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Staring at the tree, whiskey in hand, Pete was pleased that this year would be different from the last. It had been the strangest time of his life, but he truly felt like things were finally coming together, and when better to come together than at Christmas? A time he loved more than any other.
In some ways the past year had been like an eternity, in others as if it had succumbed to time in the blink of an eye, but either way he was glad to see the back of it.
Staring at the Christmas tree, its beautiful lights casting a warm hue over the room, and the snow quietly falling outside as the sun set, Pete began to think of the past year, of his daughter Lana, and his wife Janet.
It had started with a very normal December, 12 months earlier. The small town in which they lived was covered in a thick layer of snow, the residents spending most of their days clearing driveways, and Pete's wife going off for one of her usual wanders.
She had been gone for a couple of hours, but while Janet was utterly devoted to her family, she still needed moments to herself. To clear her head. To diminish the stress that comes with a loving yet disorganized husband, and a little girl who was kind, but whom enjoyed trying her parents' patience as much as possible.
When the tensions of a domestic life clouded her feelings, or began to weigh on her spirits, Janet would wander out of the back door into the fields and woodlands which characterized the entire area, and trek for a little while through the pines which dotted the landscape.
It therefore wasn't unusual for her to be gone for fairly long periods, especially since it was around that time of year when she would take it upon herself to choose the Christmas tree. No matter how much Pete or Lana asked to help out; this was Janet's job. She loved the tradition of it, the process of choosing the best possible tree, cutting it down, and then seeing the bright smiles on her family's faces, as they would gleefully take the tree indoors and decorate it with sparkling glitter garlands, warm glowing lights, and an array of festive baubles.
It was a small Highland town, where they lived, far away from any major city, but Janet and the rest of her family loved their home. The simplicity of it, the feeling of being an integral part of a close-knit community, and of course the beautiful surroundings, lush during the Scottish summer and cold, crisp, stark but yet awe inspiring in the winter. Most importantly, she loved the pine woods nearby, specifically a collection of trees which sat at the top of a small hill within walking distance from the house: Perfect for picking a Christmas tree! She would return there each year, and while their numbers thinned due to a few other neighbours going there for the exact same purpose, there were enough trees to last a good many years.
When she had been gone for three hours Pete began to grow nervous, as this was longer than usual, and since it was getting dark, he took it upon himself to venture outside, telling Lana to lock the doors after him, and that he would not be long. Lana laughed when he told her that he expected that mummy was struggling through the snow with a huge tree; bigger than any other they had ever had!Pete loved to see the excitement in his daughter's face at this time of year, and he told her to watch from her bedroom window to see what they would bring back. With this, she excitedly ran up the stairs straight to her window before he had to call her back down to lock the door.
Gazing at the beautiful tree, he could remember that night like it was yesterday.
The snow was crisp on the ground and crunched under his feet as it began to freeze. Small flakes fell from the sky occasionally, but Janet's footprints remained uncovered. Even without them, Pete knew where they were heading.
The hill where Janet returned each year was only a forty minute hike away. She would pick a pine tree from there. In fact sometimes she picked two. One around six foot, the other a young tree about half the size, if they could find one suitable. It was difficult at times to find smaller trees as they seemed to be rare in that area. Everyone in the town seemed to like the idea of having a small tree in their children's bedrooms, so people would climb up there with an axe and take what they wanted, so there weren't as many at hand. Lana at one time had thought it was sad to cut down and kill the trees just for people to look at, but Pete explained to her about tradition and that he was sure more would grow back. With time, she forgot this protest and looked forward to the years when she could have one. If a smaller tree couldn't be found, they had a lovely synthetic one which would sit at her window – secretly she loved this just as much, but as her father had said: 'Tradition is tradition'.
The larger tree would be placed in the living room and adorned with an assortment of baubles, glittering decorations, and lights. The other, in Lana's room, would be sprayed with a can of fake snow and covered in hanging candy sticks and chocolates. Although she was always told she could only have one a day before bed as a treat. Of course occasionally she would break this rule and just hope no one would notice. Janet could always tell, but she would let it go. Christmas time was the best of times after all, and it was so brief.
As Pete approached the hill, he knew something was wrong; he felt it in his bones. As he climbed, the snow began to fall in greater volume and the sky dimmed with it. Standing at the humble summit, a stillness spread; silence interrupted momentarily by the almost audible patter of snow flakes floating gently to the ground.
