by ES Huberty
The Mistletoe Man wasn’t always real. He lived in the stories Dad began telling me the year Mom went to visit my Aunt Lizzie and didn’t come home. I lay under my polar bear blankets on Christmas Eve, watching snowflakes slap against the window. I wondered when Mom would come back for me. Just before I closed my eyes, Dad walked in.
“Want to hear a story?” My thin mattress creaked as he sat down. “The Mistletoe Man is coming tonight. Every year, he visits houses to take one present.”
I pulled the covers under my chin. “Why?”
“He doesn’t have nice parents who buy him presents,” Dad explained. “So he takes one from every kid in the world and brings them back to his house under the ground.”
“But I don’t want him to take any of my presents,” I said.
Dad grinned. It was an expression I would come to know well over the years. He would stretch his lips and show his teeth, but his eyes stayed cold. “Don’t worry. I’ve left him an extra one. But you have to listen to what I tell you, okay?”
“If you go downstairs tonight and the Mistletoe Man is there, he’ll steal you instead of the present. He’ll take you down inside the ground where no one will find you no matter how loud you scream.”
Dad whispered as if someone else would hear. I shrank away toward the wall. I didn’t like it when he talked that way.
“Do you want to know what he looks like?” Dad asked.
I didn’t, but what I wanted never mattered to Dad.
“He has a beard made of mistletoe leaves. Each sharp enough to cut you. He has red eyes and reindeer antlers and he always smells like gingerbread.” Dad sat back, his cheeks pink from the eggnog he’d been drinking downstairs. “And his face…oh ho, I don’t even want to tell you about his face. If you’re smart, you’ll never know what it looks like.”
When holiday break ended and I went back to school, I told all the kids about the Mistletoe Man. No one believed me.
“That’s not a real story,” Tasha Walters said, frowning. “And mistletoe isn’t even sharp. That’s holly.”
When Dad picked me up, I told him what Tasha had said. He barked out a raspy laugh. “Why are you hanging out with those idiots?” He turned up the volume on the radio. “I hope it doesn’t rub off on you.”
I didn’t talk to Tasha much after that, but every Christmas Eve, Dad would tell me the Mistletoe Man story. After he left, I’d stay awake as long as I could and listen.. Dad’s footfall downstairs would pace for a few hours – hollow and stomping – but once the house fell silent, I still waited. It was always quiet.
The year I turned 12, Dad came in and told the story as always. By then, I’d decided he just wanted to scare me, but I couldn’t figure out why. It hardly mattered. If I looked scared, he’d grin that grin and leave me to my Christmas books. I especially liked stories about kids having nice Christmases with cookies and hot chocolate and sledding. Dad never wanted to do any of that baby stuff, as he called it. He mostly bought a lot of Christmas-themed beer to mix with his famous eggnog.
A shattering noise interrupted my reading. I clicked off my flashlight and held my breath. In the warm darkness beneath my blanket, all I could hear was my own heart pumping blood. Had I imagined the noise?
It sounded like glass breaking. I unwrapped myself from my blanket and crept to the door, my skin goosebumpy beneath my pajamas.
What if someone was breaking in? I opened my door and crawled across the carpet to look through the banisters. The downstairs glowed red and green and white from the lights on the plastic Christmas tree I’d decorated a few days before. Dad slumped on the couch surrounded by torn-up wrapping paper, the cardboard boxes at his feet. He’d already opened the presents I got for him – the book on Norse mythology, the coasters, the mug. The mug lay tilted in his lap as he slept, his chin shiny with drool. I squinted, trying to find the source of the shattering, but the big window seemed fine. Puzzled, I crossed my legs and sat watching. Then I saw something.
It was just a dark shape drenched in the shadow of the tree. Branches bent as it pulled off ornaments like huckleberries. I stared, my heart in my throat, as it selected a bauble. The gleaming sphere went sailing in a high arc above the tree and to the floor, where it smashed into a dozen pieces. Dad murmured in his sleep, but he didn’t wake up. I twisted a fistful of carpet fibers as the thing crept toward the couch and out of the shadows, its hunched back facing me.
The twisting antlers threw strange shadows. A string of tiny bells wrapped around the tines, jingling as the creature lifted itself from all fours to two. Instead of skin or fur, sharp green leaves matted the creature’s entire body, the waxy surfaces catching the lights on the tree. The spicy-sweet smell of gingerbread churned my belly as I watched the Mistletoe Man pluck the cup from my father’s lap. Dad mumbled again.
Don’t wake up, I thought. Please, don’t wake up.
The cup flew across the room into the wall. Dad jerked his head up, coughing. For a moment, he squinted, confused. “Dammit, Roman,” he muttered. “What are you-”
His bloodshot eyes focused. Horror twisted his face as he opened his mouth to scream. I screamed, too, my fear finally unleashed. The Mistletoe Man snapped its head toward me and the sound died behind my teeth.
