Aubrey pulled her coat closer to her body as she slowly crossed the parking lot. As she neared her silver Toyota Camry, the mall loomed menacingly behind her. Wet snowflakes started falling. Aubrey saw the artificial baubles and gold garland adorning the light poles, illuminating the parking lot with a festive fluorescence that made her sick. She’d never particularly enjoyed working retail, the endless swipes of credit cards and folding t-shirts into tower, but the holidays made it a particularly horrible hellscape.
She exhaled and her breath came out like a fog of despair as the water vapor froze around her. She dug around in her pocket for her car keys, her fingers less dexterous while ensconced in thick red gloves, but eventually she fished them out. Behind her, there was a scraping sound. She flinched – her keys fell out of her hands and landed with a metallic thunk on the cold concrete before her. She narrowed her eyes reflexively as if it would help her see the unseen but there was nothing there. It might have been another car, a reckless driver, all that mattered was that it had nothing to do with Aubrey.
Aubrey picked up her keys, rushed into her car, and turned it on after locking herself safely inside. The small car warmed quickly, and she could feel her mood lifting as she drove out of the parking lot.
Halfway home, sitting at a red light, she heard another scraping sound beside her. Jesus, she thought, it was like no one knew how to drive in a little snow. She glanced at the rearview mirror to see what was behind her and gasped as she saw two red eyes staring back at her. She shut her eyes and reopened them. Slowly, she turned around. A blue car honked at her, clearly upset that she was still stopped now that the light was green. Shaking, Aubrey hit the accelerator and continued home. Surely, she hadn’t seen what she thought she’d seen. No, it was just red traffic lights in darkness and snow mixed with a tired but overactive imagination. It wasn’t him.
The next day, Aubrey folded white t-shirt after white t-shirt as Christmas carols mocked her in the background. She signed and swore this would be the last holiday she worked retail. It was an empty vow – something she’d promised herself last year too and the year before that. She looked down at the mountain of shirts and wondered how long it would be before the next toppling. Why were people even bothering with white t-shirts so far after Labor Day?
“Aubrey” a male voice called, and she looked up to see her portly boss, a perpetually reddened face framed with dashing caterpillar eyebrows. She’d often wondered how such a sweaty, unpleasant man had ascended the ranks of customer service to become manager.
“Yes, Chad?” she asked.
“You’re overdue for a break and then come back and work register 3 until closing. Gina has to leave early. Her kid’s Christmas pageant is tonight and Kara’s angel #4 or something like that.”
Aubrey nodded and resisted rolling her eyes. No way Gina had raised even the fourth most important angel. She and Chad were probably sneaking out for some Christmas cheer of their own. Everyone knew about the affair, but Aubrey truly didn’t care as long as it didn’t impact her hours. She clocked out for her break and headed to the food court for a coffee, sidestepping toddlers and weaving to avoid being hit by shopping bags swung by careless housewives desperate to finish their Christmas shopping.
Finally, she found the coffee line, even that was excessively long. She groaned and looked around at the madness surrounding her, practically dizzy with all the holiday rush. Why did the food court also have to house the winter wonderland complete with Santa’s workshop? At least, that wasn’t her job. After grabbing her coffee, she could escape back to the world of clothing. She didn’t have to don a green elf costume or a scratchy fake beard. And while children sometimes undid her hard folding work, she wasn’t in danger of one of them jumping in her lap and peeing on her.
“Your mocha,” a bored voice said as the pimply teen handed Aubrey her coffee.
A scraping sound echoed across the food court and Aubrey jumped and a few drops of coffee spilled out from the flimsy lid and burned her hand. She twirled around, thinking she was seeing red eyes and antlers out of her periphery, but nothing was there when she turned around. No, it must have just been a chair sliding against the floor. He wasn’t really there.
That night in bed, Aubrey dreamed of the past. There were no visions of sugarplums from her childhood Christmases. No, the images swirling before her were of switches and chains. She saw the antlers peeking out of a red hood lined with bloody fur, his red eyes glowing in front of her.
Aubrey awoke but she wasn’t alone in the darkness. Her limbs felt heavy as if chained to the bed. Was it sleep paralysis? Was she stuck inside herself, awake but dreaming? The huge, cloaked figure loomed over her, his demon eyes drilling into her. She heard the scrape of chains on the wooden floor as he dragged them, stepping nearer and nearer. His horned antlers were soon nearly touching her as he leaned down, his hot breath steaming the air between them. Aubrey pressed against her paralysis, desperate to fight back or run, but her body betrayed her. Warm tears rolled down her cheeks, as she whispered his name, “Krampus.”
The next morning, she awoke in a daze, the nightmares from the night before still causing her heart to race. She stayed under the hot water of her shower as long as possible until she knew she’d have to rush or be late to work. Still, she dressed like a zombie, avoiding the inevitable, but she knew what she had to do.
That afternoon on her coffee break, she stood and watched the families with their smiling faces and canned laughter as jungle bells and Santa’s ho-ho-hos peppered the air. They didn’t know. They couldn’t see the demon always in the background feeding off their joy.
Aubrey stepped closer to the gingerbread facade background where Santa and his helpers were moving quickly through the photo op line.
“Mommy, she’s cutting in line,” a little boy cried.
“Shhh,” his mom chided, “I think she just works here.”
Finally, Aubrey was close enough. She reached into her pocket for her thermos and dripped the liquid all along the base of the gingerbread.
“Hey, what’s she doing?” a voice shouted behind her. It sounded like Chad but might have been someone else – all the mall managers were starting to sound the same.
Aubrey reached for a match, lit it, and stared for a second at the little flame before dropping it into the gasoline and stepping out of the way. She didn’t run – this is what she had to do. She was saving them. As screams echoed around her, Aubrey stood and admired the flames pluming around black smoke. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Now, she was finally in the Christmas spirit.
Tiffany Renee Harmon is a writer and artist based out of Cincinnati, OH. She has an MFA from Lindenwood University, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Scarlet Leaf Review, Danse Macabre, and Z Publishing. Her first novel, Suburban Secrets, debuted in 2020. Learn more about her at www.tiffanyreneeharmon.com.