He followed the footprints now with purpose, knowing that if the snowfall increased that it would be nearly impossible to find Janet. Twilight fell, covering everything in a dark blue wisp of colour, as the frost began to nip at his now rosy cheeks. The footprints bobbed and weaved their way through the huge pines, finally stopping next to a wonderfully thick and vibrant tree. One which was perfectly suited for their purposes. The perfect size; almost seven foot tall, a deep life-filled green, and a thick abundance of branches and pines which made it almost impossible to visually penetrate its cover in such a light. But yet Janet was nowhere to be seen, and as far as Pete could tell there were no other tracks in the snow leading away in any direction. She had most certainly been here, but where had she gone?
This was both puzzling and worrying. It seemed impossible, but there they were, Janet's last two footprints engraved in the ground, but the snow all around, virgin, undisturbed, and lacking all signs of life. It was as if she had just vanished into the night.
Looking at the base of the tree Pete ran his fingers over a deep gash in its trunk. There was no doubt about it; Janet had taken a few swipes at it with her axe. Then for some unknown reason, she had left, or perhaps moved on to a tree she felt was more suitable.
Surely not though? This tree was perfect!
That must have been it though, she must have moved on. Perhaps there was some random, freakish flurry of snow which covered her tracks. Yes, that must have been it. But Pete knew this was wishful thinking. He had lived there for years, and in all of that time he had never seen such a thing.
Then he saw it. Several metres away lying in the snow, was Janet's axe. He rushed over to the object, falling once as the snow deepened. Rising to his feet it was now unmistakeable. Yes, it was partially covered in snow, but it was Janet's axe all right. It lay there much like the footprints, isolated but with the absence of any human imprints. It was as if the tool had been dropped from a great height, but Pete did not care to speculate. A sense of growing worry permeated his mind as the thought of Janet lying somewhere injured increased his anxiety.
Shouting his wife's name repeatedly drew no reply as darkness now began to creep ever closer. If she was hurt, he would have to raise the alarm and get the town out looking for her, along with mountain rescue. She wouldn't survive long in the snow, in that biting cold. At this thought the panic grew; worry, fear, hurt that can only be felt through love.
With torch in hand he continued in the direction the axe had taken him. As he entered a thick den of pine trees, he noticed the broken branches littered on the ground as if something had rushed passed, tearing them apart and breaking them off on impact.
Maybe Janet ran through here?
The scale of the damage, however, looked too great to have been dealt by one person alone. Had he been in any other country he would have assumed a bear was nearby, but they had been hunted to extinction in Scotland long ago, along with the wolves and any other predators. For a moment his torch reflected off of something scuttling under a bush, but it looked more like an insect than anything else, and again far too small to cause such devastation.
Pete fixed his scarf, trying to cover his face as the frost bit deeper, but just as he did so, something caught his eye. Something on the ground. Shining his torch on what he at first thought to be a dead animal, was the crumpled body of Janet, lying still on the ground.
A heart attack they said. A heart attack! But Pete had seen her face, he had looked upon those eyes once so filled with kindness, transfixed in a frozen stare. Cold, glassy, black with fear. Her hands were clenched in front of her and the pathologist told him that this was perfectly normal for one suffering such a massive heart attack in such low temperatures. As was the contorted look on her face, although at the mention of this Pete saw a flicker in the pathologist's eyes which gave away that he was as puzzled by that look as anyone. A look Pete would never forget. Darling Janet, love of his life, mother of his children. Dying alone in the cold, with lips pulled back over teeth in agony, frozen into an inhuman sneer.
The whole ordeal had devastated him. If it hadn't been for their daughter Lana, for the necessity of her needs to be met before his own, Pete would have found it nearly impossible to have gotten through it.
The past twelve months had been cluttered with reminders of an aching loss. As with any bereavement, the first time of doing something once shared without that person made the pain more acute. The first Christmas, the first day at work, the first walk to school, the first family get together; every person's face etched in concern accompanied by the usual well-meaning but empty traditions of 'how are you holding up?', 'It must have been so difficult', and 'If there's anything I can do...'.
Helping his daughter through the loss of her mother was all he had to make sure he could face another day.
But that stopped now. They had been through the horror, through the denial, through the silent meals, through the lonely cries of despair at night, through the birthdays empty and sombre; they had been through it all. All these 'firsts' were over. It had been over twelve months since Janet's death and Pete felt almost exhilarated by this. He still missed her everyday, the pain would never truly leave him, but the feeling of accomplishment, of strength - something which he thought had deserted him – that he had endured, filled him for the first time with thoughts of the future; thoughts that life does indeed go on, even when our dearest have gone before us.
And what of his beautiful daughter? Dear, kind Lana. He may have felt compelled to bring her through the past year, but her empathy and strength had left him in awe. Characteristics which someone so young had no right to possess, but which were thankfully present nonetheless.
