Ho, Ho, Ho!
It was the night before Christmas and Danny Coyle was too excited to sleep. He squeezed his eyes shut and lay very still, but the oblivion he yearned for just wouldn’t come. He tried his best not to think about the miraculous visit that was fast approaching but his mind kept returning to it like a wiggly tooth your tongue just can’t leave alone. Danny was feverish with anticipation and his heart was pounding so hard he could actually feel it thumping in his chest as if it had a life of its own. He wondered if a seven-year-old boy had ever got so worked-up on Christmas Eve that he’d actually died.
Santa was out there somewhere, soaring through the night sky on his magic sleigh, bringing a sack full of gifts to every boy and every girl in the whole wide world. And soon – soon – he’d come to Danny’s house. Steering his reindeer to number 27, Nolan Street, they’d land on the roof with a clatter of hooves and a jingling of sleigh bells. Santa would find the sack bearing Danny’s name then climb on down the chimney and carefully lay out all of his presents on the sofa in the lounge like he did every year. Then he’d creep quietly upstairs to Danny’s room and leave a stocking filled with goodies at the end of his bed. This overstuffed stocking would be the first thing Danny saw when he woke up on Christmas morning – the starter to whet his appetite for the great feast of presents that awaited him downstairs.
Danny was always a bundle of nervous energy on Christmas Eve but the reason he was on the edge of hysteria this year could be explained in just two words: Lieutenant Danger. Danny had asked Santa to bring him the new Lieutenant Danger DVD, Triumph of the Malikons, and the new Lieutenant Danger annual, but the present he wanted more than anything else on his Christmas list was the Lieutenant Danger Combat Adventure Kit. The Combat Adventure Kit included a camouflage tactical vest with pouches for ammo, a Marine Corps cap, a plastic dagger, a pistol, binoculars and a compass. The very thought of The Combat Adventure Kit sent a paroxysm of joy coursing through Danny’s body. Because Danny knew that when he was dressed in the camouflage tactical vest and Marine Corps cap and had the dagger in his belt and the pistol in his hand, he wouldn’t just be playing at Lieutenant Danger anymore. He would be Lieutenant Danger.
Lieutenant Danger was an animated TV series for kids that had premiered that spring. Max Danger, the eponymous hero, was a square-jawed US Special Forces soldier. While on a top secret mission to the jungles of Borneo he’d witnessed the arrival of a powerful alien invasion fleet. The aliens were Malikons, flesh-eating monsters from a distant galaxy, intent on the conquest of Earth. In a wry homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers the Malikons were able to turn themselves into perfect replicas of any human being they touched – or rather, almost perfect replicas. Malikon impostors could still be identified by their diamond-shaped pupils, their black tongues, and the thick wiry hair growing in the palms of their hands, tell-tale features that they couldn’t change but could only do their best to disguise.
Lieutenant Danger was never able to convince the US government that the Malikon threat was real. In an ironic twist he was seen by the top brass as a troublemaker, a dangerous loose cannon. And so, week after week, he would perform death-defying feats to save the United States from the latest Malikon plot and receive only an angry dressing-down from the High Command for his pains. Most episodes ended with General Prendergast, the Lieutenant’s bête noir, blustering, ‘There’s no such thing as Malikons, Lieutenant Danger, it’s all in your mind!’
From the very first episode Danny had been hooked and every Saturday morning found him sitting cross-legged in front of the TV waiting impatiently for Lieutenant Danger to start. Danny was a hyperactive little boy who could rarely sit still for long, but during the half hour that the programme ran he didn’t move a muscle. He would stare fixedly at the screen, his mouth hanging open, spit bubbles popping on his lips. Not even candy could break the spell the programme cast over him and a chocolate bar would remain melting in limp fingers quite forgotten. Even when it finished he didn’t immediately rush off to play but carried on sitting there as if turning over in his mind the subtle implications of what he’d just seen.
