Late Christmas morning, Nick slid from his crumpled bed. His head was afire, his cider-filled brain shouting and pounding like an aching old tooth. He sat with his feet barely touching the floor and scratched his belly. He wondered if he was going to puke, and then decided against it. “Always too much,” he thought. It was always this way. Downstairs in the kitchen, he could hear his wife frantically preparing hot pots of coffee, working up “the perfect breakfast feast” just to please him and the guests. He stood and tottered to the window. A carved coo-coo clock ticked loudly next to him on the wall, its monotonous tocking hammering a spike through his swollen brain. His eyes, thin as dimes stayed locked on the horizon as he raised one large craggy hand and with a full powerful grasp, crushed the clock to dust. “That… will be… enough… of that,” he growled.
A white fog had settled over the barren snow-covered fields, leaving them flat like white canvas awaiting lines to be drawn. Below, the trees in the yard hung heavy with snow and ice, their branches bent, about to break. “They will break,” he said softly. “Everything breaks. Eventually.’ Last night during all the festivities, he had seen many broken things: hearts, dreams, homes, bodies, promises. Yes, promises. Every year it was the same. It wore him down and there would be a steep price to pay.
As he rubbed his head, he caught his reflection in the pane. It painted him a ghost, almost transparent, his white hair exploding up, his long johns pewter gray and as thin as his thoughts. His weathered face was heavily lined with what his wife called ‘smile’ lines. “Not for long,” he scowled and turned away quickly, grabbing for his boots. “Take care of the dear ones first,” he muttered, his body aching, his back cracking as he straightened up.
On a bench in the kitchen near the cellar door, a group of elfin figures much like young boys huddled and waited nervously. Through a window, they watched Nick stomp past on his way to the shed carrying two buckets, one of fresh hot gruel, the other warm flavored milk, the way the reindeer liked it. The ground under his boots crunched loud and firm like crisp cornflakes. The missus was busy cutting up loaves of bread for her guests. She hummed a familiar Christmas jingle, “he knows when you are sleeping… he knows when you’re awake… he knows when you’ve been bad or good… lada-deeda-lada-dee!” One of the elves leaned and whispered. “I watched old Nick last night…he had that list again… longer than last years. He took his time going over it. He checked it twice.” His small voice shook and cracked. “He’ll show no mercy. He never does.”
Then the kitchen door flew open and Old Nick was upon them, flying past, bellowing:
“OHH I KNOW WHO’S BEEN NAUGHTY!… OH YES I DO!!!”
His face was a red blaze and he swung a heavy switch in his trembling hand as he roared like a fire down into the cellar.
Along the frozen basement floor, thousands of burlap sacks tied with heavy rope writhed and squirmed like boiling serpents. From within, soft moans and child-like pleading hung suspended, frozen in the frigid air. Old Nick glowered over them, his dark switch racking stiff against his knee. “So many promises broken. Now a price to pay.” He moved slowly among them tapping his switch along the bags. “Everything breaks eventually,” he said lovingly. “Everything.”