The Toy Soldier (A Christmas Horror Short Story)

A rip in the dimensional fabric between two worlds starts an invasion from a realm where the things you own, own you.

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Written by Gregory Patrick Travers

Janet pulled up the collar on her town coat to shelter herself from the frigid breeze gusting through the empty parking lot of Lou’s All the Stuff 24/7 gift store, though she couldn’t be sure if the shiver up her spine was caused from the winter cold or the old, hunched over shop owner, Lou she assumed, standing by the front window, spectacles resting low on his long, turnip-like nose, watching Janet with a hand full of gift bags make her way to her car.

What was it he had said before she left? ‘The Blessed Blood Moon of Pandora is upon us’?

Ew. Creepy. Like a spider in the bed.

Janet glanced up at the full moon sitting fat in the night sky.

The time is nigh, he said, with a long up-stretched grin, as he put the stuffed bear and Barbie dolls into their bags.

She shook off the feeling of being watched and picked up the pace to her car sitting under the pale, golden glow of the lamp post above it that made the sun-faded red paint look almost vibrant under the light. Like a prize gift on the Price is Right.

She fiddled in her purse for the keys and opened the back door, tossing the gift bags in the back seat and taking a moment to run her hands through her curls and take a calming breath. She had done it. This Christmas would not be another Christmas where her young nephew and two nieces would be shorted on a gift by their uptight, workaholic, and ever undependable Aunt Jan-Jan. It would not be another Christmas of lectures from her brother Peter and his insufferable wife Nancy about the importance of the holidays to the children.

Christmas is for the kids, they said in their ugly Christmas sweaters, arms crossed by the crackling fireplace.

Janet was nice enough not to reply that Christmas is for idiots.

But the fire was nice. Even if the dinner was terrible.

It was then that Janet noticed someone else in the parking lot. Standing by a motorcycle. It was a man. A tall, dark and handsome man. Dressed in black, his clothes were snug enough to show the outline of a form that could have been on the cover of the health magazines by the checkout aisle of the grocery store. The breeze of the night revealed his rugged definition.

For a moment she looked at him with disgust, but a deeper voice told her it was only out of a jealous place. And it was right. Why couldn’t she meet a man like that? The last offer for romance on her lap was bald, lanky Arnold, drunk at the Christmas party, breath smelling like the tuna salad sandwiches they had out in the spread, right next to the bowl of Cheetos and soggy watermelon slices.

No thanks, Arnold. I do not want to continue this at your place.

Janet shook off the memory and said one last sweet goodbye to the mystery motorcycle man before she shut the door on that fluffy brown teddy bear’s dead eyes and got into her car.

Once inside, she took a breath as she started the engine and watched the vapor stream across the dash before it faded into nothing. The heater started to hum, the radio channel she had been listening on the drive over clicked on and tinny silver bells and strings flooded out the speakers through the car. She quickly turned the volume knob to silence. On the ride over she had entertained the Christmas carols, even allowed herself to enjoy them. But after twenty minutes in that strange store with that strange old man, going through aisle after aisle of expensive plastic garbage that would end up spending far more of its life in a landfill than it would spend being appreciated, the spell of the giving season had been lifted, the holiday spirit exercised.

She blew into closed clasped fists and rubbed her hands together, feeling the warm air starting to push through the dash vents. In between them, the dash clock glowed green with 7:13 which still gave her seventeen minutes to get to Peter’s before Nancy started to complain about Janet’s inconsiderate behavior and the frightening possibility that the food would become slightly temped from her tardiness.

As Janet pulled out of the lot onto the road, she took one last look at the shop that stood alone next to the highway on-ramp. Lou’s All the Stuff. At that moment, Lou was no longer at the window. Janet’s shoulders relaxed and she grinned at how relieved that made her.

What. A. Weirdo.

The street lamps raced by overhead in hypnotizing succession as Janet’s Taurus cruised down Maple Road. Between the lights and the blanket-like warmth radiating from the heater, Janet’s eyes were starting to grow heavy. It had been a long week filled with overtime and anxiety as the office tried to make up for the time lost on Christmas and, to Janet’s boss’s great dissatisfaction, Boxing Day.

Truthfully, Janet craved for her bed and a tub of Ben N’ Jerry’s ice cream, but the need, however futile, to prove to Peter and Nancy that she wasn’t the worst person in the world overtook the desire for a Netflix bingeing, junk food gorging Christmas. She could still accomplish that on Boxing Day, while the rest of the city waiting in line in the cold to get a good deal on some shiny new nugget of technology that would no doubt be obsolete by the following year.

Though she had never read the Dickens classic, Ba! Humbug! certainly came to mind.

A sudden buzzing from inside her purse on the center console shook her from her trance and brought the road back into focus. She reached inside the handbag, feeling around for shapes until she gripped on to the thin rectangular device rattling against her lip gloss. Upon pulling it out she looked at the cracked screen of her iPhone 8 and saw Jermaine was calling. Now him she could talk to. She needed to thank him for suggesting Lou’s store in her moment of Christmas Day panic, and also have a little chat about the goosebumpy creepiness of the old, sun-spotted owner who stood by the window watching her leave like a child watching tropical fish at the aquarium. A very wrinkled, bald, ugly child who smelt of gingivitis and mothballs.

She put the phone to her ear. “Jerm! What’s shaking, honey? How’s your Christmas shaping up so far?”

“Ugh. Spirit ruined,” he said on the other end. “I got stood up by my Grinder date so I’m eating alone at C’est Bon, drowning my sorrows in a cheap bottle of Merlot.”

Janet rolled her eyes and grinned. A conversation with Jermaine wouldn’t be complete without a play by play narrative of his homosexual exploits. And he was never short on material.