Danny had been bitten by crazes before – basketball, WWE wrestling, Transformers – but this was on a different scale altogether. Danny became totally obsessed by Lieutenant Danger. He thought about little else, he talked about little else, he cared about little else. At school, no matter what subject the teacher gave the class for a story, Danny would always find a way – sometimes with incredible ingenuity – to write Lieutenant Max Danger and the Malikons into the action. And it was the same in Art class. When school broke up for Christmas and he brought home the paintings he’d done that term every one featured Max Danger shooting or stabbing a Malikon. Even the one entitled My Day at the Zoo had Max Danger hacking off a Malikon’s head with a machete in the far corner of the elephant enclosure. His parents had happily seized on one which seemed to have escaped the Max Danger treatment, a painting Danny said was of the three of them at the beach, until, that is, they noticed the diamond-shaped pupils in Danny’s dad’s eyes and the tell-tale hairs growing out of the palms of his hands.
Mr. and Mrs. Coyle weren’t unduly concerned about Danny’s obsession. Danny was their only child and in their eyes he could do no wrong. They doted on him and overindulged him and there were doughy rolls of fat on his belly and sugar decay in his teeth because ‘no’ wasn’t a word they could often bring themselves to say to him. So, while Danny’s mum feigned concern as she discussed Lieutenant Danger with the other mums over coffee, she was secretly proud of the all-consuming focus Danny displayed in his enthusiasm. Hadn’t Einstein, hadn’t all the great geniuses, in fact, shown the same sort of focus, the same sort of passion? Wasn’t this in reality an early sign of the mental distinction that would see Danny emerge in adulthood as an exceptional individual?
Danny’s dad was similarly sanguine but for different reasons. Although he couldn’t admit it in front of his wife’s PC friends he was actually delightedto see Danny obsessed by something so unmistakably macho as Lieutenant Danger. It gave him a real thrill of fatherly pride to see his son running around the house, his face smeared with green camouflage paint, pretending to kick the shit out of the Malikons. It could be awkward, of course, when Danny got carried away and played a bit too rough with one of the other kids (something which tended to happen quite often these days). “Boys will be boys,” he’d say, trying to make light of the shin-kick or the eye-poke. That often didn’t cut it with the aggrieved parents, however, and he’d have to pretend to be upset with Danny and make him say sorry when he didn’t really think there was anything to be sorry for.
So they were both loath to discourage Danny’s obsession and when he begged them for a Lieutenant Danger poster or baseball cap or pencil case or lunchbox or computer game or backpack or T-shirt they dutifully bought it for him.
Of all the Lieutenant Danger merchandise that flooded the shops Danny liked the action figures best of all. There were three of them: Lieutenant Danger equipped for snow warfare, jungle warfare and desert warfare. They each came with an array of miniature plastic accessories – hand grenades, ninja death stars, sniper rifles and night-vision goggles – that were guaranteed to thrill bellicose little boys. Danny, it went without saying, was the proud owner of all three.
Danny played with these action figures with an intensity his parents had never seen him show in his play before. Hour after hour he’d wander around the house holding one of the little plastic mannequins in his hand, its head twisted sharply to one side, its articulated arms bent at strange angles. And all the while he’d be talking inaudibly to himself, narrating the adventure he was acting out. They watched him trotting in and out of the garden, his lips moving rapidly, his brow sternly furrowed, and agreed that such a rich, self-contained imagination was a healthy sign in a child.
If they’d been able to hear what Danny was actually saying, however, it’s doubtful they would have felt quite so at ease…
Danny’s games, you see, nearly always followed the same pattern: Lieutenant Danger would unwittingly walk into a Malikon ambush and after a protracted, bloody battle the flesh-eating villains would capture him alive. They’d take their prisoner back to their secret lair – a rat-infested sewer beneath the Abandoned City – and, in a specially constructed, escape-proof chamber, they’d slowly, expertly, torture him to death. The variety of tortures Danny devised for him really did show a highly developed imagination. He held Lieutenant Danger under the scalding hot tap in the bathroom until the flesh on his face boiled white and sloughed off in chunks. He buried him alive in the garden, relishing the moment when his gaping mouth was chock-full of soil and only his pleading eyes were visible. With a cigarette lighter left behind by an uncle, he burned his hands until the fingers turned black and curled back on themselves. He dropped him from his bedroom window onto the concrete patio below until every bone in his body was broken and he’d never be able to walk again. But most delicious of all was when he tied a piece of electric cable around Lieutenant Danger’s neck and pulled and pulled with all his might. Danny’s cherubic face would flush deep red and his pee-pee would stiffen as he watched the Special Forces hero writhe in torment.
It was no good. Sleep still wouldn’t come. And now, to make matters worse, Danny needed to go to the bathroom. Desperately. He sat up and groped around in the darkness but no stocking had miraculously appeared while he’d been tossing and turning beneath his Lieutenant Danger doona.
