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Dras actually went to church willingly on Sunday morning. The Christmas season made the whole church scene seem so much less threatening. He was glad to go sing a couple of carols and found even Jeff’s sermon positive and uplifting. What he remembered of it, anyway. Truth be told, he was still riding on the high of procuring the perfect Christmas gift for Rosalyn and spent most of his time in church envisioning and re-envisioning the look she’d have on her face when she opened it. Last night he’d carefully wrapped the record in leftover Scooby-Doo paper from last Christmas and stuck a big red bow on top. Now it leaned against the nightstand in his bedroom, waiting for its big moment.
Dras gazed at it again now as he shed his button-up dress shirt and reached into his dresser drawer for something more comfortable. He unfolded a shirt emblazoned with the horrific visage of Nosferatu and wiggled into it. Running his fingers through his slightly combed hair, he shot a glance at the Monster Movies calendar hanging on his wall, counting the days until Christmas.
It was way too many. He could never wait that long to give it to her.
Feeling like a kid in line at the front gates of Disney World, Dras tapped his foot rapidly and thought. He needed a way to bump up his gift-giving date. The Christmas Parade would take place downtown in a couple of weeks, and he and Rosalyn usually watched it together through her apartment window. He could give her the record then.
Still too far away.
Next Thursday “It’s a Wonderful Life” was showing at the Community Center. If Roz didn’t have to work, they could go together and he could give her the gift afterward. Or even before.
Dras questioned whether he could survive the four days between now and then without exploding from anticipation. Biting his lip, he strained to come up with a reason to give her the record sooner. Yes, it was still November, but he was far too excited to make it all the way to Christmas. Anyway, he wasn’t good at keeping secrets from her, so if he wanted her surprise to be genuine, the gift must be given sooner rather than later. Otherwise, he’d inadvertently spoil it.
Dras checked the clock on the bedroom wall and shook his head. There was no time to devise a plan now. He was supposed to go to his parents’ house with Rosalyn for the tree-trimming and—
Tree-trimming! That’s a Christmasy occasion!
Bubbling with delight, Dras threw on his jacket, grabbed the record, and ran out the door. Determined not to put this album in jeopardy of being shattered, he forewent his bike and set off for Rosalyn’s apartment sporting a strange walk-jog gait. Ignoring the curious stares of passerby, Dras journeyed forth with glee.
For once he was going to give Rosalyn the perfect Christmas present.
* * *
“Dras is so late,” Rosalyn said aloud to herself. She’d tried to call his apartment three times and got no answer, so he must be on his way. But boy, was he taking his sweet time about it. They should have been at his parents’ house by now. Just as she was about to try calling one more time, a chain of short, quick knocks beat against her front door. She opened it with a sigh.
“It’s about time. I—”
“Merry Christmas, Roz!” Dras cheered. He stood panting before the open door, thrusting a flat, square gift toward her. He was wearing the goofiest grin she’d ever seen on him, and that was saying something.
“Your Christmas present. Go ahead, open it!”
“Dras, Christmas is still, like, a month away,” she reminded him, though she couldn’t help returning his silly smile. She thought of the Christmas surprise that sat in the bottom of her closet, biding its time in a still unwrapped shoebox until the proper moment. Little goosebumps tickled her arms as she imagined Dras’ expression when he saw it.
“I know,” Dras said, “but I figured, why wait? If you don’t have anything for me yet, it’s okay.” He placed the package in her hands and moved into the apartment, then stopped short. No, he froze. The goofy grin was replaced by a slack jaw and wide, unblinking eyes. Rosalyn followed his gaze to the bare spot on the wall where the stereo had once stood.
“Yes, I got rid of it. You can nix the drama.”
“Your…stereo?” Dras croaked.
“You were right, you know? It was a dinosaur. And it took up so much space. I mean, look how much more open the room looks now.” Rosalyn chose not to mention the more emotional reason behind selling the stereo. She wasn’t ready to tell him yet that she might be leaving town for good. Besides, her goal was to be jolly this Christmas. Which would be easier if Dras wasn’t standing in her living room looking like he just watched his dog get creamed by a Cadillac.
“Dras, are you okay?”
He dropped his face into his hands. “Just open the present,” he commanded in a soft monotone.