“Well, keep scrolling,” she said encouragingly. “You might have a new date by dessert.”

“I appreciate it,” said Jermaine, crunching loudly on something. Lettuce, probably. He didn’t eat much real people food. “But the only nuts entering this mouth will be on top of the candy cane ice cream sundae special.”

“Gross.”

“Believe it, sister,” said Jermaine, a certain pride in his tone, as if her repulsion was exactly what he was aiming for. “So, tell me, did you go to that gift store I suggested?”

Janet made a left onto Charles Street.

“You mean Lou’s All the Stuff? Yeah, I went. You’re a lifesaver. I got a stuffed bear for my nephew and two Barbies for my nieces. That Lou, though…He’s something, isn’t he?”

Jermaine chuckled. “Looks like a penis after a cold shower.”

“Ew,” said Janet. Her disgust only made Jermaine laugh more.

“I went in there for the new iPhone one night after I saw that Brad had the new iPhone 11. There was no way I was going to give that gorgeous prick the satisfaction of being the only one in the office with a new toy. Lou had to go into the back to get it. I thought he was going there to masturbate to me on the security feed.”

He laughed softly while Janet cringed at the imagery.

“Small price to pay to get a new iPhone at the steal price he sold it to me for. He told me he ‘wouldn’t regret it’, and I was like, ‘Yeah. This guy totally masturbated to me.’”

Up ahead Janet noticed a police cruiser pulled off to the side of the road, the red and blues still silently blinking.

“I gotta go, babe,” said Janet, straightening in her seat. “Cop up ahead. Can’t afford the ticket.”

Jermaine sighed on the other end. “Take care, sweetie. Merry Ho Ho.”

Janet lowered the phone and shoved it back into the depths of her purse, quickly returning her hand to the wheel in a textbook 10 and 2. She slowed down as she passed the cruiser, taking a quick look at the blue-uniformed officer in the driver’s seat. Like the mysterious man on the motorcycle, he too was a dark-haired, square-jawed and soulful eyed alpha. She caught a glimpse of the wedding band on the hand gripping the wheel and sunk.

Everyone finds love but her.

Ugh.

As she passed, a glare from the rearview mirror blinded her eye. She squinted at the oncoming orb of light that grew as it approached. The accompanying buzz of a drill grew louder. It was a motorbike.

The guy from the parking lot? Was he following her?

She looked deeper at the silhouette leaning over the front of the bike, hair blowing freely against the wind, the black shirt pinned against every peak and valley of his erupting chest and arms.

It was him.

In the backseat, the stuffed teddy bear’s dead eyes seemed to come alive for a moment and shift directly toward Janet. It startled her enough to take her attention off the mysterious motorcycle man and, with a watchful eye, analyze the toy more closely. But the bear remained still and lifeless under scrutiny and so she returned her eyes to the road, shaking off the strange, uncomfortable feeling that had just overcome her in that instant.

Get it together, Janet. You’re cracking up.

A deep, beast-like growl unearthed from the gift bags, and before Janet had a chance to check the rearview she felt the stinging pain of razor-sharp, knife-like edges digging into her arm, nearly causing her to pass out. The car swerved. The road went out of focus. She looked to her arm and saw the teddy bears arm on hers, claws inside her and blood trickling over its soft brown cotton. In the rearview she saw the bear’s head, his eyes no longer dead, but wide and feral, and a crazy wide-mouthed grin that revealed small, pointed teeth which had not been there only moments before. In only seconds, the bear was on her shoulder, clawing at her face as it growled and chomped like a rabid junkyard dog.

Janet lost control of the wheel as she tried swatting her hand at her attacker and the car veered to the left, grinding into the guard rail, screeching horribly and sending a fountain of sparks up into the darkness.

The car spun out and stopped dead in the middle of the road.

Janet flung her arms around with all her might and managed to hurl the bear across the car so that it hit the passenger window with a thud and dropped to the seat, then to the floor.

With a shrill, terrible scream she opened the driver side door and tumbled out onto the road, her heart pounding in her ears over the rumble of the motorcycle that came to a stop beside the spun-out car. Janet’s eyes remained between the wound on her arm and the inside of her car, where the vicious stuffed teddy was now nowhere to be seen. It took her a moment to realize that the motorcycle man had gotten off of his bike and was making his way over.

This is a dream, thought Janet. This is some horrible, fucked up dream. You fell asleep at the wheel, that’s what happened. You were tired. There’s no way that a bear just came to life and tried to kill you.

The soft clap of the man’s boots on the pavement brought Janet back to reality. She looked up at him, a glow from the moonlight trailing across his broad shoulders, his hair and eyes as black as the night. A strap ran diagonally across his physique, attaching to a pouch behind him, where he reached and withdrew a long, wooden baseball bat-shaped object with a blade protruding down its length.

His eyes stayed glued on Janet as he got closer.

She sobbed, trying to get to her feet. Where’s that goddamn cop?!

As if hearing her thoughts, the loud whine of a siren grew deafening and strobing blue and red lights came into view. The cruiser approached with furious speed and came to a screeching stop just behind the motorcycle and its weapon-wielding owner. The officer was out of the car in seconds with his firearm drawn at arm’s length, aimed straight at the man in black, screaming at him to drop his weapon.

The man from the motorcycle stopped in his slow, calculated stride and slowly turned his head from Janet to the officer behind him.

“Foolish Progg,” he said, in a deep, booming voice. “My quarrel is not with you. This woman is carrying in her possession three Odds that must be destroyed.”

The officer yelled again, “Drop the weapon now, or I will shoot you!”