When she had cried he had been there, and on more than one occasion when he lay sobbing, staring at that empty void of space in his double bed at night, Lana would waken and climb in beside him, and they would both cry together until they fell asleep.
She was his rock, and by God she was going to have the best Christmas she'd ever had. Pete had made a number of arrangements. He had spent a fortune on every gift imaginable, he had filled the house with every food and treat that she enjoyed, and both Janet's parents and his own were flying in for Christmas dinner to be with their brave, sweet little granddaughter. He'd also organized for Lana's friends to have a sleepover on Boxing day which she had pleaded for, but Pete always knew he would give in eventually. She never asked for much, but this year, this Christmas she would have more than she could imagine.
The house was perfect, but there was one thing left to do. One thing that Pete had dreamt of since the night he found Janet's body. She had chosen that tree. It was going to be sitting in their living room adorned with all manor of decorations. That was its purpose, its very reason for being. Janet never finished cutting the damned thing down. It was in many ways her dying act, and Pete was going to make sure that it was fulfilled.
On the anniversary of her death, he wandered through the snow, winding his way through the pines until he stood at the foot of that ominous little hill. The sun shone brightly and it wasn't as cold as it had been the night Janet died, but each footstep was accompanied by a sickness in the pit of Pete's stomach. Each stride a morbid reminder of the previous year, and that terrible heartbreak in the snow.
Marching to its peak, he first walked to, and observed the scene of Janet's untimely death. Standing there where her body had laid, Pete wiped the tears from his eyes and placed a small Santa figurine on the ground, burying it in the snow. It had always been hung from the branches of each yearly tree, and was her favourite decoration, it seemed only right that it be with her.
After another few minutes of trudging, there it was. It was still standing! That damned tree! As if ravenous for revenge, Pete pulled Janet's axe from his backpack and charged at the pine. He battered and chopped at the cut which Janet had made the previous year, making it deeper with every slice, with every pound of pressure he could muster.
The tree groaned and creaked as if in pain, but Pete did not care. This tree was the final reminder of Janet's death. Whatever had happened that night, it happened because of that tree. As crazy as it seemed, it all made sense for a moment, and then clarity was clouded by mundane reality.
She had simply died of natural causes.
With the roar of cracked wood breaking under its own weight, the tree swooned and collapsed to the ground in defeat. Tying a rope around its trunk, and then using string to fold its branches inward, Pete dragged that memory, that cold hearted pillar of nature's brutality through the snow, over grass and gravel, and finally to his back door.
He was victorious.
With little thought for carpet or furniture, he dragged it up the stairs into the house and placed it in front of the window in the living room, wedging it upright into an old wooden stump they had used as a stand every year. Breathless and covered in sweat, he stood back looking at the tree standing tall over all it surveyed.
You picked a good one love. You picked a good one.
He held back the tears and waited for Lana to return home from her friends. Pete put an old Christmas film on the television as they both decorated the tree together, singing, laughing, and being a family. There were moments, fleeting glances when they caught one another's stare. A glance which showed pain buried deep down inside. One which said: I miss her too.
But it was Christmas, and the moments of grief passed, buffered by longer, caring, periods of happiness. Contentment caressed smiles from ear to ear, and festive spirit once more filled that home, which had for too long been host to loss and anguish.
As night began to fall, after Lana went to bed - earlier than usual because the excitement had worn her out - Pete decided to reward himself for the day's efforts. The lights were dimmed, and after pouring himself a large whiskey, he sat on the living room couch and stared at the tree. Draped in tinsel garlands and adorned with bright white Christmas lights, it really was a sight to behold. The best tree they had ever had.
'Here's to you, gorgeous' Pete said, lifting his drink to the sky in a symbolic gesture.
Staring at the Christmas tree, its beautiful lights casting a warm hue over the room, and the snow quietly falling outside as the sun set, Pete began to think of the past year, of his daughter Lana, and his wife Janet.
Time passed slowly as he thought of all things gone, how they had led to this moment through pain and suffering, but now hopefully onwards to the future, and one filled with at least the briefest possibility of joy.
The glow from the tree reflected off of the window, but it penetrated far enough to illuminate the now thick blur of snow, falling to the ground silently outside. The room remained dark, but the lights bathed everything subtly in a warm Yuletide radiance, which when accompanied by the orange lambency of the fire only served to cultivate the anticipation for Christmas even more so.
For the first time in a year, Pete was happy.
