The eyes popped wide, mouth snapping shut so fast the teeth nearly cut off that flopping black tongue as the menacing little figure stood straight and spun about. Will looked past him to the dark, hulking form of Krampus, red eyes wide with rage, squeezing his way back into the kitchen.
“The brat has gone under his parent’s bed where I cannot reach.”
The long shaggy legs carried Krampus into the kitchen proper, hooves grinding into the linoleum. The whip pointed back toward the hall.
The hungry terror, the Wintzell, launched itself forward with a low growl, dropping down to run on all fours like some scuttling monkey. Will caught a flash of white as the Nikes rounded the corner, then the Wintzell was gone. His view of the hall disappeared behind a wall of black fur as Krampus stepped up to the table, tucking the coiled whip under one of his chains. Kevin’s cries for help became wordless shrieks of terror as the Wintzell joined him under the bed.
Krampus turned from the table, one hand holding the sack, the other the Krampuskandle in its terrible holder. His blazing eyes fell on Will, and they narrowed.
“I came for one child, but here I find two. Oh, whatever shall Krampus do?”
The voice still sounded like it came through a throat filled with maggots, but had become lilting. Teasing. Krampus leaned forward, much as the Wintzell had, staring into Will’s eyes.
“Would it be right to take one little boy but leave one behind? A witness? No . . . that cannot be right.”
The candle came down, hovering next to Will’s face as the huge figure crouched low to look close.
“What say you, young Will? Will you leave your brother, your only brother, to fend for himself in my care? Or shall I take two?”
Behind the Krampus, in the doorway to the hall, a grinning Wintzell appeared, bearing the struggling Kevin in its powerful arms. The sight was blotted out once more as the long, terrible face leaned still closer, and Will choked on Krampus’s foul breath as the flame came so close it nearly scorched his cheek.
“What say you, Will? Have you been . . . naughty?”
“No,” said Will, and he blew out the candle.
He hadn’t been sure what would happen, hadn’t understood all of what the Wintzell had told him, but he’d understood the candle was important.
He hadn’t known how important.
The great red eyes went round as a grunt of surprise, rancid and hot, washed over Will’s skin.
From down the hall a new commotion began, barely audible over Kevin’s screams for help. The sounds of a father and mother (parents, flashed through Will’s mind) waking up to a disaster.
“Kevin? Will? What’s going on?”
The Krampus stared at the smoking wick for an instant, then whirled, its hip striking Will, pinning him to the wall and smashing the breath out of him.
“You!” The deep, clotted voice was accusing, and angry, and past the hairy bulk in front of him, Will saw the Wintzell’s blue eyes widen in fear. “I’ll cut out your waggling tongue for this. How many times do I have to tell you—”
“Boys? Where are you?”
Their mother’s voice, coming from their bedroom.
“No time,” said the Krampus, holding out the sack. The Wintzell all but hurled Kevin into the mouth of the bag and the Krampus drew the drawstrings tight, leaving Kevin’s bare feet sticking out, kicking frantically. His muffled voice came through the burlap, words mixing in between terrified sobs.
“Help! Oh, God, help me Will! Dad! Please, somebody!”
The Wintzell leapt to the open window, perching nimbly upon the sill, as the Krampus spun back to Will, teeth bared in a razor-sharp snarl.
“You defied me. Me! I’ll not forget you, Believer!”
Krampus turned to the door as the Wintzell shot Will a reproachful look from its spot on the sill, a look that said that goes for me too, I’ll remember you, before ducking down and out, into the night.
A cyclone suddenly hit the kitchen, a hurricane, all the wind blasting out through the door and window. Outside the window the Wintzell disappeared, while in the kitchen the Krampus ducked his head and was blown right through the door by the great exiting wind. The smashed flinders of door were caught up by the blast, flying through the air, the larger pieces bouncing along like big wooden tumbleweeds. As the last of the cyclone left the room the door reassembled itself right in front of Will’s eyes, all the pieces sucked into place by the wind and then slamming shut like a plug in a drain.
Will heard a faint cry and looked to the window. The exiting air had tried to suck the open window closed, but at the last instant those three tall, electric candles (to help Santa find us if there’s fog, Will remembered) had tilted back, started to fall, and had gotten stuck in the closing window, propping it halfway open.
“Will . . . please . . . help!” came the voice, faint and far away, carried through the stuck window on the cold night breeze. He shouted back through the window, his voice hoarse with tears.