Janet was frozen in a crouched position and saw something scatter underneath the cruiser. It looked like legs. Small, plastic legs. Janet shuddered at the next thought to enter her head. And before she even had a chance to warn the officer, it was already too late.

Somehow out of their packaging, the Barbies shot out from under the car and with smiley painted faces, acrobatic speed and precision, they began to climb up the officer’s leg. By the time he realized, they had already disappeared behind his waist. And by the time the felt them on his back, they were already on his shoulder.

Janet watched in horror as the blonde Barbie on the right shoulder climbed up the young officer’s face by the skin on his cheek, then reached in, penetrating the corner of his eye socket and started to pump its little fist and forearm deeper and deeper inside the officer’s eye.

The officer wailed about frantically but still held on to his weapon. Blood streamed down his face and he screamed out into the night in both pain and fear.

While his mouth remained open, the brunette Barbie crawled up the officer’s neck and into his mouth like she was entering a cave. She went deeper and deeper inside him until Janet had lost sight of the doll’s legs.

The officer began to cough and choke, falling to his knees. Blood trickling out of his mouth like drool and out of his eye like tears. He gave one last jerk and gurgle before he fell, face slapping sideways on the pavement. Dead.

The brunette Barbie crawled out of his mouth, drenched in blood and saliva, joining the other Blonde who sported a crimson-stained left arm. Janet swore she heard them giggle.

What the fuck is happening right now? Wake up, Janet! Wake up!

Then another thought hit her.

Where was the bear?

Janet saw the man from the motorcycle had his attention on the Barbies and so she got to her feet, putting pressure on her wound, trying her best to keep her focus off the mutilated policeman lying dead on the road. But what else could she look at? The ten-inch Barbie dolls that had come to life like the bear and started killing people?

Oh God. Where was that fucking bear?

The Barbies started to charge at the man in black, quick as mice, yelping as they went. It was both the strangest and most fear-inducing thing Janet had ever witnessed.

She watched, paralyzed, as in one calm, smooth motion the man in black swung his bat-sword thing low to the ground, gripped with both hands like a golf club, and split the brunette Barbie completely in half up the center.

The two pieces fell lifeless to each side before he was done with his follow-through.

The blonde Barbie scrambled up the man’s leg. He stood still and patient, watching it scurry with his large, dark eyes, waiting until the doll was making its way around to his back, then, in a blur of movement, he snatched the doll up by its heels and crushed it in his hands.

The doll squealed like a pig.

He threw it to the pavement and with the lift of his thigh, stomped down on it, crushing the demon toy beneath the weight of his boot.

The squealing stopped. The night went quite, only the faint sound of traffic and rustling leaves.

Janet was half relieved and half frightened. Now it was only her and the man in black. Everyone else, everything else was dead.

But where was that bear?

The man stepped toward her. “Leave from here, Progg. It is not safe.”

He turned and started for his motorcycle.

“Wait!” Janet called out. “There’s another one. The bear.”

The man stopped. For a moment Janet thought he might leave her there to die. He was so emotionless.

He turned back, taking a slow scan of the wreckage, the dead cop, and the two destroyed Barbies. Then he looked to Janet.

“Your world is in danger,” he said, the first hint of humanity in his eyes. “You must leave here now. The Blessed Blood Moon of Pandora is upon us.”

His words brought back a vision of the old man’s crooked smile as he bagged her toys.

Suddenly, there was a scramble under Janet’s car and the Teddy bear appeared out in front, scurrying down the road and disappearing into a brush.

The man in black became furious. “Nay! My pity on you has sullied my mission!”

Janet took two retreating steps back. “I’m…I’m sorry.”

He huffed steam out his nose, his dark eyes cold once again. “I was warned of you Proggs. Told it was foolish to save you. I dare wonder if I should have listened. You have taken me off course and for this, you shall correct it. You will aid me. Say you will.”

She tensed and recoiled. “Aid you how?”

The man in black returned to his motorcycle and opened the seat, removing a square package wrapped in green Christmas paper and a red bow. Then he walked back to her and outstretched the Rubik’s cube-sized gift. She knew he wanted her to take it.

“You will return to the store from which you came and place this inside the store. Then you will leave. Do you understand?”

Janet stared at the package in his hands. Something told her not to ask. But she didn’t listen.

“What is it?”

“Take it and go,” he said in his deep, thundering voice. “You have already put us behind.”

She suddenly felt uncomfortable. “I have a Christmas dinner to get to.”

“Woman!” the man screamed, fire in his eyes. “You will take this and return to the store of which you came! Say you will!”

She took the gift from his outstretched hand and turned her back, kissing her teeth before heading back to the car. “Okay! Okay! Don’t lose your shit!”

The man did not understand the connotation.

“And what are you going to do while I’m playing FedEx?” called out Janet as she opened the driver side door, dented and scratched beyond recognition after colliding with the guardrail.

The man in black mounted his motorcycle and started the rumbling engine.

“There are more of them out there. I must find them and destroy them.”

“Who are them?”

“They are Odds,” said the man, with no light or tenderness in his voice. “They’ve come for your people.”

For a moment a glint of humanity softened his gaze. Then, the ice wall returned. He kicked up the kickstand, pulled on the throttle, and the motorcycle roared off down the street, out of sight.

Janet shook her head watching him go.

If they’re pretty, they’re crazy.

***

The waiter for the window section at C’est Bon let out a groan and a shudder as he came back out onto the floor from the kitchen with table 29’s appetizers to hear the gay man at table 23 back on his cell phone, making the entire section, if not the restaurant, privy to his sultry gossiping at no request of their own.

If the fact that he had camped at the corner two-top for the better part of two hours with only a small Cobb salad and a bottle Merlot that he had ordered with more dignity than it was worth wasn’t enough, his disregard for public etiquette and other people’s comfort, in general, had granted him the privilege of being one of the most disliked patrons of the night. Maybe even the season.

