This Christmas-themed short story first featured in my December 2022 newsletter.
Content warning: choking, death of a grandparent, passing mention of animal cruelty
The box of Christmas decorations rustled as Ellie shifted its weight in her arms. She ought to open the door under the stairs and just shove it all in, but something stopped her reaching for the door handle. Maybe it was the way the keyhole seemed to wink at her darkly, like it, too, was thinking about the day Gran gasped out of existence on this very spot.
“Never open the door under the stairs. I barely got it out of me…”
Eyes, rheumy and dull, had sparked briefly as they held Ellie’s. Sparked with fear, Ellie was almost certain. Then they’d closed, and never opened again.
I barely got it out of me…. What the hell had that meant?
Ellie hadn’t had the best relationship with her gran, but her last words — barely audible above her mother’s panicked voice as she phoned for help — had definitely stayed with her.
It had been two weeks since Ellie had found her grandmother sprawled at the foot of the stairs like a heap of dirty laundry. And even when Ellie had realised what she was looking at, her instinct hadn’t been to rush to Gran’s side; no, she’d wanted to run back up to her room and lock herself inside.
She wasn’t alone in disliking her grandmother. Gran had driven away three sets of neighbours in the two years since Ellie and her mum were more or less blackmailed into moving into the draughty old vicarage to take care of her. Dementia, the doctors had whispered, but Ellie had never quite believed that. Gran’s words were always so carefully chosen to deliver the most venom; there was something too sharp about her, too cunning. Anything she did always came with some nasty consequence, but never for her. Like when a spate of suspicious pet deaths in the area had led the local police to pay Gran a ‘courtesy’ visit, and Janie could tell the police knew Gran was behind it, even if they couldn’t prove that. It was obvious from the way the young police officer had frowned as she said, “Animal cruelty is nothing to laugh about, Mrs. Grimes.” Gran had only smirked, eyes flashing with spiteful humour.
“She’s just… well, she’s bobbing on a bit,” Ellie’s mum, Andrea, had whispered to Ellie after they’d gone. “It’s normal for some people to start acting a little odd. She was never like this when I was growing up, I swear.”
Odd wasn’t how Ellie would’ve described her grandmother. More like a vicious old—
Ellie shook her head. She shouldn’t be thinking about Gran like that. Not now. Not after how terrified she’d seemed at the end.
I barely got it out of me…
The box of Christmas decorations slipped in Ellie’s grasp. She barely caught it before it could fall to the hardwood floor, bending a fingernail back in the process. Hissing at the sting, Ellie reached for the cupboard door handle.
“Almost done, love?” Her mum’s voice sounded faraway, though she was only in the kitchen. After deciding to take down all the Christmas decorations despite it only being the middle of December — I’m just not up to doing Christmas this year, love. You understand, right? — Ellie’s mum had thrown all of it in a box, lights and wreaths and tinsel all tangled together, and told Ellie to put them away under the stairs. Ellie hadn’t even had a chance to protest before Andrea disappeared into the kitchen to start dinner.
“I’ll be there in a sec,” Ellie said. Her hand still hovered near the handle of the door under the stairs, not quite touching, the box perched awkwardly against her hip.
“Have you got the key to the cupboard?” came Andrea’s voice again.
Relief washed over Ellie as she realised she didn’t have it. “No. Maybe I should put them in the attic instead?”
The sound of her mother’s clipped footsteps underscored Ellie’s question. Andrea tutted as she reached Ellie’s side.
“It’s in the door, silly.”
And there it was: a small, brass key glinting in the keyhole.
Ellie was certain the lock had been empty a moment ago. Her mum twisted the handle so the cupboard door started to swing slowly outward, then turned to head back to the kitchen, still bristling with irritation.
Ellie’s whole body tensed as she peered into the darkness under the stairs. She didn’t know quite what she was expecting to find in there, but all she saw was a pair of dust-covered wellies, an old broom, and a glint of reflected light coming from something at the back of the shadowy space. She let out a gusty sigh, disturbing a few decades’ worth of cobwebs. As they wafted out of her line of vision, Ellie’s gaze snapped to something moving at the back of the cupboard. She yelped, almost dropping the box again.
A mirror leaned against the back wall, its surface somehow remarkably free of dust, and in it she saw her own wide eyes peering back at her.
