by A.G. Travers
I got Happy after I burned down the Peterson place, way back in the summer of 09’. In all fairness, the fire had been an accident, nobody was hurt, and it was as much Connor Peterson’s fault as it was mine. My mother, however, showed very little interest in these excuses, and even less in the concept of ‘fairness’.
“I’ve decided two things, Tyler,” she said one evening during dinner.
I paused, mid-chew, and met her eyes.
“The first,” she declared, “is that you will spend Monday through Friday next week helping Mr Peterson repair the damages you caused.”
“Repair the – but I – it was Connor who – ”
“Don’t argue with me,” she warned. “You were the one who lit the fire; you’ll be the one to clean up the mess.”
I scoffed, dropped my fork onto the plate, and crossed my arms.
“Fine,” I said. “Will Connor be there to help me?”
“I don’t know,” Mum said. “What Mr and Mrs Peterson decide to do with Connor is none of our concern.”
I rolled my eyes. That meant Connor would be down at the waterhole all next week, swimming in his skivvies and impressing Charlotte Baker with his dive-bombs. It was sickening.
“And there’s something else,” Mum said. “The incident at the Peterson’s isn’t the first this summer. Between the ding-dong-ditching Old Man Sommers and the notes you stuck to Mrs Skavinski’s back, it seems like you have some naughty streak about you.”
I leapt forward and splayed my hands on the mahogany table.
“Okay, first of all, Connor ding-dong-ditched Sommers, not me. Second – ”
“It also seems that, because of this behavior, your Christmas presents may be in terrible danger.”
“Terrible – ” I paused, looked out the kitchen window, and shook my head. “What are you talking about?”
“Christmas,” Mum said, straight-faced. “There’s only three weeks to go and with your streak of bad behaviour, I have a feeling Santa is about to swap out your Christmas presents with coal.”
“Ha!” I flung back against the wooden chair. “Mum, please, I’m thirteen, not seven. If you think that bribing me with the threat of coal in my stocking is going to work – ”
“This is Happy.”
Happy was an elf – slender, wooden, and about the length of my forearm. It had a cheeky smirk and knowing side-eyes.
“You’ve bought me an elf,” I said.
“I did. Here’s how it works: I put this on the bookshelf at the end of your bed. From there, Happy will… keep an eye on you. Make sure you’re on your best behavior. Every night, after you’ve gone to sleep, Happy will travel to the North Pole and tell Santa whether or not you deserve any presents this year. And when you wake up, Happy will be back, but he might not be where we left him.”
“This is ridiculous.”
Mum leaned closer.
“What was that?”
“I said this is ridiculous,” I snapped. “The bribing, threatening, blaming – it’s a goddamn joke.”
“Tyler – ”
“No,” I retorted. “I listened to you. Now, you listen to me. The science experiment was Connor’s idea, so the fire wasn’t just my fault. Neither was the stuff at school. So, you can stop pinning me for all your problems, and you can shove this,” I pointed at Happy, “where the sun don’t shine.”
I slapped the elf-doll across its floppy red hat. Happy shot across the table and slammed into the off-white vinyl. Then, I jumped to my feet and headed upstairs to my bedroom.
When I woke up the next morning, Happy was staring at me.
He sat on the bookshelf at the end of my bed with his hands crossed in his lap, his head tilted, and his beady eyes staring right through me. I met those wooden eyes and felt a bolt of adrenaline explode in my chest. I shot up in bed.
“What the hell?”
The doll didn’t respond. I rubbed my chest, felt my heart racing, and lowered my eyes. Mum, I reasoned. Mum snuck into my room last night and put the damn thing there. The fear blooming in my chest hardened into anger. Just who the hell did she think she was? And what was she trying to achieve?
I kicked off the covers, stormed up to the shelf, and looked up at that wretched little doll. Happy stared back at me, undeterred and almost inquisitive.
“You ugly son of a bitch,” I muttered.
I reached up, snagged the doll by his bright red shoe, and yanked him off the shelf. Then, I went outside and dumped him into the rubbish bin, where he belonged.
After Happy hit the trash, I went inside and changed into a pair of pants and a grubby teal shirt. I wasn’t supposed to arrive at the Petersons until seven, but I was so furious with my mother I couldn’t stand the idea of eating breakfast with her. So, I headed out onto the street and made my way to the Peterson’s place.
