Charlie’s little blue Saturn was stuck in the snow at the bottom of a dark hill, maybe half an hour before midnight on Christmas Eve. If he’d paid a little more attention to warnings from the locals, he would have stashed a carton of kitty litter in the trunk, for traction. It had slipped his mind, and he’d actively ignored what Beth and everyone else said about going out on Christmas Eve as well. Now a solid wall of snow was built up under his front axle, zero bars on his phone, there were no streetlights or porchlights in sight. He was stuck on the outskirts of a small town, a hefty sack of gifts in his passenger seat, a Google maps printout of the homes of the kids in his school in his pocket, a red Santa suit and cap hanging unevenly on his boney frame. At least, Charlie thought ruefully, both the suit and the beard were warm.
Dark Mountain was not abandoned, but to new elementary ed teacher Charlie Krawl it felt like it. He’d come to the rural town as a Teaching Fellow, part of his payment for what had seemed like a free ticket through college but now he was stuck there for 4 years. He’d been assigned there according to need, not choice, and after growing up in Charlotte the little mountain community felt monolithic, isolated and isolating. There was an unpleasant quiet hanging over the town, and the streets were empty before dark even in the winter. Especially outside of town and especially in the winter. Not even the corner bar and grill had its lights on that Christmas Eve.
Charlie was an outsider, and the community made sure he knew it. The only male teacher at the local elementary school, his fellow educators made Charlie feel at best like an exotic species of lizard, at worst like a known sex offender, sometimes like a cross between the two. Charlie’s kindness towards quieter children and tendency to involve himself in conflicts with bullies was not encouraged by the administration. He had friends in town, certainly– older couples and widows seemed to appreciate the value of a young man in their midst, the few girls his age not so much. The Powers that Be, though– school board, school administrators, county commissioners, town council– regarded the lanky bespectacled stranger with skepticism or veiled hostility. Charlie knew the paper mill had up and moved away about 30, 40 years earlier and taken the best jobs with it. The town had never bounced back, and to Charlie it felt like the prevailing attitude was angry resignation. “Let this place die,” those glowering faces seemed to growl, “we are better off forgotten.”
Several thousand people still lived in Dark Mountain, though, with unnumbered families scattered throughout the hills. Where there are people, there are children. Some made it to school daily; others arrived sporadically with dirty faces and empty bellies more often than not. Charlie thought the children deserved more joy than customarily resided within Dark Mountain’s borders. Still, he managed to keep his mouth largely shut right up until he entered his first Christmas season in town. He expected decorations to pop up relentlessly in every store and on every street corner the day after Thanksgiving. It was almost a relief when they didn’t– Charlie had spent too many holiday seasons stuffed to the gills with Christmas carols and yuletide cheer. Soon, though, Charlie noticed that no Christmas lights were forthcoming, no pumpkin spice ridiculousness appeared on the local menus, nary an elf on any a shelf in local stores. The winter seemed colder without them, alien. Charlie had to ask.
Beth Graves was a fellow teacher– 4th grade– not quite a kindred spirit, but friendly and welcoming. Her kind round face unironically sported cat’s eye glasses and while she covered her round self in pumpkin-and-spook sweaters in late October, her wardrobe had seemed oddly somber since late November. Like the rest of the town, the colors red and green had vanished from her closet in the last month or so. Still, her kind brown eyes darted up at him with amiable intelligence when he walked into the teacher’s lounge. “Fresh pot of coffee if you’re in the mood, hon,” she’d smiled up at him, her eyes crinkling happily at his company but offering no words. Beth seemed to like the quiet. Charlie had smiled back and poured himself a cup of the weak black stuff the school provided its teachers. The room always smelled of cigarettes, which Charlie had hated at first– he had allergies– but after six months the stench brought a little bit of homey comfort with it. He sat across from Beth, who was grading worksheets with a cartoon Ben Franklin flying a kite on the front; she brandished a peppermint-pink pen as she corrected the tiny essays in front of her. Charles carefully cleared his throat– an experimental sound, like a neglected car engine trying to turn over. Beth looked up at him in mild surprise.
“Something on your mind, Charles?”
“Always,” he replied with a grin, “but I don’t like people to know it.”
“Mmm,” she nodded and sipped at her coffee, “Questions do set some folks off. Still, we’ve got the room, and I promise not to embarrass you too much. What’s up?”