It was his father, finally coming into the kitchen, unbelted robe swirling like a cape in the draft, hair and eyes wild.
“Will? What’s going on? Where’s Kevin?”
“They took him, Dad! They took him!”
That was all he could say before the world dissolved into uncontrollable tears.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
The rest of the night went by fast and slow at the same time. Dad yelling and crying. Mom hysterical. Neighbors in the back hall (the same hall the Krampus had used) wearing concerned faces. A man in blue doctor-gloves listening to his heart and putting that super-tight-cuff thing on his arm. Shining a penlight in his eyes. Police in the kitchen, dusting this and collecting that. A man in a suit who showed Will a badge and asked him questions. Will tried to answer the questions, but the man didn’t want to hear his answers. Another man, another suit, another badge. The same questions. Will gave the same answers.
“I can’t get anything out of this kid that makes sense,” said the second suit.
“Paramedics said he’s in shock,” said the first suit. “Let’s just let him rest. We can try to question him tomorrow if this thing hasn’t resolved itself by then.”
Then he was in bed, listening to police and parents, all talking and talking. It felt like forever. Mom had hugged him. Kissed him. Dad too. It had all been good, felt good, and he had been comforted, but he still lay awake. Deep down inside him, buried inside his essential Will-ness, he stored the hugs and kisses from tonight next to the memories of Mom when she was Mommy and Dad when he was Daddy. And down there, as deep inside himself as he could go, he put the memory of Kevin, in a sack and screaming Will’s name as he disappeared into the night.
And right next to that memory he found a small, fragile thing, like a crystal snowflake. It had a mark down the middle, where it had been broken and mended. The mended place looked thick, and strong, much stronger than the rest of the thing. As Will lay there in his room (his now, he thought bitterly. No brother to share with), he turned the crystal snowflake over and over in his mind, imagining it being wrapped in steel, encased; made unbreakable.
Much, much later, when the rest of the house was silent, police gone and parents in bed, Will quietly got to his feet. Out on the kitchen table he saw the empty plate and glass, and remembered the last thing he’d seen lying on that plate: a severed child’s hand holding a magic candle made of suffering. The glass went into the dishwasher, but he threw the plate away, wearing Mom’s big oven mitts to handle it.
He threw the mitts away, too.
He got out a fresh plate and glass, filled the one with milk and the other with cookies. Special cookies he’d picked out with Mom. He put the plate and glass on the table, stared at them for a moment, then went quietly to bed.
As he got into bed, he reached under his pillow, pulling out something he’d hidden there. Hidden from the police. Hidden from his parents.
When Krampus had whirled to face the Wintzell it had bumped into Will, crushing him to the wall. Will had grabbed at Krampus, not to grapple with it, but as one does when flailing for balance, reflexively grabbing at anything within reach. He had managed not to fall, and had come away from that brief exchange with a little extra something clutched in his hand. He held it up now, looking at it in SpongeBob’s dim glow.
A jingle bell. Battered and tarnished, nearly the size of a golf ball, and smelling faintly like burning plastic. The surface was slick despite the visible corrosion, and it just felt . . . wrong. Will gave the disgusting thing a little shake. A mournful note rang out, somehow warped and distorted, like a recording being played back too slow, or a finger slowing down a record.
In his mind Krampus looked at him again, Kevin’s feet sticking out of the sack on his shoulder. The Wintzell gave him a reproachful look.
“I’ll not forget you, Believer!”
Will flicked the bell with a fingernail, summoning that tuneless little note. It sounded almost like a sob.
“I won’t forget you either.”
He tucked the bell beneath his pillow once more, then closed his eyes.
I’m coming, Kevin.
We hope you’ve enjoyed the 3-part serial, “’Twas the Night Before Krampus.” “‘Twas the Night Before Krampus” was originally published in Deathlehem Revisited: An Anthology of Holiday Horrors for Charity. The proceeds from the entire Deathehem series, O Little Town of Deathlehem, Return to Deathlehem, Deathlehem Revisited, and the forthcoming Shadows Over Deathlehem all come out of Grinning Skull Press in support of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, which won the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. His collection of short stories entitled Echoes of Darkness, published by Books & Boos Press (2016) received both two Pushcart Prize nominations and multiple honorable mentions on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2016.
Most recently, his novella, “The Christmas Spirit,” was published in the anthology Triplicity: The Terror Project, Volume 1.
More about his work can be found at www.RobSmales.com, or you can look him up on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Robert.T.Smales.