I was in the mood for television and a stiff drink, but everyone seemed excited to hunt snipes, so I slid on my new north face coat and boots.
“Mom, we’re going out hunting snipes. We’ll be back.”
Mom and her sister, Liana, poked their head out from the kitchen, both holding a glass of wine, both equipped with devious smiles. “You’re hunting what?”
”Snipes, they said, I don’t know. Some type of bird.”
Liana shoved her mouth into the top of her turtle neck and stifled a laugh. Mom slapped her arm.
“What’s funny?” I zipped up my puffy coat, careful not to catch any hair strands in the teeth, then wrapped my scarf around my neck.
“Oh it’s nothing. Have f-fun.” Mom held back a laugh herself. “Take a flashlight with you.”
I had my phone.
The wind was sharp and bit at my face. I pulled my scarf up higher. I always enjoyed Christmas, because Christmas made Mom happy. The full moon that night illuminated the snowy terrain. Blake, Tim, and Mary waited in a small huddle by the cars.
“Come on Zo, let’s go. We are losing prime hunting time.” Tim handed me a bag. “This is to catch them with.” His breath clouded in the cold air.
I looked at the small opening. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You’re going to wait with Mary at the flats. We’ll run through the trees and scare them out.” Time zipped his coat higher.
“Oooo-kay,” I said warily.
Tim motioned for us to follow.
My coordination wasn’t the best. I wasn’t sure this was a great idea, but sweet little sixteen-year-old Mary was eager and happy to be hanging out with the older cousins, so she took her bag, nodded resolute, and fell in line with the guys.
Blake whispered in Tim’s ear and laughed, then Tim stuck his elbow in Blake’s side.
The further we got from the house, the less I wanted to be out. Snow crunched beneath our feet; wind moved through the bare trees, whistling as it passed. My nose started to go numb.
Christmas had been good that year: everyone made it in a couple days early, so we spent the last few days catching up. Mom insisted no one rented a room, said she had plenty of space. Of course, aunt’s and uncles claimed all the beds, so us siblings and cousins were crammed in the extra spaces. For some reason, I thought after I became an adult I’d be able to claim my stake, yet there I was, still crashing on Mom’s couch.
After dinner that night, Margaret and Holly retired to their sleeping bags early, eager to play on their new phones, and Jim went to find an open bar with Greg and Rick, so it was just the four of us left to hunt. Why was I even out there? I didn’t like the outdoors, and I didn’t like the cold. I was giving them a solid twenty minutes, then I was going back in for hot chocolate, spiked hot chocolate.
“Just up here,” Blake said, pointing.
“I know where the flats are. I grew up here,” I said.
“Right, right,” said Tim. “But you’ve never seen the snipes?”
I just looked at him and shrugged. Tim indicated where Mary and I should stand, how low to squat, how to hold our bags.
“Okay, we’ll send them out. You’ll know when they’re coming.”
Then the guys were off, chatting amongst themselves as they departed. I steadied myself to remain calm. I had to be ready when the swarm came, and there was no knowing when that would be. It was impossible to see into the tree line. The dark spaces were intimidating.
“I’m so excited,” Mary whispered.
“Me too,” I whispered back. A solid lie, but I didn’t want to burst her bubble.
We listened, waited.
“How long do you think it’ll take?”
Another long silence between us. I watched my breath float with each exhale. My knuckles ached. My back was sore. How long had we been waiting, five, ten minutes? Surely we should have heard something. I was beginning to think the boys might have been having a laugh at our expense.
I rested my elbows onto my thighs, let them take the majority of my weight. “Well I’m cold. Do you want to go back in?”
“Shhh. What? No! Then we won’t be here when the snipes come.” Mary yelled in a whisper.
“Mary, I don’t think…” I stood, shoved my bag in my pocket.
“Listen, listen, I hear something.”
I was going to call her crazy and drag her to the house, but then I heard it too, something coming though the trees, and fast. I fumbled my bag out of my pocket, fought to get it open. Branches snapped; loud wood pops echoed through the landscape. I dropped my bag. I was going to miss them. The sound was almost to us. It sounded huge. There must have been a thousand birds.
I bent to pick up my bag, and when I did, the swarm exited the trees. I didn’t see it, I just felt the gush of wind lift my hair. Mary screamed. I looked to see how many snipes she had bagged, but there were none. Mary was gone, a small pool of blood marking the snow where she had stood. I looked behind me and saw it then, Santa’s sleigh, big and red with a line of reindeer in front. The jolly old man sat in his seat with Mary in his lap. He had her whole head in his mouth.
I ran as hard as I could. My lungs seized, the cold air collapsed my airways. I needed my inhaler. I didn’t have it. I pulled off my scarf, ripped open my jacket.
I couldn’t breathe.
I finally saw the porch light. With the last bit of will power I could muster, I ran as hard as I could and practically flew the last two hundred yards. I collided with the front door, turned the knob, and fell inside, clawing my throat. Mom and Liana came out of the kitchen, red faced and wide eyed.
Mom looked at me, “What, oh, Oh!” She dropped her wine glass; it shattered. She ran to the bedroom and was beside me in seconds, coercing the plastic into my mouth. She depressed the canister, I pulled in what little air I could. The medicine started to work. The tension in my chest started to ease. “Tim, Blake,” I started.
“What did they do?” Liana asked. They were her sons
“Are they here?”
“They were with you, wait, where’s Mary?”
“I…” I started, but I didn’t know how to continue. “We were waiting for snipes, then…”
“Then what?” Liana pressed.
“Santa Claus, he crashed through the trees. He took Mary, he took her, and he was eating her.” Tears flooded from my eyes then. I couldn’t believe what I had seen, but I knew what I saw.
Liana laughed. Mom just stared.
“You must have been seeing things Zo, there’s no way…” Liana started, but was cut off by two blood curdling screams from Tim and Blake.
The three of us looked at one another for what felt like several minutes before Mom took out her cell phone and dialed 9-1-1.
Copyright WB Welch – All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.