HEARTHSIDE STORIES: The Cheer Burns Inside the House, by A.J. Vrana
Mason meandered up to the dilapidated porch steps of the ramshackle, wood-paneled house. Craning his neck, he gazed gingerly over its old, rotting bones. He’d circled the woods at least half a dozen times before he’d found the damn thing. Given how it blended in with the surrounding forest, it could have easily been mistaken for a hollowed-out tree at first glance.
The house appeared to careen against the icy winter wind that howled through the treetops; it tilted like the Tower of Pisa. Mason canted his head as he stared at the towering structure. It looked as though it would fall over any moment.
Blinking away his stupor, he shook out his arms and pulled out the invitation—a crinkled Christmas card with a... modified Santa, donning devil horns and holding a kitchen knife that had been drawn in with a Sharpie. The holiday salutations had been struck out, and under them, a simple set of instructions had been scribbled down in thick, black ink:
I hate you. But you might die tonight, so Christmas party at the vortex of evil.
Typical Kai. Mason would have ignored it if not for Miya’s elegant handwriting underneath:
Ignore him—he’s an idiot. It would be great to see you, Mason!
P.S. There will be booze.
Huffing, Mason folded up the invitation and scratched through his wiry blond curls, then helped himself to the door. As he pushed his way past the creaking barrier, he cringed and wondered if he should have renewed his Tetanus shot.
“Hello?” he called out.
A moment later, Miya came spinning around the corner with an elf hat on her head. Her mess of tangled, dark hair clung to her face, beads of sweat trickling down her jawline. “You made it!”
Mason felt about ready to vomit as he took in the cobwebs. “Why… Why are you having a Christmas party in an abandoned house in the middle of the woods?”
“Well,” Miya shrugged, “it was Kai’s idea. He’s kind of homeless and this place seemed… spacious, I guess.”
“Ugh.” Mason stepped over a singed, broken table leg and ambled into the room where Miya had come from.
He found Kai sitting by the fireplace on a kid’s chair far too small for his warrior’s frame, legs spread, with a marshmallow impaled on a tree-branch. He was wearing a grungy Santa hat that masked his disheveled black hair, though it looked like he’d pulled it from a garbage dumpster. Holding the marshmallow steadily over the flames, he turned his head as Mason walked in.
“Hey turd,” Kai greeted with a shit-eating grin.
Accustomed to the insults, Mason sighed and looked around the room. “There’s probably black mold and asbestos here.”
Kai snorted. “Relax, doc. That’s not how this house would kill you.”
“Oh, you mean it’ll just catch fire,” Mason gestured towards the hearth, “and we’ll all die over a roasted marshmallow.”
“It was already goin’ when I got here.” Kai straightened, leaning close to the flames with a rakish smirk. “Bastard tried to eat me,” blazing wisps shot out, all but licking his face, “but I taste like mud and shit mixed with cyanide.”
Mason was about to ask what he was on about, when a rustle among the paper bags at Kai’s feet drew his gaze. There in the clutter, he saw a morbidly obese racoon burrowing into a bag of potato chips.
“We still need a star for the tree,” Miya sighed to Mason’s left. He turned to see her staring wistfully at what could only have been described as a giant Charlie Brown tree—a barren, wilting collection of pokey sticks assembled in the shape of a pyramid.
Kai bit the golden marshmallow straight off his tree branch and stood up. It was only then that Mason noticed the charred lump next the hearth. The shape was… distinctly human.
“Oh my God!” Mason stumbled back. “That’s a dead body!”
Kai glanced briefly at the blackened mass. “Eh, it’s been here a while—a few decades at least.”
“Shouldn’t we call the police?” Mason stammered, his eyes darting between Kai and the corpse.
“You’re such a fucking wet blanket. I mean, look at it,” Kai gestured towards the ashes, “it’s not even a body anymore.”
He leaned over and puffed at the crime scene, sending a cloud of human remains into the air. “One gentle summer breeze and all this becomes dust on the furniture.” Unconcerned, he grabbed the yellow bag of potato chips and wrestled it from the raccoon’s greedy paws. Turning it upside down, he dumped it over the tree’s peak, grinning proudly at his handiwork as a few loose chips tumbled from the bag. The raccoon scurried over and began collecting the stray pieces, then jumped onto the dried-up trunk, attempting to climb to the top.
Miya narrowed her eyes and deadpanned, “Seriously dude?”
“What?” Kai laughed. “It’s gold. It’s shiny. It’s a star!”
But Mason was hardly bothered by the choice of star. He watched in horror as Kai’s bottom-heavy pet endeavored—with great difficulty—to monkey up the tree for the final scraps of junk food. “Why is there a raccoon!”
Kai reached over and affectionately scratched the scavenger’s mangey, grey coat. “She needed a home. Got cut from the first book, so she had to go somewhere.”
Mason gawked at the madman in front of him as he plucked the raccoon from the dead tree and slung her over his shoulders like a winter cloak. She seemed perfectly content there, chortling happily as he reached back and rubbed her ears.
Noticing Mason’s dumbfounded expression, Kai grabbed a beer from one of the paper bags and shoved it in the doctor’s chest. The raccoon on his shoulder tangled her grimy little claws into Mason’s golden curls. Eyes gleaming like a candy-coated death wish, Kai gave Mason a hearty slap on the back.
“Ho ho ho, motherfucker.”
This short is a unique Parliament Press crossover, penned by A.J. Vrana and based on the worlds of D.M. Siciliano's Inside, and A.J. Vrana's The Hollow Gods. The Hollow Gods is slated to release with The Parliament Press on July 28th, 2020, and will soon be available for pre-order! Beware the Dreamwalker, and add it to your TBR here on Goodreads!