I love the holidays. It’s perhaps my favorite time of the year. Sure we have summer when the days are long and the weather hot. You can get a nice tan and lounge on the beach during vacation and there are plenty of women on the beach to provide a very pleasant sight for the eyes. Summer’s great but the fall/winter holidays trump all of that. Halloween is fun, Thanksgiving is good, but nothing beats Christmas. The snow, the music, the movies, just everything about it is spectacular. Well, they were anyway. I still enjoy them all but there have been a major dampening of spirits and after what happened last year, I'm a bit weary of the idea of receiving gifts, especially from a Secret Santa.
For those who don't know what that is, Secret Santa works like this: you pull a name from a hat and that name becomes the person you buy a gift for. You keep it a secret until the day the gifts are exchanged and then everyone finds out who the Secret Santa’s were. It's supposed to be a fun game for Christmas. Perhaps there are even variants of it for other December-centric holidays but I really don’t know. Anyway the fun for me wore when I got a gift that was far from jolly.
It was last year around December 1st when I received my first gift. I was just sitting on my sofa reading a news article on my tablet. I heard the doorbell which sent my tiny terrier, Terror, into a frenzy. He's a White West Highland Terrier and weighed a massive six pounds. He certainly suffered from an inferiority complex, thinking he could take on a full sized Mastiff if given the chance. I shooed him away from the door as I answered it, but he still poked his tiny head around the corner of the living room, silently woofing at the offending visitor.
I opened the door to find a UPS driver, an awkward man with several days' worth of beard growth and a shirt that may have been worn one too many shifts without a proper cleaning. In fact it appeared to be ill fitting, as if hand me downs from a much smaller man. A Santa hat rested on his head but something told me this was not by choice. It must have been a 'be jolly or else' situation. He handed me the box and signature pad without a single word. I handed him the tablet back and wished him a Merry Christmas; yes I am one of those people who do that regardless of how PC it’s not. I don't care. If you don't like it. Too bad. Anyway, I'm pretty sure he said something to me in return but the door was shut before it could reach my ears. Terror followed me, curious by the item I now held.
Like many people I do a lot of my Christmas shopping online. The loud, obnoxious, spiteful people inching through malls and parking lots were not who I want to be around during the holidays. I preferred to keep any interaction with negative people down to a minimum. Plus I get pretty good deals from the internet as well and a far better selection since the stock was not necessarily limited to the size of the store. I had done some ordering around black Friday and cyber Monday and was expecting a shipment and assumed that's what this was. At least until I examined the sender I saw that there was none.
"Huh." I said, looking at Terror who was anxiously wagging his tail. The tiny black nose twitched frantically as it tried to take in every smell emanating from the box. "'What do you think’s inside?" I asked him without any expectation of getting an answer. He just looked blankly at me his tail wagging feverishly.
Removing the tape I opened the box to find another box inside. This one was festooned with bright red paper with the phrase 'ho ho ho' printed all over it with a white ribbon tied into a bow. I thought this may have been one of my gifts I ordered but there was no packing slip and no way to know who I ordered it from. Also I didn't remember requesting to have the boxes pre-wrapped. Sure it saved time but it was an unnecessary expense. I pulled it out of the shipping box and tossed it onto the couch. It was wrapped beautifully and I would have left it alone but in order to find out what it was I had to open it up. Sadly I knew that I would never be able to rewrap the item with the same level of care as the one who handled it.
Before I opened it, I noticed something tucked neatly underneath the large ribbon. Curious, I removed a small, red card. Flipping it open it read: "From your Secret Santa." This was even more puzzling. Apparently this wasn't something I ordered since Geek.com or Amazon wouldn't send their shipments prepackaged without packing slips or labeled as Secret Santa without my go ahead. It was then I assumed it must have been a wrong delivery. I set the box down on my coffee table to check the address on the shipping box. Terror was on his hind legs sniffing like mad; desiring to know what was inside.
The shipping box was just a plain brown cardboard box, nothing special. The opening had no other writing on it other than my name and address. I grimaced and tossed the box away for later recycling. I picked up the card once more and stared at the short message, 'From your Secret Santa'. I looked at Terror who offered no other insight than: are you going to pet me or not? Relenting to the mystery of the box I decided it to find out what was inside.
Underneath the wrapping was another plain brown box, found at any store that sold shipping supplies. It too was sealed by a length of masking tape. Tearing that off, I unfolded the top of the box and found yet another box surround by newspaper. It seemed with my Secret Santa enjoyed in matryoshka dolls or had an annoying sense of humor. I tossed the box alongside with the other box and undid the tape of my new smaller box.
