A lot of people don’t remember that Christmas is rooted in fear. It’s been wrapped up in pretty packaging, given the face of a jolly bearded man, made to sound like jingling bells and the hoofbeats of eight tiny reindeer.
But in my small Pennsylvania town, we remembered.
We called the weeks leading up to Christmas the Season of Red. The first ribbons appeared every year on the first day of December, like so many crimson slashes across the bellies of the biggest trees in each front yard. It happened at sundown, when every family would gather on their lawn to tie their ribbon tight. No bows, no fanciful designs. Just a single, heavy knot. Each member would touch the ribbon, and then they’d return to their lives for another twenty-four hours, until the process would be repeated.
A new ribbon for every day leading up to Christmas.
It wasn’t strange to me. It was something I had done all my life. I thought everyone had their own Season of Red until I was sixteen and my best friend, Nick, came to visit for the first time. We’d met online playing games and I’d spent six months convincing my parents he wasn’t a pedophile so they’d let him visit. They finally agreed, and his flights were booked. He arrived three days before Christmas to a town wrapped in red.
“You guys go all out, huh?” Nick asked, peering out the car window while we drove slowly through my neighborhood.
“You gotta,” my little sister, Toni, advised sagely from the back seat. She’d insisted on coming with me to the airport to make sure Nick was on the up and up. My twelve-year-old, ninety pound bodyguard. “How else do you keep the still man away?”
“The still man?” Nick half-turned in his seat to look at her. I could see the skepticism stamped on his face even in my periphery.
“It’s just superstition,” I said. “You don’t have it in Nebraska?”
“We don’t have anything in Nebraska.”
“Beware, beware, the still man draws near. Torn from his rest by goodwill and cheer. He comes for you now, a creature of dread, your only escape is to hide behind red. A ribbon each day, strung high up in front, will ward him off, and keep you safe from his hunt,” Toni recited dutifully.
She didn’t appreciate Nick’s laughter in response.
“Your whole town gets in on this still man thing?” he looked between us, grinning.
“Pretty much,” I replied with a shrug. “If someone doesn’t put their ribbons up, somebody else will do it for them.”
“These trees are covered! How long do you guys do it?”
“Twenty-four days,” Toni said. “You gotta, until Santa comes and chases him back to his grave.”
“It’s more like the spirit of Christmas or Jesus’ arrival or something,” I said.
“So what’s so scary about the still man that makes everyone do this?”
I let Toni, who was still heavily invested in the urban legend, explain the story of the still man. She dove in with all the seriousness of a True Believer.
The tale was a grim one, about an overlooked and ignored vagabond who had been left to die in the streets while everyone else went on with their Christmas celebrations. They found him in front of the church, frozen solid and standing upright with one arm outstretched, reaching for the door. They buried him in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of town and forgot about him. Until the next year, on December first, when rumors started that he’d been seen standing in the streets outside people’s windows. People started disappearing, one on the first day, two on the second, and so on and so on. Only those houses that had been decorated with red ribbons were spared any loss. No one knew why he wouldn’t cross it, but the red ribbon became their protection against his evil spirit.
“And if he does find you, there’s almost no getting away. He only moves when you do, so either you have to stand there until you freeze like he did, or you run, and he follows. The further you go, the closer he gets, until he catches you!” Toni snatched at the air with both hands. “The only way to escape is to get into a house behind ribbons.”
Nick scoffed. “Sounds stupid.”
“Well if you’re so brave, maybe you should wait for him outside,” Toni said snippily.
“Maybe I will.”
The visit was off to a great start.
When we got home, I introduced Nick to my parents, who were relieved to see the same gawky, tall teen that had been in the pictures, and showed him around our house. It didn’t take long before any of the lingering awkwardness that comes from meeting in person for the first time wore off and we had our laptops booted up and a game running.
That night, after another round spent in Call of Duty, Nick lowered the lid of his computer.
“You really believe all that still man stuff?” he asked.
“Nah, it’s just like all the other Christmas bull. Like that evil Santa dude from Germany or wherever.”
“So, you wouldn’t care if some of the ribbons just went missing?”
I rolled my eyes and sat back in my chair. “No. It’s just a story.”
“Let’s do its then.”