“There’s… no Christmas around here. No trees, no carols, no lights.”
Beth nodded carefully, her eyes fixed on his and let him continue.
“Well, I mean it would be nice to do something. For the kids. Like give out some gifts or play Santa.”
Beth made a popping noise with her tongue before taking a long slurping sip of coffee out of a mug that read “Feed the poor. Buy a teacher dinner.” When she answered him it was after a long pause, most of which was spent staring at Charlie’s feet.
“That wouldn’t go over well, Charles.”
“Why not? It’s about giving and fun and love, doesn’t have to be religious. I mean, it doesn’t feel natural, a year without Christmas.”
Beth chuckled grimly and regarded Charlie with a sideways smile. “Some folks would give you a lecture about troublemakers not minding their own business, but that wouldn’t deter you, would it?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Still, you’ve got to understand this is a touchy subject. I… can’t give the answer I’d like to give, Charles. But I’ll try.”
Charlie hadn’t seen Beth smoke before, but now she fumbled through her purse and came up with a battered pack of Winstons and a green plastic lighter. “For emergencies” she mumbled as she lit up, then blew a cloud toward the closed window. “It’s not just that it would upset the locals,” she said finally. “It’s that… well… some folks think there’s a compact.”
Charlie found his head tilting like a confused Labrador’s. Compact?
“With the Neighbors,” she said hesitantly. “Do you know about our Good Neighbors, Charles?” When he shook his head she frowned, like she’d bitten into something sour. “Well, most folks who settled around here are… old families. Scots-Irish and the like. Came to Dark Mountain direct from across the Pond, back before the Revolution even. And the story goes that the Neighbors moved with us. And the families treated with them, and they kept us out of entanglements and wars. Of course, we could probably use a few entanglements now,” she said ruefully as he stared, “but the compact holds. Or is supposed to. If you believe the story.” She smiled like she was just waking up and waved a hand through the smoke in front of her face.
“You’re talking about fairies?” he asked, unbelieving.
“No!” she barked, a flash of fear crossing her face. “I mean… let’s not use names like that. It upsets folks.”
“Okay,” he said, feeling embarrassed that he was humoring her. “Okay.”
“Well, the price in the compact– in the story, you understand– is that we don’t drive them away with songs about Jesus, and saints, and don’t offend them with stories about a ‘jolly old elf.’ We got to keep our churchbells but that’s about it.”
She nodded and took the opportunity drain the rest of your coffee cup. “You know the old church?” They all seemed old to him, but Charlie nodded anyway. “Those are old, iron bells, came all the way from Scotland, the kind that Cromwell liked to melt. The Neighbors are supposed to be big on traditions, so even though they don’t– aren’t supposed to– like the sound of churchbells, the churchbells stayed. Something about balance.
Anywho, for Christmas we just leave our Neighbors a… token for their Christmas dinner. That’s our holiday celebration… we leave some cookies or hot cider out on the porch so the Neighbors know the compact still stands.” She shrugged. “It’s a tradition, that’s all. We’re slow to change, too.”
Charlie forced a smile. “I’ve noticed.”
Beth chuckled and grinned, then snuffed out her Winston in an ashtray.
“That’s why we still smoke in the teacher’s lounge. Some folks saw you, they figured you’d make us put a stop to that for the children’s health. I told them not to fret, just because a man’s young doesn’t mean he can’t respect other people’s traditions. Especially when, good intentions or no, he’s likely to up and leave in a couple years.” Her eyes shone at him as she stared, her tone had gotten angry at the end, angry as everyone in this barren place. Eventually he remembered to nod.
“Let us keep Christmas our own way, young man.”
Charlie smiled, remembering his Dickens. “But you don’t keep it at all.”
Beth eyes remained cold. “Stay home on Christmas Eve, Charlie. You know how crazy we are here.”
Charlie hadn’t wanted to upset anyone, of course, so he was prepared to leave well enough alone. If it hadn’t been for Becky McCrory that’s what he would have done.
Becky was a blonde first-grader in Charlie’s class with a perpetually sweet disposition and a perpetually runny nose. She was a trifle fragile, given to drama, but kind to the other kids, some of whom returned her affection while others bullied her for her trouble. Becky usually seemed undaunted, but that particular Monday morning she was silent and sniffling straight through to lunch. Charlie was her teacher; it was his job to find out if there was trouble and what it was.
