Better Watch Out
The bar was packed, thick with conviviality and syrupy song. The drummer boy drummed. The Christmas tree was rocked around. Mommy kissed fake Santa as a shocked kiddo looked on.
The night was far from silent. I needed that. Needed not to be left alone with my thoughts, drowning in my own fear and misery. If it weren’t for this bastard Jørgen who called himself my friend, I would be. But he knew better, and as usual, had rousted me from my apartment to join the living.
His words. Not mine.
Every year grew harder, every year since the cancer took her down, sending wormholes into her once sparkling brain.
Grandma had been the best of everything. Warm. Funny. Kind.
We gardened during long summers and sat, sweaty, on her porch, sipping lemonade. During winter we baked together, breads, cookies, and pies. We decorated the tree I would purchase from the homeless shelter fundraiser the next town over.
I hung lights from the peak of her bungalow.
Then, that one December night, she was gone. Taken by him. The dark elf. The one who drove his charges through the long night.
The one who must be appeased.
I pronounce it the old way. Not the way people in Georgia, New York, or California pronounce it.
Klaus. Clousz. Clows. With a hard ess sound, like a snowstorm whipping around your ears, and an ouch vowel in the middle.
He hurt me, Mr. Claus. He stole my joy.
And so, here I was again, in the midst of people lit up by alcohol and frivolity, a miserable lump of flesh pretending to be something, anything, else.
Those who know, call me Elf-Hunter. Like I’m some dark legend, come to the big screen for your entertainment.
The name is not one hundred percent accurate, but it’s evocative enough. I hadn’t found the Big Bad Elf yet. Though that’s certainly in my plans. I had injured a few of his minions, though. All those “helpers” who look so cute and innocuous right before they send you spiraling into addiction, greed, or fear. Sometimes they drive people to their deaths.
But that’s never part of the story, is it?
At first, I bristled at those two small words bumped up together, forming an identity I never sought, but once I figured out it wasn’t going away, I tried to embrace it.
Some nights, when the spirit of melancholy shook my bones, I failed.
“It’s just marketing,” Jørgen said, scarred fingers caressing the chipped white mug as if it were a lover. The man surely enjoyed his coffee. “You really cannot buy this type of publicity.”
I took a sip of whiskey, savoring the burn as it traced a pathway down toward my stomach. “I know all that. But sometimes a guy just wants to be loved for who he is, you know?”
“Some of us see your softer side, my friend.”
Yeah. The handful of people I’ll actually share a meal with. The ones who call me Joe.
Jørgen grinned his cockeyed grin that caused all the years of sun damage on his face to crack, crinkling in the most delightful way. His face, battered by the elements and time, was the most beautiful one I’d ever seen. I’d once made the mistake of telling him so. He laughed uproariously at the thought of it, and pranced around for days, pretending to be a runway model.
I never mentioned it again. I’m too hard for love, anyway. Best to keep things casual with people who aren’t my best friend.
“Part of who you are is a killer of things that should not exist. And that part, too, needs love. No?” Jørgen’s voice was like caramel, and the remnants of his accent gave a lilting quality to his words.
I sighed, tilting dangerously close to his broad shoulders, his leather jacket, the scent of cedar that clung to the edges of his sun-streaked brown and gray hair. What can I say? I’ve always been a sucker for big men, with big laughs, and big bellies, and crinkly eyes.
I’m a wiry man myself. Well muscled after years of the harshest training. A faster runner than I’d like to be. A fighter who is…
“I’m tired. How much longer do I have to do this?”
Jørgen’s scarred and beautiful face grew serious. Then he gently pried my fingers from the whiskey tumbler, slid it across the bar, and took a sip. He looked down at the glass, as if examining a very interesting insect. Then he downed the rest in one swallow.
“You do it until it is done.”
Shoving back his stool, he threw his card on the bar, eased my arms into my duffel coat, signed the receipt, and shepherded me through the bar and out into the icy dark night and the glimmer of lights reflected on rainbows of oil trapped in icy puddles.
Humans. We held onto hope with the slimmest of excuses, warding off inevitable death with the glitter of tinsel and a string of lights.
Not enough people follow the old ways.
A piece of freshly baked white bread, seasoned with three red drops of the baker’s blood.
A dish of milk, tucked into a hollow at the base of an ancient oak.
A piece of silver, left dead center at the crossroads.
A dram of whiskey, poured onto a sidewalk at midnight.
A strand of hair, dropped onto the forest floor.
The spirits—living and dead—must be appeased, else the world will be plunged into chaos. The Fae spirits, small and large, seen and unseen, seelie, unseelie, sprite, pixie, elf, and gnome, all have their ways.
Humans have turned the ancient magics into stories for children and forgotten their power. The power of truth. The power of time. The power of death. The power of change.
