize the staircase is right in front of me, behind the living room wall. Holding the crowbar like a baseball bat, I make my way toward the edge of the wall. Just as the footsteps sound on the hardwood floor of the ground level, I swing the crowbar, pivoting my body to add as much force as I can. There’s a thwack! followed by a loud curse. I don’t hear him fall, though. I must not have hit him hard enough.

“What the hell! Who’s there?” he screams, bursting around the corner. There isn’t a light on in the house. In the gloom, his eyes look like bottomless pits. He isn’t a tall man, but he still seems to tower over me. I can’t read his expression. It could be one of rage, horror, or confusion. Steeped in shadow, there’s no way to know for sure. He doesn’t even look human in that moment.

Uncomfortable memories slither to the forefront of my mind, sending shame cascading down my spine as they grow more and more clear. I do know this guy. I talked to him all the time. I . . . worked with him? Maybe?

“Connor,” I say, needing to break the silence.

He stumbles back as if some kind of spell has been broken. He flings his arms out in an attempt to catch himself. In the commotion his hand flips a light switch, and I finally get to see his eyes. I don’t know what I expected to see there, but guilt isn’t it. Horror? Sure. I mean, I’m a zombie. Anger? Yeah, I can see that, too. I’m a zombie who hit him with a crowbar. Guilt? No. Not like this, not directed at me.

“Brooke? You can’t be here,” he stammers.

“You, um, know me?” I wince at how lame that sounds. I should just keep whacking him with the crowbar like Nick said. That scream I heard certainly wasn’t his, so what Nick told me must be true. Connor's trying to kill a little kid. Connor doesn’t seem to hear me.

“Brooke Winters. No. You can’t be here.”

There’s no getting any information out of him.

“Well, I am, and I’m not going to let you kill Grace,” I say, cocking the crowbar back.

“You can’t be here,” he repeats, as if saying it again will make it true. “I killed you. I know I did. I watched you die.”

My knees wobble. I feel like I’m falling, but it must only be on the inside because nothing is moving. I’m frozen right where I am and Connor is there, suspended by the hand that caught the wall.

“You killed me? You?” I whisper through numb lips.

“I drowned you. But don’t you see? You were going to tell them. You were going to tell the police about Dahlia. I never should have told you any of it. I just wanted you to know that I’d have money coming in soon, that I could support us—”

“Support us? Oh God, this can’t be right. I’m not remembering this right—” But I know I am.

Even as I struggle to come to terms with it, I know it’s the truth. Connor McGregor. Now I remember. He was the last guy I went out with, just before I died. He told me . . . horrible things. He told me about his plans. And what did I do? I didn’t say anything. Why? Why did I let him get away with it? I stagger back under the weight of the memories. Self-loathing courses through me, shot through with currents of rage that lend strength to my emaciated, rotting body.

“You killed me,” I seethe, regaining my ground, “because I cracked and was going to tell the police about what you did. I couldn’t live with it. I actually loved you, even after you killed your sister, but I couldn't lie for you anymore. And then you killed me. Now you’re trying to kill a little girl.”

Before he has a chance to say anything more, I bring the crowbar down on his arm, right at the bend of his elbow. Connor collapses on his back with a scream of pain. I bring the crowbar down again, this time on his face. His nose explodes in a geyser of red. Blood splatters the walls as I wrench the weapon back only to rain down another series of blows. I barely feel the warm droplets splash against my face. I’m too enraged. I don’t stop hitting him until I run out of breath and my arms go limp with exhaustion. The crowbar clatters to the floor because a spasm in my hand forces my fingers to loosen. I’m still angry, though, so even though I’m tired, I manage to kick him several times before stumbling into the far wall with a moan.

“I’m sorry, Dahlia. I’m sorry for letting him kill you. I’m sorry I didn’t stop him. I’m sorry I almost let him kill Grace,” I whisper. Saying it out loud doesn’t erase the past, but it feels good to admit it, to apologize. For all I know, Dahlia is here, watching, and even if she doesn’t forgive me, at least I said it so she knows . . . and so I know, too. And I saved Grace. Right?

