Escape Clause

On the Twelfth Daze of Christmas, 

John Ryan gives to us. . .

Escape Clause by John Ryan

The upper story of the house creaked as the wind redoubled. Thumps sounded as a raccoon or some night creature leapt to the roof from a low-hanging tree branch.

Other noises, deeper thuds in staccato rhythms, like a herd of fearsome creatures stamping to keep warm, troubled the sleep of the youngest child. No visions of sugarplums in her dizzy dreamscape, just creatures with glowing eyes. Enormous candy canes in the hands of ghouls rending her stuffed toys, and her father weeping helplessly in a corner on a tiny chair.
The oldest boy was awake, listening intently, convincing himself that every sound he heard had a reasonable explanation. Too old to believe in superstition, he nonetheless could not fall asleep in the eerie soundscape, the false sense of expectation, the holiday mirth he knew concealed adult secrets. He, too, imagined his father, only not as helpless but as spineless, distant, even absent. He would only drift off, finally, when his mother came to bed.
The middle child persisted in sleep as she did in waking life. In her private, inscrutable, speechless world. Incapable of dressing herself, sluggish in her movements, she had the unstable gait of a one-year-old though she was in fact many years older. She could smile, and she smiled often. Encouraged by that, her family doted on her. In public, strangers threw pitying glances at her and her mother. She still smiled as she slept, and then the smile took on a dimension of sinister knowledge. It was difficult for the father to imagine her his own.
Downstairs, the fireplace was empty of flame, a concession to this special night, though it was cold and snowy. Red, scented candles provided the only light throughout the den, and an unsuspecting observer at the window would call it the very picture of a cozy holiday scene. Hidden from view by the overstuffed couch, two figures lay atop the thick crimson carpet in intimate embrace.
The man who always wore red sighed as he ejaculated.
Sated and exhausted, the children’s mother smiled up at him. She gripped his sturdy forearms, then felt along to his biceps; hard even beneath the soft, fluffy material of the coat he never removed.
“Darling,” she murmured.
“Yes, my pet?”
“What time do you leave?”
“Midnight. Of course. Why?”
“He’ll be back before then.”
“I’ll be long gone.”
“Oh, and I suppose you can stop time?”
He said nothing, just grinned as he wiggled against her before pulling out.
“But, what if—?”
“You know I do this every year. I’m a pro. Pass me a cookie.”
She reached carelessly behind her and fumbled until she encountered the plate on top of the coffee table.
“Some milk?”
He chuckled. “Sure.”
He grunted. “For my team. You know that.”
“Oh, right.”
“Merry Christmas, babe.”
After standing up, the man who always wore red re-materialized on the hearth as though in one step. He crouched and scuttled into the chimney, taking care not to dislodge his hat and expose his horns like that one unfortunate time in Madrid…so hard for people to understand.
Laying his finger aside his nose, he winked at the mother. 

She giggled. 

With a swoosh, followed by a hollow gulp of air, he was gone.
Atop the roof, his team of hellions stretched forth enormous dirty wings and, as the chains harnessing them stretched taut, flapped him away in his black hansom. The occasional jingle of the links could be mistaken for sleigh bells. 

Back inside, the mother washed and dressed, then took care to replace the logs in the firebox and ignite the starters beneath them. She checked her cell phone. Her husband’s flight had landed on-time. He would be back from the commuter train in less than an hour.
Upstairs, the youngest child’s nightmares abated some. The oldest, struggling to maintain his vigil but hearing nothing, succumbed to sleep.
The middle child, eyes wide, stared through the uncovered window at the flying, retreating shape against the starscape, and murmured one word: Papa.

John Joseph Ryan writes unusual tales, verse noir, and crime fiction. His poetry, stories, and oddities have appeared in River Styx, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Noir Riot, Out of the Gutter, Shotgun Honey, Suspense Magazine, and elsewhere. John’s debut novel, A Bullet Apiece, featuring detective Ed Darvis, was published by Blank Slate Press in 2015. He lives in St. Louis.