A Christmas Story in October? Yup!
By Jeff Bacon
Edited by Qat Wanders
Copyright © 2019 Jeff Bacon
Originally Published in Winds of Winter
The Christmas celebrations were over. All the family obligations were fulfilled. It was officially winter break. A time for high school friends to get together and catch up on current affairs, revisit first semester college stories, and party.
Lori called me a few days before Christmas with a plan. Her grandfather had died last summer and left a cabin in the mountains to her family. Lori wanted to get the ‘old gang’ back together, drive up to the secluded cabin, and party for three days. We all agreed and were excited at the opportunity to live parent-free for a few days.
Lori had sweet-talked her dad into letting us take his new Suburban to the cabin. This was good since the roads were snow-packed and icy. The music blared—the sound system was pristine—and we all sang along. Jen had a beautiful voice that put us all to shame. Barb lip-synced and every now and then would bellow out a very flat note. Cam and Jordan were the jocks, they bounced their heads to the music with sunglasses on like they were in a music video. I liked to sing solo, or should I say so low that no one could hear me.
We lost cell signal as we progressed up the mountain. The boys complained because they couldn’t upload their ‘awesome’ videos. They gave Lori a hard time, joking around like they always did. Lori was distracted, having too much fun with Jordan especially to notice the old lady in the middle of the road. She saw the old woman and screamed as the Suburban slammed into her. Lori slammed on her brakes, but it was too late, the truck hit her so hard that she flew fifteen feet and rolled for another ten. The truck slid from side to side and turned completely around; we slid to a stop in the middle of the road.
I opened the door and ran to where the body laid in the snow. She had to be a hundred years old, crumpled skin, and blood-red eyes. There was blood coming from her mouth, nose, and ears. She reached up to caress my cheek. Her bony fingers embraced my neck, and the palm of her hand was under my ear. She lifted her head as she pulled mine down until her nose touched mine, and with her last breath, she uttered the word “Gryla.”
Everyone but Lori got out of the truck and rushed over to the body. They stared in horror; the scene was gruesome. I released the old lady’s hand from my neck and laid it down on her chest.
Cam was the first one to have the courage to speak. “Carrie, is—is she dead?”
I checked for a pulse, turned my head up toward Cam. “Yeah, she’s dead.”
Lori stumbled out of the driver’s seat and walked over while trying to call her dad. She was in shock.
Jordan put his arm around Lori to help stabilize her. “No service up here, remember?”
Lori dropped her phone in the snow, “Wha—what—what should we do?”
Barb was the smartest of us all, she was always the one we would go to when we had trouble. She stepped in front of Lori and grabbed both of her hands. “Lori, look at me. Come on, look at me. Where is the nearest phone?”
Lori had locked her eyes onto Barb and was focusing on her versus the lifeless corpse on the side of the road. “The cabin has a phone.”
Lori started to come back to reality; the shock was wearing off. She thought for just a minute and continued, “The nearest town is thirty-eight miles away, we are fifteen minutes from the cabin. Our best bet is the cabin.”
We all walked to the SUV. Jen stopped, “Hey guys, what about the body?”
Jordan turned around, and his face went blank. “What body?”
Jen thought Jordan was trying to be funny. “The dead body, idiot.”
Jordan grabbed Jen’s shoulders and turned her around; the body was gone. Only the blood-stained snow remained.
I walked over to where the body had been; there were so many footprints in the snow from all of us, but there were three sets of tracks that went into the woods. The footprints were not made by shoes, but bare feet, and they were very large.
I pleaded with the group, “Guys, get over here, please, now.”
They cautiously walked over to where I was standing. I pointed at the large footprints in the snow that led off to the woods.
Barb analyzed the scene. “She must have family up here; they must have taken the body.”
Lori flapped her hands as she asked in a wavering voice, “What do we do now?”
Barb replied calmly as if she was in charge, “The plan hasn’t changed. We go to the cabin and call the police.”
Everyone nodded in agreement. We walked back to the SUV, staring at the blood on the grill of the vehicle. Jordan decided he would take us the rest of the way; Lori was in no shape to drive. Snow had started to fall—the flakes were large and beautiful, but it made driving even more dangerous. Jordan took his time and drove very carefully while Lori gave him directions. It took us thirty minutes, but we finally reached the cabin.
Lori opened the door to the cabin and flipped the switch to turn on the lights, but nothing happened. She stood there and continued to flip the switch up and down, expecting a different result. Barb went back to the SUV and found a couple flashlights. The rest of us walked into the cabin using the flashlight apps on our cell phones. We searched for the old-fashioned landline phone. Jen found it, but when she picked it up, there was no dial tone.