Finding time to talk to one listless kid was difficult, but Charlie eventually found a moment during afternoon recess when red-faced Mrs. Morris had playground duty. Becky was alone, drawing in the dirt and still sniffling so rather than catching up on paperwork like he liked to do he made his way over and spoke to her.
“Bad day, sweetie?”
She hadn’t seen him coming and startled like a little bird, then gazed up at him and nodded with wide, red-rimmed eyes. She didn’t offer anything, though, and when he waited she just went back to drawing so he tried again. “Everything okay at home?”
“Mmm-hmm,” she replied, “Yes, I mean, I mean no. I mean I talked to my auntie on the phone, Mister Krawl, and she was so sweet to me and we were having such a good time and then and then–” she paused to catch her breath “–and then she said she was going to send me a Christmas present and I got all excited and my daddy got mad, Mister Krawl, and he grabbed the phone away and he sent me to my room while he yelled at my auntie and then he told me I couldn’t get no nothing for Christmas.”
The unfairness of it struck Charlie dead in the chest. It had seemed all right– sad but all right– when he had first heard about the town’s Christmas-free policy, but he hadn’t realized that the children knew what they were missing. Seeing Becky start crying again, it was like a piece of ice in his heart. “You’ll get your present, Becky,” he said, looking down at the sobbing little girl and finally getting on his knees so she could cry on his shoulder. She stopped bawling for a moment and stared, only to start crying again.
“But how, Mister Krawl? How?”
Charlie surprised himself with a wink and a grin. “Santa Claus is coming to town.”
Charlie thought back on all of this grimly as he trudged through deepening snow, nearing midnight on Christmas Eve, his sack weighing heavy on his red-clad shoulder. The outfit was intended as a disguise of sorts in case any parents or children should glimpse Charlie delivering presents to the town’s front porches; now, remembering how angry Becky had said her father was, he hoped nobody would greet him with birdshot or worse. With his car delivering the gifts would have been easy, but now he had to make the deliveries on foot, get his car out of the snowbank and make sure no one connected him with the mystery that would appear on the front porches of (hopefully) every kid in town. The parents couldn’t take them all away, he reasoned, a few were bound to slip through, squirreled away– tiny Christmas miracles.
Charlie would be the first to admit the gifts were not amazing– cheap board games and dolls, packs of marbles, packs of mittens for kids with cold hands, chocolate-covered cherries and Hot Wheels cars. He’d had to go out of town to get them all without raising any suspicion, though; he hadn’t thought about the perpetual shortage of wrapping paper and stockings in Dark Mountain until it was almost too late. Fortunately, he had plenty of free time in the evenings, so he’d been able to wrap them all in time, chuckling as he listened to downloaded Christmas tunes through his headphones. Christmas felt subversive; subversion felt wicked and good. To a pack of kids who’d never had a Christmas, he hoped these primly wrapped packages would represent something extraordinary– memories they’d hold onto after they’d (he’d) left this grim little town. The town was small and there were many hours left until sunrise– Charlie figured he’d be able to deliver the gifts and walk back to his car– ditching the Santa suit in his trunk, he had a blanket in his back seat thank God– in time to meet AAA at his car before dawn. He hoped they’d let him request a tow from an out-of-town truck but there was nothing for it now. He trudged forward, knowing he needed to be swift, but feeling heavy and cold as the snow that was piling up on his black rubber boots.
Is the tread on these boots too distinctive? He wondered, then pushed the thought from his head. With only a flashlight to see the road with, the falling snow around him seemed a mixed blessing. He had to hope he wouldn’t get turned around, with all the trees looking alike, watching him the way they did, that was all. The dark and the snow made it hard to see the road. He hoped the batteries in the heavy maglight would last.
