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When I was younger, I was just like any other child. I was raised with stories of the tooth fairy and the sandman and, of course, Santa Claus. I had always believed it and I never really questioned it. It doesn’t make sense when you think about it, telling children about all of these people and creatures, because they’ll inevitably grow up and know it was all a joke—a worldwide prank on every human aged up to eleven (or fifteen if you were really gullible like my friend was). But now I know better. Why else would they keep the truth from us? It wasn’t to take advantage of a capitalist idea as some people say. It was to protect us. And the way I found out that Santa Claus isn’t real has given me nightmares until the very end.
I was about twelve that Christmas. My parents had decided that we would spend Christmas at my grandmother’s house, a place that I had never felt completely comfortable with. Its walls were decorated with old photographs and needlework that had been done god knows how many years ago. All of the floorboards creaked and all of the taps dripped. It was cold in every room except for the living room, thanks to the fire that I had never seen extinguished before. The rugs were threadbare and the blankets were thin. My grandmother had done all that she could to make it seem more homely—I think she could sense that I didn’t like it there. She tried getting more games and books in and having nice cushions and warm colours on the furniture. But the games were all missing pieces or were broken, the books were so old that they were falling apart, the cushions were too full and would pop as soon as you touched them, and the colours made the sofas look like soil and feces.
But it wasn’t just the house that creeped me out. There was always something weird about Grandmother. She was always hunched over and she was always smiling. Even when Grandfather died or when my cat was hit by a car, she never stopped smiling. The tears could be streaming down her face but she wouldn’t stop her perpetual grin. I was always too afraid to ask her why she never let the smile slip from her face but I decided that this Christmas I would. I had asked my mother about it once. All she did was shake her head and look away.
“I've never seen her without a smile on her face. Now, be good and don't ask her about it.” And my mother left it there.
We pulled up at her house and my stomach dropped. Any courage I had in asking her melted away as she was already at the door with a massive grin on her face. It had unnerved me since I could crawl and it still did now. Her teeth weren’t even particularly nasty. I mean, sure, they were a little brown and yellow but they weren’t disgusting to look at. It was the way her wrinkled, thin skin drew all the way up to her eyes yet, despite this, the actual smile never reached her eyes. I couldn’t describe what was in her eyes as I gazed into them now. Something akin to regret as she stared straight back at me. We got out of the car and I pulled out my phone and started playing on it in an attempt to slow my racing heart.
“Mum.” My mother greeted her with a big smile of her own, wrapping her in a gentle hug. Grandmother was close to ninety now so everyone had to be very tender.
“Hello, pumpkin.” She replied in her guttural croak. “Let’s get you all inside, it’s bloody freezing out here.” She huffed a laugh and we followed her in with our bags. I only had my backpack with me as I stepped into the hallway. Just as I remembered it; ugly and creepy.
“Why don’t you go and put your bag upstairs, lovie?” Grandmother said over her shoulder to me. I nodded silently and went upstairs to my room. It had always been my room and before that, it had been my grandfather’s study. When he died, all of his belongings were burned. I never asked about that either. The room was bare now other than the single bed and a small bedside table. I despised the room. It felt so… disconnected. I dropped my backpack on the floor by the bed and sat on it. Maybe I should speak to Grandmother this year. I was twelve, I was mature, practically an adult that was a little on the short side. I could take whatever she had to say. I could handle it. I was wrong.
It was the day before Christmas Eve. I was still going to to stick with my plan of talking to Grandmother but I wanted to do it before Christmas Day. That way, if I upset her, she would have a few days to cool off so Christmas Day wouldn't be awkward. I hoped, anyway. Mother and Father had left to go get some last minute things from the shop in town. This was my opportunity.
I peered at Grandmother from where I was laying on the floor on my front, a book laid out with me. She was smiling, as always, as she did a crossword.
“Hey, Grandmother?” A weak start. I felt foolish as she looked up.
“Yes, lovie?” She beamed at me. It was a rarity for me to actually initiate conversation willingly with her. The smile might actually be a genuine one. I ruined it.
“Why do you always smile?” Though the smile never dropped, her eyes looked different.
“Never felt a reason to frown.” She tried to chuckle.
“Aren't your cheeks sore?” I asked. Curiosity was starting to get the better of me.
“Not at all. In fact, people should smile more, I think,” she defended.
“Yeah but I've never seen you stop smiling. It's just… weird to see someone so happy all the time.” Her response surprised me and should have told me to leave well alone.
“When you've seen what I've seen, dear, you appreciate the goodness in life. Even when something is ripped away from you, you must always see goodness in everything. And be good yourself.” It almost stunned me to silence but I was bitter.
“Everyone always tells me to be good. I don't see how I can be good all the time, it's impossible. One thing that's good for someone is bad for someone else.” I complained.