Confused, Rosalyn ripped the paper and instantly knew Dras’ pain. There was the one album she’d pined for since the day her original copy was broken. Let it Be. Overcome with gratitude and ashamed for disappointing him, Rosalyn turned to face Dras, but his back was to her. With tears in her eyes, she whispered, “Dras, I don’t know what to say. Thank you for remembering.”
Downtrodden, Dras slowly swiveled to her. “I feel like such a chowderhead.”
Wiping her tears, Rosalyn tried to encourage him. “Dras, this is the best gift I’ve ever gotten, hands down. It doesn’t matter whether I can listen to it or not.”
“Yeah, well, I wanted to get you something special. You’re my best friend and all.” Dras shifted his weight and frowned.
As she admired the album in her hands, Rosalyn took note of its amazing condition. The cover wasn’t creased in the slightest. She slid the record out of the sleeve and ran her fingers over its surface. No scratches. It was as though it was fresh from the factory, never opened.
“Dras,” she began, then hesitated. It would be rude to ask him where he got the money to buy it. But it was an impossible find and she knew it couldn’t have been cheap. If he’d gone to any ridiculous lengths, if he was in any sort of debt and she could help…she felt like she owed him that much after the letdown she’d served him.
“How did you afford this?”
Dras shook his head, looking near tears himself. “Sold some toys.”
They stood there in silence a moment, bound by heartache. Then Rosalyn remembered her gift for Dras.
“Wait a minute, Dras. I think I have something that’ll make you feel better.” She dashed into the bedroom and returned with the shoebox that held Scavenger. Beaming, she held it out to him. “Merry Christmas, Dras.”
Dras regarded her curiously and took the shoebox. He lifted the lid and his face grew pale. For a second Rosalyn inwardly congratulated herself on a job well done, but the expected yelp of joy from Dras was longer in coming than she’d expected. As a minute, then two minutes, drug by, she realized the yelp wasn’t coming at all.
Crap, did I get the wrong one?
“I’m sorry, I thought he was the one you needed.”
Dras nodded with great effort.
Recognition washed over Rosalyn. “Dras, those toys you sold, they weren’t…?”
Dras sighed. “Yep.”
Dras exhaled a long breath, then snorted, “This is like that story we had to read in English class.”
“The Gift of the Magi.”
“Yeah, that one!” A smile crawled across his lips as his eyes met Rosalyn’s. “Didn’t those people in the story feel really lucky, even though they blew Christmas?”
“Yeah,” Rosalyn grinned back. “I think they did.”
Dras set the shoebox down on the coffee table next to Rosalyn’s Beatles album.
“You know,” Rosalyn told him, “I got that down at John’s Pawn on the East Side. They might have more of them sometime.”
Dras laughed out loud. “They’ve got mine! That’s where I sold them!”
“Really? That’s where I sold my record player! I guess we could go buy them back, but I doubt we’ve got the money now.”
“I don’t care about them anymore.” Dras’ expression was warm and kind, full of the mutual love they shared but tried not to discuss out loud.
But it was Christmas, after all. Or almost Christmas. Whatever. And by next Christmas, so much could potentially change.
“No present could be better than having you around,” Rosalyn bravely emoted. She leaned forward and hugged him before landing a tiny peck on his lips. “You’re the best, Dras.”
“I am pretty proud of myself, circumstances notwithstanding.”
Rosalyn rolled her eyes and laughed. This holiday spirit stuff wasn’t so bad.
* * *
As the moon rose over the North Woods, a champagne-colored Toyota Camry pulled off the main road and rolled down a dirt path into the dark. After traveling a half mile or so, the driver put the car in park and turned off the ignition. Deep blackness surrounded the vehicle as the driver’s side door opened and an unassuming, middle-aged woman emerged, wearing a denim dress, a red cardigan, and a shabby winter coat. She switched on a flashlight with trembling hands and shut the car door.
“Sir? You wanted to see me?”
A dark figure barely separated itself from the night woods. “Hello, Sheila,” dripped a sardonic voice.
“How are things going at the pawn shop, dear?”
“Well, I believe.”
“You believe.” A generous smattering of derision colored his reply. “Sheila, your position at the pawn shop is very important. It is your job is to drag people down, to accept things from them and present things to them, to put a desire in their hearts for ever greater possessions, to reveal to them their dissatisfaction with their positions in life. There is dark magic at work in that little store, and it is your job to feed and oversee it.”
