Winter Holidays - Story 2 - Tis the Season by D.S. Ullery

This story was originally published in When Red Snow Melts, December 2013, and then republished as part of Mr. Ullery's collection in 2016.

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Beneath a sea of stars sparkling across the indigo sky like infinite diamonds adrift in the heavens, Reggie Beckerman shivered. He clutched the lapels of his well-worn topcoat, attempting to wrap it more tightly around his frail frame. The effort had little effect. Biting cold penetrated through the thin material as if he were naked. A strange, repetitive clacking filled the air and Reggie realized, to his chagrin, it was the sound of his own teeth chattering. All around him, snow lay draped over the landscape of the forest, a silver blanket stretching as far as the eye could see under the glow of the full moon.

He glanced over at the older, stockier man standing next to him, dressed in a thick, wool-lined parka. His companion was smiling as if he were in the best of spirits.

“There it is,” the man told him, pointing across the clearing.

A cabin rose from the drift in the distance, some fifty yards from where the two men stood, their legs disappearing beneath the knees into the seemingly endless white expanse.

Reggie’s attention was fixed on the single cube of invitingly warm light shining through a sash window. That glow represented more than just a chance to get out of the elements. It was the manifestation of hope itself.

Reggie hugged himself and followed his guide, clearing the distance to the structure. There was no door visible from this vantage point, and the older man altered his path, turning and trudging around a corner to their immediate left.

Reggie followed obediently. Minutes later, the two men were standing in front of a thick, oak door hung on flat, iron hinges. A large harvest wreath, constructed of carefully woven wheat branches interspersed with cords of red and green thread, hung cheerfully in the center of the door.

To their left, a column of carefully stacked and cemented stones rose above the roof of the dwelling, forming a chimney. Steady smoke billowed in plumes of white rose from the top. It was the perfect homey touch, an almost iconic image one would associate with a cozy, old-fashioned Christmas.

Reggie smiled, reflecting that, when he’d been confronted by the sheriff back in town, he’d had no idea the night would lead him to this charming place.

He noticed his guide regarding him from beneath the overlapping hood of the parka, eyes alight with amusement.

“It’s got a certain charm, don’t you think?” the man asked.

“It’s lovely,” Reggie said, nodding. “Listen, before we go in there, I just want to say thank you one more ti—”

The man cut him off with a raised hand. “Let’s not get into that again, young man,” he said kindly. “Sheriff Price was going to arrest you, and it’s foolish to have you sleeping outside on a night like this. Now come. I’ll introduce you to the missus.”

He stepped forward and extracted a key ring from one of his coat pockets, sliding a large key into an oval hole beneath the door handle. Before he could turn it, the door swung open into the cabin with a loud click, revealing a squat, matronly woman standing in the opening, backlit by the glow of a fire blazing in a large hearth behind her.

Her gray hair was pinned in a bun and her smiling, wrinkled face glowed red at the cheeks. She was wearing an apron over a traditional flower print dress.

Reggie was half convinced that he had just stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting for The Saturday Evening Post.

“Well,” she asked them, staring at her husband with noticeable affection, “are you boys going to stand around catching your death of cold out there, or are you going to come inside and warm yourselves by the fire?”

The man stepped forward, planting a kiss on her cheek before brushing past her into the cabin. He removed his parka and hung it on a coat rack just inside the door.

Reggie followed in short order, quietly impressed by how solidly built the man was for someone who, by all appearances, was probably pushing his late sixties. The woman smiled as he walked by, quietly closing the door behind him and relocking it.

The place was even more comfortable and inviting than he could have imagined. A wide, plush sofa that looked tantalizingly soft held court in the center of the large living room, facing the blazing hearth from the opposite side of a concentric rug covering the wooden floor.

Wicker lamps burned their oil under glass in every corner of the room. The sounds and smells of something wonderful being prepared drifted to him from a large kitchen, separated from them by a long, stout breakfast nook.

Reggie’s stomach growled as the aroma assailed him and he offered his hosts a guilty smile. The man let loose a good-natured laugh, clapping Beckerman on the back.

“Goodness, where are my manners?” the man asked, glancing over at his wife. “Dee, our young guest needs some hot cider and good stew as quickly as you can prepare it.”

Reggie felt quietly ashamed about what seemed to be a series of demands made on this woman to serve a total stranger. He was about to decline the offer, planning to tell the couple that he would be just fine with a place to bed down for the night, but Dee beat him to the punch.

“I can see that!” she exclaimed, adding a tsk sound as she stepped behind him and grabbed hold of his topcoat, gently removing it. She examined his thin frame. “My stars, child. When was the last time you had a good meal?”

“Well, Missus.…” Reggie paused, realizing with a renewed sense of embarrassment he didn’t even know the names of his benefactors.

