As it's nearly Christmas I'm going to do something slightly different with my #fridayflash this week, as a one-off I'm posting an extra story. Consider it an early Christmas present, or a buy-one-get-one-free offer if you like, either way get 'em while they're hot!
The two stories are designed to stand alone, but they are linked. If you fancy something light and fluffy, please have a read of part 1. On the other hand, if you'd like something darker, part 2 will probably be more to your liking. On the other, other hand (what, three hands?!) if you have the time, I'd love you to read both parts; go on, indulge yourself, it is (nearly) Christmas after all!
Christmas Spirit Part 1: The Perfect Tree.
Tom trailed after his father, hands stuffed deep in his pockets and collar pulled well up against the cold and flakes of blown snow, which somehow kept falling down the back of his neck. Nevertheless, Tom was excited. This was going to be the best Christmas ever.
Tom and his father had spent hours trudging through the Pick-Your-Own Christmas tree plantation, but none of the trees his father had selected had met with Tom’s approval – too tall, too short, too crooked. For the first time it was Tom’s job to choose the tree and he was taking it very seriously, the tree had to be perfect.
Finding the perfect Christmas tree was so important to Tom, the tree would be the symbol of their family Christmas, and he was determined things would be different this year. Dad was off the booze, Mum had got a promotion at work and for the first time in as long as Tom could remember, his parents weren’t fighting and he was actually looking forward to Christmas. A perfect tree would be the crowning achievement.
Tom became aware his father had stopped on the path up ahead and was stamping his feet and blowing into his hands in a vain attempt to ward off the biting cold.
‘Why don’t we split up, Dad?’ Tom said, ‘we can cover more ground that way. I know the perfect tree’s here somewhere.’
Dave regarded the look of determination on his ten-year old son’s face, ‘OK Tom, just don’t go too far. And shout if you find one. I’ll go this way,’ he indicated a path to the right.
‘And I’ll try over here,’ replied Tom, a knot of excitement building in the pit of his stomach. They had tried pretty much everywhere, the area to Tom’s left was the only place he thought they had not yet looked; Dad’s path lead back towards the warmth of their car.
Racing off into the nearest stand of Christmas trees, drawn up in their dark green ranks like a winter army on parade, Tom soon came to the end of the rows and noticed there was another path leading off past the last few stragglers, deeper into the older, mature forest, which surrounded the plantation. Glancing back over his shoulder for a sign of his father and finding none, Tom thought he would just have a quick look along the path, only for a few minutes. Maybe there was a tree there that no one else had noticed.
Soon Tom was pushing his way through thick, overhanging branches as the path narrowed. He was on the point of turning back when at last he broke through a thicket of undergrowth into the light of a small clearing. Roughly circular in shape and dusted with only a light covering of snow, the clearing was washed by a watery, winter sunlight.
Tom’s eyes took in the heavily snow-laden trees surrounding the clearing’s edge, and the old stones, half hidden under drifts of snow, which marked the perimeter, and then he saw it.
Standing quite alone in the centre of the clearing was simply the best, most perfect Christmas tree Tom had ever seen – tall, green, a strong, straight trunk and, when Tom buried his nose in the branches, the most wonderful scent of pine.
‘Dad!’ Tom bellowed, ‘Dad! I’ve found it! Come quick!’
Brushing the snow off one of the perimeter stones, not noticing in his excitement the strange, angular symbols carved into its rough, weather beaten surface, Tom sat down impatiently to wait.
A few moments later, Tom’s father appeared, puffing and blowing as he jogged up to his son.
Tom simply pointed. And grinned.
‘There,’ he whispered after a moment, ‘There it is. That one. The most perfect Christmas tree ever.’
Dave ruffled his son’s hair affectionately.
‘OK Tom, that one it is,’ he said and, walking over to the tree, Dave pulled a folding tree saw from his daypack and began to cut.
Christmas Spirit Part 2: Fate is Relentless.
The digital clock on the DVD player under the TV read 03: 09 as Tom crept silently into the living room on Christmas morning. Had He been?
Tom nearly whooped with delight at the sight of the gleaming red bike propped up on its stand in front of the fireplace, a matching cycling helmet dangling from its handlebars, but he knew he mustn’t. His parents were still asleep, and Christmas would only begin officially when his mother got up to make their traditional bacon sandwiches for breakfast, woe betide him if he woke her.
Inhaling, Tom revelled in the icy clean pine fragrance that filled the room. The Christmas tree stood by the window, its perfect branches festooned with ornaments and twinkling lights.
Gazing at his new bike, Tom jumped at a sudden rustling sound behind him. He swung round but there was nothing to see, just the tree twinkling away next to the window. Tom moved slowly closer to it. The sound had definitely come from over here, he was sure of it. He stopped to listen. Silence. Turning back to the bike Tom jumped as the rustling sound came again. It sounded like a small animal running around in the branches.