Danny slept in a bunk bed – another whim his parents had indulged him in – even though he had no brother or sister to share it. He always slept in the top bunk. He felt it added something adventurous, something military to the prosaic routine of going to bed. Now he crawled on all fours to the end of his bunk and with practised ease clambered over the wooden rail and held himself there momentarily until his feet were firmly planted on a rung of the ladder. It was from this position (when he woke up feeling particularly energetic) that he’d throw himself into the air, catch hold of the basketball hoop his dad had fixed to the wall for him, dangle there for as long as he could bear it and then drop to the floor like Lieutenant Danger parachuting into action. He didn’t think of doing that now, however. It was too dark and he needed to pee. Badly.
He put on his dressing-gown and tiptoed out onto the landing. It didn’t feel right to be awake at this time of night on Christmas Eve. Danny felt sure it could only bring bad luck. He might bump into Santa Claus bringing his stocking up to his room and Santa might get mad and decide to take back all the presents he’d brought for him. He might take back the Lieutenant Danger Combat Adventure Kit and then Danny wouldn’t be able to dress up in the camouflage tactical vest and Marine Corps cap and run around the house with his dagger hunting down the Malikons and cutting off their heads. Danny couldn’t bear to think about it and he determined to get to the bathroom and back as quickly and quietly as he could before anything bad happened.
Danny peed without turning the lights on and tried to keep his stream out of the water so that no one would hear him. His dad was working the night shift at the sawmill as he did every Christmas Eve, but his mum was still up and he could hear the muted chatter of the TV coming from the lounge-room. Danny nearly flushed the toilet and only just managed to stop himself in time.
He was almost back at his room when a sharp scream from downstairs pierced the quiet of the house. Danny froze in mid-step as if caught in a powerful searchlight, and holding his breath, his eyes huge and unblinking, he strained his ears to listen. A few seconds later another sound reached him, not a scream this time, more like a moan of pain. Then it came again and again and again, gradually finding its own rhythm like the urgent beating of a fevered pulse.
Danny crept towards the top of the stairs and noiselessly descended the first five steps. Craning his neck, he peered through the wrought-iron balustrade and tried to see into the kitchen.
He didn’t understand what he was looking at initially. Some sort of creature with four arms and four legs was flailing around on the floor by the sink in its death throes. Danny recoiled as if he’d lifted a large stone in the garden and found its underside crawling with earwigs. When he looked again, however, he slowly began to understand what it was: two people lay knotted together, writhing against one another in a desperate struggle. One of them was unmistakably his mum. She lay on her back with her bare legs raised, her hair a fiery auburn starburst across the black and yellow linoleum. A man was on top of her, his naked buttocks pumping up and down, the muscles clenching and unclenching with every thrust, and with every thrust his mum let out that cry of agony. And although Danny couldn’t see the man’s face clearly, there was no mistaking who it was – the red tunic with the thick black belt, the red hat with white trimming, the cascading white beard… There couldn’t be much doubt about it. The man doing this filthy thing to his mum, the man who was making her cry out in pain, was none other than Santa Claus himself!
Danny hurried back to his bedroom, the graphic image burned indelibly into his retina. He climbed up to the top bunk as quickly as he could, not even pausing to take off his dressing-gown, and burrowing deep beneath the doona lay there without moving, his heart racing. It was a long time before he was calm enough to try to figure out what it could all mean.
He’d heard bigger boys talk about this at school. He was pretty sure this was what they called ‘shagging’ and he was pretty sure that ‘shagging’ had something to do with the ‘F’ word but he didn’t know what exactly. This ‘shagging’ was what Mums and Dads did together, this was how they made babies. But Santa Claus wasn’t Danny’s dad. Danny’s dad was at work in the sawmill. Santa Claus had no right to shag his mum, only Danny’s dad was allowed to do it, that was the rule. And his mum hadn’t wanted Santa to do it to her, that was why she’d been crying out in pain, that was why she’d been clawing at his back with her long nails. As Danny well knew, you only used your nails against someone when you really wanted to hurt them.
