At the end of Harrowing Lane, Mrs. Shackles’ Christmas-tree farm was cluttered with mumbling misers looking for Christmas Eve bargains. A winter-clad woodsman, armed with a bloody axe, dragged a tree toward the shredder. And the moon’s glow bled onto the sign in front of the tree lot: “FREE: Two pounds of reindeer meat with every purchase.”
Mr. Krankston, the local banker, kicked the signpost and chuckled. “Who’s pulling Santa’s sleigh now?”
“Hello, Mr. Krankston!” Ten-year-old Lily Payne, who lived in Greystoke Orphanage, skipped toward him. She giggled while handing out an abundant supply of Mrs. Shackles’ homemade candy canes: sweet for all those who were good; but fatal, and as bitter as wormwood, to those who were not.
“Please child, your incessant laughter gives me a headache.”
Lily stomped and pulled up her woolen skirt to her knees, exposing green stockings and bright red boots. Her face turned almost the same color as the boots. “Mr. Krankston! If you knew the real story of Christmas you would not be so cranky.”
“The one from Bethlehem or the North Pole?”
“Bethlehem, of course.” She frowned but gave him a candy cane, nonetheless, and sauntered away.
Mr. Krankston stood mesmerized by the candy cane’s ever-changing colors and took a whiff of its sweet aroma. But just one lick and his nose crinkled, his lips pursed and tears escaped from his squinting eyes. “Give me something! Anything … to quell this bitter taste.”
Lily raised her eyebrows and straightened out her skirt. “It seems you have not been good.” She folded her arms, dropping a few candy canes.
Mrs. Shackles walked up and gave him a cup of hot chocolate which burned his tongue. Then she handed him a purple and golden candy cane. “Here, try this one, it’s a little sweeter.”
Mr. Krankston bit off the top but made an even worse sour face. He spat it out. “Tastes like bitter herbs!”
“Clary sage and bluebells. Makes you wanna tell the truth, don’t it?” Lily leaned forward, turning one ear in his direction. “Mr. Krankston, why does your son Oliver live in the orphanage?”
The banker cleared his throat. “Enough of this, I came for the reindeer meat.”
“Ah, yes. Makes good stew.” Mrs. Shackles pointed toward the woodsman. The woodsman winked as he tightened the grip on his axe. “He’ll cut you the meat,” she said. “And a tree too.” She offered Mr. Krankston another candy cane.
Mr. Krankston, not knowing why, accepted the candy cane. By the time he took a second bite more than ten confessions had spilled from his lips: he never wanted a son so he sent Oliver to the orphanage; he bought the orphanage; he was closing down the orphanage; pieces of his wife were buried in the basement; Oliver would join her soon.
Lily pointed her finger in his face. “You are a wicked man!” Her eyebrows furrowed.
The moon shone right above Mr. Krankston as if exposing his sins. And when the last shopper left with a tree and reindeer meat, the woodsman dragged something to the shredder.
“Careful!” Mrs. Shackles yelled out to him. “Pine needles draw blood sometimes.”
Lily skipped away from them, still talking and arms flailing about. “Now where did that horrible Mr. Krankston go?”
The blades of the shredder sawed through tree and limb. And then … silence.
Snowflakes fell softly as Christmas trees, with dangling frosty candy canes, received a winter coat. The moon at the end of Harrowing Lane began a slow drift into the night sky, separating itself from this world and all its wickedness.