Tom could just imagine his mother’s reaction at finding something small and furry loose in the living room. Nothing is going to spoil Christmas this year, he thought, and thrust his head deep into the branches.
The breath froze in Tom’s throat, a cold knot of terror turning his insides to ice water as he came face to face with a pair of piercing blue eyes. He barely had time to register the man’s grimy face, the twigs and pine needles in the bushy hair and long beard, before two immensely strong arms shot forward, grabbed his wrists, and heaved Tom bodily off his feet into the tree. Tom did not even have time to scream.
The Christmas tree swayed slightly, a light shower of pine needles falling onto Tom’s discarded red slipper.
* * *
‘Where’s Tom? Where’s my big lad?’ the smile in Suzi’s voice carried to the hallway where Dave had just reached the bottom of the stairs.
‘He’s not in his room,’ Dave replied with mock concern as he walked into the living room, ‘I can’t find him anywhere.’
Suzi winked and pointed to Tom’s slipper in front of the Christmas tree.
‘He’s hiding,’ she whispered, ‘I bet he’s behind the tree.’
But Tom wasn’t hiding. He sat snivelling in the darkness, knees drawn tight up to his chest, hands clasped in front, his knuckles white. Tom’s eyes were clamped tight shut in the fervent hope that when he opened them again it would all have been just a terrible nightmare. A few paces away, a grimy figure, unkempt and dressing in filthy rough clothes of mainly squirrel and fox fur, stood hidden in the shadow of the branches, peering intently out of the tree at Dave and Suzi.
‘Shhh,’ whispered Dave, pantomiming his finger to his lips as he crept over to the tree.
As he leant over to look behind the Christmas tree, Dave’s hand brushed its branches. Instantly a small ripple of breeze went through the tree as Aerdwold’s spirit rushed into Dave’s body, shredding Dave’s soul into oblivion in a heartbeat.
Stumbling slightly then, straightening up, he looked Suzi right in the eye, fixing her with a piercing gaze, which made her feel suddenly uncomfortable.
‘Come on Dave,’ she laughed nervously, ‘stop mucking about. Is Tom behind there or not?’
Aerdwold tried to speak, but it had been so long, his head was spinning, he felt sick, and his new body’s vocal chords were still unfamiliar. All he could manage was a weak, slurred whisper.
‘Wyrd bid ful araed.’
Suzi’s face darkened immediately.
‘I knew it,’ she yelled, ‘I bloody knew it!’ Her voice had taken on that edge which would have told Aerdwold, had he but known, that the flimsy dam of Suzi’s temper, kept in check for so long living with an alcoholic husband, was about to break. Suddenly, the words came gushing out.
‘You’re pissed!’ Suzi shrieked, ‘I should have known you couldn’t lay off the sauce for more than a week. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic! And all that bollocks about letting Tom choose the Christmas tree - I bet that was only an excuse so you could go to the fucking pub!’
‘Well, I warned you, didn’t I?’ she screamed, grabbing him by the arm, ‘warned you what would happen the next time I caught you drinking. Didn’t I? Didn’t I?’
Propelling him roughly towards the front door, Suzi opened it and shoved him across the threshold.
‘Get out! Get out, get out, get out!’ and with that Suzi slammed the door in his face, leaving Aerdwold standing bewildered, dressed only in a pair of Dave’s pyjamas, in the ankle-deep snow on the front step. After a moment, and without bothering to look around him, Aerdwold stumbled down the garden path and shuffled out into the Christmas morning snowstorm.
‘Noooooooo!’ wailed Tom as his mother grabbed the Christmas tree and began dragging it towards the door. She didn’t appear to hear him.
‘And this bastard thing can go too,’ Suzi grunted, heaving the tree, lights, ornaments and all, into the front garden.
Tom sat alone in the darkness sobbing as he heard his mother slam the door again.
* * *
From his place of darkness, Tom occasionally caught a glimpse of his mother through the branches. He saw her regularly for the few weeks after Christmas while the police investigated his disappearance. He saw her when the “For Sale” sign went up outside the house, and again when she left, lugging two heavy suitcases down the garden path to the waiting taxi. Each time Tom called out to her, but couldn’t make her hear him.
Tom was still calling for his mother when the council workmen arrived during the first week of February to dispose of the street’s unwanted Christmas trees which, by now, had turned brown and brittle and had shed most of their needles. As his tree died, Tom grew weaker, only able to manage a whisper of protest as a workman loaded the tree into the jaws of the shredder.
‘Looks like this one was perfect,’ the workman remarked as the machine’s steel teeth began to tear the tree apart.