Oh, the Fae spirits can bless you, and often do. They can as easily curse your family for generations hence.
Do not cross them.
Do not forget.
Leave out a dish of cookies and a cup of sweet milk. And sure, a carrot or two if it pleases you. The reindeer can use the fuel.
The old elf must be fed, or your children’s dreams will turn to nightmares that will wake you in the night.
Some say that his suit is dyed the red of blood. Me? I have no proof, but would not be surprised.
After all, my grandmother died on Christmas Eve. Can’t prove the old elf took her?
Can’t prove that he did not.
He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.
Yeah. Can’t tell me old Claus isn’t some dark force, waiting to spirit us all away.
Bad or good? You tell me.
For goodness’ sake.
The house was dark. The trap was set.
Jørgen and I waited, hiding in the shadows on either side of the cold hearth. The only light came from the gentle glow from the Yule tree in the corner, reflected in the silvery paper wrapped around the small pile of gifts waiting for morning. Within the blinking sphere of colored lights, was a small table set with a plate of cookies and a tall, cold, glass of milk.
Just the way Mr. Claus liked it.
Upstairs, a sickly child waited for dawn. He had that new disease everyone worried about. Waited for gifts, and the magic promised by the long night. His parents had called me, worried.
Would I keep watch? Make certain nothing happened to their son that night?
Of course I would. But we had to do it my way. No family crouched at the stairs, looking on. No baby monitor set up to trap the sound.
No alert, texted to the sleeping parents, so they could burst through the kitchen door and tell the old elf what they thought of his thieving ways.
No. The adults upstairs had agreed to a light sedative. Nothing to knock you out so badly you couldn’t escape in case of fire, just a little something to take the edge off. Ease the restless worry. Blunt the firing synapses so the brain lets go its grip, allowing dreams to come.
Better dreams than mine, I hoped.
“Where is that damn elf?” Jørgen muttered. I shifted on the balls of my feet and stretched my neck, but didn’t reply.
Jørgen wasn’t used to waiting. I was. Usually I worked alone, but after years of reconnaissance and smaller jobs, I decided some back up might be in order.
I was going for the big fish this time.
Another hour passed, the clock on the fireplace mantel tick-tocking the time away.
“You sure about this?” Jørgen asked.
I stifled a groan, gripping the jute bag in my hands. It wouldn’t be big enough to fit the elf, but would at least fit over his head and that snowy white beard, confusing him long enough for Jørgen to tie him up.
At least that had been the plan.
“Jørgen!” I hissed. “Don’t make me regret letting you come along.”
“Go back to sleep,” I whispered, hoping my voice would carry up the stairs but not wake the parents.
But here came the pitter patter of little feet creeping slowly down the stairs. That distinctive slapping sound of footie pajamas. I could imagine the tiny, grubby fingers, clutching the wooden stair rail and the milk sweet breath of a child, and all his innocent glory, heading towards danger.
“What do we do?” Jørgen asked.
“Daddy? What’s happening? Is Santa here?”
“Santa’s not here, Timmy. Go back to sleep. You know what we told you. If you don’t go back to sleep, Santa might not come.”
I heard this footsteps pause on the stairs.
“Daddy?” The voice sounded less certain. Slightly afraid. “Why does your voice sound weird?”
“Just tired, son. Go back to bed.”
Please go back to bed. Sleep your innocent sleep. Stay away from the dark magic that roamed the night.
Jørgen and I both stood stock still, hidden in the shadows, just outside the arc of blinking tree lights. I hoped against hope that little Timmy would give up and go back to bed.
Slap. Slap. Slap. Nope. One stair step at a time, those footie pajamas still headed our way.
And then the shimmering began.
“What’s happening, Joe?” Now Jørgen was the one who sounded scared.
“Get ready,” I said. Jørgen grunted, and I heard the rustling that meant he was preparing the ropes.
“Timmy?” I called out. voice sharp. “Stay there. It’s dangerous.”
Our cover was already blown. May as well keep the kid safe if I could.
The plate of cookies and the glass of milk shimmered in the light of the Yule tree. Meanwhile, the glow in front of the fireplace increased, growing stronger and stronger. The air smelled like those over-saturated cinnamon brooms that stores sold come autumn time. The scent always made me gag.
I swallowed hard against my rising gorge and braced my feet against the wood floor.
“You got the rope?” I asked.
“Ready,” Jørgen said. “But are you sure about this?”
I heard little Timmy creeping down the stairs. Closer and closer.
“Timmy! Stay there!”
The light blazed like a star going nova and, standing in front of me—“Ho! Ho! Ho!”—was the evil elf himself. Blood red suit. Snowy beard. Skinny, lanky, frame. Long, bony, fingers ready to snatch children from their beds.
