[For those who are new as of early December, 2014, welcome! As you might be able to tell, I’m still in start-up mode around here. Still, I hope you stick around to watch the growing process!]
This is my entry in Chuck Wendig’s Holiday Horror Extravaganza flash fiction challenge.
It begins with the scratching, a low skritch-skritch that threatens to become a nails-on-chalkboard shriek at any moment. At first, I’m the only one who notices. It’s right behind me, after all.
My uncle lives in the middle of nowhere, about forty-five minutes out from Hibbing. Uncle Andrew never amounted to much, so the rest of the family shunted him into the old cabin. We don’t see him often, except around the holidays when everyone gets together up there. Things get pretty cozy – it’s not that big a cabin. It runs close to the lake on one side, and maple trees press close everywhere else. My brother and I always end up sharing a little bedroom with our cousins Jake and Mitch from Wisconsin, and we’ve all gotten pretty used to branches dragging along the ceiling.
Tonight, though, the scratching is outside the big window in the living room, the one that looks out over the lake. Not that we can see anything. The sun went down two hours ago, and we closed the curtains half an hour later when the dog started whining. He gets so anxious when he can’t keep an eye on what’s out there, but he’s not smart enough to know that the window’s still there after the curtains close. He’s Jake’s dog, go figure.
No one’s too worried about the scratching at first. Noises happen out here, and it could well be Uncle Luke – Jake and Mitch’s dad – trying to play a joke on us. He took my brother, Petey, ice-fishing earlier, and he’s been known to keep us kids out pretty late. I stopped going out there with him last year after one too many nights helping Uncle Luke stumble back across the ice.
Anyways, Luke likes to think he’s hilarious, especially after he’s had enough Grain Belts. He usually hits “enough” sometime around mid-morning, and we’re used to ignoring him by now. Today, for example, Aunt Helen had me help Grace and Samantha make snowmen on the path down to the lake. I don’t mind doing that too much. It beats helping Dad “forage for firewood” with a six-pack all afternoon, and Mom won’t let me in the kitchen when she and Aunt Vickie are prepping dinner. That usually starts around the same time Luke gets funny, so it’s either whatever Aunt Helen’s doing or playing cribbage with Grandma, Grandpa, and Uncle Andrew. (Like I said, it’s a full house.)
When the scratching starts, we’re mostly all crammed into the living room, except for Luke and Petey on the ice, mom and Vickie in the kitchen, and Jake and Mitch back in our room with the half-full bottle of whiskey they stole from the kitchen before Mom woke up. The cribbage players are in their fourth loop around the board today. Grace and Samantha are playing checkers on the low coffee table, Helen offering advice to little Grace. Dad’s fiddling with the fire.
The group at the checker table looks up after the scratching’s been going on for twenty seconds or so. Then the dog starts to whine in Luke and Helen’s room. The cribbage players look up.
Dad’s oblivious until a pile of snow falls down the chimney and extinguishes the fire. He jumps up, spluttering. When he whips around to face the rest of us, sooty snow is melting on his face. The flickering from the old lamps makes it look particularly weird.
I stick my head through the curtains, but nothing illuminates the frozen world outside. While the moon is supposed to be full tonight, thick clouds cover the sky at the moment.
“Turn on the back lights,” I hiss. I’m not talking to anyone in particular. It’s Aunt Helen who pushes up to her feet and heads for the light switch. It’s next to a door to the three-season porch where Dad keeps the firewood. Before Helen reaches the switch panel, all of the lights inside go out. I hear a wine bottle clunk against a counter top in the kitchen.
“What’s going on?” Mom calls.
“Nothing, dear,” says Dad. It’s his standard reflex, no matter how clear it is that something is happening. The scratching at the window grows louder and more varied. Whatever’s out there either has company or is growing limbs. Skritch-skritch.
More scratching comes from the door by the light switch. Skritch-skritch. Aunt Helen backs up, hand reaching backward for the fireplace tools. She comes up with the coal shovel and raises it like a baseball bat. Skritch-skritch. I pick my way through the darkness to the kitchen. There’s a flashlight under the sink.
As I pass behind Aunt Helen, a new sound starts at the porch door. Ka-link, ka-link. The doorknob. I scoot along faster. I push through a cloud of Aunt Vickie’s perfume as Grace starts to cry in the living room. Samantha tries to hush her. I put my hands out, find the faucet, and crouch down, searching feel for the cabinet handle.
“Whatever you are, back off!” shouts Aunt Helen. Skritch-skritch. Ka-link, ka-link. I find the flashlight just as Jake and Mitch thud into the kitchen from our little room. The scent of cheap whiskey fights with Aunt Vickie’s perfume. I feel light-headed, but I can’t tell if that’s the adrenaline or the tainted air.
Whatever is at the door has grown more insistent. Ka-link, ka-link. The flashlight shows the doorknob twisting randomly. It pauses, and more frantic scratching comes from the other side of the door. Ch-ch-ch.
“Where’s Daddy?” asks Grace. And where’s Petey? A wave of guilt hits me. I should have gone with him, kept him safe. Who knows what kind of trouble he might be in now?
For a crazy moment, I consider running out the porch door into the snow to look for my brother. But I can’t. Whatever’s out there would do who knows what to me and to everyone still inside. And there’s no guarantee I could even find Petey. Skritch-skritch-skritch!
I kneel on the couch backed against the big window and pull the curtains open. It’s still dark outside, although a faint white glow suggests that we could yet get some moonlight. I’m not in the mood to wait.
I point the flashlight outside. The beam is weak, though, and doesn’t reach very far.
Pa-shump! Something comes into view, pressed against the glass. I recoil, my mind trying to make sense of it. It’s a dark, uneven spot in a field of white. Above it and off to one side, I hear the skritch-skritch again. The spot drags along the window. Kr-ik! It makes a terrible grinding noise and leaves a pitted scratch in its wake. Samantha screams.
I jump off the couch, but keep the flashlight pointed outside. With a little distance, I can see what’s happening. It still doesn’t make much sense, though.
It’s one of our snowmen. It – he? – has pressed himself against the window. That dark spot was one of his soulless charcoal eyes. The part of his face pressed against the glass is flat, but the rest is contorted in an expression of rage. The branches we gave him for arms were the ones making the skritch-skritch.
The clouds finally part, flooding the space between us and the lake with moonlight. Five of our six snowmen are out there. The rattling from the porch door tells me where the sixth is.
The worst part is all the snowmen we didn’t make. They’re strung out behind the ones at the window, a motley army coming across the ice. Each face has its own look of fury or hunger. They move in bizarre lurches, misshapen lumps of snow building up in their bottom halves and then bulging forward to inch them along.
The one at the window rears its head back. Ripples of snow run along its midsection up to its head. The tiny row of charcoal bits we’d used for a mouth push themselves into a ring. A bulge forms at the center. Something red, wet, and uneven bursts out, smacking into the window. It sticks there, a splatter of blood freezing as we watch.
It’s a lumpy sort of hand shape, and under the blood I can see its gray felt with a reindeer pattern. My heart lurches as I remember Petey’s eyes on Christmas Day last year. He’d loved those mittens as soon as he saw them.
I drop the flashlight and my knees go weak. Tears blur my vision as the skritch-skritch turns into a sharp crack. While the windows shatter inward, all I can see is that lonely mitten flopping down onto the couch, lost without its brother.