Jen yelled, “Crap, crap, crap! What do we do now?”
Barb remained calm, “Cam and Jordan, take these flashlights and get some firewood. We’ll start a fire for heat. Lori, do you have candles?”
Lori went over to a closet and pulled out a box that contained old newspapers, different-sized candles, and boxes of wooden matches. I saw something on the top shelf of the closet—it was moving, and the eyes reflected the light from my flashlight. I moved toward the closet slowly. Everyone had noticed that I was focused on the closet. As I got to the doorway of the closet, I flashed my light on the top shelf. It was a huge white cat; it jumped off the shelf and ran across the floor.
Jen screamed, “Lori, you have a cat living up here all alone?”
Lori walked over to the cat and began to pet its head. “No, I’ve never seen this cat before.”
Cam was shaking, trying to get a grip on the moment. “Jordan, let’s get some firewood so these girls can stop freaking out.”
I laughed to myself. Cam’s voice was so shaky, yet he was trying to be the big tough guy. He was a good guy. Jordan and Cam opened the door to step outside. The cat followed them out the door. I closed the door behind them.
We could hear the boys clunking the firewood into their arms, but that sound stopped and was replaced with a blood-curdling scream. We all looked out the window to see what was happening. At first, I thought the boys may have been playing a joke on us, but the growls we heard removed that thought from my head.
Jordan ran up to the door while yelling, “Open the door! Open the door!”
Jen opened the door as Jordan ran inside; she slammed the door shut and locked it. She waited by the door for Cam.
Jordan dropped the wood on the floor. “Cam is gone. Something dragged him into the woods.” He was bleeding, and there was a large claw mark on his back.
Barb grabbed Jordan’s arm. “What was it?”
“I’m not sure. It looked like a mountain lion, but bigger.” Jordan fell to the floor with his face in his hands. “Oh God, Cam. I’m sorry, Cam.”
Lori walked over and held Jordan as he sobbed. I heard scratching at the door; it was the cat. I walked over to open the door and let it in.
Jen watched me reach for the door lock. “Carrie, don’t you open that door.”
I opened the door despite Jen’s orders. The cat sauntered into the cabin like nothing was wrong with the world. It ran over to where Jordan and Lori were and began to purr while it rubbed up against them.
Lori batted the cat away, “Get away, you creepy cat.” But the cat persisted in showing them attention.
Barb had not lost focus on her task. She took the wood, newspapers, and matches and made a fire. She then placed candles around the entire cabin and lit them one by one. The cabin was warming up, and we had just enough light to see.
Barb sat down on the floor. “So, should we stay here tonight, or should we drive to town?” She was so logical in her thoughts, it was irritating.
I just wanted to have a good panic attack and break down. Jen and I pondered her question while Jordan and Lori continued to cry and hold each other. The sound of a tree breaking followed by a large crash, breaking glass, and a thud came from outside. We ran to the window to see what had happened. A large tree had fallen on the SUV. The tree had come down with such force that the truck was wrapped around the tree. The wheels were driven into the ground.
The choice was made for us: we were staying at the cabin.
Barb, Jen, and I sat down by Lori and Jordan, the cat was sitting on Jordan’s lap as it watched us.
Lori rocked back and forth as she watched the flames dance in the fireplace. She cleared her throat, “Grandpa would never let us come up here after Christmas. I begged him to come up here, but he would always say the cabin was shut down for the holidays.”
Barb slanted her head as she looked at Lori. “How long has your family owned this cabin?”
Lori continued to stare at the fire. “This was the original homestead; this land has been in our family for over three hundred years.”
I was impressed. “That’s incredible, but you never spent a Christmas up here?”
Lori took a deep breath. “Grandpa used to tell me a story about these mountains.”
Jen played with the warm wax from a candle. “Well, tell us the story.”
Lori cleared her throat again; she was nervous. “These mountains were the home to a witch and her husband. The witch’s name was Gryla—”
I raised my head. “Wait, did you say Gryla?”
Lori partially squinted her eyes at me, “Yeah, Gryla. Why? Have you heard this story?”
I started to shake my head. “That was the last word the old woman said to me before she died: Gryla.”
All eyes were focused on me; it was uncomfortable. They looked at me like this was important information that I should have shared.
Lori slowly nodded her head as she looked down at the floor. She continued her story. “There was a terrible snow storm that lasted for weeks. Gryla, her husband, and thirteen children were stranded on the mountain. Two days before Christmas, they ran out of food, but they couldn’t go out to hunt nor could they make it to the nearest town. They were set to starve.”
