I got inspired to write a short horror story about an Elf on a Shelf. It's not graphic or gross, but it is scary (hopefully), so it may not be your cup of tea. If it is, however, read on! AT YOUR OWN RISK!
Elf on the Shelf
She’d avoided the Elf on the Shelf for as long as she could. Parenthood was a much harder job than she’d ever anticipated, and she often found herself failing at at least one task per day. A forgotten school lunch, a permission slip signed but not put into a backpack, the summer camp registration deadline come and gone. How on earth could she manage arranging and rearranging some damned elf every single day during the busiest and most stressful month parents must endure?
But her son, Henry, was in kindergarten, and all the other kids were talking about their elves. “Why didn’t Santa send us an elf, Mommy? Is he mad at us?” He looked at her with those big brown eyes, underneath which lay more love and trust than she’d ever deserve. Her heart shattered for the millionth time, and guilt crawled up and consumed her from the inside out. Of course her kid deserved an Elf on a stupid Shelf.
She had to go to three stores before she found one still in stock. It was December 12th, long after all the good parents had purchased theirs. She’d considered Amazon, but didn’t want to make Henry wait even the two days it would take for it to arrive. She left work a bit early the afternoon after Henry’s plea, battling pre-Christmas traffic, and barely making it on time to pick him up from his after-school program.
It was up high on a shelf, above the one little aisle-end where the lonesome Hanukkah products were stocked. His packaging was a bit ripped, and the box was quite dusty, but he’d have to do.
She didn’t ask her husband, Paul, for help. Their marriage was rocky enough as it was without this turmoil. Paul was constantly annoyed by her efforts to keep up with the other mothers. If he had his way, they’d parent as their own parents had – hands off, free range, throw-the-kid-into-the-deep-end-and-hope-he-swims. If she talked to him about the Elf on the Shelf, he’d implore her not to do it. “Your anxiety is bad enough – even with your medication. Why do you do these things to yourself?” Then he’d go on the internet and look up sports statistics for his fantasy leagues while she prepped lunches and signed forms and emailed teachers. Yeah, honey, she’d think, I wonder why I’m stressed.
She put Henry to bed – after one more story, another story, just one more, PLEASE – and poured a glass of red wine. Where on earth should Blitzen or Holly or Jolly or whatever the hell his name was going to be make his debut? Wait – was Henry supposed to name him? She’d have to Google it. She was supposed to put him in some mischievous scene – making snow angels in scattered flour or lost in mounds of toilet paper – but she’d be the one to clean it up, so she chose something neater. She hid him (or her? Did it have to be a him?) in the Christmas tree, on the branch right above the big gift Henry couldn’t help checking out every day. Tomorrow was a school day, so there wouldn’t be a lot of time to meet him, but at least he wouldn’t go to school feeling neglected.
Paul was already fast asleep – a talent that never ceased to both amaze and annoy her – so she left the tree lights on. He said it was such a waste of power, but she loved seeing its glow when she inevitably woke up in the middle of the night to ease Henry out of a nightmare or pee with her post-childbirth faulty bladder.
She jolted out of sleep. She sat up in her bed, sweating and breathing hard. She’d had a nightmare but she couldn’t remember it. Nightmares were nothing new. She often dreamed that she was driving with Henry when she suddenly became blind and couldn’t figure out how to stop the car, or that Henry wasn’t at school when she came to pick him up and the teachers said some man who did not fit Paul’s description took him, or that a man with a gun was chasing her and Henry wouldn’t budge and she couldn’t seem to carry him. She looked at the clock. 3am. If she went back to sleep right now, she could get 3 more hours of sleep. The electricity flowing though her veins assured her that would not be a possibility.
She crept out of bed and into the hallway, where she could see the warm glow of the tree from the living room. She walked past it into their small, galley kitchen to get a cup of tea, even though she didn’t really like tea, because the almighty “they” said that herbal tea was good for coaxing you back to sleep. It used to be warm milk but now nobody drank milk because milk was supposed to be indigestible for adults, or something. She looked at the tea packet for a full 30 seconds, then put it back and microwaved a mug of milk.
She cradled the mug between her hands, the way pretty women often did in movies, and walked over to the tree.
The elf wasn’t there. She put the mug on top of the mantle and fell to her knees. He must have fallen behind a present, she thought, but he wasn’t there, either. He was nowhere to be found.