Leaning back in his chair, swirling the last remains of his final glass of wine, the slender, balding man in his thirties regaled whatever patient soul was on the other end of the line with the overly graphic details of his romantic encounter the night previous.

“I’m telling you, Brenda,” he went on full steam. “Charlie knew how to eat. He had his whole head in there, shaking about like he had his hands behind his back at the county fair pie-eating contest. Blueberry, of course. And can you believe he tried to kiss me afterwards? No thanks, honey! Oh, I’m just the worst, aren’t I?”

The waiter could not agree with him more. After the man’s first phone call about the new iPhone he had bought to rub in the face of his co-worker, and the store owner who had masturbated to him in the backroom, the second conversation wishing a Merry Christmas to his elderly and no doubt hard of hearing mother, this third back and forth, more forth than back, about Charlie’s eager bedroom talents had crossed into the territory of that’s enough.

The waiter dropped off the wedding soup and shrimp cocktail to table 29 with an apology of a smile, then quickly made his way over to the corner two-top by the window, where the man looked out onto the street with the phone pressed tight against his ear.

“Excuse me, sir…” said the waiter.

The man’s attention was lustily on a tall, dark, and well-built man dressed in black who had just pulled up to the restaurant on a motorcycle.

Excuse me, sir,” the waiter tried again.

“What?” snapped the man at the waiter, as he whirled, frustrated to be broken from his fantasies.

But before the waiter could get a word in, four long, sharp tentacles outstretched from the iPhone like blades on a Swiss Army knife and latched on to the side of the man’s face like fish hooks.

The man at the table let out an agonizing scream as the tentacles dug deep into his face and blood began to stream out the wounds.

The waiter was horrified as he watched the blood pool pink on the collar of the man’s white Kashmir sweater. He heard the tables behind him scream, the legs of their chairs scratching and screeching against the wooden flooring as they fled from their tables in a panicked rush for the exit.

As the restaurant erupted in chaos, the waiter was still where he stood, watching with fearful, trembling eyes while the iPhone retracted its tentacles from the man at the corner table’s lifeless face, leaving four deep red, crater-like holes in their wake. Blood rushed freely from the wounds, and the man’s head, no longer propped up by the four tentacles, dropped like a bowling ball onto the table, rattling the silverware and knocking over the glass of wine. The few sips left at the bottom of the cloudy glass seeped out and cascaded off the table in a waterfall of Merlot and blood.

The iPhone, now standing on two of the tentacles over the dead man’s back, turned so that its screen was facing the waiter. Like it was looking at him. The instinct to run jolted at the waiter like a lightning bolt and yet, as if he were in a nightmare, he had lost the ability to take even the slightest of steps. His feet had become cement blocks and above them, his two skinny legs wobbled and shook like jelly.

Suddenly the plate glass window looking out onto the street smashed open like an ice sculpture pinata, raining down thousands of tiny shards onto the floor and out onto the patio that had been closed for the winter, and there was the man in black that had pulled up to the restaurant on a motorcycle, standing before the waiter, holding in his hands a wooden baseball bat that had a machete-like blade running down its center.

Cold winter air rushed in to the building, snapping the waiter from his trance like a slap in the face. As surprised as the waiter was to see this mysterious, muscular man standing at the threshold of the restaurant, he was even more surprised that the iPhone appeared almost afraid when its screen turned and looked up at the man in black. As if they were familiar with each other.

The iPhone turned back in the direction of the waiter, leaped off the gay man’s corpse to the ground, and started to scurry on all four tentacles away from the man in black, only making it a short distance before the man in black swung his bat, cutting through the chilly air and hammering down on the iPhone. The blade running down the length of the bat crumpled the rectangular plastic device to the floor like a pop can, its legs now as limp as a spider’s after slipping into the toilet bowl water.

The man in black straightened out, his chest expanding and contracting, eyes remaining on the crumpled phone.

“What…what was that thing?” stuttered the waiter.

“It is an Odd. A being from a world different, and yet similar, to yours,” said the man in black. “Tonight they have come to kill. I have come to see that they do not.”

The waiter’s mouth hung open, the feeling in his legs starting to return, but only just barely. “Is…is there more of them?”

The man in black returned his weapon to the pouch strapped to his back and started for his motorcycle, turning his head slightly, saying over his shoulder, “If on this eve you bare witness to a Teddy bear walking the streets, on my word…run.”

***

Janet put the car in park and sat idling in the far corner of the still deserted parking lot, staring at the store she had just left not even an hour ago. She shook her head, exasperated.

Boy, a lot can sure change in an hour.

Her gaze shifted from the pale, fluorescent-lit storefront and Lou’s big, bright neon sign to the small gift-wrapped box sitting silently in the passenger seat. A big part of Janet wanted to open the passenger side door and flick the thing out of her car like some donut crumbs, then reverse back out onto the road and beeline it home so she could dive under the covers of her warm bed and escape into sweet, sweet unconsciousness. And when she woke up the next morning she could convince herself that the whole night had just been one very long, very bad dream.

Sure, Peter would be on the horn before breakfast with a fully prepared lecture on the importance of keeping promises, while Nancy stood beside him in the kitchen, shaking her head and tapping her foot off the ceramic tile with a sack full of ‘I told you so’s’. But at least this night, this nightmare of a Christmas, would be behind her. And that was something Janet was willing to pay almost any price for.

