Nora was spending Christmas with her grandma this year, because her parents were called away overseas on business and her older brother was in college. As it was, Nora’s grandfather had died the previous year from complications related to cancer, and all of their other relatives were off having Christmas celebrations of their own. So because it was going to be just the two of them, Nora’s grandma suggested they celebrate Christmas early and invited some of Nora’s friends for a sleepover a couple of days before the 25th. That way Nora could have fun with her friends before they went on trips with their families, and so the two of them wouldn’t feel so alone on the holiday. It was going to be a great Christmas.
Except for one thing.
Something was wrong with the lock to the back door. The key turned in the lock, but for some reason the door could be forced open even if the knob couldn’t be turned. It didn’t bother Nora as much when her parents were there, but her grandma got worried and wanted to make sure the door stayed locked. She didn’t want the parents of Nora’s friends to find out and worry about them. So Nora helped her grandma take some heavy boxes from the basement and stacked them against the back door, boxes no one would be able to push aside if they wanted to get in. That made Nora’s grandma feel better, and that made Nora better. Truly, it was going to be a great Christmas.
Nora’s friends came that even with pillows, sleep clothes, toothbrushes, snacks, CDs, books, and presents to exchange. There was Karen, Linda, Eve with her chipped front tooth, and shy Queenie whom the girls only knew for a couple of months. Nora’s grandma made up a scrumptious feast of homemade pizza and pasta and freshly baked bread. For dessert the girls had a store bought ice cream cake and gingerbread men Nora made earlier in the day. They were a little burnt, but nobody minded. The girls exchanged presents, and Karen even surprised Nora’s grandma with a gift she got for her after she was invited to the party. Karen was sappy like that. This was shaping up to be a great Christmas.
It got late and then the girls started to get bored, but everyone was too wired on junk food and sweets to want to sleep. Nora’s grandma was kicking herself for indulging their collective sweet tooth, when it was Queenie of all people who had the idea. It was after she saw the heavy boxes stacked by the back door, and after she saw all the dark trees and things lined up behind the house. Autumn had lasted longer than everyone expected, so many of the trees still had their leaves, making the darkness in the back yard seem deeper even by the standards of winter. Inspired, Queenie suggested everyone tell ghost stories, like she heard they used to do a long time ago. Nora’s grandma thought that was a wonderful idea, and that made Nora happy because her parents would never suggest something like that for Christmas. Indeed, this was a great Christmas.
Nora nestled up by her grandma’s side, and grandma wrapped her arms around Nora as the girls went around the room.
Queenie went first, and told a story inspired by the woods, she said. A story about a boy who went camping in the woods behind his house with his parents. But when it was over, the boy’s mother would find him trying to leave the house and go back to the woods every night. No matter what they tried, the boy wouldn’t tell them why, until one night his father suggested they see where he was trying to go. They followed their son deep into the woods, until he arrived at a cave. The mother wanted to stop her son, but the father was still determined to see what had the boy so fascinated, so they followed him into the cave. They kept walking and walking until they saw their son stop, and heard him say “I brought your parents for you.”
Nora’s grandma had begun scratching Nora’s cheek. Nora asked why and her grandma said she was trying to get rid of some pizza sauce that dried on Nora’s cheek. The girls teased Nora for what a good grandma she had. Annoyed, Nora turned her gaze out the window towards the trees in the backyard.
Next came Eve, who told a silly little tale about how she possibly chipped her front tooth. Every summer her parents would drive by this cute little diner on their way to their friend’s house in New Jersey, but they never stopped to eat there. Every time they’d drive by, she’d see this girl in a burger costume holding up a sign advertising for people to try their food. The one year Eve didn’t see the girl outside the diner was the year her parents finally stopped to eat. The diner was run by a man and woman who were skinnier than anyone Eve ever saw. Eve asked if they knew what happened to the girl who wore the burger costume, but Eve’s parents told her not to bother them. Her family ordered burgers, and they tasted amazing, until Eve bit down on something hard and felt her tooth crack. She ran into the bathroom and saw, a little piece of her front tooth had been broken by something. Eve felt around in her mouth and pulled something out from the chewed pieces of burger and bun and vegetable. A fully formed tooth. One that didn’t come from her mouth. And then Eve realized she wasn’t alone in the bathroom, when the woman behind the counter appeared. Without saying a word, she plucked the tooth from Eve’s hands and left the bathroom. When Eve left, she saw her parents, still eating, not realizing the man and woman were staring at them. The woman turned to Eve, and placed her index finger to her lips in a shushing motion. The man turned to Eve, and held up a big meat cleaver. Eve left without saying a word.