The roads twisting through the mountain forest weren’t as silent as Charlie would have imagined. Along with the constant susurrus of falling snow Charlie could hear nightbirds in the trees and small, curious footsteps that seemed to follow him through the underbrush. Flying squirrels, foxes, raccoons, ‘possums, deer– Charlie could name any number of harmless critters that would be out after dark. A story about Old Christmas flickered through Charlie’s head– Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany– how at midnight the animals could speak to each other. The snowfall sounded like whispers in the dark, and the thought of a deer suddenly bleating his name propelled Charlie forward faster than he’d intended. He stepped off the road and felt the snow crumble under his boot– a tiny misstep that suddenly multiplied into disaster as it felt like the world slipped away and Charlie found himself sliding down the steep bank next to the road. Miraculously, he kept his feet most of the way down, the sack of toys and other gifts balanced precariously on his shoulder. Towards the bottom, though, his foot struck a root and the heavy bag pulled Charlie forward like a towline. He half collapsed, his knees folding forward as the bag planted his face and fake beard firmly in the snow. He had to let go of the sack to push himself out of the snowbank and he heard it spill over in the dark. Cursing, Charlie was mad at first, but then he looked around. Never really meant to keep the chill out, his Santa suit and beard felt frozen after just a little wet. The maglight, thank God, was still in his nerveless hand but its beam seemed feeble, instantly swallowed up by the dark in the trees.
I can’t be lost, he thought, I’ll just follow the hill back up to the road. Comforting himself, he shone his light at the ground and saw his sack lying there, small gifts spilling out. He did his best to gather them up along with his dignity, then shone his light back up the hill, looking for the spot he’d slid down. He must have been confused, though, must have walked further than he’d thought because his tracks and slidemarks were missing– or at least he wasn’t finding them in his flashlight’s increasingly inadequate beam. The batteries were weak, he supposed. Around him, the falling snow sounded strangely like crystal, brittle laughter.
He’d climb back up the bank, he supposed, but in the deep snow the weight of his sack made it difficult. He’d climb three feet up only to slide back four. It struck him suddenly that any trace of his passage would be covered up by the falling snow in a matter of hours. It was like the forest had swallowed him whole.
He was tempted to leave the sack, but he couldn’t do that. It was for Becky, the kids. He was tired, hungry; his feet and fingers ached where the blood in them was retreating back to his core. The cold and wet were a problem, and the damned red jacked wasn’t as warm as Charlie’d thought. He’d try walking along the bank, parallel to the road. It was a twisting mountain road, though, and hard to keep in sight with only his weak light to guide him– the clouds and especially the trees seemed to swallow all the light from the sky. A snowy night can be very bright with a full moon out, he thought, but the moon must’ve gotten eaten up by the clouds blanketing the upper atmosphere. A passing thought struck him a glancing blow: strange things must live up there also, in the region between earth and sky.
Trying to keep the snow-covered hill on his right, he trudged forward. The snow seemed to get deeper as he walked, sucked at his boots, threatening to pull them off with each step. The temperature was already a problem– Charlie realized that a soaking wet sock might actually threaten his limbs if he couldn’t get out of the cold in time. Time was also a problem, but he didn’t think he could be far outside of town now. When he stooped to tug at his bootstraps, he felt boney tree branches tug at the bag on his back, nearly upending him. A strong wind must have blown the branches into him, but he hadn’t felt the icy blast that should have accompanied the blow. When he turned awkwardly around in the dark he didn’t see any branches nearby at all. He made sure he was continuing forward and not doubling back by studying his footprints; a part of his mind said not to bother. Only a few minutes in, and the cold and dark seemed to push down on him with physical weight. He wanted to sit and rest, but he remembered that tinkly laughter, thought he could hear patient footsteps in the brush behind him. God, it was cold. He pressed on.
Perhaps five minutes later his flashlight batteries finally gave out, and Charlie froze in place, listening to the dark. He heard the whisper of the falling flakes shattering on the trees and snow, he heard a distant wind; he heard the dark listening back. More than anything he wanted to drop the sack and run, forget about this silly Christmas plan of his, but where would he run to? Still, feeling pursued, feeling like the sky was getting darker, like the wind high in the trees was circling and looking to find him, for almost a minute Charlie picked up his boots and tried a stumbling run forward, clutching his dead maglight like an iron club. Running blind, he flew over the crest of a hill in the dark, and for a fraction of a second felt his feet churning nothing but darkness before he started to fall. Somehow, there was a tree in front of him. Somehow, it caught his foot, suspended him upside down. Somehow he still held onto his pack of gifts, holding the mouth shut and keeping the tiny cars and oranges from being lost in the snow. He heard the tinkling laughter again as he felt like he was being pulled up towards some unseen eye or frozen mouth. His red hat was snatched by gravity off his head and the darkness was absolute.