This was not the fat, jolly old elf of The Night Before Christmas rhyme or Coca Cola commercials. This was the real deal.
Klaus. Mr. Claus. A Santa who was no saint at all.
“What have we here? A young man, come to greet me!” The voice boomed through the living room. “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed, young sir?”
The old elf shook one of his long, spindly fingers. Timmy gasped.
That’s right, kid. Now’s the time to be afraid.
“Are these cookies and milk for me? Good boy.” Every word exaggeratedly cheerful. Every word a lie.
The elf bent to pick up the offering, which was the only thing keeping Timmy alive.
“Now!” I shouted, and threw the jute bag over the old elf’s head.
Jørgen stumbled forward, clumsy with the ropes. Old Claus was thrashing, struggling against me. One sharp elbow to my ribs, placed to drive the breath from my lungs. I held on tight. One hand clutching the bag closed around his neck. The other arm wrapped around that skinny torso.
“Now, Jørgen! The ropes!”
And then, tiny fists pummeling at my thighs.
“What are you doing? Leave Santa alone! Santa never did anything to hurt you!”
Except, Santa did.
The tang of rubbing alcohol, oxygen, and cleaning supplies invaded the back of my throat.
And there she was, propped up in a cantilevered bed, hooked to machines, an IV drip in one arm.
My grandmother. The light of my life. My cookie baking queen.
It was her favorite time of year, the space between winter solstice and New Year’s Eve. The dark time of year. The time she filled with fire and light and song.
Grandma made the long nights of winter a haven. A respite from the cold.
But not this night. Not for me. Despite the string of tiny twinkle lights on a tiny fake tree. Despite the festive cards taped to the wall.
Christmas Eve, and she was dying.
“Maybe Santa will take me,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be nice? To ride off on his sleigh? Become an elf?”
“I’d rather have you here.” I clutched her fingers, trying to warm them.
Trying to warm the icicle shard lodged inside my heart.
“You know that in some of the Norse pagan traditions, the ancestors go to the land of the Light Elves, don’t you? I told you those stories when you were a child.”
She had. And I wanted to believe them.
But I didn’t.
All I knew for sure was that when the clock struck midnight, a light shimmered around her bed, and a thin, long-fingered hand and red sleeve reached through. Bells chimed. I caught a snatch of song.
Then she rattled her last breath, leaving me alone.
“Timmy, you don’t understand,” I said.
“What the hell is going on here?”
Great. There was the mother, at the top of the stairs, followed by a sleepy-looking dad, both of them wrapped in flannel robes. Bare feet on one, slippers on the other. Startled faces.
I caught it all in a flash.
“Go back to bed, and grab Timmy.”
“No!” Timmy screamed. “They’re hurting him! Mom! Dad! Do something!”
Adult feet barreling down the stairs. The father speaking to me, “I think this was a mistake.”
The mother replying. “You think? You’re paying for Timmy’s therapy.”
“Shit,” Jørgen said.
Shit, I thought. How in the world had this all gone so wrong?
“Let me go,” said Mr. Claus, voice calm. He was finally holding still. He had stopped fighting, but I could feel the magic energy building inside his tall frame. The light increased, just as it had when he took Grandma away.
He was getting ready to do something.
“Tie his arms, Jørgen!”
“I don’t know, Joe.”
“Stop it!” Timmy said. “You’re ruining everything. You’re ruining Christmas!”
“Christmas is a lie, kid,” I said, “You’re old enough to learn that now.”
The light built. I held on to Mr. Claus as Jørgen fumbled around with the ropes.
“Did you really have to say that?” the mother said, glaring at me.
I groaned. This was so not what I signed up for. This whole story had taken a turn. Tonight was supposed to be my night. Elf Hunter’s night.
My night to vanquish the old elf once and for all. My night to prove to people that an elf unappeased was a danger to everyone…
But I didn’t have it in me anymore. I lifted the jute sack, and there he was, panting, a little sweaty. His hard eyes were dark as coal, boring into me. Staring me down.
And suddenly I was falling, falling, falling…
I landed in a pile of snow in the middle of an unfamiliar landscape, surrounded by conical fir trees.
Staring up into my grandmother’s smiling face.
She wore a green wool jumpsuit and a green cap pulled down over her ears. The round silver glasses she’d worn the whole time I knew her perched on her nose.
“Joe! I’m so happy you are here!”
I groaned and sat up, brushing the powdered snow from my jeans. I stood up, and enveloped her into as big a hug as I could manage without crushing her. She smelled of cloves and sugar. Of hot chocolate and childhood memories.
Finally, I released her. She looked up at me and traced one soft hand across my cheek.
“You look tired, Joe. And angry. What happened to you?”
