Humming Jingle Bell Rock would never drown out the moans, but then again, the discordant noise was a chorus all its own. I continued, though, despite the reaching hands, clenching fingers, and snapping jaws. Their lust for flesh wasn’t enough to kill my mood.
After placing the last hook on a branch, I stepped back to admire my work. The Christmas tree stood only five feet tall, but the white LED lights shone beautifully, allowing the blue and silver ornaments to glisten.
I smiled and took a deep breath, wishing it was pine greeting my nostrils rather than rotten eggs and crap, the putrid stench of death. A real tree was undoable, but the green plastic on thin steel rods worked well enough. The pine-scented car fresheners I hung did nothing unless I got super close. It was a decent effort. The holiday season had arrived, and I was ready.
But as my eyes leapt from ornament to ornament, from light to light, something I couldn’t quite explain gnawed at me. Only when my eyes reached the top of the tree did I realize what I had forgotten: a star.
I slapped a hand to my forehead. “Preston, how could you forget the star? If Mom were here, she’d be ashamed.”
My mom hadn’t been around for a year–a year today, to be exact. She didn’t survive the day everything fell apart. It happened so quickly, so suddenly. Laughter from children building snowmen turned to screams of terror heightened by the whistle of a chilling wind. After that, snow would never look white again.
My stare lingered on the space above the tree. “I guess the general store would have a star,” I said, turning to face the carolers who continuously followed me. “What do you think?”
They gnashed their teeth at the glass separating us, their moans muffled. There were only three, which many survivors would call a blessing. But there was only one of me, and if I wasn’t careful, one bite was all they needed to transform their inharmonious trio into a quartet.
I never liked Christmas carols.
I pointed, saying, “Hank, your elf ears are lopsided again. Don’t you have any ‘elf’-respect? Get it? ‘elf’?”
Hank responded by licking the window. The black band across its head leaned to the right, one of the plastic ears missing its tip. Its once green, now brownish leotard was freckled with holes.
“Right. I’m guessing that’s a ‘no’? And Hilda!” I turned to the former woman next to Hank. “Where’s your scarf? You had it on before we got here. How did you lose it?”
Hilda didn’t answer, as expected, and continued to drag its nails down the glass. The left sleeve of its puffy, dingy coat was slashed and decorated with dried blood.
I shuddered, then embraced myself, feeling the warmth of my winter jacket and thermal snow pants. “I can’t imagine how cold you guys are, but I guess that doesn’t really matter, considering…”
The trio groped the storefront, unfazed by my words, enticed by the promise of a meal they probably hadn’t had since they died.
“Yeah, exactly.” I glanced back at the lit tree, knowing full-well what I needed was only a few stores away, then I looked at my wristwatch: 11:15 p.m. I nodded, satisfied. “Forty-five minutes should be enough time.”
I kept the tree’s lights on and set them to “flash” to keep the carolers’ attention, before I stepped out of view. They were easily distracted creatures. I headed for the second exit of the store, disregarding the racks of dusty clothes and shoes, maneuvering around displaced carts, turned over display tables, and fallen mannequins. I hated Christmas shopping, but my mom always dragged me along. We’d go to stores like this, buy sweaters and jeans, candles and perfume, and we’d always be in the check-out line for ages because people loved to argue with cashiers about prices the cashiers couldn’t change.
I never imagined I’d miss those days, until those days were mercilessly ripped away from me. Regret still choked me when I thought about the fits I threw having to go with my mom as a child or the cold shoulders I gave as a teenager, like the one I gave hours before she died. I was such an idiot, even at nineteen.
The flimsy steel shutter blocking the exit gave way with ease as I hoisted it up and slipped under to the other side. I reclosed it before continuing. I didn’t want any of the carolers to get in while I was away.
Having been a year since Red Christmas, the mall was left to the dead. I had only been there for several days. I knew there were carolers lurking in the shadows, but I could outrun them. It was smarter to avoid the ones I could and only fight the ones I couldn’t, unless I was outnumbered, like three to one. Then I’d run.