“You must be good!” She barked. “You must!” I was afraid. She saw this and her gaze softened. It wasn't her tone that scared me. It was the fear in her eyes and she clearly got angry with her perpetual smile.
“Or else Santa won't bring you any presents,” she explained with a little laugh. “Enough, now, dear, your Grandmother is tired. I'm going to go to bed, you let your parents know where I am when they're back.” It was only seven o'clock. She forced herself out of her armchair and inched upstairs without another look at me. I had already decided what I'd do tomorrow. Snooping.
Mother and Father got back about twenty minutes later and asked where Grandmother was. I told them she went to bed early.
“I suppose she is getting on a bit, love.” Father shrugged.
“I suppose. Was she just tired?” Mother was looking at me suspiciously.
“I don't know, she just said she was going to bed.” I lied, trying to look innocent. She pursed her lips at me.
“You better not have said something to her,” she warned. “Mum is getting old now, she needs as little stress as possible.”
“Don't worry, love, I'm sure they didn't mean it. Did you?” Father looked pointedly at me.
“No, I didn't do anything.”
“Santa Claus is still watching, you know, if you're being naughty now, you won't get your presents.” Father chided. I sighed.
“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make her upset.”
“It’s okay, just go up and apologise now, okay? Dinner will be ready in about half an hour, we're just having pasta tonight.” I nodded and got to my feet, avoiding Mother's gaze. I went upstairs and paused at Grandmother's door. What if she was still really mad at me? I wondered if she slept with a smile on her face too. I knocked, wanting to see.
“Come in.” I heard from within. Opening the door, I saw her sitting up in bed with photos on her lap.
“Grandmother?” I mumbled.
“Come here, dear, sit by me.” Hesitantly, I obeyed. “These photographs are of me when I was younger.” They were old and sepia toned but I could still recognise my grandmother. She was young, maybe a year or so younger than me. What surprised me was that she wasn't smiling. Grandmother noticed me staring.
“I didn't always used to smile.” She beamed at me. “When I was a girl, I was a little toerag, no lie about that.” I chuckled with her. “I was always in trouble for one thing or another. I used to pull my sister's hair and pull up my mother's flowers. I was an awful child.” She sobered slightly. “This photo was taken a few weeks before Christmas. I was ten at the time. It was Christmas morning, very early in the morning. I was up before anyone else and wanted to open all of the presents and keep them for myself.” I prayed nothing would interrupt her now. “I tiptoed into the living room. I wanted to see Santa Claus and brag to my sister that I had met him. When I went in… I saw him.” My excitement was over-brimming.
“What was he like?” I whispered with fascination. Her eyes were frightened.
“Unlike anything I could imagine.” My wonder turned to horror soon after. “My sister was lying at its feet. It saw me and placed a finger against its smile. It told me to ‘be good’ and to ‘always smile’. Or else.”
“Or else what?” I whimpered. Grandmother looked at me.
“Don't get up on Christmas morning. Wait for your parents to come get you. Do not get out of bed in the night.” She showed me another photo and I saw the marked change in where her sullen sulky face suddenly was replaced by a constant smile. “Now, go get some dinner.” I was dismissed. Shakily, I left the bedroom without saying good night. Was that really why she always smiled? Because a monster told her to? Santa Claus was something from a nightmare? As I walked down the hallway, I looked at the decorations I passed. Some were little jolly fat men in red suits. That was the Santa Claus I knew. When I reached the top of the stairs, I heard my parents speaking. I squatted down on a step and listened.
“I'm sure they meant no harm.” Father defended me.
“You don't understand, Mother is coming unhinged! The last few years she's been spouting nonsense about being good to me and telling me not to let our child out of bed on Christmas morning until it was gone seven in the morning.” Wait, what?
“Look, she's an old lady, humour her for now, okay?”
“She's gone mad, honestly. She was fine before I was pregnant.”
“That's harsh, that's your own mother.” Mother sighed.
“I know. Just a few years of pent up frustration. I was never allowed out of bed before seven either. It's silly that I'm still mad about that. It just feels like she's taking over my parenting.”
“Shh, it's okay. Look, dinner is almost done, let's talk about this later.” When neither spoke about Grandmother for a while, I went downstairs feeling a little better. My parents just thought Grandmother was a little mad in her old age. Or that it was a deeply set behaviour from years ago. I decided I'd do some research the next day to find out once and for all. And if I was positive everything was okay… I'd go and meet Santa Claus myself.
When I woke up the next morning, I was feeling better. I had already made up my mind that Grandmother had made it up to scare me or that she had had a nightmare one night that had been all too real for her. I smiled at my parents as I ate some breakfast and I hugged Grandmother as I went to her bookcases and scanned the titles. I was looking for something psychology based. I had a good reading grade at school so I was confident I'd be able to understand what they were saying. Grandmother didn't have any books on those. I decided I'd go to the town library to find out more. I told my parents where I was going and headed out.