Again, the man picked up on his predicament, and his bellowing laugh filled the cabin.

“Excuse me, young man. I never did get around to introducing myself, did I?” He extended his hand, which Reggie took with an appreciative shake. “I’m Nick, and this is my wife, Dee.”

“Pleased to meet you Nick,” Reggie replied. “You too, Dee. My name is Reggie Beckerman. It’s really nice to meet you both. Thank you for inviting me into your home. Especially on Christmas Eve.”

Nick sighed, offering Dee a weary smile. “I keep telling Reggie here that it’s quite all right, but he insists on thanking me anyway.” He wandered off toward the kitchen. “Mmmm. That smells wonderful, Dee. You’ve really outdone yourself this year.”

“While you’re in there, why don’t you get our young guest some of that cider and a mug for yourself while he settles in?” Dee called out.

She turned her attention back to Reggie, favoring him with a smile that he found unexpectedly soothing. “So,” she asked, taking a seat on one side of the sofa and patting the vacant space next to her with one palm. “How is it you came to make the acquaintance of my Nick, young man?”

Reggie settled onto the sofa. “I was passing through the town located on the other side of this forest and a couple of local deputies stopped me for questioning,” he explained. “They were on the verge of arresting me for vagrancy—look at me, can you blame them?—when your husband came out of that small grocery store on the main avenue.”

“Oh, you must mean O’Malley’s!” Dee said brightly.

Reggie enthusiastically nodded. “Yeah, that was the name on the sign. O’Malley’s. Anyway, Nick was coming out of the store and he saw what was happening. He walked over and told the deputies he’d put me up for the night. So they allowed me to go with him.”

“You say you were just passing through the town. Are you headed to see your family for the holidays?” Dee asked.

Reggie shook his head, giving her a wistful look. “No ma’am. I have no family. I’m an only child and my mom passed away several years ago. I’ve been wandering from place to place, trying to find work since the garment factory I was employed at shut down six months ago.”

“Oh you poor thing!” Dee cried sympathetically. “Well, the least we can do is give you a good Christmas dinner! Nick, where are you with that cider?”

Nick emerged from the kitchen carrying two large, pewter steins. He sipped gingerly at one of them while sliding the other into the eager hands of their young guest. “Careful,” Nick admonished, “that cider is hot. Best sip it carefully.”

Reggie nodded and drank cautiously. The cider was thick and hot, with the taste of spiced apples. If he had ever consumed anything more delicious, he couldn’t at the moment remember what.

A warmth spread over him as he drank from the stein. He settled comfortably into place on the sofa, finally allowing himself to relax. It wasn’t difficult. The sofa was even softer and more comfortable than it appeared. After days of sleeping in alleyways or walking for hours in the cold after dark, Reggie was only now coming to realize just how exhausted he really was.

“That’s right, you just relax,” Dee said, maintaining her soothing tone. “I’ll go prepare you a plate of food.” She rose from the sofa and ambled her way past the breakfast nook.

Nick watched her go, then took her place next to Reggie, who was already draining the last of his cider from the mug.

“Y’know, I was just thinking,” Reggie said, forcing himself to lean forward. He scanned the room as he spoke, searching for somewhere to put the mug. Nick gestured for him to just put it on the floor at the base of the sofa. Reggie nodded and did just that before continuing. “There’s a fair amount of irony at work here tonight.”

“Really?’ Nick asked. “How’s that?” Behind them, Dee appeared from the kitchen, approaching Reggie with a bowl full of steaming hot stew on a serving tray.

“Well think about it,” Reggie said with a grin as Dee handed him the tray. “You’re an older couple living in a fairly isolated cabin in the middle of snow country. You’ve generously invited a person in need into your home on Christmas Eve.” He pointed at his host. “And your name is Nick.” He laughed, a sweet sound that he was startled to realize he hadn’t heard for far too long. “If you had a beard, a guy could be forgiven for thinking you’re St. Nicholas!”

Nick and Dee exchanged surprised glances when Reggie said this and erupted in peals of laughter. He smiled, glad he could at least entertain them after they had shown him such kindness.

Leaning back and balancing the tray on his lap, he scooped up a healthy serving of the stew with the large, wooden spoon Dee had provided. If anything, the stew was even better than the cider, a perfectly balanced mix of spices, vegetables and meat.

“No, Reggie,” Nick chuckled as their guest devoured his meal, “I’m not Saint Nick. Though that’s a kind comparison for you to make.”

Nick was interrupted by the gentle pealing of an hourly chime. Reggie and his hosts allowed a glance across the room at the large, ornate wall clock which was the origin of the sound.

A pair of tiny swing doors opened above the face of the clock and a platform at least half a foot wide emerged from behind them. Reggie stared at this display, not sure if he was seeing what he thought he was.