It was when I opened that one I became a bit confused. It didn't make any sense of what I was seeing but as I delved deeper, there was a dawning realization that made my stomach drop. I stepped away from the box as if it were going to bite off my hand with one hungry bite and couldn't help but stare at the contents. Part of me thought it was a joke, some elaborate plan crafted by my friends. I was certain that underneath there would be a letter or a message with one of my buddies shooting me the finger or something. I would have relished that but there wasn't. This wasn't a joke. This was something very, very different. Something horrible.
Inside were dozens of photos. I didn't think anything of it at first, but as I examined them I noticed that each photo contained an image of me. There was one of me at the coffee shop and another with me waiting for the bus. I found a photo of me at the bank and another of me at the gym. And these were not posed photos but instead candids, ones taken without me knowing.
While I examined the photos I noticed something unusual. While the top layer appeared to be recent photos, the further down I went, the older they became; and the younger I became. The change in age was almost staggering as I saw photos instantly shift from last year at the age of twenty five to when I was just graduating college, then high school and younger. I briefly relived my sixteenth birthday when I inherited my Grandpa's old car. I was twelve when I was at bat in my summer baseball league. I was ten and riding my bike down the street with my friends. I was nine and celebrating my birthday in the park, surrounded by friends and family. Down and down I went through the years like some horrible “This is your life” moment until I came finally to the final photo.
The last photo at the very bottom of the box was taped so that it didn't shift around like the others so that when I emptied out the box it would be clearly visible and not lost in the shuffle. That photo was me as a child, probably around seven or six. I was sitting on a swing, mid ascent with my father standing behind me, arms frozen outward. The photo, like the others, was taken from the distance, the viewer no doubt hidden from sight. Around my childish face was a crudely drawn heart and I noticed that there was something staining the photo but did not desire to investigate further. I was already certain I knew what it was. That was when I called the cops.
The police arrived ten minutes later. Two officers, a detective, and a forensics investigator entered my apartment and once inside I promptly locked the closed the door behind them. I had explained the situation over the phone as best I could but fear drove my words and I spoke in an uneven, hurried speech. With notebook at the ready, Detective Alverez asked me to repeat my story so that he could have it for his notes. I tried to explain as best as I could, forcing myself to speak much more slowly. Though scared I managed to speak a bit more evenly; the shot of Jack Daniels I had after my call helped smooth out some of those fraying nerves. I'm sure Alverez could smell the alcohol on my breath but with the evidence in the technician's hands and my terrified demeanor, I was still considered a reliable witness.
"So you have no idea who sent this box to you?" Alverez asked. I nodded emphatically.
"That's right. It was dropped off by a UPS driver." I told him. The detective scribbled the notes as I spoke.
"Could you identify the driver?" He asked. I considered the man that dropped off the package but it was just a blur to me. All I could remember was the Santa hat on his head. I closed my eyes, thinking back to just before I opened the door. I was decorating my tree, Terror practically asleep on the sofa with a rawhide still in his mouth. I heard the knock on the door and then went to see who it was. The only reason I opened the door was because it was a delivery driver. I opened the door and then saw a man, heavy set with a beard but there wasn't anything beyond very basic features that stood out. It was then it occurred to me that there was a camera in the lobby. There had been thefts last year so the building owners decided to install a fairly obvious camera to discourage thieves.
"Nothing other than what I told you," I said, "But there is a camera in the lobby. You should be able to see him." The detective nodded, his expression never shifting from one of complete placidity.
Looking to the tech, Alverez asked, "Anything on the box?" The technician shook his head.
"Not sure. I'm pretty sure we have some DNA inside though. I'll have to do some tests on it." He said. My stomach churned violently as I knew exactly what he was talking about.
"Can you tell me anyone who may want to harm you or anyone who has expressed any interest in you that's outside of the norm?" Detective Alverez asked. I shook my head. There was a woman I had been seeing for the past month or so, but she was out of the country until the week before Christmas on business. Even if it were her, how did she get her hands on photos of me when I was a child?
I provided any other information that I could and Alverez said he would look into those tapes to try and locate the driver so they could narrow down their search. He actually had spoken with the landlords not too long ago regarding some reports of break and entering via the fire escapes not too long ago. After that the technician took my prints to rule me out of any they may find and then they left shortly afterwards telling me they would be in touch. I thanked them and promptly locked the door behind them.
