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The Ghost of Christmas Past by Pauline Yates

The clock ticks too fast toward midnight. And not fast enough. Curled in the recliner in front of the cold fireplace, I chew my nails down to the quick. I’ve sat sentry every Christmas eve for the past five years. I always hope it’s the last, but it never is. 

Niggling worry about Timmy disturbs me. He’s tucked in bed in a drug-induced slumber. It’s the first Christmas I’ve used sleeping pills—he wanted to stay up and see Santa like his school friends. That can’t happen, ever. 

I don’t dare check on him. His father will arrive any moment and I’m Timmy’s only line of defence. Why my husband’s hell-bent on blaming our son for what happened is beyond my understanding, but I’ll do my damnedest to keep Timmy safe. 

I stare at the silver tinsel twinkling on the Christmas tree. I hung it with careless abandon; Timmy strung the baubles with meticulous care. Three stockings smelling of mothballs hang from the mantelpiece, one each for me and Timmy, another for his father. The only memory Timmy has of him is the pretty picture I painted in his mind of a loving family, which we were once. That lie is always hard to keep at Christmas.

“Mummy?”

Timmy wanders into the room, tussle-haired and bleary-eyed. Damn the pills. Anxiety spiking, I rush over and scoop him up. 

“You’re okay. Mummy’s here.” 

His head nods onto my shoulder and he wraps leaden arms around my neck. Now what? I can’t defend while holding him.

The clock strikes midnight. The blood drains from my face. On the first chime, pounding starts inside the chimney.

Timmy’s eyes fly open. “Is that Santa?”

Heeding the clock that chimes “no time, no time”, I sit him on the recliner and cover him with cushions.

“Shh. Don’t let Santa see you or he’ll turn you into an elf.” 

Oh, the lies we tell to protect our children.

The pounding stops with the chimes. I hold my breath. Timmy peeks through the cushions but it’s too late to cover him better. A smell like dead leaves burning drifts down the chimney. Then Timmy’s father appears. 

His sneakers, covered in putrid body fluid, poke out first. His legs come next, his red pants black with soot. The stuffing he used to plump out his stomach hangs like a deflated pouch. Rotting flesh clings to exposed ribs. The coroner said he suffered a claustrophobic-induced heart attack but he was dead inside the chimney for five hours before I found him—I fell asleep while nursing Timmy and didn’t hear him yell for help. We pulled him out in one piece, but every Christmas since there’s more of him missing as if vengeance consumes him.

He’s barely recognisable tonight. He hollers, “ho, ho, ho”, but it’s not merry. His lips are gone; only teeth shape his sneer. Bloodshot eyes sink into dark hollows. A bony cavity marks his nose. Stringy grey strands stick to his scalp; it’s all that remains of his once wavy brown hair.

Timmy gapes, bug-eyed, his face deathly white. His father lunges, murder in his eyes.

I leap between them. “Don’t touch him. Your death is not his fault. It was your choice to play Santa.”

He strikes me down with a savage backhand. I hit the floor hard—a bone in my left arm cracks. 

“Don’t hurt Mummy!”

Timmy leaps from the recliner and pummels his father with tiny fists. My husband raises a clenched hand, but I’ll be damned if this ghost of Christmas past touches one hair on our son’s head. Clutching my useless arm, I clamber to my feet and shoulder-charge my husband, knocking him into the fireplace. 

Flames erupt around him then a fireball shoots up the chimney. My husband, the flames, the rancid smell of smoke all vanish, as if nothing happened. 

Sobbing, Timmy clings to my leg. “Is Santa gone?”

I hug him to me. “Yes, my brave boy. Santa’s gone.”

Until next Christmas.

About the author
Pauline Yates lives in Australia and writes horror and dark fiction. Her stories appear or are forthcoming in publications including Black Hare Press, IFWG Publishing, Redwood Press, PseudoPod, plus others. She’s an Australian Shadows Awards finalist and is translated with Riflessi di Luce Lunare (RiLL), Italy. Learn more: https://linktr.ee/paulineyates