Then a chime rang through the forest– pure and cold and perfect, and in a moment of flawless coincidence the clouds in the sky sprang open and the moon shone through. Barely 2 inches from the snow, whatever branch was holding his boot slipped its grip and released Charlie. It wasn’t a graceful landing, covered his hair and fake beard with snow, but Charlie was able to make it to his knees as a second chime sounded through the woods, seemed to drive back the cold and the night. The nearby churchbells rang 10 more times– midnight on Christmas Eve– before falling silent, and the moonlight reflected off the snow, lighting the forest with a silvery version of morning light. The edge of the woods was only a couple hundred feet further, streetlights that had somehow been invisible before now impossible to miss. Charlie didn’t think about it, just walked forward towards the edge of the trees, a warmth growing in his heart like he’d just downed a shot of good whiskey.
Charlie left the first package on Tommy Bell’s front porch, where he helped himself to some of the hot cider warming in a little cauldron over a firepit in the front yard. It was strong, full of unfamiliar spices, made him feel hot and alive inside. Becky McCrory’s porch was the third one he reached, where he left chocolate, an orange, and plush versions of pony Princesses Celestia and Luna. He still had plenty of time to make his deliveries, he thought, crunching into one of the cookies the family had left on their porch. Cookies for Santa– what could be sweeter? It had been a hell of a night, but it was behind him now. The snow obscured Charlie’s vision, so he figured it would make it hard for anyone inside any of the homes to look out and see him delivering his gifts, even in the almost freakish moonlight. From house to house, Charlie kept walking.
His peddler’s pack was half empty when Charlie heard the footsteps, not so much crunching through the snow as softly padding on top of it. He turned and saw only snow, but the wind blew colder and harder as the pitter-pats drew closer– some walking calmly, some running swiftly, all lighter than the whisper of a luna moth’s wing.
Charlie’s first absurd thought was that the children had come to thank him– the forms he saw striding, dancing, hopping up the street were no bigger than children. Then, as one leapt delicately onto a front porch railing, Charlie could see its green jacket– so much like one of Santa’s elves at the mall, his little helpers. The figure felt him looking, though, and turned to regard Charlie with yellow eyes and a face made of shadows, and all the whimsy evaporated out of Charlie’s punch-drunk mind. The jacket was green leaves and thorns and grass, somehow both verdant and dead in the heart of winter. That first one leapt away with a tinny laugh, but he could see other little outlines just barely hidden by the snow. He must have made a sound, for now they were gathering, watching him in a crowd of 20 or more. He could see what looked like curving horns on one head; on another a red shape that he was certain was the Santa cap he had dropped back in the woods.
He considered running again, but didn’t want to leave his sack. Some part of him reminded him not to run from predators, though he couldn’t remember why not. Instead, Charlie took a step towards the diminutive crowd, heard whispers and a broken, tinkling laughter as the little forms melted backwards. Then, as Charlie took a second step, the crowd seemed to melt away… and something else stepped forward towards him.
The man was tall– 6 foot 6 or more– his coat was green moss, green as his eyes; his skin was an absurd Smurf blue. A narrow head crested with ice-white hair, cyan skin gouged with deep black scars that might have writing– on the man’s brow, his face, his throat. A crooked staff of dark wood rested in his hand. The blue man didn’t smile, or look angry or afraid. The eyes that met Charlie’s were tired, more than anything else. Tired and terribly alone.
“Elder,” the man said, lips parting to reveal flawless black teeth, almost the right shape for human teeth. Mimic buzzed Charlie’s mind, shifter, trickster, wasp. “Elder of men. It has been long since we have seen any of your kind. You honor us.” The blue man put his hand to his narrow chest and gave a kind of half-bow. The little speech wasn’t insincere, exactly, but there was no passion behind it. To Charlie it felt like a formality not quite forgotten. Charlie lifted a hand to his cheap white beard, realizing why this strange figure had called him ‘Elder.’ Charlie was cold, hadn’t known he could be colder, but a chill ran through him anyway as he realized he didn’t know the proper call-and-response.