Panic grips me in a vice. Grace. Somewhere in the midst of the rage, I’d forgotten about her. Lord, I hope she didn’t watch any of that. She’ll be scarred enough as it is. I think about calling to her, but I stop myself. If I do, will she come into the hall? I don’t want her to see all the carnage. Cursing under my breath, I hobble down the hall toward the kitchen, moaning all the way, which I’m sure isn’t helping ease the poor girl’s nerves.

I now understand why zombies moan so much. It really hurts to be a zombie. I glance down at the bloody mess I’m leaving behind on the floor. The sight only turns my stomach. I don’t have a craving to chomp down on any raw organs, but I’d kill for a pain pill. Maybe Nick has some in his glove box. As soon as I reach the kitchen, I call out.

“Grace? Are you alright? Your uncle can’t hurt you anymore. I’m here to take you . . . ” Where could I take her? I’m a zombie. People will notice. And not to mention what seeing me would do to Grace. I’m an idiot. I never should have—

“Hello?” a small, tremulous voice pipes up from somewhere on my right. I suck in a breath, teeth clamped shut. All I see there is an island. I think Grace is crouched behind it, or maybe even in it, which is good because it means she hasn’t seen me yet. “Who’s there?”

I look around frantically, hoping to find a coat or something hanging nearby. Just my luck, there’s nothing there.

“Um . . . a friend of the family.”

“Where’s Uncle Connor?” Grace asks, sniffling.

“He’s sleeping,” I lie.

“What’s all the red on you?”

So she has seen me. It’s so dark in the kitchen, I have no idea how she can make out colors. Then I realize I’m standing in a shaft of light that filters down the hall from the living room. I have to think of something fast.

“Paint. Um. I had to  . . . paint . . . until he . . . fell asleep.”

I suck at this. I’ve never had to lie to a kid before. Of course, I’m not sure why I’m lying. Maybe it would do her good to know Connor is dead. I can’t help but wonder if I’m not just trying to protect myself from the knowledge that I’ve killed someone, along with all the reasons why.

“There was a lot of noise,” Grace says suspiciously.

“I paint loudly. Look, kiddo, we need to get out of here, okay? There’s a car waiting for us in the driveway. We’ll go out the back door there around the side of the house. You ready?”

“I’m keeping Mama Llama.”

“What?”

“My llama stuffed aminimal . . . aminal . . . animal.”

From behind the island pops up a ridiculously fluffy silhouette. If I’m being honest, it looks a bit eerie given everything else that’s happened. My first impression is that it looks sort of like a Langolier from that old show based on the Stephen King story. The more I look at it, though, the more I’m able to make out its llama-ness. It’s missing an ear, but it has a longish neck and four stumpy legs.

“Mama Mala—Mamama Lala—Whatever its name is. It can come with. That’s fine.”

“She,” the small voice corrects as the creepy stuffed animal is lowered. “Mama Llama.”

“Okay. Come on. Did he hurt you at all?”

“My arm.”

“Is it broken or bleeding?”

“No, but it hurts.”

“Well, you’ll survive, then. Don’t look down the hall, just go right to the back door. Understand?”

My tone must be severe enough to quell whatever questions she might have been about to ask, for I see a form rise up from behind the island and make its way silently to the back door. I think she knows what happened, despite my lies. She knows it in her gut, and she probably sees it on my face with that razor sharp vision you have when you’re young. Only once she’s crossed the room do I follow. I try my best to walk as normally as possible. Of course, I only manage an awkward lumber.

“Are you hurt?” she asks as she waits for me to reach her.

“Yes, but I’ll be alright. Go on. Open the door and go outside.”

Her breath fogs the night air as she slips out the door. One painful step at a time, I make my way around the house with her. Nick and Somnus are gone, but the Beetle is still there. I grimace, looking around for them. They told me they’d still be here. Now I don’t know what to do. It’s too cold out for Grace to just stand around, so I help her into Rudy’s backseat and tell her to wait there. As soon as I slam the door, Somnus appears on the hood of the vehicle, making me jump.

“Nice paint job,” Somnus laughs, tail feathers twitching.

I roll my eyes.

“Where’s Nick?”

