I walk through the fog, wearing my hoodie and pajama pants, depressed. The world beyond me is captured purely through silhouettes; the only faces I see are those of the facemask wearing joggers. They wheeze as if they were taking their final breaths when they run by me, but soon enough all I know of them is faint stomping in the distance. Somewhere out in the fog people laugh, somewhere out in the fog children play, but I cannot see them.
I am not sober. I shouldn’t be walking around outside.
‘Would a young man like to buy a Christmas tree?’ a creaky voice asks out of the curtain of white. At first I think the voice is only in my head. At first I fear that my inner monologue has attained some horrible tenor, but no – as the question repeats I find myself certain that the voice is not of my imagination. ‘Would a young man like to buy a Christmas tree?’
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Then come here darling, my eyes are not what they used to be,’ she says, ‘Come closer so that I can see you.’
I step in the direction of the strained voice. At first she is simply a vague lump of a person, but her pale blue eye cuts through the fog.
In front of me, behind a cheap plastic table, sits an old hag. Her skin is ancient and her hair is nothing but wisps of white, but on her forehead rest two powerful, drawn on eyebrows. They look like wild crimson birds, threatening to pluck out her one good eye.
‘You are looking for a Christmas tree, yes?’ She asks, smiling with the few teeth she has left.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Are you selling Christmas trees?’
She has nothing on her table but a glass bottle and a single shot jar – for all I know she could just be an alcoholic with a table – yet, with a wave of her hand, dark silhouettes start to appear beyond her.
‘Indeed I am, young man,’ she croaks, ‘In fact, I know just the right holiday companion for you, oh I know just the one.’
She drags herself out of the chair with the tenacity of a slug, but when she grabs ahold of the tree she moves it with ease. It slides across the gravel as if it were moving through butter. The hag pushes the tree into the wrapping machine next to her desk and starts to spin.
‘No!’ I yell, reaching into my pocket and finding nothing but coins and keys, ‘I have no money, please let me go home first!’
I expect her to yell at me, to call me a drunk, but she does not. ‘For a handsome one as you, no charge,’ she says, and then, she winks. The swooping of her giant red eyebrow causes me discomfort. ‘All I want,’ she says, ‘Is to have a drink with you.’
‘A drink I can do,’ I say, out of habit. I immediately regret the choice.
She pours two glasses of the clear liquid. The drink reeks of plumb, and rot and gasoline. ‘To a merry Christmas for our lonely souls,’ she says, and then, we drink.
The liquid tastes of rancid mouth wash and broken glass, but when it crawls down to my stomach I feel better. I feel okay.
I’m not sober, and I shouldn’t be outside. But at least I have a Christmas tree now. That’s something.
‘May an old hag ask for one more favor?’ The tone in her voice frightens me.
‘I can go get my wallet and pay you,’ I say.
‘I require no payment,’ She says, ‘I only want a kiss.’
I immediately regret interacting with the crone in the first place. ‘Only a kiss on the cheek,’ she creaks, recognizing my worry, ‘I am but an old woman who misses the affection of handsome men.’
‘Just on the cheek?’ I ask, looking at the wrapped up Christmas tree.
‘Just on the cheek,’ she says, shuffling her stout wrinkly body towards me.
A kiss on the cheek isn’t worth that much and the hag seems lonely enough to inspire my empathy, so I lean down and convince myself I am doing the right thing. Yet before my lips can meet the sagging skin of her face all thoughts of human kindness are torn out of my mind. The hag turns her head in the last moment and forces her tongue on me.
It slithers in my mouth like a cold worm, leaving the taste of castor oil and rot behind.
‘Ah!’ I yell, falling back on the concrete of the street, ‘You tricked me!’
In response she just cackles. She laughs at me as if I had fallen for some age-old prank. In a drunken panic I grab the Christmas tree and retreat back home. Though she disappears in the fog almost instantly, the hag’s laughter follows me all the way to the door of my apartment complex.