How could she even show up now? What could she say? How do you explain to three little kids that not only did a stuffed bear and two Barbie dolls miraculously come to life, like something out of a cozy cartoon family Christmas special, but they also happened to go on a blood-thirsty murderous rampage that left a policeman dead and would have left Aunt Jan-Jan right there in the middle of the street with him if it weren’t for being rescued by a mysterious motorcycle man who talked like he was rehearsing for a lead role in Shakespeare in the Park.

Yeah, right. That would go over well. Nancy would cross her arms right there in the hallway, twitching her nose, throwing shame on Janet with those squinty eyes.

“Just admit it,” she’d say. “You forgot…again.”

She thought about the strange man on the motorcycle and how he had yelled at her like it was her fault that bear escaped. Any tender flame she had for the tall, dark, and handsome stereotype had been officially extinguished. If every man in her life from here on out was a sedan driving, hairline receding, single dad who worked at Home Depot and watched Property Brothers, it would be just fine with Janet.

She reached over to the passenger seat and picked up the little square present, wrapped in a silk red bow, appraising it, weighing it in her palm. It was heavy and hard, like a paperweight. She wondered what might be underneath that green wrapping paper and thought for a moment about peeling back the paper at the seam just a bit to take a peek. Though, she quickly decided against it. Whatever ungodly things were happening in town tonight, it was between creepy Lou and creepy bike guy. The less she knew, the better.

Janet shoved the gift inside her purse, threw the strap over her shoulder and got out of the car, bracing the December chill as she shut the door behind her.

Here goes everything.

The clap of Janet’s flats on the pavement echoed across the empty lot, giving her the uneasy sensation that she was being followed. The feeling was so strong that she found herself looking over her shoulder for a stalking stranger, or perhaps a psychotic Teddy bear.

But no.

There was only her trusty red Taurus sitting lonely under a canopy of twisted branches from a leafless tree at the end of the lot, stretching ominously over the roof of her car, swaying in the wind. It was only Janet in that empty lot, which somehow scared her even more.

She adjusted the purse strap over her shoulder and continued toward the storefront. As she got closer she could see through the windows that there was a great deal of movement going on in the isles, as if there were a slew of customers on their way out to the parking lot.

But then where were the cars?

The front doors slid apart with a soft-toned ding, and what had been unclear only a moment before had become horribly crystal. The movement toward the front of the store had not been customers. It was toys. Gifts. Appliances. Every piece of junk that sat on the shelves in Lou’s gift shop was now making their way out into the parking lot on their own accord, swarming in uncountable numbers. Stuffed elephants and giraffes bounced from left to right on their flat cotton stumps, snarling like rabid wolves, while their beady little eyes hungrily scanned the parking lot, ingesting the world around them. Blenders hopped along with spinning blades and slithering cords. Cell phones stood on short, sharp stilts, like the legs of a spider, scurrying frighteningly quick. Behind them, a platoon of Barbie dolls and action figures marched in militant unison. Scattered among the swarm, a variety of brooms, saucers, teacups, and cutlery of all sorts; all come to life like some sort of satanic version of Beauty and the Beast. And following behind them, at the very end, was Lou, hands clasped behind his back in a slow, content stride, like a proud father letting his children run free at the neighborhood park.

And that smile. Oh, how he smiled.

Janet gasped in terror. Her knees buckled. The initial thought to cross her mind, besides a variety of colorful curse words, was to turn around and run as fast as she could back to the Taurus waiting at the end of the lot.

But it was too late. She had been spotted.

Like a dog who had managed to get out of the backyard, one of the stuffed elephants started a charge for Janet as if she were the neighborhood cat who had spent years perched on a fence post teasing and taunting the beast for its captivity. Chomping its sharp, jagged teeth at the air as it galloped toward her with bloodlust in its eyes, Janet knew there was no way to outrun it. She would only be taken down like a cheetah pouncing on a gazelle. Her heart raced. Her mind tried to come up with a quick solution. The small purple elephant gained on her, foaming at the mouth, as the other possessed possessions started to follow its lead, swarming at Janet in all their numbers.

There was no other choice. She had to stand her ground. She had to fight.

Janet planted her feet and took a firm stance. She extended her arm to the side, letting the strap of her purse slide down the length of her arm, into her palm, then closing her fist tightly around the leather.

“Come get me, you son-of-a-bitch,” she growled under her breath.

With a great stride, the stuffed elephant leaped off the ground at Janet, mouth open, teeth, gums, and jaw exposed. Janet held her position and swung the purse by its strap as hard as she could, twisting her torso and using the full weight of her one hundred and ten-pound body. The flat side of the purse connected and plowed through the side of the elephant’s face with a pop, like a baseball player hitting a beauty hard drive to center field. The elephant soared through the air, hit the ground hard and skidded across the pavement.

Through heavy breath, Janet smiled. Her years of college softball had finally produced something other than a three-year hangover and two alcohol-fueled, short-lived, crash and burn relationships.

She focused her attention on the approaching crowd of toys with her in their sights. Her eyes narrowed and her muscles tensed.

To Janet’s left, a cheap plastic broom the same shade of red as her Taurus hopped on its handle toward her, hurling its body at her face, brush first. Janet darted to the right and, in a move that surprised even Janet, she let go of her purse strap, letting the handbag fall to the ground, and grabbed the broomstick with both hands in mid-air.

She looked down at the broom in her hands, then to the oncoming platoon of Barbie dolls and action figures.

“Let’s go, fuckers,” Janet muttered. “Come on. Fuck with me.”

A blonde businesswoman Barbie came sprinting for Janet’s leg. In one smooth motion, Janet used the broom to sweep the doll across the lot, while at the same time lifting her left foot and stomping down on a plastic spaceman toy. It folded and crunched under her heel.

