By Kelly White
In the days after Christmas, our attentions turn inward, to the logs snap-crackling in the hearth, the blue light glare of another Christmas Special. We enjoy the roundness of overindulgence. Oh go on, just one more. We shut the curtains against the cold, settle in and ignore the feeling that prickles beneath our skin.
Outside the light has slipped away. The bag of torn wrapping paper you tiptoed out with earlier slumps against the garden wall, its plastic skin constricting in the cold. It is quarantine quiet, the air icy enough for snow. You miss the first flakes as they settle on the pavement.
It creeps along the gutter, against low walls, through hedgerows. It is oil-slick against the snow, limbs of elongated shadow that twist like tree roots through the gaps. It sniffs at the dregs of Christmas revelry, burrows through piles of cardboard and broken decorations. It pulls at your screwed up paper and leaves a glittery intestine trail across the whiteness.
By the time you look, its tracks are gone. You are left to mutter under your breath as you bend and scoop, blaming a fox that does not exist as the wet soaks through your slippers.
You do not notice at first. The spaces left by small things are too easy to overlook. The bright foil chocolate wrappers by the foot of the sofa, a scattering of Lego bricks, one of your novelty socks. That soft animal scrabble you’ve heard the past two nights plays back as something safer in daylight. Squirrels on the roof.
Whenever it is near, you get the urge to turn away. There is knowledge written deep in your flesh, a fear so terrible not even the excesses of Christmas can drown it out. It will not save you. You know this too. It can smell your post-Christmas blues as well as you can smell the last of the left-overs reheating in the oven.
As you drift towards sleep tonight a thought will cross your mind. That the gap in the brickwork at the back of the fireplace – the one you’ve been meaning to fix – is not large enough for anything to slip through, let alone a creature so tangled in its own limbs.
The long, thin shadows playing across your bedroom wall are just the trees outside, shivering in their winter bones. You have listened to one too many ghost stories, and have eaten far too much.
You wake in darkness, your arms and legs wrapped cocoon-tight in your duvet. You hear the playful clatter of plastic, a rustle of tinsel as you shift your weight. You suck in icy air, trying to ignore the first prickles of panic like gooseflesh on your skin.
It mimics you. Inhales you so deep you feel the draw of air from in front of your face. You don’t recognise your own voice in the animal whimper that escapes you.
Just wait for your eyes to adjust. Wait until you see its eyes glisten as bright as Christmas lights. Its greedy grin, stretched wide like yours opening presents on Christmas morning.
Kelly White writes horror. Her fiction has appeared on 101 Fiction and has been published in anthologies from Ghost Orchid Press, Black Shuck Books and KnightWatch Press. You can find her on Twitter @KWhiteHorror.