I live in a studio apartment in the Soviet-era housing projects. On the sunny days, when there is no fog, all that I can see out of my window is the infinite stretch of concrete monstrosities that line the outskirts of the city. With the fog in full force, and the sun hidden somewhere beyond the horizon, all I see are the blinking lights of my neighbor’s Christmas decorations.
I had hoped that getting a Christmas tree would help me get out of my rut; that acknowledging the passage of time would help bolster my spirits somewhat, but as soon as the tree is set up I descend back into hopelessness. The tree is far too big for my cramped apartment, and the Christmas lights I find tucked away under the sink only shine blue and red. When I turn them on they don’t radiate holiday joy. They make my cramped apartment look like a crime scene.
Beyond the fog other lights flash. There’s dozens of them, all stacked on top of each other, a little heartbeat of lonely bedrooms in the distance. I try to remind myself that I am not alone. I try to remind myself that it’s been a hard year for everyone. Yet the thought doesn’t stick. The realization that the hag’s kiss was the closest I have had to intimacy since January doesn’t help. I drink more.
I drink and I wait, no differently than any other night of the year. I drink and I wait and I start to balance that fine line between a drunken stupor and absent sleep. Downstairs, right by the elevator, someone taped up a printout of an article about vaccinations starting soon. I try to think about that. For a while I do, but soon enough sleep takes hold.
I dream of sitting in a crowded bar, of feeling the warmth of other people, of someone giving me a backrub. The fingers on my neck become palpable. I feel their rough skin.
For a moment I try to ignore them and remain in my fantasy, but soon enough their grip tightens. The gentle backrub turns coarse. I spin around to find out who is hurting me.
For a split second I see a pale blue eye and hear cackling laughter.
As I fall off my couch the branches of the Christmas tree scratch against my face. I stay on the floor for a bit and ruminate on my cramped conditions and my tendency to fantasize about alcohol. My clothes are covered in night sweat and my head aches. For the seventh time that day, I realize I might have developed a drinking problem.
When I get up to grab some aspirin the Christmas tree steals a second glance from me. For a moment, under the red glow of the lights, the bark beneath the branches seems sleek, almost skin like. But when the room shines blue I calm. I see nothing but tree.
As I make my way to the sink the thoughts of the hag follow me, but as I fill up the glass of water a different fear consumes me. That piece of paper by the elevator, that herald of brighter times to come – it scares me. After a year of isolation in my cramped apartment I am unsure of how I will adjust to the world outside. I fear talking to strangers, I fear not having an excuse for my hopelessness, I fear the craving for chemical release in the pit of my stomach.
Three aspirins and two glasses of water; they clear my mind enough to make the decision. I will quit drinking. When the world starts moving again and facemasks are nothing but a fashion statement I will be sober. In a show of commitment to my newfound sobriety I head over to my couch to pour out the bottle of whiskey that has been my companion for the past couple blurry hours.
Yet when I reach my couch I simply sink back into the fabric. The walk to the sink feels far too distant, far too symbolic. I decide to keep the bottle by the foot of my resting place. I decide to keep the bottle around for one last night, just in case my dreams are too harrowing to face alone. The bottle tempts me, its warm taste dances on my tongue, begging for one last waltz, but I ignore it. Instead, with the branches of my Christmas tree caressing my head, I drift back to sleep.
I dream of a house party – a house party filled to the brim with guests who I haven’t thought of in months. Regular faces from the old world drift through the halls with smiles and drinks. I see the barista from the coffee shop below the office, I see old co-workers, I see past loves. They invite me to drink, but I decline. Their laughter only strengthens my resolve. Walking through the mass of tipsy laughter and slurred speech I find my sobriety validated. I feel confident in the future.
Yet even though my spirit feels strong I find my legs on uneven ground. Each step I take is strained; when I hold myself up against the wall my arms feel far too weak for the job. I move past the crowd of familiar faces into the hallway in search of a quiet place to rest.
An infinite array of doors stretches out in front of me. Bedrooms, I think – bedrooms in which I might find rest. With my body growing number by the second I open one of the doors. I do not find rest. Instead, I find the hag.