“Tyler,” Mrs Peterson greeted as she opened the door. She was still wearing her set of baby blue hair-curlers and a pink dressing gown. “Come in. Larry’s been waiting for you.”
I smiled and passed through their home. Outside, in their manicured yard, Larry Peterson stood knee-deep in what remained of their shed. There hadn’t been much left after the fire: a couple of tin sheets, some magazines with burnt corners, and a scorched toolbox. Now, there was only a charred support-beam skeleton and a blanket of cold, black ash.
“Tyler,” Mr Peterson greeted, pressing a flat hand to his forehead to blot out the sun. “You’re early.”
“Hope that’s okay,” I said, descending the back porch steps. I crossed the damp lawn, rounded the silver garden, and slunk up to the debris.
“Better than okay. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
I looked at the mountains of ash and rubble.
“Alright,” I sighed. “What do you want me to do first?”
The sun was setting when I got home.
Mum waited at the kitchen table, reading a tattered paperback. Dinner had been served: chicken drumsticks and macaroni and cheese. I looked down at my soot-covered hands and felt my stomach rumble.
“Tyler,” Mum said, glancing up from her book. “How’d you – oh my.” She set her book aside, looked me up and down, and paced around the table. “You’re filthy!”
“What do you expect?” I retorted. “I spent all day knee-deep in crap.” I pushed past her and headed for the stairs. “I’m going for a shower.”
I waddled up the staircase and turned down the hallway. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I entered my room and saw Happy the Elf sitting on my desk, directly below the bookshelf – and yet, when the light flickered on and I saw him there, I jumped so far backwards I almost tripped over my own shoes.
“Jesus Christ,” I cried, pressing my back against the closed bathroom door, directly across from my bedroom.
The doll simply stared at me with those cold amused eyes and a painted smile. Something about his expression almost made me believe that the doll thought this was funny; it was as if Happy was playing a prank and I was the butt of the joke.
“You rat bastard,” I snarled.
Happy said nothing. I glanced down the hallway, back towards the stairs. I could hear my mother pottering around in the kitchen; the cling-clang of cutlery and plates echoed throughout the house. Then, I looked back at the doll.
“Alright, creeper,” I said. “Let’s finish this once and for all.”
It was past midnight.
Mum was asleep in her bedroom. I sat at the end of my bed, feet planted, fingers laced, eyes locked with that monstrosity of an elf. I glanced at the clock. Give it another few minutes, I thought. Make sure she’s really asleep. Happy grinned at me like he knew what I was thinking.
When the clock ticked over to one a.m., I snatched Happy off my desk and crept down the hallway. Downstairs, in the kitchen, there was a metal trashcan tucked under the sink. I examined the size and shape, then looked at the elf. It’ll do, I thought. I shoved Happy into my armpit and grabbed the bin. It was filled to the brim with chicken bones.
I slipped outside into our backyard. It wasn’t nearly as neat as the Petersons; there were patches of waist-high grass, discarded toys, and broken electronics, all stretching from the door to the back fence. I slunk down into the centre of the yard, carrying the elf, the bin, and a handful of kitchen supplies. Then, I sank into a squat, removed the bones, and tossed in the elf. It burned easy enough; barely needed any accelerant. When it was charcoal, I used the pestle the grind it into splintery ash.
“There,” I muttered, looking up into my mother’s bedroom window. “Try putting that back on the shelf.”
The sun centered in the sky over the Peterson place as we shoveled the ash out of the yard. We were getting ready to level the ground when Mr Peterson propped up his shovel, cocked an elbow on it, and looked at me.
“Ty,” he said. “Give it a rest.”
I slammed the shovel down and looked up.
“Cause ya look like you’re one good shovel away from faintin’.” He looked me up and down. “What’d you do last night? Stay up partyin’?”
Not exactly, I thought, but I was tired as hell. My entire body hurt and I could feel the sunburn creeping up my arms and legs. Larry nodded towards the back door.
“Go on home, boy. We’ll finish this tomorrow.”
I sighed, handed back the shovel, and headed home. Mum wasn’t there when I got inside, but she’d left me a note on the refrigerator: RUNNING ERRANDS. BE BACK SOON. BEHAVE YOURSELF. I ripped off the note and tossed it into the charred kitchen bin.