It seemed to Danny that if Santa Claus could do this to his mum then people had got Santa all wrong. He wasn’t a nice man at all. He was a bad man. A very bad man indeed. Or what if….and a devastating thought suddenly struck Danny and he sat up abruptly in bed: what if the Santa he’d seen downstairs in the kitchen wasn’t the real Santa at all? What if this Santa was really a Malikon who’d shaved his palms, dyed his black tongue red and put contact lenses in his eyes? What if he’d tricked his mum into letting him into the house and then forced her to do that disgusting thing? And any minute now this impostor Santa would climb the stairs and make his way down to Danny’s bedroom…
What should I do? Danny asked himself with rising panic. What should I do? But then he realized that this was actually the wrong question. The question he should have been asking was: What would Lieutenant Danger do?
When he’d finished making love to his wife Danny’s dad kissed her playfully on the tip of her nose, got unsteadily to his feet and yanked up his red Santa trousers. She stayed stretched out on the kitchen floor enjoying the post-coital afterglow and the weird thrill of being naked in a room where she’d only ever been clothed and strangely de-sexed before.
“Santa comes but once a year….” he grinned, adjusting the false beard that had worked its way round to his ear.
“Mmmm, but it’s sure worth waiting for,” she purred.
They were both pretty drunk and they giggled like mischievous children at their own naughtiness.
When the senior manager had looked at him around midnight, told him he looked like shit and sent him home, Danny’s dad hadn’t argued. Before heading off he’d stopped in at the warehouse to drink some ‘medicinal’ scotch with some of the boys there and that’s when he’d seen Bob Holden in the Santa suit. Bob had been working as Santa at the big Coles in town for a bit of extra Christmas cash and had come on to work at the mill still wearing his costume for a joke. The moment he’d seen it he’d thought of Danny and how thrilled he’d be to get a visit from the great man himself. He’d asked Bob if he could borrow it and Bob had said that as long as he had the suit back for when the store reopened on Boxing Day, it was ‘no problemo’.
On the short drive home, no doubt influenced by the whisky, he’d decided to change into the Santa suit in the car port, creep into the house and give his wife a surprise. As it turned out he found her sloshed on Chardonnay and as horny as hell, and he was the one who’d ended up getting the surprise.
“I’m gonna take Danny’s stocking up now,” he said, rearranging his pants so that his erection didn’t show.
She sat up and scratched her scalp vigorously with both hands and her breasts, heavy and matronly in her thirty-eighth year, jiggled. She felt a little ridiculous now sitting naked in the middle of the kitchen and reached for her balled-up night gown.
“His stocking’s on the recliner in the lounge-room,” she said. “Don’t touch anything on the sofa, I’ve set it all up so that the Combat Adventure Kit’s the first thing he’ll see.”
Danny’s dad tugged down the black plastic belt which had ridden up to his diaphragm and looked at her with a grin whose boyish excitement was still discernible through the cloud of synthetic white beard.
“God, he’ll be so rapt when he sees ‘Santa’ bringing him his stocking!”
She’d rolled her nightie down over her nakedness now and was trying unsuccessfully to light a cigarette by the sink with an exhausted zippo lighter. She looked back at him over her shoulder.
“You’re not going to wake him up, are you?”
“Why not?” he shrugged. “It’ll make his Christmas!”
“You’ll excite him too much. He’ll never get back to sleep. You know how he gets. You can put the Santa suit on for him tomorrow, that’ll be good enough.”
Danny’s dad shifted his weight uncomfortably, trying to hide his disappointment. He’d been looking forward to playing Santa for Danny.
She came over to him and nuzzled at his neck and he automatically cupped one of her breasts.
“We need to get some rest, sweetie,” she crooned wearily. “Danny’ll be jumping on our bed in a few hours as it is. It was half-past four last year! Please don’t wake him up.”
“All right,” he conceded reluctantly. “But I might as well keep it on, you know, just in case he wakes up anyway.”
She looked at him and narrowed her eyes.
“I won’t wake him up!” he protested.
She slowly disentangled herself from him and started to make a pot of tea to take up to bed. Then she paused.
“What will you say to him if he does wake up?”
Danny’s dad thought for a moment then smiled.
“Ho, ho, ho, of course! What else?”
Danny’s bedroom door was tight against the carpet nap and usually when his dad went to check on him last thing at night he entered slowly in case the loud shushing should wake him. Tonight, however, he pushed the door open forcefully, hoping it would. He stood there for a moment and waited, but no rustling of the doona, no sleepy voice came from the bunk bed in the far corner. Disappointed, he started to make his way slowly across the room, nursing the stocking in his arms. He went cautiously, sliding one foot in front of the other like a slow-motion skater as the glow of light from the landing only frayed the edges of the darkness and he didn’t want to tread on a toy and turn his ankle over. Been there, done that, he thought to himself.