“Tell me, Sheila, why is it you desire to serve me?”
Sheila needed no pause for thought. “I remember the old stories. Ever since I was young, I’ve been drawn to your power.”
“My power? Yes, I am powerful.”
There was a break in the conversation. The wind blew through the dead limbs of the trees, freezing Sheila’s bare legs. The silence of her master unnerved her.
“H-have I displeased you, sir?”
The shape sighed dramatically. “Ah, I’m afraid you have, Sheila. You see, I need you to make the people of Greensboro miserable. The Christmas season is upon us! The people are caught up in the observation of ancient Christian myth and Pagan symbolism. They’re low on cash, they need bigger and better presents for the kids, they need a make-up gift to smooth over that little affair they got involved in, an expensive wow gift to guarantee they’re listed first in a dying mother’s will, they need to feed their greed. And, sadly, my spies tell me you’re producing quite the opposite effect.”
A titter arose from the blackness behind him and a thousand tiny eyes blinked back at Sheila. She wet herself.
The form continued, “The pawn shop is an excellent tool to prepare the hearts of the people for my coming, and the so-called holiday season is the perfect time to exploit it. But Sheila, poor Sheila, I’ve been told that some of your little tricks have actually brought people happiness. Made them consider the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas and other such nonsense. You’re not setting the stage for me.”
“Sir, I-I must have made a mistake. It won’t happen again—”
“No, it most certainly will not!” he hissed. “I’m done with the pawn shop. And thus, Sheila, I have no more use for you.”
“No! Please, I can serve you some other way! Please!”
“ENOUGH!” he bellowed. Then, turning aside to the chattering things in the dark, he simply commanded, “Take her.”
Sheila screamed as the skittering pieces of the night rushed at her and tore her apart.
* * *
After tree-trimming at the Weldon family home all afternoon, Dras and Rosalyn went back to her apartment for an improvised dinner of canned soup and crackers, caught a television showing of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, and then decided to go driving around looking for early Christmas lights. In Rosalyn’s car they cranked up “Jingle Bell Rock” and made each other laugh with silly dance moves from their waists up.
“I’m all hyped up on Christmas,” Dras gasped in between cackles. “I gotta have a candy cane milkshake from Beefy Burgers.”
“Aw, Dras, that’s all the way on the other side of town.”
“C’mon, please. I’m buying.”
“Your mom’s buying.”
“Okay, she is. But the money’s coming out of my wallet.”
Grinning and shaking her head at him, Rosalyn turned the car down Terrace, planning to cut through the East Side on a shortcut route to Beefy Burgers. At once she sat still, a puzzled expression shrouding her face. Dras took notice.
“What’s the matter, Roz?”
“Wasn’t that John’s Pawn yesterday?”
A dilapidated building stood where John’s Pawn had been less than twenty-four hours before. It was the same size and shape as the pawn shop had been, but it bore no other resemblance to the place where they’d done their Christmas trading. John’s Pawn had been run-down, but this building was completely derelict. The windows were busted and boarded, the bricks were crumbling, and the inside was dark and deserted. Rosalyn pulled up to the curb and she and Dras exited the vehicle.
Dras pressed his face to the dusty glass of the front door. No local honey or creepy porcelain dolls. A few empty shelves stood inside, bearing no wares. An old cash register lay overturned on the floor, which was littered with little pieces of paper, empty plastic soda bottles, and shards of glass. The pawn shop, in effect, had disappeared.
“Maybe they were robbed,” Rosalyn suggested.
“Those are some thorough robbers.”
“This is freaking me out,” Rosalyn grabbed his arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
Dras willingly obliged and they were soon on the road again, headed to Beefy Burgers with considerably less enthusiasm.
“It was there, right?” Rosalyn asked. “I mean, we can’t both be going crazy.”
“It was there,” Dras agreed, bewildered.
Greensboro. Sometimes, this is one strange little town.
Copyright 2010 Greg Mitchell
Thank you to Meghan Mitchell for writing such an awesome little tale, and thank you to everyone for reading :) Keep your eyes peeled to this site for more goodies as we near the February release date of The Coming Evil, Book One: The Strange Man.