Crap. Henry found him. He got out of bed and miraculously did not call for her assistance. He somehow found the elf and brought him back to bed. So much for his grand entrance. At least he liked it.
She stood up to grab her mug and stifled a scream. There, on the mantle, was the elf, smiling maniacally at her.
How did she not see it before? She’d placed her mug on that same mantle, just inches away, but she didn’t see him. How was that possible?
She crept over to her green microfiber sofa – the one the salesperson had assured her wouldn’t be destroyed by her cat – and plopped down on top of the assorted claw marks. Her heart was pounding so hard that it physically hurt. She had to tell herself to breathe. She had to put the mug of hot milk on the end table because she’d spilled it all over her pajamas and burned her thighs.
I’m being ridiculous, she thought. Her daily mantra. But really. It’s just a doll. Paul probably found it in the middle of the night and thought it was a fire hazard and moved it to the mantle.
But thinking of things like fire hazards was her job – in fact, she was surprised she hadn’t considered it before – and Paul almost never woke up in the middle of the night. Henry couldn’t reach the top of the mantle. How on earth did he get there?
As she pondered all this, she kept her eyes on him. What, am I afraid he’s going to leap out and get me? How ridiculous is that?
She’d had to stop watching horror movies after Henry was born because all the bizarre situations that once thrilled her and stirred up delightful, terror-induced endorphins now itched at the back of her brain, a constant irritation of “But what if that actually happened?” Did it matter that she didn’t believe in ghosts or demons, did it matter that she knew that murderous freaks were very rare? No, because now, with the bone-gripping anxiety that was born on the same day as her 7lb, 12 ounce boy, she had to entertain the thought that the crazy, far-fetched thing could happen and it would destroy her world.
He didn’t move – of course he didn’t – and eventually her heart rate slowed to normal, or at least normal for her. She’d never actually put him in the tree. Of course not. She’d chugged that glass of wine and was particularly exhausted from her day. She’d planned to do it, and then forgot to, just as she’d forgotten so many things. But then why could she remember the smell of the pine and the feeling of needles showering her hands as she placed him in there?
A sliver of sun shone through the sliding glass doors, and she looked at the clock. It was already 5:45am. Had she really been sitting here for more than two hours?
“Mommy?” His thin little voice, a hint of doubt, as if this would be the morning she wouldn’t actually show. Is he inheriting my anxiety? Oh God. She’d never considered that. Had she passed these genes onto him, or had he learned to worry about every aspect of life simply by observing her? All she’d ever wanted was to not screw up her child. Had she already failed at that?
She glanced one more time at the elf. He still hadn’t moved, and everything seemed much more normal in the light of day. The mantle seemed like the perfect place for him anyway.
Henry loved the elf, of course. He named him Alex, because Alex was his best friend at school. She made sure not to stress that whole “reporting back to Santa” aspect, because she didn’t want to feed what she was now certain was generalized anxiety disorder in her 5 year old. So they focused on how cute he was, even though she thought he was anything but.
She found it hard to concentrate at work. She wrote memos and made phone calls, her mind constantly trailing back to last night. Maybe it was time to talk to her psychiatrist about switching medication. She needed regular sleep and a better memory, both of which seemed to be destroyed by the mood stabilizer they were “trying,” because her symptoms didn’t seem to fall neatly into any prescribed psychiatric box. Her own mother swore that her “symptoms” could be attributed to her lackadaisical husband, modern-day competitive parenting culture, and the fact that she lived too far away from her family and had nobody to help take care of Henry. The older she got, the more she felt like her mother was right about things.
She hadn’t moved Alex before they left for school, because she honestly didn’t like the idea of touching him, but now she worried that she’d messed up. Was he supposed to be in a different spot when they came home? She considered texting Paul to ask him to do it, but his look of annoyance over breakfast as Henry chattered on about the elf was palpable. She knew he thought the elf was stupid and wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t even want Henry to believe in Santa because he still felt betrayed by realizing how long his parents had lied to him. (But then again, he believed until he was in 7th grade.)
Whatever. On the mantle he’d still be. She’d never be first place in the motherhood department, but at least she could try to show up on the leader board.
Henry bounded through the door when they got home. “Alex? Hey Alex! We ate gingerbread cookies at school today and –“
She trudged through the door, laden with her heavy laptop bag and huge mom-purse and Henry’s backpack and Henry’s lunch bag and the massive holiday poster he’d made, laden with Christmas trees and dreidels and Kwanzaa kinaras and Chinese New Year dragons, the obscene amount of glue he used still wet.