After they left, the apartment suddenly felt far less welcoming as it once did. The Christmas joy was sucked out of my home. This apartment, my home was supposed to be my sanctuary, a place that I was meant to be safe and was now sullied by some psychopath with a camera. Terror hopped up onto the couch next to me sensing my unease. His stubby tail wagged as he checked on me, making sure I was alright. I wasn't, far from it, but I scratched his head and he panted happily.
The evening went slowly as I kept staring at my phone waiting for the detective to call me though I was certain I wouldn’t hear anything that night. However each time I checked, I saw it had only been a few minutes since the last time I looked. So, I tried to distract myself as best I could. I started watching several Christmas movies but nothing could really hold my attention for very long. I couldn't stop thinking about those photos. They were out of my apartment but the images stuck with me. The pictures of me as a boy aging to adulthood, or backwards if you view it from that perspective, left me feeling very uncomfortable. Terror had fallen asleep underneath the Christmas tree during the transition from It's Wonderful Life to The Santa Clause. I envied the little pup, wishing the world could be so simple. I forced myself to eat dinner, knowing I should be hungry, but really tasted nothing I ate. I took another shot, or three, of whiskey before deciding to call it night.
I didn't bother to sleep in my bed that night. While it may seem ridiculous I felt that confining myself within a smaller room was a bad idea. I guess it stems back from fear of some boogieman in my closet or under my bed. I just felt better being in my living room with my TV constantly playing something. So I grabbed a pillow and blanket and crashed on the sofa. I remembered being curled up with my arm around Terror, after a brief stint following me around the apartment, and falling asleep to the sounds of bumbling burglars and a screaming ten year old.
I woke up sometime in the early morning and immediately suspected that something wasn't right. Terror was still fast asleep, snoring louder than any dog his size should. I was feeling slightly groggy, my sleep being less than sound, but something felt off about my apartment. The first thing I noticed was that the TV was off. The last thing I remembered was the movie that was playing. It was on cable and my TV didn't have an inactivity function that forced it to shut off automatically. Also, the lights in my apartment were off except for the tree and lights I hung around my windows. It would have been a nice picture if not so unsettling.
I sat up, my movement waking Terror from his sound sleep. His drowsy state lasted only as long as his yawn. Within seconds he was jumping off the sofa and sniffing the carpet. At first I thought this was because the little guy had to pee but something caught my eye to convince me otherwise. Underneath my tree was a Christmas present that shouldn't be there. I only had a few gifts underneath it, one’s I wrapped, so I knew that something wasn't right. Terror's nose led him to that box and instantly his focus was solely on it. It was the same way he behaved when I got the first box. My brain, the gears still sluggish from waking, thought of the gift I received earlier that evening and I was on my feet in a flash.
Someone had turned off my light and my television. It was possible I may have turned off the TV in my sleep but the light switch was across the room and the last thing I wanted was to sleep with the lights off. As the thought came to the forefront of my mind, I was on red alert. Eyes darting back and forth I searched for some indication that I wasn't alone. I ran for the door and saw that it was closed, the deadbolt set. I didn't have a chain lock or slide lock, only the deadbolt but it was set firmly. I checked my kitchen and living room windows and they were closed and locked.
The next place to check was my bedroom, but I felt an uneasy pang as my stomach roiled at the thought. The lights were off, the curtains shut. I glanced through the open doorway and saw only darkness. I moved for the living room light switch, flipped it, but nothing happened. I looked over the lamp and quickly discovered that the lightbulb had been removed. This was a clear indication that someone was in my apartment.
I wasted no time, snatching up Terror and running for the door front door but as I tried the lock it refused to move. I twisted as hard as I could but it would not budge. The same was with the doorknob. The locks were stuck somehow and a cold sweat broke across my body as I realized that I was trapped inside. I pounded on the door, screamed through the wood hoping that someone would hear me but there was nothing. It was then I realized that I had no neighbors. They had moved out last month and no one had moved in yet. Quickly I turned, looking into what was once my sanctuary.
I looked over at counter where I always put my keys and wallet and noticed that they were both gone. I then looked by the sofa at the end table and discovered my phone had been taken as well. It was the first time I cursed myself for not getting a landline. Whoever was in my home had gone to great lengths at keeping me isolated from the rest of the world. I was on a ten story walk up with no way out except the fire escape in my bedroom. But that brought forth another terrifying realization. There weren't many places one could hide: the bathroom, the closet and my bedroom. I had to check them, to find this intruder before he found me. The first place I'd check was the closet since it was just the closest to me. Of course I had no weapons so I moved into the kitchen and grabbed a knife from my butcher's block. I wasn't a fighter or really ever been in a real fight, but I'm pretty sure I could stick someone if they were intending to kill me. So with Terror in one arm, clutched to my chest, and the knife in the other I approached the door.