Jen was hanging on every word Lori spoke. “Did they die of starvation?”
Lori calmly responded, “No. Gryla made the choice between her beloved husband and hungry children. She melted snow into a large pot, then killed her husband and made a stew out of his body.”
Barb was aghast. “Oh my God, that’s disgusting.”
“Well, her husband was also a magical being. With his last breath, he cursed his body. Anyone who ate his flesh was doomed to walk the mountain for all eternity without form.”
“Without form—what does that mean? Ghosts?” I blurted out the question without thinking. I was hooked on the story.
Lori put her hand on the cat’s head and gave it a good scratch. “The curse didn’t work that way, the children all became shape-shifters. They became known as the Yule Lads. Gryla was given immortality. They had a cat they called the Yule Cat—it was a scroungy mongrel. It also became a shape-shifter, but could only change into different types of cats.”
Jen was agitated. “So, is that it? Gryla and her family live up here for eternity—the end?”
Lori smiled as she continued to pet the cat. “No, the legend continues that the curse restricted Gryla, the Yule Lads, and Yule Cat. They are only permitted to leave the cave they lived in for thirteen days, one for each child. Those thirteen days start on Christmas Day. The legend states the family will go out and hunt for naughty children, rotten parents, and anyone they deemed to be evil. That is the only thing they are permitted to eat, and they only have those few days to gather enough food to make it through the rest of the year.”
Barb stood up. “Wow, that’s a really good story—bad Christmas story—would be better if it was set around Halloween. I gotta pee.”
Barb picked up one of the candles off a table and slowly walked to the bathroom and shut the door. Jordan was abnormally quiet, but it seemed reasonable considering everything he had been through that night. I kept staring at the cat, I was imagining that it was the ‘Yule Cat’ who had come for us, and it was just waiting for the right moment to strike. I laughed at the absurd thought.
The sound of a window breaking came from the bathroom, followed by screams of pain from Barb. Jen and I sprung off the floor and ran over to the bathroom door. Barb had locked it. We threw our shoulders into the door as we tried to break in. Barb’s screams became gurgled and fainter as we continued to beat on the door. The door jamb finally gave way—the door flung open. There was blood on every wall, but it was concentrated by the window. Clumps of hair stuck to the wall, it looked like Barb’s body was pulled through the broken window.
I pushed Jen out of the bathroom and slammed the door shut. I turned around to see Jordan thrusting a knife into Lori’s chest. Her body dropped to the floor as the blood gushed from it. Her eyes were fixed on me as her head jerked violently while she died. I tried to run to her, but Jordan backhanded me, and I tripped, landing on the couch. I looked up and saw that cat perched on the kitchen counter as it watched us.
I rubbed my cheek. “What the hell, Jordan?”
Jen was sitting on the floor staring at Lori’s body as she cried.
Jordan turned so I could see his face. His pupils were rolled to the back of his head, and all I could see were the whites of his eyes. He straightened up and adjusted his shirt like he was preparing for a formal meeting.
“You have to choose. We’re willing to let one of you live, the other must walk out that door.”
I grabbed a candlestick as I rushed over to Jordan. He took another swing at me but missed. I smacked his head with the candlestick. He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me down as he thrusted his knee into my stomach. I fell to the floor as I tried to catch my breath.
Jen mumbled, “Why, Jordan? Why?”
“Jordan’s not here right now, it’s just us. Stop resisting and just choose.”
I looked up and could see blood running down the side of his face. There was nothing familiar about him. Jordan was gone and something was using his body. I was in survival mode. If he can bleed, we can stop him.
I walked over to where Jen was sitting, I brushed the hair out of her face, grabbed her hand, and helped her stand to her feet. I looked over to the corner where there were two ski poles. She looked at the corner then back at me and very gently nodded. She understood what I was thinking.
I walked around the back of Jen to maneuver closer to the poles. “Why can’t you just let us go? Why does someone have to die?”
Jordan’s voice was gruff, “We do not bargain. Choose now.”
I was close enough to grab the ski poles. I threw one to Jen, and we ran at Jordan with them. I stuck mine in his upper stomach while Jen stuck hers in Jordan’s neck. We pushed him up against a wall and continued to stab at him until he fell to the ground, lifeless. We had just killed Jordan, or what used to be Jordan.
Jen’s body shook as she slammed her fist on the back of a chair. “What do we do now?”
“We need to stay calm, stay in the main part of the cabin, and wait for help. Someone will come here looking for us in a couple days. We just need to stay in the cabin.”