Henry was just staring at the mantle, silent. She looked, and the elf wasn’t there.
There were copious scratch marks, as if Booker (the cat she and Paul had gotten together when they were still dating, the cat they named after their favorite bourbon, back when they did things like have favorite bourbons and do things together) had lost his mind.
Maybe he had. Maybe Booker – who was usually a very chill elderly cat – didn’t like Alex and had destroyed him. She was appalled at the sense of relief she felt at that thought. Henry would be heart-broken.
Booker was sleeping on Henry’s bed, as usual. She knelt down next to him and stroked him. He purred instantly, and looked at her between his slit eyes. Just as she was about to praise him for his murderous deed, she felt someone looking at her.
It was Alex, perched on Henry’s easel, arms and legs crossed smugly.
“ALEX!!!” Henry had spotted him before she could grab him – she’d had an urge to grab that damned elf – and he ran right up to him. He didn’t touch him, because she’d learned that they weren’t supposed to touch him – but he got very close and it made her pulse quicken.
As Henry told Alex about his day, she crept closer. His eyes, which had been looking coyly to the right, were now looking to the left – at her. But that was impossible. They must have been looking to the left the whole time. But she specifically remembered them looking to the right at the tree last night. But she remembered a lot of things that weren’t real.
Paul walked across the threshold and crouched down. “Daddy!” Henry shouted, leaping into Paul’s arms. Paul tussled Henry’s hair, then looked at Alex. “Ah, Santa’s elf came into your room, eh? Guess he’s trying to keep a close eye on you.” He smiled at her, and she felt her chest unclench. Paul had moved him. Paul had softened. He did this from time to time, slipping into his old self, flirting with her, listening to her, treating her ideas and thoughts as if they were valid and even intelligent.
She laughed, a little too loud, and felt her cheeks burn. Gratitude overwhelmed her – gratitude to have Paul’s love, of course, but mostly that the elf she’d purchased to spare her son’s hurt feelings wasn’t actually a murderous fiend. Because of course he wasn’t. Child’s Play was always on her list of guilty-pleasure horror movies; had its ridiculous idea that a doll could be evil actually been processed through her anxiety into the realm of “But what if that actually happened?”
That evening was one of the best they’d had in a while. Paul had a glass of wine with her at dinner and had offered to do the whole bedtime routine with Henry, who only put up a small fight over how he wanted Mommy instead. She successfully fought the guilty thought she always had when Paul put him down: “But what if Henry gets killed in a school shooting tomorrow and you didn’t kiss him goodnight the night before?” She started on a second glass of wine and watched “The Real Housewives of Orange County” with abandon. The routine lasted roughly the same amount of time as a full episode, and she felt calmer than she had in a while.
Paul emerged from Henry's room and walked to the kitchen. He pulled out a bag of tortilla chips and salsa, his usual post-dinner snack, and she came up behind him and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you so much for moving that elf, honey. I thought you’d be mad at me for getting it. I know it seems silly, but Hen—“
“I didn’t move it.” His mouth was full of chips, but he was looking at her with concern. “Honey, I haven’t touched that thing. I thought you did it.”
She felt a chill snake from the crown of her head to her toes. “What?”
“Yeah, I think it’s overkill, but he was so happy this morning. It was cute. You must have moved it. You did it before work, right?”
She hadn’t. She was certain. They’d all met Alex and went over the rules and Henry had barely touched his steel cut oats made in the slow cooker overnight served with a splash of organic milk and raw honey and then she’d had to rush out the door because they were late. She knew with certainty that she hadn’t touched it, because she’d been terrified to touch it after the night she’d had.
She started to run toward Henry’s room but Paul blocked her. “What are you doing?”
“I can’t let him sleep with that thing!”
“Don’t you dare wake him up. It took me forever to get him to sleep.”
“Paul, it moves on its own. It did it last night, and it did it again today.”
“What? Do you hear yourself? I know you get mad at me when I say this, but you sound crazy.”
She shoved past him and he grabbed her arm. “Don’t you get physical with me,” he barked “We’ve talked about this. I thought you were doing better, but look at you! You’ve got to get a hold of yourself.”
“Paul, this isn’t about my ‘symptoms.’ Our son is in danger. This is real. I’ll get him back to sleep, but I have to go in there.”
