Sam and Roleen Washington’s house in Claridge was quiet as the residents basked a little in the beginning of the Christmas season on the Saturday evening after Thanksgiving. On the television was an animated remake of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Sam had an announcement to make, but waited diplomatically until a commercial break.
“So, this is November what? The 29th? Christmas is only four weeks away. I guess we better hurry.”
“For what, Daddy?” seven-year-old Helen asked, innocently biting deep into her father’s bait.
“Why, to get a Christmas tree, of course.”
“Oh, Daddy, you’re silly.”
“What’s the sudden hurry, dear?” Roe asked, a little suspicious.
“Well, you see know, I gotta plan.”
Roe rolled her eyes up. How many times had she heard that little catch-phrase since she met this man?
Sam didn’t notice. He continued without pausing. “You know Robby Robertson? Well, he owns some land just outside of town and says if we want, we can go on up there and tag a tree. Then, the week before Christmas, we’ll go up and cut it down. Said we could do it for free. I offered him twenty bucks, but he wouldn’t take it, so I told him I’d take him and his wife to dinner during the holidays. How’s that sound to you, little kitten?”
“Sammy? How about you? You want to take a little hike in the woods?” Sam Washington Jr., Helen’s senior by two years, got as excited as a older brother was supposed to get. He was lying in front of the TV in the classic kid position—on his stomach with his chin propped on in his palms, elbows planted on the rug.
She nodded. “It’s nice you got good friends like Robby. It sounds fine to me.”
It might not have sounded so fine if she that piece of land was on one face of Saugill Mountain. After all, an old woman had been murdered up there just last week.
“Okay, then,” Sam was arranging the details. “Now, what time you get out of basketball practice tomorrow, Sammy?”
“No practice tomorrow. Coaches’re away for the weekend.”
“Great. We’ll go right after church and be up there by around one.”
Helen curled up in her father’s lap and even though she was a little old to be doing it, stuck a thumb into her mouth. Roe noticed it, but didn’t say anything. She just smiled. If her baby couldn’t act like one in her daddy’s lap at Christmastime, then there was no sense being in the world at all. She’d grow up plenty fast enough.
The commercials ended and Scrooge was about to be visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Washingtons enjoyed the rest of their movie and put aside any more conversation about the tree for now, but visions of sugarplums were dancing already.
It was about 1:30 the next day when they were all finally ready. Roe was just putting the finishing touches on an overdressed Helen, stuffing the child’s hands into a pair of mittens. Sam and Sam Jr. stood in the kitchen waiting impatiently. Roe completed her work on Helen and then gave her men a scolding look.
“Is that how you two are going out there?”
Sam wore a down vest, flannel shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of heavy work boots. His son wore a similar outfit except with galoshes covering a pair of Keds sneakers. If it was good enough for dad, it was good enough for him.
“Yeah, so?” Sam replied.
Roe produced a pair of stocking caps, one smaller than the other. “It’s cold out today. The least you can do is wear these,” she said as she stuffed them over her men’s heads. Sammy frowned, but his father didn’t put up a stink about the cap, so Sammy didn’t, either.
With that, Sam got his family bundled into his four wheel drive Ford pickup and got them buckled in—kids in back, Roe in the passenger’s seat. It was less than a ten minute drive through Claridge.
The day was clear, sharp, and cold, but the bright sun had melted the top layer of snow off the asphalt and the roads were glistening wet. The glare forced Sam to use his sunglasses.
He brought them unerringly to the dirt road that led to Robertson’s land. It was right off Route 3, his route on the snowplow every winter. He had already been past here half a dozen times this week already.
He pulled onto the road and stopped the Ford. He had to climb out and lock the wheels for the four wheel drive. When he got back in a minute later, he said, “I’m not exactly sure how far up it is.” He squinted into the whiteness on the ground in front of him and slipped the transmission into 4WD.
They plowed on through snow as much as a foot and a half deep in some drifts. The sun didn’t get down in here and there was no traffic to melt away the sludgey runoff. The going was slow and rough, but the kids were having a ball. Roe sat quietly, a little worried, but aware that this was exactly what four wheel drive vehicles were for.
Not very far on, a large, box-like shape loomed in front of them.
“Sam, what’s that?” The nervousness in Roe’s voice was unmistakable.
“Don’t know, babe. Looks like a car maybe. Prob’ly abandoned.”
Sam wasn’t sure he could maneuver the pickup around the object, so he pulled to a halt a good ten feet short of it.
“Stay here, I’ll be right back,” said as he got out.
Sam slogged toward the strange, snow-shrouded object. It reminded him somehow of a giant, white coffin. What was really odd was that it was stuck out perpendicular to the dirt road, a very short stem on a very long crossed T.
“Now, what the hell be this?” he muttered.
He swung to his right and saw what was obviously an open door on the driver’s side, crushed against a large tree.
Sam walked up to it and when he poked his head over the top, realized that his odd impression a moment ago was indeed correct.
Tom Hansen’s frozen skeleton lay manacled to the steering wheel, pulled halfway out into the snow, and covered with a thin layer of red ice. Scraps of clothing hung stiffly from the bones, but there wasn’t much flesh left. Even most of the scalp was missing.
Sam spun quickly and hurried back to the truck as fast as his heavy boots and the wet snow would let him. As he scrambled back into his seat, Roe saw the look of terror in his eyes.
“Sam, what is it? What’s going on?”
“Don’t worry, everything’s okay.” He slammed the stick shift into reverse, turned around, right arm draped over his headrest, and hit the gas. The pickup started backing down the hill. “Just make sure all the doors are locked, okay?”
Without a word, Roe did as her husband said. The doors were already locked, even Sam’s who hit the button so automatically when he jumped in that he wasn’t even aware he had done so.
“Mommy, are we going to be alright?” Helen whimpered from her back seat.
“Yes, dear, we’ll be fine.” Roe wished she could lean back there and give her children a hug, but the best she could do was reach over the seat and pat Helen’s head.
Sam got the Blazer rolling backwards, but slowly. He didn’t want to push it too hard for fear of losing control in his panic. The last thing he wanted to do was bash the truck into a tree and disable it. The only thing that mattered now was to get his family off of this unholy mountain. He maneuvered his vehicle grimly down the narrow road.
If he had known that a pair of black, evil eyes, angry at the thought of losing prey for later when the hunger would arise again, were watching from a distance, he might not have been so deliberate in working his way down Saugill Mountain. When the vehicle pulled out of sight, the eyes turned and stood silently beside a snow-filled, empty grave.
Sam’s hopeful expectations made the short trip much longer. At every slight bend, he expected to see familiar old Route 3. The whole time, he prayed for just a tiny widening of the road so he could turn the pickup around and put some speed into the thing. The prayers were fruitless, as he knew they would be.
To Roe, the ride was just a long, horrifying exercise in listening to her heart pound madly in her chest.
Suddenly, Route 3 did pop up and Sam gunned the engine and swung the truck around hard on the blacktop, facing it back toward Claridge. He wasn’t about to waste even the tiniest second converting to standard drive. Screw the gas mileage. Let’s just get this mother home. If the four occupants of the truck didn’t actually hear their collective sigh of relief, they all certainly felt it.
Once safely back in their kitchen, Sam sent the kids into the living room to watch the TV. With the trust children reserve for their parents, they did as their father said.
“I’ve got to go see Wayne Marski, honey,” Sam said in a grim voice.
Roe grabbed his arm. “What was up there, Sam?”
Sam knew there was no sense in lying to her. She would probably guess at least some of it, if she hadn’t already. He looked down into her beautiful, dark brown eyes.
“A body, Roe. A body all torn to shit.”