Yuletide Wraith

Tim O’Neal

The only sounds are the wind’s constant shrieking through the many broken windows …and…

I shiver and pull my wrap closer about my shoulders. I can never get warm anymore; it’s been years since I’ve seen the sun. It went out millennia ago—winked out like a candle’s flame one afternoon. All that’s left is dark and cold.

I am no one. Just a foolish man, alone on another Yuletide Eve. I cannot die. Not from hunger, nor cold, nor any other natural cause. That was the bargain. I am now the last “living” being on Earth.

Ah, my cursed half-life—it’s not something I like to think about too long. Especially not on lonely cold nights such as this when the wind squalls like a nocturnal predator and the snow lays heavily, casting its preternatural silence over everything.

The only sounds are the wind’s constant shrieking through the many broken windows, the disintegrating charred remains in the fireplace, and the creaking of this old wooden house settling in for another lonely winter like the thousand before it.

Centuries ago I made a despicable decision. On a Yuletide Eve just like this one, in fact. Since then, I’ve never had a tree, nor cheery holly berries, nor merry twinkling lights. No gaiety or mischievous mistletoe brightens these gloomy papered halls. I’m afraid that baubles and tinsel are for kin, bosom friends, and invited guests.

The only nod toward Yule within my dusty home is the dying firelight which throws no heat, only the lonely rustle of embers and ashes. Over the long years, I’ve learned it’s best to have light, dim though it may be, for my lone yearly visitor.

The shadows grow longer. The pendulum in the grandfather clock ticks away the empty hours. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Almost time.

While Père Noël once used to give out presents and good cheer, something quite different visits me every year on this night. What it is, I’m still not quite sure, though I’ve met with it countless times. It’s unnatural, something beyond the veil, beyond the grave. A spectre of sorts, always just out of eyesight. An echo, a memory of cheerier times—of carolers and candy canes—reminiscent of an earlier epoch.

A rustle, a scratch, disturbs the cemetery silence. The only clues I’m no longer alone with my armchair and brandy in my empty dark world.

“You’re here,” I say without looking up.

“And a merry Yuletide to you,” answers an inhuman voice. It speaks in a hiss of silvery static, like a poorly tuned radio of misery and wartime—a broadcast not quite properly delivered. As always, it emanates from every corner, impossible to determine its precise location.

Movement flickers in the shadows by the grandfather clock. Unable to resist, my head turns, knowing it will have already moved.

“What do you want, Wraith?”

“Simply to check on you, my sweet,” it replies. “Ensure you’re having a holly jolly holiday and all that…rot.” A harsh grating cackle bursts like static from a warped antiquated speaker.

Shadows by the bookshelf contort. A volume or two tilts as if tipped by a judicious browsing finger. One tome goes flying, thrown carelessly over an invisible shoulder. The book lands with a thump and a rustle.

I focus on the swirling amber liquid in my glass. It’s easier not to track Wraith as it moves about the room. Watching its ethereal presence only leads to head-splitting migraines.

“You’re in a jovial mood this year.”

“That’s because we have a present for you, my sweet.”

My head jerks up. Like a five-year-old, I cry out piteously, “A pet? A dog? A mouse, even? Something with which to share my existence at last?”

I hate the pleading note in my voice—like a child begging to stay up five minutes longer—but it’s been centuries since I’ve seen another living creature. Not even a single scampering rat shares these dreary halls with me.

“Nope, nope, nope!” Wraith chortles. Its voice is playful, delighting in my misery. “You naughty old boy, you recall the terms of our arrangement. No living company. None indeed.”

I slump back into my armchair. “We made that damned agreement a thousand years ago. Surely, we could make adjustments.”

“Ah, but rules are rules, my love. You know that.” A lamp winks off, its flame extinguished in a hiss.

“Can’t you give an old man clemency for his folly after a millennium of darkness?”

“But, my sweet, that hurts us. Hurts us deep, it does,” Wraith says. “Here we’ve always been so good to you. Have we not always given what you’ve asked?”

“But—”

“Have we not given what you desired?” Wraith repeats more forcefully.

“Yes, I suppose so,” I sigh.

“And remind us what it was you asked us for?”

“A miserably long life,” I mumble.

“Immortality you mean, my sweet. And what did we require in return?”

“Damn near everything! You took away my family, the sun, and all contact with the living, I’ve been rattling around this dark house and regretting my decision for every one of those interminable hours.”

From the shadows, Wraith tsks. “You make it sound much worse than it is. We visit you every Yule, don’t we? You’re not completely alone.”

“You don’t count. You’re not even alive.” I quaff my brandy. It burns going down. The only warmth in the room.

“Come, come. Cheer up, my sweet. We said we have something for you, didn’t we? Did our shopping right proper this year.”

“Stop teasing me, Wraith. You’ve made your point, as you have a thousand times over. Please leave me to my misery.”

“Tut tut. Such acrimony. And after we’ve only ever upheld your request.”

“Well—”

“A long life entirely free of disease. Never having to worry about aging, starving, or falling ill. That was our bargain and did we not come through after all these years?”