She wretched free from his grasp – she’d have to deal with his injured feelings later – and burst through Henry’s door. Henry was in his bed, under the Paw Patrol covers, but Alex was not on the easel. She checked the floor, praying he’d just fallen to the floor, but he wasn’t there. She looked under the bed, in the toy chest. She opened his closet and rifled through the clothes. She felt ridiculous, doing this in the dark with only the light of her cell phone to guide her, but if she could avoid waking Henry, she would. There still remained a seed of doubt in her brain – for how could this be real?
When Henry was a baby, she was terrified of SIDS. She’d nurse him to sleep, then place him in his crib like a grenade. She’d tiptoe out successfully, then plop on the couch. Before she could get even 10 minutes into a show, though, she’d creep into his room to test for breathing. She’d try to watch from the doorway, but she didn’t trust her eyes. So she’d creep right up to him and put her hands on his chest. She’d keep it there until she felt at least ten breaths. She did this every 30 minutes. When she tried to sleep, if Henry didn’t wake her up, she’d wake up on her own do test his breathing. She often woke him up with her antics, and Paul’s disdain toward her took root.
She felt just as foolish now, looking in the dark for an anthropomorphized doll. Why can’t I just be normal? Why do I always have to make things more complicated than they are? If I were Paul, I’d leave me. Henry will sit in therapy one day, tugging at his hair and talking about how his neurotic mother made him turn to drugs. This can’t be happening the way I imagine it is. I’ve finally lost my mind in a way that health-insurance-approved mood stabilizers can’t fix.
Just then, she heard a laugh. It was tiny, as if a housefly had been told a dirty joke, but she knew she could hear it. She couldn’t see very well in the dark, but something was moving in Henry’s bed. Had she woken him?
But her gut compelled her to turn on the lights, consequences be damned. She flipped on the light and saw Alex, gleefully making snow angels in the fluff from Alex pillow. The pillow had been slashed open, the fluff mounded like viscera from an animal. The pillow was on Henry’s face and his tiny body was struggling to get the pillow off.
Unlike her nightmares, she wasn’t blind, she wasn’t frozen. She felt her muscles spring before her brain registered what she was doing and she grabbed the pillow. It was impossible to peel away; the tiny elf was holding it down as if he were an anchor. He’d sprouted very real, pointy teeth, and his soft felt hands were replaced by talons.
She punched him square in the face and he bit her arm. Blood began to spew all over Cap’n Turbot’s face. She felt rage well up in her – the rage that had consumed her more than a few times since giving birth. Rage at doing all the parenting tasks by default, rage at never living up to the expectations some “they” had established for her, rage at feeling shitty when she wanted time alone – and she lunged at Alex’s neck. She grabbed it firmly, and pulled him off the pillow. She collapsed to the ground, but maintained her grip on Alex’s neck. She could hear Henry coughing and could see him thrashing in her peripheral vision. She wanted to rush to him, but she couldn’t let go of Alex.
He was so much heavier than he should have been, and he was thrashing about violently. She felt the skin of her hands and arms rip open and the rush of thick, hot blood flowing. She managed to get him through the doorway, into the hallway. Paul stood in the living room, pale white, staring at her with horror.
“Turn on the fireplace. NOW PAUL!”
He didn’t take his eyes off her, and he moved at an infuriatingly slow pace, but he stepped to the gas fireplace and flipped the switch. Instantly, fire blazed. She fell to her knees, beyond fatigued from the battle. She had to slither across the carpet like a deranged snake, all the while holding on to Alex’s neck. Finally, she got close to the fireplace and flung her arms into the flames. She considered tossing him in, but she was afraid he’d escape the fire. She felt the flames tear into her arms and smelled the sickening smell of burnt flesh. When he finally stopped moving, she removed her pathetic arms and rolled on top of them, putting out the flame by singing her torso.
“Mommy? Mommy!” Henry fell on top her body and sobbed. “Mommy, I couldn’t breathe! Mommy!”
And then, just as suddenly, she felt his weight lift off of her. She looked. Paul had picked him up.
“Mommy’s not feeling well, honey. We need to give her some space.”
He carried Henry into their bedroom, and she could hear him making a call. 911. Of course. He was quiet, but she thought she could hear him say, “My wife tried to hurt my son.” Surely not. Surely that’s not what he said.
She stared into the fire, watching the mound of elf melt. Just as she began to pass out, she saw his head turn toward her.