‘To a merry Christmas for our lonely souls,’ she laughs, standing stark naked in the bare room. The cruelty of age and gravity are on full display across her sagging body. Her blood red eyebrows dance with glee as she laughs at me. I try to turn around and leave, I try to escape the grotesque creature in front of me, but I cannot. My limbs refuse to move. ‘Your holiday companion can’t wait to meet you,’ she cackles, ‘Your holiday companion is hungry.’
Invisible strands of silk travel up my nostrils. They smell of nosebleed. The strands thicken, they harden, with each pulse of their growing presence I feel weaker. A hand of rough skin caresses my arm, ‘Your holiday companion is very hungry.’
I attempt to throw myself off the couch, but I cannot. I am no longer dreaming, but the world around me is a nightmare.
My body is wrapped in strands of pale skin. With each blink of the Christmas lights the foreign flesh pulsates and expands, with each moment the fleshy monstrosity that was once my Christmas tree grows stronger. The scent of blood in my nose hardens into the smell of tampered steel. The cruel arms of the Christmas tree travel further up my skull than I ever thought possible.
My limbs are arrested beneath the ever-tightening tree-meat, I find myself helpless and trapped, yet as the skin-branches travel further through my skull and the pain transcends anything I have ever felt, something in me snaps. All thoughts of my personhood are replaced with a singular aim: Survival.
With every bit of strength that my body has I rip my right arm free of its constraints and reach for the pulsating appendages going through my nose. Ripping them out is pure agony, ripping them out is the single most awful thing I have ever felt, but the pain is nothing but a blink. I am an animal chewing its leg off from a trap, I only feel one thing: The will to live.
As if guided by foreign thought, my free hand reaches down to the foot of the couch and picks up the bottle. After three dull hits against the base of the tree the glass shatters and turns into a weapon. In the flickering light of blue and red I drive the broken glass deep into my enemy.
The creature lets out a long wheeze and retreats its tentacles off my body but I don’t relent. I keep on driving the broken glass into its frenzied flesh. My hands become sticky with foul-smelling sap. The viscous blood of the tree only tightens my grip on my weapon.
As soon as my body is freed of the Christmas tree’s embrace I grab ahold of the lights and pull. Like garrote wire the lights cut into its flesh, causing the monstrosity to heave and struggle beneath my force. The room fills with dazzling flashes; green and yellow and purple join the blue and red shine of the bright decorations. I pay the festive change of atmosphere no mind – I continue stabbing and choking my Christmas companion.
The fleshy tree stops moving long before I am satisfied. As I drive the nub of my broken whiskey bottle into its limp body all I can think about is survival, all I can think about is that piece of paper taped up next to the elevator. When the thing on my floor no longer resembles a Christmas tree or a fleshy monstrosity, I finally stop. I drag my breathless body back to the couch and fall into a deep sleep.
I wake in the late afternoon with sore muscles and a persistent hangover, but I am happy to be alive. For a while I stare at the mess of sap-covered viscera and broken glass on my floor and try to make sense of it, but I soon give up. It has been a strange year; dwelling on any one specific absurdity is madness. After a mug of coffee I slide the remnants of the tree into a garbage bag and clean the floor.
The air outside is sharp against my tender nostrils, but the facemask dulls the pain. As I carry the black bag with the remnants of the tree to the trash I walk slowly, I linger, I hope to bump into a neighbor that I could share my insane experience with, but the streets are empty. Christmas lights shine from the cement coliseum around me, but I feel as if I am alone.
When I reach the elevator, however, I see signs of life. On the print out of the vaccine news, scribbled in dying pens, there are messages from my neighbors.
“Can’t wait for this all to end!”
“Best news I heard all year!”
For a moment I stand by the elevator, trying to connect the faces of my neighbors with the messy handwriting on the paper. I wonder how 2020 treated them, I wonder how they coped with the miniature apocalypse we have all experienced. With a genuine flare of hope in my chest I realize that I will soon have the chance to ask them. Soon enough this will all be over.
Before getting into the elevator I reach into my coat and produce a pen. Its ink is faint, but I am happy for the sense of community it instills in me.
“Merry Christmas!” I write, “Hope everyone is holding up okay.”