My heart raced, my hands slick with sweat. I was terrified that someone was about to jump out at me. Maybe all of this was just an elaborate prank. I like pranks. If this was, man it would have been a good one, but I knew deep inside my heart that it wasn't. Someone had been watching me since I was a kid and I had a very real notion that this person was inside of my home just waiting for me to come to him.
I moved slowly, careful not to give away my position. The only benefit I had was that floor didn't creak. Well, it was both a benefit and hindrance as I didn't hear whoever was creeping around my apartment when I was asleep. Regardless I moved to the closet and with a trembling hand I set Terror on the floor and wrapped my hand around the doorknob. With a deep, uneasy breath, I yanked the door open and unleashed a fierce scream bringing the knife down ... on my coat. The closet was empty save for a few board games and some outerwear. It was a small space and really an unlikely place to hide if you weighed more than a buck twenty or over six feet tall.
I closed the door and looked down at Terror who just stared at me, panting and tail wagging furiously. I moved further into the living room where there were two ways to go. One was to the right leading to the bathroom, the other forward leading into my bedroom. Picking up Terror once more, feeling less uneasy when I held him, I approached the bathroom, taking slow and very careful steps. The only light was coming from my Christmas tree and though it was dim, it still was enough to guide me. The hallway was dim but I could still see into the bathroom, my reflection startling me for moment before realizing I was looking at my mirror.
I peered around the comer of the door but it was far too dark. The ambient light from the tree was being blocked by me. I had to step inside in order to get more light but that would mean I would be in there alone. Of course I couldn't just assume that everything would be alright and call it a day. Someone was in my apartment and I was trapped. I had to know. With another deep, but trembling breath I jumped into the bathroom and saw... nothing. The shower door was open, and even if it weren't the doors were clear. There was no one.
That meant that this person had to be in my bedroom. As was my escape. There was a fire escape outside of my window. If I could get into the room, unlock the window, open it and climb out before whoever was no doubt in there could get me then I was free. This of course was a ridiculous notion as there were about five steps before I could even open the window but I didn't have a choice. If I wanted to get out, I would have to try for the fire escape.
I looked to Terror who cocked his head curiously. I said nothing, only mentally telling him that it would be fine. Of course I was lying and I knew he couldn't neither hear nor understand me, but it made me feel marginally better. The bedroom was to the right of the hallway. I moved slowly, my legs reluctant to go any faster than a few inches at a time. As I approached the corner I could see into my bedroom, the darkness almost entirely filling the space. The blackout curtains, which were initially a godsend, were now a blight upon my life. I couldn’t see anything. I know the layout of my room, a straight shot at an angle and as long as nothing was on the floor I could make it in about three big strides.
"Alright, Terror," I whispered. His ears perked up at my voice as he wagged his tail excitedly, "We run for the window and down the fire escape." I knew I was saying this for my own sake but Terror leaned in and kissed my cheek. "Thanks." With one more deep breath, my heart hurting from the incessant pounding in my chest and my body chilled by the layer of sweat that was quickly soaking through my shirt, I ran for the bedroom.
Bursting through the doorway I moved toward where I knew the windows were, slamming my leg against the bedframe in the process. I cursed and almost toppled forward but managed to keep on my feet. I knew something was wrong because the room smelled odd. I wasn't a neat freak by any means but I cleaned fairly regularly and washed my clothes every week. There was something different, something off about that space and I knew I had to get out of there. With my knife hand, I used my fingers to grip the curtains and pulled at them as hard as I could. The curtains parted but didn't fall from the wall as I was worried they might. It was clear I secured them very, very well. Regardless, I could now see the window and the fire escape outside through the cracks of the blinds.
As I slipped under the blinds to reach the window latch, I felt a sudden tug from behind, my shirt tightening against my body as I was yanked backwards. I clutched Terror tightly as I fell backwards against my bed. There was a loud grunting noise as a silhouette filled the space between me and the window. It was large, wide but I still couldn't make out a face. All I knew was that the smell I detected, the smell I knew was wrong, was coming from him.