It was cold and crisp out but it wasn't snowing. The grass crunched a little from frost as I walked over it and went into town. It wasn't that busy since it was Christmas Eve but the supermarkets were bustling. The library, on the other hand, was practically empty. I was almost surprised it was open. I glanced at the closing times when I went in. I had two hours to find something.
I went straight to the Psychology department and browsed some of them. Once I'd found two or three books I thought would be interesting, I sat at a table and began skimming. One was about the content and consequences of dreams. A lot about hallucinations and some nightmares causing phobias but nothing helpful. Another book was about mental illness, especially with birth. It was useless to me. The third book was about environmental effects on the human mind. One chapter had what I needed.
“Another factor that can affect the human mind and its memory is a traumatic experience of some kind; these are particularly common in children that have exposed to something frightening or have experienced abuse. Physical or sexual abuse often proves to be too much for a child's brain to comprehend, so their mind replaces the memory with something monstrous and nightmarish.”
That had to be it. All I had to do was find out if Grandmother had witnessed anything traumatic in her childhood and I would have my answer. I asked the lady at the reception desk for newspaper clippings from the year my grandmother would have been 10. She'd lived in this town all her life so I didn't have to worry about using the slow computers to find records from other towns.
I sat and paged through all of the major newspaper headlines for Christmas time and then the New Year. Nothing whatsoever. A thought came to me and I scanned all the obituaries. I didn't know my grandmother's sister's forename but if I could find the surname then that would be solved. Still nothing. I sighed. Mother told me she'd died when she was very young but there was no record. It was like she'd disappeared. My eyes bulged for a moment and I flipped to the missing person's section. There. She looked similar to Grandmother but was a little younger. She went missing when she was seven. Now I just had to figure out what my Grandmother saw that night that caused her to go missing. Maybe a burglar.
The library was just closing as I left and the streets were oddly busier. I got home a little late because of this but my parents barely noticed. Dinner was already in the oven for a slow cook. They greeted me absent-mindedly and I sat at the table. Grandmother was nowhere to be seen.
“What happened to your aunt, Mother?” I asked, no longer afraid of making her mad. My need for answers was too much to handle now.
“What?” She snapped at me, turning from the counter.
“I know that she went missing when she was a kid. What happened?” I tried to show her that I wasn't leaving until I got an answer.
“I'm not going to talk about this, you've stressed your grandmother out enough already, I don't need the same treatment.”
“I want to know!” I exclaimed.
“Don’t you speak to me like that-”
“Tell them, dear.” Father interrupted. “You’re not going to give up, are you?” I shook my head when he looked at me. “There you go, then.”
Mother gaped for a few moments before sighing.
“You’ve got some nerve pulling this stunt on Christmas Eve.” She growled. “My aunt was seven when she went missing. Your grandmother was never the same afterwards; she’d just lost a sister, after all. She was found dead a year later in the chimney…” She swallowed. “My own grandmother told me that when her body was found… She was smiling but had no teeth.” It sent a shiver down my spine. “A local man was tried and found guilty for it, so at least it was solved in the end.” I nodded and didn’t say anything else. Grandmother must have seen the man murdering her sister when she was only ten. That was it. I could go to bed without wondering what was waiting in the living room on Christmas morning. Mother and Father didn't speak to me again unless necessary that night and Grandmother didn't comment on the silence when she came down for dinner. When dinner was over, Grandmother excused herself early, saying she would see us all at seven in the morning. Again, our curfew was decided to be seven. I didn’t argue though. When she left, Mother turned to me.
“Don’t come down before seven. Just this last time, okay? For your Grandmother.” She knew my plan then. I nodded anyway.
“Okay, sure.” Next year I would be cleared to go down before seven. I cleaned up after dinner and we watched television for a few more hours. At about eleven, we all went upstairs to bed. As I opened my door, I made eye contact with my mother. She watched me for a moment more before entering her room. Whether it was a warning or just curiosity, I didn’t know. I ignored her and went to bed.
So the mystery was solved. Grandmother witnessed the murder of her sister and her mind replaced the murderer with something much worse. Despite the discovery, I smiled softly. My detective work had paid off. Santa was still real. And I knew why Grandmother always smiled. As twisted as it was, it was almost exciting to think something so horrible happened in my family. I’d tell my best friend about it. Maybe write a story.
