A Creepy Christmas Short (Subscribers only)
by C.L. Monaghan © C.L. Monaghan 2018
The flames writhed with hypnotic flare. Their enchanted dance punctuated by the occasional spark, like a miniature firework, spitting forth from the logs that were piled high in the old cast-iron grate.
“Holly? Did you hear me?” Phil Johnson asked his daughter for the second time in a row. She didn’t answer him but continued to stare, fascinated by the lure of the crackling fire. “Sweetheart?” he leaned over to gently tap her on the shoulder. “I said I have some free time now, did you still want me to read to you?”
“Hmm?” The girl started at his touch, blinked, and refocused on her father.
“Welcome back.” he chuckled. Holly smiled back at him- a smile that didn’t quench the doubt in her downcast eyes.
“Are you still busy, Daddy?”
“No. I’m all yours now honey. Wanna go fetch your book?”
“Really?” A twinkle of hope illuminated her face. Not quite ready to believe him, she remained sitting crossed-legged on the fireside rag-rug. Her father leaned closer.
“Really, really,” he whispered then ruffled her hair. Holly leaped up and darted for the dining table where her favourite storybook lay. Grabbing the book, she skipped back to the lounge area and launched herself onto her father’s knee. There was just room enough for her to curl up in his lap with her knees tucked up under her chin.
“Page twenty, Daddy.” her breathless instruction coincided with her rapid thumbing through the pages to find the relevant page. There was no way she would wait for him to find it, his phone could ring again at any moment.
Holly could hardly concentrate on the words her father was reading, her excitement pounded in her chest, drowning him out. But it didn’t matter, she knew the story inside out. Her father was with her and she revelled in his warmth, the security of his lap, and the slight softness of his belly. Drawing in a deep breath, she drank in the comforting scent of her father. They had been at Clover Cottage less than forty-eight hours and the time her parents had spent with her only accounted for just two of those, she’d counted. Daddy had promised her this would be a family Christmas, it was only day two and she ‘needed to learn patience’ her mother had said.
“How many sleeps ‘till Christmas, Daddy?” Phil stopped reading and eyed his daughter.
“How many times are you going to ask that question, Holly?”
“I keep forgetting. I am only seven.” she offered by way of explanation.
“Oh, well in that case, three sleeps.” he held up three fingers to illustrate.
“When will the family Christmas start?”
“What do you call this?” Phil said, indicating to the book.
“Mummy’s not here.” Holly stated.
“She will be, she’s just very—”
“Busy. I know.” Her parents spent their entire lives ‘busy’. If that’s what being a grown-up meant, then Holly decided she never wanted to be one. The high-pitched tring of Phil’s phone interrupted their conversation. He pushed the book into Holly’s arms and reached into his trouser pocket.
“Sorry honey, I have to get this.” Holly already knew the drill. She slid off her father’s knee to go and stand by the fireplace, the book held close to her chest and resigned disappointment in her eyes. Phil had risen from the chair and was now deep in conversation with whoever was on the other end of the line. He was running his spare hand through his hair, his voice slightly raised. Holly knew she’d lost him. He’d already forgotten about her. With a heavy heart, she retreated to the upper floor of the cottage.
Clover cottage wasn’t a cottage at all. It was the two-floor apartment above a toymaker’s shop on the edge of the village of Grasmere in The Lake District. The building stood alone at the end of a lane and from the top floor, Holly had a great view of the lake with its tiny central island. Not for the first time did she wish she could hop in a boat, row her way to the island and have adventures just like the children in her favourite book ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She blew out a frustrated breath which steamed up the window pane and, using her index finger, she drew a wobbly outline of a sailboat with a cotton-ball cloud and smiling sun above it. The image raised a sad smile to her lips. She gazed at it for a moment then rubbed it out with her hand. Glancing down at the lane below, a blurred figure appeared. Clad in a heavy coat and hunched against the cold, the person shuffled their way from the house towards a small woodshed. Holly watched with interest as the man, for they were too large to be female, fished out something from his pocket and fumbled with the chain that held the woodshed closed. She assumed the man must be the toymaker from downstairs and wondered if the shed was where he kept his tools. The man dropped the chain and stood facing the slightly open door, he didn’t move. What is he doing? Holly pressed her face closer to the glass in an effort to see better. The man stood as still as a statue, one hand on the woodshed door, his head cocked slightly to one side as if listening for something. Rhythmic pounding filled Holly’s ears, louder and louder until she let go of the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. The window misted up immediately blocking her view. She quickly wiped it away and returned her curious gaze to the woodshed below. The instant her eyes fell upon the man she retreated with a gasp. He was no longer standing still facing the shed… he was staring straight up at her.
She didn’t know why she pretended to be asleep when her mother peeked in to check on her. Holly had been waiting all day, and late into the evening, for her return. Daddy hadn’t exactly let her stay up late, he’d just been too busy to remember to put his daughter to bed. Until about half an hour ago when he’d finally looked up from his laptop and seemed most surprised to see her.
Holly had seen the car headlights approaching from her window-seat vantage point in her bedroom but instead of skipping down the stairs to greet her tardy mother, she climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to her nose, her heart mirroring the rapid thumping she’d felt earlier that day.
“She’s already asleep.” her mother whispered. Holly lay quite still and squeezed her eyelids tightly shut.
“Really?” she heard her father say. “She hasn’t been in bed that long. She waited up for you.”
“I tried to get back as early as I could.” her mother replied in mildly clipped tones. “What did you do all day?”
“I read to her.” Phil hissed defensively.
Liar. Thought Holly.
“A whole book?”
“Linda—” The bedroom door clicked softly shut and Holly opened her eyes. She listened to the retreating footsteps of her parents which mingled with their loaded conversation. Full of accusatory words and ‘who said this and who did that’.
Phil and Linda Johnson; lawyers both. Linda had explained to her daughter that being a lawyer meant that you argued a lot in front of a judge in a place called a court. And, if you won your case it made people very happy. Holly knew her parents must be good lawyers because they were always arguing. They were always working on cases but never seemed to bring any of the ones they’d won home. Perhaps that’s why neither of them ever seemed very happy. She concluded that her parents must give all of their won cases away to other people who wanted to go on holiday like they were now. Her father had recently won a big one and that’s why he’d said they could go away for a family Christmas. Holly wondered if that case was broken.
Three sleeps. She thought. And closed her eyes again.