At the taunting words, I hurl my snifter against the wall. It smashes in a tinkling crunch of broken glass.

“Dammit, Wraith! I didn’t know you would give my whole family an incurable case of consumption and leave them to die, hacking up their own blood. I buried them all in the plum orchard out back.”  My voice breaks. “You took away everything and cursed me with this incessant half-life!”

“Ah, ah, ah. Play fair now, my love.”

“What’s the point of an endless life if it can’t be shared?”

“Hmm, it’s a terrific question, my sweet. Why don’t you tell us? ’Twas your decision after all.”

Staring into the glowing red and black embers, I wish that Wraith will finish its torment soon and leave me alone. Its mocking taunting presence is worse than my ancient house’s endless silence.

“Now don’t be glum, my sweet. It is the holidays after all. We have something that might lift your…spirits.”

“What could a shade like you possibly offer that would bring me any respite from these shadows?”

“Now that’s coarse, love. Very low indeed. You know we desire only your happiness.”

I shiver at a sudden draft and draw my raggedy blanket close. It’s always freezing. Has been for a thousand years. But it’s getting worse all the time.

Wraith notices my discomfort. “Death is proper cold too. Though not much colder than this, really.”

To my left, billiard balls roll smoothly, heavily, across the table’s worn green felt. They clack as they collide and thump against the bumpers.

“What are you insinuating, Wraith? What new devilish trick is this?”

“No tricks, my love. We’ve come to make you an offer, an addendum really, to our original gentlemen’s agreement.”

“Then state your terms and be done. I tire of these games.”

“Now, now. Mustn’t be hasty,” Wraith chides. “Here’s our special offer: how would you like…to die?”

Hearing those words, a strange fluttering rises in my chest. One I haven’t felt in quite some time. It takes me more than a few moments to recognize hope.

“You’re offering to kill me?”

“We prefer the phrase, ‘allowing you to perish.’ Sounds much more virtuous of us, you see.”

A burning log cracks. Sparks fly up the sooty dark chimney.

“That’s uncharacteristically generous of you. Why the sudden change of—”

I stop. ‘Heart’ is not the word I want, for I know Wraith doesn’t have one.

“Tack,” I finish. “I presumed you’d rather let me agonize through my isolation for all eternity.”

“We would, certainly. But our own circumstances have changed, see. Your ‘life’ is, well, a complication for us, my pet.”

A candelabra sways. The flames dance madly, throwing crazy shadows upon the yellowed peeling wallpaper.

“So my death will do you a favour? Is that it?”

“’ Twill make things a spot easier for us, yes.”

“How so?”

A collection of silver spoons clatters as if knocked over by a mettlesome cat. “Come now. We can’t reveal our entire hand, can we? Not good for business, it isn’t.”

“There must be a reason. There always is with you.”

“Naturally,” Wraith said. “Well, in short, my sweet, millennia have passed. New civilizations have since formed on distant planets. They’re in much greater demand of…well, to be modest, our brand of mischief.”

“What does that even mean?”

“Your demise will save us the annual lengthy voyage to this cold dead rock with its single and, dare we say, boring inhabitant. Leave us time for the more consequential misdeeds we much prefer.”

All about me, cold and shadows swirl like Death’s dark cloak. The warped wooden boards creak on the far side of the room.

“To be clear, Wraith, if I accept, you promise me a natural death? Like what anyone else on this lifeless rock would receive? No more games, no more of this twisted purgatory?”

“That’s it, my sweet. Unless you wish to continue alone in this dead house on your dead planet, alone. But we won’t bother you anymore. No, we’ll leave you to your own self, forever and ever per our earlier arrangement.”

I consider Wraith’s offer. The silence presses close, suffocating like the satin lining of a coffin.

“Can you tell me something, Wraith?”

“Mmm. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Most likely not.”

“Will I at least get to see my family once I—?”

“Ah-ah,” Wraith’s ethereal voice teases like a wagging finger. “No questions. That’s cheating. We wouldn’t spoil any surprises. You asked us for a natural death. And that’s exactly what you’ll get. Just like everyone else. No peeking; no opening presents early. You accept it blindly like any other person. Our final Yuletide gift to you. Take it or leave it, my sweet.”

I consider all that I’ve lost—the company of others, my family, even the sun’s warmth. Anything was better than this constant darkness and silence. Even death. No one should live on their own for centuries. At some point, every interminable sorrow must end.

“Alright then, do it. I’m ready. I’ve had a long life.”

“Rest well then, my sweet,” Wraith’s silvery voice whispers.

Deep glacial cold settles in my chest, my throat, my skull. Like a rapid frost it spreads, blotting out my vision, occluding my senses. Wraith’s right. It’s not much worse than the centuries-old chill of my creaky drafty manse. I manage four words before the icy blackness crashes over my eyes and claims me.

“Happy Yuletide, Wraith. Farewell.”

Tim has sold seven previous short stories. His publishers include EG&J Little Press, Red Cape Publishing, Dragon Soul Press, and Horroraddicts.net. He was a judge for the California Writing Club’s Tales of the Pandemic Anthology. He currently lives in California, working on his next story. His Amazon Author Page.