Bare winter trees dotted about the town square glow with festive colour while a trail of small lanterns light the way from the square to the old church up on the hill inviting one and all to join the midnight mass later that evening.
A lonely figure, lost and forgotten wanders through the crowd. No one pays him any attention or even notices him. Yet he’d been coming here for years, too many to remember. He’s no longer warmed by the sweet scents of mulled wine and roast chestnuts drifting over the crowd of carol singers. He always stays close to the caroller’s because they remind him of the life he once had and yet could never have again.
It would be wise for him to leave now before it’s too late but as always something distracts him. With a sentimental fondness he watches a young girl aged about five or six years as she stares up into the night sky trying to glimpse Santa’s sleigh. Then he smiles broadly at her squeal of joy as the first flakes of snow begin to tumble to down, dusting everything with a soft magical powder. Her parents shiver and wrap their scarfs tighter around their faces while clutching song sheets in their gloved hands, determined not to let he chilly weather deter them from this annual traditional.
In the far corner of the square standing before a flood-lit nativity scene stands a man dressed in a Father Christmas costume. He announces the next carol to be sung and Away in a Manger rises from the assembled choir. It must be early, the figure notes, because the townsfolk still seem a little self-conscious about singing in public.
The figure knew he should enjoy these quiet moments and make the most of his temporary respite but he never could. The peace he feels standing amid the jolly crowd is never tangible because he knows it won’t last. There’s just never enough time he laments. It’s nearly always the same; different faces and occasionally different decorations but the task is never complete and soon he’d find himself alone again, desperate and scared.
The final notes of the carol fade away and the pretend Father Christmas heralds the next yuletide hymn: Silent Night.
The figure braced himself and took an involuntary step backwards towards the edge of the crowd. He wanted to get away from the nativity scene for he knows what stirs within the make-shift cattle shed.
The carol begins:
Silent Night, holy Night.
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and child…
At that point the town square changed and the people abruptly vanished. He felt a moment of disorientation as if waking from a dream and finding the marketplace deserted except for him. There were no footprints left in the snow; nothing to indicate anyone else had been here tonight. It always happened this way; hours had just passed in the blink of an eye. All around the square the colourful lights had gone dark, returning the trees to eerie spectres, their spidery branches silhouetted against the pale ghostly streetlights. All was still and all was quiet as the world slept, unaware of his lonely plight.
The figure turned to face the shadowy nativity scene. The floodlights were gone but amid the shades of darkness he could see two yellow eyes watching him intently. A low throaty growl rumbled across the empty town square and the figure took another tentative step backwards. His foot brushed past something and he looked down to see the brown sack at his feet bulging with unknown items. He never saw the sack arrive; it just appeared when the townsfolk left and when Black Peter woke up.
The huge black wolf lopped out from the nativity scene. His head low and teeth bared, saliva swung from his vicious jaws. Black Peter issued another challenging growl and slunk eagerly towards the figure. Seized by fear and pure instinct the lonely figure grabbed the parcels and stumbled backwards. He swung the heavy sack over his shoulder, turned and fled the square while the wolf’s howl echoed down the deserted winding high-street.
As the road gently curved to the right the figure spotted a dark hump in the middle of the street. His first thought was that Black Peter had somehow overtaken him and for one terrifying moment he thought it was all over. Then he realised the beast wasn’t moving. A broken antler came into view, pointing out of the snow like a miniature bony tree. The reindeer’s elegant neck and shoulder were glistening in the moonlight while a scarlet a puddle bled out onto the virgin snow beneath.
He often saw these majestic creatures during the night but he’d never seen one killed by Black Peter before. Still, there was nothing he could do for the animal. He couldn’t allow himself to feel any sorrow. It simply hadn’t been quick enough this time and he had to ensure he didn’t meet the same fate.
The dark shop-fronts lining the high-street felt alien now, sinister even: Ghostly white snowmen leered out from behind the frosted glass along with lifeless Father Christmas mannequins. Without the colours and the warmth of the friendly shopkeepers and bustling customers the hollow commercialism of the season was starkly revealed. He remembered a time when it had been different, but that had been a long time ago.
Eventually the quaint row of shops ended and he hurried on through the town. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder down the sleeping high-street but nothing stirred. Straining his ears he couldn’t hear the growls or panting of the devil-wolf and for the moment the night appeared empty. Black Peter couldn’t be far away though; there was no way he could lose him this quickly but thankfully there was no immediate danger as he approached the first house on the list.
It was the list that guided him. He had no idea where it came from or who wrote it. All he knew was that he had to deliver the parcels to certain houses before the sun rose one Christmas morning.