Something bothered him though. There was a slight apprehension or annoyance at the back of his mind. Something which was spoiling the display. Sipping at his whiskey, casting a glance at the entire room, he finally saw what the problem was; two of the Christmas tree lights were occasionally flickering. Not constantly, but often enough to be noticeable, and more importantly, aggravating.
Downing the rest of his drink, Pete rose to his feet, now feeling the aches in his muscles from the effort exerted while dragging that thing all the way home from the hill. Walking over to the tree the lights were indeed flickering, but there was something unusual about them. They seemed deeper than the rest, as if coming from around the trunk, rather than resting on the branches. Again, Pete was struck by how dark the interior of the tree was. That even in the presence of many lights placed upon it, he could not peer, or adequately see between the branches. Even the two lights which sat deeper behind the pines did not seem to illuminate their surroundings in any way.
The empty glass slipped from his fingers, smashing on the floor.
The lights were fine, they were not flickering at all, but the occasional blinking of two eyes amongst the branches had been enough to catch his attention. He froze to the spot, and it was as if the room grew somehow darker. Something stirred between the pines, between the knotted wood, and the scratched porous surface; something lived there. A feeling of utter paralysis now took hold, his feet firmly glued to the ground as the two eyes slowly pushed forward. Creaking and cracking, a face revealed itself from between the pine covered branches, as if seeping out from its innermost visceral point. Mold covered, ancient, its features twisted in rage.
Fear began to course through Pete's veins. His heart beat faster and faster as the face moved closer, its eyes devoid of pupils now swamped in a maddening yellow, and from below, the protrusion of two thin, moss covered legs arching out from between the branches. With a creak and snap, it straightened itself now standing in all of its terrible glory in front of the tree.
It was now pitch black outside, and it would have been clear to Pete that this animal, this creature was of a nocturnal nature, but in its stare he found himself helpless. His heart skipped. First it was a palpitation, then he could feel a searing pain in his left arm. He clutched his chest, but his feet remained adhered to the ground and it was impossible to look away from those yellow unmarked eyes.
Its gaze came closer still, and in the pain which it brought, Pete knew he was going to die. To be found like Janet, cold, face contorted, and the second victim of that which lived amongst the pines on that hill.
The pain was now unbearable, but the paralysis removed the possibility of a scream. What little light there was from the fireplace now illuminated its head, elongated on one side and pulsating on the other, its face dominated by a large dark hole which appeared in place of a mouth or nose. One which no light could penetrate. As its boil ridden head stooped to meet his own and the hole in its face almost touched his mouth, an involuntary sneer pulled Pete's lips up to reveal his teeth, as his face contorted into an entirely unnatural position.
Then that one word. A word so powerful, so pure that even the most evil of intentions could be dispelled by it:
With the snap of wood, the gargoyle-like creature turned its wide, yellow gaze to Lana. Standing at the bottom of the stairs in her pajamas, her scream echoed out into the night. Arms outstretched, its odd-numbered fingers moved with a stutter as its moss covered legs groaned, carrying it forward in a peculiar unbalanced motion towards her.
Now Lana was paralyzed by its stare, and with each step closer, her face contorted more fiercely, and the pain in her chest brought her to the point of unconsciousness. As intense as its ancient gaze was, it was focused. So focused that it did notice Pete clawing his way across the floor towards the kitchen.
The wooden creature's unsure movements made it appear more like a puppet than a thing of autonomous purpose, and as it reached Lana, it cupped her face in its uneven hands and stared wide eyed and pupil-less into her face. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
The sound of feet running filled the air, and as it twisted to investigate, a loud crack was heard as Pete ran up onto the couch, jumping high into the air bringing Janet's axe down deep into its spine.
No blood ran or gushed, but a plague of unfamiliar insect-like critters poured out of the wound. Instead of a howl of pain, the creature emitted a crescendo of strange squeals and clicks before throwing Pete to the ground and smashing through the back door.
Lana's father gave chase, but it was impossible, as the wooden creation moved at an unimaginable pace, gliding on the ground with each stride, leaving no footprints in the snow.
After a visit to the nearest hospital, both Lana and her father were given a clean bill of health, but they never returned to that house, filled with memories of the good times, the happy times; of a mother, a wife, a kind soul; of birthdays, and weddings, and of course, of Christmas time.
Pete didn't know what that creature was, whether it was alive, or dead, or something else entirely inconceivable to human mind, but he made a solemn promise to himself from that moment on: Never again would he cut down a tree, decorate it, and take enjoyment in its appearance as it died, because no matter how pretty they are, no matter how much warmth they may give, no matter how much they might make people think of Christmas; you just don't know what may be living inside.
Written by Michael Whitehouse