Bedtime, and it was Christmas tomorrow. Noah was prepared this year; the glass of warm milk he had drunk would help see him off to sleep, and to be doubly sure he had closed his curtains extra tight and twisted his blanket around himself so that the warmth completely enveloped him and he couldn’t see so much as the faintest glimmer of light.
Much of the day, he had spent running about as wildly as he could. Once his friends were no longer interested in playing any more football, he had run about the park, climbing up the swing sets and across the climbing frames. When he had come home, he was so muddy and sweaty that his mum had scolded him for it, but he was extremely tired and the hot bath that followed had relaxed his aching muscles. Nothing would keep him up now.
He could tell almost immediately that he was lying to himself. Despite the warmth, despite the heaviness of his limbs, he knew what it felt like to be sleepy. Instead it felt harder to squeeze his eyes shut than to keep them open. He tried anyway, but he was still acutely aware of the sounds that the house made.
His parents were still watching the telly, and he could hear the buzz of talking from whatever they were watching. Something funny, as occasionally his mum’s laughter floated up the stairs. Down the hall, his older sister was nowhere near bedtime. Through her closed door, she could hear the roar of gunfire from her PlayStation, occasionally muted swearing as she was shot dead and an argument through her headset with whoever was responsible. It was never her fault she died, always the other player cheating and somehow, inexplicably, proving they were actually bad at the game by managing to kill her.
He closed his eyes harder and tried to focus on his own room. There were no sounds in here. Maybe if he concentrated on the silence, he could force the world away and push himself into a dream.
That still left the problem of waking up too early, but he had taken care of that. Every year, the first time he woke up he was sent back to bed because Father Christmas hadn’t been yet. The answer was to make sure that he came to Noah’s house early, so that no matter what time he awoke his parents would have no choice but to get up with him. He could open his presents and not have to spend many more agonising hours in bed.
Peter had shown him the way to do that. Noah didn’t remember when he had brought the subject up, but he must have because Peter had offered him an answer. Words to write on a piece of card that you put under the mince pie and glass of milk, and a single pinprick of blood in the milk. That was weird, but then Peter had always been weird, Noah supposed. He found it hard, on reflection, to think of a single other instance of him being weird – being anything, for that matter – but he must have been. Anyway, he had shown Noah how to make sure his parents didn’t know there was blood in the glass. That would surely have made them shout at him and ask questions. They already didn’t like Peter, which Noah supposed was the reason for them pretending not to know who he was when Noah had told them about playing with him and their other friends.
The room was still, quiet and dark, and still Noah was wide awake. Now he was thinking about playing with his friends in the day instead of falling asleep and having dreams. This was no good. Even if he hadn’t slept, he must surely have been laying here for hours and hours now, so Christmas Day must be a lot closer, mustn’t it?
He risked a look at the clock.
It took him longer than he had anticipated to break free of the duvet. He had to wriggle back and forth and thrash his arms, then finally fling the thing – and almost fling himself – onto the floor. A rush of air to his body made him realise just how warm he had been, and he quickly snatched it up before looking at the clock on his bedside cabinet.
He groaned and flopped back on the bed. This night was going to last forever! There was no way he would get to sleep and Christmas would never come.
Perhaps he should try to pass the time until he felt tired enough that he just dropped off? That might work. He flicked his lamp on, wincing as the darkness shattered, and went to his cupboard to find a book. He had more than once been told off for reading well into the night. Lamp hidden under his blanket to try and disguise it as the pages of the story beckoned him onwards towards and past midnight. He just needed the right story.
There were a couple that he hadn’t read yet, but he couldn’t start them now. He was always slow getting into new stories and that would only make the night drag longer. He needed something that would hook him right away and he would find it hard to escape.
The Twits. That would do the job; he had read it cover to cover dozens of times, and the images still captured his imagination. There was something captivating about how grotesque the characters were, and yet how tragic their fate seemed. The first time he had read it, the image of the bird pie had stuck in his mind and he had wondered how many pies contained poor birds that were trapped and struggling to escape before they were eaten. He knew now that this was silly, but that didn’t stop such images playing on his mind for a long time. A single line of text could grow in his mind to a scene that would echo across his dreams. That was almost the reason he had to read more.