“Urm, yes. You… honor me? As well?” Charlie began uncertainly, hoping for help, but the blue-skinned creature just watched him impassively. He felt the weight of the sack on his shoulder, heard a dance of footsteps behind him, whirled around to see 3 of the little figures scamper back away from him, hiding behind the falling snow. They moved like cats or squirrels, deformed apes but nimble; he could hear their small noses sniffing at him curiously. Charlie turned forward, and found that the tall one was much closer. Without thinking, Charlie opened his sack. “I brought gifts. For sharing. For Chris– the Solstice,” he amended, as he saw the yellow eyes in front of him start to widen furiously. The calm returned to the almost saturnine face, then, and the blue man nodded appreciatively.
“It is well, elder. We of the Winter Court thank you for cementing the friendship between us so near the Solstice, when the night is longest and the walls around the worlds wear thin. Many among us,” the blue man’s arms swept wide, describing the circle of barely-seen figures around them, “pine for the games we played with your folk of old.”
“Huh. Well, I brought games,” Charlie began carefully, handing a box to the stranger. “This one’s called Candy Land. I brought food, too. Chocolate–” he scattered boxes of cherry cordials into the crowd, and heard small feet scramble for them, “and oranges.” Charlie could feel the cold eyes getting closer from every side now, alien and full of mischief, but full of rules, too. They liked gifts and flattery, he was sure of it, and he felt gratified when a small prickly hand snatched the orange from his glove. Moving carefully, Charlie upended the bag on the street, letting the presents pour out and stepping back quickly. Charlie and the blue stranger watched as the little men and women in the green coats grabbed at toys and coats with hands, claws, and teeth. Charlie took another step back and another, and the blue-skinned man watched him unblinking then– with the tiniest smile– made a gracious, gratified gesture. Charlie knew better than to run, still, but if he didn’t turn his back then maybe he could disappear behind a curtain of snow…
“OLD ONE!” An iron-black face beneath Charlie’s own stolen Santa cap screeched at the tall blue man– who frowned, but didn’t bother to look at the speaker. “He has taken it. Our dinner. We all smell it on him!” There was something white in the little thing’s hand; it looked like sharpened bone. Oh God, Charlie thought suddenly, cookies and cider. Why? The figures at the mound of presents froze; eyes of ice and fire suddenly snapped towards Charlie. The blue man looked annoyed.
“He gives gifts of greater value, and asks nothing in return. Surely we can spare him a little warmth and sustenance?”
Charlie took an involuntary step back as the thing with a face like black stone hissed in response, black eyes shining, its mouth a nightmare of black stalactites and mites. “Nobles! All the same! No thought for us short folk! Ours by Compact! He had no right!”
Sadly, the blue-skinned man closed his tired eyes and nodded. “Very well. What payment do you offer?” Charlie’s jaw dropped, his mind went empty. The silence from his lips stretched out for too, too long. He took another step backwards, then another. The blue-skinned man’s face hardened. “You offer nothing?”
Charlie’s mouth went dry. “I… I already gave away the food I had…”
“Then give something else.”
Maybe his gloves? A song? But the only words Charlie’s heart knew in that moment were run. Run. Run! The moment stretched out and out until Charlie could feel the blue man’s patience break like rotten ice.
“Very well,” the tall blue thing said to the thing with the red cap and the sharpened bone. “It was your food. Take it back.” The crooked black teeth grinned.
Charlie wanted to scream, but the pain from the teeth and the bone froze the sound inside him.
They were cold– too cold to let any blood spill on the snow; instead he could feel it freeze inside him. He stiffened, fell shuddered, fell backwards like a trust fall where nobody caught him. In a second there was no pain, though he heard a splintering that must have frozen muscle and blood and skin. As he lay on his back, Charlie could hear the little black thing’s crooked teeth shearing through cloth and fat. It paused in its work then, crawled up so Charlie would see its red-fuzz-and-charnel-stained smile. “Thanks for hat, elder man,” it whispered maliciously into his ear, “hats are good payment, but now man-person can’t speak.” Its laugh was the sound of abandoned churches on moors, of graveyards at night, whispered into his ear. A laugh just for Charlie.
Charlie saw a steamy ghost of breath rise out of his mouth. He lay on his back like he was making a snow angel. Half a hundred eyes watched him, but Charlie was alone. Like crazy, broken laughter, the snowflakes fell and fell around him all night long.