More toys, appliances, and cutlery approached. She tried her best to swat and kick them away, but there were just too many. They bit and scratched at her ankles until she fell to her knees. Then, they came for her wrists, tearing at her skin, scratching and gnawing until the broom fell from her hands. They were crawling all over her body now. Janet knew she was done for.

In an attempt to protect her eyes, not wanting to suffer the same painful fate as the police officer from earlier in the night, she bowed her head and squeezed shut her eyelids. But an amazon warrior toy standing on her shoulders grabbed her by the curls and pulled on them, ripping at her scalp until Janet lifted her head. She opened her eyes and saw Lou approaching, a wide, toothy smile spread across his face.

The sea of toys and gadgets parted at his feet. Soon, he was standing directly over her, looking down on her with that haunting grin.

“Well, well, well, my dear,” he said, his smile stretching ever upward. “I wasn’t expecting you to be back so soon.”

Lou’s mouth opened wide and his long, pointed chin lifted to the moon as he broke out into cackling laughter.

***

Joshua sat at the red light in the salt truck, trying to relax his tense shoulders. In the mammoth vehicle, he sat above the other cars on the street and the pedestrians outside. So why did he feel so small? It wasn’t so much that he was out salting streets on Christmas. He needed the money and was thankful for the overtime. But another year had gone by, another Christmas with nothing to come home to but a sink of dirty dishes, while the rest of the city sat warm by the fireplace, sharing the joys of family and the magic of the holiday season. He felt empty and alone.

Sure, he had his sister, and he was grateful for that. But she was married and had her own life. Her own love. And ever since their mother passed on to heaven, Joshua felt like it was just him. A lone black man, faceless and forgotten by the rest of society.

His job was an important one. Because of him, the streets remained free of ice. People were safe. But did he ever get a thank you? Did anyone ever take the time to let him know he was appreciated? They were strangers, and Josh kept them out of harm’s way. Shouldn’t that count for something?

No. To the world, he was just another black man. Untrustworthy. A secondary citizen. Judged more for the color of his skin than for his contribution to the community.

He watched a young woman with long dark hair pass by him on the crosswalk. He paid attention to her soft cheeks and rouge lips, a gift in her hands and an innocent smile of Christmas cheer on her face.

How long had it been since he had felt the warmth of a woman’s touch? A year? It felt like an eternity.

Don’t think like that, he told himself. You’ll kill yourself thinking like that.

The young woman reached the other side of the street and disappeared behind the brick of the corner pub. Inside the lights were off and the stools sat leg up across the bar. Even the drunks had Christmas off. Not Joshua though. He concluded he was better off in the warmth of his salt truck, making overtime, than being alone in his one-bedroom apartment with his thoughts, a beer, and a TV dinner.

Joshua looked back to the other side of the street and what he saw made him lose his breath. He couldn’t believe what was making its way across the crosswalk. It couldn’t be what it looked like. And yet there was no way it could have been anything else.

It was a bear. A Teddy bear. Walking on its own. Like a person. And it was pulling on something, dragging it across the street behind him, leaving a long, dark trail of purple-red as it scraped along the pavement.

No. Fucking. Way.

It was a human head. A woman’s. Severed at the neck.

The streetlight went green but the salt truck remained idle, Joshua motionless in the driver seat, eyes peeled to the small stuffed Teddy bear strolling passed the fender in the glow of the headlights, pulling the severed head by the roots of the dead woman’s long, brittle hair as if Joshua wasn’t even there.

Another headlight appeared at the cross street next to the corner pub. It was a lone bulb on the front of a motorcycle. Joshua heard the engine rumble as the bike squealed around the corner. The man at the helm of the machine was without a helmet or any protection at all. And he was just as focused on the bear as Josh. But the man on the bike didn’t look surprised, rather, he looked focused and furious as he locked eyes with the thing.

The bear stopped, its fluffy brow furling. Then, the stuffed animal swung the decapitated head by the hair and hurled it at the man on the motorcycle. It rolled through the air and knocked the man on the motorcycle right across the cheek like a ballsy batter getting struck with a fastball for crowding the plate. He let go of the throttle and the bike swiveled and tipped, launching the man skidding across the pavement, rolling like a rag doll. The bike slid in the opposite direction with a deafening screech and stopped just beside the salt truck.

A loud, “Holy shit!” leaped from Josh’s lips, bouncing off the frost framed windshield and flooding the cab as he watched the small bear sprint toward the man sprawled out in the middle of the road. In any other circumstance, it may have been humorous to see a stuffed animal’s legs flailing about so animatedly without the aid of a puppeteer. But there was nothing funny about the way the bear leaped onto the man with his claws outstretched and proceeded to scratch wildly at the man’s body and face. Each time the claws rose there was more and more blood staining the cotton.

Josh opened the driver’s side door and hopped out of the vehicle, paying no mind to the doorstep. He came to the ground with a slap, knees bending slightly, then he straightened and charged at the bear. With no concern for his own safety, Joshua grabbed the bear by his soft, cuddly head and whipped it a few feet away.

The bear hit the ground and rolled with a growl.

“Take my hand!” yelled Josh, his palm outstretched to the man on the pavement.

Dazed, the man did as he was told. His grip was firm as he used Josh’s aid to get to his feet. Josh was amazed that the man regained his balance so quick, even though the size and demeanor of this man was nothing short of intimidating.

But as Joshua’s attention was off the bear, he hadn’t noticed it creep up behind him and only felt a stinging, searing pain in his calf that dropped him to his knees when the claws entered his leg. The intense flash of pain was followed by a damp warmth that had his government-issued visi-slacks soppingly sticking to his skin.

Maybe it was urine. But he knew it to be blood.