The house was silent and empty. I thought about turning on the television, or heading down to the waterhole, or hitting up the arcade, but my muscles ached and my head throbbed. So, I headed upstairs and laid down in my bed. Sleep came quickly.
So did the dreams.
My eyes snapped open.
I shot up in bed, pressed my spine against the cool brick wall, and felt the damp sheets tangled in my legs. My eyes darted around the room, landing on my desk, television, wardrobe… each item glowed red the dim light of my alarm clock.
“Oh God,” I whispered, glancing at the clock. I’d slept over seven hours. “Jesus.”
As my heart rate slowed, I felt the quiet of the house creep in. It felt worse now, alone in the dark, like being inside the belly of the beast. But I wasn’t alone, was I? I looked towards my bedroom door, peeled back the blankets, and planted my bare feet on the floorboards.
Mum’s room was down the hallway, the last one on the left. I opened my bedroom door and looked down towards her room. Her door was open, but the light was off. I frowned. It wasn’t like her to come home so quietly or let me sleep through dinner. No. Something was off. Something was… wrong.
“Mum,” I murmured, inching into the hallway.
I crept closer, expecting to hear her snoring or audiobooks or the rustling of her sheets, but there was nothing except that awful quiet. I peered around the corner into her room. It was empty. Her bed was untouched.
“Mum,” I called, looking back down the corridor.
I slunk back the way I came, felt the banister, and descended the stairs. Halfway down, I smelt something. It was like pork or beef, but burnt; it reminded me of when my cousin had overcooked our Christmas lunch and served a (deeply) charcoaled chicken. I flicked on the light downstairs and looked around the empty living room.
“Mum, this ain’t funny. What’re you doing cooking at – ”
I flicked on the kitchen light. The smell was stronger here, but the room was vacant. I gulped. That smell, man. All I could focus on was that smell.
I approached the sink, glancing at the cool stovetop and oven, then I leaned down and opened the cupboard under the basin. The smell wafted out, so strong I stumbled backwards and covered my mouth. The metal trashcan was still there, lid down. I hesitated. Then, I reached for it.
There was almost nothing left of her, except a pestle and a charred skull.
I scrambled back, feet slipping and squeaking on the polished tiles.
“Help!” I screamed. “OH-JESUS-CHRIST-SOMEBODY-HELP-ME!”
I stood up and sprinted to the front door. It was locked. I couldn’t find the handle, or the lock, or the metal chain; the entire world had gone grey and I felt like I was going to pass out. Then, I saw him there, on the other side of the door, peering up at me through the stained glass boarder.
His bright, painted face and cold eyes met mine. My jaw slackened. My body trembled. No, I thought. It can’t be. It just can’t…
Then, Happy tilted his head and smiled, revealing a row of glimmering white fangs. He raised his hand like a marionette and knocked once on the door. I shook my head.
“You’re not real,” I muttered, stumbling backwards. “You’re not – ”
The door opened: creak. Happy stood on the other side, fangs protruding from his wooden face, eyes shining with delight. My mouth curled into a sneer.
The elf’s grin grew. Then, he leapt towards me.
“Yo, check it out, Connor.”
Connor Peterson looked at his friend, Liam, as they passed Tyler’s house the next morning. He was heading down to the waterhole again – this time, with the hope of asking Charlotte Baker out to the movies this Friday. Connor noticed the strange look on Liam’s face and frowned.
“Tyler’s Halloween decorations are still out. Must’ve missed that yesterday.”
Connor looked across the yard at his front porch. There, on the step, was the wooden elf, sitting between two dirty skulls. He had one arm lopped over each of them. Connor shrugged.
“I guess so,” he said. “Those skulls look cool.”
“Skulls?” Liam asked. “Nah, check out Santa’s scariest little helper. That thing will give me nightmares, man.”
Both boys looked back at Happy, resting between the two soot-covered skulls. The elf met their eyes with unnerving stillness. Connor took a step back.
“Yeah,” he said, patting Liam on the shoulder. “I don’t like that. Let’s get out of here.”
The two boys broke eye contact and continued down the street. When they were gone, Happy grinned, ready to go to his next home.
Over the last thirteen years, A.G. Travers has written four novels, six novellas, and over three hundred and fifty poems. She is known for her contributions to Verse Magazine, the Red Ogre Review, and the Antithesis Journal. When she’s not writing, A.G. Travers spends her time playing guitar, studying odd topics, and watching horror movies.