As I crept past store after store, scanning the environment, I couldn’t help but miss the carolers’ chorus. I was never a fan of how quiet it could be in an apocalypse. Silence was worse than seeing the aftermath of a caroler having dinner. Moans at least told you danger was near. You never knew with silence.
Dried blood trailed along the linoleum floor. There were few actual corpses, assuming the rest of the victims rose to shamble with their creators. Skeletons slumped against walls or draped over benches, their clothes nothing but torn rags. It was an awful thought to think how their final moments went: last-minute Christmas shopping for friends and family, only to be trapped with hundreds of people screaming and fleeing for their lives, before inevitably being slaughtered. The undeniably dead victims were unrecognizable at this point, which I almost felt sorry for. When my mom was taken from me, she, too, became unrecognizable, fading into teeth and hands, red engulfing her body, the look of confused terror splashing across her face. In her final moments, she couldn’t have looked less like my mom, and it haunted me.
I was only one store away from the one I needed. The toddler playpen was a graveyard I’d rather not describe. I shielded my eyes and held my gut, swallowing the bile that threatened to come up. Across the playpen was a trail of shredded, faded white felt, which led to a mock-throne. The grime-ridden seat-cushion had been picked apart by mice, its soft innards protruding from its belly. Ceramic candy canes lay on a gold rug, and lights were strung along a fake banister. I chuckled as I realized I stared at Hank’s last place of work.
“Now the elf get-up makes sense,” I mumbled.
I continued past the North Pole display, a place where “Santa” would wait for children to reveal their wishes. Had this not been the apocalypse, you’d hear excited murmurs of toy airplanes, bikes, dolls, or even a first puppy. It was almost nostalgic. Too bad the only murmurs you’d hear now were of insatiable hunger, and there was nothing nostalgic about that.
I elongated my strides for the final steps needed to make it to the general store. Shards of glass scattered on the sill were the remains of the storefront windows, and the door was blocked by a shutter. After trying, and failing, to open the gate, I climbed through gaping hole, being careful not to cut myself on the glass. The store was littered with debris and displaced products. It seemed quiet, safe. But I couldn’t assume without proof.
I bent down and picked up an empty soda can, then threw it as far as I could in front of me, satisfied with the loud clatter following its impact on the floor. I waited to see if any visitors joined me, even listened carefully for their moans, but nothing stirred, not even a mouse. I was alone.
As I strolled down the disorganized aisles, my eyes glossed over the leftovers looters didn’t bother to grab: knickknacks, like snow globes, figurines, and paperweights; silverware; plates; and finally, holiday decorations–exactly what I needed.
Garland was strewn about the floor, accompanied by shattered ornaments. All of the candles were gone, which was to be expected. Bows dangled on their hooks, and stuffed animals with antlers, Santa hats, and elf ears lay dusty, unblinking in their cardboard box. Their sewn-in smiles were mocking, but the fox with the scarf around its neck, sitting at the edge of the container, held my gaze. Foxes were my mom’s favorite animal.
I snatched the toy without remorse. People always left stores with more than they originally planned.
“You’re the perfect gift,” I whispered, as if it would answer me. I brought it close to my chest and walked on, searching for the reason I had come in the first place.
Stockings still hung with the employee’s care of a year ago. Even small wooden pictures of children nestled in their beds were untouched, their carved-in dream bubbles of sugarplums undisturbed. On a ceramic house’s roof sat a replica of Santa’s sleigh led by eight reindeer, while Santa hoisted himself into the chimney. Some of the deer’s legs were broken, and the jolly old man was missing his sack, but I imagined how homely the display looked in its prime.
After passing more decorations, I finally found it: the tree-topper section. There were a few selections, like different shaped stars, angels, and snowflakes. Several choices could even light up if plugged in, but they couldn’t be any choice of mine. There was no electricity. The lights adorning my fake tree ran on batteries. If I wanted my topper to light up, it needed…
“Ah-ha!” I swiped the box and read the description. “‘Battery-powered’. Perfect!” The small container promised an even smaller topper, but I didn’t mind. My tree wasn’t the biggest, and the lights weren’t the brightest. The undersized yellow star would fit right in.