He found the wooden ladder hanging at the end of the top bunk and climbed up the first two rungs with some effort. He took the stocking, which was stuffed so tight with chocolate bars and comic books it felt like a fully inflated football, and lay it gently at Danny’s feet. He didn’t descend at once. He lingered there, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the darkness until he could make out the hump in the doona where his little boy lay snuggled up fast asleep. In spite of his promise to his wife, he was sorely tempted to wake him. He knew it would give Danny the thrill of his life. He’d be talking about it all the way through to next Christmas! It seemed a shame to pass up such a great opportunity as he’d never get his hands on such a picture-perfect Santa suit again. It would be different tomorrow in the bright light of day. Danny was so sharp he’d most likely see through his disguise straightaway. But if he were to wake up now and catch a bleary impression of Santa, that would be perfect. That would be just perfect.
His wife was probably right, of course. Most likely Danny would be too excited to go back to sleep and he’d be in their room long before dawn showing them everything in his stocking and pleading with them to get up so that he could go downstairs and see what ‘big presents’ Santa had brought him. But although he knew how rough he’d feel the next day with so little sleep, there was a part of him that didn’t care. The buzz he got when he saw Danny really happy had always outweighed the negatives that spoiling him invariably brought in its wake.
He started to reach out his hand towards the doona, but just as it was about to alight on an image of Lieutenant Danger kung-fu kicking a Malikon, he hesitated. He was overcome by the atavistic taboo against waking a sleeping child and even though he desperately wanted to he just couldn’t bring himself do it.
“Sweet dreams, son,” he whispered and lightly placed his fingers where he imagined his seven-year-old’s little feet lay.
When Danny suddenly sprang at him from under the doona and lassoed his dressing-gown belt around his neck, the shock sent him reeling backwards into empty space. In the nanosecond he was in mid-air he braced for a painful impact, but that impact never came. Instead, his entire weight was caught by the belt Danny had made into a deadly noose and double-knotted to the basketball hoop. The brutal jolt forced his teeth into the raw meat of his tongue and snapped his body back violently towards the bunk bed. He dangled there, twisting and thrashing like a fish on a hook, his fingers scrabbling desperately at the ligature that was throttling him, his feet vainly trying to find the floor.
Sinister black flowers began to burst into bloom across his vision and he knew that if he didn’t draw breath in the next few seconds he was going to pass out. In desperation he thrust out his right leg and managed to hook his foot over the bottom rung of the ladder. Using his foot as an anchor he pulled himself closer to the ladder and grasped hold of the end rail. The asphyxiating pressure on his trachea immediately eased and he hungrily sucked down lungful after lungful of precious air. He was dazedly reaching up to try to untie the noose when he saw Danny drop from the top bunk to the ground and come towards him with purposeful malice, a screwdriver glinting in his hand. There was a searing pain in his calf, his foot slipped off the rung, and the dressing-gown belt took his full weight once more, choking off his air-supply. Eyes bulging grotesquely, an obscene gargling coming from the back of his throat, he kicked out again for the bottom rung and had just got the toe of his Santa boot to it when Danny reappeared, calmly unhooked the ladder and dragged it out of his reach.
Danny’s Dad blacked out for several seconds and when he regained consciousness he was dully aware of Danny swinging on his legs. The only hope, he thought, as his eyes rolled slowly into the back of his head, was if the backboard came away from the wall under his weight. But then he remembered the doting meticulousness with which he’d put it up. No botch job for Danny! Nothing but the best for Danny! He remembered the twelve industrial-strength screws he’d drilled into the wall to secure the backboard firmly into place so that Danny could shoot baskets in his bedroom. That backboard was never going to give way…
When the impostor Santa had finally stopped twitching Lieutenant Danger let go of his legs and switched on the bedroom light. He put the ladder back in place and climbed up so that he’d be able to reach the Malikon’s face, holding the screwdriver tightly in his hand so that he wouldn’t drop it.
‘Now,’ he thought, ‘let’s scratch out those contact lenses so I can see the diamond-shaped pupils underneath…’
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