“He’s with Connor. He’ll be back soon.”

“What am I supposed to do with Grace now?” I ask.

“There’s nothing you can do with her. You’ll return to your previous state come midnight, which is in twenty minutes or so. Grace will be placed with a new family. Nick knows the details.”

“A good one?”

“I hope so. If not, you might just be returning.”

I don’t like the sound of that.

“What do you mean?”

Somnus chuckles menacingly, that spiteful glint returning to his eyes. I’m not sure if he’s joking or if he actually meant that.

“You meant to bring me back all along, didn’t you?” I ask him.

“Did you really think I'm that incompetent?” Somnus sneers with another chuckle. “It had nothing to do with Nick’s concentration or Dahlia’s wishes. Everything Nick told you was the truth, but it was much more fitting that you be the one to return, not Dahlia. If I’d brought Dahlia back instead, I wouldn’t have been able to get you to own up to your guilt. This way, I helped you and Dahlia both. Saved myself some extra work. Tonight, I’ll let Dahlia visit Grace in a dream, and that’ll be that. Maybe she'll remember it when she wakes, maybe she won't. Look on the bright side: At least you get to decide where your body rests this time.”

With one last laugh, Somnus flaps off, leaving me speechless.

“Well, that’s just great,” I mutter, turning just in time to see Nick stroll out of the house with a huge smile on his face. I’m not sure how one goes about hurting a spirit and I don’t care. I’m still reeling from all that Somnus told me, so when Nick speaks, I don’t hear him until he roughly taps me on the shoulder to get my attention.

“All done here! I called the cops. They’re on their way. We need to get out of here before they arrive,” he says, then peers in through the window of the back door. “Kid needs to come out. The cops will take her. She’ll have to answer some questions and then they’ll probably put her with her aunt on her late dad’s side, which will be perfect for her.”

“She can’t talk to the cops alone. What’ll she tell them? They’ll think she’s insane if she tells them the truth.”

“No, they’ll just think she’s traumatized. Somnus will make sure her memories of you fade with time, so she’ll eventually stop telling the story. She won’t remember much of me, either. Her uncle attacked her, she started screaming, and some unknown person heard and bashed the bugger’s head in with a crowbar. She thought they looked like a zombie. So what? Poor dear was just confused, and who wouldn’t be? End of story. We won’t face any consequences for it, at least not from the police. The fish ate the skin off your fingertips. The 911 operator talked to me on the phone, but I only told her the address and that a girl’s uncle attacked her. The bloke across the street is streaming a movie. Everyone else is asleep or on vacation. No witnesses other than the little bundle of joy in here.” Nick taps Rudy's roof.

“How do you know all that?”

“I’m Santa Claus and it’s Christmas Eve,” Nick says like I’m an idiot.

I let out a long breath. Nick is so sure that I can’t help but believe him. Inspecting my fingers, I step out of the way as he opens the door to the back seat and gestures for Grace to come out.

“Hello, little one.”

She just stares at him, holding Mama Llama in front of her as if the stuffed animal can protect her from the enormous man leaning over her if he should try to hurt her. I think everything that happened is starting to sink in because her eyes seem older, haunted. They sparkle with a sheen of tears. She shuffles away from Nick to hide behind my leg.

“Fair enough. Take her up to the front porch. Give her this blanket. Then we’ll go,” Nick tells me, reaching into the back seat to produce a green fleece blanket.

I groan as I make my way to the porch. Grace follows close behind like a baby duck. Once on the porch, I nudge her onto the front step and drape the blanket over her.

“The police are on their way. I have to go now. You stay here until the police arrive. They won’t be long. Understand?”

“Where are you going?” she asks after what feels like forever.

“Back to where I came from. But don’t worry, I have a feeling I’ll be around if you happen to need me again.”

“I’m scared. I don’t want to be alone,” Grace whimpers, clinging to my arm.

“Trust me, you won’t be as alone as you think. Now stay there.”

I re-tuck the blanket around her before heading back to Nick.

“You got any pain pills?” I ask Nick as I slump into the passenger seat.

“No. But you won’t be up for much longer. Anywhere in particular you want me to drop you?”