No one believed that story. Karen even pointed out she knew Eve chipped her tooth when she tripped and banged her mouth on a banister at school. Nora felt her grandma scratching her cheek again, but claimed it was just a reflex. Nora wondered if maybe her grandma was getting scared, and decided not to make a fuss.
Linda claimed her story really did happen, and it happened to her little brother during Christmas one year. On December 24th, he went downstairs after his parents had placed everything under the tree and gone to bed. He got down on his hands and knees and began looking at all the packages trying to find ones with his names on them. He saw a really big box made out to him that he tried to pull out from under the tree, but he must’ve done something to shake the tree, and one of the heavy plastic branches fell and pinned him underneath with his hands wrapped around the box. One of the ornaments on the fallen branch began playing a version of “We’re Off To See The Wizard” and so her brother tried screaming for help when suddenly, the box he held onto began to move. Her brother heard horrible noises coming from inside the box and it violently shook, wedged under the branch. Her brother screamed and screamed, but no one found him until a few hours later. Linda’s parents pulled him out from under the tree, and saw something had bitten his arm pretty badly. It turned out their parents got him the puppy he always wanted, and placed it in a box with some air holes. The puppy got scared when the box was crushed by the branch, and began clawing and biting his way through until, so frightened, he bit her brother’s arm. No one had been able to find the puppy afterwards.
Everyone thought Linda’s story was sick, but she insisted her brother was still getting therapy for it. Nora felt herself getting a little sleepy as she continued staring at the woods outside while her grandma scratched her cheek. Only she was doing it a bit harder. Nora asked her grandma to ease up a little. Her grandma apologized, but didn’t stop.
Karen followed up with a story about a mermaid. Every summer a girl’s family vacationed at a lake, and the girl’s family didn’t know she was friends with a mermaid who lived in the water. Every morning the girl got up before her family and would swim around with her friend, telling her about what it was like on land while the mermaid talked about life in the lake. The girl’s parents believed the mermaid was imaginary and humored her. One year, the girl was happy to learn her parents were taking her to spend Christmas at the house by the lake. The girl was secretly happy she got to see her friend a second time, but was dismayed to see the lake had frozen over. The ice was so thick she could barely see the water underneath, but frequently tried to find her friend in the water. Dismayed at her lack of success, the girl was not enjoying her Christmas. The girl’s parents surprised her with a pair of ice skates, and taught her how to skate one afternoon. The girl got the hang of it and started to enjoy skating on the lake alone. On the day they were going to leave, the girl decided to do some skating alone in the early morning. She leaped, she twirled, she did figure eights, she had fun, but just wished she’d seen her friend. When a grotesque, slimy thing burst through the ice and lunged at the girl. As she screamed, the foul smelling beast dragged the girl underneath the water. It apologized for not saying hello sooner, but was in the middle of its winter hibernation and wasn’t expecting the girl. Unfortunately, it also woke up feeling hungry…
The girls frantically asked if the monstrous mermaid really ate the girl, but Karen told them to make their own conclusions. Now it was Nora’s turn, but the moment she went to open her mouth, her grandma said she had a story to tell instead. Everyone was intrigued, while Nora relaxed because truthfully she didn’t have a story to share. She had no inspiration from the woods like Queenie did. Nora’s grandma continued to scratch her cheek, and Nora wondered how her grandma’s hand wasn’t tired.
Nora’s grandma began to tell a story about a girl who wanted to wait up and meet Santa Claus. She camped out on the couch by the fireplace, nestled up in an old quilt and propped up on pillows. By the table was a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. The girl hoped the milk wouldn’t go bad by the time Santa arrived. Unfortunately, the girl had gotten too comfortable, resting on that soft, warm couch, snuggled just so…
Nora felt a yawn coming on, but didn’t want to be rude.