“Let’s go take some ribbons down! Freak people out a bit. It’ll be fun!”
I hesitated. I didn’t believe in the still man, but I did believe that there would be some kind of punishment if we got caught. The wrath of my parents, especially right before I was expecting a few pretty nice gifts, was much scarier than some bedtime story monster.
“I dunno, man. That’s messing with my neighbors’ stuff. We could get in trouble.”
“It’s almost midnight, who’s still gonna be awake and looking out their window to notice us? We’ll just hit one house real quick. Nobody will know until tomorrow morning.”
I could just see the new external hard drive I’d asked for slowly vanishing from beneath the tree.
“Come on, Pete, don’t be a little bitch!”
Snow had fallen heavily all evening and the fresh blanket of white crunched beneath our feet. I shoved my hands, cold despite my gloves, deep into my jacket pockets.
“We’re leaving tracks,” I griped. “They’re going to lead right back to my house.”
“Quit whining, numbnuts,” Nick said dismissively. “We’ll just run up and down a few driveways so they have tracks, too.”
“This is so stupid.”
“Just shut up and pick a house.”
We selected Mrs. Turpitt’s. She was an elderly woman who lived alone and always had her lights out by 8:30. She would definitely be asleep at such a late hour. We crept across her lawn and Nick cut through the ribbons circling her tree with the kitchen shears we’d taken while I kept watch.
“Hurry it up!” I hissed.
He waved me off and finished snipping through the last one. He stuffed the bundle of red into his pocket with a triumphant grin and darted up to Mrs. Turpitt’s front door and away again, leaving a line of disturbed snow in his wake.
“You do some of the houses over there, I’ll do the ones over here. Go!”
When we were finished, confusing trails of messy footprints had been woven up and down the street. Breathless and red faced from the cold, we ran back to my house and collapsed in my room, hands pressed over our mouths to keep from laughing too loudly. Nick paraded the cut ribbons around like a trophy.
The neighbors were far less amused with our midnight antics than we had been. When Mrs. Turpitt’s bare tree was discovered, there were complaints of vandalism, which was a bit more serious than concerns over the still man. Nick and I laid low while my parents discussed who might’ve done such a thing to a sweet old lady’s Christmas decorations. One neighbor went over and rang her bell to check on her.
Mrs. Turpitt didn’t answer.
“She’s probably visiting her kids down in Philly,” Dad said.
“She was home yesterday,” Mom replied.
“It’s only a three hour drive, Lil. Not exactly a cross-country trek.”
Toni, who had been watching from the front stoop with us, stared across the street, her face pale and eyes wide. She clung to my sleeve and whispered, “The still man.”
Nick thought it was all great fun.
“Let’s do it again tonight!” He whispered after everyone had gone in.
“They seemed pretty upset by it,” I said, gesturing vaguely toward Mrs. Turpitt’s house.
“That’s what makes it so good! C’mon, man, it’s just a few ribbons. If we get caught, we’ll just replace them.”
I sighed. I was definitely not getting that hard drive.
Nick selected our next target that night: the Clarks’ house down the street. They had a young daughter, Emma, who Toni was friends with. According to Toni, she’d been terrified that the still man would come for her house next. It was all she could talk about while they’d played. I thought it was a bit mean to go after her ribbons…but also kind of funny, so I agreed.
“Last time though, ok?” I insisted.
Nick did a little bob of his head that was equal parts nod and shake. “Sure.”
Once my dad’s heavy snores were drifting steadily from my parents’ room, we snuck downstairs and slipped out the front door, kitchen shears tucked into Nick’s jacket.
It was colder out than the night before. The kind of cold that sinks wetly through every layer of clothing and bites at your bones. My teeth chattered noisily and I wrapped my arms tightly around my middle. Nick walked ahead, his breath leaving long streams of white lingering in the air. It chilled our enthusiasm and made us hurry toward the Clarks’ lawn.
Nick knelt by the ribboned tree, shears raised.
A window slid open overhead.
“What’re you doing?” A small voice demanded.
Emma Clark glared down at us.
“Uh,” I replied, too cold to come up with a quick answer.
“Just checking your ribbons are secure,” Nick said smoothly.
“Then why do you have scissors?”