I daydreamed about what I’d write until it was very early morning. Oddly, I wasn’t tired. I rolled over and looked at the time on the alarm clock. It was half past three. An idea crept into my head. I tried not to smile as I pushed the duvet off and placed my feet on the cold wooden floor. I tiptoed over to my door and pulled it open as silently as I could. My heart was in my throat. I moved down the hallway, extra quietly in front of my family’s doors, and sneaked down the stairs. The presents were already there and I grinned. I wouldn’t unwrap any yet; I just wanted to look at them and grab a drink. One step creaked when I stood on it and I flinched, frozen. I didn’t hear anything upstairs so I continued downstairs. The floor was cold and it was very dark. I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a glass and filled it with milk.
As I poured, I heard something in the living room. I turned around, eyes wide. I couldn’t see anyone. I put my milk down and inched closer to the living room, flattening myself against the wall. Peering in, I saw where the sound was coming from; the fireplace. I couldn’t hope to contain the smile on my face. Santa must have forgotten a present. I could give him my milk! I quickly grabbed it and waited by the door, beaming from ear to ear. Other children dreamed of this moment and I could finally experience it! Ash started falling from the chimney, it was all that I could do to contain my excitement. Soon, I’d see the boots pushing through. Or maybe his head! I was gripping that glass of milk so tightly, I thought it might shatter. And then there was something pushing through the fireplace. I squinted to see it, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. It was…
A gnarly, pale, claw-like hand reached forwards. Even from where I was standing, I could see the sharp nails on the ends of the fingers. I was no longer clutching the glass of milk with excitement—I was clutching it with fear. Another arm crept down, long and thin, and then the head appeared. It was hairless and covered in pale skin that was as wrinkly as my grandmother. Where there should have been eyes were only dark sockets and it had no nose. It straightened up once it had exited the fireplace. Despite it being hunched over, it stood at around six and half foot. If it stood tall, it would be seven foot easily. What stood before me was a giant, skeletal, human-like nightmare. The worst thing about it all was the smile. A perpetual grin that was filled with endless teeth. These teeth were all different. There was a mix of molars, incisors and canines, a mix of sharp teeth and rotted teeth. It was as though it had been stealing teeth from anything it could find. It sniffed the air with a nose it didn’t have and then its head whipped over to me.
I dropped my glass of milk and its grin somehow widened. It crept forwards as the milk and glass spilled on the floor, barely missing my foot. I whimpered as it got closer and closer. Its mouth widened and I could see two more rows of teeth behind the first set. A raspy sound came out of its throat. It was going to speak.
“Have you… been naughty… or nice?” It cackled as I peed myself, tears running down my face. There was a creak on the stair and both the creature and I turned. Grandmother was on the stairs, her hair down and she was in her nightgown still. She wasn’t smiling. Her face was one of utter horror and for some reason, that scared me even more.
“Oh…” The creature laughed. “It’s you…” It moved towards her. “I thought I told you to smile.”
“Go upstairs, dear. Go to bed.” Grandmother said to me, not taking her eyes off of ‘Santa Claus’. “Don’t come down until your parents get you. And whatever you do… Keep smiling.” My mouth seemed to smile of its own accord and I sprinted up the stairs, my pee running down my leg still. I didn’t bother to be quiet and I dove into bed, sobbing with a smile.
I didn’t hear Grandmother come back upstairs. It felt like hours had passed before I even heard another sound. My desperately scrunched up eyes shot open when I heard fingernails on my door, scratching and scraping down the old wood. I whimpered and chanced a glance at the door from my bed. The sound was moving down the door, down, down, down to the floorboards. I could see a shadow under the door, illuminated by the landing light. And then fingernails. The long, rotting, disgusting, bloodstained fingernails scratched along my floor under my door, as though trying to dig their way in. I hid under my duvet, praying for it to leave me alone. As abruptly as it had begun, it stopped. Peering over my blanket, I shrank back against my pillow in pure fear. 'Be Good' was etched in my floorboards. I fainted from the shock.
When I woke up, I fixed the smile onto my face again. I heard my parents get up and they came to my room before they went downstairs. The scratches were gone. I was scared of what I would find when we went down but there was no Grandmother, no creature, no broken glass of milk. Did I dream it? I blinked. What had happened? Mother went upstairs and looked for Grandmother. She was missing. Christmas Day was spent searching for her, as was Boxing Day, and the day after, and the week after, and the month after. For as long as I was in Grandmother’s house, I stared at the fireplace, thinking I could hear the ash falling again. I prepared myself to see the arm reaching down again to finish the job. When I returned home, I didn’t tell anyone about what happened or what I discovered at the library.
One year later, Grandmother was found in the chimney. I overheard the conversation between my parents and the officers who found her. She was smiling and she had no teeth. I never stopped smiling again. I never believed in Santa Claus again. Years later, I decided to write about it. It took me weeks to decide whether I should post it online. I decided that I would. Remember: Never stop smiling. Santa Claus isn’t real.