Sometime later, the girl fell asleep, with her back turned to the fireplace. It wasn’t a deep sleep, even though she was so comfortable, so she awoke when she heard the footsteps. The girl tried not to make a sound, believing it was Santa Claus. She was so excited, but suddenly she was afraid, because what would Santa do if he found out she was awake. She didn’t want to scare him away, or what if there was some rule to seeing Santa that she didn’t know about. She hadn’t thought this through at all.
Nora felt her eyes begin to droop, even though she wanted to listen.
The footsteps stopped by the couch, and the girl could feel the presence of someone standing behind her for the longer time. Was Santa trying to see if she was still awake? She tried her best to pretend she was still asleep, when she felt a beard brush her cheek and a pair of lips plant a deep kiss on her skin. The girl felt her heart almost stopped. Had she just been kissed by Santa Claus? Then she heard Santa leave the room. The girl was wide awake, confused, a little frightened, but excited. What did this mean?
Nora adjusted herself in her grandma’s lap, and noticed something out in the woods. In the dark. What was that?
The girl couldn’t believe it, couldn’t contain it any longer. She jumped off the couch and began calling for her parents when, suddenly, she heard a noise in the chimney. The girl hid behind the couch as a black boot came out of the chimney, seemingly immune to the fire. The black boot was connected to a leg in red pants, trimmed with white fur, and sure enough, Santa Claus emerged with his big sack of presents and began to intricately arrange many brightly colored packages under the tree before leaving to deliver gifts to another family.
It seemed to be coming closer.
Now the girl was more confused. Because, if she’d just seen Santa emerge from out of the chimney, then, who…? The girl ran to her parents’ bedroom and began banging on the door, frightened and worried. The girl yanked on the door with all her might, when she suddenly remembered something. Her parents never locked their bedroom door. And then she heard the footsteps again.
The girls all listened with rapt attention, but all Nora could focus on was the thing coming ever closer.
The little girl didn’t scream as she heard the footsteps get closer, but she couldn’t tell where they were coming from. The house was dark and they sounded so loud, like they were everywhere. And then she heard the breathing.
It was almost by the window now.
The little girl had no choice but to flee from the house. And she would’ve.
Except for one thing.
Nora couldn’t cry out.
The lock on the backdoor was broken, so her parents had stacked a bunch of heavy boxes in front of the door until they could get it repaired. But the girl saw none of the boxes had been moved.
It was by the window now.
And then the girl realized…
It smiled at Nora.
“You didn’t lock your front door.”
Nora finally screamed.
The girls and Nora’s grandma all turned to the window by the back door, but as they got up to check, no one was there. Nora said she thought she saw a man, and her grandma apologize for scaring her like that. Although Nora’s friends asked why the girl hadn’t tried to open the front door to begin with, her grandma said the man locked the door when he came in so it wouldn’t have mattered. It was then Nora’s grandma saw how late it was and decided it was now time to sleep. The girls nestled in their sleeping bags, but before her grandma went to bed, Nora asked if she made sure the front door was locked. Her grandma assured her it was, and Nora drifted off to sleep on the couch. Yes, this had been a great Christmas.
But a little while later, Nora’s eyes flitted open, and she could feel her grandma scratching her cheek again. Tired, Nora wondered if she’d actually dreamed about the man by the window, and apologized for falling asleep during her grandma’s story. Her grandma told her it was alright, and asked if Nora would like to hear the rest. Her grandma repeated the story about the little girl and Santa and the intruder, but it sounded almost exactly as Nora had heard it in her dream.
Except for one thing.
At the beginning, after the little girl’s parents got her tucked in her blankets in the couch, they had checked to see if the door was locked. And it was.
Nora’s grandma scratched her cheek harder.
Only, Nora asked, how did the man get in if the front door was indeed locked?
Simple, her grandma said. He’d snuck in when her parents weren’t paying attention. Like, when they were focused on her so they wouldn’t have noticed or heard the front door opening.
Nora’s grandma had stopped.
Or like they’d all been by the back window.
Nora looked up.