Jen paced the floor as she played with the zipper on her sweatshirt. “What about the fire? How do we keep it going so we don’t freeze?”
“We burn the furniture. We can stay here for at least a week as long as we are smart.”
We didn’t notice the cat was listening to our conversation. It jumped off the counter, looked at us, and hissed, then strutted to the middle of the room and growled. The growling became louder and more pronounced as its body began to change. We watched in horror as this small cat became as big as a tiger. The process looked painful; the cat’s face and mannerisms looked miserable while it shifted.
Jen and I ran into the bedroom and locked the door. We pushed every piece of furniture in the bedroom up against the door. We heard glass breaking, furniture crashing up against the walls—the cabin was being torn apart—we could feel the waves of destruction through the wall. Then we heard a whoosh and could smell the smoke building in the air; the cabin was on fire.
We pushed the furniture out of the way and opened the door. The cat was gone, but the cabin was on fire. There was a path to the front door; we needed to get out immediately.
“Jen, we need to make a break for the door, then run into the woods. It’s our only hope.”
Jen nodded, and we sprinted toward the door. We made it outside only to be surrounded by thirteen ogre-sized men and one hungry-looking Yule Cat. We turned to run back into the cabin, but we were not fast enough. The Yule Lads caught us, threw us down on the ground and put us into large burlap bags. I couldn’t see what was happening, but I knew I was riding on someone’s shoulder, being hauled up the mountain. I could hear Jen screaming; then I heard a thud, and the screaming stopped. I didn’t know what happened to Jen but knew enough to keep my mouth shut.
It felt like we were walking up the mountain. I could feel the cold air coming through the burlap with every gust of wind. The wind stopped, and I was dropped down on the ground. The top of the bag was ripped open, and I was grabbed by the hair and guided to a table where I was tied down with leather straps. I looked over to see Jen was strapped to another table in the same manner. She looked alive but unconscious.
Two of the Yule Lads came over to the foot of the tables. They pulled out little bags from their pockets and poured black stones into their hands. They showed each other their rocks; there was one white rock and several black rocks. They both threw the rocks in the air above their respective table. The rocks landed on my body—the white rock landed on my chest.
The men took the straps off Jen and hauled her out of the cave. I heard a couple of screams, then nothing. I knew I was next. I never imagined this is how I would die. The men came back and took the straps off me. I tried to run away, but they were too strong. One of them slapped me across the face, which dazed me just enough to allow them to drag me further into the cave.
We went deeper and deeper into the cave until we arrived at some sort of shrine. It looked satanic, with torches lit all around the chamber. There was a rack of sorts in the middle of the room. I was hauled to that rack where my legs, arms, and head were bound to it. The part that my head was strapped to tilted and swiveled so I could look around the room.
There were several idols carved from stalagmites surrounding the rack. One of the men came over and grabbed my head and bent it backward. There was something metal shoved into my mouth and a warm liquid was poured down my throat. They plugged my nose; I had no choice but to swallow. I held out as long as I could, but I eventually swallowed it all.
Then men released my head, stood in a circle, and started chanting. I couldn’t make out what they were saying; it sounded like they were speaking in Latin. The room was spinning; I was having a hard time staying conscious.
I heard a voice in my head. “Relax, my dear. I’m going to join you, then everything will be right as rain.”
It was a calm, motherly voice; it made me feel like everything was going to be all right, but I knew it was not. I felt like I was falling into a bottomless pit. Everything was getting smaller, like I was a great distance from the reality I saw through my eyes. I landed and was standing in a black room. I looked up and could see through my eyes like I would a big-screen television.
I could see one of the Lads come up and untie my body. He brushed my hair behind my ear and looked at me with love.
“Mother, is that you?”
I yelled, “No, I’m not your mother! Let me go!”
But I heard my voice say, “Yes, my children, I am back. Prepare the other girl’s body for stew. We need to eat before we hunt.”
I fell to my knees and started to cry. The motherly voice spoke like she had a loudspeaker system in this hell.
“There, there, child, I am Gryla. We will be together for quite some time. It is nice to have another woman to talk to.”
I watched as the Lads deboned Jen and threw her body into the pot. They took the bones and put them into a bucket. My body stood over the pot and hummed, putting ingredients into the pot. The Yule Cat came over, and my body threw it a piece of Jen’s corpse. It rubbed up against my leg and purred. This was my fate. I was a prisoner in my own body. I could only watch and listen.
Gryla spoke to me, “Oh, come dear, it’s not that bad. We have each other for the rest of your life.”