The onslaught continued, the bear’s claws ripping at Joshua’s clothes and skin. Though he couldn’t see the bear, he could hear it snarling behind him, deep and raw, as if from the bowels of Lucifer himself. Josh fell back on his bottom, cold slush spreading across his backside.

Then, the attack abruptly stopped, the winter air was cool on his wounds, and Joshua took a deep breath. A moment ago he thought he’d be soon to take his last. Through the throbbing of his back and arms, the sharp pain in his leg, Joshua lifted his head and saw the Teddy bear in the grip of the man from the motorcycle. One hand squeezed onto the bear’s head, the other held it at its feet. The bear screamed like a boiling lobster as the man’s tree trunk-like arms pulled apart and tore the bear in half at the seam of the waist. Its murderous eyes went void and balls of cotton fell into the streets like snowflakes.

Joshua’s wounds hurt a little less. That’s what you get, bitch.

The man, breathing heavy, dropped the two halves of bear onto the road and extended his hand to Joshua, helping him to his feet. Even though he was showing him kindness, Josh was still weary. There was something off with this guy. Something not quite human. Like something divine.

Like he was an angel or something.

“I am in your debt, brave Progg,” said the man in a deep, strong voice. “I may have been quick to judge the likes of your people.”

Joshua reached down and felt at the leg wound. The bleeding was minimal. Just a flesh wound.

“Are you wounded?” asked the man. He himself had scratch marks on his face and neck.

“I think I’ll be okay,” said Josh. “What the hell was that thing?”

The man started a pace for the passenger side of the salt truck, leaving the motorcycle where it lied.

“I’ll explain on the way,” he said flatly.

Josh found himself following the man back to the truck with little more than a limp. There was something hypnotizing about the man’s focus and stride that made Josh want to go with him despite his apprehension. After all that he had just witnessed, he had to see where this went.

“On the way?” said Josh, his voice cracking a bit. “Where the hell we going?”

The man reached up and opened the passenger door. Before climbing inside the cab he said, “To save your people from annihilation.”

My people?” said Josh, almost offended. “Nigga, I’m salting streets on Christmas. I ain’t got no people.”

The salt truck sped through the streets, Joshua following the mysterious man’s navigational directions and listening to the head-spinning story unraveling beside him.

“Your world and the world where I have come from are connected. We share an existential plane,” said the man. “In many ways, our worlds are the same. In many ways, they are not. In the world of the Odds, my home, humans were created to make the life of the Odd easier. More convenient. Those like me were bred inside the walls of a production facility, watched over by an android designed to look after the humans until they reached such maturity where they could be sold and consumed to the Odd population. This android is known as Lou.

“In your world, the land of the Proggs, it is the humans who breed the Odds. Much like the advancement of your machines here, we slaves grew smarter and stronger throughout the decades. We were created with better functionality and practicality, while the humans of your world, the Proggs, have grown dim and lazy, dependant on your android counterparts. When this was discovered, Lou found a way to enter your world through a rip in the dimensional fabric. Those of you the Odds do not kill, will return to my home and be replaced as the Odds’ slaves. The older models, ones like me, shall be eradicated.”

Joshua was dizzy with all this new information. “And you? You came to save us?”

“I have been a slave all my life,” said the man. “I have witnessed Lou break the spirits of the young and hopeful, turn them into drones, throw them into a life of servitude. I wish this fate on no human, no matter how far they may reside from my own.”

***

Toys. I’m going to be murdered by fucking Toys. Can’t wait until they make a Cold Case Files episode about this. Though I won’t be around to see it.

Janet’s maniacal and desperate train of thought was interrupted by the pain of the rope being tightened around her wrists, digging into her skin as the clown with accordion-like arms made the final ties on her restraints. Her arms above her, tied to the lamppost, she could feel the blood rushing out of her limbs to her chest.

Now satisfied, the clown jumped off the concrete block foundation and joined the army of Lou’s gifts below. They surrounded her. Watching. Gleefully. She imagined the scene similar to the crucifixion of Christ, or the witch burnings of Salem. She’d settle for a Jesus or a Sabrina anytime now. But there was no one else. No one coming to save her. No knight in shining armor. Only Lou, standing among his creations, staring at her with a mix of joy and lust, holding the purse she had dropped when she grabbed onto the broom.

Bad trade.

He unzipped it and rummaged through the insides, with a smile matching the colorful excitement of her nieces and nephews opening their gifts. From the family that remembered, anyway.

He pulled out her phone and held it in his long, skinny, hairy knuckled fingers, looking at the screen. His eyes shot up at her behind his spectacles.

“My lady, you’ve missed a few calls from a ‘Peter’. Would you like it if we called this Peter? Let him hear you cry as we spill your Progg insides?”

Janet’s expression remained stone. Lou took it as a sign to keep searching, put the phone back into the purse and pulled out the small gift the man on the motorcycle had given her. She hadn’t made it to the store. She tried. She just wasn’t strong enough.

Lou examined the gift, cupping it in both hands. He gazed over the shining green wrapping paper, paying special attention to the silk red bow. He brought the gift to his crooked nose, nostrils flaring as he whiffed. Suddenly his wily grin dropped flat and in his gaze, there was a glint of concern, if not fear. His eyes slowly rose to meet Janet’s.

“He is here, isn’t he?” he said, close enough she could taste his warm breath.

She turned her head. The only part of her free to move. “Ugh. Your breath smells like rusting copper.”

Lou’s arm shot up and his hand grabbed on her throat.

“Don’t fool with me, Progg!” he snarled. “The soldier is here! You know this!”

“Fuck you…” she returned, raspily, her voice box restrained.

Lou squeezed harder. “Answer me!”