When Mr and Mrs Twit had shrunk into nothing from standing on their heads too long and Noah closed the book, he was more awake than ever. However, surely it would at least be closer to the morning and his presents now? He looked again at the clock.
Was that all? It was far too late for him to be up, but still hours and hours before he could feasibly claim that Father Christmas had been yet. What would he do now?
His stomach growled. Maybe something to eat would tide him over for a little bit. He would need to be sneaky, though. His mum would send him back to bed straight away if she caught him. No ifs or buts. This would be a challenge.
When he opened the door, the only sound he could hear upstairs was his sister’s snoring. He envied her. She could just play on her PlayStation and shout at friends until she fell asleep, then it would be nearly noon by the time she woke up. Almost as if she didn’t care whether Father Christmas had been, which was something Noah just couldn’t fathom.
From downstairs, there was a faint rustling but otherwise quiet. This was his chance.
The door creaked when he started opening it, but the sound dimmed to nothing when he moved it as slow as he possibly could. Tip toes minimised the creaking of the floorboards on the landing, and at the stairs he muffled his movements by dropping to his bum and slowly moving down the stairs whilst sitting.
“Ho ho ho!”
The sound made Noah’s heart leap into his throat and he froze, but only because he recognised it as his Dad’s voice and realised that his parents were still up.
“You’ve been a very naughty girl this year, Melissa.”
“Oh god.” Despite the apparent groan in her voice, his mum giggled. “I can’t believe you bought that whole get up!”
Unsure what was going on, Noah carried on shuffling down the stairs. On the ground floor, it was easier to walk around without making any noise.
“You like it?”
“That depends, what do I get for being a naughty girl?”
The living room door was slightly ajar. Noah crept up to it and peered through. His parents were standing up and kissing, his Dad in what looked like a Father Christmas outfit with muscular bare arms attached to it. Noah grimaced and averted his eyes.
That was when he noticed all the presents were wrapped and under the tree, whilst closer to the door the milk had been drank and the mince pie eaten. Had Father Christmas been already? It must have been too early, even with the things that Peter had given him. Unless…
His mum was red faced but looked cross. His dad was standing behind her, as though trying to hide his costume, his hands below his belly.
“What are you doing up?”
“I…I couldn’t sleep…” He pointed to the presents and the empty glass and pie tray. “He’s been, though, hasn’t he?”
His parents looked at one another. There was sadness, or perhaps disappointment, in their eyes.
Noah’s father shrugged. “Might as well tell him. Not as though this night can get any more disillusioning.”
Noah’s mum nodded, but then beckoned Noah out of the room. “Let’s talk in the kitchen, love. Let your dad change out of his silly costume.” When she looked back, she gave his dad a look that Noah didn’t understand, with a twinkle in her eyes. When her gaze returned to him, she was sad again. “Come on.”
“You did it, didn’t you?” Noah said, his voice cracking as he spoke. “You wrapped the presents and ate the mince pie…because Father Christmas isn’t real…”
His mum put a hand on his shoulder and looked into his eyes. “Noah. Love, I’m sorry.”
Both the sound and the shouting came from the living room. Noah found himself dragged along in his mum’s wake, to find his dad on the floor. He was half changed back into jeans and a t-shirt, but that wasn’t what drew their attention.
Their chimney was covered by an artificial fireplace. Noah’s mum said it could be opened from the other side on Christmas Eve, another aspect of what he was just learning was an elaborate lie. Yet there it was, hanging open, and with a shadow emerging from it. Something large, both in height and girth, with a hat on its head and carrying a large sack.
Whatever joy had tingled in Noah’s stomach as he took in what he was seeing evaporated when all the pieces came together. The creature’s clothes, blackened by soot, looked like a patchwork of leather. Its face was a misshapen tangle of bristles with wart-soiled nose, needle teeth and red eyes peeking through. The sack in its nobbled, clawed hands trembled and writhed like its contents were wrestling and thrashing to get out.
Nobody spoke. Noah’s heartbeat pounded in his ears. The room around him shrunk and vanished as the creature grew to impossible heights.
“Ho ho ho.”