I felt the resistance underfoot before the object crumbled under my step. I felt along the wall for the light switch to see what I had crushed. Shards of polished red metal were embedded in my woolen sock.
“Huh, one of the red balls fell off the tree. How did it roll into the kitchen?” was my only thought at the time before making my morning coffee.
It was odd that the ornament was on the floor instead of the low branch where I had hung it. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought had the incident been isolated.
Bubbles of milky cocoa broke the surface as the evening’s drink waited for Ron’s arrival. The bottle of peppermint schnapps stood ready. The final prep was to turn on the Christmas tree lights. But when I flipped the switch, a section of lights remained dark. As I moved closer, I could see one branch resting on top of another. Digging through the mass of needles and novelty ornaments, I found the branch torn away from the trunk. The papier-mache angel hanging from the bough could not have been the cause. My further inspection discovered scratches on the trunk deep enough to reveal the white wood beneath.
An animal! An animal was inhabiting my Christmas tree. I hurried to the kitchen to pull a flashlight from the drawer. I inspected the tree looking for glowing eyes reflecting back the focused beam of light. But I found no furry squatter. What if the critter had wandered to another part of the house? A check under the sofa revealed only my poor housekeeping. Surely if an animal were living in my home, the pantry would be the promised land. Tubes of easy-to-open Pringles, oat bars with morsels of fruit and chocolate would be its version of Christmas. But I hadn’t noticed any other disturbances in the house. Only the tree showed signs of a destructive visitor.
Ron’s knock at the backdoor ended my contemplations of animals curled up in the walls.
“My Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas,” Ron announced as he walked through the back door. “What’s wrong with the Christmas tree?”
“I think there’s an animal in the house. It scratched up the tree and broke one of the branches,” I answered, gesturing at the tree with the flashlight.
Ron leaned into the tree to examine the damage. “Raccoon maybe, or opossum,” he commented, more to himself than to me. “I’ll take a look around the house. Why don’t you make us our nightcaps?”
I could hear Ron opening closets and moving furniture while I ladled the cocoa into our mugs. Steam wafted from the surface as I poured peppermint schnapps into both. I poured a second shot into mine.
I set the mugs on the coffee table as Ron joined me.
“The house is critter-free,” he announced as he grabbed the handle of his mug. “Maybe the damage happened at the tree lot, and you just didn’t notice.”
I wanted to believe that was true, so I took my place next to Ron on the sofa and took a generous sip of the spiked cocoa. Ron put his arm around me as I switched to the Hallmark channel.
I was still awake at 2:00 am, listening to Ron’s ragged snoring. Even over that, every creak and ping and groan reached my ears. Then I heard the rustle – of branches scraping mirrored metal and a faint tinkle of a novelty Christmas bell. I slid out of bed and clicked on my phone’s flashlight. As I rounded the threshold of the bedroom, I heard the rustling again and thought I saw movement in needles. But there were still too many shadows to be sure. My steps became faster as I feared the creature would return to its undiscovered hiding place before I had a chance to see it. I rounded the tree to face the spot where the broken branch still slumped. I felt something underfoot, but before I could register what it was, a terrible yowl erupted. The yowl was piercing as if an animal’s leg had been snapped into a trap. Fearing that I had enraged some wild, rabid thing, I ran back to the bedroom and slammed the door.
“Why’d you slam the door?” Ron asked with part of his face still buried in the pillow.
“Didn’t you hear that?” I asked, nearly yelling at his sleepiness.
“The door slam. Yeah. What’s wrong?” he asked.
“No, that scream. The animal scream.” I replied.
“No, babe. I woke up when you slammed the door. Come back to bed. I’ll check for the critter in the morning.”
The closed door and Ron’s arm across my chest comforted me enough to allow sleep. When I woke, the closed bedroom door reminded me of my fear, but the memory of that animal cry had deteriorated. Ron was no longer in bed, and I heard the sound of cabinets closing and plates clattering. I rose to join Ron and pour myself a cup of mind-clearing coffee.
As I strode past the Christmas tree, I felt something jump onto my foot. Then scratch deep into the tender spots between my toes, and a feeling of teeth around my pinky toe.
“It’s here!” I screamed. “It scratched my foot.”
Ron sprinted around the wall that separated the kitchen from the living room.
“What is it? Are you hurt?” he asked.
My breaths now short and sharp, I inched my foot closer so that he could assess the damage. It wasn’t just pain radiating from the wounds on my toes, a venom too was rising through my legs. A shiver in my bones spread to a flush in my cheeks and fever behind my eyes.
When I awoke, I was in an unfamiliar room in unfamiliar clothes. I sat in a wheelchair with limbs too heavy to move. I slumped forward to assess the damage to my foot, but canvas shoes with the laces removed covered both feet. I bent further to allow my hand to reach the left foot. The shoe came away without difficulty, and my foot was unscarred.