The rustic entrance to the cottage was decorated with a luxurious holly wreath complete with berries. As always, the door to every home was unlocked to him and he quietly slipped inside. The fresh scent of pine greeted him as he stole into the living room. All was dark inside, save for the Christmas tree that sparked in the silvery light from outside. There was no need to creep about in here because the family were fast asleep upstairs and would never hear him. He’d tried waking waking them before, shouting for help, shaking them but there was nothing he could do to rouse them.
A scraping sound caught his attention and his eyes darted about, alert for danger. A gold bauble slowly turned on the Christmas tree making gold diamond shapes rotate along the far wall. Nothing else moved but a tightening in his stomach told the figure that he wasn’t alone. The sound was repeated and he realised with a start that it came from the fireplace.
His heart pounded as he tossed the parcel towards the glittering tree and bolted for the door. Behind him the scratching grew louder. Black Peter, aware that he’d been detected, abandoned stealth in exchange for speed as he scrabbled down the chimney and onto the cold hearth in a sooty cloud, only to find the prey was gone.
Outside the snowflakes were falling thicker and faster. Flurries swirled in all directions making it hard to see far ahead. The figure was on the other side of the road when he heard Black Peter’s howl of frustration and he rushed to the next house on the list, anxious to be indoors before the devil-wolf saw him again.
The night passed quickly and the snow became heavier, making it easier to move unseen. He dodged from one house to the next, always looking behind him, always wary of the beast in pursuit. Sometimes he’d catch a glimpse of it between the houses but other times there was no sign of it.
He hadn’t seen Black Peter for some time now and he was nearing the end of the list. He had made his way into the countryside to an isolated farmhouse surrounded by a patchwork of white fields that glistened in the starry ice. He was only half way down the garden path, however, when the devil-wolf appeared before him.
A blur of motion burst from the hedgerow and sprang forward blocking his route. Black Peter growled savagely, confident that he’d finally caught the prey that had eluded him for so long. The figure was exposed out in the open with nowhere to hide and no chance of running before the wolf over-powered him.
Head down and razor sharp fangs bared Black Peter prepared to pounce.
It was all over.
The sack slipped from his numb fingers. He stumbled backwards, slipped and fell heavily onto the frozen path. With lightening reflexes the beast saw his chance and leapt. The devil-wolf landed hard on his chest, forcing the air from his lungs. He tried to inhale but instead got a mouth full of the wolf’s rancid breath. The animal snarled dripping warm saliva onto his cheek. The figure closed his eyes as Black Peter went to tear open his throat. But the killing bite never came.
Cautiously he opened his eyes again and saw the wolf looking up at the dark grey sky where the stars were beginning to fade. The beast cocked its shaggy head on one side and turned to the nearest hedgerow as if listening or perhaps sensing something beyond human perception. Then the great devil-wolf turned and silently slunk off back into the shadow of the hedge without looking back.
The figure pushed himself up onto his elbows and stared after Black Peter but there was no sign of the beast. Its paw prints ended at the hedgerow but there was no rustle of branches or snapping of twigs. He had simply vanished.
Overhead a robin circled the garden in the colourless pre-dawn gloom and landed on a snowy wooden bird table nearby. The prone figure remained still in case he frightened the little bird away. The robin made him smile as it chirped and pecked at the breadcrumbs someone had kindly left out for it. The snow had stopped and all around him a dull haze was slowly spreading over the distant fields. Dawn was approaching and he realised with familiar resignation that it was Christmas morning and the world was starting to wake up.
The early morning sky was growing brighter and a light flickered on in the cottage before him. An excited young face beamed out of a bedroom window as the first rays of sun touched the wintery garden. Although he was just below her window the little girl in the farmhouse wouldn’t see him down here. No one ever saw him; they wouldn’t even know he’d been. He was more of a make-believe character now than a real person; just a figment in the collective memory of the world.
He watched the first glimmers of sunlight reach towards him, accepting that once again he’d failed to deliver all the presents in a single night, but he knew it wasn’t over. At that moment the sun’s the pale rays touched the tips of his shiny black boots the world instantly changed …
Another year passed in the space of a single heartbeat and the figure found himself back on his feet. It was dark but as always the town square shone brightly in the reflected glitter of colourful lights. Rosy-cheeked children laughed merrily while a chorus of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer filled the crisp night air. Someone nearby was smoking a cigar and the luxurious aroma mingled about the festive crowd conjuring warm memories of Christmases past. The lonely figure embraced the joyful scene but he knew the peace was only fleeting: Black Peter was always out there somewhere in the everlasting silent night.
Bio: Andy loves writing short stories with a horror / supernatural flavour. Andy has had his stories published on other websites and local magazines in the New Forest, UK, where he lives with his beautiful wife and two amazing kids.