Erected on the platform was a miniaturized representation of a particularly ghastly scene. It was an angel, fallen on his knees, his wings folded down around his body, drooping like those of a dead bird. He was depicted as being chained to a rock and surrounded by flames.

All of this was unsettling enough to send a chill down Reggie’s spine, but the detail he found most unnerving were the eyes. Even from across the room, he could clearly see the inhuman yellow slits and sense the anger they conveyed. Beneath this grotesque figure, etched into the base of the platform, was the legend Dominus Borri Misrule Corruit.

The chime struck twelve and the platform retracted into the clock. Reggie felt a surge of relief when the doors swung closed. He looked to Nick and Dee for an explanation and a tide of cold fear welled up inside of him.

Nick’s eyes had changed. The kind, gray orbs which had previously held such warmth had been replaced by horrible copies of the same yellow diamonds gracing the statue of the fallen angel.

The older man’s features were somehow different as well. Younger. His chin was narrower, his eyebrows sharper and more severe, his lips thin and black.

Dominus borri misrule corruit, Reggie,” he said. “It means ‘Lord of Misrule’.”

“It’s midnight,” a sultry feminine voice informed them.

Reggie gasped. Dee was no longer the stout, matronly woman with the rosy cheeks who had opened the door. She was young and svelte, with jet black hair spilling over her shoulders, her lithe, toned body on display. Behind her, the apron and dress lay in a crumpled heap on the rug.

She offered him a sympathetic smile, but there was pure malice playing behind her cold eyes. “Don’t try to fight it, Reggie,” she said. “It’s the twenty-fifth. The day of sacrifice.”

“It’s tradition,” Nick added, the humanity draining from his voice as he took a step forward. “The acolytes call it Saturnalia. It’s a celebration. A time when I appear to them as the benevolent god Saturn. One soul is given to me after a week of lawlessness so the others may prosper. The Roman pagans did it. Their descendants came across the sea and established a colony there, in that town, carrying on the ancient traditions. We do this every year.”

“‘Tis the season,” Dee smiled, stepping close to Nick, clenching his body with her own and running her tongue along his jaw line. She caught sight of Reggie’s horrified expression and giggled. “How did you like your cider and stew, Reggie?” she taunted. “They were made from the remains of the previous offering. Just the right amount of salt and spice will cure and keep the meat as long as needed.”

Reggie stumbled back, ready to flee, ready to protest. Instead he staggered, struggling to keep his eyes open as a wave of disorientation washed over him.

Drugged? he wondered. It was his final thought before slipping into the void.

“A blasphemy to counter the divinity you people ascribe to this day,” Nick said softly, pulling away from Dee. He knelt and rolled the unconscious man onto his back, feeling for a pulse. Reggie was alive.

Nick was pleased. The blood had to be fresh, after all. “The eating of innocent flesh, the drinking of innocent blood to counter the blood of the lamb shed for your kind,” he finished.

The tinkling of glass broke his reverie and Nick glanced up. He smiled as Dee approached him with two tall crystal wine glasses. He stood, taking one and gracing her with a kiss.

“Delilah, my love, what other but you understands me?” he cooed, stroking her cheek with his free hand. “Ever since your betrayal of Samson, I knew there could be only one in all of history to stand by my side. Only one worthy of my special attentions.”

“It’s a pleasure to serve you, my love,” Dee fawned. “Should I call the sheriff and tell him he and his men have done well?”

Nick shook his head. He extended his hand, revealing nails stretched into sharp, pointed talons. Dropping to a crouch, he clutched the tips of his fingers together and thrust his hand into Reggie’s chest.

The body jerked, the legs thrumming against the hardwood floor spasmodically as Nick wrenched Reggie’s still-beating heart out though his ribcage, sending thick splatters of blood and torn flesh splashing across the rug.

Nick rose to his feet, holding the heart over his glass and crushing it in his palm. Blood drained out, filling an inch at the bottom of the glass.

He gestured for Dee to step forward and repeated the motion, filling her glass and dropping the mutilated remains of the muscle to the floor.

“All other matters will wait, my darling,” he promised her, raising his glass. “Tonight is for our pleasure and our pleasure alone. They will have their reward come the harvest. We will have ours now.”

Dominus borri misrule corruit,” Dee said softly, touching the lip of her glass to his. “To you, Lord of Misrule.”

“And to all a good night,” Nick answered as they drank.

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D.S. Ullery has been published in multiple magazines and anthologies, including Journals of Horror: Found FictionWhen Red Snow MeltsPaying the Ferryman, Final Masquerade, and Creature Stew. He is an Affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association and lives in West Palm Beach, Florida with a black cat named Jason, who was born on Friday the 13th.

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