I ignored the question and looked around. Tall, wood buildings with high peaked roofs clustered at the base of a mountain, on the edge of the trees. They looked like gingerbread homes, without the paint, or candy decorations. A herd of white horses were stabled nearby.
“What is this place?”
“Elfland, Joe. I always told you I wanted to end up her when my time came. Aren’t you going to tell me what has you in this state?”
I flushed with anger. Anger at the old elf. Anger at his duplicity. Anger at the fact that the stories said he gave and gave when his skinny hands just took.
“The evil old elf took you! And he rides around, seeking tribute. Threatening people with punishment if they don’t do what he says!”
She tilted her head, like a small green bird in the snow.
“What are you talking about, Joe?”
“You. Better. Watch. Out.” The words ground themselves out past my molars. “He sees you when you’re sleeping…. You better be good…. If you have one damn human emotion, you get coal. If you don’t leave him cookies, you might just lose your soul. The elf. He has us all in thrall. And he took you. He took you away…”
My breath came out in sobs, frosting in the cold air. I felt the wetness stain my cheeks.
“He took me because I asked him to, Joe,” said Grandma. “You know I always loved the winter holidays. The joy of it. The children’s smiles. The light in the dark of the year.”
“But I miss you. I needed you…”
Her eyes softened, but her words were firm. “You’re a grown man, Joe. And I’m happy now. Outside of pain. And other people need me, too.”
“I don’t understand…”
“You get to choose where you head to after death. Some choose return to their component parts, forming soil and sunlight, their memories heading to the great subconscious bank, lending insight in times of need. Others go to what they call the Summerlands, still others to heaven or—if they hate themselves enough—to hell.”
“And you?” Confusion swirled around my head like snowflakes. None of this was making any sense.
“I’m an elf now, Joe. I’m magic. I get to spread wonder to people, and remind them of what’s real.”
I stared at her, this woman I had known and loved my whole life.
“Life is not just suffering and pain, my dear boy. Life is sweetness, too. Here, have a cookie.”
And from the deep pockets of her coat, she somehow withdrew a small white saucer, edged with red and green. On it was one single sugar cookie, shaped like a tree.
“I never forgot,” she said. “But I think you did, for a while.”
I bit into the crisp cookie, tasting the buttery sweetness on my tongue.
Grandma kissed my cheek.
And I was back in the living room, lights blazing, surrounded by worried faces, and one tall, skinny elf with a snowy white beard, crouched over me.
“Are you all right, son?” He held out a hand, offering to help me up. I batted it away.
“I’m not your son.”
His eyes looked sad. “No. But you are her grandson.”
He stood up, and Jørgen helped me to a chair.
The old elf waved to my friend. “This one says you came to trap me. To kill me.”
“Why?” Timmy asked. He stared at me with large, round eyes, safe in the protection of his father’s flannel robe, mother at his side. All the things I didn’t have. All the things that time had taken from me.
“He…” how could I explain this to a sickly child, whose parents had hired me to catch the elf before he could spirit away their child? How could I explain that for the past five years, I had hunted his helpers, wounding them the way they had wounded me?
Why did children still believe the world was good? Why did their parents let them?
“He took away someone I loved more than anything in the world,” I finally said.
“Santa?” Timmy said, turning to the elf. “Is that true?”
The old elf nodded. “It is true, Timmy. But I only took her because she wanted to go.”
“Is that true?” Timmy’s father’s voice was harsh. “You don’t just steal people away? We’ve heard the stories…”
The old elf hung his head, his voice so low, I had to lean forward to catch the words. “I did. Once upon a time. The world was different then. I thought I was helping people learn to be good…”
“By threatening them,” Jørgen said. Good man.
“Yes,” Mr. Claus replied. “I thought threats were the only way to get people to treat one another as if they were the precious gifts they are.”
He looked at me with those coal-black eyes. “Like the precious gift you are.”
“Stop it!” I said, voice thick with unwanted tears. “Stop lying to us! You are evil, and you know you are! You’ve stolen people from their families. You keep us in line with threats! You have to pay for what you’ve done!”
“Joe,” the old elf said, “I have paid. Over and over and over. I have paid. Year after year, I do nothing but deliver gifts, and take those who are ready, and want to come.”
Timmy’s mother stepped forward. “You mean, you didn’t come to take Timmy away?”
Mr. Claus shook his head. “I will only take Timmy if he doesn’t get better, and if he wants to come live with me. But…” a small smile graced his lips. “I don’t think it will come to that.”
Timmy’s fathers sobbed. “You mean…?”
The old elf nodded. “I think your son is on the mend. Look at his face. The latest medicine seems to be working.”
Both parents clutched each other, sobbing, and wrapped their arms around their child.
Timmy didn’t cry. He looked steadily from the elf, to me, and back again.
“I would go with yo