I glanced at my watch: 11:35 p.m. Not too shabby. With the two items I procured, I triumphantly marched from the store. Neither was a burden to carry. With the stuffed fox under my arm and the star in my left hand, my right was free if needed.
The mall was still quiet on my journey back. It wasn’t until I made it to the “Meet and Greet with Santa” that a faint sound halted me. I waited, listened. It wasn’t deep, but small, shivering, and it pulsed every few seconds, getting closer and closer and closer…
I turned to face something I would’ve never imagined.
Its left boot was missing, revealing a shriveled gray foot with moldy, yellow overgrown toenails, but it had the rest of the signature apparel, from the red suit, though torn at the sleeves and pant legs, to the red hat topped with a white pompom. Its once flushed cheeks were gray and sunken, its rosy nose now nothing but bloody, ripped flesh surrounding two holes. It even wore glasses, though the right frame was bent and crooked. The black leather belt around its waist was unbuckled, allowing half its belly to hang out, which jiggled as it shuffled. With every movement, a bell around its wrist jingled.
“Oh, boy,” I said. “Does Mrs. Claus know?”
Santa opened its mouth, letting out a low moan. Drool dangled from its receding lips.
I winced, then quickly searched for a weapon, spotting the fallen ceramic candy canes. I crouched to grab one. It was about the length of a baseball bat and heavier than anticipated.
“I’ll be sure to break the news to your wife after I break your head,” I said, readying the weapon one-handed as best I could.
As I watched the once jolly old Saint Nick shamble closer, I couldn’t help but remember the times my mom brought me to a set-up just like this when I was a kid. She’d put me on the man’s lap, and he’d ask me the all-too-familiar question:
“Ho, ho, ho! What would you like for Christmas, little boy?”
“Well, Santa,” I mumbled, “I used to ask for Legos and action figures, but this year, I want to bash your brains in with this candy cane, though I might get some coal in my stocking for it.” I held the weapon tighter, listening to the bell ding with rapid haste as Santa slowly shuffled. It managed to extend its arms, before I swung.
The candy cane collided with Santa’s shoulder, causing it to stumble slightly, but not enough to stop it. Shaking from the short daze, it persisted, moaning louder. I swung again and missed, the momentum throwing me off-balance. I held the fox and tree-topper tighter, snapping from the spell as my eyes landed on a threat too close for my liking. I raised the candy cane once more, and with as much strength as I could muster, I struck Santa’s shoulder again. It staggered, then fell to the floor, giving me the perfect opportunity.
I left the white felt trail as red as holly. The bloodied candy cane lay next to a headless body whose brains decorated the throne it once sat on.
Ho. Ho. Ho.
By the time the not-so-jolly encounter ended, it was 11:50 p.m. My heart raced. I couldn’t rush. Rushing caused mistakes. Mistakes got you killed. But I needed to make it back in time.
I threw open the gate I exited earlier, making sure to close it after I hurried inside. Trudging through the same filth as before was easier, my movements fluid and quick, my eyes set on my destination.
When I arrived, the tree was just as I left it, only it seemed the flashing lights did their job a little too well. At the window were more carolers–maybe half a dozen more–each one pounding their fists, scraping their nails, or pressing their bodies against the glass. Hank and Hilda were front and center. As soon as they saw me, their soulless eyes lit up, nearly as bright as the lights on the tree. I disregarded them. Something more important had my attention.
After I swiped batteries from my reserve, I tore open the topper’s box, the small star now free. With ease, it’s battery canister slid open and I stuffed three batteries inside before reclosing it. Then I flicked the switch. The star came to life in a beautiful gold with shimmering glitter. I smiled, feeling a lump form in my throat, and placed the star at the top of the tree.
It was everything I imagined, everything I remembered. It was perfect.
I began to hum Silent Night–my mom’s favorite song.
I was so mesmerized by the heart-warming sight, so fixated on the moment, I barely heard the slow crackling behind me. Soon, the sounds loudened and glass splintered from the window, until finally, the barrier shattered and the bodies responsible excitedly clambered inside.
My watch struck midnight.
I stopped humming and held the stuffed fox tight against my chest. Closing my eyes, a tear rolled down my cheek.
“Merry Christmas, Mom.”