Nick wasn’t quite so prepared for the follow-up.
“You stole Mrs. Turpitt’s ribbons, didn’t you?” Emma accused. “You —”
Her words shriveled up into a slow inhale.
“Emma?” I called up as loudly as I dared.
But she wasn’t looking at us anymore. Her eyes, so large they seemed they might pop out of her skull, were locked somewhere behind us. Even in the dim lighting offered by the streetlight, I could see that the color had drained from her face. I turned to see what she was looking at.
A person was standing in the middle of the street. Gaunt with purpled lips and features eaten away by frostbite. One arm outstretched in front of him. He was completely still, save for the rustle of his threadbare clothes in a bitter breeze.
“Nick,” I groped for my friend and yanked him to his feet.
“What are yo—”
I cut off his irritated question with an elbow to his ribs and pointed.
The cold deepened around us.
“You’re fucking with me,” Nick said in soft disbelief.
My fingers tightened around his arm.
“Pete?” He uttered, less brave, unable to look away from the frozen figure.
“I’m not,” I found my voice enough to say.
Emma’s window slammed shut.
The still man remained in place, reaching and staring.
My face was going numb from the cold. I couldn’t have released Nick even if I wanted to.
“Pete,” Nick said again.
I took a step back. The still man hadn’t moved, I’d swear on it, but somehow, he had come two steps closer.
“What the fuck,” Nick’s voice had become a squeak.
Beware, beware, the still man draws near. Torn from his rest by goodwill and cheer. He comes for you now, a creature of dread, your only escape is to hide behind red. A ribbon each day, strung high up in front, will ward him off, and keep you safe from his hunt.
“My house,” I said through lips that didn’t want to work. “Run!”
It was only up the street, a minute’s walk, if that. But in the dark and the freezing, it suddenly seemed an impossible journey. My legs refused to cooperate properly and I trudged like I was in a dream, desperately trying to run, but practically stuck in place. Nick wasn’t doing much better. He whimpered, scrambling to get his iced limbs moving. I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder.
The still man had closed half the distance between us without so much as a twitch. I could feel his filmy eyes burning into my mine.
I turned back around, tucked my chin to my heart, and forged ahead, forcing my body to fight the cold and charge toward my house, where the ribbon wrapped tree stood tall against the night. I dove into my yard and rolled through the snow, came crashing on to the walkway, and leapt jerkily to my feet. The front door was so close!
I didn’t see Nick fall. I heard it though. The crash of his body against the pavement, his thrashing in the road as he tried to regain his feet. I spun, hand outstretched for him.
The still man was standing over Nick. Except now, instead of reaching forward, he was stooped, curled, blackened fingers closed around the back of Nick’s jacket.
“Pete!” Nick yelled.
And then there was only me, standing alone, shouting into the impossible cold.
I was taken to the hospital and treated for hypothermia after my parents found me. I was in and out of consciousness and was told I was ranting about the still man taking Nick. While Mom and Toni stayed at my bedside, Dad went with the police to look for Nick.
He was found on Christmas Eve morning in front of the church, frozen solid, standing upright with one arm outstretched, reaching for the door. His mouth was stretched open in an endless, silent scream.
The adults concluded that we’d snuck out and become disoriented in what had been a record breaking cold. While I’d found my way home, Nick had somehow wandered across town. With nowhere else to go, they surmised he’d attempted to seek shelter at the church, but hadn’t made it. My claims that I had seen the still man take him were called hallucinations. When Emma was questioned, she just cried, and they didn’t press the matter very hard. It was only made worse when Mrs. Turpitt, who I insisted had also been a victim, returned home from a Christmas spent with her kids in Philly.
Nick’s body was returned to Nebraska. The Season of Red ended. Everyone moved on.
Everyone but me.
I still saw Nick every night while I slept, frozen solid, face twisted into a scream, arm raised. But it wasn’t the church door he wanted.
It was me.
For all the years that I remained in that small town, I honored the Season of Red, carefully wrapping my tree in tightly knotted ribbons every day for twenty-four days until it was over.
Even still, if I looked out my window past midnight, I’d see them. Two figures standing still as statues in the freezing night. Reaching for me. Waiting for me.
The one that got away.