Terror yipped at the figure, wriggling violently as he tried to attack. The figure lunged at me but I was faster. I rolled off the bed and he missed me by inches, but he managed to shoot out a hand, catching hold of my shirt once more and jerking me to the floor. I was faster but he had far more mass. I heard fabric tear but I fell back to the floor with a heavy thud. Out of pure reflex I swiped with the knife and heard the man yelp in pain. He released my shirt and I managed to scurry away from him, Terror yipping all the while.
I didn't dare look back, I only heard grunting and movement behind me. I barely managed to grab the doorknob and slam it shut with loud bang. Then, as quickly as I could, I brought up my foot and put all of my strength into a kick, snapping the handle from the door. I had a decent lead on him which meant that by the time I kicked off the doorknob, he had grabbed it from the other side and pulled, taking it with him revealing a small hole where the knob was but no way of getting out. The man screamed and me, pounding at the door that would not yield to him. Part of me wanted to shout taunts at him but I figured that wouldn't help, only make him angrier.
Of course I quickly learned that I wasn't as safe as I had hoped. You see he had started to throw himself against the door, kicking it, ramming it, the wood, or whatever it was, was beginning to give way. The front door was made of real wood, the interior doors were far from it. I looked around looking for someway way to get out, some way to escape but I was trapped. The only way out was the fire escape that was in the same room as the man who was beginning to break through the door. I looked at my front door but as I said it was far sturdier and unlike the bedroom door which was already collapsing inward, there was no way to could break this one down as it opened inward, not outward.
The man was grunting and screaming at me through a hole wide enough for a small child to slip through, and in the dim light of the Christmas tree, I came to a horrible realization: I knew this man. My memory of that night before came back and I remembered that this man, his beard, the now missing Santa hat, was the UPS driver. I screamed as the hole grew larger revealing more of this man. He started using his hands to pull at the edges of the door to make the gap wider. I held the knife out, screaming at him to stay back but the man simply pushed through the hole, the edges tearing at his clothes and skin. The shards left gashes against his face and arms, blood rolling down the fake wood in long crimson lines.
Terror barked and yapped, acting brave while I cowered against the front door. The man was almost through, the only thing stopping him was the bulge of his belly but even that was beginning to slip through. I had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. My heart thudded, stomach churned, I felt light headed as my body was trying to figure out how to respond. I wanted to fight, I wanted to faint, I wanted to run but my body refused to move. I was trapped by my own fear as this man slipped from my bedroom and into my living room. A wide, horribly jolly grin was pulled across his face, lips parting to reveal gnarled, yellow teeth.
"Stay back!" I screamed. Terror yipped in agreement but the man marched toward me rather than charge me, he moved with a dark confidence, an assuredness that he had won.
It was as he was only a dozen or so feet away from me that I heard a voice calling my name. It gave only a single order, a single word and I followed without question. I dropped to the floor and heard several loud pops. I screamed, feeling something small falling against my hand as it held it over my head. There was a brief silence before I heard a loud thud and a slight tremor as the floor shook followed by a pain wheezing.
"You alright?" The voice I recognized as Detective Alvarez.
"Yeah. I'm fine." I said as I looked up to see bullet holes in my front door. They were spaced oddly, but all were around the same level as he was clearly taking pot shots, only guessing at where to shoot. I glanced down at Terror who had taken to licking the sweat off of my cheeks and yipping happily.
When they finally managed to break the door I was met with the detective and several officers. Two of the officers rushed to the suspect who was nursing a stomach wound which was why he didn’t bother to flee; too much pain. I asked the detective how he knew I was in trouble. He told me that he had received an email from the landlords with the recordings and as they reviewed the video, they found the driver and wanted to show a picture to me. The rest was just dumb luck. He heard the commotion, heard me screaming and one thing led to another. And I couldn't have been more grateful.
The intruder was name Milton Harrison, a convicted and rather proficient child molester for someone his age. Apparently he had taken a shine to me growing up and had continued to watch me as I got older. Later when the police searched his place the found millions, literally millions of photos of me taken over almost 20 years. While I was asleep on the couch he came back used a trick with camera film and a lighter to jam the lock of my door, then he broke using the fire escape as he had during his test runs, got in and crept into my closet after setting up my gift. Once interrogated by police he admitted that once he was certain I was asleep, he was going to take me at knife point and intended on finally fulfilling his fantasies from so long ago.
The gift, I learned after his arrest, contained the very first photo he saw of me, the photo he took as the school photographer for my first grade school yearbook and with it was a very sharp knife.