It wore a plastic Santa Mask. A beard of spiky leaves poked out at the bottom. Through the eyeholes, red glowed as bright as brake lights. I sat, warmth soaking my pajama pants, as the Mistletoe Man turned back to Dad. In one fluid motion, it grabbed him by the shoulders and tossed him into the big window. Glass cascaded around his bulky body as he went straight through. Cold air flooded the room, the broken window now a swirling vortex of shadows and snow. The Mistletoe Man crunched its way across the broken ornaments and vanished.
Something in me woke up and I charged back to my room, slamming the door. I changed my pants and got into my snowsuit. A hat, my thickest pair of gloves, and boots went on next. I peeked out the bedroom door. Snow was already piling up in the living room. I slunk down the stairs to stare at the mess spread before me. It was only then I noticed there were no wrapped boxes under the tree. I stood still, already sweating beneath my layers. My mind raced.
There was no gift for the Mistletoe Man. Was that why he was so angry?
Would he come back?
I ran up the stairs and tore through Dad’s room. No gifts. Not even ones with my name. I sat on his unmade bed and fought a bout of tears, my emotions as twisted as the Mistletoe Man’s antlers. When the wave passed, I dug out an old shoebox and stuffed it with a few things around Dad’s room – his watch, a ballpoint pen, a handful of sticky pennies. I wrapped it as quickly as I could.
When I worked up the courage to go out the front door, present under my arm, Dad wasn’t in the yard. Instead, a trail of blood led into the woods hugging our neighborhood. I looked around at the other houses, but their windows were dark, the curtains drawn. Knocking on a few doors and ringing bells woke no one. I considered screaming, but I was no match for the howling wind. I was on my own.
The raw cold of the wind bit into my cheeks as I followed the blood trail. Once I got into the forest, the branches shielded me a little, but the silence made my heartbeat feel as loud as a gunshot. I reached a clearing and stopped.
The warm yellow lights on the little pine tree cut through the haze of snow. Ornaments shaped like snowflakes and reindeer and pinecones glittered silver and red and copper. I approached slowly, my chapped lip chewed until I tasted blood. As I got closer, something in the tree moved.
It was Dad. The branches impaled him in so many places it looked like the tree had exploded out of him. Green needles jutted out of his neck, his chest, and from between his fingers, their fragrant perfume spoiled by the tang of blood. A blinking plastic star pierced the jelly of his left eye. I stood in front of him, mouth open, as I tried to process the horror. I must have made a noise because Dad suddenly opened his good eye and inhaled a raspy gasp that sounded like jingling bells.
“Roman?” He spat pine needles from his gums.
“Yes,” I managed to reply, my voice tiny.
“Help,” Dad whimpered. “Get help.”
Balancing my flashlight and present under one arm, I touched the tree with my free glove to see if I could pry my father from its grasp. Dad whined – a squeaky, hissing sound – and I pulled my hand back.
“Help,” Dad repeated.
The smell of gingerbread wafted toward us. Dad stiffened, his eye rolling in its socket as he tried to look around. “Roman,” he whispered. “You can’t leave me here. You can’t leave.”
The gingerbread smell swelled and my gaze instinctively sought the treeline. Something was there. Falling snow blurred its silhouette, but I could see the antlers, the shadowy mass, the glowing eyes. I stared into them for what felt like an eternity as Dad babbled, my mind barely registering his pleas. I untucked the present from under my arm and set it beneath the tree.
“Roman.” Dad’s voice reached a whistle-pitch. “Roman!”
I turned and walked out of the clearing, the snow now almost to my knees. Dad’s cries finally faded by the time I reached the house. In my room, I peeled off my clothes, put on a new pair of pajamas, and got into bed.
I called Aunt Lizzie the next morning and she came to take me home with her. Two police officers asked me a million questions about the broken window, but when they went to the clearing in search of Dad, they didn’t find a little decorated pine tree. They didn’t find Dad, either. They decided he must have fallen through the window while drunk and wandered off.
“The woods are dangerous,” the officer with a beard said. “It’s not hard to get lost.”
The officer with glasses agreed. “The blood loss wouldn’t help. I’m sorry, son, but he probably froze to death. We can look for the body in the spring.”
I shook my head. “You won’t find him. The Mistletoe Man took him underground.”
The officers glanced at each other across Aunt Lizzie’s kitchen table, their furrowed eyebrows like two pairs of caterpillars.
“If you say so,” Glasses said, picking up his mug of coffee.
Beard nodded and helped himself to another Christmas cookie. “We’re just glad you’re okay.”
I’m grown now with a child of my own to care for. Every Christmas Eve, I read her stories about magical wardrobes and hot chocolate served on midnight trains and sugarplum fairies. Once I know her dreams will be sweet, I go downstairs and turn off all the lights. The Christmas tree glows red and green and white. With my sharpest pair of scissors, a shoebox, and brown paper, I sit at my kitchen table and wrap an extra present. It’s never anything fancy. Sometimes, it’s a chocolate bar or a deck of cards. Other years, it’s a candle or a keychain. Whatever I’ve chosen for that year, I wrap it tight and put it under the tree. The present is always still there in the morning, but I keep wrapping a new gift every Christmas Eve, just in case.
Just in case this is the year the Mistletoe Man becomes real again.