“Yeah, actually . . . ”

🦙🦙🦙🎅🦙🦙🦙

Officer Alan runs the beam of his flashlight over the bushes at the back of the McGregor property, eyelids drooping with boredom. “Check the property,” they said. “You might find traces of the person or people who killed McGregor,” they said. But Officer Alan doesn’t care. Why should he? The dirt bag who attacked the little girl out front, his own niece, is dead. As far as Alan’s concerned, that’s good enough. He isn’t interested in arresting whoever saved her. Just last year, he lost his twenty-year-old niece to some mugger in a Chicago alleyway. He only wishes a vigilante or two had come along to save her.

So, he barely looks for any clues. He just waves the flashlight around, focuses the beam on a particularly interesting patch of ice at the base of some random tree, and then heads a little deeper into the thicket just to make it look as if he’s doing something important. He can hear the gentle slap of the slushy river against the bank not five yards from him.

He wades into the sea of dead bushes and fallen branches. His shoes crunch against the icy ground. He almost slips once, making him rethink his decision to go further. He starts to turn back, but the beam of his light catches something that makes him stop and look harder.

Don’t be the vigilantes. I don’t want to arrest you—HOLY CRAP!

He stumbles back, gagging. With a shaking hand, he grabs the radio from the shoulder of his uniform. He’s never seen a dead body before, at least not like that, not ravaged by the elements, most of the skin eaten away. Alan was the one to find Old Man Jones dead in his garage when a concerned neighbor called to have someone check on him, but Jones had been at peace. Alan saw his niece, his parents, and three of his grandparents at six separate funeral parlors, too, but they’d been all dolled up. This body, this woman, is not at peace. She’s not dolled up. He’s so disturbed, he doesn’t even use his radio, he just screams out to the nearest officer.

Dave and a few other officers run over to him. Dave is a lot older than Alan, and before he arrived in that semi-small town, he’d worked the city. He’s seen plenty of dead bodies, especially murder victims. The sight doesn’t appear to faze him, at least in Alan's eyes. Dave speaks into his radio, his voice trembling just a little as he calls on the necessary people. At least that’s what Alan assumes he’s doing because Alan can hardly hear anything over the blood rushing in his ears.

It isn’t until a while later, after he’s calmed down, that Alan overhears two detectives talking with one another about the body. Curious, he listens.

“Winters. Brooke Winters. Found her driver’s license in her back pocket,” Daniel says to Martin.

“No kidding?” Daniel shakes his head. Martin whistles and tells him, “I knew a Brooke Winters. Wonder if she’s the same one. So, what is she doing here, in the river behind McGregor’s house?”

“Good question. I tell you what, I always felt Dahlia's death was more than an accident. I couldn’t prove any foul play then, but . . . after finding that body tonight in McGregor's backyard, and him going after Grace . . . You gotta admit, there's more there . . .”

Daniel and Martin wander out of Alan's earshot. With a sigh, Alan rests his back against his patrol car, rubbing his arms to ward off the chill. As he glances at the sky, he catches a flash of silver somewhere on the roof of the McGregor house. He squints until he makes out a crow, its plumage speckled with silver from the moon. When his eyes land on it, his gut lurches at the feeling that the crow is watching him. What’s a crow doing awake at this hour, and why is it staring at him?

“Hey, Dave, what’s that crow doing up there?” Alan asks, nudging the older officer.

Dave looks at him, then at the house, but the crow’s gone. Alan frowns at the spot it used to be, wondering where it went.

“You just need some rest, man,” Dave tells him with a clap on the shoulder. Then he walks off, leaving Alan staring at the house.

“I must,” Alan relents.

Then he turns toward the patrol car. A crow caws in his face from the top of the open door. Alan cries out and falls on his back. A few officers run to help him. By the time he’s standing back up, the crow is gone again, but he swears he can hear the echo of its caw in his ears. It sounds suspiciously like laughter.

 

Copyright © 2020 by Kayla Cook

 

Special thanks to my mother, T. Cook, who critiqued this story before publication and also provided a title that makes sense, and Alistair Crowe, who also took the time to critique this story and get back with me before I shared it so I could fix a previously overlooked rough section.