England on a Christmas morning looks nothing like the acres of snow-covered fields and frost-dusted trees depicted on greetings cards. The world outside the French windows is the same as it’s been all month. A light drizzle hangs in the air, muting the color of everything except the algae on the fence panels. Cobwebs decorate the conifers and cat poo covers the lawn. Jeremy stares up into the colorless, magic-less sky, thinking that if the Christmas cards are a lie, could the boys at school have been right about Santa Claus?
In the living room, there are gifts all around the tree — a rolling landscape of prettily wrapped parcels that weren’t there when Jeremy went to bed the previous evening. Rob, his dad, says the pile of presents is obscene. Most of them are modest offerings — packages no bigger than a man’s knitted sweater — but at the back of the room, standing upright against the wall, there’s a parcel that’s taller than the tree. The label reads “To Jeremy from Santa.”
“What did you buy him?” asks Linda, Jeremy’s mum, looking puzzled.
“Don’t look at me,” says Rob. “You’re the one who doesn’t know when to stop.”
After breakfast, Rob smokes a cigarette on the porch while Jeremy helps his mum sort out the presents, trying to guess what they might be. This is Jeremy’s favorite time. In the minutes before the first presents are opened it seems like anything might be possible.
The moment is spoiled when Rob returns, lumbering into the room like an arthritic dinosaur, saying “Let’s get this over with.”
The three of them rip the paper from their presents, liberating packs of socks, box sets of DVDs and cartons of sweets. Linda’s main present is underwear, although she calls it “lingerie,” pronouncing the word with a funny accent and a playful smile. Rob’s main present is a home-brew kit. “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?” he asks as he unpacks a thermometer, a bung, and a large glass jar called a demijohn. Linda rolls her eyes and shakes her head, but not enough for Rob to notice.
“Why don’t you open your main present, sweetie?” she says to Jeremy.
Jeremy carefully removes the paper from his main present to reveal an upright timber crate.
“Goal posts for the garden, maybe?” says Linda.
“A fruit machine for his bedroom?” suggests Rob.
Anticipation tickles the insides of Jeremy’s tummy as he pries open the latch and swings the lid wide.
He gasps. Maybe Christmas is magic after all.
The man who steps out of the crate looks exactly the way Rob would look if he spent less time at the pub and more time at the gym. Jeremy stares at the man’s bulge-less waist and taut chin, wondering how someone can be so familiar and so alien at the same time. The man squats down so he’s Jeremy’s height and the smell of his aftershave makes Jeremy feel giddy.
“You must be Jeremy,” he says, smiling like he means it. “I’m going to be your new daddy.”
“What is this?” asks Rob. “Some kind of joke? I’m calling the Police!”
“Wait,” says Jeremy. “Don’t.” He stares at Rob, an anxious feeling expanding against his chest. Speaking too quickly, he says, “You said I couldn’t have an Xbox for Christmas, so I asked Santa for… a new dad instead.”
The room is still. The clock ticks in the kitchen. Somewhere the central heating whoomphs to life. And Jeremy wonders if this is it, if these are the last sounds he will ever hear. Then Rob shoves the new dad into the Christmas tree, which jingles and snaps as both it and the new dad collapse on the floor.
“Where’s my phone?” asks Rob, swiping balls of wrapping paper from the arms of the sofa in his frustration. He’s about to call the Police when the new dad climbs out of the Christmas tree, picks up the five-liter demijohn and smashes it over the back of Rob’s head. The demijohn explodes in a firework of glass and bloodied hair, and Rob stumbles forward, falling flat on his face.
The new dad stands over Rob with a six-inch shard of broken glass in his hand. “You should probably look away,” he says to Jeremy and Linda.
Jeremy closes his eyes and cuddles into his mum’s shoulder. For the next few minutes he hears strangled pleas and desperate sobs followed by stabbing, squelching, and splattering noises. Jeremy flinches with each new sound, feeling every slash and blow. And then there’s only silence.
“You can look now,” says the new dad, panting lightly.
Jeremy and Linda peer out from behind their hands. Lying in the center of the room, covered in crimson fingerprints, is the crate in which the new dad arrived. The carpet and walls are covered in violent arcs of blood, all dripping towards the carpet.
“It’s okay,” says the new dad. “Most of it’s his.”
Linda leaps off the sofa and runs for the door in panic, but the new dad catches her, wrapping his strong arms around her chest. “You can’t run away,” he says, his voice little more than a whisper. “We’re all going to stay here and celebrate Christmas together.” She falls to her knees and sobs quietly, gently rocking backwards and forwards next to the blood-smeared crate.
“I almost forgot,” says the new dad, handing Jeremy a Christmas present. Jeremy’s eyes light up as he unwraps what turns out to be a brand new Xbox. “I’m sure your mum won’t mind,” says his new dad. “And if she does, we’ll know who to get you for your birthday.”
Jeremy looks past his new dad towards the world beyond the French windows. The drizzle has stopped and the first precious flakes of snow are dancing in the sky. It’s been a marvelous Christmas. He can’t wait to tell his friends all about it.
Christopher Stanley lives on a hill in England with three sons who share a birthday but aren’t triplets. His stories have been published in The Molotov Cocktail, Aphotic Realm and Calendark: The Infernal Almanac, along with many others. Follow him on Twitter @allthosestrings.