Ellie gave a shaky laugh. She’d been startled by her own reflection.
Seriously. Get a grip.
But the face in the mirror wasn’t her own. Not exactly. There was something waxy and unreal about it, as though she were looking at a sculpture of herself. And as she studied the unsettling image from head to toe, the shadow at her feet — or her reflection’s feet — began to move. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, like a snake uncoiling itself.
Ellie’s limbs seized. And not with fear, though she was terrified; something seemed to have taken hold of Ellie, forcing her to just stand and watch as the shadow in the glass twisted and undulated. Ellie’s breath came in quick, shallow gasps as she stared at the mirror. She couldn’t make any other movement. The box slid again, almost falling from her rigid grasp.
What is happening to me?!
The shadow in the reflection continued to unfurl. There was no way it truly was a shadow — no shadow moved like that on its own. It was curling up the leg of her reflected self now, twisting around and around as though it truly were a serpent.
That’s when Ellie felt it. Something grabbed her calf, slithering and icy cold. She couldn’t see it beyond the cardboard box still clutched in front of her, but she felt it all the same. Ellie screamed — or tried to. It was as though her lungs were wrapped in ice, allowing her to take only the shallowest of breaths. And the sound that left her wasn’t the full-throated scream she’d reached for, but a strangled whimper.
The mirror-shadow climbed higher, coiling itself around her reflection’s waist. Ellie felt it around her own as well. It was achingly cold, and tight as a snare. That awful chill wound its way higher still, its grip stealing even more of her breath. It was like sinking slowly into dark, icy water, and being unable to save herself from plunging in deeper. Ellie wheezed, feeling like she was being slowly suffocated. But how could that be, when she was standing at the foot of the stairs in her own home?
Exactly where Gran was…
Ellie gave a garbled sob as she watched the shadow continue its path in the mirror’s reflection. It passed through the base of the box of decorations with a rustling sound no shadow should ever make. Then the box began to open on its own, its flaps lifting slowly. An eerie glow drew her gaze down. Inside the box, a coil of Christmas lights pulsed a burning orange, like embers quickening in a draught. But at their core, each orange light held a heart of pure shadow. It felt like they were staring back at Ellie, winking just as the cupboard keyhole had seemed to.
She tried again to scream, but the sound was no more than a croak now. With a sinuous movement that appeared almost curious, the string of lights slithered up from the box and towards Ellie’s mouth. A moment before the first pulsating light slipped between her lips, Ellie’s eyes fell on the mirror. She saw herself reflected there, the string of lights beginning to thread its way inside her, feeling like shards of ice were being poured down her throat. But she saw something else there, too; something that left her mind blank with terror. A long-fingered hand was feeding the string into her mouth. And it was attached to a being that seemed to be made of shadows — all except for its glowing orange eyes. Those eyes locked on Ellie’s, and though she couldn’t see its mouth, she sensed it smiling.
The word came to her suddenly, and her already frozen limbs twitched with primal panic — her instinct to run rendered futile by whatever power the creature was using to hold her captive.
“Never open the door under the stairs. I barely got it out of me…”
This was what her grandmother had meant, Ellie knew; this… thing that was now choking her with the Christmas lights it fed down her gullet. That terrible cold clawed its way down, engulfing her from the inside.
I’m dying, she thought, powerless to even whimper now. This thing is killing me and I can’t even call out for help.
As the last of the Christmas lights disappeared down Ellie’s throat, she tried one last time to scream for her mother. It whistled out of her, a reedy sound that reminded her so much of Gran’s final gasped breath. Then Ellie was gone.
The box slid from Ellie’s hands.
“Careful with those, love! We don’t want to fetch them out next year and find everything broken,” Ellie’s mother snapped as she rushed from the kitchen, drawn by the clattering sound.
“Who cares about a few broken lights?” Ellie said evenly as she pushed the box under the stairs before shutting the door. “If one set stops working, you just get another.”
She didn’t wait to hear her mother’s reply before calmly making her way upstairs. But Ellie paused at the top to glance down to where Andrea stood, still frowning over Ellie’s words. She could almost hear the inane voice inside her mother’s head saying, “It’s just not like her to be so thoughtless. Not like her at all…”
It would be easy to drop something heavy on her from here, Ellie thought. If only I had a brick to hand.
Ellie smiled, her eyes seeming to glow for a moment.
Just a moment.