As Janet’s breath started to slip away and her vision began to blur, there was the sound of a horn in the distance, followed by a pair of headlights entering the parking lot. It was a truck; mammoth and bulky, with huge rubber tires. It roared as it approached, the deep rumble of the engine consuming the night. With every gear shift, there was a release of air pressure, like the cap being twisted off a Pepsi bottle for the first time.

It was a salt truck, Janet could see it now as it sped toward them. Lou let go of Janet’s throat and stepped off to the side to get a better look. A rush of air returned to Janet’s lungs and she started to hack and cough, lowering her head as her chest convulsed. She looked up just in time to see the salt truck pass by her so close she could feel it cutting through the air. It ran through Lou, the gift and Janet’s purse soaring out of his hands and landing near Janet’s feet before the truck flattened him and the platoon of action figures under the tread of the tires with a loud crunching noise that made Janet cringe involuntarily. The truck took out another patch of toys before it made a hard turn and skidded to a stop.

The doors opened and Janet watched as the mysterious motorcycle man from earlier exited out the passenger side, and from the driver side, a man about Janet’s age, with a dark complexion, wearing a visi-vest and visi-slacks. Both of them were holding something in their hand. The man in black had his familiar bat-sword thing that had split the Barbie in half earlier in the evening. The truck driver was holding on to a red canister of gasoline.

Just as the two of them made eye contact with the surviving army of Lou’s demonic gifts, so did the toys zero in on them.

“Come and get me, you fucks!” the truck driver yelled, making a hard dash for the store.

The toys obliged and started to charge after him, leaving Janet alone. As the truck driver ran, he jerked the canister of gasoline about, splashing a trail of gas behind him. The toys and gifts paid no mind, soaking themselves as they ran through the gas puddles after the driver. The more he antagonized them, the angrier and more blood-thirsty they became.

Meanwhile, the man in black came over to Janet and used his blade to cut her free of her restraints. The blood started to rush back to her arms and she got the feeling back in her fingers. Before she could thank him, he bent over and picked up the gift beside Janet’s purse and began a dead sprint after the toys and appliances sloshing through the trail of gasoline after the truck driver.

The driver threw the now empty canister at them, which only got the toys even more agitated. The entrance doors slid open with a soft-toned ding and he dove inside. The doors closed, Lou’s gifts trailing only ten or so yards behind.

That’s when the man in black launched the gift toward the toys like a quarterback tossing up a last-second hail-Mary. The small square tumbled through the air against the backdrop of a black sky, then hit the ground next to the swarm and exploded into a massive display of fire and light, momentarily illuminating the entire parking lot so that it could have been mid-afternoon. The fireball expanded. The storefront windows shattered. Those of Lou’s gifts who were near the initial explosion were disintegrated in seconds. Those outside the blast radius, soaked in gasoline, caught fire and dropped to the ground.

Janet was suddenly hit with a horrible thought and, after picking up her purse and throwing the strap over her shoulder, she ran after the man in black, who stood tall and proud, pale oranges and reds reflecting off his person as he watched the toys wither and burn.

She smacked him in the arm and yelled, “You gave me a bomb?”

He didn’t even flinch. Barely even turned his head when he said, “It was necessary.”

“A bomb?” she repeated, even louder.

He failed to share Janet’s concern. “You were told to deliver it.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting a bomb!” Janet raved.

The man in black left her there, starting for the store. Janet reluctantly followed. As angry as she was at him for risking her life, she still felt safer by keeping him close to her.

As they neared the storefront, now void of windows, the entrance doors dinged open and the salt truck driver limped out into the parking lot, his eyes looking over the giant bonfire and smaller pockets of fire burning brightly in the center of the lot. He made his way over to Janet and the man in black.

“Did we get them?” he asked.

The man in black nodded. “Indeed. Tonight we are victorious. You did well, brave Progg.”

The driver shifted his focus to Janet, then back to the man in black. “Okay, well I have to get out of here before the police come. I ain’t trying to spend New Year’s in jail.”

“Leave here,” said the man. “I must close the portal before anymore Odds cross into your realm. Take the woman.”

Janet looked at the driver and gave a small nod of gratitude. “I’m just parked at the end. I should be okay. I’m actually late for a dinner.”

The driver nervously eyed the parking lot entrance. “Well, let’s get walking, shall we?”

Janet agreed. She didn’t know how to say goodbye to the man in black, and so she decided not to. The truck driver gave him a quick nod and then motioned Janet onward.

“That was really brave, what you did back there,” said Janet as they walked, passing the bonfire slowly using its mass. Still, it was warm and made the cold of the night a little more bearable.

The driver paid no attention to the compliment, looking like he was busy in his thoughts. “I can’t believe I ran that old guy over. At least he was just an android. I don’t think I could have done it if he was a real person.”

Janet tilted her head. “Lou? Was a robot?”

The driver nodded in a daze. “From some other dimension, where our toys own us.”

The two of them stopped next to the salt truck and Lou’s crushed remains.

“You know,” started Janet. “I don’t have to go to that dinner. It probably wouldn’t be all that fun anyway. We could go for a coffee if you want. Y’know, warm up? I’d like to hear more about this other dimension.”

The driver looked at her for a moment without speaking and then said, “Yeah. Yeah, let’s do it.”

Janet smiled. “Okay. Great. I know a good place. You can follow me.”

The driver reached up and opened the driver’s side door.

“Cool. Lead the way. My name’s Joshua if you were wondering.”

“Janet.”

The driver smiled, using the doorstep and pulling himself up into the cab. “Nice to meet you, Janet. Merry Christmas.”

And with that, he closed the door and started up the engine. Janet continued toward the Taurus at the back of the lot, a goofy, sideways grin stuck to her face.

Maybe this Christmas wasn’t so bad after all.

The End.

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